A/N: We have to stop meeting like this - months later than we should. :) My guilt is enormous and I know I'm pretty pathetic as an updater. However, I am a sort of nice person, despite my rampant cynicism. But I certainly understand people who flounce a story that updates so irregularly.
I have two kids in high school now, which scares the bejesus out of me. Luckily, they're so unpleasant at times that when I pay that bejesus-scaring forward, I don't feel bad. They're not all that scared of me, though... until I threaten to take the phones. That gets compliance almost every time. My baby (who's not a baby, but almost a teen) just had a birthday, and has morphed into a child who's easy to get along with... or else the teens are just so difficult to get along with that my perception is skewed. Either way, it's sort of a win.
My work life continues to be challenging, in both good and bad ways. By the way, leaving a conference where it's 85 degrees outside and returning to 17-degree weather is cruel and unusual punishment. I think I was supposed to live somewhere warmer...but I had a great time in sunny Florida, and the work part of the trip went smoothly (thank goodness, since I planned the darn thing).
Speaking of work, I'm gonna be late for it if I don't shut up and get going.
Big thanks to my friend Littlecat358 for her beta help... and her life help. As long as we keep the schedule of only one of us being crazy at a time, we should be fine. xxoo
Thanks to those who read, rec and review. Take care.
"Legs." His voice is raspy, the guttural word muffled. Facing away from him in the shadowy room, I grimace. He's a light sleeper, but I tried not to move the bed too much as I carefully scooted out from under his arm and got up. "Where're you going?"
"Kitchen," I answer softly, feeling guilty for waking him before eight on Sunday morning.
"Why're you whispering? I'm already awake."
With a chuckle, I peek over my shoulder to look at him… which is a mistake. He's spread across most of the bed, lying on his stomach and looking at me with one piercing, green eye. Even with half of his face hidden by the pillow, he's beautiful, too tempting to resist. My culinary intentions are all but destroyed.
"It's our last day off. I'm going to bring you breakfast in bed," I announce quietly as I turn around. Putting my knee on the bed, I push myself over to kiss his cheek. I'm not surprised – or sorry – when he wraps an arm around me, pulling me down as he moves, too.
"I don't care about breakfast in bed," he murmurs, rolling me to my back and burying his face in my neck. "I want you in bed."
"Cullen, during the last week, you've had me in bed, on the couch, on a table–."
"Don't forget the rooftop."
I'm not sure if it's his husky voice or the steamy memory of what we did on his terrace a few hours ago that causes the tingling sensation to spread from my neck down my spine. Winding my arms around his bare shoulders, I sigh happily as images flash behind my closed eyelids. The third glass of wine at the restaurant that left me feeling tipsy and uninhibited. The clear, unusually warm October night that begged us to take advantage of his private outdoor space – and of each other. Staying tangled together under the sex blankie long after our desire was sated. Talking and laughing until after midnight… until the temperature dropped so low that our noses were cold.
"I wouldn't forget that," I sigh, and then chuckle lightly. "We were noisy."
"You were noisy," he corrects, his lips hovering at my ear. "And handsy. From the minute we got home."
Home. When I hear the word, my eyes pop open, even though I know he means his home. Staring blankly at the bedroom ceiling, I ignore the butterflies flitting around my stomach; I attribute the heavy thumping of my heart to the fact that he's pushing my t-shirt up to uncover my chest and shifting to lie between my legs. He raises up to look at me, drawing me out of my daze. I trail my fingers along the nape of his neck and smirk at him.
"You didn't enjoy my enthusiasm?"
"Swan, I've enjoyed everything this week."
"Me, too. It went so fast," I remark wistfully, mourning the end of his bye week. I slide one hand to his jaw, scraping my fingers against his prickly stubble. "I wish we had one more day."
"We have today, and we'll have other vacations." Shutting his eyes, he rests his forehead lightly against mine and swallows. When he speaks again, he doesn't camouflage the eagerness in his voice. "I want to take you to Chicago after the season. I want you to meet my granddad… want him to meet you."
My unguarded heart has no defense against him – no way to combat his sweet charm, his effortless romanticism. As my chest swells from the inside and tears sting the back of my eyes, my fingers tighten on his jaw, pushing gently into the skin of his cheek.
"I'd love that, Cullen," I declare throatily. "I'd love that."
His lips are on mine as soon as I finish my statement, nipping lightly. When I lick across his lower lip, he groans quietly and deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue into my mouth. I let myself be swept away by the swift spike of arousal that races through me, and then the spreading heat of need… want. With our bare chests pressed together, I can feel his heart pounding. I pull my knees up to push against his ribs as he rocks his hips against mine.
After a few moments, he rolls to his back, taking me with him. Straddling his thighs, I sit up and pull my t-shirt over my head. We smile at each other as I fling it to the side, and then I lean down over him, propping myself on my arms. The kaleidoscope pendant he gave me three days ago hangs from my neck, swinging back and forth just above his chest. He reaches for it, catching it between his fingers.
"I'll miss you tomorrow," I whisper, the words tumbling from my mouth before the thought is fully formed. His suddenly-arched eyebrows reveal that he's just as surprised as I am by my hasty admission. Still not used to voicing such tender emotions, I'm embarrassed, and I rush to explain. "I mean, it's weird. I love my job and I'm anxious to go back, but I don't want to leave you. I… like hanging out with you all day."
"I feel the same way, legs," he replies, his mouth curving into a crooked grin. Still holding my necklace with one hand, he cradles my face with the other and pulls me down to him. "I love you."
