The Dastardly Trans-Continental Prose Society (DTCPS)
for Dragonfly336 on her birthday.
You are wonderful. May your birthday match you.
Not so old, nor so jaded. Carlisle and Esme find first impressions quickly dispelled ... and maybe they find something a little more.
Behind the curtain.
Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight
By: BelieveItOrNot, DreaminginNorweigen, IReen H, Moirae, & Thimbles.
Carlisle eyes the small throng of girls crowding by Midnight Sun's bus. Fresh and cheeky, with very short shorts revealing long, sun-kissed legs, red plastic cups and Sharpies clutched in their hands, they exude a hopeful energy. An energy he's about to shoot down.
He knows Edward is on the bus. That makes it likely Bella is there, too. The curtains drawn against the dusk are a confirmation of his suspicion, and Carlisle, a bit annoyed, glances at his watch before pulling his key from his pocket.
"All right, girls. Clear out."
"Is Edward in there?"
The question comes from a brazen-looking girl, tall, with strawberry-blonde hair and fluorescent-green gum cracking between her teeth. A Midnight Sun v-neck tee a few sizes too small shows off the swells of her breasts and the ring in her belly.
Carlisle's eyes narrow. He's seen a million girls like her, lots of them succeeding in their mission to bed a musician for a night. This girl would likely make it into the bed of some rockstar, but not Edward's.
She leans into Carlisle, walking her fingers up his chest. "You can get me in there, can't you?"
Wrapping his thumb and index finger around her wrist, he removes her hand from his chest, depositing it at her side.
"You're wasting your time."
On her toes, eyes half-shut, her lips to his, she says, "I just want to meet him. One minute with him?"
"He's not interested." He moves past her.
Her gum pops behind him. "I'll wait."
Carlisle tries to keep the amusement from his face as he turns back to the girl, dropping his voice to a confidential level. "You don't stand a chance—he doesn't do trashy, meaningless sex. Go try the bus for Maroon 5."
She glares. The girls around her bristle, then slink off in bitter packs.
Except one. Hidden in shadow where he hadn't noticed her before, stands a woman, maybe his own age—thirty-five or so—with a quiet glow about her. Her dark hair is pulled back from her face into a neat ponytail; freckles mingle with fine laugh lines around heavy-lashed eyes that gleam in the purpling haze.
Carlisle doesn't appraise her for long. Beauty doesn't affect him the way it once did. He's seen it all, and his job is to shut them down. He's learned to look through the shimmery shell and see what lives inside, and what he sees is a parasite—the threat of scandal, a threat to his nephew.
Her smile is slow. Her mouth opens to say something when Carlisle cuts her off, his palm facing her, silencing her.
"He doesn't do old, either."
He barely registers her startled expression before turning to knock on the bus door, thrusting his key in the slot and turning it at the same time. He doesn't glance back as he enters the cool but charged atmosphere inside the bus to find Edward zipping up his pants.
"Lips like sugar ... sugar kisses ..."
Edward's smooth voice fills the nearly empty tent. Midnight Sun rarely performs covers these days, but sound check is another thing. From backstage, Carlisle can see the brunette locks of his nephew's intended audience swaying to the tune. He shakes his head, hiding his affection for the sickly sweet couple even from himself.
"Let's make this clear: Edward doesn't want any solo spots on him tonight. He's not a frontman—these people are coming to see Midnight Sun, not the Edward Cullen show. Got it?"
The stage manager tears her gaze from the band and nods. Carlisle has no patience for fangirling techies. Every show impacts how Midnight Sun will be viewed by potential fans—from the smallest bar gig to a hippie rock fest in Napa Valley. In the age of Twitter and YouTube, there's no hiding your mistakes.
"Of course. It's all in the set plan." She flips the pages of her clipboard and makes a note. "Do you want to go through the lighting changes?"
"Yeah, let the band finish up, then we can see what you've got."
Half an hour later, Carlisle leaves the tent reassured. In spite of his initial reservations, the crew seems to know what they're doing, and the stage manager is more than proficient.
His mind full of the hands he still needs to shake, the words he needs to drop into the right ears, the shoulders he needs to pat and the backs that will need rubbing, Carlisle makes his way back through the lot.
He doesn't pay any attention to the sunset, the sky sliding from warm orange into deep, cool, blues. He barely notices the girls still lingering, sidestepping them with his eyes fixed on the Blackberry in his hand, running over details he knows by heart but can't help checking again.
He slips the device back into his pocket, shakes his head, and breathes out hard through his nose.
He lifts a hand to grab for the door handle, but pauses and checks his watch. It's more habit than any desire to know the hour. Edward's had a solid head start, so he ignores the drawn curtains. Again? He doesn't know whether to be exasperated or impressed by his nephew's appetites.
He yanks open the heavy door and climbs straight onto the bus, hoping like hell Bella is clothed. He's too tired to dither on the asphalt. He just wants to make the calls he needs to make, have a drink, and pass out for a few hours.
The soft twang of a mandolin being tuned greets him as soon as he opens the door. That should, perhaps, be enough to reassure him that Edward and Bella are decent, but he's made that assumption before and been wrong.
