A/N: This is the first little bit of my donation to the Babies at the Border compilation. Enormous thanks go to Hadley Hemingway, beta extraordinaire, for cleaning this up in, like, seriously two hours. Also, I owe a huge, huge thank you to readergoof (Becca Moore) for making a perfect banner for this story.
To Jeannie Boom and Consuelo Hernandez: I'm in awe of what you dreamed up and accomplished. In a world where people don't seem to agree on much anymore, you proved that a whole hell of a lot of people still believe that it's morally right to treat others (especially children!) with compassion, dignity, respect, and love. Much love and admiration to you both - and, Jeannie, you know how I feel about you, girl. xoxo
It's been for-freaking-ever since I posted anything - or even wrote much of anything. Life is a series of ups and downs, and I haven't necessarily had more than my fair share of downs over the last three years, but time became a precious commodity that had to be spent on other parts of my life for a while. I'm back to writing, though, and all of my stories will be finished as fast as my old hands can type. Me = Eternal procrastinator but never a quitter. :)
"Prick," I mutter quietly, sliding files into my briefcase.
Edward's retort is made directly into my ear, sending an involuntary shiver up my spine. Since we're standing in a public courtroom, I don't shove him away, but I take a step back to look at him, narrowing my eyes in an unspoken warning. His answering grin makes me want to punch him.
"What the hell, Edward?" I hiss. "How am I a bitch? I'm not the one who took all the credit."
"I didn't take all the credit." He frowns at me as he quietly defends himself. Mindful of the fact that our client and our boss are engrossed in conversation a few feet behind him, he glances over his shoulder to make sure they're not listening to us. "I just said—"
"You just said your closing is what sealed the case," I interrupt.
"No, I said we proved the case, and it was illustrated by every point I made during the closing argument."
"Which I wrote. But you didn't mention that to Harry."
"You write most of Harry's closing arguments!" he whispers harshly, his eyes full of fire. "He knows you wrote this one, too, without me telling him."
"Whatever." Rolling my eyes, I turn back to the table to finish packing away my things.
"Whatever," he mimics. Moving closer, he picks up his leather backpack from the chair next to mine and slings it over his shoulder, mumbling under his breath. "Jesus Christ… unreasonable woman… always so fucking wound up… probably needs to get laid."
"Excuse me?" Wide-eyed, I glare at him.
The cocky smile is back when he slowly swivels his head my direction. He leans toward me, speaking softly. "Hit a nerve?"
My mouth hangs open in shock while I try frantically to come up with a more witty retort than "shut up". Before I can think of one, Harry walks up behind us.
"Excellent job, counselors," he praises. Edward turns and steps back to shake Harry's hand, essentially putting him between us. "You two work well together on your own, just like I thought you would."
"Thank you," I reply, shaking his hand as he turns toward me. Although I'm still outraged by Edward's inappropriate comment, the pride evident in Harry's eyes casts that aside for the moment. I can't help beaming at him.
Harry Clearwater is a senior partner at the law firm, and he took me under his wing on my second day of work, a little over two years ago. He instantly became both mentor and father figure to me. He gave practical and moral support while I was studying for the bar exam, and he sent a congratulatory bottle of champagne to me when I passed.
Once I could officially practice law, he spoon-fed me a few simple cases, letting me get some courtroom wins under my belt. And from the beginning, I've also assisted on most of his more prominent cases, often working with his star protégé. Unfortunately, that protégé is the prick now standing behind him, smirking at me.
Edward Fucking Cullen. I'm not sure what his real middle name is. I know it starts with an A because he signs every email "EAC" instead of just using his name like a normal person. It's one of the many things about him that annoys me. Realistically, I should be able to handle his needling better by now; we've been at odds since the day we met — about a week after I started at the firm. Every detail of that first contentious meeting is seared into my memory.
