Title : The Cavalli Connection

Rating: M

PostSecret Prompt: After I get my Ph.D., I plan to blow my first paycheck on heels. http:/bit[.]ly/i4HXw5

Summary: Now that she was graduating with her doctorate, Bella needed to shed her dull sneaker and flats image. She wanted heels. Roberto Cavalli heels. CFM heels. Would they be enough for even her friend Edward to notice?

PostSecret concept created by Frank Warren. Recognizable characters and story elements are the property of Stephenie Meyer•


This was it, the moment of truth. Four years of sweat, tears, relative poverty and sleep deprivation all boiled down to this decision. Would they pass her? God, please let them pass her.

Bella waited nervously outside the classroom door while her dissertation committee deliberated inside. The presentation of her research had gone surprisingly smoothly, even though she hadn't had time to rehearse. Lily, her best friend, fellow Ph.D. student and "projector buddy," knew instinctively when Bella needed the next slide shown. She even managed to sneak Bella a cup of water when her voice was giving out. It was the pointed questions of two faculty members that undid her. Most of them Bella answered with confidence, but unfortunately one highlighted a small but significant hole in her work.

She knew her research wasn't perfect. The whole project had been rushed. In fact, she and her four closest friends, the ones currently standing with her, stayed up most of the night printing and binding the final copies to distribute this morning. With everything else that happened, including her father's prolonged illness and the death of both her parents last year, she simply hadn't been able to give her dissertation the attention it deserved.

"What if they say 'no'?" she whispered. "What if they tell me that I need to stay another semester?"

"They won't," Jasper stated firmly, his drawl soft and reassuring. "Half of them were on my committee yesterday, and Lily's too. They just want the five of us through the gate and out of the corral."

Lily rolled her nearly-black eyes at the tall, blond Texan. "Still in the Wild West," she teased. Seeing that Bella managed only a tiny smile, she wrapped an arm around her shoulders and gave them a squeeze. "Don't worry. Dr. Chen will convince them."

Bella nodded, the thought giving her hope. Dr. Chen was both Lily's and her dissertation advisor, and could be quite fierce when it came to defending her students. Lily was right – if anyone could convince the committee to pass her, it was Dr. Chen.

After what seemed an eternity, Dr. Chen emerged from the classroom. "Congratulations, Bella," she said in her soft, breathy voice. "Everyone signed. Now all you have to do is turn in the final copy to the graduate school."

While her friends cheered, Bella stood stock still, stunned that it was finally over. Dr. Chen's laugh brought her back to earth. She abruptly hugged her diminutive advisor, torn between crying and grinning her head off, babbling her thanks. When they pulled apart, there were tears in Dr. Chen's eyes too.

"I can't believe it," Bella was chanting over and over as her advisor went back into the classroom. The sudden drop in adrenaline, on top of forty-eight hours with no sleep, was starting to take its toll.

"She needs coffee," announced Edward. "Let's go across the street to the student union. My treat."

Bella shot him a grateful smile. His answering crooked grin made her stomach flutter. Damn, will she ever stop reacting this way to him? He didn't want anything more than friendship from her. On a couple of very rare occasions he seemed to be interested in something more, which Bella attributed to her illogical self reading too much into his actions.

Her notes still in hand, Bella walked shakily beside Lily. Jasper, Ricardo, and Edward trailed behind them, chatting among themselves, oblivious to the admiring stares of two undergrads exiting the student union. Bella had to admit that her three male friends did present quite a picture. They were all at least six feet tall. Jasper, with his just-above-the shoulder wavy blond hair and warm smile that instantly made you feel special, had pretty much ignored all other women since he met Edward's younger sister Alice. The two of them were now happily engaged. Colombian-born Ricardo, on the other hand, knew exactly how much feminine attention he attracted, and enjoyed every minute of it. Hours in the gym, a confident swagger, and close-fitting t-shirts helped. Bella and the others constantly teased him that they could tell the sex of the students coming to him for help simply by how he said, "Hello."

