A/N: This is an EPOV from Chapters 8 and 9, during the week of silence between Edward and Bella and girl's night out with Rose and Alice. This was originally submitted as part of the Fandom4Texas wildfire relief compilation.

Thank you so much to all of you who donated to the cause – it is one that is near and dear to my heart as I have friends and family in Texas who were affected by the fires. I hope you all enjoy and I'd love to know what you think!


Sitting in my office, I grab a tissue and work away at the microscopic smudge on the cherry wood of my desktop. I hate fingerprints. It seems like it would be near impossible to get an honest day's work done without actually touching the damn wood, but somehow I usually manage. It's like a game at this point – I can count the number of smudges I have to polish away at the end of the day and try to beat it the next.

It's stupid, really.

Almost as stupid as the fact that I'm still sitting here in my office at 8:00 at night. I could have gone home at least three hours ago. I should have gone home.

I dig my palms into my eyes, trying desperately to rub away the stress and fatigue. I've been staring at this damn spreadsheet for the past several hours, trying to understand the profit forecasting for Mile High Data Hosting and figure out where we might fit into the mix during the next two fiscal years. This tedious work would normally fall on Ben, my VP of Sales, but that stupid school district security system has had him tied up for weeks. I really need to get on him about hiring some additional support staff. I'm the CEO for fuck's sake – surely I shouldn't be wasting my time on a ridiculous spreadsheet that was clearly created by some colorblind freak who thought that color-coding in puke green and maroon would somehow make it more appealing to the eye.

There's always too much work. Never enough time. And it's entirely my fault – if I'd just learn to give up control a little bit, maybe I could actually focus on getting my life in order. Maybe find some better way to deal with the stress. A hobby, maybe.

Maybe I could actually fix my marriage and be a real fucking husband for a change.

Maybe my wife and I would actually be on speaking terms.

Maybe I wouldn't have to sit in my office all fucking night pretending to be working on a stupid spreadsheet.

Maybe instead of acting like a fucking coward, I would be at home with my wife. Maybe we'd be on the couch, watching a sitcom or something. Maybe we'd be out for an evening stroll. Maybe we'd be sitting by the pool just enjoying each other's company. Those are all perfectly acceptable activities for a married couple, right?

Maybe I'd actually be able to form a coherent sentence or two instead of putting my foot in my mouth every time I try to talk to her. These two dueling sides of me always get in my way – the businessman in me is able to talk to anyone, to be authoritative, to say what I need to say. I've brought employees to tears before. I've convinced brilliant men to sign not so brilliant deals merely through persuasion. But with Bella I either turn into a bumbling idiot or the CEO in me comes out and I treat her like an employee. I just never seem to get it right.

I shake my head and run my hand through my hair. I'm sure it's sticking up straight by now from all the abuse it's taken this afternoon. Biting my lip, I cross my arms over my chest, my shoulders sagging in defeat.

I don't know how to fix this. This past week has been so confusing and emotionally draining. I just want to make it all go away. I want to know what the magic equation here is. Numbers I can do. Women? Not so much.

It took me nearly two years to actually figure out that I love Bella. For the longest time, I honestly thought it was just a friendly affection or something. I mean, come on, how could we fall in love? It certainly wasn't in the terms of that stupid agreement. When I finally recognized it for what it was – for why my chest ached whenever I looked at her, for why my hand tingled every time I touched her – I straight up panicked. I'd never planned for love. I certainly didn't know how to act on it. Which, looking back on everything, I can't believe how poorly I'd acted. I knew she was falling in love with me. I knew I was certainly being less than a gentleman in pursuing a physical relationship with her. How cruel is it that I fell in love with her, knowing that she loved me in return and yet I never once showed her or said the words to her? I've tried to be a good husband. I tried to give her everything. But that one thing I just couldn't give her.

And I have no idea why. What the hell is wrong with me?

I love her so much.

I want her to be happy.

I want us to be happy.

But how?

Why are we in this awkward silence? Why, after all our declarations last week, did I act so cold and clinical with her before I left that hotel room?

And why, after such an emotional breakdown, has she suddenly clammed up? She's barely said a word to me all week. Save for the extra helping of silence, she's acting like nothing's happened.

I glance at the clock again. 8:45. Another 45 minutes wasted. I'm such a fucking coward. The woman I love is at home, alone, and I'm here hiding like a fool.

