Our story so far, with my deepest apologies for the delay…
While in Vegas for his birthday, Edward and Bella agree to try to be more. As soon as they agree to take things slowly, an emergency crops up at CE in Chicago. Everyone flies back to help Edward battle a proxy fight, instigated by J.J., former President of CE's board of directors.
Leading the charge is First, Edward's grandfather and the former CEO. After damage control and a vote, Edward remains firmly in charge of CE. However, the tense situation has taken its toll on First and he experiences a heart attack.
The celebration is cut short as the family rushes to be at First's side. Bella returns to Edward's home to wait for him. She falls asleep on the couch she and Edward first slept together on. Sleep being the pivotal word, as despite being together off-and-on for nearly a year, Edward and Bella have never even come close to having sex.
All that changes, however, when a guilt-ridden, broken Edward returns home. He's devastated by First's condition and blames himself for his grandfather's illness. He tells Bella, over and over again that he needs her and she assures him that she's there. They make love in his bed.
When Bella awakens the next morning she discovers that Edward is still full of self-recrimination. This time, however, he feels guilty for ignoring Bella's request that they take things slow, and for taking advantage of her sweet nature. Bella is aggravated to understand that Edward has no intention of touching her again until the time is right.
As routines return to normal, Bella begins another class, much to Edward's disgust. He doesn't understand Bella's need to get her teaching certificate, especially since teaching isn't a field she is passionate about. Bella enjoys her return to the Literacy Project, which she had all but abandoned to support Edward during the proxy fight.
Both Edward and Esme ask Bella to help out with projects, neither of which she can take on while still taking her class. Both are disappointed.
When her class is finished, Edward asks Bella to accompany him for a weekend away. He's ready to step up their relationship, though Bella doesn't realize this. Riley stops by Bella's apartment to help her pack for the weekend, since Edward won't tell Bella where they are going. Riley, as he always has, really makes Bella examine what's happening. She breaks down, telling Riley she loves Edward, something she realized right before they slept together.
Since Riley is very much Team Bella, he encourages her to really think about their relationship. He tells her that she might have a decision to make after the weekend. Bella is starting to see her relationship with Edward as only a slightly more honest version of the one they had when they originally met—a mutually beneficial arrangement.
When Edward arrives to pick Bella up, he's surprised to see Riley still with her and somewhat confused by their obvious connection. He drives her to Illinois wine country, where they stay at Six Creeks Bed and Breakfast. Edward wines and dines Bella, to the point where she falls asleep. In actuality, Bella's convinced that Edward doesn't want her that way, and misses the signals he's giving her.
The following evening things are looking more promising, until Angela calls with news for Bella. Ben asked her to move in with him! Bella is excited for her friend, but panics over the fact that she can't afford the apartment on her own. Too caught up in her own good news to realize that Bella is worried, Angela tells Bella that her grade report came. She asks Bella if she'd like her to open it. Bella says yes.
Angela is proud of her roommate. She got a B in the class. Bella thanks Angela and gets off the phone. Edward sees Bella's disappointment. The B isn't enough to fix Bella's GPA, which means her place in the program she's taking is still at risk.
Edward sees that Bella is in real distress and in a moment of selflessness promises to be more supportive of Bella's quest for a teaching certificate. Having Edward's support makes Bella feel safe and she confesses that she doesn't want to teach…that her passion lies in the Literacy Project and she wants to go to school for Marketing and Public Relations, something she's discovered she has a talent for.
Edward is relieved that Bella has seen the light but realizes that any planned seduction is out of the question. He prefers his women not be snot-sobbing messes when he takes them to bed. They turn in, since Edward has an early morning hot-air balloon ride planned for the next day.
I was still giggling when Edward opened the car door for me.
"It's not funny," he groused, stalking back to stow our luggage.
"I'm sorry," I said contritely, trying my hardest not to laugh again. Edward peered at me suspiciously before moving to the driver's side door. I ducked down and sat in my seat, pulling the seatbelt across my lap.
Edward plopped gracelessly into his seat, slamming the door before jamming the keys in the ignition and starting the car. Another laugh was bubbling in my chest, trying its hardest to burst from my mouth. I screwed my eyes shut and covered my mouth with my hand.
"It's. Not. Funny!"
Edward's outburst set me off again. I laughed aloud, barely able to hear his mutterings over the sound of my own laughter.
Earlier that day…
I was roused from sleep by the sound of Edward speaking quietly on the phone.
"Okay, then. We'll be there."
Edward put down his phone and looked over at me. "That was the balloon ride company. They say it's a perfect day for a launch. We should get ready."
