19: Gravel & Rust

For your benefit, I’m including the definition of some fencing terms that are used.

arrêt à bon temps a counter-offensive action which hits the opponent before he initiates his final action.

balestra – a footwork preparation, consisting of a jump forwards. It is most often, but not always, immediately followed by a lunge. It is faster than a step forward, which helps change the rhythm and timing of moves.

parry – a simple defensive action designed to deflect an attack, performed with the forte of the blade.

passata-soto – an evasive action which is initiated by dropping a hand to the floor and lowering the body under the opponent’s oncoming blade.

redoublement – an indirect renewal of an attack that missed, was short, or was parried.

riposte – an attack with right-of-way following a valid parry

salute – a blade action indicating respect or good sportsmanship

touché – French word for “touched is used to acknowledge a hit

+.+.+.++.+.+.+

Silence is scattered like a broken glass.

The minutes prick their ears and run about,

Then one by one subside again and pass

Sedately in, monotonously out.

You bend your head and wipe away a tear.

Solitude walks one heavy step more near.

Harold Munro, “Solitude”

+.+.+.++.+.+.+

There is a shadow that has stretched across my years, followed and formed me. It has given me shade and fear and solitude and above all, above all, the knowledge that power belongs to the few who dare to claim it.

It looms over me even now, casting everything in greys and blacks and blues, its shape made by the man in front of me: my father, the Kingmaker.

He’s created my world, constructed the only context in which I have ever existed. As sure as a character in any fairytale, he has authored me, this mystery of a man who has shown me the balance of omnipresence and absence the only god with whom I have ever reckoned.

Fingers clenched around a scrap of silk, I rest my forehead against the coolness of the airplane window, closing my eyes to the sight of Manhattan disappearing beneath me as I fly back to the only home I have ever had.

+.+.+.+

The sonorous bass of the club’s dance music thuds through the wall like a pulse as I wait for Edward to speak. The poor fool, he allows his emotions to flash across his eyes like a prism: annoyance and outrage I am not the only one brought low tonight by my secrets.

My question lingers in the air between us, but his only answer is found in the twitch of his mouth, the flash in his gaze and the flex of his jaw. There is want, it’s painted in light and scarlet hues across the bones of his face, and I take his anger and his desire and his humiliation and read behind them, watch the feelings stretch into lines and words before me because I know, Iknow.

“You do love me,” I brashly declare, fascinated by feel of wielding the upper hand once more.

His face hardens and he says nothing; I am transfixed by the world lying within the tumult of his gaze: a white sky unblemished, lashes like branches, stark and dark and cutting across an atmosphere weighted by winter, their lines twisting ever upward, stabbing against the light like a supplicant’s outstretched fingers. Or perhaps they are hands caressing, sweeping against the silk of a lover’s cheek.

Or of a Ferragamo necktie.

Moments descend, heavy and quiet around us like a snowfall. He is still, save for a quick, quiet breath; the slight quiver of an eyelid. “I’m right, aren’t I?” I demand, softening my tone, but it is the feigned limp of a hungry beast, luring its prey down from the vigilance of the hunted.

His face is smooth now, free of anything but calculated ennui. He assesses me calmly, and he is not deceived. “That would be very foolish of me,” he rejoins, and his voice is gravel and rust but there is a blink, a wince, a tightening of his expression, and I smile.

Here is his passata-soto and his parry, his blade and his armor. In his defense he has shown me a new weapon; the darkness inside of me eyes the power of another pain.

I can see in his eyes, against the pristine landscape, an inky tendril of something…

…of awareness…

…of awakening…

A salute.

And I am myself again.

+.+.+.+

A black Towncar quietly whisks me down Washington’s tree-lined streets, past embassies and museums and stately rowhouses lining the way. My mind wanders, dallying in shadows of the past and I think I can remember every single thing that’s ever happened, the metallic tang of Jacob Black’s wedding ring as I pull it from his finger with my teeth, the sting of my palms with every lovely, brutal contact with Tyler’s reddening skin.

There are other memories too, but an image of Edward’s head on my pillow makes my stomach clench and I close my eyes against it, my fingers working against his tie like a rosary.

“You’re very quiet,” Paul Strickland observes politely as our car carries us closer to Georgetown. “Tired?”

I nod slowly, my mind reaching desperately back into a time when I was not so drained, so defeated. A time when I was the myth of a huntress inhabiting this mousy, mild frame.

“Almost there,” he remarks, and I ready myself to re-enter the past.

+.+.+.+

My lips turn up into the smile of the Sphinx. Edward’s eyes narrow as he notices.

Redoublement.

“I could ask why you seem so unconcerned, but it seems you’ve done this before: stalking men as a hobby, violating their privacy and their personal boundaries just so you can get off on fucking them over once they get too close.”

