Bella set down two plates of fluffy scrambled eggs and wholemeal toast, taking her seat again, opposite Edward.
After he muttered a quiet ‘thank you’, for several minutes the only sound in the kitchen was the chink and scrape of cutlery against china, as the couple silently consumed their breakfast.
Edward broke first.
Steeling himself, he put his knife and fork down on his plate and reached a tentative hand across the table, placing it over Bella’s and stilling it.
“Bella, are you… is everything okay?” he asked.
She glanced at his hand covering her own, but made no attempt to retreat from his touch. Putting down her own cutlery, she looked up at Edward and sighed.
“I rather think that ought to be my line, Edward. After last night…” She shook her head, then turned her hand over to grasp his.
“I have no idea how… I can’t get my head around… Jesus, Edward, how the hell have you come through everything so… sane? You must be the strongest, most courageous person I’ve ever met.” She put her other hand over his, sandwiching it between hers, staring at their linked fingers.
When he remained silent, she looked up to find him gazing intently—almost angrily—back at her.
For several long seconds their eyes remained locked, and Bella couldn’t have looked away even if she had wanted to.
“I’m neither of those things, Bella, you’ve got me all wrong. I’m a coward. I ran out on my mum and I ran out on Tanya, and they both ended up dead. I keep going because… well, what else can I do? Am I sane? Fuck knows. I have nightmares… but you know that, don’t you—”
“Stop it, Edward. I keep telling you, none of this was your fault. You did your best. Yes, your mother is dead, but you couldn’t have stopped what Paul did to her, even if you’d run down the stairs—you simply couldn’t have got there in time. You did the only thing you could—you stayed alive and called the police and an ambulance. If she could have been saved, she would have been.
“As for Tanya, have you thought that she might have died much sooner if you hadn’t been there to take care of her? Don’t sell yourself short, Edward. You were eighteen years old, and totally alone, living rough and falling into drugs. Have you any idea how many kids survive at all in those circumstances, let alone take responsibility for someone else… two someones, in fact, when you count little Katie?
“You just can’t blame yourself for what happened to them—their chances of survival were always slim, but if it weren’t for you, they would have been pretty much zero.”
Bella squeezed his hand and, without even thinking about it, raised it up to her mouth and kissed his knuckles.
“You did good, Edward,” she told him softly… sincerely. “And now, it’s time for someone to reach out to you and give you a helping hand. I don’t want you to think you’re alone anymore, because you’re not. Whatever happens, whatever you decide to do, please believe that I’m your friend and that you can always ask me for help.”
She smiled encouragingly at him, her eyes never leaving his.
Edward could feel the unshed tears just waiting to spill over, but his gaze never wavered from Bella’s. He wondered, yet again, how his luck had changed so dramatically and so fundamentally, as to throw him in the path of such an angel.
He’d never wanted to kiss a woman so badly in his entire life.
Too scared to speak, lest he lose control and cry like a girl, he nodded once and squeezed Bella’s hand.
Suddenly releasing him, she gave him a soft smile.
“Good. I’m glad that’s settled. Now…”
She stood up and grabbed their plates, depositing them in the sink.
“Come on, I think what we need is some good old-fashioned hard work. Let’s go finish off prepping the back bedroom.”
Bella grinned at Edward, who tentatively returned her smile, more than happy at the change of direction. Standing, he went over to help her as she started gathering up cleaning materials and filling a bucket with hot water.
Upstairs, their mood lightened considerably as they worked together. They dismantled the bed, and Edward manhandled it into the passage, bit by bit. They shunted the remaining bedroom furniture into the middle of the room, emptying what little contents there were into black plastic bin bags. They then set about sweeping, dusting and washing down walls, skirtings, floors and windows.
As they worked, they chatted, talking about films and music, and finding common ground in stories of their days in the service industry. Bella made Edward laugh with her tales of Rose’s acerbic wit and killer put-downs, and he had her giggling madly at his impersonations of a particularly crazy Italian café owner he’d worked for.
At one point, Edward threw his sponge at the bucket, just as Bella was bending over to squeeze out her floor cloth, causing her to be excessively splashed.
