“She just said that she doesn't know if Phil can make it, but she'll come anyway, because her little girl doesn't turn a quarter of a century every day.”

Bella makes a face at that.

“I swear to you, if you gloat over my age again, I'll find a way to make you really sorry!”

Grinning broadly, I place a gentle kiss on her nose before I shuffle discreetly out of her reach.

“I don't know what it is with you and your age. It's totally hot to date an older woman.”

I'm laughing so hard that I nearly fall from my chair when Bella launches herself at me, and the sudden added weight makes pain radiate from my hip. Ah, the joys of age and of being a randy bastard. It would be easy to subdue the snarling yet tired bundle of energy on my lap, but I let her punch me playfully a few times before I shut her up with a deep kiss. She melts against me, but only for a second, then she's biting my bottom lip and retreating to her own seat, my insatiable vixen. I consider picking her up and molesting her in one of the dark corners of the huge room right this minute, but Alice's glare is enough to tame my raging libido to a simmering need.

Ever since the incident, as Alice refers to it, whatever I do is frowned upon when it comes with even the slightest hint of innuendo. A chaste kiss or innocent touch is okay, but anything more involved than that, and Miss Brandon is frowning her disapproval for everyone to see. If Bella initiates it Alice at least hold her tongue, but woe is me if I show even a hint of dominant behavior, because the pixie will have a field day. While she seemed tolerant enough when I called her after the weekend I was sure had damaged our relationship beyond repair, she's been regressing ever since. She clearly doesn't mind Bella and me being together, and I'd even go so far and say she'd pester us about marriage if either of us showed even the slightest inclination that we were ready to tie that knot, but the fact that we have a sex life that's maybe a little more defined than is the norm seems to disagree with her. Why I have no idea, as I spent nearly an hour explaining myself hoarse that whatever might have happened that week, Bella is my everything and I have no intention of sharing her with anyone else, or go looking for something on the side myself, but she still seems paranoid. I think she even bought my white little lie, as theoretically our scene with Beth was a clear violation of that, but for me, things in the playroom just count as something else.

And the fact that whenever Jazz and I are in close proximity we both behave like two rabid dogs barely able to hide our hostility behind a pleasant mask should help tidy over her misgivings. After all, she was pretty fast to forgive him for wanting to whore around while making her believe that he'd stay exclusive with her. Why can't she show me the same courtesy when all I want to do is spend the rest of my life with Bella?

Meanwhile Bella has saved the day and is once again talking about the party planning, so I return to perusing the menu. We've cooked a quick dinner together and eaten right out of the pan, feeding each other and getting more onto the floor than into our mouths, but I so didn't mind having to lick sauce off her chin. And her cleavage. And in passing lapping and sucking her tormented nipples until she threw her head back and more or less pleaded for me to fuck her again right on the kitchen counter. By then it had been too late for that and we would have likely never made it out of the condo, much to my chagrin. Just thinking about her sensitive nipples makes me hard again, and I’m determined to make up for what I’ve been missing on account of our busy schedule – sooner rather than later.

“Found anything interesting on the menu that you've been staring at for the last ten minutes?”

I smile at Bella's whisper into my ear, and shrug mutely. Knowing me well enough after six years, Bella chuckles before biting her lip, intensifying the problem in my now too tight jeans.

“I think you said the quesadillas are so delicious, right?” It's oddly comforting that I'm not the only one who has been pestered with the food they serve here. The description of the different fillings sounds mouth-watering enough, and I'm only too happy to let Bella choose which ones we should try.

“Oh they are!” Alice confirms, doing that annoying clapping thing again.

“But I can't eat any, you know, I have to be looking my best next week, and I've been living off nothing but carrots for days already.” As if Alice has ever had a single extra gram of body mass. The only reason she hasn't become a model herself is her height, but she could sweep down any catwalk any day if she wanted without changing her eating habits. On clue Jasper's stomach rumbles loudly, and I wonder just how far that carrot diet has been extended in their household. The thought cracks me up, and my laughter is apparently contagious, as Bella joins right in.

