We’d been at my house for Bella’s birthday brunch exactly three minutes and eleven seconds before everything started to go to hell, a turning point that coincided with the appearance of a tall, thinnish guy who appeared to be in his mid-twenties. The moment Bella saw him, her eyes became the width of her areolas and she bounced up and down on her heels a few times before throwing her arms and legs around him.
I took a deep breath and tried to work through my urge to pull her off him by reminding myself that not only did I have no idea who he was, but chances were good that he was not one of Bella’s aforementioned forty fuck partners.
“I never expected to see you here.” Still embracing the mystery douche, Bella turned to me with tears in her eyes. “How did you even know to invite him?”
I had no idea who this person was, but after a scant thirty-two seconds in his presence, he’d already inspired from Bella both a gratuitous display of physical affection and authentic tears of joy. It was far more than I’d gotten out of her in the seventy-eight days we’d been dating, a realization that did nothing to calm my nerves. I’d never been so jealous of another human being. I may not know him, but I hated him.
“I didn’t.” My words came out a bit more clipped than I would have liked.
“Actually, Emmett mentioned it to me in passing and I kind of invited myself,” Mystery Douche explained before addressing me directly. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Don’t mind what? That he’d crashed my girlfriend’s birthday party or that she obviously was more comfortable of exhibiting emotional abandon with him than she was with me?
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing.
“Does Alice know you’re here?” Bella asked.
Mystery Douche sighed. “No.”
“Well, she’s nothing if not consistent,” Bella muttered.
“It’s not like that.”
“How exactly is it, then?” She sounded more than a little antagonized. “Because as you know, I’m not exactly in Alice’s good graces right now.”
“Even if I were willing to speak for Alice, this is neither the time nor the place. Besides, this is the first birthday party you’ve had in all the years I’ve known you. I would never ruin it for you by rehashing old news that doesn’t matter.”
“I assure you, Jasper, as far as my falling out with Alice is concerned, the ‘old news’ does indeed still matter.”
So the mystery douche was Jasper, fiancé of Bella’s epic bitch of a best friend, the third counterpart to their college trifecta. I realized it was hypocritical of me after begging her to introduce me to her friends to give Jasper the cold shoulder, but I didn’t expect him to seem so familiar to her. I couldn’t bring myself to be friendly.
“Maybe,” Jasper replied, “but not in the way that you think it does. Anyway, I’m not here to discuss your falling out, nor am I here to plead Alice’s case.”
“Why exactly are you here?” I asked.
“You must be Edward. I’m Jasper Whitlock.” He held out his hand to me. “I did Bella—I mean—I did undergrad with Bella. Now I’m at Penn with Emmett, though he and I go way back. It’s great to meet you finally.”
I tentatively shook his hand.
“Jasper is Alice’s fiancé,” Bella explained.
I was completely aware of Jasper’s relationship to Alice. What I wanted to know was why he was manhandling my girlfriend, and what he meant when he said he “did Bella”.
When my mother called everyone to the dining room, I lingered behind and pulled Bella into the foyer.
She pushed me away, giggling. “We don’t have time for a quickie.”
“Did I hear Jasper correctly?”
“What do you mean?”
“‘I did Bella?’”
Her giggle became a full-out laugh. “Is that what this is about? He misspoke. We’ve been close friends for seven years, which coincidentally is exactly how long he’s been in a committed monogamous relationship with my best friend.”
“Your former best friend.”
She shrugged. “I guess I haven’t given up hope.”
“So you’re saying you were never intimate with him?”
“No, Edward. I’ve never had sex with Jasper.”
She’s never had sex with Jasper.
It was the same way she’d spoken of her past sexual partners, not owning her experimentation with other women, but not expressly denying about it either.
In any other context, this would be mere semantics. With Bella, it was lying through omission.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few months,” I explained, “it’s the ability to interpret the subtle nuances in your speech patterns.”
“I’m not following you.”
“Bella, we both know there are many equally questionable acts for which the statement you just made does not account.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Tell me what I should think, Bella.” I ran a hand through my hair in frustration. “This guy I’ve never met, whom you’ve rarely mentioned, shows up at your birthday party and seconds later you practically mount him. I don’t care if he is engaged to Alice. How do you think this looks?”
“Do you actually think I’ve fooled around with my best friend’s fiancé?”
I wouldn’t put it past her, and I didn’t know what to believe. Not wanting to lie to her, I said nothing.
“I knew you couldn’t handle knowing my number,” she muttered under her breath.
“Bella, this has nothing to do with your sexual history.”
“Oh, the hell it doesn’t. And this right here…” She wagged her index finger between us. “…is why I fucking hate birthdays.”