I gather my things and do another sweep of the room, polishing away smudges and making sure everything is straight and in order. I roll my eyes at myself, just as I do every night when I leave here. Logically I know those smudges and tiny imperfections are completely inconsequential, but I still do this same routine, day after day.

When I finally arrive at home, all the lights are off and the silence is deafening. Is she here? Is she already in bed? Perhaps she's avoiding me just as I'm avoiding her.

As I quietly put my things away for the evening, my stomach churns as I'm overcome with guilt yet again. I should have come home tonight and faced this head on. I make my way to the kitchen for a beer, but the guilt is only multiplied harshly when I see her note. She'd ordered dinner for us. Picturing her here eating alone, waiting for me, leaves me unable to breathe for a moment.

I don't deserve her. I never have. I should have left her to her life. She'd be happy now. She's good and light and symbolizes everything that is right in the world. And I've just ruined her. I've turned her into something she isn't and now, when I finally have the opportunity to give her happiness, all I can do is act like a jackass and leave her here alone. I want to be the one to make her happy. All those nights, in our bed, I've tried to show her I love her. I've tried to make her see. But I just couldn't say it. I couldn't be the man she deserves. And now I may have finally lost her for good.

I honestly can't remember the last time I cried, but here in this empty kitchen, some leftover Chinese food might just push me to tears.

I sigh in defeat. I don't even want the damn beer anymore.

I crumple the note and throw it in the trash, pissed off at the world, at myself, at fucking everything.

I make my way to our bedroom, trying to be as quiet as possible in case she's sleeping. I've caused her enough fucking grief; the least I can do is let her sleep peacefully. The creaking of the door as I push it open seems to echo throughout the room and I cringe at the sound. I peek over at the bed and sure enough, there she is, lying with her back to me.

I can tell she's not sleeping. Her shoulders are too tense and her breathing seems too erratic.

I love her. I just want to walk over there and wrap my arms around her and tell her everything will be ok.

But I don't.

Because we haven't truly spoken in four days and she would rather pretend to be sleeping than face me, just as I'd rather pretend to be working on a spreadsheet than face her.

We're both fucking idiots.

Shaking my head, I decide to just play along. I quietly go about stripping down to my boxers. In the bathroom, I stare at my reflection for a few minutes, surprised by how tired and old I look. After brushing my teeth and stalling for a few more moments, I shut the light off and silently walk to the bed.

I can't help but stare at her. She's so beautiful – I can't see her face, but I've memorized everything about her. Her dark hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail, fans softly against her pillow. Beneath the soft cotton of her pajamas and the fluffy bedding, I can see the curves of her body. In the dark, after we made love, I used to love to watch her as she drifted off. I'd always wonder what she dreamed of. Did she think of me? She doesn't know, but I used to kiss her and whisper in her ear. A few times, in rare moments of courage, I even whispered to her unconscious mind how much I loved her. I used to stroke the soft ends of her hair and imagine what our life would be like if we could be so openly affectionate during daylight. I would hold her close and her softness and warmth were always the last things I'd think of before finally falling asleep.

She's still awake.

I slip under the covers as smoothly as I can and turn to face her. Her back is still so tense – I want to reach out and run my fingers down her spine to ease it away. I want to hear her voice. I need to know she's ok, that we're ok. That we're going to make it.

I open my mouth, but no words come out.

Coward.

I shut my eyes and blow out a breath I hadn't even realized I was holding.

I may not have the words, but I can at least show her.

Hoping to God she doesn't push me away, I reach out slowly beneath the covers and find her hip, reveling in the tingling sensation of finally touching her again. I move my body closer to hers, wanting to feel every inch of her, and the warmth when our bodies finally align is overwhelming.

I love you.

The soft scent of her hair is so familiar and comforting; it overtakes my senses with each breath I take in.

I love you.

I'm sorry.

Don't leave again.

We'll fix this.

I want to say the words. I need to say them. But for now, I settle for being a coward and for simple touches.


These fucking smudges.

I know I didn't even touch the fucking wood, yet they seem to appear out of nowhere today.

I'm exhausted and hungry. Glancing at the clock on my office wall, I see it's nearly 1:00 and I have yet to eat anything.