“You seem to have me all figured out,” I retort.

“I think so.”

“Hm. And what else do you think?”

His gaze is unwavering. “I think you’re dangerous.”

“I wouldn’t be alarmed if I were you,” I reply lightly. “I never cause permanent damage.”

He levels a withering glare at me. “How generous of you.”

I acknowledge his acerbic praise with a slight nod, fighting the desire to flinch away when he takes a step closer. “I think so.”

“Am I supposed to thank you?” he asks in a low voice. “Is that what the others did when you were finished with them?”

Riposte.

The others.

For a moment, the expressions of my other men flash across my mind’s eye, and I frown. Tyler’s revelatory fear; Jacob’s disgust.

“They understood,” I answer.

“Did they? Or were they too scared of laying a hand on Charles Swan’s brat to do anything when you attacked them? Interesting, isn’t it, that such a small woman could subdue two large men.”

“My past is none of your concern-”

“I’d drop the Daddy’s Little Princess tone if I were you,” he replies acidly. “Save it for someone who shits himself at the sound of your father’s name.”

“He could bury you.”

Edward laughs. “I’m sure he could try.”

“My father-”

“Your father is a joke,” he spits acidly. “Especially if he thinks he can maintain his shiny, red-state, God-fearing image while fucking half of his friends’ wives.”

“You don’t know anything about us-”

He sneers. “Don’t I? Well, here’s a psychoanalysis that bitch on your father’s payroll couldn’t give you: you think your daddy’s the king of the world because he’s the only man you can’t fuck out of your system.”

A world of arrogance and power. Edward does not flinch away from my glare as I stare up at him, seething at his impudent dismissal of the man whose shadow looms over my every step.

“My father has more influence than-”

“So I’ve heard. And yet, look around you,” he gestures to the hallway behind me. It is empty. He leans ever closer, anger rolling off of him in waves.

“Your father isn’t here, Isabella.”

I am silent, unblinking as his hand moves, sweeping up my arm, across my shoulder and stopping as he rests his palm between my collarbones, his fingers flexing lightly against the base of my throat.

“I don’t give a fuck about your family,” he breathes harshly, steely eyes boring into me as his fingers lightly flex against my skin. “This is between you and me.”

Prise de fer, croisè

He leans in closer, opening his mouth to speak and I stiffen, bracing myself as his gaze burns through me, probing along the wall of my skull with poison and anger and pain.

“And I am not afraid of you.”

+.+.+.+

He who holds the money holds the power, he who holds the power makes the rules, he who makes the rules holds the money.

These words once stared at me from their gold-plated place on my father’s office wall as I sat, seething as he called Mr. Crowley. No, my father assured him, I was not a danger and yes, I would stay away from Tyler for good.

Later, I wrote and wrote and wrote, teeth drawing blood from my lower lip raw as my ink-bound anger howled lines across the page as I recalled my indignation reflected in the gleaming metal face of my father’s favorite plaque.

I wonder if it’s still there as I follow Paul down the corridor of my father’s home-office suite. The Bunker, his staff always called it.

An apt description, I think, as the walls of my childhood loom over me, whispering that I am home, I am home at last. Unbidden, more memories from years past superimpose themselves over my senses; tricks of light and fatigue show a shadow of Ilse carrying me to bed after another late dinner party of my parents’, reveal the faint echo of my mother’s bitter laughter as she sways drunkenly to her music and tells her young daughter that men only want one thing, and that Charles Swan is never coming back.

All around me are the sounds of my father’s work: the ringing of phones, the quiet conversation of his staff, and the low volume of cable news shows droning endlessly from within a media room. Tailored suits with crisp collars and lapels with flag pins move around me, all of them worn by bright young interns and weathered political battle-axes, all of them rallying around my father’s near-miraculous ability to make any candidate respectable, electable.

The Midas Touch: Politics and the Power of Charles Swan, one framed Newsweek headline reads. Beneath it is a photo of my father and Jacob Black, their hands clasped in a jovial handshake as ticker tape fills the air around them.

There are dozens of other articles and photos just like it, all of them framed, all of them lining the walls that lead to the Kingmaker’s inner sanctum.

Paul pauses before the study door, turning toward me with a solemn expression.

“He knows you’re here,” he informs me. “And he’s expected to meet with the attorneys at noon, so you have an hour.”

I nod, impressed with the rigors of my father’s schedule even now, when he has a wife to bury.

For a moment, Paul appraises me with something like pity, his eyes searching my own before he blinks, straightens, and turns to open the door.

+.+.+.+

“I’m not afraid of you, either,” I reply.