Against his lips, I murmur my reply. And when I do, I feel it from the depths of my soul: They're the truest words I've ever spoken.
Monday morning, I arrive at the station a little early and sit alone at the table in the lounge. I spend a few minutes skimming the Sports section of the Times, but, inevitably,my mind wanders to Cullen.
Claiming he couldn't sleep, he shuffled groggily into the bathroom at four-thirty this morning. He kissed me, and then sat on the vanity, sneaking drinks from my coffee mug and talking to me while I got ready for work. When I was ready to leave, he rode down in the elevator with me and walked me to my truck, refusing to close the door until I promised to return tonight. Sighing, I remember watching him wave goodbye as I drove out of the underground garage.
"Ah, the third wheel has returned," Newton pronounces as he enters the lounge through the doorway behind me. Instantly annoyed, I begin counting backward from ten in my head, not wanting to fight with him – at least not this soon. His grating voice interrupts before I get past seven. "Your recent bout of relationship drama begs the question: Will we be treated to a Bella-free week every time your love life hits the skids?"
Clinging to my intended tolerance, I pick up the bottle of water I opened a few minutes ago and take a sip. Keeping my voice low and even, I answer. "Maybe."
"Well, luckily for us, it's such a rare occurrence that you actually have a love life that it shouldn't interfere with the show very often." My grip on the water bottle tightens, causing the flexible plastic to crackle before I set it down. Walking around the table, he stands across from me and places his palms on the top, leaning down. His haughty gaze roams my face. "You've recovered from getting dumped, then?"
Speechlessness isn't a condition that befalls me often around Newton; I almost always have an insulting retort or snide remark tripping from my tongue before I can stop it. This time, however, I blink mutely at him, despite my outrage at his offensive remark. Several silent seconds tick by before he turns away triumphantly and heads for the coffee machine. I frown, bothered by my reticence and afraid I know exactly why I've lost my edge.
Has admitting that I'm in love cost me the ability to verbally spar with Newton? Has happiness stolen both my backbone and my vocabulary in one fell swoop?
Suddenly panicked, my brain spins off on its own tangent, petrified that I've become a mushy, sentimental fool. My stomach somersaults as I worry that I'll struggle to hold my own on the air with Emmett, that I'll be incapable of tackling tough topics that make the show interesting. Afraid that Newton will steamroll me right out of a job, I absently lift one hand to run through my hair.
On the other side of the room, Newton's arrogant chuckle draws my attention and I glance his way, narrowing my eyes at his back. If anyone can break the love spell, it's him.
"It's no surprise that you always end up alone. You're too picky," he says condescendingly.
Finding my voice, I interject, "I prefer to think of myself as discerning."
"You can think whatever you want, but the fact is men don't like women who are demanding and overcritical," he advises. A couple of months ago, before I met Cullen, Newton's warning might have disturbed me; I might have been afraid he was correct. But not now. Now I know that one man likes me – loves me – the way I am. I drop my hand to grasp the pendant of my necklace, sliding my fingers over the etched sterling. "I'm the kind of man who accepts those flaws. Bet you wish you'd gone out with me when you had the chance."
"Words cannot adequately convey my despair," I reply instinctively. Oh, thank God. I am still in there somewhere. I tuck the necklace inside my shirt, pressing the cool metal against my skin.
"When you started working on the morning show, I felt it was only right to tell my wife about our past." Shocked, my eyes widen and my lips fall open. Past? What past? There's no past – at least not the kind he's alluding to… the kind with blossoming affection, stolen kisses and late night trysts. I shudder at the thought of having any of those things with Newton. "But I assured her that there's no longer anything between us."
"Don't overlook the mutual disdain," I assert.
"She was certainly relieved to hear that you and I were never on the same page at the same time."
He turns around and leans against the counter behind him. I don't know if he's trying to needle me or if he really believes the bullhockey he's spewing, but I'm determined to regain the upper hand as soon as I see the smug look on his face. Letting my head fall backward, I laugh exaggeratedly. When I look at him again, I wipe the corners of my eyes, pretending tears of hilarity are threatening and delighting in his sudden scowl.
"Newton, I was never in the same book as you."
Before he can respond, Emmett's booming voice fills the room and I twist around in my seat to greet him. Flopping down in the chair next to mine, he spends a couple of minutes complaining about hosting the show without me last week. Whether he's doing it to flatter me or to irritate Newton doesn't matter; I'm amused and grateful either way. Newton reacts as I expect, spending most of the pre-production meeting barking terse orders about which topics he wants us to cover on the show.
Once we're in the studio, I quickly realize that the rocky morning isn't over yet. My IFB quits working just before we go on the air, and I rush to get a replacement hooked up before we're live. Flustered, I struggle through the first few segments, unable to stop the wordy drivel spilling from my lips. During the next hour, I think I'm finally hitting my stride, but Newton butts in to disagree. He spends an entire break spouting criticism into my IFB, complaining that my football analysis is dull and unintelligent. In the next break, he calls my World Series commentary overly emotional. Wishing I had the malfunctioning IFB again, I nod along, absorbing his critique to keep the peace.
We end the show by conducting a four-minute phone interview with a nationally prominent sportswriter who's also the author of a newly-released book. Newton's plan is for me to lead the discussion, talking with him about current sports events for a couple of minutes, and then promoting his book for the remaining time. However, the guest immediately deviates from the protocol, steering each topic back to himself. Although Emmett tries to help, he's not any more successful than I am at coaxing the jackwagon into cooperation. The segment is a complete disaster, and as soon as Newton comes into the lounge for the post-show meeting, I realize I'll be taking the blame for this, too.