Excitement bubbled up inside me, tamping down what may have been a tinge of disappointment that we wouldn't be cuddling together for a few more hours. I rose from the bed and made my way to the bathroom to shower and get ready.
A half hour later, Edward and I made our way quietly through the house. Once in the car we drove to the launch site for the hot air balloon. I could see a few people moving around the area when we arrived. A wicker basket was surrounded by ropes and a rapidly inflating balloon was hovering over the whole scene.
"Wow," I breathed, taking in the sight before me.
Edward smiled. "Ready?" he asked. I nodded, and he got out, coming around to help me out of the car. Together, we walked towards the balloon.
"Morning," a smiling gentleman said. "I'm Stefan. I'll be your pilot."
Edward and I introduced ourselves and shook hands with Stefan, following him closer to the balloon.
"Before we board, do you have any questions?"
I glanced at Edward, but he was staring up at the gaily colored balloon above us. I decided to figure out what I could before we took off.
"I've never done this before. Can you just explain the basics before we get into the basket?"
"Sure. The balloon consists of three parts: the gondola or basket, the burner, which heats the air, and the envelope, or balloon. Since hot air rises, the balloon goes up as the air inside the envelope gets hotter than the air around us."
"How do you steer?"
"No steering." Stefan grinned at my unsure expression. "We're at the mercy of the winds and air currents once aloft. But don't worry; I've been sailing the skies in these parts for close to a dozen years. I'm familiar with the typical air currents and even the more common anomalies. We have a good day here, the flight should be uneventful."
I turned to Edward to see if he had anything to add, but he was still staring up at the balloon. A frown marred his features.
"Excuse me," Stefan said, "I need to get the preflight check done and greet the other riders. See you in a few."
I turned to Edward as Stefan walked away.
Edward turned to look at me, a slight frown still on his face.
"Everything okay?" I asked.
"Yes. Of course. Are you ready?" Edward held out his hand indicating I should precede him. We approached the balloon, greeted by the friendly smiles of the crew. Edward hung back, so I preceded him into the gondola.
I started rubbernecking for all I was worth, greeting the other passengers, staring up into the balloon above us, and peering into the distance where the sunrise was just beginning.
"Wow, Edward, this is so incredible. Thanks for bringing me here."
"Edward?" I reached behind me expecting to grasp his hand, but he wasn't there. I spun around and saw him still standing on the ground, staring up at the balloon.
"Everything okay?" I asked again.
Edward looked at me blankly.
"Edward, c'mon. What's wrong?"
He cleared his throat. "Nothing." With a determined stride, he joined me in the gondola and looked at the vista around us.
Stefan joined us a few minutes later.
"Okay, we're about to cast off. You can stand in the middle or near the side." He pointed to direct us to appropriate locations. The chase crew will meet us where we touchdown."
"How long's the ride?" Edward asked.
"Well, that's not completely up to me. We'll see how high we can get this baby today. Usually about an hour though."
Edward nodded tersely.
"Edward," I spoke quietly, "what's wrong?"
"I don't like this," he said through gritted teeth.
"Like what? The balloon?"
"This is scaring the piss outta me, if you must know." His uncharacteristic crudeness leant weight to his comment.
I searched his face in the early morning light. His eyes were tight, and his lips were mashed together. I reached out to smooth my hand across his forehead, but he jerked back.
"Just turn around," he said, his voice low but insistent.
I turned around and looked at the ground as we gently lifted off. Suddenly, Edward's hand was on my shoulder, tugging me back painfully.
"Ow!" His grip loosened infinitesimally.
"Everything okay?" Stefan echoed my earlier questions and looked at me with concern.
"Yes, we're fine." I turned to face Edward. "What's wrong?" I asked quietly.
"Don't stand so close to the side like that. You're going to fall out."
"I'm not going to fall out." I turned my back to him once again, stepped to the side of the gondola, and stared out at the horizon, enjoying the view. The other couples we were traveling with were exclaiming over the sights, snapping pictures, and talking quietly with each other. I felt a little alone in the crowd, but the view was not to be missed.
About fifteen minutes into the ride I felt Edward approach me from behind. He stood very close to me and carefully slid his arms around my waist. I patted his clasped hands and tipped my head back to rest on his shoulder. The balloon shifted a bit as the wind did, and his grasp on my waist tightened. It was painful for a moment, but I quickly adjusted to the intensity of his embrace.
I turned my head and put my lips against his ear.
"I'm confused. You fly all the time."
"This was your idea."
"Don't remind me."
