A/N: Thank you so much for the reviews, favorites, & follows! The generosity and enthusiasm of this fandom never disappoint. I heart you all.
Thanks to Hadley Hemingway - a rockstar beta who puts up with me even though I argue with some of her edits. I probably irritate the crap out of her, but she sticks around anyway. :)
Thanks for reading. Please review.
After spending a restless night tossing and turning, I sit in bed for almost an hour Saturday morning, staring at the rain outside the window. The emotional stew churning in my stomach is a mixture of embarrassment and regret, pride and anger. What was I thinking?
Shutting my eyes against the onslaught of memories, I have to admit that's true. Intelligent thought ceased the second Edward backed me up against the wall. What followed was raw, instinctual… and delicious. Behind my eyelids, I see the fire in his green eyes, the undeniable attractiveness of his face. Warmth spreads through my belly as I remember the urgency of his lips, the taste of whiskey on his tongue, the way he leaned into me. His seductive skills are as good as rumored. Of course, I was a willing subject, eager for his attention. It had been so long since I felt such desire… felt so desired. I was completely drowned by the building wave of lust.
Until he wanted me to screw him in the bathroom of the pub.
Growling angrily at the ghost of him, I throw back the covers and get out of bed, counting on the chill of the hardwood floor under my bare feet to cool my lingering lust. It's not as effective as I'd hoped, but the lukewarm shower finishes the job.
While I dry my hair, I don't allow myself to relive the pleasurable part of last night again. Instead, I focus on the way he dominated the conversation with Harry, bragging about his courtroom accomplishments. I remember how he turned on the charm for Vicki and her low-cut shirt. Then, against my will, the words he said in the courtroom come rushing back to me.
"…unreasonable woman… always so fucking wound up… probably needs to get laid."
The sudden realization that he might have seduced me only to prove his point causes my gut to twist painfully again. He didn't even have to try very hard; I fell for his act hook, line and sinker. Dueling waves of humiliation and fury roll through me.
"Stupid prick. Stupid, stupid, stupid prick," I mutter, dabbing enough concealer under my eyes to hide the dark circles. "I hate him, hate him, hate him."
Reluctantly, knowing my inner voice will call me on my shit, I meet my own eyes in the mirror.
~ PF ~
Since I'm running a few minutes late, I'm not surprised my two best friends are already seated when I arrive at the restaurant for brunch. I smile when I spot them in our favorite booth, laughing.
The three of us met the day we moved into the dorm as college freshmen. Within a few weeks, we were inseparable, despite our diverse interests and personalities. Or maybe because of them. We lived together for the next six years, until Alice moved in with the man she eventually married. Rose had just gotten a job on the south side of the city, while I was still in law school. It seemed like a natural time for us to get our own apartments.
Worried that our busy lives would take a toll on our friendship, we vowed to keep our monthly brunch date no matter what, and we haven't missed many in the four years since. Normally, we also see each other several times in between, but this month we haven't, resulting in a more exuberant than usual greeting.
Once I'm seated, our conversation is rapid-fire and overlapping. Anyone who overhears us probably can't make sense of the half-finished sentences and erratic topic changes. By the time we've been served drinks and food, we've caught up on each other's careers and moved on to personal lives. Alice talks a little about her husband, Jasper, but Rose and I remain silent about romance.
While Alice is still talking, I notice Rosalie studying me. Uh-oh. I recognize that attentive, thoughtful stare; she's perfected it during the first few years of her career as a high school guidance counselor. But now it's me she's looking at, monitoring every move I make and analyzing my behavior. Immediately, I stop idly stirring my drink with the straw. I let my lower lip slide loose from its spot trapped between my teeth. Trying to engage, I ask Alice a few questions.
When I turn back to Rose, her face has relaxed, so I do too. She switches her focus to Alice, leaving me alone until we're almost finished eating, but then her eyes slide my way once more… and I know she's about to pounce.
"So, Bella," she begins, leaning forward and propping her chin on her hand, "had any non-self-inflicted orgasms lately?"
Alice's laughter annoys me almost as much as Rosalie's question, and I glare at them each in turn. Picking up my glass, I take a drink and set it down hard, splashing droplets of Bloody Mary on the table. In short, I stall while I try to come up with a retort.
"It's not normal, B. When's the last time you even had sex?" Alice chimes in.