A warm laugh slides over the notes spilling from the other end of the bus. Carlisle frowns, tugging his collar, loosening the top button of his shirt.
That's not Bella's giggle.
"Oh my goodness!" A different laugh, muffled behind hands. That laugh, he can see: fingertips pressed to red lips, dark brown eyes dancing.
That is Bella's giggle.
Pushing aside the gauzy strips of red and purple fabrics Bella has hung for privacy, Carlisle finds Edward, Bella tucked into his side, smiling fondly at another brunette woman.
The mandolin, Edward's favorite—the one he won't even let the most trustworthy of roadies handle—is in the stranger's hands, and it is red-tipped nails, not Edward's fingers, that are coaxing the sweet sounds from it.
The woman is talking softly to the couple as her hands move over the strings. It's almost as if she's not aware of the melody she's producing to accompany her tale, like her hands are simply moving on instinct.
Carlisle pauses, listening. He can't make out what she's saying, but he can hear the rhythm in her speech and the richness to her voice. There's passion there, emotion; the percussive stamp of consonants between soft, rounded vowels.
The woman shakes dark hair over her shoulder, her hands stilling. She leans forward and pats Bella's knee. Edward's grin stretches wider. He kisses Bella's temple, but it's not really a kiss, more his smile pressed against her forehead.
The woman looks vaguely familiar, though Carlisle can't place her.
It's Bella who notices him first, lingering in the background. She looks up with a smile that morphs from fond to cheeky in a flash. "Hey, Carley. Good schmoozing?"
Carlisle scowls at her, but she knows as well as he does that it's an act. He does, in fact, hate the nickname, but he loves Bella, and coming from her it doesn't grate like it might. It even surprises him that he likes it a little.
His gaze slips back to the stranger. He finds her staring him down, eyebrow raised, still plucking a beautiful, meandering tune on Edward's mando. It's a very different look from the one of just a few moments before. He gets the distinct impression that she doesn't approve of him. And when her eyes flick between his face and Edward's, she wears the protective glare of a mama lion.
Even though they haven't exchanged a word, he finds himself snorting. Beautiful or not, who does this woman think she is? She's not Edward's manager, not his family. Carlisle is. He will be the judge of who the kid needs protecting from, and it certainly is not him.
"Do we know you?" Carlisle would describe his tone as superior. Edward would call it douchey, and his corresponding eyeroll confirms this is the case.
This is a long-honed technique, developed over many years of protecting his clients from themselves. The emphasis is on the we, intended to make the interloper realize that she is not one of the established group. That despite how friendly the talent is being, she is an outsider and does not belong. Even as he thinks it, though, he can't shake the feeling that he's seen her before.
"You may not ... but Edward does. We are old friends."
Carlisle can't help but smile, and it is genuine. She has turned his own technique right back on him, and combined with the accent that teases at the fringes of her words, he finds himself uncharacteristically curious. Maybe even harboring a small bubble of admiration.
She has pressed her lips into a contemplative line, eyeing him up and down when she adds, "Even though I am not, as you suggest, old."
Carlisle cringes, suddenly struck by the memory. She was standing outside the bus earlier, and he'd treated her like any other groupie. Even worse, like an old one. Of all the avenues he could have gone down to get rid of her, why did he have to go down that one?
Edward, sensing the tension, stands with both arms extended between them, like he's holding a barroom brawl at bay. "Esme ... this is my uncle, Carlisle. He's Dad's youngest brother and our manager."
"You get used to him, Esme." Bella chuckles. "Once Carley's sure you're not out to corrupt The Prince—" she swats Edward's ass "—he'll relax a bit." Turning to Carlisle she says, "Take a load off. There'll be no kingdom toppling this night."
With potential conflict diffused so artfully, Edward drops back down next to Bella. His eyes are bright with admiration and lust when he pulls her close, kissing her face and neck like she just swallowed his load.
Horny sap, Carlisle thinks. His exasperated sigh, again, is part of the act. Despite all the willing bodies crowded at the bus' door, Edward has made his job easy. Not one indiscretion has he had to cover up, not one photograph to buy back from the paps or fans. While Edward wants to be kind and polite to his fans, he—unlike other lead singers from Carlisle's past—listens to Carlisle's suggestions, takes his advice. He and Bella have already faced too much to be torn apart again. Determined not to lose her for anything, Edward won't take any chances.
"You're the master," Edward has said to Carlisle, in a joking tone, though not really joking. "Lead me."
"And are we sure that he is not out to corrupt The Prince?" Esme's eyebrow is peaked; her countenance is unconvinced. It doesn't escape Carlisle's notice that she still has not stopped playing.
"I could still say the same for you ... Esme? Regardless of Bella's endorsement, I don't know who you are. I'm family."
Carlisle regrets the words even as they fall from his lips. Old habits die hard. Feigning disinterest and avoiding her gaze, he weaves between their legs and pulls a bottle of bourbon out of an overhead cabinet.
"Good, you've got it," Esme says.
"Got what?" Carlisle lifts his cut-crystal glass, eyeing his amber shot. He throws it back.
