A/N: This is just a little something that was rattling around in my brain. I'm posting it for two reasons...
A) I need to talk to my FGB'ers for Team Isakassees. I need your email addresses! Monamour had them and is no longer able to handle the doling out of outtakes. So if you were on FGB Team Isakassees and you want the outtakes you paid for, you have to have to have to give me your email addresses. If you try to send them through FF, you need to remember to put spaces between the dots and the ats (. ) If you'd rather, you can just send your address directly to me:
isakassees at yahoo dot com
2) I have over 700 reviews from TINML still sitting in my inbox right now that I have been desperately trying to reply to when I take a break from writing outtakes. I think at this point I have to concede defeat. You guys are too awesome to have left so many reviews for TINML, so I am using this posting to tell you all collectively, thank you so much for each and every one of them, whether it was your first or your thirty-seventh. To answer a repeatedly asked question, I picked the name Jack for funsies.
Monday morning. The start of another work week.
Most people hated Mondays. I had never been among them. Monday was when I got to return to the one place where I felt I had succeeded in life.
With my family, I had always been the odd man out. The one checking his Blackberry at his niece's birthday party while a clown juggled for fifteen six-year olds. The one who sat in the lone chair in my parent's living room while everyone cuddled with their spouses and children. The one who had no one to kiss when the clock struck twelve.
It was a tradition in my family. You never shared a New Year's kiss with someone you weren't in love with. And I had had plenty of dates in my life, plenty of random, fleeting relationships that were never going to amount to anything and never felt like anything substantial when I was in them.
And on that note, in personal relationships, I had obviously never been successful either. My family couldn't understand the level of my jadedness, given that they had not grown up alone as I had. My father and mother, the picture of love and contentment. My sister, who had found her life's love in high school. My brother, who had had the ability to fulfill his life with enough accomplishments and friends to not notice until his other half came along.
I'd never been burned, because I'd never been willing to open up enough to someone to be hurt. I wasn't looking for perfect; I was looking for perfect for me. But it was always all wrong. Too shallow, too selfish, too eager, too coy…the list could go on forever. Every single member of my family claimed that love at first sight was not just the stuff of movies, but a real, tangible, hold-in-your-hand thing.
They claimed that even if I didn't realize it right away, when I finally reached the point that I was willing to concede defeat and embrace my feelings, I would realize that it was there all along. That when the heart knew, the heart knew.
(One year earlier)
Monday morning. The start of another work week.
Today, my new assistant started. I wanted to make it to the office before her so that I might gauge her punctuality. Punctuality was key in the work force. Someone who couldn't be trusted with time, couldn't be trusted with money. And money meant everything to an accounting firm of this stature. I'd worked hard to reach my point in the executive ladder, gophering for years as an underling before finally being promoted…and promoted…and promoted…until I reached the pinnacle of my point in the business. As a partner in the firm of Aro, Caius and Marcus Volturi, I'd achieved what many people of twenty-eight had not had the chance to.
Lots of it.
Over multi-million dollar accounts, hundreds of employees, and the general goings-on of much of the West Coast. But I didn't take my power lightly. I had earned it and would do nothing to abuse it. I didn't relish having to take over subsidiaries, putting people out of work and the like, but…there was always a way to make something of yourself. People didn't deserve handouts.
There were scholarships for kids trying to make something of themselves and get into college. For those unfortunate enough to not have taken advantage of the early opportunity, there were loans.
There were internships designed to help those that applied themselves achieve.
There was no excuse not to succeed.
So I was rather disheartened to read as I glanced over my new assistant's background, that she had not only dropped out of Columbia one semester shy of graduating, she had also dropped out of Washington State her first semester since her seemingly abrupt move last year. No other information, no traffic tickets, no wedding announcements…She was simply there and now she was here. And she had dropped out of two colleges to only end up as my assistant.
I understood that an assistant was an important job, that someone had to do it and it was what made my job easier, but…I was used to a young co-ed working her way through college for a business degree. Not some going-nowhere, unmotivated, quitter. I couldn't imagine what had possibly possessed the Volturi brothers to hire her.
But they had. So I would respect their decision and fire her at the first conceivable opportunity. Sneering down at her information, I closed the folder and tossed it into my drawer.
She stumbled in at eight-o-one. One minute past the time she was supposed to have arrived. I would have chastised her immediately, but I wasn't sure she would have understood me. She looked drugged. Aged. Exhausted.
Her shoulders were slumped, her posture pathetic. Everything about her screamed, I need more sleep! Her clothes were ill-fitting at best, nothing like the designer suits everyone donned to work. The phrase dress to impress wasn't really a suggestion in the business world. It was fact. There were purplish bruises under her eyes that alerted me immediately to needing a drug test ordered.
