Summary: "Biggest regret?" That I didn't meet you first.
A/N: A light one-shot with minor political undertones in honor of Election Day. Get out there and vote, American peeps! Other peeps… keep on keepin' on. xo
Unbeta'ed, because I've given HollettLA enough headaches to work with for one week, so all mistakes are mine alone.
"Corner of Prospect and Potomac," the cabbie announces with a flourish worthy of a horse-drawn carriage driver, and I look up from the screen of my cell phone to find that the cab is idling at the curb outside my destination. I rummage in my purse for bills and pass them through the dull plastic partition before sliding along the cracked black leather seat and into the unseasonably frigid air. Crossing the sidewalk, I hug my coat tighter around me before pulling open the tinted glass door, not without effort given the door's heft, and step inside.
My hands rub roughly over my biceps in a futile attempt to coax some warmth into my frame as my eyes adjust to the muted lighting of the restaurant. Rosalie cocks an eyebrow at me from behind the gleaming hostess stand. "Chilly out there?"
I roll my eyes in greeting. "It's absurd that it's this cold in April. The cherry blossoms are going to wither and die."
She shrugs, evidently already bored with the conversation, and goes back to considering the empty seating chart in front of her. Rosalie Hale is exactly what any smart restaurateur wants in a hostess, and Chez Ami owner Esme Platt is no dummy. Rose has the effortless beauty of a screen siren and the take-no-bullshit bearing of a military liaison. She has both the fashion sense and the body of a runway model, yet few people know that beneath those sleeveless silk blouses and second-skin skirts are a few well-placed pieces of body art that hint at a darker side she only shares with the very worthy. The fact that I'm privy to such information is due in large part to approximately five too many tequila shots during Rose's bachelorette party.
I weave my way through empty tables, pristine white tablecloths pulled tight over the tops and spotless glassware glimmering in dancing candlelight.
"Hey, Embry," I offer as I pass a busboy lighting another candle.
"Bella," he greets, his large hands making a concentrated effort to light the tiny wick of the tea light.
Once through the door of the employee lounge I am immediately assaulted by the effervescent greeting of Alice – roommate, waitress, and aspiring D.C. socialite. Alice prides herself on knowing everyone who's anyone in the city, and enjoys the high-class elbow-rubbing of our upper-crust place of employment nearly as much as she enjoys the Fortune 500 tippers. We make small talk as we hang our coats and purses and prepare for a marathon shift. Friday nights are always late ones at Chez Ami, particularly in the wake of our recent rave review in the Post, and while the paychecks are more than worth it Saturday mornings are generally a wash for all of us.
Alice and I murmur greetings to the other servers and bus staff as we reemerge into the restaurant, and I find my familiar spot in the straight track of walk space behind the bar as Alice leans against it, wrapping the strings of her waist apron around her tiny body more times than the average server needs to. I wipe over the already-gleaming bar surface and busy myself filling the bar caddy with napkins, cocktail picks, and straws, keeping one ear open as Alice launches into a play-by-play of the previous evening's blind date.
"I don't know," she says absently, her eyes scanning the list of specials she has tucked into her notepad. "He seems really nice, but he's so… southern. I mean, he actually called our server ma'am. Who does that?"
"A gentleman?" I venture, filling the condiment holder with maraschino cherries.
Her eyebrows pull together in a troubled frown. "What if he's a Republican?"
Coming from anyone else I would have laughed at that question; coming from Alice, however, it's akin to hypothesizing that her blind date might be a serial killer.
"It's probably worth finding out before you decide anything."
She nods in tacit agreement, her eyes once again skimming the list in front of her. "Magret de canard aux echalotes: grilled duck breast with shallot and parsley butter, savoy cabbage, celery root blinis, and fried spring onions," she murmurs, and I smile as the paring knife in my hand slices a lemon into clean wedges. Alice is one of the few servers who can handle the French menu items without bastardizing them entirely, and I've seen more than one past-his-prime legislative wonk watch with considerable intent as those words slide off her painted lips. It's no coincidence that, on average, more of Alice's diners order a special than any others.
"Charlotte de legumes aux champignons," I hear as she turns and makes her way back into the restaurant. Depositing the lemons into the compartment beside the cherries, I do the same with limes and wipe my hands on a black microfiber bar towel before grabbing the television remote from beside the register. The glow of the flat-screen mounted behind the bar throws more light into the dim space and I set the channel to CNN before hiding the remote once more. Checking the levels in the rainbow row of bottles lined up along the back of the bar, I make a mental note to have Jake ensure that new bottles of Laphroaig, Glenfiddich, and Grey Goose are at the ready.
"Hell's Bells!" It is Jacob's standard greeting and favorite nickname, and the welcoming grin that slides over my face is genuine.
"Doug Coughlin," I return, an homage to Jake's favorite movie and the character he idolizes. "How's it hangin'?"
Jake beams, and I realize my mistake immediately. "If you really want to know…" He trails off, letting his dancing eyebrows do the rest of his talking.
My head-shake does little to dissuade his leer, so I opt for shop talk. Jacob is a goof, and occasionally a bit of a depraved frat boy, but he's a hard worker and when it comes to the bar he's all business. He's also crazy in love with his wife, which enables me to ignore the occasional innuendo-laden barb without feeling uneasy. I tick off the liquors that will need to be replenished early in the night and we do some back-and-forth guesswork on which others it might be prescient to keep handy. His hulking frame disappears into the stockroom to organize the inventory and I give my reflection a once-over in the mirror behind the bottles. A glance at my watch reveals that the doors will open in a matter of minutes, and I smooth my hands over the non-descript black v-neck top and black pants that constitute my work attire. One of the countless things about my job for which I'm grateful is the outfit; past bartending gigs have carried "uniform" expectations ranging from starchy collared men's dress shirts and vests to skin-tight tank tops that left more than just my arms on display.
