A Full-Fledged Chapter Despite Its Endless Dialogue: A Lesson in Discourse
. . .
If Edward was the face and body of BITE, Inc. and Jasper was the cogs and gears, Emmett McCarty was the nuts and bolts. He was legally and fiscally knowledgeable, excellent at manipulating loopholes, and could smell a rotten deal a mile away—the perfect third to Edward and Jasper's team. Even before taking the bar exam, Emmett had realized the potential in Jasper's concept and proved himself an invaluable asset. They couldn't pay him more than a promise and he didn't have any experience, but together, they made BITE a reality.
What Edward appreciated most about Emmett, aside from his legalese, was the way he told it how it was. He never sugarcoated a grievance or downplayed a lawsuit, not even for Jasper. And that was exactly the reason Jasper wasn't invited to Edward and Emmett's bi-weekly BITE, Inc. meetings.
"Next on the list is…" Emmett scrolled down his Excel sheet. "Ah, yes, the blackmail. Not going to lie, this appears to be more serious than I'd originally estimated." He opened his desk drawer and passed Edward a small stack of papers, crinkled from the glue that held down the ransom-like magazine letters.
Edward shuffled through the notes. "'I've watched you drive your Volvo,'" he read. Then another, "'I know where you live.' What the hell does that have to do with anything?" They were all signed the same. Consider yourself "Black" mailed.
"Beats me. But it does beg the question, if he knows where you live, why does he keep sending those damn things here?"
"No kidding." Edward counted eight letters in total. "Who is this asshole? Have you heard from him aside from this? Has he made any demands?"
"Not yet. I talked to a blackmail expert the other day. Some amateurs will try to make you panic before delivering their terms."
"How is him knowing," Edward flipped a few pages back, "that I 'prefer to drink bottled water' likely to make me panic? Doesn't everyone?"
Emmett shrugged. "He's a moron? I've put a guy on it. Maybe you should increase security until we figure it out. Sounds like you're being stalked."
"Yeah, maybe," Edward said, not giving it much thought as he put the letters in his briefcase. "Oh, and don't tell Jasper. He actually will panic."
"Right-o. And that brings us to the final item on our list for today." Turning from the computer, Emmett folded his hands in front of him. "We have to talk about that thing."
"The thing you hate talking about."
"Oh, that thing." Edward ran both hands down his face. "I really don't want to think about that thing right now," he said, pinching his chin between his forefingers.
"We're at the point now where I really don't think that's an option. Actually, I think we hit that point six months ago."
"I'm confused. I thought Jasper had forgotten about it. He hardly brings it up anymore."
"To you," Emmett said. "He's trying to give you space and time to decide. That was my suggestion, by the way." He took a moment to pat himself on the back. Literally, he patted himself on the back. "But he's sent me seventeen emails in the past month alone asking if you've mentioned it. He hasn't forgotten."
Frustrated and unprepared, Edward took to pacing, not an uncommon display in the penthouse office.
"Geez, no need to tug those perfectly quaffed tresses from your head," Emmett said. "I'm not saying you have to adopt the kid. All I'm saying is you should give him an answer."
Edward halted behind his chair, clutching the top of it. "Don't you think I would if I had an answer to give?"
About a year ago, Jasper had dropped his first hint. It was a completely mundane day, and he and Edward were doing some completely mundane task for BITE. Edward couldn't remember what it was, but he vividly remembered Jasper chuckling over nothing and saying, "Maybe you should adopt me. Then we could do this all the time."
Edward had frozen. Jasper had, too, as he held his breath for Edward's reaction. It had taken a few moments of frantic soul-searching for Edward to decide on an appropriate response. "Yeah. Maybe," he had said, laughing it off as a joke.
Never before had two words given someone such hope. Jasper became relentless, escalating from subtle hinting to outright begging. It made Edward feel awful. It not only highlighted what a desperately unhappy home life Jasper was stuck in but proved what Edward had been suspecting for a while; Jasper had become dependent on him. Edward greatly cared for Jasper and, in deeply introspective moments, admitted Jasper was the best friend he'd ever had. Was that healthy? Edward didn't know.
He didn't know where he stood on the whole adoption thing. He didn't know if it was even possible. The only thing Edward did know was that in all that time, he'd never been able to flat out refuse Jasper's request. "What would you do if you were in my position?" he asked Emmett.
"Easy. Buy a yacht and go party with P. Diddy." Edward glared. "Right, not the time for jokes." Emmett tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the edge of his desk. "Honestly, I'd pursue custody. Seems cruel not to when he wants it so badly."
Edward took up his pacing again. "It's not that simple. Jasper isn't some kid in the foster system. He has parents."
"And the second they catch even a whiff that I'm looking into petitioning for legal guardianship, they're going to transform into the most loving and devoted parents in Washington State history until it blows over. And let's face it. What kind of judge is going to grant me custody?"
"I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but we have options. You've practically been his guardian for the past two years, and we can prove that in court if we need—"
"There's no guarantee that will work," Edward said. "Courts want kids to stay with their parents. And if not his parents, Jasper will be thrown in with some relative he's never met before. Go through the courts, and I'll never see him again."
"Or," Emmett said as if uninterrupted, "we can find a way to convince his parents to independently sign over their rights. That way we don't have to go through a custody hearing."
Edward was shaking his head. "This is all beside the point. Look at me." His jeans and t-shirt weren't exactly impressive attire. "I'm twenty-four fucking years old. How can I take responsibility for a boy who's already half my age?"
Leaning back and crossing his arms, Emmett said, "Don't ask stupid questions."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, I don't know," Emmett sniffed. "You're financially stable, you're emotionally available, and you're already doing the damn job anyway."
"Being a big-brother-type is a lot different than full-on guardianship. This isn't like adopting a puppy. We're talking about an almost teenager."
