A/N: Thanks for hanging around. Sorry it took so long. ImwithPattz is my sister from another mister and I can't thank her enough for all of the hand-holding this time around. Irritable_Grizzly is the rocking beta who, remarkably, is still speaking to me after my breakdown over this chapter. She deserves 1001 kudos!
As always, Twilight belongs to Stephenie Meyer. Think she likes sharing?
If I would've knew that the boy next door was you,
I would've been nice to you,
spent a little time with you,
I would've dressed cuter too.
~Girl Next Door, Musiq
Early Monday morning I was back at my post, begrudgingly sitting outside of Edward's house for what seemed like the hundredth time. The heat wave had come and gone, leaving the gorgeous blue skies with a smattering of clouds that covered the sun from time to time. The air was back to its usually salty sweetness and the ocean breeze blew in through the opened windows of my truck. I had stretched out along the bench seat, head propped against the edge of the driver's-side door, my bare feet sticking out the passenger-side window. I'd had the forethought to start bringing books with me and was currently engrossed in a fun and silly series about a woman with a shopping addiction.
Just as I laughed out loud about another one of the heroine's shopping mishaps, Edward approached, and the scowl he'd been wearing smoothed from his face as it morphed into a gentle smile. Much to my surprise, he'd jumped right back into our routine and brought me out an ice cold bottle of Perrier.
What do you say to someone whose mood shifts with the changes in the tide? Would he be warm today? Would he hurl insults about my intelligence? I could never tell. It was infuriating, and honestly, I didn't understand why he talked to me at all. He could have gone about his business every day without so much as a glance in my direction. So here we sat, me narrowing my eyes and contemplating his motivations until the silence got unbearable and I decided to go first. I asked him if he wanted to tell me I was an idiot again, challenging him to be Mr. Jerkward.
He may have caught me off-guard last week, when I'd let myself believe that the introspective, compassionate, silly man I'd experienced was his true self, but I was prepared for his alter-ego now. Stupid inflated, giant, too-big-for-this-universe ego.
Momentarily I imagined Edward as one of those huge inflatable animals that you always see on the top of car dealerships. The thought of his face on a giant purple balloon gorilla made me snort. Then I sighed and then looked at him again, waiting for a sign as to which Edward would be visiting me today.
Turns out, it was Argumenativeward. We had a fight that quickly degenerated into a "Did so! Did not!" level of childishness that would have been funny if I hadn't been so exasperated.
Then he admitted he was jealous, and I was confused. Why would he be jealous of me going on a date with Jake? Except if…and then it hit me…was he…gay? I had never seen him with a girl, and he never had a steady girlfriend. Sure he made jokes about being such a player, but didn't a lot of guys use that as a cover?
When he said he wanted me, we both sat there in stunned silence. I listened to my heartbeat ramp up from a lazy thud to pounding at the speed of light. Me; he wanted me. The gorgeous man I'd been fighting my attraction to all of these weeks, wanted me. All of his erratic behavior and hostile outbursts were literally misguided affections akin to the boy that pulled my pigtails when I was in third grade.
The rest of the week was a whirlwind. Edward and I went on two official dates during which he was visibly nervous. I was pleasantly surprised when he asked me to go on a real date to the Getty Museum. We walked quietly through the exhibits at first, but as the air around us unraveled, we settled into our natural, easygoing interaction.
I giggled when Edward made jokes about the painters and the "inspiration" for their art, and I felt completely mortified when he made lewd gestures at the sculptures, and slapped him on the arm. Yet when he calmed down and stopped being immature, I found he was passionate about the art that he liked. When I spent a long moment gazing at the perfection of Entrance to the Jardin Turc , I noticed Edward wasn't looking at the painting, but rather at me. My cheeks flushed. I wasn't used to this undisguised attention.
He suggested we take the guided tour of the gardens and he held my hand the entire time as we fell back into quiet. This time it wasn't out of awkwardness, but rather a relaxed comfort. We had a casual lunch afterward and then relaxed on the deck at his house. It was a perfect afternoon, and I saw a side of Edward that gave me hope. Hope that he was actually this insightful, witty, and intelligent man. Hope that my instinct to trust him and let myself tumble into this churning pool of desire wouldn't destroy everything I'd been working toward and completely derail me from my goals.
As we parted ways, he asked me if he could take me out again. After I agreed to brunch the next morning at a high-end restaurant that overlooked the ocean, he kissed me goodbye. And when I say "kissed," I mean tasted and sucked at my lips with so much heat that I truly had to pry myself away just so I could catch my breath. No one had ever kissed me like that before and let me tell you, I'm a big fan. Big! HUGE!
