This was originally written for the cancer fundraiser organized by bronzehairedgirl. I'm thankful for her efforts on behalf of cancer research, and for including me with a group of exceptional writers in her compilation.
"Boxing Out" is dedicated to my husband, who is a longtime fan of basketball, the Knicks, and IPA. He is also a 20-year survivor of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was my consultant for the basketball scenes in "Boxing Out," and his tutelage on trash-talking helped me come up with the title. Sweetheart, you have all my love and gratitude.
Many thanks are also owed to my beta, writingbabe, and prereader, Isabeausink. They're brilliant, talented, and fun, and they made my fluffy words so much better.
From her office on East 68th Street, Bella had a perfect view of the brick building directly across the way. If she'd been given a cubicle on the opposite side of the floor, she'd have at least a partial vista of Central Park. She loved green, and she missed it while living among the blocks of tall grey and brown in New York City.
Though she was fairly high up on the 25th floor, she was not sufficiently high up in the organization to merit a coveted office facing a more interesting part of Manhattan. Bella tried to tell herself that all of Manhattan was interesting, but really, looking at a brick wall had its limitations.
At least it wasn't too distracting. She was still trying to make a good impression, since she'd been employed at the Valetudo Foundation for only a year. Months before that, Bella completed applications, wrote essays, and endured several interviews to work at the one place she sought above all others. The foundation awarded grants and conducted research in the field of health care – specifically, to make health care more available in areas of the United States that needed it. After finally securing a job that meant the world to her, Bella didn't need the temptation to gaze out at the park all day.
Speaking of distractions…
Mike Newton was in the entrance of her cubicle, holding on to the door frame and leaning his body toward her suggestively.
….and not one of the better ones. She teetered between the desire to remain polite and the instinct to roll her chair over to the farthest corner of her office. Bella's circumference of personal space was probably three feet wider than most people, though where Mike was concerned, it was more like ten.
"A bunch of us are going to 230 Fifth after work. You in?"
"Oh…" Bella's voice trailed. "I have other plans. Sorry." The thought of hanging around with Mike and his buddies from accounting made her shudder. She'd tried it once, just to be sociable, and now that she knew what they were like after a few drinks, she had zero interest in repeating the experience.
Mike scowled for a few seconds before he caught himself and his typical, preternaturally pleasant expression returned. "Too bad. What've you got going on?"
Bella tried to think of a believable lie that would get him out of her cubicle – ideally, not just today, but permanently. Intuitively, she knew a date with Mike would be among the most tedious nights of her life. They had almost nothing in common; the fact that he thought she'd enjoy going to a rooftop bar was proof of that.
Before she could answer, Rosalie Hale appeared in the doorway to hip-check Mike and push her way into Bella's office. "She's going out with me tonight, big guy." Rose dropped into a chair and stared at Mike, challenging him to argue. "We've had this planned for awhile."
Mike looked from Rose to Bella, openly frowning. With a shrug, he said, "Sure, if you'd rather hang with Rose. Maybe next time."
"Thank you," Bella whispered earnestly to Rose once Mike was gone.
"You're welcome," Rose said, "but there's a price for getting Newton out of your hair. You really are coming out with me tonight."
"Where are we going?"
"Emmett and some of his friends are playing basketball at the piers," she said, referring to the Chelsea Piers sports complex. "We can go in just to watch. Emmett knows the guy at the desk."
Of course, Emmett knew the guy. Emmett knew all the guys, and women, in Manhattan, it seemed. It was hard to resist someone as genuinely friendly as Emmett McCarty. He was the perfect easygoing foil to Rose's cool, professional demeanor. Bella adored them both and was grateful for their friendship.
"Who else is going to be there?"
Rosalie rolled her eyes. "Always with the questions. There'll be about six guys, and Alice is going because Jasper's playing, too." She narrowed her eyes at Bella. "No, you won't know everyone, but they're all good people. Promise."
Bella's first interview at Valetudo had been with Rosalie, who'd taken an immediate liking to her. And Bella soon discovered that Rose didn't easily take to people. That was something they had in common, though Bella was simply shy and Rose was suspicious. People had to prove themselves to her, but Rosalie was a good judge of character. It was among her skills as a human resource specialist.
"C'mon. You can go home after work and I'll meet you there around seven. We'll watch the guys play ball and then grab something to eat. It'll be fun." Rose leaned over Bella's desk, her long necklaces swaying gracefully. "You do need to get out. Just not with Newton."
Bella laughed. "On that, we agree."
While Bella loved her adopted home of Manhattan, she didn't always feel that Manhattan loved her back. Finding her way physically was one thing; she'd learned to navigate New York's vast web of neighborhoods, streets and transit. She was more adrift emotionally, finding it tough to connect with people, especially when they came into the city by the millions during working hours, and most were less than interested in being friends with someone from a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest. After a year, she was somewhat discouraged and just found it easier to do things on her own, or – more and more – stay in the apartment she shared with her friend Angela.
Bella believed she wasn't the kind of woman who stood out in a crowd, and it made her doubt she would find someone who was truly different in a way that appealed to her. New York might attract the best and the brightest, but it seemed that in the process, they sacrificed parts of themselves along the way. Any remnants of goodness, charity, or kindness were tossed aside and left like debris along a highway. And why didn't anyone want them? Why were they abandoned in the first place?
The search for someone with the qualities and interests she valued was getting difficult. Bella was one poetry reading away from becoming a hermit.
