A/N: Well, it's the end of another NFL season, which means I'll be in mourning a little. :) I don't have a favorite team for the big game, but it should be a good one.
The new year is off to a bit of a rocky start. Year-end at work has meant some extra hours had to be put in. Traveling husband and busy kids keep me hopping the rest of the time. Our beloved, perfectly round, mini Dachshund, affectionately known as Fat Max, passed away. He went to live with Grandma about three years ago when I went back to work full-time, and lived happily ever after, eating pancakes and fried eggs most mornings because he just didn't seem to like the dog food (according to Grandma). RIP, Fat Max. We love you.
Big thanks to my great friend Littlecat358 for doing double duty as a beta and therapist. :) She knows how I feel about her. Also, thanks to two more great friends for prereading: Michelle0526 (xoxo) and Tennesseelamb (thanks for pointing out things I miss and questioning me). Adore you both.
I truly appreciate the favorites and follows and reviews. They mean so much to me. And thanks to the TLS girls for including me on the Fic of the Week poll. :)
Thanks for reading. Please review.
Sunday night, Edward sends me a text message soon after he returns from San Francisco, reminding me that I said I'd come over. I reply that I didn't forget, and when I get to his building forty-five minutes later, he's standing outside, waiting for me as promised. I park at the curb just up the block, glancing in the side mirror to watch him walk toward my truck. He opens the passenger door as I pull the key from the ignition.
"Hey, Cullen," I answer softly, scooting across the seat. I hate the sad look on his face. "You played great today."
Shrugging one shoulder, he holds a hand toward me to help me out of the truck. "Still lost."
As soon as I'm standing on the sidewalk, I raise up on my tiptoes and wrap my arms around his neck. I'm tempted to share the breakdown I've already done on his stats from this afternoon. Both his completion percentage and total yards were higher than last week. I want to tell him how impressed I am that he stayed calm in the pocket and spread the ball around, connecting with four different receivers despite the constant pressure from the Niners' defense. I want him to know that I leapt up from my couch, yelling and clapping, when he scrambled for twelve yards and a first down in the third quarter. But I don't think any of that will make him feel better right now.
"I'm sorry," I whisper instead, kissing the side of his neck where my face is buried. "I brought you chocolate pie."
I'm rewarded with a quiet chuckle as his arms tighten around my back. We stand still for another moment before he sighs heavily and pulls away.
Upstairs, we sit on stools at the kitchen counter while he eats the enormous piece of pie, but his mood doesn't really improve. I sip a glass of white wine and tell him funny stories. He doesn't laugh. I complain about my upcoming trip to Los Angeles. He doesn't comment. I reach for him several times, rubbing his back, squeezing his bicep, resting my hand on his thigh. He doesn't react… at all.
Quickly losing faith that I can pull him out of this depression, I finish my wine, and then take my glass and Edward's plate to the sink. While I'm rinsing them and wondering if I should leave, he startles me by sliding his arms around my waist from behind.
"Sorry, legs. I know I'm shitty company," he mutters against the top of my head. "I just can't stop thinking about that last drive. Everything seemed to collapse in the fourth quarter."
"Edward, it wasn't you. You were playing well," I reply, shutting off the water. I pick up the towel laying beside the sink and dry my hands, then turn around in his arms. "Thompson let the weak-side A gap widen two downs in a row, so you had almost no time to let the play develop before you were forced to throw. And, you know, you got sacked that second time when the pass rusher got past your protection."
"I have a vague recollection," he answers with a wry smile. I'm sure he remembers it vividly; it was a pretty hard hit, resulting in Cullen lying flat on his back in the grass. "Thompson had trouble handling that tackle all afternoon."
"Yeah, he did. You're probably lucky he kept the gap closed for the first three quarters."
"It's not any one player's fault, though. We missed a couple of other opportunities, too."
"I know that, Cullen," I agree, winding my arms around his neck. Before I can stop myself, I spit out a couple of stats – wanting him to take pride in his progress. "I'm just pointing out that the offense showed improvement over last week, regardless of the final score. Your completion percentage climbed above sixty percent, and you were eleventh in the league today in total QBR."
"Still lost," he states morosely, echoing his earlier words.
"The Niners' D-Line dominated the second half and rushed you almost every play," I nod, realizing my sympathetic pep talk isn't helping; he needs a dose of reality to snap out of it. "Whitlock couldn't get open and your deep receivers couldn't outrun their corners. But you only lost by three points to a really good team. You guys will learn from what happened today and figure out what adjustments to make. So pull it together, get your head in the game that's coming up next week and quit whining about the game that's already in the books."
He doesn't reply, but he's smiling softly despite the semi-sharp tone I just used to scold him. He lifts one hand to push some of my hair behind my left ear and rests his fingers against my neck.
"What?" I huff, rolling my eyes. I let my hands slide down his chest and hang limply at my sides. "You're not gonna say you're impressed that I can talk football, are you?"
"No," he frowns. "I knew you could talk football, Swan."
"That's a relief," I mutter with faux exasperation.
"I didn't know that you'd serve me consolation pie along with a swift ass-kicking when I needed it," he continues. Under his intense gaze, it's becoming increasingly uncomfortable for me to stand here, but I force myself to keep looking at him. "Only one other woman has ever understood me this way."
The jealousy that immediately floods my veins is unexpected. It's not an emotion that I've often been affected by when it comes to men, but I recognize the clench of my stomach, the way my spine stiffens. My voice stays even, though, not betraying me as I say the name of the girl Cullen dated all through college. The last girl he had a serious relationship with, according to him. "Tanya?"
He shakes his head once. "No. My gran."
Quickly ducking under his raised arm, I twist away to lean against the kitchen island behind him, surprised again at the mixture of emotions coursing through me. I'm relieved… and confused… and not entirely flattered by what he said. "I remind you of your grandmother?"