"Family." She begins a new tune, her eyes averted. She's watching her fingers as they pluck.
The glass, now empty, remains at Carlisle's lips. His head is still tilted back, his gaze cast down on Esme.
"You've always been family," Edward says, a hand to Esme's knee, and for the first time, Esme's tune falters. Carlisle understands it wasn't Edward's touch that caused it, as would be the case with any of the girls loitering outside the bus at any given moment.
Carlisle's done it again. He's batting a thousand. But as Esme lifts her eyes to meet his, the shadow of a smirk takes over her face.
She set him up.
"How is she family if I've never met her?" He refills his glass.
"She used to babysit me," Edward says. The word babysit dances off his tongue playfully. He winks at Esme. "I haven't seen her in seven years. Go easy on her, eh? Put the douche to rest."
Drink in his hand, turning his back to the counter, Carlisle narrows his eyes at Esme. "So, family you haven't seen in a near-decade shows up out of the blue—just after you've hit the bigtime, enough to be noticed by the mainstream. You don't think that's odd? You asked him yet?" He points his glass at Esme.
"Asked him what?"
"For the money you need." He turns to Edward. "Come on. I can spot a leech a mile away."
Edward is on his feet, his eyes narrowed, and Carlisle catches himself as he stumbles back away from Edward's anger. "Seriously, Car. She's the only reason we're sitting on this fucking bus right now."
The music finally stops. From either side of the bus Bella and Esme reach out for Edward.
Carlisle holds Edward's gaze. He's no slouch, but he still has to look up to his nephew. Sweeping his mouth with his tongue, he mines for any lingering trace of bourbon. Anything to take this edge off and bring his mojo back. He is all instinct and gut. It's why he's good at what he does. So how am I getting this so wrong?
"Edward, I provoked him."
Carlisle turns to Esme and while she looks contrite, he can see a flicker of something more in her eyes—respect? Approval?
She lifts her chin a little. "Let us begin again, yes?" Dropping Edward's hand, she stands and holds hers out to Carlisle. "Esmeralda. And we have met before. Once."
Carlisle studies her face: this time not as a shell, but as a woman. He's struck by the intensity of her blue eyes first, set against dark hair and tan, freckled skin. "Yeah, I remember you from outside before. Sorry about the 'old' comment, but still ... I'd wouldn't say we've met."
"No, no. Before. I was the twins' au pair. Not Edward's babysitter." Her gaze slides to Edward, eyebrow peaked. "He hardly needed babysitting."
"Yeah. She 'au paired' them and taught me about music. She gave me my mando."
Carlisle's memory nudges him with the faint outline of an earlier Esme, a flowing skirt and sandalwood essence. He remembers Edward under the wisteria that dripped from the patio awning, tucked into a two-seater with a young woman who reached over, bending his fingers and pressing them against the frets, saying in slightly accented English, "No. Like this."
He can feel the summer stillness, smell the potent flora, hear the faint buzz of bees overhead, reluctantly letting the image dissolve into the worn taupe vinyl and laminate of the bus interior. He nods, the gesture faint and far away.
"Yes. I do remember you."
"And I you."
He can't help wondering what impression he must have made back then, showing up out of the blue, haggard and most likely hungover—probably impatiently shushing the shrieks and giggles of Vicky and James as they begged him to play hide-and-seek. He never would play their games. He rubs his palm over his mouth, then his eyes, feeling the fatigue seep in from the weight of the remembrance.
Edward's phone starts chiming, startling all four of them. He silences it, sliding a thumb across the screen. He breathes deep, his shoulders squaring. He looks at his watch, nodding to himself. "Carlisle, it's almost go-time."
Carlisle is jolted from his introspection. He frowns, still disoriented. "Yes." He nods. "Okay. Time." He looks at Edward. "Where is everyone?"
Edward's lips press together, keeping his laughter behind them.
Bella pipes up. "Seth and Leah were jamming with some of the boys from that folk group. You know, with the two girls who play banjo? And the guy with the hair."
Carlisle blinks at her. The guy with the hair—how the hell does this girl get through life paying so little attention?
"Jacob and the Wolf," Edward says. He tugs the ends of Bella's hair.
"Yes! Them." She grins. "Embry went off with some roadie—you don't want to know what they're doing—and Paul was staying in the main tent. Something to do with some big board with knobs and switches that was like, totally cutting-edge or something." She shrugs.
Carlisle massaged his temples. "Okay. Okay."
Edward and Bella look at Carlisle, waiting for his instructions. He feels wrong-footed, and he doesn't like it. He's usually the one texting reminders, or banging on hotel doors, or herding the band off the bus. He's usually the one standing with his eyebrows raised and his hands on his hips as he gathers up missing band members—an army sergeant rallying the most undisciplined troops.
"So, I think we should probably start heading over, then?" Edward says this slowly, like he's prodding Carlisle, trying to hand the reins back.
"Right." Carlisle clears his throat and gives himself a sharp mental shake. "Edward, you and Bella head over. Alec and Felix are outside waiting for you. Wear a hat or a hood or something, please. And don't smile at any of the groupies waiting outside—in fact, just don't look at them. I'll round up the others." He looks at Esme. "You, come with me."