Rose knew her friend's tendency to withdraw. The last time she'd forced Bella to go out with her and Emmett, they wound up at a bar in the Financial District. They'd met up with a number of colleagues from Emmett's law office, and Bella spent most of the evening seated at the middle of a table, silent, while everyone around her conversed. A lot of them talked to her, of course, but the exchanges were brief and usually unrewarding. Bella felt as if she was left grasping short ribbons of conversation while others held fast to ones that were long enough to last the night.
But because she loved Rose despite their differences, and because she really did feel as if she owed her friend a small debt for extracting her from Mike's clutches, Bella found herself on the L train just before 7 p.m., riding toward the Hudson River and Chelsea Piers.
The sports complex was huge, but Rose was easy to find, waiting in front of the basketball gym. She was easily the most attractive woman in that part of Manhattan at that moment, and more than a few men stared at her. Bella watched as one made the mistake of talking to her, probably propositioning her, and whatever Rose said in response had the effect of acid poured over wafer.
"Men are assholes," Rose said when Bella was a few feet away.
"You drag me out of my apartment to tell me this? I knew that when I was in Forks."
"Let me rephrase that. The guys out here are assholes. The guys inside are great. C'mon, we've got some benches to warm."
Once they entered the cavernous pier, Bella spied Alice sitting near the floor. Emmett and five other guys were well into their pickup game on the half-court, looking as intense as the pros. Bella knew little about basketball, but she liked it because it moved fast and it was fun to watch men run.
She saw Emmett and Jasper, each wearing red jerseys and guarding two guys she didn't know. Bella didn't recognize the fifth and six men either, but she assumed one of them was on Emmett's team, since he was wearing the same jersey. Judging by the amount of trash talking, the game had been going on for awhile.
Alice waved them over from her bench seat. Bella and Rose climbed over piles of towels, gym bags and water bottles scattered haphazardly around the bleachers. She stood up to give Bella an enthusiastic hug. "Great to see you again!"
Bella had met Alice when Rose invited them over for movie nights at her apartment in Brooklyn. Alice had abundant enthusiasm and cheer, and though Bella sometimes found her a little exhausting, she was never put off by her. Alice possessed a certain sincerity which made it almost impossible to dislike her.
Her boyfriend Jasper worked in IT at Emmett's firm. Bella knew that Rosalie and Alice were now close because Jasper and Emmett had become good friends. Rose mentioned that they hung out together a lot.
"I'm so glad you made it here tonight! How've you been?" Alice gushed.
The almost sympathetic expression on her face made Bella wonder exactly how much of a charity case she'd become. She suddenly felt as if Rosalie remained friends with her out of pity, even though she knew such patience wasn't in Rose's nature. For a split second she felt resentful and annoyed with Alice. Maybe Bella did have a barren social life. But she really didn't enjoy superficial meetups in bars and clubs. It didn't make her a pariah or a snob (as she knew some of the guys at work had labeled her). It made her a shy, self-conscious person who preferred meaningful conversation, though she didn't yet know how to find that in New York.
"Hey…Bella?" Alice was looking at her expectantly.
Great. Now she thinks I'm an idiot, too.
"Sorry, Alice. Just got sidetracked for a moment. How are you?"
"Doing fine. So are you coming out with us after the game?"
Bella immediately looked at Rose. "I guess that's the plan."
"We're going to head over to Chelsea Bar and Harbor when they're done. It'll be fun. Edward's coming," Rosalie added.
"Is that the third guy on Emmett's team?"
"Yeah." Finally, Rose looked at her with a smirk. "Don't worry. He doesn't bite."
Now that Rose had pointed him out, Bella turned her attention to the court to find Edward. He was easily guarding a man about half a foot shorter, his focus on the ball as it bounced between the opponent's feet. His short shock of hair looked almost bronze under the fluorescent lights. Long, limber arms and legs; long torso, even long fingers, which she noticed as he extended his arms for the play – Bella saw lots of length and height, but it was all proportional. Even through his tee shirt, she could tell he was muscular and rather wiry.
He took the game seriously, that much was clear. His handsome face was flushed; his strong jaw was clenched in concentration.
Bella liked the cut of his jib.
Edward's opponent suddenly dodged to his left and almost managed to evade him, but Edward deftly moved ahead and slapped the ball away. Five running steps later he jumped for a layup which sailed smoothly through the rim. The other guy never knew what hit him, and Bella couldn't help but smile.
His teammates roared. "All day, baby! All day!" Emmett yelled, pumping his fists.
Bella could see Edward laughing as he wiped his forehead with the bottom of his shirt. He walked to the back of the court and glanced up, meeting her gaze. His eyes widened briefly, as if she'd taken him by surprise; and her hands, which were twisting open the cap to her water bottle, stopped mid-turn. She couldn't move for a few seconds.
Edward stumbled slightly, his sneakers squeaking a protest against the floor. This distraction was brief but rewarding. Everything he saw in that ephemeral moment was soft: soft hair, soft dark eyes; a soft, warm expression.
He straightened up and turned to face the guy he was guarding. As he moved into position, his gaze slid back to Bella one more time, so quickly and furtively she wasn't sure if she imagined it.
"Like what you see?" Rosalie purred, leaning in and startling Bella.
"Cut it out, Rose."
"Hey, ain't nothing to be ashamed of. Edward's a great guy. Cute, too, but I think you figured that out."
Bella didn't bother to reply. Now that she'd seen him, it was impossible for her to look anywhere else. Rose watched her friend watch Edward.
"You know I wouldn't say that about someone if it wasn't true."
Bella nodded, because Rose was not only blunt but accurate in her assessment of people. And then Bella said the first thing that came to her mind.
"Does he have a sense of humor?"
"A sense of humor? The guy grew up in Brooklyn. Yeah, I'd say he's pretty funny."
