November 21, 1995

When I invited my sister Alice’s roommate to crash with me, I promised myself I’d keep my hands off her. It wasn’t because I don’t find her attractive—quite the opposite, actually. Dark-haired and pale-skinned, Isabella’s looks are exactly the type I like. Except she’s young—a barely legal college freshman—and all alone in Washington D.C. while her parents go through a nasty divorce in Washington State. At least, I’m assuming the divorce has gotten nasty. I can’t imagine why else they’d tell their only child she isn’t welcome to come home for Thanksgiving. Right now, she needs a friend—anything more and I’d feel as if I was taking advantage of the situation.

My resolve goes to hell less than four hours after she arrives. During a botched attempt to mentor her academically, I ask what she wants from life.

“For you to kiss me,” she says.

My mouth is closed when I indulge her, and though it’s nice enough, I do it hoping that kiss will be the end of it.

“We should probably discuss sleeping arrangements,” I say, trying to change the subject.

“The floor is fine.”

“No. You’re my guest.”

“Only because your sister put you on the spot.”

“You don’t know me very well—not at all, really—so you’ll have to take my word for this. When I do something, it’s either because I want to or because it’s necessary to get where I want to be. I never do anything out of obligation, or because someone put me up to it.”

“I appreciate your hospitality, but I’d never be able to sleep knowing you were on the floor because I was in your bed.”

“Then I guess we’re sharing the bed.”

When it’s time to actually share the bed, she’s jumpy. “This is your first time, isn’t it?”

“It was.”

I’m not sure what she’s talking about. We haven’t done anything since she’s been here besides discuss her parents’ divorce and my political aspirations…then I kissed her.

“Why are you so surprised?” she asks.

“I was asking if it tonight was your first time sharing a bed with a guy you hardly knew, it never occurred to me what happened earlier was…”

“My first kiss?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, it was. As far as your other question is concerned, I’ve never done that before, either.”

“I’m sorry?” I’m not sure what else to say.

“For what?”

“If I’d known, I wouldn’t have–”

“You wouldn’t have kissed me?”

“Not then, and certainly not like that.”

“Oh.” She picks up her bag and sulks off to the bathroom. A few minutes later, I hear her cursing.

“Is everything all right in there?”

“Except I forgot to pack something to sleep in. Can I borrow a t-shirt or something?”

“Sure, no problem.”

I bring her one of my undershirts; it seems innocuous enough. When she steps out of the bathroom, I realize how wrong I was. The fabric is see-through—so much so that I can see the outline of her breasts. It could be my imagination, but it seems as if the longer I stare at her, the more pronounced her nipples become.

The best course of action would be for me to get into bed and pull the comforter up past my waist before she goes from jumpy to terrified—which is exactly what will happen if she sees what’s going on in my pants.

“Isabella–”

“Would you please call me Izzy?”

“No.”

“Why not?” She puts her hands on her hips, thrusting her chest forward.

Using her childhood nickname reminds me of her age and therefore make me feel even worse about the first-kiss thing than I already do, but I can’t tell her that. Instead, I ignore her question.

“Do you need anything from me?”

“I need you to stop calling me Isabella.”

I fake a yawn. “I meant before I go to sleep.”

“I need you to kiss me again.”

As much as her request surprises me, that I want to honor it for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact she’s half-naked and I’m hard surprises me more. My wanting to kiss her goes beyond her classic looks and quirky sex appeal as well the fact that after what happened earlier, I feel like I owe her a real first kiss. No. I’m tempted to comply because like who she is and I want to know how she tastes.

Her eyes close; her breathing deepens. I angle my face toward hers, but just before our lips touch, I change my mind. If I kiss her, I doubt I’ll be able to stop at kissing her—and I have no idea how far she’s willing to go. Deciding to play it safe, I brush my mouth across her forehead. By the time she opens her eyes, my erection and I are safely under the covers.

“Come to bed.”

She’s what seems to be quiet (for her) as she climbs into beside me. More than once she inhales as if she’s about to say something, but then the only sounds that escape her mouth are sighs.

I’m not sure what to say, so I state the obvious. “You think I don’t want to kiss you.”

“Yes.”

“I do. I just don’t think I’d be able to stop.”

She smiles. “I wouldn’t mind it if we spent the night kissing.”

I laugh—not at her inexperience but at her obvious enthusiasm. “I would.”

