“So when I’m crying alone
Yeah, when I’m cold as a dying stone
Grow me a garden of roses
Paint me the colors of sky and rain
Teach me to speak with their voices
Show me the way and I’ll try again”
Poets of the Fall – “Roses”
Chapter 7: High Rollers
Damon was quick to finish up their shopping spree and Bella was surprised to find herself feeling a bit disappointed when it was over. Shopping with Damon was vastly differently than shopping with Alice, or even Jessica Stanley. For one, he actually let her pick out things she liked. Alice had merely shoved outfits in Bella’s face, not asking her opinion and telling her that she’d ‘seen’ that she’d like them.
But Bella hadn’t liked most of what Alice had pushed at her. The clothes were nice, but uncomfortable – comfort being something the vampire girl would have spared little thought for. Wearing them, Bella had felt like a reject model from the Gap.
With Damon, he let her browse the store on her own and would give his opinion honestly on whatever she held out to him. More often than not, he’d voice his opinions in his typical sharp wit, making Bella laugh, but he’d always give valid criticism – that color would wash her out, this cut would make her look shorter. He picked out plenty for her as well, always trying to sneak in some slinky, short dress in, but Bella had been pleasantly surprised by how much she liked his choices overall. It showed how well he already knew her that he could pick out things she may not have chosen for herself, but still suited her taste.
She’d felt guilty that most of what they bought was for her, but when she’d tried to pay the first few times, Damon had given her a highly offended look while stating, “I kidnapped you, remember? Consider this a perk – I need you to develop Stockholm Syndrome, after all. Besides, you’ll need these for where we’re going. I party in style.”
It still didn’t feel right letting him drop that kind of money on her, but she could tell arguing would be futile. Besides, with Damon spending money on her, it didn’t feel uneven, or like she was taking a handout like it had when she was with the Cullens. It was hard to pinpoint why it was so different with him, but eventually Bella decided it was because Damon bought her things she liked and cared about her input in the process, whereas Alice had been trying to conform Bella to the Cullen image.
That insight, piled with the many others she’d been making, left her uncomfortably depressed. Slowly, she was coming to understand that the family she’d loved and accepted so completely into her life hadn’t been nearly as welcoming as she’d thought. Naive. She’d been utterly naive when it came to the Cullens.
When they got back to their room, Damon took a shower while Bella sorted through her new clothes, cutting off the tags. They hadn’t bought as much as she’d first feared, but there was a good amount of jeans, tops, and a pair of new, dressy heels she was sure to break her neck in. When she’d voiced as much to Damon about the shoes, he’d only smirked and told her that he’d use his magical healing blood to fix her up.
There was even a couple dresses and a skirt or two in the pile, and Bella rolled her eyes when she came across the leather skirt she’d told Damon not to get.
What surprised her the most, though, was the necklace she came across. He must have snuck off at some point and smuggled it in one of their previous bags to keep her from noticing. She wasn’t sure what the stone was, but it was definitely a natural stone and was an intense shade of blue that reminded her of Damon’s ring.
It was gorgeous and entirely too much. She could tell just by looking at it that it was deceptively simple. It had an understated elegance that Bella knew had to have set Damon back a pretty penny – that is if he hadn’t compelled some sort of discount. It probably cost more than most of what they bought, maybe even combined. The bezel it was set in looked antique and there were tiny diamonds all around it, their luster reflecting the inner fire of the blue stone itself. It was elegant yet subtle, something she would have definitely picked out for herself. It was timelessly beautiful.
And it was entirely too much and she wouldn’t be keeping it.
The bathroom door opened and clicked closed. Without turning around, Bella said, “Damon, what is this?”
“Looks like a necklace to me.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know that, genius, but why – Damon, what the hell?!”
Bella had turned around to find him startling close behind her, wearing nothing but a towel. Flushing red, she quickly looked away, but the vision of his chiseled abs and the tiny droplets of water clinging to his chest was imprinted in her mind.
“What? I forgot a change of clothes,” he said innocently.
“Likely story – and don’t think I forgot about the necklace. I can’t accept it, Damon.”
“And why not?”
“Because,” she drew out in annoyance.
“Mina,” he chided, his tone bidding her look at him.