Bella shook her head, frowning. "No, I mean, does he look at things with a sense of humor? Not just…make people laugh, but…I don't know, embrace that side of life, even when something terrible happens."
Rose nodded slightly, smiling. She liked Bella's priorities; it said a lot about her character, and this was something she picked up on during Bella's first interview. "I'm sure he does. He's a cop; he couldn't survive in the job otherwise."
At that, Bella's eyebrows raised. Her father Charlie was the current chief of police in her hometown of Forks, Washington. Knowing what she did about that life, she never imagined herself getting involved with a policeman. The spark she felt when she looked at Edward now concerned her. It was less about worrying she had a latent Electra complex and more what she knew about life in law enforcement: long shifts, worried loved ones, and over the years, a growing cynicism about mankind in general.
She loved her father, but she was disappointed in the changes she'd seen in him as his career progressed. Charlie started out wanting to help people and then at some point began assuming the worst about almost everyone. Bella couldn't imagine how strong that characteristic might be in a policeman in one of the largest cities in the world.
Suddenly, she felt deeply uncomfortable about her assumptions. Bella realized she was ready to put the brakes on something that might exist only in her mind. In about five seconds, they'd met, dated, and she'd rejected him because of some imaginary failings. She shook her head at her own ridiculousness.
Bella returned her attention to the court without saying anything else to Rose, who thankfully stayed silent this time. Jasper had the ball and was searching out his teammates. He pivoted on one foot and threw the ball to Emmett, who was closest.
Emmett turned toward the basket, giving his opponent an elbow in the face. The other guy reared back and clutched his nose as Emmett dropped the ball and turned to him.
"Aw man, I'm sorry! You okay?"
The injured player waved Emmett's hand off. "What the fuck, asshole! Watch what you're doing!"
"Whoa," Emmett said. "I'm just trying to help, man."
"Yeah, well, you should've helped by keeping your fucking arms in!" He gave Emmett a slight shove.
"Dude, step back. It was an accident," Jasper called out as he trotted over.
There was blood coming out of the injured man's nose, and it stained the hand that he used to push Jasper in the chest. Jasper shoved him back.
The three women sat on the bench, frozen while the scene in front of them was escalating. Edward casually wiped his face with a towel, then calmly walked to where the three men were hurling insults at each other.
By now Emmett was behind Jasper, who was jabbing a finger in Nosebleed's chest. Edward put his hand on Emmett's shoulder and motioned for him to step back.
Bella wondered if Emmett would argue with Edward or even push him away, but Emmett nodded at whatever Edward told him and moved aside. Edward inserted himself between Jasper and Nosebleed, laying a hand slowly on each man's chest.
She couldn't hear anything, but she could see Edward was speaking quietly as he looked back and forth. It took a minute, but Jasper turned away without saying anything else. Edward stayed with Nosebleed another few moments to check his injury before the guy headed to the lockers.
"Game over," Rose murmured as Emmett and Jasper walked toward the women. They were clearly still angry but much more subdued.
Edward kept that composed look on his face, his eyes trained on the floor. He grabbed his gym bag and knocked over his water bottle, and it rolled to where Bella was sitting. Instinctively, she reached down for it and stood up to find Edward about a foot away from her, a wide grin on his face.
Oh, his eyes look so playful…
"You can have that if you want it," he said.
Bella realized she was staring at him dumbly, holding on to the plastic bottle. "Um…no, I've got my own," she said lamely.
Amused, he held out his hand. He liked the slight pink that bloomed in embarrassment on her face, but even more, he liked the brief touch of her fingertips when she handed the bottle over.
Rose broke this small spell. "You coming with us, Edward?"
"Yeah… um, wait. Where are you going again?" He looked at Emmett.
"To the showers, which is where I hope you're going, too."
Edward rolled his eyes. "No, where are you going to eat?"
"Chelsea Bar & Harbor," Emmett said.
Edward made a dismissive gesture with his hands. "I don't like it. Too manufactured."
"Yeah, but they have good beer."
"The only decent food they have is burgers."
"Yeah, but they have good beer."
By the time the guys had showered and dressed, the group's mood was cheerful again. The six of them crowded the sidewalk, laughing and joking on their way to the bar. Bella felt her stomach flip when Edward fell behind the couples to walk with her. Dark copper highlights in his wet hair caught the fading sunlight, brilliant and captivating. He slowed his pace to stay even with her but said nothing, so she plunged in.
"Hi. You're…uh, it's Edward, right?"
His deep green eyes crinkled at the corners. God, he smiles a lot. She didn't want to look away.
"Who wants to know?"
Bella shrank back; she didn't like being teased and usually thought someone was making fun of her. Edward reined it in a little bit, not wanting to scare her off.
"You must be Bella." He smiled at her again, trying to encourage her.
She brightened a little. "Yes. How'd you know my name?"
"From Rose. She's like Wikipedia for anybody in New York City. Anybody worth knowing, anyway."
"Wikipedia isn't always right," she said, teasing him back.
"Oh, I'd never bet against Rose."
Bella nodded. "Good move."
"You just moved to New York?"
"Yes. I grew up in Washington State and moved here about a year ago."
"I hear you went to Penn."
"Yup. Wikipedia scores again," she said smiling. They fell into an easy rhythm, walking together. There was a slow uncoiling of the anxiety Bella always felt in her stomach when she met someone new. Feeling relaxed around him was a welcome victory.
The group lined up to cross West Street. When the light changed, Bella felt a soft movement at her back and glanced up to see Edward looking both ways for both of them. He'd placed his hand against her protectively to guide her, and she leaned into it just a bit. She was rewarded with another slight smile.
