That fucking little card.
From the moment I chucked it back in, it's been taunting me. Whispering to me from the bottom of my bag, tempting me to just...dial the numbers. Of course my semi-functional common sense was doing it's own whispering. Semi-functional because I haven't just thrown the card away. And whispering that I'm better than this. That I'm worth more than what it will mean to accept his offer.
And because I can only handle one mind fuck at a time, I choose not to focus on the doubt I feel about that.
Despite how uncompromising my life has been since I left home, I've always managed to compartmentalize long enough to get the job done. To retain my sanity and do what needs to be done when it needs to be. To stay sensible when things become overwhelming and all I want to do is wash my hands of all of this. The painful trade off schedule.
No break from the constant cycle.
And while some days are better than others, one thing has always remained constant: my ability to maintain focus.
And then Edward Cullen had to come along and blow all of that out of the water. In less than ten goddamned minutes.
Saturday morning dons too early for my liking, and I can tell it's going to be one of those days.
"I'm sorry, Bella. The bar hasn't been doing that great for a while now, and I tried to put it off for as long as I could. You can finish out the weekend, but then I'll have to let you go."
I stood there in shock as James, my manager at Hunter's, gave me the speech that I could tell he was enjoying about as much as I was. He'd always been nice to me and I didn't want to make this harder on him than it had to be. I could have my impending panic attack later, when my shift was done and I had more privacy to work with.
"It's okay, James. Thanks for keeping me on until the last of the pay period."
I only worked here Saturday and Sundays, but the tips were always good. I had a feeling that it had something to do with my being the only female waitress here who wasn't menopausal. Plus, not having to wait until pay day meant I could use the cash on things I needed weekly, like food and gas.
"No problem, Bella. I know it doesn't help you much at this point, but you're one hell of a hard worker. I'll be sorry to lose you."
His smile is timid. He's trying to soften the blow. No need to tell him that he could have bubble wrapped me and sang it in a lullaby, and it still wouldn't have mattered.
I spend the rest of the night balancing drink trays and scribbling orders on my notepad like the dutiful soon-to-be-unemployed waitress that I am. I deliver the greasy bar food to customers and accept my tips, all with a smile on my face that seems to be a result of my state of disbelief. I can only hope, for my tips' sake, that it appears friendly and not deranged.
Sunday is spent the same. Filling drinks and wiping tables down. Carrying out my last night there completely on auto pilot. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and grease lingers in my hair hours after I'm home that night, hunched over the Sunday paper's classified section. I'm frantically circling anything that even remotely resembles a possible job opportunity. I'm not picky at all. I'll find the time to fit whatever it is in. I'll sleep a little less. See if I can get Angela to cover a few hours here and there at the Westin. The crinkling of the paper, the scraping of the pencil, the pounding of my head.
None of it drowns out the whispers I can still hear coming from the bottom of my bag.
"I'm sorry, miss, but the position is no longer available"
"If you don't have any prior experience, I'm afraid we'll be unable to consider yourapplication"
"The position is full time. That means five eight hour shifts a week."
The entire week had been absolutely excruciating. Regardless of being used to very limited sleep and an exhausting schedule, when you dog piled it all with zinging back and forth all over Seattle like a manic ping pong ball, I was ready to drop. My entire body was aching and I couldn't remember the last time I had taken five minutes to eat something.
I was sure I was experiencing some sort of psychotic break. Every single direction I turned in was a dead end. I had filled out and turned in applications for more than a dozen job openings all over Seattle. I'd had six interviews by phone and five in person. For a thousand reasons or another, every option fell through. Often times, hearing that I was a full time grad student was the fastest way to being turned down. Nobody wanted to hire someone who didn't have the time to work. I'd even considered quitting the hotel if I could find another full time job that would pay more, but with no luck. I'd managed to get a few of the other girls at work to cover a couple hours here and there in order to fit in all of this job searching. This only added to my problems, because fewer hours at work meant less money on my paycheck. The only one I had now. I couldn't afford to keep this up, only to come up empty...and broker than when I started.
