I saunter over and kiss her but she doesn't even relax, and I barely take the time to shower and grab a bite to eat before I join her. By then my stomach is in knots because her obvious unease is quickly infecting me. Whatever she has to say can't be all good, or she would have been a little less stressed.

At least she's not drawing this out, and starts talking the moment I'm sitting next to her. Her eyes are wide and her fingers now locked around one of the throw pillows, making me even more nervous.

"Okay, please don't freak but before we start I have to ask you one thing?"

"Sure, ask."

"Edward, do you really want to marry me? Because I don't know if my answer's still yes."

That's so not something I've expected, and nothing I've ever wanted to hear her say.

Chapter 19

"You don't want to marry me anymore? Does that mean you don't want me anymore?"

One might have guessed that at a moment like that my voice would sound pressed or something, but I find it's oddly cool. Composed. Which is somehow worse, if you ask me.

Bella blinks, like she so often does to take a moment to work things through, and just that hesitation lifts part of the choke hold the rising emotions inside of me have on my throat. Then her eyes widen and she actually looks horrified.

"What? No! Of course not! I mean how do you even -"

She breaks off then, her fingers digging into her palms as her hands contract into fists, before she suddenly gets up and starts pacing.

"Shit, no, that's not what I want to say! Absolutely not! Gah!"

She throws her hands up in a comical gesture of frustration, then stops a few feet from me, looking about as wound up as I feel.

"I'm really fucking this up, aren't I?"

"That depends on what this is supposed to be," I offer. "If you're trying to scare me, it's working perfectly."

Before I can say more she moves back to the couch and sits down again, then puts her hands over her face. I somehow expect her to start crying now – probably because Alice made me watch too many romantic comedies in high school – but instead she looks up at me after a moment, the look on her face fierce.

"I love you. More than life itself. Don't you think I would try to talk to you if something rubbed me the wrong way first before dropping such a bomb?

Then try counseling or some shit?"

"I'm honestly too confused to make much sense out of anything you say right now," I admit in response.

Bella frowns, then sighs and rubs her eyes.

"Wanna start again?" I suggest, forcing my voice to take on a playful hint.

Her hand immediately drops and she glares at me for a moment, then nods.

"Can't get any worse, right?"

"Well, you could continue by telling me you're going to run off to marry an Alaskan crab fisher ..."

"They do make more money than you at the moment!" she interjects, then pats the couch next to her. "Why don't you sit down and listen to what I really want to say once I get my foot back out of my mouth."

This is actually the first thing she tells me that I can blindly agree with, so I sink down onto the sofa, my knee idly touching hers. Bella gifts me with a brief smile, but she still looks harassed, now even more than before.

Reaching into the pocket of her jeans she pulls out a yellow index card, and I start laughing in spite of myself when I watch her scan whatever she's written down on it.

"Seriously? This talk needs a list?"

"Oh you have no idea," she huffs, then puts the card down on her other side, safely out of my reach. I'm tempted to make a lunge for it anyways, but then her lips are suddenly pressed against mine, her tongue hungrily exploring my mouth. I'm so perplexed that I deepen the kiss without thinking, but before I can even draw her closer she pulls away, a little flushed.

"Much better. So where was I?"

"You were not going to leave me for a sweaty old chain smoker."

"Ah right." Entwining the fingers of her hands around her knee Bella takes a deep breath, but her eyes never leave my face.

"What I was tying to ask you, before I started sounding like a raving madwoman, is if you still want to marry me. Like really start going down that whole picket fence, SUV, two point four kinds road that will likely turn me into a recurring alcoholic at 33."

"Marriage doesn't really mean we have to change the way we live," I try to object, but she interrupts me before I can even formulate the whole thought.

"I know. But this is so not us!"

I want to keep arguing but then something else occurs to me.

"What exactly caused this to start ricocheting in your head?"

She's silent for a moment.

"Alice."

I nod.

"And you mom."

Now I'm starting to frown. "My mom?"

"Yes. And Rose. And two of my coworkers. And stupid people on TV. And every second newspaper or magazine I read. It's as if the world is screaming at me because we're kind of sitting between chairs here with our improper engagement, and I feel like it's all collapsing and trying to drown me ..."

She stops there, her near panicked gaze freaking me out on its own.

"Shit, breathe!"

Bella laughs at my comment, then sighs heavily once more.

"I know I'm kind of overreacting here and not making any sense, but please bear with me? This is all a very interconnected, complicated thing that could morph into a mess – or resolve itself. If I can just get this all out as it should be. It was all so easy in my head!"

I'm silent for a few seconds, hoping that will encourage her, but she's clearly waiting for an answer from me.

"Just tell me, okay? I promise I won't jump to any conclusions until you tell me I can."

She still looks a little skeptical, but then picks up her notes again, scrutinizing them for a while.

"I really don't know where to start, so I guess I'll do it chronologically. If you don't mind."

I nod for her to proceed, and this time she does.

"I guess you still remember that talk I had with Jazz the week after that

Friday?"