~ PF ~
Pen and paper in hand, I rushed up the hallway from my plain, bare-walled office toward Harry's ornately decorated, black walnut-shelved one. Apprehension pulled my stomach into tight knots; it was the first time I'd been summoned to a senior partner's office. I stopped abruptly in the doorway when I saw that someone already occupied one of the chairs in front of Harry's desk—someone whom I didn't recognize from the back. Looking up, Harry smiled, beckoning me inside.
"Bella, I want you to meet Edward Cullen," he said, gesturing to the man seated before him. "He graduated and took the bar four years ago. He's one of our brightest young associates, and I think he'll be a great resource for you."
Gracefully rising from the chair, Edward stood a little over six feet tall as he turned to face me with a smile, mesmerizing green eyes, and uncontrolled hair. He was easily one of the most handsome men I'd ever seen, and it took great concentration for my suddenly-wobbly legs to carry me the rest of the way into the room. As I reached forward to grasp his outstretched hand, I smiled back at him, unprepared for the way my traitorous body was about to react. Even though only our palms and fingers were touching, the contact ignited every nerve ending and caused my skin to prickle from my scalp to my toes.
"Nice to meet you," I offered. Despite my effort to keep my tone professional, I think I sounded more like breathy-Monroe than empowered-Steinem.
"The pleasure's mine," he countered. Just when I thought I might get lost in those pools of deep jade, he dropped his gaze. Behind him, Harry was speaking, encouraging me to ask Edward any questions I had and insisting they'd both help me in any way they could. Meanwhile, Edward's eyes scanned down my body and then back up, methodically appraising. My runaway hormones were quickly charred by scalding flames of anger, and I waited with narrowed eyes for him to meet my gaze again. Shaking my head minutely, I expected him to be ashamed — or at least contrite — when he saw the disapproval on my face. Rather, he seemed amused when he looked at me, smirking smugly at me for the first time as he agreed with Harry. "Absolutely. Anything you need, Bella. All you have to do is ask."
Hastily pulling my hand away, I mumbled my thanks and slid past him to sit down. Harry immediately began to summarize the case he was working on, assigning trial prep duties to both Edward and me. While I hunched over my lap, madly scribbling Harry's instructions on my pad of paper, Edward lounged casually in the chair next to mine, one ankle crossed over the opposite knee. Peering sideways at him, I saw that he held his phone in one hand, but he didn't seem to be taking any notes. When Harry finished, I sat up and looked over at Edward just in time to see him push a button on his phone's touch screen.
"Voice memo," he advised, tilting his phone my way so I could witness his brilliance. "Don't worry. You'll learn."
"I wasn't worried," I assured him, refusing to be intimidated. "I catch on quickly."
"I don't doubt it. Law school?"
"U Dub. You?"
"Stanford Law," he bragged. "University of Chicago undergrad."
I nodded at him, realizing he wanted me to know how smart he was or how rich he was — or both. Got it, prick. I used the only ammunition I had to try and trump him.
"Two advanced degrees?" he asked skeptically.
"Yes, Edward. She has two graduate degrees," Harry interjected. Edward and I both turned our attention back to him. His smiling face showed a bit of bemusement, but his tone held a note of irritation. "I like the competitive spirit here, but let's remember we're on the same side, kids. Get to work."
~ PF ~
Since that day, our professional relationship has been one of grudging mutual respect interspersed with intense rivalry. Our battles in the office are well-known. Heated arguments have erupted about a wide range of topics — from legal strategy to music to the best Thai restaurant in town — and are often overheard by lawyers whose offices are near his, because the prick always refuses to come to mine.
"Mr. Watson was impressed with both of you," Harry continues, pulling me from my wayward thoughts. "Come on. It's nearly five o'clock. I'll buy at the pub across the street."
Edward quickly agrees, but I beg off, claiming to have other Friday night plans. Over Harry's shoulder, I see Edward raise a mocking eyebrow at me.
"Liar," he mouths.