Shrieking, she straightened up, stomach and thighs liberally dotted with damp patches, as Edward clapped his hand over his mouth, eyes wide. Bella looked down at herself and then back at Edward, who started to gabble an apology. Reaching for the sponge, which was now floating in the bucket just below the surface, she picked it up and, without squeezing the excess water out, she suddenly hurled it straight at Edward’s chest.
Having failed to compensate for the weight of her soaking missile, she missed her target, and Edward gasped in surprise as the sponge hit him right in the groin—cold, dirty water soaking straight through his jeans and underwear, making him look like he’d suffered some kind of bladder accident.
Bella couldn’t contain the very unladylike guffaw which exploded from her mouth when she took in Edward’s comically shocked expression.
Her laughter faltered when she watched him bend down to retrieve the sponge and then straighten up, a dark, stormy expression transforming him, in a matter of seconds, from a sweet, open-faced boy into a brooding predator.
How the hell does he do that? He’s like Jekyll and Hyde!
Bella was equal parts terrified and turned on… angry Edward Masen might just be the sexiest thing she’d ever clapped eyes on.
Her heart rate doubled and her nipples swelled and hardened against her t-shirt and bra, as Edward walked slowly towards her, dripping sponge in one hand, the fingers of his other twitching and flicking, like a gunfighter psyching himself up for a duel.
“Oh, Miss Swan… you really, really shouldn’t have done that,” he told her, his voice a kind of soft growl, which seemed to be hard-wired to her ovaries.
Bella opened her mouth to respond, but, much to her chagrin, was able to produce little more than a hoarse squeak.
“Too late for apologies, woman.”
He stopped in front of her and gazed down at her intently, his expression dark and unreadable.
Then he lifted the still sopping wet sponge and very slowly, very deliberately pressed it against her chest… and squeezed.
Bella gasped but made no move to step back, as the cold water immediately soaked through her t-shirt and bra, throwing her erect nipples into sharp relief.
Edward dropped the sponge and let his eyes drift down from her face to her breasts. He watched, fascinated, as her increasingly shallow breaths made her shapely bosom jiggle delightfully.
“Edward,” she breathed, barely able to articulate.
With difficulty, he dragged his eyes from her awesome tits back to her face. Her lips were slightly parted, her nostrils flared, as she fought to pull in sufficient air to speak.
“You’ve made me all wet,” she breathed, reflexively licking her dry lips.
Fuck. Me! Despite the cold water, Edward felt his cock twitch.
He took a step closer and dipped his head. Mere inches separated them, and he felt that if he didn’t kiss her, he would literally combust, right there in front of her.
Bella knew he was going to kiss her… knew it at a completely primal level. She had never wanted anything more.
Edward couldn’t take his eyes off her lips, now moistened and glistening—surely nothing he’d ever seen before had been more tempting. And he knew… was absolutely certain, that she wanted it as much as he.
The loud knock at the door made them both jump, piercing their bubble and forcing them apart as surely as magnets changing polarity.
Bella gasped and turned towards the bedroom door, as Edward whispered a quiet, but no less vehement, expletive.
Another knock, this time more insistent, propelled Bella out of the room and down the stairs to the front door. Flinging it open, she realised that she was both irritated and relieved at the interruption.
As a wintery blast of cold air wrapped its icy tentacles around her, Bella’s eyes fell upon the tiny form in front of her, so bundled up in clothes that, at first, she hardly recognised her.
“Bella! I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time,” Alice gushed.
Realising that she was scowling, Bella forced her features to relax. She shook her head and smiled, stepping back to invite her new friend inside.
“No problem, Alice, we were just cleaning up the back bedroom, so I’m glad of an excuse to stop for five minutes,” she told her, quickly closing the door to shut out the cold draught.
Alice’s eyes shot down to Bella’s soaked front, taking in the way her t-shirt clung to her breasts.
“Um, we had a bit of an accident…” Bella trailed off, conscious of the blush which blazed across her face at the knowing look which Alice was now giving her.
“Whatever you say, Bella,” she smirked.
Sighing, Bella walked around Alice and led the way to the kitchen. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Go on then, if you’re making one.”