I am pulled from my reverie by the familiar sound of a barstool scraping across the hardwood floor of the bar and instinctively turn, a smile plastered on my face. The smile and my movement freeze, however, when I see the customer who has taken a place at the far end of the bar. Slightly unkempt copper hair – sex hair, Alice would call it – and a crisp charcoal suit on a body that would be noteworthy enough independent of the fact that the face attached to both has graced the television screen above my head more times than a few.
Attempting to school my features into something resembling friendly but professional nonchalance, I pull a cocktail napkin from the top of the stack and slide it across the gleaming bar surface toward him. "What can I get you?"
His eyes meet mine, and I am surprised by the color: a far more striking green than I would have guessed before seeing him in person. A warm smile is his reply, followed by a quick perusal of the bottles standing sentry behind me, a little army of indulgence.
"Double Scotch, single malt, water back," he requests, green eyes flicking to my face.
I nod and busy myself behind the bar, finding comfort in the familiar routine. As I move to place the glass of amber liquid on the white paper square in front of him, I realize that in the thirty seconds my back has been turned he has torn it in half a few times over, resulting in a leaning tower of tiny shredded napkin fragments.
"Sorry," he apologizes, his gaze following mine as his hands fall still mid-tear.
"No problem." I grab another napkin from the stack and place the drink on it, sliding both toward him along with a taller glass of ice water.
Long fingers curl around the tumbler, making it look impossibly small in his hand; he brings it to his mouth and takes a small sip, wincing in the universal gesture of a good burn. He licks his lips and I realize I'm staring; as I take a step back, my hip crashes into the corner of the speed rail.
"Shit," I breathe, rubbing the hipbone that will surely be sporting a nice bruise by morning. I glance at him. "Sorry." Cursing behind the bar is a major faux pas; I'm lucky that Esme trusts me to run things without appearing too often. She is ruthless when it comes to professionalism in front of the clientele.
"No problem," he parrots, and smiles.
I busy myself opening a few of the new bottles of liquor Jake retrieved and inserting a pourer into the mouth of each of them.
"What a hack," I hear after a few moments, and I turn to face him.
His eyes fly to mine, and a sheepish grin takes over his face as he nods toward the muted television above both of us. "Sorry," he offers, and I am momentarily discomfited that three rounds of apology have taken place with a man in whose presence I've been for less than five minutes. "I'm not a fan."
I follow his gaze to see the majority counsel for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee talking into a microphone; the closed-captioning ticking along the bottom of the screen suggests he is engaging in his favorite pastime: spewing vitriol about the sitting president. "No," I concede, "I can't imagine you would be."
I risk a glance back at his face, and his laser-sharp focus is trained solely on me, majority counsel momentarily forgotten. An amused smirk dances at the corners of his mouth and I'm nearly insulted by the surprise in his eyes.
"You know who I am," he says finally, and it's not a question.
"You probably should have gone with a more traditional disguise if you were hoping to fly under the radar," I suggest. "Georgetown isn't that far from Pennsylvania Avenue. But I might be able to scrounge up a glasses-nose-moustache combo for you, if you'd like." The sass escapes before I can check it and I stop, worried that I've offended him, but he chuckles.
"Touché." The humor is gone as quickly as it appeared. "I don't get recognized nearly as much as you'd think. Not off the Hill, anyway." It is a statement of fact, and yet I can hear the question in his curiosity.
Considering him for a moment, I decide to tip my hand. "PoliSci student," I confess. "And legislative junkie. If I didn't recognize the White House Director of Legislative Affairs, I'd kick my own ass."
"Edward Cullen," he offers, extending a hand. "Except that you already knew that."
"Bella Swan," I reply, accepting the proffered handshake. "New information."
He takes another small sip from his glass, nursing the tingle as it passes through his throat and contemplating me. "Undergrad?"
I snort. "Postgrad. But thanks for the compliment." I tilt my head to the side in contemplation. "I think."
"Again, yes." I gesture grandly to our surroundings. "Hence, my glamorous night gig."
"Did you do your undergrad there?"
"No. University of Maryland. Merill."
At this, his eyebrow arches. "Journalism." I only nod, so he continues. "Ultimate goal?"
This brings me pause, and I squint at him as the bar cloth slides through my fingers. "Don't laugh."
"I wouldn't dare," and while his tone is light, his eyes are serious.
"Senior White House correspondent for The Washington Post."
He lets out a low whistle. "That's quite a gig."
"And very specific."
"A member of the fourth estate."
"A newspaper hack." His eyes are gleaming in humor, so I take the baton and run with it.
"As opposed to a legislative hack."
He concedes the point with a nod as a pair of men enter the bar, situating themselves a few stools down from where I stand. I glance at Edward in silent farewell before approaching the newcomers and sliding a pair of napkins toward them to take drink orders and then turn my back to fill them. As I place the full glasses down a young couple enters the bar and just that quickly, the space is abuzz. Jake appears beside me and helps manage the happy hour rush, a weekly occurrence on a Friday evening in D.C. It isn't until the bar is nearly mobbed with people that I realize both the House and Senate are in recess and that, as a result, a large number of politicos are blowing off steam. When we hit a lull and everyone appears to be bevvied up, I make my way back to where Edward is sitting. He sees me coming and brings his glass to his lips, draining it.
I grin despite myself and nod toward his empty. "Refill?"
"I'd better not," he says after a moment. "Best to keep my wits about me."
