A/N: Ohmygosh, remember THIS old story? Remember how they never quite FINISHED things? *wink* WELL, there is all manner of relief to be had when disaster strikes. I'll see you at the bottom! SWOOSH! Enjoy.
DISASTER RELIEF (A sequel to Slippery Slope, written for the F4OK)
"So, how was your date last weekend? And don't deet-block me." Alice pokes at her spinach salad, but her piercing blue eyes don't let up for an instant.
"Al, I told you twenty times; it wasn't a date. Edward took Miguel to a Rockies game, and I tagged along, as in, third wheel."
"Did you sit next to him at least?"
"No. Miguel sat between us."
"Wow." Alice sets her fork down at the side of her plate in disbelief. Those eyes narrow and she challenges me. "Are you honestly telling me you had no alone time with the lawyer...at all?"
I bite the inside of my cheeks, and she cocks a brow. "Give it to me, Stingy-rella!"
I take a long sip of my iced tea, calculating my chances of escaping this inquisition somewhere around zero. "Oh, fine! We had five minutes to ourselves when Miguel went to the bathroom, but let me tell you, the men's room exit at Coors Field is far from a romantic setting!"
Victory firmly in her evil grasp, Alice grins. "A lot can happen in five minutes."
"Yes. A little boy can go to the bathroom."
"Annnnd two people waiting in the hallway can...?"
I feel my traitorous lips curl into a smile, but I am powerless to stop them. "Kiss."
I'm not sharing with Alice, but it was a toe-tingling, spine-quivering, blood-boiling kiss. A sweet touch of two mouths unwillingly divided for almost a week, anticipation building every moment of every day—sleeping hours not excluded. It was a beginning-of-the-season kiss, lips cool from the chilled air of the stadium, slick with foamy beer, as soft and sweet as I remembered from our reunion in my office.
Alice's mouth turns down at the corners. "That's it?"
"I so want to shove this olive up your nose right now."
"Can't I be happy for my friend?"
"I don't know. Can you be happy for me without knowing every last detail of our relationship?"
Her eyes sparkle at the new artifact she's unearthed. "So it is a relationship then?"
I ponder the fate of the olive at the end of my fork for a second before deciding that gnawing on it will be a more mature choice than flinging it at my little busybody of a best friend. "Feels like it's heading that way. We're going out tonight."
"With the kid?"
"Nope. Alone this time."
"Thank god. Where are you guys going?"
"Actually, we're meeting halfway, at a restaurant in Broomfield, so neither of us has to drive too far to get home afterwards."
Alice smiles knowingly. "And you're not close enough to where either of you lives to have that awkward should-we-or-shouldn't-we moment?"
"That, too. It's technically only our second date." Not counting time spent on skis.
Alice dabs her mouth and measures her words. She knows she's skating on thin ice. She also knows that while I don't judge her for hopping right into bed with Jasper—or even for evicting me from our ski condo to shack up with her musician that first night they met—it's just not my speed.
Alice holds up her hand. "I get it."
"Alice, I know you have my best interests at heart, but I've got this now. Everything changed when Edward walked into my office last week. He's here and he's committed. There's no rush. We can take our time with this, let things evolve..."
From Southern Comfort-flavored lips at the back of a horse-drawn sleigh to salty, ballpark kisses at Coors Field, I've already had enough of Edward to know that I'll probably always want more of him. I pop a block of feta cheese between my lips and savor the briny tang and crumbly texture while my mind wanders happily to our impending date. Just a few more hours and we'll be alone, together, again.
"Jeez, now I feel like the third wheel," Alice muses, snapping my attention to the chin propped up onto her folded hands and the gently teasing smile just above it.
"I still have olives left, and I'm not afraid to use them," I snap, but my words are softened by the hot glow of my blush.
"Yes, Emmett, two weeks in a row. Yes, Emmett, I always carry protection. No, Emmett, the kid's not coming. Mmhmm. Yes. No. Dear Lord, seriously? I'm getting another call. Shit, it's work. Gotta go! What? Yes, yes, I will call you tomorrow. Jesus, I swear you're worse than Mom!"
I tighten the towel at my waist and drop back onto the edge of the bed. A phone call from the managing partner on a Saturday? Not good.
"Cullen." I try to keep the irritation out of my voice, but know I've failed when he chuckles.
"Yeah, I just ruined your day...and likely the next three weeks of your life."
My fingers curl around the comforter and squeeze—hard. His timing could not possibly be worse. "What can I do for you, Marcus?"
"I actually have great news. Our firm was just selected by the governor to manage the distribution of the relief funds for Moore. It's a huge deal for us, and I'm bringing in the heat."
I can practically see my heart drop from my chest into the depths of my belly. So much for seeing Bella tonight, let alone touching Bella, for the next three weeks. And what three-week job was ever over in three weeks' time? Let's just call it a month, to be perfectly, entirely miserable.
"Yes, sir. I'm here."
