Author's Notes: Hmm. This so did not turn out the way I had planned but I just keep messing with it the longer I have it, so I'm posting it before it gets any more off track and just up and drives me crazy. I hope you all enjoy! Sorry for the delay – work has owned my butt lately.
Special Notes: For my sister, Blue-Winter-Angel, who put up with all my nerves and indecision about this story and has always been there. Thanks for being you, sis!
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.
The first thing that occurred to Bella when she awoke the next morning was that she was naked. The second thought that hit her was that she was not alone in the bed. Smiling sleepily to herself, she resettled herself against the warm body next to her, her eyes drifting closed as images from the previous night began to play out in her mind. The sex had been beyond amazing and as for Edward himself, well… A dreamy smile crossed Bella's lips as she recalled the things that he had done to her body and she sighed contentedly, snuggling back even more closely against him.
Seconds later, her eyes flew open wide, her body going stiff.
Sex. With Edward? Oh God, what had she done? More to the point, what was she going to do now?
Maybe he was still asleep, maybe she could sneak out before he woke up. Holding her breath, she carefully rolled over so that she was facing Edward.
He was in fact still sleeping and Bella couldn't help pausing a moment to stare at him in the early morning light peeking in under the curtains. He looked so peaceful, so content, and she had to fight the urge to reach up and stroke his cheek.
Stop! she ordered herself sternly, an icy sensation that was part fear, part nausea settling in her stomach as the reality of the situation hit her. This is absolutely crazy. You need to get up and get out of here and figure this out. Preferably before Edward wakes up. Bella carefully disentangled herself from Edward's arms and inched to the side of the bed. She spotted her discarded towel on the ground and quickly snatched it up, wrapping it hastily around her body as she began to ease off of the bed.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt a warm hand encircle her forearm.
"What's your hurry?" Edward asked, his voice husky with sleep.
Not daring to look at him again, Bella tightened her towel around her. "In case you've forgotten, we're here for a conference. We're already late for the first session."
Edward smiled lazily. "It's the last day. Nothing important really gets done today. Most people will skip anyway."
"Be that as it may, we both still have a duty to the organization. Now release my arm, please," Bella said stiffly.
Edward acquiesced and Bella fairly leapt from the bed, never once looking in his direction as she gathered up her things and hurried into the bathroom. The door shut firmly behind her, the click of the lock echoing through the quiet room.
Edward stared after her a moment before he shrugged to himself. Maybe she wasn't a morning person, maybe she just needed some food or coffee before she felt human.
He flopped back on the bed with a smile on his face, raising his arms above his head as he stretched languidly. He rolled onto his side, his head coming to rest on Bella's recently abandoned pillow, and he couldn't help inhaling deeply.
With Bella's scent enveloping him, he let his mind wander as he tried to plan how the two of them could spend the day. True, this was technically the last day of the conference and there was probably a presentation or two he could attend, but he knew Esme and Carlisle wouldn't mind him skipping the final day, especially given the situation.
His smile grew as he rolled over and picked up the phone next to the bed, quickly punching in the number for the front desk. He knew they needed to have a serious conversation and that he owed her an explanation as well as an apology for his past behavior, but he told himself the heavy stuff could wait. For the moment, he simply wanted to enjoy being with Bella.
In the bathroom, Bella's mind dimly registered that her hands were shaking as she turned on the shower and she quickly discarded her towel and stepped under the warm water. She washed her hair, trying to focus on anything but the problem at hand, but that only worked for a minute or so.
What the hell was she going to do?
Thank God for the pill. For some reason, this thought struck her as hilarious and she had to press her lips together to hold back a sudden burst of almost hysterical laughter. The feeling passed almost instantly, however, and she was suddenly choking back sobs as the tears began to fall, the spray washing over her to mix with the hot tears that streamed down her face.
She rested her hand against the shower wall and leaned her forehead against it, her body shaking with silent sobs. God, what if the horrible Maureen had been right after all? What if this was something Edward did regularly at conferences? What if he had simply used his looks to get what he wanted from her?
Not that she had any idea what he could possibly want from her. Beyond the sex, of course. God, the sex. She shivered at the thought before she forced her mind to focus on why this was a bad thing. She had slept with a co-worker, with Edward, a man who treated her like she was incompetent and not worth his time.