She was silent as she came in, in a way that was almost deafening. And I didn't like it. I didn't like that I didn't know the reason why she was on drugs and had dropped out of college. I didn't like that she almost made me feel sorry for her. People didn't deserve pity. There was always another way.
"Y-y-y-y-yes, Mr. Cullen?"
"The time. Note it, Miss Swan. Tomorrow you will be here at eight o'clock on the dot, or you will not have a job. Coffee. Black. Now."
"Y-y-y-y-yes, Mr. Cullen."
I slammed my office door in her face.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Even after three months, she had somehow passed every drug test I 'randomly' ordered, never crossed through the elevator's doorway a second past eight o'clock. But still, her presence irritated me. Ground on my nerves. Infuriated me at some points. Because she let herself be nothing.
She was my assistant and, for the most part competent. But in there lay the problem. I could see glimpses of her brilliance in her work. The way her quick eye would find an error in a presentation or report. Her eloquence in relaying messages or delivering them.
But still, she angered me.
She never tried to engage with the higher-ups, never accompanied them to lunches at nearby restaurants. I checked her credit and background often, more often than was necessary to find her still not in school. Doing nothing for herself. At twenty-two, it seemed she had resigned herself to being a nobody.
It disgusted me.
And while I couldn't fire her on the basis of disgustingness, I could make her life hell. So I did.
By making her regret ever settling for a stupid assistant's job when she could have been so much more. I sent her on the most menial and inane errands possible. Copies, dry-cleaning, coffee…I always complimented my second assistant, Tanya on her crisp attire, blatantly making it clear I noticed the lack of effort Isabella made in her own.
It all came to a head on that one day…
I left work in a rush that day, needing to get to the hospital and give my father his birthday present because I would be unable to attend his party later that evening. Too many reports to finish, a presentation next week, a night of watching my family love each other in a way I would never have…
I would be unable to attend.
My father had been distracted as I entered his office, rustling through papers with medical textbooks strewn across his desk. Rapping twice on his door frame, his eyes darted to me madly before focusing.
"Edward, son! An unexpected surprise to see you!"
I registered the genuine shock in his tone and masked my pain quickly, disappointed in myself that I had withdrawn so much as to make my father think I would forget his birthday. Trying to force a convincible smile on my face, I gestured to the box in my hand.
"Happy Birthday, Dad."
His smile was blinding as he crossed the room quickly to embrace me, though I felt stiff and awkward in the affection itself. I hadn't realized how long it had been since I had been hugged. Pulling back, his eyes glanced down at the box in my hand before his eyes seemed to glint in recognition.
"I suppose this pleasure is due to the fact you won't be able to attend tonight."
It wasn't a question. It was a fact, simply stated, with no hint of emotion. I shrugged it off, because I didn't know what to do with what his reaction caused in me.
"Well, you know. Couldn't let you go another minute without this stethoscope. I'm afraid the world of mergers and acquisitions waits for no man, Dad. I'll see you again soon."
I couldn't escape from his hurt eyes fast enough.
"Of course, son," he said, with a forced laugh and a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Just know that your mother and I love you, and you will be missed."
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I nodded briskly before making my exit, not even paying attention to my surroundings as I wandered the hall until I heard a familiar voice. I skidded to a halt outside the door, in a hallway I didn't immediately recognize
"I left Mom an extra bouquet of daisies this week, for her birthday."
"Thanks, Bells. Were they yellow?"
"Of course, Daddy."
"She always did like yellow," a tired voice sighed. The past tense was not lost on me.
Glancing around, I realized I was in the oncology unit, the terminal ward where cancer patients tried to outlive the wait for a cure, basically. And Miss Swan was inside this room talking to her father.
"I think your day nurse likes you, Dad."
A hearty chuckle was heard, followed by a few wheezes.
"Quit kiddin' yourself, Bells. You're the only girl I've got room for."
"Well then, I guess I need to get you a bigger room."
"Aw, you quit that. How's school goin'?"
I didn't know how well that man in that room knew her, but I knew her well enough to register the pause in her voice, the slight tremor.
"It's going great, Dad."
Liar. You work a dead-end job to get high. You're a liar.
"You keep glancin' at that clock. You got class soon?" he asked, pride shining in his voice. I didn't know how she could live with herself.
"Yep!" she responded cheerfully, a chair skidding back as she stood.
I made my retreat quickly, just far enough back to watch her exit his room a few minutes later. I expected her to head straight for the nearest exit. When she took the elevator down, I followed in the stairwell. I was determined to find a reason to terminate her once and for all, figures and presentations be damned.
When she landed at the bottom, I barely beat her and expected her to find the nearest exit. Instead, she made her way to the hospital's financial advisor's office. I followed swiftly behind, lingering just within earshot of what I was sure to be a desperate and pathetic plea to not pay the bill.
