They finished their lunch quickly, their conversation proving a little stilted.
Back upstairs, Bella was astonished to discover that not only had Edward finished the cleaning—and done an excellent job—but he had also moved the remaining furniture. Some of it was now on the landing, and some he’d put in his own room, out of the way. This meant that, not only would it be an easy matter for the two of them to lift and roll the carpet, but Bella was able to get a much better idea of the space and how she would go about organising it.
“Wow, Edward, this is fantastic—you should have given me a shout to come and help you.”
“Nah, it was fine. The chest of drawers was the only thing which was a bit of a bugger, and once I got it over the threshold, it wasn’t that hard to wiggle it across and into my room.”
He smiled to himself, liking the sound of saying ‘my room’.
“Well, thanks—you’ve certainly earned your keep today,” she grinned up at him.
“That’s okay. Now, I’ll need to unscrew the gripper at the door, but it looks like the carpet is just tacked down around the corners, so it shouldn’t take long to loosen so we can roll it. Okay?”
She nodded, smiling at him, and they set to work.
An hour later, they had the whole thing rolled and folded, making it easier to carry downstairs, where they deposited it outside the back door. Once the weather improved, Bella would arrange to have it taken away by the Council, but it would be fine there for now.
Exhausted but well satisfied with their day’s work, they headed to their rooms to get cleaned up and changed. Bella opted to take a bath to ease her aching muscles, so didn’t get back downstairs for almost an hour.
Edward was first down, feeling refreshed and comfortable in a clean pair of jogging bottoms and a warm, fleecy, hooded sweatshirt. Wearing thick socks and his leather slippers, he went straight to the fridge and grabbed a beer. He popped the ring-pull and took a long swig, before perusing the contents for dinner. Bella had put the remains of the Bolognese sauce in the freezer, but there was still a pack of minced steak and some fresh herbs, so he decided to make burgers.
By the time Bella walked into the kitchen, Edward had finished making the beef patties and was preparing fresh coleslaw. As she looked around her at what he’d done, he lifted a pan off the stove and turned to drain the contents in the sink.
“Bloody hell, Edward, you’ve been busy.”
He grinned at her, quickly shaking the drained potatoes onto a plate and covering it with kitchen towels.
“They don’t look cooked,” Bella cautioned, looking a little worried.
“They’re not. I’m going to make chips. It’s better to par-boil the spuds first, and then I double-fry them.”
“Yeah. It’s better if you use a deep-fryer, but your gran obviously wasn’t into fried food. So I’m just going to fry them in oil in a saucepan for ten minutes, take them out and drain them. Once the burgers are nearly ready, I’ll put them back in for another five minutes. It’s what makes them crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”
Bella shook her head, gazing around at the evidence of his kitchen skills. Even the table was laid.
“Um, I’ve set the table, but we could always eat this on our laps in front of the fire, if you prefer.”
“Oh, bugger—the fire. I better go and see if it’s still—”
“It’s fine. I cleaned it out and put some more coal on, so there should be a good blaze going by now. Do you want to open a bottle of wine? I didn’t really know what to choose…”
“Good grief, man… you mean there’s something you’re not good at?” she teased.
He smirked at her. “Well, I suppose I have to be crap at something—no one likes a smart-arse!”
Bella laughed and walked over to the wine rack. Edward watched as she bent over to peruse the bottles, suppressing a groan as she offered him a perfect view of her round, firm bottom, clad in skin-tight black leggings. She was wearing a thin camisole with spaghetti straps, over which she had pulled a black angora, wrap-around cardigan. The material of her leggings was soft and very thin, leaving little to the imagination.
Edward turned away and concentrated on the food, in an ultimately futile attempt to stop himself from thinking about what Bella looked like naked.
Moments later, she joined him at the worktop with a bottle of Australian Shiraz, digging about in the drawer beside Edward for the corkscrew.
“Are you going to have some of this, or do you want to stick with lager?” she asked, glancing over at him.
“Uh, well, I don’t really know anything about wine—I haven’t really tried much red,” he replied, a little uncertain of himself, but not wanting to sound like a complete Philistine.
