Dancing in the Dark

Chapter Ten

I know you think you'd never be mine

Well that's okay, baby, I don't mind

That shy smile's sweet, that's a fact

Go ahead, I don't mind the act

I pull the mammoth barbell up to my chest, as my legs shake, and blood thunders in my ears. I let out a long breath and drop it down slowly, uncurling my elbows as they scream at me to stop. I do it again, and again.

I've been at this for twenty minutes, and my face, reflected in the mirror, is crimson. It also has lines of fatigue. I'm exhausted, but needs must. I hardly ever get to workout anymore, and, with Isabella looking after Shortcake this afternoon, I couldn't let the opportunity slide.

Behind my deadbeat reflection, Emmett and Tyler are trying to outdo one another on the treadmill. The sound of their feet pounding the belt echoes around the room. Tyler's crazy if he thinks he can win. Emmett's a machine. I'm fit, and I know I can't beat him. I accepted that shit piece of information long ago.

As a group, we meet like this as often as we can. We try to spur each other on, but it always ends up being a testosterone fuelled, my-cock's-bigger-than-your-cock contest.

In that regard, I usually win. The fitness side, I leave to Emmett.

He laughs loudly when Tyler gives up. Poor fucker looks wasted, doubled over the front of the treadmill. I doubt he'd be able to walk if he'd kept going. I smile and finally drop the weight, basking in the workout prickle that radiates through my biceps and shoulders, telling me I've pushed myself enough. I'll probably be sore tomorrow.

Jesus. At twenty-nine, I feel like an old man.

I grab my towel and pat down my chest and face.

I turn to see Emmett jump from the equipment and slap Tyler's shoulder in mock sympathy. Grabbing a water bottle, Emmett pours water over his head and shakes it off like a dog, coating everyone within a ten-foot radius.

"Woo! That's what I'm talking about!" He grins at me and drinks. He's certifiable, I swear to God.

I shake my head and move over to the treadmill, tuning out Emmett's world famous 'I am the king of the gym world' speech. I pop in my ear buds and start at a slow pace. Gradually, as the speed increases, I let my mind drift back two nights ago.

Dinner at Isabella's was an event. We managed to cover some pretty complex, potentially hazardous areas of our relationship—including the rules about her being any kind of presence in my daughter's life—without killing each other. Impressive stuff.

I have to confess, I'm still startled she was so amenable to the whole thing, but, as Alice said, Isabella almost certainly wants us to come to a common understanding as much as I do. As grown up and mature as our conversation was, however, I'm hesitant to believe that the snotty lawyer bitch that showed up on my doorstep two weeks ago has entirely disappeared. But I'll take what I can.

Truthfully, I'm even more intrigued by her now. Seeing her in her apartment, finding out she has a tattoo, and seeing her so upset after talking to her boyfriend has raised more than a few questions I hope will be answered when she comes for dinner tomorrow. To say that Mama was pleased Isabella accepted the Thanksgiving invitation is an understatement. As much as she has stated otherwise, I can't help but feel that she has an ulterior motive. What that is exactly, remains to be seen, but it unnerves me all the same.

I'm sweating like crazy and packing my gym bag when Emmett appears at my side, grin in place.

"So," he says with a waggle of his enormous eyebrows. "The Thanksgiving show at the club, on Friday. You know what you're doing?"

I smirk and nod. "It's under control."

He laughs loudly. "My man. I know it is, I know. Hey, we're having a party at my place after the show. Rosalie has invited the girls." He nudges my elbow with his. "Charlotte and her crew, you know?"

"I can't," I say quickly, strangely okay with the fact that I won't be attending. Ordinarily, I would be all about the pussy and the beer, but things have changed. Fuck, I am an old man. "I don't have a babysitter."

His smile falters. "You can't ask your mom?"

I smile gently. "No." I clap him on the back. "Thanks, though. I appreciate the invitation."

I walk past him, waving my goodbyes to the other guys with a two finger salute. Before I make it to the door, however, Emmett's hand grasps my bicep, and I stop, turning to look at him curiously.

"Look, Ed," he begins, furtively glancing over at Tyler, checking, I assume, whether he is within earshot. "You know I support you, right?" I nod. "And you know that I appreciate your situation."

I narrow my eyes at him, wondering where the hell he is going with this. Emmett is never quiet or subtle. Something's up. I sigh, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. "What is it, Emmett?"

His mouth pulls into a tight disingenuous smile that instantly has me on the defensive. "Just hear me out, okay?" He holds his hands up, palms facing me. "I'm happy for you, I am. I think it's a fucking great thing you're doing with your baby girl, and all. But it'd be good if you could, you know, show your face some more; see the girls. They see you in the club, but sometimes . . . you know, it's not enough to keep them coming back. They like you, man. They pay good money to see you."

