After taking Bella out to dinner for our (second) first date, I walked her to her door and told her I had a wonderful time, at which point she started laughing hysterically.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re acting as if we haven’t done all this before. I’m sorry; the typical first date walk-me-to-my-door-routine feels a bit contrived under the circumstances.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “Still, I’d rather not take anything for granted. That being said, I enjoyed myself immensely and I’d like to see you again.”
“I’d like that.”
“I’d also like to kiss you.”
For the sake of first-date etiquette, I left out everything else I wanted to do to her.
“I’d like that, too.”
I cupped her face in my hands and brushed my lips against hers, doing my best to give her a kiss that presumed nothing. Meanwhile, my cock was presuming everything.
“So, now that we’re…” She paused, wrinkling her nose. “Wait, what are we doing, exactly?”
“Dating,” she repeated. “Is that really what you would call this?”
“Were we not just out on a date?”
“We were, but it seems somehow more…significant than that.”
“Do you feel as though you need a more specific title?”
“That’s just it. I don’t feel as though I have a title at all; therefore it seems a bit off to be requesting a more accurate one.”
Was this the same woman who eighteen months ago wouldn’t be seen holding my hand in public?
“Are you asking to be my girlfriend?” I asked in disbelief.
“This isn’t the eighth grade, Edward. I would, however, like to know if I’m the only woman you’re currently seeing.”
I threw back my head and laughed. “Listen to you, bringing up exclusivity on the first date! I’m not complaining, but what happened to your intense fear of commitment?”
She held up her hand. “Let’s just say there are other things that scare me more. However, I do feel as though I am entitled to some answers from you before I decide if I would like to pursue this any further.”
“Am I right to assume, despite your previous statement that you would indeed like to go out with me again, that a second date is in fact contingent upon my responses to your imminent queries?”
She was planning on making me work for it this time; it was kind of hot.
“That would be correct.”
I shrugged, still laughing. “Ask away.”
“Would you mind coming in for a bit?” she asked, opening her front door. “This could take a while.”
“Should I be nervous?”
“That all depends on you.” Her smile was almost devious.
After I followed Bella inside, she gestured for me to have a seat on the sofa. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Whatever you’re having is fine.”
I decided that if she was going to grill me, I might as well make myself comfortable. I took off my jacket and unbuttoned the top of my shirt. Bella returned holding two glasses of wine, one of which she handed to me.
It was a burgundy peace offering, but I didn’t delude myself for a second that it wasn’t every bit as fragile as the delicate glass which contained it.
“So…” She twirled her wine glass by its stem, a gesture that usually indicated she was nervous. “I know as of Christmas you were not seeing anyone…”
“And now I’m seeing you.”
“Am I the only person you’re seeing?”
“Yes.” I took a sip of my wine. “What else would you like to know?”
“Why did it take you three months to respond to my email? You’ve never been one for indecision.”
I should have been annoyed that our date had turned into a job interview, but I wasn’t. Despite the depth of my feelings for her, I certainly had my share of reservations. The idea that she did as well was oddly reassuring—it meant that she wasn’t taking any of this lightly.
Neither was I.
“It wasn’t indecision. Bella, I don’t mind telling you all of this, but I should warn you that you’re probably not going to like some of what you hear.”
“I can handle it,” she insisted.
Given the way she reacted at the diner, I had my doubts, but I wasn’t about to presume to make decisions on her behalf.
“I more or less decided not to decide—it felt like the only responsible way to handle things. You need to understand, my emotions were all over the place. When I got your message, I had just started to move on, so naturally I was enraged. I couldn’t see what the purpose of emailing me was, except to ease your conscience. Once my initial anger wore off, I gave it a bit more thought and realized your words were more than likely genuine. I wanted to reply to you. However, I was in an exclusive relationship at the time, and I didn’t feel as though a correspondence with you was fair to her.”
“Oh.” She gulped. “Would this be the person you mentioned at the diner? Kate, I believe?”
“Yes. She and I were in the same social circle, and it was easy to spend time together without expectations. Right away, we were very comfortable with each other, and our friendship slowly developed into something more. She knew I’d been through a bad break-up and even joked that she was my rebound fling.”
“She was okay with that?”
“Yes. She never asked more of me than I was able to give her, and I naïvely thought that with time and patience, eventually I would love her the way I loved you. Finally, in September she told me she was falling in love with me and I knew I was doing her a huge disservice. It was one thing when I thought we were both just having a bit of fun, but I couldn’t allow myself to do to her…”
I stopped and looked at Bella, wondering if I should proceed. She seemed more interested than upset, so I continued.
“I couldn’t allow myself to do to her what you’d done to me. Instead of telling her that I returned her feelings, I explained to her why I didn’t feel I ever could. I told her everything starting with how you and I met, how quickly things developed between us, and how it all fell apart. Finally, I told her about the email you’d sent me over the summer, and that despite how much I wished otherwise, I was still very much in love with you.”
