Friday before my vacation, I was feeling strangely indisposed. My stomach was in knots since lunch, and at first I put it down to the pre-travel anxiety—I was flying out Sunday and I hadn't started packing yet. By the time I finished with work, I was quite nauseated; I hoped I wasn't coming down with anything. I even considered going straight home, but then decided I couldn't leave without a proper goodbye since I wouldn't be seeing Edward for two weeks.
He raised his brow, puzzled, when I pulled away from his welcome kiss.
"I'm not feeling well," I explained. "Just give me a few minutes. It will pass."
He nodded, motioning for me to follow him into the kitchen. "You need to eat something."
"Er... I'm not really hungry." I leaned on the countertop, watching him open the oven. He took out a large pan and put it on the table, removing the lid.
"The appetite comes with eating."
The very moment I caught the smell of fish, my stomach turned. Pressing my hand to my mouth, I fled to the bathroom.
When my body seemed to be finished revolting against me, I flushed the toilet and groaned. I would never, ever have Japanese food again. Not in the near future, anyway. I got up and stepped to the sink to rinse my mouth. When I raised my head, the reflection I saw in the mirror made me startle.
He stood behind me, tension oozing out of him at every pore. Good God, did he really need to witness me throwing up, like it wasn't bad enough I did it in his fancy bathroom?
"I'm sorry," I mumbled.
He silently shook his head, but there was something so terribly off about his expression that my stomach clenched, bringing on another wave of nausea.
I spent half the night in the bathroom, afraid to leave the place in case I might get sick again. Not uttering a word, he brought me a glass of mineral water, then another one. I felt too ill and too tired to dwell on his weird behavior. When I could barely keep my eyes open, I brushed my teeth and went to bed. He wasn't there.
It was movement in the room that woke me in the morning. He was pacing up and down, the sound of his steps muted by the thick carpet. I felt infinitely better, albeit weak, but as I watched him through my half-opened eyelids, anxiety crept back in, making me cold in the stomach.
"Are you jogging in the room now?" I tried to alleviate the tension with a silly joke, but it was to no avail.
"How are you?" he asked in a deadpan voice, narrowing his eyes at me.
"Good. Contemplating a hot shower." I smiled. "Would you like to join me? I promise not to throw up on you."
He didn't return my smile.
"Isabella, look..." He sighed, finally taking a seat on the edge of the bed. "I need you to do something right now."
I gaped at him. He sighed again, reached to the nightstand, and placed something on the bed beside me.
I glanced at the small object and blinked. Twice. At first, I thought it was a thermometer. Then I felt like I had entered The Twilight Zone.
"W... wait," I said. "It's a..." For some reason, I couldn't say the word out loud.
"I bought you a pregnancy test."
"But it wasn't morning sickness," I emphasized. "I clearly had food poisoning."
"Morning sickness doesn't necessarily happen in the mornings." His eyes pierced mine. "Rose, Emmett's wife, was pregnant twice. She was all over the place. Things happen."
He couldn't be serious. Or could he?
"You're late, aren't you?"
My heart missed a beat. Technically, I was two weeks late, but I switched from my regular pill to the mini-pill last month and my gyno had warned me I could possibly not bleed at all. It was a common side-effect.
"Okay," I said, wanting to get over with this craziness. Quickly. "I'll do it. No big deal."
I got up, not looking at him, grabbed the stick, and headed to the bathroom. He followed me and placed his foot on the threshold, preventing me from closing the door at his face.
"What now?" I snapped. "You're going to watch me pee?"
He didn't reply but his face visibly tensed.
"Not. Gonna. Happen." I pulled the door shut. This time, he let me.
It wasn't the first time I had to pee on a stick—who hadn't had, even if once? I washed my face and brushed my teeth before proceeding to the task at hand. Having done the deed, I put the stick on the vanity surface and opened the bathroom door. He stood, rigid, right where I had left him.
"It takes ten minutes," I mumbled, stepping back to take a seat on the toilet.
He nodded, taking a glance at his watch before his hand landed on the door frame with a loud smack.
