TLS Angst Contest Entry
Word Count: 14,958
Title of Story: Near Wild Heaven
Story Summary: Bella is struggling with depression after her father's death and the birth of her son when she starts a new job and meets the perfect man. Only one problem: she's already married and he's her pastor.
I jump out of the car and smooth down my skirt with one hand, while I yank my purse out of the passenger seat and fumble with the lock. I'm late, and I definitely don't want to be late for this job interview. I hurry up the steps to the church and pull the door open. A man in his late forties is waiting for me, dressed in a dark grey suit and a light blue shirt with a pastor's white collar and he greets me with a smile and an outstretched hand.
"Mrs. Swan? Welcome! Did you have any difficulties finding us?" He seems pleasant enough, blue eyes behind black-rimmed glasses, a faint five o'clock shadow and a nice smile. I fluster at his greeting.
"Oh, no, I just didn't know where to park at first, but that's fine. I'm sorry I'm running late, I hope I haven't kept you waiting?"
"Don't worry, Mrs. Swan, there's no hurry, we're all set to see you. I'm Pastor Weber by the way, and you'll be meeting one of your co-workers and two of the members of the Church board. Please follow me this way."
He leads the way through the foyer, which is pretty huge, and down a corridor to the left where the offices seem to be situated. At the end of the corridor is a door, and when we step inside I see that this must be his office, which is crammed full of people. A man in his thirties who looks like a bank manager, well dressed and groomed, with slicked back dark hair, a cleft chin and elegant glasses turns out to be the chairman of the church board, Mr. Groenig.
A woman in her fifties, dressed in a jacket and skirt with low heels, looking like the matron of a boarding school is Mrs. Cope, member of the board and in charge of the volunteers for the Sunday school. Finally, I'm introduced to the second pastor, Edward Cullen, who can't be much older than me, artfully tousled auburn hair, well-defined jawline, dressed in a white shirt and light grey blazer with a matching tie. He looks casual but dressy, giving off a sort of Miami Vice-vibe. I'm starting to feel underdressed in my light blouse and khaki skirt. I decide the young pastor is far too handsome for his own good and seems supercilious and smug. I clear my throat.
"Actually, it's Ms Swan. I'm married to Jacob Black, but I've kept my maiden name, which is Swan. Please call me Bella."
Mr. Cullen smiles and I don't like it, because it looks like a smile he knows has an effect on people.
"Yes, I can see how Bella Black wouldn't feel like the best trade-in. Please have a seat, Ms Swan – eh, Bella." He indicates the chair closest to the door, and I realize that I'll be doing this interview with four people facing me in a semi-circle. I swallow and sit down.
"So, Ms Swan" Pastor Weber hums and looks kindly at me through his heavy-rimmed glasses. "Would you start out by telling us a little bit about yourself?"
I breathe, telling myself that I can do this.
"Well, I was born in Forks, a small place on the Olympia peninsula, but my father and mother separated when I was very young and I grew up with my mother, who moved around a lot. I spent the best part of my childhood in Arizona before I moved back to my father permanently in my teens, to finish high school in Forks. That's where I met my husband, Jacob. I went to college in Seattle and majored in education with a minor in English and Religion. I was going to get my teaching license, but then my father became ill and I moved back to Forks to nurse him."
I pause, thinking back to that awful year when Charlie was battling cancer, before they told him there was nothing they could do anymore and that he had a couple of months left to live. It still hurts to think of my quiet, fearless father, shrinking in the face of an enemy he couldn't grapple with straight on.
"While I was home with my father, I put my career plans on hold, but that's when I reconnected with Jacob. We fell in love and decided to get married while Charlie, my dad, could be around to see it." I fall silent for a breath, and I don't dare look at the people across from me. This is too personal, the room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, but they did ask.
"Our son, Logan, was born last year, and I've been staying at home, doing some temping and studying, but mainly taking care of Logan. Jacob got a job as an engineer at a Portland company, which is why we decided to live here. And now, I'm ready to start working and I think this part time position would actually be perfect for where I am right now." I look up at them, hopeful that the worst part is over. I hate talking about myself.
Pastor Weber resumes. "Yes, we've seen your grades, which are excellent, and your letters of recommendation from the places where you've temped before. You've tried your hand at diverse places; both kindergarten teacher, pre-school and middle school. Tell me, how do you see yourself working at a church, teaching children in a religious setting? You would be primarily responsible for our programs for young children and their parents, including Sunday school and the volunteers teaching that. What is your own experience with the life of faith?"
I hesitate, because this feels even more personal, yet I know it's crucial for the job.
"My parents were Lutheran, but not particularly religious, and I moved around too much in my younger years to be a part of a Sunday school. But I've always prayed, alone in bed at night, for as long as I can remember, although I'm not sure who it was taught me to." I vaguely remember a teacher in one of my preschool classes who used to sing songs about angels, who was kind and firm and only smiled rarely but told us stories of her life in Africa, teaching poor children. Maybe she told me about praying?
"When we settled down in Phoenix I started going with friends to a local Lutheran church where I sang in the choir and became a volunteer. I helped out with their Sunday school classes and I was confirmed there, and then helped out with confirmation classes until I moved back to Forks. In Forks I went to a Presbyterian church and took part in their Bible study groups and their programs with groups for kids and visiting the sick and elderly." I look down at my hands. "I thought briefly about studying theology, but that didn't seem practical. I decided to become a teacher and try to help kids that way instead. My faith in God is what's helped me through a lot of the rough parts of my life. And when my father…" I try to swallow around the lump in my throat. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that God's been the constant in my life, and I would very much like to be a part of work that helps bring God into people's lives."
I bring myself to look at them again. Pastor Weber looks understanding, Mrs Cope has a sheen of tears in her eyes, Mr. Groenig is looking slightly uncomfortable, and pastor Cullen is watching me intently with an unreadable expression. I draw a deep breath and smile a small smile. I really hope that I don't have to talk about myself much longer.
Fortunately now Mrs. Cope takes over and starts asking me questions about my Sunday school experience and how I would go about organizing Sunday school if it was up to me. This is something I actually have ideas about and I feel myself relax. Then Mr. Groenig asks me if I have any experience working with Boy or Girl Scouts, which fortunately I have from a brush with Scouting back in Phoenix. It turns out they have a flourishing group of Boy and Girl Scouts with a waiting list. And then Mr. Cullen asks me how I feel about working with teenagers, which I tell him I enjoy and have had a lot of experience with, and then the interview seems to be wrapping up.
There is handshaking all around and Pastor Weber tells me that they will be in touch with me again shortly. When I shake Mr. Cullen's hand, there's a sort of spark, like electricity, and I almost jerk my hand back before I realize that this could be perceived as rude. I squeeze his hand firmly instead, looking him in the eye. His eyes are an incredible green color that I've only seen in magazine models before, and I have to force my fascinated gaze away to smile and shake hands with Mrs. Cope. She seems nice, and I hope I'll get the opportunity to work with her.
And then it's over, and I'm out in the street again, walking towards my car on shaky legs. I really hope I'll get it. It's only a part time position, about 20 hours a week, but with Logan starting out in day care it would be kind of perfect. Weekends Jacob is free to look after Logan if I have groups or Sunday school, and there may be the occasional evening if I train volunteers or take on the teenage program with pastor Cullen.
I stop to pick up Logan on the way home. As I drive us home I think about how much I long to get out of the house on a regular basis, even if it's only for a few days each week. Being a stay-at-home mom has been harder than I could have imagined. It started right after Logan's birth, when I just couldn't stop weeping. I wept on and off for weeks. Jacob tried to comfort me, and the hospital staff took great pains to reassure me that Logan was a perfect little baby boy, doing fine. But the problem was never Logan; I could see that he was perfect and beautiful. The problem was always me.
I spent the first two or three months in a state of complete exhaustion and depression. I couldn't feel happy, only anxious. Even when Logan slept I had a hard time relaxing enough to reach deep sleep, and as soon as he moved or whimpered in his sleep, or woke up briefly, it jolted me awake. And Logan didn't seem to need as much sleep as the average baby. Even as a newborn he was alert most of the time, feeding every two or three hours, sleeping 45 minutes or one and a half hours, and then crying again. Because Logan cried a lot more than the average baby, too.