When she did, her face caught fire. He’d dropped the towel and stood with his back to her, his ass staring at her, completely eye level with her face. “Jesus Christ!” she yelped.
“I know, right? My ass is glorious.”
She could literally hear the blood rushing to her face and doubted whether her coloring would ever go back to normal again. It sounded lame even to herself, but she’d never seen a man’s naked ass before. Well, there was that one time Renee had taken her to see a Brad Pitt movie in theaters to see him bare his rump, but that hardly counted.
Brad Pitt has nothing on Damon Salvatore, she thought and immediately could feel her cheeks getting hotter.
“You’re looking a little hot there, mina. Need any help with that?”
He was smirking, definitely smirking. No doubt about it. Even with her eyes screwed shut she could tell.
“Will you please put on some clothes, Damon?” she ground out.
Or turn around so I can see all of you, the tiny thought surfaced unbidden.
There was a heavy sigh from Damon and a small rustling of fabric before he said, “Relax mina, I’m decent.”
Slowly, she opened an eye to peek at him. He was wearing black pants and his shirt was suspiciously missing.
She quirked a brow pointedly and Damon grinned. “Well, decent enough.”
Shaking her head, Bella turned back to the necklace. “I can’t accept this, Damon. It’s too much.”
He scoffed. “What is it with you and gifts? Just wear the damn necklace.”
“Damon, you know I’m thankful, but it’s too much. The clothes I can kind of get since we’ll be going to nice places and I don’t want to embarrass you, but jewelry in not a necessity.”
“In this case it is,” he said.
He gave a sigh. “I promised to protect you from everything, didn’t I? Trust me and wear the necklace.”
Comprehension hit. “What does it do?” she asked tentatively, wondering if he’d gone to a witch somehow. A large part of her mind still scoffed at the concept – witches and spells, really?
“Right now it does nothing, but when we get to where we’re going I know someone who can set us up. Until then, I want you to get used to wearing it.”
“Damon…” she trailed off, well aware that she was starting to sound like a whiny brat. But still, she didn’t feel right accepting such a gift. Already she knew it was expensive, but after he took it to his friend and they laid their whammy on it, it’d be priceless. Not that she wasn’t thankful, but it was difficult letting him spend that kind of money on her. Her mom and Charlie had never really had the extra money to buy her much, not that she ever complained, and Edward and Alice had often bombarded her with lavish gifts that made her feel awkward or often highlighted how different she was from them.
She supposed she didn’t like gifts because they put attention on her, but as she thought about it, she realized the truth. She didn’t like receiving gifts because she often felt inadequate next to them. It was like she knew she could never measure up to what she was being given.
Realizing her hang up, she resolved to once again not take her insecurities out on others. Damon was just trying to help and in the process was doing something incredibly nice for her. She may not ever be able to repay the gesture in kind, but at least she could suck it up and accept the gift like a big girl. Bella was smart enough to know that giving gifts wasn’t necessarily about repayment in the end, and she needed to stop thinking in those terms.
Besides, Damon doesn’t take the word ‘no’ well and she really needed to pick and choose her battles with him. Would wearing the necklace hurt her? No, absolutely not. It sounded like the opposite, in fact, and if it gave Damon peace of mind, then she’d wear it.
And in return for his kindness, Bella wouldn’t complain about it being too much or how she would try to pay him back. Instead, she’d just show Damon how much she appreciated his gesture and valued him and their friendship. Knowing him as she did, she imagined that would mean more to him than anything else she could do.
“Alright Damon,” she said softly. “I’ll wear. I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass.”
Victory lit up Damon’s features and he came over to her, gently taking the necklace from her hands and sweeping her hair off her shoulder as he put it on her. “But you’re such a beautiful pain in the ass, mina, so I forgive you.”
She smiled, shivering as his hands dropped to her shoulders after securing the necklace. The stone was a gentle weight against her chest, falling perfectly above her breasts. She reached up and touched it, finding the weight reassuring.
Damon leaned down, his lips brushing her ear. “It looks perfect on you, mina. Now go get ready so I can show you how to party.”
Smiling, Bella grabbed some clothes and went into the bathroom. Her smile turned into a small grin when she looked at her reflection. Her cheeks were still flushed, but there was a brightness to her eyes that had been gone for months. Softly, she caressed her necklace and her smile grew.