Chelsea Bar and Harbor had a faux-Victorian décor, but it was clean and well-lit, especially compared to some of the shadowy pubs Bella had braved before. There were a number of comfortable booths around the perimeter of the bar, and since it wasn't very crowded, they grabbed a large booth with chairs scattered around its table. Bella sat down at one end and Edward dropped his bag on the floor, settling into a chair next to her.
She was suddenly unsure of what to talk about, so she studied the menu like it was a final exam. Even surrounded by friends, she worried about coming up with decent conversation. She had no idea what might impress Edward, and she found herself wanting to, more than anything.
It got a little easier once the waiter came around.
"I'll have a Brooklyn Blast IPA, and a cheeseburger, medium-no-onions," she rattled off.
Edward dropped his menu on the table and regarded Bella with amazement. "I'll have the same," he said, never looking at the waiter.
"Brooklyn Blast! Damn, girl, I'm impressed. Not many people have such discerning taste." Edward's arms were folded on the table, and he stretched out so his head was almost resting on them. He never took his eyes off Bella. I may be just a little in love right now.
She wasn't about to tell him she'd tried the IPA on the one night she'd gone out with Mike and the guys. Bella gave silent thanks that Annoying Mike had proven valuable for something.
"I tried it at another bar once. It's really good," she said, shrugging her shoulders. Not a lie, just an incomplete story.
"That's a fucking understatement," he said, then added in a rush, "Sorry."
"Don't be. It's nothing I haven't heard or said myself a million times," she said with a wink.
Bella hated it when someone apologized for cursing around her. It made her feel like a little girl, or a lot more delicate than she really was. Edward did embarrassment pretty well, though; it made him even cuter.
What Edward hated was feeling impolite. Bella might think he was some crude, thoughtless stereotype of a cop. Things were going well, and he wanted very much for that trajectory to continue.
"My dad's a cop," she said, trying to put him at ease. "I know the lingo."
"Yeah? Your dad's a policeman?" he said earnestly.
"He's actually the chief of police in the smallest town you've never heard of in the Pacific Northwest."
"The chief? I'm sitting with a chief's daughter?" He slammed his hands on the table. "Oh, man, I am so screwed."
Bella laughed. "What? Why?"
"Now you're gonna tell him I was rude, and he's gonna use that secret police brotherhood thing to make sure my sergeant knows about it, and before I know it I'm walking the beat on Staten Island."
"Where nobody knows your name?" She waved her hand around the bar.
"Yeah, exactly." He liked how well she kept up with him.
Bella scratched at the coaster in front of her. On an impulse, she confessed, "I hate going to bars."
He scowled at her playfully. "Then what did you move to New York for?"
She blushed and didn't respond, and Edward could see he'd made her uncomfortable again. "I'm kidding. It's just...you know, most people around our age come here for the nightlife."
Bella met his gaze again. "I didn't. I came here for a job with an organization with the best reputation in what I do."
He nodded. "You work with Rose, but not in the same department?"
"Right. I work on grant applications. I've been reviewing one that's really important, to start up a health care initiative in North and South Dakota."
The waiter set down their round of drinks, and Edward took a sip of beer. "Why the Dakotas?"
"They've got some of the most impoverished areas in the country. This grant could bring them medical care. It could mean that a lot of people, especially kids, would see a doctor regularly." Edward watched Bella come to life as she described in detail the clinics that the grant would fund, the research behind the need for them, and the staff of the nonprofit she'd worked with to get the whole project started.
A light grew in her eyes as she talked, and he warmed to its fire. Edward had to draw himself back to focus on what she was saying, because he was so enamored with how she was saying it.
"You really love your work," he said softly, after she grew silent. He hated how inadequate it sounded, but for once Edward was at a loss for words. Bella was turning out the be the person he'd imagined, the woman he'd hoped she would be when he'd first seen her, shy but warm, at the basketball game. He didn't think he was truly conveying how much that meant.
"I do love it. I'm pretty consumed by it," she said, with a small laugh.
"I know what you mean," he replied, and he did. Edward took one long finger and dragged it up and down the side of his beer glass, collecting the moisture. Bella watched, mesmerized.
"So what do you do with your spare time, then?" he continued.
Bella hesitated. How do I respond to that? I work late a lot? I read? I try to get into what this city has to offer, but I usually do it myself? "Nothing much, actually."
"Do you like museums?"
She looked surprised, then tried to cover it. "I do, yes. Do you?"
"Love them. We should go sometime." He took a very long sip of his beer and darted a glance at her.
"Which one did you have in mind?"
"How about the Museum of Modern Art? Have you been there?"
"No. I mean, yes, I'd like to go because no, I haven't been there yet."
His eyes squinted in a way that Bella now knew was advance warning for one of his sarcastic comments. "How could you live in Manhattan for – what? a year already? – and not go to MoMA?"
She shrugged self-consciously. "I just haven't gotten around to it, I guess."
"Let me help you fix that," he said decisively.
She regarded him curiously. "You'd really spend your day off in a museum?"
"Sure. Just to impress you, of course. I'd rather be at the illegal chicken fights in the Bronx." She honestly couldn't tell if he was serious, he was so good at doing deadpan.
Thankfully, he cleared that up. "Kidding. Again. But we could do something else if you want."
"No, that sounds great. MoMA's...great."
"Look." He put his hands on her arm for emphasis, and his touch set off a flutter that ran along her like a circuit. "I don't know what you think you know about what cops do when we're off duty, but the reality is probably different. My reality, anyway. I love art, I love museums, I love to read – I love a lot of things like that."
She softened at the pleading look on his face, but she still couldn't resist a little sarcasm of her own. "Almost as much as busting heads?" Bella finally said.
