Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable characters herein. No copyright infringement is intended.
Sparkly chandeliers: I've counted six.
Sparkly champagne flutes: I lost track at seventy-two.
Sparkly diamond necklaces: more than I have time to count—and one less than the night started with, thanks to James. I saw him slip the expensive piece of jewelry off, but I doubt anyone else did. Even the old cougar whose neck it had been wrapped around was too busy grabbing his junk to notice. Dirty old bag.
My sparkly gold dress fits right in, but it's itchy. I hate it. It's not me. I'm not gold, sparkles, glitz, or glamor. I'm not up-dos and high heels. Without all of this, I don't look a day over sixteen. Most girls my age are just graduating high school or on their way to college. They're worrying about their next party or their part-time job. Inside, that's who I am. Well, who I want to be. One thing is for sure. I'm nothing like the people around me, but for a few hours, I pretend to be.
"Marie Jameson," I introduce myself, using the fake name I decided on for this event. The man I've been scoping out all night is none other than the father of one of James' friends, but I use that term loosely. James thought it'd be a fun challenge. I don't really care, as long as I don't get caught, and as long as I don't have to touch his dick. I'm sure it's as old and wrinkly as the rest of him. Tanya spilled the beans that her father is loaded and currently dealing with a pain pill addiction. He pops them like candy and mixed with the alcohol from tonight's indulgences, he'll be asleep before the sheets are warm. Hopefully.
He takes my hand and kisses the top, introducing himself in return. His mustache tickles my skin, and I laugh genuinely. His eyes dance with excitement, and it's obvious that he's starved for attention, like most of the men I approach when working with James. One giggle, a few doe-eyed glances, and they're putty in my hands. I try not to let the power go to my head. The last thing I want is to be like James, but it does feel good… to be wanted… to get what I want. But none of this is really what I want.
What I want is to be free from all of this—the charade, James, this life. But for tonight, I'll settle for the Rolex Mr. Mallory is sporting and hopefully a nice chunk of change from his wallet, and whatever else I can slip away with after he's asleep.
Mr. Mallory checks around the room before dipping his head down to mine. "I'd like you to accompany me to my hotel room."
I nod my head in acceptance. Mission accomplished.
James adjusts his tie as he leans over the computer, relaying what he's reading in the article he has pulled up. "Edward Cullen, heir to a small oil fortune, who seems to be really good at investments. Pretty much a recluse. He only comes around for a few parties and fundraisers a year. Looks like he's also an author but stays anonymous about his work. So you should definitely bring up that sort of thing. You know a lot about books, so that should be an easy sell."
I roll my eyes. I know a lot about books? I blow out a deep, frustrated breath. I'd know a lot more about books if he'd let me go to college… like he promised.
One more time.
Just a few more months.
He's been telling me that since I graduated from high school at the ripe old age of seventeen. And yet here I am, a year and a half later, still being his puppet.
"Don't roll your eyes at me." His tone turns dark, and I know not to push him. Especially when we're discussing business.
"What else do you know about him?" I ask, trying to sound interested.
"Well, I'm leaving that up to you. I have a small party tonight downtown, where I'm scoping out a few prospects. I'm busy, so this is on you. Figure out what he does, what he loves, what his interests are. This fucker is worth millions, if not billions, so I expect you to bring home something substantial. Not like the last time you came home with two grand and some diamond cufflinks. Tickets for these events don't come cheap. You really need to learn to pull your weight around here."
What the fuck?
I nod and give him a fake-ass smile to get him to leave. He grabs his suit jacket off the back of the chair and points at me as he slams the door behind him.
Last time I checked, I've brought in the majority of the money we've made over the last six months. Although I couldn't say how much exactly, because James takes what I bring him, and he never says how much everything is worth. I don't see anything from it, except for the fifty dollars a week he gives me to buy us groceries. He claims he's putting a portion of it into a college fund for me, but I've never seen a statement or any sort of proof. He lies to me all the time, so why wouldn't he lie about that?
I wish there was a way out. I wish I could just pack up my few belongings and skip town, forget James, forget my worthless life… forget the secrets and lies and just start over somewhere. But with no means and no family for support, I'm seriously shit out of luck. I try to save back five bucks a week from the grocery money, but it's going to take me a year to even be able to afford a bus ticket, and then what? Where will I go? What will I do? Besides all of that, I'm more than certain James would hunt me down. He threatens me all the time, not blatantly but in a roundabout way, reminding me that he has enough evidence against me to put me away until I'm fifty.
That thought alone makes me sick to my stomach, and I quickly rid my brain of the fantasies. Because that's all they are.
With nothing else to do, I pull the laptop over to me and begin reading the article James had pulled up.
Edward Cullen, youngest child of Carlisle and Esme Cullen. He was born in 1974. He attended Dartmouth from 1991 to 1994. It's unknown what he pursued after college, other than being involved in his grandfather's oil company, yet he's not listed as an officer of the company. The popular belief is that he lives on a large piece of land owned by his family for generations. Many speculate over who he is and what he does, but he remains an enigma to most. The only thing that is widely known about him is that he's active in philanthropic work, yet he remains anonymous in most of his contributions. Mr. Cullen has also penned several literary works, but most of those are done under a pen name that is unknown.
A philanthropist? Shit. No way. There's no way I can swindle money from an old do-gooder. Most of the people we target are ruthless, nasty businessmen and women. A lot of them didn't even earn the money we steal, so it almost feels legal. Honestly, I've never given much thought to the legal side of things. I know what we do is against the law, but James sets it all up. All I do is go to fancy fundraisers and galas, bat my lashes, talk a good game, and get the old geezers to fall for me. Then, after they've had their way with me, I take what looks valuable, leave a note, and get the hell out of Dodge. The note I leave behind is James' form of an insurance policy. It's a sweet little sentiment telling them that they've been caught on camera, and if they were to call the cops or file a report regarding the missing items, there would be repercussions. Namely, they would be outed for their sexual escapades.
The sexual part makes me feel dirty. I hate it. And even though James tells me to pull out all the stops, I don't have sex with them. I'll do whatever I have to to satisfy them, but not sex.
