I haven't had a chance to do review replies, but I'm planning on attacking them as soon as I hit post on this chapter. I appreciate every one of them and apologize for the delay in thanking you all.
"I hate to do this to you . . . really hate to . . . But I'm going to be late tonight."
Her stomach sank, the words all too familiar although she'd grown used to not hearing them over the past month.
"It's just, these interviews today, they lasted so much longer than I expected and now I'm way behind on work."
"No, no," she said. "I get it. I do. I'm asking a lot of you, changing your entire business isn't a quick and easy task. I understand. It's okay."
And it was okay, she tried to tell herself, but old habits die hard. So as the evening grew later and later without another word, she had to make a conscious effort not to worry that they were backtracking.
Over the past few weeks, he'd been so attentive and things were looking up. This one setback didn't change that, she knew. Some things were simply out of his control and she needed to be patient during this transition. He hadn't cut late nights out entirely, but he'd been able to juggle them in a way that they never interfered with plans they'd made.
He called an hour later, apologizing profusely and rescheduling for tomorrow.
The next day, they met for dinner. He'd chosen an authentic Italian pizzeria that had opened recently. She moaned at the first bite of Margherita.
"Oh my god, this is almost like the real thing," she said. She folded her piece in half and took another big bite as he laughed.
"It is the real thing," he said. "I heard they import water from Naples for the crust."
"I'm never eating anywhere else again," she said, and paused for a moment in thought. "Every meal from here on out is here. Unless we go back to Italy."
"That was a good trip," he said.
"Yeah, even though you got conned by a nun."
He barked a loud laugh. "Shut up, I did not."
She laughed too remembering it. "You so did! You were just going to get that cross for your mom and she suckered you into the cross, the chain, and a bracelet!"
"Yeah." He sighed. "I still say she was a used car salesman in another life."
They talked about trips they'd taken for the remainder of the meal. It was a nice escape, but reminded Bella that it had been so long since they'd gone anywhere together. The last trip she could remember was a long weekend that had been cut short due to a server crash nearly a year ago.
When the bill had been paid, they began to meander down the street, hand in hand. They had no set destination in mind, no plans except to spend time together. He looked exhausted, the dark circles under his eyes growing more pronounced as the days passed, but he always waved off her concern.
As they turned the corner to her block, an unintentional move, she decided to take a chance. They'd avoided this for so long already.
Staring up at the building, avoiding looking at him, she pulled him to a stop. "Do you want to come up?"
She noticed the way his body stiffened, the hesitation in his silence. "Nevermind," she said, and started to walk.
"No, I'll come up."
The defeat in his voice made her wonder if this was a mistake.
The elevator ride was excruciating with its discomfort. The easy companionship they'd kept all afternoon had disappeared the moment they stepped through the double-doors of the apartment building. Logically, Edward knew that she wasn't being spiteful or malicious by bringing him here, but he couldn't help the stress and frustration welling up inside him as they ascended. This apartment was part of her life now—a necessary evil, he tried to remind himself.
But all attempts to hang onto logic failed once she opened the door. From the time she moved out, his imagination swung from one end of the pendulum to the other, depending on his mood, but he'd always hung onto the mental image that her new residence felt as temporary as they both said it would be. The reality of her apartment was altogether different. He could see so much of her in it that it felt like a punch to the gut. She'd made a home. She was comfortable. What incentive did she have to rush back to him?
"So, this is it," she said.
He could hear the discomfort and self-consciousness in her voice, but he couldn't do anything at that moment to reassure her. In his head, he was falling apart. This was why he'd always avoided coming here.
"I'm just going to, uh . . ." she said, pointing awkwardly toward the hall, "restroom."
When she disappeared from sight, he allowed himself to abandon his forced stoicism. His eyes darted around the room as his hands fisted in his hair, tugging in frustration. Beige walls and equally plain furniture, he'd expected. The frilly pillows and a throw, he didn't. Nor did he expect to see framed photographs on the walls and shelves, as well as knick-knacks and other small decorative pieces. The small bistro table and chairs visible on the balcony were too nice to be the kind that any apartment complex would pre-furnish with. A quick glance at neighboring balconies after he stepped outside proved that.
He stood with the door open, looking out over the city when he heard her footsteps behind him. He hadn't had time to compose himself again, to hide how much being here bothered him, and he flinched when he felt her hand laid flat against his shoulder blade. She quickly removed it. A small part of him knew he should try to reassure her, but his own emotions were swirling too red and angry to consider it. Too many long hours and not enough sleep blended into a volatile combination.