"Yeah, in some ways." I cross my arms over my chest and raise one eyebrow at him when he turns around to look at me. His face reddens a bit, which I know means he's embarrassed, but he always expresses himself in spite of it. It's disarming. It's appealing. It's freaking hot. "She was tough and independent. Smart. Funny as hell. And always called me on my shit." While he's talking, he takes two slow, deliberate steps toward me, and then traps me between his arms by placing his palms on the counter behind me. He leans down so we're face-to-face, his brilliant, green eyes moving side to side as he searches mine. "She also had a heart of gold. I was wrapped around that woman's little finger. I would have done anything to make her happy."
As I listen to his explanation, I feel my irritation – and my guard – slipping away. My heart flutters anxiously, making my chest feel tight. My stomach drops, and I wrap one arm across my waist, trying to calm the butterflies. Unable to meet his piercing stare any longer, I squeeze my eyes shut and wrinkle my nose, hiding from him… hiding from myself, maybe, and wishing that I wasn't partially terrified by him – by us.
I feel the puff of air on my face as Cullen chuckles. "You're adorable."
"Shut up," I demand quietly. When he repeats himself, I grit my teeth and do the same. "Shut up, Cullen."
Before he's finished saying the taunting words, I've opened my eyes. I reach for him, lifting one hand to the back of his head and curling the fingers of my other hand into the front of his t-shirt. He comes willingly when I pull him forward, smirking slightly. And I can't help but return the smug smile, even as I realize he purposely challenged me in a way he knows I can't resist.
His lips are soft and yielding at first, matching every movement of mine. After a moment, I slide my hand to the top of his head, gripping the longer hair there between my fingers. The kiss rapidly turns urgent then; our mouths colliding over and over until my knees are weak, but my desire for him is strong.
He breaks away as he moves his hands to span the sides of my waist, lifting me up to sit on the counter. Again, I pull him toward me, making room for him to stand between my legs.
"Cullen," I whisper just before his lips capture mine again. He hmms into my mouth, digging one hand into my hair. Although I know it's not smart, I hook my feet around his thighs and scoot to the edge of the counter, pressing myself against him. It feels so good that I don't want to stop… so I don't.
When he starts to slide the hand on my waist upward, I come to my senses. During the drive here, I promised myself that I wouldn't let things go even this far tonight, but I have an alarming lack of self-control around him. I realize, though, that I can't keep having these heated make-out sessions and expect to resist sleeping with him.
It is too soon to sleep with him, right? I've never been one of those girls who hops into bed with every guy she's attracted to. Plus, I'm already overwhelmed by my feelings for Cullen and rattled by the way he constantly lurks in the back of my mind, no matter what I'm doing. Adding sex to the mix this quickly would only increase the probability of a complete freak out.
I'm suddenly glad that I'll be gone most of the week. I think I need a little space… a little perspective.
I put my hand on his forearm, pushing firmly enough that he understands. Instead of pulling away or being angry, though, Cullen takes it in stride, shifting his arm and linking our fingers together. He never stops kissing me, which, of course, only makes me want him more.
Eventually, though, the grip my other fingers still have on his hair loosens, and I let my hand drop gently to his shoulder. He slows the movement of his lips, and then rests his forehead against mine, breathing heavily.
"Stay a little while longer?"
"I shouldn't," I hedge, keeping my eyes closed. I won't be able to refuse if I have to look at him.
"We won't see each other again until Friday night," he reminds me. I can't decide if I'm more relieved or unhappy about that fact right now, so I deflect.
"I'll be the one in the shitty mood then," I grumble, opening my eyes. "I can't believe I have to spend most of the week dealing with Newton's jackwagon antics sixteen hours a day."
He chuckles, lifting our joined hands to his mouth to kiss my fingers. "Baby, you seem to handle Newton just fine."
Leaning back, I meet his gaze, swallowing loudly as he brushes his lips across my knuckles again. My willpower is no match for his charm. "I'll hang around a little longer, but I can't keep sitting… like this."
His quick grin tells me that he considers this a win, and he leans in to peck my lips tenderly as he picks me up and sets me on my feet. We move to the living room and sit on the couch, talking for another hour. He keeps his hands on me and leans in often to kiss my lips or forehead, but he never tries anything else.
After I tell him for the third time that I have to go, we ride down in the elevator holding hands. When we exit, the security guard looks up from the newspaper he's reading at his desk.
"Evening, Mr. Cullen," he greets. I've seen this guard before, but he's not the one who was here a couple of hours ago when I arrived. "Miss."
"Chris, I want to introduce you to my friend, Miss Swan," Edward says. He lets go of my hand, and I shake hands with Chris. "You can let her up to my apartment anytime."
"Of course, Mr. Cullen," he smiles.
"You're in trouble now," I tease while we walk up the sidewalk to my truck. "I can get into your place when you're not even here." I would never invade Cullen's privacy that way and I think he knows that, but joking around is the best diversion to avoid thinking about the next five days. I don't like the way my heart suddenly aches at the thought of not seeing him for so long.
"I don't have anything to hide from you, Bella," he says quietly, standing behind me as I unlock the passenger door of my truck. Crap. Closing my eyes, I let my shoulders slump, disappointed by my reticence. I wish I had the courage to declare myself the way he does. I wish I could tell him that I don't want to go… that I'll miss him. But I can't get myself to say the words.
"Well, have a good week." I cringe inwardly when I hear how inadequate my comment sounds after what he just said.
"Text me when you get home."
"Okay," I mumble, aware that I'm responsible for the detachment in his voice. Guilty, I turn to him and wrap my arms around his waist, but don't look at his face. Although he puts his arms around me, too, neither of us clutches the other as tightly as we did upstairs just a few minutes ago. Closing my eyes, I press my nose into his shirt, inhaling deeply before I let go and get inside the cab of the truck. "See ya."