Too close, too close, so close. Edward’s warmth bleeds through his coat, singes the exposed nerve endings along my skin. His features are grave and I am so, so still, my fingers clenching around the fabric in my is silent, staring down at the place where his hand rests on me. “You think I don’t know you,” he murmurs after a moment.

I bristle against him. “You don’t.”

I speak boldly, but he’s seen the notes, he’s seen my handwriting and my fears and fantasies. I must make him forget his upper hand, but his fingers are heavy on my neck and in spite of myself, I swallow nervously.

He sees.

And it is his turn to smile.

+.+.+.+

The door opens, and there is music, its melancholy strains painting my father’s Gilded Age-themed office in dark greys and blues and blacks.

Cet air qui m’obsède jour et nuit…

“I adore Piaf,” a memory of my mother slurs.

I blink her voice away, closing the heavy walnut door to my father’s study as I focus on my breathing, the in and out and all over again.

My pulse thunders in my throat, and I push away the memory of the last man who touched it, his face and the feel of his skin, uninvited, filling the hollows of me. My fingers twitch against my side, reveling in the phantom feel of him, anxious for more of his warmth in the chill of the Kingmaker’s chambers.

A world of arrogance and power…

That power is understated now, muted by the bent stature of my father in his armchair by the fireplace. His posture is hunched and tired, fatigue painting him in the harsh lines of age and stress. It plays a tableau across his profile as the sounds of my mother’s music surround him.

Padam… padam… padam…

Il me fait le coup du souviens-toi…

He does not see me, his head bowed almost to his chest in quiet contemplation or slumber, and I clear my throat.

My father looks at me then, head turning slowly to show me the haggard creases of his face, the red of his eyes and the ashen color of his skin.

“Isabella,” he greets quietly.

“Hello,” I reply, as hushed as he.

“I trust your flight home was well. Please, have a seat.”

I nod and obey, recalling the daze of the flight, the chill of the windowpane. He stares thoughtfully into the fire, imperturbable in spite of my silence.

“It was fast,” he says after a moment, and I frown. “Your mother,” he clarifies, seeing my confusion. “The accident… the doctors assured us that she wasn’t in any pain.”

“How-”

“Black ice,” he answers flatly. “Her car skidded off the road.”

I am still, my thoughts forming and fleeing before I can hold onto them, ephemeral wisps of where, and how, and why nothing feels as different as it should.

“Paul was instructed not to say anything.”

Numbly, I nod.

We do not speak for several moments, sitting frozen amidst the strains of Piaf’s voice and the crackle of flames in the fireplace.

“You look tired, Isabella,” he says finally.

“I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“If you think that will be a problem again tonight, please have one of the staff contact Dr. Banner so he can prescribe you something. I need you to be rested for tomorrow.”

I blink, confused. “Why?”

“You’ll assume your mother’s role as hostess for our guests,” he answers smoothly.

“Guests?”

“Nothing elaborate,” he explains, seeing my frown. “A handful of acquaintances who’d like to privately honor her memory.”

I remember my mother’s afternoon teas and evening fundraisers, her rotary club breakfasts and her church socials. I cannot recall any faces that would now be stricken with tears on her behalf.

“Paul will brief you on who is expected to attend,” he continues quietly. He’s very trustworthy. Sharp. Loyal. Educated.”

I open my mouth to respond, but he interrupts.

“You could do worse.”

Paul Strickland.

I take a moment to imagine this union, picturing my father’s sharp, loyal, educated aide panting and thrusting above me, below me, behind me. I wonder if I could ruin him.

Am I supposed to share you? the memory of Edward asks, and I am transported back to that night, to the feeling of his hips driving up into me as his fingers dig possessively into my skin.

I frown, blinking away the memory. “I’m not interested.”

“You two would do well together he has ambition, drive, knowledge. You might learn something from him. Also, he’s single.” His eyes bore into me, their flatness tempered by a shrewd gleam. “As are you.”

I stare at him, willing an impassive expression to cloak my features.

“I never said I wasn’t,” I reply evenly.

“Of course not,” he sighs. “But I am curious about something: Isabella, who is Edward Cullen?”

+.+.+.+

My pulse pounds in my chest, presses against Edward’s palm like an eager, pathetic pet with every viscous beat as he silently regards me with a smirk.

“You say you’re not afraid of me,” he says after a few long moments. “I think you’re lying.”

“I’m not a liar.”

He huffs a disbelieving laugh. “Our entire relationship is a lie.”

“I never lied to you.”

“Then why the secrets?”

“Because they’re none of your business.”

“What’s none of my business? The fact that the woman I’m seeing has known about me for almost fifteen years? The fact that our families have history? The fact that you followed me for weeks before we even met?”

