A/N: Thank you, dear long-time readers, for your patience and support. And welcome to new readers who've climbed aboard the tour bus since Chapter 9 was posted. In your wonderful reviews – thank you very, very much! – many of you were curious about what's going on with Edward. I hope this chapter begins to give you some answers.
These chapters would never get posted without input from Kate and faite-comme-moi, and the unbelievable skill and friendship of my beta, TruceOver. Special thanks to momkuttler for your message of support and encouragement.
This work of fanfiction is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Rated M for M/M slash.
The Times (London): Cullen Heads to U.S. Pianist Edward Cullen was spotted at Heathrow Airport yesterday in the company of his personal assistant, Rosalie Hale, who stated that he will be performing and recording new material for several weeks in the U.S., before returning to Europe for July's Festival d'Avignon in France...
May 12 ~ Charleston, South Carolina
"Daddy!" My daughter's voice on the phone is a mixture of excitement and panic.
"Isa? Is everything all right? Where are you? Where's Angela?" I'm working hard to keep the panic out of my own voice. Rose and I have just checked into the Charleston Place Hotel, having said good-bye to Angela and Isa in the Atlanta airport this morning as they departed for Washington. They are supposed to be landing right about now.
I hear Isa asking where they are, and Angela tells her that they are arriving at the gate in Seattle. I breathe a sigh of relief. "What's going on?"
"Daddy, I lost Sonic," she says, now sounding grief-stricken.
"Sonic? Isn't he in your carry-on bag?" I look at Rose helplessly. She quickly crosses the sitting room to my bags and starts zipping them open.
"No, Daddy. I can't find him." I can tell that Isa's on the verge of tears. However, Sonic seems to disappear at least once during every journey, and he always shows up again sooner or later.
"Put Angela on please." She passes the phone to her nanny. "Angela? Any idea what happened to Sonic?"
"The last thing I remember is that Isa was putting him in a bag, but I don't remember which one."
Rose straightens up from rummaging through my luggage with a triumphant look on her face.
"Okay, he's here. Rose will Fed-Ex him to you. He should be there sometime tomorrow."
Rosalie is already on the room phone, making arrangements to send Sonic. Angela puts Isa back on the phone.
"We found him, sweetie," I tell her. "He'll be on the plane tonight and he'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Thank you, Daddy."
"I love you, Isa. Give my love to your sisters."
"I love you too, Daddy."
Isa is going to spend the next eight weeks with her half-sisters, Leah and Carlie. She's very excited about attending school with them for the last month of the school year. After that, Bella and Jacob have all kinds of activities planned – swimming lessons, arts and crafts at the Quileute Community Center, even camping at the Klahanie campground in the Olympic National Forest near Forks. It will be a radical change from the tour of British Commonwealth countries we completed last month, and the demanding formality of my parents' home in Hampstead Heath.
I miss her already. I hate to be apart from her for so long, but my schedule is not very child friendly for the next two months. Rose and I will spend the weekend in Charleston before flying to New York for a series of concerts and recording sessions. Then it's off to the Berkshires in mid-June for the Tanglewood Festival. This year I'll be soloing for the first time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That in itself is very exciting, but I'm over the moon about the meeting I'll have while I'm there, with two Chinese musicians I met in Beijing when I was a kid. Negotiations are almost complete for recording and touring together for a few months next year. All three of us will be at Tanglewood, so we'll have a chance to get started on our repertoire.
Rose no sooner finishes making arrangements for Sonic when the phone rings again. She says hello, then looks at me with a smirk on her face, and I understand immediately who is calling.
"How are you, Austin?" I hear Rosalie say as I take Sonic from her and set him on a table next to a large crystal vase filled with fragrant flowers. "Yes, we're here. Hold on a minute." With a mischievous look in her eye she passes the phone to me. "There's a gentleman caller on the line for you, Edward," she says in a singsong voice.
"Thank you, Rose." I roll my eyes as I take the phone from her hand. "Austin. It's good of you to call."
"Edward, I have tickets for a concert tonight at the Dock Street Theatre. It's the venue where you'll be playing next year. I thought you might want to have a look at it and get an idea of how it sounds," he informs me in his seductive southern accent. "We could have dinner first, if that's all right with you."
