Author's Notes: It's been awhile, I know, so I hope I'm not too terribly out of practice and don't make a mess of things. I've actually been working on this story since the blizzards hit the DC area in February and trapped me in my apartment for a week. There are four other fics that have been in progress since I was finishing up "Afraid to Fall" last December – life just got really busy and distracting in that annoying way that it has. They are all in various stages and hopefully at least some of them will be on their way shortly. This originally started out as a one shot but it got so long, I decided to put it up in two or so chapters so no one would fall asleep while reading it!
Special Notes: For my sister, Blue-Winter-Angel. For putting me up (and putting up with me!) when I came to Australia, for giving me so much amazingly inspiring music, and for reminding me that if I just let the characters do their thing, the story will write itself.
Disclaimers: I own the plot and a minor character here and there – I'm sure you'll be able to tell which ones. All major characters are not mine. Pearl is real and she is.
This was not happening.
But as Bella Swan sat in her boss's office on a Friday afternoon in early April, a voice inside her head unhappily reminded her that this was in fact happening and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
She and one half of the head of Layla's Fund, Esme Cullen, were supposed to be flying out to Chicago on Sunday for a week long conference on children, families, education, and violence. As she had only been with the organization for a few months, this would be her first conference. She hadn't really been looking forward to the conference in the first place but figured that at least with Esme there, she might have some fun. Unfortunately, Esme had just informed her that she was no longer going to be able to join Bella in Chicago. Instead, Bella was now going to be accompanied by her co-worker, Edward Masen.
Edward Masen. Edward fucking Masen.
To say that Bella was upset would be putting it mildly.
Edward was gorgeous, smart, funny, talented and generally a nice guy. Well, he was a nice guy unless you were Bella. When you were Bella, Edward tended to either give you looks of disdain or flat out ignore you. If he was feeling particularly verbose, he might make a snide comment or two.
The thing that really irked Bella about Edward's attitude toward her was that she truly had no idea what had caused it in the first place. The first few weeks that she had been with the organization, the two had barely had any contact. And when they had, though Edward had been oddly stiff and formal with her, he hadn't ever been rude.
Bella didn't particularly mind his formality. In the beginning, she had found herself so incredibly tongue tied and intimidated around Edward, she could barely string a sentence together. She knew from listening to her co-workers that Edward had been with Layla's Fund for almost three years and that he was very close to and respected by the heads of the Foundation, Esme and Carlisle Cullen. He was incredibly well read and spoke with quiet confidence on a number of the subjects the organization tackled and Bella was constantly afraid of opening her mouth and risking making a fool of herself.
And though she hated to admit it even to herself, she knew Edward's ridiculously good looks had also played a part in her awkwardness. Tall and leanly muscled with piercing green eyes and perpetually messy hair the most interesting shade of copper Bella had ever seen, Edward was the stuff fantasies were made of. And it wasn't just the sight of him that affected her, either. Her stomach did funny things when she heard his voice and when he laughed – though never while in her company, to her dismay – just the sound could cause a blush to rise to her cheeks.
They had started interacting more when Esme had put the two of them on a project together and Edward's attitude had begun to change little by little. His stiffness had seemed to ease slightly and they had even moved on to conversations that weren't monosyllabic. As a result, Bella found herself becoming more comfortable with him as well, finding herself capable of intelligent conversation when they were discussing work and her specific areas of expertise.
And then one Monday, she had come in to work and Edward had been aloof. And as time passed, his attitude progressed from distant to cold and almost unpleasant when it came to Bella. She had tried numerous times to figure out what had happened to change things between them, but she always came up blank. The oddest thing was that in the days leading up to Edward's sudden 180, she had been sure they were really starting to get along.
"I'm sorry for the short notice, Bella, but you'll have a great time with Edward," Esme assured her. "He's been to several of these conferences already so he'll be able to show you around and introduce you to everyone. Don't worry, it'll be fine."
Esme smiled gently at the expression on Bella's face. "And you never know, Bella. You might end up making a new friend. Just give him a chance."
"Give him a chance. Can you believe that? I'm not the one who's always talking down to him or making disparaging comments or looking like I just want to kill him." Bella sighed, taking a long drink from her bottle of Stella before she continued. "And now I have to spend an entire week with him. Not to mention the five hour flights to and from Chicago. Fuck my life," she groaned, dropping her head into her hands.