The words roll off of his tongue so easy, so light. I fight a cringe at his casual references to the days, those cold days that echoed with the sound of solitary footsteps as I chased a phantom, a dream of the past.

Subdue, or sever. Put a slouch in that proud, private school posture.

Teach him a lesson and leave.

“What makes you angrier, Edward?” I taunt. “That I seduced you so easily, or that your little sister was the one to tell you that I’m not just another society slut hanging on your every word.”

His jaw tightens. “My sister didn’t tell me that,” he growls. “She told me that the woman I was spending all my time with is a deeply disturbed individual who’s been fixated on me since her childhood.”

Touché.

His tone and his words stab, sting and slice and I’m bleeding, but I’ll be damned if I show him the fire he goads with his every breath.

“Even better,” I retort. “You let yourself get fooled and fucked by a lunatic.”

“This is still a game to you,” he says with a glimmer of incredulity. “Even now.”

“Am I winning?”

His face darkens with something I do not think I can mock. “You’re the only one playing.”

+.+.+.+

“Let me rephrase,” my father reiterates blandly when I do not answer. “Who is Edward Cullen to you?”

I gather my thoughts, my silence echoing against the walls, fighting the words that bubble at the base of my throat: he is my prey and my prayer and my captive, my spoils of war, my conquered city and my friendly fire. He is the thief of my skin, my monster in the maze.

He is my sun god, grounded.

“You understand why I’m asking, of course.”

“Of course,” I echo blankly.

“Your past… indiscretions make it difficult for me to give you the benefit of the doubt. Especially when these liaisons compromise my work. So while you ponder the question, allow me to enlighten you as to who Edward Cullen is to me. He’s the son of the man who happens to be the biggest real estate developer in the country. He’s the son of the man who, last year, made more than forty million dollars in campaign contributions to several of my clients. He’s the son of the man who allows my clients to fund successful re-election campaigns, which in turn allows them to continue to work with me in keeping this nation’s political dialogue moving in the right direction.” He pauses, pinning me to the back of my chair with his eyes. “There are only so many times I will be able to mend fences with these people, Isabella.”

He sighs heavily, annoyance deepening his frown. “And so I’ll ask again: who is Edward Cullen to you?”

A flash, two images juxtaposed in my mind: Edward’s moonlit silhouette in a garden maze; his face transforming in ecstasy as he thrusts upward, arching back into my pillows and coming apart underneath me.

A phantom touch, the memory of the long line of his body as it pressed against me; the heat of his hand as it cupped my breast, caressed my jaw, clenched into a fist as I slapped him.

A ghost of glass-green eyes meeting my own in the mirror, seeing and staring and not looking away.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I say quietly, and the words echo bleakly across my mind, winds in a wasteland.

My father’s mouth flattens into a grim line. He’s never liked non-answers. “You’re not to see him again.”

+.+.+.+

I stare at Edward’s pale, patrician features, the air chilling past my paper skin, wrapping itself around my bones like a sad song but still, I can shake him, shake off the dust of this place from my feet.

“Why are you still here, then?” I demand.

The pads of his fingers rest on my pulse as I watch his reactions play across his face in infinitesimal flashes of annoyance, frustration, disgust, anger.

“Because some things have changed,” he finally answers, his voice low and rough. “And some things haven’t.”

Want. Desperation and lust and maybe-heartbreak.

The memory of my own words, whispered barbs thrown at him as he was splayed, spent beneath me. I’ll be yours, I’d breathed into his skin, and he’d hissed with pleasure.

You are not free, my mother’s voice taunts, a quiet slither of sound above my heartbeat and Edward’s harsh breathing. I will not be her, I cannot.

Watch me, I declare to the ghoulish ghost of Renee Higginbotham Swan. Watch me be free.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I tell him.

Arrêt à bon temps.

He stares, says nothing, but his fingers tighten further around my neck.

“No,” he says flatly, a refutation.

“You can’t keep me.”

He frowns. “I never wanted someone to keep,” he replies, his voice dripping with disgust.

“Didn’t you?”

“No!”

“Then let me go.”

His laugh is a short, angry burst of sound and breath on my face. “That’s not how this works.”

I want to laugh, to show him I am not afraid. I want him to watch me spurn another pair of shackles. “Let me go. I’m leaving.”

“Stop saying that,” he snaps. “You don’t get to- you don’t get to turn everything upside down and just walk away-”

“I go where I want to be,” I retort meanly. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”

He straightens, further towering over me. “You’re rather bold for a woman at the mercy of someone twice her size.”

“I don’t believe you’d actually harm me.”

He glowers down at me. “Believe that I want to,” he grinds out. “Believe that.”

