AN: There is no real apology that can justify how long this story has taken to complete, so I won't even make an excuse. I am so thankful to everyone who read this story and sent me encouraging reviews and PMs. I love that everyone loved this particular version of Edward and Bella as much as I did.
Thank you to MommyofBoth, who purchased this story for the second Support Stacie auction that I participated in. Without her, the story of Putting Lessons Edward and Bella would never have seen the light of day.
July slipped slowly by, one day melting into the next. I was nearly seething with frustration, the temperature outside dwarfed by the heat pulsing just underneath my skin. Esme and Renee had kept a close watch on Edward and I, and as a result, we had been able to sneak only a handful of long, slow kisses that raised my blood from a mere simmer to a rolling boil.
Still, I believed in my naivety that we still had all the time in the world. It wasn't until one sweltering evening at the end of July, when I raced up the stairs to grab my cell phone, and I saw Esme in Edward's room, a huge suitcase laid out in front of her, that I realized that I'd been wrong. We didn't have all the time in the world—we didn't have any time at all.
"Esme, you're. . .packing." I barely managed to get the words out past my suddenly thick throat and even thicker tongue. Panic swelled in my stomach until I felt as if the ice cream I'd just eaten was going to curdle.
"Edward's leaving tomorrow afternoon. He's got football practice starting Monday morning."
How could I have forgotten? For Edward, school began early—at the beginning of August, with two-a-days. Suddenly desperate, I wondered if I could convince Renee to let me go back to Portland early. I wasn't ready to relinquish my hold on this summer yet. I needed more time to tie Edward to me until there were no more doubts lingering in my heart about what would happen when we went back to school.
Esme glanced back at me, her gaze taking in the sudden panic in my expression. "Bella, it'll be fine."
I swallowed hard, my throat closing convulsively. She didn't understand; she couldn't possibly. The idea that I could lose Edward, now that I really knew what it meant to be with him, was an agony beyond comprehension. I couldn't lose him.
I wasn't even able to respond to Esme. Instead, I blundered back down the stairs, clumsily clutching at the railing when my feet threatened to slide out from under me. Edward was on the porch steps, finishing his ice cream, his hair gleaming like a new copper penny in the fierce summer sunlight. My heart clenched and stuttered.
"You're leaving tomorrow." I couldn't remove the direness from the words. I couldn't pretend that I didn't care. I cared—deeply and irrevocably. And my feelings, sharp and true, were laid bare for him to see.
"Oh, that's right," he said casually, turning around and smiling at me with such unconcern that I wanted to yell and scream and throw something at him. Didn't he get it? The world I'd carefully constructed around us the last few weeks was falling down around me. Everything was going to change and there was nothing I could say or do could stop it.
I sat down beside him on the step, clenching my hands together so he couldn't see that they were trembling with fear. "It'll be fine, Bells. I promise."
I wanted to believe him. I wanted it desperately. But Edward was asking me to believe six weeks over six years, and I couldn't do it. Fear settled hard and cold and irrevocable in the pit of my stomach.
I shook my head. "No, it won'tbe fine."
"Don't you trust me?" He looked a little wounded, and any other moment, I would have smiled and laughed and done whatever I could to put him at ease—to put myselfat ease—but there were no words I could say to dispel the storm inside me and so I just looked back at him, the truth bald in my eyes.
He said nothing, but I thought I saw a flash of something like hurt in his eyes, before he turned towards the ocean. Already, I thought, the hairline cracks were beginning to show. Before the end, I knew I'd be fractured into a million shards. Me andmy heart.
"I can't say I blame you. I haven't done much to prove that I'm worth trusting." Edward's voice was wry and regretful, but honest. He knew he'd spent much of the last six years fucking up.
"But despite that. . .please, Bella. Just . . .try. Try to believe that it'll be okay. I give you my word—no, I swear that what we have between us, it's not going to fade the minute I go back to Portland. I've loved you forever, I'm not just going to stop now."
