Disclaimer: Not mine.
Edward tossed the script on top of the desk and leveled Jason with a glare. "You can't be serious."
Jason huffed out a frustrated breath and dragged his hand down his face. "I think it's a great role. Just like the other three you snubbed." Throwing his arms out wide he shrugged. "What do you want, Edward? What is it you're looking for? If I had a better idea, I don't know, maybe I could weed through these before wasting everyone's time."
"I don't know what I'm looking for, okay? I just know it sure as fuck isn't this shit." He picked up the script and waved it in the air before dropping it in disgust. Honestly, Edward had no idea why he hated every script he'd read. The script in front of him was everything he looked for in a film: strong characters, edgy storyline, and an excellent director. But nothing felt right.
"Look, why don't you get away for a bit. They're scouting out locations in Atlanta now. Go down there and have a look around, get a feel for the place. Maybe hook up with Jared and get an idea of what it'll be like working with him. I think it'll do you good."
Jason didn't need to elaborate on why Edward needed to get away. Ever since Edward's idiotic decision to storm into Bella's office after midnight and act like the asshole he was, he had been different. When he'd woken the morning after their fight and remembered the awful way he'd treated her, it had made him sick. Even now, two months later, the feelings of guilt and regret hadn't faded. He didn't bother to text or call to say he was sorry. His apology would've just seemed empty and insincere. The bottom line was it didn't matter how sorry he was or how much he loved her. If he couldn't treat her better, then he didn't deserve to have her or her forgiveness.
He'd hoped time would lessen the pain, dull the constant ache that squeezed his lungs and made it difficult to breathe. However, it didn't take long for him to realize the only thing time did was make him miss her more. For a while he kept up appearances by hanging out with Carlisle, but pretending he didn't give a fuck about anything or anyone was exactly that: pretending. Eventually, he started answering his phone less and less until it stopped ringing at all.
The downside, Edward soon learned, of spending so much time alone was the uninterrupted time he had to reflect on his life and the person he'd become. Still, he refused to make apologies for the things he'd done or the decisions he'd made. He didn't give a fuck if people thought he was an asshole. He didn't care about his reputation as a player. Had he not become that person, he might not have had such a successful career. He might not have landed his last project. He might've never met Bella.
Bella. She was a different story. She was the one thing―the only thing―he regretted. Hindsight was a bitch like that. He wondered how different things would have been if he'd met her before. When he wasn't closed off and angry at the world. When the thought of trusting someone didn't make his throat tighten and his palms sweat. He would have treated her better, been someone she could've been proud of, someone she deserved.
Was it really too late? Had he become so cold and jaded that he'd ruined any chance of being with her, being who she deserved? Unwittingly her voice floated through his mind, repeating her final words to him before he walked out of her office and her life. "For the record, I wish I could have been enough."
After everything he'd said, everything he'd done, instead of telling him to go to hell and stay away forever, she told him she wished she'd been enough. Was it possible she still felt that way? Was there a chance he could get her back?
"What do you say?"
Edward snapped his head up and looked at Jason, who was staring at him expectantly. "What?"
"Atlanta. Will you go? Maybe some old fashioned southern hospitality will do you some good. If nothing else, the food will be good."
Shaking his head, Edward smirked as he thought about the disgusting meals he'd been subjected to watching on a certain show. "Yeah. I'll go."
Surprise flashed across Jason's face before he nodded and cleared his throat. "Excellent. That's great. I'll send your itinerary as soon as it's booked."
Edward stood and grabbed the script. "Speaking of itinerary, what did you work out for the press junket?"
Jason fell back in his chair and sighed. "I did the best I could. It wasn't easy―"
"Which is why I pay you so well," Edward interrupted. "I expect to get what I want. The level of difficulty means nothing to me."
"As I was saying," Jason continued. "It wasn't easy, but I was able to get you two split up for everything except the fan convention. There's no way around it. You'll have to do those interviews together."
Edward nodded. "It's not what I wanted, but I suppose it'll have to do. Email me with my flight information." Turning, he walked out of Jason's office, ignoring the muffled curses that were no doubt directed at him.
Through the rest of the evening and the following morning, Edward struggled with how to approach Bella. He knew calling her was out of the question. She'd either be pissed at him for calling, which would cause him to say something stupid, or he'd do that on his own with no help from her at all. Flipping his phone between his hands, he settled in his seat and waited for the plane to board. With a slow exhale, he pulled up her name and typed out a message.
Heading to Atlanta for work. If I see Honey Boo Boo, I'll get her autograph for you. If they try to feed me sketti though, I can't be held responsible for my actions.
With a sigh, he powered off his phone. Letting his head fall against the back of the seat, he closed his eyes. He hoped she'd respond, but he had very little expectations. If he was going to try to repair all the damage between them, he would have to take things slow. Even though slow was the last thing he wanted, he'd figured out when it came to Bella, what he wanted was usually the worst thing for both of them.
Bella squinted at the paper in front of her as she dragged her thumb down the black mark, smoothing and smudging the outline. When her phone beeped she reached for it absently and slid it toward her. Unlocking the screen, she finally tore her eyes away from her drawing and glanced at her phone. Her entire body froze when she saw a new message from Asshole.