Jake was always a wonderful father: sweet, gentle, happy. He would take over as soon as he came home, carry Logan around and talk with him, sing for him, play with him, while I got the chance to put dinner on the table and then go lie down for an hour in our bedroom, alone. In the evenings, when Logan wouldn't sleep, we took turns with him, and around midnight he was usually asleep. After the first four months we put his crib in the adjoining room, which meant I got the chance to at least sleep when he was sleeping, when I couldn't hear every little rustling or whimpering sound he made in his sleep.
Jacob sleeps like a log, always has, and his huge, warm body next to me in bed that was pure comfort to me in the beginning of our marriage is now an alien form in the night. Sometimes, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, I jolt awake, terrified and incredulous. What am I doing with this stranger in my bed?
When I get back to our small, white house, I park the car on the side of the house, quietly pull out our stuff and the bag of groceries I picked up on the way and slip into the house, before I go to get Logan from his car seat. I take him to the bathroom to change him while he whimpers softly, cranky after his brief sleep. I wipe him down and give him a new diaper, caressing the soft, pale skin of his belly gently as I pull up his sweatpants and adjust his shirt. I kiss his forehead and run my fingers over his downy light brown hair looking into his beautiful brown eyes. People tell me Logan looks a lot like me, but I can only see traces of Jacob in there, and a face that is truly his own, like no other. I don't believe that children turn out copies of their parents, but if anything I hope that Logan will have Jacob's more cheerful, easygoing disposition and less of my brooding mind.
Just as I finish fixing the pasta for dinner and sit down to give Logan his food first, Jacob walks in the door, stomps his feet and smiles at us, seated side by side at the kitchen table.
"Hey, beautiful boy, hi beautiful girl. Did you miss me, you guys?" He stops by to drop a kiss on the top of Logan's head and one on my cheek before walking to the bathroom to wash up before sitting down to dinner. As soon as he's home, the house feels warmer and more comfortable. More like a home. Jacob just is that kind of guy who exudes warmth and contentment.
"How did it go today?" he asks, sitting down with me and piling food on his plate and mine. I shrug, focusing on helping Logan eat his dinner. He can grasp the spoon and dig at the food but he doesn't always manage to get all the food on it into his mouth. He smiles at me, his chin covered in mashed potato. Logan loves his food. I smile back, automatically. A good mother smiles at her child.
"They said they would call me back soon. I guess they're still interviewing more people for the job."
Jacob touches my face briefly with the back of his hand and then scoots his chair over towards Logan.
"They would be lucky to have you, Bella. Hey, let me make sure Logan eats his dinner, you relax and have some food yourself." We switch seats and I watch them across the table as I push the food around my plate. I don't have much appetite these days. Jacob somehow manages to eat his own dinner while gently steering Logan's spoon in the right direction, scraping up whatever he drops and putting it back on Logan's plate. There's a lot of baby talk going on between them, and Logan beams at Jacob and waves his spoon around. I bet Logan will make a good mayor one day; even though he can't talk much yet he does it with complete conviction.
While Jacob goes to give Logan his bath, I wash up and wipe down the surfaces in the kitchen. The phone rings and I pick it up expecting one of Jacob's friends or maybe his dad on the line.
"Black residence, Bella speaking. Hello?" An unfamiliar voice, deep and velvety speaks my name.
"I'm calling for Isabella Swan." I swallow, my throat suddenly dry.
"Yes, speaking. Who is this, please?" I can almost hear the smile in the smooth male voice and a face drifts up in my mind, irritatingly handsome, annoyingly self-assured.
"This is Edward Cullen, Ms Swan. I'm calling to tell you that the board decided tonight to offer you the part-time position as Children's Ministry coordinator at Augustana church." I feel the breath catch in my throat and my heart starts beating wildly.
"Oh, that's … that's wonderful. Thank you. I accept, of course. When … I mean, have you discussed … when should I start?" I trail off lamely. My mind feels like mush.
Mr. Cullen chuckles into the phone, and somehow the low sound reverberates in my breastbone.
"If you could start next week on Wednesday, that would be really excellent. We have a staff meeting at 9 am in the church where we would like to see you. We start up the semester on the first of September and we'd like to welcome you officially in a Sunday service second week of September. You should bring your family."
He pauses for a beat and I feel like a mouse waiting for the cat to strike but then bristle. Why does he have the power to intimidate me over the phone when I don't even know the man? He continues, his voice warm and almost intimate, the voice of a man used to impress.
"Oh, and after our morning meeting I'll show you around and get you settled in. You and I need to talk about this year's confirmation classes. They normally coincide with Sunday school, but we'll find a way to work it into your schedule, I'm sure. I look forward to working with you, Ms Swan."
"Thank you," I mumble, and then the call disconnects and I'm left standing in the dark hall with the phone in my hand and a feeling of happiness mixed with terror. I've got what I wanted, but where will it all end?
"So, let's wrap this up; finish where you are and put your pens down on the table, please." I clap my hands to get the attention of the class. Seventeen teenagers, boys and girls, most of them around fourteen years old, look up from what they're doing – portraits of each other – with a mixture of apprehension and relief. We're gathered in the main room of a cabin miles outside Portland in the countryside. It's a weekend camp to give us the chance to get to know the confirmation class better.
It's me, Edward, Seth and Leah: Seth and Leah are 18 and 19 years old and have been doing this for two or three years. Edward has been responsible for the youth ministry three years and involved as a volunteer before then so compared to me they're all old hands at handling the Christian education of teenagers. In spite of this, Edward asked me on my first day to come up with a new suggestion for a curriculum.
I stared at him across the desk in his tiny office, right next to my own tiny office – a room I shared with the head volunteers.
"You're joking?" I blurted out. "Surely you have a curriculum already? Why do you want mine?"
Edward tapped his fingers on his mouth, drawing my attention to his shapely lips that were smiling playfully at me. I flushed. He was taunting me, trying to show me up as a fraud, questioning my competence. I gritted my teeth and straightened my back, refusing to be intimidated again by his sheer self-confidence. That day, he was dressed in a dress shirt and tie but had discarded his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, exposing muscular forearms, again making me feel underdressed.
"I'm sure you could help us improve, Bella. New eyes see new things. I'd rather not impose our curriculum on you on your first day of work and limit your thinking. Please give me your plan on Friday and we'll talk about it then. My intention is to put you in charge of this part of our outreach to teenagers and you and I will share the responsibility for the teenage group while I will stay in charge of the young adults program. Agreed?"
I couldn't get past the ominous feeling that he was only trying to expose me by giving me too much responsibility too soon, waiting to smirk at me with that sarcastic mouth and insult me with those beautiful, laughing eyes. Still, I was up to the challenge. After two sleepless nights and a lot of furious scribbling during whatever free time I had with Logan, I met up with Edward Cullen again on Friday.
After outlining my suggestion for a confirmation curriculum, I sat back, breathless, my heart pounding, trying not to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how nervous I was. He flipped through the pages, stopping to ask a couple of questions, then looked over at me with that same, sarcastic lopsided smile. I felt my stomach twisting.
"This is really very interesting, Bella. Good work. Now, let's look at last year's curriculum and see if there's anything from that we can salvage." It still left me with the uncomfortable feeling that I was working on probation.
Now, I look across the room at him, where he's lounging against a wall with his long legs stretched out in front of him. Camp dress with him means dark jeans, a snugly fitting t-shirt and a sweater, currently slung across the back of a chair. I've caught more than one of the teenage girls in our class trying to get a whiff of that sweater as they slink by the chair, making shy moon-eyes in Edward Cullen's general direction. I sigh internally. Sharing a class with him is like sharing a cage with a tiger and a flock of bunny rabbits – the bunny rabbits' ears will always be twitching in the direction of the tiger, not me, if for nothing else by force of his massive charisma. I wonder briefly why the Bible makes women out to be seductive and a dangerous distraction when it's clear to me that it's men like Edward Cullen who tempt and taunt.