Bella was sitting in a booth at her favorite bar with her best friends, Rose and Emmett, recounting the conversation she had had with Esme earlier that day.
Rose looked a bit skeptical. "Don't you think you're being a tad melodramatic, Bella? I mean, it can't really be as bad as all that."
Bella shot Rose a look. "It's worse," she said sourly. "Half the time, he ignores me. The other half, he treats me like something he's found on the bottom of his shoe."
Generally, she had kept her issues with Edward to herself, only complaining to Emmett and Rose when he did something to push her over the edge. She had never gone into this much detail before so it wasn't terribly surprising that Rose thought she was being dramatic. But then, she had never before been faced with the prospect of almost an entire week with him, either.
An entire week with someone who seemed to dislike her for absolutely no reason. She fought the urge to groan again. What cosmic force had she pissed off to deserve this?
Being around Edward was always an uncomfortable experience for Bella. Sometimes he would give her looks or make comments that seemed to imply she wasn't fit for her job. Other times, she would catch him looking at her with an expression on his face that she couldn't identify. In these instances, he would always look quickly away, leaving Bella feeling self-conscious and out of sorts. And now she had a whole week of awkward, uncomfortable interaction to look forward to. Sighing to herself, she returned her attention to her friends.
"The thing that really bugs me is that he's perfectly nice to every single other person he comes into contact with," she continued. "It doesn't matter if it's a co-worker, a donor, even someone trying to sell something. He's a perfect, charming gentleman except when it comes to me. He doesn't even call me by my name," she added. "In the beginning it was Miss Swan; now he doesn't even bother with the 'Miss' part."
"Your bosses let him get away with acting like such a douchebag?" Emmett was incredulous.
"He's only a douchebag to me, Em," Bella said with a sigh.
Rose smirked. "Maybe he likes you."
Bella just gave Rose a look. She knew her dating experience could be considered limited, but she was pretty sure she could tell the difference between flirtation and insults.
Emmett looked doubtful. "I don't know, Rosie. He might just be a dick. I could beat him up if you want, Bellsy."
Rose nudged Emmett none too gently. "Not helping," she told him. "Besides, you wouldn't believe some of the stupid shit Emmett did to get my attention."
"I was never mean to you," Emmett protested.
"Well, no, because then she would have kicked your ass," Bella said with a grin.
Whatever Emmett was going to say in his defense was cut off by an enthusiastic shriek. "Bella!"
Bella looked up to see Alice Cullen and her fiancé Jasper Whitlock just entering the bar.
Petite, exuberant Alice was the only child of the heads of Layla's Fund, Esme and Carlisle. She had a job with an interior design studio in Seattle but spent a lot of her free time volunteering for her parents' organization and Bella had met her soon after she had begun to work for the foundation in October of the previous year. The small girl was friendly and smart with a wicked sense of humor and Bella enjoyed the occasional lunch or drink with her.
Alice was engaged to Jasper, a southern transplant from Texas who was currently studying for his Masters in Psychology at the University of Washington. Bella had only met him a few times but she always enjoyed the calm and warmth that seemed to surround Jasper and she found that with his laid back personality, Jasper was the perfect complement to Alice's at times frenetic energy.
Bella would have liked to spend more time hanging out with the couple but she knew Alice was very close to Edward. In fact, when she had first met Alice, the pixie had spent so much time talking to and about Edward that Bella had thought the engagement ring on Alice's finger had come from him. That misconception had of course been cleared up instantly the first time Bella saw Alice and Jasper together and she realized that Alice and Edward in fact treated each other more like family than romantic partners.
Alice and Jasper reached their booth and Bella made introductions all around after inviting the couple to join them. Alice plopped into the seat next to Bella while Jasper politely asked if he could get anyone anything to drink.
After Jasper had gotten everyone's drink orders and headed to the bar, Alice turned back to the group. "So what are we talking about?" she asked with an infectious grin.
"Nothing much," Bella said, trying to steer the conversation from its previous subject.
"We were just talking about how Bellsy has to go to a conference next week with some tool from her office named Edward who's always giving her a hard time," Emmett volunteered.
"Emmett," Bella growled. "Edward is a friend of Alice's."
"Whoops," Emmett muttered. "Uh, sorry about that."
But Alice only laughed. "Don't worry, I won't tell," she promised. She then turned her full focus on Bella. "You and Edward are heading to the conference? So my mom's not going then?" she questioned innocently. Too innocently, Bella thought suspiciously, but she pushed the thought to the back of her mind.