“Don’t make this into something that it clearly isn’t.”
She threw up her hands up in an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t even know what this is, how the hell do you expect me to make it into something it’s not?”
It took every ounce of restraint I had not to flip out, but I knew Bella would never take my words seriously if they seemed at all impassioned. And if there was one thing I needed, it was for Bella to take my words—to take me—seriously. She didn’t yet, and I was starting to wonder if she ever would.
“You could have anyone,” I began. “For a long time, that’s exactly what you did. The actual number is irrelevant to me. I’m far more bothered by the idea that sex means nothing to you. It’s your preferred means to orgasm, nothing more. Meanwhile, you’re used to doing whatever and whoever the fuck you want all while feeling nothing.” I paused, needing to calm myself down. Bella’s insistence that the aforementioned forty meant nothing to her had a flip side that screamed neither did I. I couldn’t begin to process that, so I pushed it aside. “Now I’m supposed to be able to leave during the week and somehow manage not to worry how you amuse yourself in my absence?”
“I want only you,” she whispered.
I saw my mother hovering in the entrance to the living room and pulled Bella against me.
“We’ll be right in,” I called over Bella’s head. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just not ready to share her yet.”
My mom rolled her eyes at me before hurrying back to our guests.
“Edward, even if I had hooked up with Jazz at some point—and I assure you I have not—how would that diminish what I have with you?”
“Jazz?” I repeated in disbelief. “Even his nickname screams sex.”
“Are you really that insecure about us?”
I was, of course. I just didn’t want to say it out loud. I knew doing so would end us, and that was the last thing I wanted.
“You don’t have to answer,” she continued. “But I would like to know what it is going to take for you to trust me. I’m going to sit down now. Are you joining me, or do you want to stay out here and sulk?”
I wasn’t sure which bothered me more—that she negated all of my valid concerns, or that she did so in her teacher voice as if I were a recalcitrant child who needed to be reined in. Still unsatisfied, but knowing our guests were starting to miss us, I grabbed her hand and led her into the dining room.
I pulled out Bella’s chair for her, and as she sat down, I smiled at my parents in mock embarrassment, further cementing their assumption Bella and I were fooling around.
“Sorry to monopolize the birthday girl.” I moved to my seat but remained standing.”I’d like to thank everyone for being here on such short notice, and my mother for pulling everything together so quickly.”
I looked down at the woman beside me, the woman I loved. I believed in her even when she failed to, and I never had any trouble believing in myself. Why then did it suddenly seem so impossible for me to believe in us?
The answer came to me as I raised my champagne flute. When she had doubts, I did my best to assuage them. When I had doubts, she became defensive and withdrew into herself. For every second of the past seventy-eight days, I’d believed so intensely that we could make it that the fact she didn’t no longer seemed to matter. But it did, no matter fervently I tried to convince myself otherwise.
I was emotionally exhausted.
I’d prepared a toast, a tribute to everything Bella had accomplished in her first twenty-five years and everything I knew she could be in the years to come, but I couldn’t bring myself to recite it. I didn’t trust my voice not to break, and the last thing I wanted was to betray my fear and doubts—not that she wouldn’t realize her dreams and her potential, but that I would be by her side as she did so.
“To Bella.” I took my seat at her side and tapped my glass against hers.
The meal itself passed uneventfully enough. Shortly afterward, Rose and Emmett left and Bella followed my parents into the living room, leaving Jasper and I alone. I knew what I needed to do.
“Would you like to step outside for a few minutes?”
He let out a small laugh. “Oh, so you demand satisfaction?”
My cheeks burned with the realization of how my words could be interpreted.
“I’m not challenging you to a duel, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“No, but you would like to take me out back and beat the shit out of me.”
“I did,” I admitted. “But not anymore. I owe you both an explanation and an apology, but I’d prefer to do both without risk of interruption.” I pushed open the pocket doors that led to the kitchen. “After you.”
Jasper entered the kitchen and I led him out back. I refrained from speaking again until we were outside and the door was fully closed.
“I wanted to apologize for how I acted earlier. I had no idea who you were, and it’s not like Bella to be so…exuberant. I’m having some difficulty adjusting to being away during the week, and I jumped to some extreme conclusions regarding the nature of your relationship. For that, I am truly sorry.”
“It’s fine, Edward. Look, I don’t blame you for being put off by my presence. Between what Alice told me and what Rose told Emmett, I have a pretty decent idea of exactly was said during the Alice/Bella blowout. Bella and Alice have known each other their entire adult lives, and those kinds of friendships have baggage. Granted, Bella didn’t deserve a lot of what Alice said, but that doesn’t change the fact that Alice has valid reasons for jumping to some of the conclusions she did.”