He laughs then, but it isn't loud and boisterous. It's tense.

I huff a disbelieving breath when my brain catches up with the conversation. "You want me to come so they pay more at the club."

He shrugs, not even denying it. "They like ya; they pay to see ya. It's that simple, my friend. Think of it as publicity."

"Emmett," I say carefully. "I'm a stripper, not a fucking prostitute."

He blinks. "I know that."

"What's more, I don't do shit like that anymore," I continue. "I don't fuck around. I'm done. I've more important things to think about. I have priorities. Like my daughter. Besides, Charlotte knows the deal." It's a slight deviation from the truth, but I'm pissed. "I'm spending Thanksgiving with my family; I'm doing the show and going home." I say it slowly and firmly so the message is clear.

His eyes trace over my face before he exhales despondently. He stares towards the floor. "I hear ya," he says quietly. "I get it. I'm sorry. I just want you there, Ed. The party only gets going when you're there."

Lifting his gaze back to mine, he smiles broadly, and my irritation begins to subside.

"It's alright." I run my hands through my hair. "I'm really trying here, man. Okay. I'm trying to be . . . responsible." I rub my neck, feeling awkward.

The word itself doesn't me cringe, but the sound of it coming from my own mouth does. Never would I have thought I'd say it much less try and be it. But the reality is, I need to. I have to for Shortcake. I need to stop being an immature prick who thinks only with his cock and grow up. She's all that matters.

Emmett dips his chin in agreement. "And I respect that. Don't want you to be left behind, is all. We always have a great time."

I clear my throat, and my eyes meet the ceiling. "Fuck," I groan, hating myself. "You're killing me." I sigh, feeling torn, feeling weak, feeling disgusted. "If I can, I'll make a quick stop." I point at him, despising the words as I say them. "No promises."

He claps and whoops. "There's my Coda! That's right!" I turn from him as he continues. "I'll have a Jack and ice ready for you, brother!"

I don't doubt it.

=DitD=

Mama Esme's Thanksgiving dinner is world famous. Well, not quite, but it fucking should be. The house is bursting with the smell of pumpkin pie, potatoes, turkey, and deliciousness, and my mouth starts watering the moment I arrive with Shortcake. The house is also filled with chaos and noise, supplied lovingly by my sister and her family.

James is adamant that he be able to watch his Avengers DVD because Alice promised, and, after a lengthy talking to from Jasper about sitting quietly while watching it, he and William, sit on the sofa, quiet as damned mice.

"Wow," I marvel, watching the film discreetly from the corner of my eye. It looks freaking awesome, and I make a mental note to purchase the DVD as soon as I can. "And when can I start using films to keep Shortcake quiet?" I look down at my daughter as she snoozes in her car seat and, honestly, it seems a long way off.

Alice rolls her eyes at me. "It's educational."

I look back at the TV to see Scarlett Johansson kicking ass. "Damn. That's my kind of education."

"Wait until she's dressed in her black cat suit," Jasper whispers at my side, watching with me just as intently.

"Spank bank worthy?" I ask.

"Oh yeah."

"You two are filth," Alice admonishes as she walks to the dining room with silverware and napkins. "Make yourselves useful and help with the table."

Chuckling to ourselves, Jasper and I grab dishes, plates, and anything else Mama gives us, and assist in making the table look pretty. As is the protocol every year, Carlisle stays hidden in the den, watching the game. The odd grumble and loud curse emits sporadically through the sliding doors, much to the chagrin of Mama and the amusement of Jasper and me. My uncle hardly ever swears, so hearing it is funny as hell.

When the doorbell rings thirty minutes later, I'm immediately fidgety and anxious. I have no idea how today is going to go. I don't know what mood Isabella will be in, and I begin to fret that she will be back to her quiet, distant self. I hope beyond hope that the woman on the other side of the door is the woman I spent a pleasant evening with three nights ago.

I open the door gradually, finding Isabella standing on the stoop, looking frozen, bottle of wine in hand.

"Hey." I smile and quickly usher her in from the cold.

As she walks past me, bringing the frosty air in with her, I catch the scent of her perfume, which is deep, warm, and rich. I recognise it right away, and I realise with a start that I've been breathing that same fragrance from my pillow for the past week.

"You smell good," I blurt. It's true. I like it. It's not strong and overpowering like the perfume girls at the club wear. It's subtle and sexy.

Isabella stares at me for a moment before she starts to unfasten her coat. "Thank you. So do you."