Forty-five minutes later, I was able to take my first real breath in almost an hour when we touched down and Edward released his stranglehold around my waist before bolting from the gondola.
I worked hard at containing my confused amusement while we enjoyed the traditional touchdown breakfast with the other couples and the chase crew. Edward drained his champagne as soon as it was set before him. I offered him mine, opting for orange juice, and watched as he tipped his head back and made short work of the second glass of bubbly.
We headed back to the launch site in the van and said goodbye to the other participants before getting into Edward's car and heading back to the B&B to gather our things.
"Don't, okay? Just don't."
"Bella, I'm asking nicely here. Just don't bring it up."
"Haven't-you-flown-planes?" I asked quickly before he could cut me off again.
He glared at me. "Planes are different. They have engines and walls and seats. There's more between you and the ground than a few pieces of braided wicker. That contraption we were floating in is one good sneeze away from disintegration."
"I thought it was pretty sturdy." I shrugged.
Edward looked at me incredulously before shaking his head and returning his eyes to the road.
"But…it was your idea."
"I asked you not to remind me."
Edward's sudden fear was completely irrational, and you can't argue with irrational. Edward flew frequently and had even taken lessons as one point.
We were quiet for the rest of the ride to the B&B. When we arrived, Edward got out of the car and started for the porch without opening my door. I shrugged off his uncharacteristic rudeness and followed him into the house and up to our room where we gathered our luggage.
Irrational fears have no basis in reality, I mused, but we often let them rule our lives. I thought back to my own insistence that I stay in the teaching program even though it was obviously a poor fit for me. While initially my reasons for taking the class were sound, when it became obvious that I could maintain my employment with Esme and Edward, I should have let go of the fear that I'd end up one step above living on the streets.
Edward and I made our way down to the lobby and spoke briefly with Liam and Siobhan, who tried to get us to eat despite our protests that we needed to get going. Edward was still a little stiff and formal, so I thanked our hosts warmly and complimented their establishment.
"You have a lovely home here. I can't wait to tell my friends. I hope we can come back again."
"We'd love to have you again." Siobhan pressed some cloth wrapped Danishes into my hand.
"Made fresh this morning. A little snack for your ride back to the city."
I hugged her one more time before waving to Liam and following a still quiet Edward to the car. Despite my understanding of his state, I couldn't help but smile at the stiff set of his shoulders. It was usually Edward who was at ease while I allowed my apprehensions to stifle me. I giggled. He glared at me.
He would get over this. It was time that I set my fears aside as well.
The two weeks after our weekend together were a whirlwind. I tendered my official withdrawal from the teaching certification program and spoke with Esme about taking on more hours and responsibilities. She was practically giddy with delight.
"I'm not sure how we'll work out my hours with my job at Cullen…."
"I'm sure Edward and I will find a way to share you," Esme beamed.
The first order of business at the Literacy Project was planning a fundraising event. My job required that I take lead on the project. Esme was generous with her support and suggestions, but the final responsibility was mine. I spent my hours evaluating venues, arranging catering, decorations, and entertainment. I was mired in the details of creating invitations. I spent hours soliciting donations for the auction and wooing a local baseball hero to emcee the event.
When I wasn't planning the soiree for the Literacy Project, I was putting in my hours at Cullen. Edward was flexible, allowing me to come in early, work through lunch, stay late, and even telecommute. But the sad fact was that our personal relationship all but fell to the wayside as I worked at least part of all seven days of the week.
Our disconnect was made very plain to me one day when I walked into his office after lunch. Despite the fact that I saw him every day, I missed him. While eating my sandwich at my desk at the Literacy Project early Monday afternoon, I worked on bolstering my courage to ask him to join me for dinner at my place on my one free evening this week-Thursday. I was determined to spend a little alone time with him.
His door had been closed when I got to his office, but that wasn't unusual. Angela wasn't at her desk, and that was unusual, but even Super Secretary needed a potty break now and then.
I knocked once on Edward's door and entered. Edward wasn't behind his desk; instead, he was sitting on the couch while a tall redhead stood before him. I vaguely registered product samples scattered on the coffee table, but the two seemed engrossed in a conversation which ended abruptly once I entered.
Both Edward and the saleslady looked at me when I hesitated at the door. Edward's smile was more professional than personal, while the saleslady looked downright frosty.
"Bella, could you give us a minute?" Edward asked.
"Oh, of course. It can wait." I retreated to the reception area and was near the elevator when Angela emerged from the powder room.
"Hey, Bella! What's up? I didn't think you were working here until tonight."
"I'm not; I just wanted to speak with Edward."