“Just as I have valid reasons for wanting nothing to do with you.”
“You may, but isn’t that a bit hypocritical?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Look at how you reacted to me earlier. You thought Bella and I had been involved at some point, didn’t you?”
“She did more or less mount you.”
Jasper laughed. “True, but that had very little to do with it. You jumped to the conclusion you did because you know Bella.”
His identity might no longer be a mystery to me, but he was still a bit of a douche.
“Bella’s not like that anymore.”
“But you acknowledge that she was.”
I wasn’t about to acknowledge anything to him.
“Why are you doing this? Bella considers you one of her best friends, independent of her relationship with Alice.”
“Bella is one of my best friends, but I’m still not blind to her faults. If how you responded to me earlier was any indication, neither are you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You made a snap judgment about Bella’s relationship with me, based on her past behavior.”
Even though his statement was correct, I had no intention of conceding. Not wanting to lie either, I chose to remain silent.
“Don’t condemn Alice for doing the exact same thing.”
“It’s completely unfair to compare me to Alice.”
“You’re right; it is. You’ve had the benefit of hearing Bella’s explanation. All summer, the two of you have been talking and Bella’s had ample opportunity to put her past conduct in the appropriate context for you. Despite this, after spending less than a minute in the same room with a guy who has known Bella longer than you have, you immediately assume that not only were Bella and I intimate in the past, but that my mere presence at her birthday party was a threat to your relationship.”
“None of that is relevant to how Alice treated Bella.”
“It’s completely relevant. You can’t blame Alice for questioning Bella’s motives where you are concerned.”
I understood what Jasper was saying, even if I wasn’t sure if I agreed with it.
“Alice should have given Bella the benefit of the doubt.”
“Like you did earlier?”
“I had a momentary lapse of judgment. The moment Bella explained herself to me, I let it go. I love her and trust her.”
“So does Alice. Except in her case, Bella didn’t explain, nor did she give her a chance to make it right.” He looked at his watch and sighed. “Look, I should get going. Alice doesn’t know I’m here, and I have no desire to explain to her that I had brunch with her best friend who still won’t return her phone calls.”
“You lied to Alice about where you are right now?”
“So, despite the fact honesty is clearly not a motivating factor in your relationship, you have the audacity to stand there and judge me on how I behave in the confines of mine? You’re in no position to lecture me regarding the right thing to do.”
“Right or wrong doesn’t matter,” Jasper insisted. “Trust me when I tell you that Alice and Bella need each other. They are the only real family the other has.”
“Bella makes her own decisions. I would never presume to tell her what to do.”
“I’m not suggesting you interfere, just that you not actively discourage a reconciliation. Alice wants to apologize if Bella would only listen.”
“I still don’t know what you want me to do about it. After all, I’m just a kid. I’m completely powerless where Bella is concerned.” I opened the back door and gestured him inside the house.
“I don’t believe that for a second. And for what it’s worth, neither does Alice.”
After Jasper said his goodbyes, Bella walked him to the front door. Determined to salvage what was left of her birthday, I wrapped my arm around her waist and pulled her against me. I wasn’t sure I could trust her, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“For what? Doubting me or being a jealous prick?”
I smiled sheepishly. “All that and more?”
She put her arms around my neck and pressed her body against mine. “We’ll never make it, you know. Not if we constantly question the other’s ability to remain faithful.”
For three minutes and twelve seconds, we held each other in the foyer. During that time, I nearly spoke six times, but stopped before my lips turned my thoughts into words I’d be unable to take back. When I finally did speak, my utterance was neither an accusation nor a defense.
“I know what you’re thinking, Bella.”
“I doubt that.”
Her tone implied that not only did I not know her thoughts, but that I wouldn’t like them if I did. Not wanting to argue with her, I stated the obvious.
“It can be exhausting, you know.”
“You challenge me. Usually, I’m up for it, but there are times…”
When I stopped speaking, Bella backed away from me and peered up at my face. She took my hand and silently led me upstairs to my room, speaking again only after she’d closed the door behind us.
“I love you, Bella. I do. And I’m completely aware that I really fucked up today, which happens to be your birthday, and that makes it all so much worse. I’m just really feeling pressured…”
“When have I ever pressured you?”
When hadn’t she?
I closed my eyes, unable to look at her. “That’s just it. I don’t think you mean to.”
“Is this about sex?”
“What, then?” She rested her hands on my hips and stared into my eyes.
I heard my father’s voice in my head telling me that his first engagement failed because of poor communication. I knew I needed to talk to Bella; I just didn’t think she wanted to listen. I took the chance anyway.
“I feel like sometimes you hold me to unrealistic standards.”