"What the fuck," she whispered into the empty room. She was almost afraid to open the text, afraid to see what he could possibly have to say after two months of silence. But her fear quickly disappeared and was replaced with a flutter of anticipation. Over the last two weeks, not a single picture of Edward had been released. She thought she'd be grateful for the reprieve, but it turned out to be the opposite. The only thing that hurt more than constantly seeing Edward's face splashed across every magazine cover in print was not seeing it at all.
Full of trepidation, she opened his text. Her brows dipped in confusion as she read it once, and then once more. She opened and closed her mouth several times before an uncontrollable laugh burst from her chest. The sound of her laughter bounced off the walls as her eyes pinched at the corners and a wide smile spread across face. She felt light and carefree, lost in the memory of another time and memory only played in her mind for a moment before she was grasping the front of her shirt and her laughter morphed from gasping breaths to choking sobs. Pressing her phone over her heart, her shoulders curved inward and her jaw clenched as she tried to relieve the tightness in her chest and stinging in her eyes.
How could he be so infuriatingly perfect sometimes? Why did the man who caused her more hurt than she'd ever experienced make her ache for him? Why couldn't her heart let him go? Shaking her head, she looked at her watch and cursed. She was late. Pushing away from her desk, she grabbed her purse and headed toward her car. She was supposed to be at James's restaurant for his celebration dinner in ten minutes, and there was no way she'd make it on time. Not that she was in a big hurry to face the awkward night ahead.
She stopped abruptly when she thought about the timing of Edward's text and what she was doing tonight. Did he know? Had someone told him about the pictures Alistair had taken? Shoving her key into her ignition, she shook her head. She couldn't focus on the motives behind Edward's sudden random text. Tonight was about James and his recent success. No matter what reservations she had about Alistair, she would overlook them for her brother. He deserved that much from her.
Finding the last empty spot in the packed parking lot, she touched up her makeup and made her way inside. She spotted Victoria as soon as she pushed through the door. Weaving through the crowd, she looped her arm with Victoria's and smiled. "Holy shit. It's packed."
Victoria turned to Bella, the smile on her face blinding. "Bella, oh my God. Can you believe it? It's more that we ever dreamed. This is it. This is his big break."
Happiness and pride surged though Bella, the intensity of the emotions making her eyes prick. "I'm so happy for you guys, Vic."
"We couldn't have done it without you. You know that right?"
Bella shrugged and smiled. "I did what any sister would have done. Besides, Alistair is the one who's responsible for all this."
Bella looked around the room that was packed wall to wall with people. Things had been so different a mere two weeks ago. Before Alistair scored a job with a local culinary magazine. All he had to do was follow a food critic around to a few new hot spots and take some pictures.
Was it a coincidence that he ended up at James's restaurant? It was unlikely. At least to Bella and Victoria, anyway. But it also wasn't something either of them were going to complain about, because as soon as the article hit print, business tripled. Of course that couldn't be the end of the story. It would have been too easy. Instead, James and Alistair became instant best friends.
When James introduced them, it was impossible for Bella to hide her shock. Alistair had stepped in quickly, explaining he'd lent Bella a hand when she ran into trouble with some paps. It was true, of course, albeit only half the story.
After thanking Alistair a dozen times, James insisted they all go out for drinks. Bella had no interest in spending that kind of time with Alistair, but telling James the reason why would be pointless. He hated Edward. The fact that Alistair had a hand in something that hurt Edward deeply would only make James like him more.
Reluctantly Bella agreed, but the pointed look on her face when she turned to face Alistair made it clear where she stood. Alistair dipped his chin in understanding and kept a respectful distance from Bella that evening. She'd only been around him twice more since that day, and each time was a little less strained. While she wasn't in any way comfortable in a one on one setting with him, she could manage to get through a group setting without bringing attention to herself.
"How was work? Did you get that design finished?"
Bella shifted her weight and eyed the table reserved for them in the back. "It was fine. I didn't get finished, though. I got behind."
"Why are you acting all sketchy?" Victoria narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to Bella, her lips pursed. "I thought you were getting more comfortable around Alistair."
Bella waved her off. "I am. It's fine. really."
"Well, if it's not Alistair, what is it?"
Bella hesitated before opening her mouth only to snap it shut again. She cursed under her breath for not just telling Victoria it was Alistair making her act weird. At least until she could figure out what the hell her problem was.
"Don't you dare stand in front of me and try to come up with a lie while I'm looking right at you," Victoria scolded. She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the people moving around them toward their table.
"Now isn't the time."
Victoria didn't budge, her only movement was the lift of her brow.
"It's about Edward," Bella hissed as she glanced over Victoria's shoulder.
Victoria dropped her arms and her eyes widened as she looked around as well. "Shit. What happened?"
"Not the time, Vic." Bella tilted her head to the side, her gaze flickering in the same direction and landing on James as he made his way over to them.
"Fuck. This is bullshit," Victoria grumbled. She waved her hand between the two of them and fixed Bella with a pointed glare. "This isn't over."
Bella laughed and pushed Victoria backward. "You sound like Robert De Niro. I'll be watching you," she mimicked, deepening her voice.
"I will," Victoria retorted. "Don't even think of pulling the 'I'm super tired' or 'I'm not feeling well' shit either. I will call your ass out in front of everyone."
Bella rolled her eyes and brushed past her, but not before whispering, "Bitch," under her breath.