Emmett held up his hands in frustration. "All I'm saying is you're getting skittish about taking on a responsibility you already have. Next to effectively running one of the largest interactive websites in the world, this should be a piece of cake. And to be candid, anything is going to be better than the environment he's in now."
Edward didn't respond at first. So many thoughts—excuses, Emmett would call them—were running through his head. What if he didn't win? What if the courts discovered Jasper was the innovator behind BITE? What if they thought Edward was exploiting Jasper? And worst of all, what if he couldn't handle the responsibility? "I'm just trying to give the decision the weight it deserves," he finally said.
"That's fair," Emmett said. "And you should. But Jasper's a super genius. And you're… you. I'm confident the two of you could figure it out. S'all I'm saying."
"Fine," Edward said, resigned. "My answer is still not yes, but it's not a no, either."
"So we're right back where we started. These things tend to get trickier the older the kid gets."
"Don't look at me like that. This is exactly why I hate talking about it. We never get anywhere."
"Yeah, I s'pose this is my fault," Emmett said without a hint of irony. "S'pose this is what I get for talking to you before you're ready with an answer one way or another. After a year of the kid dropping hints like snowflakes, I thought you'd have some clue."
"Well, I don't," Edward snapped, then softened. "But I don't know. Maybe you can start putting some paperwork or charts or reports or something together for me to look at. You know, in case I decide to proceed."
A small, smug grin tugged at Emmett's lips, a sign he thought this was some sort of victory.
Edward looked at his watch and blew out a breath. "I have to go pick Jasper up. We're going to IHOP before his soccer game this afternoon."
Emmett's smile only widened.
"Oh, shut up. This isn't about Jasper. It's about a girl."
"Ah. Trying to find a new mother for young Jas–"
Edward was already out the door.
. . .
"Anything else I can get you?" Bella asked, pulling back a coffee pot.
"Nope, but thank you," Edward said. He felt Bella depart from beside him without another word. This was not going as he'd imagined. This was awkward. And he didn't drink coffee.
Jasper dropped his hands to his lap after a solid three minutes of twiddling his thumbs in front of his face. "I'm bored. Are you going to make a move or what?"
"What are you talking about?" Edward laughed uneasily. "It's not like I'm here to hit on Bella."
"Of course not."
"Then what are we doing here?"
Edward tugged at his collar. "We come here every Saturday."
"Nuh-uh. We didn't last Saturday."
"That's because we were," Edward barely avoided using the word scared, "worried about the article. We didn't want to do anything that might piss her off more."
Jasper picked up a handful of French fries from his plate, a rare deviation from his usual order, and dipped them in a pool of maple syrup. "It sounds like we were being pussies," he accused.
Edward's hand fell to the table in agitation. "Don't talk like that. It's unbecoming. And I thought you wanted to come here today."
"That's when I thought it would be interesting," Jasper said, still chewing. "I thought something was going to happen."
Edward nearly jumped out of the booth when he heard Bella's voice directly over his shoulder. "To be fair, so did I."
"Uh, hey again, Bella," Edward said. "What's up?"
She plopped down in the booth, forcing a bewildered Jasper to scoot closer to the window. "I'm on a break. Thought I'd take the opportunity to clear the elephant in the room, especially if you're going to keep showing up here."
Jasper strained his neck to look around. "I don't see an elephant."
"It's a figure of speech," Edward said, a hint of exasperation in his tone. "Public school systems, I tell you."
Bella laughed. It was as sweet and delightful as Edward remembered from their first meeting. "What do you need from me to get past this whole journalism mess?" she said. "Oh, don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about. You won't win any points with me by lying. We're all thinking about it. Might as well suss it out. So what'll it be? A written apology? I'll be the first person to admit I suck at those, but I'll do it. How 'bout an explanation? A vile of my blood? My firstborn? Whatever you want."
"None of the above," Edward said. "The interview may not have gone well, but it didn't show in the column. Let's call it even."
"Whoa," Jasper said. "Don't let her off so easy! She called BITE absurd and ridiculous, which it clearly is not."
Bella turned on Edward. "You told him that?"
"Not exactly," he said through his teeth, a warning to Jasper about keeping up appearances. "Jasper is very intuitive. He filled in the blanks when I told him you didn't like BITE."
"I am intuitive," Jasper said. "I skipped seventh grade."
"Did you really?"
"I know what you're thinking," Edward said. "Elephant in the room and all. But it's true. He's smarter than he looks. I didn't even have to pay off the teachers."
"That's very impressive."
Jasper beamed. "Thanks, but we're still not letting you off easy."
"Right. I was very rude to your friend. What would you have me do?"
"Eat a… bowl of… spiders."
Yep. That's the mastermind behind BITE, Edward thought. Bella crinkled her nose.
"He's kidding," Edward said. "We're not going to ask you to do that. Right?" He directed the last question at Jasper.
With an offended tug at his baseball cap, he said, "Well, you come up with something better then!"
"I think Bella should have to go out to dinner with me," Edward said without fully thinking it through.
Jasper gaped. "She insults BITE, and her punishment is dinner? That isn't fair!"
"I thought you wanted to see me ask her out. That's why you came." Edward winked at Bella.
"You said you weren't going to!" Edward wished now he hadn't have winked.
"I changed my mind." He winked again to smooth over any insult Bella might have suffered from that.
"Well, so did I."
"It's too late. I already asked her."
Bella held up her hand. "Don't wink again, for the love of God."
"Yeah, that was creepy," Edward said. "Why is it I've never been able to pull that off?"
"Emmett says you don't got game," Jasper said.
"I don't have game," Edward corrected.
"That's not how Emmett says it."
"Okay, before we get sidetracked here," Bella used her hands to form the time-out signal. "I think what Jasper's trying to say is that it makes more sense for me to take you out to dinner. After all, I was the one who was unprofessional."
Edward leaned back contentedly. "Sure. I could agree to that under a few conditions. Are you free tonight?"
"I am, but what are your conditions?" Bella asked at the same time Jasper said, "We can't do it tonight. My soccer game!"
