Fan Fiction, Sex Gods and single Girls

A/N: Back to Beautella and the Beastward and the blackouts…


Chapter 16: Enlightenment

Over the course of the past decade, Edward Cullen had cultivated a trimmed and toned body and devil-may-care, fuck-me-hair. He'd become adept at employing a seductive voice, a sensuous touch, a smoldering gaze, and an overwhelming sexy physicality that couldn't be denied.

And so women had fallen for Edward Cullen. It had happened often. But only in the figurative sense.

This thing that had just happened in Bella Swan's kitchen... This was different. This was literal. Bella Swan had literally just fallen for him. Blacked out in the midst of a blackout, she was now doubly blacked-out.

Edward had just moved closer and reached for a wineglass, when he'd seen a slight swaying movement out of the corner of his eye. And though he'd reacted quickly, heedless to the crash of the shattering glass as it broke on the countertop, Bella was already on her way down to the floor, eyelids fluttering closed as she folded into a limp little pile. Uttering an oath and shouting her name, Edward's arms darted out as she slumped over, managing to catch her head before she banged it on the tile.

Her collapse frightened him horribly in that first moment. People didn't do that. Well, not many people and not very often.

He knelt over her, cradling her head in his hand as he felt for her carotid artery. She had a pulse. She was breathing. She had merely fainted.

Quickly, Edward shifted position, letting her head loll back against his upper arm as he slid one arm beneath her torso and the other beneath her legs, gathering her into his arms and pulling her small, limp body up onto his lap. Once she was positioned securely and angled for better blood flow to her brain, Edward felt her forehead. She wasn't hot or even overly warm. Her smooth, soft, porcelain skin was cool to the touch.

He wished the lights would go back on. He glanced back up at the counter but the flashlight was out of reach, over by the broken wineglass. His eyes traveled back down to her face. He couldn't see very well but she looked ghostly pale in the semi-darkness and her eyes remained closed.

As the son of a doctor, there were things you learned along the way, including the numerous reasons why a person might faint, women in particular.

Alice had been a fainter as a teen. She had suffered from heavy menstrual cycles and severe cramps, passing out occasionally before being put on birth-control to help regulate and minimize her periods.

Did that happen to women in their mid-twenties?

Edward glanced at Bella's lower abdomen. Then he decided he shouldn't be contemplating her uterus. That was probably overstepping the bounds of being neighborly, and what guy wants to think about the mysteries of menstruation? Not that it was such a mystery. He'd taken biology in high school and his experiences with women since then had cleared up any lingering questions. Still…he didn't think Bella would want him mulling over her menses.

There were other physical factors which could cause fainting, such as overheating, but though Bella was wearing yoga pants and a little zip-up hoodie, he'd already ruled that out.

She hadn't been hyperventilating, so that wasn't the cause.

Perhaps she hadn't eaten much, resulting in low-blood sugar. He hoped he hadn't been the cause of her faint, making her wait to eat.

Dehydration was another possibility. Maybe she needed to drink something. Like juice, which would also help with low blood sugar.

She'd been completely coherent, so she couldn't have passed out from excessive alcohol intake, prior to his arrival.

A drug-induced blackout also seemed unlikely. Being a high school teacher didn't scream "drug-user," though that might depend upon the kind of students one had in one's classes.

Hopefully, it wasn't something dire that had caused her to pass out, like anemia, an eating disorder, cardiac problems or…pregnancy. He looked back down at her lower abdomen…the lower abdomen he probably shouldn't be contemplating.

Shit! She's not pregnant, is she?

And Jake left her? What a fucking asshole!

He realized he was jumping to conclusions and quickly reined in his rampant thoughts.

Emotional stress could be another factor, but what would Bella have been stressed about? They'd just been talking, examining a dented candle.

"Bella? Wake up." He trailed his knuckles lightly down the side of her cheek, jerking his hand away when he saw her eyelids flutter. She made a little whimpering sound and then her eyelids gradually fluttered open. And though she seemed a bit unfocused as she came out of her faint, she smiled...almost contentedly...up at Edward.

"Hey, are you okay?" Edward asked softly. "You fainted."

Bella blinked lazily once again but then her eyes came into abrupt focus, staring up at Edward in utter shock.

Of course Bella hadn't any idea what had happened after she'd begun to feel lightheaded. She didn't know Edward had broken a wineglass. She had no idea he'd caught her as she'd passed out and then checked for her pulse. She had no clue he'd pulled her up into his lap, angling her body and head for optimal blood flow to her brain. She wasn't aware he'd felt her forehead to see if she was feverish, or that he'd pondered the possible reasons for her blackout.