It's somewhat amusing that she's still referring to my colossal fuck-up this way, but I don't say that out loud, just nod. I still hate myself most for betraying her like that, but the reason I sometimes feel like kicking his face in is that talk, not that he set me up. Having to pick her up afterwards has been hard enough as it was.

Bella looks at the carpet for a moment, a hint of color creeping onto her cheeks, but when she looks at me again her eyes are bright with anger.

"That's what made me crash last week."

Consider me confused.

"How so?"

It's her turn for the same emotion, but then she shrugs it off and launches into her explanation.

"Okay, back a few more steps. I guess it's obvious that I liked what we did last week with Beth?"

"Mostly."

"Mostly? Hell, Edward, I got off like seven times and moaned and begged you like a wanton slut in heat to fuck me harder, how can that leave even the slightest doubt that I really, really, really liked it?"

"Technically the fact that you dropped and were avoiding me later could have meant that it was too much for you."

She keeps staring at me until I shrug. "Or not. Shutting it now. Please go on."

Looking a little pleased at her small triumph, she does."As I said, I really liked it. Loved it. Don't get me wrong, I really didn't expect that, and that in itself freaked me out so much that I needed a whole week to just accept it. But it helps to know that neither you nor Beth put any pressure on me there. I know it would have been okay if I'd said, yay, great experience, but hell no to a round two. Not the case, though."Again she looks at her notes, but this time I'm sure it's just a move to stall a little longer. When she looks back up the anger is back in her eyes."I won't lie, when you two double-teamed me after the fisting I wasn't really a hundred percent in the moment there. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one here a little lost in memories."The way her imploring gaze is burning into my eyes leaves no room for hesitation or sweet talking, and I don't think she'll appreciate that right now anyway."No, you weren't. I was thinking about our threesomes with Jazz, too."It feels oddly good to spell that out without having to feel like shit for once, and I can see the relief in her eyes about my frankness. When she doesn't go on, I venture a guess."And that was what set you off? Being reminded of how insecure you felt about what happened back then when that was the last thing you needed right at that moment?"She thinks abut my words for a moment, but shakes her head."Sounds plausible but no." Exhaling loudly, she's visibly steeling herself before she goes on. "In the heat of the moment, with my thoughts scrambled and my whole body singing with ecstasy, the only thing I could really think of was how much I liked the sensation. And when I saw that you looked so content and simply okay with what was going on it was like this huge weight was lifted from me, like we finally got over all that shit."Her words mirror exactly how I'm feeling about it – except for the lurking doubt just why she's been crashing so hard and if I could have prevented it from happening – and when I nod my agreement she smiles slightly."But that only lasted for a few seconds. Because for some reason I cannot fathom my mind starts jumping from conclusion to conclusion, and one moment I'm soaring high because everything was great and I just know we're finally over this and I'm really enjoying everything new that you show me – and the next I realize that means that I'm just like you and that every fucking stupid thing Jazz told me about you, all that shit why he thinks you're bad for me and why he pretty much despises you – that's also me.And even if you take into consideration that he later told me that he's aware you're responsible and you'll only do to me what I want done and stuff, that still means that my best friendthat he ..."More than anything she could have said, her stuttering there tells me just how upset she still is, so I do the first thing I can think of and draw her onto my lap. She doesn't really comply so we end up as a somewhat messy heap of arms and legs with her perched on top of me, but now I can see her face right before my own, which is a definite bonus. Her eyes are still dry but anger has given way to so much pain that I feel helpless and at a loss for what to do, but she starts talking before I can even try to make things better for her."I don't even know if any of that is true. And when I think about it rationally now, it's easy to shrug it off and say, who cares what he's thinking?""Easy?" I finally chime in doubtfully."Easier," she admits. "But in the end it's not important. I don't need his approval or anything, hell, I don't think either of us will ever feel the need to tell him what we're up to nowadays. But right then it pretty much broke my neck, and then I had to talk to him on the phone and in the hospital, and when he got all concerned and protective when he was the real reason why I was feeling like shit I snapped. And all along I was afraid you'd see right through me and get offended that I had my panties in a twist over what he thought of me when finally I felt like we'd really started dealing with all this –and I was so glad when I could go home and curl up in bed and just cry for an hour, on my own, without you hovering there, helpless and frustrated and beating yourself up for something you had no power over."Hearing her say that rankles a little but I know it's true, and not unlike the way I'm sometimes dealing with things. I still feel a little like I've failed her –I should have been there to comfort her after all – and as if she can read my thoughts Bella goes on."I really meant it when I told you I need some time on my own. And yes, maybe I was avoiding you after that, but I wanted to make sure I got my head set straight on my own before we have this talk. So that I don't, I don't know, make you think I'm dumping you with the first thing I say or something."We share a smile and I kiss her briefly before she can go on. Bella's own smile brightens, and she licks her lips as her eyes briefly roam over my face."Did I tell you lately how sexy that stubble is?""I remember you complaining last week that I was rubbing you raw with it when I was going down on you."Bella huffs as if I'm just making this up, but the heat in her gaze makes me want to demonstrate that