Dinner passed just as Bella expected. James and Alistair joked and laughed while Laurent watched on with a look of annoyance. Victoria made ridiculous faces at Bella when no one was looking causing Bella to receive more than a few side eyes for her random outbursts of laughter. But as much as Victoria's antics distracted her, the desire to pull out her phone and read Edward's message again made her hands twitch. She drank a little more wine than she intended, and by the time they were filing out the front door, James had already confiscated her keys.
"Why don't you let Alistair take you home? I'll bring you to your car in the morning."
Bella knew what James was doing. While his heart was in the right place, there was no way in hell she was letting Alistair drive her home. Luckily, Victoria spoke before she had to.
"I only had one drink. I can drive her car, and you can stop by and pick me up. We have some work stuff we need to discuss anyway."
James started to protest, but whatever look Victoria gave him shut him up. "Okay. I have a few things to wrap up. Then I'll stop by."
After goodbyes were exchanged, Bella and Victoria climbed into her car and headed home. Not bothering to beat around the bush, Bella told her about the text. Victoria was no less confused than Bella. She suggested maybe he was drunk, but Bella disagreed. If Edward had been drunk, he would have either been an asshole or said something completely inappropriate.
Bella mentioned the timing and her theory that maybe it had something to do with Alistair, but Victoria reminded her of the last time Edward found out she'd been around Alistair. Both of them agreed the last thing he would do was send her a text about Honey Boo Boo. When Victoria finally left an hour later, Bella wasn't any closer to understanding the meaning behind his bizarre text.
As she lay in bed that night, she tapped the side of her phone against her forehead. While time hadn't made her feelings for him any less strong, it had diluted her anger. Or maybe it was the context of his message and the wine she'd drank. No matter the reason, she was more than a little curious to see what he would do if she responded.
She felt like she was in a chess match, but a wrong move wouldn't get her knocked off the board. It would explode right in her face. The realization made her heart race and her breaths shallow. However messed up it seemed, the constant push and pull between them ignited something inside of her. Like a moth to a flame, she was drawn to something that could potentially destroy her.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she berated herself for her train of thought. This wasn't a game. She wouldn't lose property on a board game or draw cards from a deck until she matched a color. What she would lose was something she hadn't managed to reclaim in the first place. Edward still held it. He had it greedily tucked away and refused to give it back, even though she doubted he even realized it. That was the bottom line, the checkmate, the victorious cry of Uno. Even after everything, she still loved him. He still had her heart.
With a resigned sigh, she did what she'd subconsciously wanted to do the moment he texted. Pulling open his message, she brushed her thumb over the screen while she thought of a response. As she stared at her phone, she realized she had no idea what to say. Indecision crept over her once more. Why was she doing this to herself? He wasn't going to change. He wasn't going to be someone she could share her life with. Prolonging their involvement in each other's lives would only make the healing process that much more painful.
A tear slipped from the corner of her eye as she slammed her phone against the mattress. Everything was always a battle with them. If not with each other, then within themselves. Nothing was ever easy. Rolling away from her phone, she wrapped her arms around her pillow and buried her face in the soft material. Her shoulders shook and her breaths stuttered as silent tears soaked into the fabric. When she finally succumbed to the mercy of sleep, her head and her heart were still at war.
It wasn't until several days later, while Bella and Victoria were having a late lunch, that her phone alerted her of a new message. She would've liked to pretend her stomach didn't flip and her pulse didn't race. But the truth was she'd checked her phone more than a dozen times over the last few days, waiting to see if his random text was a fluke. If maybe it was just a test to see if she would respond, and if she didn't, he'd give up. Her actions might have seemed like a game to some, but she wasn't going to give in easily. If he really wanted to talk to her, she expected more.
Bella's eyes darted to Victoria, who was watching with cautious eyes and a small smile tugging at her lips. Bella rolled her eyes and grabbed her phone from her bag. "It's probably Peter," she mumbled as she unlocked her screen. It wasn't.
Mama June is a fox.
Just like last time, her laugh was abrupt, loud, and uncontrollable. Before she even realized what she was doing, she'd typed out a reply.
Hate to burst your bubble, but Mama June is taken. I wouldn't mess with Sugar Bear.
"Did you just text him back?" Victoria's smile had turned into a smirk and her eyes danced with amusement as Bella's face blanched.
"Must have been some text."
Bella lifted her gaze to Victoria's, her eyes still glassy from laughter induced tears. "I think he's lost his mind. Right now, I can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad one."
Before Victoria could respond, Bella's phone beeped again.
You're joking. I'm crushed. Now I have to cancel the plans to build Chicken Nugget's pen in the backyard. Sugar Bear wins this round.
"Oh, my God," Bella giggled. "Vic, I think the heat has broken him." She passed her phone to Victoria, who began laughing as soon as she read his messages.
"Who knew the biggest asshole in Hollywood could have a sense of humor?"
Bella's face fell immediately as she reached for her phone. "I did," she murmured, her gaze dropping to the table as she slid her phone into her bag.
"I'm sorry, Bella."
"No." She shook her head. "It's okay. You're right. He is an asshole. I shouldn't have texted him back."
Victoria let her eyes drift shut as she exhaled softly. She was terrified of Bella being involved with Edward in any capacity. It was selfish to admit, but she missed her best friend. And even though Bella was there physically, she hadn't been the same since they'd broken up. She carried an invisible weight on her shoulders that made her seem older, burdened, and broken.