Edward's impassioned plea should have been enough. The words themselves were heartfelt and fierce love shone in his eyes. But despite all of that, I couldn't help the insidious thread of doubt that wormed into my heart. He'd betrayed me once; he could so easily betray me again.
So I said nothing, because I couldn't trust myself not to say what I feared most of all. The silence stretched out between us for five seconds, then ten, then thirty. I could hear the pounding of the ocean on the sandy beach and the echoing laughter of the kids as they frolicked in the water.
"What can I do to prove it to you?" Edward asked again, turning back towards me, and taking my hands in his. "Call you every ten minutes? I'll text you constantly. Anything."
And then I knew what we could do. What hecould do to prove once and for all that I was the girl that he wanted above all the others. The thing I could give to him that would tie him to me, even if he didn't want to be. I knew Edward Anthony Cullen; if I gave this to him, he would never, ever turn away from me. His sense of loyalty and that iron-hard core of honor would hold him to me.
A whispering voice inside that told me that this wasn't what I really wanted, that this wasn't the way that I'd always envisioned how it could be between us. That it should be a meeting of two souls, physically and emotionally. But instead of listening to that voice, I told myself that this way, Edward and I would be together forever. And in the end, that was all that mattered. If a little of the stardust that had always clouded my eyes and filled my heart had to be sacrificed to such a noble goal, so be it. I would sacrifice the rainbows and puffy pink hearts—and so much more—to be with Edward.
"Anything?" I looked up at him, into those incredibly earnest green eyes.
I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, trying to stop the sudden surge of nerves deep in my belly, and met his gaze straight on. "Find a way to be alone with me tonight. Totally alone. No interruptions. No one bothering us."
I knew that Edward didn't have to ask me what I meant. He knew what I wanted and his expression grew serious. "That's a pretty big step, Bells. . ."
I cut him off. "I know," I said impatiently. "I'm ready." As if I would want to ever give it to anyone but him. I'd wanted him that way since the tender age of 12. Despite that I was more than a little sick of waiting, I knew I was rushing the natural progression of things between us. And worse, he knew it too.
We said nothing about him being ready because we both knew that he wasn't a virgin. I'd waited for him, like a semi-pathetic groupie. He hadn't waited, and suddenly that lay between us, unsaid.
"Are you sure?" Edward still looked like he had doubts.
"You'd think you didn't want me." I tried to infuse the words with a playful flirtatiousness that fell flat in the humid air between us. Edward's eyes were suddenly remote—flat green marbles that communicated nothing.
But he nodded, once. "Okay. If that's what it will take."
I knew then that if he did as I requested, then he'd told me the truth about his feelings because it was obvious that he wasn't thrilled about the circumstances of our first time. Of my first time. But he'd asked me my price, I'd named it, and in his need to prove himself, he was going to pay it—even if he didn't like it. All because he loved me.
"Edward. . .how are we going to . . .?" My voice trailed off as I lost the courage to ask him how and where we would do it.
He almost seemed to grow up before my eyes: his back straightening, the chiseled features of his face tightening and rearranging until he seemed older. In charge. Determined. The same way he'd looked before he led Forks on a playoff game-winning touchdown drive last fall.
"I've got a few ideas," he said, and although I'd asked him for this as a way to bring us closer together, I was undeniably aware of the space in his voice that pushed us apart. Further apart than we'd been since the attack on the beach. Edward turned and went into the house, the sound of the screen door slamming punctuating his exit. I shivered, despite the heat in the air, and tried to remind myself of why I'd thought this was such a brilliant idea.
I brought my worn copy of Wuthering Heights onto the porch with me and tried to read as the sun flamed down over the sandy dunes, but I found I couldn't concentrate. With every inch that the sun fell, I grew more nervous and agitated. After I'd read the same paragraph five times and still hadn't managed to comprehend its meaning, I put my book down.
When would he emerge from the house? Would he take me away? Would he find some way for us to stay here? My stomach churned with nerves, and even staring out in the waves of the ocean did nothing to calm them.