Our brunch was amazing and the ride back down PCH was spent again in comfortable silence, our hands clasped across the console of his SUV. A summer storm was looming, and we hurried back to his house to escape the rain. Standing in the doorway, he came at me with purpose, kissing me gently at first, and then building with passion as I reciprocated eagerly.
Tumbling through the door, I wrapped my legs around his waist as he picked me up and carried me to the couch. He set me on top of him, giving me the control, not trapping me or pushing me too far. If what he'd said was true, Edward had been with plenty of women far more experienced than I was, and I could see the wheels turning in his head every time he touched me.
As much as my skin sizzled and a part of me wanted to get carried away, I instinctively froze when he put his hand under my shirt. At that point I needed to be forthright with my experience, or lack thereof. I was timid, but not scared. I wanted him in a way that I had never felt open to with any other man. Just the thought of him touching me in certain places, both secret and sensual, excited me. I may not have been ready when I was a young girl, but I wasn't a teenager anymore, and I knew what I wanted.
After my admission, his silence was excruciating, and the inky darkness of embarrassment and shame crept from my chest and up to my face. The headiness of the lust was dissipating, leaving me feeling naked and exposed, and not in a good, sexy way. I begged him to say something, and he gave me the "we should take it slow" line, and something about making the experience "special" for me.
Kill me now. Just please, let the ground open up and swallow me whole. He didn't want that with me. I'd made a huge assumption that he wanted to take our relationship in that direction based on what? A kiss? A little making out? Good grief, I was not only embarrassing myself, but virgins everywhere. Of course he didn't want to have sex with me; I would have no idea what I was doing! It was all I could do not to put a bag over my head and drive my sorry self home.
And then like a ray of sunshine breaking through the storm clouds, he said he wasn't turned off by what I'd said.
I wasn't sure I believed him, and went into self-defense mode. Then he kissed me, and this was no G-rated movie kiss, oh no, it was a full-on " 'bout to get down 'n dirty R-movie" kiss. Slow and sensual, teasing me in ways that I could imagine him doing it in other places.
My body heated and my thoughts moved like molasses when he slid his hand ever-so-gently up my shirt and wrapped it around my breast, his thumb drifting carefully and cautiously over my nipple. Although his hand stayed there, I could feel his touch in every part of my body. I wanted him to touch me everywhere, but I had no idea how to tell him. So we kissed and touched until he broke away and said we should stop while he could control himself.
Then he suggested we watch a movie and he went to the restroom while I flipped through the channels and contemplated the situation. I was disappointed, but he was right. It was crazy to think I would just jump into bed with him, right? I mean, I barely knew him, at least compared to the years I'd spent with Peter, and we'd never gone past third base. There was just something about Edward that made me want to throw caution to the wind. That was when I realized I had to keep myself in check. Edward had a very dangerous effect on me. I was breaking all of my rules, and it didn't even feel wrong.
We watched Say Anything, all cozied up on the couch while we waited for the storm to lighten enough so I could drive home. It was nice. Edward was nice. The whole day was nice.
Then, as I was driving home, reality set in. I was in big, big trouble. How would I explain this to Mr. Masen?
Cheese on a cracker! Mr. Masen was going to be furious. How would I convince him that I wasn't some sleazy bimbo trying to get her hooks in Edward for his money? The best I could do was be honest and beg for him not to fire me. I mean, surely he wouldn't keep me on this assignment, but maybe I could be someone else's assistant, or the receptionist, or even the janitor. Whatever it was, I prayed I didn't lose my "in" at Masen Publishing.
I was looking at the very likely possibility that I would lose my job at Masen Publishing for pursuing Edward; or wait, had he pursued me? I wasn't sure. From the start, our whole relationship had been so confusing. Fears, excuses, and pleas of forgiveness all spun around in my head.
I begrudgingly called Jessica and made an appointment with Mr. Masen. He needed to know what was going on. Until then, I would just try to put it out of my mind, and I figured since I'd begun to open my heart to Edward, I would open my home as well. I invited him for a home-cooked dinner that Friday night.
When Thursday morning came, I was understandably a nervous wreck. I wore the suit I used for interviews: navy pencil skirt, ivory silk top, and navy fitted coat. I also pulled my hair into a neat french twist. I wanted Mr. Masen to see that I was serious about my job, and that my relationship with Edward wouldn't change my loyalty to his company.
