“Best Caesar salad in town, and they prepare it tableside.”
“Well, I know what I’ll start with.” Bella smiled at Edward before looking back at her menu. They were just friends having lunch, and she shouldn’t feel as if she were on a date, but she did. Determined to remind herself that he was not available, Bella changed the subject. “So, how did you meet Rose?”
Edward shifted in his seat. He wasn’t comfortable discussing Rose with Bella, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Bella already knew that he had made a commitment to Rose. Bella had witnessed Edward kiss Rose hello and goodbye, and she’d seen the diamond on the fourth finger of Rose’s left hand. Yet he found himself wanting to keep that part of his life completely separate from Bella, much the same way Rose compartmentalized her career from her personal life—as something Rose needed as an individual to feel fulfilled. Edward found himself internally justifying his burgeoning friendship with Bella to his better judgment as something he needed, independent of his betrothed, not to feel fulfilled, but to feel alive. He attributed this solely to Bella and her quick wit, her profound sense of decency and her amusing quirks. Edward never once considered even for a moment Bella represented to him everything he ever wanted that he did not currently have. For that reason alone, he answered Bella’s question.
“In undergrad. We dated most of senior year, then parted amicably after graduation. I was staying in Ithaca for my master’s, and she had a job lined up in New York City. We kept tabs on each other through mutual friends, until she relocated to Philadelphia. Once she was settled, she called me and as strange as it seems, we sort of picked up where we left off.”
“And you were still compatible?” Bella was amazed. She’d had acquaintances who had married their college sweethearts, some of whom were still quite happy. Those relationships succeeded or failed based upon the couple’s ability to grow together as individuals. Those who had grown apart (or not at all) didn’t fare so well.
“Yes.” Edward faked a laugh. “You seem surprised.”
“I am, a little,” she admitted, “but not in a bad way. I’ve just never known anyone to do that successfully. You two must be meant for one another.”
“I suppose. I’ve never much bought in to the idea that there’s a single person for each of us, and if one is lucky enough to find that person, the relationship automatically works. I think we choose our paths, in life and in love.”
Bella put her elbow on the table and rested her chin in the palm of hand. “What if the path we want isn’t available to us? Do we settle?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
Edward ran a hand through his hair, not liking at all the direction the conversation had taken. “It isn’t settling unless it’s a conscious decision.”
Bella noticed the shift in his demeanor. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest you were settling. Rose is beautiful and intelligent. She’s hardly a consolation prize. I was asking more because of my own relationship…”
“Do you think you’re settling?”
“I think I would be if I’d let things with Emmett continue the way they were going. I have to wonder if he loves me the way he claims he does, because I feel if that were actually the case, I would see him for more than a few hours a week. Alice has a theory about commitment. She claims women become ready to settle down when they find the one, but the psychological process is completely different for men. Once a man decides he’s tired of being alone, the next remotely suitable candidate he dates becomes the one. It’s completely unromantic, but it does explain some of life’s greater mysteries.”
Edward considered Alice’s theory in terms of his own life, and decided he didn’t think it was applicable. When Rose resigned from her job to complete her MBA, taking their relationship to the next level just made sense. She was spending a few nights per week with him anyway; it made no sense for her to blow through savings on rent. After they’d lived together for two years, the next logical step was to offer her his name and a ring. He didn’t want to be one of those guys—the kind that would string a woman along indefinitely without ever making a permanent commitment. Edward had established in his career and his life, and there was no reason to wait.
“Rose isn’t simply a means to end for me.” It came out much more abruptly than he would have liked.
“I wasn’t suggesting she was. I’m not sure I agree with Alice enough to simplify it to the extent that she has, but she presents a decent enough argument that it’s hard to completely discount it. Take Emmett and me, for example. If he were truly as in love with me as he claims he is, I wouldn’t be a perpetual second fiddle to his job. Yet when I told him I wanted to see other people last night, he was so resistant to the idea. I’m good for him on paper.”
“You’re good, Bella. Period.”
And now Bella was also romantically available. Edward’s mind began going all sorts of places it had no place going, until he reminded himself that even if Bella was free, he was not.
“Anyway, I’m certain Emmett cares about you a great deal,” Edward said automatically. Truth be told, he hadn’t put much thought into Emmett’s feelings for Bella. He just couldn’t imagine that it would be possible for any man to be with Bella romantically (and sexually) for six months and not fall in love with her. As it was, Edward had known Bella fewer than six days and was still irrationally drawn to her.
“I don’t doubt that he does. At the same time, I don’t believe for a second that he is crazy in love with me.”
“Are you crazy in love with him?” he asked.
The waitress arrived to take their orders, and Bella found herself grateful for the reprieve. It wasn’t that she felt uncomfortable talking about personal matters with Edward. Though the fact Bella was so attracted to Edward complicated matters somewhat, she felt she could discuss anything with him. She just wasn’t sure she knew the answer to his question, and was all too happy to change the subject.
“It looks like the Phils are going to win the pennant after all.”
From that moment on, their conversation neither lulled nor returned to their significant others.