I shrug. "I know." I smile when she laughs lightly. It's a good start. "Happy Thanksgiving."

"Happy Thanksgiving to you," she replies with a grin, offering me the wine. I take it from her and smirk when I notice that it's my favourite. We discussed wine over her lasagne, and I'm more than a little impressed she remembered.

Mama Esme hurries into the hallway amid a flurry of apologies, followed by my sister and Jasper. I watch in an amazed stupor when Mama pulls Isabella in for a hug. I have to give the poor girl credit; she hugs her back as best as she can, hiding her own shock like a champ. Alice greets her in the same way, while Jasper gives her a polite handshake.

He moves to stand next to me. As we watch the three chatting women move to the sitting room, he nudges me hard in the ribs.

"You didn't tell me she was hot, dude!" he hisses.

I snort at his wide eyes and holy-shit expression. "Oh, come on," I retort quietly. "Calm down. She's not that hot."

Jasper frowns in what looks like utter disbelief. "Are you insane? Or sick?"

I glance back over at Isabella to see what all the fuss is about, taking in her cream sweater and black jeans. She's attractive, of course. I see and appreciate that. Maybe even pretty. But hot? I can't deny she's got a rocking body. She has nice, long legs, and her ass looks great in denim. From what I've seen, she has a nice rack, and I like her big, deep brown eyes. But she never wears her hair down, and that fact alone bothers me to an inexplicable degree.

She peeks back at me, catching my stare, and the red of her cold cheeks deepens infinitesimally.

Jasper coughs a laugh and speaks out of the corner of his mouth. "Well, she certainly thinks you are."

My head snaps to him. "What?" I turn back to see Isabella disappear into the kitchen. I face my brother-in-law, pinning him with a pointed stare. "What are you talking about?"

Jasper holds his hands up in defence, smiling. "Hey, dude. I just say what I see."

He hurries after his wife, leaving me alone in the hallway, bottle of wine in my hand, entirely confused. I rub the back of my neck, feeling the tension start below my hairline as my brain starts to work a mile a minute.

Is Jasper right? Does Isabella see me that way? Honestly, I'd never even considered it. She's always been so defensive, prickly, rude even. True, there have been glimmers of loveliness and sensitivity, but they've been so fleeting, I almost missed them. I'd always thought she behaves the way she does because she has a superiority complex, not because she . . . likes me.

I rub my fingers over my eyes. I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. Christ. I know I'm getting ahead of myself and jumping to conclusions that have zero basis. Isabella's pleasant enough, and I've seen more smiles recently, but that doesn't mean anything. Plenty of people smile without it meaning anything other than one person being nice to another. Truthfully, I'm only relieved that Isabella and I are over the whole awkward, stink eye stage. We've made progress. That's all. We're tolerating one another, being mature.

No.

Jasper's wrong about Isabella, and I intend to forget he ever mentioned it.

I huff with a mixture of resolve and aggravation, wanting nothing more than to throttle Jasper Whitlock with my bare hands, and follow the sound of laughter into the kitchen. I walk in to see Isabella standing with a glass of wine, smiling as Alice tells her all about her sporadic interior design work. I watch Isabella with a new awareness that irritates me to the point of homicide, noting with equal annoyance that the redness of her cheeks has disappeared.

"Anything you need doing on your new apartment, let me know," Alice says. "As James gets older, I'll have more time to focus on my little business. It'll be affordable and tasteful work. Trust."

Isabella tips her glass towards my sister. "Great tag line."

Alice beams.

"Don't listen to her," I say to Isabella, making her turn quickly. "She tried decorating my daughter's room with fucking bears."

I walk past them both, smiling at Alice's retorts. I place the wine in the fridge and grab myself a beer. I definitely need one.

"He thinks because he paints and draws like Da Vinci that he has some artistic licence to comment on stuff like that," Alice grumbles.

I hold the beer bottle to my lips as her words echo around the kitchen.

Son of a bitch.

Isabella's eyes widen slightly. "You paint?"

I release the bottle with a pop, glaring at my sister who—realising her slip—is trying to hide behind her wine glass.

I exhale loudly down my nose. "I dabble," I answer dismissively. "Amateur shit. Nothing fancy."

"Bullshit," Jasper joins in from across the room. He looks at Isabella. "He's being modest for once in his life. He's really good. Sold a few pieces, too." He glances casually back at me.

"A slow and painful death, Whitlock," I warn with narrow eyes. "Seriously, man."

He laughs, and I feel my masculinity ebb quietly out of the door.