"Hi, Mrs. Cope. How are your grandkids?"
"Oh, Bella. They're all fine. How are you, honey?"
There was a small pause, complete silence, so maddening that I was ready to walk in and demand her answer myself. But before I could, she spoke.
"They say he has another tumor. But they don't know if he can make it through another surgery."
And then I heard Isabella, Bells, Bella, completely break down and sob. The first show of true, real emotion I had ever seen from her. And it tore me apart, because I didn't understand what was happening. She never spoke to anyone at the office about anything. Everyone assumed she was too stuck up to join in their office gossip, but was she really…could she really have been…just grieving?
"It'll be alright, Bella. Shh, sweetheart…C'mon, Bella. It's almost six," the financial officer, Mrs. Cope, whispered, a heavy dose of regret in her voice.
A few more sniffles, and then silence.
"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Cope. Thank you…So what do I need to pay you today?" a soft, tired voice asked sweetly, without an ounce of resentment.
"Seven-hundred and fifty dollars, sweetheart," a teary, aged voice whispered back.
A slow moment of scribbling, tearing, and then sniffling.
"See you next week!" my assistant's voice chirped brightly. Annoyingly brightly. Because I could tell it was false.
"Next week, Bella dear."
I maneuvered myself out of sight as Isabella exited the office, torn between what to do next. Should I follow her to the place she seemed to so desperately need to get to? No. Was I already in my car and pulling up behind hers at the first stoplight? Yes.
I followed her through the city, at enough of a distance to keep her from noticing me, but not so far that I lost her in the sparse traffic. When she parked behind a shady club downtown, I knew I had her. There was movement in her car for a few moments, until she emerged in a ridiculously slutty outfit. A bare midriff shirt, short shorts, heels unnaturally long, she looked all wrong like that. I knew it was the truth, that she was no good, but I never wanted to see her like…
But then she tied a black apron around her waist and walked in.
I watched her from a dark and secluded corner the whole night. I watched her trip over bumps in the floor, I watched her get hit on my sleazy lushes, I watched her fight back tears when a drunk asshole threw the remainder of his beer on her when she politely tried to inform him it was last call.
I watched her work until almost one in the morning, until the place was officially closed and I had to wait in my car across the way for her to emerge. When she finally did, I followed her patiently to what I had assumed would be her home, until I recognized her destination.
A twenty-four hour copy place. Because I had told her at two minutes 'til five today to have the flawless presentation she had already created to be rebound using a different font. So here she was, well past the middle of the night fulfilling an honestly meaningless task. It struck me then, how many times I had given her a last minute assignment just to spite her. Because I thought she was lazy and undeserving.
But maybe it was too early to let her garner my sympathy. So her dad was sick. So what? If my father fell ill, I would still care for him while I continued to better myself. She had no excuse. I would not feel guilty.
I watched her leave the copy place to make her ways a bit down the street to an abandoned warehouse. Or what I thought was an abandoned warehouse until Isabella inserted a key in the door and disappeared inside. Moments later she reappeared, holding a large hamper of clothes. She walked down a few clicks, sliding comfortably into the neighborhood's Laundromat.
Because I had told her today that her clothes were unprofessional at best, and she would do well to try and do something about it. So here she was at two o'clock in the morning, washing her clothes to make them clean-pressed because of my insults.
Recalling Mrs. Cope's figure from earlier in the day, I did the math quickly. Her salary from her assistant's job with me paid her father's hospital bills. I could only hope that the money she made at that dive bar from earlier paid for her essentials. Either way, she worked round the clock to keep her father cared for, letting herself fall by the wayside. And she was up at all hours of the night to follow my instructions, instructions that were given because of false impressions and undeserved hate and childish spite.
But instead of pitying her for her circumstance, as was my gut reaction to do, I was awed by her grace. The grace in which she held her head high and never flinched when I gave her these tasks. Because her job and her father were more important to her than showing a stupid, selfish man like me what he was. I was awed by her. And I was ashamed of myself.
In my stupid luxury car underneath a streetlamp, for the first time in as many years as I could remember, I cried.
From that day forward, I watched her. And every day that I watched her, another puzzle piece fell into place.
Where I once regarded her fashion choices to be uncaring, I realized she simply had no interest indulging in expensive fashions when her money was needed for her father. Each night that I saw her stumble into her rundown shack of an apartment at well past two, I understood the purplish bruises under her eyes that much more clearly the following morning.
I stopped harassing her. I stopped insulting her. And when I did, a curious thing happened.
I noticed how she wasn't snobbish when she declined offers to join executives for lunch, she was only embarrassed she couldn't afford to pay for the meal. And I knew she couldn't, because on my third night of stalking her, I watched her shop her way through an all-night grocer and only emerge with packages of ramen and cheap bread.