Esme looks for a moment like she's going to argue, but Bella touches her forearm. "You'll have a better view with him. But you can come with me, if you'd rather—I'm meeting a few friends over there."
Edward looks up, one arm inside a dark-colored hoodie, the other fumbling for its sleeve. "He'll be by the sound desk, so you'll see more. She–" He jerks his head towards Bella. "–will be dancing like a crazy person in front of the stage. Up to you."
Esme looks at Carlisle. There's something like a challenge in her regard. She nods. "I'll come with you, Carlisle."
He nods. This pleases him more than it should. He tells himself it's just that he doesn't want Edward seen with two brunettes, that he doesn't want to have to disarm rumors of there being another woman on the scene.
Bella snaps Edward's mandolin back into its case and slings the strap over her shoulder. "Ready, Uncle Carley." She winks at Esme and receives a warm smile in return.
"Good. You two go." Carlisle jabs a finger toward the door. "No smiling."
Edward pushes Bella's hair over her shoulder before he slings an arm around her and starts kissing her neck. She giggles and squirms, and Carlisle shakes his head. That'll work.
"We aren't walking over like that, are we?"
He looks at Esme and he can't help but return her smile. "It might be a good idea." He says. "Just so people will assume you're with me and not him." He's bullshitting, and as he looks into Esme's eyes, he knows she knows it.
Her red lips twitch with half a smile. "Well, I suppose it would be okay if it's to help Edward. I wouldn't want to create any problems for him."
"Of course not."
"Although," she says, and he can hear the taunt in her voice, "who would really believe he was interested in such an old woman?"
Carlisle sighs. "You won't let me forget that? It wasn't my brightest moment."
He gestures for her to exit before him, down the steps. Once he's checked that the locks are secure, he leads her toward the venue, a hand placed against her lower back.
Esme looks around at the girls—there are only about a dozen of them now—gathered in clusters of two and three, hands on their hips or playing with cell phones as they lean against the bus or stand around nearby. They look up briefly, but decide Carlisle and Esme are unworthy of their attention.
Esme speaks quietly. "Why do they hang around after they know Edward is gone? They don't follow him? They don't watch him play?"
Carlisle shakes his head. "Some of them have left. There are less here now. Some have gone to watch him play." He sighs. "The lingerers are hoping to catch him as he comes back, hoping he'll come back without Bella."
He can hear the frown in Esme's warm voice. "Do they bother her?"
"Occasionally. I've heard her get called some pretty horrible names. But Alec and Felix watch out for her, too."
"No," Esme says. "I mean, does it bother her, having all these girls waiting here, wanting her lover?"
Carlisle almost trips over a discarded beer can. Hearing the word "lover" roll off her tongue unsettles him almost as much as her question. "I–I don't know."
"I think I would struggle with that," Esme says. "Poor girl."
He thinks of the number of times he's stood outside the bus, waiting for Edward to open the curtains, or stood outside various hotel room doors, his knuckles red and raw from knocking, trying to hurry the pair of them up. Perhaps it bothers Bella more than she has let him see. Considering this, Carlisle frowns at the grass. At the start of the festival it was lush and green, but the constant tramp and stamp of feet have mashed it almost to dirt in places.
"I think it must." He raises his gaze to Esme. "She jokes about it mostly, but maybe there is fear there, too. Their road … hasn't been easy. They lost each other for a while."
Esme shakes her sadly but makes no comment.
"This is a good spot," Esme says, raising her voice over the growing murmuring of the crowd. She smiles at him. "Very good. I can see everything."
Carlisle feels a strange thrill of pride straighten his spine at her approval. It is a good spot, just off to the side of the massive sound decks. Barricades and tape keep the jostling crowd away, and the slightly elevated platform affords them a clear view of the acts as they take the stage. Well, it will—at the moment there's just a couple of roadies uncoiling leads on the unlit stage.
Casting an eye across the stage, Carlisle double-checks the placement of the guitars and other instruments in their stands. He nods once; everything is where it should be. Satisfied, he turns his attention back to the woman beside him, watching as she shakes her heavy hair from its ponytail and regathers it. Coiling and twisting it into a bun, she secures it away from her neck. Carlisle's gaze slides down the warm, tanned skin of her throat to her chest, which is pushed forward as her hands move in her hair.
Don't, he tells himself.
"You, uh, you haven't seen them play before?"
"Only on YouTube," she says. Her smile turns sly. "Surprised that someone so old knows how to use the Internet?"
Carlisle feels himself flush, and the flustered feeling is chased away by a spike of irritation. He doesn't trust the feelings this woman stirs in him. He turns away from her, pulling his Blackberry from his pocket, trying to regain his control. He looks over the set list again, checks the time—anything to keep his eyes off this disarming woman. It's unnecessary. The band will be climbing on stage at any moment and it's too late to catch any errors in planning.