His lips are only a few breaths away, white with anger. He is controlling himself but barely, and I am rattling him. The dragon I hold by the tail may breathe fire at any moment.

Balestra.

My heartbeat is the fever pitch of a bass drum, my head light and sharp and alert. Never have I been cornered so. Never have I felt more exhilarated.

I can breathe flames of my own.

“You want to hurt me?”

He is silent, but his gaze is a gunshot.

“Is that all you want to do?” I ask in a low voice, watching as his tongue darts out just slightly, just so as he tastes my words.

Slowly, I move my hand between our bodies, to where his erection is almost pressed against my stomach. His eyes hold my own.

“Why wouldn’t you want to keep me?” I ask with a smirk. “All I have to do is look at you to make your cock hard.”

I grab him and he groans.

“One for the road,” I breathe.

“Don’t,” he says harshly.

But I do. “You love this,” I purr, smiling and stroking him, exultant at his hardness.

A slight tremor moves through him.

“Stop it,” he says again. His fingers press tighter against the tendons of my neck.

“You’re twice my size,” I tease, but my voice is hard. “So make me.”

There is a brief moment of doubt as he hears the dare in my voice; I watch his eyes narrow, something coiling and bunching to strike behind them.

And then a dizzying panorama of the hallway as I am spun around, roughly and quickly and against the cold wall, pain in my jaw, in my breasts as I am pressed against it, as he crushes me cruelly, his cock prodding the small of my back. I am gasping for air as he snatches hands, yanks them up and above, long fingers wrapped around my wrists like a vise and freedom, freedom, freedom I am shackled and flying at once.

“You make everything so fucking difficult,” he hisses, his breath hot against my neck, the side of my face.

“You love it. You love me.”

“Shut up.”

So I say it again, breathless, euphoric as he roars against my shoulder in anger and anguish.

His free hand roams me and I let him, reveling in the feeling of him. He is a fire now, raging, consuming everything in his path and I will take him, let the flames lick at me and show him how I will still stand once he burns himself out.

A gasp, a groan as his fingers grab the hem of my dress, impatiently moving beneath it and up, skimming my thigh on their way to the throbbing heat between my legs.

And then it is dark.

The sudden absence of the fluorescent light blinds me momentarily, my eyes taking several seconds to adjust to the dull red glow of the emergency exit sigh.

Our breathing is harsh, loud staccato stabs of air in a stagnant space. My wrists are held tightly in Edward’s one hand, but I could struggle, I could twist away.

But I wait.

“Fuck the lights,” he mutters harshly under his breath, pressing against me tighter. “Fuck it all.”

+.+.+.+

There is a twinge, a tug and a snap and I swallow against the tug of the leash I’ve always worn, my father’s words burning into my skin, bitterness and bile rushing up my throat even though I know, I know that this is how it was always going to be.

Is this freedom? my mother whispers, as Piaf continues to wail mournfully in the background.

Et je crie de douleur, de fureur et de rage

Et je pleure

Entraînée par la foule qui s’élance

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I whisper plaintively, hating my world and my weakness.

“It isn’t a question of wrong,” he huffs. “It’s a question of good business relationships. It’s a question of perception. I cannot do my job if you continue to undermine me in this way. Any interaction between my family and my clients, or the sons of the people who finance my clients, cannot reflect badly on me. Edward Cullen is off-limits.” He pauses thoughtfully. “And so is his family.”

His family.

A flash of Esme, of my mother’s frozen smile, and my father’s first unguarded laugh.

“What if he loves me?” I ask flatly, and my father’s laugh is short and sharp before he sighs, grim amusement giving way to pity.

“Love is never enough, Isabella.”

+.+.+.+

Edward’s body still presses tightly against me, his free hand snaking over my shoulders, reaching across my chest, forcing my arms down, down, down until they are caught by my side as he wraps himself around me.

One of his hands reaches into the neckline of my dress, covering, squeezing, twisting my breast almost painfully as he holds me against him, his hips seeking friction against me in short, sharp thrusts.

“What do you know about want?” he hisses furiously against the fever of my skin. “What do you know about love?”

I laugh madly against the wall, light and free and flying, a child clapping with delight at the terrible beauty of destruction, of nature coming apart at the seams.

“You don’t know…” he grunts. “I would have done anything for you. Anything…”

“It’ll never be enough,” I taunt, moaning, groaning, arching against him.

Freedom, freedom.

He growls angrily into my skin, hands releasing me long enough to reach down, yank my skirt above my hips again, one hand pushing roughly into my underwear.

“Goddamnit,” he grunts against me, feeling the wet heat of me. “Goddamnit.”

My hungry fingers flex against the wall, rendered useless by his unforgiving hold as he makes several hurried passes over my clit, but finesse doesn’t matter, I am writhing, I am wanting.