This could only negatively affect her professional life, she told herself as she scrubbed her body roughly with a washcloth. She was not going to let good sex – okay, incredible, mind-blowing, once in a lifetime sex – distract her from that fact.
You have no idea how he'll use this against you in the future, she told herself sharply as she got out of the shower and grabbed a fresh towel. She glanced at the door, hearing the sounds of Edward moving around in the room beyond and for a second, she entertained the idea of just hiding in the bathroom until he left. Yeah, nice try, her mind taunted. Sighing in resignation, she wrapped the towel around her and stepped up to the counter, picking up her comb and beginning to drag it through her wet hair.
She wiped away the condensation on the mirror and stood for a moment staring unseeingly at her reflection as her mind continued to work furiously. She was pulled suddenly from her thoughts when she noticed the redness on her shoulders. Looking closer, she could see very faint marks, shaped almost like…fingers. She froze, her hand holding the comb pausing mid-stroke as her mind immediately returned to Edward desperately gripping her shoulders only hours ago as she had brought him to orgasm. She could almost feel his long fingers on her skin and she forced herself to pull her gaze from the mirror even as her body tingled pleasantly at the sensation.
Focus! she reminded herself. The sex might have been amazing but Edward was still the same guy who had treated her so badly for the last five months; there was no telling what he would do with the leverage he now had against her. For all she knew, he was planning on telling Esme and Carlisle the moment they got back to Seattle and getting her fired. Or maybe he would just hold it over her for the foreseeable future, reveling in making her squirm with what he might do with the information.
This was not the time to panic, she told herself. What she had to do right now was take control of the situation before it got any further out of hand. She nodded resolutely. It was time to go on the offensive.
When she emerged from the bathroom fully dressed, her hair dried, she found Edward standing by the bed with a tray of food from room service. "Breakfast in bed?" he asked with a smile. "I didn't know what you liked, so I got a little of everything."
"Don't even let it cross your mind," Bella said sharply. "Your little game ends here and now. What happened last night was a massively stupid mistake and it will not happen again. I am not about to throw away my future with the organization just to be another notch in your bedpost."
Edward's jaw dropped and for a moment he could only stare. "What?"
"As far as I'm concerned, last night was nothing more than a very bad dream," Bella said as she picked up her bag and her room key. "We would both be better off forgetting it ever happened." She raised her chin defiantly as she forced herself to look Edward directly in the eye. The expression on his face, however, caused her to almost immediately look away and she hastily walked out of the room without another word.
An hour later, Bella was sitting at a bookstore café several blocks from the hotel. She tried to convince herself she wasn't actually hiding from Edward as she sat at a table tucked in the very back of the room. She'd bought herself a muffin and some juice at the café for breakfast but she hadn't been able to actually eat any of it. Eventually, she tossed her food in the trash and headed for the store's large Fiction section where she spent the next few hours browsing through the books and rereading passages from her favorite novels as she tried to forget about the previous evening.
But forgetting proved to be impossible even as Bella attempted to immerse herself in the words of her favorite authors. Every other word she read was suddenly a trigger for a particular memory from the previous night and she eventually gave up, setting the book she was currently holding back on the shelf and taking a seat in one of the store's numerous overstuffed chairs.
Reluctantly admitting to herself that there was no getting around it, she finally stopped trying to block Edward from her thoughts and gave into her memories of the previous night. She told herself that maybe if she let the thoughts run their course, they would stop having such a hold over her thoughts and body. This course of action quickly proved futile, though, and Bella's whole body felt like it was in sensory overload as the memories flooded her brain.
She could remember every brush of Edward's fingers on her bare skin, the feel of his lips on hers and pressed against her skin. His velvety voice whispering her name over and over. The tender look in his eyes any time she had met his gaze. The look on his face when she had left the hotel room that morning haunted her. He had looked so sad, so…lost. That couldn't be right. She must have been misreading his expression.
How could this be the same man she had been working beside for the past seven months? And how on earth was she supposed to continue working alongside him after last night? She sighed heavily, momentarily dropping her head into her hands as the same question that had been haunting her since she'd woken up crossed her mind. What the hell was she going to do?
