It started with milk.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Jefferson.”
“Don’t want—” he sputtered. “Belle, you go out for a quick grocery run and you return hours later, sans any actual groceries, might I add—”
Her purse thumped loudly as she dropped it to the table, knocking the mail to the floor. She opted to ignore it.
“Leave it alone.” She had barely managed to come away with her dignity, and he was concerned about groceries.
“—with more spots on your neck than a leopard, hair a mess—”
While she kept herself from tugging on her collar, Belle couldn’t help but run another hand through said hair, conscious of the fact that it was very much no longer in the neat style it was when she had left. Her wrists hurt too, from where they’d been squeezed, and she was pretty sure there was a mark on her back from how hard she’d hit the edge of the sink.
Milk, of all fucking things.
“Darling, you have been ravaged and I want the details. Did it happen in the parking lot? Did some Fabio sweep you off your feet so suddenly you just had to have him in your car? Or—” he lowered his voice, eyes gleaming. “Was shopping all a ruse and you snuck out to meet with a Tindr date?”
Belle rolled her eyes so hard she almost felt them rattle (though she could admit that she had missed his dramatic tendencies). “Are you so shocked?”
“Hardly. I’m jealous. You’re here to help me get laid.”
Her lip twitched, then bloomed into a full smile despite herself. “As if you need my help.”
“I do just exude sex appeal, don’t I?” He shot her his best smoulder, pouting his lips, his hands up to frame him face.
“And have a jawline that could cut glass.” Belle leaned back against the counter, relieved he was letting her change the subject. “Chicks dig that, you know.”
“I admit I was hoping for the more masculine crowd, but I’ll be sure to show off my good side all the same.”
He wandered over to the (empty) fridge, pulling down the take-out menus that were pinned to it. “Speaking of, the beautiful bride-to-be wants me there extra early for the rehearsal. You okay coming with me? She could use the manpower.”
Belle absently ran her fingers over her neck, ignoring the pleasant soreness. “That’s fine, I guess. Is there a lot left to do, then?”
“I’m the maid of honor, Blue Belle. My sacred duties are never complete.” He flashed another smile at her before shuffling the menus about in his hands. “But, her future father-in-law is apparently a bit much, so I think she just wants someone on her side to run interference in case he gets nosy.”
“What, too overbearing? Judgmental?”
“More ‘surly asshole.’” He eyed the marks along her neck, only getting deeper in color. “Actually, you might want to do something about those. Then again, if you wear that nice green dress, you know, the one with the low scoop neck? He might be so scandalized he’ll forget about Emma completely.”
“I'm not some sacrificial lamb,” Belle laughed, tugging again at her collar.
“Anything for the cause, darling. Now then,” he held the menus out like a spread deck of cards. “Do you want Chinese, Korean, or pizza?”
Shifting on her feet, she looked at the options without much enthusiasm. It was after all the same spread they had been enjoying all week, since Belle arrived; lunch, dinner, and leftovers for breakfast if they could stomach it.
“And to think I promised you an actual home-cooked meal tonight.”
“You’re the one who decided getting your rocks off was more important than groceries. Be grateful I’m letting you choose at all.”
She pursed her lips. She did feel a little bad about that, actually.
She had been in the dairy isle. Her phone in one hand, typing out a message to August about her latest article, the other hand pulling out a half gallon of milk. She had glanced down to check the expiration date, had looked to her phone when it tried to autocorrect ‘blunder,’ the door to the fridge closed with a cool gush of air, and when she looked up, there, behind her, reflected in the glass—
“If you feel that strongly about it, how about you decide then?”
She turned away, resisting the urge to sweep her purse to the floor (it’d be a mess to clean up, and not the satisfying kind). She reached for the cupboard nearest her, hoping for a glass. No luck; only plates awaited her.
“Try the one to the left,” Jeff said, realizing her intention.
She heard the faint swish of paper as he fiddled with the menus.
“I know you said you didn’t want to talk about it,” he said as she filled a glass from the faucet. “But bottling things up has never worked for you.”
Belle took a sip of water. She would kill for a window she could look through, right now. A spice rack, even. Anything but the sad, peeling yellow wallpaper of Jefferson’s apartment.
“I looked up, and there he was,” she said finally. “He…had cut his hair.”
“You knew him, then?”
“I did, yeah.” Her gaze shift from the sad wallpaper to the sink; clean, shining. A true contradiction to Jefferson’s sporadic, messy nature. “From before.”
He hummed behind her. She could practically feel his frown.