"Yes," she said flatly. "To both of those questions."
Alice smiled. "Don't worry, Bella. Edward's a really great guy. He's just been through some shit."
"Haven't we all?" Bella grumbled.
Alice smiled again. "This trip will give you two a chance to get to know each other. Trust me, you're going to have a good time."
A good time? Was Alice crazy? Bella sighed, resting her head against the window of the shuttle that was taking Edward and her from the airport to the hotel where the conference was being held.
Their flight had been a little awkward but fortunately nowhere near as painful as Bella had feared. She had been running so late that morning that by the time she had reached her gate, the passengers were already lined up to board the plane and she didn't see Edward anywhere. She'd kept her fingers tightly crossed the whole way down the walkway but found to her dismay that she was seated in between Edward and an overly chatty older woman. In order to avoid awkward conversation (or lack thereof in the case of Edward) with either seat partner, Bella had pretended to be asleep. Eventually, she'd faked it so well that she actually had fallen asleep, only waking up when they were preparing to land at O'Hare.
She and Edward had silently exited the plane, collected their luggage, and boarded their hotel's little transport bus. Bella had tried to think of something to say to break the awkward silence but the closed expression on Edward's face had thwarted every conversational possibility that came to her mind and eventually she had just put her headphones back on and turned her iPod up.
Bella was brought back to the present when their shuttle came to a stop in front of the hotel where they were staying. Without a word, Edward picked up his suitcase and laptop bag and stepped off the bus. Flushing in annoyance, Bella quickly gathered her things and followed Edward off the bus and into the hotel.
Edward was already at the front desk when Bella entered the lobby and she hurried to join him, anxious to get her room key and get away from him for awhile.
The desk clerk tapped a few keys on her keyboard and smiled as the reservation screen came up. "Yes, I have the reservation right here," she chirped. "One room, two queen beds, for the week."
Edward looked absolutely horrified. "One room?" he repeated in a strangled voice.
Bella could feel her cheeks burning a deep red from a combination of the thought of sharing a room with Edward and the clear disgust on his face and she forced herself to speak. "Are you sure?" she asked the clerk. "Is there maybe another reservation under Swan?"
"Or Masen?" Edward added hopefully.
The clerk pressed a few keys, shaking her head slowly. "No, I don't have anything under those names. The only thing I have for your organization is the reservation for one double queen room."
"Well, can you give one of us another room?" Edward asked.
The clerk frowned. "Sorry, but we're full up for the week," she said. "There are two other conferences in town this week and we have a large wedding party coming in on Thursday."
"Do you know if there's anywhere else nearby that might have room?" Bella asked, trying and failing to keep the stress out of her voice.
"Sorry," the clerk said again, giving Bella a sympathetic look. "Like I said, there are two other conferences this week. We're already handling the overflow for both of those."
Edward sighed heavily, running his hand through his hair. "I guess it will have to do," he muttered. Without looking at Bella, he signed the form the clerk held out and took one of the keys on the counter. With a nod to the clerk, he headed over to the elevators.
The clerk could see just how upset Bella was as she handed the brunette her room key. "If anything opens up, I'll let you know first, okay hon?" she said kindly.
Bella's forced smile was fleeting. "Thanks," she murmured, walking to the elevators to join Edward.
The tension in the elevator was so thick, it was practically a physical presence between the two and they both kept their gazes straight ahead, careful not to meet the other's eyes in the elevator's mirrored door. Bella was so focused on ignoring Edward that when the elevator dinged and opened on the fourth floor, she almost jumped out of her skin. Edward hurried out of the elevator and Bella followed a few feet behind him to their room.
When they entered the room, Edward threw his bags on the bed closest to the door so Bella crossed the room to the bed near the window and set down her things. There was a meet and greet scheduled for that evening so after taking turns in the bathroom to get cleaned up, they headed back down to the lobby, silently making their way to the ballroom.
There were a number of people already there when they arrived and several people turned to greet Edward as he passed them. He quickly said his hellos and gave Bella a brief introduction before disappearing across the room to the bar, leaving Bella with a very pleasant woman named Angela Weber who worked for an organization in Portland, Oregon. In typical Edward fashion, when speaking to Angela, he had been charming and sweet and had smiled at her while Bella herself had barely been spared a glance.
