She sat astride me with one of her thighs on either side of my hips and slowly lowered herself onto me, taking me inside her heat. I moaned, reveling both in her closeness and in the intimacy of sharing myself with someone who understood how much it meant for me to open myself up like this—someone I could trust to never take my doing so for granted.
I raised my hips, pushing more deeply inside her.
“Harder. Oh god, Kate, fuck me harder.”
Rather than comply with my request, she stilled her movements.
“Kate?” I heard Bella ask. “Who the hell is Kate?”
My eyes flew open and I sat straight up in bed, taking in my surroundings as awareness reclaimed me. Despite how real my dream felt, I was indeed alone in my hotel room—exactly the way I was when I went to sleep, except now I was drenched in a cold sweat. I collapsed back onto the bed and rolled onto my side, but stopped when I felt a hard piece of plastic beneath me. Its sharp corner poked my chest in a physically painful reminder that although Bella’s presence in my hotel room was not real, more than likely the email I seemed to remember receiving from her was. I handled my laptop as if it would burn me, opening it ever so slowly, afraid of what the screen would display and unsure which of the two possible scenarios would upset me more.
When I saw that Bella’s message did in fact exist, I was simultaneously relieved and enraged, but more than anything, my mind screamed the same two questions over and over:
And more specifically:
Could Bella’s timing get any worse? I mean, six months ago it would’ve all been different. Hell, six weeks ago it would’ve been different. How many times had I opened my laptop hoping—sometimes even silently praying—that I’d find an email from Bella? Even I had lost count. Back then I imagined a single word from her would assuage my agony, and if she sent me an actual message? Surely that would make me whole. In reality, it tore me apart.
Unable to look away, I stared at the screen, reading and rereading her words until my eyes began to burn. Though I doubted the validity of most of what she wrote, she had gotten at least one thing correct—she had no right whatsoever to “unburden her soul.” Whether or not the rest of the email’s contents were true wasn’t all that relevant. Its simple existence screamed that despite her apparent insistence otherwise, nothing had changes. She was just as selfish as ever.
I closed my laptop only after hearing a knock at my door.
“Pas maintenant!” I yelled, not entirely certain that my French was correct and too upset to care.
“Edward, it’s your father. You’ve been in there all morning. Is everything okay?”
I got up and opened the door for him. “It’s fine. I just…” I shook my head.
I wasn’t ready to talk about Bella’s email. “I just overslept. I’ll get showered, and we can get on with our day. I’m sorry I wasted the morning.”
“You don’t have to apologize. This trip was for you, remember?”
In light of recent events, it was impossible for me to forget the purpose of this trip—to spare me pain and keep me from returning to the past. I didn’t want to even think about how I’d feel if I’d gotten Bella’s email without an ocean keeping me away from her. I’d be tempted to drive to her house, and I knew what a huge mistake that would be. Of their own accord, my arms wrapped themselves around my father.
“What’s this about?” he asked.
“I’m just really glad we did this. Thank you for always being there for me, whether or not I deserved it.”
In a gesture not all that dissimilar from the way we would roughhouse when I was little, he pushed me away, laughing. “You wouldn’t be able to keep me away. It’s part of being a parent.”
“I wasn’t talking about that. I’ve been a shitty friend, Dad.”
“Maybe. But truly shitty friends never realize they’ve been shitty. You might have had a period where you behaved selfishly, but you’re not a selfish person. You weren’t trying to hurt anyone.”
“Do you think malice always makes the difference?”
“Huh.” I threw myself onto the couch, thinking about what he said.
“You wouldn’t agree?”
“I think there are exceptions. I mean, if one person cuts another to the bone again and again, does intent matter? Hypothetically, say there’s a person who perpetually acts in her own best interest without thinking of potential damage. There’s no malice, but there’s a certain level of self-absorption.”
“Ah, but that could also be self-preservation, depending on the circumstances.” He sat in the chair across from me. “This is strange conversation to have first thing in the morning.”
I feigned confusion. “It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“For me, yes. You just woke up.”
As usual, he saw through me.
“You don’t miss a thing, do you?” I leaned forward with my head in my hands, groaning as I pushed my hair off my face. “I got an email from Bella this morning. She claims she still loves me.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“If I wanted the shrink angle, I’d be talking to Mom right now. God, it’s too much to even process.”
“I wasn’t playing therapist. I just know that if you identify the emotion, it’s easier to know what to do about it.”
“Honestly?” I asked. “I’m livid.”
