Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer and Summit Entertainment own all things Twilight-related. No copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: Okay, so I'm going to be evil and tease you a bit longer! I really did think I'd be posting a much longer chapter, but when I got to the point at which this one ends, it seemed like a great place to pause. You all will no doubt be annoyed, but at least you'll have a pretty good idea what's coming next. ;-)
Many thanks to my wonderful betae, Carol and einfach_mich, for all their help. Any mistakes in the final draft are entirely my own.
(~ * ~ * ~)
My taste buds came alive, screaming in ecstasy as I sank my teeth into the juicy hamburger in my hands. I closed my eyes at the sensual onslaught. This was pub grub at its artery-clogging finest, and something I'd missed terribly while holed up in our apartment the past few weeks. Because really, if that's what they call "sufficient recovery time for head trauma," just send me straight the fuck to hell, please. I promise not to stop on GO or collect my $200.
In a rather graceless move, I plopped the burger down when my phone chimed, not even stopping to wipe my hands on a napkin. My anticipation evaporated pretty quickly when I saw the text was from Edward, though. Damn it. I'd been tapping on Carlisle's electronic shoulder almost as long as I'd been out of the hospital, with not a single response back from him. I'd spoken with him briefly about a week ago – on Edward's phone after he'd handed it to me. Apparently that had been just the obligatory and very public father-in-law's show of concern. I, on the other hand, was more than ready for the very private conversation that really needed to be had between us. I'd so totally fucked up that night at the gallery. It didn't matter that I'd been bleeding in my head; as I saw it, that was no excuse for some of the things I'd said. Sighing, I set the phone down long enough to clean my hands, and then fired off a quick reply to Edward. With that text out of the way, I absently toggled through my contacts until I came to the alias I used for Carlisle. After this much silence, it almost seemed futile, but I had to try. My thumbs danced lightly across the touch pad, sending yet another message off into the wild wireless yonder.
We need to talk. Please?
Approaching footsteps prompted me to close out the screen and shove the device back into my pocket. I grabbed for my pickle spear as Alice took a seat across from me.
"For a dive bar, the bathrooms aren't that bad."
I arched my brow. "You checked them both out?"
She tossed me the look – the one patented way back in 1995 when we were both finally old enough to understand what 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' meant. "Of course. If you're gonna be working here, that means I'll be here a lot, too. I needed to know if I'd have to bring my own sanitizer."
"You are so fucking anal," I laughed. "How the hell have we stayed friends all these years?"
Alice grinned back. "It's a complete mystery."
"Seriously, look at us. I wear football jerseys and jeans; you wear Dolce and Cabanna."
"Gabbana," she corrected, rolling her eyes.
I snorted. "What the fuck ever. And I don't have the job just yet."
"Oh, you'll get it."
"You think?" I stuffed a few fries into my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Edward's teaching assistantship contract at UW afforded him a meager salary at best; we were certainly going to need all the income we could get.
Suddenly, Alice sat up straighter, her eyes widening a little as one of the guys from behind the bar approached our table. I had to fight to keep a straight face when her lips curled into a smile. Oh, this one was so not her style, and yet there she was, practically drooling all over her half-eaten lunch.
"Isabella?" he asked, looking at me, though his gaze kept straying in Alice's direction.
"Bella," I told him, holding out my hand, which he shook genially.
"Hey, Bella. I'm Jasper Whitlock, one of the managers here. All your references gave you glowin' reviews," he drawled. "Your demonstration was more than a little impressive, and your Professional Server Certification is also in order, so I don't see why we all can't make it official. Welcome to the Blue Moon Tavern."
"Awesome!" Alice's enthusiastic response caught us both off-guard, but it was the perfect excuse for Jasper to take a nice long look at my friend. "I mean, congratulations…"
I laughed quietly. She wasn't paying me the tiniest bit of attention while she spoke. "Um, Jasper, this is Mary Alice Brandon," I introduced, purposely using Alice's given name, which she hated with a passion. Predictably, the stiletto end of her heels found my foot with unerring accuracy underneath the table.
"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Mary Alice Brandon," he said all gentleman-like, shaking her hand.
"Please, call me Alice."
I hid my shit-eating grin behind my hand, pretending to cough. Then I ate a few more fries. Then I took a sip of my Coke, my gaze flitting back and forth between them. And still, they were lost in their own little world, oblivious to my presence. Finally, I cleared my throat and said, "So, when do I start?"
Jolted from his Alice-trance, Jasper turned back to me, looking appropriately sheepish. "Well, the bartender you'll be replacin'…his last shift is next weekend, so I'm figurin' we should probably start your trainin' come Monday so you're ready to roll for his send-off."
"What time?" I asked.
"Let's have you come in around one on Monday afternoon. We'll get your paperwork in order and show you around before we open at two. Shift'll end at ten, and as you can see," he pointed to his clothing, "casual attire works just fine."
I nodded. "Sounds good."
