Edward tried hard to hold on to the euphoria which had been engendered by his meeting with Carlisle earlier. It had gone better than he had ever thought possible, and he had left the restaurant as a fully employed person for the first time in his life. Carlisle had said that he wanted Edward to start well before they opened the following month, in order to begin his training as a sous chef. He had apparently impressed the experienced man with his knowledge and his enthusiasm, and had been asked to come back the following day to meet Carlisle’s wife, Esme, who dealt with the business side of things.
Now, however, he was finding it difficult to rein in his impatience. He wanted to get Bella home, but she seemed to have other ideas.
When he met her back at the café, she had insisted on calling into the doctor’s surgery so that they could both register as patients and schedule exams for them both, which were booked for the following Monday—Bella had decided that there would be no harm checking that she was clean as well, in case Jake had ever… strayed. She also needed a new prescription for the pill, so would be able to get it all sorted at once.
Thinking that they could now head home, he had been unable to suppress his groan of disappointment when Bella drove in the opposite direction, saying that Alice had given her directions to the big home-ware store a few miles from the village.
Right now, he was traipsing round in her wake, as she studied paint colours, varnishes and various interior design ideas and products. He knew he was acting like a petulant schoolboy, but when she started making her way to the garden section, he could take no more.
“Belllaaa, come on, it’s November and you can hardly even see the garden under the snow. Can’t we do this another time?”
This outburst earned him a frown, and he started to wonder if she was deliberately prevaricating. Hot on the heels of that thought came the realisation that maybe he was taking too much for granted. They’d known one another barely a week, and despite how close they’d become, and the events of the last couple of days, was it really reasonable for him to be pretty much coercing her into bed? Yes, she had indicated that she wanted to consummate their relationship, but perhaps she’d changed her mind in the cold light of day.
Edward sighed. “I’m sorry, Bella, that was out of line. Come on, what did you want to look at?”
He started to walk past her towards the gardening products, but as he did, Bella’s phone started to ring.
He turned and watched as she rummaged in her bag and pulled out her BlackBerry. Glancing at the read-out, she looked up at him.
“Sorry, I have to take this. I’ll just be a minute,” she said and walked a little way away from him.
“Hello, Carmen, how are you? …. Yeah, I’m still in the Cotswolds .…What?! He called you? .… Jesus, I’m sorry, Carmen… yes, it’s definitely over… I’m fine… I’m here with a… friend .… yeah, I know, but we’ve been snowed in, so I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to get back …. Oh, shit, can you postpone it? …. Okay, that would be great …. Yes, I should be able to make it back for that, but I won’t be staying in London …. No, it’s a long story. Can I call you later? I’m in the middle of a DIY store at the moment, but I’ll call you when I get home …. No, honestly, I’m fine. I’m even writing again …. Yeah, I know, it’s going really well. I think it must be this place—it’s good for me, so I’m going to stay for a while …. Look, I’ve got to go, but I promise I’ll call you later and explain …. Okay, thanks …. Yeah, I will. Thanks again, Carm, you’re the best.”
Bella hung up and looked over to where Edward was standing watching her pensively. She knew what he wanted, and she was aware that she had been stringing the day out. Truth be told, she was nervous. Which was just ridiculous, she knew, especially when she thought of what they’d already done. But she was close to thirty and he was still a teenager. Her body wasn’t bad—she kept pretty fit doing yoga and Pilates—but she wasn’t twenty anymore and her self-esteem wasn’t particularly high. Jake had once told her she was boring in bed, and had frequently made cracks about her ‘fat arse’. Intellectually, she knew he had been deliberately trying to undermine her confidence in order to keep her with him, but his taunts had stung, and, from an emotional standpoint, she couldn’t help but believe that they had a basis in reality.
Much as Bella wanted Edward—and she really, really wanted him—she couldn’t help but think that he would find her wanting. The bruises on her face were fading and makeup went a long way to obscuring them during the day, but she had an enormous, still pretty livid bruise on her side where Jake had kicked her. These things, she knew, were temporary, but her breasts were, to her mind, less than generously proportioned, and no amount of exercise could reduce the flair of her hips.