"So, before we break for dinner we'll talk a little bit about the portraits we just made. Was there something you liked or disliked about this exercise?" I look around the room at the young faces, hovering uncertainly between child and adult. Fourteen was not my favorite age and I'm sure the majority of the kids in here are itching to be done with pimples, breaking voices and embarrassing hair growth.
Melanie is the first to speak up. At fifteen, she is physically well developed with long black hair curling down her back and a tendency to speak without thinking which makes her a sort of unintentional class clown. She's also the only girl of color in this class, adopted from Pakistan by her parents who'd been missionaries in India and Pakistan. Augustana is a congregation that prides itself on being open to all people and has an extensive Native American program and population, but this class happens to be solidly white Caucasian middleclass.
"Well, it's easier to look at others than to look at yourself in a mirror and try to draw yourself. We did that in art class and it was embarrassing." Melanie giggles and a chuckle runs around the room. Suddenly Edward speaks up, pushing off the wall to walk in front of the class.
"Well, we all spend more time in front of the mirror than we'd like to admit, looking for pimples and warts, don't we, Melanie?"
He touches her cheek briefly, and I feel myself going cold. Melanie does have a zit on her cheek, which she's tried to paint over with make-up but which is all the more glaringly obvious for it. Melanie's face falls and a tiny snicker moves through the class. I feel so mad I could hit Edward. Please God, tell me he didn't just make fun of an insecure teenage girl's looks in front of her peers! I will have to get rid of him or he will totally sabotage my work getting these teenagers to trust me and each other.
But then I see Edward frown, maybe realizing the effect of what he just said He shrugs and smiles self-deprecatingly, pointing at his own face.
"I mean, I know what I'm talking about. I still get zits on my face at my age, and I'm twenty-six; what does that say about my level of maturity?" A relieved laugh shows me that everyone felt the tension of Edward's remark and was secretly wondering which one of them would be next to be the butt of one of his comments. Hopefully, he's disarmed their fears now, and I relax slightly although I'm still angry at his thoughtlessness.
It's not until we're seated on the floor at the far end of the cabin after a night of fun and games that I come back to the portraits. They are now taped up on the wall in front of us, and the floor beneath them is decorated with berries, leaves, dried grass in glass jars and flickering candles. Edward plays the guitar and we sing together, then everyone quiets down while I read from Psalms and look around the circle of faces.
"We all have a hard time accepting ourselves. All our lives we wonder if we're pretty enough, good enough, smart enough. We ask ourselves: 'Will anyone ever love me? Will I fit in? Am I normal?' We hide the parts of ourselves that we're ashamed of from others, and we hope they will never see through us." I pause, looking at Melanie's bowed head. I gesture to the portraits on the wall.
"Do you recognize yourselves in your portraits on the wall? Maybe you do, maybe not. We never know exactly how others perceive us. Sometimes, we're not even sure who we are, ourselves. Most of our lives, we present masks to others, the self we want them to see. But there is one being who knows us through and through, who sees all our flaws and all our strengths and loves us all the same. We can't ever hide from God, and we don't have to. God knows who you are and loves you, even the parts of yourself that you hate and try to hide. Let us pray that we may have God's eyes when we look at ourselves and at each other, and give us the strength to love and accept what we see and not judge."
Before I lower my own head to lead us in prayer, I catch a glimpse of Edward's face in the candlelight looking at me across the circle. His eyes seem even bigger than normal and so dark I could have sworn they were black. I swallow, close my eyes and pray.
Sunday night, when I feel Jacob roll into bed behind me after putting a fretful Logan to sleep by dancing with him to rock music in the living room, I'm already drifting on the edge of sleep. Trying to keep track of a bunch of teenagers away camping for the first time has been about as restful as living with a sleepless toddler.
Jacob's warm arm snakes around my middle and he kisses his way from my shoulder up my neck to my ear, pulling my earlobe into his hot mouth. I squirm, but don't resist.
"I missed you last night, Bella. The bed seems cold and empty when you're not here."
I try not to roll my eyes even though I know he can't see me in the dark. I haven't felt into sex after Logan's birth, but I've learnt to go through the motions for Jacob's sake. After the first six months he was so forlorn that I was still pushing him away, claiming that my breasts felt completely off-limits after breastfeeding Logan, and my vagina still hurt, so I took pity on him and started trying in earnest.
I'm still trying. If I could only get Jacob to accept that it's okay for him to come and not me, it would be easier. Now it's twice as stressful, because he's waiting for me to come before he lets himself follow and that draws things out much too long for comfort. I long for one of those insensitive lovers you read about; a man who pokes you for five minutes, shudders and comes and then rolls off you, snoring. I wish I was that lucky.
I roll around and kiss Jacob, trying to relax in his arms and enjoy it. The kissing is fine, it's when he starts fingering me and sucking on my nipples carefully that I tend to freeze up and have to consciously tell myself to relax. I feel invaded, raped, taken over. I want to scream that my body is mine, and I decide who gets to touch it. But I grit my teeth and take slow breaths, remembering to fake those little noises of pleasure I used to make, trying to get in the mindset, trying to enjoy it.
After three minutes of oral, I've had enough and pull on Jacob's shoulders. I feel about as sexy as if I was being examined in the gynecologist's chair.
"I need you inside me, now!" I pant in his ear, hoping that he will mistake my impatience for passion. He moans and complies, rolling on top of me and positioning himself between my thighs. I'm on the pill now since I want to make sure we don't have another kid too soon and since the latex of the condoms creates a friction that makes me feel raw and sensitive down there, which isn't helping things. As Jacob slides into me with a sigh, I concentrate on relaxing and receiving him, angling my hips to make him go deeper, meeting his movements thrust for thrust. I try to chase the pleasure and excitement I used to feel, but it's hovering at the corner of the dark ceiling, out of reach.
The face of Edward Cullen floats up in the darkness of my mind's recesses, the way he looked in the candlelight last night, hunched over his guitar and singing in a voice as beautiful and expressive as one would have expected. I push the sight away, annoyed and embarrassed. I can't let that man invade my privacy in every way; it's bad enough to have to work with someone who is the image of perfection three or four days a week.
I turn my mind back to Jacob, trying to judge by his sounds and movements how close he is. Pretty close, I think. I moan and clutch his shoulders harder, kicking feebly with my heels against his firm ass cheeks. "Jacob, I'm so close. Please, cum for me. I want to feel you cumming inside me." He growls and increases his pace, and within thirty seconds I feel him twitch and then start to relax against me as his climax hits him.
I hug him hard and make a noise in my throat to signify sated passion. It's a good thing that I know him so well and that I'm apparently becoming adept at faking. Now all I have to do is clean up, get back to bed quickly and pray that Logan sleeps for another couple of hours. Maybe I won't fall asleep in the middle of my evening prayers. I love my life.
As I walk in the church door, Mrs. Cope comes running, or what approaches running, across the entrance hall and clutches my arm.
"Bella, have you heard? The pastor was taken to the hospital last night after a heart attack. No one knows if he's going to make it or not. We're organizing a prayer chain and I need you to help me make the phone calls."
I freeze in my tracks, a trickle of ice cold water running down my spine. My heart contracts to a stone in my chest. "Wait, what? Edward was hospitalized last night? Why didn't someone call me before?"
Mrs. Cope clucks and shakes her head. "No, I mean Pastor Weber, of course, not pastor Cullen. He's a young man, he wouldn't have a heart attack at his age. Now, please, let me show you the list of calls I need your help with."
I follow her, blushing. Silly Bella, of course Edward wouldn't keel over from a heart attack. It's much more likely that the female part of the congregation would. I've watched him in the pulpit a couple of times. Not only does he have enough charisma to pull people in and convince them to listen to him, he actually makes some very good points. I think I like his theology, even if it sometimes seems to me that he's struggling with two different sets of values, working his own doubts out together with his listeners. That might not be the safest way to go if you want a career as a pastor, but it's very interesting to listen to nevertheless.
It's another week before we learn that pastor Weber is out of the woods and will probably recover. It will likely take several months before he can come back to work again, and the board decides to promote Edward to stand in as head pastor until they know more about pastor Weber's recovery. Garrett, a member of the congregation who has been going to bible school in Seattle and is now studying theology at a college in Portland, has agreed to take time out from his studies to work part-time as director of youth ministry, covering for Edward.