I can hear soft music playing in the background, and I imagine him in his office, not far from here. As a member of the Spoleto Festival's Board of Directors, Austin Marks has been a very congenial host ever since I first started traveling to Charleston. Maybe that's why I like it here so much. Getting to know him a little better during each visit has made spending time here even more pleasant. His courtly manners seem to be a throwback to an earlier era, enhanced by Charleston's gracious southern charm.
I've performed at the Festival several times, but never as a featured artist, and I am looking forward to that honor when the next Festival takes place. It was only during my trip here last year, a few months after Seth died, when Austin disclosed that he too was gay. I was astonished by his revelation almost as much as I was by the fact that I had not previously suspected it. In fact, I had argued vociferously with Rose about that very point not two weeks before our visit.
Since then I have felt awkward around him. It hadn't escape my notice that he didn't decide to share his orientation with me until after Seth died. We've always had a casual business- and arts-focused friendship, but after that I couldn't help wondering if everything he said or did was some sort of signal. Even now, I'm not sure how I feel about him.
Rose is hovering more than usual, her ear as close to mine as she can get, not wanting to miss a thing. Clearly she's hoping that this conversation will lead to something more than just business.
"Say yes," she whispers so loudly that I'm sure Austin must have heard her.
I do like the way he says my name, but I still can't make up my mind. Should I think of this as a date? Is that what it is to Austin? Or do I have everything all wrong, and I'm on the verge of embarrassing him as well as myself? I decide to err on the side of caution and just play it by ear.
"That sounds great, Austin. Thank you for thinking of me."
"Excellent. I'll pick you up at six then."
I shake my head as I end the call. What have I just gotten myself into? I can't help but laugh at the brave new world I appear to be entering.
Rose looks confused. "You're laughing, Edward," she says, stating the obvious.
"Does it happen so rarely?" I ask her. "I know I haven't been very cheerful lately."
"That's an understatement," she mutters as she scrolls through the contacts on her phone to find Bella and Jacob Black's address in Washington.
"I was laughing because I have just been trying to decide if Austin is coming on to me, and it struck me funny that everything is so complicated these days."
"Well, duh," she replies, rolling her eyes.
"'Duh' what?" I ask.
"Of course he's coming on to you. He's had a major crush on you ever since the two of you met. I tried to tell you this last year, Edward, but you wouldn't listen."
"Oh god," I sigh. "I'm so out of practice with this sort of thing." I pause, pretending to think. "No, wait. I've never had any practice with this sort of thing. No wonder I'm clueless."
"Here's what you do," Rose says, beckoning me closer. "Relax. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time, and then see how it feels. Is it a feeling you'd like to have more often? Or do you just want to be friends?"
I wince. "Ouch."
"Yeah, ouch is right," she says. "But better 'ouch' than leaving him up in the air, only to break his heart when you finally meet the next Mr. Wonderful."
I feel a dark cloud descend over me. "Don't say that, Rose," I tell her through gritted teeth. "Never say that again."
"Oh god, Edward, I'm so sorry." Rosalie never apologizes, but this time she has really put her foot in it. She has clearly forgotten that "Mr. Wonderful" was one of the pet names I had for Seth.
Noticing my shift in mood, Rose tries again, this time her voice quiet and filled with sympathy. "There will be another Mr. Wonderful for you, Edward. I just know it."
Easy for her to say. She can have any man she wants—and usually does. I try to smile, but it's a struggle.
I've been immersed in mourning Seth's death for so long that I should know it inside out by now, and nothing should surprise me. But just when I think I've finally learned to breathe again without him, something unexpected ambushes me, reminding me that my life will never be the same, and leaving me fighting for air, drowning, submerged in pain even deeper than before.
The idea that anyone could be "the next Mr. Wonderful" is beyond absurd.
Two hours later, Austin approaches me in the hotel lobby, looking as handsome as ever. He's as tall as I am, with sandy blond hair and light brown eyes over a welcoming smile filled with warmth. He's a bit of a dandy, tending to favor handmade shoes and bespoke suits that flatter his broad shoulders and narrow hips, everything designed to radiate wealth and confidence.
He seems quite pleased to see me, both of us hanging onto our handshake a little longer than usual. He takes me to 82 Queen, a very elegant restaurant, where the maitre d' greets him by name and seats us at a table in a quiet corner of the Library Room in the main building.
"Thank you for joining me, Edward. This is my favorite restaurant in Charleston these days, and I'm just delighted to have you here with me."
"Why is it your favorite?"