“He kept it long, you know? Used to, rather. I could see his ears. Never seen them before.” They were pointed, slightly curved inward, like a pixie’s, but that wasn’t what had stood out to her, when his face had appeared over her shoulder. His eyes had been dark; two storm clouds ready to split, or swallow her whole. The sharp angles of his face were nearly jagged in the glass, especially without the soft frame of his hair. His face was pale, his lips pinched at the corners. She wanted to run her fingers along the line of his brow, but he looked too sharp to touch, like if she tried, she’d bleed.
“And that got you hot and bothered?”
Belle rolled her eyes at the wall, not giving that the benefit of a response. “I dropped the milk.”
“He was just suddenly there, and he surprised me, and I dropped the milk, okay?” She turned to face Jefferson, who had his hands up in a placating gesture. She sighed. Lowered her voice. “At least it was only a half gallon.”
“The jug broke, and it was all over the aisle, and I had milk running down my leg, and he was just...looking at me.” His suit was unfamiliar, his shirt a light purple she hadn’t seen him wear before. He was altogether brand new and just the same as he’d been the last day she saw him; he even still had a pocket square. A fucking pocket square, placed expertly in his meticulous three piece suit, that he was wearing in early summer, in Boston.
Of course she’d embarrass herself. Of course not a drop of milk landed on him; it wouldn't dare.
“I left the basket right there in the aisle. Ran to the bathroom.” She needed to be somewhere else, where he wasn’t looking at her. Where he wouldn’t open his mouth and—
“He, uhm, followed, which I wasn’t expecting. There was a knock, and there he was, again, with my purse and cell phone, and…”
“I pulled him in, locked the door, and before I knew it, my back was against the sink, my skirt was hiked up to my waist, and my panties were...” she shrugged. “Elsewhere.”
Jefferson gave her a searching look, from the top of her head to the love bites on her neck, to the pale expanse of her legs. She shifted uncomfortably; Jeff was perceptive at the worst of times.
“He kept them, didn’t he? Your panties.”
“He did, the bastard. I liked that pair.”
Jefferson snorted. “I didn’t know you had it in you.” He dropped the menus on the counter, his movement careless. “You got off, at least?” he asked.
Belle huffed, annoyed at his casual tone.
“Look, Belle, if you’re going to fuck your ex-boyfriend in a grocery store bathroom, you might as well get off.”
“Yes, God. He got me off.”
Admitting that much was a mistake. His eyebrow waggled. “Oh, he did, did he?”
“That’s all you’re getting out of me, you pervert. I’ve said quite enough already.” Belle took another sip of water. She paused, eyes narrowing. “I never said he was my ex.”
“Didn’t you?”Jeff knelt down to pick up the mail she had spilled, setting it back on the table without looking at it. “You can pick the take-out, but I’ll choose what we watch, yeah?”
That meant she was at the mercy of VH1. She looked to the menus abandoned on the counter, sore and empty, and wondered how much more of America’s Next Top Model she could take.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt Jeff’s arms go around her shoulders, crushing her to him, her arms pressed to his chest, water spilling between them. He ignored how it soaked into his shirt.
“Boston is a big place, honey bird,” he said. “You’re not here much longer—chances are you won’t see him again.”
She sighed, breathing in the familiar scent of pine and wild flowers (he smelled nothing like cedar. Nothing like woodsmoke and whiskey).
“Yeah,” she said, her voice tight and small. “You’re probably right.”
Belle cursed under her breath as she turned into the parking lot of Behind the Glass Sports Bar and Grill, the venue of the wedding. She pulled into the first empty space she could find, between a blue minivan and a yellow bug. After a quick scan, she found Jefferson’s car near the back of the lot, and gave a sigh of relief. She might be late, but at least she was in the right place.
Stupid dreams, keeping her awake last night. Stupid Jefferson, letting her sleep in and not waking her on time. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
At least her dress made it look like she put effort into her appearance, and that she had the foresight last night to rub vinegar against the bites on her neck. They had faded to a light enough blemish that she was able to conceal them with her make up before she had made a mad dash from the apartment.
Belle looked at her face critically in the visor mirror. Digging through her purse, she pulled out her soft pink lipstick, putting on a quick coat before stepping out of her car. There. She was as ready as she’d ever be. She didn’t have mascara, and only her concealer, but a good shade of lipstick worked wonders in a pinch.
When she stepped through the door to the bar, she was met with a large room; sports decal and neon signs lining the walls, large TVs set up high so a screen or three could be viewed from any vantage point. Despite it being nearly noon, the place was empty. Well. Nearly.
“Belle!” Jeff said extravagantly. “Welcome to our base camp!” He was beside her almost instantly, as if he were waiting by the door like a puppy. “So glad to see you made it.”