Should she pretend she'd been drunk? She shook her head, discarding that idea as quickly as it had come to her. She had already spoken with Edward that morning; it was probably a little late to try to play the "I was drunk and didn't know what I was doing" card now. Besides, a reputation as the "drunk, bed hopping member" of the convention, as Edward had so eloquently put it, certainly wasn't something Bella was eager to embrace. Maybe he'd been drunk. He hadn't appeared to be but how else could his extreme change of behavior be explained?
She nervously chewed on the bottom of her lip as she tried to figure out how she could get through the rest of the convention and the flight home without having to see Edward again. She knew she was giving into the "flight" side of her fight or flight instinct but she couldn't help it. She was confused and scared and about a million other things she didn't even want to try to identify at the moment. She didn't know how she was going to face him again or what she would say. Worse still, she honestly didn't know if she would be able to keep her hands to herself if she was ever alone with him again.
Her phone beeped at that moment, letting her know she had a text message, and she cautiously took it out of her bag, her mind torn somewhere between hope and fear that it was Edward.
But it was only Angela, asking her to meet her for lunch, and Bella sighed in relief. She still didn't know how she was going to face Edward right now. Besides, over the past few days, Angela had proven herself to be a good friend and a good listener. And Bella needed both of those right now.
While Angela was counseling Bella on the situation at hand, Edward was scouring the hotel and its immediately surrounding areas searching frantically for his brunette co-worker. Unlike Bella, he had freely allowed his memories from the previous night to run wild in his brain as he searched for her. Every brush of her lips against his skin, every caress of her fingers, every moan that had left her perfect lips filled his thoughts completely. The image of Bella beneath him, her skin flushed, pupils dilated as she trembled beneath him as he had brought her to her second orgasm of the evening was seared in his brain.
The night before had been perfect; being with Bella had been incredible, even more amazing than he ever could have imagined. In his mind, he could see the expression in her eyes when their gazes had locked after their bodies had joined together so clearly. Edward didn't believe for a moment that it had been an inconsequential one night stand for Bella, either. How, then, had everything gone so wrong so quickly?
He had debated telling her the truth that morning, telling her why he had treated her so poorly in the past, how sorry he was and how he really felt about her, but he had foolishly put it off, thinking he would have all the time in the world to tell her. In the end, he hadn't gotten the chance to tell her any of it and he was determined to find her now and finally do so.
Unfortunately, every place he looked for Bella, he came up empty. He checked the ballroom, the hotel's restaurant, even the pool and gym in case she had decided she needed to let off some steam. But she wasn't in any of these locations and he grew more and more anxious as the day wore on.
Finally, he spotted a familiar figure across the hotel lobby. Angela was alone, he noted as he hurried to her, but maybe she knew where he could find Bella.
"Angela, have you seen Bella?" Edward asked desperately the moment he reached her side, not even bothering with the usual pleasantries. "I can't find her anywhere. Please. I really need to speak to her."
Angela studied his face a moment before seeming to come to a decision. "She went up to her room about 10 minutes ago," she told him, her expression almost pitying. "If you hurry, you should be able to catch her."
Edward didn't even think to ask Angela what she meant by that. All that mattered to him at that moment was getting to Bella and explaining things, making her understand what had really happened the night before. With a quick thank you to the dark haired woman, he hurried to the elevators.
When he reached the fourth floor, he practically ran to the room, impatiently swiping his electronic card and shoving the door open. Bella had her back to him as she zipped up her suitcase and Edward stopped short, apprehension flooding him at the scene before him.
"Bella, what's going on?"
Bella froze a moment at the sound of Edward's voice before she swung the strap of her carry on over her shoulder and straightened. "I'm leaving," she informed him. "The conference is over, I see no reason to stay any longer. You'll have the room all to yourself tonight." She paused a moment, taking a deep breath before she continued. "And you might as well know, I'm requesting a transfer to the LA office when I get back."
Edward's heart plummeted. "What? Why?"
"I need a change of scenery," she said, not meeting Edward's eyes.
"Bella, please don't go," he said softly. "Not back to Seattle and not to LA. Please, talk to me."
"We have nothing to talk about," Bella said.
"What about last night?"