“That couldn’t have gone over well.”
“She said she appreciated my honesty and had suspected that my heart wasn’t in it. Ultimately, she convinced me not to waste any more time. She said I was being stubborn and immature, and that I owed it to myself to find out if what you’d said in your email was true. Kate’s a good friend; she’s only ever wanted me to be happy. The next day, I replied to your email.
“When I met you at the diner, Kate and I had just ended our relationship. I don’t feel as though I ever led her on, but it was still wrong of me to become involved with her when my emotions were still clearly elsewhere. I suppose dating several girls casually would have been more responsible, but that’s just not me. At the time she and I began seeing each other, I genuinely believed what you said on Thanksgiving and thought a future with you was not an option.”
“When you broke up with me, you told me our relationship was purely physical on your end. At the time, I believed you.”
“How could you actually think I meant that?”
“It fit. Do you remember how you responded to me the first time I told you I loved you? You fell to your knees and tried to open my pants, no doubt thinking that I wouldn’t realize you didn’t say it back if my cock was in your mouth.”
“Well, in all fairness to me, the first time I gave you head you did forget your own name.”
“Wait, are you admitting I’m right?”
“No, you’re completely wrong.”
“Care to enlighten me as to what your actual motivation was?”
She sank into the cushions and sighed. “I’ve honestly never thought about it until now. In the moment, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“That’s never come up in therapy?”
“Not that specific instance, no.”
I thought back to the session I had with Garrett, when he helped me identify that as the first real indication that Bella was emotionally stunted.
“Interesting. It has for—well—never mind.”
Bella was having a hard enough time forgiving herself for what she did to me. If she knew how I bad off I was in the months immediately following our break-up, she’d never forgive herself. I failed to see what good could come from divulging the fact my father had blackmailed me into therapy.
“In retrospect, I can see how you would have interpreted it as such.” She didn’t appear to notice my almost-admission. “I really just wanted to give you something in return, and I didn’t feel comfortable saying the words. They are actually still very hard for me to say.”
“Well, that was the first of many instances, but we don’t need to rehash it. I only mentioned this to you so you would understand what state my mind was in at the diner.”
“You do realize I didn’t consciously objectify you, right? I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, but in every way that mattered, it was my first time, too.”
“I know.” I reached out and brushed her cheek with my thumb. “Was there anything else you wanted to ask?”
“Are you kidding? I could keep you here for hours.”
“I’d love to stay, but I should get home to my mom.”
“I’m sorry. How is she?”
“Remarkably well, all things considered. She maintains that she was incredibly lucky to have had my father for the time that she did, and though she’s lonely, she still feels blessed.”
“Your mother is quite possibly the most amazing person I’ve ever known. I now know where you get your strength.”
I shrugged. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? Everyone places such value on emotional strength, hoping to rely on it in times of agony, never realizing it’s agony itself that makes a person strong. I can’t even fathom how my mother is holding herself together. I may have lost my father tragically early, but eventually we all bury our parents. It’s the natural way of things. My mother has now buried her father, her son, and the love of her life. She’s thankful for what she had, but I’m more angry than I can possibly articulate. I know you meant it as a compliment, but I don’t have her strength, nor can I begin to understand her pain. I’m selfish enough to hope that I never do.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“It’s okay, Bella. Really.” I stood up. “I’m sorry to end our evening so somberly. Please forgive my outburst. You know, my dad waited up for me after our first date. I’d told him not to, but of course he ignored me.”
She rose from the sofa and handed me my jacket. “I can just imagine that conversation.”
“It was mortifying. He took one look at me and asked me if we used protection.”
“I knew he thought I was a slut.”
“Bella, no. He loved you.”
“Do you think he would approve of this?” she asked, walking me to the door.
“I know he would. He had his concerns when I first started seeing you again, but he was coming around. He’s only ever wanted my happiness, and you make me happy.”
She moved her arms to my neck, pulled my face to hers and kissed me. As her tongue passed between my lips, she pressed her hands against my cheeks. Fueled by her enthusiasm, I cupped her ass over her skirt and pulled her against me. She gasped, deepening our kiss while rubbing her body against mine.
I was seconds away from lifting her skirt, pushing aside her panties and fucking her against a wall. As much as we’d enjoy that, neither of us was ready. I broke the kiss, but trailed my lips across her cheek to her ear.
“Soon,” I whispered, wanting her to know that I needed this—needed her—just as much as she needed me. If today were my last day on earth, I wouldn’t regret not making love to Bella as much I would regret leaving her under the false impression that was all I thought she was good for.
I straightened my back and studied her face; she seemed to understand.
I squeezed her hand before stepping out onto her porch. “Dinner again tomorrow?”
“I’d like that.”
“I’ll call you in the morning.” Not trusting my restraint, I placed a quick kiss on her cheek before leaving.