It was Wednesday night when Angela had to take over on a bed I'd been trying to remake...for fifteen minutes. Apparently, after I'd fluffed the same pillow three times and put two pillow cases on it, she'd seen enough. Taking me by the shoulders and leading me to the sofa in the living room area, she pulled the my trolley in from the hallway and slipped a Do Not Disturb sign on the door before closing it. Stomping back over and sitting across from me on the coffee table, she started in.
"Alright, spill. What the hell is going on with you, Swan, huh? You're going all zombie on the pillow cases in there and don't think I didn't see you fall asleep across the top of a toilet lid last night when you were supposed to be cleaning it. And just so we're clear, that's fucking gross."
With her arms crossed tightly over her chest, she gives me the 'explain yourself immediately' look.
It's taking all of my will power to follow along with what she's saying. As it is, my eyes are crossing and I can't tell which Angela I'm supposed to be looking at, left or right.
Left Angela snaps her fingers in my face and I jump.
Right Angela shakes her head disapprovingly.
"Goddamn, girl. Have you heard a word I've said? What the hell is going on with you? I've seen you tired before, but this shit is ridiculous. You need a break. I'm going to go talk to management about you taking the rest of the night off."
By the time she's standing to leave, I've grasped enough of what she's said to panic.
I grab her hand and she falls back onto the coffee table, looking at me like I'm crazy. I'm sure I look the part. I run my hand through my hair and breathe in deeply, concentrating on sounding coherent enough that she won't insist on my going home.
"Just...just give me a few minutes to splash some water on my face and get myself something to eat. I'm fine, I promise. Just tired, you know? I was up all night studying, didn't get a lot of sleep."
I'm sure as hell not mentioning the 'One Week Til You're Ineligible To Be Edward Cullen's Whore' countdown that's been ticking in my head.
She turns to look at me suspiciously out of the corner of her eye and I stay upright long enough to appease her. She sighs and relents, motioning toward the bathroom.
I breathe a sigh of relief at dodging the conversation I never intended on having.
I turn the water on and wait for it to warm up. Standing in the bathroom and staring at myself in the mirror, I finally let loose the thoughts I've held at bay until now.
In two days, it will have been one week since Edward placed his 'offer' in my lap. I've fought tooth and nail to keep myself from considering taking him up on it. Aside from being offended by every detail of our encounter at the hotel, I know that this is something that I cannot come back from. Even if I try, and can't bring myself to do it again, I'd always have to live with what I'd done. Having accepted money in exchange for sex. The thought makes me shudder and I lean down to splash the now warm water on my face.
When I've dried off and lower the towel, I'm startled by my face in the mirror and still. My complexion is pallid and the bags under my eyes are more prominent than they've ever been before. I almost don't recognize myself. Brown eyes, brown hair, pale skin. Nothing new there. Uneventful and constant as ever. But the bags under the brown...the the stringy, limp hair...the pallid, sickly appearance of my skin. It's all an illustration of the tug of war going on inside me.
As loathe as I am to admit it, every day that passed was checked off in my mental calendar. Whether I wanted to or not, I could feel the time to decide approaching.
But I was resolute.
I'd already made my decision.
There was no way I was going to lie down and spread my legs for money.
Friday would come and go...and he would have his answer.
I'd figure something out.
But then Thursday came and delivered an irrecoverable blow to my resolve.
"Please, Miss Swan, come in and have a seat." Professor Banner closes his office door and walks behind his desk, hovering over this chair and only seating himself once I have. I'd guess that he's somewhere in his fifties, mostly gray hair and faint crinkles around his eyes. He smiles kindly, and I try to recall if I'd ever seen Charlie look at me like this. I come up empty. The fatherly vibe I get from is making me fidget.
"How are you doing today?"
I glance around at the rows of books lining the floor to ceiling shelves behind him and attempt to steady my voice before I speak. I'm beyond nervous. Whether you're in third grade or a grown woman, being called to the 'principal's' office is nerve wracking.