Then there was Edward. His tousled bronze hair, lean build, and handsome, chiseled features definitely drew their fair share of attention. Of the three of them, he seemed the least interested in the admiring gazes of the female populace. Ricardo tried several times to set him up, but Edward consistently refused, citing lack of time and money. Bella wasn't sure if this was a good thing or not. She thought her heart might crack in two if he actually dated someone seriously. On the other hand, it may shake her out of this ridiculous addiction she had to him.

While they were all getting their coffee, Edward managed to snag five muffins and a huge plate of scrambled eggs.

"Edward, that's too much!" protested Bella as they sat down at one of the round laminate tables.

"We're celebrating, no expenses spared." He grinned.

Jasper laughed. "Only the FoodCourt's finest for us! You totally charmed these muffins out of Mrs. Cope over there, didn't you?"

"Well, she was about to pack the breakfast things away. I figured if Ricardo could do it, so could I, even without the entrancing accent."

"Hey man," agreed Ricardo, flashing his brilliant white teeth. "Use it or lose it!"

They munched happily, lighthearted banter flying back and forth. Bella looked 'round the table at her friends. They'd been through so much together, even beyond the normal trials and tribulations of grueling comprehensive exams and doctoral research. These were the people who willingly walked through hell with each other, ready at a moment's notice whenever a crisis came up.

The first such crisis came three years ago, when Ricardo's younger brother was killed in Colombia. Ricardo was the late-comer to the group, transferring from another department when the others were already a year into the program. In spite of his "manwhore attitude," as Edward put it, Ricardo was a very decent guy, with strong religious faith. That faith was shaken by his brother's murder, but it didn't fall.

As for the women, he rarely went beyond flirting. At least, that's what he claimed. Bella decided long ago that there were some things that she didn't need to know about Ricardo.

Then it was Bella's turn. She had been supporting both of her parents, stabilizing the household and taking care of her father Charlie as his health rapidly declined. One cold January day last year, Bella arrived home to find an ambulance in the driveway. Her mother Renee, in one of her down cycles, overdosed on Elavil. Within ten minutes of Bella's frantic phone calls, Lily arrived to stay with Charlie while Edward drove Bella to the hospital. Five days later, Jasper was fielding sympathy calls, Lily and Ricardo took turns with Charlie, and Edward and his family were helping her with funeral arrangements. Within six months, they were doing it again, this time for Charlie. Through all of this, Bella's supposed boyfriend only made matters worse, acting like a spoiled child. Although no one told her until much later, mild-mannered Edward eventually went to the guy's apartment and threatened him with bodily harm if he continued to make Bella's life more difficult.

It was Ricardo who understood Bella's grief and anger best. He confided to her that if it hadn't been for the others, he could easily have gone off the deep end. Bella felt exactly the same way.

"Hellooo! Bella?" Jasper was grinning and waving his hand in front of her face. "Anybody home?"

"Sorry," she grinned back, batting his hand away. "What did you say?"

"Off in La La Land again," teased Lily. "We are playing a game. You say, 'as soon as I get my first paycheck, I'm going to blow it all on…', and fill in the blank. Ricardo is going to blow it all on a down payment for a BMW."

"A Z4 or M6 convertible," he supplied cheerfully. "Black, of course."

"If Alice would agree to elope instead of having a full-shebang wedding, I'd blow it on either a big screen TV or tickets to the Middle Tennessee Civil War Exposition."

"Not a chance, Jazz," Edward chuckled. "My little sister is a force to be reckoned with."

Lily continued, "I said 'as soon as I get my first paycheck, I'm going to blow it all on a really soft king-size bed in Taiwan'." Her dark eyes twinkled. "I'd let my fiancé share it. Your turn."

Bella had to think for a moment. Several sensible ideas passed through her mind, all immediately rejected. Then she knew.

"As soon as I get my first paycheck, I'm going to blow it all on a pair of high heels. Not just any pair of high heels. Stillettos. Roberto Cavalli or Christian Leboutin."

"Those are, what, about five or six hundred dollars?" Jasper looked surprised.