"I already told you, last night was a mistake. It would be best for both of us to just forget it ever happened. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a flight to catch."
"But I don't want to forget it happened," Edward said quietly. "Bella, please."
Bella finally forced herself to look at Edward. "What do you want from me, Edward?" she asked. She was trying to sound strong, like she didn't give a damn what he did, but even to her own ears she just sounded tired. "Do you want me to beg you not to tell Esme and Carlisle? Or do you just want to laugh at me for being so stupid last night?"
Edward looked shocked for a moment before he frowned. "God, I really have been a terrible excuse for a human being, haven't I?" he mumbled half to himself. Raising his eyes to hers, he met Bella's gaze head on. "Bella, I can't even imagine what you must be thinking right now. My behavior has been nothing short of reprehensible and I just, God, I'm so sorry." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "You may not believe this, but I have been attracted to you from the moment we first met. You're an amazing woman – you're smart and sweet and beautiful and you do amazing work for the foundation."
Bella was too stunned by Edward's words to even blush. "Then why…?"
"Have I been such an asshole?" Edward bowed his head. "I'm so sorry, Bella. And I certainly can't excuse my behavior toward you, but I would like to try to explain it if you'll let me. Please."
Struck by the raw vulnerability in his eyes and voice, Bella nodded her head slowly before she put her bags on the floor and took a seat on the edge of her bed, eyeing Edward warily. She looked at him without speaking and Edward took that as his cue to begin.
"When I first started working at Layla's Fund, I was dating a woman named Katie. We met during our last year of school here and she moved out to Seattle with me when I got this job. We were together for about a year and a half and as far as I knew, we were happily in love.
"Things went incredibly well for the first few months, both with Katie and with the Fund. Esme and Carlisle seemed to really like the work I was doing and I felt like I was actually making a difference there. And even when I had to work late, Katie was so supportive – she always wanted to hear about what had happened at work that day and what my upcoming projects were about." He paused a moment before continuing. "I couldn't believe how amazing she was or how lucky I was to have her. I even started looking at rings," he added quietly.
"But then things started to slip a little at work and right about the same time, Kids First started gaining serious momentum in our field. It was just little things at first, like getting beaten to the punch on action alerts and emails, but over the course of a month, it became a lot more than that. Suddenly, Kids was at the top of their game and we were struggling to keep up. I couldn't understand how they always seemed to be one step ahead of us. If we had a new campaign we were planning on launching, they launched it a few days earlier. If there was a big donor we were planning on meeting with, they met with him or her first and got the funding."
Edward paused again, swallowing convulsively before drawing in a deep breath to continue. "Looking back on it, it seems so obvious, but I just didn't see it. It was Katie, feeding Jacob all of the ideas we were working on. They'd met at an organizational dinner I'd brought her to several months earlier and apparently they'd really hit it off. Katie would get information about the Fund from conversations with me or she'd get it off my laptop. This went on for almost six months before I finally discovered what she was doing.
"She didn't even try to make any excuses, just packed up her stuff and went to Jacob's. It turned out that information wasn't the only thing she'd been sharing with him."
Bella's stomach turned as the reason behind Edward's haste in getting her away from Jacob on Monday night became all too clear.
"I went to Esme and Carlisle right away," Edward continued. "I told them what had happened and that of course I would resign immediately." A faint smile quickly crossed his face. "Naturally, they wouldn't hear of it. In fact, they were incredibly supportive and wonderful about the whole thing. They were always inviting me over for dinners and holidays and just generally treating me like family. I became very close to them and to Alice and Jasper as well."
He roughly dragged his hand through his hair and sighed. "It's been nearly two years since it all happened but…" He trailed off, shrugging helplessly before he continued. "I haven't been with anyone since she left and I told myself I liked it that way, that it was much better to be alone than to risk going through all of that again."
He smiled ruefully. "Then Esme called me into her office last September and there you were. It was all I could do to act human around you and then I couldn't even do that anymore. It was completely unfair of me and the way I treated you was inexcusable. I was awful to you, Bella, and I can never apologize enough for that."
"I kept trying to figure out just what I could have done to make you hate me so much," Bella admitted quietly.