His hands gripped her shoulders, and he peered into her face critically, his eyes making a path down to her neck.
“I got a lot of sleep. I needed it, apparently.”
Jefferson nodded, his arm sliding around her waist as he turned, his hand pressing lightly at the small of her back so he could lead her into the building.
“It’s important to feel refreshed. This is your vacation, mind, no matter how you might be put to work. Now,” he said, pushing open a door that was next to what Belle presumed to be the kitchen. “How about I introduce you officially to the bride and groom.”
The room Belle had been led to was private, a place set aside for large parties away from the other guests. Most of the tables were pushed against the far wall, the chairs stacked next to them. At the only table in the center was a blonde woman, arms crossed and leaning back in her seat. She had turned to watch them when they entered. The man to her right was still bent over whatever it was they had spread out before them on the table.
“You must be Belle,” the woman said, standing.
“And you’re Emma.” Belle smiled warmly, holding out her hand. “Jefferson has told me so much about you.”
Emma grunted. “I can only imagine. I assure you he’s told me far too much about you.”
The words were standoffish, but the tone was warm, even despite the not quite smile on her face. Belle couldn’t help a laugh. “Yes, he does have far more enthusiasm then sense, doesn’t he?” she said, voice bright.
“You guys are both so mean to me. It’s a wonder I put up with it at all.” Jeff said.
By now the groom had stood also.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Belle. It’s nice to meet you, finally.”
The groom was tall, with slightly curly hair and a good amount of stubble. His eyes crinkled, friendly and open when he smiled at her, his hand large and warm as they shook.
“I’m Neal. And please don’t worry about it. I understand how Jefferson can keep you up at night.”
He grunted as Emma jammed her elbow into his side.
“Don’t be gross,” she said.
“Not what I meant,” he laughed, dodging another jab. He kissed her cheek, before he slid back out of her reach.
“No, I know what you mean. He doesn’t turn off,” Belle said with a pointed look in his direction.
“I let you sleep in, didn’t I?”
“I was told I’d be put to work,” Belle said, watching as Neal sat back down. “I’m good at organizing, if you need it.” She looked back at the tables and chairs that were pushed against the wall. “How many are you expecting?”
“There’s you and me,” Jefferson said. “We make up the wedding party on Emma’s side. The best man is Neal’s best friend from college.”
“Mulan’s great,” Neal said, “Real life of the party.”
Emma snorted. “Her girlfriend somehow convinced us to let her be the flower girl and ring-bearer.”
“Apparently it was her dream as a kid to be a flower girl, but she grew up with a distinct lack of weddings, so she never got the chance.” Neal said. “So out of the goodness of our hearts, we’re letting her live her dream.”
“And to top it off,” Jefferson said, “Philip will be officiating.”
“And Phillip is…?” Belle asked.
“Their boyfriend,” Emma said, voice flat.
She looked to the blonde, wondering if it was a joke. From the look on her face, it was not. Belle nodded. “This wedding is going to be amazing.”
“They’ll be here tomorrow, for the actual ceremony,” Neal said.
It was a little odd that three key players in the wedding wouldn’t be attending the researshal, but Belle didn’t comment. She was getting the feeling they were going for a small affair; as long as everyone knew their lines, she was sure it would be fine. “How many other guests?” she asked, thinking of how to set up the tables and chairs.
“My father will also be here,” Neal said. “He’s the reason we don’t just go the courthouse, honestly.” Neal scratched the back of his head, frowning. “Lot less trouble if we do it that way, but he was insistent.”
Belle turned back to the couple when no one continued.
“Wait, so, your father, your party of three, me and Jeff,” Belle listed. “That’s all? For this entire place?”
“We wouldn’t let him pay for the honeymoon, so he’s paying for the party,” Emma said. She crossed her arms, leaning back against the table. “He demanded a venue, so I gave him one. Sue me.”
“If it seems like this has all been put together very quickly and last minute, it’s because it was,” Neal said, smiling.
“Hardly something to be proud of,” a new voice interjected. A very familiar voice, that was accompanied with the very familiar tap of a gold-handled cane. “If you’d both just give me a little more time, I could get a wonderful ceremony set up for you.”
Once, when Belle was a kid, her babysitter had taken her to a park. Near the edge had been a tire swing, four holes drilled into the flat side of the rubber and hoisted up with glinting metal chains, hung about three feet from the ground. She had begged and pleaded to be allowed a turn, and her babysitter had finally given in.
An older boy had offered to swing it for her. When the kid pulled on one of the chains she spun around and around, the world becoming blurry and fluid.