As I climbed out of my truck and trudged through the parking lot, I noticed that nothing had changed, yet everything felt different. It had only been a couple of weeks since I had been to the office to check in with Carlisle, before that wicked witch Jessica had make it clear that he didn't have time to meet with me anymore. Somehow in that short span of time the stunted, squat building with its expansive darkened glass windows had gone from the place I called home, to something foreign and daunting. My stomach was tied in knots as I opened the double doors.
I spent what was surely an unnecessary amount of time in the hard plastic chair facing Jessica as I waited for Mr. Masen to summon me to his office. Jessica fiddled around, gossiped with a few other employees, and even checked her facebook page- twice. With exaggerated sighs and a swiftly jiggling foot, I made my impatience known, but Jessica would just smirk and tell me Mr. Masen was still in his meeting.
Just when I was about to give her a piece of my mind, she picked up her phone, whispered into it, and then put it back down, smiling cheerily at me. This time I was positive there was no one on the other end. Luckily she must have had her fill of torturing me because without even looking up she stated simply, "He's ready for you now."
I straightened my skirt and steadied myself mentally. I could do this. Honesty was always the best policy. Through the mahogany doors of power I heard the familiar clacking of Mr. Masen's keyboard. It was reassuring that as odd as it felt to be back in the office, some things stayed the same. I knocked with purpose and pushed open the door.
"Bella! It's wonderful to see you. I was beginning to think you weren't ever coming back. It's been weeks since you've updated me in person, but I was still getting your emails, so I was confident you were 'on the job.'" He threw me a "bling" smile and turned back to his computer monitor.
"But...I... Jessica..." I was dumbfounded. Jessica was sabotaging me! Here I was thinking Mr. Masen really was too busy, when all along he thought I'd just stopped showing up. Un-freaking-believable.
"So, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Mr. Masen said, finally pulled his eyes away from the monitor as he leaned back in his giant black leather office chair, lacing his fingers together across his midsection.
"Well, Mr. Masen, I have an update for you."
He nodded, and I continued. "You see, the situation has changed, and so I don't think it's appropriate for me to remain on my special assignment. I understand that you have someone currently filling my position …" he smirked but I just kept going, "…so I'm willing to return to my former position, or even take on a lesser-role, possibly in reception, or wherever you see fit."
"My dear, has something happened? Has Edward done something to make you uncomfortable?" There was a slight edge to his voice. Even with the sugarcoating, I could tell there was a retained anger.
I stuttered, looking for the right thing to say.
Then Carlisle gave me a reassuring smile and leaned forward. "Come on, Bella, you can trust me. I know my son, and I'm well aware he can be a little...difficult. Did he try to get you into his bed? Did he lead you to a bad part of town? Did you have to bail him out of jail? He's not making you into his caretaker, is he? That boy, he could charm anyone to do anything. Just tell me what the problem is, and I'll make it go away, okay?"
I was shocked by the list of ideas Mr. Masen had provided. None of those things were even on my radar. I wondered if Edward had ever really done those things, or if Mr. Masen was being facetious. Sorting through my bewilderment, I shook off the niggling feeling of unease.
"No! Edward isn't like that at all! He's very sweet…well, most of the time, and he didn't try to…make me do anything," I said, blushing furiously when I thought of our afternoon together, but trudged on. "But we're dating and I thought it was a conflict of interest should we follow our current path and he becomes my boyfriend."
"Boyfriend, you say? Well Bella, I've never actually known Edward to be the boyfriend type. Are you trying to politely tell me you're sleeping with my son?"
I blanched. Edward wasn't the boyfriend type? What was he then? What were we doing? Immature outbursts aside, Edward had been sweet and considerate, showing me in small ways he was thinking of me. He couldn't merely be trying to "get me into bed" as Mr. Masen suggested, since he told me he wasn't turned off by my admission. We'd had two dates in two days, plus he seemed eager to come for dinner on Friday. We may not be "boyfriend and girlfriend" yet, but all the signs were there. No, Mr. Masen was wrong. He clearly didn't know his son. I had spent weeks following his every move, and I hadn't seen any sign of Edward being anything like he'd had described.
"I...I... we aren't sleeping together." I stammered through my embarrassment and confusion.
"Well then, I'm sure there's no conflict here. Edward is a very handsome young man, and I can understand why you have a crush on him, but I'm sure it won't interfere with this assignment."
His dismissive attitude both insulted me and caused me to panic. My career was on the line, and it appeared he was completely misunderstanding the situation. "Mr. Masen, as I said, it must be against some sort of company policy to be dating the very person it's one's job to observe."
Boy that sounded odd. What was my job, really? I was further from being an editor now than when I had started at the company, but I pushed the nagging thought aside, not wanting to lose focus.
