"Bella, you're doing it again."
Bella glanced up from the clutter of photos on her desk that she had so strenuously been staring at for the past fifteen minutes and turned to raise an eyebrow at her best friend and coworker, Alice.
"Biting your lip. You always do that when you're feeling stressed, which tells me as much as it tells you, that you're working yourself too hard. When was the last time you've had a full night's sleep, may I ask?"
Bella rolled her eyes but proceeded to contemplate Alice's question. For some people it would seem like a simple question, but to someone whose days and nights merged into one long blur, the answer could prove to be difficult. This was her very first day of operating her portrait photography business – it had taken her years of hard earned sweat to get her up to this point, and now that she had finally reached her goal, everything seemed to be happening so fast. She could hardly get a decent night's sleep when there was just so much to do and so little time to do it. She wanted this business to be a success; she had worked too hard and long for it to become anything but.
Not bothering to frustrate herself further, Bella shrugged her shoulders and glanced back down at her work. "I don't need a full night's sleep, four to five hours is enough for me. And of course I'm stressed; it's only natural after starting my own business and all. What do you expect?"
"I expect you to not die," Alice said dramatically. "Stress has a limit, Bella, and you are spiraling dangerously close to the edge. And I, as your best friend, am not going to let you destroy yourself."
Bella let out a deep sigh of exasperation. "Alice, honestly-"
"When was the last time you've been out on a date?" Alice demanded, propping her hand on her hip.
"No Alice, I refuse to discuss my social life with you," Bella said adamantly, picking up one of the photographs and pretending to study it. This conversation was taking a turn for the worst, and she was not about to let it go on any further.
"Hmm, maybe that's because you don't have one!" Alice exclaimed, her eyes flashing in irritation. "Seriously Bella, look at yourself! Your hair is a mess, your clothes are dirty, not to mention stinky, and in relation to all else there are bags under your eyes. You may not have to wear makeup Bella, but natural beauty only goes so far."
Okay, now she was starting to get annoyed. Didn't Alice have anything better to do with her time than constantly criticize her? Dropping the photo back down on her desk, Bella straightened her back and turned, her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed.
"What do you suggest I do then, Alice? Drop all my responsibilities and go skinny dipping with some hot, random guy on the street? Dress up and party at a club till four o'clock in the morning? I'm not twenty-one anymore Alice, I can't just have fun anymore. I have photographs to take, appointments to make, and a business to run. I don't have time to date. I use to, but not anymore. This-" Bella swept her hand out in front of her, indicating the large studio, "is my life now. Okay?"
"No. Not okay," Alice remarked, stepping forward. "This may be a big part of your life Bella, but it's not all of it. It can't be. You deserve so much more, and you know it."
"Yeah?" Bella snapped, her throat beginning to burn while struggling to hold back the tears that were threatening to come. "Well I had something, someone, who was a big part of my life, but he's gone now. I've moved on. This is what I need, not some stupid romance that'll never last."
Alice shook her head, amazed as well as dismayed at how much Jacob's unexpected death had changed her best friend. She was no longer the happy, wishful-thinking girl Alice had grown up with, but instead a woman whose heart had not only been broken, but whose spirit had been crushed and dampened. It was a sad case, but it was one that if treated carefully, could be easily restored.
"I'm sorry to hear you say that," Alice murmured, lowering her gaze to the floor. "I wish there was something I could have done that would have prevented Jake's death, but it was inevitable. Soldiers die every year, Bella. Jake was great at what he did, but he couldn't have stopped that helicopter from falling, you know that as much as I do."
Her voice softened as she added, "And even though your life with Jake is over, it doesn't mean your life with any other guy is too. Give someone a chance, Bella. You might be surprised."
A single tear slid down Bella's cheek, and with a small huff she swiped it away with her hand and said brokenly, "I don't want to give anyone else a chance. Don't you understand, Alice? I don't want to risk being hurt again."
"So what if you get hurt again?" Alice stated, tilting her head slightly to the side. "Getting hurt is a part of life, you can't avoid it. And you can't avoid love, as hard as you might try. Love is a part of life too, and right now that's what you need. I demand you to try and find it."
Bella snorted. "Alice, please. You're not helping."
Alice sighed. "Fine, I'll go and leave you to your work. Oh, by the way, you have an appointment with a possible customer in five minutes, just unless you've forgotten."
Bella blinked. "Oh. Thanks."
Alice walked to the back door of the studio, then turned around and called over to her, "Oh, and Bella?"
"I may not be helping you, but at least I'm not the one who is refusing to help herself."
Me? Refusing to help myself? Was Alice kidding? She was doing all she could to help herself by starting this business…at least financial-wise. So what if she didn't have a social life? At least she had friends. She might have forgotten to stay in contact with some of them, but she could easily get back in touch with them whenever she felt like it. Besides, she had Alice to keep her company, and for now that was enough.
