May 21, 1998
Mr. Cullen’s presence isn’t off-putting as I recall from Edward’s birthday. At first I think it has to do with the occasion—that even he isn’t so much of a dick to be unaffected by his son’s graduation from law school. Then I realize the change in his demeanor has more to do with Alice’s presence than Edward’s accomplishment. For every critical glance he tosses Edward’s way, there’s a proud smile directed toward his daughter. The difference in the way he treats his two children is so profound it makes me wonder why Alice has never mentioned it.

Before joining the rest of his class, Edward pulls me into his arms and brushes his lips against mine. It’s the most demonstrative he’s ever been in the presence of his father and, even though it ends the second it begins, it’s significant. I expect him to step away from me, but he doesn’t. Instead, we stand forehead-to-forehead with our fingers entwined.

“Are you nervous?” he asks.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”

Thinking he may be teasing me, I take a step back and look at his face. There’s no smile, just a whole lot of tension. I feel as if it’s my fault he’s stressed out at the thought of leaving me alone with his family. I want him to enjoy this—to bask in his accomplishment without fearing what could come out of my mouth if his father says something I find offensive.

“Alice is here, too, you know,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”

“I wasn’t worried about you.”

I’m not sure what he means, but everything that comes to mind is equally hurtful in different ways. I want to ask for clarification, but I don’t. If I allow my issues to pull the focus from what should be, I’d be no better than his father.

Mr. Cullen doesn’t linger after the ceremony. He allows Alice to take a single picture of him standing beside Edward then makes some excuse about a pressing business matter. That it’s complete bullshit is obvious to everyone but Alice. For the briefest of moments, Edward doesn’t bother to hide his disappointment. Wanting to give him comfort but painfully aware of his discomfort with PDAs, I brush my fingertips lightly across his back. The next thing I know, he’s trying to fit me inside his robe. With the shutter of Alice’s camera clicking away in the background, he holds me tightly against him, seemingly oblivious to everything around us.

“Thank you,” he whispers. “I know this has been hard on you, that you’ve been lonely and frustrated. I’m not sure if I can ever make it up to you, but I know I’m going to try.”

I may not have been one of today’s graduates, but I leave the ceremony feeling as if I I’d gotten top honors.

December 11, 2009
If I weren’t close with Esme outside of work, I wouldn’t know it was her. The woman walking into the wine cellar looks nothing like the one I left in the kitchen. Her formerly-restrained hair falls past her shoulders in loose, warm-brown corkscrew curls, and she’s traded in her chef coat and slip-resistant, steel-toed shoes for her “emergency little black dress” and an exquisite pair of vintage-looking, blue silk ankle boots.

It’s not as if I’ve never seen her done up like this—Esme excels at presentation when it comes to just about everything. It’s just not like her to do this at work. In the past when VIPs have dined with us, Esme would go into the dining room straight from the kitchen and introduce herself as the executive chef. If the patron in question were to comment on the food stains on her coat, she’d liken her clothing to a painter’s smock and proceed to detail which items from the menu caused each splatter. Her audience has always listened with rapt attention. Though she thinks it’s because she’s so enthusiastic about the menu, I know better. Americans go crazy for French accents, and though hers is very faint, it’s there nonetheless.

“Stop it,” she says.

“Stop what?”

“Looking at me that way! When you give me that look I get self-conscious, when I’m self-conscious I get clumsy, and everything from the soufflé to the executive chef falls flat.”

“If you’re that nervous…” I point to her shoes. “What’s up with the heels?”

“I like to feel tall when I meet new people. Besides, these are hotter than kitchen clogs. See?” She lifts one foot off the ground, flexing it at the ankle. The jet beads on the black tulle-covered toe of her shoe catch the light, creating a subtle shimmer. “Anyway, regardless of how pretentious it makes me feel, Carlisle would want me to introduce myself as the owner.”

“Why would that make you feel pretentious? I mean, you are the owner.”

“Not really.”

“Just the other day you were saying what’s yours is his and vice-versa.”

“I was talking about recipes, best friends, and half-siblings we never knew existed. Carlisle may not be ready to meet our brother, but I am.”

I throw my arms around her; I can’t help it. “Thank you.”

“Okay.” She pats my back before stepping away. “Give me the details. Is there anything I should know before we go upstairs?”

I think for a moment. “He’ll probably be in politician mode.”

“So don’t believe a word he says?”

“Not like that,” I say, laughing. “It’s just when he’s out in public, his manners are very formal. I don’t think he realizes how cold it makes him seem.”

“Got it.” She gestures to the door. “Ready when you are.”

Bearing the Lafite, we make our way upstairs. When Edward’s table is in view, Esme stops walking. After letting out a quiet gasp, she wraps her hand around my wrist.

“Seriously?” she whispers, angling her head toward his table.

“What’s wrong?”

“You failed to mention how much better looking he is in person.”

Laughing, I gesture for Alec to bring a decanter. By the time the three of us arrive at Edward’s table, I haven’t entirely composed myself. Thankfully, Esme takes the lead. The moment she begins speaking, he stands.

“Bon soir, Senator, et bien venue á Un Souvenir Léger. I’m Esme Platt Crawforth, part-owner and executive chef.” She extends her hand to him. “It’s a honor to have you dining with us this evening.”

“Please,” he says, shaking her hand. “Call me Edward.”

“1995 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.” With one hand under the bottle and the other on its neck, I present the wine for his approval.