I pull her into my arms, turning her so that her back is against my front. She’s stiff at first, but after a few minutes, she shifts as if trying to make herself comfortable. Her ass wiggles against my dick, and for a moment I think she’s playing me—that she lied about it being her first kiss and knows exactly what she’s doing. But instead of grinding into me again, her body tenses and she becomes so still I can’t tell if she’s breathing.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

She nods, but she doesn’t relax.

“You said you wanted me to kiss you, so I thought holding you would be okay. The more I think about it, though, it probably wasn’t such a good idea.”

She turns onto her back, rubbing her hip press against me.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry.” Her words are rushed to the point they’re almost unintelligible. “I wasn’t even trying to touch you, let alone hurt you.”

“You didn’t.”

“But that noise you just made sounded as if you were in pain.”

“I was—in fact, I still am. Just not in the way you’re thinking.”

“Oh.” She stares down at the comforter, and even though the lights are out, I can tell her face is red.

It makes me want to touch her again. I pull her against me, making sure there’s space between her hips and my cock just in case her naïveté is real. Even if it’s not, this is still the first major holiday she’s spent away from her parents. Isolation is something I know well. Before I can think better of it, I’m stroking her hair.

“The first holiday on your own is always rough. Each year gets a little easier; you’ll see.”

“Alice said you prefer spending the holidays alone, but you could go home to Chicago if you wanted.”

“I’d be just as alone there as I am here. The fact there’d be people around me would only intensify the feeling.”

“You mean your stepmother?”

“My issues are with my father. His wife doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, but she’s always been kind to Alice. I suppose I should be grateful for that.”

“Do you think your dad cheated on your mom?”

I stifle my laugh. “I know for a fact he did.”

“How?”

Because despite being stingy with his attention, my father is generous with his sperm.

“It’s a long story.”

“Ugh,” she says. “That’s what bothers me more than anything. I’m really close to my dad—way more than I am to my mom. My dad’s the chief of police, but when it comes to me, my mother is always the one who plays bad cop. She justifies it by saying she has a lot of regrets and doesn’t want me to make the same mistakes she did—that she’s so strict because she loves me. I once overheard my dad tell one of his buddies that my mom lost her personality when she found Jesus; his friend claimed she never had one to begin with. It might even be true—I don’t know and I don’t care. It doesn’t matter that I don’t like my mother very much. I love her and he was wrong to cheat on her.”

“Was she really that strict?”

She rolls her eyes. “You have no idea.”

“So being here with me…”

“Would be completely unacceptable.”

“Got it.” I slide my hand down her back, resting it on her hip.

She stiffens. “May I ask you a question?”

“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“Why are you touching me?”

My fingers creep under her t-shirt to stroke her thigh. “Would you like me to stop?”

“No. I just don’t understand.”

“Are you enjoying it?”

“Yes.”

“So am I—that’s why I’m doing it.”

“Why? I mean, earlier you said you wouldn’t kiss me again because you didn’t think you’d be able to stop. Well, I don’t think I’m ready to do much more than kiss you, and I don’t want to lead you on.”

“You aren’t. I mean, I’ve barely touched you.” I study her face. “Are you really that naïve?”

She looks offended. “I told you today was my first kiss!”

“I know, but you’ve also said you wanted to lick me—”

“I did not!”

I laugh. “So you don’t want to lick me?”

“No! I mean yes.” She covers her mouth with her hand. “Shit. I didn’t mean to say that out loud. I think I want to die. When did this happen?”

“On the phone a few weeks ago. It makes sense you don’t remember, you told me you’d been drinking. Don’t be embarrassed; I enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure you did in an it’s-nice-to-know-someone-thinks-you’re-hot-even-if-you-have-zero-interest-in-her kind of way. Everyone likes ego boosts.”

“Okay. Since you seem to have been born without the mechanism in your brain that filters your thoughts before they exit your body through your mouth as words, I’m going to pretend for a few minutes that I don’t have one either, and hope I don’t say anything that makes you want to hit me.”

“I think I want to hit you already.”

“You’re cute.”

“Is it necessary to patronize me?”

I think it is, but I don’t tell her that. “What makes you think I’m not interested in you?”

“Do you always answer a question with another question?”

“What’s wrong with answering questions with questions?”

“In this context, it’s an obvious avoidance tactic.”

“Oh, I agree completely,” I say, smiling. “For the sake of clarity, let’s go back to the beginning. Why do you think I’m not interested in you?”

She hides her face in the pillow. “You regret kissing me.”