“That's too bad, really,” Bella surmises, still grinning. “But the three of us could share a plate, I mean with all the fillings it's hard to settle on just one.”

And people say that foot-in-mouth disease is pathologically occurring in guys only.

If it weren't so sad, it would be funny to watch how Alice's mood changes.

It's as if someone pulled a switch from bubbly and exuberant to glaring harpy mode. Equally amusing is the way how Jazz visibly shuts down, only the look of panic in his eyes speaking of what's going on inside of him. My instinctual reaction is to crack some really bad joke that probably only twelve year olds would find funny, but until four months ago Jazz, Bella, and I weren't exactly known for the maturity of our humor. Somewhat wiser now I hold my tongue, but it's so damn hard because Bella is still oblivious of our reactions as she hasn't looked up from the menu yet.

Alice is ready to explode, but I know that nothing I can say now will change a thing – it's Bella's turn to diffuse the situation, and not even the seconds of loaded silence tip her off how her words might have been perceived. I'm even tempted to wait for things to get worse when she will inevitably vote for her favorite fillings – chicken breast and portobello mushrooms – but I'm afraid that I won't survive the laughing fit that I will have to succumb to in order not to burst. So I knock my knee discreetly into her thigh in the hope of making her focus on her surroundings.

“What is it?” Bella absentmindedly grunts, and for a moment Jazz's and my gaze lock. I see the same urge to laugh about the sheer hilarity of the situation in his eyes, and for a moment the connection we've always shared is there again. Years of teasing Bella for her crazy verbal diarrhea, particularly when she's drunk, have honed our skills to make already funny statements worse, and I even wonder where we find the restraint to hold back. But then reality makes that bubble burst, and I'm feeling positively morose all of a sudden.

Clearing my throat noisily finally does the trick and Bella looks up, only to find herself at the center of hostile attention. She's confused for a few moments, her gaze skimming from Jazz to me, until she finally realizes her mistake as she looks over at Alice. Her cheeks flame up immediately, and I can nearly hear the 'oh shit!' that must be zooming through her thoughts.

More awkward silence ensues, until Bella finally reclaims her voice.

“Or we'll just get a plate on our own. I'm too greedy to share anyway.” Not the best save, but it could have been worse. I hurry to flag down a waitress, and Alice slowly calms down while we place our orders. Because now the three of us share the confidence of a tree mold Bella and I get some avocado and mango quesadillas, and Jazz gets his with ham and sour cream. Alice seems pacified enough and more than happy to fill the heavy silence with not exactly amusing tales of how her assistant nearly ruined her latest clothing line.

By the time the order arrives I'm in dire need of a divine intervention or some booze, preferably both, and Bella doesn't look too happy, either. The food at least is holding up to expectations, even though the company is somewhat lacking.

We're halfway through the quesadillas when Alice gets up, immediately grumpy when Bella doesn't instantly surge to her feet to follow.

“Alice, I really don't have to go to the bathroom ...”

“Come on, girl-talk time!”

Apparently all women belong to a secret society so evasion is impossible, and after a last, somewhat panicked look at me, Bella joins Alice, and they leave Jazz and me behind to guard the food, or whatever. In the reality according to Alice, we can't make stupid remarks, but for some reason it's still allowed for us guys to hang out, unwatched and unguarded, for five minutes. Or ten. Fuck, I hope it's only five.

If the plate sharing comment has been awkward, we need a new word for the atmosphere that is settling on the table now that the girls are gone. For endless minutes Jazz and I both avoid even acknowledging each other's presence, munching our food and finishing the rest of our beers. The food is tasteless and the beer almost sour, and the resentment and anger inside of me makes me physically ill. I wish I were a smoker so I could use that as an excuse to go outside until the girls return, but in the absence of that I can't think of any other reason for getting up that won’t make me look like a wimp. So I sit there and stare either at the table or at the people around us, and try hard not to think of anything at all so my mind can't flip and send me into doing something I will later regret.