"Bella, my conditions are that I get to pick you up, choose the restaurant, and pay. Jasper," Edward spoke louder as Bella opened her mouth to argue, "there'll be plenty of time after your soccer game. And speaking of which, we need to get going. It's our turn to pick up a snack for the team."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute." An expression so somber overtook Bella's face, Edward worried he'd actually offended her with his date conditions. "Edward, are you like a soccer mom?"
"I am not a soccer mom," Edward answered at once. "Soccer moms are scary."
"Yeah! They almost beat Edward up last time we brought snacks," Jasper said.
"They did not, thank you very much."
"What? Why?" Bella asked.
"It was stupid," Edward said. "Jasper, devil that he is, convinced me to get candy and soda for the team's snack. He told me that all the parents do that to make their kids look cool."
"You actually bought that?" Bella laughed.
"It's not like I know what's 'in' these days," Edward said. "Needless to say, I was properly shamed." His satirically incensed gaze shifted to Jasper. "And that's why today is nothing but Gatorade and nutritionally balanced meal bars for you."
"We'll see about that."
Bella reached into her apron pocket for their checkout receipt and absentmindedly said, "Yeah, good luck, Edward. Believing excuses like that, I'm not so sure you're cut out for parenthood."
"No, he is!" An urgent hand gripped Bella's forearm. She dropped her stack of receipts, startled. "Take it back. He is. Take it back," Jasper whispered, gazing earnestly into Bella's eyes as if trying to hypnotize her into retracting her statement.
The urge to hide under the table overcame Edward. Bella opened her mouth and looked to him for answers, but a tight smile was all the response he gave her.
"Um, I am sorry," she said. "Sometimes my mouth runs away with me. I'm sure you'll make a wonderful father."
Jasper's grasp on her arm slackened. "See? Bella thinks so."
Plainly uncomfortable, Bella went back to finding the correct receipt.
"Now is not the time," Edward said in a low voice, missing the joviality of a minute before.
"Here you go." The click of a pen drew Edward's attention back to Bella. "Make sure to get this copy of the receipt back when you check out. I wrote my address and phone on it. Are we, uh, still on for tonight?" she asked, casting an apprehensive sideways glance at Jasper.
"Absolutely. Seven work?"
"Perfect." A shy smile crossed Bella's lips as she scooted out of the booth. She gave one last small wave, before fading into the hustle of the restaurant.
. . .
The address Bella had given Edward led to an inconspicuous, mint green townhouse within almost equal walking distance of IHOP and Seattle University. Two small, well-kept gardens on either side of a cobbled-stone path charmed Edward, as did a sign above the doorbell that read, "NO SOLICITING. We're too broke to buy anything." He wished he had lived some place like this when he was in college, but the welcoming nature was probably more the tenant that lived here than the property itself.
"Bella, your millionaire's here!" a woman's piercing voice called, followed by the sound of muffled arguing and some kind of physical altercation. Edward froze. He hadn't even rung the doorbell, yet. And was that what he was to Bella? Her millionaire? He was debating whether to hightail it out of there when a pretty girl with curly brown hair and ample cleavage opened the door.
"Wow," she gasped with a giggle. "You're even better looking in person."
Standing directly behind the first, another girl swatted her on the shoulder. "Jess! Behave."
"What? It's true," this "Jess" said unabashedly.
Though the tips of his ears had turned bright pink, Edward chuckled and offered his hand. "I'm Edward Cullen."
"And I'm available," said Jess.
"Oh, my God," the other girl groaned. "Could you maybe try a little harder to make the poor man uncomfortable?"
"Uh, it's okay," Edward said, taking a small step backwards and shuffling his feet.
"It's really not. I'm Angela. This gold-digging bi-otch is Jessica."
"I'm an opportunist. What can I say?" Jessica twisted a strand of her hair around her finger. "So, what does it take to catch a millionaire these days?"
"Subtle, Jess," Bella's voice rang from somewhere in the house. "You could at least invite him in before asking wildly inappropriate questions."
"I think I'm safer out here," Edward called back.
Appearing at the top of a staircase, hair swept back in a messy-chic do and wearing a black cocktail dress, a beautiful, though shoeless, Bella said, "I'll be one moment," before disappearing again.
Jessica clapped to refocus the conversation on her. "Hey, I need advice. I can't afford the Millionaire Matchmaker."
It was hard for Edward not to appreciate Jessica's bluntness, him having grown fond of the same quality in Emmett. She was shallow, a proud gold-digging bi-otch, but in a surprisingly charismatic way.
"I don't know if I'm the right person to help you," Edward said. "Bella's the first woman I've asked out since becoming a… you know."
"That's fascinating. What did she do right?"
Smiling fondly and focused on the soliciting sign, Edward said, "It was more like everything she did wrong."
He looked up to find Angela and Jessica exchanging a syrupy glance. "That is so sweet," they said in unison.
"Uh…" Edward scratched the back of his neck.
"Finished!" Bella reappeared fully appareled behind Angela, opened a nearby closet, and fished out a blue jacket. "Let's get out of here."
"It was nice meeting you both," Edward said with a nod.
"That's sweet, but Bella likes lying as much as the Real Housewives of Wherever like acting their age," Angela said.
"Preach," Jessica said. "Remember that one guy she nearly de-balled after finding out he didn't actually play BITE? Just used it for pick-up lines?"
"Thanks," Bella said tersely. "Goodnight."
"Wait one second," Edward said, not budging when Bella tugged on his arm. "BITE-inspired pick-up lines?"
Jessica looked like she'd won the lottery. "Can you see me sparkle? 'Cause you're all sunshine."
"Nice," Edward laughed.
"That's a PG one. The best are R-rated."
"Don't," Bella warned.
But Jessica was already rolling. "Wanna get a room?" she asked in a deep voice. "'Cause I'm hard as granite."
Edward's interest dropped like a pit into his stomach. "I feel dirty."