Victoria wasn't a fool. She knew it was because nothing was resolved between Edward and Bella. They'd had no closure. She wasn't even sure closure was what they needed. Bella clearly wasn't over him, and from the looks of things, Edward hadn't forgotten about her either. All she wanted was for her friend to be happy, to have the life she deserved. Whoever gave those things to Bella would be accepted by her with open arms.
"I want to ask you something," she began. "I don't want you to think about your answer, just say the first thing that comes to mind, okay?"
"Do you love him?"
"Yes," Bella croaked without a second's hesitation.
"Do you think you could give him another chance if that's what he's after?"
"I don't know."
With a deep breath, Victoria leaned forward and grabbed Bella's hand. "Will you hate yourself if you don't find out?"
Bella dropped her head to her chest and tried to control the quiver of her chin. A tear rolled down her cheek and dripped onto the tablecloth below. "Probably," she whispered. "But I can't imagine it would be any worse than how much I'd hate myself if I gave him another chance and he broke my heart all over again."
"But that's life. That's what it's all about. Taking risks. Living and learning. You can't go back to how you were before. You can't shut yourself off because it's easier, safer. Don't deprive yourself of the chance to have it all. It would be such a waste."
Brushing her fingers over her cheek, Bella nodded. "I hear what you're saying. It's just easier said than done."
Bella had no argument. She knew Victoria was right. But she also wasn't going to throw herself to the wolves. Edward's motives were still unclear, and until he decided to lay all his cards on the table, she wasn't going all in.
A part of her still expected him to eventually lose interest. The idea of someone as aggressive and demanding as Edward being content exchanging superficial text messages was laughable. However, much to her surprise, the texts didn't stop. Every couple of days her phone would beep with a new message.
The content for the first several weeks stayed impersonal and random. He'd tell her about a television show he'd watched or a script he'd read. It terrified her how easy it was to fall back into their snarky banter and even more so when she realized how much she missed it. It was those times she didn't reply. Instead she'd set her phone to the side and wrap her arms around her knees as she tried to calm the butterflies in her stomach.
It was after the first month that the tone of his messages decidedly shifted. The content was no less random, but it became more personal. He would tell her things about his childhood, his first dog, and the time he got beaten up at the playground. She found it harder and harder to remain distant, to refrain from asking him questions or poking fun at him. He was telling her things that he'd guarded fiercely before. He was endearing himself to her in an entirely different way. It was almost as if she was seeing a different person altogether. She was falling in love with him all over again.
Which left the question, which one was real and could be trusted? With each passing day, those questions became more naggingly persistent. She tried not to allow her inner turmoil to show, but people noticed. People like Victoria and James. She didn't want to lie to James, but she was also an adult and had a right to her privacy. When he pressed the issue over dinner one night, she simply told him she was working out some personal issues that were not up for discussion.
Of course it wasn't hard for James to figure out those personal issues likely involved Edward.
Victoria had told Bella he'd prodded her for answers, asking if she and Edward were seeing each other again. Victoria also informed her that she'd overheard James complaining to Alistair about it one night when he was at their house. To their surprise, however, Alistair remained mostly silent on the subject.
It was no secret to Bella that Alistair felt the same as James, so his neutral stance earned him a bit of favor. He could have told James about his involvement with Edward's past, but it seemed he refrained out of respect for Bella. When they all hung out again, she wasn't quite as distant, and over time they formed a tentative friendship. It didn't mean she trusted him or his motives, but it made dealing with his newfound friendship with James easier. Even still, the strain of everything that had happened in her life since her split with Edward had taken its toll.
As she loaded boxes full of costumes onto a dolly, she wondered if a trip home was what she needed. Maybe a change of pace would reenergize her, lift the feeling of lethargy off her shoulders, and pull her out of her funk. Normally, clearing out the wardrobe of one movie and preparing for the next would have done the trick, but this time felt different. She was mentally and physically exhausted. Drained.
She dug her phone out of her bag when it beeped, thankful for the interruption as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. It was a text from Edward, of course. The frequency in which he contacted her had increased over the past several days. His messages had also become more engaging. This one was no different.
Guess what I found under my bed today?
She chuckled as she replied.
I think the more pressing question is what were you doing under your bed in the first place?
"Hey, are you about done?" Victoria asked, stepping into the room and pulling Bella's attention away from her phone.
Bella nodded and shoved her phone in her back pocket. "Yeah. This is the last box."
"Thank God. Let's go get a drink."
"Will you take these to the storage room? I need to grab a couple of things from my office."
"Sure. I'll meet you in the parking lot."
Bella's phone buzzed again as she entered her office. Pulling it out of her pocket, she laughed at his message.
Jason's house is being fumigated. He asked me to keep his demon cat. Which has taken up residence under my bed. He must hate this cat and hope I end up killing it. Why else would he leave it with me?
Maybe you're going soft.
It took mere seconds for him to reply.
Did you really just go there? I'm trying to behave.
Bella grabbed the folders on her desk and shoved them into her bag before walking down the hall and out the door.
You don't know the meaning of behaving.
When Bella looked up from her phone she noticed Victoria leaning against the side of her car with a smirk on her face. "Don't start," Bella chided.
"I didn't say a word! Yet," she added with a grin.