Sleep last night was fretful. Dreams and nightmares that I can't quite recall haunted me and jolted me awake several times. Well before dawn, I decided to just give up and work out my frustrations on the treadmill. How Bella managed to sleep through it all is a complete mystery. She didn't even wake this morning when I managed to drop a coffee cup on the kitchen floor, shattering it to bits and pieces all over the tile. By the time I'd cleaned it up, I was in such a foul mood I decided to just head to work.

And now I've wasted away several hours trying to keep the damn smudges off my desk. I wonder how much of my life has been wasted on smudges, contracts, and lost moments. Far too much for too long.

I wiggle my jaw back and forth. The tension in my body is killing me. My neck throbs and my head pounds. The thought of food makes me nauseous, but I know if I don't eat soon my headache will be much worse. Perhaps a few calories will help lighten my mood.

I push the intercom button to connect to my assistant. I normally hate having her do mundane tasks like getting me food. I like the opportunity to walk through the building down to the cafeteria. I like to see what my employees are up to and eavesdrop on their conversations – it keeps them on their toes and keeps me in the loop. But today, I just want to hide. I seem to be very good at that lately.

"Yes, Mr. Cullen?" Jane's cheerful voice makes me cringe. How someone can be so obnoxiously cheerful all the damn time is just beyond my comprehension.

"Can you please go down to the cafeteria and get me a roast beef sandwich? Mayo and lettuce on rye, please. Oh, and maybe a banana or something."

"Certainly, Mr. Cullen."

"Thank you, Jane."

I push the button again to end the call and push my chair back. Leaning forward, my forehead thumps against the desk. I've never felt so overwhelmed before. Today is Friday and I'm so panicked of the thought that when I leave here tonight, I have a whole weekend of this awkwardness and avoidance Bella and I are in. I don't think I can take more.

The shrill ringing of my Blackberry catches me by surprise and my head jerks up. I pick it up and look at the caller id.

Bella.

She never calls me during the day. Something must be wrong. Oh, fuck, what if she's leaving? What if this is it? Surely she wouldn't tell me something like that over the phone would she?

"Bella?" I cringe at the ridiculous sound of my nervous voice, like I'm a teenager going through puberty or something.

"Hello." Fuck, she sounds nervous too. This can't be good. "Um, I just wanted you to know that Rose has invited me to a girl's night out. I'll be leaving around 7 or so, so you'll be on your own for dinner if that's alright."

"Oh." I don't honestly know what to say to that. She deserves a night out, that's for sure.

"That's fine. I'm sure I can find some leftovers or something to eat."

Right, Edward, good one. Like I really give a shit about dinner. Why is she going out? Who is she going with?

"Um, where are you going?"

"Rose was invited to a new club opening, Jax I think it's called. We are going to have dinner and then head to the club."

A club? She's going to a fucking club? At least Rose will be there – she honestly scares the shit out of me. Surely, she wouldn't let anything bad happen to my Bella. What about Emmett? The few times I've met him, he seemed like the good, protective sort of guy. Wait, if Emmett's going, why didn't Bella invite me? Then again, why would she invite me after the past week?

"Is Emmett coming along?" Her chuckle at my question confuses me.

"Um, no. It would sort of defeat the purpose of a girl's night out." Right, well that makes sense I guess.

It kills me that this is so awkward. I want to tell her to stay home. I'll take her out. I'll take her anywhere she wants to go. I can be fun. The thought of her in a sweaty club with a bunch of hormonal twenty-somethings seriously makes me want to go home right now and lock her up in the house or something. She's mine.

But, I of course, do none of these things. Coward.

I clear my throat as quietly as possible before I can finally speak again. "Well, please be careful. Make sure your cell is charged in case you have any trouble." Oh, and by the way, I love you and I miss you.

"I will. Will I see you before I leave?"

Does she want to see me? The thought makes my chest heat up in hope.

"I'm not sure. I wasn't planning to work late, but I'm not sure what time I'll actually get out of here for the day." But I want to see you. Oh, and I love you.

"Ok, well if I don't see you, have a good night. I'm not sure what time I'll be home."

Is that sadness in her voice? Is she aching as much as I am over all of this? God! I wish we could go back to the way things were. At least then things were much less complicated.

"Alright. Have a good time." I take in a quick breath. "Bella, please be careful and call if you need anything."

"I will. Goodbye, Edward."

"Goodbye."

God, please let us be ok. How do I fix this?

