a/n: A lot of you have commented on my chapter titles. I can't take credit for those; I'm using lyrics from Brand New's "Flying at Tree Level." Thanks to all who have recommended, reviewed, tweeted, made banners, etc. Enjoy!
Alice is adamant. "Get the blue one."
Bella's eyes quickly shift between two dresses. To say she and Alice have different tastes would be an understatement. Both dresses she's tried on multiple times, along with several others, and the fact that only two remain despite their constant disagreeing is nothing short of a miracle. Bella likes the blue dress better. However, the green one is on clearance while the blue is not, making the final decision much more difficult than it should be.
"I don't know," she waivers. "It's kind of out of my price range."
Alice sighs. "Is that the only thing holding you back?"
"I mean, I guess I could charge it," Bella says, "but that seems kind of frivolous when I could just get the green one and pay cash."
"Maybe you're just looking at things the wrong way," her friend reasons. "How much money have you saved since you started seeing my brother?"
Bella cringes. "I can't justify it like that. He shouldn't be spending money on me anyway."
"Edward would want you to get the more expensive dress. You deserve it," she insists. "And he'll love it."
Bella looks between the dresses again, refusing to make eye contact with Edward's sister. She's yet to ask him to accompany her to the benefit, nor has she decided if she even should. It's not like they're dating. The mere idea makes her stomach twist with anxiety. "Do you think I should ask him to be my date?"
"He hasn't asked you?"
Bella shakes her head.
"Oh," Alice says.
"Why would he? Do you know something I don't?"
Alice deflects. "Bella, what is my brother to you?"
She hesitates. "We're friends."
"Friends." Alice is skeptical. "Have you had sex with him?"
"Alice," Bella scolds. The question is straightforward and its answer obvious.
Still, Alice waits for it.
"Of course I have," Bella answers eventually, blushing. "So what?"
"Doesn't sound like friendship to me," she mutters, and Bella's eyes roll.
"If Edward wants to be more, all he has to do is ask. But he hasn't, and he's made it very clear on several occasions that he doesn't." Bella grabs the blue dress and heads toward the cash register. She hopes that Alice won't see the heartache creeping over her in the process.
After Bella purchases the dress, the two hit up a couple more stores. Alice buys a dress as well, and Bella buys a few new outfits for work. She spends far more than she should. They stop by Bella's apartment to drop off the purchases, and she and Alice decide to head out again for an early dinner.
It isn't Bella's idea. She'd rather stay home and eat ramen noodles, but Alice had been nice enough to follow her around from store to store all day, and it's only fair Bella should participate in something Alice wants to do as well. She enjoys Alice's companionship. It's nice to have a friend who isn't expecting sexual favors in return—even if that friend is Edward's sister. She seizes the opportunity to spend more time with Alice but feels guilty when Edward texts and asks if he and Jasper can join. If he does, she knows he'll most likely pay for the meal she can't afford herself, and neither can he.
"I don't know how you can do it," Alice says as they wait for the boys to arrive.
Bella looks up from her phone. She's texting Edward. "Do what?"
"Hook up with someone without knowing anything about them."
"It's easier than you think," Bella says. "Trust me."
"Even the idea of... that... terrifies me."
Bella eventually catches on to what she's insinuating. "Wait. Have you ever?"
"No," Alice admits. "Never."
Her jaw drops. "Seriously? Not even with Jasper?"
"Not yet," she replies. A smile plays on the edge of her lips.
"Holy shit. I guess I just assumed."
"He's being so patient," Alice exhales. "And I know how badly he wants to. It's just that he's so much more experienced than I am. What if I'm not good enough? What if it hurts? What if I don't live up to his... expectations?"
"Slow down, Alice."
"You'll be fine," Bella assures her. "It's just sex."
"Maybe to you."
"You know, my first time wasn't anything to write home about."
"I'm not sure it's supposed to be." She pauses for a sip of water before continuing. "But, yeah. First semester of college. My roommate dragged me to this party, right? And I met up with this guy. He was in a few of my classes, and I had the biggest crush on him. Anyway, after a few drinks I finally worked up the courage to talk to him, and one thing led to another."
"What was so bad about it?"
Bella leaves out most of the gory details. "He hooked up with my roommate that same night."
Alice's eyes go wide. "No way."
Bella nods. "It was so humiliating. And to make matters worse, they kept hooking up. We shared a tiny dorm room! I couldn't escape them."
"Wow. That really sucks."
"I was finally able to switch dorms at the beginning of the next semester," Bella says. "But by then, I was just, I don't know, over it."
"Does Edward know that story?" Alice asks a few seconds later.
"Um, no," Bella says. "We don't really talk about stuff like that."
"And you won't tell him about me and Jasper, right?"
"Right. Secret's safe with me," she assures her friend, and only a few seconds after, the guys arrive.
As the four slip into meaningless conversation, Edward's arm drifts to Bella's shoulder. Something's off. He noticed immediately upon his arrival, even through her attempts to act normal. She's quiet. Too quiet. Bella takes frequent sips from her water, having refused the beer he ordered for her.