Although he's right, fresh fury races through me, tightening my fists and lips. When Harry assigned us to work this case together — our first big case alone — I prepared myself for the bloodshed I was sure would come. And there was some of that during the last three months as we made final preparations and went to trial. He still aggravates me like no one else ever has, but unexpectedly, I also began to like him. I found myself looking forward to seeing him and sparring with him each day. I let my guard down enough to forge a better working relationship with him while using every bit of willpower I possess to smother the attraction bubbling under the surface. If I spend much more time with him, though, I have a feeling that's going to be a battle I won't win.
And that's the reason I want nothing more than to get the hell away from him now. But he's looking at me, goading me with that fucking eyebrow… and knowing that I rarely back down from a challenge.
"On second thought, it's nothing I can't cancel," I state — against my better judgment — as I shift my eyes back to Harry, forcing a smile. "I'm sure my friends will understand."
An hour later, I take the first sip of my second Captain and Coke, looking around the virtually empty pub. Like the other bars near the courthouse, this one is crowded with cops and lawyers on weeknights. But Friday through Sunday, they frequent bars in their own neighborhoods instead of dingy, downtown establishments. As I cross my legs, my bare knee bumps against the sticky underside of the table.
"Right, Bella?" Edward asks.
He's monopolized the conversation with Harry since we arrived, spending long minutes reminiscing about other cases they've argued — cases that didn't involve me. Once the discussion turned to the case we just finished, he grinned as he touted his own contributions and cut me off with a sly smile each time I tried to interject. A subtle saboteur. He hasn't sunk so low as to dismiss my efforts entirely, but since he hasn't let me get a word in edgewise, the effect is the same. And now he's asking me to agree with what he said, assuming that I wasn't paying attention.
I shift my eyes his way first, and then turn my head to look at him.
"Actually, Edward, I'm sure you'll remember that it was my idea for you to cross-examine Ms. Nelson," I correct. Turning to Harry, I smile slyly. "During her deposition a few weeks ago, I asked the questions, but she kept looking at him when she answered."
"Using her distraction against her?" Harry laughs.
"All's fair in love and court," I reply, sparing a glance at Edward. He doesn't think this is as funny as Harry and I do, which of course, makes it all the more entertaining for me. Looking at Harry again, I wave one hand carelessly in Edward's direction. "I can't claim to understand the allure of all that, but since the other side's witness was affected by it, there was no reason not to let Edward make a run at her."
"Well, I don't know about the allure of all this," Edward adds, shrugging out of his suit coat and loosening his tie as he plays the part of the good sport. "But that witness' story was so inconsistent anyone could have discredited her on the stand. Even Bella." He ends his condescending declaration by chuckling a little too loudly. Now it's my turn to be the odd man out while the men yuk it up.
Harry changes the subject, quizzing Edward about a contract he's been negotiating for another client. I go back to sipping my drink, half-listening to them while Edward's belittling words repeat over and over in my head. He's right; he's better than I am — better than almost anyone else is — at cross-examination. But I can hold my own in a courtroom, and I'm pretty pissed off that he downplayed my abilities in front of our boss, jokingly or not.
In an honest moment, I can admit, as Harry predicted, the prick and I worked well together on this case. Our professional strengths complemented each other, and our weaknesses were less noticeable since we had the other person to rely on. And Edward really did kill it today during the summation. My words. His delivery.
When their discussion hits a lull, Harry looks up at the television above the bar, and Edward smirks at me.
"Prick," I mouth, lowering my glass just far enough for him to read my lips.
Instantly, his mouth curls into a boyish, crooked grin that accentuates the laugh lines around his eyes and deepens the small dimple on the left side of his chin. Goddamn, he's beautiful. Our gazes hold for several more seconds until I begin to feel a little warm and have to look away. I think the heat spreading through my limbs is from the rum, though, and not the boy. Really. I really think so.
Resisting the temptation to hold the cool glass against my forehead, I take three more gulps of the drink. Then I excuse myself to the ladies' room.
Get it together, Bella, I chide internally while I wash my hands. He's an egotistical, pig-headed, mansplaining, pricky asshole who struts around like he's God's gift to women.