"Okay. I'm emailing your itinerary. Our flight leaves in two hours. I'll give you all the docs to review on the plane. Leave your pinstripes home; it's a mess out there, son."
"See you at the airport."
Fuck, I need to get dressed and pull together at least two weeks of clothes—the firm can pick up the hotel laundry bill after that. I tear off my towel and toss it aside, pulling on a pair of khakis and a button-down.
I hardly even have enough time to call and apologize for breaking our date at the last minute, and I definitely need to get my anger under control before I speak with Bella. I can't help but feel like a heartsick teenager over this imposed separation.
Still, I'd willingly take this sorrow a thousand times over to be able to experience the ecstasy of being alive again, feel her heart beat for mine through her thin sweater, bask in the warmth of her smile, taste the mustard-topped pretzel on her lips. With a deep sigh, I fall heavily onto my mattress and speed dial Bella's number.
Her voice turns my heart over. "Hey."
"Uh oh, what's wrong?"
Damn, she's perceptive—one lousy word tipped her off. "I hate to tell you this, but I can't meet you today."
"Oh." Her tone slides into disappointment. "Did something happen?"
"Yes, Bella," I assure her immediately. "I have to catch a plane."
"Today? Right now?"
"Yeah. It's the tornado."
"Oh no, did you...know someone?"
"No, no, nothing like that. Our firm has been retained to administer the relief fund. Our managing partner worked on the nine-eleven fund, and he's handpicked a few of us, and it's gonna be a depressing, miserable—"
"Important job, and it's fantastic that you get to be there on the front line. I'm really proud of you," she finishes for me. A brick of guilt slides off my shoulder.
"Thanks for understanding. You know I wouldn't have missed our date for anything short of a natural disaster."
"Well hey, if not for a near-death experience, we never would've met, so I suppose in a way, it's sort of our M.O."
"I guess," I chuckle. "Still, I appreciate the no-drama approach."
"Edward, you know me better than that, don't you?"
"Yes, Bella, of course I do. I'll call you as soon as I can. Okay?"
"Sure. Safe flight. We'll talk soon."
I look up from my pile of intake forms with a heavy sigh—more "Littles" to match, more dire financial burdens, each story sadder than the one before. Bree takes one look at me and sinks into the chair opposite my desk. "Monday morning blues?"
"Ugh, is it still morning?" I glance at the corner of my computer screen. 11:45 AM. How am I ever going to make it through three weeks without Edward if I can't get through the first day? "Time doesn't fly when you're not having fun."
Bree nods sympathetically. "Miguel still flying high from that Rockies game?"
My frown is instantly erased as images of the two of them together roll across my mind's eye: Edward buying Miguel his first mitt, Miguel stuffing his face with a hot fudge slider sundae served in a plastic Rockies cap, Edward patiently teaching Miguel how to track each play with a secret shorthand code of letters and numbers and lines that hold the boy's interest through the entire nine innings. Miguel stretching to Edward's ear when he wants to be heard above the roar of the crowd, and Edward leaning in close to Miguel, wrapping his arm protectively around the back of Miguel's seat, occasionally brushing his thumb along my shoulder and setting me on fire with a sexy wink.
My coworker's soft grey eyes are twinkling with glee, and I know my face is beet red. "Yeah, Bree, and Miguel's not the only one."
She nods. "He's a great guy, Bella. I'm so happy for you."
"Mmhmm. If we could only clone him 149 times..." I lift the hefty stack in front of me, "this whole pile, would be on your desk instead of mine."
The smile on Bree's face brightens. "Actually...that's what I came in here to tell you."
"What? Your cloning machine finally started working?" I tease, but my curiosity is piqued.
"Something like that. I just got a call from your counselor-at-law."
"Edward called you?" Go away, green monster. You talked to him last night, I remind myself, for an entire hour.
Bree nods. "Well, I should say I started with Edward and then he handed me over to the managing partner of his firm. It seems that Volterra & Volterra want to send three more big brothers and two big sisters our way."
"What? That's wonderful! Edward didn't mention anything about that last night when we spoke!"
"Mmhmm, and...V &V took out a corporate sponsorship for our fall gala."
"What? Really? Wow!"
"There is a catch, however."
My already skipping heart takes several hyper bunny hops in my chest. "What kind of catch?"
"Riley and I kind of made a trade with Edward's boss."
"Bree, why are you looking at me like that, and no offense, but what on earth could you possibly offer them that could be worth all that?"
She finally loosens the strings enough to let the cat out of the tight bag she's been holding since she knocked on my door. "You."
"WHAT?" The first thing that comes to mind is one of those charity auctions where a volunteer is "sold" to the highest bidder to provide some kind of undefined service, and I now picture myself on the chopping block. "What did you do, Sabrina Genevieve Tanner?"
"Whoa there, B. No need to pull out full names here. All I did was convince Riley to give you a three-week paid sabbatical...in Oklahoma...starting right now."
"A sabba—? Okla—? NOW?" I'm out of my seat like a shot. "Why?"