"Ooh, CFM shoes!" grinned Lily.

"What are CFM shoes?" Edward asked curiously.

Ricardo winked at Bella. "Come fuck me shoes. You go, girl!"

If Bella, blushing, hadn't been studiously avoiding looking at Edward, she would have seen the oddly arrested expression on his face. Jasper and Ricardo exchanged a conspirative glance.

"So," Jasper asked, "why do you want CFM shoes?"

Ricardo snorted. "Because her ex-boyfriend was a jerk, and she wants to get f…"

"No, no," interrupted Bella hastily. "It's just that...well…I always wear nondescript sneakers or flats. Even today, for my defense, I'm wearing this gray suit jacket and skirt, with my old flats…" She sighed. "I guess I'm not explaining this well."

Edward's quiet voice saved her. "I get it."

"You do?" He did?

He shrugged. "Sure. For the past four years, you have done what was expected of you. You were the good daughter who took care of your bipolar mother and dying father, the good student who applied yourself diligently to your studies and research, the good instructor who spent extra hours with your students to make sure that they got the most out of your courses. You held down two part-time teaching jobs and a research assistantship just to make ends meet and cover your father's medical bills." His velvet voice grew uncharacteristically harsh. "For a year you even tried to shape yourself into what that idiot James wanted you to be…"

"Before you finally had enough and dumped his sorry ass," interposed Jasper.

"Exactly," Edward continued. He leaned forward, folding his arms on the table, and his voice softened again. "You've always put others first, never spending time or money on yourself. Sensible, dependable Bella, just like your sensible sneakers and flats. Now, finally, you can break free. You can have and do what you want."

The group was silent, but Bella barely noticed. Her astonished brown eyes locked with Edward's warm green ones. He understood her better than she'd ever imagined. "Am I right?" he asked gently.

She nodded slowly. "How…?"

"Perhaps we are more alike than you think." There it was again, that wonderful crooked smile that made her stomach do somersaults.

Jasper's discrete cough broke the spell. Edward leaned back in his chair, also seeming to have forgotten than their friends were with them.

"So you're saying that you want to start living, and that stiletto CFM shoes are just the beginning," Jasper summarized, looking back and forth between Edward and Bella.

"And you want to get fucked," added Ricardo with a sidelong grin at Edward, who suddenly looked annoyed. "Just say the word, and the line will start forming."

"Ricardo…" Bella warned.

"What?" he responded innocently. "I am a conocedor, an expert! You're a good-looking woman. I love you like a sister, but even I can see that with the right clothes and make-up you would be hot. You'd have no problem finding someone to…"

"Enough!" laughed Bella, now beet red. The others were chuckling too, with the exception of Edward. Perhaps he was annoyed with Ricardo for embarrassing her.

"So Edward," she remarked, in a desperate effort to change the topic, "how are you going to blow your first real paycheck?"

"I have no idea." He smiled. Finally. "If I come up with something, I'll let you know."

"You also want a pair of CFM shoes?" teased Jasper, making Edward grimace and roll his eyes. They all offered some additional "helpful" ideas, but after a short time Bella could tell that Edward was only half paying attention. Instead, he was looking across the table at Bella, his eyes intent but somehow not seeing her. After a short time, he glanced down at the table, then excused himself to go to the restroom.

"Is he OK?" asked Ricardo when Edward was out of earshot.

Jasper shrugged. "He seems preoccupied. Maybe it's hitting him that we're all graduating and going our separate ways."

"Hmmm."

As the two men started discussing the upcoming football season, Bella turned her attention to Lily, seated next to her. The lively Taiwanese woman had been unusually quiet, her bright eyes watching both Bella and Edward closely.

"He likes you," Lily finally murmured, making sure that the others didn't hear.

"Who?"

She tilted her head in the direction of the restrooms.

"Of course he does. We've been friends for four years."

Lily persisted in the theory that Edward was secretly in love with Bella, no matter how often she tried to convince her otherwise.

Now Bella rolled her eyes at her friend. "The love of your life is waiting for you back in Taiwan. You see romance everywhere," she teased.