Shaking these troublesome thoughts from her mind, Bella glanced down at her watch. Five minutes, Alice had said. Like her friend had pointed out, she had completely forgotten all about her last appointment of the day. Rubbing the fatigue from her eyes, Bella started to organize the mess that was quickly dominating her workspace. Just one more hour, she told herself, stifling a yawn. One more hour and I can go home and take a long, hot bubble bath. And quite possibly a glass of wine. Or two.
Completely immersed in her preoccupation, Bella didn't hear the front door of the studio creak open and then close shut. Her attention was focused solely on her photographs until an abrupt, pleasant sounding voice nearly made her jump right out of her skin.
"Are you Bella Swan?"
Dear Lord! Placing a hand over her heart, Bella did her best to calm its racing rhythm, fearing that it would explode at any moment. Good job Bella, she told herself with a slight roll of her eyes. You lost track of the time, and as a result nearly gave yourself heart failure. Bravo.
The angelic sounding voice came again. "Did I startle you?"
"No, it's fine." Finally, she turned around to face the man, forcing herself to give him a small, polite smile in acknowledgement.
Instead, as her eyes fell upon the man for the first time, her eyes widened and her smile vanished almost as quickly as it had come. Her heart resumed its furious pounding, and for the first time in a long time, Bella was rendered absolutely speechless.
The man was ridiculously gorgeous. And why shouldn't he be, with a voice like that? His face looked like it had been carved by an angel, and that bronze hair of his gleamed like nothing she had ever seen. He was dressed casually in jeans, a navy blue t-shirt, and a striking black coat that made him look considerably taller than he already was.
How could such a man like him exist? She wondered in eloquent awe, completely and utterly stunned.
At last her wide, wandering eyes met his, and in that moment her thoughts were consumed of Jacob, and she was immediately flung into the past.The smell of the ocean filled the air. The sun was shining down hard on her back, but she hardly noticed. She was too busy wrapped in the arms of her boyfriend, Jacob, who was grazing his fingers softly down her cheek.
"Have you even realized how much you've made me happy?" he murmured.
"Of course," she whispered. "But you've made me happier."
He scoffed. "Impossible."
She rolled her eyes and poked him in the ribs. "Oh, yeah? Is it impossible for me to do…this?"
He let out a gasp and then a groan as a cold splash of water suddenly came into contact against his bare chest. By the time he had finished registering the shock, she was already halfway into the ocean. Letting out a loud, playful whoop, he hauled his ass in after her, grinning when he heard her high, impeccable laugh trailing infectiously behind her.
"You're in for it now, missy!" He waded further into the water until at last he was able to grab onto one of her body parts – which just so happened to be her leg.
He gripped her leg more firmly with his hands and gently pulled back. She let out a yelp and fell backwards into his arms. Chuckling, he dumped her head once, and then twice underneath the surface and then held her wet, soaking face in front of his so that he could kiss her passionately on the lips. When he finally pulled away from her, she was positively gasping with exhaustion.
"Okay…" she gasped, leaning all of her weight onto his chest and wrapping her skinny legs around his waist underneath the cool, refreshing water, "You caught me."
"And..?" He wiggled his eyebrows mischievously.
"Don't even think it," she remarked, narrowing her eyes at him. "There is no possible way you can convince me that I've made you happier whenI'mclearly the one who you've made happier."
He grabbed a handful of her hair and glanced down at the water pointedly. "All right then, I guess I'll have to dunk you again…and again…and again…"
She crossed her arms and smirked defiantly. "Go ahead."
And he did. Again, and again, and again, (while checking to make sure she was still breathing) until…
"All right, all right!" She clung to him after about the seventh time he had dunked her into the water, struggling to regain her breath as she exclaimed, "I've made you happier! There! I said it!"
She stared at him in astonishment. "There's more?"
He leaned forward and nibbled softly on her bottom lip, causing her to shudder. "It involves you…me…and the rest of our lives." He wrapped his arms around her cold, shivering body, and nuzzled his cheek lovingly against hers. "I'll give you a hint…it's three words."
Her eyes lit up, and a gentle laugh escaped her throat. "Oh,that?"She wrapped her own arms around his neck and snuggled deeper into his embrace, which he could tell warmed her up instantly. "I love you," she whispered softly in his ear.
He sighed deeply in contentment. "Yeah, that's it."
"Forever…that's a pretty long time," she murmured thoughtfully, weaving her fingers through his thick, dark hair.
"Yeah. But I'm thinking we could probably manage it," he murmured back, kissing her neck.
"Mhmm…or we could both end up going to hell," she joked.
He shrugged. "Either way…I'm going to love you. Now…tomorrow…and the next day…and the next day…."
She smiled against his cheek, and it was then that her love for him grew impossibly even more.
"And the next?" she guessed.
She looked up at him, blinking in confusion.
"Until I run out of days to love you," he answered finally, cupping her face in his hands.
Her big brown eyes softened, and in that moment, so did her heart. "Forever?" she questioned.
"Forever," he said, and confirmed his promise with a sweet
, long-lasting kiss.
The flashback ended, and it took all of Bella's will power not to lose it, right then and there.
"Have I come at a wrong time?" the man questioned, his beautiful emerald gaze watching her intently. "If so, we can always arrange the appointment for a different time. Next week, perhaps?"