Garrett's tall, blond, bouncing with energy and quite the charmer. I'm not sure if I and the church will survive two such hunks as our spiritual leaders. Leah perks up when Garrett steps in to teach confirmation class, but I find myself missing Edward there with me. It's as if his elusive, mocking presence keeps me on my toes. And he's actually started to show more mellow sides of himself, too. I think there's an actual person struggling to get out beneath all that staggering perfection.
Last week of November, Edward calls me into Pastor Weber's office, well, his office now. It's the place where I was interviewed and the room still holds a creepy vibe to me. Edward looks good behind the desk, though, in his dark jacket and pastor's collar which he wears every day now. It makes him look more serious and unfortunately twice as handsome. He frowns at me as he looks up from some papers on his desk, his auburn hair adorably tousled since he's obviously been running his hands through it again.
"Bella, it's good to see you. How is everything going? How are you?" He smiles at me and I mentally kick myself when I feel butterflies start up in my stomach. Lately, I've been wondering if my reaction to Edward's presence isn't all about fear and apprehension but about attraction, too. I don't like it.
"Umm, I'm fine, thank you. I think things are going well, don't you?" I lift my eyebrows at him in a question. It's not as if he's been receiving complaints about me, I don't hope.
He nods. "Excellent. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about your schedule for Christmas. You've asked for some time off, but I was wondering whether you'll be in Portland for Christmas and would be willing to help us out on Christmas Eve?"
I frown, not following where he's going with this. "Sure, Jacob's Dad and my Dad are coming over for Christmas Day but I think I could get away Christmas Eve if it's not for the whole day. I've got cooking and stuff I need to do, too, you know." Not that Billy and Charlie are ever picky, but I like to make sure that they have a good home-cooked meal whenever they come to our house.
Edward looks at me and the intensity of his gaze is kind of scaring me. I'm suddenly grateful that the desk is a solid barrier between us.
"I was wondering if you would consider preaching during midnight mass on Christmas Eve." Before I can reply, my eyes popping out of my head, he hurries on. "You wouldn't celebrate Mass, of course. There's a retired pastor, Malcolm Mc Ready, who comes to visit his daughter here every Christmas and he's helped us out before. It's just that he prefers not to have to make a lot of preparations and I know he would be grateful if someone local took care of the sermon. What do you say?"
"But, I don't understand, why don't you do it?" I blurt out, taken completely by surprise. It sounds like an accusation, but before I can take it back, Edward replies easily.
"Well, I would, but I'll be taking care of the early morning service the next day, and the main service and all the other Christmas services, so I thought it would be nice to catch a good night's sleep before it all starts. Would you mind very much helping me out, Bella? I've heard you preach before and I think you'd make a very good job of it."
I fluster. "You've never heard me preach before!" Of this I'm positive, unless I sleepwalk into the pulpit on Sundays.
His smile is slow but lights up his face, and for the first time I wonder if maybe this is what Jesus looked like. Then I could understand how people would just stand up and walk away from their families and occupations to follow him without question.
"I've heard you in confirmation class, Bella. When we pray with the class, you always come up with interpretations of Scripture that has me riveted right there along with them. I think it would be a shame if the rest of the congregation didn't get a chance to listen to you, too."
I don't know what to say to this as I feel a deep blush warming my cheeks and my neck. Maybe he's just bullshitting me, or flattering me to get some time off or setting up a trap to expose my inadequacies to the people I work for, but I can't refuse him when he looks at me like that.
"Okay." I say lamely. "I'll do it. But I would like to talk to pastor Mc Ready ahead of time so I know we're on the same page about this." It would be truly awful if it turned out the visiting pastor was roaring to preach and offended to have a young woman presuming to take his place.
Edward scribbles a phone number on a piece of paper and as I rise to leave he holds it out to me. When our fingers touch, he doesn't let go, but presses the paper into my palm and clutches my hand as he stands up. Again, the intensity of his gaze makes my knees feel weak. I can feel the smell of his cologne when I stand this close to him, and the heat all along my body could be his or my own.
"Thank you, Bella. I knew I could count on you. It feels good to know you have my back."
If he hadn't let go of my hand right then I think I would have stumbled and fallen against him, like iron filigree plastering itself to the magnet. Fortunately, I'm still able to walk through the door on my own two feet, even if my knees feel like rubber. What on earth am I getting myself into?
Later that afternoon, I've managed to get a cranky Logan to take the nap he refused to take earlier today at his daycare by dancing with him to loud music. Exhausted, I sit down in the living room and change the music to REM, music that used to make me happy when I was in high school. Shiny Happy People feels like it's ironic now, in a way it didn't then. I feel like a tightly wound spring, longing to be released, but unable to let go.
When I let my mind drift, it settles on the image of Edward Cullen at his desk, staring at me with those intense green eyes, and I feel my stomach flutter again and my thighs clench involuntarily. I recognize this feeling. Desire. My heartbeat picks up as I realize what's happening to me. Oh my God! I'm developing a crush on my boss. This is very, very bad. Still, I find myself sneaking my hand under my skirt, into the waistband of my panties and pantyhose. I haven't touched myself in a long time and the feeling is more exciting because it's so unfamiliar, almost as if I wasn't doing it to myself. I close my eyes and imagine Edward Cullen pressing me up against the closed door to his office, fumbling with my clothes, kissing me hard.
My center is wet and I can feel myself tingling all over as I start stroking myself, squeezing my breast over my shirt with my free hand, holding my breath to keep quiet in case Logan wakes up and I don't hear him in time. I rub myself, pushing the feeling of guilt away for the moment. It's harmless, I tell myself, because I won't ever act on it. I'm married, he doesn't see me that way, it could never happen. And yet, when I slip a finger inside my own heat I can't help it; a tiny moan escapes me and my eyes tear up just thinking about Edward being this close to me, touching me, inside me. I come violently, with a wrenching sob, clenching my thighs around my hand as I twitch and ride the waves of pleasure. Sweaty and breathless, slowly I relax, coming down from my high. It won't happen again, I tell myself. This is the first and only time I'll come, thinking of Edward Cullen.
But unfortunately, I'm very, very wrong.
It's a three day skiing camp in the mountains for the teenage group and the confirmation class, 45 young people between 15 and 18 on skis; it's like herding cats. Ironic, since I'm coordination challenged and can't stand up on a pair of skis to save my life. Fortunately, no one else seems to share my problem and Edward Cullen has joined Garrett and me for the trip, together with Leah, Seth and a few of the volunteers from the young adult group. I've made friends with Angela, pastor Weber's daughter, a slim, dark girl with an adorable, shy smile who is only a couple of years younger than me. She's studying at the university in Portland and knows Garrett from way back when they were teenagers together and helping out as volunteers in the church.
We end up having hot chocolate together one afternoon to plan tonight's worship, when our conversation drifts off-topic to Edward Cullen, everybody's favorite source of gossip.
"Did Edward ever date anyone?" I blurt out, then wish I could backtrack, but Angela seems unfazed. She smiles and shakes her head, looking around as if she's expecting Edward to turn up behind her shoulder when I mention his name, then fastens her pretty, dark eyes on me.
"You haven't heard? He's dated several girls over the years. He dated a girl named Kate from the young adult group last spring, and there was a rumor that they even went away on a trip together during summer, but then in August he showed up alone and we heard she had moved away to Seattle. I think he broke up with her, and she couldn't take it." She looks over her shoulder again, but there are only a couple of teenagers hanging around outside the kitchen, waiting for instructions on dinner preparations. Leaning forward across the table she whispers,
"And I heard that Irina has been trying to get him to go out with her since October, but nothing's happening." I know Irina, a tall, blonde and beautiful girl with the body of a dancer who's helping out with Sunday school. I swallow. If Edward is rejecting Irina, his standards for dating material must be very high. Angela sighs, and pushes her glasses up her nose, looking into her mug. Tentatively I ask,
"So, he's kind of a heartbreaker?"