"I truly believe honesty is the best policy and I couldn't, in good conscience, continue to date Edward and remain on this assignment. I will be very grateful for any position here at Masen Publishing. Just please, please, don't fire me. My honesty has to count for something, right?"
He looked thoughtful. "You say you're dating? Be more specific, please," he said, his brow knit in concern.
Why would he want me to be more specific unless…did he think I was crazy? Oh gosh, did Mr. Masen think I was delusional and had confused my following Edward with the idea that we were actually dating? I may be a little naïve - one might even say gullible at times - but delusional I was not. What if he'd concocted images of me taking pictures with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Edward and doodling his name in my notebook? Okay, maybe that second one wasn't too far off, but that wasn't the point. I had to remedy this right away.
"Yes, we're dating. We went to lunch on the Malibu Pier, visited the Getty Museum, and had a wonderful brunch at Geoffrey's last week."
My eyes glazed over, lost in the memories of the decadent meal and the sweet taste of syrup that had lingered on Edward's tongue. Then I righted myself to the task at hand and continued with my explanation.
"We talk every day, and when I'm parked in front of his house he brings me bottles of water that I don't even ask for, just to be nice. He's coming to my house tomorrow night for dinner. We are dating," I reiterated, and then nodded with finality to affirm the information I'd spilled all over Mr. Masen's office.
It had been a long time since I'd dated anyone, and it was frightening yet invigorating to say it out loud. I drew in a long breath and waited for a response. Mr. Masen seemed to be weighing everything I'd said, letting it roll around in his mind. Then he suddenly beamed at me.
"This is great. Oh, yes, it couldn't be better than if I'd thought of it myself!" He clapped his hands together and got up and paced in front of his window, similar to the way he had when he'd set me on this odd venture. "You, Isabella Swan, have taken this assignment to a whole new level. This is perfect. You're a wholesome good girl; a rule-follower. You can help get Edward on the straight and narrow. You're one of the most dedicated employees here. Oh yes, yes, this will be exactly what we need."
He turned and looked at me, planting his hands on his desk and leaning forward with a wide alligator-like grin. "You're going to tell him how much you love coming to work every day and how great your life is working here. You're going to be the positive influence he needs to steer him in the right direction. You and I are going to be partners in getting Edward on the right track."
Nodding, I said, "I can tell him what I like about working here, that's no problem," and smiled brightly, responding to the positivity radiating from Mr. Masen. "I'm so glad I was truthful early on and we could rectify the situation immediately. Do you have any ideas regarding my new position?"
"What? Oh, you're not getting a new position," he said, somewhat distracted as he shuffled through his papers, obviously looking for something.
"So I'll be resuming my duties as your assistant? That's great. Will that be a problem, given my relationship with Edward?" I just wanted to make sure I crossed all of my T's and dotted all of my I's.
Seemingly lost in his own thoughts, he ignored my question and reached over to the phone, hitting a button. "Jess, I'm gonna need you to take Bella to HR to fill out some forms. Then he turned back to me. "Bella, I want you to take a leave of absence - paid, of course - to really focus on your relationship with Edward. Thank you for coming forward and letting me know the situation. It's going to work out even better than I'd hoped. You're a superstar, Bella!"
Before I knew it, I was following Jessica in her too-tight skirt and low-cut top out of Mr. Masen's office in a daze. I didn't like the way I felt at all. The knots were replaced with a hollowness in the pit of my stomach. I still had my job, or some semblance of it, but I felt as if I was standing on a house of cards.
The butter melted into a glorious sizzling pool in the pan as I stirred in the sliced onions gently, adding the sugar after they became translucent. I added a bit of water and put on the lid to let them soften and eventually caramelize. On the cast-iron grill, the turkey burgers were almost done, with beautiful mouthwatering lines of char. Edward stood behind me playing with my hair in an attempt to distract me as he stole dried cranberries a handful at a time from the bag.
I swatted his hand, "Edward, there won't be any left for the burgers if you keep that up."
"Who puts dried cranberries on a burger anyway?" When he threw another handful in his mouth, I turned and shoved him away from the counter.
"Why don't you turn on some music?"
He squeezed my side and went to choose a song.
"What do you wanna hear?"
"Anything is fine with me. Just pick dinner-appropriate music."
The first thumping bass beats of a dirty hip-hop song came blasting from the tiny sound system.
"Edward!" I admonished, throwing another cranberry at him.