But somewhere in that little twilight moment between unconsciousness and complete consciousness, Bella had heard his soft voice say her name and tell her to wake up. It had been a low and gentle sound, velvety smooth and soft, wrapping around her semi-consciousness like a whispered caress. And then she'd felt the feather-light touch of fingers, ghosting softly down the side of her cheek. Just so pleasantly. But then the touch had disappeared and she had moaned at the loss of that delicate sensation. But when she'd opened her eyes...there he was...looking down at her. She'd smiled because he hadn't gone…he was still here. His perfectly beautiful face was right there above her, looking down at her with concern as he held her in his arms.

He was asking if she was okay, the words coming from his perfect mouth, in his perfect voice. His lips moved again, telling her she'd fainted.

And reality crashed into her brain like a wrecking ball.

Holy fuck! It's not a dream! He's really holding me! The Predator has me in his clutches!

Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus, I'm on Edward's lap and he's holding me and I fainted like an absolute idiot!

She clamped her eyes shut. Murmured words tumbled out of her mouth in a soft little wail of dismay and mortification.

"Oh. My. God."

She kept her eyes tightly closed, hoping that the embarrassing reality would somehow disappear and she'd open her eyes to a new reality. Something that wouldn't make her heart pound. Something less embarrassing than lying in heartbreakingly-handsome Edward Cullen's arms, on heartbreakingly-handsome Edward Cullen's lap, imagining that heartbreakingly-handsome Edward Cullen had been caressing her face.

Isabella Marie, you are such a fucking idiot!

He must think I'm a total freak of a nutcase!

No, he already thought that. Now it's a proven fact.

She opened her eyes and made a somewhat jerky move to sit up. Edward grunted and winced, quickly adjusting Bella's position, moving her away from his groin slightly as she died of embarrassment just a little bit more.

Perfect! You just crushed The Predator's family jewels! What's a predator without his jewels?

"Sorry," she whispered, covering her eyes with a hand and thankful for the additional cover of the blackout. At least he couldn't see her face in all its burning, beet-red glory.

"It's okay. I'm good," he hissed, the words coming through clenched teeth.

"I need to get up," Bella said, waiting for his help this time, so she wouldn't further damage his predatory equipment.

"No." His arms tightened around her.

What?

She looked up at him wide-eyed. "No?"

He shook his head. "No. You might pass out again. Put your arms around my neck." His voice sounded more normal now, less clenched and pained.

"Wait...what?"

"I'm going to stand up. Hold on."

"No, I'm fine. You don't have to…"

"Just hold onto me!" he said forcefully. It didn't sound like he wanted to argue.

Bella dutifully looped her arms around his neck as he gathered her up, lifting her a higher against his chest. He repositioned his legs, got to one knee, then stood, carefully but with some effort.

"Am I going to step on anything or walk into anything between here and the couch?" he asked, peering toward the shadowy great room off the kitchen.

Bella turned her head, following his line of sight. "No, you're fine. It's a clear shot."

She turned her head back toward him, her heart rate picking up again, thudding within her chest. It was absolutely surreal that she was in his arms. This perfect example of masculinity was carrying her to the couch and he felt so solid and incredible and he smelled just so wonderful…

You're in the arms of a predator, you idiot! He probably does this kind of stuff all the time. Predators are stealthy like this. It's second nature! It's a ploy!

He gently laid her down on the couch, grabbing a pillow and propping up her legs.

"Just lie here for a bit," he said, seemingly satisfied with her position. "Do you have any juice?"

"Juice?" Her brow furrowed as she wondered why he suddenly wanted juice.

"It would be good for you to get a little fluid and sugar in you."

"Oh. Um…yeah, I have orange juice."

Bella's eyes followed Edward's lanky form as he headed back toward the kitchen. She couldn't see him over the back of the couch but she heard the strike of a match and saw the ghostly flickers of candlelight, followed by the sounds of him opening the refrigerator and pouring juice. A moment later, he was back at her side, sitting on the edge of the couch, handing her a wineglass of orange juice. She sat up a little, leaning slightly closer to him. He leaned closer, too, resting his forearms on his thighs, watching her. He was awfully close.

You were just sitting on his lap! You even squashed his predator-package with your big ass and then he carried you over here in his arms. It's a little late to be concerned about physical boundaries with a ridiculously attractive predatory neighbor.

"Thanks," she murmured, bringing the glass to her lips.

"Do you know why you fainted?" he asked.

She took an extra gulp before handing the glass over to him and lying back down. It gave her time to think. She didn't want to tell him it was because she'd been so flustered she had been holding her breath, thinking he was onto her, prowling throughout his house, investigating his personal life, and that she was overwhelmingly relieved when he'd blamed the candle dent on his housekeeper.