I knew it wasn't possible. I knew that. We were using condoms each time we had sex and I was on the freaking pill—something he didn't know about—but his panic was contagious. With every passing second, I was going into a tailspin. Things happened. I remembered that no contraception method offered a 100% guarantee and what ifs started swirling in my head. What would my parents say? What would my boss say? What would Alice say? Was I ready to have a baby? Was Edward ready?
And as I fixed my gaze on his face, usually still and perfect as if carved from marble and now contorted like he was in pain, the answer was there, loud and clear.
He looked at his watch. "Time." He didn't look at me.
My hands trembling, I reached for the pee stick. I closed my eyes and held my breath before taking a look.
"Negative." I shoved the stick at him and made my way out of the bathroom. I threw my clothes on the bed and began to change, gasping. I needed to leave. The air in the room was probably cool as usual, but it felt hot; my lungs were burning. I just couldn't stand it any longer.
He stood behind me in the doorway. I didn't see him but I could feel him watching me. I was praying he would keep silent because I didn't know what I'd do if he said something right now.
And of course, he had to.
"There is a two-percent possibility of failure when using condoms." His voice was smooth as it normally had been. "I've done a research."
I turned abruptly, meeting his eyes. "I'm on the pill," I spat out, grabbed my purse, and brushed past him to the hall. What on earth had gotten me so worked up?
"Why didn't you tell me?" Now he was accusing me. "I'm supposed to know such things!"
"Because I didn't want to have unprotected sex with you." The words were still ringing in my ears when their harsh implication dawned on me. I pressed my hand to my mouth.
His eyes widened; his hand raised as if of its own volition and then fell back to his side. He made a weird choking sound, turned on his heel, and slammed the study door shut behind him.
"Shit," I groaned. I didn't mean it that way—to tell the truth, I just wasn't sure I wanted the intimacy unprotected sex would provide. I wasn't sure if it would be a good idea to get rid of the last barrier and take him, all of him... I was afraid it would become too much for our non-relationship and I'd never be able to let him go afterward. He deserved honesty, but how could I explain all that? My only feeble excuse was that he had never brought the subject up, so technically I wasn't lying. I had been on the pill for years and it seemed sensible to use condoms when I first jumped into his bed—he had been a stranger, after all. There was nothing wrong with a girl wanting to have control over her own body.
As I returned home, I tried not to think about what had happened. Not that I was in the right frame of mind to analyze it anyway—I was still tired and weak from last night and had too many things to not forget to pack. I hated packing but today the distraction was more than welcome. I even turned on the radio to tune out the remaining thoughts.
On the Sunday afternoon, I left my cat with Jake and went downstairs to make sure there were no unpaid bills left in my mailbox. To my surprise, inside I found a manila envelope. It wasn't signed and I shrugged, tearing it open.
There were some papers. As I leafed through them, I didn't understand at first. Then I did. They were Edward's STI tests results.
Alice was right—I needed to gain a fresh perspective. Badly so.
My mother and her husband Salvatore owned a small villa in the quiet upscale residential area of Rome. She taught English at a local school, so she was on summer vacation and we could finally spend some quality time together.
For a few first days, it was so easy not to think about my life back home, what with sleeping late, making breakfast, eating, talking with Mom, making lunch, eating, napping, making dinner, eating, and drinking in the beauty of the eternal city in the evening when the heat wasn't too intense. I was coming home so tired that I fell asleep the very second my head hit the pillow. Mom wasn't bringing up the boyfriend issue again, to which I was grateful.
It appeared I had misjudged her.
"I want you to meet someone," she said at dinner on Thursday.
I stopped chewing at looked up at her.
"His name is Alessandro. He's the son of one of our parishioners. A very nice young man."
For a second, my eyes flickered to Sal's. He was hiding a smile.
"Why would I want to meet him?" I asked.
"Well." Mom put her fork down and poured me some more wine. "You haven't mentioned anyone, cara mia. I dare to assume your relationship status hasn't changed since my last visit. Am I wrong?"
The tension, forgotten since I had stepped on the Roman ground, washed over me, making my muscles clench all over. I suddenly lost my appetite.
"No," I managed. She wasn't wrong in the slightest. My status hadn't changed a bit.
