A/N: My thanks to the dedicated and talented fans behind the Truly Anonymous Twilight Contest for providing a wonderfully level playing field and helping all of us discover some exciting new authors.
I really don't want to go through with this.
The restroom mirror depicts someone ready for a night out. A black dress with ruffles forming a deep V (but not too deep). Heels high enough to ensure a few unstable moments despite not meeting Rose's exacting standards.
My hair's fluffed out. My lips are glossed. As ten-minute transformations go, it's not bad, but it's just an image. Inside, I have no more enthusiasm for this date than I had when Rose browbeat me into agreeing to it. Less – after a hard day on my feet.
"It's just a drink," she'd insisted, "and he's really cute."
They're all really cute, according to Rose, who actually enjoys flirting and making small talk with all of them, while I sit there, bored, mostly silent, wishing I was home.
The drink, though. That sounds good. To relax quietly and unwind without feeling like I have to impress a stranger.
Who am I kidding? My budget doesn't allow for anything beyond rubbing alcohol at home, and there isn't enough money in my wallet for even a beer in a dive bar.
That's when I notice the stack of thick, white towels on the counter.
Oh, crap! I completely forgot. All I need is to lose this awful job. Any minute Mrs. Carmichael may stick her officious head in the restroom door and start spouting the fine points of hotel management.
But it gives me an idea. I grab my phone out of the big brown hobo bag that would have looked ridiculous with this outfit anyway and dial Rose.
"Let me guess," she answers. "You're not going to make it."
"I can't help it, Rose. Something's come up at work. I have to stay. You know I can't afford to blow off this job."
"Well, how long are you going to be? We can wait."
"No, don't. I honestly have no idea." I cringe a little at that "honestly" thrown into what amounts to a lie. "Just go ahead and have a good time."
"We could come by your place later." There's both skepticism and a challenge in her tone. "Don't forget, I have a key."
"The key is for emergencies, Rose," I remind her. "It's not for entertaining strange men in my apartment when I'm not even home. I'm sorry, but I'll talk to you tomorrow."
I hang up before she can continue, because she will continue – all night if I let her. I check to make sure my work clothes are safely stashed away, pick up the towels and head for the service elevator.
Thankfully, I remember the room number, 206, same as the one Rose and I shared freshman year. Talk about a mismatch, but somehow it worked, despite her losing campaign to turn me into an extrovert like her.
"Maybe you're autistic," she said one night, when I was studying and she wasn't.
"Of course, I'm artistic. That's why I'm going for a BFA."
"I said autistic – as in highly functioning, but with no discernible social skills, or else there's some dark secret you haven't told me about – like a creepy uncle who always offered to tuck you in at night."
"I will be so glad when you've finished that psych class," I murmured, refusing to look up from my homework.
"Well, you have to admit it's weird to go off to college and not party every chance you get."
"It would be weird for you, Rose, not for me. In case you haven't noticed, we're not the same person."
"But you're my best friend. You should be having as much fun as I am."
I'd been perfectly trained for a roommate like Rose, thanks to a frivolous mother who never understood my retiring ways, but like Renee, Rose is always there for me when I need her.
The second floor corridor is deserted. My footsteps make no sound at all on the thick carpet. I balance the stack of towels in my left arm, but before I can knock, the door swings open, and I find myself looking at one of the most beautiful human beings I've ever seen in my life.
I forget what I was about to say and just stare for a moment. The cheekbones alone are enough to make me want to grab a pencil and start sketching – on the corridor walls, if necessary. His eyes are so intense, and yet they're a soft blue, flecked with hints of green. It's the dark brows and eyelashes that give them such a strange power. He looks a little startled himself.
"Well, this is a pleasant surprise. I see you've brought the missing towels," he says in a ridiculously appealing voice. "Please . . . come in."
I step inside, finally remembering the word I was looking for, "housekeeping." It seems a little redundant now, so I say nothing, and continue into the bathroom.
"Just put them on the counter."
I do that and look up to see him watching me in the vanity mirror. Even his reflection is perfect. His hair, a coppery brown, appears to have a mind of its own. He's wearing a navy sport coat, jeans and a light blue shirt. That must be why I noticed his eyes so quickly. I wonder what would happen if he wore green.
"I'm Edward, by the way," he says, as I walk back into the foyer. He doesn't give a last name or offer his hand. I'm not even sure why he's introducing himself at all, but it's nice.
"Bella," I manage to blurt out. Who says I have no social graces?
"I was just about to fix a drink. Would you like one?"
"What? Oh, no . . . I don't think . . . that wouldn't . . ."
"You don't drink?"
"Yes, I do. I mean not very much and just sometimes, not all the time and not . . ." I'm about to say "on the job" when it occurs to me that I've clocked out. This really is my own free time, and I'd been wishing I could afford a night cap.
"The end of a long hard week sounds like the right time to me." He goes to the dresser and stops, looking momentarily puzzled. "Hmm, no complementary wine."
"Oh, The Bollinger doesn't do that," I say, like my job is to point out my employer's shortcomings.
A wry smile curls one corner of his mouth. It's mesmerizing.
"Jasper's skimping on the perks," he mumbles, apparently to himself.
"Jasper? You mean, Jasper Whitlock, the concierge?"
The smile becomes a crooked grin, and I forget to breathe. "We went to school together. He takes good care of me when I stay here. Well, let's see what the minibar has to offer."
His back is to me as he bends to open the door, and it occurs to me even this view has its charms. Why did we never have anyone remotely like him in our life model classes?
"Local microbrew," he recites, "Evian, Belvedere, two mini-bottles of Black Label–"
"Diet coke, a Toblerone bar, trail mix, orange juice, and M&Ms," I finish for him.
He straightens up and gives me an arch look. "Yes, I guess you would be familiar with the minibar. Any recommendations?"