The pair of them can go to hell. They know I don't talk about my painting. It's a personal choice because of what painting and drawing represents to me. I began drawing when my mom first got sick. I found it helped with the healing and the understanding of what was happening to my family. It was cathartic in that I drew my feelings of anger and sadness as opposed to talking about them. Very emo of me, I know. The thing is I didn't realise how good I actually was until I started. Jasper is right; I am really good.

My drawings changed from sketches to felt pens to paint. Paint is great; I love its fluidity, its changeability, and its smoothness, and I found, after Mom died, I could express myself easier with it. But sketching is still one of my most favourite things. I haven't done it in a while.

"I'd love to see some of your work one day," Isabella says.

I blink in surprise before giving an indifferent shrug. "Yeah, well, I don't keep a lot of it. I don't know where most of it is so—"

"There's some in the hallway and the study."

My mouth drops open when Mama's head appears around the pantry doorjamb with this nugget of information.

"Mama!" I snap then drop my arms in defeat when Alice grabs Isabella's arm and leads her back out to the hallway. Fuckers. All of them.

After checking on Shortcake, and finding her still asleep, I follow them with dragging feet, like a petulant child, as Alice blathers on about which paintings are mine and when I did them. Isabella looks suitably impressed, which is a relief. I see her eyes narrow slightly, as they did when they saw the paintings in my apartment. I know she has an appreciation for good art. The paintings in her apartment show her affection for it. She sees art the way I do: underneath the brush strokes, where the meanings and messages really lie.

"These are fantastic," she says softly. Her fingers twitch as if she might touch the canvas, and I smile. "Your colour awareness is really good."

I clear my throat. I am completely uncomfortable. "Thanks."

Jasper nods and grins at me like a proud parent. I flip him off.

"Did you draw this from something else?" Isabella asks.

My bemusement increases. She's good. "Yeah. I took a few photographs and then painted my interpretation." I move closer to her and point to the larger painting. "This is the back yard of Mama's house. And this," I point to the smaller one, "was a photo of the Seattle skyline."

She nods. I don't know if she sees it, but I like that she tries.

"They're lovely," she murmurs. Her eyes never leave the paintings. "You should do this more often, Edward. You have talent."

I cough an embarrassed laugh, noticing Jasper and Alice wandering quietly back to the kitchen. "I'm not sure about that."

"Leah used to draw." Her words are quiet.

I cross my arms over my chest and lean my shoulder against the wall. "She did?"

Isabella nods and presses her lips together. "She used to get sick a lot when we were kids; tonsillitis, ear infections, and chest infections. She had time off school. She'd sit at her bedroom window and draw. It was kid's stuff, you know, but I kept everything she ever did." She looks up at me, and the pain in her eyes is overwhelming. "I can't draw to save my life. It was enough to have Leah's work."

I nod slowly and smile gently. I understand. I have belongings of my mother's I keep in a drawer that's rarely opened: her hairbrush, some jewellery, some photographs she took. Having things that belonged to someone special after they have gone is both a blessing and a curse. It's a shitty substitute to having the person alive and with you, but you wouldn't trade the connection for all the world.

"I'd like to see that one day," I say. "Who knows, with all this fucking talent flying around, maybe Shortcake will be a world famous painter."

Isabella laughs with me then, and the sound makes my chest strangely tight.

"Or a dancer?" she adds.

I look towards the floor. "Yeah, maybe."

Isabella sips her wine, her gaze still on mine. "I took ballet as a kid."

My stare snaps to hers, and I gawp. "You did?"

She chuckles and nods. "Yeah. I started when I was five until I was about sixteen."

I frown in surprise. "That's pretty high level shit. You must have been good."

She shakes her head, but from the lift of her shoulders and the curve of the smile my compliment draws from her, I know she's being modest.

"I did ballet, too," I confess with an exaggerated sigh.

"I know," Isabella replies. "Victoria told me. Although, I had an inkling when your . . . girlfriend called you Coda."

My eyes narrow in confusion. "Girlfriend?" And then it hits me. "Oh, you mean Charlotte. No, she's not my—well, we hang a lot, sure, but we're not, you know." I point backwards, over my shoulder as if it will explain things better. "She works at another club. She dances, too, and we just, you know, hang out sometimes. Sometimes together, but mostly as a group, you know, with the other girls and the guys. Chilling and shit and—"

I push my hands into my pockets, hoping that the action will stop my fucking mouth from working. But it doesn't stop. "She stays over sometimes," I mutter.

My stammering is completely uncharacteristic. I can't understand why the woman standing in front of me gets me so damned mixed up. It shouldn't matter whether Charlotte is my girlfriend, friend, or fuck buddy. My life is my own, and the fact that I feel the need to explain things to Isabella makes my head spin.