"Um…I don't really know. All of a sudden I just felt lightheaded. I think I forgot to breathe."

"You forgot to breathe?" His wide eyes and the way he blurted the words told Bella just how crazy that statement was, but what else could she say?

"You know, breathing isn't really a conscious act." He sounded a bit amused. "Your autonomic nervous system takes care of that without you putting much thought or effort into it."

Is he laughing at me?

For God's sake…he has every right to laugh at you! You're a buffoon!

Bella draped her hand over her eyes once again, wishing she could just disappear or sneak out without him noticing.

"Have you ever fainted before?" His voice sounded more concerned now. He handed her the glass of juice once again for her to take another drink.

"Um…yeah... on occasion. It's nothing serious…I don't have heart problems or anything. Usually it has to do with blood. I fainted in my high school biology class when we did a blood typing lab. That did wonders for my self esteem." She took a sip.

"Well, it didn't affect your sense of humor." Edward smiled wryly.

Bella watched his face. She wondered if he thought she was as foolish as she felt.

"Did you eat anything today?" he asked after a moment.

"Not very much. I was feeling anxious since it was my first day at work. I didn't have much of an appetite."

He nodded, watching her. "You probably just need to get some food in you. How do you feel now?"

"Better. And I am hungry. We should eat before dinner is a complete disaster. It might be all dried out by now." She began to get up but Edward moved to stop her.

"No, stay here for a little longer. You relax and I'll dish things up."

"I'm okay now. I can do it."

Did he just roll his eyes at me?

"Bella, just stay put. You cooked. I'll serve. Okay? And you should have a little more juice." He stood up, looking down at her, with his hands on his hips.

He's kind of bossy.

He's just trying to be helpful, you ninny! He'd probably like to get this meal over with, so he can go back home and back to his normal life where normal women don't faint like characters in old romance novels.

"Okay." Bella resigned herself to the embarrassment of inviting Edward over for dinner and then letting him wait on her. She was getting used to the idea of feeling like a fool whenever he was around.

"Potholders?" his asked as he headed to the kitchen.

"On a hook to the left above the sink."

Bella heard the oven door open and then close as she took another sip of her orange juice.

"I hate to tell you this but I broke one of your wineglasses," he said. "I saw you falling and I tried to catch you before you hit your head on the floor. I guess a broken wineglass is better than a concussion, but I'll replace your glass."

"Don't worry about it. I have more. Thanks for um...saving me from further injury...and indignity." She heard a soft snort of amusement.

"I'm just glad you didn't get hurt and that you're feeling better."

Bella heard the clinking of glass as he cleared away the broken wineglass and tossed it in the trash.

"Don't cut yourself," she warned. "I'm liable to faint."

His soft chuckle made her smile. "I'll be careful."

She listened to him moving about in her kitchen, imagining his lanky body and fluid movements. She heard drawers opening and closing and she was struck by how weirdly domestic this was and how capably he'd taken over for her.

"You said you made us a salad, Bella?"

He said "us"!

"On the lower shelf in the refrigerator."

"Got it."

Who would have thought Edward Cullen would be serving me dinner tonight?

Shit…Alice Brandon can never know about this! It would be awful to ruin a professional relationship after only five hours.

"We're in luck." Edward's voice interrupted her thoughts. "The casserole doesn't seem dry. The foil kept the moisture in. It's still nice and saucy."

Bella almost giggled out loud.

The predator just said "nice and saucy!" I bet he says that to all his prey!

Oh, grow up!

Bella sat up and looked over the couch, smelling the faint scent of sandalwood. She stood up and flushed as she realized Edward had stilled his movements and was now watching her like a hawk as the candlelight flickered over his features.

"I'm fine. Really. Am I allowed to get up now?" she asked.

"Well, seeing as you're already up, I guess I'd have to say yes. As long as you feel all right. But tell me if you start to feel lightheaded."

"Okay…but I honestly feel fine."

Bella rinsed out her wineglass and got another one from the cupboard for Edward.

"You should eat a little first," Edward said, glancing at her wineglass. "Have some water too, before you have any wine."

She nodded. "Would you like some water?"

"No, thanks. I'll just have some wine for now."

Bella grabbed a bottle of water and seated herself on the barstool next to him. He tossed the salad with their forks and began serving some into each of their bowls. He handed Bella her fork and then picked up the big serving spoon he'd found, and scooped some casserole onto their plates.

It was somewhat comforting that he seemed intent on getting food into her quickly and wasn't tentative about being in her kitchen. He just made himself at home, helping out, doing what needed to be done, and he wasn't apologetic about it. He was a confident predator, that was certain.