The lights dim and in the darkness, the crowd's volume kicks up a notch, anticipation crackling in the huge tent. Soon the smell of beer and earth and sweat will take over the air below, but the breeze and distance from the crowd will keep Carlisle and Esme cool here.
Spotlights swirl across the stage, alighting on a band member and flicking away. Paul clicks out the count and the bass line picks up first, then the drums kick in. Guitars. Edward's mandolin sliding across the top, carrying the melody. Spots land, white-hot, on the five band members. The screen behind them pulses with reds and oranges.
Carlisle knows the set list back to front and upside down, but he can't say what song is playing as he watches Esme start to move. Her hips sway, and she trails her hands up her body and into the air. Her eyes close, her head drops back. It's like she's the only person in the room—she dances with no thought for anyone watching, and Carlisle loses sight of anyone but her.
He stares. Drinks in her movement.
Blue eyes lock on his before narrowing, looking puzzled. "How can you be still with this music in the air? How do your feet stay still with this beat going?" She has to shout to be heard.
He shrugs. He's never really paid attention to the feeling of the music, and he's always prided himself on that. While the band plays, while others lose themselves in the sound, his attention is usually focused on the millions of tiny details no one else notices. He's the guy who sees the ugliness and hard work that bring together a successful show.
While everyone else hears and sees only the big picture in all its glory, Carlisle's the one who makes sure the instrument changes are smooth, or sees to the bottle of beer Seth will want after half a dozen songs and the water Edward and Leah need to be able to reach at any time. He's the one fixated on the movement of lights across the stage, the treble to bass ratio, the girls who are getting too close to the barricades. He's always stood above the music, never let himself get lost inside it.
"Come here." She doesn't give him a choice; she grabs his hands and holds them to her hips. He swallows hard, his fingers flexing into her flesh involuntarily.
"Close your eyes." Again, she doesn't wait for him to obey, pressing her hand over his eyes.
"Think less," she says. "No one is watching you." She chuckles. "But watch your wallet."
Carlisle breathes out hard through his nose. His uncharitable words may haunt him for a while yet. "I'm sorry. I know you're no leech."
She doesn't answer but begins to sway her hips, forcing him to follow. He moves stiffly, feeling awkward and stilted. "I look like an idiot," he mutters.
Esme's hands lock behind his neck as the music slows a little, the melody turning sensual. The bass line is heady and powerful, the mandolin taunting, as Edward's smooth voice speaks of desire and need, skin that scorches and kisses that drown.
Esme turns, fitting her body against Carlisle's, her back to his front. His arms move around her waist without him consciously deciding to embrace her. She reaches up, her hands winding into his hair at the nape of his neck. Carlisle bites back a groan as he feels the tug of her fingers. His body responds, his breath coming quicker, his head swimming. He's hard and has to fight the urge to press up against her ass.
When the song ends—was it the same song playing the whole time? Carlisle can't remember—the crowd roars, and the lights go up.
"Thank you!" Edward and the rest of the band wave and bow before jogging off stage.
Carlisle is frozen, his hands still on Esme's waist as a disembodied voice announces that The Volturi Knights will be taking the stage in forty-five minutes.
The tent is emptying rapidly, before either of them move. Esme looks over her shoulder, and Carlisle loses his mind. I'm going to kiss her. I have to.
And then she speaks. "Dancing with a decrepit old woman isn't so bad, huh?" She pushes her ass against his obvious arousal and he groans, want and regret mingling in his throat.
"Are you ever going to let that go?"
She shrugs. "Perhaps."
She spins around, her gaze dropping to his crotch for a beat. "So …"
He licks his lips. "So."
Esme laughs. "Let's get out of here. I've seen The Volturi before—they're not my cup of tea."
"I just need to—the band ..."
Esme rolls her eyes. "They aren't children, Carlisle. They can take care of themselves." She stops his protests with a finger to his lips. "They've done their job. You've done yours. Come."
Esme buys the beer, reminding Carlisle she's not out to ride anyone's gravy train. "I may be old," she says with a smirk, "but I wasn't raised to be dependent on anyone for anything."
Carlisle is ready to cut his tongue out retroactively. He groans, elbows on the bar, head in his hands. She won't let him forget his hurtful words. He wishes he could write them off as carelessness, as speaking without thinking, but he knows—and she seems to as well—that they were words chosen for their sting.
"In my day ..." She laughs as she mimes walking with a cane.
"Esmeralda." They both pause as her name leaves his lips for the first time. Carlisle likes the feel of it in his mouth. "Esme, I'm sorry. Okay? It's obvious that you're neither old, nor after money—or sex with my nephew. And it was shitty of me to make those assumptions. I'm really … I was just trying to—it's my job to protect him."
She nods, handing him his drink. "I know." She brings the cup to her lips and drinks deeply. "Thank you."
"You're, we—" Carlisle's eyes narrow. "What?"
"Thank you," she says. "For protecting Edward. For caring enough about him to insult me." She grins. "I know I'm neither old nor a gold-digger, nor am I interested in screwing a man I see as a younger brother." She shrugs. "I didn't really give a damn what you thought."
"But—" Carlisle downs half his beer in one gulp. He shakes his head. "I'm still sorry. The things I said were rude and designed to cut you down, and I'm sorry for that."