“Well, you liked the wine we had on Saturday, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I s’pose.”
“Okay, well, that was a Spanish Rioja. If you liked that, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this. It’s a medium-bodied wine, with lots of berry fruit…” She poured some into a glass, swirling it around before burying her nose in it. Taking a large sip, she closed her eyes as she let the wine coat her tongue. “Umm, ripe cherries… and just a hint of vanilla.”
She smiled up at him. Her lips, darkened by the wine, looked to Edward just like the ripe cherries she claimed were flavouring the wine.
He wanted to lick them… suck on them… taste them.
Bella frowned at the intensity of his gaze, holding the glass out for him to take.
“Here, try it… and if you don’t like it, you can stick with the lager. It’s not a big deal.”
He dropped his gaze. “Sorry, I…”
He had no idea what to say, so just took the glass from Bella and sipped the wine. He was expecting it to be a bit sour, but she was right—it was actually really nice… nicer than the one they’d had last night, and he’d had no problem quaffing at least two glasses of that.
“Yeah, it’s good, I’ll go with this.” He nodded at her, and was rewarded with one of those sensational smiles which lit up her face.
“Great. So, if the fire’s going, and we’re having burgers, let’s eat in the sitting room. You’ve clearly got dinner under control, so I’ll set everything up in there.”
Half an hour later, they were sitting cross-legged on the floor, either side of the coffee table. Bella bit into the mammoth burger, sandwiched inside a soft, floury bap, which she clutched in both her hands. She chewed for a moment and then let out a low moan of pleasure.
“Oh, fuck me, this is amazing, Edward. How the hell did you make a plain old burger taste so good?”
She took another bite, and moaned again, much to Edward’s consternation. He picked up his bun, trying to distract himself from thoughts of Bella’s sex noises.
“Uh, well, I use plenty of seasoning, including paprika, and mix in onion, garlic, a little coriander, sundried tomatoes and Worcester sauce.”
He bit into his own and nodded, as if to confirm that he’d met his own exacting standard.
“It helps having good quality steak mince. I used to make them occasionally, if I was staying in a half decent place that had cooking facilities. Much cheaper mince, of course, so I’d have to use breadcrumbs to stop them getting soggy, but they make a pretty good meal on a tight budget.”
“Goh, dith ith thow gooh,” Bella told him around a full mouthful, unable to stop eating long enough to swallow before speaking.
Edward grinned, absolutely ecstatic at her obvious appreciation.
“Ummm, the chips are absolutely scrummy… and this coleslaw is fantastic. I could just eat a plateful of this. Did you make this as well?”
“Oh, yeah… it’s just red cabbage, carrots, apples and some sultanas. The dressing is made with mayo, wine vinegar, a little mustard powder and honey, all whisked together. I made loads, so there’s more in the fridge if you want it.”
Bella chuckled. “Bloody hell, Edward, you are one handy guy to have around. I should warn you that now I’ve enticed you into my lair, and discovered all your talents, I’m never gonna let you leave.”
He stopped chewing and stared at her, watching her blush consume her as she realised what she’d said. Well, he was just going to have to hold her to that.
“You haven’t discovered all my talents yet, Bella,” he said softly, and then carried on eating.
She forced down the mouthful of food she’d been chewing, suddenly feeling very hot.
Oh, Edward, I really, really want to discover every single one of your many talents.
Still feeling a little awkward, she pushed herself up and went over to the old-style CD player in the corner. There was a small pile of CDs beside it, which she started rifling through. She smiled at one in particular and took it out of its case, placing it in the player and turning it on. The intro to ‘That Old Black Magic’ started up, followed by the honeyed tones of Ella Fitzgerald’s wondrous voice.
Returning to her place on the floor, she smiled at Edward, and refilled both their glasses.
“You don’t mind a bit of Ella, do you? I just love all these old crooners. My dad used to play Ella and Sinatra all the time when I was little.”
“I don’t mind at all, it’s great. You talk about your dad in the past tense—is he not still around?”