"I hope you like this, Bella. It's my specialty and I've been slaving over it all evening." There was a smile in his voice.

Bella swiveled her barstool a little and looked at him in profile. His eyelashes were longer than she'd realized and she saw laugh-lines crinkling at the corner of his eye and the curl of a smirk at the corner of his mouth.

Wow! Who would have expected it?! He's a playful predator!

Yeah…just one more skill to lure in his prey.

Killjoy!

"This specialty of yours looks an awful lot like something I make, Edward. My recipe only takes a few minutes to put together and forty five minutes to bake. It takes very little interaction on my part." She smiled at him as he began chuckling.

He shrugged and glanced over at her. "Well, my version probably tastes better than yours," he said, smiling as he put his napkin in his lap.

"I'm willing to bet it tastes exactly the same," Bella said blandly as she picked up her fork and took a bite.

Edward dug into his own dinner, making an appreciative humming noise around his first bite. "Mmm. This is really good," he said after swallowing.

"It really is," Bella agreed. "I'll have to get your recipe."

Edward chuckled. "Not a problem…it's yours," he said gallantly as they dug in for another bite.

"Thought so," she replied dryly, to his amusement.

Edward poured the wine and handed her a glass.

"Cheers," he said, lifting his glass toward her. "To the chef and the chicken casserole."

"And to multiple blackouts," she replied as she touched her glass to his.

"Don't go getting any ideas," Edward cautioned, looking over at her. "Two blackouts in one evening is my limit."

"Mine too," Bella agreed, as she raised her glass and took a sip. "Mmm, this is good," she remarked, licking her lip with the tip of her tongue.

"Glad you like it," Edward replied, looking away from her and her tongue on her lips, focusing instead on his wineglass as he twirled it slowly on the countertop. He wanted to ask her about Jake and about being in his bed but he suspected that conversation might get uncomfortable. He really didn't want that right now. This was actually kind of nice, as impromptu as it was and despite her alarming fainting episode from lack of food or oxygen or some such thing. He cleared his throat and asked her something safer.

"So, uh...Alice told me Fawkes High School is your first teaching assignment?"

He and Alice talked about me?

"Oh…yeah. I just finished my student teaching last spring. I was lucky to find a job so quickly."

"Well, congratulations. Fawkes is a great school. Alice really likes it there."

"Thanks. Yeah, I've heard good things about Fawkes."

"So, how was your first day? You said you were feeling anxious."

As they ate, Bella told him about the meetings and about getting to know some of the younger faculty members who were also Alice's friends. Edward asked about her barren room and she told him the Victor Mason pitching-things-from-the-car-window story. She also told him about Tyler Crowley's onion-scented room and he got a laugh out of both stories.

"Did you ever find any more posters?" Edward wondered if the gangly teacher guy had given her anything else. He sort of hoped he hadn't.

"No. But I can go shopping this weekend. Maybe hit some bookstores and see what I can find on short notice. There are teacher's websites that have great materials, but I wouldn't get anything delivered soon enough to hang up for the first day."

"What level English classes will you have?"

"Two sophomore classes and three freshmen classes. I'm in luck, because I did my student teaching in the same levels, so I'm familiar with much of the material."

Edward was looking at his plate, grinning as he shook his head.

"What? What's so funny?" She chewed at her lip, wondering if he was laughing at her again for some reason.

He cleared his throat and smiled as he picked at his food. "I was just thinking of my own teachers for freshman and sophomore English. Freshman year I had Mrs. Stern. She must have been in her sixties and she really lived up to her name. Frighteningly so." He chuckled at the memory. "Sophomore year was Mr. Borden but the students all called him Mr. Boredom because he spoke in a monotone. Somehow I think your students are getting quite the good deal. Trust me, at least the boys will be paying attention." He smiled at her but she just looked back down at her plate and began pushing her food around with her fork, biting at her lip.

Bella felt herself blushing and for a moment she didn't quite know what to say. But then she remembered these were the words of a predator. He would say these kinds of things and they would come easily to him. The words might sound complimentary but they should be taken with a grain of salt because it was probably just a line.

"Well, I'm going to do my best to keep all my students interested and focused…the boys and the girls." She pulled her salad closer and leaning forward, her hair fell into place, creating a little curtain between them.

Edward wanted to smack himself. He'd embarrassed her. He hadn't meant to make her feel uncomfortable but obviously his words had. Old habits died hard. The habits of a sleazeoid were difficult to break. And yet, what he'd said was also the absolute truth. The boys would find her pretty and she was small and curvy and young enough that she could almost blend in with the students. She was fresh and just starting out and she would be filled with creative ideas and the desire and drive to work hard to be good at what she did. And judging by what she'd been wearing in her classroom today, he knew she would present herself in a professional yet attractive manner. She would have a definite appeal, to both the boys and the girls. He'd just said it so completely stupidly.