"Get in the car before I leave you."
"Well, go ahead and look at his text before it drives you crazy." Victoria fastened her seatbelt then studied her nails. Bella scowled at her briefly before looking down at her phone.
I do now. I googled it. Looks pretty boring if I'm being honest.
Bella muttered under her breath about needing medication as she tossed her phone in the cup holder and pulled out of the parking lot. When they arrived at James's restaurant, there wasn't a parking spot in sight. "You really need to make him reserve you a parking space," Bella sighed, circling around the full lot once more before giving up and parking down the block.
"No way. I'm not taking a space from a paying customer. All these cars mean our bills are getting paid."
Bella laughed and linked their arms as they made their way down the block. "I think your bills are taken care of for a really long time."
"Well, that wasn't always the case."
"Yeah, but it wasn't anything that James didn't deserve." Things between Bella and James were slowly getting back to normal, much to Bella's relief. It had been tough, but they were family, and in the end, that was more important than anything else.
"Do you think Alistair's here?" Victoria asked, pulling open the door.
"Is Laurent working? Because if so, then no. Hell no."
Victoria rolled her eyes. "He needs to pull that baguette out of his ass and chill out."
Bella nodded in agreement as she slid into a booth in the lounge. "I don't know why he's so jealous of Alistair. It's not like we're dating. We're friends. And barely that."
"Because you turned him down again. He's convinced you're not into him because you're into someone else. That someone else happens to be Alistair to him. Plus, I don't think it's just about you. I think he feels Alistair has taken his place as James's friend. You know those two were really close before James met Alistair."
"And Alistair made his restaurant the hottest spot in L.A. overnight," Bella added with a wry smile.
"Well, yes. There's that too."
They'd just finished their second round of drinks and ordered dinner when Alistair appeared at the end of their booth. "Room for one more?"
Bella and Victoria eyed each other for a brief second, but before either could speak, he laughed and nudged Victoria's leg with his foot. "Scoot over. Laurent is working. I don't want him to spit in my food for sitting next to Bella."
Both girls laughed, but neither argued. It was entirely possible he'd do just that. Waving down their server, Alistair ordered another round of drinks and an appetizer. While he and Victoria chatted, Bella reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. She'd never responded to Edward, and she was more than a little curious about what he'd found. Setting her phone in her lap, she opened up his text.
Are you going to tell me what you found, or are you busy playing with your houseguest?
Sipping her drink, she tried to follow the conversation on the other side of the table, but like most times when she was in contact with Edward, her mind was a million miles away.
Woman. You don't play with this cat. You fend for your life. But demon cat aside, you owe me an apology.
Bella nearly choked on her drink when she looked at his text. She coughed to hit her chest a couple of times, but Victoria wasn't fooled. But like the best friend she was, she turned back to Alistair and asked him about some pictures he'd taken at the beach. While they talked, Bella dropped her eyes to her phone and shook her head. It felt strange for her first reaction not to be indignance or anger, but neither of those emotions were anywhere in sight.
This is going to be good.
The appetizer arrived a couple of minutes later, and the trio busied themselves with filling their plates with food. Bella shifted in her seat, unable to stop her eyes from drifting to her lap every couple of seconds. She was just about to make sure her text was delivered when her screen lit up.
Do you remember how I used to threaten to throw your clothes in the trash because you left them all over the place?
Bella's throat tightened as she wiped her hand on the napkin beside her.
And do you remember the time you looked everywhere for your purple bra then accused me of actually throwing it away?
"No," Bella whispered as she shook her head. She blinked repeatedly to clear her vision and the stinging in her eyes. This was the first time he'd mentioned something so personal between them, and the memory made her stomach flip. It had been when he'd first tried to open up. When he started talking about his family. Right before everything went to shit. Her hands shook as she typed out a reply.
Let me guess. It was under the bed?
It was under the bed.
Bella felt a nudge against her leg causing her eyes to snap to Victoria's. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm―" She stopped speaking when her phone vibrated in her hands. The tears she'd worked so hard to keep at bay filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Edward's words, the use of her nickname, the memory of a happier time, it cut her wide open.
I miss you so fucking much, Ivy.
She shook her head. "Actually no. I―I need to go, Vic."
Victoria's brows dipped in concern, but she didn't press. She knew Alistair was watching their exchange, and she wasn't going to make Bella any more uncomfortable or upset than she already was. "Okay. You'll call if you need anything?"
"Of course." Bella wiped under her eyes and cut her gaze to Alistair. "I'm sorry to rush out."
Alistair lifted his hand and shook his head. "It's fine. Is there anything you need? Can I drive you?"
"No. But you can eat the dinner I ordered. No reason to let it go to waste."
"Okay." Both Alistair and Victoria watched as Bella darted out of the restaurant, her hands clasping the strap of her bag and her chin dropped to her chest. Sliding out of the booth, Alistair moved to the other side and sat so he was facing Victoria.
"Is she okay?" He doubted she would actually give him an answer. While he was close to James and had formed a comfortable relationship with Victoria, he knew her loyalties were to Bella.
Victoria remained quiet before draining the rest of her drink and sighing heavily. "No. She isn't."
Alistair's eyes widened at her omission, but he quickly schooled his features. He'd grown to care about Bella, and Victoria's confirmation that something was wrong bothered him more than he'd expected.