After she declared herself sufficiently primped, Bella left the bathroom wearing an off the shoulder black top and a slightly flared white skirt that ended a few inches above her knees. The new necklace shown like a beacon against her pale skin and Damon grinned when he saw her fiddle with it nervously.
“You look hot. Let’s go, mina.”
Taking his arm, Damon led her through the hotel and out onto the Vegas strip.
The bright lights of the strip were mesmerizing even in the orange glow of the slowly setting sun. The strip was in full swing and Bella was hypnotized by the various characters she witnessed parading down the street. Some should be arrested for indecent exposure, but so many people just smiled and asked them to pose for a picture. People went around in big groups, loud and obnoxious while drinking margaritas by the yard. There was street music, people handing out cards for call girls, and the traffic was insane. No one paid attention to pedestrian crossing signs and she could hear the echo of car horns and voices shouting every minute.
Controlled chaos was the best way to describe it, although she could tell it was only barely controlled.
“A bit much the first time around, eh?” Damon asked, slinging his arm around her shoulder and steering her away from some unsavory looking people that were about to start a fight.
“It’s insane,” Bella stated, but she was smiling as she said it.
Damon laughed. “You’re loving this.”
“It’s just fascinating,” she murmured, her eyes wide as she glanced at a very well dressed businessman collecting several call girl cards.
“I think there’s a party girl buried deep inside you dying to come out and play.”
Bella quirked her head in thought. She’d never been that type pf girl, always preferring to stay home and read while others her age went out and partied it up. Not once had she ever felt like she was missing out, but as she watched the various sorts of people laughing and stumbling along the strip, she wondered if maybe she’d been just as repressed as Edward.
It wasn’t like she’d felt the need to go out and party with kids her age. But still, she remembered the feeling that’d come over her as they were driving out of town to escape from James and they’d passed the diner as her human friends spilled out, laughing riotously will stumbling against each other. There’d been a slight envy of their carefree happiness and their ability to simply let go of their worries and have fun.
Since Edward had left her, she’d been doing the exact opposite. She’d been clinging to her grief like a security blanket, to the memory of the life she had shared with Edward and his family. Maybe she should have been doing the opposite – letting go. He’d made her promise to stay safe and not do anything foolish, but did she really owe him such loyalty? Should she let Edward control her life even in his absence?
“We should get some drinks,” she found herself saying.
Damon laughed, the arm around her pulling her closer to his side. “Now you’re talking, mina. Let’s get bombed and play some poker.”
“And Craps,” she reminded.
He rolled his eyes. “I suppose,” he drew out grudgingly. The smile he dropped her gave him away though.
Damon steered them to an outside bar in front of Caesar’s Palace and ordered them both margaritas by the yard. The bartender gave her an admiring wink causing Bella to self-consciously tug at her skirt. It wasn’t that it was too short – it rested a few inches above her thigh – but when coupled with the off the shoulder top and moderate heels she was wearing, Bella was showing more skin than she typically would.
Seeing her flush in embarrassment, Damon slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her into his side, his hard eyes staring down the young bartender who immediately gulped and scurried off to make their drinks.
“You really should get used to that,” Damon said, tilting his head down to hers.
“Get used to what?”
He gave her one of his are-you-fucking-kidding-me looks before saying, “You’re hot. Guys are going to check you out. Don’t look down, don’t question it – just accept it. It’s a compliment.”
Bella bit her lip. “I guess I don’t really think of myself in that way.”
“I know,” he said lightly. “That actually makes you hotter. But now that you bring it up, how do you see yourself?”
If it wasn’t for the fact that he seemed genuinely interested in her answer, Bella would’ve rolled her eyes and wrote him off. Instead, she paused and thought on it.
“Well,” she began. “I suppose I see myself as average, a little boring.”
“Boring?” he asked incredulously. “Mina, I’ve only known you a couple days and boring is the last way I’d ever describe you.”
“I meant in looks,” she corrected. “Brown hair, brown eyes – it’s kind of boring. Not really exotic or whatever.”
Not nearly as nice as blue eyes, she thought ruefully.
Damon stepped uncomfortably close behind her, his hands circling her waist. “You are far from boring, especially in looks, mina.”
