She debates taking a few steps forward to see if he’ll follow her, but then realizes she doesn’t know where they’re going, nor does she know where he lives. For the very first time, it occurs to her that he could be a tourist. This revelation doesn’t surprise her as much as the one that follows—that he could be just about anything and she’d accept him. Hell, despite her overwhelming resentment of their presence, she’d even be okay with it if Edward were a shoobie. Her own bias notwithstanding, she knows this is the best of all possible scenarios. It’s also the least realistic. More than likely, he’s a transient with at least one addiction. He may not be single, and after tonight, she may never see him again. So despite the fact her panties are damp and there’s a pulsing between her legs that feels so good it’s borderline torturous, she second guesses her decision to go home with him.
Though Edward still can’t read her mind, this is one instance where he knows what she’s thinking.
“You don’t do this, do you?”
He’s intentionally vague. Edward knows it isn’t polite to inquire of a lady’s previous suitors, and the last thing he wants to do is offend her. But they are in Atlantic City, and luck is on his side. Bella understands what he’s asking and doesn’t think less of him for wanting to know.
“No,” she admits.
“Neither do I…at least, I haven’t in a very long time.”
Her eyes widen, and she stifles a laugh.
“Yeah, right. Look, I know I’m a bit younger than you…how old are you anyway?”
Though he looks the age he claims to be, something about his answer feels wrong to her.
“How long have you been twenty-nine?”
“My grandmother was twenty-nine for fifty years,” she explains. “She preferred it to the alternative.”
“Right. Well, in my case, there is no alternative.”
“My grandmother said the same thing. Look, I’m not even going to pretend to be worldly or sophisticated, because I think we both know that’s not who I am. I’m even willing to own being inexperienced—especially compared to the women you typically date—but I’m not naïve. I know when someone’s lying to me.”
“Would you like to see my driver’s license?”
“No, I believe you’re the age you say you are. By the way, thank you for the note. It was lovely—not at all what I’d expect from someone so out of practice.”
Much like Bella, Edward has no illusions about himself. He’s a pervert with a fetish—at least, that’s who he is while on his best behavior. Despite the advantages of his immortality, he’s not all that different from his human counterparts in the sense that he doesn’t usually put forth the amount of effort his best behavior requires of him. On a typical day, he self-identifies as a killer. In knowing exactly who he is, he also manages to know who he is not.
And he’ll be damned (more so than he already is) if Bella thinks of him as a manwhore.
“I honestly can’t remember the last time I took a woman out on a date—that’s what I meant when I said I haven’t done this in a very long time.”
Bella scrutinizes his face, trying to make sense of his claim. He appears earnest, but she knows better. Angela has witnessed him leave the casino in the company of various strumpets, and Bella saw his strawberry blonde conquest with her own eyes. She reminds herself that while his actions may have been immoral, they were perfectly within his right. As much as she wishes otherwise, he doesn’t belong to her. She wouldn’t begin to know how to entertain him if he did.
“No” She struggles to keep her voice neutral. “You’ve just taken many women.”
“Yes.” His answer is automatic. “But that was different.”
“Is this where you claim you’ve reformed?”
“I’m far from reformed.”
She laughs at his honesty. “Oh, so in other words, I’m different from the others.” Her tone, while sweet, drips with sarcasm. “I’m special.”
“You are both different and special.”
She believes him because she wants to, and because despite her earlier insistence to the contrary, she is naïve.
As she waits for him to elaborate, the extent of her nervousness is palpable—her hands are folded behind her back so she won’t be tempted to bite her nails, and she’s shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
It only endears her to him further. He realizes that although he wants to take her home with him, he wouldn’t dream of bringing her to his local pied-à-terre. The idea of Bella’s feet touching the same floorboards on which he has satisfied virtually every kind of lust in existence is repugnant to him. She’s better than that, and should be treated as such.
In that moment, he wishes more than anything he paid closer attention to humans. As far as contemporary seduction is concerned, he’s an expert, but he knows nothing of modern romance. Reasoning that courtship could not have changed that much, he decides to take Bella to the kind of place he would have taken his sweetheart when he was her age.