Edward burns with curiosity and concern. It didn't escape his notice that whatever she and Alice were talking about when he arrived, they didn't want him to know. He fears the worst. "Are you okay?" he whispers into her ear.
Bella puts on her best smile. She kisses his cheek. "Great. How was your afternoon?"
He'd kept himself occupied with guitars and video games while Bella was away, but neither seem to hold his attention quite like she does. Today is the first Saturday he's spent away from her in two weeks, and if he were being honest, he'd say it totally sucked. "It was good," he lies. "Was your shopping trip successful?"
"A little too successful. Between a dress for the benefit and a few new outfits for work, I spent almost my entire paycheck."
"You're going to love her dress," Alice gushes, interrupting.
Edward frowns, and Bella, unsure if her comment about money or Alice's implication that they'll be attending the benefit together is the source, focuses all attention on the entree in front of her, more intimidated than ever.
The waitress stops by to check the accuracy of their orders, and Bella assumes that to an outsider, the couples seem very much alike. A stranger wouldn't be able to distinguish between the two—to guess that one couple is doing everything by the book, while the other struggles to even get onto the same page. Bella briefly wonders if Jasper and Alice are any happier or better off, but eventually decides that relationship or no relationship, it's all the same.
"Hey, what were you and my sister talking about earlier?" Later, Edward asks the question that has been eating away at him all night.
They're settled in at her apartment for the evening, having said goodbye to Jasper and Alice a couple of hours ago. Beer cans crowd the coffee table. A recently purchased blue dress hangs in Bella's closet. The thought to ask Edward to the benefit looms in her head, but Bella is too busy concentrating on a spur of the moment press release to worry about her personal life. Jacob called frantic thirty minutes ago with the news that a celebrity client had gotten himself into trouble with the police. He would have prepared the statement himself, but Bella made herself available, insisting she had nothing better to do.
Edward flops next to Bella on the couch, his hair damp from an extra long shower. He had hoped Bella would be finished with the release before his return, and grabs the remote to watch television when it's obvious she's not. He's ready for bed, having dressed, or underdressed, for the part. He wears only boxers, and his eyes rake over Bella's sleep shorts and slim-fitting tank top. Bella has been distant ever since dinner, where she had paid for not only herself, but Edward too, and he's dying to be close to her.
She's worried about money. Edward knows that. He knows Bella probably spent way more than she should on a dress for the benefit, and it's no wonder she so eagerly accepted Jacob's late night assignment. What Edward doesn't understand is why Bella so adamantly insisted on paying for dinner. He wishes there was something he could do; he would give her all of his earnings from performing in the subway yesterday if only he thought she would accept them. But there's more to her strange behavior, and he's terrified Alice revealed something she shouldn't. Edward has no idea Bella could be so nervous over something as simple as asking him to the benefit.
"When?" Bella asks, though she knows exactly what he's referencing. She glances away from her laptop temporarily to meet his eyes before returning her attention to the screen.
"When Jasper and I showed up at the restaurant."
"Oh," she says, acting as if she's only partially paying attention. For a few moments she considers being honest but decides better of it. No man wants to hear about his baby sister's plot to lose her virginity. "Nothing of importance. Why?"
Edward purses his lips together. She isn't lying, but he knows she isn't being entirely honest either. "No reason. Just curious."
He focuses his attention on channel surfing, but it isn't long before Bella shuts her laptop and puts it aside. "Hey, Edward?"
"How did you lose your virginity?"
The question catches Edward off guard. He isn't naive enough to think it's random, nor does he want to know how Bella landed on the subject. Bella's conversation with Alice got her wondering. It also made her decide she doesn't know nearly enough about the man she spends the majority of her free time with.
He answers vaguely, running a hand through wet hair. "I was in college."
It's not the answer she expects. "You went to college?"
Edward laughs under his breath. "I really shouldn't be surprised that you're surprised, should I?"
"I'm not surprised," she lies. Edward gazes at Bella with a blank stare and waits for her to come clean. "Okay, so I'm kind of surprised," she admits.
"That's what I thought."
"Did you graduate?" she asks.
His expression is smug. "At the top of my class."
He maintains eye contact. "Not a lie."
"Whatever, you probably majored in art or some shit."
"Like that's any better," she mutters. "No wonder you're living in a cardboard box."
"Yeah, and what'd you major in? Sucking dick? Because if so, you're doing it wrong."
She grins, playfully pushing him onto his back. "Funny. That's not what you said the other night."
Their conversation ends abruptly as Edward presses his lips against hers. She sinks into him with a little more force than necessary, and the tension around them begins to subside. Edward never tells Bella how he lost his virginity, and Bella never gets around to asking if he'll attend the benefit with her. Instead they spend the night wrapped in each other, questions unanswered and reality ignored.
"Bella, I believe you've met Mrs. Cullen before."