Bree chuckles warmly. "I hope you manage to untie that tongue of yours before you get to your boyfriend, sweetheart."
I've deposed known mafia bosses, made home visits to crack dealers, and battled head-to-head in the courtroom with some of the most brutal corporate pit bulls our profession has ever produced. Never before have I had the snarl of terror wadding up my insides as I wait in the lobby for my...can I even call her my girlfriend?
Not right now, you can't, counselor. Aside from the small detail that I have no clue how she feels about this summons, Bella's been called here for her expertise in social work, not a date.
What the hell was I thinking, convincing Marcus that Bella would be the answer to our problems? All I know is that sitting there in the hospital room yesterday with my first interviewee, I had felt grossly underqualifed to handle the situation—not from a legal perspective, but from a human one. When we'd met up for our breakfast debrief this morning, and others expressed the same reservations, I'd blurted out my suggestion to bring in a social worker. When Marcus pressed me after the meeting, I'd told him all about Bella, Bree, and even Miguel. He wrapped his arm around me, pulled me to the corner of the room, and ten minutes later, the deal was sealed. Along with my fate.
My stomach takes a back aerial flip as the taxi headlights round the circular drive of the Colcord Hotel, and before I realize it, I'm hustling a guy in uniform out of the way to open her door.
"Bella! Thanks for coming."
She takes my offered hand and steps out of the taxi, giving me an odd look. "Edward, what the hell is going on? I still don't understand why I'm here."
"Sir? The lady's suitcase." The driver pokes the handle impatiently into my hand, and I fumble with my wallet, the luggage, the befuddled bellman, and the girl until everything is handled and the two of us make our way safely into the lobby. I march Bella up to the reception desk and announce her name.
"Edward?" she pleads.
"I promise I'll explain everything," I stumble nervously. "Let's get you settled, and we'll go get some dinner. You hungry?"
"I think I need a drink more than food right now," she answers.
The desk clerk cuts in anxiously with grim news. "Oh dear, ma'am, I'm afraid there's a problem with the room."
"What?" We both respond at once.
"As you can imagine, we've been inundated with out-of-towners this week, and there are only so many hotels to handle the demand. We're completely sold out," she announces, looking apprehensively from Bella to me and back again.
I turn my head when Bella snorts, then bursts into slightly hysterical peals of laughter. "Bella, you okay?"
"Let's have that drink now, shall we, roomie?"
The tension effectively broken, I thank my lucky stars again for Bella's reasonableness, find the eager bellman I cheated out of his job earlier, and press a ten into his hand along with the handle of Bella's suitcase. "Stow this in 1840, please."
"Right away, sir."
Turning toward Bella, I clasp both her hands in mine. "Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?"
"Nope." A smile plays at her lips, and my control shatters.
I lean forward and press my mouth to hers. "Thank you for coming," I tell her again, slowly this time, so I can see that it registers.
"You're very welcome," she answers, our foreheads resting against each other. "Are you about ready to tell me how three weeks of my time equates to five Bigs and a ten-thousand-dollar check?"
I huff and look down at the floor. "Bella, what can I say? Riley drives a hard bargain, but we're pros. Clearly, we got the better end of that deal...at least, I did."
I chance a look into her gentle, brown eyes, and I'm pretty sure I see a reflection of exactly how I feel—smitten, humbled, and grateful as all hell.
"Déjà vu a little bit?" Edward says sheepishly as he slides the key card into the slot. When the door opens into his luxurious corner suite, I can confidently say I've never seen anything quite like this before—in any language. My gasp causes him to turn and take my hand, pulling me gently inside while mumbling about advantageous corporate rates.
I can't help feeling like Eloise at the Plaza as my eyes take in the elegant, contemporary sofas lining the sitting area, an enormous plasma screen taking up most of a wall, a kitchenette—complete with a generous basket overflowing with a rainbow of lush fruits, and a massive desk where Edward seems to have set up base camp.
He releases my hand, and I feel the heat of his eyes on me as I wander through the suite to the bedroom. I try not to dwell on the sprawling bed with its welcoming pillows and turned-down comforter, white and crisp against the sumptuous black leather headboard. The sight of my suitcase resting on a brass luggage rack as if it owns the place draws out an "oh dear" that splinters our silence.
"What?" He's nervous, too. I can hear the shift in his voice.
"I think my suitcase might be a slut."
He steps up behind me, pressing his chest to my back and wrapping an arm around my stomach. "I seriously doubt it," he answers with a soft chuckle while he rocks us gently side-to-side.
My hair is swept over one shoulder as his lips drop soft kisses up the column of my neck, and my eyes drift closed as I swoon into his hard body. I'm lost in this, lost in him, floating in this elegant place while the reality of Mother Nature's warzone sits not ten miles away. It's all completely disorienting.
"Edward," I whisper.
"Hmm?" The kisses move...behind my ear, the line of my jaw...soft, sweet kisses...