"Im good, thank you."
I wonder if the smile I flash is as stiff as it feels.
Taking his glasses off and sighing, he crosses his forearms on his desk and leans forward.
"Miss Swan, I-
"Bella. Please, call me Bella." His tone of voice and the formality of it all does nothing for my nerves.
"Okay then, Bella. I called you in today to give you a bit if a heads up, if you will. Completely informal. The end of the quarter is nearing and, as you know, our staff makes it a point to evaluate each student's progress. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how competitive it is being in the business program here."
I shake my head. He doesn't need to tell me at all. I remind myself of it constantly. It's a huge reason why the rat race I call my life is so necessary. And I've felt the strain for weeks now. The struggle to balance my studies and my paycheck. Subconsciously, I think I saw this coming. But it does nothing to quell the sense of panic that actually hearing it causes.
"No, sir. Of course you don't."
He takes a moment to look at me and I wish I could tell what he's thinking.
"I'd like to consider myself astute. It's my opinion that there is much more beneath the surface of things than what our eyes relay to us. I've watched you for some time, Bella."
I nearly snort at his words. They're altogether too familiar and I sincerely hope this isn't going to turn into some warped deja vu. My sanity just can't take it.
One sexual predator at a time, please.
"You're extremely intelligent, I can see that. There are plenty of people who enter this program and fail to follow through because they lack the very drive that I can tell you do have. My concern isn't whether you have what it takes to make it here. I know that isn't the case. So it worries me to see your average beginning to slip. There's been a significant difference in your grades in the last couple of months. Now, I'm not sure if there is something going on in your personal life, but I thought you'd want to know that your name has come up in review. As I said before, this meeting is informal. I hate to see someone with as much potential as you slip between the cracks. Nothing will be decided until the end of the quarter, but I believe that would be plenty of time to pull back up to where you need to be by then."
Throughout his speech, I can feel all of the blood drain from my face and my hands begin to sweat. I fold them in my lap and try not to hyperventilate and faint on his office floor.
Anything but this.
I can hear my heartbeat in my ears and know that I need to leave before the tears come.
Five minutes later and I'm outside leaning my back against the brick building, eyes closed and ragged breaths. I managed as polite of a thank you as I could to Professor Banner and successfully withheld tears as I left his office. I'm trying-and failing-to calm my panicking thoughts.
I hate how lost I feel right now.
My mind drifts back. In years and miles. To the small, white house with the beat up red station wagon parked out front. The sound of my mother crying and my father's miserable ranting.
I fight as hard as I can, but it all floods in and I'm sitting at my desk...crumpled admissions applications, pamphlets and envelopes litter my bedroom floor in the wake of his outburst.
"Don't waste your time on this shit, Bella."
There's no use in responding to his tirade. Eyes on the floor, tears down my cheeks, fists clenched in anger.
"What, you think I'm sitting on a gold mine or something? Wait one second and I'll just run to the bank and withdraw all those thousands I've been saving. Oh! That's right! I spent it all! On the stuff us real world folks have to think about! Food, clothes, bills! Get your head out of the goddamn clouds, baby girl. You're no better than anyone else around here. This is as good as you'll ever get. Don't go thinking you're anything special."
....'Don't go thinking you're anything special.'
I knew I wasn't. And if I ever dared to think I was, I had a live-in reminder. No, I never operated under that particular delusion. But I did have a choice. I could lie down and decide that he was right. That I was never going to amount to shit. Just throw my hands in the air and rot away in that small town. Or I could reach out and take what I wanted. Fight like hell and be who I wanted to be.
And that same choice was before me now, with Edward Cullen. A wave of realization washes over me. The only consolation in this entire fucked up situation is that I have a choice. I choose whether to walk away or take him up on this. I've been so pissed at my inability to compartmentalize this week. So frustrated at how off of my game I've been, all the while missing the big picture. But who's to say I can't compartmentalize this? I hate to admit it, but he's right. This can be a win/win situation. It doesn't have to be anything but what it is. A business arrangement. A job. Nothing more, nothing less.