Lily smiled, but shook her head. "That's not it. You should have seen his face whenever Ricardo mentioned someone f…uh…being intimate with you."

"That doesn't mean anything. He tends to be protective of me, like a kid sister."

"He's not like that with Alice." She grinned suddenly. "Besides, he was squirming in his chair and tugging the waistband of his pants. I bet Little Edward wanted to volunteer."

"Little Ed…"

What the heck? Lily wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"No way! You're imagining things."

"No, I'm not. Little Edward looked…perky…when his owner almost ran to the men's room."

"Lily!" Bella squeaked. Ricardo and Jasper broke off their friendly squabble about the merits of soccer versus football, and looked at her inquiringly.

"Just girl talk," Lily assured them. "Do you want to know what we were discussing?"

"No!" they responded in unison.

Lily winked at Bella. "It works every time."

When Edward returned to the table, Jasper and Ricardo indicated that they needed to leave.

"I'm ready," he agreed. "Bella, do you want a ride?"

Bella shot a glare at her best friend, who was choking back laughter. Great, she thought, I'll never be able to think of that phrase the same way again.

She nodded gratefully. This morning Lily drove them to school, but Bella knew that she needed to run a few errands before she left for Taiwan next week. When they reached Edward's ancient brown car, he opened the stubborn passenger door for her before getting in his side. They had dubbed her Old Betty.

"Careful," he warned her. "Since you were in her last, I installed a neural network in the seat. It now shoots into the back at random."

Bella laughed and sat more gingerly in the seat. "Good to know."

The car was so small that Edward's arm brushed her leg whenever he changed gears, sending tingles up her thigh. With a sigh, she leaned back, closed her eyes, and tried to calm down.

She was exhausted. She hadn't slept for over forty-eight hours. Two days ago she'd turned over her house keys to their new owner, packed a suitcase, and took up residence on Lily's sofa. Then there was the ten-hour drive to move the rest of her belongings to Eugene, Oregon, where, in four weeks, she would start an assistant professorship at the University of Oregon.

"We're here," Edward announced. Bella felt him pull into a parking space. "What are you thinking about?" She opened her eyes to find his green ones closer than she expected.

"I can't believe it's finally over. We did it!"

He chuckled. "Yes, we did. Congratulations, Dr. Swan."

"The same to you, Dr. Cullen," she smiled back.

"So why the sad face?"

Bella grimaced. "Just tired, I guess. Also, I was thinking how much I would miss everyone."

"That's what I thought."

"Well, at least we have another week together, right? Perhaps we can have a graduation party."

"That's a great idea, but I won't be able to make it. I'm leaving tomorrow."

A shiver ran down Bella's spine. Tomorrow?

"Tomorrow? But I thought Northwestern didn't start until late September?"

Edward stared down at his hands, avoiding her gaze. "There was a slight change of plans. I accepted the position at Willamette University instead. It's in Salem, Oregon."

"Why? I thought Northwestern was your dream job. Fantastic school, back to your hometown…"

"I decided that it was too far away from my family." He finally looked at her again, his expression unreadable.

Bella's heart leapt. "You'll be only an hour's drive from me." She couldn't help the happy smile that burst across her face. Seeing it, Edward smiled back, looking oddly relieved.

Edward needed to run an errand for his mother, but promised to call Bella when he arrived in Salem. Watching him speed out of the parking lot, Bella thanked God for whatever influence He may have had over Edward's decision, if any.

The next few days were too hectic for Bella to mope. In true graduate student form, they managed to squeeze in a potluck party of Ricardo's apartment the day before Lily left for Taiwan. They even had Edward on the phone, joining in long-distance.

Bella absolutely hated good-byes. She and Lily, with the help of some inexpensive wine, were bawling by the end of the evening. Even Ricardo and Jasper's eyes were suspiciously damp, although they would rather eat their dissertations than admit it. It was a good thing, then, that they all were moving on at around the same time, Ricardo to Loyola in Chicago, and Jasper and Alice both to Texas A&M. With heartfelt promises to keep in touch, they went their separate ways.