"I don't..." want to be a meteorological booty call. I don't want to be the laughing stock of your office tomorrow morning. I don't want you to stop.
He stills, then pulls back. "I'm sorry."
I clutch his arm, surprising him, and turn us both so we're facing each other. "I was just going to say, I don't have a clue what I'm doing right now."
"It's okay, Bella. I'm fully expecting to sleep on the couch. I even have my own bathroom out there, so I'll just get my toothbrush and a couple quick things for tomorrow...and leave you to your privacy."
Before I can find the right words to hold him there, he's slipped out of my grasp and placed a chaste kiss on my forehead. I watch helplessly as he pulls a pair of shorts from the dresser drawer and snags his toilet bag from the bathroom. "Breakfast is at eight in the Wright Room," he reminds me as he exits the bedroom and closes the heavy door behind him. I collapse onto the cream-colored leather bench at the foot of the bed and stare at the door separating us, imagining his graceful movements as he undresses for sleep and burrows into the couch for the night. It occurs to me that he's without pillow or blanket, but I don't trust myself to go out there right now. I'm not sure he wouldn't take it as a lame excuse to steal one last caress or one more kiss, and frankly, I'm not sure he'd be wrong.
I finally force myself to get up and unpack. There's an odd sense of belonging as I fill in the drawers that Edward's left empty and hang my things in the vacant half of the giant walk-in closet. I hadn't really given all that much thought to sleeping arrangements when I'd packed, assuming it would all be very professional and I'd have my own room, and now I'm grateful that I packed my familiar navy cotton sleep pants and my Powderloaf tee-shirt.
As I go about my nightly routine, a whirlwind kicks up and builds inside me. I've seen the devastation on the news, read the horrific stories about families whose children were buried in the rubble of their elementary school, seen the fires and leveled homes. But tomorrow, I'll walk the damaged earth with Edward and his colleagues, and we'll meet the victims and feel their pain firsthand. They'll be looking to me for support, victims and lawyers alike.
Do I have the training? In theory, yes, but my career path has taken me far from the eye of the storm, for the most part. Sure, I'm on the front lines with our families, and that is often incredibly painful and challenging, but it's not this—not mass trauma.
I protested vehemently to Riley when I learned what would be expected of me. He assured me no matter how sweet the pot, he would never have agreed to Marcus's offer if he were not entirely convinced I could be effective here. Besides, he argued, I won't be alone. The place is crawling with faith leaders and health workers and rescue teams, so I'm not expected to be all things to all people. I'm the liaison to the lawyers, advisor and ground support.
I want to live up to Riley's faith in me and prove worthy of Edward's gamble. Most of all, I want to answer that big question for myself: can I be that person at the center of the storm who can provide what is needed?
It's been a while since I needed to tiptoe around, but the last thing I want to do is wake Bella this morning. Actually, the last thing I want to do is embarrass Bella, and that's why I'm showered, dressed, and down at breakfast by 7:15. My colleagues don't need to know we're sharing a room, regardless of how innocent it may be.
The servers are just setting up the coffee pots, and they direct me to the main lobby, where I find Marcus sitting in one of the high-back armchairs reading something on his iPad.
"Morning." I sink into the low couch across from the coffee table.
"Ah. You're up early," he answers, looking up from his screen. "Bella get in okay last night?"
"Yes," I tell him, careful to keep my voice as even as possible. "I briefed her over dinner."
"Great. I look forward to meeting her. I'm just making some last-minute notes here about today's assignments. I assume you'll want to show Bella the ropes?"
"Yes," I answer, perhaps a bit too eagerly. Marcus leans forward, elbows resting on his knees, ever the vigilant litigator watching for signs of weakness in his adversary—though I hope to never find myself in that role.
"You know, her boss struck quite the aggressive deal, Edward." He's playing with me now, enjoying watching me squirm. "Rather raked me over the hot coals."
"She's good at what she does," I respond.
"So I gather. You're going to need the help today. You and your group are slotted to visit Steelman Estates."
I swallow over the lump in my throat. We drove by the devastated mobile home park yesterday, taking in the stark landscape as people returned to the area to dig through the debris for items with sentimental value. "We'll handle it," I tell him confidently.
"I know you will. We should head over to breakfast; the others will be filing in. I'll let you introduce Bella to the group."
She isn't among the early birds already gathering in the conference room, so I keep an eye out for her as I pour myself a juice. It's still a few minutes before eight when Bella makes her appearance. Clearly, she'd been briefed about the casual attire, but my heart still flickers at her slim black pants and simple blue sweater. Her long brown hair is neat, and as usual, she doesn't look like she's wearing makeup. As I get close enough to read her expressive eyes, I see that they're laced with anxiety.
"Hey. Sleep okay?"
Her eyes dart around the room, but nobody's paying us any attention. "Yeah. Weren't you cold?"
For some reason, this makes me smile, maybe because she was thinking about me out there, at least briefly. "A little."
She flinches a bit. "That's not right."