He moves away from me slightly and I gasp, my hands falling to press against the wall on either side of my head, my chest expanding with the sudden rush of air that the movement affords me but it is over too soon, he claws at the fabric on my hips, pulling and ripping and grabbing and pushing back against me, his lips on my lips, on my face, on my neck.

He makes quick work of his own zipper and I reach up to grab his neck but he slaps me away. He roughly kneads my ass before pressing himself against me.

“I know you,” he rasps. “I’ve always known you.”

He sees, I think wildly. He sees and sees and keeps looking.

“You love me,” I whisper. “Say it.”

He grabs my thigh tightly, unceremoniously pulling my leg back and then he is at my entrance, guttural fucks and wordless moans, slamming into me, pushing all the way until I am shaking, breathing a soft wail against the wall. My cunt grips him, clenching around his cock and his fingers are so tight on my hip, on my thigh.

I press my lips into my arm as they form the shape of his name.

“I would have done anything,” he whispers again hoarsely, thrusting fast and deep and god.

And I hear him, my mouth forming soundless syllables as my cheek presses against the dirty wall.

Subdue, sever.

I lower my arm, my hand reaching into my pocket.

+.+.+.+

“Do we understand one another?” my father asks, but my thoughts are far away.

Off-limits, he says now, and there is a pale pride in knowing that for once, I will not disappoint his wishes.

But I remember the glow of his taillights as he left us, and the shadow inside trembles with indignation as I fall back through time and touches and tears until I am a young girl again, pale and pretty in a spotless, starched dress, the mahogany curls so painstakingly arranged by Ilse spilling down my back. My feet, in their black patent Mary Janes, dangle high above the floor, my scrawny legs hanging off the edge of a couch not made for children. Beside me, my mother stiffens.

Across from us, my father’s stoic face is relaxed into a foreign wreath of smile lines, his voice mirroring the thaw of his demeanor’s detachment as Esme entertains him with anecdotes about her years in a Swiss boarding school while Carlisle and my mother look on.

Love is never enough, he says now, and it echoes through the past and settles into the lines of Renee Swan’s frozen smile.

The sharp knock on my father’s office door jolts me from my reverie.

“What is it, Paul?”

“Fletcher called, sir.”

All signs of fatigue fall away from my father’s face, his features tightening, alert. “And?”

“He says Sharpe’s trailing on values. Voters don’t think he’s family-friendly.”

“Has Sharpe called yet?”

“Yes, sir. Twice today.”

“Good. Tell him to come up at 2:00.”

Behind me, I can hear Paul hesitate.

“Is there something else?” my father demands.

“Um… yes, sir, I thought- you said that you needed to stay low-key for the next several days. The funeral-”

“Jesus,” my father sighs. “You’re right. Have him come by tomorrow night for the prayer service. I’ll talk to him then.”

Paul closes the door firmly behind him, but the years fall away from my eyes and I hear the sounds of another departure, of muffled yelling and a slamming door, followed by my mother’s anguished cry.

I’m ruined, she’d wailed into her own hands, the limestone dust from the displaced gravel still settling in the tire tracks of my father’s car and the tear tracks on my mother’s face.

But my father averts his eyes as he speaks of Edward’s family, of Esme and suddenly, there is a question that forms, its words writhing their way through my mind as my father’s impatient eyes finally fall upon me again.

“Isabella,” he says, but the question is there, stepping off the tightrope of my tongue and leaping into the abyss between us.

“Did you love Esme Masen?”

+.+.+.+

My fingers find purchase, close around the silk as I fight the urge to give up, to give in to the feel of him inside of me. Edward’s breath is loud, harsh, ragged against my neck but then his hand is there too, fingers flexing around my windpipe, hard enough to make me gasp.

I come around him then, arching like an alley cat in heat as he curses when I clench him.

But he is not finished.

He pulls out of me and spins me around, sweat beading at his temples and dampening his shirt. He briefly assesses me, glowering at my lazy smile before pulling me down with sharp, angry movements. I am on the floor, hard tile pressing against my shoulder blades, fingers fisted around a long scrap of silk as he covers me with his body and roughly enters me again.

“Goddamnit,” he cries savagely, his features contorted. There is passion and misery on his face and I lick my lips, sighing contentedly as he thrusts into me in a punishing rhythm. I wrap my legs around his hips, my arms around his neck and take him, take him, take him.

His eyes do not leave mine as he growls, curses, fucks me like a whore, and I do not protest.

“You want me to love you,” he pants, snarling as I writhe underneath him. “You want everything.” My empty hand traces the ridge of his taut shoulders, feeling him tense. “But I want things, too.”