My palms come to rest on the back edge of the bar and I raise an expectant eyebrow. "Even during recess? A third-grader will tell you that recess is all about fun."
"You know your congressional calendar," he allows. "No, I just…" Here, he falters, casting around for a moment before glancing at the television screen and then back to me. "I could potentially have a big night ahead of me."
One of the best pieces of advice I got from Emmett, my predecessor at this very bar, was to avoid engaging the boozers in any type of deep discussion about their lives, otherwise I run the risk of getting sucked in. It is a piece of wisdom that has served me well in the year and a half I've been at Chez Ami, so it's a surprise even to me that I take the bait currently dangling in front of me. I would argue to anyone else that it's because this is Edward Cullen, White House staffer, Beltway insider, potential source if I ever manage to make my way onto the beat. To myself, however, I have to concede the truth: I'm intrigued by this man for a number of reasons, and I'd estimate that only about fifty percent of them are directly related to the fact that his office is located on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was fascinated by him before ever seeing him in the flesh, and that interest has been launched into the stratosphere by twenty minutes of in-the-flesh proximity.
"A big night, huh?"
He seems to hesitate for a moment before reaching into the pocket inside his suit coat and withdrawing a small velvet box, recognizable the world over as The Little Black Box. The type of box that's usually accompanied by a question, and which usually contains some sort of stone for which there's an entire district named in Midtown Manhattan. "Wow," I say finally, eyes trained on the box, which now rests next to his empty glass. "That is a big night," I grant him, and he nods soberly.
"I'm early," he says after a moment, and his fingertips drum out a rhythm on the bar. "We have reservations for seven."
"You're going to propose in front of five other people?" I joke, and his penetrating stare pleads with me not to make light of his anxiety.
"Seven o'clock," he explains, as if I'm the slow kid.
"Yeah," I agree finally. "You probably don't want two hours' worth of Scotch before you propose. Could make the getting-down-on-one-knee part a bit of a choreographed effort."
He remains silent, and we stare at each other for a moment before a baby-faced guy in an ill-fitting suit attempts to grab my attention from the other end of the bar. "I'll be right back," I promise, and return to doing my job. The patron grins at me, and I offer just enough of a smile to seem friendly but disinterested: another skill for which I can thank Emmett. "What can I get you?"
"Amaretto sour and your number," he says, clearly pleased with himself for knocking this one out of the park.
"You got it and not a chance," I reply smoothly, and his face falls. I make his drink as quickly as I can and push it toward him. "Tab?" I ask as he extends a credit card.
"I'm sorry," he says, and his voice is as earnest as his expression. "That was really lame. I apologize."
"Don't sweat it," I deflect, and he leans in. Persistent, this one.
"I really would like your number, though," he breathes, and I'm pretty sure I've seen him in here a few times before, tossing back rounds of shots with a crowd that exudes the giddy-yet-desperate air of interns or aides or some other low equivalent on the D.C. food chain.
"Sorry, that's not on the drink menu." I attempt to strike the balance between still friendly but firm, and wave the credit card in the air between us. "Tab?" I repeat.
He nods, finally defeated, and I turn my back on him to start his tab.
"Pretty determined," Edward observes when I make my way back to his end of the bar. "What's wrong? Not your type?"
A snort escapes me before I can rein it in. "Please. He ordered an Amaretto sour. Breast milk is a more masculine drink order. I would never give my number to a man who drinks chick-drinks."
A wry smile threatens to crack his mock-serious veneer. "And Scotch?"
"Generally, Scotch is at the top of the masculine list," I allow. "However, a double-shot at just gone five o'clock would make me worry that he has a drinking problem, an ulcer-inducing job, or a crisis in his personal life, all of which are major red flags."
The wry smile vanishes, and I silently curse my verbal vomit. "Well, no to the drinking problem, yes to the job, and maybe to the personal crisis." At this, I notice that he has put the little black box away. "Stay tuned; after all, you have a front row seat."
Relief washes through me at the indication that I haven't alienated him with my insensitive tirade. "Sorry."
"Does it strike you as odd that we've apologized to each other roughly four times in the span of about twenty minutes?" he asks, and his small smile puts me back at ease.
"I did notice that."
"You should know that apologizing isn't really my style."
"If you're planning on getting married in the near future, that's probably something you want to work on."
"Lucky for me, apologizing isn't really her style, either, so she doesn't often expect it of me."
"Well, whatever works for you, I guess."
"Sometimes better than others," he admits.
The quiet that falls between us is comfortable and simultaneously uncomfortable due to its effortlessness; something tells me we both realize that it's not normal to be quite so at-ease with a virtual stranger. Despite my concern at our inexplicable familiarity, I plunder full steam ahead into his personal life.
"Can I make a suggestion?"
"Absolutely. I'm a proposal virgin, so hit me with whatever female intuition you're willing to share. I only get one crack at this, and it'd be superb if I could hit the emotional g-spot I'm going for."
My mouth goes dry when he says "g-spot," and it takes me a moment to pick my composure up off the floor. He flushes suddenly, as if realizing the implication of his words. "Sorry. That was awfully… tactless of me."
"Honest, though." I pause for a beat before picking up the intended thread of conversation that I dropped at his innuendo. "Don't ask her."
His eyebrows are in his hairline. "Pardon?" he says carefully, and I realize what that sounded like.
"No!" As I throw up my hands, I knock over his glass of water and he leaps back from the bar just in time to minimize the collision between the cascading ice water and his charcoal dress pants. "Shit!" I grab a cloth from the shelf beneath the bar and soak up the pool gradually spreading across the bar. "I'm sorry. Shit. Are you soaked?"
"No," he laughs, swiping at the droplets of moisture in his lap. "Barely got me. Don't worry about it."