“Again! Again!” she yelled when she slowed.
The boy pulled harder. Belle, somehow, let go.
She never forgot the feeling of being suddenly airborne, of landing hard on her back, the wind whooshing from her chest.
Hearing the tap of a cane, the soft brogue of his voice, she felt just as small and vulnerable as she had been as a child, stunned and wheezing, staring up into the sky not knowing what had happened.
Jefferson raised his eyebrow at what had to be the shock on her face. He stepped closer, arm once again winding around her waist.
Belle tried to breathe, to calm her fluttering heartbeat.
“Hey, Pops,” Neal said, standing again. He crossed the room and clasped his father on the shoulder. “Wed don’t want a grand affair. What we have now is more than perfect,” he said with the air of someone who’s repeated the line many times before. “We were just about to make a game plan for the day. Have you met Emma’s friends yet?”
His brown eyes (soft when looking at his son, sweet like molasses) flickered to Jefferson and Belle, who stood like pillars. She watched his eyes harden, the sweetness evaporating right before her eyes.
He looked to her, then to Jeff, beside her.
With a final press of his hand on her back, Jeff stepped forward, bowing grandly. “Jefferson Louis Masters, at your service. And my lovely date, Miss Belle Marie French.”
She fought the urge to curtesy. “My middle name isn’t Marie, you loon.”
“No?” Jeff straightened. “It should be.” He turned back to his audience, lip twitching when he was met with a steely glare.
“Miss French, how lovely to see you again.” The words sounded as if they were forced past his tongue, grimacing as if each were a tooth pulled.
“Mr. Gold,” she said quietly. “It’s been too long.”
“Has it?” His hand gripped the handle of his cane, his knuckles turning white.
His hand had been at her throat, yesterday; not squeezing, not applying any pressure, just holding. His other, on her hip, pressing her into the sink as he moved inside her.
She had traced the bruise he left last night, had remembered the delightful feel of it forming against the material of her skirt.
“I didn’t know you had a son,” Belle said. Her hand, unseen by the others in the room, clenched into the material of Jefferson’s waistcoat at his back.
Gold’s tongue flickered, wetting his lips. “And why would you?”
He hadn’t said anything, when his body was pressed to hers. She’d heard only his stuttered breath on her face, on her neck, his tongue tracing her collarbone. He gasped when he came inside her, the sound pulled from him.
Jefferson squeezed her shoulder. She tore her face away from Gold in time to see Jeff look away from her. She watched as his eyes narrowed, sizing Gold up. “You have very cute ears,” he said before Belle could think of anything to say.
Gold pursed his lips, unamused.
Belle wanted to sink into the floor. “Jeff,” she groaned. Far too perceptive.
“Right,” Neal said loudly. She had almost forgotten there were other people in the room. “Game plan. Flowers and cake.” Neal looked from Belle to his dad, then to Emma. She shrugged, as clueless as he was.
“We thought everyone would like to get on with their Saturdays, so we decided to divide and conquer,” Neal continued. “Emma can pick out her bouquet and some arrangements for the room, and me and Papa will pick out a cake. Belle, I thought maybe you could come with me and my old m—”
“My expertise is in flowers, actually. Jeff, you can vouch for that,” she said, quickly. “How about I go with Emma, instead? Besides, it’ll be fun, just us girls.”
“What—” Jeff said. “Wait a—”
“I know how much you love sweets,” she said, voice too loud, too cheerful. She was careful to keep her eyes on Jefferson, which was hard to do considering the betrayal that was present in his face.
Emma and Neal shared a look.
“Sounds good to me,” Emma said, pulling on a red leather jacket. “We’ll see you gents later, yeah?”
“Belle,” Jeff said, but she was already headed out the door.
“Save your receipts, Miss Swan,” she heard, but she did not look back.
The door closed behind her as she stepped back into the empty bar. It looked large and open with the sunlight streaming through the windows, when it was empty of patrons. It was friendly, though, and very warm. It wasn’t hard to imagine it full of people, there to watch the big game and drink with friends.
“You wanna drive?” Emma asked from behind her, drawing Belle away from the room.
“Ah, yes, that would be fine. You can tell me where we’re going.”
They stepped out into the sunshine together, Belle unlocking her car.
“You tell me. You’re the flower expert.”
“Oh,” Belle laughed, the sound a little forced. She quickly picked up her loose books and magazines from the passenger side and placed them in the seat behind her. “That was—I meant—”
Belle took a deep breath. She clutched the steering wheel like a lifeline. “I was referring to my father, mostly. He owned a flower shop, and I spent some time there when I was a kid. A lot of time, actually. So.”