For a few months, James used my age as his insurance policy. He would have me tell them in the note I leave behind. But when I turned 18, he had to get more creative. So now I'm forced to set up a teeny tiny camera in the room… whatever room that might be… hotel, motel, bedroom. If I can get them to trust me enough to take me home, that's where the big bucks are. Sometimes, I don't even have to steal much. A few of the old men are used to keeping women on the side. Those select few will leave money on the nightstand, but I still pocket a few valuables to keep James happy. The more I get in one night, the less frequently I have to do it.
Initially, it was kind of exciting. Scary, but exciting. I've never condoned what James does, but he made me lofty promises. Promises to get me my own place, to enroll me in college… to take care of me. But none of those have been fulfilled.
When my dad married his mom, I hated James. We knew each other from school, but he was a few years older than me. He was such a sleaze. I hated the way he looked at me, like I was a piece of meat. At least when our parents got married, a lot of that stopped. But there was one night when he'd had too much to drink after a football game, and he came into my room and tried to make me have sex with him. I screamed and kicked him in the balls, which scared him enough to send him running back to his room. We never spoke of it again.
A few years ago, my dad got sent away for tax evasion and a few DUIs. I got stuck living with James and his mom.
Vicki was a user when my dad met her. She got better for a while, but when my dad got sent away, she spiraled. James and I were left to fend for ourselves, which basically translated into me living alone. The only meals I got were the ones I ate at school. Sometimes James would give me five bucks, but it always felt like he held it over me, so I wouldn't take his money unless I had to. Vicki would come and go, occasionally bringing men home with her. The guys she hung with were questionable, to say the least. I hated it. It was hell, but I had nowhere else to go.
When James moved out on his own and offered me a job and a place to live, it felt like I was finally going to get somewhere in life, but lately I've realized I traded one hell for another.
I turn back to the screen and see what else I can find out about this Edward Cullen. Regardless of how wrong it feels, I know there's no way out of it.
I still hate James.
Unplugging the laptop, I carry it over to the decrepit couch and wrap myself up in my blanket. The pale light from the small television floods the room, and I settle in for the night, reading web page after web page about Edward Cullen, E.C. Enterprises, and the Cullen family in general. By the time the nightly news goes off, I know that Edward's great-grandfather, Emmett Carlisle Cullen, was an oil tycoon. He made the family wealthy. Edward's grandfather furthered the family's fortune by continuing the business and investing the family's wealth, securing their position as one of the wealthiest in North America. After the Texas Oil Boom in the early 1900s, the Cullens took a quieter role in history. It appears that they were financial backers for a few influential companies, but they were never in the limelight again. Edward Cullen has followed in those footsteps, making a name for himself as somewhat of a hermit. The only place he's guaranteed to show up at is the annual E. C. Foundation Fundraiser. A minimum donation of $5,000 buys you a plate. Everybody who is anybody will be in attendance. That night, James will be targeting Ms. Jessica Stanley, heir to Stanley Limited. She's a spoiled brat, who is basically famous for being rich. The Paris Hilton of Texas, if you will. A friend of mine from high school went to the same prestigious summer camp as she did back in the day, and according to her, Jessica is a first class bitch. She'll be perfect for James. Maybe they'll hit it off, get married, and have a bunch of asshole kids.
I snort to myself, knowing that will never happen. James is a douchebag. No one in their right mind would marry him. Sure, he can swoon the panties off of women when he needs to, but he can't keep that charade up for long.
Rubbing my dry, tired eyes, I close the laptop and lay it beside me on the couch. Just as I'm about to drift off, I realize that I never Googled a picture of him. It would help to know who I'm on the lookout for tomorrow night.
With a sleepy yawn, I open the laptop back up and type in 'Edward Cullen', clicking on the Images tab in Google. A lot of the pictures are of the company logo, the fundraiser logo, and general publicity pictures. Just as I'm about to give up, a mop of bronze hair catches my eye. Surely that's not… I mean, he's gotta be what? Forty? Forty-year-olds look a lot older than that, right? This guy is manly and… and… and well, he's beautiful. There's a bit of salt in his bronze-colored hair, but it makes him look distinguished. He also has a few lines by his eyes as he smiles in the picture. They make me think that he must've led a happy, content life. You've gotta smile to get those, right? And his smile, well, it's stunning. Straight white teeth. Strong, defined jaw line. And damn, the man can wear a suit. I squeeze my legs tightly together, trying to compose myself. Then I stare some more, wondering if he'll even give me the time of day.
I've yet to fail at a job, but this might be my first, because I don't know if I can do this. I don't want to. Everything I know about Edward Cullen makes me want to know more. I already feel something deep in the pit of my stomach, and it's not just newly found lust. But the overwhelming feeling, the one that trumps everything else, is guilt… guilt for something I haven't even done yet. How can I steal from someone who seems so good?
Uncomfortable now, I sit the laptop back down and pull the blanket tight around me, trying to push out all of the bad feelings and find some way to make it through this without losing my last bit of self-respect.
"Don't fuck this up, Bella. Stick to the plan, and get the goods. I'm tired of your sniveling."
I stare out of the taxi window, wishing I could make myself disappear.
"Do you hear me?" he asks, his voice rising along with his temper.
Normally, I don't provoke James. He's put me in my place a time or two, but I know he won't tonight. Not right before we get out at the fundraiser. He has ten thousand dollars invested in the night. He wouldn't mess that up by taking his frustrations out on me. So I continue to give him the silent treatment.
I don't want to do this.
For whatever reason, Edward Cullen is the straw that's breaking this camel's back. I want out. I want to be away from James. I don't want to be forced into another night of lying and stealing. I feel dirty and disgusting. I'm beginning to hate myself. And myself is all I have. Somehow, some way, I'm going to find a way out. It may not be tonight, but soon, because I don't think I can take it much longer.
"Bella!" James squeezes my arm tightly. "I don't know what's going on in that pretty little head of yours, but you better pull it out of your ass and get it in the game!"