I'm still staring at my phone when I hear a knock on my office door. The door opens and Jane pops her head in, that cheerful smile on her face taunting me. Yes, Edward, there are normal and happy people in the world.

"Here's your sandwich! Can I get you anything else?" Jane bounces into the room and places the Styrofoam container on my desk in front of me.

"No, thank you," I reply gruffly, oddly affronted at her mere sunshine-filled presence.

She turns to retreat before her steps falter. Turning back around, she stares at me quizzically for a moment.

"Are you alright, Mr. Cullen?"

Her ridiculous smile is gone for the moment. Great, I've managed to make yet another person unhappy. Seems to be par for the course at this point.

I try to smile at her – I really do. But I'm sure I end up looking more deranged than happy.

"Yes, Jane. I'm sorry; I just didn't sleep well last night."

She nods, clearly not believing me. Luckily, she leaves without further inquiry.

I somehow force down the sandwich and a couple of ibuprofen. The afternoon passes in a blur of torture – emails, calls, decisions, budgeting, staffing issues. All those responsibilities I normally take so seriously seem so unimportant and mundane now.

My father's voice pops up in my head.

"Priorities, Edward."

"Don't lose your focus, Edward."

"Edward, you're going to do great things if you keep the right mindset."

Great advice, Dad. Priorities? Who gives a shit if my marketing department went slightly over budget this quarter? I've lost my wife – the only woman I've ever actually loved. When was that ever on my priority list? How could the man who raised me to believe that success was always the top priority manage to be happily married for 35 years? Seems like he managed to have his priorities straight.

At six, I finally give in and decide to go home. Perhaps I can catch Bella before she leaves. Maybe we can talk a little.

The entire drive home, my brain cycles through possible approaches to this. The problem isn't that I don't know what to say. It's more that I don't know how to broach the subject. Every time I want to talk to her, I seem to clam up and end up sounding like a complete asshole. If I could just somehow get the ball rolling, I'm confident I could manage an actual conversation with her. I've already told her I love her. It's not like we haven't already jumped the hardest hurdle. Now it's just working out the details and making the changes we need to make to finally move towards having a real marriage.

My mind is still swirling with plans and pep talks when I finally walk through the door.

I mindlessly go about my evening routine of emptying my pockets when her sweet voice startles me.

"Hello. How was your day? You're home early."

I turn around to answer but am speechless when I see her. She's breathtaking. She looks young and vibrant, her skin flushed and glowing, her hair flowing softly around her shoulders. And, fuck, that dress. Jesus. She's always dressed so elegantly and modestly when we go out. I've never seen her in something so revealing. Yet she doesn't look slutty – she looks youthful and alive. The soft colors of the fabric and the uneven hemline are flattering and seem to hug her curves in just the perfect way. She looks just like she did when I first met her. Even in her silly coffee shop uniform, she had that same look. I struggle to find the word to describe it. Carefree. She looks happy. Certainly not like a woman whose fake marriage has taken a turn for the worse.

And she's going out tonight. Without me.

And she'll be surrounded by men who'll see the same thing I'm seeing – an amazing, beautiful young woman who deserves everything. Fuck!

I realize I've been gaping at her far too long. I clear my throat in an attempt to regain my composure.

"You look beautiful," I say, looking away, hoping she somehow missed the tortured look on my face. I love you. Please stay here with me.

"Thank you," she answers, smiling sweetly with those glossy lips and bright, shining eyes. Fuck, I want to kiss her.

The doorbell rings and she practically bounces through the entryway to answer it. I follow closely behind, feeling like an awkward stalker but not wanting to miss these last few moments before she leaves.

When the door opens, Rose is on the other side, looking beautiful as well. They will certainly be a pair tonight.

"Oh my God, Rose, you look amazing!" God, she sounds so animated and happy. Why is it that she is this way over one single night out? Have I really sucked the life out of her so badly?

"Hello, Rose. It's good to see you," I say politely. I honestly have to hold my arms tightly at my side to keep from slamming the door in her face and forcing Bella to stay home. Somehow, I'm certain that would not go over well with either of women in my presence at the moment.

"Hello, Edward," she replies as she leans forward to hug my wife.

"Fuck, Bella, you look incredible. I should have brought Emmett along to act as your bodyguard tonight." My breath catches.

Fuck! I don't want her to go.

My mind is spinning in circles. I can't control this. I hate feeling out of control. Fuck, I need to calm down. This is Bella's night and I can't ruin it for her.