"Oh, well…" He was laying on his New York accent extra thick. "Nothing's as good as busting heads. It's close, though."
"But you like being a cop," she said, a statement more than a question.
"I do, very much. Why do it otherwise?"
"What made you join law enforcement?" Bella knew her father's reasons, and how his idealism had soured over the years. If Edward said he wanted to help people, she'd be worried.
"Curiosity," he replied without hesitation. "At first I was just interested in criminal justice, so I went to John Jay College. They have a great program. The more I got into it, the more I wondered about people and their decisions. I mean, if given a choice, why would someone choose to break the law? And then I started thinking about, you know, whether there's a criminal type, or if anyone could turn on a dime."
He sipped his beer again and shrugged. "I took a lot of psychology classes."
Bella was glad he didn't say he honestly enjoyed banging heads together or carrying a gun. It seemed as if Edward put a lot of thought into his profession, and he welcomed her into those inner musings.
Impulsively, she said, "It sounds like you really see the people on your beat every day, instead of just doing your job. I hope you always feel that way."
Edward smiled at her appreciatively, and Bella warmed to the satisfaction of knowing she was hitting the right notes at least some of the time. "I started as a patrolman at Morris Heights in the Bronx. I learned pretty fast that most of the people there are good, decent. They keep their homes clean. They want a good life for their family. It was the best way to start this job."
Bella knew those public housing projects had a horrible reputation for crime, filth, and despair. She was relieved that Edward could see through that. Her commitment to her own work wouldn't allow her to be with anyone who was anything less than open-minded.
Emmett walked past them on his way to the restroom. "Hey, Goldilocks," he said, punching Edward's shoulder.
"Get outta here," Edward said, slapping Emmett's hand away.
"What did he call you?" Bella asked, confused.
"Ah, it's nothing. Bad joke," he replied, unwilling to elaborate.
He wasn't about to explain Emmett's code word for his dating preferences. Most of the women Edward met considered themselves too upscale to date a cop, especially if they worked or lived in Manhattan, where he was assigned. And the girls he'd grown up with didn't seem interested in Edward's enjoyment of literature, museums, or other related pursuits. After hearing Edward complain about how some women were too materialistic and some were too dull, Emmett started calling him Goldilocks ("Fucking Goldilocks," to be exact), and said he'd never find one who was perfect.
In truth, the search for that one who was just right was something else that Bella and Edward had in common.
When it was time to leave, Edward suggested they take the subway together, since he was also headed for the L train. Bella agreed without second-guessing herself. They spent most of the walk and the train ride talking about Greenpoint, where he lived. He rhapsodized about the Polish food available in his neighborhood, and they veered off into a lengthy conversation about how the best affordable restaurants were now located in the outer boroughs after being priced out of Manhattan. He told her about some of his favorite places, those that were good but little known, and those that were crowded but still worth it.
When he asked for her phone number as they pulled into the 14th Street station, Bella gave it freely. Yet she felt a familiar twinge of worry as she climbed the stairs to return above ground. They'd left the sweet, easy cocoon of their conversations in the bar and the subway, and had progressed to "I'll call you." Bella wondered if that tension would return as she waited to see if he would use the number she gave him.
She paused at the top of the stairs, looking thoughtfully into Union Square. That twinge was gone as soon as it came. Somehow, she was certain she'd hear from Edward, or even see him again, quite soon.
Bella was also sure Rosalie would want to hear all about what happened after she left with Edward. It took until around 9:15 the next morning, but sure enough Rose appeared at her door with coffee for both of them.
"Double dose of caffeine today?" Bella asked. She couldn't keep from grinning even though she knew it was a lure for Rose's nosiness.
"Of course, one's for you. I know how you like your coffee." Rosalie handed it over and pulled a chair closer to Bella's desk. "I had my ten o'clock postponed so I could come here and make sure you got home okay." She arched an eyebrow at Bella over the rim of her cup.
"You put off your meeting so you could ask me about Edward?"
"Well, yeah." Rosalie looked at her like this was the normal course of events. For Rose, it probably was.
"We took the subway together."
"I know that. Jeez, stop wasting my time. Tell me how it went."
"Oh, Rose, it was beyond my wildest fantasies." She paused for dramatic effect as Rosalie's eyes widened. "The train was on schedule, for once."
Rose moved to smack her as Bella giggled. The rollers on the chair gave way as she sank back down, elbows propped on the armrests. Bella sipped on her coffee thoughtfully.
"Were you planning to set me up with him?" she finally asked.
"We thought you'd be good together," Rosalie acknowledged.
Bella contemplated the small vase of lilacs on her desk. "You might be right."
Rose saw the same pensive expression that Bella usually wore, but today, something else was there, too. Or rather, something wasn't. Her friend looked less fretful than usual; her brows lacked their normal tight knit, and her eyes were wide, almost expectant.
"I'm so glad to hear that, Bella," she said softly. She decided she wouldn't push for more details right now.
The two women drank their coffee in contented silence for a few moments. Then Bella looked at Rose with a curious smile.
"You haven't told me how you and Emmett know Edward. How did you meet?"
"Oh, that! Great story. It was my first time driving in Manhattan. Of course, we'd just moved here from Chicago, otherwise I would've known enough not to drive in New York.
"I don't even remember where we were going. I turned off Fifth Avenue on to one of the cross streets, and I was so stressed out over all the traffic that I didn't even notice it was one way and I was going in the wrong direction." She shook her head.
"So there we were, barreling down this street, and then I hear sirens. I pull over, pretty much blocking the entire street, and the cop car pulls up behind me. I'm crying, Emmett's trying to calm me down, and the cop is sitting in his car just making me wait.