"Damn it," I breathe, and realize that if Esme were lurking anywhere nearby, I'd certainly be fired after tonight for sounding more like a sailor and less like an upscale bartender. Not to mention nearly drenching a pretty high-profile patron. "I'm really sorry."
"Bella." He catches my hand, his cool fingers encircling the fluted bones of my wrist in gentle restraint. "Stop. It's okay."
I can feel the heat crawling up the back of my neck and threatening to flood my cheeks, and I can't tell if it's the lingering embarrassment at my clumsiness or at the sensation of his hand on my skin. We stand in awkward silence for a moment, me arched over the bar and him standing beside his abandoned stool, before he releases me and I straighten, tossing the soaked cloth into the sink behind me.
"You were saying?" he asks finally, resituating himself on his stool.
"You said, 'Don't ask her.' I'd like clarification."
"Oh. Right. I didn't mean 'don't ask her,' like, don't ask her. I meant don't ask her as in, don't do the traditional 'will you marry me' thing."
The frown that draws his brows together is his tell, and I can see that the ever-popular four-word question was indeed part of his game plan. "Well, what am I supposed to say?" he asks, and even without knowing him, I can hear the frustration coloring his words that tells me Edward Cullen is a man unaccustomed to not knowing how to approach a situation to get what he wants.
"Okay, disclaimer: this is my opinion. I don't know your girlfriend, and I can't speak for every woman on the planet. This is just my personal thought on the subject."
"Noted," he says, and waits for me to continue.
"Demand it," I say finally, and off his confused face, I continue. "What's your girlfriend's name?"
"Lauren," he says, and I feel an unfamiliar twist in my chest. There is something about the way he says it, and I remember an e-mail forward that Alice sent me ages ago with a collection of little anecdotes about the various definitions six-year-olds have for love. The one that stayed with me was a little girl who said that love is when someone says your name differently than anyone else because it's like your name is safe in his mouth. I'm reminded of this when I hear Edward say Lauren, and am subsequently assaulted by images of a couple tangled in bed sheets on a sunny Sunday morning. Something in me hitches; I attempt to pummel it back into place.
"Lauren," I echo, fighting for a neutral tone. "Okay. So, personal preference? Instead of 'Lauren, will you marry me?' go for 'Marry me, Lauren.' It's more manly that way."
He stares at me, and after a few beats of silence I begin to fidget. "That it?" he says finally. "A slight rearranging of the words? That's all you've got?"
My hands curl into fists and find their way to my hips. "Well, what more do you want?"
"I don't know," he says with a shrug. "But I was expecting a little more than just a minimal edit. I thought you were a writer." He grins in the face of my glare and I huff.
"You're on your own."
"I'm kidding," he says. "That's a good note. Thanks." He glances up at the television for a moment before speaking again. "Anything else?"
"Nope. I've done my bit."
"Don't clam up on me now. I've already averted one crisis thanks to you; 'will you marry me' was going to be my kicker. Help a guy out."
"No," I say, but a smile threatens despite my petulance.
A lazy smile slides across his face, and I am staring down the barrel of another weapon in Edward Cullen's arsenal of persuasion: charm. I can only imagine how many ball-busting women on the Hill have caved in the face of a full-fledged Cullen charm offensive. "Oh, come on, Bella," he says, voice honeyed. "This is better than sneaking peeks at women's magazines. Much more insightful."
"Ah." I nod in mock seriousness. "So you're saying the emotional g-spot isn't the only one you need help finding. Make a habit of perusing the pages of Cosmo, do you?"
He beams, and it is the first full smile I've seen on his lovely face. "Believe me when I tell you that I could write the article on where that particular button is located, but since we've established that you're the one inclined to put pen to paper, I'll leave the journalistic bent to you."
I open and close my mouth a few times, searching for any coherent words to sling back at him, and his glee at rendering me speechless is evident on his face. After a few moments he takes pity on me and leans forward, resting his arms on the bar. He opens his mouth to speak, wincing instead and lifting an elbow when he realizes that a pool of ice-cold water that my rag missed has seeped through his sleeve. I resist the urge to retrieve a towel. "Bella," he says gently. "Honestly. I haven't told any of my friends what I'm planning to do tonight, so I haven't had the opportunity to pinball ideas with anyone. I'm sort of flying blind here. I'd appreciate any advice you'd be willing to give me. I want to do it right."
His earnestness is nearly as attractive as his cockiness, and I am suddenly struck by a nearly blinding jealousy of a woman I've never met. Abruptly exhausted by this entire exchange I glance around us at the crowd, which has dwindled considerably as people have made their way to tables in the restaurant. "I really don't have any other advice," I offer weakly.
"Come on," he argues, and I can see how he earned a reputation as one of the more tenacious members on President Meyer's staff. "Give me an introspective. What would you want to hear if the man in your life dropped to one knee in front of you?"
"Well, first off, I'd like for him to introduce himself," I volley.
He doesn't miss a beat, but a small smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. "Okay, the hypothetical man in your life, then. What do you want your proposal to look like?"
Despite his sincerity, or perhaps because of it, I really don't want to offend him again. "I don't know what to tell you," I confess. "My ideal proposal doesn't happen in a swanky restaurant."
He nods, seemingly unfazed by my revelation. "Okay."
I sigh. "Fine. I want a marriage proposal on a Sunday afternoon, beneath a cherry blossom tree, while my head's resting on his stomach and we're both reading different books, interrupting each other every so often to read something aloud. Or in my kitchen, on a weeknight, when I lift a wooden spoon from the saucepan to make him taste my marinara. Or in the middle of the night, when we're sweaty and spent and can barely see each other in the moonlight coming through the bedroom window. I want spur-of-the-moment. I want…" I trail off, realizing that once again, my mouth has run away with me, and I can feel a too-familiar heat suffuse my cheeks.