I noticed how she was a truly kind person, the kind of person that helped someone pick up files that they dropped without hesitation or annoyance, and gave up her measly lunch to the homeless man that lurked outside our office building on the occasion she used the bench at noon.
I noticed that my entire day could be made or broken by whether or not I could elicit a smile from her in the morning over coffee. She never commented on my abrupt change in demeanor, just accepted it and appreciated it with the same grace she used for everything else in life. She even told me to call her Bella. We became…friends. I learned her likes and dislikes and she learned mine, discovering along the way that we had more in common than I ever thought possible.
I noticed that I thought she was perfect, and it killed me to think there might be a chance that I might not get to know all her imperfections.
During the time that I watched her, I realized how cold and jaded I had truly become. How could it have not even dawned on me that some people really couldn't catch a break? Was I so naïve and privileged that it never occurred to me that people can work their whole lives for something, only to have it ripped away by circumstances out of their control?
Bella had. She had a scholarship, and she gave it up to move home to help her father. When he had to be moved permanently into the hospital, she gave up school altogether to provide for him. Her only day off, Sunday, was spent at her mother's gravesite, replacing flowers and burying letters from herself and her father. She embraced what little time she had left with her father by loving him, providing for him, sparing him. He never knew that she gave up school for him. That she gave up the possibility of a career, a social life, perceived success, all for him.
Would I do the same for my own father?
I spent many evenings while Bella was at work reconnecting with my family. Always there by the time she got off to ensure she arrived home safely, but…I needed to reintroduce myself to my family. Because they needed me, too. I learned how to reengage with them and found myself truly caring for the first time in a long time. At first, they regarded me like the Grinch, but over time warmed to me and welcomed me back whole-heartedly. And I learned through truly interacting with them that I wasn't the only one who struggled. Despite my idealistic and romantic notions about my parents, I learned that they fought and made up like every other couple on the planet. I learned about my brother and his wife's struggle to conceive. I learned how alone my sister felt without my friendship.
Other things occurred during that time. With the help of my father, we created a charity together to aid needy families, but I could not bring myself to interfere in Bella's life without her consent. It turned out I didn't need to. My father was familiar with Mr. Swan's case and signed him up without a word from me. I found that no one could make me laugh like my niece, Ivy. My parent's love didn't seem to stifle me any longer, it only made me appreciate them more. My brother still annoyed me to no end, but I didn't shrug away from his wrestling attempts anymore. My sister…my sister still knew me better than anyone.
"Are we ever going to get to meet her?"
"I hope so."
How? How could a conversation like this work?
Excuse me, Bella. I've been following you for months. I think I'm in love with you. Coffee?
I apologize for the stalking, but I thought maybe I could call you sometime?
Bella, I love you. I assure you I am not crazy and I've had all my shots.
I couldn't wait any longer. Due to her proficient work as my assistant, she was being promoted up the ring and starting tomorrow, wouldn't have to see me on a regular basis. On top of that, her father was getting worse by the day. His end time was coming closer and closer, and I didn't want to, couldn't, wait for the day to come when she called in to work. The day that I would beat down her door and find her broken and completely alone. He was the last of her family, but I had to make her know she would never be truly alone. Unless she chose to be. Unless she ordered me away.
"Good morning, Edward. Here's your coffee."
I jumped a mile in the air, startling her into almost dropping my mug.
"Shit! I'm sorry, Bella. I was…zoned out."
A barely contained smile made my embarrassment completely worthwhile if it was for her amusement. An awkward silence fell between us as she stood there, waiting for me to take my mug. My hands were shaking slightly as I reached to take it from her, holding it up in thanks as I took a sip.
"So…last day," she began nervously.
I smiled weakly in return, nodding and swallowing the lump in my throat. Speaking without thinking, I blurted out more loudly than necessary.
"Would you like to go to dinner to celebrate?"
Never before in my life had I seen a person blush that red that fast. Her eyes blinked at me in shock and her mouth dropped open, nothing but a slight squeak escaping. She recovered herself quickly, darting her eyes away.
"Um…I'd love to, but I can't. I'm busy this evening."
Of course she was. I should have remembered that. She would be walking into that sleazy club tonight at six on the dot. Before I could respond to let her know that it was fine, she continued.
"But…after tonight, my…previous engagement won't, um, won't be um, engaging me anymore…"
She trailed off, biting her lip nervously, her eyes looking anywhere but me, which was for the best given the shock written plainly across my face. She was quitting the sleazy club? Had the money from the foundation and her promotion really been enough for her to rid herself of that detestable job?
"So another night, then?" I asked cheerfully, almost too eagerly. Well, not even almost. Just plain eagerly. "Maybe tomorrow evening?"