Well, you've heard the rumors, my inner voice answers. Standing at the sink, I watch the water run over my wrists. Word on the street is the man has skills.
I don't care about his skills!
When my inner voice remains silent, I reluctantly look in the mirror above the sink. Blinking slowly, I study the brown eyes looking back at me, waiting for the reply, but afraid to hear it — afraid of the truth.
~ PF ~
Thankfully, my internal self has had it with my bullshit, so we stop speaking. After a final check in the mirror, I exit the bathroom, and I'm startled to see Edward leaning against the wall in the poorly-lit, narrow hallway. When I start to walk past, he extends an arm to the side, blocking my way.
"What do you want?" I demand, annoyed with him — and annoyed with my senseless heart for pounding in my chest. Can I blame the rum for this, too?
"I'm not sure you really want me to answer that," he mutters drolly. "But let's start with our professional relationship. Did you tell Harry that you wouldn't work with me again?"
"No. I told Harry that you wouldn't work with me again," I clarify, trying to ignore the fluttering in my stomach. "He asked how things were going the other day, and I told him you said—"
"When I said that, we were fighting, as usual, about something stupid, as usual," he explains, teeth gritted in anger.
"Because you want to argue about everything."
"And you won't let anything go, even when you know you're wrong." Stepping closer, he leans down to look into my eyes. When he exhales, I smell the Jack on his breath and feel its intoxicating effect… or maybe it's his intoxicating effect. "You're the most obstinate woman I've ever met."
"The same goes for you," I snap. Unnerved by his proximity, I take a couple of steps backward, but he moves with me, turning. Trying to keep him in front of me, I pivot too, and end up with my back against the wall in the darkest part of the hallway. Uh-oh.
"Sweetheart, I may be stubborn, but there's nothing feminine about me," he says, his voice low and raspy. If any other man called me "sweetheart" in that demeaning tone, I'd probably punch him. Right now, regrettably, I'm dumbstruck, tongue-tied, and turned on by it. He places his palms against the wall on either side of my shoulders, trapping me between his arms. "Do you need proof?"
The change in the air is almost palpable. The anger that burned between us a few seconds ago has evaporated, but a different heat is left hanging in its wake.
"What if I want to prove it?" He leans closer, his darkened eyes so spellbinding that I can't answer—can't look away. My chest rises and falls rapidly, brushing against his with each shallow breath I take. He moves one hand to my face, skimming the back of it along my cheek. "Are you all right, Bella? Your skin is warm."
"Mm-hmm. I could help you cool off."
Although I doubt that, I stand immobile when his fingers slide into my hair, pulling it away from my neck. My heart races as he bends down, his hot breath blasting against my throat. After blinking slowly twice, I let my eyes stay closed. I should push him away. I should run out of this hallway. I should do just about anything other than what I am doing—holding my breath, waiting impatiently, clutching the fabric of my skirt between my fingers.
Even though I'm expecting it, the first touch of his lips against my skin startles me, and I jerk my head away. He follows, opening his mouth to drag his tongue up my neck. Hot flames of desire curl and crackle in my blood, spread through my body, and awaken senses that have been sidelined for long months.
God, I'd almost forgotten how good this feels. Or maybe it just never felt this good before.
When he blows on my wet skin, it has the intended effect; I shiver and feel goose bumps erupt all the way down my arm. As he moves to the other side of my neck, repeating each arousing step, I roll my lips together and moan softly.
"Jesus, how can you smell so good after sitting in a stuffy, Goddamned courtroom all day?" Speaking quietly into my ear, his husky voice sets off another burst of lust, warming my body again.
He raises his head, staring intently at me when I open my eyes. We're both breathing hard, the mingled scent of rum and whiskey filling the space between our lips. His arms cage me once again as his face inches closer, blocking my awareness of everything else. The grimy, cement floor hallway where we're standing is forgotten. The music playing in the other room fades to the background. It's just him. Surrounding me. Dipping his head toward mine.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," I murmur.