"And now we're going," Bella said. Edward didn't resist her tug this time.
"Hey, baby," Jessica yelled at their backs. "I'm vamp. You're human. Wanna make a hybrid?"
"Ignore her," Bella said. "She knows them all, because we get a never-ending tirade of BITE pick-up lines when guys find out where we're from."
"And where is that?" Edward asked, guiding Bella to the passenger side of his car.
"You don't know?" There was a tinge of disappointment in her question.
Instead of climbing in the car when he opened the door for her, Bella fidgeted with her purse and looked back at the house. Her roommates had already disappeared inside. "The three of us, well, we're from Forks."
Edward's grasp slipped from the door handle. "Forks, Washington?"
"The one and only."
That was a fluke almost too big to overlook. For whatever reason, Jasper had chosen Forks as the location for the original BITE quest, only later expanding the journey out to international territories. In cyber-reality, Forks, Washington was a town overrun by vampires, the place where every "newborn" user began. In regular-reality, it was a tiny, tiny speck of a town somewhat off the grid and out of the way.
"Well, there's a coincidence," Edward muttered.
"Maybe," Bella said, timidity oozing from her speech and body language. "But I kind of came up with a theory after I met you."
"By all means, I'd love to hear."
"I thought that maybe since you knew my mother when you were developing the game…"
"Yes! That makes sense!" Edward exclaimed. "Jasper must have—" He caught himself in the nick of time. "I mean, so much has happened since those initial stages, I completely forgot. Jasper really wanted me to use Forks after Renee mentioned it to us."
"This is crazy!" Bella gave a keyed up little leap, the cutest thing Edward had ever seen.
To think that this girl had played a role in the invention of BITE, even in a roundabout way, made him feel… connected. Her excitement was contagious, and Edward felt his grin stretch the length of his face, a somewhat permanent fixture.
"What are we doing?" he said, laughing as he gestured toward the open car door. "We have reservations."
"Sorry! Got carried away. Warning you now, it happens a lot with me."
"I think I can handle it." Edward hoped he wasn't lying. It had been over two years since he'd gone out with anyone, and he was worried he wouldn't remember how it was done.
Think first date. Don't get ahead of yourself. Don't reveal too much. Treat her nicely. Be a gentleman.
"I didn't have a chance to tell you earlier," he said once he was situated in the driver's seat and revving up the engine. "But you look stunning. Thanks for joining me this evening."
"Thank you," said Bella, "for still wanting to go after I stuck my foot in my mouth."
"You know, this morning with Jasper." Edward did not know and quirked a teasing eyebrow. "The comment about parenthood…?"
"Right." Edward lightly pounded his forehead with his palm. "That wasn't your fault. Jasper's just…" He tried to find a way to explain Jasper's sensitivity, then realized the first date probably wasn't the best time to bring up the prospect of legal custody. "Why don't we leave the weighty stuff until later? If we ever get to that place, I'll explain it."
"I completely understand," Bella said. "No pressure."
Something occurred to Edward, something that made him anxious in more ways than one. "Bella?"
"I hate to ask you, but I want to make sure we're on the same page."
"Ask me what?" she asked after a few silent moments.
"You're not going out with me to get the scoop for your newspaper, right?" It was a responsible but incredibly rude question, and there was the small part of Edward that didn't want to know, for the sake of his pride.
"Oh, God no." Relief swelled in Edward at Bella's mortification. "Trust me. I'm not that kind of journalist. Well, I'm not a journalist at all, really. Especially now. I turned my press badge in after I finished your article."
"Yeah, so no worries. I'm no longer a reporter of any kind."
There was a tiny flicker of what Edward hesitantly labeled hope, but for what, he couldn't recognize. "Why aren't you pursuing journalism further?"
Bella mulled over her answer. "That's probably an if-we-ever-get-to-that-place kind of story."
As a traffic light turned red and Edward pulled to the mandatory stop, Bella recognized her IHOP up ahead and asked with forced politeness if that was where they were headed.
"Hell no," Edward said. "The place we're going is further up Madison. IHOP is Jasper's thing, not mine."
"About that. I was wondering… Is Jasper still mad at me for the aforementioned foot-in-mouth incident? He seemed pretty upset."
Edward hesitated. "Technically no."
"But?" Bella pushed.
"Okay, I'm only telling you this because you have a thing about honesty." The light turned green, and Edward used the distraction to stall his answer. "He's not mad about the IHOP incident, which, I repeat, was not your fault. He's just sensitive. At the moment, however, he's livid with me about something that happened this afternoon. So, possibly, there's some lingering anger there on your end."
"Damnit, Edward." Bella smacked the dashboard in mock outrage. "What'd you do?"
"You assume it was my fault?"
"You'd be wrong. Don't commit assumicide. That's exactly what happened to Jasper."
"Assumicide?" Bella fell into a fit of giggles.
"Courtesy of my tenth grade teacher," Edward said, admiring the pink glow of Bella's cheeks. "To answer your question, Jasper assumed that he was invited to our little tête-à-tête. He showed up to my room dressed to the nines in his best suit. You should have seen the look on his face when I told him he wasn't coming." Edward tried to pass it off as playful, but the tiniest bit of remorse tugged at his heartstrings. Oh, the guilt of Jasper standing there all pathetic-looking with his slicked-back hair and impeccably tailored suit.
"Oh, no," Bella said. "He was more than welcome if you wanted him to come."
"That's the thing. How can I focus on getting to know you when you're focused on getting to know him?"
The matter was settled, and as Edward pulled up to their destination, buoyancy edged away his doubt and guilt. By and large, Edward avoided restaurants that crammed their menus with food he couldn't recognize, but Jasper had pointed out in his fit of rage that taking Bella anywhere less than five-star would give her the wrong impression about what Edward felt she was worth. If the slight gape of her mouth as she poured over the menu was any indication, Edward guessed Bella was feeling like ten million bucks right now.