"What the hell was that, Bella?" he rants, slapping a folder on top of the table. "You let the guest completely derail the conversation!"
"I tried to get him back on track," I insist. "He wouldn't answer the questions I asked."
"It wasn't her fault, Newton. The guy clearly had his own agenda," Emmett interjects, but Newton holds his palm up, halting Emmett's chivalrous defense.
"In addition to the long-winded replies you let go unchecked, you also allowed almost eight seconds of dead air to tick by," he reprimands. "Did you forget everything you know about broadcasting while you were on vacation?"
"Yes, I did. And yet, amazingly, I still know more about it than you," I snap. While Emmett snickers beside me, I sit back in my chair, crossing my arms over my chest. Newton mimics my gesture, waiting for a real explanation. With a huff, I try to justify what happened. "I was watching the clock, but he was mid-sentence when he paused. I would have seemed rude and confrontational if I had interrupted to disagree with him."
"You're the host. You should have maintained control."
"You're the producer. You should vet the guests more thoroughly," I argue, returning his icy stare. "If I had known he wouldn't answer questions succinctly, I would have adjusted my strategy before we had him on-air."
"Your job is to make the necessary adjustments as you go." Well, crap. He's kind of right about that. Shrugging, I tilt my head slightly, acknowledging that he has a point. Pulling a chair out from the other side of the table, he sits down and opens the folder. "You'll have a chance to redeem yourself tomorrow. We just got confirmation that Marcus Matthews will join us for the last hour of the show. In-studio."
"For real?" Emmett asks, awestruck. He whistles lowly as he picks up the spec sheets Newton slides toward us, setting one in front of me. "Dude, he owns the Seahawks."
"He owns everything north of Portland," I mutter, chuckling at Emmett's redundant explanation; everyone in the Pacific Northwest knows who Marcus Matthews is. And since he rarely grants interviews, the likelihood that local and national sports media outlets will pick up sound bites from KSST is high. This is an enormous booking for us, and I'm impressed but unwilling to say so.
"Bella, you take the lead with Matthews since he knows you."
"He doesn't know me," I clarify as my heart begins to pound. After the failure of this morning, I'm not convinced that I should be the one handling such an important assignment. Sitting forward, I pick up a pen laying on the table and stare down at the paper, not really absorbing any of the information. "I've been in the same room with him a few times, but he's never spoken more than ten words to me."
"Well, you know his background story."
"No, I don't."
"Then learn it by eight o'clock tomorrow morning," he orders through clenched teeth. Too late, I realize that my rapid pen tapping and shrill voice have betrayed my uncertainty. Inwardly cringing, I look up in time to see Newton's lips turn upward into a self-satisfied sneer. "Unless you're not up to the task. If that's the case, I'll let Kate know. She told Matthews you'd be on point."
Damn. Newton scores again. He knows I won't want to admit defeat or disappoint Kate. With the reputation of the station as well as my own professional credibility at stake, the pressure of this responsibility weighs heavily on me. But I shake my head, forcing a wide smile onto my face.
"I'll be prepared," I pronounce confidently, wishing I felt as sure as I sound.
"Good. I need you two in the sound booth in ten minutes."
Newton leaves the room without another word, and I lean forward, letting my forehead thump on the table. "Emmett."
"Bella," he whines, echoing my tone. "Stop worrying. You know you're good at this shit. What happened with the asshole author this morning was an aberration. And, yes, I know what that word means."
Turning my head toward him, I laugh. "I wasn't going to ask if–."
"You were thinking it," he teases, standing up. "Come on. The sooner we finish with Newton, the sooner you can lock yourself in your office to work."
"Yes, sir," I mock, taking his offered hand and letting him pull me to my feet.
While we record teases and new commercials for the show, I watch the clock tick steadily toward noon, my stress growing into a heavy knot in my stomach. When Newton finally releases us, I practically sprint up the hallway toward my office, but stop short when I see Kate standing beside my door. She insists on taking me to lunch to discuss the interview, and realizing that I'm expected to agree, I do.
Although I smile throughout the meal, her excited chatter causes my already-frayed nerves to further decay. Any other time, I would probably share her enthusiasm. But on the heels of the worst on-air day I've had in years, each reminder of how much is riding on my performance makes me more queasy. Sipping club soda, I push the food on my plate around in circles, hoping she doesn't notice that I only eat a few bites. By the time we leave the restaurant, the afternoon is almost gone and I haven't even begun to prepare for Mr. Matthews.
Deciding that I need peace and quiet, I head for my apartment to study the way I did in college – dressed in comfy clothes with my hair pulled up in a ponytail. Soon I'm settled at my kitchen table with a laptop and a mug of coffee, wearing Cullen's Northwestern sweatshirt. I pick up my phone, feeling guilty as I text him to say I'm not coming over tonight.
*Hope your day is better than mine. I'm at home. Working on a huge project. I'll explain later.
I set the phone down and begin compiling stats and a timeline of Matthews' life, the same way I would if he was an athlete. Working diligently, I hardly look away from the computer for the next few hours – until I'm startled by the sound of my ringing phone. As I pick it up, I'm surprised to see that it's past seven o'clock, and I smile when I see the number on the screen.
"Hey. Where are you?"
"Home." Puzzled by the lengthy pause that follows my reply, I go on. "I sent you a text."
"Yeah, I got it. I thought you meant… so you're at your place."
"Right. Sorry about tonight," I sigh, "but I think I'll be working until I go to bed."