Edward shook his head. "It wasn't you or anything you had done, Bella," he told her. "It was just a matter of you being you. There was so much about you that drew me in right from the beginning – your smile, your intelligence, your sense of humor, your kindness – and I just, I didn't want to feel that way about someone again, not after Katie.
"First I thought if I could just keep our relationship strictly professional, if I could just keep you at arm's length, then it'd be okay." He winced. "Unfortunately, it became obvious to me very early on that that was not going to be possible.
"I don't know if you remember, but that Thursday night we stayed late to work on the funding proposal for Layla's Pals was when I knew I was in trouble. I came so close to asking you out to dinner that night."
Bella's eyes widened in surprise as she recalled the evening in question as well and Edward grimaced. "If you also recall, I didn't show up to work the next day. I didn't know what to do. I was scared to death. It was cowardly and immature, I know, but I panicked and I decided that if I could make you hate me, then it would be so much easier for me to stay away from you. But after last night." He blushed. "Well, I don't think I can stay away from you anymore."
He paused again, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes briefly as he sent up a quick prayer to whoever might be listening. "I know I've been horrible and I have no right to ask this of you, but I'm asking anyway. Please stay, Bella. Please stay here tonight and give us a chance to get to know each other without my idiocy getting in the way for once."
Bella was silent a moment, her wind going a million miles an hour as she tried to absorb and process all that Edward had just told her. During their combination lunch and counseling session, Angela had strongly urged her to speak with Edward and at least hear what he had to say for himself but at the time Bella had been adamantly opposed to any kind of confrontation with her co-worker, certain it could only make a bad situation worse.
Never in a million years had she expected Edward to say anything like this.
She thought about all of the times his mask had slipped in the past few days, how he had praised her, smiled at her, taken care of her when she had been irresponsible and unknowingly put herself in a bad situation and the ensuing hangover that followed.
Everything Alice and Esme had said or alluded to when speaking about Edward. The tender look in his eyes, the way he had been passionate yet gentle with her the previous night, the uncharacteristic warmth he had shown her over the past few days.
And there were so many things that made sense to Bella now. The way Edward had always seemed to avoid her. How he had been so angry to find her attempting to use his laptop, the way he had removed her from Jacob Black's company and warned her about his true nature.
He'd been on top of the world both personally and professionally and the woman he had loved, the woman he had been planning on proposing to, had brought it all crashing down around him. It was only natural for him to have tried to protect himself from getting involved with anyone after that.
He had opened himself up to her, allowed him to see her completely vulnerable, without his usual walls and distance. Maybe it was her turn to do the same, let down her defenses and get to know a man she had known without knowing for the last eight months. Maybe it was finally her turn to be brave.
Gathering up her courage, Bella took a deep breath. "Okay." The look of relief and happiness on Edward's face only further assured her she was doing the right thing.
It was a very educational night. Bella learned that not only did Edward like a lot of the same bands she did, but a lot of the books and authors that she did as well. She also learned that Edward had very talented hands. And that nibbling on his ear was a sure way to drive him crazy.
She learned that Edward also had a dog, a five year old Rhodesian Ridgeback/Black and Tan Coonhound mix named Jackson that he had adopted from a local shelter shortly after Katie had moved out. Bella in turn told him all about Pearl and Emmett and Rose and how her job at Layla's Fund was everything she had ever dreamed about in a career.
They talked about their college years and their families. Bella told Edward about her parents, Renee and Charlie, who lived in a small town in Washington about two hours south of Seattle. In return, she learned that Edward had grown up the only child of wealthy, distant parents in Connecticut.
Most importantly, they discovered how easy it was to be with each other, to just be themselves and enjoy the other's company. Now that they had both finally stopped fighting it, the pull between the two of them was undeniable and their bond only solidified as the night wore on.
They ended up staying up most of the night. There were kisses and gentle touches between them but for the most part they talked, sharing stories and facts about themselves just as they had shared their bodies the night before and learning as much as they could about each other. They even decided to change their flight back to Seattle to later in the evening so they could have the day to spend together with Edward showing Bella around the city of his college years. Around 4am, as she finally drifted off to sleep in Edward's arms, a contented smile on her face, Bella couldn't help but think how right Esme, Alice, and even Rose had been after all.