Angela smiled at Bella. "He's such a nice guy," she said of Edward. "Aside from my fiancé Ben, he seems like one of the last good guys left out there." Bella couldn't stop a snort from escaping and Angela looked at her curiously. "Of course, you would probably know better since you work with him on a daily basis."
Bella shrugged. "No, he seems to be nice to everyone else. It's just me he doesn't like. I honestly don't know what I did to offend him but he's been a jerk to me almost since the first day I started working there."
"Maybe you just got off on the wrong foot?" Angela suggested.
Bella doubted it but kept her opinion to herself, quickly changing to subject as she asked about the other organizations that were represented at the conference.
They had been talking for a few minutes when a tall, brunette woman approached them. Angela said hello and introduced Bella to Maureen from a family advocacy organization in Ohio. The other woman was casually polite at first but her eyes positively lit up when she heard where Bella worked.
"Layla's Fund? So you work with Edward Masen then?" Bella nodded warily. "Is he here this year?"
Bella nodded again. Something about this woman grated on her nerves and she forced a smile. "Hopefully, between Edward and Angela, I'll make it through my first conference unscathed," she said pleasantly.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Maureen said snidely. "Edward should definitely be able to show you the ropes. He just loves this conference. Gets to add a few notches to his belt every year."
Fighting to keep her expression neutral, Bella stole a quick glance at Angela who rolled her eyes and shook her head subtly. Maureen stared at Edward as he stood at the bar talking to two other men and Bella was a little disconcerted by the predatory gleam in the other woman's eye. "He is fucking gorgeous," she muttered to herself as she took another large gulp of her drink. "Damn shame he knows it and uses it to get what he wants."
Bella was relieved when Maureen finally excused herself and she let out a quiet sigh before turning to see Angela smiling sympathetically at her. "She's a little, um, difficult sometimes," Angela said diplomatically. "But I wouldn't listen to a word she says if I were you. Especially when it comes to Edward."
Bella rolled her eyes, wondering silently if she needed to prepare herself for a week of similar catty comments. "Don't worry," Angela said, seeming to read Bella's mind. "She's the exception rather than the rule. Everyone else here tends to love Edward and they really respect the work he's done. Maureen just holds a grudge because of her own stupidity."
Bella looked at Angela curiously and the other woman grimaced slightly before continuing. "She was off her face drunk at last year's conference and she threw herself at him," Angela told her quietly. "He very politely declined and got someone to take her back to her room to sleep it off. I don't think she took it very well."
Thankfully, this line of conversation was abruptly cut off as another woman approached them then and Angela introduced Bella to her friend and co-worker, Jessica Stanley. Small and energetic, Jessica reminded Bella somewhat of Alice and her bubbly personality and constant stream of chatter was a stark contrast to her tall, much quieter friend. The three women spent the rest of the evening getting acquainted and Bella found herself relaxing despite the day's earlier events as they headed to the hotel's restaurant for dinner.
After dinner, the three of them took the elevator back to their rooms, Jessica and Angela getting off on the third floor while Bella continued on to the fourth and her room. Edward was just coming out of the bathroom when Bella entered the room and he nodded shortly at her in greeting. Rolling her eyes to herself, Bella picked up her bag and headed into the bathroom to change and get ready for bed.
She quickly washed her face and brushed her teeth before changing into the shorts and t-shirt she wore to bed. She glanced in the mirror before exiting the room, stopping short at the sight that met her eyes.
Edward probably hadn't expected her to be so quick in the bathroom.
He was naked to the waist and she couldn't help admiring the way the muscles in his back moved as he picked up his t-shirt from the bed and pulled it over his head. He turned around suddenly and caught Bella staring at him. His hair was messier than usual thanks to his quick change and the look in his eyes was almost vulnerable for a moment before his gaze quickly turned cool once more.
"I know that for some people, a conference means partying every night in someone's room," Edward began as he turned to his bed and began pulling the covers back. "However, I would prefer we keep the atmosphere professional, Swan. We each respect that this room belongs to both of us, which means I would appreciate it if you did not feel the need to bring anyone back to the room with you."
Bella's face flushed as she realized what Edward was saying and she pressed her mouth into a thin line. "If you think you can manage it," she said icily. "I have no problem with that."
Edward nodded shortly. "Good. I suggest you get some sleep, then. Tomorrow is going to be a long day." Without waiting for a response, Edward climbed into his bed, shutting off his half of the bedside light before he pulled the covers up around him and closed his eyes.