"Can you believe Bella's never been in love?" Victoria continued, her expression melancholy, her eyes distant.
Alistair's face twisted with confusion. "Ever?" He couldn't imagine someone like Bella not having guys doing everything in their power to have her.
Taking a bite of food, she shook her head. "Well, not ever. But it took twenty-five years for it to happen."
The air suddenly felt heavy and stifling. "How old is Bella?"
Victoria lifted her gaze to Alistair, a sad smile pulling at the side of her mouth. "She's twenty-five. It worked out super for her, huh?"
Alistair sat in stunned silence as he processed Victoria's statement. As the words rolled around in his head, his anger began to rise. Of course she would fall in love with Edward Cullen. He was rich, famous, and had people falling at his feet to do his bidding. But something about that idea didn't sit right with Alistair. He couldn't reconcile the person he'd met throwing herself at Edward. Then again maybe she wasn't as unique as he thought. "It couldn't have been that much of a shock. She had to have known going after someone like Edward would end badly."
Victoria gently set down her fork and touched her napkin to each side of her mouth. When she finally looked Alistair in the eye, he was already shifting in his seat. "You know what? I might regret telling you this, but I'd rather know now if you've really changed or if your interest in James and Bella is about Edward after all. Bella didn't go after Edward. She avoided him at every turn. He pursued her."
"She turned him down? Well that explains it." He wasn't surprised that Edward would go after someone just because he couldn't have them.
"It explains why it started. But not why it continued." Victoria pushed her plate to the side and propped her elbows on the table as she leaned forward. She wasn't exactly sure why she'd decided to unload on Alistair. He certainly wasn't her first choice. But she'd held her tongue for so long she felt like her head was going to explode.
"Let me tell you what I think. Edward Cullen is the biggest jerk in Hollywood. He's selfish and egotistical. I'm fairly certain to an extent he will always be those things. But Bella fell in love with him. She saw something good in him. She wanted to be with him in spite of his fame and all the bullshit that goes with it. And because of the way Bella affects people, she got to him as well. There are so many things people don't know. Things hidden below the surface and out of the public eye. If I'm being honest, I think they could've had a real shot. I think he feels the same way about her that she does for him. But after everything with Esme?" Victoria shook her head and blew out a heavy breath. She felt drained.
"How can you think he cares anything about Bella? He slept with Esme." He knew the words were a lie as soon as they left his lips. Not that he was going to volunteer that information.
"Did he? Because I have my doubts. I've talked to Edward. I've seen the way he looks at Bella. I just don't believe he slept with Esme."
"Then why isn't Bella with him?" Alistair didn't like the direction of their conversation. He wanted to drop the subject and forget it ever happened. But a sick part of him needed to know. He needed to hear that it was something other than his involvement that caused their split.
Victoria shrugged. "Because he's an asshole? Because something happened to him years ago that made him closed off and ruined his ability to trust people? Those are certainly possibilities."
Alistair didn't miss the pointed look Victoria gave him with her last statement. He was aware she knew about his conversation with Bella. But the things she mentioned were issues Edward had from the beginning. "Then Esme didn't have anything to do with their breakup. They wouldn't have worked anyway."
"No. I said those were possibilities. I think he was changing. If they'd been left alone, been able to remain hidden―" Victoria twisted her hands in her hair and sighed. "But Esme ruined all that. She slammed into them like a wrecking ball. As confident as Bella is, every girl has her limit. Bella's was having pictures of Edward doing the walk of shame from Esme's."
Guilt twisted inside of Alistair. He knew those pictures were a set up. Just like every other picture taken of Edward with Esme. The entire thing was done with careful planning and malicious intent. He had no idea the real casualty would be a girl he'd end up caring about. A girl who didn't deserve to be hurt. Regardless of how he felt about Edward.
If Edward actually cared like Victoria was convinced he did, wouldn't he fight for her? The moment that thought crossed his mind, his stomach bottomed out and concrete weighted his limbs. Even though he already knew the answer, he asked the question anyway. "If you're so sure about him, why hasn't he tried to contact her? Why hasn't he tried to fix things?"
Victoria tore her eyes away from Alistair and smiled at James as he approached their table. Not taking her eyes off James, she said the words Alistair dreaded. "Do you think it was the milkman texting her tonight? He's been in contact with her for months. He hasn't given up."
After exchanging hellos, Victoria scooted over so James could sit beside her. Her eyes slid to Alistair, her gaze piercing as she watched him fidget through his conversation with James. When she'd unloaded on him, it was because she felt bottled up and frustrated. She needed to release the stress pent up inside of her. But Alistair's reactions set warning bells off in her head. She wasn't sure what it was, but something felt off. He seemed anxious. He looked guilty. Like maybe he knew more about the situation than he was letting on. As much as she hoped she was wrong, she prayed she was right. She wanted Bella to be right about Edward. But mostly she just wanted her best friend to be happy.
Alistair stayed as long as he could. He tried to follow his conversation with James, but all he could think about was Bella. Had his interference really changed the course of her life? The idea made him roll his eyes. He felt dramatic and ridiculous. But as much as he wanted to dismiss the thoughts running through his head, everything led back to him. And even though Alistair hated to admit it, for the first time since he caught Tia fucking Benjamin, he felt bad for Edward as well. By no means did he believe Edward was half the man Bella deserved, but who was he to say who should and shouldn't be together?