He had to salvage the moment.

"That didn't come out quite the way I intended it. I just meant…the same thing happened with Alice when she began teaching. Your youth makes you a little more appealing to high school students, you know? They feel like you're more in touch and better able to relate to them."

"Oh. Well that makes sense. Still, I have to make things interesting and maintain classroom control and interest for all my students. That's something a teacher should be able to do at any age, regardless of appearance.

"Would you like more?" she asked, changing the subject and picking up the serving spoon.

"Sure, thank you." Edward was grateful for the distraction, watching as she spooned more chicken, rice and vegetables onto his dish.

He felt like an ass. He'd more or less told her she was pretty and yet it had embarrassed her because of the way he'd said it, like the boys would be leering at her. In all likelihood they would be, teenage male hormones being what they were, still it hadn't come out right.

He'd never known a woman to be uncomfortable about being told, essentially, that she was pretty. Most women he'd known liked to be told they looked attractive. But once again, Bella confounded him. She never seemed to react quite the way he expected. He poured a little more wine and decided to take the conversation in a different direction as they continued eating.

"So, I'm guessing your major in college was English. Where did you go to school?"

"Um, actually I have two degrees from the University of Washington; one in British Lit and one in Creative Writing. I got my teaching credential at U-Dub, too. What about you? Emmett said you both went to Dartmouth. What was your major?"

"Yeah, Emmett and I were roommates at Dartmouth. That's how we met. I studied Business and Finance and I got my MBA there too."

Bella nodded. That made sense. He and Emmett owned a business together.

"So you double majored..." Edward said. "Plus you have a teaching credential. I'm figuring eight years of school, so you're probably closer to my age than I thought."

Bella frowned. "How old do you think I am?"

Edward studied her for a moment and Bella felt her cheeks heating up under his scrutiny. She was sorry she'd asked.

"Well, I'm twenty-eight, and with a double major and a teaching credential, I'm figuring you must be about…maybe twenty-six? Twenty seven?"

Bella shook her head. "I'm not quite twenty-four."

Once again he was completely stunned. She must have worked really hard. Or she was really bright. Probably a combination of the two.

"You got through school quickly, then."

She nodded. "Yeah, I took advanced placement classes and community college courses while I was still in high school. I also took summer session classes and full loads each quarter at U-Dub. There was some overlap, too, with my majors."

"You can't have had much of a social life," Edward observed.

Bella snorted. "My classes were my social life. Fun-filled study groups and exciting nights in the library or at the computer."

Perfect! Make yourself sound like a boring bookworm!

I was one!

You still are! But did you have to make sure he knows?

Her response rather surprised him. Bella was a beautiful girl and he would have imagined she'd been pursued by quite a few college boys. But with her reply, Edward realized she must have had a much quieter college experience than he'd expected. She had probably had the lackluster kind of social life he would have had, if he hadn't met Emmett and hadn't been so focused on changing his life around.

"Huh," was all he could think to say.

"What does, 'huh' mean?" she asked. She took another sip of wine and pushed her empty plate away, stacking her empty salad bowl on top. She watched as he put the last bite of his second helping in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. He pushed his plate away and ran his hand through his hair, thinking about what, exactly, 'huh' meant and what he wanted to say about "huh." He gazed at her for a moment and Bella felt her cheeks warming once again. At least the lights were still out.

"I don't know..." he finally said. "I guess you never say or do what I expect."

She snorted. "That's funny…my mom always says I'm an open book."

"Well, of course she knows you better, but so far, just about everything you've said or done has surprised me." Edward grinned his crooked smile at her.

She sighed.

That's because much of what I've done has been surprisingly ridiculous.

A little frown puckered between her brows and Edward noticed it.

"Not in a bad way," he assured her. "You're just...different." He shrugged and pursed his lips but the grin was still there. He couldn't hide it completely.

Bella looked doubtful and felt sheepish. She got off her barstool and went to the refrigerator, taking out a covered bowl. When she turned back to Edward, he seemed lost in thought, looking into the flickering flames of the candles on the countertop. The soft light lit his face up and Bella was once again struck by the fact that he was probably the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. She wondered what he was thinking about, but then his eyes suddenly flickered to hers and he gave her a questioning look. She realized she'd been staring and quickly looked down at the bowl in her hands.

"Um…would you like dessert? It's just fruit. Or I have chocolate chip cookies, if you'd prefer?"