Bella stared at him a moment, silently calming herself down. Did he always have to be such a jerk? Releasing a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, she made her way over to her own bed, turning off her side of the light and slipping underneath the covers. She lay on her back for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling as her eyes adjusted to the dark. Eventually feeling calm enough to attempt sleep, she rolled over to face the wall, pulling the covers tightly around her as one thought ran through her head. How the hell was she going to survive a week of this?
Bella had deliberately set the alarm on her phone much earlier than she needed to and it was barely light outside when she woke up the next morning. With a quick glance over at Edward's bed to make sure he was still asleep, she grabbed her bag and headed into the bathroom. She turned the water on and stepped into the shower, letting the hot water wake her up as she mentally began to run through the upcoming events of the day.
She was going to be presenting late that afternoon and though she knew her topic inside and out, she was starting to get a little anxious as she thought about it. After all, it was her first presentation at her first conference. What if she screwed it up?
No, she told herself firmly as she climbed out of the shower and began to dry off. This project is your baby, you are not going to mess it up. Nodding resolutely to herself, she dressed and dried her hair before quickly applying her makeup and opening the door to the bathroom.
Edward was standing by his bed, pulling clothing from his suitcase, and for a moment Bella was struck by a powerful urge to speak to him about her concerns. As if he could hear her thoughts, Edward turned around and faced her as he began walking to the bathroom. However, he barely glanced at Bella as he passed her and she pressed her lips together, annoyed at her temporary moment of weakness. Yes, butterflies were already starting to swarm in her stomach at the thought of her presentation but there was no way in hell she was going to let Edward know she was nervous.
She made her way over to her own bed and picked up her briefcase from the floor next to it, pulling out a sheaf of papers before sitting down carefully on the edge of her bed. As she read through her notes, she couldn't help the smile that crossed her face as she looked over the facts and figures and anecdotes she had collected. This program had been entirely her idea and she was extremely proud of it and the results it had already begun to show.
The program, Layla's Pals, was a therapy group for both children and homeless dogs at a local shelter. Bella had read about similar programs in the past and after some extensive research, she had come up with her own version. Children who were considered 'at risk,' those who had suffered loss or abuse in their lives or had special needs based on their family situations, were brought to the local animal shelter and allowed to interact with the dogs there. The theory behind this was that this interaction facilitated the development of empathy in the children as well as responsibility and nurturing skills. All of the research Bella had read had shown that a child who developed a high degree of empathy early on would learn to value and respect lives other than their own and as a result could be deterred from future violent or criminal activity.
The project had been inspired in part by Bella's own dog, a rescue named Pearl. Pearl was a Pointer, a breed that was valued for its hunting skills, but Pearl had apparently not made the grade for her particular human hunting partner; as a puppy, she had been found in the woods of Kentucky, beaten, starving and near death. The shelter figured that she had been left behind by her owner or breeder when he or she discovered that Pearl wouldn't hunt the way she was 'supposed to.'
Pearl's sad story and adorable face had won Bella over in a matter of minutes and she and Pearl had been together for nearly two years now. The young dog had been terrified of people when she had first come to live with Bella, but with time and a lot of patience on Bella's part, Pearl had finally come around and was now a sweet, well adjusted dog who loved trips to the dog park and car rides and who now wagged her tail when people approached instead of hiding behind Bella's legs in fear. Emmett was a particularly big fan of Pearl's and he and Rose were taking care of her while Bella was at the conference that week. Bella figured that by the time she got back, Emmett would have convinced Rose they needed to adopt a dog of their own.
Bella had been rather nervous when she had first presented the idea for the program to Esme and Carlisle at the end of November of the previous year, but her bosses had both been incredibly enthusiastic about the project and had allowed her to get to work on it right away. It was that very project, in fact, that she had been working with Edward on when his attitude toward her had undergone such a massive change.
Bella pushed that last thought out of her mind and redoubled her focus on the notes before her. As she finished reading over her documents, a sudden wave of panic gripped her. What if something was wrong with the PowerPoint slideshow that would be accompanying her presentation? She had looked over it countless times herself and had even had Rose look it over the previous Saturday, but what if there was something they had both missed? With her luck, the presentation would have glaring spelling mistakes or she'd do something like use the word 'pubic' when she meant 'public.'