Emma grunted. She shifted in her seat so she could reach her phone in her back pocket. “So you don’t know any good places around here.”
“Exactly. You navigate.” Belle started her car, looking behind her to pull out. “Look up the best five flower shops; we can look around, see what’s available. Since you need everything by tomorrow, we might have to go to several places.” Belle could faintly remember the days of going to work with her father. They got a lot of walk-ins, but most wedding bouquets were special orders, and she wasn’t sure what would be available so last minute.
“We’re not doing anything fancy,” Emma said, rolling her eyes, and typing something into her phone. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Right. Emma had probably been strong-armed into having a bouquet in the first place—though the thought of anyone trying to force Emma to do anything was laughable. Belle wondered if she had bothered to get a wedding dress.
Belle drove straight for another block before Emma said, “Hey, there’s a place close. Take a left up here.”
She flipped her blinker down, pulling into the turning lane.
“So,” Emma extended the word on her exhale. “You know Gold, huh?”
We were...ah…” Belle counted cars as they passed, waiting for a break so she could go. “Briefly acquainted, yes.”
Emma nodded slowly, her face carefully neutral.
“How long is ‘briefly’?”
“About 15 months,” Belle said after a long pause. She swallowed, throat tight.
“You owe him money or something? Take a right after the next light.”
Belle gave Emma a startled look.
She shrugged. “I keep telling Neal that Gold is a borderline loan shark. It’s going to come back to bite him one of these days.”
“N-no. I don’t owe him money.”
Emma hummed. “Grab the next parking space you find. We can walk from here.”
It was another block before Belle was able to pull to the side of the street and park. They both got out of the car, Belle locking it behind them. She grabbed for her wallet so she could pay for the meter, but Emma was faster, already feeding coins into its hungry mouth.
Emma turned to her, sighed. She put her hands into her jacket pockets. “I don’t know what all Jeff has told you about the wedding, but if you don’t want to be here, you can absolutely bail.”
There was a small part of Belle (and she wouldn’t admit to herself just how large it really was) that wanted to take Emma up on her offer. She could climb back into her car and leave, just as she had before.
She was still that little girl, hanging onto the chain links of a tire swing, watching the world blur past her, pretending she wasn’t a part of it.
Belle had hit the ground once, and she’d gotten back up. Surely she could do it now.
“I get it,” Emma said. “Gold can be a bit much.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Emma. But, look on the bright side,” she said, trying to sound more cheerful than she felt. “You have the perfect distraction. Gold will spend all his time this weekend hating me that he’ll forget about you completely.”
Emma snorted. “He’ll remember me soon enough.” Her eyes searched Belle’s face, but looking for what, Belle couldn’t say.
She shrugged, eyes sliding away. “Come on then.”
“It was excruciating.”
“It can’t have been that bad,” Belle lied, pretending to peruse Jeff’s bookshelves.
Jefferson glared at her. She could feel the sting of it at the back of her head. “Belle.” He waited until she turned to look at him. “I just spent three hours with a man who was radiating pure fury and hatred, the pure definition and embodiment of a lover scorned.”
“Of a lover scorned, Belle.” He snapped. “He thinks you’re my girlfriend.”
That made her pause. It wasn’t an unnatural conclusion to come to, really. Not with how affectionate her and Jefferson were, and wasn’t that Jeff’s own fault? He had introduced her as his date.
“If that bothers you—”
“It’s not that it bothers me. You’re a catch, Belle, but that’s not the problem.”
“Three hours, Belle. Three hours with a man who thinks he had sex with my girlfriend in a supermarket bathroom, and that I don’t know about it.” He flung himself on the couch, massaging his temples.
“Yeah, that would be awkward.”
“Awkward,” he scoffed. “I went along with it, by the way, if I haven’t made that clear.”
Belle sat down next to him. He put his head on her shoulder.
“It seemed the reasonable thing to do, since. You know,” he sighed.
Since I’m too ashamed to be in the same room as him? Since I’m too much of a coward to face him?
“Thanks for taking that bullet, I guess.”
Jeff groaned. “The thing is, Belle, the thing is—” He waved his hand in the air. “He looked for you. When we got back, cakes in hand—he insisted on three, for some reason, so chances are we’ll be stuck with leftovers—he looked for you. He thought he was being subtle, and I don’t know what he thought he was going to say. When he saw Emma was the only one at the bar, he just. Deflated. Didn’t look surprised, just disappointed. Bid us good day, and left, shoulders hunched like he was going out into a storm.”