Although he sounds disappointed, he says he understands and we talk for a few more minutes before we hang up. I continue working until my self-imposed bedtime, pleased with what I've prepped, but still fearful that the interview won't go well. As I'm packing my messenger bag for the morning, my phone dings with Cullen's text chime.
*Can I come in? I'm in the hall.
My stomach drops while my heart skips in my chest. Rushing toward the door, I yank it open, smiling automatically when I see his reddening cheeks and crooked grin. With a whispered hello, I reach for him, sighing happily as he lifts me off my feet and steps inside. We hug tightly for a moment, and then he sets me down and turns to close the door.
"Sorry for showing up uninvited," he begins.
"I'm glad you did," I say, but I know the hesitancy in my voice is obvious. He looks apprehensive when he faces me again, and I shift my weight anxiously from foot to foot as I try to figure out how to explain myself. "Um, but I'm kind of freaking about this interview, Cullen. I was just going to bed. To sleep, I mean. I… can't… stay up late."
"This isn't a booty call, Swan," he says, insulted. His hands rest on his hips as he frowns at me. "I came here to see my girlfriend, not to get laid. Jesus. Is that really what you think about me?"
"No. No. I know that you're not – we're not – like that," I stammer, ashamed of myself for jumping to carnal conclusions. I raise my hands to cover my face, unable to look him in the eye. "It's just…. I'm just… did you miss the freaking out part?"
"I heard, baby. Come here," he soothes, his irritation of a moment ago gone. Spreading my fingers apart slightly, I step forward at the same time he does, leaning against his chest as he wraps his arms around me. The relief I feel is instantaneous, and my body relaxes against his. "I'll leave you alone if you want me to."
"I just didn't want to keep you here under false pretenses."
"You don't need to worry about me, Swan. In fact, I wouldn't have sex with you tonight if you asked."
Looking skeptically up at him, I see that his green eyes are shining with amusement. "Really?"
"Really," he confirms with a nod. "But just to be safe, you probably shouldn't ask." Sliding my hands up to circle his neck, I laugh with him. "Do you want me to go?"
"No," I answer, pushing up on my tiptoes to kiss him. "Stay. Please."
Before letting me go, he presses his closed lips to mine several times. He locks the door and turns out the living room lights while I finish packing up for the morning, rambling mournfully about my bad day.
"I mean, you should have heard the interview," I lament as he follows me to the bedroom several minutes later.
"I heard it," he interjects. Mouth dropping open, I pause just inside the doorway to look at him. "I was in the Chief's office this morning and he was listening to the show."
"Oh, God. Now I feel even worse."
"Swan, this is just like football. You've got to have a short memory when you have an off day," he advises, walking past me to set his phone and keys on the dresser.
Standing beside the closet, I pull my sweatshirt off and toss it toward the laundry basket, rolling my eyes when I miss. I can't even hit that today. After putting on a tank top with my pajama pants, I fold the covers back and climb onto the bed, sitting cross-legged in the middle.
"What if I totally screw this up for the station and for myself?"
"You won't," he states, turning to wink at me. Stripped down to his boxers, he lays his clothes across the chair in the corner. "You like to win too much."
"I do like to win," I agree, flopping backward on the mattress dramatically.
"Then quit moping about today and start believing that tomorrow will be better," he urges, repeating the same message I've given to him after a loss. "I have faith in you."
"Without question. You're great at your job. Smart. Confident. Funny. Insightful." Turning my head, I meet his gaze when he moves to stand at the side of the bed. "I'm always proud of you, legs."
Abruptly abandoning my bedtime edict, I scramble onto my knees and launch myself into his arms. As I kiss him, his lips match mine movement for movement, stoking the surge of desire started by his sweet words, by his unconditional belief in me. When I press my hips forward to meet his, he skims his hands down my back to my ass, holding me close… and holding me still.
After a moment, he breaks the kiss and gently unwinds my arms from his neck. Squeezing my hands, he takes a step backward.
"Cullen," I complain, trying to pull him to me again.
"Nope. You'll be mad at both of us in the morning," he reasons, smirking when I glare jokingly at him.
Grumbling under my breath even though he's right, I scoot to the other side of the bed and turn off the lamp. Once I lie down, he curls up behind me, shaping his body to mine. His breathing slows within a few minutes, but I can't shut off my brain. Instead of being filled with worries about the interview, though, my thoughts center on him.
Two months ago, I would have scoffed at the idea that I could become so intimate, both physically and emotionally, so quickly with someone I hadn't met. But the protections I spent years building around myself were no match for Cullen… and I smile wryly as I recall how easy it was for him to sneak past my guard.
Now, I can't bear to think about a day when I don't have this… don't have him. The feelings I have for him are deeper and stronger than any I've experienced before, and although I may not know everything about his life yet, I know his heart. Grateful that his persistence overcame my player prejudice, I reach for the arm he's resting on my waist, ghosting my hand across his skin.
"Cullen?" I whisper. He grunts against my back sleepily. "I really love you."
"I really love you, too," he answers. "But I'm still not sleeping with you tonight."
"Fine," I huff, drawing the word out until he chuckles.
When my hand reaches his, he flexes his fingers so I can slide mine between them. I lie silent and still, feeling his breath tickle my neck each time he exhales. Closing my eyes, I match the rhythm of my breathing to his and sink into peaceful sleep.
Arriving at the station the next morning, I'm more nervous for a show than I've ever been. During the pre-show meeting, I hardly hear Newton's nonsense over the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I study my notes and questions during every break of the first two hours of the show, and then, finally, it's time to bring Mr. Matthews in.