He laughs. "Well, aside from the fact that it has the best Low Country cuisine in South Carolina, I happen to own a ten-percent interest in this place. I haven't had a chance to dine here lately, so I'm grateful for an opportunity to see firsthand how my investment is doing."
I look around at the well-appointed room and the sophisticated diners filling it. "And what do you see so far?"
It's an innocent question, innocently asked, but it fans the glowing embers that are warming between us. Austin looks at me intently, his eyes glittering in the candlelight. "I see that I am exactly where I want to be right now," he says, reaching across the table and touching my hand. I don't move and he becomes a bit bolder. "Edward," he begins. "I want – "
"Austin," I say, patting his hand gently before moving mine to my lap, "I'm essentially a widower, admittedly a very young one, and... and I'm still trying to figure things out. But... but I want you to know that I value your friendship and..." I pause for a moment before blurting out the rest of my little speech. "And I want to spend more time with you while I'm here."
There. I've said it. Funny how I can play dozens of compositions by heart, but still end up sounding like a bumbling idiot after spending the last couple of hours thinking about what I wanted to say to Austin.
He moves his hand back to his side of the table with a bemused expression on his face. "Well, Edward, I'm not sure whether I've just been kicked to the curb, or given a promise of better days to come. Oh, be still my beating heart."
He says this last bit with an exaggerated southern accent and fluttering eyelashes, his hand rapidly patting his chest, and I can't help but laugh. It lightens the tone considerably, and we set about to enjoy our delicious dinner together without feeling any pressure about what might happen next.
What happens next is that he informs me that the theater is only a few blocks from the restaurant and suggests that we take advantage of the balmy spring weather by walking there. Having eaten too much, and having drunk more than my share of the delicious wine we had with our dinner, I am definitely in need of a little postprandial stroll.
What I'm not ready for is Austin taking my hand as we leave the restaurant and holding it firmly in his warm, masculine grip all the way to the theater. I resist the reflexive action of pulling away, and the shock wears off after the first few seconds. My brain is somehow clear enough to realize how good it feels to be hand in hand with a beautiful man once again.
Part of me remains aloof, however, with a flutter of concern about being out in public. While I have never been closeted about my sexual orientation, I haven't exactly flaunted it either. Seth and I were always very discreet.
It feels so different now, holding another man's hand, but in a good way. I tell myself that if Isa can learn to swim, then I can learn something too. I can learn to hold another man's hand tonight, without torturing myself over what it means for tomorrow.
Austin regales me with stories about many of the old buildings that we pass on our way to the theater. He seems to have had an ancestor present at every key moment in Charleston's history. He even claims that George Trenholm, the real-life model for Gone with the Wind's Rhett Butler, was a distant relative of his.
"Must be where you get your charm," I observe.
"Why thank you, kind sir," he says with a huge grin on his face. He keeps it light and casual the rest of the way. My stomach is churning, and yet, at the same time, I am beginning to enjoy the giddy feeling of holding onto someone again.
The theater is a gem, a relic of a bygone era that has been faithfully preserved and restored, with all of the modern conveniences, including reportedly some of the best acoustics one can find in a theater of its size and age. I settle back in the comfortable private box seats Austin reserved for us and imagine myself performing on that stage. It's a tiny jewel box of a theater and the dimensions of the stage give it a cozy intimacy that will make my performance here even more special.
The lights flicker, signaling that the performance will begin soon. Austin takes my hand again. "Edward, I know you may not be ready for any of this," he begins in a low voice, "but I would like to spend more time with you too. You just have to say the word, and I'll meet you anywhere."
I sit there stunned and silent. Wasn't I clear enough before? I can't do this, not with Austin or anyone else. Maybe I can't learn after all.
A flash of disappointment at the lack of response from me shows on his face. "You don't have to say anything right now. I'd just like to know that you're at least interested and willing to meet me halfway." He pauses again, his fingers holding mine tightly as his other hand comes up to my cheek. "Like this."
He leans forward as he gently pulls my head toward him. The soft pressure of his mouth on mine is warm and willing. I'm still doubtful, still confused, but I don't resist. I close my eyes as his lips open and his tongue dances lightly across my lips.
I can't help comparing how different this genteel kiss is from the passion I knew with Seth, and I flash momentarily on an incident that occurred two years ago, right here in Charleston.
I had just finished my final performance at the Spoleto Festival and we'd been arguing. Something about investments, I think, but I can't really remember; it all seems so unimportant now. Afterward, there was as much intensity in our lovemaking as there had been in our argument.