Was I actually trying to impress him with my insider knowledge? Rose is right. I'm hopeless. I can feel myself blushing as I answer, "The vodka's very nice."
"I agree." He holds up the bottle with an appealing lift of his brows. "Enough for two. Sure you won't join me? I hate to drink alone."
"Well, if you're . . . okay . . . yes, thank you."
"Tonic all right?"
"Fine. There are lime slices on the door."
I stand there fidgeting, while he mixes the drinks, finally lowering my purse to the floor behind me and stepping aside, because it really does look dumb with this dress.
"Here you go."
I take the plastic tumbler, noticing that his hands are beautiful too – strong, with long elegant fingers.
"Do you play the piano?" I hear myself ask. "I mean, you look like you could – with your fingers and all."
He laughs. "Actually, I used to. Not much time for that lately. Aren't you going to sit down?"
It seems vaguely like breaking the rules, though I can't think of one that would apply. I'm off the clock. This guest doesn't like solitary drinking, and I'm accommodating him. Besides, I need more time to memorize his striking features, so I can attempt a portrait the minute I get home.
I ignore the matching overstuffed chairs in favor of a straight-backed one that most people use as a luggage rack. He removes his sport coat and sits on the California King a few feet away from me, rolling up the sleeves of his oxford shirt.
I take a hurried gulp of my drink, wondering why the sight of his forearms – slim, muscular, with hair that looks soft and catches the light – makes me feel even more uneasy.
Isn't it his turn to ask if I play a musical instrument? That's the kind of simple give and take most people use to break the ice, right?
He shows no inclination to talk, scrutinizing me over the rim of his glass – not in a rude way, more like he's trying to figure something out.
Probably why I would carry a beat-up pigskin bag with a black cocktail dress.
"When in doubt, ask about them," I can hear Rose counsel. "They love to talk about themselves."
"And what's in it for me?" I'd shot back. "Why should I listen to some random moron bragging, when I could be doing something that actually interests me?"
"Because they like it, and it makes them like you!"
"But that isn't me. It's false advertising."
"No, it pretty much is you. You make guys do all the work, while you sit there like the dullest person on earth, when you're actually smart and funny and feisty. How come they never see that side of you? You went with Mike for over a year, right? You must have had something to say to him."
My relationship with Mike is not something I care to discuss with Rose – or anyone else for that matter.
"How is it?" Edward's voice startles me out of my reverie.
"Your drink. Is it all right?"
"Oh, it's fine, thanks." It's half gone. I better start talking more and sipping less.
It occurs to me that this is exactly what I was supposed to be doing right now and cleverly got out of – having a drink with a stranger. Only there's no Rose with her own date to fill the silence. What would she advise me to say in this situation?
I try to look perky, and ask, "So what do you do for a living, Edward?"
I thought that was supposed to be foolproof, but he suddenly looks wary. His face is so incredibly expressive. There's no way a single portrait can do justice to it. I can see myself sketching away madly through the night, trying to capture every subtlety before the memories fade.
"You're new at this, aren't you?" he says at last.
How does he know? If he thinks I'm the one who failed to put the towels in his bathroom, he's dead wrong. I don't even do the second floor, but I don't want to argue. I need to prolong this intriguing interlude if I can.
"Yes. I just started a month ago. I graduate soon, and I need the money."
He nods, as if this was exactly what he'd guessed. "What are you studying?"
"Fine arts. You know, one of those degrees that practically guarantees you'll never work again."
He smiles, and this one is different, too. Kind of sweet. "You have a favorite medium?"
"I do mostly portraits – charcoal, pastels – but I hope to own a gallery someday."
"Seriously?" His eyes light up. I swear, they really do. His features, which just a minute ago had taken on an almost hostile cast, are suddenly animated. "I wonder if you'd mind taking a look at something."
"What?" I have no idea what to expect. Is he about to expose himself, or demand a critique of the cookie-cutter prints on the wall or maybe pull out an attaché case of stolen money?
I've been told I have an overly active imagination.
He stands, reaches for the discarded jacket, pulls an envelope from the inside pocket and deals the contents out on the bedspread like playing cards, but they're photos – of other photos, of paintings, drawings, collages.
I join him, curious. Different media, different artists. Everything from a colorful abstract to a cloud-bound angel in black and white.
"My financial advisor suggested that with the economy like it is I should consider investing in art."
"She actually. It's my sister." For some reason he blushes. Close up, I realize that he has beautiful skin – pale and flawless. There's something endearing about this sign of shyness in someone who seems almost intimidating in his perfection.
"Well, she's right then. There are few investments so independent of the market, and unlike commodities, you can enjoy looking at them every day in your own home. You must have a smart sister."
His eyebrows lift. "She used to be great at predicting stocks too, until they became an endangered species. So any tips on these?"
I drag my attention back to the pictures on the bed, hyperaware of how good he smells, how – close up – rampant stubble adds just the right jolt of virility to his gorgeous face, how badly I want to capture the line of his jaw on paper.
"This one," I say finally, "the Mathis. He's had several exhibitions on the west coast with stellar reviews. Now, Venetti – he made a big splash about two years ago, but he hasn't moved beyond that. His stuff will probably continue to hold its value, but if you're looking for someone who could be relevant fifty years from now, it's not him. We call it the Kinkade syndrome.
"Now these two – Ikara and Mary Watts – they've both inspired a lot of imitators which could put them in a position to be considered seminal in the future. My best advice? If you can afford the risk, buy the ones you won't get tired of. Then if they don't increase in value, it's not a total loss."
I finish, and there's dead silence. What have I been going on about? Shouldn't have guzzled that drink, I decide, backing up and groping for the chair again.
"Thank you," Edward says. "I appreciate the expertise."