"You want what?" His encouragement is soft, coaxing.
"I want the man I'm with to realize that he wants to marry me so suddenly and with such urgency that he can't stop himself from blurting it out loud. I don't want choreography."
He considers this, and me, and I feel like his eyes are a fireplace I'm standing too close to. "Spontaneity," he breathes, and I nod gratefully. "Another good note. Though, unfortunately, a bit too late for this particular circumstance."
I don't know what to say in response, since I have figuratively crapped all over his romantic gesture at the same time I've inwardly begun to fawn over him, and I am grateful beyond words when a drunk man pushes his way to the bar beside Edward and points to the television. "Can you change this to Fox News?" His eyes are slightly glassy and his words are just slurred enough to highlight the fact that Chez Ami is clearly not the first stop on his Friday night bar crawl.
"Sorry," I shrug. "Pre-set."
"Bullshit," he argues, and makes a move to climb on top of the bar. "I'll do it myself."
"Hey!" I shout.
"Hey buddy," Edward interjects. "I think you should—"
"Fuck off," the guy sneers. "I know who you are."
"Congratulations," Edward replies smoothly. "I can't say I know who you are, but I'm not particularly bothered by that fact. I am, however, bothered by your proximity to me and your general rudeness to both myself and this lovely young bartender, so I'm going to have to ask you to take a step back."
"Problem here?" I feel Jake's familiar presence behind me.
The so-called patron considers the not-inconsiderable size of my fellow bartender, as well as the fact that he's now decidedly outnumbered, and opts to save what little face remains. "No," he mutters finally. "Forget this place, I'm going somewhere with better taste."
"We're crushed," Edward deadpans at his retreating back before returning his sharp gaze to me and then glancing to where Jake still hovers.
"Thanks, Jake," I say after a moment and nod at my coworker.
"You got it. I was just going to replace one of the kegs; you good here for a few minutes?"
Jake disappears in the direction of the stockroom and I glance at Edward, who is checking his watch. I mimic him, peeking at the clock at the bottom of the television screen: 6:15. In forty-five minutes, what has quickly become the most enjoyable evening in my recent history will go back to being mundane, and I feel a tidal swell of disappointment at the realization.
"I guess I could handle a beer," Edward says after a brief awkward silence, and I nod as he glances at the taps. "Newcastle?"
"You got it," I say, grateful for the opportunity to slip back into the role in which I'm most comfortable. Drink order filled, I place the glass on a napkin and slide it toward him; I note that a small frown has replaced the previous smile as he reaches out and accepts the drink with a haze of distraction clouding his eyes. I step back from him, affording us both some breathing room and enabling me to attend to the few lingering patrons who remain in the lull between the happy hour crowd and the after-dinner late-night crowd. When glasses have been filled and a tab has been run, I venture back toward him, feeling suddenly wary. He looks up from his glass and offers me a half-smile; something tugs at my heart, and I'm instantly nostalgic for the beam that had transformed his face when he was teasing me. I want to say something to bring it back, but I've never been very good at garnering desired reactions in men.
"I'm sorry," I settle on finally, and his frown deepens.
"I feel like I just took all the wind out of your sails," I admit. "This is a great restaurant with a waiting list as long as the congressional roll call, and I'm sure you bought a beautiful ring, and there's no doubt that your girlfriend will love the proposal you have planned. I'm sorry I implied otherwise; it's worth noting that I have no rings on any significant fingers, so I'm not entirely sure why I was offering my opinions on the matter in the first place."
"Because I asked you to," he says simply, and I find I have no case against that logic, so I shrug.
"I'm still sorry."
"Don't be," he assures me, but any humor once in his voice has left the building. "It was very enlightening." After a beat, he murmurs, "Very enlightening," but the volume and tone tell me the reiteration wasn't meant for me. I am busy attempting to stay afloat in a lake of self-loathing, so his next comment throws me. "You must make a mean marinara."
"What?" I try without success to find where we are on the map.
The playfulness is suddenly back in his eyes and I'm so relieved that I have a hard time grasping the yarn he's weaving. "To merit an impulsive proposal of marriage – that must be one hell of a spaghetti sauce recipe."
"Italian grandmother," I confess.
"Ah. What's the secret?"
"Worcestershire sauce." At my revelation, his eyebrows climb upward.
"Wow. You gave that up without much of a fight. Good thing you're the journalist and not the source; you'd be an open book inside the Beltway."
"You'd be surprised; I can be a lock box when the situation calls for it."
He hums in consideration before opting to return to the real conversation at hand, which leads me to believe he's either a masochist or a simpleton, and the fact that he's scaled the proverbial ladder of the Democratic Party to damn near the top by the age of thirty-one leads me to reason it must be the former. "So you're saying you've never been on the receiving end of a proposal." I'm sure my rather inelegant snort is enough of an answer, but in case it isn't, I shake my head. "Ever come close?" he presses.
"How would I know? The proposal ball is commonly in the man's court."
"I have it on good authority that women generally start to expect that ball to be volleyed after a certain amount of time has passed," he states.
"Oh? And how much time are we talking, here?"
"Is that a question?"
"My sincerest apologies; I should have phrased that differently. I know you don't care for questions."
At that, I roll my eyes. "Some are better than others."
"Ooh." He rubs his hands together. "Challenge extended."
I tamp down on the urge to laugh. "I'm working here."
He looks around at the nearly empty bar and offers me an exaggerated eyebrow-raise. "Barely."