Bella gave him a sad smile, and then explained how her father had died when she was a child, followed not long after by her mother. She told him about being brought up by her aunt and uncle, who had their own problems, but who took care of her the best they could and supported her dream of going to art college, even though it was a huge financial struggle for all of them.
“I’m so sorry about your parents, Bella. That must have been tough. Are you still in touch with your aunt and uncle?”
“Oh, Edward, compared to your upbringing, it wasn’t so tough. At least I always knew I was loved. And yes, I’m in touch with them. It was one of the most rewarding parts of my success, that I was able to repay my debt to Charlotte and Peter. I bought them a specially adapted bungalow, a motorised wheelchair for Peter, and a decent car with disabled access. It’s massively improved their quality of life, and for that alone, I’m grateful.”
Edward pushed his empty plate to one side and rested his forearms on the table, letting his gaze wash over her beautiful face. The swelling had completely gone down and the bruises were starting to fade, although they were still an ugly shade of pink and sulphurous yellow.
“You really are an amazing woman, Bella. I’m… I’m in awe of you.” He blushed a little and stared down at his hands, clasped together in front of him.
Bella laughed, a little embarrassed, and got up. Gathering the plates and condiments, she put everything on the tray they’d brought in and carried it out to the kitchen. She loaded the dishwasher and put the kettle on to make coffee.
Before returning to Edward, she picked up the bottle of wine, then headed back.
Edward had discarded his sweatshirt and, dressed just in his jogging bottoms and a t‑shirt, his hair loose around his shoulders, he was putting coal on the fire. Bella watched him for a moment whilst his back was turned, then replenished their drinks and sat down on one end of the sofa.
When he turned around, Edward glanced first at the chair he normally occupied and then at the sofa. Bella was sitting cross-legged at one end, her back pressed into the corner, partially supported by the arm, and sipping from her drink. She had filled his glass and it now sat on her side of the coffee table, indicating that she expected him to sit on the sofa with her.
So he did just that.
They started talking, although, by mutual, unspoken agreement, they left behind the really heavy subjects from the previous night. However, when Edward prompted her, Bella found herself telling him about growing up on the edge of poverty; about the inspirational teacher at school, who had nurtured her artistic gift and fought to get her a scholarship to art school. She described how hard it had been, trying to fulfil her potential, whilst pretty much working full time. She cast her mind back and tried to give him an inkling of how exhausted she was all the time, frequently finding herself on the cusp of giving up. But each time she found herself on the ledge, Charlotte or, more often than not, Peter, would talk her down.
She fought back tears as she told him about the sacrifices her guardians had made, even in their own impoverishment and poor health, how they had been the rocks to which she had anchored herself, always being there for her, even when it all seemed too hard. Their faith in her had never waned, all through the long years when she felt that she was moving farther and farther away from realising any of her dreams.
Her tears had dried and her voice had grown flat and emotionless as she had then gone on to tell Edward about her relationship with Jake. She told him how charming he had been, his pivotal role in getting her the introduction which had turned everything around, and her gratitude and his initial support.
Edward, who had been asking questions and interjecting comments during the first part of Bella’s story, now became quiet. He listened silently as Bella described Jake’s growing antipathy towards her burgeoning success, and the escalating violence. She could hardly bear to look at him as she revealed a litany of slaps, punches and the almost equally demoralising verbal abuse to which she was subjected. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him about the other abuses, which had been tantamount to sexual assault.
She kept her eyes fixed on her hands, twisting in her lap, and thus failed to see Edward’s eyes narrow and darken, his jaw clench, and his mouth settle into a hard, thin line. And as she imparted the details of that final night, her voice unsteady and breaking, she also missed the way his hands fisted against his thighs.
Her voice trailing off, Bella finally looked up, seeing for the first time the pure, unadulterated fury emanating from Edward.
“I know what you’re thinking—that I was a fool to stay with him, that I must have brought it on myself, but don’t be angry with me, Edward… please. I can’t be sorry I met him, because at least he got me out of waitressing, and… well, he’s the reason I’ve now got a successful career…”
The look she gave him pleaded for his understanding, but Edward merely rolled his eyes.