Bella spins around and I'm standing there shocked as she kisses my cheek and puts her arms delicately around me. It takes a second before I have the frame of mind to react and return the embrace. I squeeze tightly – too tightly – feeling the smooth skin of her back against my palms.

All too quickly, she pulls away from me. I hate this feeling that I'm losing her. I can't help but wonder how things will change when she walks out that door. We have so much to discuss. So much work to do. I hate that I have to let her out of my sight tonight. It's ironic that I've spent a week avoiding her only to crave her presence the one time I can't have it.

"I'll see you later," she says dismissively, turning to leave me.

"Have a nice time. Please be safe," I respond with one last desperate look at her.

Our eyes meet one last time as she leaves. My heart is aching, my breath caught in my constricted chest as the door closes and she is gone.

I stand in the entryway for God knows how long.

What do I do now? I have an entire evening ahead of me with nothing to do and no one to share it with.

The sadness is consuming. I briefly consider heading up to my study and working for a bit, but that is just too depressing to even attempt. I'm always fucking working; I'll be damned if I spend another Friday night stuck in that fucking study wasting my life away. I contemplate drowning my sorrows in alcohol, but the irrational and hopeful side of me wants to be sober and ready in case Bella were to call and need me. It's been ages since I've sat at my poor, neglected piano, but I'm too depressed to find any inspiration to play.

Perhaps I should eat something. Maybe I could cook a nice dinner. Maybe I'll watch some TV. I rarely do that – now would be a good time to start. Perhaps I should clean something – that always soothes me.

I head to the kitchen, where I haphazardly throw together a sandwich and force it down as quickly as possible. The smudges on the countertop sufficiently distract me for a good half an hour as I polish every possible surface area until everything looks sterile and unused.

This feeling in the pit of my stomach is so overwhelming. What is she doing? Is she laughing and having a good time? Is she thinking of me? Is she flirting with some hormonal college student? Is she pacing herself or binging on alcohol?

Fuck! Why is this so difficult? Why can't I just be a normal fucking person? Any other guy would probably be happy to have his wife gone for the evening so he could meet up with some buddies. Maybe play a game of poker and drink beer and eat nachos or something. But here I am, alone and freaking out.

I head to our liquor cabinet and dig around in the back until I find what I'm looking for – a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I rarely smoke. I don't even think Bella knows about it. But once in a great while, I crave the calming burst of nicotine. I head out to the patio and light up, sucking in a deep hit of smoke and instantly feel the chemicals tingling through my body.

I chain smoke three cigarettes before my plan forms. Before I stub out the last of them, I realize what I want to do. I'm going to follow her. Maybe I can find her at the club and we can dance together. Maybe I'll just watch from a corner, just to see if she's ok. Make sure she's happy. Maybe I'll whisk her away and we'll talk and make love and everything will be ok.

Or maybe I'll just piss her off by showing up.

But I have to go. I can't sit here wondering. I just want to see her. I trust her completely – I always have. But I just need to know what she's doing.

I feel like a prick for even thinking of stalking her. This is her night out – she's entitled to a fun night. And here I am about to follow her and invade her privacy.

But I'm still going.

In a rush, I head to our bedroom. I obviously can't show up to a club in a suit and tie, but I have no clue what the kids are wearing out these days. Staring at my closet, I realize I honestly have nothing appropriate. My wardrobe goes from suits to jeans, either far too corporate or too casual. After several minutes of panicky debate, I decide on a pair of black slacks and a dark gray button down.

A quick shower later and I'm back in panic mode with my hair. It never fucking does what I want it to. It's either all crazy like a serial killer or I can put mass quantities of gel in and slick it back like I'm about to head out to a Star Trek convention. In the end, I decide that when a man is trying to win back his wife, crazy prevails over retarded.

Dressed, freshly covered in cologne, and hair all over the place, I head to my study to load up on cash. I imagine on opening night it will take quite a few bills to get my name on the list.

I'm ready. I feel foolish, but I'm going anyway.


I Google the club address and I'm on my way.

I stare at the line of people – it wraps around the building. I'm terrified. This isn't my scene. This isn't in Edward's playbook. I don't do clubs and crowds. I honestly don't think I've ever been to a place like this, even when I was younger. My social outings usually require black ties and dinner jackets and certainly aren't held in buildings featuring grotesque lion statues and surrounded by throngs of scantily dressed people who probably have an exam to study for.