"He's from Montepulciano," Mom continued, more excitedly now. "He owns vineyards there, and he's coming here on business tomorrow. His mother told him about you; he's looking forward to meeting you. He's in dire need of a wife."
I groaned internally. "How exactly young is he?"
"Forty-two. But don't let the age difference put you off." She reached out and took Salvatore's hand, smiling at him. "It works just fine, trust me."
I snorted. "Es tu, Brute?"
He shrugged. "I must agree with your mother. Alessandro is a nice guy. Good-looking, too."
"Come on, Bella," Mom said. "What's there to think about? It's not like I'm asking you to go to bed with him, for God's sake. It's just a friendly dinner."
"Mom." I rolled my eyes at her.
"What? How are you going to find your soulmate if you refuse to meet new people?"
I cast my eyes down. Leaving my agreement with Edward aside, I simply hated blind dates—they usually felt like job interviews. But then again, I could practice my Italian. I didn't have a slightest idea how to get out of this setup, anyway.
"Okay. Fine," I gave up.
Mom's face lit up and she grabbed her phone. "I'm calling Carla."
I stayed up late that night. I read. I watched TV. I checked Facebook. Anything to keep me from thinking. At three o'clock, I kneeled on the floor and whispered the Lord's Prayer before going to bed. At four, I was still wide awake.
It wasn't my forthcoming meeting with Alessandro what made me restless, though. That didn't matter to me—I was doing it solely for my mother's sake. It was Edward that my mind was tightly wrapped about.
The way he reacted last week... as if he was scared to death... as if something disastrous had happened… Unplanned pregnancy wasn't my idea of fun, either, but no matter how shocking it would be, I wouldn't get completely freaked out if I had found out I was carrying his child in my womb. Come think of it, I was slightly disappointed not to be pregnant. I had always wanted a family. And kids. That was making all the difference. What were the odds that he would change his attitude? What were the odds that one day he would want a family and kids? With me? And the most important question, how long should I wait to find out? Ten years? Five? Or would he get bored with me sooner than that?
My head was pounding. At five, I went to the kitchen and found a pack of painkillers. At six, I was finally asleep.
I didn't know what I had expected, but Alessandro had appeared to be anything but that. The first thing that surprised me was a black Porsche parked at our gate. A tall, tanned guy with short dark spiky hair stood by the passenger door; he grinned wide, taking off his Ray-Bans as he saw me. He didn't look older than thirty-five. "You must be Bella," he said in English. So my mother had showed him my photo.
"Yup," I said. "That's me."
"Nice to meet you." He held out his hand. No kissing on both cheeks—was he really Italian?
"Nice car," I said in Italian once I got inside.
"Thank you." He stepped on the accelerator and the car started off. "I like to drive fast when I go on a highway."
And just like that, we started talking. It was surprisingly easy. Everything about Alessandro was easy. We laughed at our parents who set us up. He told me about his family, remembering funny stuff about every single relative. He told me about his business and about his former girlfriends, all in twenty minutes it took us to get to the restaurant. By the time our main course was served, my face hurt from too much laughing.
"I have to confess," he said, his expression now serious. "I'm ready to settle down and start my own family."
His phone interrupted him; he apologized and went to the restaurant patio. I watched him talking passionately and then, all of a sudden, I had a sort of vision. I saw myself standing on a sunlit porch of a lovely house surrounded by cypresses. I saw two kids, a boy and a girl with dark curls, playing in the garden. I blinked, startled. I could have everything I had ever wanted. I could marry Alessandro and move to Italy. I could find a job as an interpreter or teach kids English like my mother. She and Salvatore could be just a car ride away. There could never be winter and cold for me again.
I could do it. It would have to be my own choice.
That very second, I heard the familiar ringtone—Marvin Gaye's Lets Get It On. My heart sank.
"Yes," I gasped into my phone.
"Isabella." He sounded like he was standing right next to me, breathing hot air into my ear. I shivered.
"Hi," I said, trying with all I had in me to appear nonchalant. "How are you?"
"I'm not good. It's Friday and I'm not seeing you tonight. I'm missing you here."