When I hear him sigh, my already-shaky defense cracks a little more, stopping me from sliding further across the bench seat. I know I constantly give him mixed signals – I'm hot for him, then I'm skittish. I crave being close to him, but I'm unnerved by his presence and cut out. He must be frustrated as hell with me. I'm frustrated as hell with me. Twisting my head to the right, I finally look at him, crooking my finger until he bends down.
"Yeah?" he asks, eyebrows slightly raised.
"I'll call you Tuesday night from L.A. You'll be home then, right?"
"I'll be home," he nods. My favorite, crooked smile slowly appears on his face as he leans farther inside the truck. "I'll be listening tomorrow morning. Don't go easy on me, Swan. Tell it like it is."
"I will." Reaching up, I place my palm against his cheek as I kiss him. And then kiss him again. "I will, Cullen."
"Clothes. Shoes. Toothbrush. Makeup. What am I forgetting?" I mumble. I go through my mental checklist one last time, and then turn off my bedroom light, rolling my suitcase along behind me as I walk to the kitchen. I started the dishwasher several minutes ago. My laptop bag is packed. Jessica is going to pick up my mail. I think I'm ready – and it's only 4:50 a.m.
"I'm gonna be early and freaking Newton will have to eat his freaking words," I mutter as soon as I'm inside the descending elevator. Recalling what he said yesterday, snidely insinuating that I'd be late this morning because "it takes girls forever to pack", I become incensed all over again.
When the doors open on the main floor, I stride quickly through the bright lobby, and then out the door into the dark morning. Grateful that – for once – I paid attention to where I parked last night, I turn right and head up the sidewalk. I'm so intent on reaching my truck that I take several steps before I notice that someone is leaning against the bed of it. A big someone.
My heartbeat pounds in my ears as I come to a dead stop. Oh, God. Oh, shit. I'm not usually this stupid. I'm careful and alert most mornings when I exit my building, knowing that the street is mostly deserted at this hour. Without taking my eyes off the hat-wearing, shadowy figure, I try to remember how far I've walked… can I make it back inside my building before the guy could get to me?
When he pushes off my truck and takes a step toward me, I start to back up.
"Legs, it's me."
Recognizing his voice, my relief is immediate. I smile widely while I blink several times, trying to see him more clearly in the faint light. Walking forward again, my eyes finally adjust enough to see that he's wearing my Mariners hat and a Northwestern sweatshirt. And he's holding a big cup of coffee.
"What are you doing here?" I ask incredulously.
"I wanted to tell you goodbye in person," he says, shrugging one shoulder. When I stop in front of him, he holds the lidded cup toward me. "And I know from experience how shitty the coffee in your lounge is."
"You're welcome. I wasn't sure what you liked, so I asked the guy at Starbucks."
"You asked him what?" I lift the cup to my lips and blow through the little hole to cool it off.
"What most guys get for their girlfriends."
My eyes flit from the plastic lid of the coffee cup up to his face. Did he just imply that I'm his girlfriend? Yeah, I think he did, but I push that thought aside for a second, distracted by his expression. His eyes are downcast and I swear he's doing that cute, blushing thing again. Staring at his long eyelashes and darkening cheeks, I feel my body react – racing heart, tingling spine. I want to kiss him, but I also want to hear more about the G word, so I force myself to stand still.
"What was the answer?"
"He said his girlfriend's favorite is the vanilla latte." He swallows and raises his eyes to meet mine.
"So, what did you get me?" I smirk and tilt my head to the side slightly.
The left side of his lips curls upward before he speaks. "Vanilla latte."
"Is that right?" I take a sip of the drink without moving my eyes from his. "And is that supposed to be a hint?"
"No," he replies. "The part where I got up at four o'clock in the morning to see you before you leave town is the hint."
"Good hint," I nod. "Are you gonna kiss me goodbye or not?"
"Yeah," he laughs, leaning down to press his mouth to mine. He tastes of coffee, too, and I moan softly as our tongues slide together. I wrap my free hand around his neck, scraping my nails lightly across his skin. He brushes his fingers across my cheek, wrapping his other arm around my waist while our lips meet over and over.
"Time?" I beg breathlessly, pulling away after a moment. He takes his phone from his pocket to look at it.
"Straight up five."
"Then I've got three minutes. Don't stop."
He pulls me closer as he kisses me again, dropping his hand to the top of my ass. Aroused, I press myself against him, wishing we weren't standing on the sidewalk… wishing I didn't have to be at work in twenty-five minutes… wishing I wasn't so freaking crazy that I'd stopped myself from sleeping with him two nights ago.
"I gotta go," I murmur against his lips. He pulls his mouth away, hugging me and letting me burrow into his chest.
"I know. Get in the truck. I'll get your bags," he replies. He holds me tighter for an instant before he releases me, taking the strap of my laptop case from my shoulder as I step back. I start the truck as he sets my laptop bag on the passenger side of the seat and my suitcase on the floorboard. "All set. See you Friday. Call me when you can."
Nodding, I swallow the sudden lump in my throat and reach my hand toward him. "I'll call. Bye, Cullen." He squeezes my fingers before pulling away and shutting the door.
Sighing, I walk into the lounge at the station, looking around in surprise as I realize I'm the first one in here. After finishing my coffee during the drive, I'm not really thirsty, but I walk to the refrigerator and get a bottle of water anyway.
Thinking about Cullen, I smile in spite of my melancholy mood. It's been an eventful day already and it's not even light outside yet. The coffee, the kissing, the boyfriend. Boyfriend. What a strange label. Almost as strange as the prickling sensation that zips up the back of my neck every time I think of it. I didn't know I would like it this much… and I didn't know I would like vanilla lattes either.