My body reacts now as it always did. I feel myself getting hard, but it's not because of Austin's kiss. Still distracted, I try to put a little more effort into it, but the moment has passed, and I haven't fooled Austin for a second.
He pulls back, disappointment obvious in his expression. "No?" he asks gently.
"I'm sorry, Austin," I begin, but he puts a finger to my lips.
"If you ever need me, Edward, or – dare I hope – want me, I'm here for you, okay?"
All I can do is nod, grateful that the lights in the theater are finally going down and we can turn our attention away from this awkward moment. Austin takes a deep breath and smooths back his hair, then gives me a sad smile as he shifts in his seat. He begins to tell me a little about the band that's performing tonight, but then seems surprised to see three young men come out onto the stage with little fanfare. They are tuning up their instruments, their backs to the audience, when they're introduced by an invisible voice somewhere offstage. "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in Charleston, live from the Windy City on their first tour, please welcome... the Dust Covers."
My jaw drops and my head swivels away from Austin.
There he is: Jasper Whitlock, the beautiful blue-eyed boy who haunts my dreams. I can't take my eyes off him. He laughs with his band mates as they tune their instruments a moment longer, then turns and says a quick "Hello, Charleston" before launching into their first song.
I look down with disbelief at the scruffy trio I first met five months – and five continents – ago. When I think back on that twenty-four hour period in Chicago, so many emotions come to the surface, filtered through the hazy memory of that night's intoxication, grief, and guilt. Now everything feels a little surreal as I contemplate Jasper's performance. He has a decent singing voice and holds his own on guitar. But it's not his performance – clearly improved since the last time I saw him – that surges through my memory. It's the image of the awkward, apologetic guy scrambling to pick up my bags, the impulsive, ouzo-influenced hand-holding, the incendiary kisses in the rest room... His lips on mine, on my body, on my cock...
I feel my face grow hot, and I'm grateful that the darkness in the box seats hides my blushes. A lot can happen in five months; the fact that Jasper is even on this stage proves that. I stare at him and try to imagine how Jasper himself might have changed. I wonder if he is still the sympathetic man who held me when I had a meltdown, the guy laughing with my daughter, his eyes full of joy when I accepted his dinner invitation, becoming bleak and empty when I made other plans...
And where did all those plans get me? Nowhere. I thought that was what I wanted at the time, but in retrospect? Not so much.
My attention returns to the concert as another song ends. Riley and James leave the stage and a single spotlight shines on a stool at center stage. Jasper sits with an acoustic guitar and adjusts the microphones. Then he looks out at the audience with a wide grin before he speaks. My heart is pounding as I remember how good I felt when that smile was directed at me.
Austin leans toward me, whispering. "Edward, aren't those the guys who made that bootleg video of you in Chicago?"
I nod once without looking at him. My eyes are riveted to the stage, and I just want to hear what Jasper is going to say.
"The Dust Covers got their start as a cover band, and this is one of the oldies we like to sing." He pauses. "For absent friends," he adds, then bends his head, concentrating carefully on the introductory chords as he launches into "I'm Easy."
It's not my way to love you just when no one's looking
It's not my way to take your hand if I'm not sure
It's not my way to let you see what's going on inside of me
When it's a love you won't be needing, you're not free
Please stop pulling at my sleeve if you're just playing
If you won't take the things you make me want to give
I never cared too much for games and this one's driving me insane
You're not half as free to wander as you claim
But I'm easy
Give the word and I'll play your game
So that's how it ought to be
Because I'm easy...
The notes fade, the final word in the song echoing, as a voice inside me screams in frustration about how my life is anything but easy. The audience is completely silent, enraptured by his heartfelt singing. Not a single cough, no distracted whispering or beeping phones. No one moves. Then it is as if there is a collective sigh before the audience bursts into applause.
I am flabbergasted by his performance. Did he sound this good in December? I can no longer remember, because this strong, confident musician has taken the place of the scruffy Santa I met back in Chicago. I'm distracted from my musings when his two band mates come back on stage.
I'm glad that Austin is completely absorbed in the performance. My mind is filled with confusion and desire as I watch Jasper set down his guitar and move toward the piano. He adjusts the bench, sits down, and then introduces a song he says he's been working on for a while. I try not to cringe, worrying that he's not going to sound all that great. Granted, he's pretty good on guitar, but....