Feeling tears threaten unexpectedly, I stare down at my plate and shrug. "The last time Tyler visited. Right before we broke up," I admit.
A pang of sadness settles in my chest at the mention of my law school boyfriend. Although I think our fate was sealed as soon as he accepted a job offer in Phoenix, we tried to maintain a long-distance relationship for a while. But once we each admitted we didn't want to leave the city we were living in, there was no choice except to end it. That didn't make letting go of someone I loved any easier, though.
"Wasn't that, like, a year ago?" Rosalie asks incredulously.
"Ten months," I say defensively.
"Round it the fuck up. What the hell are you doing with your life?" she demands, punctuating her nosy intrusion by slapping her hand on the table.
"Recovering," I insist, meeting her steel-blue gaze. "And working my ass off to build a successful career."
"You're wasting your twenties," she replies in disgust. "You've been on what? Five dates since Tyler?"
"Well, I don't hear you talking about your fabulous relationship," I grumble.
"That's because we're still searching for your misplaced orgasm," she snarks, leaning back in her side of the booth and smiling slyly. "The truth is I met someone three weeks ago."
"Oh, my God! Who is he?" Alice asks excitedly.
"My orgasm is not lost. I'm just waiting for the right guy to share it with," I interject grumpily, and then smile at her. "Start talking."
They give me and my orgasm a fifteen-minute reprieve while we hear about Rosalie's new guy, but inevitably the conversation circles back to me, and I can't explain what happens when it does. Maybe it's the vodka. Maybe it's the lingering headache from lack of sleep. Maybe it's just that I want to hear what my friends think. Whatever the reason, I spill it all – the trashy tale of Bella and the Prick – detail by detail, right up to the part where he called me a prude.
"Oh, honey," Alice says, scooting closer to me in our side of the booth. She winds her arm through mine and leans on my shoulder. "Just stay away from the prick."
"Believe me, I'll be avoiding him like the plague, unless Harry forces us to work together again," I say, rolling my eyes to hide the fact that I kind of wouldn't mind being assigned to another case with Edward.
"I don't know," I mumble, looking down and using my fork to pick at the uneaten eggs on my plate. "Probably. He said we made a great team."
"Just tell Harry you don't like him," Alice suggests.
"It doesn't work that way, Alice," I sigh. "I don't want Harry or the other partners to think I'm difficult. And, honestly, I can learn a lot from Edward. He's a great lawyer."
When I glance across the table, Rosalie is silently studying me again. Then she narrows her eyes and tilts her head slightly.
"Oh, shit, B. You like him, right? Like him, like him," she guesses. I don't answer, but I don't look away either, which she realizes is my answer. She smiles sympathetically at me. Usually Rosalie is the one who has foolish crushes on unattainable guys.
"Bella, there are nice guys out there," Alice insists. "In fact, Jasper works with one. He's so nice. And he's cute. And he's just so, um, nice. Let me set you up."
"I don't think so." I wrinkle my nose, not in the right frame of mind to even think about it.
"I'm going to call you in a few days, after you're over what the prick did to you and talk you into it. I'll appeal to your rational side."
Rational side. I have one of those. I learned to use it pretty well during law school. I'll be rational. Reasonable. Logical. Use my better judgment.
And in order to behave logically, I'll only need to follow one standard rule: Stay the hell away from Edward Cullen.
~ PF ~
Monday morning, I arrive at work early, hoping to avoid seeing Edward at the elevator bank. The hurt I felt Friday night has faded, but I'm still embarrassed and pissed off — and not ready to face him. I stay secluded in my office most of the day and then take the stairs down to the main floor just before six o'clock.
Although I walk straight toward my car in the parking lot, my traitorous eyes search the rows for Edward's sporty, dark coupe. When I find it, my steps falter, and my chest constricts. I blow out a deep breath as I get into my car and start it, then I lean forward, resting my arms and forehead on the steering wheel. Despite my determination to evade him, some tiny part of me thought he would seek me out – to apologize, to try again. Something. Since he never came to my office today, that same tiny part secretly hoped he was out of town, in court, on vacation, sick at home. Anywhere except right down the hall, avoiding me — or maybe not caring enough to even think about me.
Irritated with myself for letting his disregard bother me, I take a calming breath and lift my head just in time to see him exit the building. Just my luck. The wind ruffles his untamed hair as he strolls across the lot, his backpack slung carelessly over his shoulder.