With his looks, that figures. It must be awkward for a pastor to have that sort of a reputation, though. And maybe he's trying to clean up his act now that he's head pastor and that's why he's resisting someone as irresistible as Irina. Angela gives me a wry look.
"Yes, I guess you could call him that. But I think the truth is that he's looking for someone who can break his heart for him." I feel my curiosity flare up.
"What do you mean? Why would anyone go looking for heartbreak?"
Angela smiles sadly at me. "Maybe he only wants the women he can't have, and loses interest once they fall for him. Men can be weird like that sometimes, haven't you noticed?" And she launches into a story about her own romantic problems, trying to get a guy named Eric to notice her and ask her out without being too obvious about it and scaring him off.
That evening, we're having a worship service on the ground floor of the main building of the complex where we're staying. We've removed most of the furniture, made an altar of a table and decorated the room with candles and paper flowers. Edward's celebrating mass and I'm helping him. I've put on a dark purple dress and pantyhose for the occasion. Seth has been following me like an affectionate puppy all weekend and now he's pretending to look down my dress, wiggling his eyebrows and flirting in a clownish sort of way. I can't take him seriously – he's 18 after all – but I tell him off all the same. It's touching, but if he's really developing a crush on me he needs to think twice.
We're offering personal prayers of intercession, and I'm praying together with Angela, receiving teenagers in a corner of the room one by one. They mumble their worries and concerns to us, our heads close together, and then Angela and I place our hands on them and murmur our prayers for them, words of comfort and love, assurances that we all have God's care and strength on our side.
God knows I've prayed for myself, for my family and for my marriage countless times during the past months. I can't beat this feeling that's taken over my life, but I'm torn between praising God for it and asking him to make it go away. Crushing on Edward Cullen has paradoxically brought light and joy into my life again. The grey dreariness and gnawing dread that made life seem meaningless to me before has been pushed aside like shadows in a room where you draw the curtains back to let the sunshine in. Now, in spite of the guilt, I feel as if I live for the moments when I see Edward and talk to him. Every new thing I discover about him makes me love him more, and at the same time it's like crushing on a movie star. Am I betraying my family, even if nothing has happened?
After we've distributed the wafers and the wine to everybody, Edward turns to me. I put the chalice down on the altar and hold out my cupped hands for the bread. Edward's eyes are clear as he looks at me and speaks the words, his fingers warm as they press the bread into my hand. I barely manage to stutter out an "Amen" in confirmation, before he puts a wafer in his own mouth and picks up the chalice, holding it up to my lips. I swallow the wine, mesmerized by his gaze as much as by the electric charge in the air between us. "The blood of Christ, shed for you." God's love has never felt more physically real to me before, like a caress on my cheek. I wonder if it's an unforgivable sin to think of Edward this way and at the same time see him as an instrument of God's love.
Afterwards, Edward and I stay to clear things away, and as the room empties I feel that charge in the air between us. The silence is palpable when we're finally alone and a light sheen of sweat covers my skin even though the room isn't unbearably warm.
"I'm going to apply for the position of head pastor, did you know?" Edward asks out of the blue. I stop and look at him. He looks almost shy and smiles a tentative smile at me. I had heard that pastor Weber probably wasn't coming back, since it seemed the position of head pastor would be too demanding and stressful for him at this time, but I didn't know that the position had been advertised already.
"That's wonderful, Edward. I'm sure you'd make a very good head pastor. After all, you've done an excellent job so far. When will they be interviewing you for the job?" He shrugs.
"I'm not sure. They're still thinking about other people they want to encourage to apply. The whole process will probably take a month or more once they get started. They've asked me to stay on until the end of spring in any case." He looks at me, serious.
"So, you approve? Really?" I frown at the question.
"Of course I do. Why wouldn't I? And why would you need my approval?" It seems to me he must know by now that most people in church love and admire him. He shakes his head slowly, looking up at me through lashes that are as long and dark as a girl's.
"You don't see yourself clearly, do you Bella? You're so stern, so committed, you have these high standards, and yet at the same time you never judge other people. You're always kind, always patient, encouraging. You believe in others and you make them believe in themselves. You don't know how much I've valued your judgment and your support ever since you came to work here."
I feel hot and cold all over, with pleasure, surprise and a little fear. "You're describing yourself," I mumble, because that's exactly how I see him.
He shrugs again, running his hand along the edge of the table that is once again restored from being an altar to an ordinary dining room table.
"I know that some people think I'm too full of myself, stubborn and hotheaded, but really, Bella, I question myself all the time. That's why I need people like you in my life, who aren't afraid to tell me what you really think, to help me see things differently."
"I don't see you as stubborn or hotheaded, but maybe you are a little bit self-absorbed at times," I concede. I can't help smiling at a memory. "When I first saw you I thought you were a pretentious prick, obsessed by your fancy clothes and your sex hair." I immediately blush and bite my lip. Dear God, did I really say that?
Edward bursts out laughing, and his face becomes boyish and relaxed, his beautiful eyes reduced to narrow slits of merriment. "My … sex …hair?" he stutters. "What does that even mean? Do you think that my hair's sexy, Bella?" Now he's teasing me, and I half turn away, mortified.
"Whatever, Edward. You can google it." I take a step towards the door, but when I feel his warm hand on my bare arm, I stop.
"Please, Bella, don't go. I'm sorry. I shouldn't tease you like that." I turn around at the real regret in his voice and look up at his face, still flushed from laughter. There's a beat of silence where we both hesitate, then he slowly pulls me in and puts his arms around me. Hesitantly, I put my arms around him, too and try to relax against his tall, firm body. We have embraced briefly before, but this feels more real, more personal. Electric.
I'm acutely aware of the thin material of my dress and how my skin is only a few layers away from his warm skin. I can feel my heart beating hard in my chest, and his breath against my hair. We just stand like that for a few moments, not moving, not speaking, and I try to memorize everything from how his muscular back feels under his shirt to how big his hands seem, splayed across my waist and shoulder. Then I think I feel his kiss on the top of my head before he lets go of me and steps back. His expression is unreadable as he mumbles "Thank you, Bella," before walking out of the room. I just stand there, dazed and confused. I have no idea what just happened.
When I come in on the Monday before Easter to have my morning music class with mothers and toddlers, I can't help noticing that the young women seem more preoccupied than usual, standing around in groups talking with muted excitement. It's not until we take our mid-morning coffee and lemonade break where the children are free to play on the floor under supervision of their parents that I learn what it's all about.
"Do you know if pastor Cullen is here today, Bella?" Jessica asks me casually, her eyes shining from some emotion I can't identify. I look at her, doubtful.
"No, he normally has Monday off. Why? Is there something I can help you with?" Jessica tilts her head to the side and lifts her eyebrows so that she resembles a curious bird.
"You weren't here for the Sunday service then, I take it?" she asks me. I shake my head no. I try to take a weekend off every month or so from my work at the church and spend it with my family, but that's not really Jessica's business.
"Why? What happened in the service?" I ask, a vague sense of worry clenching my stomach.
"Oh, pastor Cullen just held a very spirited sermon telling us all why he doesn't believe that God has anything but salvation planned for any living thing." I'm confused by the tone of smugness and fake shock in her reply. It sounds more like she'd just told me that Edward had pulled his pants down in front of the entire congregation.
"Well, isn't that what the gospel teaches us?" I ask, feeling my mouth pull into a thin, irritated line. Jessica's eyes widen and she shakes her head in mock surprise.
"Now, Bella, I'm surprised at you! Aren't you aware that God has promised salvation to all those who follow him and eternal fire to those who betray his love and trust?" My jaw drops at her words.
"What do you mean? What did pastor Cullen say, exactly?"
After a few minutes of confused conversation, it seems what happened was that Edward declared his firm belief that hell doesn't exist and that the God who was willing to sacrifice himself on the cross will not rest until every single soul is saved, regardless of their deeds. An innocuous statement to some Christians, pure heresy to others. And so it seems that now the entire congregation has been divided as to whether Edward Cullen is a good Samaritan or Satan himself.