•••

Three weeks later, Bella was settled in her new home in Eugene and began teaching her first classes at UO. Already she loved the beautiful old campus and the lively city, not to mention the local scenery and culture. It actually felt like home. Instead of an apartment, she opted to rent a small three-bedroom house with a garden. The price was less than what her friends used to pay for a single-bedroom apartment, and she could use one bedroom as an office. There was, of course, the additional benefit of not having neighbors on the other side of her walls.

One evening, she was just unlocking her front door when she heard the phone ringing. Tearing into the kitchen, she dropped her grocery bags on the floor and caught the phone just before it went to voice mail.

"Hello?" she announced breathlessly.

"Bella? Are you alright?"

"Edward! Sorry, I just ran in and grabbed the phone."

His warm chuckle made her insides melt. "I'm surprised you made it without any serious injuries."

"Now that's not fair," protested Bella with mock indignation. "You know full well that last incident was your fault."

"Mine? Oh yes, of course. I should have put up a 'Danger – wet floor" sign when I spilled that cup of water in your kitchen. Only you would step right into it and slide into an open cabinet!"

Bella huffed. "Why is it that I like you again?"

"My undeniable charm and extraordinary good looks?"

"Nah, that can't be it. Maybe it's just a fluke that you have a friend as wonderful as me."

Edward's voice softened suddenly. "Yes, I'm lucky like that."

Don't read too much into it, Bella's logical self warned. He's just a friend, remember?

"So what are you doing now?" she asked conversationally, opening one of the mistreated grocery bags and extracting frozen peas.

"Grading," he groaned. "Want to come help? It's lonely work."

Bella laughed. He sounded so forlorn. "Is that why you called?"

"No, I just wanted to hear a familiar voice – your voice." Oh drat, that did it. She ruthlessly beat back her logical self and allowed the warmth of his tone to flood through her.

They wound up talking for nearly two hours. A few days later, Bella mustered the courage to call him, and they cooked dinner together over the phone. This pattern continued for over a month, and each time Bella felt herself falling even more in love with him.

She knew it was unhealthy, that she was deliberately torturing herself, but she couldn't help the joy she felt whenever she heard his voice at the other end of the line. She was addicted to his phone calls – they quickly became the highlight of her day. To be fair, he seemed to enjoy them just as much as she did. She speculated that he phoned her because he was lonely, but then she recalled him talking about going out with some of his colleagues several times. No, definitely not lonely. She wondered if any of those colleagues was female, single, and gorgeous. Edward never mentioned it if they were. It was likely, though, that he didn't want to discuss his love life, if he had one, with her.

It was the end of September when Bella received an e-mail from Ricardo. It contained only a picture of him, his cocky grin contrasting with his dark tan and short black hair, reclining against a car. A shiny black BMW convertible, with license tag "Ricky." She chuckled when she saw it, and immediately shot him a congratulatory response, enquiring whose car he stole.

Ricardo would be surprised to hear that she actually blew her first real paycheck as well. She had, in fact, purchased two items at radically reduced prices – a pair of black Roberto Cavalli high-heeled ankle boots that she just couldn't look away from, and a perfect Cavalli "little black sleeveless sweater dress." On impulse, she snagged pictures of the items from the Internet and sent them to Ricardo. A few minutes later, his response came back.

Holy shit, woman! Has Edward seen these yet? We need to talk about this.

Just then, her cell phone rang. Thinking it was Ricardo, she answered it with, "Nope."

"Nope? I haven't even asked you yet!" Edward laughed after a stunned silence.

"Oh, Edward! It's you. You never call at this time."

"You were expecting someone else?"

Bella flushed. "Actually, yes."

Pregnant pause. "Well, as long as you're planning on turning him down with that 'nope', maybe you'll say yes to me."

She held her breath. Say yes to him for what?

"Bella? Are you there? My friend is playing with the Oregon Symphony in Portland tonight, and gave me two tickets. I know it's late notice. Would you come with me?"