Allied to all these concerns was the thought that they were moving too fast. They had met, in dreadful circumstances, just six days ago. It was true that she’d never in her life felt such a strong connection with another human being as she did to Edward. The attraction she felt was extraordinary, starting right from the moment she’d first laid eyes on him, and in these few short days, she had felt herself being pulled ever closer to him in a way which, if she was honest, scared the shit out of her. Once they took that final step to true intimacy, she had no doubt that it would change things between them irrevocably. She had to ask herself if she was ready for that, especially when she had literally just walked out of her previous relationship.
And yet, and yet…
Bella was jolted out of her reverie when she saw Edward move. She was frozen in place as he sauntered towards her, immobilised by his watchful gaze. In the next moment, he was standing in front of her, just inches away.
“Bella, I’m sorry. I’ve been a complete arsehole this afternoon. Please forgive me?”
Bella merely shook her head, giving him a small smile. “There’s nothing to forgive, Edward. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
She moved away from him, grabbed their trolley and started to make her way to the checkout.
Fifteen minutes later, with their purchases stowed away in the back of the car, Bella drove them out of the car park and back to the cottage.
They didn’t speak on the journey back, and once they got home they quickly unpacked the car, speaking little as they put everything away.
Edward volunteered to start dinner, as Bella revived the fire, then went upstairs to shower.
In the kitchen, Edward set about trying to distract himself from his own thoughts through the simple enjoyment of preparing their meal. In that endeavour, however, he failed miserably.
He was convinced that any chance of taking the next step with Bella was now so far off the table, it was securely hidden away in a locked cupboard—one to which he was pretty sure he no longer had the key… if, indeed, he’d ever had it. He’d crossed an invisible line and he wasn’t sure how to retrieve the situation. He inwardly cursed himself for his stupidity. Bella was so far out of his league, and he had kidded himself that what they had shared in the last twenty-four hours was anything other than a fluke, borne out of two lonely people being thrown together by extraordinary circumstances.
Thus, he forced himself to accept that Bella had, quite understandably, had second thoughts about what she was getting herself into, and vowed that he would relinquish all hopes of anything more than her friendship. That, in and of itself, was of huge importance to him, and he couldn’t bear to lose that as well.
No, he would make the best of it, and hope that they could continue on in the way they had before he had so recklessly and thoughtlessly abused his position in Bella’s life. That he was now a part of that life was enough. At least, it would have to be.
Meanwhile, upstairs in her bathroom, Bella scrubbed herself thoroughly and washed her hair. Then she took her razor and made sure she removed every bit of extraneous and unwanted hair. Stepping out of the shower, she dried herself off and then moisturised every inch of skin she could reach. She cleansed her face, plucked several errant eyebrow hairs and smoothed on some tinted moisturiser.
Back in her bedroom, she rummaged through her underwear drawer, pulling out her best and sexiest lingerie—a pretty, dark blue, lacy bra and matching bikini-briefs, which she knew looked good against her pale skin.
Regarding herself critically in her full-length mirror—trying hard to ignore the ugly bruise on her rib cage—she told herself she didn’t look bad for a woman on the cusp of thirty.
Glancing at her bedside clock, she decided she didn’t have time to style her hair, so just rubbed some serum through it and blitzed it with the hairdryer. Fluffing it out around her head and shoulders, she hoped Edward would find it sexily wild, rather than think she looked more like the Wild Woman of Wonga. Giving it a final shake, she retrieved the skinny, stone-wash jeans she’d set out on the bed and pulled them on. They were tight, but made her legs look long and hopefully encased her bottom in such a way that it looked firm rather than flabby. She then took down the soft, blue, cowl-necked top from where she’d hung it earlier on the door of the wardrobe, slipping it on over her head and smoothing it down. With one more look in the mirror, she decided that she would do. She had considered putting on some makeup, but decided that it really would be over-egging the pudding. Edward knew the bruises were there and she was tired of trying to hide them.