“What do you want?” I whisper, and he falters, his eyes roaming my face before hardening once more.

“Fuck you, Isabella,” he snaps.

And then he moves again, face buried in my neck and he says nothing more.

But his lips and teeth paint words on my skin in violent strokes of color.

+.+.+.+

My words fall and fall and slip into my father’s eyes, sinking like stones and there is a stirring, a ripple and he blinks.

The soft strains of Piaf continue to fill the silence.

C’est peut-être ça

Qui fait pleurer de rire

Et vous fait courir

À minuit sous la pluie.

Answer me, I think, my limbs twitching, awakened and newly frantic with an energy I cannot explain. Say it.

+.+.+.+

“Say it,” I command Edward, arching up and drawing him deeper. “Out loud.”

He ignores me, purses his lips, and his hips do not lose their rhythm. He means to show me his control, his power.

And so I shall show him mine.

His neck flexes beneath my free hand, and it is an invitation.

+.+.+.+

Time seems to stretch and slow as my father sits, seemingly stunned. It is the first time I’ve ever seen him speechless.

Inside, my winged shadow straightens, takes notice of his immobility as the seconds drag on; every neuron and synapse is humming with need for his answer.

“The Masens have been loyal supporters of ours for years,” he says after several long moments. “Your mother and I are- were extremely fond of both Carlisle and Esme.” There is an edge and a catch in his voice, the veil behind his steady gaze neatly torn, rent down its middle to expose the gears shifting and spinning beyond it. “And parroting malicious rumors does you little credit.”

These are the maneuverings of the eternal politico, but his tone. His eyes.

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

He massages the bridge of his nose, a picture of agitation before dropping his hand suddenly, heaving a heavy sigh before straightening in his chair. “I think that’s enough of dwelling in the past for today,” he says curtly, reaching to the sound system to turn the music off completely.

He meets my gaze again, and the depths of his stare have once more flattened out into the endless, monotonous expanse of a wilderness, but he is not the first man I’ve seen that denies himself and I can read him.

I can read him.

“You loved her,” I say, but he only stares into the fire and does not answer.

+.+.+.+

You love me, I think frantically. You love me.

Edward lowers himself onto my torso, arms snaking beneath me, pressing us together as his movements grow more frenzied, groaning long, low syllables into the hollow of my neck as his lips latch onto me, tasting and touching my skin with his tongue, with his teeth.

I feel the telltale tightening of my cunt around his cock but steady, I tell myself. Steady.

“Isabella,” he groans.

I thrill and bristle.

Show him, show him.

He cannot hold me, I will not be kept.

I am no whore in a garden maze.

I am no weak woman begging for his love.

Quickly, quickly.

Do it now.

My empty hand grabs the tie, pulls it to its full length behind him and down, down.

Teach him a lesson.

Just a little lesson.

And leave.

My fingers twitch and clench around the ends, trembling with something darker than anticipation.

Show him, show him!

I will, I resolve, and then-

Above me, Edward stills.

He lifts his head, frowning down at me with curiosity and suspicion.

I meet his gaze impassively, willing him to continue, to move inside of me again, to show me his neck so I can show him all the ways I can own him.

He props himself on one elbow, cupping my shoulder with his other hand before swiftly running it up my arm, my wrist…

His fingers find my own tangled in silk.

+.+.+.+

My father’s face is a structure collapsing slowly from within, walls of Jericho dropping at the seventh sound of the trumpet. I watch him as he breathes, remains calm, rigid and cold as the firelight tints and touches his features.

Finally, he stands.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting with my attorneys.”

“That’s not until noon.”

“We’re finished here, Isabella.”

“Aren’t you going to make me sit and listen while you call Carlisle Masen?” I ask petulantly.

“No need. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

I freeze.

“We’ll continue this discussion later, Isabella,” he says roughly, dismissing me with a wave of his hand as he settles himself behind his desk.

And then I am moving, out the door and down the hall, click click click of my heels, faster now, faster and faster although no one is chasing me.

He’ll deal with me later. Later, always later.

But later, Carlisle will be here.

The walls are still and silent, even as they crumble in my mind, everything crashing, creaking, crushed and collapsing into a sea that beats its angry waves against my ribs.

Up the stairs now, quickly, quickly before another trap snaps shut on your neck and shelter, I need shelter and a home away from here, a home where the Kingmaker can’t reach me-

“Ms. Swan?”

Paul Strickland’s voice stops me in my tracks.

An idea, a ghost of an image in my mind and I see a face, familiar and far-away but I reach and reach before I lose my nerve”I need some information.”

+.+.+.+

I am frozen, eyes and body waiting as Edward fingers the tie, frowning as he yanks it from my hand. He examines it in the dim light, confusion overtaking his features.