"I shouldn't eat your cookies." Edward frowned as the words left his lips. Somehow it didn't sound like he was talking about actual cookies but rather something more vulgar. And then he realized she might think he didn't like the cookies she'd shared with him, so he quickly explained himself. "I've still got some at home…they're really great by the way…but you should keep yours for yourself. Fruit sounds great."

Bella returned to the refrigerator and got out a can of whipped cream, and then she took two small plates from the cupboard.

"Would you like more wine?" Edward asked, picking up the nearly empty bottle.

"No, thanks. You finish it off."

Edward poured the rest into his glass and set the bottle down, watching her. Bella set the plates, bowl, and whipped cream on the countertop and climbed back onto her barstool, swiveling the seat to face him.

"Um…I cheated…I did this the lazy man's way." She grinned at Edward's confused look. She took the lid off the bowl and Edward's eyes widened as he peered at the contents.

Strawberries...!

He blinked up at her.

"They're pretty big...almost the size of plums," she said. "Maybe I should have cut them up, but I kept them whole and left the stems on so they'd have handles." He smiled at her terminology. "Anyway, I splashed them with some Cointreau mixed with sugar, to give them a little pizzazz."

"Pizzazz?" Edward asked, grinning.

"Yes, pizzazz. You know, oomph?" She looked at him in confusion. He constantly made her feel awkward and she wondered again if he was laughing at her.

He shook his head, still grinning. "Okay, Cointreau and sugar for pizzazz and oomph. Are you trying to get me drunk?"

Shit! Why did I say that? Why can't I just be normal without throwing in suggestive comments?

But his comment didn't deter Bella. She just rolled her eyes. "You've had a couple glasses of wine with dinner and now you're going to have a tablespoon or two of Cointreau. For your height and probable weight I'm sure you'll be able to maintain."

"You're probably right. But if I wind up dancing on the countertop, it's your fault."

That sounded okay, didn't it?

Bella giggled. "You'd probably smack your head on the ceiling and knock yourself unconscious."

Edward chuckled softly. "And that's one blackout too many. We've already hit our limit."

Bella nodded, still smiling. "I'll keep my eye on you and make sure you don't get carried away."

And I'll also keep my eye on you because you're just so easy on the eyes.

"Thanks. You might have to make sure I get home okay, too."

Shit. Did that sound bad?

At least you didn't make some comment about needing to spend the night here, so it's a step in the right direction, Jackass.

They were both sitting sideways, facing each other now, their knees nearly touching, although Edward's legs were splayed outward and Bella's were somewhat between his.

"So, what's the protocol?" Edward asked, pointing at the bowl of liquored-up berries.

"Well, you select your strawberry…" She chose a rather large one. "Make sure to get some of the Cointreau sauce…" She dipped the berry toward the bottom of the bowl. "And then…" She picked up the can of whipped cream, squirting fluffy clouds on Edward's plate and her own. "You dip the berry into your whipped cream…" She swirled the berry through the creamy cloud. "And…you eat!" She brought the berry to her mouth, her tongue peeked out, licking a bit of the whipped cream from the tip, then she took a bite of the big, juicy berry. Her tongue appeared once more as she chewed, licking whipped cream from her lips. She smiled after swallowing. "And that's it. Easy as can be!"

Edward's mouth gaped as he stared at her. Watching her eat that plum-sized berry hadn't been "easy as can be." Not by a long shot. It had been hard. And it had only gotten harder as the room had gotten warmer and his pants had gotten tighter. At least he hadn't groaned aloud. Yet. He finally thought to close his mouth and shifted his position on his barstool, hunching slightly as he reached for his wineglass.

"And that's it, huh?" His voice was slightly hoarse. He took a gulp of wine and Bella watched the mesmerizing bob of his Adam's apple.

"Yeah. That's it. If I'd had more time I could have made a Cointreau and sugar syrup on the stovetop and whipped my own cream."

Bella moved the half-eaten berry back to her mouth, licking at the now-oozing whipped cream as it slid from the berry onto her fingertips. She finally took the rest of the plump fruit into her mouth, wrapping her lips around it as she bit it off near the stem.

Edward sat as still as a statue, staring raptly at her mouth. He finally blinked his darkened eyes and took a deep shaky breath. Picking up his wineglass, he knocked back the rest of his wine, abruptly swiveling his barstool away from hers.

"Do you mind if I grab a cold bottle of water?" he asked.

"Of course not. Help yourself."