"Really, I don't know why I spent the whole weekend thinking about him," I mumble to myself. "He's not that appealing."
While I watch, he pulls his phone from his pocket and touches the screen, then lifts it to his ear. I'm too far away to guess at what he says, but my stomach flips when I see the wide grin that splits his face.
This time, I don't even have to look in the mirror to hear her — that truth-telling bitch who lives in my head.
~ PF ~
As the week goes on, my backbone strengthens at the same rate that my almost-had-sex-in-a-bar humiliation dissipates. I stop slinking elusively around the hallways at work, confident I can hold my own if I run into Edward. But I don't see him at all.
Although my days are Edward-free, my nights are anything but. Haunting memories of his words and lips drift through my head while other parts of my body relive his fiery touch. For the short stretches when I can sleep, the invasion continues in a loop of nonsensical dreams starring the prick. Angry words turn to whispered pleas, passion-filled kisses. But I always wake up too soon: sweating… breathless… wanting.
Early the next week, my unsettled nights are catching up with me, and I'm drowsy at my desk before ten o'clock on Tuesday morning. Even though I'm not usually a coffee drinker, I head to the break room for a cup, praying it'll wake me up. I wrinkle my nose when I see a used spoon laying beside the coffee maker in a light tan, partially-dried puddle. Squeamish, I pick it up, holding it with just the tips of two fingers, and set it in the sink.
"Disgusting," I mutter, using a paper towel to wipe away the wet, sticky spot on the counter.
"Um, excuse me, Bella," a male voice squeaks from behind me. I dry my hands and turn to face him. It's Mike Newton, a wiry, skittish tax attorney with a rapidly receding hairline. "Um, Harry wants you to come to the big conference room. If you're not busy, he said."
Struggling to smile instead of cringe, I nod, picking up my phone and my mug of black coffee from the counter. Conversation with Mike is nearly impossible; no matter what I ask as we walk down the hall, he gives a one-word reply. Determined to find out what I'm walking into, I keep after him long enough to discover we're heading toward a meeting where upper level associates report on their current cases and receive new assignments. I've never been included in one of these meetings before, but I suddenly realize I know one pricky associate who always is.
When we enter the conference room, it's full of people and noisy chatter. My stomach tumbles nervously as I turn to thank Mike, but he's already rushing toward a seat at the enormous table. Looking around, I see that only one other chair is empty — and it's next to Edward. Of course. Our eyes meet as his lips curl into the cocky smirk that both arouses and annoys me. I scan the room hurriedly, hoping I missed an open chair somewhere else at the massive table, but every other seat is filled.
Reluctantly, my gaze lands on him again. With one challenging eyebrow lifted, he grabs the arm of the vacant chair and pulls it back from the table. I head toward it, swallowing my trepidation and stopping to say hello to Harry when I pass. I don't make eye contact with Edward as I sit down.
"Prick," I whisper, grateful that the room is still filled with loud voices.
"Bitch," he greets, chuckling softly. "I saved you a seat even though I think you've been avoiding me."
"Avoiding you? Hmm, no," I answer distractedly, scrolling through email on my phone.
"Then why haven't I seen you since I had you pressed against the wall with my hand up your skirt?" He speaks quietly, leaning toward me. His rough voice vibrates in my ear, sending waves of heat rolling through me, but I won't let him see that I'm affected.
"That was you?" I whisper, looking at him with mock surprise. Instantly, I wish I hadn't turned to face him; I forgot how dangerous his striking, green eyes are at this distance. Framed by long, dark eyelashes and speckled with flecks of brown, they almost make me lose my train of thought.
"You know it was me." Amusement—or maybe conceit—lightens his eyes. Whichever it is, I think I can make it disappear.
"When I woke up the next morning, I couldn't remember anything except that the guy was a terrible kisser. I thought maybe it was Mike Newton." Pausing for effect, I'm pleased when Edward's brow furrows, and he glares toward the end of the table where Mike is sitting. Then, pretending to realize my insult, I clap my hand over my mouth and widen my eyes. "Oops. Sorry. No offense about the kissing."
"Nice tactic, sweetheart. Going for the jugular can work both ways, though," he declares, shifting his gaze back to me. He's trying to conceal his irritation, but I notice he can't quite unclench his jaw. The fragile male ego is always a source of amusement. "You weren't drunk at the pub, and neither was I. As for my terrible kissing? The effect it had on you was irrefutable. In fact, the evidence was all over my fingers."