The waitress returns to take our empty plates and glasses away, and remains batting her lashes at us until we both tell her that we'll get our drinks later directly at the bar. For some reason that breaks our talking embargo, or maybe manners make us feel obliged to have some small talk.

“How's it going at the hospital?”

I shrug as there's really not much to say.

“Good, I guess. Working long hours as usual.”

Jazz nods, looking in my direction but not at me.

“How's work?” I remember some detail Bella dropped last week, and in my attempt to appear civil I add, “Did you already launch your company?” He seems surprised that I know that he and two of his co-workers decided to found their own business to get out of corporate hell, and for a moment our gazes cross.

“Not yet, some bureaucratic crap keeps holding us up. But next week when Alice is in New York I should have the time to get everything sorted out and started. I still have to set up the servers and ...” He trails off and looks away, scratching his head rather self-consciously. No rambling allowed for the wicked.

“And all that stuff. You know. Geek stuff.”

I nod even though I don't really know, and neither do I care. Devoid of any other topic than work, we fall silent again and more agonizing minutes pass.

“Did you see the Mariners game last Sunday?” he suddenly pipes up, sounding nearly glad that he found something else to say. Or at least he seems like that to me.

“Nope. Double shift from Saturday till Sunday, and I was on call after that –

and they did call, so I didn't even catch the re-runs.”