He kisses my cheek when he greets me, insisting that he remembers meeting me before. I'm not sure I believe him, but his easygoing manner begins to calm my jitters. By the time we go live a couple of minutes later, I'm more relaxed, and we settle into a fluid conversation, discussing his professional life momentarily. Emmett chimes in as planned to transition the topic to his ownership of the Seahawks. The rest of the interview flows so smoothly that Newton rarely speaks into my ear. Kate nods at me through the control room window each time I turn around. Emmett lets me lead, but clearly makes an effort to help keep the show on track.
Once we're off the air, Mr. Matthews continues to be gracious. He makes a point of saying goodbye to everyone individually, handing out field passes so we can all watch Sunday's Seahawks game from the sidelines. As I walk toward my office several minutes later, I pull my vibrating phone from my pocket. I'm glad that Kate – and even Newton – seem pleased with the interview, but it's the six-word text on my screen that makes me giggle like a teenage girl.
*You were great, legs. Told ya.
Sunday afternoon, I stand between Seth and Emmett on the sidelines of CenturyLink Field and look up at the overcast sky. For the last few minutes, Emmett has been making fun of me for wearing sunglasses, but I'm afraid my frequent glances at Cullen will give me away if my eyes aren't hidden. Unless it rains, the glasses stay.
Although the team is still in the locker room, the coaching staff is beginning to assemble on the field. Grinning, I watch my dad come toward me.
"Just like old times, huh? You've spent a lot of Sundays on the sidelines with me, kid," he says, bending down to hug me. After I laughingly agree, he shakes hands with Emmett and Seth. "Enjoy the game, guys. Bells, let's have lunch this week. I'm not getting any younger, you know. You'd better spend time with me while you can."
"Yes, sir, Chief," I reply with a laugh, rolling my eyes behind my dark lenses as he walks away.
"I wish you'd let the Chief come on the show," Newton declares, startling me. I didn't know he'd come up behind me.
"It would be weird," I shrug, glancing over my shoulder at him. "And not many assistant coaches do interviews, anyway. It's a hierarchy thing."
He continues blathering on, but I'm no longer listening. The Seagals are gathering by the tunnel, and I know that means the team is headed outside. Newton's voice is soon drowned out by blaring music and the announcer's voice as the offensive players are introduced. Hoping to hide my smile, I put my pinkies in the corners of my mouth and whistle loudly for several of them, including Whitlock and Cullen.
Even though Cullen assured me that my presence down here wouldn't be disruptive, I see his eyes slide my way as he jogs toward the bench. When I shake my head minutely, his lips twitch. But he turns away, catching the ball one of the trainers throws to him and stopping to talk to the QB coach. By the time he runs onto the field thirty seconds later, I see the shift in his body language and know he's focused on the game.
At first, the excitement of being so close to the action enthralls me the way it always has. The emotion of the crowd is contagious, and Emmett and I yell loudly for every big play. I love it all – the cadence Cullen shouts before the ball is snapped, the sound of shoulder pads banging against each other as the linemen fight for position, the exhilaration I feel when the Seahawks score three times in a row.
But by the fourth quarter, the O-line is clearly tired. Although the Seahawks have played well and have a ten-point lead, Cullen is rushed on almost every play and hit several times. When two defensive backs sack him for an eight-yard loss on third down, he's slow to get up, and then he limps to the sideline. Hardly able to stand still, I bite my lower lip as Seth and Emmett discuss him.
"They're checking his lower leg, not his knee. That's a good sign," Emmett observes, straining his neck to look toward the bench where Cullen is being treated. "Someone's working on his arm, too."
"Right arm?" I ask, shutting my eyes briefly to make a silent plea. Please, God. Please not the right. Selfishly, I don't want him to be hurt at all, but I also know that he'll be devastated if he has an injury that keeps him from playing.
"Left. Not his throwing arm."
"Jesus, that's a relief," Seth exhales. He turns to smile down at me and nudges my arm. "Think the Chief just had heart failure?"
Probably. Like father, like daughter.
The stadium erupts in cheers around us as the Seahawks defense makes a big play and I face forward again, applauding with everyone else.
"Yeah," I answer absently, looking for Cullen as the game ends. In the sea of people milling around on the field, I can't spot him, but he's not sitting on the bench anymore.
Nauseated with worry about Cullen, I decline when Emmett asks if I want to stay for the presser. I avoid my dad, too, disappearing into the group of people leaving the field. Intent on seeing Edward as quickly as possible, I drive straight to the underground garage of his condo building to wait, sitting in my truck for more than an hour before he arrives. As he walks toward me, his limp isn't as pronounced as earlier, but I can tell he's in pain. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, and part of his left forearm is covered with a gauze bandage. Stifling a sob, I hold one hand across my mouth.
"Baby, what's wrong?" he asks, concern furrowing his brow.
"You're hurt," I mumble against my palm.
"Not too badly for being trapped underneath five-hundred pounds of defensive linemen," he says with a half-smile.
"Is it your ankle?"
"No, just a lower leg contusion. And a cut on my forearm," he replies, reaching for me. Resting my face against his chest, I wrap my arms around his waist and rub his back gently. "You know this shit happens, legs. I'll be fine by next Sunday."
"You leave Friday?" I already know the answer to the question, but I welcome the distraction of thinking about something else for a moment.
"Yeah. Charter leaves at noon. We'll spend two nights in Atlanta, play the early game on Sunday, and be back home by midnight."
"Okay," I murmur. We stand in place for another minute, until I realize that Cullen isn't putting any weight on his left leg. Pulling away, I look up at him. "You need to ice and elevate your leg."