"Oh, I'm not an expert . . . not at all. It's just that I pay attention to what's going on in the art scene, just in case . . . someday, I get to be a part of it."
Does he think I was showing off like all those guys I find so boring? Was I? I search my fuzzy brain for a way to turn the subject back to him.
"So I take it you're not stuck with a lot of student loan debt – I mean, if you have money to invest."
His eyes narrow almost imperceptibly, and suddenly the blue is the blue of Arctic ice. His whole manner has gone from charming to intimidating so quickly I feel dizzy.
"You're asking about my finances?" It hits me how warm his voice was before, because it sure isn't now. "Don't worry, you'll get a generous tip."
That's not what I was looking for. Rose is so right. I'm very, very bad at small talk. I should just flee now before I embarrass myself further, but really I want to stay. I'm not through studying the future subject of my greatest work.
He's turned away, and I wonder if I'm supposed to take that as dismissal, but he reaches for the phone.
"Could you send up a bottle of Belvedere and some more tonic? Yes, and proper glasses. Thank you." He hangs up and remains there, looking thoughtful.
Oh, God, his profile! I'm getting my first long look at it, and I don't think it's the vodka that stirs my reaction. More than aesthetic, it's an up-close and personal kind of physical response, the kind I seldom feel except in dreams.
He asked for glasses – plural. Please let that mean he's not throwing me out yet.
He seems to have come to some sort of decision, as he returns to sit on the bed. "To answer your question, no. I was fortunate enough not to need a loan, but I'm guessing you weren't so lucky. Hence the job."
"Exactly." I'm so relieved, I start blathering again. "Not that I have it anywhere near as bad as some. What I owe is manageable. I had a couple of small scholarships, I'm thrifty and my parents helped when they could."
"You're close to your family then?"
"I'm close to both my mom and dad, yes. They're just not close to each other. They divorced when I was a baby. Are yours still together?"
He nods, smiling. "In it for life. They were happy to foot the bill for my education, particularly since I chose to stay in the family business."
"What business is that?" It occurs to me that he didn't answer that question earlier, and sure enough, he appears cautious again. I can't seem to get the knack of which questions are okay to ask.
For all I know he's in the mafia, although I'd bet a month's paycheck that his ancestors were British, not Italian. Maybe they write bad mortgages or run a puppy mill.
After a minute, he seems to make up his mind. "They helped me all the way through my residency at Johns-Hopkins."
"You're a doctor?"
Ack. Bet he's impressed with how quickly I catch on. And then I apparently make it worse. "What kind?"
There's color in his face again. He looks a bit amused, but he glances down when he says, "General practitioner," and I'm almost sure he's lying.
Despite the fact that I've just carried on my longest exchange with a dude in months, it's painfully clear I'm oblivious to the fine-points.
Johns-Hopkins. Where is that? Somewhere back east. I don't know whether to be glad or sorry that I'm not likely to run into Edward in the future, but I grab at something innocuous to say.
"That must be really rough – I mean, the whole internship thing and the long days with no sleep when you're dealing with life and death."
"That's why Jazz – Mr. Whitlock – suggested I come here when I got the odd break. He promised The Bollinger would treat me right, and it certainly has."
"So you've been here before?"
"A few times."
There's a tap on the door, and a voice calls "room service." I encourage my hair to fall forward in case it's someone I know, as a uniformed figure enters the room and deposits a tray on the table. Edward gives him what I assume is a generous tip and closes the door returning to mix the drinks.
He hands me mine. Did he even ask if I wanted one? The truth is I welcome it as a good excuse to linger here a while longer, but I'm determined not to be the passive, no-opinion mouse Rose makes me out to be in social situations.
"You didn't ask me if I wanted another drink." It comes out more accusatory than I intended, but I can see it got his attention.
"I'm sorry," he says, looking startled. "You seemed nervous to me. I thought it would help."
"No, you're right!" I say, eager to crawl back into my shell after a tiny foray into the land of "feisty." "Thanks."
"Wouldn't you prefer to sit somewhere more comfortable?"
It's a deluxe room. There's a sofa and comfy chairs by the window, but I like the one I'm in. It makes me feel like I have a backbone. "No, really. This one's fine."
He seems relaxed, resuming his seat on the bed, yet his gaze is so direct, so . . . aware, that I feel like I'm under a microscope. That's typical shy-person paranoia, I remind myself. After all, I'm the one who's been checking him out for my own nefarious purposes.
I probe my meager supply of acceptable small talk and come up with the weather. "So what's it like this time of year where you live?"
Even that's a mistake, it seems, because he looks momentarily puzzled. Then he laughs. "No, I did my residency in Maryland. I'm on the staff at U-Dub Medical Center now."
"Oh!" Interesting. "In that case, how are you adjusting to Seattle? Do you like it?"
"I think I'm required to," he says, grinning. "I grew up here. My parents still live in Bellevue."
Ordinarily, I'd be cringing at my own clumsiness, but either the vodka or Edward's smile is working its magic. My money's on the smile – it definitely reaches his eyes, causing all kinds of crinkling, sparkling diversions.
I take another long sip. Warmth flows through me. I never dreamed we grew them like this locally, but then I don't get out much.
"I attended high school in Forks. Do you know it?"
"Of course. We went there a few times when we were kids – to a place called First Beach."
"That's it, all right, one of the few highlights. I lived in the dorms when I first came here for college, and now I have my own apartment. It's tiny, but I love the privacy."
"You don't mind being alone?"
I shake my head. "Maybe it's an only child thing or maybe just me." The liquor's loosening my tongue, I'm sustaining some kind of communication with an attractive male, and the scenery is unbeatable.
This evening is going way better than expected.
"My friend Rose says I'm socially deficient," I blurt out, apparently bent on proving just that.
"You mean because you're naturally shy?"
"If that's a synonym for awkward, yes. She accuses me of never making an effort with men."