“That's nasty. Was a good game.” I have no idea if the note of sympathy in his voice is real. It doesn't matter anyway.More silence, but now it's a hint more relaxed. Those twenty sentences are more than we've spoken in – forever. As much as I hate to be sitting here, I feel weirdly melancholic all of a sudden. For years we've been hanging out most of our free time, rooming together since college. And now all we can talk about is work and some stupid baseball game.The more I think of that, the more uncomfortable I am, and just to get rid of that feeling I blurt out the first thing that comes to my mind.“How are things with you and Alice? I mean -”I trail off there because what I want to ask him is if it was worth all the shit, but he gets it without me having to actually voice the words. A somewhat guarded look haunts his eyes for a moment, but then he smiles, and it's the first real emotion that Jazz has shown the whole evening until now.“Seriously, she drives me crazy, but that's Alice. Wouldn't want to change a single thing, even if I could.”I don't know why, but his words take a few moments to draw that animalistic pain from deep in my chest, and until then I actually feel myself being happy for them. Maybe Alice is right, maybe they really are soulmates and meant to be together. Bella certainly thinks they deserve each other, and right now I agree. If he's what Alice wants, she should be happy with Jazz. And for a few seconds I can even admit that I kind of want to see him happy, too.But then the rational part of my brain is lost to the rage and agony crashing over me like a tidal wave, and the urge to punch him until he’s paid for what he’s done is nearly overwhelming. Only the fact that, despite whatever he was trying to accomplish, Bella's love for me was strong enough to cut through his plans is holding me back. If nothing else I owe her enough to honor her forgiveness, even though I don't understand it. For her I can keep it together, if not get over things as fast as everyone expects me to.While I do a good job holding myself in check, I don't doubt that the look on my face must be murderous, and after a few moments Jazz's words confirm that suspicion.“Fuck, Edward, you know how I meant that, I didn't want to -”“I know exactly how you mean it,” I bite back and make eye contact with him to underline my words. “Trust me, I'm living with the results of your little plan every fucking day, and I'm the only one who has had to bear all the fucking consequences!”Thankfully the girls come back before I can say anything still more embarrassing, and the weird look on Jasper's face helps only so much to tide over the grim feelings still fighting for dominance inside me. The moment Bella slips into her seat I get up, in terrible need of letting off some steam any way I can.“Drinks, ladies? What so you think of a round of shots to start the evening off, on me?”Bella graces me with a long look but nods immediately, and Alice follows suit. No one mentions the evident hostility the girls have come back to, so I try my best to play things down.“Let me guess, three shots of tequila, and what can I bring you, dearest Alice mine?”For some reason or other she's scowling again, but I know that tequila just makes her sick, while it's been the drug of choice for the rest of us.“Jazz and I both take a shot of gin.”I have to bite the inside of my cheek hard not to burst out laughing, and can somehow still turn that into a smirk when Jasper's shoulders sag in a mute sigh where Alice can't see it, but he nods.“Gin for me, too, please.”Bella blinks in irritation, knowing as well as I do that Jazz only drinks gin –preferably warm – when he has to make himself hurl, but apparently the leash Alice put around his neck is tight enough that he doesn't dare speak up against her.I nod and take off towards the bar, aiming for the straightest line I can manage. Our waitress is now mixing drinks there, and I place my order –four shots of tequila oro and two shots of gin. I tip her extra for asking if we want salt and limes, or cinnamon and oranges, and I tell her to put both in the tray. While she's busy slicing the orange I chuck down two of the tequila shots, not bothering with the whole ritual but welcoming the raw burn down my throat and straight into my stomach.“Let me guess, one of the girls has been the other's girlfriend, right? Only rivalry over some pussy can get guys this riled up.” I stare at her, but her bright grin doesn't even falter.“Nope. Good guess, but completely off.”The waitress taps one lacquered nail against the wood of the bar.“That's weird, really, because I remember you two being pretty tight. I mean your friend's Jasper Whitlock, and you're Edward Cullen.” I'm not even surprised that she knows Jazz, I wouldn't even be surprised to find out that she knows him, but usually his skanks don't recognize me, and I'd certainly remember her if she'd been one of our few mutual pickups.Contrary to him I remember all the faces and names of the girls I've fucked.I still have to ask, out of curiosity.“Oh, I've been working at Zero's before I got the job here, I remember you guys hanging out there sometimes. Come to think of it,” she muses, then puts the small dish with the orange and lime slices next to the shots before she reaches for a pen and napkin.“If either, or both, of you guys find yourself alone without the ladies, give me-”“Don't even bother,” I cut her off rudely, my voice harsh enough to make her stop in mid scrawl. When she eyes me askance, I feel a little bad for being so nasty, but I don't want Bella to know about this, and I certainly don't trust Jazz.“I'm engaged, and his relationship is pretty serious, you'd just wait forever for a call that will never come.”A shrewd look lights up her face and her smile is bordering on dirty, but she throws the napkin right into the trash.“Too bad. Or what is it they say, all the good guys are either married, or they're gay.”I don't know why, but her words hit a little too close to home. I shrug them off as I pick up the small tray.“Whatever.”I try to shake off the feeling that she's still smirking at me as I make my way back to the others, and thankfully the air has cleared in my short absence.Bella is ecstatic that I remembered her new habit of drinking tequila, picked up from some German exchange student who was been interning over the summer at her job and gleefully reaches for the cinnamon. Bella is nibbling on her orange slice before she finishes the second one off, all the while glancing at me from the corner of her eye. I'm pretty sure that means that she has an idea why there were four slices for only two shots, but I don't care. Three shots in as many minutes zoom right into my blood stream, and my grumpiness starts to dissolve.I'm not afraid of getting drunk, I even welcome it. I'm more prone to say something I will regret later when I'm sober, as my mind is more easily distracted by the beautiful woman leaning into me when I'm intoxicated, and distracted is good. The girls keep giggling over something for a while, but before long I can't keep my hands to myself. When she feels my bare palm slide over her lower back underneath her top, Bella grins at me, then she takes my other hand and tugs me off my chair and towards the dance floor.Her eyes are glinting with mischief when we reach the dance floor, and the next moment she turns around and rubs her ass shamelessly against my thighs and crotch. I'm instantly hard, and for now only too ready to forget we're not quite on our own here. Bella laughs delightedly when I grab her hips and start to move with her, and I have a feeling that the night might be picking up from here on.Chapter 9The hypnotic rhythm of the music around me. The warm, willing body pressed against my own. Movement, slow and sensual, fast and passionate. It only takes a few minutes for me to lose myself until I can let go and just enjoy.Dancers are all around us, and many of them are moving with more skill than we are, but there are too many people here to dance for real. I don't care, and Bella doesn’t seem to either, as she's laughing and grinning at me when she isn't molding herself against me.