She seemed more surprised by my reaction than amused, which I was simultaneously gratified and irritated to see. It shouldn't be shocking to her that I would want to…date her? Would this count as a date? Should I clarify my intentions? All the same, I was glad to not be laughed at for my interest in her.
She bit her lip, nodding shyly, before she picked up my agenda for the day, signaling the end of the conversation for now. Still, the stupid grin didn't leave my face for hours.
Her visit with her father was brief and bittersweet. I always lingered just out of earshot of the conversation, but close enough to reach her if something were to suddenly happen and she needed support. He was fading and she knew it, and it physically pained me to know that no amount of money in the world could fix him. Because I would have given her everything I had, even if it meant outing myself as her stalker, even if it meant I never got a chance with her, if it would let her keep her father for just a little longer. She left his room quickly that day, barely giving me enough time to duck out of sight before she hurried off to her last night at the club.
As I always did, I tried to spy a glance at his chart outside his door before finding my father and asking him to explain the terms to me, hypothetically speaking of course. But today, a gruff voice called out.
"Get in here."
Terrified, I debated running, debated impersonating a doctor, debated…
"C'mon, kid. I left my gun at home."
I wandered inside his room slowly, no clue how to explain myself.
"You're Dr. Carlisle's son, aren't you?"
Maybe I wouldn't have to. Nodding slowly, I saw him nod in return.
"You're Bells' boss."
Sighing, defeated, I slumped down into a chair. And instead of nodding, I blurted out the dumbest thing of my existence.
"I love her."
He watched me shrewdly for a moment, not breathing a word, his face a carefully crafted mask of indifference.
"As warm and fuzzy as that makes me to hear, I don't think I'm the one you need to tell that to."
My eyes nearly bugged out of my head, my mouth gaping like a fish.
"But she deserves to know all of it. I see you everyday, lurking around after she leaves. I heard your name mentioned on that grant thingy that Dr. Cullen gave me. My old cop buddy that checks up on her for me from time to time, he's seen you follow her home from that hellhole she works at."
A choking sound erupted out of my throat and the room suddenly felt very, very hot.
"That's right, I know. I know she's not in school. I know she couldn't after all the money she's had to put up to keep me here. But I let her think I don't, because I don't want her to think all her hard work's been in vain, that I'm disappointed in her in any way. It's her nature to care for others and if I was the stubborn ass I want to be and demanded to die at home without even really trying, it'd kill her.
"Why do you follow her home at night?"
"Did your buddy tell you where she lives?" I snapped, not meaning to, but feeling unreasonably defensive and uncomfortable and embarrassed and terrified. His eyes narrowed on me and I corrected my attitude immediately, explaining in a softer voice. "To make sure she gets there safely. I…I just need to know she's safe."
"So why haven't you swooped in, knight-in-shining-armor style? Take her away from her cheap apartment, put her up in your penthouse, let her quit working and put her through schoo-"
I jumped up and began pacing madly. "What the hell, Mr. Swan? Are we talking about the same woman at all? Are you seriously asking me why I haven't jumped in and turned your daughter into a kept woman? A woman like her doesn't need saving. That's why my protection is from a distance. And you're right, she deserves honesty, and she'll probably have my head on a platter when I tell her, but it was only to fulfill my selfish need to keep her safe and in my life.
"A woman like her stands on her own two feet. She works harder than any other person I've ever met in my life to have the things she's got. And I've never seen the inside of her apartment, but I bet it's spotless. Because she takes pride in everything she does and is. She's the kind of woman that inspires me to be a better person, through her grace and her kindness and her determination. If I had to guess, I'd say she'll probably take advantage of our company's tuition reimbursement program as soon as she quits that hellhole, which is tonight, in case you didn't know. And for the record, that grant you received had nothing to do with me or her. That was my father's decision, through no influence of my own. Her promotion was because she earned it, not because I'm trying to give her a step up. If I had my way, she'd work for me forever just so I could get to see her smile everyday.
"But, yes, I've followed her. Because she's insane. She goes to the grocery store on foot at two o'clock in the morning. She once walked to a subway after midnight, completely alone, because her car wouldn't start. And I probably would have outed myself as a stalker right then to shake some sense into her, if I hadn't been otherwise occupied tossing the drunk trying to follow her into a cab and sending him to the middle of nowhere."
I ran out of breath after my rant, staring stonily out the window with my chest heaving, cursing myself silently for saying way, way too much.
"I like you."
Bewildered, I turned around to find who else had just walked into the room, because he surely couldn't be talking to me.
"Yes, Edward, I mean you. I like you. I approve, if that matters to you. And I think if you tell her what you just told me, she might just leave you with your balls intact."