"Yes. As in, I get it. I just enjoyed giving you a hard time, watching you squirm." She smiles, her eyes shining. "Let's move on." She points a finger at him. "Just don't do it again."
Carlisle's chest is tight, his blood pounding in his ears. His lips are drawn to her. Feeling like he's doing something incredibly risky, he leans in and presses a kiss to her cheek. Her skin is soft and warm against his lips, addicting.
He pulls back and meets her eyes nervously. She's still smiling.
They head back toward the bus in a similar fashion as they left it, though this time, Carlisle's hand on her back means something else. His palm is sweating against the cool fabric of her dress.
"Why aren't you married?"
"Why aren't you?" she asks. "I choose not to be."
He pauses his step. "Never have been?"
She turns to face him, the moon above lighting her face, casting her skin in a soft white-gold. "Why does this surprise you? You think the completion to a woman's life is marriage?"
"No, I just—you're so beautiful, and I'm making conversation, getting to know—" His eyes narrow. "Are you messing with me again?"
"A little." She laughs. "Maybe it is my turn to apologize. To answer your question, I like to travel. Roam the earth. I don't stay in one place very long." She starts walking again, Carlisle falling in step beside her. "I was raised without my parents ... passed from relative to relative ..." Hearing this, a chill pierces Carlisle's chest. He steals a look at her, but she doesn't seem pained. Wistful, maybe. "... books were my escape, my home, really. But they made me want to live—experience. I wanted to go to the places I read about. But to do that, a person needs money."
"The au pair gig?"
"Yes." She chuckles at his word choice. "Gig. I saved as much as I could, and now I work odd jobs where I can to replenish. It's the life I want. Or the life I know, anyway. No real ties."
"You travel alone?" He holds her elbow lightly as they step over a wide depression in the grass.
"Sometimes. Other times with friends. But I do think everyone should travel alone at some point. It's very freeing and ... empowering."
"Yes, it really is. Self-empowering."
They continue over the grass in silence, easiness settling between them for the first time since Carlisle held his hand up to her startled face.
Carlisle, usually so aware of those around him, barely notices anyone, as if he and Esme are the only two in existence tucked below a valley of vineyards in this expanse of green under an indigo sky.
When they get to the bus, it stands before them like a blockade.
Esme looks at him. "What?"
"We can't go in there." He jerks his chin at the bus.
"Curtain's closed." He rubs the back of his neck, muttering to himself, "Three fucking times in one da—" And then he remembers their earlier conversation and he sighs. Bella has never complained about having to share Edward with the masses, even though she'd only just gotten him back herself when Midnight Sun started garnering attention. He feels a rush of affection toward the pair of them. If this is what Bella needs—if this intimacy is what helps her cope with the dozens of women who lie in wait for her boyfriend each night, offering him everything from drugs to sex to God knows what else—then Carlisle shouldn't begrudge her that.
"It means, ah, it means someone is … occupied. On the bus. Usually Edward and Bella."
"Ah." Esme giggles. "Come on, then."
Carlisle looks at her, at the elbow she's offering him. They'll call you if they need you, he thinks.
They take a shuttle to Skyline Park where the campers are, where Esme has set her tent up between two large oaks. At first Carlisle attempts to avoid staring at her ass as she releases the padlock she's added to the zipper pulls, but he gives up the lost cause, letting himself stare. She unzips the door and ducks inside, Carlisle's hand to her hip as if he needs guidance. He just needs to touch her; his fingers sting for it.
"Sorry," she says as she draws a beer bottle out from a small ice chest. "No crystal. No bourbon."
He accepts the beer from her and takes a big sip. His forehead is sweating—not from the heat, but from being in such tight quarters with this woman. The easiness between them is gone. In its place a tension, a pull now that Carlisle can't let go of, can't not feel.
He swallows, thinking she must feel it too. She's brought him here, to this two-person tent, this one-person sleeping bag underneath them.
"Here," she says, lying back, holding her beer bottle on top of her stomach. "You can see the stars from this position."
The nylon curtain of Esme's tent is unzipped, revealing the night through a half-moon window of netting. Carlisle lies with her, his upper arm pressed to hers. He tries to gaze at the stars, but turns his head, gazing at Esme instead.
He takes in her profile: her straight nose, her thick eyebrow, the edge of her lips, less red than before—smudge red now. They move.
"Last night I saw a shooting star."
"Did you make a wish?"
"People wish on shooting stars?" She turns, meets his eyes.
He shrugs, unable to form an audible answer.
"If I had wished, it would've been a wish for a middle-aged band manager to call me an old money-grubbing hag and then, after eating his words, fall madly in love with me."
Carlisle stiffens, his throat tightening. Esme must notice, as she taps her fingers against his wrist. "Just kidding. Just kidding. You're not middle-aged."
He finds himself taking her fingers, closing his between hers. The knot in his throat loosens. As if manipulated by a puppeteer, they simultaneously edge to their sides, facing each other.
Her exhale wafts over him, and he closes his eyes. "Your breath is all I feel."