When I arrived home, I opened the backdoor as quietly as possible. If by some miracle my mom had managed to fall asleep, the last thing I wanted to do was wake her. I hung up my jacket before grabbing a lager from the fridge.
“Did you have a nice time?”
After cold beer slid down my chest, I spun around to find my mom sitting on the couch with her legs tucked underneath her, a pen in one hand and her journal in the other.
“Did you wait up for me?” I asked, doing my best to dry myself off with a dishtowel. Realizing it was an exercise in futility, I unbuttoned my cuffs, pulled my soaked shirt over my head, and draped it on one of the stools beside the kitchen island.
“I didn’t want you to come home to a dark house. I know your father always stayed awake in case you wanted to talk, so here I am.” She smiled sadly. “I’m not even going to pretend it’s the same. I mean, I’ve never been anything to you but your mother; I wouldn’t have a clue how to be your friend. ”
She flipped her journal shut. “How was it?”
“This is really awkward for you, isn’t it?”
“A bit.” I sat on the sofa across from her. “But I appreciate the gesture.”
She nodded, thinking for a moment before speaking. “I’m not trying to replace your father—I know I never could. I just want to be there for you the way he was. I don’t want you to feel alone–”
“I want you to feel as though you can talk to me.”
At that moment, there was really only one thing I wanted to talk to my mother about, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with my date with Bella.
“Why did Jack try to break up you and Dad?”
“I’m not sure how to handle this,” she said, sighing. “On the one hand, I don’t want to damage your relationship with your grandfather. He loves you very much, to the best of his limited ability. He’s not a bad guy; he’s just extremely protective of his own. Jack took one look at me and thought I was only after your father’s money.”
“I don’t understand. I mean, you and Dad met in med school. You were going to be a doctor; it’s not like you were incapable of supporting yourself.”
My mom shook her head and laughed. “My salary is paltry compared to the kind of money I’m talking about.”
“Jack came around though, right?” I hated the thought of my mother suffering in silence all these years for my benefit.
“What changed his mind?”
“I signed a prenup.”
What? My parents’ epic love story had accompanying legal documents?
“I can’t believe Dad asked you to do that.”
“He didn’t; I insisted. Besides, it made everything a lot easier in the long run. Jack eventually came to tolerate me, even if he never entirely approved of me. He was doing what he thought he needed to do to protect his legacy…which is now your legacy.”
None of this made any sense, unless…
“How much money are you talking about?”
My mom scribbled something onto a sheet in her journal before tearing it out and handing it to me. Though it was just a number, I didn’t need to wonder why my mother couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud—I doubted I would be able to, either. I stared at it in disbelief. For as long as I could remember, I found numbers reliable and comforting. This one rocked me to the core.
“Please don’t be upset with us for not telling you sooner. Your father was planning on having this conversation with you eventually. The idea that money is power is often extended to include individuals who possess it; I’m not certain that is accurate. If a person grows up with this kind of wealth, it’s inevitable that he would come to rely upon it. Self-sufficiency is invaluable and something your father and I wanted you to attain. We wanted you to self-identify using your sense of personal worth, not your net worth.”
“Wait. Is this mine now?”
“More or less. You won’t gain control of it until you’re twenty-five,” she continued, “but you can draw from it for qualified expenditures—tuition, for example. You’ll also receive an allowance from it to cover your living expenses.”
“What if I don’t want it?”
“At twenty-five, you can make that decision. Anyway, this is why you need to meet with your father’s attorneys. I’ve been concerned that your reticence to meet with him is a manifestation of subconscious denial that your father is really gone.” She swung her legs out from under her and leaned toward me. “I know how hard this is for you, but it’s only going to get harder. That’s why I went to the impound lot today and dealt with the car.”
All attempts to comprehend my inheritance ceased.
“You did what? I would have done that for you.” I didn’t even want to think about what that must have been like for my mother. “Please tell me you didn’t go by yourself.”
“I didn’t; one of my friends went with me. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be; then again, I couldn’t bring myself to actually look at the wreck itself. They gave me Dad’s personal effects that they’d retrieved, and I authorized them to dispose of what was left of the Mercedes.”
“What personal effects?” I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about; the hospital staff gave us Dad’s wedding band and watch the night he died.
“Everything that wasn’t on his person—his cell phone, laptop, and a few other things. What I can’t figure out is why he was using your keys. Anyway, I left them on the island for you.”
I leapt to my feet and flew across the room. Sure enough, my keys were there; the one that opened Bella’s front door was among them. Despite the feelings he had about Bella at the time, my father had remained true to his word. As I walked back to my mother, I heard my father’s voice in my head.
“You’re choosing to live. Don’t ever lose sight of that. If you don’t put yourself first, no one else will.”
“Except for you and Mom.”
“We won’t always be here.”
I realized then that my father had one last thing to tell me, and the attorney was his messenger.
“I’ll call Dad’s lawyer in the morning.”