“You think I’m angry with you?” He dropped his head back and stared at the ceiling for a moment, willing his fisted hands to relax. When he felt marginally calmer, he returned his gaze to Bella. Unfortunately, she was once again staring at her fidgeting hands, and Edward was compelled to reach across and cover them with one of his own, stilling her nervous wringing.
“First of all, I’m angry with him, not you. I’d like to fucking kill him. He’s just like Paul. The only difference is that you hit back in the end, and you got out—my mum never did either.
“Secondly, that prick isn’t the reason you’ve got a successful career—you are. He wanted to get in your knickers, so he introduced you to someone he happened to know who may or may not have been able to help you. It was you who had the talent, and it was that guy who recognised it. You made the rest happen.
“God, Bella, you talk about me being brave and strong, but I think you’re the strong one, and the kindest person I’ve ever met. I could never be angry with you… ever.”
He leaned towards her, one hand still covering both of hers. He lifted his other hand and cupped her cheek, gently drifting his thumb under her left eye, where a lone tear had escaped.
Bella pressed her face into his palm and closed her eyes, hoping to stem the tide, but it was futile. More tears spilled over, and she pulled her hands from under his to cover her face.
“Hey, don’t cry,” he said softly, moving closer so that he could pull her into his arms.
She came willingly, shuffling across the sofa to close the distance, and burying her face in his chest.
Edward rocked her from side to side for a few moments, then pulled his arms from around her back and slid his hands up to her face. Gently pulling her away from his chest, he again tried to wipe away her tears, before leaning in and placing a soft kiss on each of her closed eyes.
Bella straightened, relinquishing her hold and placing her hands on his chest. She sniffed and opened her eyes to look up at him.
Letting his hands fall to her shoulders, he leaned in again and lightly kissed her damp cheeks. When he pulled back this time, Bella was looking at him, her eyes wide, but she made no move to push him away.
Unable to resist the pull any longer, Edward once more dipped his head and let his lips brush so, so lightly against Bella’s. However, when he attempted to retreat this time, Bella’s right hand slid up his chest and around the back of his neck to forestall him. She applied a little pressure, bringing him back to her so that she could press her lips briefly to his.
She did it once… twice… three times.
Each time, she kept her eyes open, looking straight into his as she kissed him lightly. She realised she’d never done that before—kept her eyes open when kissing a guy. Yet it didn’t seem odd.
The whole act of kissing Edward in the first place should have felt wrong… but it didn’t.
And now… oh wow, he was kissing her back… and at last she closed her eyes, as Edward’s mouth stayed on hers. His lips parted, and she felt his tongue slide along her lower lip, in a clear and unambiguous request.
Bella didn’t have to be asked twice.
She opened her mouth to him and felt his tongue dart against her upper lip, before sliding tentatively into her mouth, gently exploring. When it came up against her own tongue, a slow dance ensued, the kiss becoming way more intense.
Bella broke the kiss first, but only because her earlier tears had caused her nose to block up, and she simply needed to breathe.
Edward immediately pulled back, misinterpreting her withdrawal.
Bella put her forefinger against his lips, stopping the apology before he could get it out.
“Don’t be… I’m not,” she whispered.
She leaned back slightly and thrust her hand into the concealed pocket of her cardigan, pulling out a slightly frayed but clean tissue, with which she proceeded to blow her nose.
She grinned up at him, wiping her nose and pushing the tissue back in her pocket.
He chuckled, and cupped her face again. “Everything about you is sexy,” he told her, his voice husky with desire.
And then they were kissing again, but this time, Edward pushed her back onto the sofa, his mouth drifting from hers, along her jaw and down her neck.
Bella responded by stretching one leg out along the cushions beside him, and hitching the other up over his thigh, causing him to slide easily between her legs.
All their repressed want and need that had been bubbling just below the surface over the last four days finally erupted, like an Icelandic volcano, and they both embraced it wholeheartedly.
As Bella’s hands buried themselves in Edward’s abundant locks and scratched at his scalp, he moaned low and long against her throat.