Squaring her shoulders, she gave herself a short, inner pep-talk, pushed her feet into her fleece-lined mules, and left the room.
Walking into the kitchen, she was dismayed to find Edward sitting at the table with his elbows on the surface and his face in his hands. He was mumbling quietly to himself and seemed oblivious to her arrival.
He dropped his hands and stood up so quickly that the chair fell backwards behind him.
“Jesus fuck, Bella…”
“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump!” she cried, clasping a hand to her chest at his reaction.
“I… no, it’s, uh, it’s okay. Sorry, I was just…” He looked around him wildly, glancing at the chair and then back at her.
“Fuck, you look…” His eyes swept up and down her body. Oh, God.
He turned away suddenly, bending to pick up the chair and willing his seemingly single-minded cock into submission. She looked amazing. The complete embodiment of female desirability, with her soft, womanly curves, lustrous mahogany hair and long, long, unbelievably sexy legs. What the hell was she trying to do to him? Just when he’d thought he had finally convinced himself that she was unattainable, she walks into the room looking like every teenager’s wet-dream.
He straightened the chair, and leaned on the back of it for a moment, avoiding looking at her and trying to compose himself.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m… I’m fine.”
He turned and walked quickly past her, averting his eyes.
“Good timing, dinner’s almost ready. Sit down and I’ll dish it up.”
“Okay. Um, do you need me to do anything?” She watched him anxiously, wondering what the hell was going on inside his head. All the ease and affection they had cultivated over the last couple of days seemed to have utterly dissipated, and she was beginning to second-guess her decision to just give in to their attraction and go with the flow—in fact, she was thinking she may have totally misjudged the situation.
But he bought 36 bloody condoms, for Christ’s sake. How could I have misinterpreted that?
Perhaps he had begun to have second thoughts, and was questioning his own feelings.
As Edward continued to avoid her gaze, Bella turned slowly and went over to the table, taking her usual seat.
As soon as she sat down, Edward walked over with two plates, setting one down in front of her and the other on his side. He picked up the bottle of wine, which was already opened, and poured them both a glass, before sitting opposite her.
“This looks great, Edward.”
He threw her an all-too-brief smile and picked up his knife and fork.
“It’s nothing fancy, just filet steak in a peppercorn and brandy sauce, with French beans and sautéed potatoes,” he said softly.
“Umm, that sounds fantastic.” She smiled at him, but he seemed to be concentrating on his food.
She picked up her glass and took a sip of wine, then began eating. The steak was cooked to perfection and the sauce was divine.
“Oh, God, this is delicious. You are so going to knock the ball out of the park at Carlisle’s.”
Edward gave a mirthless chuckle. “I doubt that. He showed me his proposed menu, and I haven’t a clue what some of the stuff on it even is. I’ve got a very limited range, and none of it is the kind of food he’s probably going to be serving.”
“Hey, I’ve told you before, don’t put yourself down. If you’re a good cook, you can cook anything—you just need the recipe.”
He shook his head, but said nothing.
Bella sighed, and tried again.
“So, you didn’t really say much about how it went with Carlisle after you left.”
“It was fine, I told you. He offered me the job and I start next week. I’ll need a lift into the village tomorrow to meet Esme, if that’s okay?”
“Of course it is. I can go to Alice’s while you’re meeting her.”
He paused as he chewed and swallowed.
“Oh, um, and I need a favour… another favour, I should say.”
Bella put down her cutlery and looked at him, waiting for him to meet her eyes, which he eventually did when she remained silent.
“Of course, name it.”
“Well, he, um, said I should probably do something with my hair. He said he couldn’t force me to cut it or whatever, as long as I kept it tied back, but he didn’t think it went with the image he wants to create. I mean, I’m not bothered, I don’t mind getting it cut, and the colour’s fading, but… well, I wondered if you could maybe help me dye it closer to my natural colour. I can probably get it cut at a barber’s, but I can’t afford to get it coloured at a proper hairdressing place.”
He looked down at his plate, but didn’t continue eating.
“Oh, Edward. What is going on in that head of yours?”