"Let me guess." He appears amused again. "Rose is outgoing, dates a lot."
"Exactly. She's the polar opposite of me. In the first place she's gorgeous, so men come to her. She loves schmoozing with new people and gets downright bored if she has to spend any time alone."
"Sounds like a party girl."
That pulls the cord on my runaway train of thought. "Well, there's nothing wrong with that," I say, rising to my best friend's defense.
"No, there isn't. She's just different from you, but you're wrong about the complete opposites. You could never be the opposite of gorgeous."
I blush, suppressing the urge to snort. There's two ways to look at that comment. Either it's a stock line he uses with all the girls, or he's being a gentleman. I decide to go with the latter.
"Seriously, she's really stunning, the kind of person everyone notices – like you."
He laughs. "Flattery isn't necessary, Bella. Believe me, you had me at 'I brought your towels,' or whatever you said when you walked in."
"I don't think I said anything."
"See? Even more impressive," he teases. "And I doubt I'm much like your friend. My party animal phase came and went freshman year. I'd much rather spend time alone or with close friends."
I'm glowing from his validation and maybe a little from the alcohol too. This second glass is almost empty, but I feel so free.
Wait a minute. Does he really think I'd stoop to flattery? There's nothing I hate more than empty compliments passed off as real conversation.
"I wasn't trying to butter you up." I say, emphatically.
"No? That sounds like it might have been fun."
"I wasn't. In fact, I've been studying you. You have a very weird face. It's not symmetrical. I mean, from one side, your chin looks much sharper than from the other. Your nose seems perfectly straight at some angles, but from others there's a bump in it. Your upper lip protrudes slightly, but you don't have an overbite, and your eyes don't match at all."
"Would it make this easier if I put a bag over my head?"
"No, because somehow when you add it all together, it's absolutely breath-taking – from an artistic, point of view, I mean. Sometimes you look so macho it's a little frightening and other times, when you blush–"
"I don't blush."
"Yes, you do."
"It sounds girly. I prefer peripheral cutaneous vasodilation."
"Well, that's just snobbish. When you blush and grin, you remind me of a mischievous little boy. What I'm saying is, it would be a real challenge to capture you."
"That's the rumor," he agrees.
"I mean in a portrait."
He purses his lips – a new expression that sends an instant jolt to my dormant parts. "I think I'd like to see myself the way you see me," he says, thoughtfully. "Do you draw on demand?"
"On request maybe," I correct him, "but I don't have any paper."
Whoa! Would he really allow me to sketch him here and now? The thought of having a live sitting and a sample I could take home to help with the gazillion portraits I hope to churn out – well, I'm seriously excited.
He retrieves a briefcase from the closet and pulls out a legal pad. "Looks like the best I can do, and all I've got is pens."
"That's not a problem." I'm already rummaging through the hobo bag for my pencil case, which typically contains everything from a 9B to a 6H. I grab what I need, and Edward hands me the pad, returning to his spot on the bed.
"So which do you want?" he says, "the straight nose or the bumpy one?"
"Neither. I don't want you to pose at all. Just keep talking, and I'll catch you here and there." I'm already attacking the paper like a demented medium with an automatic-writing fetish.
"Would it help if I talked about something symmetrical?" he asks.
Teasing me again. He likes to do that, I've noticed. Well, fire away! I'm in my element here, and you're not going to rattle me.
"Just talk about anything." I say aloud. "What made you decide to become a doctor? Was it a driving need to help humanity or did you just want a shitload of money?"
In the back of my mind, I realize that was insulting, but I can't bother to be embarrassed. I'm having too much fun.
Edward laughs. Such an easy laugh and kind of infectious. I find myself grinning while I draw.
"Neither," he says with sudden gravity. "It was definitely the god complex."
This time I do snort. Not an attractive habit in a woman, but I could care less. "Lots of pressure from your family?"
"Not at all. My father's the doctor – a surgeon. He was always passionate about his work, and he had a way of explaining his reasons that even a child could understand. I grew up sharing his excitement. Were there artists in your family?"
"Not really." Somehow, it's easier conversing when my mind's on what I'm doing, glancing from Edward, who's sitting with his forearms on his knees, hands folded, and back to the paper, quickly filling up with lines and shadows. "My mom's into art projects, but more in a crafty kind of way. She always claimed I have a gift, but that's nonsense. I just practiced doing it, that's all."
"You're wrong about that."
"What do you know? I'm the one with the pencil." I smudge a bit with my little finger, noting with satisfaction that I haven't had to erase a single thing. "Are you claiming you were born with a special talent for scalpel wielding?"
"Definitely not. Medicine was just an interest that grew along with me, but what you do is different. You have to be able to see things in a certain way and express that effectively. It's inborn."
"You disagree because you've never seen the world in any other way. Most people could practice drawing all their lives and never approach real art."
"You sound like you've tried it."
"And my highest achievement is writing prescriptions that are only slightly more legible than average."
I grin. "Okay, it's finished."
"Well, it's just a quick study. There's no point in trying to refine it on this kind of paper."
He comes to look over my shoulder. I'm already giddy over how easy it was to draw him, but his nearness seems to increase that tenfold.
"You do flatter me," he says finally.
"I draws them as I sees them."
He bends closer. What makes him smell so good? He's frowning slightly. "It looks like I'm wearing eye shadow."
"You do look like you're wearing eye shadow," I insist. "Not the glittery, flaming queen kind of stuff. More like a natural shading – what they call bedroom eyes, I guess."
"Hmm, must be the venue. Can I have this?"
That's my first reaction. I was really looking forward to having this as a reference, but on second thought, I'm absurdly pleased that he wants it. "Sure, but it's only fair to point out you're not actually yellow with blue lines across your face."