“I have an idea,” he says. “Come with me.”
He extends his hand to her, then thinks better of it. As much as he wants to touch her, he knows his skin will be cold against hers. When he kissed her hand the previous evening, had she remarked on his temperature, he would have blamed it on the cool ocean breeze. Inside the hotel, there were no such excuses. He knows he couldn’t bear it if she were to return his physical affection with disgust. He drops his arm to his side, and for the briefest of seconds, his cheeks feel warm. Shocked and confused, he brings his fingers to his face only to confirm his skin is as smooth and lifeless as it always is. He then realizes he’s embarrassed.
It’s an emotion he hasn’t experienced since blood coursed through his veins, and he was actually capable of blushing. Though his physiology no longer supports any kind of physical manifestation of anxiety, he feels it intensely enough that for a moment, he believes his face had become pink. And in that instant, he forgets how it feels to kill. He is able to pretend that he doesn’t coerce his victims into bringing themselves to climax before he feeds on them, that he doesn’t have a collection of erotic pictures of the men and women whose lives he’s taken, nor is he a sexual predator with a fetish for drinking human blood laced with post-orgasmic endorphins. At least, that isn’t who he is when he is with Bella. Now he’s just another boy with a crush—a boy who wants more than anything to hold his sweetheart’s hand but fears she will reject him.
In a nervous habit from his youth, he raises his hand to run it through his hair. Bella misinterprets his gesture—she thinks that Edward must have recognized the expression on her face as disappointment and therefore changed his mind about touching her. She raises her hand to meet his, and when she realized grasping hers was not his intention, it’s Bella turn to be embarrassed.
Though the blood coloring her cheeks appeals to him, her discomfort does not. The last thing he wants is for her to feel as if he is rejecting her.
Deciding that if he isn’t going to eat her, he has no choice but to get used to the idea of taking certain liberties with her—and ideally, she would eventually begin to do so with him. He gives her the same smile he uses to lure his prey, and this time when he extends his hand to her, he does so with the charm and grace one would expect from a practiced serial killer.
When he speaks again, it’s a single word.
She places her hand in his. With extreme care not to exert too crush her bones, he twines his fingers through hers. Edward’s hand feels unlike any Bella had held, but not for the reasons he feared it would. Her mind registers the difference, and credits it to the fact that unlike last man who touched her, Bella actually likes Edward. Furthermore, if his note to her was sincere, he likes her, too. She’ll let him lead her wherever he wants.
Steel Pier has changed quite a bit since Edward’s youth, but the overall mood is the same. Though it no longer boasts all-day picture shows and diving horses, it still provides a would-be suitor the means to earn his lady’s attention through far more honorable means than poker. Even more importantly, there is enough seclusion to permit stealing kisses but not enough privacy to damage a reputation. For this reason, Edward wants to ride with Bella on the Ferris Wheel.
They walk along the pier holding hands, breaking contact only long enough for Edward to purchase tickets.
“The last time I went on any of these rides was after my senior prom,” Bella says. “My date was drunk; he threw up on me on the Tilt-a-Whirl.”
“That’s rather unfortunate.”
“The whole experience pretty much sucked.”
Edward is far too distracted by the warmth of her hand to think about why she related this particular anecdote to him. Then she gives him a gentle tug, and her gaze meets his. Her eyes are wide, and he can see she’s no less nervous than she was outside the all-you-can-eat buffet.
“You have nothing to worry about. Not only do I not drink alcohol, I’m physically incapable of vomiting without great effort.”
“Right,” she says, laughing. “I’ve heard that before—usually as a preface to an offer to teach me how to suppress my gag reflex.”
“I sincerely hope you’re kidding.” He struggles to control his rage at the idea anyone would treat Bella so disrespectfully.
“No. When your work uniform consists of little more than lingerie, customers assume they can take liberties with you.”
“Is that what people are calling sexual harassment these days? Please tell me you took the liberty of slapping him.”
“No.” She shakes her head and shrugs. “I need my job too much.”
Though he understands her dilemma, he can’t bring himself to tolerate such demeaning behavior toward the woman he’d like to make his.
“Next time something like that happens, let me know and I’ll take care of it.”