He looked up at her in surprise, only to see her get up and walk round to his side of the table. She pulled out the chair beside him and sat down. Taking his knife, she put it on the table and pulled his hand into her lap, forcing him to turn to face her.
“We seem to take one step forward and two steps back. I thought we’d got to a place where you didn’t feel like a beggar asking me for things.”
“No, listen to me. First thing’s first. Tomorrow we’ll go out and get some colorant—your real colour is growing through and it will be easy to find one to match. It’s a really beautiful auburn. Once that’s done, I’ll cut it. I used to cut my aunt and uncle’s hair, and a couple of guys at college used to get me to do theirs as well, so I’m pretty good at it. It’s amazing what you can turn your hand to when money is tight, as I’m sure you know.”
He gave her a small smile. “Thanks, that would be great.”
“No problem. Now, I know things got a bit weird earlier, and I’m not quite sure why, but we are still friends, aren’t we?”
He looked at her, his face blank, but inside he was dying.
“Friends, yeah, of course.”
He pulled his hand from hers and turned back to the table.
“Come on, let’s finish our food before it gets cold,” he urged quietly.
Bella frowned, but got up and went back to her seat, and for the remainder of the meal they managed only stilted conversation. She told him about the telephone conversation with her agent, explaining that she had cancelled a book signing because of the weather, but that she would be returning to London the following week. Edward just nodded, and shortly after, got up from the table and took his plate to the sink.
I guess that’s it, then. She’ll be going back and I’ll have to find somewhere else to live. Fuck.
He wondered if she would let him stay at the cottage until he could find a place, or maybe Jasper and Alice could put him up for a while. He wouldn’t be able to afford anything until he started earning, and he knew it would take a while to save up for rent and a deposit.
But did he even want to stay here without Bella?
He couldn’t look at her when she joined him at the counter. She put her plate in the sink, and then retrieved their glasses, handing one to Edward. He took it with a soft ‘thank you’ and drained it.
“Shall we take the bottle and finish it in the other room?” she asked, desperately hoping she could shake him out of the funk he seemed to have fallen into.
He looked at her then, trying to decipher what she was thinking, and, not for the first time, wished he could read her mind.
“Uh, well… I thought I’d try and finish off the floorboards in your studio. If I’m starting work next week, I won’t have much time after the weekend.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll just do the dishes then, and come up to help you when I’ve finished.”
He started to walk towards the door, but turned to look back at her.
“No, it’s okay, I can manage. You’d need to change your clothes, and… well, you, uh… you look really… pretty.”
He turned and quickly exited the kitchen, but not before Bella saw two spots of colour bloom on his cheeks.
For several minutes she just stood there, looking at the spot where he’d been standing, utterly nonplussed.
An hour later, Bella had cleaned up in the kitchen and was sitting at her desk in the sitting room, staring at her laptop screen and hoping to fill the time by writing. Unfortunately, the words just wouldn’t come. As she sipped her wine, she couldn’t stop thinking about Edward and how everything had changed so quickly between them. On top of that, she hated the thought of him working so hard upstairs while she was down here doing nothing. Certainly, it didn’t seem like she was going to get any writing done tonight.
Putting her glass down, she decided to grab a can of lager out of the fridge and take it up to Edward. At the very least, he must be thirsty, and would surely welcome a cold drink.
As she got to the top of the stairs she was stopped in her tracks by the sound of Edward’s swearing.
Edward’s shouted expletive galvanised Bella, and she found herself running the last few feet to the back bedroom. As she burst in through the door, she took in the scene before her.
Edward was sitting awkwardly on the floor in a spreading pool of pink-stained soapy water, the bucket lying on its side, rolling from side to side. He had one hand clasped in the other, held tightly to his chest, with a pained expression on his face.
“Edward! What happened? Are you okay?” She stepped forward, but he shouted at her to stop.
“I’m fine. Can you just get something to mop up this water before it soaks through the floorboards?”
She hesitated a moment, but then turned, leaving the room and running downstairs. In the kitchen, she found a mop and, as an afterthought, retrieved the first-aid kit, before rushing back upstairs.