"Bonsoir, my name is Laurent, and I will be your server this evening," said a dark-skinned waiter with a heavy French accent. His dreadlocked hair was a stark contrast to the sophisticated establishment, even if it was pulled back in a tidy ponytail. "May I offer you a cocktail, aperitif, or beverage?"
Bella flipped the menu to its wine list. Edward could practically feel her tabulating the cost in her head. The cheapest bottle was $45, a small fortune to a college student. "I'll have a Coke, please."
The waiter's smile slipped for a millisecond. That there was exactly why Edward shunned upscale restaurants. He could imagine what was going through the waiter's mind. This was one of those tables, the kind where Joe Shmoe, with his limited budget, was trying to make his honey feel like a queen for the night. It was all backwards. Laurent would pine for the next big spender while merely humoring those who scrapped and saved for months to savor this experience.
"For me, as well," Edward said.
Laurent returned with a pitcher of soda and filled their wine goblets. As he did, Edward asked him to walk them through the menu and in English, please.
"Let me start with le plat du jour, or tonight's special." And Laurent was off, talking about Poulet à la Something or Another and Brochette de Unintelligible. Edward couldn't keep up with the rapidly recited English translations. By the time he'd reached the Salades, Bella's eyes were glazing over.
"Laurent, I'm going to cut you off there," Edward said. "Can I have a moment to deliberate with my cohort?"
"Oui. Please take your time."
Holding up his menu to shield his face from Laurent, and indicating that Bella should do the same, Edward whispered, "Have you ever chewed a piece of gum that got stuck to the roof of your mouth?"
"Why? Do you have gum stuck in your mouth?" Bella whispered back, vaguely disgusted.
"No, I'm not chewing gum. I was just curious if that's ever happened to you."
"Not that I can recall."
"I'm thrilled to hear that! But if, God forbid, it does ever happen, do not chew another piece of gum thinking it will un-stick the first. It will only get stuck up there, too."
"Wow. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to tell me that," she said with as much sincerity as Laurent's smile. "I will absolutely keep that in mind."
"Excellent! And one more thing before we have to talk to Dreadlocks again. Do you think duct tape could be the key to our survival during the zombie apocalypse?"
She tapped a contemplative finger to her chin. "Now that's a tough one."
"Our waiter is waiting, Bella."
"I think that… if you wanted to keep chewing it, probably the best way to get the gum off the roof of your mouth is with one of those newfangled dental floss picks. But a spork would do in the case of an emergency."
Neither could keep a straight face as they burst into hushed snickers. The sound of a throat clearing on the other side of their menus only contributed to their amusement.
"Yes, we are prepared," Edward said, laying his menu down. "Bella, what will your poison be this evening?"
She was still getting herself under control from behind her menu. "Shit, I don't know."
"Wonderful. Neither do I. That leaves us with only one option, I believe."
"I can come back in a few minutes," Laurent halfheartedly offered.
"No need. We will order everything."
When a punch line didn't come, Laurent said, "Monsieur, when you say everything, you mean—?"
"Everything," Edward said. "As in, if it's on that menu, and even if it's not, we want to try it."
When Laurent didn't move to fulfill the order, Edward asked, "Is there a problem?"
"Monsieur, our courses are quite filling. I worry that ordering so much food might be overwhelming for two people."
"We'll manage. She has the appetite of a small herd of cattle." A swift kick under the table told Edward that she was not amused.
Turning his back to Bella and bending down to Edward's ear, Laurent said with as much courtesy as he could muster, "Monsieur, there will be the matter of the bill."
Hating to do it but seeing no other choice, Edward dug his wallet out from his back pocket and flashed his elite Amex-issued Black Card. "It won't be a problem," Edward said quietly. "And while we're at it, I'd like to anonymously pay for the meal of that table." He gestured to a "Joe Shmoe" couple he'd pinpointed earlier in the night. "Treat them right. Your tip depends on it."
That certainly put a fire in Laurent's step. When he righted himself, it was with an overly cheery smile. "Que vous le souhaitez. As you wish!" he said, collecting their menus.
"Are you sure this is okay?" Bella asked once he'd left. "That's a lot of food. And the cost…"
"It's fine." Edward waved her off. "I hardly ever splurge like this."
"That explains the car."
"What's wrong with the Volvo?"
"Nothing at all." She swirled her Coke as if it were wine. "For a soccer mom."
A gasp and a heart clutch accompanied Edward's, "You wound me, Miss Swan."
"Good. I had every intention to. Hey! Speaking of soccer, how'd Jasper's team do today?"
"They won ten to eight. Jasper scored three goals," Edward said proudly.
"Nice. So Jasper has soccer prowess?"
"I'd say yes. He's getting better every game. This is the first time he's played an organized sport, but he has natural talent and a never-quit attitude."
The first course of the meal was making its way over to the table. Edward had expected a sizable tray of selections, but Laurent only carried two small plates with silver dome lids. He placed one in front of Bella, then Edward. "Presenting the Guinea Fowl Terrine Amuse-Bouche," he said, lifting the domes to reveal a sprig atop a coin-sized sphere of raw meat. Drips of vinaigrette sprinkled the concoction.
"That's it?" Edward asked. A cough into her napkin stifled Bella's laugh.
"The amuse-bouche is only a taste of things to come, Monsieur." His tone had become considerably more civil in light of the color of Edward's credit card.
"Okay, then." Edward reached for a fork, then pulled his hand back. Counting three forks, two spoons, and two knives at his place setting, he was at a loss.
To his surprise, Bella said, "Start from the outside and work your way in."
"Don't we know a lot about fancy silverware."
"Please. That's what Kathy Bates tells Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic."
"That's the kind of thing you should never tell a guy." He made a grab for the bigger middle fork, rebelling against Titanic and the establishment as a whole.
"Mmm. This is delicious," Bella said.
Edward considered the flavors. It had an intense, refreshing taste. "It is good," he agreed. "I just wish there was more to it."