I tear the page from the pad, and he takes it, slipping it carefully into the briefcase. He takes that subtle scent along with him and the warmth I felt when he was standing so near . . .
"Could I have another drink?"
When have I ever had three mixed drinks in a row? But suddenly I need it. The adrenalin ruling my body while I was sketching is gone, and the sensations that have replaced it are disconcerting.
Besides, the longer I stay here, the less chance there is that I'll return home to a landline ringing off the hook or worse – Rose and company lying in wait.
He's silent while he fixes the drink – just one, I notice. Now he's going to think I'm a lush, but why should I care? When he hands me the glass, I take a healthy swig.
"I have a feeling you do that a lot," he says.
"What?" Drink like a fish?
"Downplay your assets."
"Which are what exactly?" Oops, fishing. Now I'm a fish fishing for compliments, feeling drunker by the minute.
"You're beautiful, smart, talented. And that's only what I've gathered in an hour."
"Give it another one, and you'll probably change your mind." I have no idea what I'm saying anymore, but it feels like the kind of back and forth that passes for social intercourse.
The word makes me giggle. I make an effort to focus. What were we talking about before? "So you're good with alone time, even though you aren't an only child. Do you just have the one sister?"
He studies me a moment, his face expressionless. Is it my imagination that he balks at personal questions? Sure enough, when he speaks, it's not a direct answer.
"When you have a subject that interests you, there's always plenty to do."
"Maybe that's Rose's problem. She's always been too busy to develop hobbies. That's why she wanted me to share her new apartment, that and she thought I was dumb to move into the downtown area alone, but it's so convenient. I live right over McAlpin's Restaurant, just a few blocks from here."
Too much talking about myself, I decide when he doesn't comment, but then he does, and he looks disapproving.
"Can I give you a piece of advice, Bella?" he says. There's a sensation that he's pinning me to the spot with his eyes. "It's not a good idea to give out so much personal information to strange men, especially when you live alone. They may seem respectable, but you have no way of knowing. They could be dangerous.
"Are you dangerous?" It strikes me as a terrifically witty thing to say, but Edward looks less than bewitched.
He gets up suddenly and moves to the window, gazing out toward the harbor. It's midsummer, not dark yet, and I wonder if he's really looking at anything or just trying to put space between us, because it feels like I've been scolded.
He stands there a while, running a hand through his hair. If he meant to smooth it, he's failed, because it's messy now, messy and somehow even more appealing. Finally, he turns around.
"Come here, Bella."
In my alcoholic haze, it sounds like a command, though his voice is quiet. It fizzes through me, alluring on some deep level I'm not overly familiar with. I rise slowly to counteract an urge to list and walk with cautious steps to stand in front of him.
My eyes seem to lock automatically on his, though I can't figure out what he's thinking. He looks somber, slightly perturbed. I don't get it, but I like looking at him, so I go with the flow.
After a moment he reaches out and cradles my head – my hair really, and he's barely touching that. His hands move slowly as if he's inscribing the shape on the air, drifting over my shoulders and down my bare arms. Every hair rises to meet his fingers; his warmth is insinuating itself inside my body, though I don't think there's been any actual contact.
And then there is, and my heart stutters at the difference. His fingertips brush my hands – the backs, the palms – they probe between my fingers. I'm having trouble breathing and wonder if he's noticed.
He sighs and lifts his hands to my face, one on either side. His expression hasn't changed, except to seem somehow deeper, darker, or maybe it's all a drunken hallucination.
"Bella, what is your policy on kissing?"
Do people have those? I don't think I have enough experience to draft a formal analysis, but I manage an opinion. "It can be very nice."
The way he's looking at my mouth stirs up feelings that are much more scintillating than nice. I really want him to do it, and to let him know, I pucker.
I can tell he's trying not to laugh at me, but all he says is, "Relax, Bella," as he skims one thumb over my lower lip. I don't know if it's a reflex, like when the doctor taps your knee with a hammer, or the crazy desire to taste his thumb, but my mouth opens, and that's when he closes in.
He's very gentle, and it can't be just the liquor that makes electricity zing through me like it never did with Mike. My brain can't even process what he's doing. It's like he's slowly shaping his mouth to mine, until it's the other way around with no thought needed, every shift unconscious and perfect.
There's other motion. The angles change, as if by mutual agreement. His hands move on my back – one at my waist, the other roaming up to my neck. My own started on his shoulders but are now fingering his hair.
I'm surrounded by his kiss, living in it, and the taste races through my blood as I press closer to him. His tongue heightens the whole sensation . . . his hardness against my stomach . . . I can't breathe . . . I don't need to. I only need what's happening in every inch of my body, and I've never needed anything so much in my life.
The quality of the light in the room changes, but we're still in the same spot, too relentlessly entwined to move to the couch or the bed. I'm incapable of making any decision at all.
Eventually, he releases my mouth, still clamping me to him, and says with a kind of gasp, "Please, tell me your real name, Bella."
Of all the things he might have said, that one seems the strangest. Maybe it's the light-headedness or my social ineptitude, but it's just as well because I can actually come up with the answer. "Isabella."
He loosens his hold on me, and an odd little smile plays across his lips. It doesn't reach his eyes. "I guess I deserved that," he says, dropping his hands to his sides.
Without their help I sway a little.
"Are you all right? You look a little woozy."
"It's just . . . just the heels," I answer.
This smile is genuine. "Bella, you kicked your shoes off five minutes ago."
I look down and sure enough. "Oh."
"I think you better sit. When was the last time you ate anything?" He deposits me back on the rigid chair.
I frown, trying to remember. "Lunch, I guess. It's been a while."
"You shouldn't drink like that on an empty stomach. I'm going to get us something." He heads for the phone but changes his mind. "On second thought, I think you could do with some fresh air. Will you let me take you out?"