Edward was now in the bathroom and she could hear the taps running. She paused to deposit the first-aid box on the toilet seat and then headed into the bedroom, where she proceeded to mop up the excess water and squeeze it back into the bucket. When she’d cleaned it up as best she could, she leaned the mop against the wall and went back to the bathroom. There, she found Edward sitting on the toilet seat, trying to staunch his bleeding hand with swathes of toilet paper.
Quickly washing her hands, she moved to stand in front of him. “Here, let me have a look,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Hold it up above your shoulder, it will help slow the bleeding.”
Wordlessly, he submitted to her ministrations, and she carefully unwound the tissue from his fingers, hissing when she saw what he’d done. A large sliver of wood had sliced into the pad of his middle finger and had embedded itself deep.
“I tried to pull it out, but I couldn’t get hold of it,” Edward told her, wincing with the pain.
“Okay, let me have a go. Keep it up, while I find the tweezers.” She stooped to pick up the box where he’d dumped it on the floor, opening it and pulling out what she needed. She dropped down on her knees in front of him and reached up for him to give her his hand. Getting a firm grip on the huge splinter with the tweezers, as gently as she could, she drew it out, as Edward cursed in pain.
As soon as it was out, she dropped the tweezers and grabbed a piece of cotton wool from the kit, pressing it to the wound. Again, Edward swore as she applied pressure, and she murmured a soft apology.
“Hold that in place, while I get the antiseptic cream and a dressing,” she told him. She got up and soaked another cotton wool ball with hot water and a little of the anti-bacterial soap at the sink, then made sure his finger was clean and dry, before applying the cream and covering it with a ready-made finger bandage.
“Fuck, it’s throbbing like a bastard,” Edward groaned. His eyes met hers, and he gave her a small pained smile.
“Shit, Bella, I’m sorry. Did you manage to clean up the mess I made?”
She sat back on her haunches, shaking her head in frustration. “It’s sorted, don’t worry about that. And I have no idea why you’re apologising—it was an accident. You’ve done a fantastic job in there, and I’m the one who’s sorry that you hurt yourself doing it for me.”
Edward reached his good hand out and gently ran the back of his fingers down her cheek.
“Don’t you know by now, Bella? I’d do anything for you, you just have to say the word.” His voice was gentle, but heavy with feeling.
Bella rose up on her knees and cupped his face for a moment, chocolate eyes intent on jade. Then she slipped them round the back of his neck and pulled him forward, pressing her lips softly to his.
Edward’s reaction was swift and unequivocal. He moaned into her mouth and wrapped both arms around her waist, pulling her tightly against him as he intensified the kiss. His tongue slipped inside and found hers, tangling and probing as they both breathed loudly through their noses.
Pulling back, Edward gazed into eyes which he considered to be the most beautiful he’d ever seen.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a little shit today, Bella. I didn’t mean to push you into something you don’t want—”
Bella’s brow crinkled in confusion. “Who says I don’t want it?”
Edward’s hands slid to her waist and he pushed her back a little more.
“I just thought… you didn’t look too happy about the condoms, and then when I was being pushy in B&Q, I obviously pissed you off… well, I thought you’d changed your mind…”
He dropped his gaze, and released her.
Bella sat back on her legs. “Oh, Edward, I thought you’d changed your mind. Jesus, what a pair we make,” she said, shaking her head and pursing her lips ruefully.
Bella pushed herself off the floor and stood up.
“I mean, let’s call it a night and go to bed.”
He looked up at her, eyes wide, and Bella’s heart melted at the warring emotions she saw there—surprise, relief, hope and, most gratifying of all, desire.
She held out her hand, and Edward grabbed it like it was a lifeline in a stormy sea. Standing, he pulled her back into his arms, crashing his mouth to hers, kissing her with all the passion he felt for this incredible, beautiful woman.
Minutes later, the two of them walked down the passage to Bella’s room and to her bed. Both were nervous, but neither had any doubts now that they were ready to take the next step towards cementing their unlikely but strangely inevitable relationship.