"Okay, doc," he teases as we walk toward the elevator.
"There's no doctor here, Cullen. You'll have to settle for me."
"I don't consider that settling. I consider that my second win of the day," he says. He tightens the arm he has around my shoulders and kisses the top of my head.
"I know how you like to win."
"Almost as much as you do."
"I guess it's a good thing we're on the same side, then," I comment as we get on the elevator. Turning, he leans into me, pressing me against the wall. "Team sport, right?"
"Team sport," he agrees. I wrap my arms around his neck and press my cheek to his. Goosebumps erupt down my arm when he whispers in my ear. "We both win."
The week flies by in a blur of cold, rainy days. I have lunch with my dad and move up another ranking spot in my fantasy football league. Things at work settle back to normal – Emmett teases me, I refuse to react, we both make fun of Newton. Life is pretty good… except Cullen leaves for Atlanta tomorrow and I've hardly seen him this week.
With a short preparation week, he's spent long hours each day studying film and going over the game plan. The last two nights, he hasn't finished at the stadium until after I'm already sleeping – at my apartment. So even though it's late and I'm tired, I agreed to come over when he got home tonight. But before he's finished packing, I fall asleep in his bed.
It's hours later when I feel fingers trail up the outside of my thigh and slip under the hem of my t-shirt. The touch is so light that I wonder if I'm dreaming.
"Cullen?" I mumble, opening my eyes. The room is too dark for me to see, but his throaty chuckle vibrates through his chest against my back.
"Were you hoping for someone else?" His breath warms my ear, sends tingles down my spine.
"No," I answer as his hand glides across my stomach and then up to my breast. "I'm glad it's you."
Using his other hand to pull my hair away from my neck, he sucks gently on the sensitive skin. Lust warms my body and I reach up, sinking my fingers into the longer hair on top of his head while I push my hips back toward him. He says my name softly as he traces his fingers around my nipple.
Moaning quietly, I shift to lie on my back, helping him take off my clothes. He leans over to kiss me, moving his mouth slowly on mine. But when I clutch impatiently at him, he pulls away.
"Edward," I whisper. My eyes have adjusted to the dark enough for me to see him as he shoves the covers down and crawls over me, caging me between his arms and legs.
"Right here, baby."
He brushes his lips across mine briefly, and then kisses leisurely down my neck. Hovering above me, he uses his mouth to tease my shoulders… my breasts… my stomach, never lingering in any spot long enough for my satisfaction. Restless, I wriggle underneath him while he continues scooting downward, nudging my legs apart to wedge his body between them. His fingers feel hot on my skin as he grips my thighs, pulling me to him.
"Oh, my God," I gasp when he drags his tongue across my clit. Repeating the action several times, his touch is gentle when I want forceful, excruciatingly slow when I want speed. Crying out, I arch my back off the bed as almost-there pleasure creeps outward from my spine, decadent and agonizing at the same time.
He pauses and I lie flat again, panting… waiting. Turning his head, he presses his lips to my inner thigh, kissing a path back to where I want him. Prolonging the blissful torture, he pays the same attention to my other leg and pauses once more. Finally, he covers me, varying the motion of his mouth, knowing what I like… giving what I need. The pressure builds quickly and I dig my hands into the sheets, twisting them tightly as I get closer and closer – and then he stops.
Groaning in frustration, I lift my head to look at him, watching as he inches his way up my body again, bit by bit. Raising my hands to his jaw, I pull him, guiding his lips to mine. We kiss between labored breaths and I tilt my hips anxiously, wanting all of him. At last, he pushes inside, filling me as he murmurs my name.
"Cullen," I answer, wrapping my legs around him.
Propped on his forearms, he moves unhurriedly, drawing out the pleasure. When I rake my fingernails down his chest, he grunts, thrusting fast and shallow several times, and then stilling inside me.
"Live here," he says hoarsely.
Staring up at him, I wish the room was light enough that I could see the look in his eyes. It's not, but I can tell that he's watching me, waiting for a reaction. He pulls almost all the way out of me, and then plunges inside again roughly, setting a faster pace.
"Live here… with me."
"I don't – I can't think," I whisper, moving with him instinctively. Curling one hand around the nape of his neck, I feel the faint coating of sweat on his skin. I tug on him until he kisses me.
With only a few more thrusts, I tumble over the edge, hanging on to him as pleasure surges through me. His orgasm is just as powerful, and he collapses on me, staying buried deep while he recovers, blowing heavy breaths into my neck.
When he pulls out a moment later, shifting to lie next to me, I keep my eyes closed, listening as my heartbeat slows, and then begins to race again. I'm not sure if the sudden, weighty fear settling in my chest is because I'm afraid he meant what he said… or because I'm afraid he didn't.
Chilly without his warmth, I sit up and grab the sheet, spreading it over both of us. I lie on my side and study him, staring until my eyes adjust to the dark room once more. He's lying on his stomach, not moving, and for a second, I think he's already gone back to sleep.
"I was serious," he says quietly without opening his eyes.
"Cullen," I begin, but he quickly interrupts.
"I know what you're going to say. 'It's too soon, Cullen. We've only been together seven week–.'"
"Seven and a half weeks."
"'– seven and a half weeks, Cullen. We don't know each other well enough, Cullen.'" I laugh softly at his accurate mimicry. "I know all that shit, Bella. But it doesn't change how I feel… what I want."
"What do you want?" I whisper.
"I want your stuff mixed up with mine. I want you to stop dragging your clothes here in an overnight bag," he insists, his impassioned words seeming loud in the quiet of predawn. "When you say you're going home, I want you to be talking about where I am."