"Careful, or I won't miss with the ice water next time."
He pseudo-shudders. "Cruel. Come on. I promise to let you off the hook if a customer bellies up to the bar."
The show I put on of mulling this over is just that; we both know I'm going to play along. "Fine. But I get to volley some back."
"I'll start you off easy. Dog person or cat person?"
"Dog person," I answer, then opt to clarify. "I mean, I don't have a pet at all right now because I keep crazy hours, but one day I'd like to have a dog."
He nods. "What kind?"
"I thought this was give-and-take."
"This is a continuation of the previous question, not a new question."
"Fair enough. I don't really care. A rescue. Something bigger than a beagle, smaller than a Great Dane. Same question."
"Dog person, but not yet. And if you think your hours are crazy, I welcome you to drop by Capitol Hill after 10 p.m. any day Congress is in session, and you'll see why. Favorite drink?"
"To make or drink?"
He considers me, then chuckles. "To drink."
"Grey Goose and ginger ale. But I'm not much of a drinker."
"Interesting combination. I'll have to try that sometime." I have a sudden flash of him revisiting my bar again in the future, sitting in front of me beside a supermodel-gorgeous woman with an ice rink on her finger, and I swallow.
"My turn," I say, battling back the unbidden mental picture. "Favorite city you've ever visited?"
"London," he answers without missing a beat. "It's not very exotic, I know, but it felt like somewhere I could call home. The people were nice, the cab drivers were friendly and always knew exactly where they were going, and the public transportation is so easy to navigate it makes the Metro seem like something out of National Treasure. Plus, people say things like 'cheers' for 'thank you' and call each other 'mate.' How can you not like a place where people say 'cheers'? It's impossible." I recognize a kindred spirit in his apparent inability to rein in his verbal enthusiasm, and if possible, he becomes even more attractive to me than he was already. "Worst habit?" he challenges.
I consider this for a moment; I stopped biting my nails in college and D.C. minimizes my need to drive myself anywhere, which has greatly diminished my tendency to push the speed limit. "I leave empty milk cartons in the fridge," I confess finally. "It drives my roommate Alice crazy. And I leave clean laundry in the dryer and just pluck items out of it until she does a load and needs to use it. I'm sort of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of housekeeper."
"Wow. A real rebel." His eyes dance, and my insides do the merengue right along with them.
"You have no idea." I am impressed with my own ability to sound blasé. "Favorite thing about your job?"
The playfulness fades slightly and is surpassed by earnestness which, alarmingly, is even more appealing. "When we get it right," he replies. "When we pass a piece of legislation or do something that has an immediately positive impact on people's lives. There's a lot of bullshit in government, and a lot of politicking, but when we're able to cut through it and actually get something done, it makes all of the other stuff worth it." I like this answer. I like it a lot, and I think it must show on my face because he's smiling at me like someone who can see the truth I don't speak. "First web site you check in the morning?"
My first instinct is to lie, but I'm expecting truth from him, so I don't. " ," I admit. He grins, but offers no verbal reply. "Best Halloween costume you ever wore?"
The grin widens. "When we were campaigning, I wore a 'Hello, My Name Is' sticker with 'Bill' written on it." He waits a beat until I clue in, suddenly launched back to an episode of "Schoolhouse Rock" that I watched in elementary school.
"I'm just a bill, sittin' on Capitol Hill," I sing, and he beams.
"Nicely done. Not many people caught on at the time; I had to explain that we were in committee, waiting to see if we'd get to become laws." Green eyes and sex-hair be damned, now I'm lusting after his unapologetic nerdiness and predisposition toward offbeat political humor. "Same question."
I shrug. "To be honest, most of my costumes growing up came from K-mart. Last year I wore a coconut bra and boxing gloves." When his frown lasts a beat too long, I spell it out. "Hawaiian Punch." He guffaws, and I'm inordinately pleased to note he has a surprisingly high-pitched and not entirely masculine laugh. "Okay. I know. Next. Whom do you go to for advice?"
"My father." His immediate answer is endearing. "He's a doctor in a small town in Washington State, but he grew up in Chicago, so he has a very broad range of perspective. He's never given me bad advice, and when I ignore it, I usually regret it."
"When was the last time you ignored it?"
He considers me carefully. "I thought it was my turn."
"This is a continuation of that question, not a new one," I mimic.
"Well, I'm planning to ignore him tonight. He's not sure I should be proposing."
"Why not?" Then, off his look, "Continuation!"
"He's afraid I'm doing it for the wrong reasons."
"Nope." He shakes his head. "Enough follow-up questions. My turn. Who is one person you trust implicitly?"
"Easy. My best friend, Alice. Aforementioned roommate. You know how you have that friend who will sit with you in total silence for as long as it takes, and not say a word and not fidget and not make you feel like you're wasting her time? That's Alice. She's seen me at my worst and my best, and she didn't treat me any differently in either situation."
"There aren't a lot of friends like that in this town," he says, and his earlier words about not having discussed his big proposal game plan with anyone come back to me. I suddenly feel sad for him, sad about the fact that less than half an hour before what's bound to be a major milestone in his life, he's playing Twenty Questions with a random bartender.
I'm tempted to return to the previous line of questioning, but the fact that he cut me off hints that such a brazen swan dive into his personal life might not be entirely welcome, so I redirect. "Favorite breakfast food?"
"Pancakes," he says immediately. "No blueberries, no chocolate chips, no bananas… just good old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes with slightly more maple syrup than is typically considered healthy. Most irrational fear?"
"Ugh. Vampires." The mere mention of the word sends a shudder through me. "I watched The Lost Boys when I was a kid, and it's haunted me ever since."