After a cursory glance at the label, he nods. “Thank you.”

I retrieve my knife from my pocket and cut away the foil from the neck of the bottle. Alec hands me the decanter then picks up the already-lit candle from the center of the table and places it in front of me. With the soft glow of the candlelight illuminating the bottle neck, I’m able to pour the wine into the decanter in such a way that ensures any sediment produced in the aging process remains in the bottle. When I’m finished, Alec returns the candle to its original location and takes the now-empty bottle from my hands, replacing it with a glass.

I’m about to pour when the shimmer of my tastevin catches my eye. I haven’t used it since the night I received my Master Sommelier Diploma. Feeling that tonight will be equally significant, I put the glass down and pour a small sample of the Lafite into my tastevin. With my eyes closed, I savor its bouquet. Earthy and smoky with hints of licorice and blackberry, it’s a pleasure to inhale. When I finally taste, its palate is just as I recall. Elegant and restrained, it promises to exceed whatever expectations Edward may have—provided he gives it the time it needs to open.

“Lovely.” When I open my eyes, I see something in his I can’t identify, but it’s intense and makes it hard for me to remain professional. In a pathetic attempt to buy myself a moment to refocus, I say what I’d say to any restaurant patron after opening a special bottle. “You made an excellent choice.”

He shrugs. “I came here knowing what I wanted.”

“Ideally, it should decant for two hours, but if you have difficulty waiting—”

“I don’t.”

“If you change your mind—” Esme begins.

“I won’t…” He pauses, then flashes Esme that smile. “However, if you’re not too busy, I’d love some company.”

Knowing she’d like him if she knew him, I answer on her behalf. “She’d love to.”

I hurry to the kitchen, watching them out of the corner of my eye. She smiles as she takes her seat in the chair he pulled out for her. I don’t have to wonder what she’s thinking; it’s written all over her face.

She approves. One down, one to go.

When Esme rejoins me in the wine cellar, she doesn’t talk about her dinner with Edward. She doesn’t talk at all. Sitting in the chair facing my desk with her elbow propped on an armrest and her chin in her hand, she seems lost in thought. As much as I want to ask her to dish, I don’t. It wouldn’t work if I did—this is one area in which she and I are nothing alike. She doesn’t speak without thinking, and she’d never offer an opinion without being sure. Needing to take the edge off, I pour us both some cognac.

Right away, she takes a sip. “I was expecting the guy I’ve seen guy on the news—never in a million years did I think I’d actually like him. I should have known better, considering how often you’ve said Carlisle reminds you of him.”

“There’s nothing not to like…well…besides his unfortunate tendency to put his political ambition before everything else in his life.”

“Present company included—and that’s the problem.” She uncrosses her legs and leans forward. “Look, I have no doubt Carlisle will get over the half-brother thing. His anger will wear itself out, and he’ll realize Edward is no more responsible for his father’s behavior than he is for Sarah’s. As much as Carlisle loves his mother, he knows she’s far from blameless. You, on the other hand…”

“I’m not blameless, either.”

“As far as Carlisle is concerned, you may as well be.”

As much I want to contradict her, I don’t. I’m too afraid she’s right.

“Anyway,” she continues, “why are you still here? Edward’s upstairs waiting for you.”

I’m out of the wine the cellar with the speed of a champagne cork.

“Let me know how it goes,” she calls after me.

“What, you want a blow-by-blow of the blowing?”

“I meant breaking the news to him, you perv.”

My shins are the first to slam into the wooden staircase, followed quickly my palms and my knees.

“Motherfucking rim-job breath!”

“Are you all right?” Esme rushes over and helps me to my feet. “Did you trip on something?”

“Only my sense of foreboding.”

I make my way up the remaining steps silently chanting I think I can. The second I see him, I know I have no choice but to cease thinking of myself as The Little Engine Who Could and instead be The Bottom-Heavy Girlfriend Who Has No Choice. I adjust my mantra accordingly. I know I must isn’t as catchy, but it reminds me wussing out is not an option.

“Come on,” he says, taking my hand. “I have a car waiting.”

He leads me outside where we’re immediately ushered into a black sedan with darkly tinted windows. The moment the driver closes the door, Edward pulls me into his arms. His hands are everywhere as we kiss, and as much as I love how he’s making me feel, I know if I don’t stop him I’ll get sidetracked.

“Sorry I kept you waiting.”

“I thought we went through this earlier. Where you’re concerned, I have infinite patience. For example…” He drags his hand up my thigh. “As much as I want to spend the holidays in you, I’d be content to spend them with you.”

“So if there was something I needed to tell you…”

“Is something wrong?”

“Not necessarily wrong…just…” I lean back into the seat, sighing. “Shit, this is harder than I thought it would be.”

“You’re making me nervous–”

“Esme likes you.”

“It’s mutual—she’s fascinating. Now that I’ve spent some time with her, I’m really looking forward to meeting Carlisle.”

“Good!” I say a bit too enthusiastically. “Hopefully, that won’t change after I tell you–”

“Damn it, Bella, would you please just–”

“He’s your brother.”

Squeezing the oh-shit bar, I brace myself for whatever comes next.

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  1. on 28 Jun 2012 at 11:16 pmSimone

    The moment of pride Edward feels for Bella is wonderful. He may not have noticed her on his way to his study in 1996, but in this instance, he really and truly saw her. Isn’t that what we all want?

    I have to ask, have you ever had a 1995 Chateau Lafite?