The taxi pulls up in front of the building where the fundraiser is being held, and James throws some money over the front seat. Practically pulling my arm out of its socket, he yanks me out of the car.
"I'm so tired of your shit! You're such an inconsiderate brat. Who do you think you are? I'm the one who got you out of the hell hole you were living in. I put a roof over your head! I put food on the table! It's me! You owe everything to me!" His voice is loud, but as a group of elegantly dressed people get out of a large limousine, he quickly lets go of my arm, and a sickly sweet smile forms on his face. "Good evening, ladies… gentlemen." He nods his head in their direction, and they return the sentiment.
Once inside, we go our separate ways. He's hot on the heels of his target. I, on the other hand, am hiding out in a remote corner of the room, sipping on a glass of champagne, hoping the bubbly drink calms my nerves and gives me some courage to do what I have to do.
From across the room, I see him. Edward Cullen. The mess of bronze hair, with hints of gray is hard to miss, not to mention his height and the regal air about him. A blonde, about his age, is hanging on his arm. Her age shows in her skin and the lines around her eyes and mouth, but she's still beautiful… rich and beautiful. You can always tell old money from new money. Old money speaks in the way a person carries him or herself—always well-groomed, well-poised, and completely in control of every situation.
New money is the very persona of what James is targeting tonight—over the top, out of place, and completely obvious that they're trying too hard. I see James and his prey in the middle of the room. They're laughing over a glass of amber-colored liquor. The way she places her hand on his chest is an obvious sign that he has hit his mark, something I have not yet accomplished.
I haven't even attempted to approach Mr. Cullen, but I've been watching him. He's very selective in whom he chooses to converse with, every one of them being someone of equal age and importance. Who am I? Why would he even consider speaking with me? I'm no one. I feel like after just one word, he'll see through the façade. He'll know that I'm not even old enough to drink from the glass I'm holding in my hand. I feel completely out of place and so much like the child I am. I want to escape. I want to run and never look back.
"What are you doing?"
I'm so startled that the glass slips from my fingers as James' hard hand lands on my back, leading me away from the few sets of eyes that are caught off guard by the offending sound of breaking glass. When we are in the dark recesses of a nearby hallway, his voice is once again loud and angry. "I didn't bring you here tonight to stand around!"
"I can't do this," I whisper, emotion thick in the back of my throat.
"Yes," he snarls. "You can, and you will! And if you don't, there will be a price to pay." His voice is calm, and his blue eyes are like icicles—cold and penetrating. "Am I clear?" The feel of his fingertips on my neck makes me swallow hard. I can only manage to nod my head yes. A tear slips from my eye, but I quickly wipe it away, knowing that tears only fuel his anger.
He turns around and walks away, leaving me there. The only exit is the way we came in, and it's completely on the other side of the large venue. There's no way I can make it without being seen. Besides, where would I go? I have no money, and I'm stuck in this stupid dress and these high heels. James would hunt me down before I got to the end of the block.
With a combination of defeat and resolve, I take a deep breath and slowly walk back to the room. For a brief second, my heart drops out of my chest. I scan the room and can't find the bronze hair anywhere. Dread and worry fill my body. What will I do if he's left?
James will kill me. Possibly literally.
A waiter walks by with another tray of champagne, and I take a glass, trying to fit in with everyone else as I make my way toward the middle of the room. Like a beacon of hope, I see the hair and the eyes and the chiseled jaw standing among a few men. I breathe a sigh of relief and try to give myself a pep talk, waiting for the right time to approach him.
The man in the tux with the cumberbund leaves first, and then the bald-headed man makes his departure, leaving Mr. Cullen alone. My nerves are about to get the best of me when my eye catches James'. He's glaring at me over the shoulder of the blonde he's been with all night. He snaps his head in the direction of the beautiful man with the bronze hair, who is now alone. I know it's now or never. I may not get another chance, so I suck in a deep breath and make my way over to him, rehearsing in my mind what I'm going to say, hoping beyond hope that I sound mature beyond my years, nothing what I feel like inside at this moment.
His green eyes shine over the glass he's tipping back, drinking the last of the liquid, his Adam's apple bobbing as he does. The action sends shivers down my back, and something related to excitement bubbles up inside me. I feel like I'm driving blind… going into a dark tunnel, just feeling my way through. I have no idea what's about to happen, and it scares me but also gives new life to the blood that's pumping forcefully through my veins. My face feels flushed, and my palms are sweaty, but I try to keep my outward reaction calm, cool, collected… mature.
"Mr. Cullen," I begin, walking up to him and standing at his side.
"Good evening." He looks over at me, seeming to be surprised that I spoke to him and possibly trying to remember my name or if he's met me before. "Are you enjoying the fundraiser?"
"Yes, very much so."
"Is this the first time you've been to an E. C. Foundation fundraiser?"
"Yes, it's a wonderful cause and looks to be a successful evening."
"It is." His answers are short and precise, just like I thought they'd be. I never thought he'd give me any information or make this easy. I was prepared for a challenge, but the fact that I don't want to do what I know I have to has taken away any of the thrill I usually get from a challenge. It's hard to find it in me to keep trying.
"I've always thought a foundation that helps children is one of the most deserving causes."
"It's not the only thing the foundation does, but yes, that's one of the most important."
I wish I had dug a little deeper, tried to find out more about the E. C. Foundation. I need more ammunition, something to keep him talking. I can tell by his body language that he's getting ready to walk away.
"It was lovely meeting you…" He pauses, waiting for my name, and I don't know what comes over me, but I don't want to lie to him. The way his gaze cuts through the glitter and glamour renders me speechless for a second, but I finally speak.
"Isabella." No last name, and it's not what anyone calls me, but it is my legal, given name.
"It was lovely to meet you, Isabella." The way he says my name, putting an emphasis on the end, makes me weak in the knees. I struggle with standing upright, let alone keeping his attention. Before I know it, I'm left admiring the view as Mr. Cullen turns and walks away. The back of him is almost as good as the front. But my lust quickly turns to fear when I catch sight of James again. He sees that I'm standing here alone, and anger twists his features. His nostrils flare, and his fists ball up. I stay in the middle of the room, afraid to fall into the shadows, where James could corner me again.