Adrenaline still courses through my system, shaking through my limbs as his eyes find mine again. Now, more than ever, I am exposed.

There is a moment, a beat as he contemplates the fabric. I tighten my legs around his hips. I’m leaving him, I think angrily, but the muscles of my thighs still mutinously clutch him to me as I wait for him to recoil in disgust.

But then his face clears and he laughs, dark and mean and breathless. His hand finds mine again, roughly prying open my fist and relinquishing the tie.

His smile is grim as he begins moving again, harder now as I watch him, wide-eyed and red-handed.

“If you’re going to choke me, then fucking do it,” he laughs, caustic and crushing me beneath him.

A thrust, and another thrust.

“Do it,” he grunts again, goading me.

Breathe and breathe again.

But I am still confused.

And then he is moving again, and the silk is pulled, running through my fingers like an anchor rope until my hand is empty and grasping at air.

Why? I think, again and again until I am gasping it against him as he brutally claims my mouth.

“You’re the one thing,” he groans against me. “The only thing…”

My mouth is gasping, agape, a perversion of Bernini’s St. Teresa as the heat of his hands fall to either side of my head.

I do not feel the silk against my mouth until the last second before he tightens the tie, pulls on each end until the fabric is taut between my teeth, the makeshift gag tugging the corners of my mouth into a distorted smile.

“The only thing,” he growls again, his weight on his elbows, ducking his forehead down to my own as he drives himself into me. My hands clutch helplessly at his back, digging into the fabric stretching across his shoulders, and his breaths come hot and fast into my gagged and gaping mouth.

He does not finish his sentence before I finish everything, my hands falling uselessly, limply to the ground as I come around him, the shudders ripping through me until I am more, I am brighter and stronger and shivering and supernova, falling and flying and filled with him as he bellows something I cannot make out into my hair and moves, moves, moves until the image of him above me is burnt into my eyes like a negative.

And then we are nothing and everything, and I am the sum total of my limbs and my lungs and the seed spilled within as his slowing breaths scorch and brand my skin.

+.+.+.+

Freedom, freedom, freedom.

Paul’s face is confused when he hears my request, but something in my voice seems to evoke the same pity with which he’d regarded me earlier, and he simply nods.

I move through my childhood home, swift and silent, a spectre roaming the ruins of an old world and I am tired, so tired of the cold.

My bag from New York has already been unpacked, its contents hung neatly in the closet until I grab and pull them from the hangers and throw them back into the suitcase. My body hums like a live wire and my hands cannot steadily hold what they need, fingers shaking and achingly around what I hastily shove into my luggage.

A necktie.

A notebook.

A passport.

Moments later, I am zipping the bag closed and my lungs are gasping and filling with oxygen, with possibility. Hope is a thing with feathers, an albatross threatening to burst out of my chest but quickly, quickly, before I freeze, calcified and caught on a pretty pedestal in the Kingmaker’s house, a lonely relic of a forgotten era.

Freedom, something sings, and now it makes perfect sense, how foolish I’ve been-

“Here.”

Startled, I look up to find Paul beside me. In his hand is a piece of paper.

“I didn’t help you,” he says quietly. “And I didn’t see you leave.”

Numb and breathless, I take the paper, glancing down to skim the information scrawled across it. Beneath everything else is the number of cab company.

“Thank you,” I breathe, and he is already walking away and I will give it a moment, or maybe two moments, but either way I’m walking away, too.

A breath and a breath and another breath…

I am going home.

+.+.+.+

I tell him again to say it, but he only gives me a sad silence and pulls out and away.

He fastens his pants as I lie still on the floor, unable to move beneath the phantom weight of his body. The music on the other side of the wall has not stopped, its insistent beat stumbling across my brain like footsteps fading into an unknown distance.

Subdue and sever, I think, but they ring faint with the weakness of a faraway echo, my freedom cry fading into the silence of solitude.

Boneless, breathless I have not won, and I have not lost.

I float, marking his breaths like a metronome until they are steady and even and stay, perhaps I’ll stay but just for a little while longer, just long enough to puzzle him out, or maybe I have and did and am done, maybe I’ve completed the maze, maybe the quiet man next to me is not a predator or prey, but the prize-

“I did love you,” Edward confesses quietly, staring at the wall in front of him.

My lungs hang limp, suspended and motionless in my chest as I stare at his profile, its sharp lines etched into something grave and sad in the scarlet-tinted darkness.

Something inside me shrieks indignantly, shrill and confused.

This is wrong. This is wrong.

This is not the end I planned.

“You win, Isabella. I hope that’s enough for you.”

He leaves.

And for once, I do not follow.

+.+.+.++.+.+

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About hollelujah
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