This is completely stupid. Why would Bella even want to come here? I may not be an expert in women, but I do know her. I've lived with her for years. I would never picture her in this place wearing that dress. Rose is a bad influence – that's the only thing I can think to explain this.

With a deep breath, I finally talk myself into approaching the large gentleman in a black suit and tie who appears to be the doorman. With ten crisp one hundred dollar bills folded neatly and pressed into my palm, I walk up to him and try to look somewhat cool.

He eyes me with raised eyebrows, clearly ready to turn me away.

I reach out and shake his hand, discretely slipping the money into his palm.

"Any chance of me getting in?" I ask, putting on my best CEO voice.

He looks at the cash with wide eyes. Okay, this is all new to me, is $1000 too much? Not enough?

I breathe a sigh of relief when he steps aside without a word and gestures me through the door. Well, it must have been enough.

The club is packed with people. It's nearly impossible to move without bumping into to some sweaty drunk person. I can feel the anxiety rising as I venture further in. I really fucking hate crowds.

The club is dark and the blinking lights make it nearly impossible to see into the crowd. I try my best to look around to find her, but it's just no use. I head to the bar and order a beer. I throw my head back for the first swig when I spot a balcony that overlooks the dance floor. That's perfect! If I could get up there, I could hopefully spot her. Fuck, if I find her what am I going to do? Talk to her? Stalk her? Shit, this really was a bad idea.

A staircase! Off to the right, I can see an arched staircase with silver railings. It leads right up to the overlook. A few dancers are milling about on the balcony and stairway, but it is certainly much less crowded than the main area I'm in.

"Hey, there."

I look to my right and find a smiling redhead licking her blood red lips. Her black dress is so tiny, I'm sure it could pass for a blouse in any other setting. Her heels have to be at least 5 inches high and her curly red hair is crimped and teased and, frankly, humungous. She's looking at me like she wants to eat me or something.

My eyes widen in both disgust and fear. Shit, I didn't account for this in my spur of the moment decision to come to this hell hole.

"Uh, hi." I look away quickly, trying to avoid any eye contact whatsoever. Please let her go away!

"What's your name?" I'm not sure if she has a cold or if she's intentionally trying to make her voice sound like that.

I chance another look at her. Fuck! She's leaning closer. She smells like tequila or something. It's positively revolting.

I back away, not sure what the protocol is for turning down some banshee with no respect for personal space.

"Uh, I have to go." Not a brilliant reply, but given the suddenness of the attack, it'll have to do.

I rush as quickly as I can away toward the staircase, bobbing and weaving to avoid as much physical contact. Ugh, this is gross. I honestly can't wait to get home and shower. I feel like such an ass – if this is what my Bella enjoys and I clearly despise it, does that mean we aren't compatible? I roll my eyes at the thought. Surely there are plenty of happy, functioning marriages where a man and woman have different likes and dislikes.

Taking the stairs two at a time, I sprint up to the balcony, running my hand through my hair nervously as I finally reach the railing overlooking the writhing dancers. The music is far too loud. I'm jealous in a way; all these people are dancing without a care in the world; enjoying life. I honestly can't remember the last time I just let loose and enjoyed myself. My nights with Bella are probably the closest thing I can imagine; getting lost in her and just being with her without any thought of the outside world.

I survey the crowd, almost immediately spotting Rose near the center of the dance floor, her body moving rhythmically to the beat. Her blond hair and statuesque figure stand out from the crowd. Surely Bella must be with her. I recognize a small woman with black hair dancing next to Rose. Alice, I think her name is. I remember meeting her a few times over the years. I look around them but don't see my Bella. Oh, God, why isn't she with them? Is she alright?

And that's when I see them.

A man dancing behind her.

Touching her.

He's practically humping her right on the fucking dance floor. Why is she smiling? Why isn't she horrified? She looks intoxicated, blissful, and uneven on her feet, but still managing to stay in time with the beat of the music.

I can't breathe. I can't fucking breathe.

What do I do? What the hell is she doing? Why isn't Rose stopping her? Why is she doing this to me? To us?

I want to kill him. I want to break his fucking wrists for even thinking of laying his hands on her. He looks young. Far too young for her. She's a thirty year old woman. A married woman, for fuck's sake.

I can't watch this.