"Wait." He squints as if in an attempt to draw something from the depths of his memory. "The 80s movie with Kiefer Sutherland and the two Coreys?"
"One and the same."
"Something with Jack Bauer and two subpar actors I can never keep straight has left you with a lifelong fear of creatures of the night?"
"Hey! No judging."
He holds up a hand in deference. "None whatsoever."
I fold my hands across my chest. "Same question."
"Home invasion." He's deadly serious.
"You know, they make these pretty nifty things called alarms these days…"
"No judging," he reminds me with a smirk. "Do you have any tattoos?" A flush works its way into my face, and his eyes spark. When I don't answer, a smile tugs at his mouth. "Oh, now I'm even more curious."
"Yes." I offer nothing more and he raises an eyebrow.
"Don't go monosyllabic on me, Bella Swan. You'll suck the fun right out of this. What is it and, perhaps more interestingly, where is it?"
"They're words, and they're on my torso." He purses his smiling lips and reclines against the backrest of his stool, arms folded across his chest in the universal gesture of waiting someone out. I huff before placing both hands on the bar; if he's going to attempt to make me squirm, I'm going to return the favor. Or attempt to, at the very least.
"And your very flesh shall be a great poem," I recite.
"Whitman," he nods, those green irises still twinkling, and I'm floored. "Nice choice. And where exactly, pray tell, is that particular gem inked?"
I purse my lips before turning my body slightly away from him; my eyes still trained on his, I run my index finger horizontally across the first rib beneath the underwire of my right bra cup. Despite the dim atmosphere in the bar – ambiance lighting, Esme would remind me – I see his eyes darken.
He licks his lips. "Why Whitman?"
"Why not?" He doesn't give, and I face him wholly once again. "I love to write, but I want it to be about more than the words. I want it to be everything; who I am, what I believe, my heart and soul. I want every word to mean something. My flesh, my soul… I want them all in there." He remains silent, so I opt to shuffle the deck and re-deal. "Same question."
A quick shake of his head. "No ink," he says, and he sounds almost disappointed by that fact. "Biggest regret?"
That I didn't meet you first, I want to say. I bite my tongue; he notices. "Regrets are a waste of time," I say quietly, and I'm not sure which one of us I'm trying to convince.
"So's playing the lottery, but millions of people still buy tickets." His voice has dropped to match mine, and the combined effects of the dim lighting and absence of other customers make me feel like we're trading secrets.
"Same question." I hope he'll let me get away with it.
"Same answer." His eyes hold mine, and I feel like I'm drowning. I break our standoff to check the clock: 6:58. It's going to hurt, but I have to do it.
"Last question," I say, and I see him glance at his watch.
"Last question," he agrees, and he sounds as disappointed as I feel.
"Why are you flirting with a random bartender when you have a ring in your coat pocket?"
The spell broken, he leans away from me; his throat dances as he swallows. After a beat he lifts his glass to his lips, draining the last mouthful before pushing it toward me. We remain in a silent standoff until Rose appears in the doorway of the bar holding a pair of menus. "Mr. Cullen? Your table is ready."
Edward nods without looking at her, still holding my eye.
"I'll transfer your tab to your check if you'd like, sir," I say, well aware of Rosalie's continued presence. He considers me for a beat longer before nodding again and sliding off his stool, turning to follow her out of the bar and into the restaurant. And because this isn't already the most karmically vicious night I've had since some plastered and belligerent idiot I cut off turned out to be my TA, she leads Edward to one of the few tables of which I have a perfect view from my vantage point behind the bar. Making matters even more stellar, Edward takes the seat facing me before he realizes it and suddenly we're continuing our earlier standoff from a distance of fifty feet. I break his gaze to busy myself doing nothing of importance behind the bar, and it isn't until I see him stand in my peripheral vision that I realize his girlfriend – Lauren – has joined him.
And of course, she's precisely as supermodel-beautiful as I anticipated, and of course, he's the rara avis brand of gentleman who stands when a lady approaches the table. He helps her out of her coat and hands it to Alice, who fate has determined will be their server tonight. At least I know he'll get what he orders. I pretend to dry glasses while I furtively eyeball them; she is decked out in designer, every hair in place, tall, thin, and elegant. I hate her on sight.
Then Edward says something and she laughs. It's a real laugh, a guffaw really, and I realize that it's the kind of unself-conscious belly laugh that I love in people. I would have expected her to titter, or giggle, but she laughs like Rose, and like Alice, and I feel something ugly wrench in my chest. I realize that if I met her I'd probably like her, which only serves to make me hate her more.
A moment later Alice appears at the bar and leans in. "I need a double Scotch and a dirty Ketel One martini for my table," she says, and despite the destination of the drinks, I'm relieved to have something to do. While I'm shaking the cocktail shaker as if I'm attempting to bully it into a confession, I risk a glance at the table before finding Alice's oblivious face, which gazes unseeingly at the television screen above us.
"He's going to propose."
Her focus is squarely on me when she frowns. "What? Who's going to propose?" Her eyes narrow. "Have you been dating someone on the sly?"
I hold up my hands before she can work up a good head of Alice-steam. "Whoa, Tinkerbell. Re-route. Table seven. He's going to propose. So just… I don't know. Make it perfect."
"That seems like it's more his job than mine," she says before the trademark Alice enthusiasm takes over. "I love proposal nights!" Given its reputation, Chez Ami has seen more than a few patrons drop to one knee amid the white linen tablecloths. "Wait. How do you know?"
"He pre-gamed in here," I say. "That's Edward Cullen."
Her eyes narrow briefly as she flips through her mental Rolodex. Nothing pinging, her frown deepens. "Edward Cullen?"