"Morning, Swan," Emmett calls from behind me.
"Hey, Ehhhh–," I answer as I turn around. I burst out laughing, making it hard to speak. "What the hell happened to you?"
"I got a spray tan," he replies defensively.
"Dude, you're orange, not tan," I say, trying ineffectually to control my giggles.
"I wanted to fit in down in SoCal," he pouts.
"Well, if we run into those kids from Jersey Shore or any Oompa Loompas, you'll be a perfect match."
"It's probably just the fluorescent lights in here," he grumbles, walking toward the mirror near the door. "It will look better in the natural light."
"No type of light is going to make that color look natural," I tease, moving to stand beside him at the mirror. Overcome with another fit of laughter, I cover my mouth with my hand as I watch him examine his reflection.
"Bella, you'll have to watch that tendency you have to laugh directly into the microphone this week," Newton barks, coming into the lounge. "We won't have wind screens on any of the remote mics."
"I'll give it a shot," I sneer, turning to glare at him. "You'll have to watch that tendency you have to be a jack–."
Emmett interrupts, simultaneously hooking his arm around my neck from behind to shut me up. "Bella and I have both done out-of-town remotes before, Newton. Everything will run like clockwork."
"Good. We need to leave the station at noon to catch our flight," he says, motioning for us to sit down at the table. Emmett whispers something to me about not instigating any new battles before he lets go. Once we're seated, Newton hands us the rundown sheet for today's show, going over it quickly before turning to the schedule for the rest of the week. "Tomorrow, you'll take batting practice with the Mariners, and we have a good lineup of interviews with both Mariners and Angels players while we're in L.A. Remember, the Mariners will have to win two out of three this week to maintain the top spot in the AL West."
Rolling my eyes at Newton's tendency to repeatedly tell us things we already know, I hide my expression by looking down at the paper he gave us. He continues yammering, but I'm only half-listening. Cullen has invaded my thoughts again. Although I'm pleased that he came to see me this morning, I'm also uneasy about the way I reacted to leaving him.
Frowning, I rest my elbow on the table and prop my chin in my hand. I pick up the pen laying on the table with my other hand and doodle stars across the top of my paper as I try to tune back in to Newton's speech. He's talking about the Mariners games now. Yes, we know the game schedule this week: Night games Wednesday and Thursday; afternoon game Friday. Yes, we know we'll have to be in the broadcast booth for a portion of each game.
Bored by his recap, I can't help but let my mind drift back to what happened when I got into my truck this morning and looked at Cullen standing on the sidewalk. I felt like I was going to cry.
I've never really been a crier. I don't get teary-eyed over sappy commercials or sad movies or touching news stories. In fact, I don't remember crying since I helped my dad and Sue clean out Grandma Swan's house after she died. That was a little over three years ago. The last time I got weepy over a guy was… I think Brett O'Leary during junior year of high school. I wonder what that says about the guys I've dated since then. I wonder what it says about me.
And what the hell does it say about my feelings for Cullen?
Emmett nudges me with his elbow to get my attention. "Yo, Bella. We're on in six minutes. You ready to head into the studio?"
"Yeah," I reply, grateful he interrupted my train of thought before I had to answer that last question. Turning toward him, I'm unable to stop the quiet chuckle that escapes when I look at his tinted face. He grins back at me. "Ready."
Soon after the show is over, I walk to Kate's office to discuss the contract I was offered two weeks ago. She and Charlotte listen to my concerns and share some of their own. Eventually, we agree to change the non-compete clause from a one-year to an eight-month period. They also promise to waive the clause if I'm laid-off from the station, but are more resistant on the subject of termination.
"Bella, I'm sure you remember the issue we had a couple of years ago with an employee who tried to get himself fired in order to nullify a non-compete clause," Kate advises. "I'm not willing to completely remove the involuntary portion of the one in your contract. In fact, our father has insisted that it be in all new contracts we enter into with on-air talent."
Figures. One jackwagon – in this case, a guy who wanted to accept a job at KSEA – ruins it for everyone else. He was successful, engaging in such horrible workplace behavior that KSST had to let him go. He had his own morning show on the air for our biggest competitor within a week.
"But you have my word that we'll be fair in our dealings with you, Bella, even if it involves termination," she continues. "Neither Charlotte nor I would hold you to terms that would impede your career without cause."
I believe her, but I'd prefer to have it in writing. Since it doesn't sound like they're willing to go that far, I have to decide what I can live with.
"I'll accept the terms we've agreed on today," I concede after a moment. Kate's assistant makes the changes to the contract language and I sign the contract, pleased for the most part with my new deal.
I spend the rest of the morning in Riley's office brushing up on baseball stats. I interrupt him several times to whine about Newton. In return, he bitches about Wyatt, the guy who's filling in for me in the afternoons.
"Bella, he has no personality. It's like I'm doing the show alone," he whispers across his desk. Honestly, that's been my opinion when I've listened to them, but I assumed I was judging Wyatt too harshly because I've never really liked him… plus, he's sitting in my co-host seat. "I think we now know why he's been on overnights for two years."
"I'm sorry. I feel like I've abandoned our show," I lament. "How are the Arbitron numbers?"
"They're good. We haven't had much fall off."
"That's because of you," I nod sincerely. Riley's knowledge is unsurpassed and he seems to have a sixth sense about what listeners like to hear.
"Yeah, well, just don't get too comfortable on the ass-crack shift," he teases. "You are coming back to afternoons eventually, aren't you?
"Far as I know," I shrug.
Emmett knocks on the open door and steps inside the small office. "Newton offered us press passes for the Seahawks game Sunday. You guys in?" he asks. As I listen to the two of them debate what changes Coach Erickson should make, I breathe deeply, trying to slow my racing heart.