I search the room for something to do, someone to talk to, something to make me look like I'm doing what I came here to do. I see that Mr. Cullen is whispering into the ear of the beautiful woman he was with earlier. She kisses his cheek and walks out a side door. I expect him to follow her, but to my relief, he doesn't. He turns around and places his hands in the pockets of his slacks, leaning back on the heels of his shiny shoes. If I had to guess, he's probably taking in the event, reflecting on his success. Suddenly, his eyes catch mine, and when the next song strikes up from the band, he walks over to me, offering me an outstretched hand, an invitation to dance.
No words are spoken as he twirls me around the dance floor. I'm not that good of a dancer, so I allow him to lead, and I just try to keep up. He's so good that he makes me not look as horrible as I am, and no one seems to notice that the Mr. Cullen, the man of the evening, is dancing with a nobody like me.
"Did you come here alone?" he asks when the music comes to a stop.
"Uh, no. I came with…" I hesitate for a moment, warring with myself over whether to tell him a lie or the truth. "My brother." Because nothing else fits. He's definitely not my friend.
He nods, pulling me in a little closer for a slow song that's being played.
"Is this your first fundraiser to attend?"
"This is my first of your fundraisers to attend."
"What is it that you do?"
"I'm… uh, I work for my brother."
"Ah, family business."
"You also work with your family, am I right?"
"Yes, you've done your research." The statement makes me nervous, like he may know who I am or what I do, but the way he chuckles sets me at ease. Also, the way his hand has slipped down to the small of my back soothes my frayed nerves.
"I've just heard about you from a few of the people who are here tonight. Everyone seems to speak very highly of you."
"Is that so?"
"Yes." It's a total lie. I haven't spoke to anyone besides him and James, but I don't want him to know that I'm a creeper… that I've read every bio I could find on Google.
"What else did you hear about me?"
"That's it, really. Everything else seems to be quite a mystery."
He pulls back and locks eyes with me. His intense stare makes my knees grow weak again, and I swallow hard. "There's no mystery, Isabella. Nothing to see here."
I see the way he smiles as he turns his face away from me, looking over my head at the people around us. Suddenly, I feel eyes on us. I hadn't noticed it until now, but we've garnered some attention from the other people standing on and around the dance floor. A few whisper as we continue to move in unison, but that doesn't deter Mr. Cullen.
Normally, by this point in the evening, I've accomplished what I came to do, or I'm at least on my way to the end result. I look around and see no sign of James. That fact allows me to relax back into the dance. I'm not sure where this is going to go, but if for some reason I can't manage to lure Mr. Cullen away, I don't plan on going home. I don't know where I'm going to go or what I'm going to do, but I'm not stupid enough to stick around and find out what James is capable of. I'd rather walk the streets than go back to the apartment. I know for sure I have some money in my small clutch. James always makes sure I have taxi money. I'll use that to get as far away as I can, and then I'll… I don't know what. I'll figure that out when I get there.
"Where did you go?" Mr. Cullen asks, his eyes gazing down at me.
"Just admiring how beautiful everything is tonight."
"I was doing the same." The blush on my cheeks is automatic as I realize he's talking about me. "Isabella… so beautiful," he whispers in my ear.
I'm lost for words, so we dance in silence until the song comes to an end. I assume that this will be the end of our time together, but he continues to hold my hand, pulling me toward the same door I saw the woman leave through a while ago. When we get into the dark hallway, I notice a lit exit sign ahead. Stopping in the darkness, Mr. Cullen pulls me close. "Isabella, would you accompany me back to my apartment? I'm not ready for this night to end, but I've reached my limit of public interaction."
"Do you need to let your brother know?"
Without another word, he takes my hand and whisks me through the exit door and straight into the back of a sleek black limousine.
We don't exchange words as the car maneuvers through the city streets. I try to pay attention to where we're going, always aware of my surroundings, but unlike every other time I've done this, I don't really care where we're going. For once, I'm not ready for this night to end either. I want to spend more time with the man sitting beside me. I've never been attracted to any of the other men I've targeted. Most of them are at least double my age, as is Mr. Cullen, but he's different. I'd find him attractive no matter his age. Not just attractive, beautiful. I'm not sure if it's just because he's gorgeous, or if it's everything else I know about him, but I want him. I don't just want to do what I have to do to get the goods. I want it all… I want whatever he's willing to give me.
His thumb traces soothing circles over my hand as we sit in comfortable silence. I feel him look at me from time to time, but he doesn't speak. When we reach a high-rise building, the driver pulls up to the curb and a few seconds later, opens the door.
Mr. Cullen gets out and offers me his hand. When we're inside the elevator, he turns to me, his nose skimming the skin on my neck. "We don't have to do anything. I just want your company… whatever you want. When you're ready to go, just say the word, and my driver will take you home."
I nod, again rendered speechless.
He inhales deeply, his lips grazing my bare shoulder.
Since I've suddenly lost the ability to speak, I grip the lapels of his jacket, pulling him closer, silently telling him that I don't want him to stop… begging him to continue. His hands glide up my arms, sending chills in their wake. "Breathe, Isabella."
"It's… just Bella. Everyone just calls me Bella." I don't know why, but it's the only thing I can think to say. I inwardly berate myself for being so stupid. I'm usually much better at this.
"Which is precisely why I'll continue to call you Isabella."
Lightly, he cups my neck, tilting my chin up with his thumb, forcing me to look at him. When his lips meet mine, they are a complete contradiction to the way his hands are touching me. They are fierce and hard, taking me forcefully. He kisses me so hard, it takes my breath. His teeth graze my bottom lip, sucking it in and biting down, sending an electric shock to my core. My back is pressed against the cold wall of the elevator, and his body is heavy against me. I feel his arousal pressing into my stomach, and I want him to take me right here. Gripping his shoulders, I pull him closer, needing to feel every inch of him.