"Yes," she breathed.

"Yes you're there, or yes you'll come?" He sounded uncharacteristically nervous.

Bella's head was spinning. "Yes, I'll come." This isn't a date, her annoying logical self admonished. He just doesn't want to go by himself.

"Thank you," he sighed with relief. "I'll pick you up around five. They have a dinner buffet before the concert, so we can eat there first."

"OK, see you then." She hung up, proud of herself for sounding calm while all of her internal organs did flip-flops.

At four-thirty she stood in front of her mirror, taking inventory of her appearance. The "perfect Cavalli little black sweater dress" was above-the knee and sleeveless, with a high neck and an elegant sequin pattern on the waist and ribbed bodice. It hugged her figure in all the right places. The ankle boots were actually high-heeled pumps with insets of crisscrossed black leather from the toes up to the ankles. There were gold insets at the intersections of the pattern, and tiny gold zippers at the back. They made her legs look impossibly long. Yes, she told herself, it was true. With this outfit and her newly-cut hair falling in soft waves around her face and down past her shoulders, she looked sexy. Sexy and very un-Bella-like.

At precisely five o'clock Edward knocked on her door, gripping a fragrant bouquet of purple, yellow and white freesia. "Damn," he exclaimed softly, his eyes travelling over her. "You look amazing. I see you have your high-heeled CFM shoes…boots."

"And you have your CFM hair," she replied without thinking. Oh shit, where was her verbal filter? "I mean, you look great too." In his slim-fitting black suit and matching black open-neck shirt, he looked like he'd just stepped out of a men's fashion magazine. The color emphasized his bronze hair, pale skin, and startling green eyes. Even the faint smell of his cologne made her want to close her eyes and breathe him in.

"Should I just hang around out here?" he smirked. OK, so her brain obviously went the same way as her filter. She hurriedly stepped out of the way so he could enter. He handed her the bouquet. "These reminded me of you. They smell like the shampoo you use."

"They're lovely Edward. Thank you." He remembered her shampoo? She finally remembered her manners. "Would you like something to eat or drink?" she asked as he followed her to the kitchen to find a vase.

"No, thanks. Actually, we'd better get moving if we want to get to the concert in time." He was leaning against the doorframe, his ankles crossed and hands tucked in his pockets, watching her with his crooked smile.

"Something amusing you, Dr. Cullen?" Sex on legs, that would be a good description.

"You," he responded. Great. He probably figured out that she's fantasizing about him, and thinks it's funny.

"Why?" He just shook his head, refusing to answer.

"Let's go, Bella."

It's not a date, Bella reminded herself severely. He's just using the extra ticket with a friend. However, when he put his hand lightly on her waist as he opened the front door, she let herself dream a little

The two-hour drive up I-5 passed pleasantly enough, especially now that Edward sold his old deathtrap of a car and purchased this new one. Edward explained that he and tonight's featured pianist, Tanya Novikova, studied piano performance together as undergraduates. Bella watched his animated face as he described his friend, and wondered if he wished she were something more. Maybe she was already something more. Not for the first time, she pondered why Edward didn't invite one of his colleagues instead of driving for three hours. It also didn't make sense that he came Eugene to pick her up. Salem was on the way to Portland. She could have met him at his apartment there.

"I didn't want you driving back home by yourself so late at night," he told her. He took his eyes off the road to shoot her a mischievous grin. "Besides, I like it when you ride with me. You're a captive audience."

Bella hastily banished the X-rated images that entered her head. She could feel the blush creep up her face, and silently cursed Lily yet again. Now she was even more aware of the man sitting next to her. Bella took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax. Yeah, right. Relax.

When they arrived, Edward had to keep an arm around Bella's waist to prevent them from being separated in the enormous crowd. Not that she minded. The warmth of his body against her side gave her a sense of security.

"This way," he urged her into a small banquet room. On one side, Bella noticed a spectacular buffet and tables where people were dining. A chamber group played Strauss on the other side, and some couples twirled lazily on the highly-polished dark oak dance floor. Fortunately, the crowd outside hadn't made their way in here yet.