When Emmett presses me for an answer, I nod and shrug nonchalantly, pretending to be engrossed in what I'm reading on my phone. Actually, I'm not pretending… Cullen just sent me a text asking me to come over Friday night when I get back from Los Angeles. And then another asking how my meeting with Charlotte and Kate went. I'm impressed he remembers – I mentioned the meeting the other night, but we haven't spoken of it since. "Uh, whatever. I'll go if you guys are going."
"Cool. I'll get them," he responds. "Hey, Bella, we're leaving in ten minutes."
"Okay," I nod. I take another deep breath and exhale quietly as I reply to Cullen, feeling that lump form in my throat again. "Okay."
Surprisingly, the trip to L.A. goes off without a hitch. Well, without a hitch for the show. Newton still irritates the crap out of me. Emmett and I have a good time, though; batting with the Mariners, taking short trips to Disneyland and the beach. We also attend the games, watching the Mariners lose Wednesday, but win Thursday. Friday afternoon's game is a nail-biter. Emmett and I both spring to our feet when the Mariners' young, star pitcher strikes out the last Angels batter. Mariners win.
Two hours later, our plane takes off for Seattle. Happy to be heading back to Seattle, I'm smiling as I watch the palm trees get smaller and smaller.
Emmett leans across me to look out the window, sighing. "Wish we could stay in L.A. for the weekend."
I don't. But since I don't want to explain why, I answer noncommittally. "Hmm."
"I want to see how the Seahawks play Sunday, though," he continues, settling back in his seat and reclining. "It seemed like Cullen was about to turn a corner last week until the fourth quarter."
I agree with his evaluation, but I've tried to be more subtle this week about my admiration for Cullen. I was even a little bit critical of him last Monday morning as Emmett and I dissected the Seahawks loss. Cullen still said I was too easy on him, though.
"I think it might actually work out with him," he comments, not waiting for me to reply before he goes on. "But were you paying attention to the sound bites I played this morning? Did you hear what he said yesterday after practice?"
"Do you know what he meant when he said he was looking forward to today?"
"Don't you think that was a strange response? When the reporter asked if he was looking forward to Sunday and he said, 'I'm looking forward to tomorrow'?" he continues. Finally glancing away from the window, I turn to look at him. His eyes are closed, his brows knit together on his odd-colored face. "Do you think he was trying to be funny? Or is he some sort of carpe diem, take-nothing-in-life-for-granted wacko? Or are they having a short practice today or something?"
"Not sure," I answer honestly, somewhat amused by Emmett's fierce pursuit of the meaning behind Cullen's words. I don't know for certain why he said he was looking forward to today, but I hope it had something to do with me.
"Maybe Newton can get him on the show next week."
I fake a laugh even though I panic at his suggestion. "Why? So you can hijack the interview with a bunch of crankypants questions like you did last week?"
"No," he says sullenly, dragging the syllable out. "I'll apologize for the way I acted before."
"What if he doesn't forgive you?"
"Swan, no one, male or female, can resist this," he brags, opening his eyes and smiling at me. His dimples make deep depressions in his cheeks as he waves his hand up and down his body. "Two hundred pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal."
My laughter is so loud that Newton peeks over the top of his seat in front of us to see what the commotion is about. He gives me a stern look and hisses my name, which makes it even more difficult to get myself under control. Eventually, however, I manage to keep it quiet, and Emmett falls asleep.
I grab his copy of Sports Illustrated from the seat pocket in front of him, immediately flipping to the small blurb on Cullen's performance last week. I don't even really read it; I just trace my finger across his name again and again, thinking of him. We talked on the phone for over an hour every night this week. I rest my head against the back of the seat and close my eyes as I remember part of our conversation last night.
"I've been thinking about what you said last Friday," he began.
"You mean when I said I couldn't talk to you on the air after you see me naked?" I joked.
"No," he chuckled. "The part where you worried what your peers will think about us."
"Why were you thinking about that?"
"I heard Emmett giving you shit on the air, accusing you of flirting with the Mariners pitcher at batting practice."
"I wasn't flirting," I said insistently, ready to defend myself. "Emmett was just mad because I got a hit off the pitcher and he didn't."
"I believe you, Swan. But I get what you meant now. They do treat you differently because you're a woman. Emmett never would have said those things about a male colleague," he replied, sounding a little pissed off on my behalf. "I understand why you want to wait to go public with our relationship. I won't pressure you about it anymore. We'll wait until the season's over."
Blowing out a deep breath, I smiled into the phone. "Team sport?"
"Team sport." He let the words hang in the silence for a beat before he spoke again. "Bella?"
"Now I'm thinking about the part where I get to see you naked."
I don't open my eyes as I clutch the magazine to my chest. I doze off still thinking about him… and still smiling.
As soon as we land in Seattle, I power on my phone, planning to text Cullen. I groan quietly when I see the red battery in the top right corner – three percent. Crap. I hurriedly begin to type the message I'm supposed to send him, letting him know I'll be at his apartment in about an hour. I dismiss two incoming texts from my mom and hear my email alert tone as the phone downloads new messages.
Quickly scanning the words I typed, my finger hovers over the "Send" button. Before I can press it, though, my home screen appears for a millisecond, followed by that spinning, white circle of death.
"Son of a buck," I mutter as the screen goes black.
"Want to use mine?" Emmett offers as he stands to deplane. I start to reach for it, but then realize I can't use his phone to text a player that he doesn't know I'm having a sort-of-secret relationship with.
"No, thanks. I'll just wait."