"Probably isn't," he agrees, but neither of us pulls away. He closes his eyes just before our lips touch, and I do too.
Pinpricks of pleasure dance across my back as his mouth moves against mine. Powerful and seductive, he leads me… teases me… tempts me. I respond without hesitation, forgetting my earlier objection. Lips meet, separate, meet. Again and again. Noses bump as we switch angles, tilting our heads in opposite directions at the same time as if we've kissed a hundred times before. When he traces his tongue along my bottom lip and then pulls back, I whimper in protest.
"Do you want me to stop?" he asks, his voice hushed.
I leave my eyes shut, considering his question. Far away, in the back of my mind, a breath of a thought about consequences nags at me, but is quickly dismissed. Every ounce of determination I've depended on during the last few weeks has fled. I can't stop him; I don't want to stop him. Shaking my head slightly, I answer, "No."
His sigh against my skin mirrors my own relief, but when his mouth settles on mine again, the tension rebuilds at once. All pretense of self-control disappears, and we kiss frantically, our lips fused together, teeth bumping and tongues swirling. It's been so long since I felt this intense desire for someone, and I sink deeper and deeper into it, craving the intimacy — craving him.
Several minutes pass while I'm lost in Edward, but then my eyes pop open at the sound of noisy footsteps on the floor. Startled, I twist my mouth away. In my peripheral vision, I see a man walking toward us from the other end of the long, dark hallway.
When Edward rears back to look at me, I meet his confused gaze and whisper my explanation. "Someone's coming."
"Unless it's you or me, I don't fucking care."
His hoarse reply echoes in my ears, and I struggle not to close my eyes, not to reach out and drag him back to me. The faint squeak of the hinge on the men's room door interrupts, and I turn my head just in time to see the man duck inside the restroom. The sight of his well-tailored suit causes a sudden, panicky thought to jump into my head.
"Shit! What if that was Harry?"
"It wasn't. He left."
My relief is only momentary since I quickly remember that my purse and briefcase are still at the table. I nudge Edward's arm with my shoulder, but he doesn't move.
"My stuff," I mumble.
"Stashed behind the bar with Vicki," he soothes.
Hearing the name of the pretty, low-cut-shirt-wearing bartender causes my spine to stiffen. She flirted openly with Edward from the moment we arrived at the pub—calling him by name too. I was jealous then; I'm jealous now but hoping not to show it.
"She seems nice."
"She is." He smiles slightly, like he might know what I'm really thinking. Shifting one hand to my face, he brushes his knuckles along my jaw and then lets them fall. Curling his fingers around the nape of my neck, he rests his thumb in the hollow of my throat and traces slow, deliberate circles on my skin.
"I need to go."
"That's not what you need, Bella." Normally, I would bristle at his statement, at the suggestion that he knows what I need. But I'm distracted by his touch, by his hypnotic gaze full of trouble and challenge. "It's not what I need either. Christ. Sitting right beside you this week, all day… every day. It's been driving me crazy."
Edward's hand drifts down the front of my body, stopping at the top button of my suit jacket. Weak-kneed, I rest more of my weight against the wall and stare at him. His eyes are downcast, watching as he loosens each button and slides his hand inside to rest on my waist. When the creaky men's room door opens again, he turns his head toward the sound and then shifts his body, shielding me from the man's view.
"Is he looking?" I ask quietly. Leaning closer, I inhale the inviting scent of his neck, his cologne— citrusy with a spicy undertone. I've smelled it before but never like this. Never so close. Never the way it clings to his warm skin.
"He didn't even notice us." I don't think that's true, but my concern melts away when his hand creeps up the smooth fabric of my blouse. His fingertips trace my ribs, stopping just below my breast. Eyes closed, he exhales shakily and rests his forehead against mine.
"Jesus, Bella. I want your hands on me. Touch me."