Finally, after the sun had almost totally dropped behind the dunes, and lights had begun to appear all over the coast, I heard the screen door open and close behind me. I turned and Edward was standing there, his car keys in his hand. He was wearing the same t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts he'd had on earlier, but his expression had only turned more serious in the passing hours.
"You ready to go?" he asked, the same remoteness still in his voice.
I nodded, suddenly uncertain. "Do I need to tell Renee or Esme that we're leaving?"
"I've already talked to them." He walked off the porch, across the lawn and around the side of the house on the path that led to the gravel driveway and I followed somewhat helplessly behind him. He didn't explain what he'd told our mothers and I didn't ask, the nerves paralyzing my vocal cords until I was sure I wouldn't be able to do more than croak.
Edward was silent as we got into the car and turned onto the highway that led back to Portland. We drove for ten minutes, past the hotels I'd imagined we'd stop at, and the boardwalk and then finally, we passed the edge of the beach town. Ten minutes later and no closer to stopping, I finally decided that it was time for Edward to tell me what the hell was going on. My nerves had somehow faded as my curiosity as to where we were headed grew.
"Where are we going?"
"You said you wanted to be alone." Edward glanced over at me, and I glimpsed a hint of playfulness in his expression. Relief filled me. He wasn't angry; he didn't hate me. Although I had somewhat forced him into this, he was okay with it.
"And where will that be?" I wasn't quite willing to let it go—at least not yet. Especially not since we were seemingly talking again.
"You'll find out. All in good time." He flashed me one of his devastating smiles and the last nerves transformed, almost instantly, into something else entirely.
We drove for another hour, and the further we went, the more I began to suspect where Edward was taking us. But he couldn't. That was. . .crazy. Ridiculous. Completely insane.
But, to my utter shock, we finally pulled to a stop at the last place that I'd ever thought he'd take me: my own house. The street was dark and quiet, and so was my house. I wondered where Charlie was.
"Charlie's at a football conference this weekend." Edward answered my unasked question as we got out of the car. I shivered a little, more from my suddenly-returning nerves than the chill of the evening.
I started to walk up the steps to the front door, but Edward reached and took ahold of my hand. "No, not in the house."
"Huh?" Were we going to do it on the front lawn, like a pair of exhibitionist hippies?
Edward shrugged, looking more self-conscious than I'd ever seen him before. "It feels. . ." he paused, as if he was searching for the right word, "wrong. Not quite right, anyway."
I nodded. Somehow, after we'd tried so hard to gain our parents approval, flaunting it so openly felt wrong. "So where then?"
"Where else then?" he grinned. "Where else did we always go to be alone?"
The answer was so patently obvious that I couldn't believe that I hadn't guessed it at once. I looked up at him, marveling that this boy-man was mine and was likely to stay that way for a very long time—at least if I had my way.
"You remembered," I murmured as we walked into the backyard, hands intertwined together. "I thought you'd forgotten."
We climbed into the treehouse, me first, my feet moving hesitantly over the rungs of the ladder, not because I was scared at the height, but because the fear of what was about to happen was nearly choking me. I shouldn't be afraid, I told myself, I had asked for this.
Inside the treehouse were mounds of pillows and blankets, creating a comfortable bower. It was at once exactly like what we'd used to do when we were children and yet completely different. I felt chilled and I shivered.
Edward drew me close to him, kissing me hard, passionately, as if he'd been waiting for this moment for a long time. "I love you, Bella," he said hoarsely, his lips moving over mine, his tongue dipping into the hot cavern of my mouth, his hands roaming over my body, suddenly possessive and needy.
He cupped the curve of my bottom in his hand and I tried to force all those pesky voices in my head to fall silent and the dank, sick feeling at the base of stomach to go away by kissing him back. But I couldn't. The litany of why we shouldn't be doing this was a constant chorus and I knew that while he was completely invested, his expression passionate and so unbelievably sexy as he drew me to the mound of blankets on the floor the treehouse, I was full of doubts. Fears. I wondered if I would ever forgive myself for this.