I'm jittery as we wait for our bags, get a cab back to the studio, and get in our separate cars. Newton manages to compliment Emmett and me on a good week of remote shows before he leaves. Emmett promises to text me tomorrow about meeting for breakfast before the Seahawks game Sunday, and I try not to act like I'm in a huge rush as I answer him over my shoulder while climbing into my truck… but I'm in a huge rush.
During the drive to Cullen's building, I chew almost constantly on my lip. Is this too impulsive? Did I think it through enough? Is it normal to abandon every principle of behavior I set for myself? Is Cullen really worth all this?
In my head, I ignore every question except the last. Yeah. I think he might be.
His street is packed with cars, and I have to park almost a block away from his building. I walk briskly up the sidewalk, my footsteps matching the pounding beat of my heart. By the time I open the door into the lobby, I can hardly breathe.
"Good evening, Miss Swan." Chris is sitting at the guard desk, smiling at me as I approach.
"Hi. Can you call upstairs for me? My cell phone battery ran down."
"Mr. Cullen said I could let you in anytime, remember? I'll call him once you're on your way." He comes out from behind the desk, pulling keys from his pocket.
"Thanks, Chris," I say softly, smiling at him as he inserts the key to light up the penthouse floor button. He steps off the elevator with a wave.
"Have a nice night."
As the elevator ascends, I nervously unwrap a stick of gum and chew it, releasing the cinnamon flavor. Realizing that I didn't even check my reflection in the visor mirror before I got out of the truck, I run my fingers through my hair, hoping it doesn't look awful. I pull a tube of lip gloss from my purse, but decide against applying it and put it away again.
When I reach the top floor, I press both hands to my stomach to calm my nerves, walking into the outer hallway, and then immediately through the open double doors of the apartment. Just inside the doorway, I pause to lay my purse on the entryway table while I kick off my flats under the chair beside it.
"Legs? Why didn't you text me when you got back? Or call me?"
Swallowing my gum, I turn toward his voice. He's coming around the corner from the kitchen, wearing jeans and a red t-shirt, smiling crookedly. He looks happy to see me… and he looks beautiful. Immediately, I feel relief, happiness, desire wash over me. And I know I'm making the right decision.
"Phone's dead," I breathe, rushing toward him like I haven't seen him for three months instead of three days. "Chris let me upstairs."
"I know. He called me," he teases as my face breaks into a smile.
After three more steps, I reach him and lift my hands to frame his face. He leans down to me, and I have a fleeting thought that he must have shaved this afternoon after practice – his jaw is smooth beneath my fingers. But as soon as our lips meet, I'm only aware of his mouth moving with mine, his tongue sliding along mine. I don't know how many minutes tick by while we stand in his foyer kissing… enough to make me even more eager for him.
Letting my hands slide slowly down his neck and chest, I feel his abs contract as I trace my fingers lightly over them. I twist my mouth away and step back slightly, reaching for the bottom of his shirt. He helps pull it off, and I take another tiny step backward, staring, open-mouthed, at his bare torso. Although I knew he was hiding a chiseled body under his clothes, I wasn't prepared for exactly how perfect it is.
"Oh, crap, Cullen. That's ridiculous," I mumble, shaking my head distractedly. Slowly, my eyes roam up until they reach his face again. "Why do you ever wear a shirt?"
I expect him to laugh; he doesn't. Instead, he closes the distance between us and grasps the sides of my t-shirt, bunching the material in his hands as he quickly lifts it over my head. He keeps his eyes glued to mine until my shirt hits the floor, and then lowers this gaze to my chest.
"Why do you ever wear a shirt?" he asks, his voice low and hoarse. "You're gorgeous."
He bends down, but I back away, grabbing his hands to pull him with me into the dark hallway leading to the bedrooms. He speeds up, catching me around the waist and crashing his lips to mine. We compete for arm position, each of us exploring the other's bare skin while we kiss. When I begin to walk backward again, he follows for several steps before stopping our progress and breaking away.
"Swan, I'm only going to ask once if you're sure," he says, his chest heaving.
"Cullen, I'm only going to answer once that I am." My voice is soft and breathless, but confident. "I want this… want you."
"I missed you," he murmurs, putting his mouth on mine once more. His hands skim down my back and ass, and then curl around my upper thighs as he lifts me. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I moan into his mouth as he pulls my legs around his waist and walks forward.
I feel him shift his hands, using one to hold me in place while the other trails up my back to unhook my bra. Once it's loose, I pull my arms free one at a time, and then drop the lacy scrap of material to the floor as I press my bare chest to his.
Inside the door of his bedroom, he stops, bracing me against the wall while he flips the light switch. Wrenching my mouth away, I open my eyes, letting my head drop back slightly so I can look up. The lights he turned on are dim and hidden between the levels of the stepped ceiling, giving the room a soft, candlelight-like glow.
I try to look around his room, but my eyes slide closed as he kisses down my neck. "Oh, God, Cullen."
I'm aware that he carries me across the room, and I feel him reach down, hear the rustle of the covers as he yanks them down.
"Hang on to me," he orders, climbing onto the bed while I clutch him. He tips me backward gently, settling between my legs as I lie down. I open my eyes, focusing first on his chest, and then letting my gaze slide up to meet his. His fingers graze my cheek as he stares intently at me. "I'm crazy about you, Swan."
His words cause an immediate physical and emotional reaction, but since I'm nowhere near ready to make my own verbal declaration, I stretch up to kiss him, pulling him down with me when I lie back on the pillow. He rocks his hips against me several times, and then moves his lips down my neck to my chest. His mouth covers my breast, and he uses his tongue to circle my nipple until I arch my back, needing more. Whimpering softly, I buck underneath him when he finally sucks strongly. He switches to the other side after a moment, reaching between my legs at the same time.