I absorbed his words silently, trying not to let myself hope that he was right, even though he knew her better than any other person in the world. She was going to kill me. And slap me. And scream at me. I knew this to be fact.
"How long do you have, Mr. Swan?"
"I'll do my best to stick around long enough for her to bring you here and introduce yourself properly to me…And, Edward?"
"Yeah?" I sighed.
"You can call me Charlie."
I spent the evening with my family, trying not to let my nerves show about my date with Bella tomorrow. I had resolved myself that I needed to tell her, but I didn't want to do it in a public place. Actually, I would much prefer it to be in a public place to keep her from killing me, but it wouldn't be fair to put her in an environment in which she couldn't express her emotions fully. When I hugged my sister goodbye, she paused to whisper in my ear.
"It'll work out, Edward. I have a good feeling."
Smiling sadly, I squeezed her once more, ruffling her hair as I ran off to the car with her shrieking after me.
"I love you, Alice."
"I love you, too. Jerk."
I spent the rest of the night writing several drafts of my confession to Bella, though I never intended to tell her via letter. I hoped to perfect a speech that she would hopefully let me get through before she threw me into the Pier. Trying to remember what exactly I had told Charlie earlier this afternoon was more difficult than I thought it would be, given that I was in near hysterics when I said it. I wondered if she would find it odd if I needed to use keynotes to make it through.
The night flew by as I scribbled in my legal pad, until movement at the back exit to the club caught my eye. I started my car, waiting for her to do the same and begin the same journey I had made for over four months now. After several minutes of watching her behind the wheel, she surprised me when she got out of her car and kicked the door. Cracking my window, I was able to make out several mumbled but definitely profane words I had never come out of her mouth before.
By a cruel twist of fate, the sky took the opportunity to open, heavy, pouring rain coming down in sheets and drenching her almost instantly. Surprisingly, the rain seemed to snap her out of her anger enough for her to lift her face and use the water falling to wipe off the heavy mascara she wore to the club each night. Unsurprisingly, she was actually planning on walking to the subway in the pouring rain alone at night.
After checking the street for traffic, I pulled up along the sidewalk and rolled my window down all the way.
She jumped, squinting through the rain and not even trying to mask her surprise.
She looked around nervously, surely trying to understand what I was doing in this part of town in the middle of the night. Or maybe she was nervous to get into a car with me. I hoped it was the former. If I had to toss her screaming and kicking into the backseat, I would.
"I…I'm all wet. I'll ruin your car."
"I don't care about the damn car, Bella. Please get in."
Reluctance plain on her face, she walked around quickly and entered the passenger side, already shivering from the cold. Reaching into my backseat, I grabbed my suit jacket from earlier and held it out to her, but she simply stared at it bewildered.
"I…I can't wear that. It'll be ruined."
"You sound like a broken record, you know?" I smiled, trying to disarm her with a bit of charm. "It's just a jacket. I'm much more concerned with the person in need of it."
Tentatively, she reached over and took it from me, her hands grazing against mine as she pulled it out of my grasp.
"Thank you, Edward. I…I'll have it cleaned for you."
I shook my head, more at myself and her innate stubbornness that prevented anyone else from taking care of her. I made the trip through the streets quickly, pulling up at her apartment building as she warmed herself and I lost myself in thought.
"Yeah," I answered, trying to get out of my head enough to work up the nerve to talk to her.
"How did you know where I live?"
"Ohmygod," I exhaled, swallowing thickly.
And then it all just came tumbling out. Not understanding her when she first started working for me, how cold and detached I was, how I overheard her that day in the hospital and followed her, how I'd continued to follow her these last four months, about the foundation and the grant, stumbling all over myself as I rushed to assure her that I had nothing to do with it, with the promotion, that I had intended to tell her everything tomorrow, even about my conversation with Charlie, though I reserved enough dignity to not tell her about his approval, not wanting to manipulate her in any way, how she'd changed me, how sorry I was for the way I'd been toward her in the beginning, topping off the proverbial cake by actually blurting out that I loved her.
"And I know there's no way you could ever return those feelings knowing what I've told you, but you deserved to know. You deserve everything, the best and I wish that I could be the man to give it to you; I wish I could be that man, the one that was good enough to deserve you. Now…now that I know you'll be safe, I won't…I won't follow you anymore. I'm sorry for invading your privacy like that. It was wrong and selfish and I, just…I'm so, so sorry, Bella."
Her face was pale and drawn and tired, her eyes wide open and unblinking at me, her lips slightly parted in shock. Even after everything I'd done wrong, I still couldn't find the strength to keep my eyes on her, letting them fall to my lap as I waited for her to absorb it and then explode. When I heard her finally inhale to speak, my eyes clenched shut.