"We'll talk about it later, okay?" I'd like almost nothing better than to talk to her about our sleeping arrangement. I'm only hoping that she doesn't check back with the front desk to locate an available room. Even if I'm not with her, I'd rather have her in my bed than anywhere else.
"Sure. So, what's the plan here?"
"Well," I try keeping it light, "over here, you have your hot buffet items—scrambled eggs, bacon, and such..."
She elbows me, but at least I see a small smile break through. "Ow. You have a bony elbow!"
"And you have no body fat!"
I burst out laughing and nearly spill my juice. "Come on, let's get some food so I can introduce you to the team."
"Okay, everyone. Say hello to Phil," Edward announces, standing at the front of the van and addressing the team of six attorneys who have been assigned to the trailer park.
"Hello, Phil," we all deadpan. He lifts off his Rangers cap, exposing a nearly bald head, and gives us a half-salute while pulling away from the sidewalk. I'm riding up front with Edward and attempting not to fidget as he introduces me next.
"As I mentioned at breakfast, Bella is a social worker, and we've bartered her away from her job for the next few weeks to act as a resource for us, to be our liaison with the victims, and to help us approach and deal with the human side of this tragedy."
"Oh, so now you expect us to act like humans, Cullen?" one of the guys belts out.
Edward takes it in stride, chuckling. "Not you, Newton. Nobody would expect that of you; don't worry."
I love their self-deprecating banter, and I feel incredibly honored to be a part of this team, but right now, I am completely distracted by Edward and Edward alone. My eyes drink in his flawless proportions, dancing across the plush texture of the tan crew-neck sweater outlining his broad shoulders and tapering to his athletic waist, then gliding down the body-hugging ribs of his dark corduroy pants.
Edward glances over at me and gives me a slight nod, jolting me from the daydream and pulling me to my feet. I trade places with him, giving myself a mental pat on the back for not throwing him down onto the floor right then and there, but instead grabbing onto the seatbacks on either side as I balance in the aisle.
"Better hold on tight, Swan," Edward teases, a friendly reminder of my not-so-graceful performance on the mountain.
I mutter back under my breath, "I do pretty well in street shoes, thanks."
He smiles back, and I melt just a little more before remembering that there are twelve eyeballs watching us. One deep breath is all it takes, and I'm ready to address the group.
"So...as Edward said, my name is Bella Swan, and I've been with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Denver for eight years now; before that, I was a case manager at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.
"I thought it might be helpful to provide you with a few general guidelines for dealing with victims of tragedy and loss and perhaps provide you with a specialized lens, if you will, for viewing what we're all about to encounter. I'm happy to take your questions after that, and I'll try to make myself available throughout the day. So if you find yourself in an uncomfortable conversation that you can't handle, please find me and I'll do my best to help. Sound good?"
A funny thing happens as I give my little intro bit. I realize that I really am the expert here, that I do have something to share that these people are desperate to hear. All their cocky bravado melts away—even the Newton character is sedate—as I share the basics of empathy and good listening skills. Once or twice, I allow myself a glance at Edward. Though he appears humbled by my offering, he also manages to radiate pride in me at the same time. The desire to curl up in his lap is almost overpowering.
My little fantasies aside, the twenty-minute ride to the trailer park is completely filled by my talk and some excellent follow-up questions from the group. It's not as if empathy can be mastered in that short time span, but providing this framework for their day should go a long way. Each one thanks me personally while exiting the van, and I feel like I'm off to a good start.
We're met by Harry Clearwater, the site supervisor, a weathered man with a layer of chalky powder settled over his skin and deep furrows carved into his forehead. I'm guessing he's aged at least ten years in the last week. His mouth seems molded into a permanent frown, but there's light and warmth in his eyes. Edward shakes his hand and thanks the man in advance for his time.
"You people are a godsend," he tells us. "We can use all the help we can get."
"We'll do our best, sir," Edward assures him, gripping Harry's upper arm and nodding.
It hits me right then, the profound weight of the effort being led by this man I am beginning to care for so deeply. Edward Cullen is not simply my own private savior; he's one of those people who lead entire communities to greatness. As we stand at ground zero where the tornado touched down one short week ago and ruined so many people's lives, the sun breaks dramatically through the clouds. The deep bronze of Edward's hair suddenly catches a fiery copper glow, and his emerald eyes sparkle and gleam in the bright light. He's utterly gorgeous, otherworldly, take-your-breath-away perfect.
When our eyes meet again, I get the powerful sense he's reading my every thought. Right there, in the middle of the devastation, I surrender. I drop my shields and invite him in all the way, as I've never let another person in before. The feeling is so exhilarating, it's all I can do to keep a respectable distance.
As Harry walks us through the streets of Steelman, it sickens me how one family's former home is now indistinguishable from the next; it's all one continuous pile of debris. Each of us is carrying a site map, and Harry does his best to correlate the piles of charred remains with the numbered lots.