"Not here." He breaks away and looks up. I follow his gaze to the small camera in the corner. "I'm not good at sharing." He pulls me into his side and places a kiss on my temple.
The simple act almost brings me to tears. I can't remember the last time someone hugged me or showed me any kind of care. It's almost too much, but at the same time not enough.
When the elevator dings to let us know we've reached our destination, it brings me out of my inner thoughts, and I clear my throat, trying to gather myself. I still have no idea what I'm even doing here. And when I step out of the elevator and into a gorgeous loft apartment, my mouth drops. I'm even more out of place here than I was at the fundraiser. Everything about this place is elegant. The lights are low. The windows are large. The city shines brightly beneath us. I look over at Mr. Cullen, and he's already discarded his jacket and bow tie. The expression on his face is serene and content. He seems a lot more relaxed than when we were at the fundraiser.
"Do you like it?"
"Yes, it's gorgeous."
"It's not bad." He shrugs his shoulders and walks ahead of me, flipping another light on as he goes into the kitchen. "It's an oasis for me. A place I can go when I need to be in the city."
"So, this isn't your home?"
"It is, just not where I spend most of my time."
I nod, unsure of what to say.
"Do you live close by here?" he asks, pouring two glasses of water and handing me one.
"Uh, no. Nowhere near here."
It's his turn to nod. "Would you like something to drink besides water?"
"No, this is fine." I don't need any more alcohol. Three glasses of champagne was enough.
"So, what is it that you do for your brother?"
My heart pounds as I think of a way to answer truthfully without saying too much. "I work in logistics and procurement."
"What kind of industry?"
"A little of everything."
"It's good to diversify."
I nod. The way he looks at me—a twinkle in his eyes, a twitch to his lips—makes me feel like he knows more than he's letting on… more than I'm telling him. It's as if he could tell me what I do. I'm usually not the paranoid type, but something just feels off.
"What is it that you do?" I ask, turning the tables on him, trying to divert the attention off me.
"A little of this… a little of that," he says, strolling casually toward me. The top few buttons of his white shirt are undone, and the peek of skin makes me want to see more. I'm so intrigued by him. The way he eludes even simple questions only adds to the enigma.
"I've been watching you all night, Isabella. Even before you approached me, I noticed you." His hand reaches up and caresses my cheek, and I exhale at his touch, welcoming it back. Soft lips replace his hand as he trails kisses from my jaw, down my neck, and settling at the edge of my dress. "Would you mind?" he asks, motioning to the dress. "I love to admire beautiful things."
I shake my head, telling him I don't mind, but remain completely still. The fear that something under this dress will give me away terrifies me. Maybe he won't like what he sees? Maybe the dress I'm wearing is the only thing of beauty.
The feeling of the zipper sliding down my back and the cooler air hitting my exposed skin causes me to shiver.
"Are you cold?"
"No," I breathe out. I want to tell him that it's quite the opposite. I feel like my body has been drenched in gasoline and he just lit the match.
"Good, because covering this up should be a sin," he whispers as the dress slips off and pools at my feet. When he walks back around to the front of me, I feel the need to cover myself, but his hands stop me, gently forcing my arms back to my sides. I feel bare, even though I'm still in panties and a bra… and these stupid high heels. I feel like he can see everything. In one swift movement, he pulls the clip from the back of my hair, allowing it to fall down my back.
"You were beautiful before, but this…" He pauses, gesturing toward me, as if he's showing off a piece of fine art. "This is exquisite."
Leaning in, he brushes his lips over mine, and I can't help myself from deepening the kiss. I want him. More than I've wanted anything in a very long time—more than I want to escape James—I want this. The need to have him takes over, and I completely lose myself and any sense of time or place. I grip his shoulders and wrap my legs around his waist. Slowly, he carries me over to a large white ottoman, laying me out in front of him, taking his time to kiss every inch of my body. When his mouth is close to my inner thigh, I lace my fingers through his hair, encouraging him to continue. He effortlessly removes my panties, leaving the heels, and begins to kiss up and down each thigh, teasing me, knowing where I want him. When his tongue flicks out over my clit, I buck up into him, a moan falling from my lips.
Normally, it takes a combination of things to make me come, but one smooth trail of his tongue, and I nearly come undone.
"So good," I hear him say as he continues to skillfully use his tongue to bring me pleasure.
The knowledge that he's enjoying this as much as me helps any leftover insecurities fall away. My knees fall to the side, allowing him complete access. He laps away, like a man who has been starved for days. When a finger enters my pussy, along with his tongue on my clit, I finally fall. The coil in my stomach tightens, and my body begins to tremble. It's unlike anything I've ever felt before, and I can hardly think or breathe.
"Was that good?" he asks, hovering over me. I notice that his shirt is untucked, and his pants are unzipped, and my mind wonders if he's been touching himself.
"It was amazing."
"Who made you feel like that?"
"Say my name," he says, bracing himself on either side of me. His lips attack mine fervently, and I can taste myself on him. It's erotic and nothing I ever thought I would find appealing, but I do.
I hesitate, before finally whispering, "Edward."
I hear the rip of a package. Looking down, I watch him slide a condom over his gorgeous cock, and my mouth pools with saliva. I want him. I wish I had a chance to taste him, like he did me. Maybe next time.
Stop fucking kidding yourself, Bella.
The reality check I just gave myself causes me to stiffen.
"Is everything OK?" he asks, freezing above me. His hand cups my cheek, and his green eyes bore into mine. "If you want to stop, we can. I never…"
Seeing him unsure of himself is endearing. Knowing that he would stop if I wanted him to makes me want him even more. "No, I'm fine… better than fine… I want this."
As his lips crash into mine and his tongue invades my mouth, I feel a slight twinge between my legs as his cock pushes slowly inside. It's been a long time since I've actually had sex, but it's never felt like this. The immense pleasure outweighs any sort of discomfort, and after a few slow thrusts, I'm matching his movements… encouraging him to go faster, deeper.
Edward's hand grips my hip and slows my motions. I look up and see him staring back at me.