"Thank you for the ride. And the jacket. I have to go. I…think we need to talk about this, but…I really need to sleep. And think. Mostly think. Um…what time did you want to pick me up for our date tomorrow?"
My head whipped up so fast that I actually felt my neck crack as I stared at her in disbelief.
"What did you just say?"
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before she fixed her gaze on me.
"Look…I need to think before I talk about this, but…you should know that I don't…I don't hate you for it, Edward. I'm not angry with you, but I reserve the right to take that back after I've had a chance to sleep on it. Either way, we had plans for tomorrow and it would give us a chance to talk this out more. We don't have to call it a date if you don't want to, it can just b-"
"No! No. Please," I stopped her, lifting up a hand to place a finger against her lips before thinking better of it at the last second. "I'll pick you up at six. It is absolutely a date if you want it to be."
Her smile was gentle and sweet as she leaned slightly forward, reaching up to grasp my hand that was still frozen midair and placed the softest ghost of a kiss to my palm before disappearing out of the car and into her building.
I fell asleep that night staring at my palm, still feeling the phantom sting.
I considered picking her up for work that morning so she wouldn't have to ride the bus, but she had my number and she didn't call me. So I didn't. And I didn't see her the entire day, though there was a cup of coffee waiting for me on my desk when I arrived that morning and a sandwich marked 'Edward' that I didn't put in the fridge that day. Before I could panic about the forgotten flash drive in the pocket of the jacket I lent to Bella, it was standing on my desk, ready to use for my presentation.
For the first time in four months, I didn't follow her to the hospital, but went home instead to make reservations for our date. We were going on a date. If my family could have seen me in that moment, my mother would be crying, my dad would be smiling, my sister would be smirking and my brother would have me in a headlock while he called me a pussy.
Didn't matter. I was going on a date with Bella.
I showered, changed, and thrummed my fingers against my kitchen table six-hundred and forty-eight times before I gave up and headed over to her apartment. I paced in front of her building three-hundred and twenty-two times before the door opened to reveal an amused, beautiful, Bella.
I laughed breathlessly, trying to shake my nerves. "Hi. Are you ready?"
She nodded, opening the door fully and pulling my jacket out from behind her, freshly pressed in a dry-cleaning bag. I took it from her gratefully, mumbling my thanks to her as I opened her door. We pulled up to a casual restaurant just off the Pier and made our way inside, my hand twitching, wanting to be on the small of her back, but not having the right to do so yet. If ever.
We sat down and she picked up the menu immediately, remaining infuriatingly quiet.
"Is it killing you yet?"
Clearing my throat, I furrowed my brow at her. "Is what killing me yet?"
"The not talking," she smirked, no cruelty in her voice, just amusement.
Sighing, I smiled and shook my head. "I'm glad to find that I can be of some service to you, even if it is at the expense of my sanity. Yes, to answer your question, it's killing me."
Leaning over her menu, her smirk became a sweet smile. "Well, try not to die on me just yet. I've gotten kind of attached to you."
I hid my grin behind my own menu, replaying her words in my head over and over throughout our meal. I followed her lead, listening to her tell me about her new position, her plans to either step down to a part-time position in the spring so she could return to school or quit altogether and make her way through with grants if necessary. What was left unspoken, I heard. If Charlie didn't make it through the end of the year and no longer required her support, she wouldn't need to work. When I caught her wince as she said it, I couldn't stop myself from reaching across the table to place my hand in hers. She squeezed it thankfully, not releasing it for the rest of the meal. I would gladly eat left-handed for the rest of my life.
I laughed with her about my new assistant, a rather flamboyant young man who had been caught daydreaming in the direction of my crotch more than once today. She listened intently as I told her about Ivy's upcoming school play and nodded shyly when I stammered out an invitation for her to accompany me. There were no uncomfortable pauses, no impatient sighs; there was no false interest, no rush to get to the end.
But we had to leave the restaurant eventually when we took notice of the growing crowd waiting for a table in the entrance. I left a generous tip to thank the waiter for not rushing us out and to make up for occupying his table for so long, this time working up the nerve to softly guide Bella out of the restaurant, my chest puffing with pride that there was no question this woman was with me.
I followed Bella over to a vendor, letting her buy us a couple of coffees and then taking them over to a quiet, secluded edge on the Pier overlooking the Sound.
"So," she began, glancing at me sideways before darting her eyes back onto the water. She leaned over the ledge, setting her coffee down for the moment.
"So," I aped, letting her lead.
"I visited my dad today. But, you probably already knew that."
I visibly winced. She rushed to continue, looking at me in concern for a moment.
"I didn't mean that in a bitter way, Edward. I'm sorry. I just meant…you know. We don't need to dance around it."
I nodded, and she turned back to the water.