Uncertain how to respond, I reach for his face, resting my palm against his cheek. Opposing emotions pull at my chest while I make a mental list of cohabitation pros and cons.
"And I may not know the name of your third grade teacher or who your best friend was when you were twelve, but I know you. I know what's important to you and who's influenced your life," he asserts, taking my hand. Setting our joined hands on the bed between us, he twists the silver ring on my right middle finger, preparing to prove his Bella-expertise. "Your mom gave you this ring when you were nineteen. She wears one just like it so you'll be connected no matter how far apart you are. You wouldn't trade your childhood with your dad and you couldn't have picked anyone more perfect for him than Sue is. Your stepdad is the one who suggested sports radio as a career for you because you two argued about baseball so much. You don't like the way the NFL playoffs are structured, with the wildcard teams being seeded lower even if their records are better than a divisional winner. I happen to agree with that opinion, by the way. You think there's nothing chocolate-like about white chocolate, and you can't understand why anyone would eat lima beans on purpose."
"Who knew you were really listening when I was talking about all that crap?" I chuckle, grateful that his eyes are still shut as I wipe away the tears running from mine.
"I also know that you're lying over there, making a list of excuses why you can't move in."
"Cullen, I want to live with you," I respond truthfully, wishing it was as simple as he's making it sound. "But–."
"I knew there'd be a 'but'," he mutters.
"But I can't be totally irresponsible," I continue, pausing to swallow before I voice my biggest concern… my biggest fear: That he'll leave. "Your contract with the Seahawks is up in three months. What if you sign with another team and have to move away from Seattle?"
"We'll deal with it."
"How will we deal with it? You'll be in another city while I'll be stuck here, looking for somewhere else to live. And good downtown apartments are difficult to find," I argue emphatically. What I said is true, but the sick feeling clenching my stomach has nothing to do with house-hunting. It's the idea of losing him that terrifies me – the idea of moving in here and being blissfully happy, and then having it all ripped from my hands. "Besides, my lease doesn't expire until May. It'll cost a small fortune to break it."
"Ever the realist," he observes dryly, opening his eyes.
"Well, you're always the romantic," I retort sharply. "You ignore my legitimate concerns in favor of getting your way."
"No, but I trust that we can handle whatever obstacles we face if we work together," he asserts, shutting his eyes again. "You could move in here, but keep your apartment for now."
"But if your contract–."
"Whatever happens with my contract at the end of the season, you and I will figure out together what to do," he states, squeezing my hand. "That's how people in committed relationships make decisions, right?"
"Then problem solved." And for him, it's that easy. The biggest hurdle is removed. Even though I roll my eyes, the heavy feeling in my chest is fading, defeated by his unwavering faith in us. "You have any other legitimate concerns over there?"
"Huh uh," I mumble, my mind still torn… but my heart decided. And in a battle between the head and the heart, I know which one usually wins. "So, no broken lease."
"And no homeless Swans if I have to move," he adds, sounding amused.
"I wouldn't have to switch my mail or find storage for my furniture," I reason thoughtfully, hoping to make him sweat it out for a minute. "And the view from your windows can't be beat."
"Plus, I'd have a place to escape if you start acting like a VIP jerk," I tease.
"Mmhmm," he responds, opening his eyes partway as his lips curl slightly upward. He realizes he's on the verge of winning.
"With winter coming, it would be nice to have someone to keep me warm at night."
He laughs, rolling onto his side to face me. "I'm good with warming you up, legs, but is that really your rationale for moving in?"
"No," I whisper, my throat suddenly clogged with emotion. Scooting toward him, I tangle my legs with his and look into his eyes. "I'm moving in because I love you. And I want my stuff mixed up with yours. And I want 'home' to be wherever you are."
Pulling me closer, his lips rest against my forehead. "I could help you move next Tuesday."
"I can do it this weekend. Since you'll be gone two nights, I'll have plenty of time to rearrange everything."
"Uh oh. Will there be chintz and pink flowers everywhere when I get back Sunday night?"
"Do you even know what chintz is?"
"No. Do you?"
"No," I laugh. When the alarm on my cell phone sounds, I roll away with a groan to silence it. "Time for me to get up. You should go back to sleep for a couple of hours."
"I'd rather shower with you than sleep."
"Last time we did that in the morning, Newton yelled at me for wearing a hat to work. Besides, you can't be worn out for practice this morning."
"Baby, it's just walk-through. I won't even break a sweat," he replies, pleading his case. "I'll sleep on the way to Atlanta. And – can't you just put your hair up or something?"
"You're always talking me into doing things that don't sound like good ideas," I murmur, slipping out of bed.
"But look how well they've turned out so far," he counters, climbing out his side and walking into the bathroom. Knowing I can't argue with that statement, I pick up the ponytail holder I left on the nightstand last night and slide it onto my wrist. "I'll start the shower. Coming, legs?"
Shaking my head at his laughter, I chuckle quietly, too. "Not yet, Cullen. But I guess I will."
I spend Friday evening and all of Saturday packing everything important to me and hauling it over to the condo. I stay in my own apartment both nights, though. Saturday, I lie wide awake for hours, knowing it's my last night here… wondering if I'll ever be back… dreading what would cause me to sleep alone in this bed again… and doubting that I'll ever recover if things don't work out with Cullen.
But I haven't doubted my decision to move in with him for one moment.
Does that make me impetuous? Or foolhardy? It doesn't feel that way to me.