Bella laughed, confirming that she was. She filled the kettle and switched it on, excusing herself for a moment, while she went into the utility room to take off her wet t-shirt and grab a clean sweater from the laundry basket.
Returning to the kitchen, Alice had stripped off her outerwear and made herself comfortable at the table. Once the tea was made, Bella carried the pot and two clean cups over and sat down opposite.
“So, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Oh, nothing really. I just wanted to check how you are… make sure you haven’t gone stir-crazy yet,” she laughed.
“Oh, okay… thanks… I think! Hey, aren’t you supposed to be at the shop?”
“Yeah, well, I did struggle in, because the snow ploughs have cleared the High Street, but I didn’t have a single customer all morning. You can only do so much inventory, so I decided to shut early and come home. And then I thought, why don’t I call in on Bella and Edward? So, here I am,” she cried, waving ‘jazz hands’ and smiling broadly.
“Well, it’s nice to see you. Is it really that quiet in the village?”
“God, yes. The trouble is, that, like us, most people live on side streets and unsurfaced roads, and the ploughs just aren’t clearing them, and now they’re forecasting more snow this afternoon, so it’s just going to get worse. Jasper’s been emailing tutorials to his students, because there’s no way he can get into Bristol. You know, I love living in Chipping Mallard, but it’s a nightmare when the weather’s like this.”
She sighed and sipped her tea. “Still, it must be perfect for you, Bella—you know, all that peace and quiet for writing… a handsome young man on hand for all those… manly things you can’t do for yourself…”
She batted her eyelashes disingenuously at Bella, maintaining a straight face.
Bella blushed to her roots.
“He’s not… oh, no, no, it’s not like that… oh, gosh, Alice… I don’t… no…” She was at an absolute loss, as her mind suddenly tortured her with thoughts of the almost-kiss from earlier.
Alice giggled, waving her hand dismissively. “I’m just teasing, lovely… well, a little. But, oh my goodness, he’s such a hottie, Bella! If you aren’t jumping him, then you bloody should be, because he is gor-or-geous… and he’s desperate to get in your knickers, girl!”
“Alice! Shush! Oh, my God, stop it, he’s just upstairs,” Bella hissed, looking towards the kitchen door, her eyes wide with panic.
“Calm down, he can’t hear us—these cottages have got nine inch walls and solid floors. So, does that mean you’re not shagging the bejaysus out of each other? And if not, why not? Honest to God, Bella, he’s got it bad for you, and I’m betting you would be more than happy to do the horizontal tango with him… I mean, he’s definitely got the look of a man with a huge—”
Bella’s hand shot out and she pressed her fingers to Alice’s lips, halting her diatribe.
Eyes wide, Bella stared at her. “Do not finish that sentence, Alice. Jesus!” She shook her head and covered her face with her hands.
“Why are you so averse to it, Bella? I’m not saying you should marry the guy, but you could have a lot of fun with him while you’re snowbound.”
Bella dropped her hands and clasped them round her mug.
“Don’t get me wrong, Alice. He’s a lovely guy and… well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find him attractive. But he’s a lot younger than me, he’s had a massively traumatic life, and…”
Bella sighed and vaguely waved her hand at her face. “I’m sure you noticed—”
“Edward didn’t do that.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No, no, of course not. It happened on Friday night. It’s why I left London to come here. My boyfriend—or rather, my ex-boyfriend—gave it to me. I’m not sure if I want to walk straight into something else with Edward… I mean, I’ve only known him a few—”
She stopped, realising what she was about to say, and not wanting to tell Alice about how she met Edward.
“Anyway, it’s too soon, and… well, he’s got a lot of… a lot going on.”
Alice frowned and sat back in her chair, regarding Bella for a long minute. Her scrutiny was starting to feel uncomfortable, and she was about to get up and refill the kettle, when Alice started to speak again.
“Bella, please tell me to mind my own business—Jazz is always telling me that I spend too much time involving myself in other people’s lives. But the way I see it is this. You’ve broken up with your boyfriend—and I sincerely hope that’s the case and that you’re not one of those women who keeps going back to abusive men—you certainly don’t strike me as one of those. So, he’s out of the picture. You’re here with this utterly divine piece of man-meat who fancies the pants off you, and who you admit to being attracted to. Okay, so you both have baggage—who the hell doesn’t? But what’s wrong with having a little fun, with enjoying one another’s company… with the added bonus of a little ‘hide the sausage’ time? Where’s the harm? You say you don’t want to get into something serious? Well, chances are, Edward doesn’t either, so maybe you’re both in the right place at the right time.”