Bella shrugged. “It’s not that I think I’m ugly or anything.”
“No, but you settle,” Damon said.
“You settle. Pretty much in every area of your life, you settle. You settle for average because it’s safe and comfortable. You settle for ordinary because you’re afraid to be extraordinary.”
It was easy for her to forget that Damon was more than just a man, that he’d seen and witnessed much throughout the years. Often times he was quick to make snarky jokes and brush off anything serious, but there was a depth to him that she may have taken for granted before.
The bartender arrived then, saving them both from speaking further, but Damon had certainly succeeded in giving her some food for thought. Had she been settling for second best throughout her life? What was perpetually holding her back, making her feel like it was alright to think she was less?
“I know that look,” Damon said. “You need to stop thinking and start drinking.” He placed her drink in her hand. “Chug a lug, mina.”
Staring at the large drink, Bella was a bit intimidated, but steeled herself and took a sip. It was tart but the tequila added a sharp bite that she decided she liked.
“What do you think?”
“I like it, but I think I like the bourbon better. The margarita mix is too artificial.”
Damon smirked at her. “You’ve got good taste.”
He took her hand and they continued walking around. Each sip had Bella relaxing further, smiling more and laughing as Damon made snide comments about random people they passed. They stopped and enjoyed the Bellagio fountains. The song was an Italian opera number and Bella shivered when Damon leaned down, his lips caressing her ear as he translated the lyrics for her.
When they’d finished their drinks, Damon got them more and Bella had a happy buzz. There was a group of street musicians close to the Venetian as they made their way back to hit the tables. The music was jazzy and as they stopped to listen, Bella found herself slowly swaying to the beat.
“Come on, mina. Dance with me.”
Before she could protest, Damon swung her in his arms, moving them to the beat. A part of her was extremely aware that they were the only ones dancing, that people were watching them, clapping and laughing. But where in the past she would have been embarrassed or even mortified, in that moment, Bella only felt happy. Damon certainly knew how to dance and he maneuvered her expertly, smirking whenever she missed a step, but not allowing her to stop and dwell on it.
It wasn’t perfectly choreographed. She stepped on his feet and stumbled several times, but Damon was quick to steady her, swinging her around as if she weighed nothing. When they came to a breathless stop, Bella flushed furiously at the scattered applause, but Damon hammed it up, bowing courteously and making a sweeping gesture to Bella.
Rolling her eyes, Bella accepted his arm once again as he led her to the casino.
“You’re a bit of a show-off, aren’t you?” she asked, playfully nudging him with her shoulder.
He grinned. “I can’t help being this awesome. It comes naturally.”
But then he frowned suddenly and stopped walking as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Bella could see the light on the screen as it rang on vibrate.
He stared at the phone for a long moment until the light died and whoever was calling was sent to voicemail.
A second later, the screen lit up again.
“Um, you can take that if you need to,” Bella offered. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking as he stared at the phone until it went dead again. His defensive walls that he’d brought down a bit as they walked the strip were pulled back up in full force.
He didn’t answer for a long moment. Tentatively, she brought her hand up and covered his own as pushed the phone down, moving in front of Damon to catch his eye. There was a hardness in his eyes that she hadn’t seen since they’d first met and Bella found herself at a complete loss. All she wanted to do was comfort him, as he’d been doing for her, but she didn’t know how to begin.
What do I do, she wondered, and then her recent mantra chimed in, what would Damon do?
Gently, she pried the phone from his hand and put it in his jacket pocket. “You owe me another drink, big boy,” she smiled as she entwined their fingers and squeezed his hand, hoping the gesture conveyed that she was there for him, but would never pry.
They had an intense staring contest. Damon’s eyes roved across her face and even though Bella couldn’t read him, she knew he could and was, reading her as easily as she read Jane Austen. He gave an abrupt pull on her hand and she stumbled into his chest. His arms came around her, trapping her against him when she would have pulled away.
The moment heated between them and Bella’s mouth went dry as she wondered what he was thinking as he blue eyes seemed to darken while drinking her in.
Her racing heartbeat did not go unnoticed. Bella bit her lip when she saw his gaze move to focus on her neck where she could feel her vein hopping as her heart pumped. His eyes flashed to hers again, two arctic pools that had her shivering from anything but coldness.