He sidestepped her as he walked back into the living room.
"Nice place," he said, the words falling off of his tongue like acid.
He continued to look anywhere but at her, though the pause before her answer tempted him.
"It's okay," she said.
"What's that supposed to mean."
He could hear the challenge in her voice, and right now would've been the perfect time to take a step back, to calm down and start over. But his emotions were like a runaway train, hurtling toward a sharp turn with no way to navigate without derailing.
"Nothing at all," he said. The words were punctuated with a humorless laugh.
He could hear her moving around behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he watched her come to stand beside him, but he was too full of indignation and resentment to reach out to her. A month of stress and frustration built up until he was tired of being the one always reaching out.
She sighed. "Maybe this was a mistake."
"Which part?" Without a conscious thought, he went right for the dig and knew it landed when he heard her gasp.
"What is wrong with you?" She stepped in front of him, forcing him to acknowledge her. "I know that you hate the idea of me living here, but come on . . . you don't have to be such an asshole about it."
Her words stoked the fire, and he felt his pulse pounding.
"Yeah, I hate it," he said. "I hated it when you decided you needed to move out. I hated it when you told me you found a place. I hate knowing that you come back to a place that isn't ours every night. But you know what? I told myself I could understand, and I thought I was somewhat okay with it. But being here and seeing just how comfortable you are?"
He shook his head and pressed his lips together, fists firmly planted at his hips. He didn't need to finish the thought; it was well implied.
"So, what?" she said. "Was I supposed to move into some dump of a breadbox because you'd be too threatened by a decent place?"
"It's not the apartment. It's this, and this." He walked over to the couch and started picking up the lacy little pillows and tossing them back down onto the cushions to emphasize his point. After a momentary pause, he waved his arm toward the bookshelf full of books and photos. "And these."
He finally looked back at her to see her jaw had dropped open as though she were entirely dumbfounded.
"You're pissed because I decorated?"
Three steps closed the gap between them. They both stood ramrod straight, neither backing down.
"I'm pissed because while I busted my ass, day in and day out, you were making a home here. I'm turning my entire business upside down for you. Every spare minute I have, I'm trying to stay caught up on my regular workload while adding more and more responsibilities to my plate. I'm trying to work on us, to make sure that you don't feel neglected. And while I'm driving myself into the ground, physically and emotionally, barely getting any sleep, you're apparently making yourself snug and happy in your new apartment."
It was her turn to yell. She stepped minutely closer, giving his chest a slight shove—nothing hard, just enough to express her irritation with him. "Do you think I'd rather be here? I wish, every day, that it hadn't come down to this. But I know myself, Edward, and I know you. We would've fallen back into old habits within a week." She growled in frustration. "And I feel so guilty knowing how much more work you're doing than me. You think that doesn't bother me? If I could take some of that burden, I would, but I'd have no clue where to even start."
"Ask," he said. "All you had to do was ask. There's plenty you could've been helping me out with. It's not all networking and databases. I'm sure you can manage filing, or cutting checks. Did it ever cross your mind to just offer to help?"
She opened her mouth to speak but closed it just as quickly. He knew he had her, she had no response.
"No, it never did, did it?" he said. "I've owned up to my role in this mess, and I'm trying like hell to change it, but you're already back to not talking to me, not telling me what's on your mind. You want to help me? You want to relieve me of some of the burden? You can't think of a way to do it so you assume that means there is no way instead of just talking to me."
"I—" She started to speak but he interrupted her with his hands at the sides of her face.
"You know what? Fuck it. I'm tired of fighting," he said just before pulling her into a bruising kiss. All of the anger and aggravation morphed into need and want and lust. He pushed and she yielded until her back hit the bookshelf. A clatter echoed around them as frames and figurines smashed to the floor.
"Sorry," he said against her lips.
"No you're not," she said.
He shook his head. "No. I'm not."
Her hands scrabbled against his shirt, trying to find the hem, her hands flattening against his skin when she finally did. He pulled away just enough to lift the shirt over his head and wasted no time doing the same to hers. One hand immediately reached out for a lace covered breast, squeezing and rubbing with just the perfect amount of pressure to make her whimper. His mouth followed, teeth lightly biting over the fabric.