"Finally, he comes strolling over. I'm really losing it at this point. Of course Emmett knows I'm upset, and he's holding his head because he knows what's about to happen." She laughed. "He was convinced we'd be arrested. He was probably worried he'd wind up as some gang banger's bitch on Rikers Island.
"Anyway, the cop leans over and dangles his arms in the window. It was Edward. The look on his face – it's all screwed up like a big human question mark. And he just stares at me and goes – in this calm New York accent – 'So. You wanna talk about it?' Emmett started laughing so hard, he cried. Which pissed me off, but not at Edward. Even then, there was something so great about him. Not just because he let me go, either.
"You've been friends ever since?"
"Yeah, he and Emmett started talking and Emmett asked him the best places for pickup games. They even exchanged phone numbers. It was the start of a long and beautiful bro-mance."
"Edward seems to really like basketball."
"Definitely. He loves playing, ever since he's been a kid. Loves the Knicks." She took another sip of her coffee. "Maybe he'll ask you to a game."
"Maybe I'll say yes," Bella answered, smiling to herself.
She didn't hear from Edward that night, or the next. But Bella refused to become nervous. Their connection wasn't tenuous. She was somehow sure of it.
Like a pigeon who stubbornly returns each time he's chased away, Mike dropped by Bella's cubicle again that afternoon. He slumped into the empty chair in her office, uninvited and unwanted.
"Hey, girl," he said with the familiarity he always assumed. "Weekend's almost here. What's going on?"
Short of insulting him, which she didn't want to do because they worked together, Bella wondered how she could get the message across that she was just not interested. Worse, she wished it was Edward who was asking her about the weekend. She used to dislike Mike for who he was. Now, she resented him for who he wasn't.
"I have plans," she said firmly, not wanting to elaborate for Mike.
A rap at her doorless door frame saved her. Rosalie was standing there with Edward.
He was here, in her office.
Bella swallowed, hard.
She immediately smoothed her jacket and gave silent thanks that she'd chosen one of her favorites today, a turquoise suit that always prompted compliments. Her hair…well, it fell in a messy wave past her shoulders, but there wasn't anything she could do about that at the moment.
"Hey Bella. Look who came upstairs to say hi," said Rose, who was about the only person Bella knew who could pull off this casual act. "We thought we'd stop by. Oh. Hey, Mike," she said, finally acknowledging him. "This is Edward Cullen, a very good friend of Bella's. And mine. Mike Newton works in our accounting department," she said, turning to Edward and rolling her eyes when Mike couldn't see.
Edward regarded Mike with a neutral expression as his police instincts kicked in: stay cool, assess the situation, and react accordingly. He knew right away that Mike had an interest in Bella – it was her office, and it didn't appear that he was there to talk business – but a key piece of evidence was missing; namely, Bella's feelings for the guy. It was best to play nice, at least for the moment.
He stuck out his hand. "Good to meet you."
"Yeah, same here," Mike said cordially. "You look kind of familiar."
"This is my precinct."
"So, you're a cop, huh?"
"What gave it away?" Edward smiled like Officer Friendly.
Bella was watching the two of them, her eyes going back and forth. It was difficult not to contrast the two. Mike…well, he looked like Mike. Light blue shirt, beige khakis, neutral tie. This was his uniform, and it was vastly inferior to Edward's. She had to admit Edward looked good in his uniform…very good.
Edward knew his sharp blues usually made women look twice. He hadn't played that advantage in awhile, but today he wanted to use anything that would bring Bella closer to him and further away from this clown who was sitting in her office like he had a right to be there.
"So you've been working these streets for awhile?" Mike asked.
"Long enough," Edward replied smoothly. "Maybe you saw me last time you had lunch at the hot dog cart outside, because I'm pretty sure I haven't arrested you yet."
Mike gave a polite laugh. "Where are you from?"
"Oh, I live in the West Village." Bella noticed Mike didn't exactly answer the question.
"Oh, yeah, I play ball there all the time," Edward said brightly. "West Fourth Street court."
Mike nodded. "Legendary."
"Absolutely. You go there?"
They seemed to be conversing in Dude-speak. Bella didn't realize it, but another game was on.
"Oh, sure. Basketball's great."
"You got that right," Edward said smoothly. "Hey, my buddies and I are always looking for a pickup. We should play." He gestured with his index finger, going back and forth between himself and Mike.
"Sounds cool. We definitely should." Mike's smile was ever more phony.
"Great. How about Saturday? I could get a court in the morning. Bella will probably come, too. You like to watch, right, Bella?" Edward turned to Bella, his eyebrows raised innocently.
Both men were looking at her expectantly – Mike, for confirmation, and Edward, with a plea to play along – and Bella locked her eyes with Edward's piercing green gaze.
"Right. Yes. You guys should totally play on Saturday!" To sweeten the deal and secure her place on Edward's team, she added, "I'll be there."
Mike was cornered and he knew it. "Yeah, sure, dude. West Fourth Street. I can get some guys together. See you there." He gave Edward a salute, that fake smile still strung across his lips. "So, uh...guess I'll head back downstairs. See you later, Bella," he said, drawing out those last few words.
"See you Saturday, my man." Edward held up a hand in a "goodbye" gesture, thinking You're going down.
"I don't know if Emmett's got any plans for Saturday, but I'm sure he'll cancel for this," Rosalie said. "If not, I'll make him." She looked from Bella to Edward. "Well, I have to get back to my office, too. You know your way out, right, Edward?"
"I think I can find an elevator, Rose."
"Wiseass." She fluttered her fingers at Bella and winked. "See you later, sweetie."
