On Boxing Day, Bella discovers the first thing she really doesn't like about life in Australia. There have been some things she's discovered she's not too fond of, small irritations—the incessant screech of cicadas, the flies and mosquitoes, the midnight thump of possums racing across her roof. The price of clothing down here sucks, too, and she's glad she doesn't drive so she doesn't have to buy petrol.
But by eleven o'clock on the day after Christmas, Bella has decided that she absolutely cannot abide Cricket. More specifically, she's convinced that Test Cricket is the most boring game known to mankind.
She sits on the couch between Esme and Jasper, with Carlisle lying on the floor, cushion beneath his head, watching thirteen men run around on perfectly manicured grass. As their white uniforms become progressively grubbier, she grows increasingly bored—and worried for Esme's sanity.
"That was clearly going down leg side!" Esme shouts, berating the referee or umpire or whatever they call the poor soul who has to adjudicate this inane sport. Bella looks between Esme and the television, nonplussed.
By half past twelve, Bella is trying to find an excuse to leave the big house. She's considering asking to borrow Esme's car, back-to-front wrong-side-of-the-road be damned, when Esme stands up and stretches.
"Are you hungry, honey?"
"Is it finished?"
Esme laughs. "No. It's lunchtime. It's a five day match, dear."
"Five days?" Bella's voice is faint.
"Yep." Esme grins as she disappears into the kitchen.
Bella glances at the television set. The two men on screen may as well be speaking Urdu, for all she understands of it. They replay the same shot over and over from different angles, little arrows pointing out … something. She shakes her head and stands.
Fishing her phone out of her pocket, she steps out onto the deck. "You need to come and get me. Or give me directions and I'll drive out there."
"Hey! How are you?"
Edward grins into the mouthpiece of his phone. "I'm great. Whatchya doin'?"
"I'm swimming. Or I was until you rang and I had to get out of the pool."
"Where are you swimming?"
Edward grins at the chorus of "Hi, Edward," and catcalling in the background. "Sounds like everybody's there."
"Everyone except you." Bella can't quite hide the pout in her voice. It widens Edward's smile, to think she's missing him.
"I'll be home in a few days," he murmurs. "Did one of the girls pick you up?"
"Nope." Bella grins. "I drove."
Edward pauses, squinting up at the blue sky hanging over Redhead Beach. "You drove? In a back-to-front car on the wrong side of the road?"
Bella nods, puffing her chest up a little—until she remembers he can't see her. "Yep."
Bella giggles. "It was an emergency. I was dying of boredom."
"Cricket, Edward. They were watching cricket. At one point this morning, the commentators were talking about the seagulls. The fucking seagulls, Edward. And I was being a good guest and watching and not complaining, even though I thought I was going to fall into a coma and you'd have to come back to kiss me awake or something."
"And then, I thought it was finally over, but it was only lunch-time. And Esme told me there was another four and a half days of it to go."
"Ah, yeah. It's the Boxing Day Test."
"Do you … I mean, I'm not sure if I can be your girlfriend if it would mean five days of watching guys in white ambling around on the grass."
Edward snorts. "Fuck, no, gorgeous. Firstly, I only watch Twenty20 – uh, it's a really short version of the game, only takes about three hours all told. And second–" he sighs "–if you didn't enjoy something, then I wouldn't expect you to watch, anyway."
Bella snickers. Even as her tummy flutters a little, she can't resist teasing him. "Does that mean you expect me to let you off the hook when I want to watch figure-skating?"
"Bel, if you can find figure-skating on telly, I will absolutely watch it with you."
She snorts—then coughs as beer tries to escape out her nose. "Any excuse to watch girls in spandex, huh?"
"Well, duh." Edward toes the wet sand; kicking small clumps up into the air and watching them splatter on impact. "Nah. There's only one girl I want to see wearing that kind of stuff–"
"I don't do sparkles."
Bloody hell, I miss her, Edward thinks, as Bella's giggles ring down the phone line. The summer sun has nothing on the way her laughter warms him from the inside out. "No problem," he says. "Naked beats sparkly any day."
Bella is silent as she walks across Charlotte's backyard, dodging the patch of bindies she found the hard way.
"Shit. Did I – I was just messing – I mean, I'm sor–"
She cuts him off, her voice low and soft. "I want you."