"You're a peculiar fellow, Edward Cullen." Bella set her fork upside down on her plate. "I figured someone with your… financial assets would eat out at places like this all the time."
"Maybe if I'd grown up in this life," Edward shrugged. "Believe it or not, I was your average broke college student not so long ago."
"You sound like you miss being broke."
"It's not the being broke I miss. It's the being average. Fame and fortune have their downsides. Don't get me wrong. It has its perks, too. The mansion for one. And you know, I get to meet special people like Laurent," he teased. "But the pressure. Bella, the pressure is insane."
"But if you didn't want all this, why'd you seek it out?"
"I met Jasper," Edward answered honestly. "I had to get motivated. And quick. I wish I could explain. Maybe if we ever get to that place, I'll be able to."
"I wonder what 'that place' looks like," Bella mused. "I'm beginning to see it as an actual location."
"Didn't you know? That Place is a beach."
"Ah, yes. I see it now. There's a sunset. And accoutrements."
Fascinated by the wistful glimmer in Bella's eye, Edward said, "Do elaborate."
"There's a picnic basket filled with chocolate bars and graham crackers. The marshmallows sit closer to us, where we're roasting them by the heat of a bonfire. I'm too impatient and keep letting my marshmallows catch fire, claiming it adds to the flavor. You, on the other hand, you don't mind waiting. You like to take your time. You like the slow burn."
Damn. No, "damn" didn't do this girl justice.
Fuck. This girl was something.
"I see snowflakes," Edward said. "The every-snowflake-is-unique kind. Dr. Seuss-style. But they're not cold. When they touch you, it's like… they give you a warm feeling, like a tingle." Edward's fingers twitched toward Bella. A surge of daring gave him the courage to bridge the gap and lightly caress the back of her arm. "It feels like that. And that's when we realize, it's not snow. It's ashes fluttering away from the fire."
Bella pulled her arm back and took a deep breath. "Edward, you're giving me chills."
"You know what this is?" With his finger, Edward circled the space between them. "We're vibing."
"Oh, God," Bella laughed.
"We are. We are wholly and completely vibing. Our auras just made a baby."
"Shut up," she said with a playful punch to his shoulder. "If anyone else had heard that drivel, they'd call it craze-vibing. We'd be chucked in the loony bin, for sure."
"Hold on there." Edward crossed his arms. "Are you making fun of the mentally ill? 'Cause I have it on good authority that loony bin jokes are off limits."
A smile peeked through Bella's pursed lips. She acquiesced with a nod. "I had that coming. And in case it isn't obvious, I am really sorry for how I acted during that interview. I had you figured all wrong."
"Don't worry. You're doing an exceptional job making up for it. But while we're on the subject, I am curious as to why you were so set on hating me."
"Alas, we have reached that portion of the evening," Bella said, mostly to herself. She adjusted, readjusted, and then re-readjusted herself in her chair. "I have a confession," she said, staring steadfastly at a big spot of nothing on the tablecloth.
"Well, aren't you a bundle of surprises."
"Before I tell you, promise to keep an open mind and at least let me explain."
Nothing good ever started with those words. "I promise," Edward said, aching with curiosity.
"Okay, I'm a… Sorry, I can't look at you when I say this." She twisted in her chair to face a wine rack. "I'm a—"
"Your second course, Monsieur, Mademoiselle!" Laurent's accent chimed. Edward let out an irritated grunt as Bella seemed to deflate. "We have Smoked Salmon Mousse, Nori Tuile, Braised Oxtail, Spaghetti Squash…" Completely oblivious to their glares, he rattled off the names of three or four additional dishes. "Pace yourselves," he concluded. "You have about twenty plates to come."
"Yeah, better timing next course," Bella muttered bitterly. A humiliated crimson permeated her cheeks as Laurent stiffened and then gradually turned to face her. "Oh, my God. I am so sorry. I was totally kidding. I didn't mean for you to hear that. It was a joke, I swear. I am so, so sorry."
"Why you gotta be so mean to poor Laurent?" Edward asked, not even trying to mask his delight with Laurent still standing there. "And you're a waitress! That has to break some union rule."
"You're not helping," Bella said through her teeth.
Edward gleefully tipped his Coke glass in her honor. "Not trying to."
"Merci, Mademoiselle." Laurent bowed his head. "But no apology required. Enjoy your second course."
Bella waited until he was well out of earshot before throwing her napkin at Edward. "You're a jerk."
"This is fine dining, Bella. There's no napkin-throwing in here," Edward said, throwing the napkin back at her. "I'm ready to take your confession now."
Bella eyed the cart of delicious smelling food sitting next to them. "Wouldn't you rather eat?"
"I'm not eating anything until you fess up."
"Well, this will hardly have the same dramatic impact as before my appalling display of waiter-solidarity, but here goes," Bella said. "I'm a BITE-hard."
Edward gasped spectacularly and let out a genuinely disbelieving, "No!" The term BITE-hard was coined to describe only the most rabid and devoted BITE players.
"It is true." Bella fiddled with one of her forks, not meeting Edward's gaze. "Perhaps it would be more accurate to say reformed BITE-hard. I stopped playing a few months ago."
"Why?" Edward asked, trying to work through this most outstanding turn of events.
"Because it was taking over my life! I spent fifteen hours a day on the game. My grades were slipping. I'd skip class to go hunting with my coven."
"Tell the truth, Bella." Edward's voice was comically provocative. "Were you a vegetarian vampire? Or were you… naughty?"
Unable to take his self-righteous smugness, Bella buried her head in her arms and mumbled something unintelligible.
"Oh, come on. You have nothing to be ashamed of. We have over ten million subscribers. You're not the first woman to be seduced by the scent of a vampire. And if it helps, I find it extremely attractive."
Bella's head lifted enough for her chin to rest on her arms. "You're not totally creeped out?"
"Why would I be creeped out?"