I sucked in a breath, collecting my thoughts. What had happened to the resolved Bella I had been just a minute ago? I could do it—I could tell him I wanted to quit and we would be done. Finished. There were no us to begin with. Say it, I ordered myself. Just fucking say it already.
"Did you get the mail I left for you last Saturday?" he asked suddenly, pulling me out of my internal struggle.
"Y—yes." My voice trembled.
"I know my experience is probably not something to be proud of. But I'm clean. I want you to know that. I want you to trust me."
"It's—it's not that."
"What do you mean?" He seemed puzzled.
"I didn't mean to offend you. It's just—I'm not ready for that yet." Or ever. Say it, my resolved side moaned breathlessly.
"It's okay," he said calmly. "I'm not going to push you or anything. I can wait until you're ready."
Alessandro returned to our table then. "Hold on," I said on the phone. I muttered an apology and escaped to the patio. "Sorry. I had to find a secluded place."
"Where are you?" Edward asked.
"I'm having dinner."
And I realized it was my last chance. I could tell him the truth and that would be it. I could.
But I couldn't.
"Yes," I lied.
"I'm going to have dinner on my own tonight, too," he said, and I believed him. He might have had other flaws, but he had always been honest with me. "I miss you. Come back to me, Isabella."
There was so much longing in his voice that my resolve had finally crumbled into dust.
"I miss you too," I whispered, my eyes teary. I hated myself for being weak and I hated him for having so much power over me.
"Will you do something for me? Please," he breathed out.
"I want you to remember that no matter where you are, your Friday nights are mine. Go home, lie down in your bed and touch yourself. Touch yourself like it's me. Think of me. Scream my name when you come," he said softly, but his tone was commanding. He owned me, body and soul, and he knew that. "Will you do it for me, Isabella?"
"Yes," I exhaled.
"So do it. Now."
My hands were trembling as I returned to the table. Alessandro looked at me in concern.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, but I'd like to go home."
"What has got you upset? You were so careless and happy just a few minutes ago."
"It's my..." I didn't know how to finish the sentence. Who were Edward and I to each other? "Nevermind," I muttered.
He nodded and asked for a check. If he was disappointed, he did a good job of hiding it. I demanded on going Dutch—I couldn't let Alessandro pay for me, even though he tried to insist. He was so fucking perfect and I wanted someone else.
Mom and Sal weren't home when I returned. I went straight to my room, took a shower, and then fulfilled the promise I made to Edward.
And inexplicably, I actually felt better afterward. I slept tight and when I woke up in the morning, I felt strangely calm, like I'd been on this vacation forever. For the first time in my life, I wanted it to be over already, but since I would have to stay in Rome for another week, I decided to work on my sun tan. Mom was glad to join me, so we headed to the beach. She was curious about how yesterday's date with Alessandro went. I told her he was very nice and we would keep contact via email. I was becoming a professional liar—a little more practice and I could try my luck at poker.
The remaining days passed quickly—time always runs faster when you're on vacation. Edward called me every day; our conversations were very light yet charged with loaded sexual tension.
Wednesday afternoon, Mom left for her weekly parish meeting. To my pleasant surprise, Sal returned home early. When I entered the living room to ask him what he'd like for dinner, he was strumming Albinoni's Adagio on his guitar. I paused in the doorway and listened. The sounds of music were interrupted by his dry smoker's cough. He had been coughing a lot recently.
He stopped abruptly and looked up at me, smiling kindly. "I thought we could go out for dinner tonight," he suggested before I could ask, as if he's read my mind. It had always been just like that with Sal.
"Sounds perfect." I nodded.
We drove his scooter to the city center and found a table in one of the cafes on Piazza Navona, overlooking the Fountain of Four Rivers. My gaze fell on a young couple kissing passionately, leaning against the fountain railing. People were always kissing in Rome.
"You're missing him," Sal said all of a sudden.
My eyes shot up to his and my jaw slightly dropped. "What are you talking about?"
He lit a cigarette. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you giggle and it made me curious. Then I regretted understanding English."
I had probably turned red as beet from head to toes. "Sorry."
He laughed, coughing. "Why do you keep him a secret from your mother?"