Monday morning comes too soon, and with it, an impromptu meeting with Esme Cullen. Not only is the woman married to Doctor Carlisle Cullen, but she also works as a prominent interior designer in the Chicago area. Esme looks strikingly familiar to Bella, though they've only met once before. Together they picked out a venue for the benefit, but that had been several months ago. A handful of emails and phone conversations have occurred between the two women since, but Esme's busy schedule has prevented her from stopping by Embry and Black, until now.
"I have," Bella says. "It's nice to see you again."
Bella's mind is scattered, having rushed to the office after waking up thirty minutes later than usual. She places the blame for her oversleeping on Edward, as he kept her awake most of the night. He's been sleeping over more frequently as of late, their weekends only rule completely disregarded. No sooner had Bella settled into her desk when Jacob and Esme came waltzing in, leaving Bella with very little time to gather her thoughts.
Her cell phone buzzes with a new message from the man she'd left half asleep in her bed, and she chances a glance at the screen before shoving it into her top desk drawer.
You look very nice today. Can I take you to lunch?
Very nice is only one way of putting it. If Edward were being honest, he'd say something far more inappropriate. He'd tell Bella she should've stayed in bed a little longer, or that he can't wait to fuck her again tonight. But it's his fault she overslept, and he knows she's probably not in the mood to entertain the same type of fantasies that made her late to work in the first place.
Edward isn't the only one taking notice of Bella's appearance. Her new outfit suits her, and Jacob's eyes skim every curve of her slender body. He wonders what has her so worked up this morning. He could get her worked up, assuming human relations were to fall off the face of the planet for a while...
Bella is oblivious to her boss's gawking. She doesn't notice the way he subtly wets his lips with a swipe of his tongue, or the way he sticks his hands into his pockets, stretching his slacks to hide an unruly erection. Being trapped in a room with two women, one beautiful from youth, and the other, plastic surgery, is not the worst way he could start his day.
"Rough morning?" Jacob asks Bella, attempting to pull his mind out of the gutter.
He wonders if Bella likes it rough.
Edward could attest to the fact that she does. "You could say that," she says.
"Esme just stopped by to go over a few last minute details," Jacob explains. "Should we head into the conference room?"
Orange juice and fresh bagels adorn the conference room's oversized table, but they're mostly ignored by the three associates, who choose to sit at the opposite end. Bella gets straight to business, answering every question Mrs. Cullen asks with little hesitation. The benefit is only a week away, and very few details remain unattended to. She presents her boss and client with diagrams and seating charts, event programs, and financial numbers. The time and preparation Bella has put into the project is apparent, and both Jacob and Esme are very impressed.
Mrs. Cullen takes her husband's foundation very seriously. It becomes apparent to Bella that Esme is a bit of a perfectionist, but after reining in every last detail, Esme breathes a sigh of relief and congratulates Embry and Black with a job well done.
"I think we're ready," Esme says, triumph in her voice.
"It would certainly appear that way," Jacob agrees.
"I hope so," Bella adds, still a little unsure. The benefit is her baby, and she doubts she'll feel totally confident until after everything is said and done.
"Found your dress yet?" Mrs. Cullen asks, dabbling in lighter conversation. Esme likes Bella. And since it would seem that her own daughter wants nothing to do with the Cullen Foundation, she finds enjoyment in talking to someone who does.
Bella nods. "Just this past weekend, actually."
"I'll bet it's beautiful." Esme smiles. "And you're bringing your boyfriend, I presume?"
Bella hesitates. Jacob pays special attention to her response. "No boyfriend," Bella says. "I'm way too busy for one of those."
Mrs. Cullen winks. "They really are more trouble than they're worth, aren't they?"
"You could say that." Bella agrees.
"You know, I have a son that can't be much older than you..." the socialite begins, but when the direction of the conversation registers with Bella, she does her best to shut it down. Images of Emmett Cullen enter her head. Maybe he's separated after all, but regardless, she's still not interested.
"That won't be necessary," Bella laughs. "I have a friend." She puts special emphasis on the word. "I would ask him, but I'm a little apprehensive when it comes to mixing my professional life with my personal. And I'm not sure how well he'd fit in," she confesses.
Translation: Edward isn't quite up to standards.
"Nonsense!" Esme insists, "Bring him! Surely he's no worse than my daughter's loser boyfriend."
"Or don't," Jacob interjects. "There's nothing wrong with going solo. I am. Hell, Bella, we could even go together. As associates, of course..."
"I'll think about it," Bella says, avoiding an answer and seeking a way to escape the conference room as soon as possible. Suddenly there's one thing more terrifying than asking Edward to benefit: having to go without him. "I should really get going," she says, her eyes darting to the closed door.
"Me too," Esme agrees. "I'm off to hunt down that son of mine. He hasn't stopped by the house in weeks!"
"Maybe he has a woman after all." Bella is only partially paying attention to Jacob as she darts out the door.
Back in her office, she takes a sequence of deep breaths to calm herself. It's already 10:45. She remembers Edward wanting to meet for lunch and pulls out her phone, allowing herself no time to back down. Scrolling to the most recent message, she hits reply.
Lunch sounds great. Oh, and Edward... I need a favor.