"No." Bella immediately snapped out of it. "No, it's fine," she repeated. Everything is fine. His eyes are green…so what? A million other guys have eyes that are green…that doesn't change the fact that Jacob is dead.
"Good." Edward flashed her a bright, charming smile, momentarily catching her off guard. "I'm Edward Masen, a friend of Jasper's?"
"Oh." Jasper was Alice's long-term boyfriend – she had always felt a bit intimidated by him. Impeccably handsome, big-shot lawyers tended to do that to some people, especially her. She nodded and murmured, "I see. It's nice to meet you, Edward."
"And you," he remarked, his smile widening.
She blinked, before clearing her throat and asking, "How can I help you?"
"I'd like to have a group portrait done of my family."
What? No self-portrait? Bella thought,considering how handsome he was. Surprising.
"How big is your family?" Bella questioned, rummaging around her desk in search for a pen or a pencil.
"Quite big," Edward stated, watching her as she failed to locate a writing utensil.
"I need a number," she said absent-mindedly, growing frustrated.
Finally, he drew a pen from inside his coat and handed it to her. "Here, allow me."
Glancing up, Bella eyed the pen cautiously before reaching out and taking it from his hand, careful not to make any contact. "Thanks," she murmured, before straightening up and gazing at him expectantly.
"Fifteen," he answered.
Bella gaped at him, and then quickly regained her composure. "Right. And is this your immediate family?" She began to write on a small notepad.
Okay, then. This should be interesting.
"How soon do you want this family portrait done?" Bella asked, forcing herself to look professionally into his eyes, despite the fact that each time she gazed into them, all she could think about was the man who she had lost her heart to.
"As soon as you can manage it," Edward said, and his eyes softened as he continued to stare at her. "You look tired," he bluntly pointed out, sounding concerned.
Bella blushed and glanced down at her notepad. "Yes, well, it's been a long day."
"Let me take you out," Edward offered, smiling at her in a warm, friendly manner. "I know a great place down the street that serves some fantastic wine. You look like you might need a glass."
"What?" Bella glanced up at him, startled. Did he just ask her out? Impossible. He was too handsome. Too nice. Too…too…too perfect.
"I, uh-no. No, I can't. I'm sorry."
Yes, you can, a voice inside of her said. To her, it sounded a lot like Alice.
"Please? It's the least I can do." His green eyes caressed her face, and a shiver ran down her spine.
"I…I…" Stop stuttering! You're not doing yourself any favors by acting like an idiot, she mentally chided.
"Thank you," she said at last, managing to stare calmly into his eyes, "I appreciate the offer, but I really can't. Things are…complicated right now. I'm sure you understand."
"Well, at least I tried," Edward murmured, and her thoughts went back to Alice and what she had said just several minutes before.
'I may not be helping you, but at least I'm not the one who is refusing to help herself.'
Bella frowned, knowing that Alice was right. But that didn't mean she should accept an offer from a stranger who she had only just recently met. Especially someone so…
Dangerously good looking? Yeah, that just about fit it.
"So is there a particular time and place you would prefer to meet for this family portrait?" Bella asked, coming back to safe, solid ground.
"No, but there is a time and place I would like to meet you," Edward said flirtatiously, leaning in closer.
Oh boy, this day just gets better and better, doesn't it? Bella thought bitterly, backing away from him.
"Obviously, you didn't get the picture," she said calmly, ignoring the way his lips turned up in amusement at her comment. "I said no. Now can we please finish this appointment or would you rather continue wasting my time?"
"I'd rather continue wasting your time," he replied honestly, causing Bella to stare blankly at him, before he stated good-humorously, "But instead why don't we finish the appointment?"
"Thank you," Bella said stiffly, wondering why he had to be so damn charming. It was really not helping matters at all. Glancing down at her desk, she picked up her planner and began flipping through pages.
"Now, I have a couple dates here that I could do that are next week. Is that too soon?"
"No, that'll be great."
"Okay. I could do Wednesday at three o'clock, or Friday at noon. Which will it be?"
"Wednesday would be perfect," Edward said, nodding. "I'll let my family know."
"Okay, and where would you like to meet?"
Bella glanced up at him skeptically. "Are you sure? Don't you want to talk to your family about this?"
"No. I have complete faith in you," Edward replied, and it took all of Bella's strength not to melt under his soft, penetrating gaze.
"Um-okay." Bella wrote down a couple things in her planner, and was surprised to see that her hand was shaking. Annoyed by herself, she closed it and set the planner back down on the desk. "Well, I guess we're finished then." she murmured, feeling quiet all of a sudden.
Hesitantly, she glanced into Edward's eyes and was surprised to see that he was staring at her with a look of total longing. Her cheeks burned with heat, and she glanced down at the floor in embarrassment.
"Well, Bella, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you. I'll see you here again on Wednesday. Oh, and Bella?"
She didn't dare look up.
"I think you're beautiful."
By the time she did look up, the utterly handsome Edward Masen was gone.