He slid off his barstool and walked over to the refrigerator somewhat stiffly. He stood with his back to her, looking inside the darkened refrigerator as he discreetly adjusted himself. Bella's berry-eating-technique had done a number on him. It had taken his breath away, even though he suspected it was completely innocent on her part. Women had provoked his desire before, of course, by eating things in a suggestive manner, but this had seemed completely guileless on her part. She'd probably had no idea what she was doing to him.

What is she doing to me?

I think it's obvious she's giving you a berry-boner, Cullen.

"Second shelf down," Bella said.

"Oh, uh…yeah. They're right in front of me." He removed a bottle, uncapped it and stood there downing much of it, keeping his back toward her until he felt more in control of himself, willing his dick to be less of a… Well, less of a…dick.

Edward returned to his barstool, deciding it might be best if he didn't watch Bella eat. It had a way of bringing out the worst in his imagination. He selected a strawberry from the big bowl and followed her previous directions, trying in vain not to picture her mouth wrapped around that plump strawberry…or anything else...with gobs of cream oozing all over her tongue and lips and fingers.

Shit…that was so fucking hot... It looked exactly like she was performing a...

No, no no! Don't go there! Repeat after me: It was just fruit and a dairy product…fruit and a dairy product…fruit and a dairy product...fruit and a dairy product…

"So, you and Emmett own a gym?" Bella's voice intruded in his thoughts. He was glad for the distraction but he didn't dare look at her while she ate.

"Oh, Emmett told you about that? Yeah…Gymerica Elite is sort of a high-end gym with extra services to attract a more affluent clientele."

"What kinds of services?"

"We have a spa that offers facials, massages, wraps, and waxing, as well as hair and nail salon services. Gymerica Elite is kind of one-stop shopping for all the personal services you would normally have to go to several places to accomplish, so it's a time-saver. Emmett manages the business. He's really good at what he does. Not just the business end of things... He's also a great personal trainer and motivator. He's very knowledgeable, sports-wise, and he's very personable. The clients love him. I just co-own the business with him.

"So, you don't actually work there?"

"No, it's more of an investment for me. I'll sell my half of the business to him at my cost at some point."

"Oh." She began swirling another strawberry. "So, do you do anything else?"

"A few other things. I'm actually a venture capitalist."

"Really?" Bella's eyes widened in surprise.

"You know what that is?" Edward's eyes narrowed at her.

Bella rolled her eyes. "Of course. I'm not stupid."

He smiled. "I don't think you're stupid. On the contrary, actually. It's just that a lot of people don't really know what a venture capitalist does."

"You look for entrepreneurs or companies who need capital to start their businesses or produce their products. You have capital, so you provide the funds for their start-up. You invest in them for part ownership, hoping to turn a profit. Right?"

"Exactly." Edward smiled. She'd surprised him again, but so what else was new?

"That's kind of a gamble, isn't it?"

Edward shrugged. "You know the saying, 'nothing ventured, nothing gained?'"

"Yes."

"Well, I venture and I usually gain." He gave her a crooked grin.

"You seem pretty sure of yourself."

Edward snorted a soft laugh. "I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I am rather good at what I do. I learned a lot from my grandfather, beginning at a very young age. He was a shrewd businessman and it seems to have rubbed off."

"So, what else do you invest in, if you don't mind my asking?"

"I dabble in real estate development and redevelopment, medical technologies and research—that's a carryover from my grandfather's interests in Chicago—and I have a few independent business interests. In addition to Gymerica Elite, I'm a silent partner at a publishing house here in Seattle."

"You own a publishing company?"

"I'm just part-owner, again. And I'm a freelance reader for them—I read manuscripts and give feedback on whether I think they're print-worthy."

Bella blinked. He had his fingers in so many pies.

Speaking of the publishing business, Edward remembered something he'd seen earlier in the day—a website on a laptop. He didn't want to come right out and ask her about it or it would be clear he'd been snooping into her private affairs. He had to be stealthy.

"You said before that you have a degree in creative writing. Do you write?"

Bella nearly choked on her strawberry. "No! Um...I mean...not really. I mean…I do…but it's not… It's nothing of any interest."

He couldn't be sure without enough light, but he was almost certain she was blushing suddenly. And judging by her stilted response, she seemed almost embarrassed.

"Have you ever published anything?" Edward didn't look at her. He was aiming for nonchalance. He picked up another strawberry and dragged it through the whipped cream before popping it into his mouth.

"Um…no… I mean, not really. I just write for personal enjoyment, mostly. I'm sure what I've written wouldn't be considered for actual publishing. I just like imagining stories and then I write them down."

"Do you let anyone read the stories you write?"

Bella hugged herself. Edward had noticed that move before—at school today and outside earlier. It was a "tell," he decided. She was giving away the fact that she was uncomfortable or nervous.

"Well, yes, but I only write anonymously."