"It's complicated." I frowned, taking a large sip of white wine. It was Vermentino and I couldn't help but remember drinking it in Milan and later, when I first visited Edward's apartment.
Thankfully, Sal interrupted that train of thought. "Do you need help disentangling it?" he asked.
Yes, I needed help. I needed help but I couldn't ask my mom or dad. I couldn't ask Leah. I couldn't ask Alice and most definitely, I couldn't ask Jake. And for some unfathomable reason, I realized I could ask my stepfather. I trusted him to be open-minded and not judgmental. I trusted him to keep my secret like he had when I was fourteen and broke Mom's favorite vase. He took the blame then and she had never found out. And whenever I fought with Mom, he always took my side.
So I opened my mouth and words came spilling out. I told him everything from the very beginning—how I first saw Edward at the coffee shop, how we became involved in our work project, how Edward asked me out, and how we made an agreement. I told him about playing Twister and even about where my diamond earrings had come from. I told him about injuring my ankle and about Edward's walls and, finally, about our last weekend. When a waiter brought our food, I barely registered what it was.
"I don't know what to do," I concluded. "I want more. Much more. But we have this agreement. I thought I made a good job of negotiating its terms. What a fool!"
"Don't blame yourself," Sal said softly. "People change. You have changed since then. Hasn't it occurred to you that he might have as well?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Sometimes I feel like I don't know him at all and it's killing me."
He lit another cigarette. "Let me tell you something. Your mother and I... do you know why we don't have children?"
I shook my head again. Actually, I had never wondered why, given that they had me. Or, technically, Mom had me.
"It's quite silly." He chuckled but his eyes were sad. "I assumed she didn't want to have kids and she assumed the same about me. When we had finally brought up this subject, it was too late."
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I tried to remember how old he was... sixty? Sixty- one? He was in an impressively good shape, minus the coughing.
"Don't be. You've always been my child," he said. "What I'm trying to say is, don't make the same mistake. Don't be afraid to take the first step. If you love him, tell him what you want before it's too late."
And that one word hit me like a thousand bricks.
I love Edward.
I repeated it to myself, as if testing it. I love Edward. It didn't sound wrong; just the opposite, it made me all giddy. I wanted so say it over and over again.
I called him as soon as my plane landed in New York. It was two on the Friday afternoon and I was hoping I didn't interrupt his meeting or something else equally important.
"Hey," he answered on the first ring. First! Had he been waiting for me to land? "Welcome home, baby."
My heart increased its rate; I had never, ever been so happy to be home.
"I can't wait to see you," I whispered.
"Me, too." He laughed softly. "Me, too. I have some things to finish here, but I'll leave the office as soon as I can. Could you go to my place and wait for me there? The doorman will let you in."
I smiled wide. "Sure." He was leaving work early because of me—I felt like I had won an Olympic race, no less.
When the cab finally made it to his apartment building, weariness overcame me. I took a shower, reveling in his scent—I had never noticed before how intense it was in the bathroom—and then decided to catch some sleep. I dropped the towel by the bed and slipped under the sheets, not bothering to unpack and put anything on. The bed smelled like him, too, and I fell into slumber with a goofy smile on my face.
I woke up to the feel of his lips on my neck. Still teetering between dream and reality, I shifted to find him lying next to me. Real and naked.
"I'm sorry for waking you but I couldn't just stand and watch. I'm not that strong," he murmured against my skin.
"I'm glad you did." My hand roamed over his chest, eager to touch him.
He stirred, hovering over me, and his burning eyes finally met mine. "I'm glad you came back to me."
Nobody had ever looked at me with such rapt admiration. None of my former boyfriends had. Alessandro didn't look at me this way.
Maybe Edward didn't want wife and kids. But he wanted me.
And just like that, I knew I couldn't tell him it wasn't enough. Because right now, it was. Because I was a coward, terrified to lose this—to lose him. I threw my arms around his neck instead. And as he replied to my violent embrace, whispering sweet words and soft kisses which grew into moans and bites, I wished he'd never, ever let me go.
Thanks to everyone for your support and kind words.
Katie1824, I love you. In all honesty.