Belle didn’t say anything. She didn’t trust her voice.
“Maybe I’m just projecting,” he said into the silence of the apartment. “I half expected you to be gone myself, when I returned ho—”
“Want to get irresponsibly drunk tonight?” Belle asked, before he could finish.
Jefferson sat up, his face so close to hers she could see the darker shade of blue around his irises. His gaze was intense, piercing.
Belle looked away. She had been examined enough for one day.
“Fuck it. Let’s do it.”
Belle was on her third glass of wine, leftover Chinese food left abandoned on the floor beside them. They had ended up on the floor, rather than on the couch or in the kitchen, but Belle couldn’t bring herself to care just then.
“The sex was always good, Jeff. right from the beginning, that man could do stuff to me that I didn’t even think was possible. No, I mean it,” she said when he snorted into his own wine glass; only his second, and he wa nursing it. “He knew exactly how to play me.”
She leaned back, her head resting on the couch cushion. “I trusted him completely. I’ve never been more content with a partner. I mean it. I trusted him so much, if—if he had so much as hinted that he wanted anal, I would have said ‘absolutely, let’s do this. I’ll grab the lube and condoms’.”
Jeff laughed outright at that. The sound gave her a warm feeling in her stomach that the wine couldn’t reach. “Have you ever tried anal?” he asked.
“Once. It was easily the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. But he’d have made it good for me. It was always good, with him. Gold took such good care of me.”
He was shaking with suppressed laughter. She wasn’t sure what was so funny, but she didn’t mind.
“Best sex I ever had was with older men, too, now that I think about it,” he admitted. “Mostly.”
“Yeah. Mostly.” Belle took another sip of wine. “What?” she asked, seeing that Jeff was looking at her, his eyes half-lidded with a mischievous glint.
“Was it always good with Gold? Even the first time?”
“Yeah, of course,” she said quickly. Too quickly, she could see.
“Tell me,” he said.
Belle never needed much convincing when she drank wine.
“It took a month into having sex before I gave him a blow job,” she admitted. “He never asked me to. I almost thought maybe he just didn’t like them. Whenever I tried to—” she waved her hand at her lap— “go down, he’d pull me back up and I’d get distracted, you know? And, like, I never really cared that much. God knows blowjobs are overrated.”
Jeff snorted. “Says you.”
She elbowed him. “I asked him about it once. He was sitting at his work bench, explaining to me how this antique—fuck, was it a hearing aid?—in front of him worked, and I had a sudden thought of how nice it would be, if my head were in between his thighs.”
“God, you focus on the weirdest things. His ears. A hearing aid. Oh my god, that’s it, isn’t it? You have a secret—”
She elbowed him again, harder this time, wine sloshing dangerously in her glass. If Jeff wasn’t careful she was going to stain his carpet. “He spent plenty of time between mine, you know, and I just—I just wanted to reciprocate for once.”
“How much convincing did it take?”
“Well, I said, ‘Gold, I want to suck you off. Now. Can I?’ And he just looked at me, surprised. That was it, really. He offered to move to the cot, to make it more comfortable for me, but I wanted him on that bench. So I crawled under the table, and, uhm, took him out.”
Jeff watched her as she talked, a filthy smirk on his face. “I bet he loved that, hm? Was he just like velvet on your tongue, hmmm?”
She snorted, her wine going up her nose when she tried to take another drink. “God—Jefferson!”
“I don’t know why you’d be so scandalized by that. It’s not like you don’t know I’ve given blow jobs before.”
She was laughing, her hands nearly shaking too hard to keep her glass steady. “Why am I even telling you this?”
“No, no please continue. I want to hear what happened.”
She licked at her hand where her wine splashed, the salt of her skin mixing with the sweet twinge of black cherry.
“I forgot where I was.”
“You were giving that man the best head of his life.” He frowned. “No, wait. You’re telling a story about bad sex. Belle,” he gasped, as if realizing her deepest secret. “Are you bad at blowjobs?”
She wondered if throwing something at him would be more effective. “That’s not—God, let me finish.” She leaned against the couch, remembering that day. The feel of his on her tongue, indeed like velvet: soft and hard all at once. His hands clawed into the table because he was worried about pulling too hard on her hair.
She remembered especially looking up into his face, his eyes wild and pupils blown wide, staring at her with such a look of what could only be called rapture. He watched her every movement so carefully, as if it was the last time she was ever going to touch him like that. It felt good, to be the one to make him look like that.
She had just wanted him to feel good. Wanted. Loved.
“When he, uh, was close, I pulled off and asked if he wanted to come in my mouth.” She paused, frowning down at her glass.