right away. But we're not yet done, and when I prod her gently she resumes explaining instead of letting me ravish her."So, that was the reason why I crashed. I needed a few days to really get over that, but eventually I did. And about the same time I got a little more comfortable with the idea of how much I'm really into BDSM. Or maybe the memories of just how good everything felt shot-circuited my brain too much and made me accept it. Either way, I was just about ready to tell you that I was good with it all when I met up with Alice and Esme for Wednesday lunch, and after an hour of fawning over little Mona and babies in general they pretty much told me that I should finally make you propose properly.And why we haven't set a date yet. And where we want to marry. And who gets to be the Maid of Honor, Best Man, flower girls, if Alice should design the dresses or chose some, and when they decided over my head which wedding cake we should order I had about enough."Her gaze leaves my face as she picks at some invisible lint on my t-shirt."This is so not us. The whole marital bliss thing I mean. I really want to stay with you for the rest of my life, but the more I think about it, the more I feel locked in, restricted. And quite frankly, I don't want them to influence us like that. I want that any kind of commitment comes from us, and only us. That's why I asked you, do you really want to marry me? As in, do you feel like you want me to be your wife? Because I'm really having problems reconciling my picture of you with the term husband."My gut still clenches at her explanation, but now that I know where she's coming from, it all makes so much more sense."It's really just that? That you don't want to be pressed into a mold and have some commitment issues?"The way she's biting her lip is most enticing, but I force myself to keep focused."It's not the commitment that scares me. Actually, that's another point on my list, but I want to have everything else cleared up first."Now she has me intrigued of course, but I do my best not to get too antsy."If you say you don't want to marry, I'm okay with that. I never want you to agree to something just to indulge me.""But you're ready to do that for me?"Sometimes I hate how well she seems to know me, but instead of answering right away I mull over the topic for a while."I won't lie, I'm a little hurt that you don't want to marry me. Maybe it's old-fashioned of me, but somehow the thought that there's something there that really ties us together, makes you mine as much as me yours is something I've been looking forward to. But I won't be devastated if we just live together in wild sin forever instead. I don't need a formal commitment in front of witnesses to be happy with you."She nods, clearly relieved."I'm not even saying no to marriage forever. If the day comes when we both want it, I'll be the happiest woman alive to become your wife. But I don't think we're there yet. Do you?""No," I finally admit after swallowing hard. We really aren't, and suddenly I'm glad that she has dragged this issue up.The intensity in her gaze increases as she listens to my admission, until she looks even a little giddy."What would you say if we make our own kind of commitment?""Such as?"More lip biting ensues, but I'm sure that it's not a conscious effort to drive me insane."Well, I just told you that I'm really into what we've been up to of late?""Yes, like ten minutes ago, I'm not that senile yet."Bella laughs but isn't so easily deterred from her speech."What if we base our commitment on that? I mean, it should be something special and meaningful for us, and no one else. No one else needs to know or understand or approve."I'm slowly starting to get what she means but still wait for her to spell it out."I've been thinking about this a lot this week," she confesses. "And I've done some reading. I know that you're not into the whole 24/7 thing, and neither am I, but I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if we kind of, well, put a little more emphasis on our D/s relationship.""Such as?"It's fun to see her squirm, her cheeks resuming a faint blush, but she doesn't evade my gaze."Obviously that's up to you," she quips, then offers me a sweet smile. "But aside from playing more often or trying to up the intensity or something, I figured we could find something a little more substantial." Again she stops, and I'm starting to wonder if she would speed up if I plain out ordered her to spill it."Bella?""Hm?""Stop dragging this out. Whatever is spinning round and round in that beautiful head of yours is very likely not that out there, or nothing I haven't heard a few times already."She makes a face for a moment, probably thinking I've insulted her lack of creativity, but then she relaxes again, even smirks."What do you think of getting matching tattoos? And I mean matching in the way of we both choose something on our own, but add a small detail from the other's design. That way if things go really wrong between us we're not stuck with each other's name on our left butt cheek or something for all eternity."I really like the idea, and my grin must have given me away because Bella whoops and then kisses me with a passion and hunger that's so like her when she gets her way. Not that I'm complaining, not at all.Kissing soon turns to more, but for once my mind won't shut up, and before she can get her hands into my shorts I stop her, much to my cock's dismay."Do you have anything important planned this weekend?""Why?""How about we schedule your birthday present for this weekend? Just call the resort, get in the car, in three hours we should be there and then it's the whole weekend just for us.""But don't you have to work?" she interjects, way too reasonable."I'll just call in sick. They can do without me for two days, and I've been working my ass off for the last months, I need a break."She's still skeptical, but when I gently push her off me so I can reach for the phone she doesn't protest. I first call my boss, then the resort, and within ten minutes Bella is running up into the bedroom to start packing.Amanda's knowing laugh is still ringing in my ears when I follow her but turn the other way upstairs to get a few things from the playroom. I guess my lie has been pretty obvious, seeing as it's only been fifty minutes since Amanda has last seen me perfectly healthy, but I'm sure I will find a way to make it up to her.