He already suspected the answer to his next question but he asked it anyway.

"How is it anonymous if you let someone read what you've written?"

"I do it online and I have a penname."

"Like on a blog?"

"On a fiction website."

"Which website?" Edward asked, dragging the last strawberry through the whipped cream.

"That's confidential."

Edward laughed outright and smiled at her. She could be so intriguing but she put up solid walls. She was very entertaining in her different little way. Cute even.

"Okay, I won't press. But if you ever decide you want to try to get something published, let me know…I might be able to help."

Bella nodded, looking at the empty strawberry bowl. "Maybe someday."

And with that the lights suddenly came on and Bella and Edward both blinked in the unexpectedly harsh, bright light of the kitchen.

"Hooray!" Bella exclaimed.

"I guess we won't be needing these anymore," Edward said, leaning forward and blowing out the candles.

Bella wasn't quite sure why she had cheered. The atmosphere seemed so different suddenly and she kind of missed the subdued and decidedly intimate atmosphere of their darkened, candlelit kitchen.

Edward felt at a slight loss as well. The ambience was gone. It was like being suddenly thrust under a microscope. Reality was back with a vengeance, and with their dinner done and the blackout over, there seemed little logical reason for him to linger.

"Let me help you clean up and then I should probably get going." He stood, picking up his dishes and walking around into the kitchen.

"That's all right. I'm going to put everything in the dishwasher anyway."

"Well, I can help you do that. It's the least I can do, to thank you for inviting me into your home and feeding me."

Bella walked into the kitchen carrying the strawberry bowl.

"I'm glad you joined me. I'd have wound up eating the same thing four nights in a row." She blushed, realizing how lonely and loserly that sounded. "I mean, I'm glad you joined me…not just for that reason. I enjoyed the company."

Edward smiled down at her. "Me too. A blackout alone is not nearly as entertaining as a blackout with someone…especially someone who blacks out in said blackout." He smirked at her as she rolled her eyes. "And who knows," the gleam in his eye and the curl of his lips intensified, "maybe some night I'll invite you over for frozen pizza."

Bella laughed. Clearly, he was teasing. "Um…I don't think I'm available for frozen pizza."

That's right…you're not available. And he's definitely not available!

"Well, I could always invite you over for a fresh pizza. I worked part-time at a pizzeria when I was in high school. I can actually make a killer pizza from scratch, so I could always invite you over for fresh-baked, homemade pizza."

Bella smiled. "I think I could be available for that."

No! What are you saying? What are you thinking? You're not thinking! Think!

Bella packaged up the leftovers while Edward returned the whipped cream to the refrigerator, and then Edward rinsed the dishes, handing them to Bella to load into the dishwasher. When they were down to the salad bowl and the casserole dish, Edward washed and Bella dried. And when Edward finally dried his hands on the towel afterwards, he decided to just go ahead and ask. There were several mysteries he wanted to solve and there was little chance of him ruining the evening at this point, since the evening was nearly over.

"Bella, I uh... I just have to ask… I mean, I wanted to ask you earlier today…but then I didn't really get the chance… And I wasn't sure if I should say anything this evening…but it's been driving me crazy…"

Bella looked up with wide eyes.

Oh God! He knows!

Edward ran a hand through his hair and finally just spit the words out.

"Where's Jake?"

Oh! Thank God!

Oh... Crap…

Bella turned back to the sink, going completely still. "He's…not here."

Edward nodded. Then he frowned at her small frame as she remained turned away from him. "Where is he?"

Oh, double crap…

Bella reluctantly answered him as she let the dishwater out of the sink. "He's in…La Push, out near Forks."

"Out on the coast?"

Bella nodded. "Yeah."

"What happened? Did…did you and he...break up?"

Oh, triple crap…

Bella hung her head, still facing the sink. She grabbed the counter's edge for support. She could feel the heat from Edward's body as he stood almost directly behind her. She nodded, too afraid to turn around and look at him.

There was a pause before he re-asked his question, hoping for clarification or additional information.

"You broke up?"

Oh shit…he's going to think you're such a loon. And tonight was...so nice…

Bella nodded reluctantly again.

Edward decided to be more specific since she wasn't being very forthcoming.

"When did you break up?"

"It's…been…a while."

"What do you mean?" Maybe he shouldn't have forced the issue, but he couldn't help it...he wanted to get to the bottom of this and he was becoming more curious by the moment. "When did you break up?"

Bella turned away from the sink, forcing herself to face him. She wrapped her arms around herself tightly as she looked up at Edward's concerned and confused face and answered his question truthfully.

"Um...nine years ago."


A/N: Probably not what he expected. ;)