"You feel so good, Isabella. I want to make this last." I realize that he's trying to compose himself, so I allow him to set the pace, throwing my head back and enjoying the ride. His lips land on my neck, and I feel a drop of sweat fall from his forehead onto my cheek. Deep, penetrating thrusts hit me at my core, and the familiar tightening in my stomach is back. I don't even have to chase my orgasm. It hits me like a ton of bricks. My head spins. My body tingles. And once again, I'm in awe of the way he makes me feel.
Wanting to reciprocate, I push on his shoulders and tell him to lie on his back. Once he's switched me positions, I line his hard cock up to my entrance and slide down, moaning as he fills me. The new angle and deeper penetration have me sucking breaths in quickly, bracing myself on his chest. It feels so good I could cry.
"Just breathe," he tells me as his hips thrust up into me, causing my head to fall back. One of his hands presses against my stomach while the other grips my hip tightly, keeping the pace steady. "I've never…" he begins but breaks off with a hiss. "Isabella."
I feel his hands on my back, unlatching my bra. The straps fall down my shoulders. Once it's off, he pulls tightly on my nipples; a new surge of euphoria flows through my body.
A moment later, Edward's thrusts become more pronounced—deeper, harder—until I feel him pulse inside me. He slowly continues to thrust until he's completely spent, his head nearly hanging off the edge of the ottoman. I can no longer hold myself up and collapse on his chest. Our breaths are both rapid and in sync.
I must doze off, because I feel a nudge on my shoulder as Edward carefully rolls me off of him, picks me up, and carries me to his bed. It's not until the cool sheets are covering my body that I realize something important. I didn't set up the cameras. I didn't do anything I normally do. I let myself get completely carried away. And the sick feeling from earlier tonight is back. If James finds out, I'm going to be in so much trouble. Panic rises inside me, and I nearly bolt out of the bed.
"Everything OK, Isabella?" Edward asks, his voice low and soothing.
No. Everything is most definitely not OK, but I nod my head, because I don't know what to say.
I'm so screwed, and not in the spectacular way I was a little while ago.
"Can I get you something?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" The concern is etched all over his beautiful face.
"If you don't want to sleep here, I can have my driver take you home, but I'd feel much better if you stayed with me for the night. I'll make sure you get home safely tomorrow. I promise."
The last part again makes me feel uneasy, like he knows more about me than what I've told him. "I'll stay." Of course I'll stay. Somehow I need to salvage this night… get myself out of the mess I'm in.
"Thank you." His nose skims the side of my face. His lips are soft on my cheek. His body relaxes back, and he pulls me with him. "Thank you for earlier, and thank you for staying with me."
I wish I could stay here forever… safe in his warm embrace.
As Edward drifts off to sleep beside me, I lie awake, trying to decide what I'm going to do. The thought of taking anything from Edward kills me, but I don't have much choice. I watch the minutes tick by on the blue dials of the clock on the nightstand beside me, and when I tire of that, I roll over and watch Edward sleep. In slumber, he doesn't look like he's a man twice my age. His features are softer, almost boyish. I reach out and gently cup the side of his face, wishing beyond anything that this night was different… that I don't have to do what I'm about to do.
Before it's too late, I quietly slip out of bed, crouching on the floor beside it until I'm sure that Edward is still sleeping. Tiptoeing across the room, I begin my search.
Edward's watch is on the dresser, and I almost pick it up, but I don't want to. It's too personal. For all I know, it could be a one-of-a-kind, something irreplaceable. Making my way into his walk-in closet, I see that it barely has anything in it—a few pairs of slacks, half a dozen button-up shirts, a pair of shoes. On the shelf at the back of the closet is a set of cufflinks, but when I pick them up and see that they're engraved with 'E.C.', I again drop them back in their place, unable to take them. I begin to grow frustrated with myself and contemplate just leaving and facing the wrath of James. What choice do I have?
I pick up a pair of sleep pants that are folded on the shelf and slide them on, folding the waistband down a few times to keep them from falling off. I grab a shirt to put on with them and head out to the main room to gather the rest of my belongings. I glare at the high-heels but pick them up because they're my only shoes, and there's no way I can trapse around the city barefoot. As I bend over to pick them up, something silver catches my eye. In the inside pocket of Edward's tux jacket is a money clip. Turning it over in my hand, I glance back toward the bedroom and listen closely to make sure Edward is still asleep. When I don't hear anything more than his soft breaths, I walk over to the window for more light.
"He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt."
I nearly laugh out loud at the irony. I know that quote. It's from Catch 22, which precisely describes the predicament I'm in. Damned if I do. Damned if I don't. I take the engraved quote as a sign from the universe and pull the money from the clip. Walking over to the desk by the window, I find a piece of paper and a pen.
Please forgive me for leaving before you woke. I will pay you back, with interest. I don't know how or when, but you have my word. Thank you for a wonderful night. You brought me more pleasure in one evening than I've had in my entire life.
That's the best I can do. I take one last look around the immense space and contemplate taking one last look at Edward but decide that's a bad idea. With my clutch and my dress wadded up in a ball, I grab my shoes and as quietly as possible, I unlatch the locks on the door. When the door squeaks, I pause, frozen in my tracks as I hear movement from the bedroom.
"Isabella?" Edward's groggy voice calls from the bedroom.
My heart is now in my throat, and I feel like a mouse caught in a trap. With half of my body still in the apartment and the other half in the hallway, I decide to make a run for it. I allow the door to close behind me and slip into the stairwell. If I'm lucky, I can get down the block before Edward has time to figure out I'm gone. Maybe he'll see the note and not come looking for me… or maybe he won't see it, and he'll just figure I had to leave for one reason or another. Maybe he's used to women escaping in the middle of the night? All of the thoughts running through my mind combined with my lack of air are making my head pound. With each step I take, my breathing becomes more rapid. It feels like the stairwell is never-ending. Looking over the edge, I count at least four more floors.
When the cold air from outside finally hits my face, I take in a deep, cleansing breath. Glancing up toward Edward's apartment, I can't tell if there are any lights on or not. Part of me wants to run back up those stairs and slip back into bed, figure this all out in the morning, but the other part of me knows that if I want to get away, this is my chance. I slip on my heels and try to fade into the shadows of the tall buildings surrounding me.