Bella's presence just behind me is a comfort I didn't have yesterday, and I feel irrationally, immeasurably better just knowing she's here. At the same time, her proximity is driving me slowly mad. It's not as if we can hold hands or kiss or even brush shoulders. I find myself slowing my gait just to reduce the distance between us, so I'm actually close enough to hear her when she gasps and crouches suddenly.
"Harry?" she calls out.
He stops and turns, stepping past me to see what she's found.
Bella pulls a burnt, wet box from under a door.
"Careful with that. There are all kinds of metal shards and splinters in those piles," Harry warns.
I rush to her side. "What is it?"
"It's a photo box." She lifts the remains of the lid, and miraculously unearths a stash of unscathed photos.
"Someone's going to be awfully happy to be reunited with those," Harry tells her, placing his broad hand on her shoulder.
My heart feels like it wants to burst free of my chest. If for no other reason than this moment, I'm certain that bringing Bella here was the right decision.
Our walking tour complete, we hop back into the van and Phil drives us over to the community center, where the newly homeless population—our clientele—is finding temporary shelter. I speak to the director of the center, and we help set up makeshift offices where some semblance of privacy can be achieved. The victims have pre-assigned numbers, so they take their meetings in an orderly, civilized queue. Rather than perform the interviews myself, I manage the process, triaging the direst to the more experienced attorneys, stepping in where I feel I might be needed, and helping Bella identify where her soft touch might do the most good.
Though we're both moving around among the offices, I have a fair amount of opportunity to watch Bella in action, and the more I see, the more she impresses me. Despite the fact that she's completely out of her element, Bella slips into each conversation like a familiar friend, oiling the creaky gears that might otherwise gnash without her presence.
After three straight hours of meetings, I reassemble my team and we head back to the van, where Phil has boxed lunches and cold drinks for us. Everyone is worn out and hungry, and the only sounds that can be heard are the popping of soda can tabs, the rustling of wrappers, and the muffled crunch of chips.
Bella's leaning back against the window with one leg sprawled across the seat. She's holding a turkey sandwich in her lap, but she's barely chewing. Her eyes are glazed and far away.
I scoot to the edge of my seat, across the aisle from her and bend across the space between us.
"How ya doin'?"
Her chin tips lower and her gaze levels with mine. And now I'm a little terrified. "Bella? Are you okay?"
She nods slowly, takes in a heavy breath, and exhales painfully. Shit.
Screw decorum. I'm across the aisle and sharing the seat with her before rational thought can enter the conversation. I lean in close and I whisper, "Talk to me."
"I'm okay, Edward." Her eyes are watery, but her voice is true. "I was fine when I was inside, but then...I got out here, and it all hit me." She blinks a few times, and her vision seems to clear. "It's like when you brought me down the mountain, one turn at a time. Every piece was manageable. You don't even realize what you've survived until..."
"Until you get to the bottom and look back," I finish for her.
I find her hand and thread my fingers through hers, holding her tightly. "Bella, I'm sorry."
Her forehead crinkles. "For what?"
"I think I just became the asshole who took you to the top of the double black diamond on your first day out."
"Maybe," she responds honestly, "but you brought me here to help you down the mountain this time." She turns our wrists playfully, taking the sting out of what she needs to say. "You're not exactly an expert on these slopes yourself."
"No, I'm really not." A small chuckle escapes me. "So what the hell are we gonna do?"
Bella favors me with one of those smiles that I dreamed of after she left the mountain. "I guess we'll have to save each other again."
The rest of the day flies by. We're busy with back-to-back appointments, but if any of us expects the stories to get easier to bear—or to become immune in some way—we are dead wrong. What does change as the day wears on is that we get better at supporting the victims and each other. Following Bella's lead, I'm less inhibited about placing my hand on one of my associate's backs, or squeezing a shoulder, or sitting quietly in the room while a victim cries. Customs that rule the office in Boulder have little bearing on how we conduct ourselves in the disaster zone. I can't even imagine how we'll all go back to the decorum of a normal office after this is all over.
As for Bella, I hope she's ready for a new level of intimacy, because after today, I will not be able to keep a gentlemanly distance ever again.
Exhaustion owns me—inside and out. My head is throbbing; my heart aches for these people and their individual and collective losses. I desperately need to lift the yoke off my shoulders for a few hours and get some rest before we have to do the whole thing all over again tomorrow and the next day and the next day. I'm so tired, I can't even spare the energy to doubt myself. Whether I was good enough will have to be an issue for another day. As Edward slides the key into the reader, all I want is to fall into his arms, hit that soft bed together, and slide away into oblivion holding onto him for dear life.
I realize at once that Edward has other plans entirely. No sooner does the door click shut behind us, than he has my back pinned to the wall with his whole body, and his lips are consuming mine with slow, deep kisses. His tongue penetrates my mouth without a moment of uncertainty or hesitation.
I am his and he takes me.
I curl my fingers into his hair, finding strength I thought had long left my body.
His palm slips under my sweater. "Need you," he moans, and I'm so ready and wet for him.