Edward's stumbling apologies become a groan. "You're killing me."
"When will you be home again?" She leans against the back fence, using her free hand to twist more water from her hair. The smell of chlorine and sunscreen mingling with eucalypt and barbequing sausages is strangely appealing.
Edward rubs his palm over his face as he sits down on the scorching sand. He leans back on his free hand, crossing his ankles in front of him. "The thirtieth."
"That long?" Bella smirks. "I guess I'll just have to–"
"Isabella! You want a beer?"
She holds the phone away from her mouth. "Yeah, the Endeavour Amber. Thanks, Pete … Sorry, Edward."
"Oh. One sec."
Edward listens to Bella thank Pete for the beer, her giggles dancing with his chuckle. He sits forward, drawing patterns in the sand. He licks his lips, tasting the bitter words he refuses to let spill. He doesn't like feeling jealous of his best mates.
"Sorry, I'm back now."
Bella forces the sigh building in her chest out her nose. She can hear the flat tone in Edward's short answer, and she's both frustrated and wistful. Doesn't he realise I'd rather be where he is?
She shifts the subject abruptly. "Tanya's here, too."
Edward nods, swirling a fingertip through the warm sand. "I figured she'd be home for Christmas."
"Yep." He sighs. "Bella–"
"She's a sweetheart, too."
"I miss you, Edward. Is that dumb?"
Jealousy and frustration drain from Edward like an overturned bottle of wine. "I hope not, mate. 'Cause I'm about five seconds off going inside, grabbing my keys and driving back there."
Bella's stomach flip-flops at his admission, her smile stretching wide. "Your mom will hate me if I encourage that, won't she?"
Edward chuckles. "Nah, Mum loves you. She's been telling the whole family how adorable you are."
Bella's cheeks flush hot. "Um, okay. She's only met me once, though."
"Maybe … do you – I mean, I could –" Edward breaks off with a sigh. As much as he wants to see Bella, coming home for what would essentially be a booty call makes him feel a little weird.
"It's okay," she says quietly. "It's only a few more days."
"Yeah." Edward looks up as a little girl in a bright green swimsuit goes racing past him, her strawberry blonde curls bouncing. "Ah, I think I'm about to–"
"Edward!" Riley, in pink bathers, waves frantically but keeps running, chasing after her sister, "Vicky! Wait for me."
Edward groans as he gets to his feet, following the path of little footprints down to the water's edge. "Yep."
Bella smiles, imagining Edward playing lifeguard to the four-year-old twins. "I'll let you go."
"I'll call you later tonight?"
"Okay." She hesitates, licking her lips. "Maybe from somewhere no one can overhear you."
He groans, pulling his hand through his hair. He swallows hard. "Talk to you soon."
Bella's playful tone dissipates, becoming soft and a little wistful. "Bye, Edward."
Edward pulls his singlet off and wraps it around his phone and sunglasses. It's comforting, he decides, hearing that same mix of longing and hesitancy he's feeling echoed in Bella's voice.
"Catch me, Edward!"
"No, me! Chase me!"
With a sigh, he takes off after his little cousins. They squeal and run in circles, arms flapping, kicking up sand, until Edward grabs one under each arm and charges into the water, their giggles ringing in his ears.
The morning of the thirtieth, Bella sets her alarm to wake her at five o'clock. Edward told her he was going to drive straight out from Redhead to start work at three this morning, and she's missed him too much to settle for waiting until their lunch break to see him. She climbs out of bed, pulls on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, slips on her thongs, and sets off across the dew-damp grass in the early morning half-light.
She stifles a yawn as she walks, watching the sky lighten, the lavender and pink morning seeping through the dark blue of night and chasing away the shadows that lie across the land.
She finds Edward a few blocks over from the cottage, kneeling amongst the vines. "What're you doin'?"
Edward looks up at her, one hand shading his eyes from the sun, which is just starting to appear over the horizon. "Hey, you. What are you doing up?" He plucks a few grapes from the bunch, seemingly at random, and stands up with a groan.
"I wanted to see you," Bella says simply. "I couldn't wait until lunch." She looks at the bucket beside him. "Do these taste better than the gross ones you're growing?"