Approaching the corner of the block, I look up to see exactly where I am and realize that I'm going to be walking for a while to get to the bus station, unless I can find a taxi that's out at this time of the morning. Taking a look over my shoulder, I'm both relieved and disappointed that there's no one back there. A teeny tiny part of me thought Edward would be chasing me down the street by now, but that's fairytale shit, and even if he did, it might be because he's pissed I took his money. A few blocks down the road, I see the familiar lit up sign on top of the yellow car approaching, and I step out into the road, holding up my hand.
Inside the taxi, I take a moment to see how much money I have. For all I know, the wad of cash I shoved into my clutch could be all ones… enough to buy me a cheeseburger and maybe a lottery ticket. Just because Edward's a millionaire doesn't mean he keeps large amounts of cash on him.
"Where to?" the guy asks, looking at me in his rearview mirror.
Dumping out my purse onto my lap, I take inventory: a tube of red lipstick, a twenty-dollar bill James gave me for a taxi, a tin of Altoids, and… seven hundred thirty-four dollars. If I went home with this, James would be livid. He'd beat the shit out of me, and I'd be forced to earn the rest of his money back… one way or another. But the money is enough to buy me a bus ticket for a destination far away and possibly a motel room for a few nights if I budget it right. I don't know what I'm going to do after that, but it's a good enough plan for me to answer the driver.
"To the bus station."
"Where are you headed?"
"Anywhere but here."
A silent tear slips from my eye, and I catch it, roughly wiping it away, because now's not the time for dramatics.
This is what I want.
This is my life, and I'm taking it back.
As we pass by Edward's building, my heart leaps out of my chest. There, standing in the doorway, dressed in his pants from last night and a half-buttoned shirt, is Edward. Our eyes make contact as we pass by, and upon recognizing me, he jogs after the taxi. I think about calling out to the driver to stop, but I don't. We just keep driving.
When we pull up to the bus station, I give the money to the driver and jump out. Looking down at myself, I realize how ridiculous I look—Edward's pajama pants, a shirt twice my size, and high heels. Besides the wadded up dress and my purse, these clothes are all I have, so they'll have to do for now.
There's no one inside the bus station, except a homeless man sleeping on a couple of chairs and the guy working the counter.
"Can I help you?"
I look up at the board and realize I've never bought a bus ticket… I've never bought any kind of ticket, and I don't have a clue what I'm doing.
"How much does it cost to go to Chicago?" I don't know why I say Chicago, but it's the first city that pops into my head, and it seems far enough away and big enough where I can get lost and figure out what I want to do.
"You sure you wanna go to Chicago? A pretty little thing like you? That city will eat you up and spit you out." The old man seems like he's speaking from experience.
"Listen, I need to get away from here, and I've only got seven hundred dollars."
He whistles. "Well, I'd say you can go just about anywhere this silver bullet will take you." He pulls out a sheet showing the different destinations and how much it costs to get to each one. My finger scans down the list until it comes to Phoenix, Arizona. I've been there once with my dad back when I was a kid. I remember it's warm.
"How about Phoenix, Arizona."
The man looks at his computer for a minute before looking back up at me. "Looks like the next bus for Phoenix leaves at six o'clock."
"I'll take it." I would like to be on a bus in the next five minutes, but I guess waiting another couple of hours won't kill me.
"That'll be one hundred seventy-five dollars."
I count out two of Edward's one-hundred-dollar bills and hesitate for a moment, realizing once I spend these, there's no going back.
"Having second thoughts?" the old man asks.
"No… no, just. Here." I give him the money, and he gives me back the change.
After I have my one-way ticket, I find a seat over in the corner and count what money is left—five hundred seventy-nine dollars. It seems like a lot, but I realize it'll be gone before I know it.
The vending machine across the room is practically calling my name, along with the growl of my stomach, and I realize that I haven't eaten since before James and I left for the fundraiser last night, which feels more like days ago than hours. I keep out the four one-dollar bills and put the rest back in my purse.
Just as I'm getting ready to push "H-9" for a chicken salad sandwich, I feel the cold breeze from outside coming in.
"Isabella!" Edwards voice booms through the nearly empty room.
My eyes go wide when I realize it's him… He's here… and he's looking for me. Complete terror turns my blood ice cold, because there is no doubt in my mind that he's here because he realized I stole from him. Why else would he be standing in the middle of a bus station calling my name.
I look around for an escape route but realize that the only door is the one he's standing in front of, so I decide to face him. At least there are witnesses… well, a witness. The guy on the bench seems to be down for the count.
"Edward?" I ask with a tremor in my voice.
His eyes land on me, and his brows furrow. "What are you doing?"
"I—I can explain." I hold up both hands in surrender, hoping he'll hear me out before he calls the cops or whatever he plans on doing.
"Could we sit?"
He slips off his overcoat and puts it around my shoulders. "Are those mine?" he asks, pointing to my clothes.
"I'm sorry." I hide my face in my hands, wishing I could just rewind and go back to being curled up next to him… warm and safe… even if only for a moment.
"What are you sorry for?" His voice is still the low, sweet baritone it's been all along. Other than him shouting my name, he hasn't raised his voice to me once.
"For everything. I wish I could just tell—"
"You can," he says, cutting me off. "Tell me. Whatever it is, I'll help you."
His eyes are pleading, and he takes my hands into his, warming them with his touch.
"This is horrible. You're going to hate me."
"Let me be the judge of that."
I take a deep breath, trying to decide where to start and figure if I'm spilling my guts, I should start from the beginning.
"James is my brother, but only by marriage. These days, he's really just more or less my boss. I do work for him," I say, hoping that he realizes most of what I've told him is the truth. "A few years ago, James went to a fancy party with one of his friends from high school. That night, he escorted a woman back to her hotel room, and after he seduced her, he pocketed about ten thousand dollars worth of jewelry. He's never looked back. He's made a business out of scoping out wealthy people, targeting them, and finding a way into their bedroom, only to make off with as much money and valuables as he can. When my dad got sent to prison, he took me in and gave me a job. I really had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but I had no other choice—no family, no money, nothing. So, he taught me the ropes and set me up on dates." I roll my eyes at the initial term James used to get me on board.