Watching him through half-closed eyes, I try to memorize everything – the cool, smooth sheet against my back, his hot breath on my skin, the insistent pressure of his fingers as they tease me through the material of my khaki shorts. Over and over, he scrapes my nipple lightly with his teeth, then soothes with his tongue before pulling forcefully on my flesh.
"Ahhhh," I sigh, turning my head to the side. I study the muscles of the arm he's leaning on. Wrapping my hand around his forearm, I twist sideways to press my lips against his skin.
"Bella," he exhales, kissing the spot between my breasts.
Pleasure and desperation race through me as I look down to find him staring back at me. Quickly, he scoots up to kiss me, and I reach for the button of his jeans, too impatient to wait any longer. After a minute of frantic fumbling, his pants and boxers, along with my shorts and underwear, have been tossed off the bed and he's positioned right where I want him.
"Birth control?" he asks. His normally-bright green eyes are dark with desire.
"Pill. And I'm tested," I pant.
"I'm tested, too," he answers.
He lowers his lips to mine as he pushes inside, taking his time. I feel my body adjusting as he presses all the way in and holds still. We breathe heavily into each other's mouths, still kissing, neither of us moving until I tilt my hips up slightly. With a quiet groan, he slowly pulls almost all the way out, then slides back inside.
Inhaling sharply, I drag my lips away. "Oh, my God, Cullen. Do that again."
He does – twice – while nipping along my jaw. Skimming my nails down his back, I urge him forward each time.
"Baby," he says, lifting up to look at me. "I don't think I can go that slow anymore."
"Good," I whisper, shifting one hand to cradle his face. He smiles softly and I smile back before our lips meet again.
We move together then, and soon I feel the pressure building. Placing his palms beside my head, he pushes up, thrusting more forcefully. My knees dig into his ribcage as he speeds up. Wanting something to hold on to, I try to slide my hands under his on the bed. Without slowing at all, he drops to his elbows, lacing his fingers with mine. He drives into me, kissing me until I pull away.
"Cullen… Cullen," I whisper, gripping his hands tightly. My mouth falls open as I come, pleasure radiating through me in waves. He buries his face in my neck, pushing our hands above my head as he moves faster, and then I feel him release, too.
He presses soft kisses against my neck while we lie in silence, catching our breath. We're still holding hands above my head, and even though my shoulders are starting to ache a little, I'm too content to care.
"Am I crushing you?" he murmurs.
"No. Don't move yet."
He hums into my skin, tickling me. When I shiver, he does it again, chuckling softly when I react the same way. After a minute, he shifts to lie on his side, facing me, and I roll to my side, too. He pulls the sheet over us and we scoot together to lie intertwined, smiling at each other.
"That certainly helps make up for not seeing you since Tuesday," he remarks, his eyes shining with laughter.
"Maybe I should go out of town again," I tease.
"No," he groans, holding me tightly against his chest. We both chuckle, and then lie silently for another moment before he speaks. "Are you hungry? I was planning on feeding you when you got here."
"Feeding me?" I ask, tipping my head back and lifting one eyebrow at him.
"I didn't figure you'd get dinner on the plane."
"I didn't," I confirm. "But I was at the ballpark with Emmett all day. And when you're at the ballpark with Emmett, you eat. A lot."
"What did you eat?" he asks, amused.
"I'm too ashamed to say," I claim. After a minute of prodding, I finally give in. "A hot dog. Nachos. One of those frozen chocolate malts that comes with a wooden spoon. Peanuts – in the shell."
"That's not much."
"I wasn't done," I smirk. "Kettle corn. Cotton Candy. A churro. Sunflower seeds. A slice of pepperoni, but I really only ate the crust. Oh, and I had a beer."
By the time I'm finished, he's laughing heartily. "No wonder you're not hungry. Doesn't that make your stomach hurt?"
"Nope. When you eat with Emmett, you really only get about two bites of everything," I smile. "Except the kettle corn. I ate the whole bag of that. I never share it, for future reference."
"Noted. You're cute as hell, Swan."
"Oh, God. Don't say stuff like that," I complain, pulling the sheet over my face to hide my embarrassment.
"Are you thirsty?" he asks. Still under the covers, I nod, smiling when he pulls them away enough to peek at my face. He presses his lips against my forehead. "Be right back."
Cautiously, I fold the sheet down when I feel him scoot away. He's sitting on the side of the bed, leaning forward to pull on his boxers. Propping my head on my bent arm, I study the muscles of his back, and then smirk when he stands and I briefly see the bare ass that created this whole damn whirlwind I'm living in. With a silent sigh, I watch him walk out of the room. I could stare at him all night… all day.
After he's gone, I sit up to look around, clutching the sheet to my chest. Reaching my left hand down, I slide it across the warm spot where he was just lying as I glance through the doorway on that side of the room. That must be the bathroom – I can't really see inside since the light isn't on, but the floor changes from dark wood to dark tile at the threshold.
Turning my head, I scan the rest of the room – the art on the walls, the flat screen hanging on the wall opposite the bed, the floor-to-ceiling curtains covering most of the wall on my right. My eyes are drawn to the framed photos on top of his dresser, but I can't tell who's in them from this far away. Absently, I take my silver dangly earrings off and turn to drop them on top of the nightstand next to me. A small remote is laying there, and, curious, I pick it up.
It's smaller than a normal television remote, and instead of number and function keys, there are only four arrow buttons. Fancy, fancy. Pointing it toward the flat screen, I press an arrow, but nothing happens. I try another one, and then twist my head to the right when the curtains covering the wall begin to slide open.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!" I hiss, looking down at the remote and desperately pushing the opposite arrow button. Despite my attempts, the motor continues to hum quietly, pulling the curtains back. Glancing up, I gasp. "Oh, my God."
"Pretty good view, huh?" Edward asks softly, reentering the room.