His lips coasted over the exposed tendon of my throat, nibbling lightly and then harder, his breaths growing rough.
He pulled back for a split second. "I've never forgotten anything, Bella." His voice, his expression, his eyes—sincerity practically dripped from him. The moment should have been perfect, with us in the treehouse, where it had all started, so many years ago. But somehow, my uneasiness wouldn't fade. In fact, it had only grown. But why? I had no reason to distrust Edward. I knew him better than I knew myself, I thought, and I knew beyond any doubt that he was telling me the truth.
And then I knew what the problem was. It wasn't with Edward. At one point it had been, but I was beginning to realize that the misery of the last years wasn't only his fault—it was mine too. And now, this moment had everything to do with my own fear, and much less to do with the boy in front of me.
I froze, my heart suddenly pounding so loud in the silence that I was surprised that he couldn't hear it nearly beating out of my body.
Edward loved me that much—enough that he would go through with this because it was what I said I wanted—and still, it wasn't enough to make me believe that there was something in me that was worth loving that much.
I felt dizzy with revelation. "Edward," I said urgently, yanking him back, even as he tried to pull me towards the ladder and the price I'd asked that he pay me tonight.
"What is it?" A frown creased his perfect forehead, confusion dawning in his eyes. I should be able to tell him why I was suddenly, inexplicably sure that this was the wrong thing to do. But I'd known since the first moment I'd asked that it was the wrong thing to ask for, the last thing that would convince me that Edward truly loved me.
I didn't need sex or romantic gestures or words of love; I needed instead to somehow find the confidence in me—the belief that I had something worth offering Edward Cullen. I had to believe that it wasn't a miracle of epic proportions that he had somehow fallen in love with me. I had to believe that he loved me because I deserved to be loved.
"I can't," I said simply. "I thought I could, but I can't. Not like this."
The furrow in Edward's brow grew deeper. "I thought this was what you wanted, though."
"I thought it was too," I said in earnest, holding his hand tightly in mine. The last thing that I wanted him to think was that I was backing out of this because of him. This time, it was all me. I was the one with the inferiority complex and I wasn't going to take our relationship to the next level as a band aid remedy for my own insecurity. I remembered all too well how the many years of Edward's supposed apathy had made my life miserable. The last thing I wanted him to think was that this was in any way his fault.
"I was wrong," I continued. "Wrong to think that this could make me believe how much you love me." I'd never said out loud before that Edward loved me, and while my voice wavered, I felt the certainty of it ring true, like a bell deep in my soul. Saying it out loud seemed to help the yawning well of insecurity I had inside me, so I said it again. "I know you love me, logically, empirically. I need to believe it with my heart, not just my head."
And because I loved him, because we'd known each other for seventeen years, and there was nobody else on earth who could look into my eyes and see all the way to the very core of me—the part that made me me—Edward nodded in understanding. "I hated how you looked at yourself. How you didn't think you were worthy to even talk to me," he said in a low voice. "I know I didn't help either. Hell, it was probably mostly my fault that you felt that way, but I still hated it."
He wrapped me in his arms and pulled me close, holding me against him tightly until I felt even a little better still. Not completely recovered, by all means, but better. Better than I'd felt in a long, long time. Maybe the best I'd felt since that day in sixth grade when he hadn't walked home with me for the very first time.
"Thank you," I whispered into his chest, probably so quietly he couldn't hear. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Bells. Every day for the past seventeen years . And probably for every day for at least the next seventy." He hugged me close and I'd never felt more cherished.
"Just seventy?" I whispered back, feeling confident enough in his absolute love to tease him just a little.
"Maybe a few days more than that," he murmured back. "How about forever?"
And I knew, the way I'd known for every day of my seventeen years that he was the one man for me, that he was telling the truth. Forever might just be long enough.
To read a great classic lemon between this Edward and Bella, check out the original Putting Lessons one shot that inspired it all!