“No. I wish the circumstances surrounding kissing you were different, but I don’t regret doing it. I feel the same way about that night on the phone—I would have preferred to have had that conversation with you while you were sober, but I liked hearing that you wanted me in your mouth. In fact, I liked it almost as much as I liked seeing you come to bed wearing my undershirt. I’d tell you what that did to me, except you felt it for yourself.”

When she raises her head to looks at me, she’s wearing her feelings on her face. Insecurity, wonder, desire tempered with a little fear—all of it’s there, raw and real. So do I kiss her, but not because she asked.

I kiss her because I think I could fall in love with her.

November 21, 2009

The airport is the same as it always is the week before Thanksgiving—which is different from usual. For every person for whom this is just another day at work, there’s another bubbling with excitement at the thought of seeing loved ones. Most frequent fliers resent holiday travelers because they cause longer wait times at security. I often find myself feeling similarly, but not because I’m in a hurry to get home to begin the festivities. Thanksgiving isn’t like that for me. If not for my sister coercing me into eating take-out at her apartment instead of alone in mine, it would be any other day. This year she’s yet to bring it up, so when my BlackBerry lights up with her number, I know exactly what’s coming.

“Hello, Alice. If you’re calling to deliver your annual guilt-trip, you can save your energy. I’ll be by on Thursday for dinner.”

“You’re off the hook this year.”

“Huzzah!” It then occurs to me avoidance has never been this easy; therefore, she must be up to something. “Wait. We haven’t abandoned guilt in favor of reverse psychology, have we?”

“I’m serious. In fact, I’d prefer it if you made yourself scarce this week. I’m expecting a houseguest for the holiday and her flight arrives in a few hours, so– ”

I snort. “She’s either married or hideous—which is it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Every time you have a female visitor, you parade her around in front of me while the two of you engage in contrived smalltalk designed to pique my interest.”

“I don’t have to try to pique your interest in this one, and that’s the problem.”

There’s only one person she could be talking about.

“Isabella is coming for Thanksgiving and she doesn’t want to see me?” My chest tightens; it’s difficult to breathe. “Wait, has she told you this?”

“Simmer down, Senator. For all I know, she doesn’t care one way or the other if she happens to bump into you. But since getting her to come out here hasn’t exactly been an easy sell, I don’t want to put her on the spot.”

“So you’re uninviting your only sibling to Thanksgiving to accommodate? Nice.”

“Don’t you dare get pissy with me! After everything that’s happened, this is the least you can do…”

Infuriated, I tap my thumb against the mouthpiece on my phone. “You’re starting to break up. I think I’m losing you.”

“I don’t believe this bad-connection crap for a second, you know.”

“Alice?” I say, ignoring her. “Hello?”

I end the call and shove my BlackBerry into my pocket. I know better than to make promises I can’t keep. If she’s staying with my sister, I can stop by unannounced without the risk of the headline “Illinois Senator Caught Trespassing on Former Flame’s Property” ever gracing TMZ’s homepage. If not for gossip blogs, I would have taken my chances and shown up on Isabella’s doorstep the moment I found out where she lived. Instead, I’ve spent the past ten years hoping the world was small enough that one day our paths would cross on their own. It never occurred to me when they finally did, my sister would try to stand in my way.

Trying to work the tension from my neck, I lower my head and roll my shoulders. When I straighten my posture, I think I see Bella standing in the line beside mine. I don’t believe for a second it’s actually her, but I still can’t take my eyes off her. Eventually, the line she’s standing in snakes forward, and she follows, dragging her suitcase behind her. Though she carries herself similarly to the way Bella did, it isn’t until she twists a lock of hair around her index finger that I know without a doubt. This time, it’s really her.

As my line moves forward, I stare off in Bella’s direction, formulating my plan. By the time I approach the counter, I know exactly what I need to do.

“Good evening…” I pause, reading the employee’s name tag. “…Ashley. I was wondering if you could do something for me…”

By the time I leave for the terminal, I’ve secured Isabella the seat next to mine. I spend the next hour sequestered in the airline’s private club lamenting the fact my speech writer isn’t around to help me figure out what I’m going to say to her. When I finally slide into the row beside her, I can only manage two words.

“Hello, Isabella.”

“Senator Cullen.”

Though her tone is clipped—almost cold—it’s hard not to react to her proximity. Despite having taken precautions, my heart pounds and I start to sweat—maybe arranging her upgrade wasn’t such a good idea. Realizing the Xanax I took before boarding is doing nothing to take the edge off, I ask the stewardess to bring me a scotch. Bella asks for something equally strong, which upon being served she downs in a single gulp.