"It must smell like beer."
"I don't care." He moves in closer, guided by nothing but feeling, his eyes still closed. His lips find hers easily, pressing. He parts her mouth with his, his tongue slipping to hers, a long-held breath released. And then another strong breath as he leans forward, nudging her back and sliding his hand up her thigh, his fingers gathering fabric, moving it out of his way until he meets skin.
"Esme," he says between kisses, his voice strained. "Esme, is this okay?" He finds the silk of her underwear, his fingers tracing over her curves.
She answers with a sigh and a deeper kiss.
He moves his palm over her body, up her bare waist to her ribs, across her bra, pushing fabric out of his way. When his thumb brushes her nipple, she arches into his hand, and his pants feel tighter around him. The ache is almost painful as it reminds him how long it's been. He has spent so much time turning women away, so much time keeping his head in the job, protecting his nephew, that he has ignored himself. He's watched as curtains closed, blocking him out of the bus, never really understanding until this moment how much he's wanted something like that for himself, someone with whom he could close himself up behind a curtain.
Rolling on top of her, he inches his way between Esme's legs. They open for him; He doesn't hold back his groan as he grinds against her. He almost finds himself cursing aloud, but he bites his tongue, letting her name take the place of the curse. "Esme." It's nearly a growl. Her hips rise, meeting the pressure of his, giving back. "Fuck." There was no holding it back that time, no warning.
In a rush to get her naked, to get to her skin, he shoves at her dress and she lifts her arms, letting him free her of it. He tosses the dress aside, his hand finding her shoulders, grazing down her arm, his lips in the wake, kissing every inch of her he can. It's been so long, he's practically worshiping her. When his mouth meets her stomach, she stops him. It's as abrupt as brakes slamming, as a heavy-bass record scratching to silence.
"Hang on," she says, breathless, sitting up and reaching to zip up the window.
Carlisle puts a hand to her arm. "Let me do that," he says, and he performs, with satisfaction, his version of closing the curtain.
He takes his shirt off. Her fingers—on his arm, across his chest, down his stomach—nearly scorch. His abs contract and he's fumbling to get his button open, his zipper down, his pants pushed from his hips. Her hand on his stills him.
"Carlisle? Slow. We have the evening."
"I'm sorry." He pants, trying to center himself. "Sorry. It's been a long time."
"Really?" Her eyes widen. "But all the girls..."
He shakes his head. "I get rid of them. I don't invite them. Learned the hard way."
"In that case..." She pushes his pants down farther. "We'll go slow later."
Rising to her knees, she pushes her underwear off and climbs on top of him, straddling his lap. She unhooks her bra and lets it fall from her arms. She rests her palms on his shoulders. Her breasts are right in front of his face. His hands meet them, his lips following.
"I remember your hand."
"What?" He pulls back to look at her, his fingers at the side of her head, trailing around her ear and down her hair.
"You shook my hand all those years ago. I remember thinking it was the smoothest hand I've ever felt on a guy, and still. Your hands feels so good over my body."
He drags his hands down her spine, around to her waist and back up to her breasts. "Your body feels good under my hands. Nothing's felt better than this, right now."
"I doubt that."
He looks up into her eyes. "I don't." He kisses her, still holding her breasts, his thumbs teasing.
Esme begins to move over him, dipping her pelvis. Eyes closed, she leans down, her breath stuttering against his cheek as she kisses his jaw. She drags her fingers over his ribs, fingernails scratching and pressing intermittently into his skin. He can feel the half-moon shapes she leaves behind.
Carlisle reaches up, pulling her hair loose from the bun. It drops in a thick, twisted coil over her shoulder, swinging in time with her breasts—in time with the soft whimpers falling from her lips. He can't resist wrapping his hand around it, pulling it taut until her eyes snap open and meet his.
Watching her—her parted lips, the flush rising on her cheeks as a backdrop to her freckles—Carlisle can feel himself peaking. But he wants more before this ends, so he slips his hand between them. His interruption breaks her rhythm, and he replaces the pressure she had been riding with his fingers.
She slides her hands from his chest to the ground and comes to rest on all fours, hovering over him. Her lips drop to his, but she doesn't kiss him. With the space of a finger between their mouths she pants, her breath washing over his face.
"Hhhhhhh ... Car ... more," she whispers. The tang of beer on her breath mixes with the sandalwood and musk on her skin. Balancing on one arm, Esme reaches back and covers his hand with hers. With subtle pressure—like fingers on frets—she guides him inside.
She drops her chest to his, tucking her face into the crook of his neck. She bites him. "Mais," she croons in Portuguese. More. "Me encha. Fill me." He moves to add a second finger, but she blocks him, pressing her own inside instead. Together, two fingers twined, they bring her closer to climax.
Something so simple as this has never been so erotic. Her confidence, the feeling of their fingers moving together, her silent commands to him to bend and twist. Carlisle finds himself running through Midnight Sun's set list to keep from going over the edge.
"Aye," she cries, suddenly stilling her hand. "Ahhhh ..."