She had the entire presentation saved on a flash drive but she had decided not to bring her ancient laptop with her to the conference. At the time, she had thought it wouldn't be worth it to lug her temperamental machine with her but she now found herself regretting the decision. As she glanced around the room, however, her eyes fell on Edward's laptop bag and her spirits brightened considerably. While Edward probably wouldn't be thrilled by Bella using his computer, they were co-workers and as a co-worker, Edward should want her presentation to be perfect, she decided as she picked up his case and carried it over to the desk in the corner of the room.
Setting the laptop on the desk, she turned it on, slipping her shoes on while she waited for the machine to start up. The "Windows" screen had barely begun loading when Bella heard an angry voice behind her.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Bella whirled around to find Edward standing just outside the bathroom staring at her. She watched in confusion as shock, horror, and disappointment played across his face, quickly replaced by a look of fury.
"I'm presenting today," she informed him, holding out her flash drive. "I wanted to make sure there are no mistakes on the power point."
Edward's anger seemed to abate slightly but his eyes were still stormy as he glared at her. "And why couldn't you use your own damn computer?"
"Because I didn't bring my 'own damn computer,'" Bella replied testily.
Edward approached her and Bella quickly rose to her feet, Edward's unusually harsh tone making her a bit uneasy. "God, what is your problem?" she blurted, trying to cover her nerves. "I'm representing the organization with this presentation – I'd think you'd want to make sure I don't embarrass you."
She glanced back at the laptop's screen as the computer finished loading. "Not that I could have used it anyway," she added, gesturing to the screen asking for a Username and Password. "Hiding government secrets, Edward?" she asked with a smirk. "Or just your porn stash?"
"That is none of your damn business," Edward snarled, stepping around Bella and slamming down the laptop's screen.
Bella flinched at the sudden loud noise before pulling herself up to her full height and glaring at Edward. "Fine," she snapped. "I'll use one of the computers in the lobby. So sorry to have inconvenienced you."
His mouth set in a hard line, Edward stepped aside without a word, not even turning to look at Bella as she stormed out of the room.
Bella looked up, her cheeks flushing slightly as the audience members applauded. Their reaction made her feel almost dizzy with relief – it seemed her colleagues had actually enjoyed her presentation – and she shyly glanced around the room. Somehow, her eyes almost immediately located Edward in the audience and she was stunned to see that he was smiling at her with an expression of what looked almost like pride on his face. She managed to keep her mouth from dropping open but her shock must have shown in her wide eyes because Edward suddenly looked away.
She blinked in surprise. Had Edward Masen actually just smiled at her? She quickly glanced down at her feet to avoid tripping as she walked away from the podium and when she returned her gaze to Edward, she saw only the back of him as he walked out of the ballroom. She mentally shook her head as she made her way toward the exit. Surely her eyes had deceived her. It had probably been a trick of the light or something along those lines.
Several people stopped Bella to comment and congratulate her on her presentation and it was nearly half an hour later before she was finally able to leave the room. Hers had been the last presentation of the day and the cocktail hour was about to start but Bella decided to head up to her room and change into more casual clothing before going to the gathering in the hotel's bar.
Fortunately, Edward was nowhere to be seen when she entered their room and she took her time changing into casual pants and a top and reapplying her makeup before finally heading back down to the gathering.
The bar was already crowded when Bella entered and she looked around hopefully for Angela or Jessica as she made her way to the bar but couldn't pick them out of the crowd. Knowing her tendency to gulp her beer when she was nervous, Bella opted instead for a glass of red wine from the open bar. She thanked the man behind the bar as he handed her her glass and walked a few feet away from the bar as she began to scan the room once more for familiar faces.
"Bella Swan, right?" Startled, Bella turned to find a tall, attractive man addressing her. She nodded and the man stuck his hand out, grinning widely at her. "Jacob Black," he said, taking her hand in his. "It's such a pleasure to meet you."
He held her hand just a moment too long and Bella felt her cheeks beginning to redden as he finally let go. Slightly uncomfortable and at a loss for anything to say, she quickly took a long drink of her wine.
"That was an incredible presentation you gave today," he continued. "Very impressive."
Bella smiled. "Thank you," she said, beginning to relax as they moved into more familiar territory.
"So Layla's Fund, right? We're practically neighbors; I can't believe I haven't met you before." Bella gave Jacob a questioning look and he smiled. "I'm with Kids First. We're just outside of Seattle. Maybe our organizations can team up someday."