He laughs, reaching for her. He pauses, hand curled around her elbow. "I want to kiss you, but I probably stink already."
Bella raises her eyebrows. "It's five o'clock. I'm still in my pyjamas. Do you think I care? I got up early just to–"
Her explanation is muffled then cuts off completely as Edward pulls her close and lowers his mouth to meet hers.
Standing on her tiptoes, Bella's moves her hands up Edward's shoulders before weaving her fingers into his hair, tugging him closer. He groans into their kiss, unable to settle hands. He smoothes across her back, slides his hands down the curve of her hip. He squeezes her arse, then traces his thumb under the hem of the little t-shirt she's wearing.
When she pulls away for air, Edward doesn't let her go. His lips trail across her cheek and down her neck, sliding his hand under her shirt, warm fingers cupping her naked breast, his thumb brushing across her nipple. Bella's breath catches and he pulls back to look her in the eye. "We – I shoulda – fuck." He shakes his head, moving the hand under her shirt to her waist and pulling her close for a more chaste kiss. His forehead resting on hers, he sighs.
"Hi." She smiles.
He chuckles. "Hi, yourself."
"So, um, what are you doing?"
"Mmm, something much less interesting than what I want to be doing." He waves a hand at the bucket at his feet. "I need to check the pH and sugar content. So I'm randomly picking berries from across the block, and then I'll squash 'em and see how they're going."
Bella wrinkles her nose as she looks at the green berries he's collected. "Do these ones taste as bad?" Without waiting for his answer, she picks one off the nearest vine and pops it into her mouth.
She grimaces, "It's not as bad, but still gross."
Edward shakes his head, his lips twitching towards a smile. "They're not ripe yet."
"This is Semillon, right?"
"Is it–" Bella lowers her voice "–going to be drinkable? 'Cause the grapes taste pretty nasty. Or is it a bad vintage?"
Edward chuckles. "It's shaping up to be a great vintage. Although if we get a lot of rain later in summer, as they're predicting, we might have problems with the reds. But these–" he plucks another grape from the vine in front of him and tosses it into the bucket "–aren't ready yet. The pH is still too low, as is the sugar content."
Bella tips her head at him. "Low pH means high level of acid, right?"
"Yep. So they probably taste way too tart at the moment. But, even when they're ripe, they're not as sweet–"
"As table grapes."
"Exactly." He picks up the bucket. "Come on. We need to do some more sampling and then I'll show you."
In the lab, Bella sits on a stool at the bench and watches Edward squeeze juice from the grapes he's collected. Bella likes the lab, and not just for the ridiculously comfortable stools lined up under the bench. She looks around the room as Edward works, studying the posters tacked onto the walls.
The colourful Wine Aroma Wheel, and Wine Mouth-Feel Wheel are her favourites. She's spent a lot of time staring at them, trying to reconcile the descriptors circling them with the wines she's tasted. At first she scoffed at some of the words—"chamois, sawdust, soapy? Seriously?" Edward had just laughed, but within a few days, he'd set a few glasses on the bench in front of her and she had had to admit that the descriptors had validity.
There's another poster that identifies grape vine varietals by the shape of its leaves, and a number that look as though they may be relics from Edward's university studies: a comparison of various fining agents, and one that has something to do with the effects of sprinkler usage.
"I could stay in here all day," she sighs.
Edward chuckles, his eyes on the juice he's pouring into a beaker. "That's the idea." He settles a probe into it. "pH meter," he explains with a wave. "But in here, because we use it for tasting and stuff, it's been designed to be comfortable. So, yeah, ergonomic stools, the white benches and walls, special lighting …" He shrugs. "Everything's designed to minimise the impact on your other senses."
He picks up a small silver tube, which Bella thinks looks a lot like a lightsabre handle, and droppers some water from the bottle labeled "distilled water" onto the little panel at the end. "This is a Brix refractometer. It, well, it actually measures how much the light bends when it goes through the liquid, but that tells us basically how much sugar has accumulated in the berry."
He hands it to her. "Point it at the light, and look through here."
Bella obeys, closing her left eye and looking through the tube.
"Do you see the markings?"
"Mmm. It's reading zero, right?"
"Yeah. Now…" He takes the device from her, wipes the panel and droppers some juice onto it. "Have a look now."