Although Edward no longer had his arm around her waist, he still kept a hand in the small of her back, gently guiding her forward. "This is a private dinner by Tanya's invitation only," he explained. "I hope you don't mind." He smiled down at her, his green eyes teasing. "I was afraid that if you knew there was dancing involved, you would turn me down flat."

"Cheater," she retorted in mock annoyance. As long as he kept touching her, she didn't care if there were bungee jumping involved.

They picked up a couple of fine china plates and unhurriedly filled them with food. After sitting for so long in the car, they felt more comfortable standing by one of the pillar tables to nibble. A small commotion at the room's entrance drew Bella's attention. At the center of it was a stunning statuesque woman in a simple long black strapless gown, her blonde hair coiled elegantly at the nape of her neck.

Edward leaned down to Bella. "That's Tanya." Her heart sank at the excitement in his beautiful eyes. "Do you want to meet her?"

"Of course," she responded with false enthusiasm. Suddenly, despite the new dress and boots, she felt plain and awkward again. Good old dependable Bella, ready to do whatever others wanted at a moment's notice.

Bella was all too familiar with the pain of unrequited love. If Edward wanted Tanya, and had a chance with Tanya, could she let him go?

"Edik!" a musical voice wafted across to them. "I'm so happy you could come!" The gorgeous woman floated toward them, greeting various and sundry people as she came.

"Oh, Edward!" She pronounced his name in Russian – edooAHRD. Tanya was even more beautiful up close, her sparkling blue eyes surveying her and Edward. "You look so handsome tonight!" She stretched up and kissed him on either cheek, allowing him to return the salute. "I can see that you are turning many female heads here."

"Hello again, Tanya." Another pang shot through Bella. She wished that his velvet voice would carry that note of affection for her, too.

"You must be Bella," Tanya greeted her warmly, taking her hand in both of her perfectly manicured ones. Bella was surprised by the small calluses she felt on the woman's fingertips.

"You are even lovelier than Edik described. I am so glad that you agreed to date him. He has been worrying for days if you would come with him to my concert."

What? DATE Edward?

A look of exasperation settled on her friend's face. "Tanya, at least give me a chance to ask her myself first!" He eyed Bella warily, as if expecting her to bolt any second. Tanya's horrified expression would have been comical if Bella wasn't too stunned to appreciate it.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry! Bella, let us start again." Tanya held out her hand. "Hello, I am Tanya Novikova. I am very pleased to meet you."

With a bemused smile, Bella took her hand. "I'm Bella Swan. Pleased to meet you as well. I'm looking forward to your concert. Rachmaninoff is one of my favourites. Isn't Piano Concerto No. 3 his most demanding piece?"

Tanya looked slightly taken aback. "Why yes, it is. As you probably realize, I am playing it tonight. Edward, you didn't tell me that Bella knew music!"

"My mother used to listen to Rachmaninoff all the time when I was a child," she explained sheepishly.

"I like her, Edik. Make sure she does not get away." With a flash of perfect pearly teeth, she floated away. "By the way," she commented over her shoulder, "I adore those Roberto Cavalli boots!"

Tanya's departure left an uncomfortable silence.

"Well," Bella commented, "this is awkward."

Edward, studying the toes of his shoes, gave a nervous laugh. "Yes, it is. Bella, I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. I'm sorry Tanya jumped the gun like that."

Bella swallowed. "What did she mean by us dating?"

He finally looked at her. "Please don't think that because I asked you to come with me, that I'm expecting…I mean, I have no idea how you…" He ran a hand through his already-messy hair. "Shit, I'm no good at this."

For the first time, Bella felt a ray of hope. "Edward, do you want to date me?"

The edges of his mouth curled slightly upward. "Yes. Actually, I want more than that." He braced himself, and took the plunge. "I've loved you for a long time, Bella Swan."

When she didn't answer right away, he visibly deflated. "I don't want to lose the friendship we have, so if you just want to be friends…I can handle that. I won't embarrass you any more with my…"

Bella covered his mouth with her hand. Her soft brown eyes smiled into his anxious ones. "I love you too. It's just that I thought you would never want me."