I feel a strong urge to run my palm across my face and tell every gossiping mother go take their spawn with them and go home, but instead I clap my hands to get everybody's attention and go on with today's program of songs and movements, finishing with a short reflection and prayer. Then everyone packs up and heads home to fix lunch for themselves and their kids, and I'm left slumped at my desk wondering what this will mean to Edward's chances of making head pastor.
It's not until Thursday that I get a chance to see him alone, before evening Mass. I knock on the door to his office and hear a muffled "Come in". As I step in and pull the door closed behind me he looks up from his desk.
"Hello, Bella. How can I help you?" His voice and his face seem tired, but he smiles at me and the sight of him still makes my heart jump and my stomach twist. God, I love him.
"Um, I just wanted to know if you need any help tonight. I'm not really scheduled to work, but Jacob's taking care of Logan and I thought I'd like to attend Maundy Thursday mass. So, if you need anything …" My voice trails off. I've seen less of him in the past six weeks than before, and only last week he said that he missed talking to me and wondered if we could meet up for a walk or a meal sometime. It made my heart somersault through my chest before I told myself sternly that he was not asking me out on a date, just looking for a chance to talk to me in peace as one friend and co-worker to another.
Now, he rubs his hands over his eyes like someone waking up and then looks up at me.
"No, I don't think I need any help with the service, but if you've got a couple of minutes, I'd like to talk to you, Bella." He gestures to a couple of chairs in the corner that I assume are used for confession or more informal conversations. As I sit down and rub my hands nervously across my thighs I notice that there's a slump to Edward's shoulders when he crosses the room to me. He briefly touches my hand as he sits down across from me.
"Look, I don't know if you've heard anything about my sermon last Sunday," he starts. I hold up a hand to stop him and nod.
"Yes, I heard that you said you didn't believe in hell and that some people were very upset by this." He straightens up and stares at me, his mouth set in a hard line.
"What about you, Bella. What do you think?" I feel taken aback. 'What does it matter what I think?' I want to shout. 'I have no power over you or over the people of this church!' But he's waiting for a reply. I frown, biting my lip as I think it over.
"Well, I don't believe in hell as a physical place of torment. I believe that's just a sadistic image that men made up which says more about the evil of men than the will of God." I raise my eyes and look straight at Edward.
"But I do believe that we have free will and that God has given us power to exercise it. And, ultimately, I believe that this means that there must be at least two possible outcomes on the other side of death. If a person genuinely doesn't want to have anything to do with God, God would never force him or her to spend all eternity in God's company. So, hell or not, I believe that it's possible to define yourself as outside God's love, even if God himself wants to include everybody."
Edward just looks at me, and the silence is beginning to spook me, when he nods and looks down at his hands, lying relaxed on his lap.
"I see. I guess I can understand what you're saying Bella, even if I'm not sure I agree with you one hundred per cent on your interpretation of free will. Nevertheless, I've said what I believe is true and apparently this is not acceptable to people in this church. The chairman of the board called me yesterday to tell me that he doesn't think it will be possible for me to maintain my position here after the summer." I gasp. This is worse than I thought. Edward continues, still staring at his hands;
"I've not been given notice, you understand, only informed that I will probably not be considered for the position of head pastor, and that they would prefer that I look for another job come August." Now, he looks at me, and his expression is pained.
"There's another thing I wanted to ask you, Bella. Do you think I've been a bad influence on the teenagers in this church?" I stare at him, incredulous.
"What? The kids love you, Edward! How can you even ask that?" He shakes his head.
"Leah came to see me Tuesday. She was very upset, so I probably shouldn't take everything she said seriously, but she implied that I've made the teenagers in this church hurt by inflicting my own doubts and questions about my faith on them in an irresponsible way." He pauses. "She said, and I think I remember this correctly 'You've become one of those people that Scripture warns us about who seduce God's children, and now someone should hang a big stone around your neck and throw you in the ocean.'" I stare at him in horror.
"Wow, that's a truly horrible thing to say, Edward." I cast about for some words of comfort. "But I know Leah, she does have a hot temper and you're right, she was probably upset and said things that she's regretting right now. I know for a fact that you mean a lot to the young people in this church, Edward. And a spiritual leader of any value is allowed to have doubts and to share them with others, if only to show the people he or she leads that doubt is an acceptable part of having faith. I don't think you've crossed any lines here, but I can see how it could be threatening to someone like Leah who's idolized you to hear you question things she's been taught to take for granted."
Edward sighs, and pulls his hands through his hair, making it stand on end. For a moment, I've forgotten how I feel about him, because I've concentrated so hard on finding the right things to say, but now I suddenly feel my attraction to him like a heavy blow to my gut that makes me breathless. All I want is to touch that soft hair, cradle his beautiful head against my chest and tell him it's all going to be all right. I have to get out of here. Abruptly, I look at my watch and stand up.
"I should let you prepare for the service now. But Edward, if you ever want to talk, I'm right here. Just let me know." Edward gets up too, and walks me to the door, pausing with his hand on the door handle. He leans forward and his lips brush my cheek, light as a falling leaf, burning me like an ember, and he whispers,
"Thank you, Bella. For everything." I slink out of his office before I do something stupid, like faint, or throw myself at him. Outside the closed door, I stop for a moment to let my heartbeat slow down and lean the back of my head against the cool wood. I think I hear a quiet thumping sound through the door, and pull away quickly, stumbling a little as I walk down the corridor. Is Edward hitting his head against the door in despair? I swallow around the lump in my throat.
I sit through the service feeling as if we're re-enacting the events we're reading about from Scripture. Jesus is gathering his disciples for a last meal, knowing that one of them has betrayed him, preparing for rejection by the people who only days ago welcomed him as their king. Edward's eyes are dark as he looks out over the congregation, maybe asking himself the same question the disciples asked Jesus; "Which one will betray you?" As I kneel to receive the sacrament from his hands, I feel my eyes burn and a tear slips down my cheek. I don't know if I imagine it, but I think his fingers briefly brush the tear from my jaw as he helps me drink from the cup of dark red wine. I can't look at him, and anyway everything looks blurry to me.
Very early the next morning, I take a cranky Logan with me and make a run with the truck to the market as it opens. I buy 40 bright yellow daffodils and a simple vase to put them in. I sneak into Edward's office, using the employee key, and leave the flowers on his desk with a quotation from a psalm I love. "Fear not the night. Wait for the dawn. The Lord sees your troubles and knows your heart. The seed in the dark earth waits with you. A time of change is coming. Wait for the Lord."
I stand outside the apartment building, trying to get up my nerve to press the button to the buzzer. I can't believe I'm here, about to have dinner with Edward Cullen! I've asked Carol Reese to babysit Logan at our house until Jacob gets home, claiming that I have a late meeting about work. I feel guilty, but it's at least partly true. Hopefully, tonight we'll start planning summer youth camp which starts in July.
I found an envelope with my name on it on my desk two weeks after Easter. I immediately knew it was from Edward, although he'd carefully printed my name without his usually messy flourish. I blushed with anticipation. We hadn't spoken privately since Easter, but during his sermon on Easter Sunday he looked straight at me. He talked to the congregation about Jesus' 40 days in the desert and the joy he himself had felt when he found 40 daffodils on his desk "40 trumpets shouting to me about the resurrection and the hope that will always follow dark times and despair". I knew then that he'd gotten the message and I didn't feel the need to say anything else. Quit while you're ahead, I told myself.
I tore the envelope open and found a card inside, inviting me to dinner at his place next week, at a time of my convenience. He did mention summer camp, but I got the distinct feeling that this was also his way of thanking me for supporting him in a time of need. So, here I am, dressed up in a white eyelet cotton dress that is really too thin for the unreliable spring weather we're still having, nervous as a bride or a candidate for confirmation. I shiver as I press the buzzer, and again as I hear his smooth, warm voice on the tinny intercom.
"Bella, please come on up. I'm on the seventh floor." I ride up in the elevator, trying to avoid my pale image in the mirror, all huge eyes and windblown hair that I've tried to smooth down repeatedly and unsuccessfully.
The door to his apartment is ajar, and I hear music as I walk up to it and carefully push it open, peeking inside.
"Hello? Edward?" He quickly sticks his head out in the hall through the kitchen door and calls to me, beaming a smile my way before disappearing again.