I'm taking deep breaths, and it's clearing my head a little. I still can't shake the feeling that what I'm doing is in some way, shape or form against Mrs. Carmichael's rules. "I don't think it would be a good idea to be seen in the hotel dining room."
He doesn't argue. "There's a little Italian place in the next block that's not bad."
I nod. "Just let me catch my breath."
Actually, it's my heartbeat that refuses to return to normal. I wonder if Edward was affected too, but he's turned his back and returned to the window.
It's dark out there now, not really much to look at. He's fooling with his hair again. A nervous habit? Why do I find his every gesture so intriguing?
"For the record," he says, over his shoulder, "you're an incredible kisser, Bella."
I don't think that's true, at least it never was before. All I know is somebody was doing something right, because I've never felt so . . . transported, so unselfconscious about what I was doing.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment," I announce, sounding stupidly formal. "I'll go get ready."
In the bathroom, I splash water on my heated skin. My eyes look unnaturally luminous. I probe my lips gingerly. Swollen. A delicious shudder runs down my spine.
He never touched my body once – not that way – and yet I haven't felt so aroused since . . . well, forever.
So this is lust.
I can't call it anything else when I'm feeling it for someone I just met. Isn't this exactly what my best friend hopes for me every time she introduces me to a new man? It's really no different than if Edward and I had been introduced in a trendy bar.
No, it's better, I decide, because it was my choice. I'm doing what I want with who I want.
I'm feeling very unmouselike when I strut back into the room, head held high. It lasts all of ten seconds, when Edward turns, his face expressionless, and says, "Take your panties off."
I stop where I am. "What?"
"You heard me."
I did, although he looks like a marble statue, giving no clue to what he's thinking. "Why?"
"Because it will give me pleasure and make you aware of your sexuality."
I've already committed to going beyond my comfort zone tonight, and the suggestion seems daring without being dangerous, but I'm a little thrown by the change in his demeanor.
I settle on fleeing to the bathroom, where I remove the item in question, away from his unnerving gaze. I ball them up with the intention of stuffing them into my bag, but when I come out he's waiting.
"I'll take those, please."
I hesitate. Does he have some kinky fetish?
"It's either that or I'll have to check periodically to make sure you haven't slipped them back on."
I'm vaguely aware that doesn't even make sense, but it has the desired effect. I hand them over and he puts them in his pocket.
Maybe I look intimidated, because his features soften and so does his voice. "Don't worry. I won't touch you or embarrass you in any way."
He doesn't either. Not even in the brief elevator ride when we're alone. Out on the street, I'm so conscious of the evening breeze touching places it's never touched before, that I can't think of anything else.
We speak little throughout the meal, me because I'm strangely ravenous, plus he's made it clear he doesn't want to talk about himself, and he thinks I talk too much about me, so what's left?
Edward's silence, I suspect, is designed to minimize distractions, keeping me conscious of this little experiment in erotica. My awkwardness must have sent up a red flag: Here be inhibitions! Thoughtful of him to help me shed them.
The glances he's stealing from under his brows connect instantly to parts of me that are already tingling. Now they burn. I'm so rattled that when we get up to leave, I surreptitiously take a swipe at the chair with my dinner napkin – just in case.
The wind off the Sound is colder and wetter now – a new sensation, and the contrast with his warm skin, when he unexpectedly takes my hand, causes my body to clutch so violently I almost stumble.
Edward appears not to notice. In fact, I wonder if he hasn't tired of this game, ignoring me in the elevator, walking silently behind me to his room.
My own mind flashes an image of the two of us, naked, between those 1200-thread sheets, and I realize it's not just a "what-if," it's what I really want.
But my wish doesn't have time to come true.
The door shuts behind us, and I'm shoved against the wall, Edward's mouth hot on mine, his hand under my skirt, caressing my thigh. I will him to touch me where I need it, but he moves to my shoulders, easily slipping both dress and bra straps down my arms, while I fumble at his buttons.
My trembling fingers can't do the job, and I settle for shrugging out of my clothes while he strips. He's murmuring words I want to hear, but my brain can't process them, as his lips find a nipple at the same time his hand cups what's become the center of my being.
His fingers . . . oh, God.
Whatever he's doing draws my body into one blazing knot of desire, but just as I'm about to explode, he withdraws his hand, trailing the evidence of my passion across my breasts, following with his eager mouth
He's making noises deep in his throat that only bank the fires, and I discover I don't just want to draw his perfect body – I want to devour it. I slip from his grasp, falling to my knees. For the first time, my hungry fingers are clutching hard muscled thighs.
Without a moment's thought my tongue finds the base of his cock and licks to the tip. It twitches, Edward groans, and lifts me till my legs are wrapped around him.
"Too late," he rasps. "I need to be inside you. Condom."
That last sounds like a request. I shake my head. "Don't have one."
His eyes, glazed with desire, slowly register surprise. I can see him trying to focus, as he lowers me to my feet.
"It's okay . . . I'll . . . I'll give Jasper a call."
He tugs me with him to the phone, while I slowly surface into the real world, lustful and wobbly. "Mmm . . . he's not here."
"He's off tonight?"
"No – at a workshop in Chicago.
Edward turns looking confused. "When did he leave?"
"About a week ago. Don't worry, we have condoms in housekeeping. Just dial 6 instead."
But he seems to have forgotten the phone completely. You'd think someone had turned the fire hose on us, the way he freezes, the way his most prominent body part has forgotten what it wanted as well.
"Is something wrong?"
Edward doesn't answer. He's beginning to resemble the witness to a grisly accident. He stares at me for a full minute before asking, "Bella, what exactly do you do here – your work?"
"I . . . well, I change beds and vacuum, stock the minibar, scrub the bathroom . . ." I can't believe he really wants my resume at a time like this, but whatever floats his boat.