Smiling in the dark room, I recall the advice Sue gave me four years ago when I graduated from college. Torn between two job offers, I sat at the kitchen table at my dad and Sue's house for hours. Sheets of paper littered the tabletop, all clinically detailing reasons for taking one job over the other. Frustrated with my indecision, my dad left the room, claiming I was overanalyzing everything. He should know; I got that trait from him.
Sue picked up the papers one by one, crumpled them into balls and threw them on the floor. Panicked, I bent to snatch them up, but Sue's hand on my arm stopped me.
"Bella, the answer isn't written on those yellow sheets of paper," she said. "Scribbled words are meaningless if there's no emotion tied to them. This is a big decision. And in life, you should make the big decisions with your heart."
Her words prompted me to accept the job at KSST, and it suddenly occurs to me that if I hadn't, I wouldn't have met Cullen. I would be working in another city, talking about other teams, living a different life. Several what-if scenarios tumble through my head, all ending the same way – without Cullen. The way my chest aches at that thought makes me even more grateful for Sue's visionary, idealistic wisdom.
Finally, I drift off, getting a few hours of sleep before I go to the condo Sunday morning to begin putting my things away. By the time the Seahawks game is over, I've mingled my books with his on the shelves in the living room. The copper tray and candles which used to sit on my coffee table now sit on Cullen's. Some of my framed photos are propped alongside his around the room.
While watching local coverage of Cullen's press conference after the win, I carefully unwrap the few valuable things I inherited from Grandma Swan and place some of them on the bookcase. Pausing to study him on the flatscreen, I listen to his calm, witty answers to the reporters' questions, always giving credit to his teammates and the coaching staff instead of bragging about his own accomplishments. He jokes with a couple of reporters, grinning crookedly like he does when he's really amused. I identify several sound bites we can use on the show tomorrow morning as well as some clips that will probably be shown on the news, but none of it seems orchestrated by Cullen. He's just naturally charismatic. Although it's impossible for me to look at him objectively now, I think that I would like him even if I didn't love him.
When he calls a little while later, we talk briefly about the game. He knows he performed well today, but he once again downplays his role. After I rattle off a few stats, he finally agrees that he played "okay", but then he changes the subject, telling me what time the charter flight will arrive in Seattle… and that he's anxious to get home. I agree, whispering that I love him before we disconnect.
"Back to work," I mumble, looking at the boxes still stacked around the room.
Five hours later, my clothes are hung in the closet. My shoes take up half the space on the built-in storage rack. The cigar box where I keep jewelry and a few sentimental objects is on top of the dresser. My grandmother's faded mixing bowl sits on the kitchen counter, filled with fruit. Exhausted but happy, I shower and put on the only skimpy nightgown I own. Then I wrap myself in the sex blankie and sit on the couch to wait for him, sipping a glass of wine.
When my eyes get heavy, I lean over and let them close, and then jerk awake when I hear the chime of the arriving elevator. Pushing my hair out of my face, I sit up straight and turn around just as he drops his suitcase and bag in the foyer.
"Hey, legs," he says, walking toward me. "It's late. Why are you still awake?"
"It's our first night living together. I didn't want to go to bed without you." He leans over the back of the couch to kiss me tenderly – twice.
"Thanks for waiting for me," he smiles, standing up to look around the room. "You got everything moved?"
"Almost. I need help with a couple of heavy things," I answer. He wanders toward the bookshelf while I get up and carry my wineglass to the kitchen. "I have a cedar chest and a chair that I want to bring over."
He answers me, but I can tell by his tone that something else has captured his attention. Heading back to the living room, I see him set down a picture he'd been looking at, and then run his hand along the spines of the books on the shelf above.
"Yours are all still there," I insist, standing beside him. "I didn't toss any of your books about the Cubs or the Bulls."
"You mixed yours in," he remarks softly. "Steinbeck. Twain. Fitzgerald."
"I like the classics. And since I had to buy all these books for classes during college, I figured I should display them."
"The Brownings. You put Robert and Elizabeth Barrett right next to each other."
"Did you know they courted in secret?"
"Really?" he asks, pulling me in front of him.
"Yeah." Inexplicably, that bit of trivia popped into my head out of the blue while I was unpacking earlier. Before today, I hadn't thought about it since the day my Brit Lit professor mentioned it during a lecture. When I shrug, the sex blankie slips down from my shoulders, and Cullen traces his fingers along the narrow straps of my nightgown. "I don't know why I remember that."
"Yes, you do," he argues, wrapping his arms around me.
"Because I have amazing powers of retention?"
"That's cute, the way you crack jokes when you're uncomfortable expressing your feelings," he responds, tightening his hold as I lean back against his chest. "But I'm onto you now. The lingerie. Not going to bed without me. Books written by lovers placed beside each other on a shelf. You, Swan, have a romantic streak."
Since he's right – about both observations – I don't bother with a denial.
"It's your fault," I whisper, reverting to smartass mode again. "You showed up in my city, barged your ass into my workplace and completely upended my life." Although he chuckles against the side of my head, I promised him that I would get better at this and it's time to prove it. Taking a deep breath, I ignore the butterflies in my stomach and turn around to meet his gaze. "And I couldn't be happier about that, Cullen."
The way his eyes light up causes my heart to flutter almost painfully in my chest. Immediately, I know I want him to look at me like this every day. Shifting his hands lower, he lifts me up and I let go of the blanket to twine my arms around his neck. We're both smiling as our lips meet.
"I love you, Cullen."
"I love you, too, Swan. Welcome home."
A/N: Thanks for reading. Please review. I promise that I'll see you sooner than five months this time. ;)