It didn't change the fact he still wanted keep his mouth shut. He wanted carry on and pretend he was completely unaware. But at some point, Alistair had grown a conscience. And no matter how much he wanted to set it on fire and shove it off a cliff, it refused to go away.
The following two weeks he insinuated himself into Bella's life. He hung out with James and showed up to any gathering where Bella was sure to be. To an outsider it would seem almost as if he were stalking her. In reality, he just wanted proof that Victoria was wrong. He wasn't sure what he expected. If he thought she'd show up with a date or walk around with a sign that read I'm doing great and don't give a shit about Edward Cullen, but neither of those things happened. What he saw was Bella shoot down every guy who approached her, and that was only when she wasn't talking to Victoria or texting on her phone. The look on her face when her screen would light up was all the proof he needed. He felt like shit at how easy it was to see. And even sicker when he realized what he had to do to fix it.
While Alistair sat in his dimly lit office gathering negatives from his camera, notes from conversations with Esme, and check copies, Bella relaxed on her sofa. She planned on losing herself in trash TV and letting her mind go blank. That idea went to hell when Edward's face appeared on her screen. Her hand hovered over the arrow key for only a moment before she dropped the remote in defeat. It seemed no matter how hard she tried, he refused to leave her thoughts.
After Edward's text about missing her, she'd been a mess of conflicted emotions. Because she missed him too. It still didn't change anything. In all the texts he'd sent, not once had he asked to see her. He never mentioned anything that happened with Esme or the last time they'd seen each other and had a terrible fight. She had to wonder if he was just lonely. Maybe he wanted the connection to someone familiar but still wasn't willing to deal with the hard stuff.
If that were the case, she would have to end things once and for all. She couldn't be his friend. Not when she was still in love with him. She hated the idea of being the one to address the elephant in the room, but it had to be done. The longer they stayed in contact, the more it would hurt when it ended.
With a sigh she turned off the television and stood from the couch. He'd texted her a few days ago and told her about a convention he was attending for the movie they'd worked on. He was leaving in the morning and there was no way anything would be resolved before then. But when he came back they had to talk, no matter how much the idea terrified her.
The next morning she woke tired and groggy. She stumbled through her morning routine, wanting nothing more than a strong cup of coffee. She'd just pulled onto the interstate when her phone rang. Digging it out of her bag, her brows pulled together in confusion when Alistair's number flashed across the screen.
"Bella, hey. I'm sorry to call so early, but I really need to talk to you about something."
"Okay," she answered, her voice full of hesitation.
"Can you meet me today?"
"You can't talk to me about it now?"
"It's―it's not really a conversation to have over the phone."
She wanted to say no. She had a bad feeling that whatever he wanted to talk about, wasn't going to be anything good. But she'd be lying if she didn't admit she was more than a little curious. "Are you free for lunch?"
Alistair blew out a heavy breath. When he spoke he sounded both relieved and resigned. "Does one work for you? I'll text you the place in a bit."
"One is fine. I'll see you then."
The rest of the morning, Bella tried to concentrate on work. She met with Peter to discuss designs and budgets for their next project. She helped out on another set with costume alterations. She even attempted to work on a design, but she was too distracted. It also didn't help that she knew Esme was expected in the studio at some point for a meeting.
As irrational as it was, she hated that Esme was going to be at the convention with Edward. She was certain Esme would find a way to be around him as much as possible. Her biggest fear was what would happen once they were seen together. Her life had finally gone back to normal. She hadn't been forced to deal with any paps in over a month. The thought of having them come around again because Edward and Esme were back in the spotlight together made her anxious.
Dropping her pen on the desktop, she fell back in her chair and sighed. With her eyes closed she pulled in a couple deep breaths before pushing up from her chair and grabbing her purse. Looking once more at the address Alistair texted earlier, she shoved her phone in her bag and headed to her car.
As she pulled out of the lot, she couldn't help the way her shoulders bunched and her eyes narrowed as she caught a glimpse of Esme stepping out of her car. For the first time that day, she was thankful that Alistair wanted to talk to her.
When she walked into the diner fifteen minutes early, she was surprised to find Alistair already seated in a booth toward the back. "Hey," she greeted as she slid in the seat across from him.
Alistair wiped his hands over his thighs and nodded. "Hey." His throat bobbed as he tried to work up the nerve to do what he came to do. "Look," he began before pausing to clear his throat. "Fuck."
"What's going on?" Bella didn't like the way he was stalling. His behavior was making her nervous.
Alistair gripped the manila envelope by his thigh and pulled it on his lap. "When I took those pictures of James's restaurant, I truly didn't know he was your brother. It was a chance at a job doing something I loved without intruding in people's lives. I never expected to see you again. But there you were, the owner's sister." Alistair shook his head. The memory of seeing her that first night and finding out who she was still blew his mind.
Bella wanted to ask him where he was going with the conversation, but she could tell he was having a hard time getting the words out. Interrupting him would only make it worse. Instead she sipped the glass of water in front of her and tried to ignore the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach.
"I don't have many friends in L.A. The ones I did have, well, it turned out they weren't very good friends at all. I thought for sure you'd tell James I was a bad guy. I don't know why. Maybe because the people I used to associate with wouldn't hesitate to do something like that. But you didn't. Hell, you were even nice to me. I know we're not what you'd call friends, but I'd like to think we're more than acquaintances. Your brother is a great guy, and his friendship is the first real one I've had in years."