"He's with someone from one of the supply companies we're soliciting bids from. He'll probably be awhile. Want me to tell him you stopped by?"
"No. That's okay. I'll just text him."
Defeated, I went back downstairs to work on updating the Literacy Project's services literature. My thoughts turned increasingly to Edward and the saleslady, but I realized that lingering on their interaction was just making me feel insecure. I poured myself a cup of tea and pushed the memory out of my head.
Out of my head is where it stayed until Heather, one of the assistants, popped into my office to say goodnight.
"It's getting late, Bella; you should just put that aside until tomorrow." I sat back and sighed, glancing out the window at the subtle greyness that had crept in while I was engrossed in what I was doing. I loved the fall, but when you could see the days getting shorter, it was always a little depressing.
"What time is it?" I wondered aloud.
"Almost seven," Heather answered.
"Let me get my stuff, and I'll walk with you to the elevator."
A few minutes later Heather and I stood outside the elevators. I pulled out my passkey and swiped it for the elevator to the 40th floor. Heather and I chatted about the fundraising dinner the following week. Her elevator arrived first, and we said goodnight.
My elevator arrived, and I decided that before I started my work for Angela, I'd talk to Edward about coming over for dinner on Thursday evening. Usually on Mondays Edward and I would order in Chinese and I'd work from the desk in his office on whatever it was that Angela left for me.
When the elevator door slid open I started walking towards Edward's office, curious to see what he'd ordered for dinner. I pushed open the door and froze.
All the lights were off, and the office was obviously empty. I slid my hand along the wall and flipped the switch. Edward's desk was clean. He always organized it when he left for the day. There was a small stack of work on my desk dotted with Post-Its explaining what needed to be done.
I sat at my desk and pulled out my Blackberry. No voicemail, no texts. I swallowed hard and shook my head before shutting off my phone. I needed to get started with my work if I was going to finish early enough to pick myself up some dinner before I went home.
I sat with a few of the members of my purchasing team along with two sales representatives from ComboBee at a table in Shanghai Terrace off the lobby of River North's Peninsula Hotel. Although my team and I were being treated to Five Spice Duck at the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Chicago, something felt off. I frowned.
"Something wrong, Edward?" the redheaded rep next to me asked. She was generically pretty, but there was a predatory undertone to our dealings. I had tried to maneuver our seating arrangement so we wouldn't be sitting together, but she switched seats with her coworker once we were all settled so we could "continue the discussion" we were having in my office earlier in the day.
Normally, I wouldn't be a part of negotiations at this level. However, we'd recently promoted two reps to purchasers while the Head of Purchasing was on maternity leave. I was really serving more as encouragement for my new purchasing agents. After the proxy fight, I was determined to be more accessible to employees at all levels.
I turned my attention back to my dining companion.
"Not at all, Didi. I'm sorry; I'm just a little distracted."
"I understand," she said, laying her hand on my forearm where it rested on the table. I stiffened and pulled my arm into my lap. I didn't often have to fend off advances anymore since Bella and I…Bella!
Shit! That's what was wrong! Bella wasn't with me. Not that she had time to attend a business dinner with me anymore, but it was Monday. Usually we had dinner together in my office on Monday nights. Chinese food.
I grimaced. Bella had come into my office earlier while Didi and I were talking about her company's product line, and I had asked her to give me a minute. When Didi's boss called and asked about dinner tonight, I agreed without thinking and forgot all about Bella's visit.
I glanced at my watch. It was almost 10 o'clock. I frowned again as I calculated the distance back to the office. I was Bella's ride home on Monday nights. I didn't like the idea of her riding the bus at this hour. I threw my napkin on the table and stood up abruptly.
"Didi, Marcus…it was great to meet you," I said, offering my hand. "I'm leaving you in very capable hands." I waved towards June and Diego. I could see Diego puff up at my praise and June smiled brilliantly. I grinned back before stepping away. Didi rose from her seat.
I sighed before turning.
"Do you have any questions for me?" she asked with a suggestive lilt to her voice and an arched eyebrow. I closed my eyes so that I wouldn't roll them at her.
"No, Didi. You were quite thorough in your presentation this afternoon. June and Diego will handle it from here." I offered her a curt nod before heading for my car. I thought about calling her but dismissed the idea. There was nothing I could say on the phone that wouldn't sound bad. Talking in person would be much better. Bella and I usually worked until eleven. I had time to get back to the office before she left.
I finished adding the most recent data to the spreadsheet I was working on before looking up at the clock. 9:47. It was amazing how much more efficient I was when Edward wasn't in the room with me. I gathered my things and headed out, dropping the completed work on Angela's desk before pulling my sweater on and heading for the elevator.