His voice is a mere whisper. "Jesus," he says, and turns away.
The temperature's plummeted, so I grab the first thing I see – the huge bedspread – and clumsily wrap myself in one end of it, watching as Edward paces the room, both hands torturing his hair.
He's mumbling to himself, some profanity, some biblical references. It would be quite entertaining, given the fact that he's magnificently naked, but even inexperienced me can tell when something's terribly wrong.
"It's not that bad, you know. We wear rubber gloves, and the tips are good."
My attempt at humor falls flat. When he finally acknowledges my presence, he looks ghastly. "Bella, we have to talk."
"Okay." I'm thinking it's a little early in our relationship for that, but the whole night has been unpredictable. I go back to my chair.
Edward presses his eyes closed. "Bella, will you please sit somewhere comfortable?"
Whatever happens, I'm certainly getting an education on what turns men on. I schlep to the couch, dragging my security blanket like a cumbersome train, and sit down, wrapped to the chin.
"Shit," Edward mutters and goes looking for his jeans. That's all he puts on before joining me on the couch.
"Look, I've created an unholy mess here. I owe you an apology – no, more than that. There's no excuse, but I hope you'll at least let me explain how it happened before you decide what to do. I can't see any fair way to go about this except by telling you the whole truth."
"Truth is good," I say cautiously.
He shakes his head. "Not always. I told you how Jasper invited me to come here for R & R. Well, I did that the first time about a year ago. I insisted on paying for the room, but he upgraded me. I walk in and there's a bottle of good wine on the dresser, a fruit basket, the whole works."
He checks to see if I'm with him so far, and I practice looking as inscrutable as he somehow manages to do despite having the most expressive face in the world.
"Then there's a knock on the door, and I find this woman standing there – young, attractive, well-dressed. She says she's my "gift" for the night from Mr. Whitlock."
I fight to hold onto my bland expression, because this is a major spoiler for a story whose ending, I'm getting the awful feeling, I may not want to know.
"I thought it was a joke," he continues. "I phoned him to say 'very funny,' but he insisted I'd be an idiot not to accept. Apparently – and this is sensitive information, but you deserve to have it – a lot of the better hotels in town deal with a group that provides . . ."
"Hookers," I supply.
"I was going to say 'discrete companions,' but essentially, yes. They're thoroughly vetted, have regular physicals and they're definitely here of their own free will. The company can't keep up with all the applications. Jasper claimed I was going to burn out before I was 30 if I didn't let up now and then, and well, basically get laid."
"Wow, quite the little debater, Mr. Whitlock. Still, I'm sure you said thanks, but no thanks."
"No," he says with that direct look again. "No, I didn't. The truth was I had a good time. The woman was well compensated. Everybody was happy.
"I'd been working my ass off night and day with very few chances to do anything guys my age typically do for fun. I sure as hell didn't have time to devote to a girlfriend, so I came here two more times and . . . accepted the perks.
"Then yesterday a free weekend fell into my lap. I made a reservation online not thinking beyond just getting away from the hospital and catching up on sleep, but what was I supposed to think when a desirable woman shows up at my door, dressed to kill and toting a load of towels? I mean, really Bella."
"So that's the only reason you came onto me – you thought I was a hooker?"
"Yes . . . no . . . yes!"
"Well, I'm glad we've got that straight." I hope this sounds blasé, because actually I'm burning inside and not in the good way I was a while ago. Under my shroud, I've curled into a protective ball.
"Bella, listen to me, please," he says, leaning closer than I'd like. It makes it harder not to look into his eyes, and I don't want to do that for fear of what he'll see in mine.
"I was drawn to you – physically – from the moment you walked in, and when you started opening up, you were so adorable, so absolutely unique that I was fascinated. I kept having to remind myself that this was strictly a business arrangement."
"Too bad nobody clued me in."
"No." He shakes his head. "I can't help being glad about that. I wanted to know more about you, but then when you told me, I was appalled at how reckless you were with the information. Professionals reveal very little about themselves, for good reason."
"Well, I guess, you would know."
Edward sighs, whether it's out of frustration or a sign that my lame barbs are hitting home, I can't tell.
"I thought you were new at this. You told me you were, so I tried to take it slow. Do you think I usually spend 20 minutes kissing someone who's just here to fuck? I wanted to do that. I didn't even want to stop doing it, except I had to keep hitting myself over the head with the fact that none of this was personal to you, and that I was making a gigantic fool of myself."
"So you don't always tell women to remove their panties when you first meet them?"
"God." He groans and puts his head in his hands. "Why, Bella? Why didn't you tell me you were just a maid?"
"Oh, 'just a maid' – is that what's bothering you? You don't like finding out you've been mixing with the lower classes?"
"Don't be ridiculous." He sounds genuinely angry now. "That's hardly the point. Why the hell didn't you stop me when I practically wall-fucked you, for Christ's sake?"
I glare at him, every bit as incensed as he is, and then I do the one thing I was trying so hard not to.
I burst into tears.
I'm so mad at myself that it makes me cry harder, harder than I've done in years and years.
"Don't," Edward says, "please." He scoots over and pulls me into his arms, and I'm so swaddled in the stupid bedspread that I can't protest. "None of this is your fault, Bella. It was just me being an ass. I've got no business trying to put the blame on you, and I'm sorry, so sorry."
Now that I've started, I can't seem to stop. His voice, unmistakably sincere; the farce I've made of my rare attempt at attracting a man; even the unfortunate pattern on the bedspread causes me to sob harder.
Edward's remarkably patient. He sits stroking my hair, making gentle shushing sounds, meant to soothe, not to stop this binge I'm on. When I finally slow down, he brings me a glass of water and some Kleenex.
"Talk to me," he says softly, sliding his arm around me again. I lean my head against his bare chest.