"Uh, it's around 13, right?" She hands it back, and Edward holds it up and looks through.
"Yep." He sets it down. "13 degrees Brix is about–" he jabs at the calculator on the bench "–7.2 Baumé, right? Which means if we picked the grapes now and started fermentation, and all the sugar was converted to ethanol, we'd end up with an alcohol content of about 7.2 percent. "
Bella frowns, trying to remember all the labels she's read since she started in the Cellar Door. "That's very low, isn't it?"
He nods. "Yeah. Ideally, we want to pick this at about 22 degrees Brix, which is a Baumé of around 12, 12.5." He glances at the pH meter. "The pH is 2.9," he scratches his head. "We'll check the TA now."
Bella watches Edward as he works. She likes seeing him in his element, confident and practiced, wearing the white lab coat and the safety glasses he somehow makes seem sexy instead of goofy. She fiddles with the sleeves of the lab coat he asked her to put on over her pyjamas. She feels ridiculous wearing it, and asks him if they're really necessary—wine can't be that dangerous can it? He just chuckles and tells her that it's good practice, and also, yes, he does use some chemicals that can be more hazardous than the grape juice he's currently working with.
"Okay. So the titratable acidity's at 14 grams per litre." He moves to his computer and taps away for a moment.
Edward smiles. "So, there's not enough sugar, and there's too much acid." He taps his fingers on the bench. "Rough guess, we'll be harvesting Semillon in about three to four weeks. Probably around Australia Day."
Angela opens the door with a tightlipped smile, but her grin widens as Bella bounces up the stairs and kisses her on both cheeks. "Hey, Angie!"
Edward bites down on his bottom lip to hide his smile. Angela has warmed slowly to Bella but he doesn't want to draw attention to it. His reserved, stoic friend can be completely contrary at times, and he doesn't really want things to regress to uncomfortable silences and stiffly answered questions. He gives Angela a kiss on the cheek and follows after Bella, guided by the sound of cheerful greetings and her bright giggles.
Edward is uneasy with the way time seems to be slipping through their fingers. Tonight, as they stare down the barrel of the new year, he keeps reminding himself to just enjoy this, whatever it is, now. It's likely to be months before Bella decides what her plans are for after her visa expires.
Just be, he tells himself.
He finds Bella in the kitchen, a glass of white wine in one hand. She offers it to him with a lift of her eyebrows.
He takes a sip, swishing the liquid around in his mouth far more than necessary. He swallows, and shakes his head. "Please, that's too easy. Lemon, lime, gorgeous florals, with that minerality? Riesling, Clare Valley. Less than two years old."
Bella pouts as she shows him the bottle, and Edward's smile turns smug. "Toldya. Too easy."
She pours him a glass but holds it away from him, shaking her head and puckering her lips. Edward kisses her, smile to smile, raising his hand and extending his middle finger in the direction of the hoots and whistles coming from his mates.
Bella pulls away, winking at him as she hands him the wine. "Come on." She links her fingers with his and leads him outside.
They stand around the barbeque as the evening takes over, purples and blues washing away the last of the day, the group shrinking and expanding as people move in and out of conversations.
Edward watches Bella interact with his friends—who have so easily become her friends, too. At first, they may have been welcoming of her for his sake, but as she races Charlotte to the pool, or tosses Angela another bottle of cider, or throws a handful of ice down Garrett's shirt, he can see that no one sees her as an extension of him, but as another member of their little crowd. She belongs here, he thinks. But can she stay here? Will she want to?
When the first stars appear in the navy sky, he leaves Garrett and Maggie arguing with Charlotte about the impacts of coal seam gas mining in the region, and lifts Bella out of the chair she's perched in. She smiles as he sits down, pulling her onto his lap.
He knows Bella finds Pete and Alistair particularly entertaining, and apparently, the feeling is mutual. Alistair lights a citronella coil, and the two boys pull up chairs beside them. They spend a good half hour asking Bella about living in the U.S., and then asking her to say various words, giggling like a pair of four year olds over the differences between her accent and their own.
Bella narrows her eyes, looking between them. "You do realise you two have quite different accents, don't you?"
Alistair laughs. "We don't have accents."