“You want to drink with me, mina,” he murmured in a tone positively dripping with sex.
Maybe it was because she still had a nice buzz going on, but all Bella could think of was a famous line from a book. Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly.
She was playing with fire, but in her fuzzy haze she let go of her perpetual self-consciousness and admitted, even if only to herself, that sometimes the burn could feel so good.
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “I don’t know what’s bothering you and you don’t have to say if you don’t want to, but I hope you know that I’m your friend and I’ll always be there for you. You’re always taking care of me, let me take care of you for a little bit.”
His lips twitched. Without another word he led her in silence the rest of the way to the Venetian casino and Bella couldn’t suppress her grin when he brought her straight to the craps tables. He pulled her in front of him and kept his hands on her hips as he leaned down to explain the game while observing the current player.
In the end, it was all gibberish to her. As they watched and Damon explained, she just couldn’t stop thinking about his hands on her waist, the small puff of his breath against his ear. She was fairly certain he was doing it on purpose and when she flagged down one of the cocktail waitresses and ordered a bourbon she could feel Damon’s chuckle vibrating against her.
Damon decided to play while Bella opted to watch. Still, he wouldn’t let her sit it out completely and with his trademark smirk he kept asking her to blow on the die for luck.
“I must not be much luck,” she laughed when he rolled a pair of snake eyes and lost.
“You are the best luck, mina, never doubt it,” he winked.
Declaring craps to be too complicated and boring, they quickly moved on to a poker table. Damon had a dangerously good poker face and was very apt at reading the other players. He pulled Bella in close and murmured in her ear as he taught her the art of bluffing.
Predictably, Bella was horrible at it when Damon demanded she try, and that was after they determined that the alcohol actually helped her lie better. She was just too honest and too easy to read for the high stakes game.
They decided to hit up another game. Damon refused to let her simply plant herself in front of a slot machine and eventually steered her towards the blackjack tables. It turned out, she was a bit of a savant at that game. A lot of the pressure was off because she wasn’t up against the other players at the table but only played against the dealer. It was very much a math and statistical game so she didn’t have to worry about bluffing. She certainly wasn’t a card counter, but she was an observant player even while under the haze of the alcohol that Damon made sure was never short in supply.
When she shivered, Damon took of his jacket and slipped it over her. He stayed close to her side until he decided to play too. They spent most of the night there and some of Bella’s earlier feelings about being a drain on Damon financially were assuaged as she won several respectful pots that she ended up pooling together with Damon’s winnings.
As the night went on to early morning, Bella could barely keep herself up straight. Damon finally declared it bed time around five or so, and when Bella slumped against him in the elevator he expertly swept an arm behind her knees and swept her up into his arms.
She sighed when he placed her gently on the soft bed in their room and the last thing she remembered before darkness took her was Damon’s hands soothing her feet as he took off her shoes.
A bright light was burning through her eyelids, piercing through her dreams and pulling Bella back into the land of consciousness far sooner than she should be. Her head was pounding, but thankfully her stomach was pretty settled.
An annoying buzz droned on the nightstand by her and without opening her eyes, Bella stirred out Damon’s grip just far enough to slap her hand down on the vibrating object. Groaning lightly, she tried to silent the annoying thing, but it buzzed again in her hand making her headache pound as she suffered through her first hangover.
“Ugh, shut up,” she hissed, and without thinking, she answered what she now knew to be a cell phone.
“What? What do you want?” she snapped waspishly.
“Um, hello?” a male voice came through uncertainly.
“Yes, hello, what do you want?”
The guy coughed. “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
Bella frowned, her headache getting worse. “You called me buddy, maybe you should tell me who you are.”
“My name is Stefan. I’m looking for my brother Damon?” he trailed off in question.
Oh crap, she jolted awake in an instant, her hangover receding as awareness dawned and several realizations converged upon her at once.
First, she’d just answered Damon’s phone, no doubt accepting a call from the person he’d been avoiding yesterday. He was going to be justifiable pissed.
Second, she was clad only in one of Damon’s dress shirts. Damon had obviously changed her and saw her pretty close to naked.
And third, which was more of a question really, Damon had a brother…?