My marriage is in shambles and the proof is right there on the dance floor, covered in sweat and dirt and hands and liquor.

This isn't a smudge I can wipe away.

I have to get out of here.

I can't be here.

I turn and leave, not caring about the bodies I bump into. Not caring when I bang my car door on the car next to mine, surely scratching both vehicles. Not caring that I break every traffic law on my drive home.

Not caring about anything but the fact that some random guy now knows what it's like to touch my wife.

When I finally make it home, I head straight for the liquor cabinet, grabbing a bottle of aged scotch and the pack of cigarettes before heading out to the patio.

Within minutes I burn through two more cigarettes and at least three shots worth of scotch straight from the bottle, loving the burn in my throat from the combination.

I can't think straight. What is she doing now? Will she go home with him? Fuck, I shouldn't have gone. I would be so much better off not knowing this. My brain doesn't have the capacity to comprehend and process this. I know she's upset. I know I've handled everything in the worst way possible. I know I'm hard to deal with at times. I know I've made too many mistakes to count. I should never have asked her to have my child. I should never have hid my feelings from her. I should never have left her in that hotel room for six days while I walked around here like a zombie, trying to convince myself that she was better off without me.

This whole marriage is built on mistake after mistake after mistake.

But I would never in a million years have even entertained the thought of her cheating. She's not innocent in this whole thing – she's made her share of mistakes too. But this isn't her. That wasn't my Bella out there on that dance floor. She would never do that to me. To us.

Is it possible I didn't see it correctly? Could I have misinterpreted the situation? Maybe that guy is some gay friend of hers I don't know about.

Or maybe my wife was letting a man who is probably ten years younger than her practically fuck her on the dance floor of some club.

I light another cigarette and slowly puff away, trying to drown out this sharp pain in my chest with chemicals.

It hurts so much. It hurts much worse than when she left me. I've never felt anything like this before. I've never loved someone or something enough for it to really cause pain when it was gone. Only Bella. She's the best part of my life and right now she's doing God knows what with someone else.

I can't take this.

I need to shower. I need to erase this evening. I need to erase this smell of club and scotch and smoke and this memory reliving itself in my mind on repeat.

I scrub and scrub but still feel dirty. It's like I'm fucking covered in smudges. Everything's tainted by this.

I sit on the couch in the sitting room staring at the smudges on the coffee table, not even managing the energy to even try to polish them away.

Somewhere in my alcohol haze, everything turns dark. I don't know what time it happens. I know this is entirely my fault. This isn't repairable. This isn't going to work. She doesn't want me anymore. She's not coming back. Even if she does come home, will she really be here? Will she still want me?

I give in to the exhaustion. Sleep is easy. Sleep is safe.


A rattling sound jolts me from a dreamless peace.

Fuck, why am I on the couch? What time is it?

It takes a moment to fully wake back to reality.

Bella. Dancing. A man. A rattling sound. Pain.

The front door.

Bella.

It must be her. Maybe she's locked out.

I rush to the door and fling it open.

A loud, piercing scream startles me as I see Bella standing before me, a look of pure terror on her face.

A reflexive action thrusts my hand out to cover her mouth. Why the fuck is she screaming? What the hell time is it? She reeks of vodka and a something syrupy sweet. And she's still screaming and thrashing behind my hand.

"Calm down, Bella! Do you want the neighbors to call the police? Christ!" My voice rises in anger.

I reach out and circle her waist with my arm, pulling her through the door and shutting it quickly. She leans into me, stumbling and hiccupping.

"How much did you drink? Jesus, Bella! How did you get home?"

Fuck, is she ok? Her eyes are puffy and heavy lidded. I rack my brain trying to remember the symptoms of alcohol poisoning. Should I take her to the hospital? She can barely stand! Why isn't she speaking?

Her mouth opens, but nothing comes out. It's so frustrating! Jesus, she's the one out rubbing all over other men, drinking far beyond her limit it would seem, and she can't even speak.

I deserve an explanation here. I want to know what happened. I want something, anything, to help ease this ache I feel.

I suck in a breath and run my hand through my hair as she sways on her feet and seems to be looking around for something.

No, I need to hear it from her. Why? What happened? I need to know. I need her to know that I saw her.

"I saw you with him. At the club. I came to see you. You were dancing with some guy. He had his hands all over you. And you just let him." I shake my head, forcing myself to try to look at her. "I couldn't take it. I left. I just couldn't watch it anymore."