Isabella, however, appears entirely unfazed. She's silent as she smirks. "Why Coda, though?" she asks before the uncomfortable silence can eat away at me anymore. "What does it mean to you?"

I open my mouth a couple of times, but nothing comes out. I'm stunned to shit she hasn't asked more about Charlotte or made some sarcastic comment about my stupid verbal vomit. I run an agitated hand through my hair and pull restlessly at the collar on my white button down.

"Um . . . when I was nine," I begin, "I was one of the main dancers in a show my dance company performed in Seattle. At the finale, when the whole cast came on, I was so excited that I'd done it without falling flat on my face and my mom was there to see it that, instead of dancing upstage centre like I'd been told, I pushed my way to the front and danced my ass off."

Isabella laughs again. I smile and laugh with her.

"My dance teacher went batshit, but my mom was so proud. The name Coda stuck. I was the main event at the end of the show. 'You were the finale, my little Coda,' Mom would say."

I shake my head and take a deep breath. The memory always leaves me a little breathless. My heart quietly aches as I remember the look of absolute delight on my mom's face as I span and leapt like a demon across the stage.

"That's a great memory," Isabella muses quietly, trailing her index finger around the rim of her wine glass.

"Yeah," I reply, rubbing my chin with my palm. "I loved performing with that company."

"Why did you stop?"

I sigh. "I was seventeen. I bust my knee. That was the end of that." As simple as it sounds, the devastation at being told I couldn't ever do ballet again still flickers deep in my stomach.

"I'm sorry," Isabella says. Her eyes are wide and honest. I know she means it.

I shrug. "Shit happens, right?"

She smiles sadly and nods. We stare at each other then. It's only for a couple of seconds, but it's enough for me to realise that, during our conversation, we've hurdled over a million walls and canyons that have been both high and deep between us. We've finally reached a common ground, and the relief is tangible. We're not BFFs by any stretch, but we've come a long way in a short time, and I'm proud. Isabella's face tells me the moment she realises the same thing. It's a good feeling.

The sound of Shortcake's loud, hungry cry reaches us, pulling me from Isabella's eyes. I leave her at the paintings and hurry down the hallway to the kitchen where Alice is unbuckling Elizabeth from her seat. A bottle of milk sits on the table.

"I've got it," I tell my sister, moving her to the side so I can pick up my daughter. She's warm as toast. Her small legs are scrunched up tightly as I lift her and tuck her safely under my chin.

"Hey, baby girl," I whisper into her auburn hair, while patting a hand down the back of her pink dress. "You can smell the turkey, huh?"

She warbles into my neck, and I carry her, her bottle, and a towel to the sitting room to feed her. Isabella smiles at me as I walk past. She follows me, as does Alice, but they stay in the doorway as I take a seat. James and William are still glued to the TV. I watch with them as Iron Man blasts his way around New York, and it's cool as hell.

Shortcake takes her bottle as if it's her job, and, once she's finished, I sit for five minutes rubbing her back before she burps. James and William laugh at the loud, grateful noise that comes from her tiny mouth.

"That soundsded like Daddy!" James shouts as he collapses in giggles against the cushions of the sofa. Alice's laugh echoes around the room.

Thoroughly stuffed and with wide-open eyes, Shortcake lies in my arms, staring at me as if she knows exactly who I am. I smile at her, placing my finger in her hand, while my thumb whispers across her soft cheek. Her mouth opens and stretches, emitting small squeaks and noises that make my tattooed heart thump hard behind my ribs.

I sense Isabella move closer until she is standing at the side of my chair. "She's so happy," she whispers.

I nod slowly in agreement as I look up at her. "Hey, I'm working tomorrow night. Could you babysit?"

"Sure." Isabella nibbles her bottom lip. "I can come to your place?"

"Absolutely," I reply. "I might be a little later than last time. But you can stay. The spare room is made up."

She shrugs. "Okay."

"Thanks."

I turn back to my daughter. Letting my gaze travel gradually from the top of Shortcake's head to her small kicking feet, I become conscious of just how much she has changed. She grows every day. Since we first met, a little over a month ago, her face has become rounder, chubbier, her hair has grown, and her eyes are brighter, bluer.

And, with every small difference in her, I know that she takes ownership of another piece of my all too willing heart. I'm not stupid enough to deny the fact that I'm falling in love with my daughter. Maybe I'm already there. She's just about the most precious, most perfect creature I've ever seen. She's altered my life in a way I never thought I would appreciate. I miss her when we're apart, and I look forward to seeing her beautiful face every morning. My life, so random and chaotic before, now has meaning and purpose.