He laughed and picked a nice mid-tempo emo rock playlist, then sat at the table sipping on a beer while I finished the burgers, placing a slice of swiss cheese on each one. I put a bit of water in the grill pan and quickly covered it to melt the cheese. The fresh brioche buns sat with a weighty spicy brown mustard already spread across them. Once everything was assembled, I grabbed a plate in each hand and headed to join Edward.
Even though we'd talked last night, I wanted to wait until he and I were face-to-face to begin my "get Edward to work at Masen Publishing" campaign, and tell him about my leave of absence. I figured he'd be in a better frame of mind.
"So, Edward, have you ever thought about working at your dad's company?" I thought I'd start out casual, see where he stood. Maybe Mr. Masen was all wrong. Maybe Edward was eager to work for his dad and this whole business of "convincing" him would be moot.
He took a huge bite, talking through his full mouth like a teenage boy, "Thought about it? Yeah, and then thought about something better." He looked at the burger, surprise on his face. "Damn, Bella! You're right! This burger is like Thanksgiving dinner on a fucking bun!"
My eyes widened and he meekly apologized, blaming the awesome dinner for his inappropriate language.
"Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad. I've always loved working there ." I smiled at him, encouraging him to see the positive.
"What's to love? Wearing some stuffy monkey suit while staring at a computer screen, stuck inside of the same four walls every day? Ffff...screw that."
Crikey! He really hated the whole idea. This was not good. What was I going to do?
My smile fell. "Don't you ever want to have a career?" I asked, hopeful that he was just opposed to the nepotism.
"I haven't really thought about it." He took another huge bite and washed it down with a swig from his beer bottle.
I gulped my water, choking on it. "You haven't thought about it? Edward, don't you have goals? A plan, for your life?"
"No, I don't have a life plan, do you?" he scoffed.
"Of course!" I exclaimed, flabbergasted by his lack of forethought.
He froze with his burger in the air; his mouth open, poised to take another bite. "You do?"
"Absolutely. Since my senior year of high school I've been working toward my goal of becoming an editor at one of the top publishing houses. I was doing great, but things are kind of, well, up in the air right now, but I'm going to right everything soon, though. I'm sure of it."
"If you want to be an editor, what are you doing following me to the gym every day?" There was a skeptical edge to his voice. He'd set his burger down and wiped at his hands on the cloth napkin.
I took a deep breath and spouted the answer I'd rehearsed in my head countless times. "It's just a test; a hoop to jump through. Mr. Masen is testing my loyalty to the company. He already knows I'm capable and just wants to make sure he can trust me."
Edward raised his eyebrows. "You really believe that?"
"Yes, I do," I said, getting defensive. "Mr. Masen is a man of his word. Maybe if you spent more time there, you'd see what a true professional he is."
His face hardened and I immediately recognized I'd made a misstep. In an effort to right the dangerous trajectory of our conversation, I softened my tone and added some positive perspective.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything about your relationship, but maybe it would be good if you spent a little more time at Masen Publishing. If you got used to it, you'd see how great it could be for your future. You said yourself you hadn't really thought about it. Maybe…I...could help you think about it more?"
"You sound just like him. I don't wanna talk about this shit, Bella, so just knock it off, okay? I thought you were different, but you're just like the other chicks, aren't you? You think you can mold me into your 'perfect man?' Well, you can forget the fairytale now." He sounded bitter and venomous.
I planted my face into my hands, mumbling and moaning my contrition.
"Ohhhhhh...I knew this was a bad idea. I tried, I really did, but it feels wrong, like I'm doing his dirty work. I'm so sorry," I said and peeked through my fingers, hoping he hadn't left.
"Whose dirty work?" he gripped the table, his knuckles turning white.
I took a deep breath and let my guilty conscience spill the ugly truth of my hidden agenda. "I went to see your dad today. I told him you and I were dating, hoping that if I told him the truth, he wouldn't fire me, and instead he gave me a paid leave of absence to spend more time with you and convince you to work for him. I told him I'd say some nice things; tell you that I liked working there, but you clearly hate it so much and I just didn't know what to do. I feel just terrible for pushing you so hard. I told him you couldn't be my job and my boyfriend - well, I mean, I said you would most likely be my boyfriend soon…what with us dating so much and all that other stuff…but he pressed the issue and seemed so happy with this new arrangement that I just didn't want to disappoint him and lose my job. Oh, Edward, I'm so sorry! I'm not like those other women who were trying to tell you what to do or who to be. I.-"
He cut me off before I could subject him to any more of my rambling excuses. "He said what? You said WHAT?"
A/N: Every review saves a fingernail from being bitten, just sayin'...