Bella hunched her shoulders and laced her fingers together. Now that she and Edward were alone again, she was suddenly nervous, especially when he stepped around her desk to stand rather close. She pushed back her chair to face him. "So I guess I have courtside seats to a game this Saturday?"
"Yeah. I hope you don't mind. I probably should have asked you first," Edward replied apologetically. "Can you go?"
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it." Her voice dropped. "The chance to see Mike Newton put in his place? I might sell tickets."
Edward's heart leaped. There was the confirmation he needed that Mike wouldn't get in the way. "Good to hear."
His eyes drifted from her long dark hair to her suit and then down her legs, with a slight delay around the v-neck of her jacket. "You look really nice," he added.
"Thanks. You look good, too," she added. Damn fine, really.
"Hey, I wanted to give you something." He dug into his pocket. "Here."
Edward handed over a round piece of wood, about the circumference of a beer mug. It was painted grey, with the letters "T U I T" in bright blue on one side.
"What is this?" she asked, laughing.
"It's a round 'tuit.' Now you can't say you're not doing something you really want to do because you didn't get around to it. MoMA's open in the evenings this summer. Let's go." Her heart melted at his earnestness.
"I'd love to," Bella said quickly.
"I was hoping you would," Edward smiled slowly, then was quiet for a moment, just looking at Bella and enjoying the way it felt.
"Well, I better go. Time to get back on the beat."
"Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for this," she said, holding the tuit up between her index and middle fingers. "I'll use it."
"You should. That's why I gave to you."
Bella held it in her hand, fingers closed tightly, long after Edward left. She didn't know whether this was the lamest thing she'd ever seen or the wittiest, but regardless, she loved it.
On Saturday morning, Bella scanned the crowd in front of the fence and saw Alice waving like a four year-old behind some very tall men. She looked for Edward, trying to be sly about it, but couldn't find him. Now she understood why Edward told Mike to meet them there early on Saturday morning. The small space was packed, with every available court in use.
The noise was almost overwhelming: sneakers squeaking abruptly on the asphalt, rubber balls slamming through nets or off backboards; fans and rivals yelling outside the fence. Technically, there weren't any seats, but Alice was carrying a couple of folding chairs in bags. Bella grabbed one and slung the strap over her shoulder. She was about to ask where they should sit when she spied a familiar head of bronze hair.
Alice followed her line of vision and smiled, motioning in his direction. "Come on. Let's set up close to where they're playing."
"I'd heard these courts were popular, but I had no idea. There's tons of people here," Bella said. Most players were in sneakers, tee shirts and jerseys, with basketballs under their arms or on the ground, held fast by sneakered feet.
"Yeah, that's why you need to get here by 9. It's also why it helps to be a New York cop who grew up around here," she replied, nodding toward Edward. "He knows a lot of these guys. The regulars will let him get a game in."
Bella saw Edward and Emmett, and then Mike, who was standing with his teammates. She didn't recognize anyone on Mike's team; he hadn't invited anyone from the office. That was probably a good idea. Bella had a feeling Mike and his boys were about to have their heads, or some other part of their anatomy, handed right over to them.
Jasper appeared at the sidelines, and she watched the six of them as they talked, probably about the rules they'd use for their game. Edward was tall, lean, and well-built; not overstocked, but very well defined. His pectorals were visibly defined under his orange-and-blue Knicks jersey; his abdomen was not. Mike, on the other hand, had enough around the middle to puff out his tee shirt. The sleeves had been cut off, which only emphasized his dubious biceps.
Have another beer, Mike. She knew it was petty, but she couldn't help it. Bella stifled a laugh. It was pretty obvious that Mike rarely played any sport. If he thought he'd get crowned king of pickup basketball after about fifteen minutes of play, he was badly mistaken. It was also pretty unlikely he'd show up uninvited to her cubicle any more. Edward may have come up with the perfect solution for that.
With final fistbumps, the guys made their way to the court. Edward's eyes met Bella's, and his face brightened immediately. He grinned at her, a broad, beaming smile, his eyes crinkling up in a way that was now pleasingly familiar. For me? Yes, that smile is for me. She laughed a little, grinning right back at him. He quickly detoured to her spot on the asphalt.
"Hey Bella," he said, his gaze lingering before he finally noticed Alice. "Oh, hi, Alice. Um, Bella? Could you hold on to my stuff?"
"Sure." She took the gym bag from him and set it on the ground between her feet. "Hey," she said as he turned back to the court. "Good luck."
He smiled and waved his hand dismissively. "Piece of cake." With a final wink at Bella, he trotted off to join his teammates.
Alice snorted. "That was totally unnecessary."
"What, wishing him good luck?"
"Noooo, asking you to hold on to his clothes." Alice gestured to the bag. "Nobody here would touch his stuff." She leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, "He wants to make sure he sees you when the game is over."
Bella blushed. The growing familiarity she had with Edward must be very obvious, but the more she considered it, the better she felt about it – welcomed it, even.
Mike finally saw her as they all took their positions. "Hey, Bella!" he called out. She couldn't bring herself to be cruel to him, so she waved politely and said, "Hi Mike!"
Edward snorted under his breath and took his place so Mike could defend him.
A coin toss had given the ball to the three amigos, so Jasper dribbled lazily for a few moments. Edward ran past Emmett, and Emmett positioned himself in Mike's way to throw him off guarding Edward. In another second, Edward was free.
Jasper hit him with a pass, and Edward rose up for a jump shot. Body aligned, forearm straight, he released the ball from his fingertips with practiced backspin, and the ball swished through the net.