A couple accidently jostled them as they spun by. Bella hadn't even noticed that they were standing on the edge of the dance floor.

"Dance with me?" Edward asked.

Bella grimaced. "I'm not sure I can dance in these high heels."

"Just trust me. Please?" Drat, she could never resist when he begged. Seconds later she was in his arms, and they were dancing slowly to a Strauss waltz.

"I've always wanted you, Bella," he explained, "ever since that day four years ago when you walked into the grad student office looking as if you thought you didn't belong. But I had nothing to offer you. My family needed me too much, and between them and trying to finish my dissertation as soon as possible, I knew I couldn't give you the time and attention you deserved. So I decided you would be happier without me."

"You decided that for me, without even asking me what I wanted?"

Edward hung his head. "Yes. I'm sorry about that. At the time I thought that if we could just be friends, it would be enough. It was stupid of me."

He smiled wryly at Bella's enthusiastic agreement. "Then you started dating James. Everyone else was so happy for you. I tried to be happy as well. You'd done what I thought I wanted…you found someone. But instead it felt like someone had ripped a hole in my chest."

Bella spun silently in his arms, digesting his words. "Edward, I was so sure that you only saw me as a friend. The others, especially Lily, kept hinting that you felt something more, but I thought they were only trying to give me hope." She grinned suddenly.

Edward smiled too. "What is it?"

"You don't want to know." She was playing dirty, knowing that withholding information drove him crazy.

"Bella," he growled.

"Fine. Do you remember that day, after my defense, when we were all talking about how we'd spend our first paycheck?" When he nodded, she told him about Lily's observations.

The music changed, and he pulled her closer against him.

"I'm glad that you bought your high heels," he observed softly. She could only nod, drowning in the delicious feel of his body pressed against hers. "They…look good on you. Actually, Ricardo forwarded the images you sent him to Jasper and Lily, then Jasper sent them to me. "

Bella's face flamed. In fact, she could feel her whole body heating up. She had to say something to distract herself.

"You never did tell us how you would spend your first paycheck. Did you come up with something?"

Edward's arm tightened around her. She looked up at him, meeting his intense green gaze.

"I knew then," he told her, his velvet voice sending a delicious shiver down her spine. "When you mentioned your wish. I decided I had to see you in those come-fuck-me shoes. Even more than that, I wanted to be the first...the only…man to respond to them. That is, if you'll let me."

They were standing still now, not noticing that the people around them were filtering out to the concert. Bella met his burning gaze, unable to look away. She couldn't believe her ears. She must be hallucinating.

"You want to f…?"

"I want to make love to you," he corrected, his mouth inches from hers. "Over and over again."

He still held her body tightly against him, his hands pulling her hips to his. Bella reached up to tangle her fingers is his sexy bronze hair. "I've fantasized about doing this," she admitted.

With a groan, he released her, but only to pull her to the side of the room and spin her behind a curtained area. Before she knew what was happening, his lips crashed down on hers. With a sigh, Bella opened her mouth and he deepened the kiss, their tongues moving sensuously against each other. One hand found its way to the nape of her neck, the other massaged her hip. When they finally broke apart, Bella had to cling to his shoulders to steady herself.

They stood there, foreheads touching, catching their breath. "And I've fantasized about doing that," he whispered. "Along with other things."

Bella's breath hitched. She reached to tug his hips back to hers, moaning quietly when she felt his erection pressing against her.

"I suppose we should go to Tanya's concert," she told him regretfully. At this point, she could stay with him all night like this.

He sighed. "You're probably right." Then a mischievous glint entered his eyes as he ground playfully against her. She groaned at the sensation.

"But after the concert, perhaps I can give you a ride."


•Edik is a Russian nickname for Edward.

•Bella's boots & dress: http:/bit[.]ly/elMJqr http:/bit[.]ly/g78U9H

•Edwards suit http:/bit[.]ly/ebgOxW