All of the resentment he'd felt toward this apartment morphed into a need to make his mark in it. If she was going to have a place of her own, she was damn well going to think of him. His new goal was to make sure that no matter where she stood or where she looked, she was reminded of him.
He abandoned his attention on her breasts to work at the button of her jeans until they were open and unzipped, the warmth inside obvious the moment he slipped his hand down inside and began to work her over. Her knees buckled but she grabbed onto the shelf behind her for support and he smiled with smug satisfaction at her.
"You like that, huh?"
She responded with what could've been an "uh huh" but it was hard to tell with the way she was panting and gasping.
Eventually, he tired of the limited amount of space he had to work with and pushed her jeans down her legs, taking her panties with them. She kicked them off when they got to her ankles while he removed her bra.
As soon as she was naked, she began to reciprocate. She worked his pants just past his hips, enough to free his cock. He groaned when she dropped to her knees, and taking a page from her book, grabbed onto the shelf for support. They hadn't been together like this since she moved out—the longest drought either of them had had since they'd been together—so it was no surprise that he had to close his eyes to regain some amount of control. The sight and feel of her mouth on him were too overwhelming, and he had too many more memories to make in this apartment before he lost it.
He let her go until he couldn't handle it a moment longer, taking a step back from her and urging her to her feet.
"Not yet. Not ready yet," he said. He kicked his pants and boxers the rest of the way off. Tripping and stumbling, a tangle of arms and legs, lips and tongues, he walked her to the couch and laid her over the arm so that her hips were raised.
Her eyes widened when she realized what his intentions were. He smirked, never taking his eyes off of hers as he bent over while pushing her thighs apart.
"Yes," she whispered when he put his mouth on her.
Her hands went to his hair, alternating between running through the strands and tugging by the fistful. He hissed at the pleasurable sting when she pulled a little too hard at the feel of his fingers slipping inside. His tongue flicked against her flesh in all the ways he knew she loved until he felt her body began to tighten and thrash.
"Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop," she pleaded as he stood up.
"I'm just getting started," he said.
He grabbed her hips and pulled her up over the arm of the couch again, regaining the original angle she'd lost after sliding back in all of her writhing. He was perfectly lined up like this and pushed himself against her, sliding his cock up and down, teasing her. Her breath hitched each time the head bumped over her clit.
"Please," she said. "I need you."
They both groaned when he pushed inside. He held still, allowing her to adjust and himself to gain some amount of control. A few slow thrusts quickly turned into a steady pounding. Pink fingerprints dotted the skin at her hips from the tight grip he held. The angle was too much for her and soon her back was arching as a thunderous orgasm crashed over her.
He was proud of himself, smug, as he kept hammering away.
"You like what I do to you, huh? What only I can do to you." He knew she would be sensitive and that there was a very small window where he might be able to coax another out of her. His thumb set to work against her clit as his own release neared. "Can you give me one more?"
She shook her head no, but he could already feel her tensing up for another round. His thumb moved faster and faster, each tiny circle winding her up even more until she cried out a keening wail. When her hips began to twitch and spasm, he let himself go. With a roar, he pushed himself as deeply inside her as he could, filling her, claiming her, reminding her how perfectly they fit together in every way.
He wanted to collapse with exhaustion, but given their position, it wasn't an option. He pulled out and she let herself slide down the arm of the couch and onto the cushions.
"Ow," she said and winced.
"Are you okay? Did I hurt you?" he asked.
With a breathless chuckle, she answered. "Definitely okay. And not hurt. Just a little stiff and sore."
She'd leaned to the side a bit, still lying on the couch, as she rubbed her lower back.
"Here," he said. "Let me."
She rolled fully onto her side with his guidance, and he kneeled by her to massage the tender muscles. He could feel them loosen under his fingers.
"That feels nice," she said.
He leaned forward, placing a line of kisses over her lower back, his heart lightening at how much the action relaxed her. Even with all of their problems, they knew each other innately. Without having to say a word, she moved over to make room for him. He slipped in behind her, perilously close to falling off the edge of the couch, but not really caring. Reaching over her, he grabbed the throw that he'd mentally cursed an hour earlier and pulled it over both of them.
She grabbed his hand, tangling her fingers with his as she pulled it around her. He pressed his lips to her shoulder, and she sighed.
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us, don't we?" she said.
He didn't answer, not that he needed to. They both knew she was right.