"Lucky shot," Mike growled as he grabbed the ball away from Edward to start his team's offensive. Edward smiled lazily at Mike, clearly unfazed.
Bella sipped her coffee to hide her own grin.
Now that Mike's team had the ball, he was yelling at them and telling them what to do, as if he was a coach and not a player. Jasper was guarding a man with light-brown, wavy hair who was nearly as tall as he was. Emmett, ever the powerhouse, had his arms spread out to defend someone almost as large but with far inferior judgment. The guy was wearing a Celtics jersey, and even Bella knew that was enough to get you tossed over the cyclone fence here.
The six of them had staked out a half court, though for all practical purposes, there were only three guys playing. Bella and Alice watched as again and again, Jasper and Edward carved up the defense with token resistance from Mike and his friends. Mike's team was outrun and out-maneuvered nearly every time.
Mike tried to rattle Edward with more trash talk. "You must be the bus, 'cause I'm taking you to school," he taunted. Edward chuckled and said, "You're kidding, right? My grandmother can come up with better than that." Then he crouched down and caged Mike with his long arms and quick feet, giving Mike no room to operate.
Jasper's man made a few shots, and Bella almost believed the guys were going easy on Mike's team and letting them have those baskets. Emmett wasn't a powerful shooter but he was an excellent defender, almost intimidating. Jasper was sure-footed and quick, and most of his shots sank through the rim. Whenever an opposing player went up, Edward swiftly positioned himself between Mike and the basket, planting his feet wide apart, holding his arms out fast and boxing out his opponent.
Whenever he had the ball, Edward outshone them all. Graceful and fast, he managed to work through almost every cluster of opposition in his drives to the basket. Bella watched him sail up against the backboard countless times, going over and around defenders with a dancer's sure footing, and the ball made it through the hoop with nearly every shot.
After about a half-hour, she noticed that Mike looked pretty winded. Coincidentally, this happened after Edward sank a 20-footer from the corner with ease, before Mike could even get within three feet of him.
"Showoff," Alice muttered, but she was smiling as much as Bella.
For a moment, Bella wondered if Mike would call the game, but it was Emmett who ended it by pointing to his watch and saying he had to head home to meet up with Rose. Mike gave him some good-natured ribbing about Rose having him on a leash, but Bella saw relief on Mike's face. She was just reaching for her water bottle when she noticed that Edward and Emmett brushed shoulders. Edward's right and Emmett's left-hand fingertips lightly tapped against each other.
Bella knew then that game's end was as orchestrated as its beginning. And while Edward wanted to show Mike up, he didn't overdo it. He made his point and he let it rest.
Edward walked over slowly, eyes down, dribbling his well-worn basketball. Bella stood up to meet him, holding his towel in one hand and his water bottle in the other.
"Which do you want first?"
She was disappointed in herself for a moment – Why didn't I think of that? - but then Edward grinned at her and grabbed the towel.
"I'm going to have to get used to this," she said slowly.
Edward glanced at her quickly, and for a moment she saw hope on his face, which made it so endearingly vulnerable she almost couldn't bear to tease him.
"Used to what?" he said.
"To this New York sense of humor. I could have had a whole lemonade stand here, plus clean clothes and a private shower, just for you" – she poked her finger into his damp chest – "and you still would have asked for whatever I didn't have."
He looked at her intently for a moment before responding. "Nah. I think you'll always have everything for me."
Oh. With a slow inhale, she tried to pull her wits about her, and wound up asking him what she'd been curious about ever since the three of them were in her office.
"Why would you want to play basketball with Mike?"
Edward stood with the ball tucked under his arm, his hand sticking straight out. He squinted off in the direction of the West Fourth Street subway station.
"I had to show who's better."
Bella gave a short laugh. "I knew you could beat him any time. I know you knew that, too."
He turned to her, uncharacteristically serious now. Tenderly, he drew away the strands of hair that had drifted in front of her eyes.
"No. I had to show him who's better for you."
She stared at him, breathless, as his fingertips traced the shape of her face again and again. "I see you," he said, then repeated fiercely, "I see you. And that guy? He never could."
His expressive gaze pleaded with her, then softened. Tears had sprung to her eyes. No one had ever said anything like that to her. She cried because she'd always been afraid no one ever would.
If anyone had asked Edward earlier in the morning, he would have expressed some clear preferences for his first kiss with Bella. He would have wanted to be cleaner, better dressed, and more hydrated. But Edward saw this moment for what it was, so he gently touched her chin and leaned in.
The city vanished from around them as their lips met, tentatively once, then firmly, moving deep. The ball dropped and rolled away as Edward put his arms around Bella's waist and pulled her closer. Stink and sweat be damned. He was thrilled when she responded eagerly, standing on tiptoes and looping her own arms around his neck.
She felt his smile – always that smile – as he rained soft kisses on her cheeks, her eyes, and the tip of her nose.
"Mike's a backbencher," she said.
"I think you mean benchwarmer," he said affectionately.
"Whatever. He ain't got game. Does that work?"
"Perfectly. Now can we please stop talking about Mike?" Edward leaned in for another kiss, strong and determined.
Bella once thought she wasn't big enough for New York; that she'd stay out of sight like its smallest parts: the tuck of a street curb, the apron of a window, the tiny letters in a sign you had to cross the street to read. All those feelings of insignificance evaporated now. She finally felt visible, held fast in Edward's arms. She knew she wouldn't disappear, and neither would he.
At least one more chapter of this story is in the works. I wanted to include a scene where Edward and Bella visit MoMA, since Edward made such a big deal about it, but it would have made this one-shot way too long. I decided to write it separately.
Thank you for reading, and for donating to cancer research.