Then the drummer taps out the beat and Jasper begins to sing and play, and within a minute, the audience on the main floor is on its feet, swaying and singing along with him as he pours his heart out in front of everyone. Including me.
Dreams, that's where I have to go
To see your beautiful face anymore.
I stare at a picture of you and listen to the radio...
...If you ask me how I'm doin' I would say I'm doin' just fine
I would lie and say that you're not on my mind
But I go out and I sit down at a table set for two
And finally I'm forced to face the truth
No matter what I say, I'm not over you
Not over you
Not over you
Not over you...
Again, I am astonished at the change in his musicianship since I last saw him. In the whole band, to be honest. They are more polished and relaxed, and they're even writing and singing their own material now. And Jasper plays the piano too?
The bass-guitar player wraps it up with, "That's it, Charleston. You've been awesome! Drop by our web site, dustcovers dot com and say hello."
A second group of musicians comes on stage as the Dust Covers take their bows to an appreciative audience. I watch as Jasper moves swiftly, grabbing his guitars, and then stopping for a moment to hug one of the musicians. Perhaps I've finally lost my mind, but Jasper stands much too close to him, his body angled in, his lips at the man's ear. I feel something that I can't name burning inside me, and I gasp for air as they hug again before Jasper leaves the stage with the other two guys. I stare at the new group as they get organized and play a few bars to warm up.
"Oh, that's Chicagoland," Austin offers helpfully.
"Chicagoland. That's the group I was telling you about. They're really good."
I smile wanly, my mind in turmoil, my body wanting to do nothing more than leap out of the box seat and go tearing backstage to see Jasper. But I can wait, I tell myself. He's not going anywhere. Austin had pointed out the tour bus on the way into the theater – one bus for both groups. So he won't be leaving until Chicagoland finishes their set and they pack up all the equipment.
I tell myself that I'm making the right call by waiting, giving Jasper time to cool off after his performance. Actually, I'm not sure what I'm going to say to him. I've thought about it, of course, more than I'd like to admit, but right here, right now, all of those carefully considered words are gone. I'm left with nothing but Jasper's voice in my head.
Not over you…
I sink back into my seat and try to enjoy the music. I have to admit, Chicagoland is very good. They have a lot of energy and they play well together. The bass player – the one that Jasper hugged on his way off stage – is beautiful. He has long dreads, dark eyes, and warm, golden-brown skin. My stomach does flips as I imagine them as a couple. Is it possible?
Of course it's possible.
An hour later, I am practically tearing the stuffing out of the empty seat next to me as the band wraps up a decent set.
"Austin, I'd like to have a word with the Dust Covers. Do you mind if we go backstage and say hello?" I try to be casual, but I know I am just totally failing at it.
Austin gives me a strange look. Having made the association between the band and the videos, he's probably wondering why I'd even sit through their performance without walking out, let alone want to talk with them without a solicitor present. But he is a consummate gentleman, so he takes my hand and we make our way downstairs.
I'm not sure how eager I am to greet Jasper while holding hands with another man, so I'm relieved when he lets go long enough to shake hands with an acquaintance in the lobby. Then he leads the way down the aisle on the main floor.
As we approach the stage, we can see members of Chicagoland breaking down the equipment. Jasper's band mates wander out to lend a hand, along with a couple other guys. I can't wait any longer.
"Where's Jasper?" I call out. Everyone stops what they're doing, turning to look at us.
"Edward?" It's the bass-guitar player. "Um, I don't know if you remember me, but I'm Riley Biers, and this is James Hunter. You sat in with us at Katerina's in Chicago."
"Of course I remember you. It's nice to see you again, Riley." I nod distractedly at James, who stands near the drums with his mouth open in surprise.
"Who's this?" Chicagoland's lead singer asks.
"Alistair, this is Edward Cullen."
"The Edward Cullen?" This fellow Alistair looks at me in surprise. The man with the dreads is right behind him, with a big smile on his face.
"Riley, is Jasper backstage?" I have no patience left, and my manners are forgotten now. I've waited quite long enough.
"Who's Jasper?" Austin asks, a bewildered look on his face.
The one called Alistair steps forward, extending his hand to shake mine.
"I'm sorry, Edward," he says after he introduces himself, "but Jasper's gone."
A/N: Lyrics are from Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy," and Gavin McGraw's "Not Over You."
Thanks to everyone who is still reading this!