My knee hitches over his hip, and he catches my thigh, grips me tightly, pushes his hips against me without mercy, and it doesn't matter that I can't stand up—because he's got me now.
Our kisses are wild and desperate; my whimpers are swallowed by his grunts; neither of us is able to get as deep, to possess the other as fully as we desire.
Suddenly, I'm in his arms and we're moving quickly toward the bed.
"I'm not leaving tonight," he announces, or is it a promise?
"I won't let you," I promise back, pulling him down to capture more of his kisses.
He's peeling my sweater off, over my head. "Fucking gorgeous," he pronounces before diving between my breasts with his mouth while his hands frantically work the clasp behind my back.
"You," I beg, pushing at the hem of his sweater, delighted that he's not wearing anything underneath, feasting my eyes and hands on his muscular chest, pulling him down against me, bare skin sliding on bare skin.
Kissing and touching and writhing and now the pants are in the way, so we kick off our shoes and we grasp at buttons and zippers and tug and pull and miraculously, we're naked.
He's beautiful and thick and hard as a boulder, a boulder—I giggle for a second, but it hardly slows him down—his mouth is right there and I'm warm and slippery and wet and ohmygod it feels so good and I open my thighs because I want everything. He doesn't even tease; he feasts on me and slips in a finger—or is it two?—and his thumb makes tiny circles and I'm skipping and giddy and soaring and falling...
"God, Bella. You're fantastic." She came so hard for me, and all I want is to see her fall apart again.
She reaches for me and I walk my knees closer, lining up between her legs.
Her palm circles my dick, and she plays with me, watching me hiss and groan and rock into her hand.
I'm so hard, so desperate. I don't mind if she wants to finish me this way, but I'd so much rather—
"Did you bring anything?"
I nod quickly, jumping away from her soft warmth, but knowing that when I come back, I get the grand prize. She's giving me everything.
Sheathed and ready, I scurry back into place and drop a kiss on her breast, pulling her nipple between my teeth. We'll have time later for the soft and tender; I'm sure of it now, but this...this is going to be gritty.
I want to say something to her, something really significant, but I don't want to be that guy who mutters the most important words of his life just before he enters the girl who makes him feel that way. So I tell her again that she's beautiful, and I plunge inside.
The pleasure is unbearable, the feeling of being encompassed, being allowed inside the very core of her being. I could cry or sing psalms or...bury myself inside her again and again, thrusting toward the spot that will bring us both the most pleasure.
Her hips lift to mine, and I feel her drawing me inside her. It's intoxicating—not just the physical sensation but the idea of it. She wants me. She chooses me. She gives herself to me again and again. And she takes, too. She pulls from me.
It's hot and untamable and it blends together in a blissful twister, sweeping us away with the momentum as it takes on a life of its own. She's here and I'm here and this thing is here in bed with us, driving and forcing us together while it spins us madly out of control.
I'm grunts and thrusts and it takes all my concentration to draw breath, and then everything tightens and we're suspended in midsentence, frozen like a cell frame from an animated movie, then the wild tumble of my orgasm and hers right on top and we're breaking apart and we're holding onto each other like we never want to let go.
Edward's head is tucked into my side, his fingers playing with my nipple. My fingers trace the smooth skin of his back, free at last to wander across the playground of his bare body.
"Wow. That happened." At my words, he tips his face to mine, checks my expression, then eases back into place wearing a wide grin.
"I was afraid I might have to apologize afterwards," he mumbles into my chest.
"For what? Coming up for air?"
His soft chuckle is music to my ears. "For not being able to wait. For not taking 'no' for an answer."
This makes me laugh out loud. "I'm sorry...somebody said 'no?'"
Edward shimmies up along my body so that his face is level with mine on the pillow. He pulls his long, elegant fingers through my hair and tucks a few strands behind my ear. His eyes are so close and so complex, a girl could get good and lost in them. "I probably shouldn't admit this, but I had no intentions of being a gentleman tonight."
A tiny surprised huff escapes me. "I wasn't exactly ladylike myself."
Suddenly, his hand cups the back of my head, and his lips are on me—gentle yet insistent. When he pulls back, I'm lightheaded and weak.
"I never meant to be such an animal with you. I kind of lost my head."
"Edward, just because I wanted to wait doesn't mean I want you to treat me like a porcelain doll in bed...or against the wall." Cue the blush.
"Oh. Hmmm," he hummed thoughtfully, "then you might not like what I have in mind for the rest of our night."
"Now I'm curious."
His lips quirk up and he starts drawing random patterns down my belly. "Well, first of all, I was going to order up some big, fat cheeseburgers and french fries."
"So far, so good."
"And then...I was going to make us a giant bubble bath to share."
A bubble bath with Edward. My eyes roll back in my head, and I let him hear my pleasure. "Mmmmm."
"And then..." his hand travels lower, "I was going to show you slowly and repeatedly..." and circles, "...how very much I appreciate you..." He covers my mouth with his once again, teasing with the tip of his tongue and making promises with his fingers. "So, what do you think of my plan?"