Over the next several weeks, Emmett kept his word. He was much more attentive when it came to Bella, and though he did cancel dates from time to time, he was much more considerate about doing so.
Emmett and Bella had not discussed their status since she told him she wanted to see other people, therefore as far as she was concerned, she was free to see whomever she wanted. It just happened that the person she wanted most of all was not free to see her. Yet Bella did see Edward—a few times each week. They went to coffee shops and happy hours. They sat on park benches and in movie theaters. They were careful never to be alone together, yet there was rarely anyone with them.
Emmett was completely aware of the growing closeness between Bella and Edward, even if he wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about it. On one hand, Edward was not competition. He was, after all, engaged to the woman whom Emmett considered to be the personification of idealized feminine beauty. Still, Bella reacted to the mere mention of Edward’s name with an excited interest he’d never witnessed her exhibit for any other person. Though Emmett realized that Edward was not actually a threat to his relationship with Bella, he didn’t believe Edward’s motives were pure.
Emmett was having this exact thought as he brought the most recent market data reports to Rose’s office one evening in late November. He sat in one of the chairs opposite her desk as she completed her phone call with Edward, very surprised at what he heard.
“I probably won’t be home by then.” She held up her index finger and smiled at Emmett, indicating she was just about finished with her phone call. She mouthed “Edward” and rolled her eyes, opening and closing the palm of her hand as if it were a mouth, indicating she’d been trying to get off the phone with him for a while now, but had been unable to do so because he wouldn’t stop talking.
“No, I think it would be nice if you invited Bella. Emmett will likely be putting in some very long days between now and the end of the year as well; I imagine she’ll start to get lonely, being that we’re headed into the holidays and all.”
Emmett was careful not to react visually to Rose’s obvious encouragement of Edward’s friendship with Bella, but he was dying to ask her about it.
“No, that’s okay. Look, I’m keeping other people waiting. I’ll see you at home. Bye.”
Rose hung up the phone and sighed. “I’m sorry. When he doesn’t see me at night, he feels compelled to talk at me every chance he gets. It gets more than a little annoying after a while.”
“I was trying not to listen…” Emmett began.
“But of course you did anyway,” she interjected, flashing Emmett a knowing smile.
“Well, yeah.” Emmett handed the reports to Rose, but had no intention of discussing them yet. “I wasn’t aware you encouraged your fiancé to spend time alone with my girlfriend.”
“Only when it suits my purpose. Why? Does it bother you?”
Emmett folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “I suppose that depends on what your purpose is.”
“Nothing nefarious. Edward can be a whiny bitch when he’s alone. The time he spends with Bella more or less gets me off the hook.”
“What are you doing with him, anyway?”
Emmett had wanted to ask Rose that very question for roughly two years now.
“Excuse me?” Rose blinked, and looked at Emmett with what was meant to be genuine surprise. She was not, however, a decent enough actress to fool someone who knew her as well as Emmett did.
“Drop the righteous indignation. Would you care for a survey of some of the words you’ve used to describe your beloved?”
Rose didn’t respond.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he continued. “A bit of a pussy. Whiny. Clingy. Incapable of amusing himself. Stifling—and those were just in the past two days. You don’t hear me describing Bella that way.”
She rolled her eyes. “No, you just hide from her when you’re not in the most patient of moods.”
“Like most couples, we have communication issues.” Emmett shrugged. “You and Edward, however, seem completely incompatible.”
“Well, we’ve been together for five years. I no longer have any illusions about his faults, and his idiosyncrasies that I once found appealing now make me insane. I can’t really blame him, though. It’s the nature of the cohabitation beast. You’d have some empathy if your relationship modus operandi wasn’t short-term serial monogamy.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Fine, I’ll spell it out for you. Of all of your love interests, past and present, which relationship lasted the longest?”
“The one I have with Bella.”
“Exactly. And you’ve been together all of seven months. Do you know what that says about you?”
Emmett laughed. “No, but I have a sneaking suspicion you’re about to enlighten me.”
“It says you like the perks that go along with exclusivity, but you also like to bow out before the honeymoon stage is over. You don’t like it when relationships become comfortable enough that your partner no longer feels compelled to be on all the time, and you haven’t found someone you care about enough to want something deeper.”
Emmett wasn’t talking about Bella, but of course, Rose didn’t realize this. It didn’t matter anyway. Not only was Rose engaged, she was his direct report. Company policy expressly forbade fraternization between executives and their subordinates, rendering void his growing affection for Rose.
“Time will tell.”
“Indeed,” he said dryly. “Meanwhile, you still haven’t answered my question. As the nature of your constant complaints about him seems to indicate, Edward isn’t strong enough for you, nor does he sufficiently challenge you. Why are you still with him?”
Rose averted her eyes for a moment as she thought about his question.
“Honestly?” she asked.
“The sex is pretty fucking amazing.”
Emmett rested his elbows on Rose’s desk and leaned toward her, engaging his mouth before his brain could give input.
Rose was half-tempted to ask him to prove it.