"Hello there! Please just close the door and make yourself comfortable and I'll be with you in a minute."
I slip out of my spring coat and hang my purse by the door, hesitating as I look my shoes over and decide that they're not dirty and won't destroy any expensive carpets. I hover in the door to the kitchen watching Edward work at making a salad as his iPod blasts alt rock from a corner of the room. He's wearing jeans and a dark green shirt with rolled up sleeves that makes his eyes look as green as grass when he looks over at me and smiles.
"Would you like something to drink? Dinner will be ready in five minutes. Why don't you take a seat in the living room while I finish up here?"
"Couldn't I help you out instead? What can I do?" I hate feeling useless and doing something with my hands will hopefully dispel the bad case of nerves I have.
He nods to the refrigerator. "Why don't you get whatever you'd like to drink and put it on the table? Let's see, I have water, soda, light beer, white wine and lemonade."
"Just water is fine," I mumble as I look through the surprisingly roomy and tidy fridge. "What do you want?" I ask as an afterthought. Edward is washing his hands and turns to me, drying his hands on a towel, and surprises me by giving me a quick peck on the cheek and briefly squeezing my arm before hanging up the towel on the rack behind me.
"I'll have what you're having," he says, and pulls out a couple of tall glasses from a cupboard, walking ahead of me to the living room. It's two rooms and a kitchen, not big but not cramped either, probably a perfect bachelor pad. A dining room table with room for four people is laid for two by the window, offering a view of a part of downtown Portland that I'm not really familiar with. I sit down and open one of the water bottles, pouring water in both our glasses. Edward sits down across from me and raises his glass to me.
"Welcome! Here's to new beginnings," he says, and I smile before drinking, even though I'm secretly already aching at the thought that he'll soon be gone and we won't be working together anymore. Well, hopefully, by the time he's found a new job, we will be firm friends and I'll have an excuse to keep in touch with him. God, help me, this is so wrong. I blush at my own deviousness.
Edward looks at me intently. "You look warm, Bella. Is it too warm in here?" He gestures to the AC on the wall. "I can turn the temperature down if you like." I shake my head emphatically.
"No, not at all, in fact I'm feeling a bit cold. This dress wasn't the smartest choice on a spring night in Portland." I make a face to emphasize my own lack of judgment in dressing up like this. Edward's eyes linger on the dress and I feel his gaze almost as if he was running his hands across my skin. He clears his throat and gives me another warm smile.
"You look lovely, Bella. But if you feel cold I'll let you borrow one of my sweaters until you warm up." Before I can stop him, he's popped in and out of what must be his bedroom, and returns to drape a soft blue cashmere sweater across my shoulders. It smells of his cologne and I feel completely distracted, as if I was suddenly sitting within the circle of his arms.
"That color looks good on you, Bella," he says matter-of-factly as he sips his water. "You should wear blue more often." I feel my blush deepening and try to change the topic.
"So, what are we having?" I ask, gesturing to the kitchen. Edward rolls his eyes.
"It's my first attempt at vegetarian cooking, since you mentioned that you don't eat meat. Vegetarian lasagna. And just on the off chance that I would need to ply you with drink to make you forget the awfulness of the food, I bought a Beaujolais Royal." Now it's my turn to roll my eyes.
"Really, Edward? Do you always buy French wine to impress the women you have over for dinner?" I immediately regret my flirty remark, which could be construed as inappropriate, but confusingly enough it's Edward's turn to look uncomfortable. He fiddles with his glass and doesn't look at me.
"I don't know what you've heard, but I very rarely have women over for dinner. It can be … difficult to be a single male of marriageable age working in a church like Augustana. I don't … I don't date much." I take pity on him and decide to go for a lighter approach.
"So, Mrs. Cope hasn't succeeded in marrying you off to one of the Sunday school teachers yet? I'm sure she changes her list every week, depending on who you've been seen talking to since last Sunday." As a matter of fact, there's some truth to this statement. Several among the Sunday school teachers are pretty girls in their twenties that any guy in his right mind wouldn't hesitate to ask out and I know for a fact that Mrs. Cope has tried to gently nudge Edward in the direction of more of them than just Irina.
Edward looks at me, and I think I can see his clean-cut jaw flexing as if he's grinding his teeth.
"You're thinking about Irina, I suppose? I don't know why there's a rumor going around that we two are dating, but I swear we've done nothing more exciting than go out for coffee after a Sunday service. And for the record, I have never tried to ply Irina with French wine." He smirks at me, and for a moment I feel my knees buzzing as if I just had a glass of champagne. Maybe I do need a drink if I'm going to get through the evening. I wave my hand in the air and add magnanimously;
"Oh, never mind! Pour me a glass of that Beaujoulais then, and get it over with. But just one glass, mind you, or I won't be much use to you when we plan summer youth camp."
Edward doesn't need more encouragement than that and goes back and forth to the kitchen, getting the salad and the wine bottle, leaving me to pour the wine in high-stemmed glasses while he pulls the lasagna from the oven. It smells delicious and I can almost hear my stomach growling.
After saying grace, he passes me bread, salad and lasagna like a thoughtful host, pausing to toast me with the red wine that turns out to be light, fruity and delicious. We keep talking of lighter subjects through dinner, and when we're done I help Edward clear the table and we sit down on the couch at opposite ends, sipping our coffee. I've pulled my notebook from my purse, ready to work.
"I hope it's okay to take you away from your family like this for one night, Bella?" Edward asks. "You have a husband and a young son, as I recall?"
I feel uncomfortable talking about Jacob in front of Edward. The truth is, I've tried to keep work and family apart as much as possible. In the beginning it was because I felt like I was running away from my inadequacies as a mother when I went to work, and away from my inadequacies as an employee when I went home. Really, I was constantly trying to escape myself. Since I fell in love with Edward curiously enough I find myself functioning better both at work and at home. Now it's the guilt that drives me to try to ignore the fact that I have a family when I go to work and feel my spirits lift as soon as I see Edward.
"Yes, well as long as it's just now and then it works out fine." I look at my watch. It's eight o'clock, still early. "I'll probably be home in time to relieve Jacob when Logan has his evening tantrum," I say, resigned.
Edward frowns at me. "It's been hard on you," he says, as if he knows without me telling him. I nod, feeling my throat close up. Yes. It's hard. But I know I'm still lucky, I want to say. Lucky to have a patient husband who loves me and our son, lucky to have a healthy baby, lucky to have a job and lucky to have fallen in love with a wonderful man I can't ever have. I feel tears forming in my eyes and I blink them away furiously.
"I … I guess I just feel useless a lot of the time, both at work and at home," I mumble.
Suddenly, Edward is in front of me, taking my coffee mug out of my hands and putting it on the coffee table. Without a word, he enfolds me in his warm arms, and suddenly I find myself sobbing into his soft shirt, clutching onto his broad shoulders as a drowning woman would.
I haven't cried like this in months. I feel humiliated and relieved at the same time while my tears soak the fabric of the green shirt and Edward makes soothing noises, patting my back and stroking my hair. When finally the tears subside, Edward takes my face between his hands and gently strokes the tears from my face with the pads of his thumbs. I close my eyes, devastated that he should see me in this disheveled state. I'm sure I look revolting.
"Why do you have to be so strong, Bella?" he whispers. "Why can't you let other people take care of you? You don't have to carry the world on your shoulders. It's okay to ask for help sometimes. God calling us his children means we don't have to call all the shots. It's okay to need a hug, or to cry, or be really tiny and helpless and let someone else make the decisions and carry your load for you. I could do some of that for you, if you'd only let me."
I shake my head, and he lets go of me. I immediately miss his touch. I wipe my nose on the back of my hand, feeling disgusting, when he whips out a tissue. I take it from him and blow my nose, embarrassed. He's still sitting with one hand at my waist, almost as if he's waiting for me to break down again so he can hold me some more.
"But … but I thought you wanted me to be strong, Edward." I protest. "You keep asking bigger and bigger things of me, and I'm scared every time, but then I say yes anyway because I want to know if I can do it. I don't dare be weak with you. How could I?"