I lean down and kiss her cheek, breathing her in, feeling truly thankful.

=DitD=

The Thanksgiving show—excluding Christmas and July Fourth—is my favourite show of the year at Eclipse. The atmosphere is always electric, but there's something about Thanksgiving which makes everyone go a little bit more crazy, a little bit more uninhibited and wild. It's probably the prospect of a long weekend that gets everyone's engine revving that much higher.

No matter the cause, it's always an epic night.

Tonight is no exception. The club is packed with wanton women of all ages, knocking back the cocktail of the night with little regard for the killer hangover that awaits them come the morning. I smile, watching through a gap in the stage curtain. They've been a great crowd. We're half way through the set, and I'm up next. My solo dance.

Emmett—dressed in nothing but a thong with brown, turkey feathers attached—starts to encourage their hollers for me. He claps and cheers himself, whooping from his spot on the stage. Within seconds, the decibel level has reached epic proportions, and the hairs on my arms stand up eagerly. I close my eyes, as I always do, and let the opening beats of the music reverberate in my chest and in the balls of my bare feet.

I'm wearing a brown suede waistcoat and matching assless pants. My hair is styled in an ambitious mohawk, spray painted enthusiastically by Pete so it's now bright red. I have green and red lines under my dark rimmed eyes, and I'm holding a small axe. My bare chest glimmers with oil and glitter.

Tonight, I am a brave Red Indian warrior, performing a special dance for one lucky lady.

I like these dances, prefer them. It's more intimate and personal. Some women pay a lot of dollars to have the three tables closest to the stage. They have more chance of being picked to participate that way. I imagine for many of them being touched and danced for by me is the highlight of their week, while their boring as all fuck husbands, boyfriends, and partners wait at home, never giving these women the intimacy so many of them crave. For six minutes I give them what they want. I turn them on, grind it up, and submit to their deepest desires. I tease and titillate and make them gasp and pay for more.

The lights go out, and the music gets louder. There is the sound of horses galloping, and I spring onto the stage under hot lights and hotter gazes. I'm crouched, ready to pounce. I move to one side of the stage and open my waistcoat. I let them see the goods. Writhing, I drop down and let them almost touch it. I crawl on all fours to the other side, dropping my hips to the floor. Once, twice, three times, drawing screams and shouts from the crowd.

I turn and shake my ass. The sound in the place goes nuclear. I look back. I wink, and I'm cool as fuck. Patting my hand to my open mouth, I make a loud Indian whoop, and the women echo it. I put the axe between my legs, and I thrust upwards, playing with the end like it's a cock. I know that's what the women see. They picture my cock. They want it.

The girl, who has paid to have me for six minutes, is seated in the chair at the front of the stage, blindfolded. She's safe. She'll have asked for this specifically. I'm not worried. Emmett has told me that she has no limits to what she will allow me to do. These are the best clients. I move over to her, dipping and moving like liquid across the stage floor. I drop my axe and put my legs on either side of her thighs. I lift her wrists gently, whispering that she's okay, and place her hands on my chest. The room walls bend with the noise from the crowd.

She lets her palms run up and down my skin. She laughs and squeals when she feels my abs and grips them a little too tight. I pull off my waistcoat and toss it to the front table. I turn and face the crowd, too quickly for her to move her hands which immediately find my ass. She squeezes as I rub my chest, my stomach, my crotch. Her nails pinch my flesh, but it feels great.

I'll have marks in the morning. I always do. There'll be nail marks, pinch marks, slap marks, and that's fine. They don't hurt.

They're marks I've worked for.

=DitD=

Emmett's place is jumping when I arrive a little after two AM. I walk through the front door, knowing I should be on my way home. Isabella is staying, so I know she's alright and doesn't have to drive at stupid o'clock on a Saturday morning. The simple fact is, as pussy as it may sound, I don't want or need Emmett on my case about this. And, honestly, I feel like I owe him. He's done so much for me. The least I can do is show up to his damned party.

I promise myself I'll stay for one drink, say hello to everyone, and then leave.

I'm accosted by two of the bar girls as soon as I walk into the sitting room. Tanya and Lauren are high and tactile. They tell three of the friends they have brought who I am, and the three girls smile and fluff their hair. I'm as polite as I can be. I recognise them. They come to the club a lot. Emmett was talking about these girls. The girls who pay hefty dollars to see the boys and me. They're harmless and flirty, but I'm not in the mood. I give them each a soft, lingering kiss on the cheek, teasing them just enough, before I steal away as subtly as I can. Moving towards the kitchen, I notice people sitting, kissing, and dry humping on Emmett's large plush sofas as I walk by. Same shit. Different day.