“Though I suspect I already know the answer,” she says, staring straight ahead, “I feel compelled to ask anyway. Did you arrange for my upgrade to first class?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Why?”

“That should be obvious.”

“Trust me—it isn’t.”

“I wanted to talk to you, and I suspected that wouldn’t happen if you had a means of an escape. If your attitude is any indication, I was correct in my assumption.”

“Why bother? I distinctly remember you telling me that if I left you, you wouldn’t follow me. Ten years in politics notwithstanding, I always took you to be a man of your word.”

“Technically, I didn’t follow you; I happened upon you in an airport.”

“How did you know we were on the same flight?”

“I asked the nice lady at the check-in counter.”

“As one of your constituents, I’m appalled you would abuse your power in this way.”

“You’re assuming I used the power that comes with being a Senator.”

“Didn’t you?”

Smiling, I shake my head.

“Oh.”

“I daresay it wouldn’t have worked had the airline employee been male, unless of course, he swung that way. Apparently, luck was on my side.”

“‘Daresay?” She smacks her thigh as she laughs. “I was sure years of positioning yourself as a champion of the working class would have deWASPified your speech patterns.”

“DeWASPified isn’t a word.”

“Only because the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary haven’t met your family.”

“Ha ha. You’re funny. Just so you know, it’s my voting record that makes me a champion of the working class, not my speech patterns.”

“Clearly. They’re as upper-crusty as ever. It just goes to show, you can take the boy out of Milton Academy, but you can’t take Milton Academy out of the boy.”

“As if I’m the only person in this row the past ten years left unchanged! In a world of chaos, you Isabella, are a constant.”

She says nothing, effectively rendering my statement invalid. She must not realize her silence says more about whom she’s become than anything that could come out of her mouth. She doesn’t speak again until after the stewardess brings our second round of drinks. Once again, Isabella downs hers in a single a gulp.

“Does five minutes of your attention really buy a first-class upgrade?”

“Five minutes of my attention bought me a look at your travel itinerary; my American Express card bought your upgrade.”

“I’d thank you, but I imagine by the end of this flight I will have more than paid for it.”

“Is the thought of two hours in my company that unappealing to you?”

She shrugs. “Eh.”

“If my presence is that distressing to you, I’m sure I can find someone in coach who would be happy to switch seats with me.”

“Please stay.”

I smile; perhaps this isn’t as hopeless as it seems.

“Tell me how it feels,” she says.

“How what feels?”

“You know.”

“If memory serves me right, you know exactly how that feels.”

“Not that—I mean to have accomplished everything you set out to do.”

“Well, I haven’t accomplished everything.”

“You may not be President, but you’re a senator—that’s pretty big. Besides, I think I read in People you’re only thirty-six. Even Kennedy wasn’tthatyoung.”

“Don’t be cute; you know exactly how old I am. Since when you do readPeople?”

“I don’t. But when I saw my ex-boyfriend on the cover, I decided to make an exception. The whole thing was kind of surreal. Do you realize you were the only guy featured who didn’t pose shirtless for the photo spread?”

“You sound as if this disappointed you.”

“Not really. I do question the methodology used in the selection process. Regardless, had I known you’d one day be considered the sexiest man alive, I would have insisted you walk around our apartment naked.”

“Don’t change the subject. What makes you think I was talking about my political aspirations?”

“With you, it’s always about your political aspirations. So, is running for President still part of the plan?”

“My plan is to serve the people of this great nation; the capacity in which I do so doesn’t matter to me.”

“Save the bullshit for the campaign trail. I deserve more than that from you.”

“More than what?”

“The same canned answer you’d give anyone.”

“Why? Because you’re my ex-girlfriend who didn’t realize she was dating the sexiest man alive at the time of our relationship?”

“With all due respect, Senator, I’ve seen sexier.”

“I beg to differ.” Leaning into her, I add in a whisper, “Oh, and just so you know, the rest of my ex-girlfriends don’t call me ‘Senator.'”.

“Are there many of them?”

“Senators? There are two from each state, and the Union is at an all-time high of fifty states. You clearly didn’t pay attention in eighth-grade civics, but perhaps you remember third-grade arithmetic. What’s fifty times two?”

“That wasn’t what I was asking, and you know it. Your point is taken regardless. I knew my question was inappropriate.”

“And yet you asked anyway,” I say, laughing.