“Did he give you the wrong answer?”
Belle snickered. “Nope.” Before Jeff could ask what she meant, she said, “He shot off, right then and there.”
“He came on your face,” Jefferson gasped.
“He did!” she squealed, laughing. “It was partly my fault. The way I was holding him. If I had aimed for, God I don’t know, his stomach it wouldn’t have been so bad, but nope.”
Jefferson was wheezing, laughing with such glee she almost couldn’t make out his next sentence. “I can just imagine the look on your face.”
“He was the one horrified. He was sure I was about to storm out and not come back. He couldn’t enjoy the orgasm he was so worried.”
“Like you’d leave with come on your face,” he snickered.
“Right.” Belle leaned back against the couch again. She stared up at the ceiling as their laughter died down.
“Belle,” Jeff said into the quiet. The refrigerator hummed from the kitchen. “What happened?”
Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was Jeff’s voice. Maybe it was two years of silence, too heavy to carry any further.
“I just had to leave.”
“But why?” he insisted, sitting up. “You disappeared for months, with absolutely no word to anyone, and then when you finally get back in contact, you’re on the west coast? I thought maybe you had gone home to Australia, or fuck, been murdered or kidnapped into some cult, but no, you’re in fucking Oregon like some fucking hipster—” he cut himself off. When he spoke next, his voice was back to a low, even timber. “You were just gone, Belle.”
Her mouth was too dry to speak. She swirled what was left of the wine in her glass, watching the legs as they trailed down the sides like tears.
“Please. What happened?”
What did we do to drive you away?
“I don’t know,” she lied.
Jeff leaned down, sprawling on the floor. His arms knocked into the take-out containers, but he didn’t seem to care. Belle wasn’t sure where he had put his wine.
“Look, I can’t make you talk to me. I’m glad you’re here, Belle, but I don’t like the feeling of not knowing if you’re going to answer my phone calls, or if you’re still going to be here when I come home.”
Belle closed her eyes. It’s not that she didn’t want to talk, exactly; it was just that she wasn’t sure where to start. How did she open up those old wounds and face the disappointment she had caused?
“Disappointment?” Jeff asked, looking at her. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “That’s what you’re afraid of?”
When she left, she didn’t have to think about how much she had hurt him, them, everyone, or how much she had lost when she ran away when she did. So, yeah. Disappointment.
“I’m disappointed, Belle. You broke my heart, too, you know.” He leaned over, kissed her forehead. “But people get over disappointment.”
“Yeah.” He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her in. “You need to talk to us, Belle.”
“I just left,” she said quietly. “I just left him. I…” she sighed, wishing she hadn’t poured that third glass. “He didn’t even tell me he had a son.”
“Is that why, then? Because he wasn’t opening up?”
“No,” she admitted. “We talked a lot, about other things. About…” She waved a hand. “Other things. I kept telling myself, though, that it was only sex. That is was convenient and neither one of us felt any more.” She bit her lip. “I left, Jeff, and he never called. I guess I just convinced myself he had to think the same.”
“I see.” He sat up on his elbows. “You know something? Once you get past the asshole outer layer, the guy’s hilarious. I want him to be my new best friend.”
That surprised a laugh out of her.
“I’m serious. That man knows how to roast someone and I need him on my side. If you can’t fix this and heal for yourself, do it for me, Belle. If you don’t want this man in your life, I will happily take your place.”
“From what you’ve said about today, he’d more likely to push you into traffic.”
“I would take that chance. We’d be happy together.”
She rolled over so her head was on his shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him. “You’d make anyone happy.”
He kissed her temple. “If you won’t talk to me, Belle, at least talk to him. He’s been waiting for you a lot longer than I have.”
She tugged at his vest, straightening it. “Why can’t we just run away together.” She breathed in his cologne. He smelled nothing like Gold, but it was still comforting.
“Because we both deserve better.”
“What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”
His arms wound around her shoulders, squeezing once, then letting go. “Talk to him, Belle.”
“Yeah,” she said, closing her eyes. “You’re right.”
Short and simple, Emma had said.
Belle stood in the middle of the party room at Behind the Glass Bar and Grill, a table at her back decorated with a pristine tablecloth, three simple single sheet cakes (one chocolate, one vanilla, one pumpkin spice with cream cheese frosting), and a vase full of bright wildflowers.
She watched as Emma swept into the room, all eyes on her, on her slim white dress that hugged her hips, on her bouquet of vibrant sunflowers, hibiscus and orchids. Jefferson was beaming, hands clasped in front of him, standing as still as Belle had ever seen him. Across from him was Neal, unshaven but otherwise looking crisp in his tux. Beside him was Mulan and Aurora, holding hands as they all watched Emma come down their makeshift aisle.