Edward rolls his eyes, shifting Bella's weight on his lap, and sneaking a sip of the beer she's nursing.
"No, seriously." She looks at Alistair. "Say 'school.'"
"Now you." She jabs a finger at Pete.
"Can't you hear that? The difference."
Pete and Alistair look at each other, bewildered.
Edward groans, resting his chin on Bella's shoulder as he looks between his mates. "Pete, you say 'skewl,' and 'pewl.'" He kisses her neck. "Pete's from Cairns originally."
She looks over her shoulder. "That's up north, right?"
"Yep. Far north Queensland."
He snickers when he catches Pete's frown.
"School, pool, cool."
Alistair frowns. "You do say it weird."
"Fuck off. You say it weird."
Edward wraps his arms around Bella and pulls her back against his chest as Pete launches himself at Alistair and they both go crashing to the ground. She giggles, then gasps as Edward's lips find her earlobe, tugging gently.
"Mmm. Is there a problem?"
Her voice shakes. "Not at all." She leans her head against his shoulder and wriggles on his lap, making him groan. "Not nice is it?" She smirks.
"On the contrary," he murmurs, "it's very, very nice." He sighs. "Though the time and place are all wrong."
Bella snickers. "No, just the place. The time is very right, as far as I'm concerned."
She turns her head and kisses his neck. "It would be bad manners to sneak off and make out in Angela's bed, wouldn't it?"
"Incredibly." Angela scowls as she plops into the chair Pete just vacated. She waggles a finger at Edward. "And there's no way you'd stop at pashing. And just, no. Ew. Can't you wait a few more hours?"
Edward nods, his smile sheepish, but Bella shakes her head and sighs heavily. "You know, Ange, I don't think I can."
"Seriously, girl, if I catch you–"
"Catch who doing what?" Tanya slides into the other empty chair.
"Hi, Tanya." Bella leans forward and pats the stunning blonde's knee.
Despite the friendly gesture, Edward notices the tiny thread of tension run through Bella. He sees it in the way she starts to pick at the label of her empty bottle, feels it in the way she leans back against him, her foot curling around his calf.
"Hey, Bella." Tanya smiles, her gaze flicking over Bella's head, meeting Edward's. "Hey, you."
"Hey, T. How's it going?"
"Pretty good." She smiles, and Edward can see the truth of her answer in the lines creasing around her eyes. Her smile is genuine, her eyes clear—she's doing well.
They make small talk for a while, Bella and Angela and Tanya chattering away about their resolutions for the new year. Bella stands after a moment, and Edward resists the urge to pull her back onto his lap. She turns to Angela, "Wanna go for a dip?"
Angela nods, and accepts the hand Bella holds out to her, getting to her feet with a groan.
Bella turns back to Edward. Her smile is small. "Come find me soon?"
He crooks a finger and she bends down, kissing him softly. "Very soon," he promises.
Tanya watches Bella and Angela pull their dresses over their heads and hang them on the pool fence. "Bella's pretty adorable."
Edward smiles. "She is."
"You guys are good together." There's no trace of bitterness or resentment in Tanya's tone. "You look happy, Mase."
"I am happy." Edward tips his head, studying his old friend. He lowers his voice, "You look good, too. You doing okay?"
Tanya nods, playing with the ring pull on her can of Solo. "Yeah. I feel … I don't know about good, but definitely better." She tips her face up, speaking to the stars stretched out overhead. "I'm getting some help. Counseling. Meds. All that stuff."
Edward nods, his hands linked behind his head as he copies her, gazing up into the night sky. "Tassie's been good to you, then?"
"I guess so. I mean, it's been a challenge—work, uni, plus all the other stuff, but it's been good. I've coped."
"They look after you all right?"
"Yeah. The boss is a legend, and I've made some good friends, too. I mean, it's not home yet, but I think it will be."
The conversation turns to work, and they exchange notes on the current season, and the new techniques and practices they're experimenting with or reading up on, looking at the sky rather than each other. Garrett wanders over after a while and joins them, the three assistant winemakers swapping stories and talking up the current vintage.
Hands still behind his head, elbows pointed out, Edward swivels in his chair. He spots Bella sitting at the edge of the pool, her legs dangling in the water. She lifts her heavy hair and squeezes some of the water from it.