Then, with her leg wrapped around his hip, she pulled him harder against her, at the same time arching up into him. Her matching moan told him that she had absolutely no problem with the rigid part of his anatomy which was now grinding against a very hot, very damp part of hers.
Their kisses became ever more heated, and if Bella had been able to maintain any kind of lucidity, she would have been amazed at how quickly they had gone from comforting friendship to horny desire—undoubtedly fuelled by the wine they had consumed.
But cogent thought had long since departed, along with pretty much all her inhibitions.
Sliding her hands down Edward’s chest, she quickly reached the hem of his t-shirt, and immediately slipped under the soft cotton. She so wanted—no, needed—to feel him, skin on skin.
It seemed he had the same requirement.
As Bella trailed her fingers over Edward’s abdomen and chest, his hands moved down to grasp the hem of her waist-length sweater, pulling it up. She raised her arms to facilitate its removal, caring not a whit as he tossed it unseeingly over the back of the sofa.
And then she was groaning softly, as she felt his fingers pulling down the straps of both her camisole and her bra. Her groan turned to a gasp as he tugged down the front of her top, together with a bra cup, exposing one high, firm breast, immediately causing the dusky pink nipple to pebble and harden.
“Oh, fuck!” he rasped.
And then he dipped his head to her chest and swirled his tongue around the pert nubbin, before sucking it gently into his mouth.
Bella’s gasp was loud in the quiet room, the music having long since ended.
She arched her back, pushing her breasts up, offering them to him. At the same time, her fingers gripped the hair at the back of his neck, holding him in place, allowing him only sufficient leeway to lavish equal attention on her other breast.
As Edward’s mouth continued its ministrations, both his and Bella’s lower bodies undulated against one another, their movements becoming increasingly urgent.
“Oh, God, Edward… please…” Bella moaned, desperate for more.
He lifted his head, transferring his attention back to her lips. He kissed her… sloppily, breathlessly.
“Fuck, Bella!” he gasped against her mouth.
“Yes… oh, God, yes… please… Edward…” she whispered desperately against his ear, before biting down on his lobe. She wasn’t entirely sure just what she was begging for, but she hoped he did.
Edward’s eyes squeezed shut, his control slipping as Bella’s words struck home. And then, before he had time to process what was happening, he felt her hands between them, pushing at her leggings in an attempt to remove them.
It was at that point that lucidity finally returned, and he stopped moving.
“Stop, Bella… we have to stop,” he rasped urgently. He pushed himself up on his elbows in order to look at her.
“Wha-what? What do you mean… what’s wrong?” Bella’s eyes went wide, as she felt him put a hand over one of hers to stop her undressing further.
She frowned in confusion as he continued to pull away from her, until he was sitting up at the other end of the sofa, a pained expression on his face.
“I’m sorry, Bella, but I can’t...” He trailed off, unable to say it out loud.
Sweeping his hands through his chaotic hair, he dug the heels of his palms into his eyes as he tried to formulate the words he needed to say.
“It’s okay, Edward, I understand,” Bella told him, a sharp edge to her voice. She fought, and lost the battle to control the heated blush of humiliation which now suffused her face, neck and chest. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Edward had come to the realisation that he was making out with a woman much older than himself; that whatever attraction he’d thought he’d felt had somehow evaporated. He probably had the word ‘cougar’ ringing in his head right at that very moment.
Scrambling to her feet, she grabbed the glasses and empty bottle from the coffee table, and turned to leave.
“Bella, no, I don’t think you do. It’s not you, it’s me—”
“Oh, Jesus, Edward, please don’t patronise me with that old chestnut. Leave me with some dignity, won’t you?”
“It’s okay, really. Look, I’m exhausted, and I’ve had far too much to drink. I’m going to head up to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Edward watched, aghast, as she hurried towards the door. On reaching it, she awkwardly transferred the empty glasses to the hand holding the bottle, in order to open the door. As it swung open, a chilly draft from the hallway enveloped her, making her shiver. She paused, but didn’t turn around.
“Um, can we just forget the last half hour ever happened? Please?”
“Shit, Bella, won’t you let me explain?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head in mortification. “Goodnight, Edward.”
And then she was gone.