Even Gold was smiling, happy to share the day with his son. She watched his smile deepen when Neal held his hand out to Emma.
Phillip nodded to both of them. “Welcome to the ceremony,” he said to the small group gathered. “Everyone knows why we’re here, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we all couldn’t be more thrilled to witness this blessed union.”
Belle couldn’t help the smirk when she saw Emma roll her eyes.
Emma and Neal said their vows. Aurora gave them their rings; they kissed. As everyone clapped, Belle looked over at Gold. She was surprised to see that he was already watching her.
He didn’t look away.
The soft light fell against the stone walls of the bar. Belle had been right; the bar was friendly and welcoming when it was filled with people. They had all moved out onto the main floor, everyone uncaring about their fancy attire.
Sunday wasn’t a huge pull for people, but there was enough noise and camaraderie, especially when patrons discovered Gold was picking up their checks in celebration of Emma’s and Neal’s nuptials. They were even offered a piece of cake, for as long as it lasted.
Belle sipped her water, watching Gold as he fiddled with his ring at his end of the bar. He was stiff, nursing a glass of whiskey, but had a handshake and a ready smile for anyone who came up to thank him for the free food and drinks.
She slowly made her way towards him, moving down a chair every so often. They both pretended that he wasn’t watching her get closer and closer.
Finally, all too soon, she was sitting next to him, staring into her drink. He watched the hockey game that was playing on the TV overhead, but she would bet the running tab he had that he wasn’t absorbing a bit of it.
“Did Emma choose this place just to annoy you?” she asked.
He looked at her in surprise, but Belle just shrugged. “You can’t tell me you’re comfortable.”
“This is where they met,” he said, after a moment. “They really didn’t care where it happened. I more or less called her bluff, I think.”
They watched as a player took a shot. He missed.
“Jefferson and I aren’t together,” Belle said. “Never have been. We’re just friends.”
She felt him turn his gaze to her, but she kept her eyes on the screen. “We didn’t mean to mislead you. I’m sorry that happened.”
He looked down into his whiskey glass. “I see.”
She wondered if he missed his long hair; there wasn’t anything for him to hide behind anymore.
“I’m sorry I left,” she blurted.
His eyes flickered to hers, and she saw his lip twitch. He was desperately trying to keep his poker face.
“My father died.” She gripped her water glass, the cold condensation wetting her skin. “There was a car accident, and he was just gone once day, and. It was too small, suddenly. Boston, my apartment. I felt claustrophobic and small, and I just...needed to leave, and…”
“So you did,” he finished quietly.
“So I did.” She swallowed back the tears threatening. “My lease was up, the semester had just ended at the college, so the library had cut my hours. The only thing really keeping me here was you. I kept telling myself that it was only sex, that it didn’t matter if I left. And then you didn’t even call, and I managed to convince myself that’s what you thought too. That I was right.”
“I’m sorry about your father.”
“Yeah,” she sucked in a breath. She let go of her glass, wiping her wet hand on her dress. “I…yeah. That’s no excuse though. I’m sorry I did that.”
He looked at her, eyes golden brown in the light of the bar. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and not let go this time.
“How long are you in town?”
“I don’t know.”
He grimaced. Gold opened his mouth to say something when he was interrupted by loud cheers from the other end of the bar. Neal had just dipped Emma, kissing her soundly as their audience clapped.
Belle felt her color rise. This was an inappropriate time to try to have this conversation. “I should let you enjoy the rest of the wedding,” she said. “It was a beautiful ceremony.”
Just as Belle was slipping away, his hand caught her wrist, pulling her back.
“Come to my shop tomorrow,” he said. “We can… we’ll talk there.”
Belle kissed him, just on the corner of his mouth. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she promised.
The shop hadn’t changed. There was the sign that hung above the door, large and old. Almost outdated, if it didn’t compliment the rustic brick building, and every other building on the block.
Belle stood on the sidewalk, counting the items she recognized in the display cases (she kept telling him to rotate stock out, but he never did. Maybe they could do it together. It was a good thought, she decided).
It was early, but the sun was bright. She tugged awkwardly on her sundress, wondering if he’d be in, or if she’d have to come back. She didn’t want to put this off longer than she already had, nor give him the impression she had disappeared again.
If this was going to work, she couldn’t shut him out. They’d move forward, together.
She took a deep breath. Belle pushed the door open, relieved that it was unlocked. With the bell twinkling above her, she stepped inside.