The next morning, Edward managed to get them on a different flight back to Seattle for later that evening as opposed to their original 10:00am flight out. Their new flight was now supposed to leave at 7:15 that evening, putting them back in Seattle at around 11:00 that night, which gave them almost a whole day to wander around Chicago.
Edward had taken her to some of his favorite sights in the city and they'd had a late lunch and then wandered around Navy Pier for a little while before finally taking the half an hour cab ride to O'Hare. Now they sat next to each other at their gate, tired but happy as they awaited their boarding call.
The sudden sound of her cell phone ringing startled Bella from her drowsy state and she dug the phone out of her bag and flipped it open without bothering to check the caller ID. "Hello?"
"Wow, I figured you'd be passed out by now and I'd just be leaving a voicemail," Alice said cheerfully. "Oh crap, I didn't wake you up, did I? You sound exhausted."
"Oh no, you didn't wake me," Bella assured her. "Edward and I kind of missed our flight so we had to take a later one. We're still at O'Hare, actually."
"You both missed your flight, did you? Must have been a fascinating conference," Alice said innocently.
"Um, yeah, I guess…" Bella trailed off lamely.
"Well, anyway, you'd better make sure you get your sleep when you finally get home," Alice said. "I know Emmett told you we're all going out tomorrow night."
"Um, about that," Bella began.
"Oh no, missy, you are not backing out on me," Alice said. "You've worked hard all week, we're going to have fun tomorrow night."
"Um, no, nothing like that," Bella said nervously. "I, um, I was just wondering how you would feel about me bringing someone along." She shot Edward a shy smile and he smiled back encouragingly, taking her free hand in his own.
Bella took a deep breath before continuing. "Um, yeah, so Edward's going to come with me if that's all right," she said in a rush.
Alice shrieked something that sounded a lot like "Finally!" but Bella had a difficult time hearing her over the sudden ringing in her ears.
Moments later, she heard the familiar voice of her boss coming through the phone. "Bella?"
"Hi, Esme," Bella said
"So judging by the little happy dance Alice is doing right now, I take it something good has happened between my two favorite employees."
Sudden nerves gripped Bella and her palms began to sweat. What if her boss was mad at her? She didn't sound angry but still. Bella had gone away to a conference with a co-worker and now the two were suddenly involved; what if there was a rule against that in the organization? "Esme, I'm sorry," Bella began. "Is it, I mean, well, I don't even know if it's against the rules to date a co-worker. I should have checked with you first, I-"
Esme laughed gently, cutting off Bella's nervous rambling. "Bella, in case you've forgotten, I'm married to one of my co-workers. It might be a little hypocritical of me to impose a no office dating policy on everyone else," she teased. "I'm very happy for both of you," she added, her tone slightly more serious.
Before Bella could even think of a reply, Esme quickly jumped to another topic. "Now, it seems my daughter is a little too excited to talk right now, but I wanted to invite the two of you to come to dinner on Sunday if you don't have other plans."
Bella shot a look at Edward. "Dinner on Sunday? Um, no, Esme, I don't have any other plans." Edward smiled and nodded his agreement. "Neither does Edward. I, uh, I guess we'll be there."
"Good." Bella could almost hear the smile in the older woman's voice. "I'm going to let you go now but I will see the two of you on Sunday at 6:00, and you don't need to bring anything but yourselves."
Bella bid Esme goodbye and closed her cell phone. "I think we've been set up," she said, blushing as she tucked her phone back into her bag.
Edward smiled. "I wouldn't put it past them. Somehow, though, I find it really doesn't bother me."
Bella smiled back. "Me, neither," she admitted.
A voice came over the intercom then announcing the start of boarding for flight 81 to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. "That's us." Edward stood, holding his hand out to Bella. She took his hand and rose to her feet. When she was steady, Edward pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. Unable to control her blush, Bella smiled as she gave Edward's hand a gentle squeeze.
As they walked toward the line at the gate hand in hand, Bella found herself thinking that she didn't care if it was in some little remote backwoods or at the North Pole; suddenly, she couldn't wait for the next conference.
"You and your ways
Capture what I've misplaced
In the perfect fashion
Just watch my heart's reaction
This point of view is nothing that I'm used to
But I won't close my eyes 'cause they're on to you"
- MuteMath, "Noticed"