"White House Legislative Director," I say, and she huffs.
"Jeez, Bella. I thought it was someone really famous." She is only partly kidding; in Alice's world, despite her fervent distaste for the conservative right, Vera Wang is a far more noteworthy celebrity sighting than anyone involved in the legislative process, up to and possibly including the president himself.
I roll my eyes as I slide both drinks across the bar. "Just be wonderful for him, okay?"
"When am I anything less?" she replies, scooping up the glasses and making her way back to Edward's table.
Left to my own devices, I opt not to gawk at his table; while I have no first-hand experience in the realm of marriage proposals, I am capable of realizing that a bartender who just verbally kneecapped you staring over your soon-to-be-fiancée's shoulder is probably a bit of a betrothal buzz-kill. Instead, I decide that the red and white wine glasses should absolutely switch racks and I busy myself sliding glassware in and out of the overhead brackets.
Just as I am congratulating myself on fifty-five minutes of pointedly not looking past the doorway of the bar, I hear a smattering of applause from the direction of the dining room. My heart stutters in my chest and I silently berate myself.
Get over yourself; you barely know him. You're being monumentally stupid, even for you.
My ability to remain disinterested wavers and I glance into the dining area, steeling myself to be gut-checked by the visual of Edward on one knee with that box in his hand; instead, I see a server placing a crème brulée with a lit candle in front of a teenage girl. I exhale, and glance toward my Achilles heel of a dining table for two.
His girlfriend is gone, as are their dinner plates, and his eyes find mine with the alarming accuracy of a sniper rifle. Her purse is still looped over the back of her chair and I realize she must be in the restroom. Or perhaps I missed it, and she's calling everyone she knows to share the good news. I feel cornered, tormented by his stare, but I can't bring myself to look away.
What the hell is going on? I don't know whom I'm directing my silent question to, but I wish someone had an answer. I'm locked in his sights and he sits motionless, appearing equally bound by my gaze.
Our mutual staring contest is interrupted by Alice, who approaches his table and, with a quick glance toward the back corner of the restaurant where the restrooms are located, bends toward Edward. I can tell by her posture, not to mention their shared glance in my direction, that she's telling him she's been clued in to his plan for the evening. A polite smile graces his face and this time when he looks at me his eyes are confused, then disappointed. He nods again at Alice and his lips move as he says something before she flits away; he doesn't look at me again until he has taken a sip of his drink, realigned his dessert spoon, and tugged absently at the knot of his tie. When his eyes find mine, I curse myself for being caught still looking. Our stalemate resumes briefly before he absently smoothes his hand over the lapel of his coat – the lapel under which rests a little black box.
The freight train of realization breaks my reverie and I look away just as Jake reenters the bar. "Need a break? I think I can handle the crowd." He nods toward the lone drinker at the far end of the bar.
I try for a smile but it doesn't quite reach its usual decibel and I can tell he notices. "Just a bathroom break would be great," I say, slipping out from behind the bar and taking a roundabout loop to the employee lounge that keeps me as far as possible from his table. I use the restroom, fix my hair in the mirror, and slip to my locker for a reapplication of deodorant. I check my phone and answer a text message from my old college roommate and listen to a voicemail from my father, guilt-tripping me about my lack of recent trips to the Pacific Northwest before returning my phone to my bag. As a non-smoker, I realize I've exhausted all possible methods of time-killage and pick my way back through the restaurant to return to my post in front of the row of liquor bottles. "Thanks," I toss to Jake and check my watch. "Probably another half-hour before things get wacky again; you want to dip out?"
"Sure. Great, thanks. Back in thirty." He disappears and I punish myself with another not-so-furtive glance toward the table that has held my attention far too much over the course of the past hour only to see that it's empty. A sudden sweat gathers at the small of my back and I crane my neck to see if Edward and his newly bejeweled companion are still near the front door to the restaurant; I can't believe that after all that, I missed it. A part of me wonders if he timed it that way on purpose, and I immediately feel stupid for thinking that our meaningless interaction had any bearing whatsoever on his proposal.
Meaningless to him, maybe.
Sometimes I hate my inner Bella; she can be such a bitch. I dip my head to wipe the bar, despite the fact that it doesn't need it.
"Looking for someone?"
The voice is far too familiar to belong to a man I've known for a grand total of a few hours and the sensation that rockets through me when I hear it is far too powerful, but when I lift my gaze, there he stands.
"No." He's right; I'm an open book. I need to work on that. I go for redirection. "Where's your fiancée?"
There is a mix of amusement and something else in his eyes that I can't place. "Change of plans; we broke up instead."
I try to stop my stomach from cartwheeling; it doesn't cooperate. "What? Five minutes ago you were going to propose."
"Five minutes ago I was staring at you across a crowded restaurant while my longtime girlfriend was in the ladies' room," he argues. "Men who are ready to propose marriage don't do things like that."
The implication of his words is sobering and I can't stop the words from rolling off my tongue. "Are you a cheater?"
"No," he says, staring me straight in the eye.
My eyes narrow. "Are you a liar?"
"Not unless you're a Republican legislator or a member of the White House press corps."
"I hope one day to be a member of the White House press corps."
"In that case, ask me again in a couple of years."
I am giddy with the implication of his words. He approaches the bar and rests his hand on the back of a stool, but makes no move to sit. I have no idea what my next line is supposed to be, so I opt for the familiar. "Can I get you a drink?"
He shakes his head and his hand disappears inside his coat pocket. "I know you said yours wasn't on the menu," he murmurs, extricating his hand and sliding a small piece of paper across the top of the bar. Written on it is his phone number. When I meet his eyes, he grins. "The cherry blossoms are beautiful this time of year."