It had been some time since I'd taken the bus this late in the evening, and I was having trouble remembering the schedule. I walked to the bus stop and looked over the posted schedule. I was in luck…I'd only have to wait 15 minutes or so. I sat on the bench and opened my bag, pulling the updated RSVP list for the dinner next week.
Esme and I had gone over it earlier, but I had the seating chart at home because I had started filling it in last week. I was pleased by the number of attendees. So was Esme. However, she was quick to point out people who absolutely needed to be separated as well as those who needed to be seated together. She also knew many of the foibles of those planning to attend, and I had a whole slew of notes on who needed to be seated closer to the bathroom, further from the stage, near a speaker, away from a speaker…it was all quite ridiculous, I thought, but Esme assured me that a good seating chart was the difference between a good event and an amazing one.
I looked up when I heard the bus approach. A wave of disappointment came over me. It had been a long time since I was a bus rider. Not that there's anything wrong with relying on public transportation. The corners of my mouth tugged down, and I recognized the signal that I was going to cry.
Stop it, Bella, I said to myself as I climbed on the bus. It wasn't the need to use the bus, but the fact that Edward seemed to completely dismiss our regular plans without as much as a second thought that had me sad. More and more our relationship resembled the arrangement we'd had almost a year ago. We were ships passing in the night. Friends without benefits. Nonsexual life partners. Coworkers.
I guess that was better than boss and employee. But not by much.
I gathered my things as my stop approached. It was just as well that I hadn't invited Edward over Thursday night. The seating chart was going to be a nightmare, and I really needed to spend a few uninterrupted hours with it. I walked the short distance to my apartment before realizing that I never did stop to buy dinner. I decided to just skip it; my stomach didn't feel good anyway.
I turned the corner where CE's garage was located and stopped short. I barely avoided hitting the bus that was pulling away. I checked my watch…10:15. I was in plenty of time to get upstairs and apologize to Bella before driving her home.
I watched as the bus moved slowly away from the curb and pulled into the garage faster than I really needed to. I was suddenly anxious to get to Bella. We hadn't spent any time together alone since returning from our weekend in the wine country unless we were working. I thought that we'd have more time together when she dropped out of the teaching program, not less. Objectively I knew that the fund raiser next week was taking up all her extra time right now, but that didn't mean I was happy about it.
I sighed as I parked the car, got out, and headed for the elevator. Again I realized what a jerk I was being. Bella quit school and was on the right track professionally, and I still wasn't happy about the amount of time we were spending together. What did I want?
This probably wasn't the best time to think about this. I long ago admitted to myself that I was in love with the woman. I was in love with her, and I knew she had feelings for me. If I was being honest, our relationship was withering on the vine. I needed to do something about that.
The elevator door opened, and I stepped on.
I was never a spontaneous guy, and I didn't think that declaring my feelings to Bella was the time to start. I needed a plan.
Next week. After the fundraiser was done I would tell Bella I loved her. I'd take her to dinner and…
Now that my decision was made, I wasn't willing to wait another day after the fundraiser. As soon as the last donor left the party, I was going to sweep her off her feet, kiss the shit out of her, tell her I loved her, and beg her to move in with me.
Whoa…where did that thought come from?
I watched the lighted numbers on the elevator's panel. I realized I was bouncing on my toes in my anxiousness to reach Bella.
Honestly, what was I waiting for? To hell with planning. I was going to throw open the door to my office and tell her right now.
The elevator stopped at my floor, and I stepped off, seeing the thin line of light where the doors to my office were barely opened.
I walked quickly across reception and pushed open the door.
A small, dark-haired woman looked up in surprise from where she was dusting the bookshelves.
"Lo siento, Sr. Cullen. Voy a salir de su camino."
A quick glance at Bella's clean desk let me know that she had already left. This woman was obviously with the cleaning company.
"No, no," I said, shaking my head. "Está bien. Buenas noches."
"Buenas noches," she replied as I stepped out of the office and closed the door behind me.
As I walked across reception I felt deflated. I stepped back into the elevator and leaned against the wall, letting my head hit with a solid thunk.
I was frustrated but not enough to do something foolish like show up at her apartment and declare myself in the middle of the night.
Next week…after the fund raiser…as soon as Bella's plate was clear, I was going to let her know, in no uncertain terms, that I wanted her. I wanted her in my office, in my life, in my home, and in my heart.
With my heartfelt thanks to Lisa, Kristi, and DKMulder, who Savage was kind enough to share. DK, I will never understand a comma splice.