His relief was palpable. “Thank god.”
I looked at him confusedly.
“Rage can be channeled,” he explained. “It’s nothing more than energy, which is healthy. It’s when you stop feeling altogether that there’s a problem.”
I remembered how I felt—or more accurately how I didn’t feel—this winter.
Apparently, my dad was thinking the same thing. “What finally brought you back to us?”
I didn’t have to think about my answer.
Kate. How could I have forgotten about her? Until that moment, I’d been so focused on what Bella’s email meant for me that I hadn’t even begun to process what it would mean for Kate—who was supportive and loving, and who just seventy-two hours ago had given me her virginity. Even if it was different from how I felt about Bella, I did love Kate and I refused to hurt her if there were a way around it. She deserved for me to give our relationship all of my attention—something I could never do while having anything to do with Bella.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Despite her electronic insistence to the contrary, Bella hadn’t changed at all. At no point did her email ask me to forgive her. It asked for nothing from me—not even a response—because it wasn’t about making amends to me as much as it was about her need to apologize so she could move on with her life. I wouldn’t begrudge her that—her email gave me what I needed to move on with mine.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m going to get showered, and then I’m going to explore Paris with Mom. When she goes home, I’m looking forward to spending some time with my best friend, and maybe trying to make up for the fact that I’ve been a shit lately.”
“I was talking about the email.”
“So am I. I’ve decided I’m not going to let it ruin our trip,” I explained. “Do you remember what you told me the night I met Bella?”
“I remember telling you a lot of things.”
“‘Bros before hoes, my man. Bros before hoes.’”
My dad laughed. “I stood there waiting for you for two hours, bored to tears.”
“I never understood that. Why didn’t you walk through an exhibition?”
“If I went into the European wing with you, it would have seemed like I was hovering. If I went anywhere else, you wouldn’t have been able to find me easily if anything she said made you upset.”
He always put me first. It was time for me to start returning the favor.
“Anyway, it was good advice, and I’m sorry that I didn’t heed it at the time. That changes now. I’ve given Bella enough power over the past year; she doesn’t get this, too. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell Mom I heard from Bella. Mom would want to talk about it, and I don’t—well, not here. I’ll tell her myself when we get home.”
“Fine. This can stay between us, for now. Speaking of your mother, she’s probably wondering where I am. I should go find her.” He went to leave, but stopped in front of the door. “You know, Edward, I often have moments when I think that I couldn’t be more proud of the man you’ve become–”
“Then there are mornings like this,” I interrupted him, “when you realize how wrong that sentiment is and wonder how you could be proud of me in the first place—”
He didn’t let me finish. “I become even more proud. Truly.”
By the time we returned to the States, my dad and I were as close as ever. Upon arriving home, I marched right up to my room, anxious to get some rest. On my bed, I found a large photo album. I opened it and read the inscription.
You balance me.
As I flipped through the album of pictures she’d taken of my father and me in London, I realized two things. One was that Kate was actually a very gifted photographer. The other was that from certain angles, I actually did resemble my dad physically. My last thought before falling into a jetlag-induced coma was how much I hoped our similarities didn’t end there.
I woke to find Kate reading on the sofa in my room.
“Welcome home.” She put down her book and sat beside me in bed.
“The pictures are amazing. Would you believe I have nothing like them? I mean, I have lots of family shots, but nothing of just my dad and me.”
She smiled. “I was happy to be of service.”
I pulled Kate on top of me and kissed her, hoping to make up for my decision to keep Bella’s email a secret by exhibiting my physical and emotional devotion. With a fervor completely new to us, I tore at Kate’s clothing, desperate for there to be nothing between us that could be helped.
When I pulled lightly on Kate’s breasts and hair, she giggled. “Someone must have missed me.”
My mouth closed over her nipple and began to suck, and though she was still making noises, they were nothing at all like laughter.
Suddenly panicked, I released her breast. “Am I being too rough?”
“No. I’m just as excited to see you.” She took my hand and placed it on the soaked lips between her thighs. “See?”
I plunged my tongue into her mouth, not driven entirely by lust. There was also an overwhelming need to be inside her—Kate specifically—that I’d never felt before. What I didn’t know was whether my intention was to bring Kate closer to me or to push Bella away. Maybe it was a little of both. I did know that when Kate got on top of me and I lowered her onto my cock, all thoughts of Bella left me. They didn’t return until three minutes and eleven seconds after I came.
I wondered if with practice I’d eventually last longer.