“What is unrealistic about asking you not to fuck around while trusting me to do the same?”
“You’re oversimplifying it.”
I sighed. It was ridiculous of me to expect her to understand that she expected far more from me emotionally than she was willing to contribute herself. Though most of our relationship was built upon double standards, this was one was getting increasingly difficult for me to abide.
“Never mind, Bella. It’s just been a rough week.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure it would sound very trivial to you.”
She cupped my face in her hands and stroked my jaw with her thumbs. “I doubt that. You do realize I spent the week in high school while you spent the week in college?”
“If anyone’s experiences were trivial, they would be mine.”
“You’re still past the college thing.”
“Edward, the last time I checked, I’ve never been a biology major at Princeton.”
“I’m not talking about academics. Classes haven’t even started yet. Socially, I’m just not sure where I fit.”
Over the fabric of her skirt, she placed my hand between her thighs.
“I know exactly where you fit.”
I knew she’d try to distract me, but that didn’t make her doing so any less infuriating. I immediately pulled my hand away.
“You know what I mean. So my roommate Tyler has a girlfriend at home in North Jersey. She’s still in high school. Our first day on campus he was going on about how much he was going to miss her. Two nights later, he slept with someone else. He still has no intention of breaking up with his girlfriend, which I just don’t understand.”
She sat down on my bed. “I guess dorm life never changes.”
Convinced that she would allow us to finish our conversation before she started removing clothing or fondling genitalia, I kicked off my shoes and flopped down next to her.
“Have you ever done anything like that?”
“We’ve been through this already. I’ve never been unfaithful to you, nor would I…”
“I meant before we were together.”
“I’ve never cheated, no, though with the exception of James, I refused to commit to anyone. I didn’t allow myself to feel anything more intense than lust, which was always fairly fleeting.”
“I don’t want to be that guy. You know—a man-whoring prick. The whole concept of infidelity disgusts me. Needs change, people become ill-suited to one another, I get that. Just end the relationship. I don’t understand what would compel someone to cheat.”
Bella propped herself up on one elbow and stared into my face.
“The girls are all over you, aren’t they?”
I’d wanted to keep the female attention I’d been getting a secret, but my blush answered on my behalf.
“I can’t say that I blame them. You are delicious.”
She licked my Adam’s apple. I was determined not to let her distract me.
“If I socialize with them, even in public, I feel like I’m leading them on. If I don’t, I’m a stuck-up asshole.”
“It’s okay to enjoy female attention. I love it when men notice me, and it doesn’t at all diminish what I feel for you. Just be responsible about it.”
“It’s still shallow. None of them actually know me.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Why did you first approach me?”
“I was physically attracted to you,” I admitted.
“There you go.”
“That’s not the point, Bella. If you had you been a vapid skank, I wouldn’t have invited you to spend the rest of the evening with me.”
“These girls got into Princeton. I seriously doubt they’re airheads. Edward, most women will find you attractive. It’s a given. You’re more than a little yummy.”
“Yummy?” I repeated in disbelief.
“Did I not just lick you?”
“Bella, I’m serious.”
“And you’re seriously yummy.” She sucked my earlobe into her mouth and flung one of her legs across my hips.
“Can we just talk?”
“Fine.” She rolled onto her back and folded her hands under her breasts. “I’m not sure why you’re so stressed out by this.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“Only because you seem so uncomfortable with it. I can’t say I blame the girls for trying. It sucks for them that it won’t work, but they’ll give up eventually.” She inched over to me and rested her head against my chest. “So, when you were in the other room with Jasper…”
She was nothing if not predictable.
“I knew this was coming.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Civil War reenactment.”
She sounded like she believed me, and I found myself wishing I were capable of lying to her.
“No. Come on, Bella, it’s pretty obvious we were talking about you and Alice. Any other conversation we could have had in front of my mother.”
“Your mother knows all about the Alice drama.”
“I’m aware of that. However, she raised me better than to speak poorly of someone I’d never met. She wouldn’t have appreciated what I needed to say.”
“Wait, so you won’t badmouth Alice to Esme, but you were willing to talk shit about her to her fiancé?”
“Context is everything. We should go back downstairs now. My parents are probably annoyed we bailed on them, thinking we came up here to fool around. The last thing I need right now is my dad’s teasing.”
I rolled off my bed and stepped back into my shoes. Bella sat up, but didn’t make any move to leave the bed. She tucked her hair behind her ear and looked at me almost nervously.
“Are we okay?” she asked quietly.
I couldn’t tell her we were; I didn’t want to lie to her. I did the best I could under the circumstances.
“No, but we will be. We just have to adjust to how things are now.”
I hoped to god I was right.