"I think you had me at cheeseburgers."
"Ha! A girl after my own heart!" He stretches his whole body over me and reaches for the phone, leaving me his spectacular ass to ogle and stroke.
"What kind of cheese?" he tosses back over his shoulder, eyeing me while I play with him.
"I couldn't care less." They could put limburger cheese on that sucker, and it would taste like brie right now.
"How do you want it cooked?"
"Pink," I answer, giving his bottom a firm thwack and earning an astonished yelp.
"Pink for the lady, and we'll take two orders of fries and two Coronas and some chocolate chip cookies and a piece of cheesecake, and just knock and leave the food in the hall."
"I'm ready for you." She doesn't know the half of it, but she will the moment she takes my hand and sits down in front of me. Even the hot water and exhaustion cannot stifle my body's response—a situation that becomes even more prominent when she does finally settle between my legs.
"That's quite the welcome, mister." She wiggles her ass against me as she falls back onto my chest and drops her head back against my shoulder with a loud sigh.
I slide my hands up her stomach and grasp her slippery breasts in both hands, rolling over her nipples with my thumbs. "Like you're helping anything."
Bella chuckles softly and closes her eyes while I drag the sea sponge over every inch of her skin.
"This is so much better than the Jacuzzi I didn't get to take with you at Powderloaf."
She giggles. "Still bitter about that night?"
"A little, but I'll probably get over it in, like, twenty years."
"I'm ready to wash your hair," I tell her.
She cranes her neck and kisses me. "Are you sure you're for real?"
"Well, one large part of me is wood..." I flex my hips for effect, "but the rest is all boy."
"Get to work, Pinocchio, and don't be telling any lies."
Her casual comeback stops me dead in my tracks. I know what a lie is. We lawyers have a colorful list of words to describe all the various shades of dishonesty that parade before us every day: deception, falsehood, fraud, misrepresentation, invention, slander, perjury, subterfuge...it's nearly endless. Happily, I'm not guilty of most of those, but there is one word that sticks in my craw as I cup my hand and pour in the shampoo—evasion.
Bella sinks lower in my lap as I wet her hair and drizzle the grapefruit-scented shampoo around her head. She closes her eyes and sighs deeply as I begin to work it through, white lather forming under my fingers. She's floating just below the surface, and even with the layer of bubbles, there's plenty to distract me from the task at hand—her long, kissable neck, the tight nipples that highlight her fantastic breasts, that place between her thighs that feels like home—but as much as all those places call to me, the simple pleasure of doing this for her tops them all.
Evasion - a means of escaping something, usually involving cunning or deceit; concealing the truth.
The truth that I want her, need her, desperately. That I want to learn what makes her happy, and then I want to do that thing repeatedly. The truth that I'm the best version of myself with her.
The obvious truth—that I love her.
I'm not sure at what point "not blurting" becomes "evasion," but suddenly I feel that holding back this little revelation of mine may have crossed that line. Not in any court of law, but here, in the intimacy of our space. The realization makes me prickly and uncomfortable, and I shouldn't be at all surprised that Bella's caught on to my situation.
"Something wrong?" She squints one eye open and turns her head at the surface of the water.
In response to a direct inquiry? Evasion, for sure. You are dead in the water, counselor.
"Bella, I love you."
Water sloshes violently up the sides of the tub as Bella twirls around and bolts to a sitting position. "Did you just say what I think you said? Because my ears were underwater, and I may be a little dazed because of all the sexing and the sweet talk, and I'm kind of a sucker for a scalp massage."
"Yeah," I answer, trying really hard not to laugh because she is drenched and adorable and confused, "I did."
"Say it again...while I have both ears out of the water."
I narrow my eyes just a bit. "I think you're milking this thing now."
With one simple word from the wet girl on my lap, everything changes. "Please?"
"Bella...I love you."
Her arms reach around my neck, and she presses her soft, warm lips to mine. It's a slow, gentle, sweet kiss, not like the one I pressed into her at the door.
She pulls back, resting her forehead against mine, and whispers, "I love you, too."
Author's Note: Love and respect to the fine ladies who organized this effort to help those hurt by the hideous devastation in Oklahoma. Ysar, Twistar, KM Tok, RvrSong, and Domie—you guys are da bomb! It was not only a privilege to contribute, but also a wonderful excuse to go back to one of my original stories—and one that many people had felt was left, shall we say, unresolved?—and give these two the ending they always deserved together. So that was ALL GOOD!
Now, for my amazing team: Shell and Intricacy, my two awesome pre-readers and idea bouncers...thank you for your wonderful insights into these characters. Chaya, you kick my butt when need be, but you're always there to provide inspiration and shine a light on the best parts. I'm so much better because of all three of you. Sweet, sweet Betti G, banner maker extraordinaire, this one not only told my story, but it helped determine the tone before I even got started. Your generosity and talent blow me away every damn time.
Hope you all enjoyed the story!