3 TO THE RESCUE

A menagerie of business students files out of Dannin Hall in pairs. I've probably met a third of Bella's 200-plus classmates at various points, over work sessions at Mrs. C's or drinks after class. Many of them know me well enough to call out greetings as they walk by, especially when I'm standing here under my trademark umbrella.

I am bursting with questions: Where's Bella? How'd she do? Who'd she get? But I'm what Bella likes to call a "grown-ass man," so I wave back and wait under my umbrella in the pounding rain with my mouth shut and my heart in my throat.

Finally, Bella spills out of the heavy doors with a man I don't recall meeting—and I wouldn't have forgotten those fashion-magazine cheekbones or the perfectly trimmed facial hair. The two of them, huddled over their cellphones, meander right out into the rain without paying any attention.

"Bella!" I charge toward her, umbrella extended like Zorro's sword. "You're getting soaked!"

Bella leans in and plants a wet kiss on my lips. "Looks like you were right about the forecast."

"So, this is the famous Edward?"

I spin around to address the man getting drenched beside us. No umbrella, no waterproof gear. Flash over function.

"Here, come under," I offer though there's barely room for Bella and me.

"I'm fine." The man's hair hangs in dark blond rivulets around his face, his eyelashes dripping fat raindrops onto his cheeks, but he shows no interest in shelter. "Hey. I'm Riley." He extends his hand, and I juggle the umbrella and reach around Bella to shake it. His grasp is wet but firm.

"I'm famous Edward, I guess." I look to Bella for some kind of explanation but she just smiles and shrugs. "I take it you two are partners?"

Riley grins and shoves his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. "Yep. How lucky am I?"

Good manners prevent me from telling him he's the luckiest son-of-a-gun in the class.

Bella gushes right back. "Actually, I'm the one who scored. Riley has actual, real-world experience directly related to our industry. Edward, are you ready for this? Our case study is a family-owned bakery!"

"Be still my heart."

She giggles. "Didn't I tell you he'd be jealous?" She and Riley share a look that gives me that prickly feeling again. If this keeps up, I'm going to sprout actual quills.

"You just happened to score a bakery as your final project?"

Bella fills in the blanks while Riley nods along. "They divided our whole cohort into eight random groups. Our group was presented with a dozen cases, and each of us ranked our top three choices. Obviously, once I heard the bakery story, I had to choose that. As it turns out, Riley also put the bakery as his number one choice, which makes sense considering his background."

I turn to Riley. "You're a baker?"

"Not exactly." His eyes catch Bella's and flash with amusement.

Bella finishes the explanation as Riley feigns humility, and it strikes me that Victoria would not buy what he's selling. "Riley was working as an analyst at Fireman Capital when they purchased the Dunkin Donuts franchises in South Florida."

"Ah," I say, because it sounds much more mature than "Whoop-dee-doo."

Riley leans under the umbrella. "Not that acquisition is necessarily the recommendation we'll make, but if it is . . ."

Bella finishes his sentence. "We kind of have the answer key."

"Well, sounds like you two are all set . . ." Hint, hint.

"I'll text you tonight, Bella?"

"Sounds good," she answers.

"Very nice to meet you, Riley."

"Pleasure's mine," he answers, extending his soggy hand for a goodbye shake. "Later, Bella." He jogs away, backpack slapping against his preppy, navy blue, not-waterproof pea coat. Youth.

"I sure hope there's a dry towel waiting for your friend wherever he's headed."

Bella giggles and loops her arm around my elbow. "Not everyone is lucky enough to have a superhero standing by."

"Are you kidding? I've been doing my rain dance all morning just so I could swoop in and save you."

Her eyes light up with an idea I already know I won't like. "I'm gonna need you to perform that dance for me later . . . in your Umbrella Man costume." Yep, I was right.

"Too bad your case study isn't a lingerie manufacturing plant. You have all that vast inside information."

"Ho, ho, ho. Somehow, I think this bakery gig is going to work out better for you," she says. "I see pastry in your future."

"That works for me though I'm not sure I would've minded the lingerie." The rain picks up, and we snuggle closer—our little dry island for two—but we can't stand here forever. "We should go."