And just like that...I decide.
The exhaustion and the crazy work hours.
The complete and total deletion of any kind of personal life.
Cleaning up the filth of hundreds of people a week.
All of this, I could tolerate. Because it's leading me somewhere. Pushing me toward the finish line.
It wouldn't always be like this.
But school? That was my hard limit. To actually feel my goal slipping away from me. The thought of losing the very thing that guaranteed my future. To think that I may not get to have what I've busted my ass all of these years working for. A career and a life. The possibility that everything he thought about me may come true.That I'd never amount to anything more than what he'd said I would. My mother's face. Angela's face. It all bombards me and it's the shove that's needed to launch logic's toe right over the victory line.
I head to my car, feeling an unexpected rush of determination.
Tug of war over. I know what I have to do now.
On Friday morning, after I clock out and situate myself into my booth, I pull my pay-as-you-go cell phone from my bag and dial...before I lose my nerve. My shift was long and tiring, as always. But I used the monotony of my cleaning routine to think about everything that was about to happen. I took the time to absorb the reality of what making this decision would mean for me. I was still firm in my decision to go through with it, but I was allowing myself one more moment of uncertainty.
The line rings three times before it's answered.
I wait for an answer. Nothing. I look at the screen to make sure the call hasn't dropped.
I try again.
Her voice is tired, detached. Nonchalance. I don't know why I thought she would be different this time.
"I just wanted to call and see how you were doing. How are you?"
"I'm fine here, Bella. Everything is fine."
She doesn't ask in return. She never does. If she can hear the tremor in my voice, she doesn't let on. I hate how weak I feel, but can't help it. I need some sort of reassurance. A reminder of who I am, that I'm not...nothing.
"That's good, Mama. I'm glad."
On days like these, I let this get to me. I lower the wall a bit, and feel it more.
"I miss you. And I'm glad you're doing okay. Do...do you need anything?"
I flail in my attempts to milk conversation from her. I'd take anything. Any effort on her part.
"No. I'm fine. Got everything I need right here."
I'm not sure if she meant that as a dig or not, but there's one hundred and fifty miles between us. I can't help but take it personally.
"Okay, then, I won't keep you. I'll talk to you later. Bye, Mama."
And I wait.
I hear a click...and still I wait. When the dial tone sounds, I hang up and lie the phone on the table in front of me. Talking to Renee is always the same. I don't know why I keep calling. She's made herself clear. On the really bad days, I still want to hear her. Call it hope. Or stupidity. But I just wanted to hear her. The familiarity of her voice. Maybe it's some innate longing we have to feel love and acceptance from our parents. Maybe we never outgrow it, no matter how much better for us it would be if we did. Whether I want to or not, I miss her. God knows she's given me little reason to. But I do. She's my mom.
Running my hands through my hair, I know that I have one more call to make. I dread it. This week has wreaked havoc on me, physically and mentally. Calling Renee beforehand wasn't the greatest idea. I still feel raw from it. But if I don't call now, I won't have time to. School and work don't wait. And my time is up.
The countdown is over.
I reach into the bottom of my bag and immediately feel the card brush against my fingers on the first try.
Pulling it out, I lay it beside my cell phone and stare at it. It hasn't changed. Same crisp, white color. Same annoyingly perfect handwriting. Same bossy reminder of the time frame I had.
Now or never.
I quickly type the numbers into the keypad and push send. My leg bounces frantically under the table and I pray that Angela doesn't choose this morning to seek me out in my booth.
The phone rings once...twice...
He barks out from the other end of the phone. It takes a moment to register that it's his last name.
Apparently, too long.
"Cullen." This time a little sharper. His trademark impatience.
I'm reminded of his penchant for interrupting.
"Ah, Isabella. I'd know that stutter anywhere."
