He could justify his inaction a multitude of ways: he respected Bella too much to compromise her that way, that he could never do that to Rose, that this night was not the time. Any and all of those reasons would be sufficient enough to cause him to keep things between Bella and him exactly as they were—pseudo-platonic. None of them was the real reason Edward found his feet frozen in place, unable to make a move toward her.
Cowardice was paralyzing, so instead of declaring himself, Edward stated the obvious.
“I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Bella released her lower lip from between her teeth and shrugged.
“Why?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.
Bella responded with an almost inaudible sigh.
They stood in silence for such a long time that Edward was startled when Bella finally spoke. “Why am I uncomfortable, or why do I fake it?”
“You can’t really expect me to answer that. Our friendship notwithstanding, I feel as though I’m betraying Emmett simply by having this conversation with you.”
“You shouldn’t; you’re free to see other people. You told me this yourself.”
“Seeing other people and badmouthing him to a mutual acquaintance are very different things. Don’t think for a second I’m not completely cognizant of precisely how much you are enjoying this newfound insight into my relationship with Emmett. I saw that smile on your face. Do you know what it told me?”
Edward shook his head.
“It confirmed my suspicion that you didn’t ask the original question because you like me; rather, you asked the question because you dislike Emmett.”
Edward couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Bella, that’s not it.”
“Really? Are you sure? Because it seems to me that you and Emmett are in constant competition, and Rose is the ultimate prize. We all know the extent to which sexual prowess defines male self-worth, and how knowing one’s enemy lacks that prowess can be the ultimate weapon. I just can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. In my desperation for someone—anyone—unbiased in whom I could confide, I just unknowingly handed you more ammunition.”
“Ammunition?” Edward repeated, dumbfounded. “What are you talking about?”
“For the next time. You know, when Rose heads into the office on a Saturday or after a rushed dinner out with you. If she says something thoughtless or hurtful before heading off to see Emmett under the guise of work, which just so you know, I don’t believe for a second they are truly just working during all the time they spend together, now you have the ultimate comeback.”
“I would never betray you like that,” Edward insisted.
“Right. Just like I’m sure you told Rose you wouldn’t advertise the fact she’d had some work done.”
Edward wanted to tell Bella that she had it completely wrong, that he wouldn’t do that to her, not now, not ever, because he was far more protective of her than he’d ever been of Rose. He didn’t, though. He knew because of the circumstances under which they met, because while he stood on the sidewalk having an inappropriate conversation with Bella another woman was upstairs wearing his ring, Bella had no reason to believe he meant a word he said. He remained silent because he knew he caused this with his own inappropriate conduct. He’d behaved appallingly and for all Bella knew, he always did. That if Bella were to take his actions at face value, then this—skulking away from his fiancée so that he could have an inappropriate conversation with another woman—was Edward’s normal. Until that moment, he hadn’t thought it was possible to hate himself so much.
Bella took off Edward’s jacket and held it out to him. “Here.”
“You’ll freeze,” he said, holding up his hand in a gesture meant to convince Bella to keep the jacket. She thrust it toward him a second time, and he put it on in resignation.
“I’ll be fine. I never would have accepted it in the first place had I known…” Bella stopped speaking and shook her head.
“Had I known the costs associated with doing so.”
Edward was painfully aware of the fact Bella was not referring to his tuxedo jacket and had no idea how their playful banter had suddenly turned so ugly.
He ran his fingers through his hair, groaning in frustration. “You tell me what to do, Bella. Tell me what it will take for you to believe I care about you, that I’m doing this for you, that you are the person I want and need, and that I would never intentionally hurt you. That I crossed a line just now, yes, but it wasn’t because this is a game to me. I’m not manipulating you to teach Rose a lesson. What will it take to prove that to you?”
Bella didn’t believe him for an instant. She felt naïve and ashamed, and her response was more the manifestation of these emotions than her heart’s plaintive cry for what it truly wanted.
“You can’t have it both ways, Edward.”
“I’m not trying to.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned back on her heels. “Okay, fine. Let’s say for the sake of argument, you don’t want it all. What do you want?”
As tempting as it was and as easy as it would be to do so, Edward couldn’t bring himself to lie to Bella.
“I want you,” he whispered.
His quiet confession knocked the air out of Bella’s lungs with such intensity she may as well have been punched in the chest. Bella had dreamed of Edward saying these words to her more times than she could count. In her fantasies, they filled her with joy, fulfillment, passion and the promise of a tomorrow too blissful to imagine.
The reality left her feeling empty and angry.
She glared at Edward, her face void of any expression. “I don’t believe you.”
“Then what will it take? What do I have to do to convince you what I feel for you is real?”
Bella didn’t have to think about her answer, and when she spoke, her voice was steady and emotionless. She knew exactly what Edward needed to do to prove himself to her; she just didn’t think for a second he would actually do it.
Edward stared at Bella, trying to wrap his mind around her request.
“Leave Rose,” she repeated. “Or leave me the hell alone.”
“I can’t leave you alone,” he responded automatically.
“I suppose that leaves us at a standstill, doesn’t it? Regardless of what you can or can’t do, I can’t be a party to emotional infidelity and it’s become abundantly clear to me that’s where our friendship is headed. I feel badly enough I let things get as far as they have between us. I’ve just been so lonely, and felt so isolated that I briefly lost sight of who I am. You said there was no reason to pretend with you. Well, this…” She wagged her index finger between the two of them. “…isn’t me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really should find Emmett. Good-bye, Edward.” In a cloud of dark blue silk chiffon, Bella disappeared inside the hotel.
Edward remained on the sidewalk for several minutes, his eyes clenched, mentally replaying their conversation. The phrase “emotional infidelity” stung more each time it entered his mind. Still, he went over every detail of their conversation, again and again, in the hope he could convince himself that Bella was simply speaking out of anger, and that he had not been unfaithful to Rose in any sense of the word. It was only after he accepted the idea that he’d failed in almost every way a man could that he found his way back to his fiancée.
“There you are,” Rose said when Edward reappeared at her side. “I was about to send out a search party.”
“No need. I just went outside for some air.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Rose’s voice was heavy with accusation.
Edward took Rose’s hand and pressed his cheek against hers, whispering quietly in her ear, “Do you really want to have this conversation now? Bear in mind; you are hardly an innocent party.”
Keeping with his ruse, Edward kissed Rose’s cheek. He had no way of knowing that from across the room, Bella witnessed this small display of what seemed like affection and marveled at how a simple, chaste gesture could tell two women no less than fifty feet away from one another exactly where they stood.
Hating who she had become, Bella made a silent vow to forget Edward Cullen.
“You seem a million miles away.”
Bella felt Emmett’s hands on her upper arms, and gave him a small smile.
“I’m sorry. Maybe it’s the combination of the champagne and my inability to breathe in this dress, but everything tonight almost seems surreal.”
Her statement was completely true, just not in the way Emmett thought it was.
“You’ll feel better when I get you home and strip you out of it,” he said suggestively.
Emmett leaned down and placed a quick kiss on Bella’s forehead. “You were magnificent tonight. Do you have any idea how beautiful you look?”
“You don’t have to lay it on that thick, you know,” she teased. “When we get back to my apartment, I’ll let you come inside regardless.”
He laughed at her double entendre, even if he was slightly annoyed at her inability to take a compliment. “I didn’t have an ulterior motive. But if that’s the offer on the table, how about a quick spin around the dance floor and then we get out of here?”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all night.”
Later that night, the comfort Bella felt in Emmett’s arms was genuine, even if the ecstasy was not.