"At first, it was sort of exciting… somewhat of an adrenaline rush. But soon I realized there was no way out. Even though James would have me set up cameras for an insurance policy, he kept all of the tapes… so they were never meant to keep me out of trouble, only him. He made me promises he's never kept. It's a catch-22. I don't want to do it, but I don't have another choice. Until last night. Until you. When I did research on you, I found out what a good person you are. I was drawn to you before I ever saw what you looked like. On paper, you were one of the most beautiful people I'd ever seen… Then, in person… Well, let's just say the outside matches the inside."
"Did you record us?" Edward asks, his jaw tightening and his hands combing through his hair.
"No! I—I didn't. Last night… last night was everything. I wasn't playing you, Edward. That was me letting myself go and forgetting who I am… if only for a night, I swear."
"I believe you, Isabella."
"Thank you." I don't know why, but him saying those three words means so much. He doesn't have to believe me. I've given him no reason to take my word.
"So, where are you going?"
"Away. I can't stay here."
"Why not? Stay with me."
The laugh that slips through my lips holds no humor. He doesn't mean that. He can't. "You don't mean that."
"I always mean what I say."
"Do you know how old I am?"
The breath Edward blows out is exaggerated, and I know he's thought about my age, or at least wondered. "No," he answers, a hint of worry in his voice.
"Eighteen. I'll be nineteen next month."
A flicker of relief crosses his face but also realization. "Eighteen?"
"I don't care. It doesn't matter to me."
"I can't stay. James will be looking for me. He knows I was with you last night."
"I knew who you were. Even before you approached me."
I should be shocked, but I'm not. Something told me that he knew. "How did you know?"
"My sister, Rose."
"The woman you were standing next to most of the night?"
"Yes. She has a friend who knows James." The way he chooses his words tells me that whoever Rose's friend is, it's someone James has been with before. "Rose warned me. She saw the two of you together right before you approached me."
"Why did you dance with me?"
"I told you. I wanted more of your company."
"But you knew what I was there for! Why would you welcome trouble?"
He laughs, and unlike mine from earlier, his is full of humor and bewilderment. "Oh, Isabella. We don't always want what's easy… or good. And who's truly to say what's good for us?" The mischief in his eyes makes me want to do ungodly things to him.
"I stole seven hundred and thirty-four dollars from you," I blurt out, trying to get everything out in the open, make him realize he doesn't want me so that I can be on my way.
We sit there for a moment, each of us absorbing the last five minutes worth of conversation.
"I don't want to let you go." Edward's voice is low, for only me to hear. "I just found you."
"I'm not good for you. You don't want me. I'll only bring you trouble."
"Maybe a little trouble is what I need."
"Of what? Who? James?" His tone rises, and I see the fury behind his words. Mr. Cullen is used to getting what he wants.
"You have no idea what he's capable of. I don't fully understand what he's capable of, which makes him even more frightening. And what if he uses all of the tapes he has against me? I could go to jail! I think I'm most scared of that." The last sentence comes out in a whisper, because it is one of my biggest fears… turning out like my father. I never wanted a life of crime.
"Let me help you. Please."
"I don't know what to do." My eyes begin to sting with tears, and my throat hurts from holding back my emotions.
"Let me handle James. Then, when the coast is clear, you can come back and stay with me."
"Why do you want to do this? This isn't your problem. If anything, you should be furious at me for stealing from you." I wipe my nose on the sleeve of Edward's coat, unable to stop myself from crying.
"I want you. I can't explain it, but I've felt drawn to you from the second I laid eyes on you."
I don't know in what capacity he's speaking of, but the fact that he would want me at all breaks my heart even further. Nobody has ever wanted me.
"What time does your bus leave?"
"At six o'clock."
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." I shrug. "I've been there before. It wasn't so bad."
Edward stands up and pulls me up with him. His hands gather the belt of his coat and he ties it tightly around my waist. "How much money do you have?"
"Five hundred seventy-nine dollars. Well, seventy-two. I bought a sandwich."
His smile is sad but still stunning. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulls out a cell phone and a credit card. "Use this for emergencies," he says, handing me the card. "And answer this when it rings." He passes me the phone. "I'll change the number on it, and I'll be the only one who knows it. Call me when you get to Phoenix. I'll book you a hotel and have a car meet you at the bus station."
I don't know what to say. Once again, he's rendered me speechless, except this time it's because of his generosity and kindness. The tears are consistently flowing down my cheeks now, and he reaches up and wipes them away.
"Everything's going to be OK. You'll see."
"I don't think I can accept this… How would I…" I stutter and stumble over my words and thoughts.
"Don't overthink this, Isabella. I'm a firm believer in taking chances, and you're a chance worth taking. If I let you leave with no way of knowing whether you're safe or not… or if I'll ever see you again… it would kill me. So, think of it as doing a favor for me."
I laugh through my tears, because his reasoning is ridiculous… and beautiful, just like him. I reach up, claiming his lips with mine and putting all of the gratitude and promise I can into it. It feels so strange. Twenty-four hours ago, he was a stranger who only existed on paper, and now, he suddenly means more to me than anyone else in the world.
When I climb onto the bus, I hurry to the seat farthest in the back and move over to the window. Placing my hand on the glass, I tell him goodbye, hoping that this won't be the last time I see him, but if it is, knowing I'll never be the same because of him.
This was Jenny Kate's entry for the May to December Romance Contest.
A HUGE thank you to Nic, Carrie, and their team, for putting on a fabulous contest! We'd also like to thank all of the readers! This has been the biggest contest we've ever had the pleasure of being a part of. We'd love to continue this, but we don't have an exact time frame for that. So, keep us on alert! Thanks again!
As always, thanks to our amazing beta, Geekchic12! You rock, bb!