4. From Afar, But Closer

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Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;

Worthless as withered weeds,

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one

Holding so fast by thine infinity;

So surely anchored on

The steadfast rock of immortality.

Emily Brontë, “Last Lines”

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

“Lookin’ good, Ms. Swan,” Billy says appreciatively, giving a short whistle.

“Thank you, Billy.”

“What’s my quote?”

“‘One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.‘”

“That’s nice. Real nice. Who said it?”

“André Gide.”

“Uh huh. You gonna tell me who that is?”

“He’s a Nobel Prize-winning writer.”

“A writer? Anything I’d know.”

“No, Billy.”

“Figures. Have a good night, Ms. Swan.”

+.+.+.+

The 2011 Limbs for Life “Bootleg Ball” has overtaken the Harvard Club with ornate floral arrangements and battalions of wineglasses. The event page explained the 1920s theme, but I’m still taken aback when I enter the main dining room to find my seat. It looks like a nausea-inducing retread of the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

My last-minute ticket purchase has guaranteed me a seat at one of the back tables, my chair sandwiched between a blond glamazon in her twenties and a middle-aged Jewish couple from Ithaca.

Blondie is sipping her water anxiously, her eyes constantly darting between her hands and the entrance. Her red flapper dress and headband look stunning, if a little cheap. I’m not interested in making friends, but she’s the closest thing to a dinner companion I’m going to have, and blondes are always good for some gossip.

“I’m Bella.”

She looks away from the door, her eyes whipping up and down my frame in a millisecond. I can tell she’s already formed an opinion by the time it takes for her to open her mouth and say, “Rosalie Hale.”

The name rings a faint bell, though I cannot place where I’ve heard it. “Do you come to these events often?”

Her eyes complete another circuit from her manicure to the door before she nods. “Yes.”

She’s obviously uninterested in conversation, which perversely makes me want to keep talking. “Is the food that good?” I ask dryly. If I really wanted to know, I’d ask someone who looked like they’d eaten recently.

Rosalie Hale looks at me again, her heavily-made up gaze assessing my face too long to be comfortable, and I’m fighting the urge to squirm when she finally grins, her red lips parting in a sharkish smile.

“No, But the fishing is,” she replies bluntly.

It only takes me a moment of looking around at tailored suits and unadorned male ring fingers to understand exactly what she means by ‘fishing.’ Between the sultry sound of her voice and the length of the legs she keeps crossing and uncrossing, I would bet money on her landing a bona fide marlin.

“What about you?” she asks, the question belied by the disinterest in her tone.

“A friend of mine is here,” I tell her.

That earns me a lift of one delicately arched brow. “A friend…?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“Edward Cullen.”

“Uh huh,” she half-snorts. It’s the most human thing she’s done so far.

“You don’t believe me?”

She rolls her eyes. “Last I checked, Edward already has a date. And trust me, his ‘friends’ don’t sit back here in the cheap seats.”

“You know him?”

Her eyes glaze into something like cobalt, cold and blue and hard. “We’ve met,” is her icy response.

I’m about to unleash the first of a barrage of questions when Rosalie’s expression shifts into the kind of smile only a pageant mother could love. “Shit,” she mutters through clenched teeth.

“Rosalie!” I hear someone exclaim. Someone who, I see as she approaches our table, is just as blond and scary as Rosalie Hale beside me.

“Lauren,” Rosalie greets, standing and exchanging air kisses. “So good to see you.”

“You look wonderful,” Lauren gushes, eyeing Rosalie’s red fringed flapper dress. “Is this that Lanvin we saw last Spring?”

“It is.”

“I love it. You’re a vision.”

“Likewise,” Rosalie answers airily. “Speaking of visions, is Alice here? I’d love to see who she’s wearing.”

Lauren’s perfect face freezes for a split second before morphing back into her own pageant smile. So many teeth. “She’s wearing Givenchy. But I don’t think she’s come in yet.”

“Lovely. I’m sure I’ll see her.”

I’m distracted from the beauty queens by the small entourage of people entering the dining room. Not everyone stops in their tracks to appreciate the entrance, but I’m one of many that do. The sequined flapper dresses and jewelry make them all seem to glitter in the candlelight, and besides that, everyone in this cluster of wealth is Very Attractive.

Including Edward Cullen.

“There’s your buddy,” Rosalie mutters, taking me off guard. I hadn’t noticed her take her seat again. “How’d you say you two know each other?”

“I didn’t.”

She gives me another long look and a smile that I don’t understand before she tosses back the rest of her drink and waves to the people she knows.

+.+.+.+

The benefit is well enough as these things go, I suppose. I can close my eyes at any given moment and re-live one of a hundred such fundraisers I’d attended over the years. The food is delicious.

It isn’t until the dancing starts that my prospects begin to unfold. I haven’t moved from my seat since the fundraiser began, but the bar on the far side of the room suddenly catches my attention. For the first time since he came in, I see him.

Black tie, black suit.

Black expression.

He is leaning against the bar with his back to the room, and this could be my chance.

+.+.+.+

The para-celebrity DJ is starting to get into the swing of things, and I have to shout over a droning bass line to be heard.

“A White Russian, please.”

I order assertively, ignoring the fact that there are only four inches between the forearms of me and Edward Cullen.

He doesn’t seem to notice, though, continuing to examine the ice cubes in his glass like they’re giving him a rundown of the Bull and the Bear.

“Rough day?” I ask, like speaking to him isn’t something I’ve devoted countless moments of planning. Predatory, Dr. Cope would say.