Bella stared open-mouthed at her friend. When it became clear that Alice had finally finished speaking, she dropped her chin into her hand where she’d propped her elbow on the table.
“Wow, that’s… you make it sound so simple, Alice.”
“Yayy, I knew you’d agree with me! So, why don’t you and Edward come over for dinner tomorrow evening—”
“Aliiicce! I didn’t say I agreed with you. I’m not going to let you brow-beat me into something I’m just—”
“Hi, Alice,” Edward said, as he walked into the kitchen.
“Ooh, Edward, good timing,” Alice cried. “I popped in to ask you both to dinner tomorrow. Do say you’ll come… pleeeeeease? Jazz is so bored with being stuck at home, he just wants to shag my brains out the whole time, and my minge* needs a rest!” she exclaimed baldly.
Edward’s mouth dropped open at Alice’s candour, and he choked out an embarrassed laugh. Glancing over at Bella, she seemed equally bemused, but somehow he didn’t think it was for the same reason.
“Um, well, it’s up to Bella, really,” he replied. Bella seemed entirely distracted, and he was growing more unsure of himself, especially when he thought back to the snippet of conversation he’d overheard when he walked in.
However, at that precise moment she seemed to shake herself out of whatever it was that had so perplexed her, and rolled her eyes at Alice.
“Of course we’ll come, Alice. I mean, I wouldn’t want you to get worn out by all the sex! What time do you want us?”
Alice grinned from ear to ear. “Brilliant. Come any time after six… bring wine!”
And with that, she leapt to her feet and put her coat on.
“Okay, lovelies, I’ll leave you to whatever you were doing before I arrived. Don’t worry, I’ll let myself out. See you tomorrow!”
Giggling, Alice winked at Bella in what could only be described as a suggestive manner, before turning and waving her hands at them. Her vaguely salacious laugh ringing in their ears, she skipped out of the kitchen towards the front door.
Bella and Edward were both still frozen in place when they heard the door open and shut behind her, finally breaking the spell.
“Is it me, or is that woman a bit…” Edward grappled for a word which wouldn’t be too insulting.
“Eccentric?” Bella offered.
“Yeah, that works. And did she really just tell us that she and Jasper are… like…” He just couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.
Bella snorted a laugh. “Uh huh. I think that definitely falls into the category of TMI, and does not bear repeating!”
He nodded in response, but didn’t look at her, instead, fixing his gaze on the teapot.
“I’ll make a fresh brew, and then we can get on with cleaning the room.”
“Oh, I finished cleaning, I was just going to see if you’ve got a claw hammer, so I can pull up the carpet in there—I’m assuming you won’t want carpet in a studio?”
Bella stared at him. “Wow, you finished cleaning? Already?”
“Well, yeah… I did a good job, honest,” he insisted, hating the idea that she might think he would have been half-arsed about it.
Bella held up her hands. “I don’t doubt it for a moment—I’m just really impressed. And that’s a really good idea about the carpet. I wonder what the floorboards are like?”
“Well, I managed to pull up a corner where it was loose, and they look pretty good from what I could see. They’ll probably only need a good scrub, maybe a bit of sanding, and then a couple of coats of varnish.”
“Gosh, you seem to know a thing or two about it,” Bella exclaimed, her estimation of Edward continuing to increase.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs, Bella, including general labouring on a house refurb—I spent a lot of time stripping and repairing floorboards, and varnishing them… and I’ve got the splinter scars to prove it!”
He smiled and held out his right hand, pointing with his left index finger at a number of ridges and discoloured patches on his long fingers, as well as several callouses on his palms.
His smile turned to a frown when he observed Bella’s face turn bright pink. She was staring fixedly at his hands, making him self-conscious, so he quickly dropped them to his sides.
“Sorry… they’re pretty gross.”