"Incredible," I whisper, staring out at the Seattle skyline, brilliantly lit up across the water. Blindly, I set the remote back on the nightstand. "I feel like I've already used all the superlative adjectives in my vocabulary describing this apartment, Cullen. But that view is unbelievably fantastic."
"Agreed," he remarks, coming around to the side of the bed where I am and sitting down on the edge to face me.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been messing with your stuff," I say sheepishly, finally looking at him as I accept the bottle of water he opens for me.
"It's no big deal, Swan. Mess with my stuff all you want," he shrugs. "It doesn't bother me."
I'm a bit bothered by the ease with which he lets me all the way into his personal space, but I can't think of anything witty to say to relieve my discomfort. We're both quiet for a few seconds as we drink from our water bottles. Looking at the top of his dresser once more, I use the bottle to point that way. "Family photos?"
"Yeah, some of them are," he answers, twisting his body to look at them, too. "You want to see?"
I answer yes, and Cullen sets his water on the nightstand before he gets up to grab the pictures. I set mine down, too, sitting cross-legged and tucking the sheet under my armpits to hold it in place across my chest.
Cullen sits facing me again, holding two frames. He holds one toward me and I rest it on my leg as I study the pictures on both sides of the double frame. The photos seem to be of the same couple, but one is clearly from a long-gone era. They're young; both dressed nicely in clothes that I would guess are from the 1940's or 1950's. The second photo is current. They're much older, of course, but their wide smiles are the same.
"Yes. Edward and Liz. This one was taken around 1955. They were already married, but my mom wasn't born yet. The other is on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Gran got sick a few months later, and went downhill fast. They didn't make it to fifty-one."
Overcome by sadness, I touch her face in the older photo while my eyes flit back and forth between both. "They look so happy."
"They always seemed to be," he agrees with a sigh. "They met when he was playing at a jazz club in Chicago and spent the next three days together. Over the five months that followed, they saw each other nine more days. And then they got married."
"After twelve days together? That was a leap of faith," I laugh, looking up at him again.
"He was traveling around with different acts back then. They courted by mail," he chuckles. "It seems crazy, though, doesn't it? But it worked for them. I guess when it's the right time, you know it."
We stare at each other for several awkward seconds before he clears his throat and picks the picture up. He leans past me to prop it on the nightstand, and then lays the second frame on my lap.
This one was taken on a football field. Cullen is in the center of the photo, wearing a purple Northwestern jersey, so it must have been a home game. I trace my finger across the white seven covering his chest as I bend closer. Eye black covers his upper cheeks in two perfect rectangles, and he's surrounded by people who I assume are his family.
"Look at all your hair," I remark, entertained by the holy mess of tangles on top of his head.
"It was a little out of control," he concedes, laughing. I point to a blonde in the photo. "Sister," he says, answering my unspoken question. He points to a tiny brunette. "Other sister."
"Which one is which?"
"Alice. Oldest. Bitchy one," he says before moving his finger to the blonde. "Rosalie. Middle child. Nice one."
"And these are your parents? Was it senior day?" I ask, noting the bouquet of flowers his mom is holding.
"Yes and yes," he answers. "It was the only game they came to that year."
"What?" I feel my mouth fall open as my eyebrows shoot upward. I look up at him disbelievingly. "Your parents only came to one game your senior year?"
He nods tightly, dropping his eyes to the photo again. "Probably wouldn't have come to that one if my granddad hadn't pointed out that it would be televised on the Big Ten Network. They haven't been to any of my games since I was drafted either. Participation in their kids' lives has never been a priority for Carlisle and Esme."
Shocked, my heart aches when I imagine how badly that must hurt him. I lean forward, hooking one arm around his neck to hug him. He swallows loudly. "Cullen, I'm so sorry."
"I'm used to it," he says.
"That doesn't make it okay," I whisper, resting my cheek against his. Pulling away after another minute, I look at the photo again. "Your granddad was there, too."
"Uh huh. He never missed a home game. Gran didn't either, until my senior year. She died the summer before."
I reach for his hand, squeezing gently in sympathy. It sounds like our grandmothers died within a few months of each other. With my other hand, I touch the final face in the picture. I'm pretty sure I know who she is, but I ask anyway. "And this is…?"
"She's beautiful," I remark, studying her. Everything about her is the opposite of me. She looks tall; Edward doesn't tower over her the way he does me. Her platinum hair shines in the sun. She looks good standing beside him. Right beside him. "And she's still close with your family?"
"Yes. My mom loves her, mostly because she's in med school, I think. She and Rosalie are roommates. I saw her when I was in Chicago last spring." I nod, still eyeing the picture. I don't want to look at Cullen… afraid he'll see the look of jealous distaste on my face. And afraid of the look I might see on his. "She's a great girl. You'll like her."
"I'm meeting her?" I ask, glancing up involuntarily. My stomach flops nervously at the idea of being in the same room with his statuesque former girlfriend.
"Well, yeah, sooner or later. If I can convince you to stick around, I mean." He speaks hesitantly, watching me as if he's scared I'm going to run away like I have several times before. While I'm staring back at him, his cheeks redden, and in spite of my lingering anxiety, I can't resist leaning forward to brush my lips softly against his. "Are you coming to the game Sunday?"
His voice is quiet and hopeful, reminding me that he's been disappointed by people not showing up for him in the past. Pushing my own worries aside for the moment, I sit back to smile at him and lift one hand to his face, stroking my thumb across his lower lip.
"I wouldn't miss it."
His face relaxes, but his gaze is serious, staying locked with mine as he grasps my forearm lightly. "Stay?"
When he asks, I'm not sure if he means tonight… or longer. And when I answer, I'm not sure which I mean either.
"Yeah, Cullen. I'll stay."