He looks up, confusion and surprise wrinkling his forehead. “Excuse me?”

“I asked if you’re having a bad day. You’re frowning.”

His frown deepens. “Sorry, have we met?”

“I’m Bella.”

“Bella.” He seems to roll the name around in his mouth, testing it for hints of familiarity. “Who are you here with?”

“I came alone.”

His expression is meant to convey understanding, but I can still read the underlying confusion. “Is this a charity you’re involved with?”

“Not really, no.”

He pauses, perhaps trying to discern whether I truly standoffish or just a challenged conversationalist. “You from the city?”

I shake my head. “Seattle.”

“Have you been here long?”

“About four months.”

We stare for a moment, his handsome face politely befuddled. “I’m sorry,” he says eventually. “I’m having a difficult time placing you.”

“That’s understandable. We’ve never met before.”

“Oh.” He smiles awkwardly, visibly vacillating between self-deprecation and mild distress. “Of course.”

“Are you here alone?”

“Yes. Well, no.”

“Which is it?”

He at least as the grace to look sheepish. “I’m here with a friend.”

“A friend?”

“Tanya Denault.”

“Mm.”

“Do you know her?”

“Only by reputation. She’s very beautiful.”

“Yes, she is.”

“The two of you make a striking couple.”

He looks uneasy for a moment before muttering a quiet, “Thank you.” His gaze moves down my body, taking in the dark grey flapper dress with its ivory fringe. “You’re beautiful, too,” he adds casually.

“Thank you.”

More staring, more silence. He isn’t much of a talker, but that’s okay. Neither am I.

He looks away first, his eyes glancing down to my now-empty glass. “Another one?”

“Please.”

He gestures to the bartender for refills, the space between us slowly disappearing.

+.+.+.+

The more he drinks, the more he talks, and the more he talks, the more I can hear what sounds like an English accent leaking through some of his words. I file this away with the million other little things I’m learning about him with each passing second. Scotch, it seems, is the next best thing to truth serum.

Not that I’ve had to coerce him; the glitterati that found him before his third drink proceeded to surround us, and I’ve been silently absorbed into a drunken clique of twenty- and thirty-somethings with money to burn and too much to drink.

I am now sitting at an abandoned table with the group that orbits Edward Cullen, listening to all those drunk or desperate enough to talk over the music.

Including Edward.

“You remind me of a girl I knew back home,” he slurs, smiling as he leans into me from his chair. I smile back.

“Do I?”

“Yeah, whasshername. JASPER!” he shouts to a blond man across the table.

“What?” He-who-is-Jasper grouses drunkenly.

“What was—what was that little girl’s name we played with?”

“What?”

“That little girl in London!”

“I can’t hear you,” Jasper yells.

“Whatever.” He turns back to me, shrugging. “She was pretty.”

“Was she?”

“Yeah. Dark hair, dark eyes, white skin. She looked like a doll.”

“Sounds lovely.”

His stare is unnerving. “She was okay. You’re lovely. Lovely Bella.”

“Thank you.”

“Bella. Bella, Bella, Bella,” he rambles.

“You’re drunk,” I laugh lightly.

“So? Go somewhere with me.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. The bathroom. My car.” He leans closer, his hot breath fanning over my shoulder. “Anywhere,” he repeats.

“Hm. And what would we do there?”

His head comes up, eyes burning blearily into my own. “I’d—we’d do—I’d fuck you, Bella.”

“Would you?”

His face falls back into the crook of my neck. “Mmhm,” he mumbles. I can feel him speaking against my skin.

“I can’t hear you.”

“I said,” he sloppily scream-whispers into my ear. “You look delicious. I could eat you up.”

“You’re too kind.”

“Not kind, Bella,” he sighs, all drunken arousal and exasperation. “Look.” My eyes follow his hand to where it gestures to his lap. It’s too dark to see anything, but I’m fairly certain what he’s trying to say.

“What?” I ask innocently.

“This,” he growls, grabbing my hand and placing it on his semi-erect cock.

After a millisecond of hesitation, I flex my fingers experimentally and he makes a small sound against my neck.

“Again,” he commands.

I acquiesce, squeezing him, feeling him harden through his trousers. My lips stretch into a smile as he begins to pant against me and I feel powerful, to hold this man in my hand, to make him hard, to know so much—

“Edward?”

He’s imbibed enough not to react right away, but I’ve only had two drinks and my hand quickly moves out of his lap as a blonde, beautiful, infuriated-looking Tanya Denault moves closer to where he’s half-sitting, half-leaning against my shoulder.

“Tan,” he greets with a groan. “The fuck time is it?”

“Time to go,” she snaps. “The car’s here.”

“Then we’re all going,” he yells over the music, moving his hand to my thigh. “Bella, too.”

“Absolutely not. Come on, Edward.”

“Bella—” he begins.

“Shut up and get your jacket,” she commands harshly, turning to me as he reluctantly stands to obey. She turns to me, irritation evident in her features. “Bella? Is that your name?”

I nod.

“Great. Your time’s up, Bella. Goodnight.”

+.+.+.+

Sleep does not come easy, no matter how I adjust my pillows or my posture.

Follow the thread, I tell myself. Find out more. Down the rabbit hole.

I can almost taste the forming addiction, the acid taste of it on the back of my tongue. It’s happened: I’ve been on his radar. I’ve touched him. He’s touched me back. He’s said my name.

More, every one of my heartbeats thrums desperately. More more more.

Fingers twitching against the counterpane, I wonder how to gain what my pulse demands.

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About hollelujah
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