Perhaps wisely, she chose to keep her reasons to herself. "Wow. I'm starved. That Oxtail thing looks delicious."
"One thing doesn't make sense to me," Edward said after a minute. "If you liked the game, then why all the hate at the interview?"
It took an inordinate amount of time for Bella to swallow her Salmon Mousse and a bit longer before she said, "It took over my life to the point where I wasn't a productive member of society anymore. It was turning me into my mom, but that's a whole other mess of psychological issues. I couldn't control my obsession with BITE, and I blamed you for creating such an addictive product."
"That's actually a huge compliment in the gaming industry," Edward pointed out. "Sometimes people need an escape from reality. BITE provides that."
"And two weeks ago, I would have called that entrepreneurial bullshit," Bella said, poking at her plate. "I had already decided I was going to give you a hard time when the editor of The Spectator handed me your interview. Then I met you at IHOP and came to the conclusion that you were a big, fat liar. And that infuriated me to no end. I can't tell you how much I hate liars. Again with the mommy issues."
"About that… Is it all lies, or can you bear the occasional white lie?" Edward asked, realizing he was probably doomed either way.
"White lies," Bella scoffed. "No such thing. Just because a lie is made with good intentions, doesn't make it okay. In fact, I'd argue white liars are worse. One white lie turns into another and then another. Someone who justifies a white lie generally doesn't realize when they cross the line into outright deceit. And I'm totally rambling and scaring you off right now, aren't I?"
Only then did Edward realize his face had slipped into a petrified mask. He quickly rearranged his features. "Not at all," he lied. "But now I have a confession." The slight turn of an ear toward their conversation from a patron just past Bella's left shoulder caught Edward's attention.
"By all means," Edward barely heard Bella say.
The patron was alone at a table, facing away from the couple. His stature was much smaller than the average guest, but Edward wouldn't have noticed, what with his being so absorbed in Bella and that slicked back hair replacing the baseball cap Edward was so used to.
I don't believe this.
"Excuse me," Edward said as he stood. It was the tiny twist that had betrayed Jasper, the one that indicated he was eavesdropping and Edward's next sentence was of particular interest.
Bella grabbed Edward's arm before he walked by her. "You're going to leave me hanging?"
"Right. That was rude." Edward shook off his stupor. "I need a minute to take care of something."
"Okay," Bella said. "I'll be here."
"And I'll be back. One minute."
Three perilous taps on Jasper's table alerted the boy he was caught and better follow Edward to the restaurant's terrace, where a brisk draft greeted them. Dim light from the strands of globe lights adorning the roof and the last fading rays of sunset lent a dramatic quality to Jasper's resilient posture, which only angered Edward further.
"How long?" was what he could manage without unleashing the full weight of his temper.
"Jesus," Edward barked. "Have you ever heard of boundaries? Do you know how unhealthy this is? Jasper, this is stalking. Stalking."
"It is not! I eat here all the time," Jasper said. "And besides, this is business."
Edward's right palm aggressively massaged the skin between his eyebrows, even though he knew the friction would leave a nasty red blotch for when he returned to Bella. "And what business would that be?"
"Making sure you don't give away trade secrets. And thank God I came," Jasper said. "You were about to blow the whole thing."
"I was not," Edward said, indignant.
"You were too! I heard you. You were vibing."
"You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about right now."
"No. You're the one without a clue. I'm the genius here. I'm the one who figured out that Bella's undercover."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's obvious! Bella's gone undercover to get the skinny."
"She has not. Here's a newsflash: she quit the paper."
"Of course she quit. She's in deep! An undercover reporter isn't going to admit that she's undercover."
At wit's end, Edward flung his arms over his head. "This is preposterous."
"Alice told me that's how small-time reporters get big stories. She's trying to gain your trust. And you're playing into her hands, like a fool."
"You know what? Screw Alice," Edward said, hitting where he knew it would hurt. "I'm sick of the nonsense she fills your head with."
Jasper's nose flared. "How dare you! Take that back."
"Never," Edward snarled.
They glowered at each other for some infinite amount of time, battling through their stare-off until Edward said, "Forget this. I'm on a date. I'm texting Emmett to take you home, and I'll deal with this later. Wait here for him, or I swear I'll restrict you from seeing Alice for a month."
"This fucks," Jasper grumbled, bringing Edward to a halt. "And that stands for flipping sucks, so it's not cussing."
There was no use arguing, and Edward had a date to get back to. So after sending a discreet text to Emmett, Edward collapsed back into his chair and said, "I am so sorry for my bad manners. It won't happen again."
"Everything okay?" Bella asked.
"It will be." It was kind of cheating to distract Bella by taking hold of her hand, but he figured it was the easiest way to recapture the mood. When she didn't pull away, a thrill went up Edward's spine. "Where were we?"
"You were about to make a confession."
"Yes," he said, trying to collect his thoughts. "It was about the lying. As you know, I'm in a very competitive market, and… and… and I can't believe this is happening." Edward's head slumped disgracefully over their hands before he sat upright and prepared for combat. Laurent was marching straight towards them, followed by a smug Jasper.
"Excusez-moi," Laurent said. "No matter the colour of your Am-Ex card, you cannot toss my clientèle on the street, especially Monsieur Jasper, who frequents this restaurant often and is very generous."
"How generous?" Edward blandly asked. From Laurent's tone, he'd wager Jasper was paying the waiter's way through college.
"That is none of your business," Laurent said, either extremely obtuse or ignorant to Edward's role in Jasper's life. Or in all likelihood, both. "Leave him in peace, or I shall insist you vacate the premises."
"For a Russian Literature major, you're sadly uncultured," Jasper chirped from behind his defender. "It's not Luh-rawnt. It's Luh-rawn. The 't' is silent."
Edward was half-amused. "Jasper," he said calmly. "Why don't you tell Luh-rawn-t who controls your credit card? You know, the person who has an AmEx representative on speed dial in case he should wish to cancel it at any moment. Say, for instance, now."