My fists tighten, gripping the fabric of my skirt, anxious and yet reluctant to let go. As potent as Edward's mouth and hands are, I know when I touch him, the feeling will be even more intense, and I'll be yanked headfirst all the way down this sensual rabbit hole. Our problematic professional relationship, our barely-there friendship? Over. There'll be no going back for me.
The indecision lasts only a split-second before I know the truth; I can't deny him — or myself. So I unclench my fingers and reach out, resting my hands gently on his chest, relishing the rapid beating of his heart beneath my palms.
I'm not sure who whispers the word, or maybe it's both of us. It spurs me into action, though, and I move my hands to his upper arms before forcefully pulling him. He lurches forward, pressing me against the wall and kissing me desperately again until I'm dizzy, until I'm grateful to have the wall behind me to keep me upright.
I'm dazed but also hyperaware that his fingers are brushing lightly across my ribs, maddeningly just below where I want his touch. I twist a bit, practically pushing myself into his hand and groaning into his mouth when he finally covers my breast. The feeling of his hand squeezing, his thumb circling my nipple over and over, is exquisite torture.
"Edward," I gasp, pulling my mouth from his and gulping air.
But he doesn't give me a chance to catch my breath. He moves his lips to my neck and shifts his arms, wrapping one around my waist as the other hand drops from my chest to trace down my hip and thigh. I bite back another gasp when he pulls my skirt up far enough to reach bare skin, the heat of his fingers branding me.
"Lift your leg," he murmurs against my throat, and I immediately follow his direction.
He thrusts his thigh forward, draping mine across it and holding me tightly so I don't lose my balance. Determined fingers push and rearrange my skirt, trailing unhurriedly up the back of my leg.
Then he stops, raising his head to look at me.
I'm not usually one to make bold physical moves. So what I do next doesn't make any sense — except that it seems completely natural this time.
Feeling predatory, I sink my hands into the silky hair at the nape of his neck and pull him toward me, molding my mouth to his. At the same time, I shift my hips, moving closer to his hand. He takes the hint, sliding his fingers beneath the edge of my underwear and gliding forward to circle my clit. Finally, he pushes one finger inside me, moving slowly. After a moment, he adds another, increasing the pace and the intensity until I'm hurtling toward release, bright lights flashing like strobes behind my eyelids.
Suddenly, he slows his movements and his lips pull away from mine, skimming across my cheek.
"I want you," he murmurs in my ear. "Let's go somewhere private. Is there a lock on the bathroom door?"
A sudden burst of common sense comes barging through my lusty haze, and I jerk my head to the side, turning to look at him. At once, his fingers still, staying buried inside me.
"You want to have sex in the ladies' room?"
"I don't fucking care where we go. The bathroom is closer. Or we can go out the back door, but it's cold outside."
Reality washes over me as effectively as if he'd dumped ice water over my head. I'm not naïve; I wasn't expecting candlelight and romance. But I was expecting more than a quick fuck in a dark bathroom or next to the dumpster in the alley. The arousal I felt seconds ago recedes swiftly, leaving indignation in its wake. I push at his arm until he pulls his fingers out of me, and then I shove him backwards roughly.
"Screw you," I sneer, tugging my skirt back into place.
"That's the plan, sweetheart," he cracks, leaning against the opposite wall and raising that fucking eyebrow at me again. I won't fall for it this time, though.
"Find someone else," I seethe.
"Never an issue," he answers with a shrug. As I walk away, I hear him call my name softly. Inexplicably, I turn to look at him before I can stop myself. "You know I was only playing with you, right? You're too uptight for my taste."
His words are meant to sting, and they do. But I recover quickly enough to get in a jab of my own.
"No problem," I nod. "Really, who can take you seriously with that hair, anyway?"
Without saying anything else or waiting for a response, I stride out of the hallway and get my bags from behind the bar. I don't turn around as I pull my coat from the rack near the door. When I head outside into the dark October night, I'm not sure if it's the hot boy or the cold wind that puts the tears in my eyes.
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