He glanced back at Alice, grinning. "Will you be visiting our fine establishment again soon, Miss Brandon?"
It was so fucking hard for me to keep a straight face. I'd never in all our years as friends seen her eyes twinkle like that before.
"Most definitely," Alice promised, much to his obvious delight.
"Hey, Jasper!" one of the bartenders called, holding up a phone receiver.
Looking slightly annoyed at the interruption, he acknowledged the employee with a quick wave. "Ladies, I'm afraid duty calls. I'll see you Monday, Bella," he told me before tossing Alice a playful smile and a nod. "Miss Brandon."
Alice sighed happily as she watched him leave. As soon as he was out of earshot, I let go of my laughter. That, of course, just earned me another kick in the foot.
"Honestly, Alice. Not that you wouldn't have noticed or anything," I began, dropping my voice down to a conspiratorial whisper, "but he's wearing cowboy boots." Which were the antithesis of everything my haute couture-worshipping friend stood for. Or so I thought.
"Oh, settle," she shushed me. "Maybe I'm ready for an adventure. Or two. Or three."
I smirked. "Do I hear the kitty purring in anticipation?"
"Hey, my vag gets plenty of exercise, thank you," she defended, leveling a perfectly manicured finger at me before snatching an onion ring off her plate.
"Mmmhmm," I goaded, knowing she was being honest, but not willing to let her off the hook just yet; I was having too much fun. In hindsight, though, taking a big swig of my Coke right then probably wasn't the smartest move, knowing my friend's penchant for flinging well-aimed curve balls during our little repartees.
"So," Alice said, her expression turning devious, "who's Carrie?"
I couldn't help it – I choked. Big time. And while I fought for air, trying in vain to mop up the mess I'd made, Alice just smiled and continued to eat like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Damn her. I should have known better than to risk sending that text while in Her Royal Nosiness's company. She fucking notices everything.
Once I'd caught my breath and counted to, like, fifty, saying a few silent prayers to random gods, I simply told her, "She's one of my friends from New York." Hell, I'd been lying through my teeth pretty successfully for some time now; maybe my luck was still intact.
Alice stopped chewing, the full weight of her gaze bearing down on me. "Bullshit. Try again."
Okay, maybe not. I closed my eyes, knowing it was futile to try keeping secrets from her, but self-preservation was tugging pretty fucking hard at my gut. "My cousin from Ohio?"
She snorted loudly. "Lame. Try again."
Swallowing hard, I just looked at her, pleading silently. Her expression softened a little, but the intensity of her stare made it very clear that she was not giving up on this. "If I asked you nicely, would you just let it go? Please?"
A myriad of emotions crossed Alice's face as I watched her. It started with sympathy at the tone of my voice. Even I had to admit I'd sounded pretty pathetic, my own sense of frustration and sadness coloring my words pretty heavily. The sympathy I saw quickly gave way to a curious glint in her eye. I'd never deliberately withheld anything from my best friend of so many years. We were like sisters; we shared everything. If I wanted to keep a secret from her, she knew it had to be fucking good. And, as I knew it would, curiosity made the wheels start turning in that amazingly perceptive brain of hers. Amusement, surprise…astonishment…I could pretty much follow her train of thought right up to the moment the dazzling, triumphant fireworks display went off over her head.
The corners of her mouth very slowly tugged into a sly grin. "You're fucking someone," Alice stated, the conviction in her voice making my stomach clench. "Someone other than…" she snapped her fingers a few times, "what's his name again?"
"Edward," I said, glowering. She'd made it quite clear what she thought of my other half, and while I pretty much agreed with her sentiments, the repeated mockery was getting a bit old.
She inhaled deeply, still smiling, but remained silent. I knew she was daring me to deny it, but how the fuck could I? Stalling, I picked up my burger and took a bite. Funny how it now tasted bland and unappealing.
"Come on, Bella, spill. You can't hide it from me."
I really couldn't. Now that I'd as good as confessed, she'd be poking and prodding until the truth came out anyway. "Look, we fooled around a few times, but now…" I trailed off, glancing self-consciously around the pub while I struggled to find the right words. "Now it's just all weird and shit…"
Alice's demeanor changed immediately. "He's not stalking you or anything, is he?"
"No, no," I assured her, "it's not like that. I said some things I shouldn't have." I absently chewed at my lower lip. Just thinking about Carlisle made me ache in ways I never thought I would at this point in my life. Seriously, shit like this only happened in movies, right? "I think it could have been really good between us. But I screwed up."
When I looked back up, Alice was gazing at me with this incredulous expression. "You actually care about this guy."
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to," she insisted quietly.
At that point, I stopped thinking altogether, my favorite defense mechanism kicking in. Instead of pondering what ifs and how utterly fucking pitiful my own situation was, I just continued eating my lunch in silence, staring blankly at my plate. Fortunately, Alice seemed to recognize my need for emotional space, and left me alone. For a while, anyway.