"Do you have time for a cup of coffee?" she asks.

"With my girl? Always."

Her smile lights up the drab day. "Heroic and sweet."

"Are those boots waterproof?" Patent leather, plastic, rubber . . . I really can't tell.

"Close enough. Did you want to walk to the Last Drop?"

"That would be great."

Bella knows me well enough to recognize my favorite stress-reliever, the pitter-patter of raindrops on my umbrella. She squeezes my arm. "Hey, did something happen during your shoot this morning?"

Well, let's see. The earth shook and rattled everything I thought I knew. "Actually, yes, but we don't have to talk about it now."

She pivots to search my eyes for clues, a triage nurse assessing the damage. "Edward?"

I'm shit at hiding my feelings, especially from Bella. "I don't want to appropriate your big morning."

"I'm a very good sharer."

That deserves a snort. "Bella, you're a terrible sharer. You take one bite, two tops, and make me eat the rest."

"Hey, buddy, nobody says you have to finish every dessert we order."

"Blasphemy!"

"I'm pretty sure blasphemy takes a back seat in the sin department to working full-time at Hooters." She coaxes me forward, and we start off down the sidewalk.

"I won't deny you're pure sin in that uniform."

"Are you ready to talk yet, or should we talk about my boobs some more?"

"How do you know I wasn't talking about your ass?" I give her a take-that! smirk that makes her roll her eyes.

"I'm here when you're ready," says the bartender in her—or as I like to tease when she pulls out more than I'm ready to share, the extractor. Seriously, it's Bella's superpower, meant with only the kindest intentions, which is why I sing like a bird.

"So, it turns out my client this morning owns a gallery downtown, and she'd like me to show my work."

"Wow, that's cool!"

"Not just show my work, though. Victoria thinks I should start some kind of movement . . . create an army of empowerment photographers and save the world!" My voice has risen to a rafters-rattling pitch, so it's not surprising when Bella turns to me with concern written all over her face.

"Oh dear. That sounds a bit . . . intense.""To put it mildly."

"How would you put it?" she asks gently.

I've reflected on my meeting with Victoria all morning, but I've hardly sorted out my feelings. "Imagine you're crossing the street—at a crosswalk, with the light—when all of a sudden, this truck comes barreling down the street and slams into you."

"Youch!"

"Exactly. No bones were broken, just got the wind knocked out of me. But as I'm dusting myself off, I realize it was a funnel cake truck that hit me."

"You got hit by a funnel cake truck?"

"I'm trying to convey that there was an element to the experience that wasn't entirely unpleasant."

"I see," she says. "Well, I'm sure it was flattering to have this woman view you as the potential savior of mankind."

"I suppose."

"Did you tell her your girlfriend has dibs on your superhero skills?"

"What happened to being a good sharer?"

She tightens her grip on my arm. "That does not apply to you!"

A warm rush of affection pulses through my veins. "Glad to hear that."

"So, what did you tell the funnel cake truck driver?"

"I told her I'd need some time to think about it."

"What's your gut telling you?"

"That I need to restock my antacid shelf." I'm only half-kidding. My stomach hasn't stopped churning since Victoria left my studio.

"Aww. It's a really exciting opportunity. When's the last time you showed any of your work publicly?"

"Honestly, I haven't even thought about showing my work since I started down this path. Besides, the photos don't belong to me."

"Couldn't you ask for permission to exhibit them," she asks, "the way you do with your photo albums?"

"You know how intimate those photographs are. The best pictures represent the most difficult moments for my clients. Even if money were involved, I can't imagine any of them going for the idea."

"Didn't this woman, Victoria, come to you today because another client was moved to share her experience to help a friend? I think you underestimate the strength and generosity of the women you help."

"Come on, Bella. It's one thing to help a friend or another person in crisis. It's quite another to be viewed by random strangers who happen to wander through a gallery. And I failed to mention that Victoria plans to post everything to her website. We both know there's no control over an image once it hits the internet."

"Yes, I learned that from my mother." She grins.