Laurent moved from in between Edward and the now cowering Jasper. For a moment, the waiter visibly warred with himself as he tried to figure out his next move. He'd backed the wrong horse, and as that dawned on him bit by bit, his whole body seemed to sag.
"This ain't frigging worth it. I quit. I actually quit." Gone was the fluty French accent, the theatrics, any semblance of hope. It was replaced by a deep, undeniably American cadence. "After this, they're firing my ass anyway."
"Vous n'êtes pas français?" Jasper asked with perfect French diction, at least as far as Edward could tell. When had he learned to speak French?
Laurent untied the apron from his waist, folded it gingerly over his arm, and turned to take his walk of shame. "Little dude, my name isn't even Laurent. It's Larry."
Edward felt a pressure on his hand and looked up at Bella. She was wearing a beguiled grin, and her eyes positively twinkled with humor. An enchanted Edward couldn't look away. She was radiant. A silent request passed between them, and Edward nodded his approval.
"Hey, Larry," Bella called without diverting her gaze. "Your career isn't over if you don't want it to be. We can use some help polishing off all that food. A third chair for Jasper and our next course would be appreciated."
Then she winked, and all Edward could think was, Fuck. That girl's got game.
. . .
After an evening devouring exquisite cuisine and chatting about this, that, and nothing, Edward walked Bella up the pathway to her front door as Jasper drifted in that place between dreams and consciousness in the backseat of the Volvo. He'd ended up an entertaining addition to the party, especially with all his suspicious prodding. Edward had learned things about Bella he would have never thought to ask.
"I had a really great time," Bella said.
"So did I." Edward set down two very full paper bags brimming with leftovers next to the door. He considered kissing her, but it didn't feel right. A second later, he realized why. "I never confessed!"
"What? Oh, that's right. You were going to tell me something before Jasper showed."
"And my conscience won't let me take this any further until I get it off my chest."
"So you do have a conscience. I was beginning to wonder."
"Put on your serious hat for a moment, dear Bella."
She reached in her purse, pulled out an invisible cap, and perfectly mimed yanking it over her hair. "Done. Please continue."
Why did she have to be so perfect? Edward gathered his courage, knowing he'd walk away from this either unburdened and excited or intolerably depressed. "You don't like liars, so there's one thing I'm not going to lie about and that's lying." He swallowed, preparing to drop the other shoe. "Bella, I lie all the time. Lying is basically in my job description.
"There are times I even lie to journalists, and I don't think that's wrong. I'm in the public eye, but I deserve some privacy." He paused briefly to monitor Bella's reaction. So far, he couldn't read her. "There are things I won't be able to tell you, not because I don't want to but because I can't. What I can do is promise to let you get to know me, the real me, the me that's buried under all this BITE crap. And then maybe one day, if we get to That Place, I promise to give you all my secrets."
That was the end of Edward's speech, but Bella didn't reply. She did, however, turn her back to him.
"So there it is. Take it or leave it," he tacked on.
"That's… a lot," she said into the darkness beyond the porch. "Does Jasper know your secrets?"
"He knows all the secrets I can't tell you," Edward said. "But there are secrets that I'll be able to tell you that I can't tell him. You know, the age-not-appropriate sort."
When she turned back around, her expression reflected curiosity, not the antipathy Edward had expected. "So you do think about what's age-appropriate for Jasper?"
"Often," Edward said, despite how bizarre the question was for this particular conversation.
Bella glided her fingers along the porch railing. "I like you, Edward. I do. And I can give you your privacy until we get to That Place." She'd said what he'd wanted to hear, but it was wrong. Her voice was dubious, not determined.
"So, we're good then? We're moving forward with this?" Edward asked.
"I want to," Bella said with that same doubtful undertone, "but while we have our serious hats on, there's one thing that's been bothering me."
And there was the "but." Edward's heart picked up a beat.
"It's hard to know where to begin," Bella said.
"Normally the beginning's a great place," Edward suggested.
"I suppose it happened when you went to the bathroom and left me alone with Jasper."
"Ugh. I knew I should have forced him to come with me!" Bella cocked her eyebrow. "You know what I mean. I knew he was going to do something to mess this up."
"Well, it's not really his fault," Bella said. "He was telling me about his friend, Alice. He was being honest."
As usual, an aggravated hand found its way to Edward's hair. Fucking Alice.
"Look, Edward, I really don't mean to backseat parent." Of course, that meant she was going to. "But I feel like it's up to you, as the adult in this relationship, to protect Jasper. He's a kid, and some of the stuff he told me Alice shows him how to do is… Well, it's pretty scandalous."
"You don't know or understand what I'm up against here," Edward said defensively. What right did she have lecturing him on this subject anyway?
"I get that. And you're probably wondering who I am to talk about what's best for Jasper. And that's totally fair. But our society is perpetuating a certain 'the younger, the better' culture right now that's putting so much pressure on these kids."
Edward inhaled deeply and looked down to a doormat that read, "WELCOME! Just don't expect much." Damn it. Bella was adorable even when she was annoying.
"And this Alice girl, Jasper told me that she's a few years older than him," Bella continued. "It can't be healthy, for either of them, to engage in sexual activity so young. Down the line it could really come back to haunt them. It can—"
"Hold the phone," Edward said. "You do know that Alice is Jasper's computer, right? As in, not a real girl? As in, a desktop computer made up of metal and wires and other computery things?"
Bella's mouth was still agape from being cut off mid-sentence, but a quirked head and bulbous eyes answered the question just fine.
"Forgot to mention that little factoid, did he?" Edward had no doubt Jasper knew exactly what he'd forgotten. Little bastard. "Yeah, he's not engaging in sex. He's Googling it like every other twelve-year-old pervert on the planet."
"Huh." Bella gave her temple a bemused scratch. "So what you're saying is, Alice needs a power cord to get turned on?"
"In a nutshell."
"Well, that changes things."