He can feel her tightening around their fingers, but he knows she isn't quite there. He continues to stroke, curling and pressing as she's shown him, until she's keening, collapsing against him and shaking. He grasps her hand, moving it with his, drawing her orgasm out.
"Meu Deus, Car ... my God ..."
Carlisle tips Esme onto her back. She lies beside him in the puff of quilted sleeping bag, chest heaving, eyes unfocused. He can't remember when he's ever been so aroused, so uninhibited. He brings their still-joined hands from between her legs, slipping their fingers into his mouth. Suddenly very alert, Esme pulls his face to hers and kisses her arousal from his mouth, his tongue.
When she pulls back, Carlisle finds himself lost in her laughing blue eyes. She is music and sex and love of life rolled into one. He wants to throw himself into her fire and burn away, rising like ash in the waves of heat that roll off of her.
"Amour ..." She shudders, smiling, the aftershocks of her orgasm still coursing through her. She plays idly with her breast, pinching her nipple. "Me encha. Again ... now."
To Carlisle's surprise, Esme rolls away from him, shaking her ass flirtatiously. She rubs against him, making him—if it's possible—even harder than he was. "You want it like this?" he croaks.
"Yessss ... I love it." She twists her head and pulls on his neck, drawing him into another kiss. As her tongue dances in his mouth, she brings his hand to her breast, choreographing his fingers on her skin.
Carlisle has never been with a woman like Esme. So clear on what she wants, unafraid to direct him. It's not bossy. Not overbearing. Just a gentle hand, encouraging—like a teacher. Carlisle pulls his mouth from hers as the thought enters his mind. He is so used to being in control, in the lead. Esme has made him loosen his grip; he didn't even realize she was leading him.
He looks down. She's studying his face, a smirk playing at her swollen mouth. She's teasing him again. Seeing how he wants to play. Will he let her conduct or take back the reins? It's the smile, the flirt of the freckles on her cheeks, the quirk of her eyebrow, that makes the decision for him.
He pinches hard at her nipple and she falls against him, panting. "Yessss ..." she says, reaching down between her legs. Releasing her breast, he takes himself in hand, drawing his head through the slickness of her sex. She moans, pressing her back hard against his chest. He can feel her fingernails scratching lightly over his length. From behind closed eyes, he sees their bright red polish and it drives him forward. He's less than gentle when he pushes inside.
Their joining is hard and fast, and Carlisle knows as he drives into her that he won't last long. Esme lifts her leg, tucking her ankle behind his thigh, spreading herself wide. He grabs her hip, holding her tight. He can feel the pressure of her knuckles against his dick as he thrusts into her between the fork of her fingers. Lifting onto his elbow, he looks down and watches as she uses her thumb to tease her second orgasm to life.
She focuses on the spot where they're joined; watching him watch her, she grins like a woman possessed and free all at once.
He feels like he is possessed by her.
Just before the moment Carlisle thinks he might come, Esme's face goes slack with pleasure. She falls back into the sleeping bag, arching into him.
"My God ... my God." And she laughs. Not at him, but out of sheer joy, sheer satisfaction. He can see it all over her—her smile, the flush of her skin, the jolt of her breasts as he thrusts away. "Carlisle," she cries. "Come with me."
And he does.
They lie there talking, bodies entwined, burning off their post-coital haze. Carlisle can't believe he doesn't feel exhausted, that he's not rolling over, trying to coax her into sleeping. Instead, he feels energized, excited.
Esme pulls a ratty Phish t-shirt from her backpack and sits cross-legged at his side, feeding him brie and hard French bread from her cooler. She peels a Granny Smith apple in one long strip and cuts him wedges off the core. They kiss. They talk about food, music, the places she's been, the places she wants to go. He can't remember the last time he's had such an intense conversation that didn't involve stage directions or liability clauses.
He feels rested and happy. Completely at ease.
He doesn't want it to end.
"What will you do now?" He says it reluctantly, not wanting to break the spell. Not wanting to seem like a sap.
"Ah, Bella has offered her couch." She shrugs, nibbling at the corner of an apple slice. "I may busk in the Castro while I wait to come back here in August to pick grapes. I don't know ... I don't usually stay in one place so long."
Carlisle nods, wondering why he's asking. Why he's so drawn to her.
"We have the tour." Carlisle traces circles around her kneecap, watching with pleasure as goosebumps rise at his touch. "Two more days here ..." He looks up at her expectantly.
"Two days ... hmmmm ... me too, actually." She smiles, eyebrow arched.
Carlisle doesn't try to fight the wide grin that sweeps across his face. "Then So-Cal and ... a few weeks in New England. A random hop to Alabama, then down the East Coast. We're back early July."
"To San Francisco?"
He doesn't understand it, but he wants this dark-haired, freckled beauty to like him. He wants to look forward to finding her on the other end of a few long months on the road.
Esme nods, popping the whole slice of apple into her mouth. Between chews and a half-smile, she says, "I may still be there then."
"You may?" Carlisle asks, grabbing her wrist, pulling her down into the sleeping bag again.
"I mean, I could be there ... if you're asking me to be."
Is he? Is he asking her to be there?
He thinks he just might be.