I squint at him through my tear-swollen eyes, and the expression on his face is almost tender. He carefully traces my wet cheek with his fingers.
"Oh, Bella, you really have no idea what you can do, do you? I see all this beauty and strength and courage in you. Every time I ask you for something you give me back twice as much as I asked for. You're the bravest and most generous woman I know. But you don't have to do anything or prove anything to me. I'm still waiting for you to tell me to go screw myself or to demand that I do something for you. I want that, Bella, I really do. Please tell me what I can do for you."
He sounds perfectly sincere, and before I can stop myself I stutter,
"Hold me. Please … just hold me, Edward." Because right now, that's all I want. To be this close to him, to feel cherished and loved. To be able to pretend for a moment that he feels just a little bit of all that I feel for him.
He doesn't hesitate or question me, just gathers me in his arms and slowly slides backwards, so that we're half lying on the couch. I'm draped across his muscled chest with our legs entangled while his arms are a circle of warmth and protection around my body. If someone should see us right now they would probably think it's completely inappropriate, but I don't give a damn because it feels so good.
I smell his cologne and as I instinctively raise my head an inch to get my nose closer to his skin, my lips brush his jaw. He shudders, and I do too. Without thinking, I let the tip of my tongue trace an inch of the faint stubble on his jaw, fully expecting him to dump my ass and run screaming to the other side of the room. Instead he makes a small noise in his throat, and I feel my insides turn warm and liquid with desire. I kiss his jaw, squirming against him, pushing against the couch for purchase to reach higher and kiss his cheek, his earlobe, his hair. Suddenly, he springs to life and with a groan he flips us around, pinning me down on my back on the couch with his weight as his lips blindly seek mine.
We kiss, and it's everything. His lips are soft and urgent, his tongue a silken promise of more as it glides across my lips and meets mine. I suck on his tongue and make him moan into my mouth because I want all of him, anything I can get. I want to devour him and take him into my body and let him explode me from inside the way he has already taken over my mind and will.
His hands fumble over my dress, tracing my breasts and I press into his hands, impatient to feel his skin as I pull on his shirt and slide my hands under the fabric, across his smooth stomach and the ridges of his abdomen and chest. He bucks against me, and I can feel his erection through his jeans. Somehow that proof of his desire startles me and makes it real. I pant, and pull back for a second, looking into his dazed eyes. I need to know if he wants this as much as I do.
"Edward," I say, breathless. "I've been in love with you forever. I want this more than anything. Do you want me?" He shakes his head, and I feel my heart plummet in my chest because I think he means 'no' but then he kisses me, sobbing against my lips, "Yes, yes, yes, I want you Bella. So much."
Before I can reply, he's on his feet and pulls me up with him from the couch, slamming me against his body into a tight embrace. He takes my face between his hands again, but this time there's nothing tender or hesitant about his movements as he kisses me and growls, "Well, since I'm going to hell anyway …"
He picks me up as if I weigh nothing at all, and carries me the short distance to the bedroom, leaves me on the bed and pulls his shirt over his head before covering me with his half-naked body. I feel as if all air has left my body as I fumble over his naked back, tracing the muscles on his shoulders, kissing everything I can reach. I suck his bottom lip into my mouth and bite it gently, then feel his whole body go rigid as he grinds his erection into my hips, where the dress is bunched awkwardly.
Breathless, Edward pulls back and stares at me in the half-light from the living room. "This," and he pulls on the bodice of my dress, "will have to go." I sit up and turn around, and he slides the zipper down, carefully sliding first one side of the dress and then the other down my arms, kissing my naked shoulders with wet, open-mouthed kisses that burn my skin. The dress pools around my waist as Edward's hands slide up my ribcage and cup my breasts, pulling me against his naked chest. Furiously impatient, I can't wait to feel him, all of him. I fumble with the clasp of the bra, and he helps me pull it off, sucking in a quick breath through his teeth as my nipples harden in the palms of his hands. My skin feels hot and tight as if it's too small for my body, and my panties are soaked.
I pull out of his hands and turn on my back, wriggling the dress down over my hips and my pantyhose and panties off along with it. As I kick the clothes away, I still when I see Edward on his knees, hovering above me in the darkness, frozen with his hands on his belt. For a moment I'm afraid that he's changing his mind, or that he finds me ugly, my body marked by childbirth and no longer the slender body of a teenage girl.
But then he leans down, and his warm hand traces my body from my throat, down across my shoulder, my breast, waist and hip, finally cupping the warm curls at my center and reverently touching my wet, soft folds. I hiss, and involuntarily spread my thighs to give him better access. He starts kissing down across my ribcage and stomach, murmuring to himself, "So beautiful. God Bella, you're so beautiful," while his fingers slowly, carefully explore me. I squirm and press against his hand shamelessly, making a raw noise I don't recognize in the back of my throat.
When he starts kissing my centre, spreading my thighs wide with his warm, strong hands, I whimper and throw an arm across my eyes for protection. I've never felt so exposed and so excited, on my back in this strange bed with a man I've fantasized about for months. For a brief moment I think back to my own words, "We can't ever hide from God." Guilt and shame wash through me briefly, but I'm too far gone. Nothing can stop me now, not thoughts of God, or Jacob or Logan.
When Edward's tongue starts working me gently but insistently I fist his soft hair in my hand and bite the inside of my arm, groaning from the pleasure. When he curls his fingers inside me, I'm gone and shaking, giving everything up for him with a cry against the dusky ceiling. He's smiling as he crawls up to me when I clutch at his shoulders with trembling fingers, tears in my eyes.
"Please don't be offended, but I've wanted to do that for the longest time. Bella, you taste so sweet, I don't think I could ever have enough of you." If I let it, I'm sure embarrassment would catch up with me now, but I can only think of one thing.
"Edward, will you please get naked. I really need to feel you, all of you." I've never been confident enough in bed to talk dirty, but this is as close as I can get. Apparently, it's enough for Edward, because he takes a deep breath, goose-bumps rising on his arms, before he quickly complies.
Once he's naked, he slides on top of me, catching my hands in his hands, pinning me down as he kisses me deeply. Feeling his naked skin against mine, his erection pressing into my stomach, is sexiest thing I've ever experienced and I kiss him back so hard that our teeth clash. He growls in response and releases me briefly, only to bite down on the soft flesh of my neck and pinch my nipple.
"Bella, please tell me you're ready for this, because I don't think I can wait any longer to be inside you?" His question is breathless, but he pauses above me, looking at me with eyes that seem almost luminous in the dark until I bite my lip and nod. He immediately rolls over and fishes out a condom from his bedside drawer, ripping it open and rolling it on with what seems like experienced speed. I can't help wondering how many women he's had in his bed before me. Is he a sexual predator, using his position to get girls into bed? I swallow, pushing the thought away. I'll deal with this later.
Edward is back, kissing me slowly, lovingly as he positions himself over me, nudging me open, sliding over my wet folds, making me tingle with anticipation. Then, suddenly, he slides inside, thrusting deep, deep inside me, making me cry out with shock and pleasure at the intrusion. He smothers my cries with his kisses as he picks up a slow, tortuous pace, seeming to savor every inch of contact as I sheath him again and again. I raise my hips to feel more of him, deeper, more … God, I need more!
"Please, Edward, faster," I pant, when I can't take it anymore. He smiles against my mouth, raising himself on his arms above me for leverage, and starts picking up his pace and his force, pounding inside me as I whimper, making him curse and go even faster. I can't believe it when I feel my orgasm starting to build inside me. I've never come like this before, but sex has never felt so intense. Never have I felt more on edge or more excited.
Edward pants out above me, "Do you want me to slow down? I'm gonna cum if we don't stop, Bella!" That's all it takes to push me over the edge. I feel myself clench around him, every inch of skin electric and hyperaware as I ride a cresting wave of pleasure, higher and higher, wailing his name. It doesn't take him long to follow, but he slows down, moaning as he keeps thrusting, bringing me around to yet another, smaller climax.
We remain in each other's arms in the dark, our breathing returning to normal, reality crashing in. I turn my head to him, my brow touching his lips, breath hot on my skin.
"What happens now, Edward." He's quiet for too long.
"I don't know, Bella."