After I put my jacket on the back of a kitchen chair, Pete yells and whoops when he sees me and thrusts a glass of tepid beer into my hand Emmett stands in the corner of the room, and, from what I can see, is getting a hand job from Rosalie. He winks at me over her shoulder, and I shake my head. Fucking Emmett.

"Great show tonight, man," Mike slurs from his position at the sink. "That Red Indian shit? Dude, that woman was about ready to fuck your brains out!"

I laugh. "Then I did my job."

"You did good, Coda." I turn to see Emmett—cock thankfully away in his pants—standing with a shot of tequila in his hand. He hands it to me. "My boy."

I tip the shot glass towards him in thanks and pour it into a glass of beer sitting on the counter when he shoots his. He's too high and drunk to notice, which I'm more than grateful for. He winds an arm around my shoulder and walks me to the back room, which is quieter and less full of humping bodies. We drop onto a sofa, and I rub a hand through my hair, suddenly feeling tired.

"I didn't think you'd show," Emmett says, pulling a blunt from his pocket. He lights it, draws back on it heavily, and blows it towards the ceiling. It smells amazing.

"I know," I reply, sipping my beer. "But you know I'm a stubborn fucker."

He chuckles. "That you are."

Behind him, Rosalie and Charlotte sashay into the room. Charlotte smiles at me, and I smile back. She looks incredible in tight blue jeans and an even tighter black t-shirt. She takes a seat next to me while Rosalie sits on Emmett's lap.

"How are you?" I ask as Charlotte crosses her legs.

"I'm fine. How're you?" She lets her index finger skim down my bicep. "You look good," she says, checking out my red Mohawk.

"You too," I reply before I sip my beer. "And I'm well."

Her hand falls to my leg, and her fingers start to massage the inside of my thigh. To my left, Emmett and Rosalie are kissing loudly, and, from the sounds Rosalie is making, Emmett's hands are wandering.

"It's been a while," Charlotte purrs, moving closer to me, pushing her hand between my legs. She smells nice, though her perfume is stronger, more pungent than I remember. She's sexy as hell, and I know that she would fuck the tired right out of me. Nevertheless, I lift her hand gently from where it's almost rubbing my half-hard cock.

She kisses the side of my mouth, ignoring my stopping her, and then puts her mouth on mine. Charlotte is a great kisser. Her mouth is always impressive no matter where it is. I kiss her back, of course, and she tastes nice, but I don't deepen it. I shouldn't feel like an asshole, but I do, as I cup her face and push her away gently. I smile to ease the flash of disappointment in her eyes.

She sits back from me, but it isn't in anger, it's more in surprise. "Are you alright?"

I nod, dropping my hand from her face. "Yeah, I am. I'm just . . . not tonight, okay?"

Her head cocks to the right. Her expression is one of curiosity. "What's up with you?"

I turn back to Emmett and Rosalie who are practically fucking next to us. I grab Charlotte's hand.

"Come with me."

I lead her up the stairs to Emmett's bedroom. I lock the door and gesture for her to take a seat on the bed.

"Emmett will flip his shit if we fuck in here," she comments, though she sits on the edge of the bed, knowing that's not going to happen.

"I have a baby, Charlotte," I say quickly, still standing by the door.

She stares at me, staying silent.

"I found out at Halloween. The mother, Leah, she died. I'm raising her alone. Well, not alone, I have joint custody of her with Leah's sister, Isabella—"

"Ah," she interrupts me. "So that's what's up. You're hot for this chick."

I blink, momentarily thrown by her assumption. "What? No. No, it's not like that. We're just raising Shortcake together."

"Shortcake?"

I sigh and rub a hand across my forehead. "Elizabeth, my daughter."

She leans back on her hands and nods. "Wow."

"Yeah," I reply lamely. I walk slowly towards the bed and sit down beside her. I knot my fingers together and drop them between my knees. "It's been a hell of a month, Charlotte. I'm trying to be better, less of a prick. I need to put her first. I can't be fucking around the way I was."

After a moment of silence, she nudges my shoulder with hers. "But you're doing it, right?"

I turn my head to look at her. "I am."

"Then it's all good." She wraps an arm around my waist, but there is no sexual intent. In fact, it's comforting. "Don't worry about me, honey. I'm good. I think it's a decent thing that you're doing. And trust me; the new improved Coda is just as sexy as the old one."

I laugh. "I don't feel fucking sexy," I admit. I'm tired and anxious to get home.

"Oh, sweetheart, don't. You know you have the power and hair to incinerate panties within a ten mile radius."