"It's just that I don't usually put myself out there," I say shakily, "and the one time I do, it's a fiasco."
"Not of your making. Personally, I find you pretty much irresistible. I can't believe that's a rare occurrence for you in the dating world."
"I don't go there very much. I'm just not good at it, and the truth is, I don't seem to crave it like most girls do. Maybe I'm undersexed."
His chuckle reverberates against my ear, and I look up to see that grin again. I know it's real because his whole face gets in on the act.
"Bella, I'm prepared to swear in a court of law that being undersexed is not your problem." I blush, remembering the reasons he might come to that conclusion and go back to rubbing my cheek against his chest hair. "If you're not a social animal your opportunities to meet someone who does it for you are limited, that's all."
He smoothes my hair again and, I could almost swear, plants a furtive kiss there.
"I don't know. I made out with a few guys in high school, and it was fun, but I never felt like I might lose control or desperately want to do anything more than just fool around."
His hand stills on my head. "Bella, I'm warning you. If you're about to tell me you're still a virgin, I'm going to need another drink."
"No, but couldn't you tell? I mean, with the finger thing."
"You mean my fingers that should be playing piano? No, that's not always a reliable indication."
"Well, aren't you just the expert?"
"We're not talking about me. We're talking about you."
"Okay. I've done it exactly one and a half times."
"Interesting statistic. Mind elaborating?"
"The half was a guy in college. He just couldn't get it going. It might have had something to do with the fact that he was totally wasted, but, of course, I figured it was my fault."
Edward tilts his head to look down into my face. "Why in the world would you think that?"
"I don't know. I guess because of Mike. We dated in high school for over a year. Of course, we messed around and he was actually pretty patient, mostly dropping broad hints whenever someone else was rumored to be doing it, but I kept putting him off. It seemed to me that the arguments against having sex were always stronger than any overwhelming desire to have it, which I guess just means I wasn't feeling it. When I finally gave in, it was a disaster."
"Did he hurt you?"
"That's what he assumed too, but it wasn't that. Oh, it was painful for a minute, but then it was just . . . not that amazing. I seriously kept wondering what the big deal was. What if people went around sticking their fingers in other people's ears? Could they be charged with rape?"
"I hope you didn't pose that question post coital to poor Mike."
"Sure, take the man's side."
"I'm just saying you have an unusual way of looking at things, and he wasn't a man. Kids aren't generally expert lovers."
"Well, Mike thought it was great. He wanted to do it on a regular basis. When I told him I'd rather not, he claimed I was frigid, and I pretty much assumed he must be right."
"He wasn't. You're incredibly sexy and responsive."
I don't say anything, but I think it might be true.
Edward takes my empty water glass to the bathroom and sits at the other end of the couch again. "We need to discuss what happened here tonight. The way I see it, you have a range of options. At one extreme, you could blow the whistle on the whole prostitution thing. The authorities turn a blind eye, but if a concerned citizen pushed the issue, there'd be a public outcry. Who knows, you could end up elected to office by the Family Values crowd."
"Oh, crap. You're a rich Republican aren't you? You're the freaking one percent!"
He narrows his eyes at me. "As it happens, I'm from a long line of Democrats. Would you please be serious?"
"I'm an independent."
"Well, there's a shock."
"What's the other extreme?"
The color rises to his exquisite cheekbones. "That's a lot more self-serving. In the best possible scenario for me, you forget tonight ever happened. I take you out on a real date and try to make up for all the things I did wrong tonight.
"The night that never happened."
"I don't know," I say, eyeing him critically. "It still sounds like you get off a little light. What if this real date works out, and we decide to have sex? You'd get for free what you would have had to pay for if you'd only had a condom."
I try to ignore the effect his crooked grin has on me, as he says, "Technically, Jasper's the one who pays, so I get it free either way, but I see your point. I do intend to make it up to you monetarily – by wining and dining you till you forgive me, maybe even sending our grandchildren to college. It's a little early to commit, considering we've only known each other a few hours."
"A guy who sleeps with hookers and is afraid of commitment. Lucky me, so what do we do now?"
His lips pucker when he thinks. I kind of want to kiss him silly, but there's that not-existent birth control to consider.
"I give you one of my t-shirts, which will make a good nightgown – you'll probably trip over it. We climb into that bed and I hold you – or not – while I get the first eight hours of sleep I've had in months. In the morning, if you've forgiven me, I take you out to breakfast, and we spend the rest of the day doing whatever you like. If it goes particularly well, we find a drugstore and buy the biggest box of condoms in stock"
I want to smile like an idiot, but I fight it. "On one condition. Tell me why you lied about being a general practitioner."
I got him with that one. He's clearly shocked. "You caught that?"
"What are you, some kind of witch doctor? One of those guys who removes people's organs with his fist?"
He's turning red again, like a little boy with his hand in the cookie jar. "I'm a gynecologist, and before you say a word, I've heard every joke on the subject there is, so don't bother."
Well, this explains the magic fingers – he knows where all the keys are. I start laughing. I'm still laughing when he throws a t-shirt at my head, and I trundle off to the bathroom like an over-kimonoed geisha.
When I emerge, scrubbed and skimpy. Edward's standing by the bed in his boxer briefs. My heart trips, and I'm torn between wanting to draw him and do him, but neither is appropriate right now.
He smiles, and I melt, thinking about how tired he must be. Not too tired to check out what my nipples are doing for his t-shirt, I see.
"You look beautiful," he says, "perfect, but I'm a little surprised you didn't make a smartass remark about my profession."
"Me? I'm shy around strangers."
"Mm," he says, and coaxes my hair out of my eyes.
"Although, it did occur to me that you really do tell every woman you meet to take her panties off!"
"Get in the bed, Bella," he growls.
"About that God complex –" I begin, but really, the rest can wait till morning.