As we were finishing up, though, she ventured, "So, are you going to tell me who it was?"
"Does it really matter?"
She tilted her head and grinned. "It does to me. If I ever see him, I'd at least like the chance to tell him what an idiot he is for letting you go."
I laughed sadly. "He's married, Alice." And I am, too.
"Mmmm," she hummed, cringing. "Complicated."
"Yeah." Fucking understatement of the century.
Alice reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "One of these days soon, we'll have a girl's night at my place. Then you can tell me all about it, and we'll both cry over a few bottles of Chilean cabernet, okay?"
I gaped at her. She was giving up so soon? Normally, she would have grilled me relentlessly until I'd told her everything. God, I must really look pathetic. In any case, I was grateful, since I really did not feel like dwelling on this particular subject any longer.
"Oh, and lunch is on me," Alice continued suddenly, her gaze refocusing across the room while she dug out her wallet.
Curious, I turned towards the bar, where I saw Jasper dutifully cleaning up after another patron. Bingo! Laughing under my breath, I watched as she got up and hurried across the room without actually looking like she was hurrying. Seeing my friend so eager and happy made me feel much, much better. Alice had always been there for me, and I knew she always would be. I'd tell her everything eventually; right now, though, I just wanted a little more time to get my shit together.
Grabbing my backpack, I tossed a generous tip onto the table, and then headed for the bar. Alice was already engaged in a quiet but animated conversation with my future boss. "Hey Ally, I'm headed out," I told her.
"Oh," she said, looking back and forth between me and her newest obsession. "Well…"
I grinned. "It's okay. I think I can handle walking home." In truth, the pub's strategic location was one of the reasons I'd applied in the first place. We had a car now thanks to Edward's mother – an obnoxious mint green Honda Civic – and I would most likely be able to use it for work, but in the event that I would need to hoof it for whatever reason, the six-block distance was very doable.
Alice gave me a huge smile and pulled me into a quick hug. "Take care of you," she whispered.
"Always." I backed towards the door, flashing her the hand symbol for 'call me' while winking.
"Later, Bella," Jasper said.
I waved. "See you Monday."
When I stepped out into the early afternoon sun, it was like being renewed. For mid-September, the weather in Seattle was unseasonably warm. Even the breeze coming in off Lake Union lacked its distinctive cool bite. Hoisting my backpack over my shoulders and donning sunglasses, I turned east and did my best to blend in with all the weekend shoppers.
I'd only walked about a block when my phone went off. I cackled softly to myself as I dug it out of my jeans pocket, fully expecting the call to be Alice with news about tonight's hot date. Instead, I felt my heart leap up into my throat as I eyed the caller ID.
I hesitated only a moment before tapping the call button. "Carlisle? Why didn't you––"
"Bella, where are you?" he cut me off.
Blinking at his abruptness, I answered, "On my way home."
I heard a quiet exhalation on the other end. Impatient amusement. "Where are you?" he repeated. "Exactly?"
Stopping mid-stride, I shook my head. I'd totally forgotten how ballsy he could be. Okay, fine. "Forty-fifth and Roosevelt. Look, can we please––"
Pulling the phone away from my ear, I stared at it in disbelief. "He hung up on me," I murmured to myself. "He fucking hung up on me!" I punched the end call button and shoved it back into my pocket, gritting my teeth as I waited to cross the intersection. Fuck him! I didn't care how good he was in bed; after groveling via text messages for two fucking weeks with no response back, I thought I deserved a little better than being hung up on. Seething, I marched purposefully across Roosevelt Way when the WALK signal lit up, keeping my gaze downward. At this rate, I'd be home in record time, and that suited me just fine. Curling up in front of the TV with a few too many beers and some junk food sounded pretty damn good right about now.
I didn't immediately register the sound. It seemed to blend in with the rest of the heavy traffic, more or less. But, then its timbre grew more distinctive, more…predatory, rising above everything else. It demanded attention. It commanded respect. It growled. And for some inexplicable reason, I knew with absolute certainty that it was coming for me. Slowing my pace, I looked up just as a flash of red and gold moved in the distance, crawling steadily in my direction.
No. Fucking. Way.
The deep, powerful hum of the 4.3 liter V-8 engine made the hair on my neck stand straight on end, even as I fought to believe what I was seeing. I just stood there, rooted in place, gaping, until Carlisle finally eased the sleek Ferrari convertible up to the curb beside me. A fucking F430 Spider, no less. The vision in front of me was like the culmination of all my girly wet dreams, both biological and mechanical, which, of course, melted away my previous indignation in about two seconds flat. Had I been a guy, I'd have had a hard-on the size of Florida in my pants.
Shifting the car into first gear, Carlisle turned to look at me, his expression smug. "Hey, little girl," he purred, pulling down his Ray-Ban sunglasses just enough to tease me with a hint of those beautiful bluish-green eyes. "Want some candy?"
(~ * ~ * ~)