"Oh Lord. What are your parents going to think of me when they see these photos?"

"Pshhh. C'mon, Edward. You know you walk on water with them." The familiar contradiction rings through: while Bella loves that her parents have embraced me, she remains frustrated that she's had to work so long and so hard to gain their acceptance.

Stepping purposefully into the puddle in front of us, I say, "If they could see me now . . ."

"Whatever." We are in complete agreement on this topic, and there's nothing to be gained by dwelling. "Back to the topic at hand, don't you think those women who cheerfully donate their images might be pleased to have the chance to inspire even more people? Who knows how far this might reach?"

Victoria's pebble-in-a-pond metaphor pops to mind. "So 'more' equals 'better'? Automatically?"

Bella gives me a hard stare, most likely because I'm flip-flopping back and forth like a sailboat in a monsoon.

"I'm sorry, Bella. I'm not trying to be a pain in the ass. I'm asking, honestly, because I need help working this through. Am I being a selfish bastard to be happy with my career as it is? If you want to measure in dollars and cents, I'm doing fine. I've socked away enough for a down payment on a bigger house, and my hourly rate is on a par with any of the respected photographers I know. I don't need the publicity. Frankly, I don't know how many more clients I would want to take on."

"You know one of the qualities I admire most about you is your artistic integrity. I hope you don't think that just because I'm in business school, I see your dilemma in terms of quantity or dollars. But on a purely humanitarian scale, wouldn't you like to be able to help even more people?"

"In theory, sure, all things being equal."

"Are all things not equal?" she asks.

"If I could be guaranteed that every woman—or man—down the line would walk away from the experience changed for the better, I'd say yes in a heartbeat. There's no . . . 'answer key' as you put it. When I'm in that studio, each client is a new mystery to solve. How do I know what exact training or life experience I call upon at any given moment? I don't like to admit this, but sometimes I'm not sure what the hell I'm doing."

"Oh, Edward. I know you like to think you can plan everything out, but nobody expects you to know everything all the time. The important thing is you have the heart and the talent to figure it out when the challenge is in front of you. That's your gift."

"Thank you for that. And I'm sorry for turning this conversation into 'Confessions of the Insecure Artist.' I'm actually fine with my methods. After all these years, I have enough faith to know everything will work out by the end of each shoot. It's the idea of opening myself up to critique about my methods that really sets me on edge."

"Maybe you don't have to divulge the details of your process. What if there's another way?"

"Such as?"

"A middle ground between staying in the shadows and exposing yourself, so to speak, to the world?"

A grin widens across my face. "Are you about to suggest I go out and buy a big, goofy pair of dark-rimmed glasses to disguise myself, Lois?"

Bella stops in her tracks and pivots to face me. "God, that would be so hot. Would you?" I'm not entirely sure she's teasing until she giggles.

I fix her with a glare that cannot possibly intimidate her. "Do you think Superman has to put up with this type of abuse from his girlfriend?"

"Oh, I'm sure of it," she answers with that naughty twinkle in her eye, "and he probably loves it, just like you do."

"And why would I love it?" Bella never ceases to entertain me with her fascinating theories.

She slips her arms around my back and gazes deep into my eyes. "Because even superheroes, maybe especially superheroes"—she leans in and kisses me—"need to know there's someone"—kiss—"they can let down their guard with at home, so they can go out into the world and be fabulous."

"As usual, you make a good point. And extra style points for doing so while kissing me in the rain." Take that, Lois Lane! "Tell me more about this middle ground."

She takes my non-umbrella-encumbered hand and tugs me toward the door of Last Drop. "Caffeine first, answers later."


Author's Note: I loved that so many of you KNEW Edward would seek Bella's opinion on his dilemma. Were you surprised by her advice? Thoughts on Riley?

Speaking of advice, I really can't say enough about the amazing support I receive on each chapter from my umbrella team. Thank you, Patrizia, Ladyeire, and Chayasara, for helping me frame the conflict and draw out the nuances until they resonate in print the way they do in my head. Each of you adds so much to the process and the final product. MWAH!

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XOXO ~BOH