"He and I had a long talk today. I told him about our conversation last night and he admitted some stuff to me. Stuff that…you knew about, but didn't mention. Why didn't you?"
I was suddenly feeling very, very hot again. Despite my love for this woman, her father used to be a policeman. Of his own admission, he still had buddies. I did not want to end up sleeping with the fishes because I exposed something he told me in confidence. Before I could either heave into the water or find a suitable response, she continued.
"I think I know. Despite not knowing what you've been doing these last few months, I'd like to think I know you pretty well. You're probably the best friend I've got."
Oh God. I'm being banished to the friend zone. I will not cry. I will not cry.
She didn't notice my internal struggle this time and just kept speaking.
"If I know you, you didn't want to tell me something that would upset me because you didn't think it was your place to say it. I'm not completely sure why you didn't tell me that my dad said he liked you, but he was pretty happy to hear it, so I'm going to assume that it's a man thing," she waved off, a cute crinkle in her nose. "You mentioned last night that you invaded my privacy and I was hoping you could explain that a little better."
"Um…" I began, unsure what to say. "I pretty much covered all of that last night. Was there a specific part you were unclear on?"
She cocked her head, her eyes focused on something I couldn't see in the waves. "I just wanted to know how you invaded my privacy. I know you followed me to the hospital, but my understanding is that you didn't listen to my father and I talk."
"Except for the first time," I corrected, and then instantly berated myself.
Just help her dig the grave, Cullen.
"Right, except for that," she nodded, her tone even. "You followed me to work to make sure I got there okay and came back to make sure I got home okay. You chased off a creep to keep him from hurting me in the subway. But you never, like, went and sifted through my underwear drawer or anything like that, did you?"
"What?" I choked. "No! No! Bella, I've never even been inside your apartment building. Jesus."
Finally, her face showed some emotion, in the form of a small smile.
"I didn't think so. Edward, I'll be honest. My first reaction wasn't anything even close to anger. I just felt…cared for. I couldn't believe half of what you were telling me, just because I couldn't believe you'd give up your free time just to make sure a friend got home safely. But then you kept talking, and you said…you said…
"You said that you loved me," she whispered, looking down at her hands. "I've learned that there are a lot of different ways to love someone, and I was wondering…which way exactly you meant when you said it."
I slipped my hands into hers, tugging to get her to look at me. Keeping my eyes locked on hers, I chose my words carefully.
"You…are my best friend. I've never let myself be close to someone enough to ever say that before, but with you, it's true. You're someone that I can talk to about anything, someone who can make my whole day better with just a smile. You made me feel again...And that made it pretty easy to fall in love with you. I'm so in love with you, Bella."
Her eyes were quickly filling with tears, but she wasn't letting them spill over. Our hands were shaking, but I couldn't tell if it was her or me or both. Her breaths were quick and shallow, but mine had ceased altogether, waiting for her to speak.
"I love you too, Edward."
I blinked at her, swallowing hard.
She nodded, a couple of tears escaping with the movement. I needed further clarification.
"You're in love with me?"
She nodded again, a small sigh escaping her, for what I wasn't sure.
"So…you want to…be with m-"
"Oh my God, Edward! Are you ever going to just kiss me already?" she asked, throwing her hands into the air in exasperation.
"Can I?" I asked excitedly.
"Oh my God," she laughed, shaking her head as she looked at me incredulously. Sighing, she stepped a bit closer to me, until she was right there, right in front of me. "Edward, you never have to ask."
So I didn't. And when I leaned down and touched her lips softly with mine, I felt it all click into place. Every fissure in my heart that I had created over a lifetime of distance slowly fused back together as her mouth moved in tandem with mine. In her kiss, I felt safety, security, love; I tasted my past melt away, my future appear. It was all Bella. My Bella.
That first kiss was five months ago. I met Charlie officially two days after our date on the Pier. He passed away three nights later gently in his sleep. One month after that, Bella showed up at my doorstep, crying and in pieces. She spent the night for the first time and never left again. And looking back, I knew now that my family had been right. About a lot of things, but one thing in particular. When the heart knew, the heart knew.
From the first moment I saw her, something in me knew that she was different, even though I tried to veil it with contempt and spite for a long time. But I wasn't that man anymore. I had changed for my family, for Bella, and for myself. My phone was more often forgotten than not at family gatherings. At Christmas, Bella was planted firmly in my lap the whole night. For the first time in my life, I kissed someone on New Year's Eve. Until there were catcalls and whistles and yells coming from my entire family and Bella was blushing so hard I could feel it. And then I bowed to them all and did it again.
Today she had no school because of a holiday I should probably remember, but couldn't because she just said my name and that she loved me in her sleep again.
I turned off the alarm and my phone and then rolled over to go back to sleep with my Bella.