"Alistair," Bella sighed. "I'm not trying to push, but what's this all about?"
"What I'm trying to say is that your family―you, James, and Victoria―are important to me. You gave me a chance when you didn't have to, and I'd never do anything to intentionally hurt you."
"I have," Alistair interrupted, his hands shaking. "Fuck it." Sucking in a deep breath, he lifted the envelope from his lap and pushed it across the table. "Just know that none of this was ever intended to hurt you."
Bella stared down at the envelope like any moment she expected it to explode. "What is this?"
"Just open it. Please." Alistair looked down at his lap, unable to meet her questioning gaze.
Tapping her finger on top of the table her eyes bounced between Alistair and the envelope. Sighing heavily, she unfastened the top and pulled the contents from inside. Her brows drew together as she thumbed through the papers. Checks written to Alistair from Esme covered page after page. The amounts varied but all of them were substantial. She paused when she saw Edward's name written across the page in Alistair's messy scrawl.
"What is all this?" she whispered, her eyes darting across the pages as she shuffled them in her hands. Notes about vehicle descriptions and gate codes lept off the page and sunk like boulders in her stomach. But it wasn't until she got to the last page that time came to a screeching halt. At the bottom of the page in bold print were the words that changed her life.
"You know what it is."
"Why―" she choked, her throat tight. "You were working for Esme? You helped her?" Bella blinked back tears, her grip tightening around the pages as she tried to get a handle on her emotions that were spinning out of control. "Why would you do that?"
Alistair slowly lifted his gaze to Bella. Guilt and regret swelled inside his chest as he took in her bright red cheeks and shimmering eyes. "Because I was broke. Desperate. No one would hire me, and I had this huge debt thanks to Edward. I was going to lose everything." Alistair grunted in frustration and gripped the back of his neck. "When Edward rejected Esme she became obsessed. That's why she pushed for the fake relationship. She was certain she could win him over, but when that didn't happen she became suspicious. She was convinced the only reason he wouldn't sleep with her was because he was seeing someone. She would tell me where they were going to be and set up pictures for me to snap."
"The morning he left her house," she trailed off, heart hammering in her chest.
Alistair nodded. "And the kiss at her house. Everything. She set it all up."
"And me? How did she find out about me?"
"She went through Edward's phone while he was passed out and saw the texts from someone named Ivy. She flipped. That's when she called me over to take the pics. She wanted it to look like they'd slept together."
Her hands shook and her nose burned as she lost the tenuous grip she held on her emotions. Tears spilled down her over-heated cheeks. "He didn't sleep with her." It wasn't a question.
"No. She wouldn't have kept pushing if she'd had her way. When she overheard you and some girls talking at the studio and realized that you were Ivy, she called me and told me to run the story. I tried to talk her out of it, I swear I did. But she would have just found someone else to do it. She wasn't going to stop until she exposed you and Edward."
"She overheard?" Suddenly all of Bella's conflicting emotions merged together. They twisted and turned until the only thing she could feel was white-hot boiling rage. "She fucking wrecked my life! And you helped her? You fucking lied to me. You said you weren't a pap anymore."
"When I told you that, I was telling the truth. I just didn't tell you how recently I'd quit. I know it was a shitty thing to do―"
"Why are you telling me this now? What do you have to gain?" she spat, her words clipped and hard.
Alistair shook his head, a humorless chuckle parting his lips. "I have nothing to gain. I'm telling you this because I care about you. Because what I did hurt you, and I'm trying to make it right."
"Make it right? What, like you wanted to clear your conscience?"
"No. I wanted to clear yours. I wanted you to know that Edward didn't do the things you think he did. At least not where Esme is concerned."
"Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to believe you're telling me this because you want to clear Edward's name. Don't bullshit me."
"I don't give a shit about Edward, but I do care about you. I know you're unhappy, and I had a hand in that. I'm trying to do the right thing."
"The right thing would've been never getting involved with that psycho in the first place!" Bella stood from the booth and glared down at Alistair. "All of it. She was behind all of it. Exposing me, the lies about Edward, everything. And you helped her."
Alistair's shoulders slumped in defeat as he nodded. "Yes."
"As happy as I am to know the truth, don't expect my gratitude. You can go to hell." Spinning on her heel, she shoved open the door and stormed to her car. Her body vibrated with anger as the puzzle pieces clicked into place. It had been Esme all along. She'd played a game with Bella's life and flipped her world upside down. Wrapping her hands around the steering wheel, she shook her head.
"Fuck that," she scoffed as she started her car. "No fucking way is that bitch getting away with this." Turning out of the parking lot she had only one thought on her mind: getting to the studio before Esme left.
*knocks over first domino* here we go! Who's excited for the next chapter?! *raises hand* Buttttt give me a little time, I'm leaving for Chicago tomorrow and won't be home until Sunday night. I'm 99.9% positive I'll get zero writing done while I'm frolicking there.
Ooza had lots of work in this chapter. Sorry kitteh.
Hobo, KB, Deb, Joo- as always, I couldn't do this without y'all. It would also be a hell of a lot less entertaining.
Thank you guys for reading and reviewing and sticking with me while I fight my way though these chapters!
Until next time!