As Edward watches, she looks over her shoulder at him. She smiles when their eyes meet, then giggles as he moves one hand to his mouth and blows her a kiss.
Edward turns back to Tanya and Garrett and gets to his feet. He squeezes Tanya's shoulder as he passes her. "Take care, T."
Her hand covers his for a moment. "Hold onto her, Mase."
"I intend to," he mutters, more to himself than to Tanya.
Bella meets him halfway across the yard, a towel wrapped around her waist. She offers him her beer, but he shakes his head. He drops his lips to her ear. "I'm not drinking. I want to be able to leave as soon as we've counted down to midnight."
They don't make it to twelve o'clock.
It's barely gone ten-thirty when Edward is fumbling with the lock on his front door. Bella is behind him, moving her hands under his t-shirt, across the warm skin of his belly, then sliding down his board shorts.
The door flies open and they stumble inside, kicking off thongs and dumping keys and phones. Edward barely remembers to kick it closed again before his hands are fumbling with Bella's dress. Pushing her against the wall in his hallway, he drops to his knees, ignoring the protests of bones pressing on hard timber, and pushes her dress up.
Her still wet bikinis bottoms land on the floor with a slap. Her skin tastes of chlorine, but Edward doesn't care as he pushes her knees apart and trails kisses up her thighs. She squirms, holding the hem of her dress around her waist with one hand, the other weaving into Edward's swimming-stiff hair. She tugs him close, tilting her pelvis, panting as first his fingers and then his tongue move across her wet flesh.
The back of Bella's head thumps against the wall, the photograph beside her rattles on its hook. "Fuck, Edward. Oh. Oh." She gasps and stutters as she dissolves against Edward's tongue.
Boneless and endorphin-drunk, Bella smiles lazy as Edward scoops her up and carries her towards his bedroom. He lays her on his bed, and seeing her there, sprawled across the rumpled blue covers he didn't straighten this morning, the skirt of her dress still bunched around her waist, pulls a groan from his throat.
Her giggle like mush in her mouth, Bella pulls her dress over her head and unties the strings of her bikini top. "Come here, you."
Edward smirks. He doesn't need to be told twice. Kicking off his shorts and pulling his shirt over his head, he climbs onto the bed, kissing her hard, covering her with his body.
Her still swimming-cool fingers move between them. He grunts as she strokes him, her movements unhurried.
"Do you have–"
"Fuck." Edward rolls off her, breathing hard. He reaches into the drawer in his nightstand. "Fuck."
Bella smiles. "Your lack of presumption is a kinda cute, you know?"
"I'm glad you think so," Edward mutters, his hands fisted in his hair.
"I've got some in my handbag," Bella tells him. She moves over him, kissing his neck. Her hair covers her face as her lips move down his chest. "I'll get them in a minute."
"Wh–" Edward forgets his question as her mouth closes over him. Her reaches for her, gathering her hair out of her face. Dark eyes sparkle as they meet his, and then he can't look anymore. His senses overloaded, his eyes squeeze shut. "Fuck, Bella."
She hums a laugh.
He tugs on her hair. "Bella, I'm–"
She hums again and Edward's back arches as every muscle pulls tight and then relaxes, like an elastic band stretched to its limit and then released.
He lazy-smiles at Bella, his eyelids heavy, as she crawls off the bed. She chuckles and leans over him, kissing his nose. "I'll be back in a sec."
He hears her running the tap in the bathroom.
He's half-asleep when she walks back into the room, still naked, but carrying her handbag. He chuckles. She winks at him, sliding under the sheets and wriggling close. "We'll need them later."
For the record, I consider Bella's views utterly blasphemous. Test cricket is the greatest game that was ever invented. And for all my British readers… Bring on The Ashes! (And no, I don't want you to remind me how poorly the Australian cricket team performed on the subcontinent, thank you.)
Also, thongs = flip-flops. Not underwear.
A/N: My sincerest apologies for my review-reply fail. I haven't had the best time lately, with that old black dog biting at my ankles. Please know that I treasure them all - I do so love hearing your thoughts. Thank you so much for reading.
BelieveItOrNot, there aren't enough words - thank you so much, my lovely friend. You're amazing.
Love, Shell x