Nothing. No answer. Oh, God, does that mean she has nothing to say about it? If she has nothing to say, no defense, then…

"Did you fuck him?" Please say no. Please say something.

"I want pancakes," she blurts out, her voice scratchy and deep.

What?

Her eyes snap shut and seemingly in slow motion, I realize she's passing out. My arms reach out and tighten around her before she can hit the floor.

Fuck!

Oh, God, what do I do now?

All my anger dissipates into worry. I've never seen her like this before. I don't know what to do. Her breathing sounds normal, her cheeks have color, and she's warm but not too hot. These are all good signs, right? Maybe she just needs to sleep this off.

I stare at her for a moment. She looks so peaceful, so sweet. This is the woman I love.

I have to fix this.

I can't think about what I saw tonight.

It doesn't matter.

This can't be over. I need her. I want her. I want this to work.

I awkwardly maneuver my arms so that I am cradling her and gently lift her up. She looks so small, so delicate.

I've been a terrible husband to her. I've pushed her away and I've been so cold with her. The sudden overwhelming need to take care of her, protect her, make things right – it hits me like a freight train.

I want to be a man who is worthy of her.

I carry her up to our room and lay her on the bed. I'm relieved instantly when she starts snoring softly; at least I know she's breathing well despite however much alcohol she's consumed. Where the fuck was Rose? Why did she just drop Bella off and not even make sure she made it in the house? I shudder to think what could have happened to her. What if she'd fallen? What if she'd passed out on the steps and I hadn't awakened to find her?

I reach up and sweep the hair from her forehead.

Regardless what happened tonight, she's here and she's safe.

The task of undoing her shoes is frustrating. How on earth do women manage to get themselves strapped into such torture devises with microscopic buckles and such? And, shit, her feet are surely going to be sore tomorrow judging from the angry red marks left by all those fancy straps. When I finally manage to get them off, I rub her feet gently as if I can somehow will the marks away.

I can't leave her in that dress. She looks beautiful, but frankly, she looks completely uncomfortable. I lean over her and slip off her earrings, placing them gently on the nightstand. I chew at my lip, contemplating how best to deal with this, before heading over to the closet and pulling out one of my t-shirts. It's soft enough to be comfortable for her to sleep in and large enough that it should hopefully be easy to slip on her without rousing her too much.

I somehow manage to sit her up and undo the button and zipper combo on the back of her dress. It takes some ridiculous wiggling to finally slip it down her body and off her legs.

And I immediately feel like a complete tool for staring at her near-naked body while she's passed out drunk. I feel like a hormonal teenager, willing my poor cock not to pay attention to my beautiful wife in see-through black lace.

Praying that she doesn't get angry in the morning, I also remove the bra. I know she never wears one to bed and although very visually stimulating, it too looks far too uncomfortable to be waking up in with a hangover from hell. I leave the panties, because let's face it, we may be married, but given our current situation I doubt she'll be too receptive to knowing I've changed her underwear while she laid there unconscious.

I slip the t-shirt over her head and through the arms and then gently lift her to place her beneath the covers. She mumbles something in her sleep and rolls over to her side, facing my side of the bed.

She doesn't look quite right. After years of watching her sleep, I know she usually looks different, but I can't quite place why.

The hair!

She hates sleeping with her hair loose.

Without the faintest clue how to put a woman's hair in a ponytail, I grab an elastic band from her nightstand and somehow manage to gather her hair and secure it at the base of her neck. It's messy, but it will have to do. Hopefully she's out deeply enough that it won't cause her any discomfort.

I just stand there and watch her for a moment.

I honestly hope the alcohol will allow her to forget my behavior when she came home tonight. I do want to know what happened, but I don't want the conversation to take place in anger while she is completely incoherent.

I strip down to my boxers, shut off the lights, and slip into bed beside her. The pale moonlight streaming through the window casts an soft glow on her features.

She's so beautiful.

I once thought I wasn't capable of love. I once thought I could never be the man she deserved. But here, in this moment, the love I feel for her is so overwhelming it makes my heart pound.

I can be the man she deserves.

I reach out and stroke her cheek gently.

Tomorrow, I'll man up and act like a real husband.

Tomorrow, the avoidance stops and I'll show her how I feel.

Tomorrow, we'll fix this.

Tomorrow.