I snort and shake my head. Charlotte kisses my shoulder tenderly. "Thanks," I murmur.

"No problem," she answers. She pushes me away and pulls a cigarette from the packet held in her bra strap. "Now go home to your daughter. I'll tell Emmett you fucked me blind and left."

I smirk. "You're a princess."

I kiss her quickly and stand, making my way to the door. With my fingers on the handle, I turn back to her. "Take care, Charlotte," I say. "Call me."

She laughs through a plume of smoke. "You know I won't."

I smile and nod. "I know. But if you need anything."

She looks genuinely grateful. "Thank you."

Once I'm down the stairs, I grab my coat from the kitchen and beat a hasty retreat out the front door.

=DitD=

My apartment is in darkness when I walk through the door twenty minutes later. I'm not surprised; it's past three in the morning. I wander through to the sitting room to find the TV playing silently to itself, and Isabella fast asleep on the sofa. Her small hands are tucked under her face, and her knees are pulled up to her stomach. The baby monitor is sitting on the coffee table, and I immediately go to my room where Shortcake's bassinet stays.

Quietly opening my door, I see Shortcake, sound asleep on her front; her small auburn head, poking from beneath the blanket. I adjust it, feeling her neck to make sure she's not too warm and place a kiss on her hand.

"Dream sweet, baby girl."

I leave my door open slightly, in case she wakes. Back in the living room, I stand next to the sofa and try to wake Isabella. She can't sleep on the sofa. She'll freeze. I whisper her name but get nothing but a hum in response. I smile when she mumbles and snuggles closer into the cushion.

"Come on," I whisper. "Wake up. You need to get into bed."

Cautiously, I put my hand on her arm and rub gently in an attempt at rousing her. Her arm is petite in my hand as is her shoulder. She moves slightly.

"It's alright," I tell her. "It's just me."

"Edward." Her voice is full of sleep.

I smile. "Yeah, I'm home. You need to get into bed."

She smiles with her eyes still closed and sighs. Gently, and not really knowing why, I place my hand on her hair and stroke my palm across it. It's so soft. I do it again. Oddly, the sensation that appears in my hand as I do, makes me relaxed, almost sleepy.

"Isabella," I try again, but she's out for the count.

Shaking my head in bemusement, I go to my linen closet and get two thick blankets I hope will keep her warm. I lay them over her as carefully as I can and tuck them under her feet and around her waist, which is small yet curvy.

I turn off the TV and baby monitor, grab a bottle of water, which I place next to her, and make sure the thermostat is set high enough to keep her warm. I stand, watching her in the darkness, just in case she wakes up. She doesn't, and the slight pang of disappointment that emerges in my chest is enough to make me splash cold water onto my face when I get to the bathroom.

With my teeth brushed and my clothes in the laundry basket, I slip underneath my sheets, not caring about the red dye still in my hair. I lie with my arms behind my head, staring up at the ceiling. As tired as I felt earlier, I'm now wide-awake.

My mind is working overtime. It's not only that my brain is wrestling with the pathetic realisation that this is the first time a woman has ever slept at my place with no intimacy involved, but it's also grappling with the idea that I would want any intimacy with Isabella at all.

I don't, I tell myself. I barely know the woman. I barely like her.

No. That's not true.

We have spent time together where I've seen a side of her that is . . . nice. We talked for a long time on Thanksgiving. She was funny and charming. My family seems to adore her already, which is great, but I'm not entirely sure what I'm meant to do with that. The sensation of panic that fills my stomach is slight but strong enough to keep my eyes awake.

"Get a grip, Cullen," I mutter to myself.

I roll over onto my side and stare at my door. I should have fucked Charlotte, I concede. I should have gotten it all out of my system. That's all I'm feeling, I surmise: I'm horny. It's that simple. I've had a great night at the club. The women were all over me. Charlotte was hot and eager. Typically, I would have been at Emmett's all night, balls deep in some hot piece of ass.

I exhale in frustration.

I don't even get chance to whack off anymore. It's no wonder I'm wired.

Satisfied that I'm having a stupendously ridiculous moment of insanity in terms of Isabella, I close my eyes and think about something else. I think about Shortcake and her gummy smile, her smell, and the way she fits perfectly under my chin. I start to breathe slower. I start to calm down.

Nevertheless, the odd but undisputable tingling sensation that has resided in my hand since I touched Isabella's hair continues until I fall asleep.

Holy sexy tingles, Batman!

Love to the wonderful Purelyamuse who is my grammar queen and captain. You rock hard, Cap.

In answer to some reviewers' question, Alice told Edward that Isabella had a boyfriend after she'd Googled her in chapter 6.

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TTFN xx