His words cause each salacious second of that night to come rushing back in fast motion, then in slow motion. Flashes of the way I felt, the way he felt against me, invade every synapse. Rattled, I fight to get my hormones under control.
"It's a basic biological reaction," I dismiss. I go back to looking at my phone, but I know he can see how rapidly my chest is moving as I try to catch my breath.
"Keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better," he advises, his words laced with derision. "But you wouldn't have reacted that way to Mike Newton. And I know you've been thinking about it — thinking about me."
"I have not," I insist as Harry calls on everyone to quiet down. A moment later, my phone lights up with a one-word text from the prick.
Without looking his way, I flip the phone over.
~ PF ~
Once the meeting begins, I sip my coffee, grateful that it works its magic by silencing my earlier yawns. I refuse to entertain the notion that anything other than the caffeine is responsible for the fact that I'm wide awake now. Although I'm attentive as various cases are discussed, I'm also acutely aware of Edward's presence beside me. Each time he shifts in his seat, his scent drifts my way, reminding me how good his neck smells. As he picks up his coffee, I watch his fingers wrap around the mug and remember how they felt on my skin.
When Harry calls for an update on the Watson case, Edward gives a succinct summary, explaining he and I worked together on it and are waiting for the judge's ruling. He asks me to confirm a couple of details, letting me demonstrate my knowledge of case law in front of his peer group and our bosses. Then Harry asks Edward if he has anything to add.
"In my opinion, Bella's skills are developing quickly," he replies. "She's thorough and quick on her feet in the courtroom. She's a great asset to the firm."
As the focus moves to another case, I glance at Edward, smiling slightly. Although his eyes slide my way, he never turns toward me, and he doesn't return the smile. By the time the partners dismiss us an hour later, I have four research assignments, a lower-level case to handle on my own, and another higher-profile case Edward and I will try. I turn toward him as we get up from the table.
"Thank you for what you said," I say quietly. "That was nice of you."
"Nice of me?" he asks, offended. "It wasn't a favor, Bella. It was an objective, professional evaluation."
"I didn't say that it wasn't," I hiss. "But maybe I should just be grateful you didn't slam my cross-examination abilities in here like you did at the pub."
"I only said that after you implied the most valuable contribution I made to the case was my face."
"I didn't imply that! Harry knows how good you are anyway."
"Well, he knows how good you are, too. Otherwise, you wouldn't have been in here today," he seethes quietly. "Get off my ass."
"All I wanted to do was thank you," I snap, snatching my coffee mug and phone from the table. "Can't you just say 'you're welcome'?"
From across the room, Harry calls my name, waving me over to where he's standing with two other partners. Edward walks away, leaving the room without responding. I spend several minutes making polite small talk with Harry's group, understanding this is his attempt to increase my visibility among the management committee who hands out promotions and raises. After receiving another research assignment Harry needs finished by tomorrow, I excuse myself to get to work.
Although I still think the prick was living up to his moniker, I decide to take the high road and try to smooth things over. I don't want to leave all this tension hanging between us, especially since we're going to have to work together again. So, when I leave the conference room, I go left, walking down the hall where Edward's office is instead of turning toward my own.
His door is pushed partway closed, and I pause, intending to knock. But through the narrow opening, I see him standing in front of his desk with his back to me, holding his cell phone to his ear.
"You're so whipped, Hooch," he says with a chuckle. "When do I get to meet this girl?" When he turns around, I quickly take a step back from the doorway, out of his view. But even though my heart pounds at the risk of being caught eavesdropping, I don't move farther away. "Yeah, set it up. I'll be there."
I hear a rhythmic thump… thump… thump and know he's bouncing the rubber ball he keeps on his desk. I've seen him do it several times before when he's on the phone — especially when he's aggravated about something.
"You want to grab a beer tonight? I need a goddamn drink. This day has been a fucking disaster." He laughs hollowly at whatever Hooch says on the other end of the line. Meanwhile, the bouncing ball picks up speed. Thump, thump, thump. "No, it's not a case. Today's disaster can be summed up in two irritating words."
Inching closer to the door, I strain my ears to hear, not even daring to take a breath for fear I might miss what he says. But when he speaks, I wish I hadn't listened after all.
See ya next time.