That his anger is at all hypocritical doesn’t occur to him.
“I appreciate the offer,” she says, “but there’s not much you could about it, outside of killing the guy and making it look like an accident.”
“Murder is much easier to get away with than you realize.”
Laughing, she squeezes his hand. “Why do I get the feeling everything is easy for you? Well, besides puking, of course.”
She can’t remember the last time anyone was angry on her behalf—jokingly or otherwise. It provides a nice fantasy for her, but not of retaliation against those who’ve treated her poorly. After all, Bella couldn’t be malicious if she tried. It’s the idea of coming home to a person who cares about her enough to become angry when casino patrons demean her. She doesn’t need to daydream, though. For the first time in recent memory, living in her present is pleasant enough.
Though the sky is black as they climb onto the Ferris wheel, they’re bathed in the multi-colored lights of the pier and the boardwalk. The ride begins to move, and as they ascend to the top, distance alters their perceptions of their surroundings. Atlantic City looks almost pretty, and Edward feels almost normal. He finds this revelation surprising. Even before he became a vampire, normalcy was not a quality he would rank among his attributes.
Their conversation is clichè, and given the amount of time Edward has walked the earth, he should find it incredibly dull. He doesn’t, because even though the subjects that arise are predictable, her responses to them are anything but.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“Typical,” she mutters, rolling her eyes.
“Is this because of sports? Let me guess—you hate the Yankees.”
“No. I mean, yes. Of course I hate the Yankees…and the Mets and the Giants and the Rangers. That goes without saying, but my general dislike of New York is not about that.” She’s laughing, but it’s twinged with sadness.
“What is it about then?” he asks.
“Real estate values, housing bubbles, and entitlement, but I’d prefer not to get into it. Besides, my bias is not specific to people from New York; it applies to everyone who comes down here thinking they can make a quick buck.”
She nods. “But not the kind at the casino—they’re mostly harmless. I’m talking about people who bet on other people’s misfortune. Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended you. I know not everyone from offshore is evil. Do your parents still live up there?”
“No. They died a long time ago.”
It’s true, even if a small part of her is grateful to meet someone capable of understanding her loneliness.
“It’s fine, really. I never really knew them. My mother died having me, and though my father lived to see me come of age, he was part of a generation of men with means that didn’t concern themselves with their offspring. I don’t miss them as much as I miss what they represent.”
Understanding all too well what he means, she scoots a bit closer to him on the seat.
“A feeling of belonging.” She rests her head on his shoulder, sighing.
Her scent assaults him, and the urge to drink from her is almost unbearable. He reasons away his bloodlust, telling himself it would be a waste without his camera. Not only that, without the enhancement of post-orgasm endorphins, human blood holds about as much appeal to him as a virgin margarita would to an alcoholic. Feeding from Bella would quench his thirst, but he’d derive no real satisfaction from it unless he made her come first.
It presents an interesting dilemma. His last remaining shred of humanity craves her climax for the usual reasons a man would want to give physical pleasure to his lover. But if ecstasy should come to her while she’s in his arms—if her blood became scented with orgasmic intoxication while his teeth were in proximity to her neck—would he be able to resist the euphoria it promises? He won’t know the answer without testing his resolve.
He slides their joined hands over the fabric of her skirt, brushing the back of his hand against the bare skin of her knee. Her breathing deepens as he drags their entwined fingers along her inner thigh. With her free hand, she adjusts her skirt—both to give him better access and provide some privacy from onlookers. His exploration continues, until his pinky brushes against her cotton underwear. He lets go of her hand, resting it against her Venus mound. If she were anyone else, he’d tell her to touch herself.
“Push your panties out of the way,” he whispers.
Everything about his command feels forbidden, but that’s part of the appeal. Silencing her inner warnings, she hooks her index finger around the crotch of her underwear and pulls it to the side. There’s a heightened awareness of each sensation—the cool wind against her newly exposed lips, the movement of the Ferris wheel, his breath against her face. Her quickened heartbeat rushes blood through her veins, intensifying her excitement. She thinks she’ll die if he doesn’t touch her; he thinks she’ll die if he does.