Now this is the Bella I know—utterly incapable of engaging her mind before kicking her mouth into gear. How ironic that her most endearing quality is also her most frustrating.

“It’s nice to see time hasn’t improved your manners.” I’m about to tease her about her nonexistent filter, but then she lays her hand on top of mine, and I’m no longer capable of coherent thought.

“I scoff at propriety,” she says, threading her fingers through mine.

It’s something I know all too well one of the things I love most about her. However in this particular instance, she can’t possibly understand the kind of attention she’s inviting. I made a choice live in the public eye; she hasn’t.

“Do you want the tabloids to report we’re involved?”

“Huh?”

“Don’t get me wrong—I’m enjoying your touch. I just don’t think you realize what a public display of affection toward me such as this implies…”

Her hand is off mine in a flash. “Sorry.”

“Me, too,” I say, sighing. “What have you been up to?”

“I’m visiting Alice for Thanksgiving.”

“So she said; I meant over the past ten years.”

“Oh.” Squirming in her seat, she tucks her hair behind her ear. “Well, I moved to Chicago and took a job waiting tables while I applied for…” She pauses, forming quotation marks with her fingers. “…real jobs.”

She’s goading me—and she isn’t being at all subtle about it.

“I thought it would be a means to an end—just a way to earn some cash while I figured things out.”

“Grad school?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head. “I never went.”

I don’t need her to tell me it’s my fault. “I’m sorry–”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Don’t be; it’s fine.” After taking a breath, she continues, “Anyway, I kind of fell in love with the restaurant scene, so I enrolled in culinary school.”

“You’re a chef?”

“I’m a sommelier.”

“You get paid to drink wine all day.”

“You have your dream job, and I have mine.”

“Yours sounds infinitely more enjoyable.”

She laughs. “I have no doubt about that.”

“Do you wear one of those fancy cups around your neck?”

“A tastevin? I bust one out on occasion. They’re fun.”

“Do they serve a purpose?”

“Not since the discovery of electricity. These days, they’re decorative.”

“If wine is your thing, why did you order Jack Daniels?”

“We’re on an airplane. I don’t have to see the wine list to know it sucks.”

“Smart woman.” As much as I fear her answer, I need to know. “Are you happy?”

“Yes…but I’ve missed you.”

As much as I’d like to, I can’t bring myself to believe her. “Your actions over the past ten years would imply otherwise.”

“You think I’m lying about being happy? Let’s review: I drink wine for a living. Does life get better than that?”

“No, I think you’re lying about having missed me.”

“My reasons for leaving you had nothing to do with my feelings for you. I thought you understood that.”

“I understood perfectly. It was either you or my career. You made yourself quite clear.”

“You’re over-simplifying it.”

“Am I?” I shake my head. “I don’t want to spend what little time we have here rehashing what happened that Christmas—that’s not why I upgraded your ticket.”

“Oh? Why did you upgrade my ticket?”

“I miss you. For so long, I thought I’d never see you again. Then I saw you standing in line. You’re even more beautiful now than you were then—do you know that? I couldn’t let you walk away from me again, even unwittingly.”

“When I told you I was leaving, you acted as if you didn’t care.”

“I know I did.”

She folds her arms across her chest. “I don’t understand you, nor do I trust you.”

“You have no reason not to trust me.”

“I have every reason not to trust you. You lie for a living.”

I throw up my palms. “I’m a United States Senator!”

“Exactly!”

“Whether you’re willing to believe me or not, it’s the truth. I tried to find you after you left, but no one would tell me where you went. I know I told you I wouldn’t do that, but that was before I knew what it would be like to live without you. I’ve kept the same cell number and email address to this day so you’d have a means to contact me, just in case you changed your mind, if you’d decided you acted that day on anger or haste. If I’d known that Christmas what I know now…”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“It would have. I would have chosen you.”

She says nothing. I spend the remainder of the flight wondering why I’m able to earn the trust of voters but not that of the woman I love. The wheels touch ground and I know I’m running out of time.

“Bella, please–”

“I heard you, but I don’t see how that changes anything. Besides, I’m not available.”

“Are you seeing someone?”

“No.” Her shoulders shrug. “I’m just over it.”

My body reacts to her words as if I’ve been punched in the gut. My ribcage feels too small for my lungs, and I feel like I’m suffocating. Somehow despite all this, I’m able to take in enough air to speak.

“In that case, there’s nothing left to say.” I unfasten my seat belt and gather my things. “Thank you for your time, Isabella. I always enjoy touching base with my constituents.”





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