She glanced up, realising she’d given him quite the wrong impression, but knowing she couldn’t exactly explain what she’d actually been thinking. If he considered Alice to be weird, what on earth would he think if he knew she’d been fantasising about exactly what a man with such longer fingers could do to a girl.
“I was, uh, wondering how you managed to, um, get callouses on your… fingertips?” she blurted, wanting to say something to stop him thinking she was revolted by his beautiful hands.
“Oh, right, yeah… um, well that’s from playing the guitar,” he told her sheepishly.
“Wow, you play the guitar? Gosh, you really are a man of many talents,” she exclaimed, inwardly cursing herself for immediately thinking about those amazing fingers again.
He laughed nervously. “Oh, well, I really don’t play that well, and I… well, I don’t have a guitar anymore, so I haven’t played for a while. Someone… uh, I had one when I was a kid. Mike’s mum and dad got him a guitar as well, and we used to talk about starting a band, but… well, I always left it at his house, ‘cos Paul hated me practising, and I managed to pick it up when I legged it. I did a bit of busking* when I was first on the streets, but then it got nicked, so…”
Bella could instantly see that this was something which saddened Edward a very great deal, and quickly changed the subject.
“Right, well, all this chatting isn’t going to get the work done. I seem to recall seeing a toolbox in the basement—why don’t you go see if you can find a hammer, and I’ll make a fresh pot of tea and some sandwiches. Then, when we’ve eaten, we can have a go at lifting that carpet.”
He nodded, happy to move away from the subject of all the things he didn’t have, and distract himself with work.
He headed down to the basement, and Bella set about preparing a late lunch, desperate for a distraction from the thoughts which were running rampant through her head.
Edward’s eyes… Edward’s mouth… Edward’s fingers… the way the wet sponge had outlined and highlighted what was going on in Edward’s jeans…
Stop it, stop it, stop it! For God’s sake, think of something else… I can’t wait to find out what’s under that carpet… the carpet… yeah, we’ll lift the carpet and then I’ll be able to see what’s under his jeans… fuck, fuck, fuck… forget Edward’s jeans… think about the floorboards… we’ll strip them… oh, God, I’d like to strip Edward…
“Okay, I’ve got just the tool—”
“Ahhhhhhh,” Bella screamed, as Edward interrupted her wild inner ramblings.
“Fuck, Bella, are you okay?”
She turned, pressing her hand to her heart and pulling in a mouthful of air. “Yeah, sorry, you just… made me jump.”
“Sorry. Um, I found a small claw hammer… I’ll just go and make a start...?” He trailed off as Bella continued to just stare at him, her eyes fixed on the centre of his chest.
She shook her head, trying to clear it of all the errant and patently ridiculous thoughts which plagued her.
“No, sit down, I’ve made sandwiches. Let’s take a break and eat something before we get started on the jeans,” she told him, turning back to the worktop.
“The jeans? What jeans?” he asked, confused.
“What? Why are you talking about your jeans?” She turned, her eyes going unerringly to Edward’s crotch, whilst, conversely, all her blood seemed to go to her face.
Edward looked down, his expression puzzled. “You said ‘before we get started on the jeans’. Is there something wrong with them? Should I change them? They’re nearly dry, and I didn’t want to change until I’ve had a shower.”
“What?! No! I meant the carpet… I was talking about the carpet!” She was practically shouting in her panic.
What the fuck is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop thinking about Edward’s… bits?
Bella forced herself to calm down. Turning again to the counter, she picked up the large plate of sandwiches and the two side plates. Taking a deep breath, she turned and walked across the kitchen, and deposited them on the table. She then went back and picked up the refreshed pot of tea and the clean mugs, and returned to the table.
“Ignore me, Edward, I’m just a bit tired. Come on, let’s sit and have our lunch.”
She smiled up at him as she pulled out her chair and sat down, and a moment later Edward joined her, deciding to keep his confused thoughts to himself.
Still, he couldn’t help wondering just what was going on in Bella’s head.
Neither could he stop thinking about the… moment they’d shared upstairs. And whether there was any chance of a repeat—and uninterrupted—performance.
Minge – [rhymes with hinge] English slang for vagina
Busking - street performing for money, usually singing and/or playing an musical instrument