The look in Jacob's eyes once again caused the color to rise in Bella's cheeks and she quickly took another sip of wine to give herself a moment to clear her head.
"So did anyone else from your organization make the trip out or did they realize you were more than capable of handling this on your own?" Jacob asked, watching her face carefully
"No, my co-worker Edward Masen is here as well." She tried to keep her voice and expression neutral but the image of Edward smiling at her after her presentation flashed in her mind and she couldn't help the small smile that quickly crossed her lips. The look on Jacob's face told her he had caught her momentary lapse and she hurriedly continued. "Um, he's been with the organization awhile," she said. "Maybe you two have worked together before?"
Jacob smiled again. "Oh yes, Edward and I have met." There was an undercurrent that implied Jacob was not telling the whole story but Bella was quickly pulled from this line of thinking as Jacob began asking her about herself and her work with the Fund.
The two easily fell into conversation and Bella felt herself relax even more as the evening wore on. She found Jacob very easy to talk to; he was charming and funny and actually seemed interested in her and what she had to say.
Of course, the ease with which Bella carried on her half of the conversation could also have had to do with the number of glasses of wine she had had. Every time Bella finished a glass of wine, another one seemed to appear almost magically in Jacob's hand. Bella knew she was past her limit and should probably slow down but she was enjoying herself and she brushed the thought off as she laughed at a story Jacob was telling her.
A few minutes later, Jacob returned to the bar for another glass of wine – at this point, Bella had lost track of what number she was on – and as she glanced around the bar and saw Jessica across the room. Jessica caught her eye and waved. Bella waved back but averted her eyes when she recognized a very familiar head of bronze hair in the small group of people Jessica was talking to.
When she turned back to Jacob, she saw that he had returned from the bar and was suddenly standing much closer to her than he had been just a few moments earlier. Uncomfortably close, Bella decided as she tried to get her brain to function through the alcohol clouding her brain.
She took the glass of wine from him with a smile and took a small sip as she tried to figure out how she could politely excuse herself and get back up to her room for some dinner from room service and about a gallon of water before bed. Before she could decide on a course of action, however, someone suddenly appeared at her side.
"Hello, Edward," Jacob said with a smirk. Bella started at her co-worker's sudden appearance. What on earth was he doing there? "Your lovely co-worker and I were just getting to know each other better."
Bella could have sworn she saw something flash in Edward's eyes but it was gone before she could be sure. "Black." Edward nodded curtly in his direction before turning to Bella. "Bella, there's someone here Esme wanted me to make sure you met. Would you excuse us?" he said, taking Bella by the arm and leading her away from Jacob.
Bella was so surprised by the use of her first name that she allowed Edward to lead her a few feet from Jacob before she began to protest. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded as Edward deftly plucked the empty glass from Bella's hand and set it down on the tray of a passing waiter.
"Getting you out of a bad situation," he said grimly as he led her from the bar and to the elevators.
Once the elevator doors closed behind them, Bella jerked her arm out of Edward's grasp. "What the hell is wrong with you? In case you've forgotten, one of the reasons Esme sent me to this thing is so that I can meet the other people in our field in case we need to work with any of them in the future."
"Well you can rest assured that Esme and Carlisle would not want us or anyone else at the Fund working with Jacob Black, so don't worry about it."
"Really? And just why is that?" Bella asked, glaring at Edward now.
"Trust me," Edward said. "He's not a good person."
"And you know this from personal experience?" Bella snapped.
A strange expression crossed Edward's face. "I do," he replied quietly. The elevator doors opened on their floor and he once again took her arm, more gently this time, and led her to their room.
Once inside the room, Bella pulled her pajamas from her bag and headed into the bathroom to change into her pajamas. When she returned to the room, she made her way over to her bed, managing to stumble only twice as she crossed the room. Her covers had already been pulled back and she gratefully dropped onto her bed.
When she had gotten settled, Edward handed her a glass of water and three aspirin. "You did very well, Bella. Carlisle and Esme would be proud," he said as he took the empty glass back from her and set it on the night stand.
Bella smiled, Edward's uncharacteristic behavior suffusing her body with a comforting warmth. "You said my name," she observed. "You never call me Bella."
Edward's posture immediately stiffened and he turned to his own bed. "Go to sleep," he ordered, grabbing his pajamas from his bag and walking into the bathroom.
"I'm not tired," Bella grumbled, settling back on her pillow.
She was asleep in moments.