I can hear the pompous smile in his voice. The amusement he gets from knowing he's flustered me.
"Yes, it's me."
I clear my throat and it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't thought this conversation through. What the hell do I say now?
The bastard is enjoying my nervousness. He's drawing it out.
"Well, I was calling about the conversation we had on Friday. I wanted to let you know...to tell you that..."
My statement started out with confidence but waned when I realized I had no idea how to actually word my acceptance.
You got a deal? Where do I sign? Your place or mine?
Great. While I can't manage a full sentence with him, in my head, I'm a regular Dr. Seuss.
He feigns confusion, as if he doesn't know exactly what I'm struggling to say. A smile still laces his tone.
"I...your offer...I called to tell you that I...if you're still able..."
Why can't I just spit it out?
His voice drops in decibel, smooth and husky. The smile is gone.
"Say it, Isabella. Say it. Out loud. Tell me how badly you want me to fuck you."
Just as quickly as the words leave his mouth, I shiver.
The same shiver I felt when he touched me.
It starts in my ear and travels down my spine...
I can feel it in my chest...an ache.
In my stomach...a quiver.
Between my legs...a throbbing. So foreign...welcomed nonetheless.
My breath catches, and I know he hears it.
"Say it. I'll only accept those words. Tell me."
His voice has an immediate effect on my nerves. One second they're here, and then...not.
I breathe in shakily and the words leave my mouth with little effort.
"I want you to fuck me."
My voice is breathy but firm. I don't recognize it. And for a few seconds, my body has forgotten it's fatigue.
The ache it felt only minutes ago is replaced with one of drastically different origins.
The overwhelming sadness I'd felt after speaking to Renee is drowned out by the thrum of...want.
It's startling in its intensity.
I'm floored by how quickly he's dominated me.
Over the phone.
"I thought as much. Patience, Isabella. We'll get to that part, believe me. But first, there are some details we need to settle."
Just like last week, his voice is back to normal, cold and hard. All business. And Im left feeling foolish for relinquishing control of myself so easily. I shudder to think what this means for me when we're actually intimate.
If his effect is this potent now...
"Details? Okay. Well, when do-"
"Yes, details. I told you last week, precautions will be put into place before we...begin. Meet me tomorrow at The Westin. Noon. Penthouse One. And Isabella?
Don't make me wait."
He ends the call and I'm left in a daze.
How the hell does he do that?
The all too familiar feeling of frustration with myself doesn't take long to set in. I can't believe how easily I let him conquer my composure. It's bad enough that I'm actually going to do this. How affected I seemed to be by him only magnifies my anxiety about this agreement. I may be decided, but it doesn't mean I can't freak out about it.
I, Isabella Marie Swan, am going to have sex for money.
The thought makes me feel like I have a neon sign above my head.
Whore For Hire.
Realistically, I know that no one can tell, but the entire day I feel paranoid...dirty.
My subconscious and I enter into a strange standoff of some kind. While I attempt to calm myself down about what I'm doing, my subconscious has taken the opposing side.
Nobody needs to know about this. I won't tell anyone.
You'll know. Isn't that enough?
People do this all the time. One night stands are nothing new. How is this any different?
Because you're being paid to rinse and repeat?
Leave it to me to poke holes in the only logic I could come up with.
Adding to my mental juggling, is that all through the day something has nagged at me. Something Edward said on the phone. I stow it away for later and devote my attention to class.
I can't afford not to.
That night at work, on the first break I get, I sneak into the management office while no one is in there and pull up the computer program used for Guest Reservations. I quickly select the Reservation Record for Penthouse One. And I see red.
Penthouse One 1 day, 0 nights
September 10, 2010 6:45 a.m.
That was only about 10 minutes after we'd spoken in the booth last week. He'd booked the room a week before I even accepted. Minutes after we spoke. After I'd spent the entire week struggling, agonizing over this decision. He'd planned for my acquiescence the entire time.
That cocky son of a bitch!