Without A Hitch


Chapter 1

Bella’s good at giving advice.
It’s not something she learned or something she set out to do, just something she’s always been good at, ever since she was little.
She was never the most popular kid in the neighborhood—she wasn’t picked first for kickball teams or invited to every birthday party or the kid with the best pudding snack at lunch—but when it was time to build a tree house, or plan a snowball attack on the Newton twins, or talk Mr. Banner into five more minutes of recess, it was Bella all the kids came to.
It’s just something inside of her, some innate ability to analyze the world around her and turn possibilities into a plan.
Her mind works in probabilities, always calculating options, and even from a young age, she could see past all the loops and snarls to the heart of a problem, where the tangled strands could be unwound.
It unnerves her parents and the adults in her life—they remark on her quiet stillness like it is a problem, something to be wary of—but she knows how to use silence, how to sink into a calm that is like time slowing down, slow motion making decisions clear.
It’s just one of those things, the one thing she’s better at than everybody else, and as a result, she’s given out a lot of advice in her life, on everything from fashion to feng shui.
Always weighing pros and cons to every decision, though, always analyzing and projecting ahead for possible futures and considering repercussions, has its consequences.
She’s an observer, forever watching from the outside, distanced.
She thinks about things differently, sees the world through a different lens, and she comes off as cold or dispassionate because she doesn’t let herself become entangled with the problems she solves. She can’t—she can’t afford to put her heart and soul into every issue she thinks about. It’s easier on her sanity to stay distant, to analyze and resolve without the distraction of constant empathy.

Chapter 2

It’s probably why she’s so good at her job—as a financial adviser, she analyzes trends and gives people advice on what to do with their money, and she’s usually right.
Her clients don’t need someone to care about every dollar they invest, or a friend who’ll encourage them to buy stock they choose at random or because of a sentimental reason. They just want someone to tell them what their money’s going to do, someone who can spread out their options and predict the success, and occasionally, someone they can blame if everything goes wrong.
It’s also the reason why Bella doesn’t often give advice to the people close to her, unless they specifically ask for it. It’s harder for her to speculate on something when she’s involved, when it’s personal.
She was reluctant when her best friend asked for dating advice, not willing to risk their friendship on the success of her predictions, but it turns out that while she not only has an idea what women want in a man, she’s also got a firm grip on logic, and she’s pretty good at guessing what will help the process along.
Emmett’s engaged now, ridiculously happy with Rosalie, and he and Bella are closer than ever. It’s that fact—more than anything—that makes her agree to the whole stupid idea presented by her best friend.
Besides, it should be easy.
She doesn’t have any reason to care about this man—he’s just some guy Emmett knows, that needs some tips on snagging the woman of his dreams.
Bella doesn’t have to be his best friend, she just has to help him solidify his approach, refine his technique, maybe organize some areas of his life, and then let him go.
If the whole thing crashes and burns, it’s not her fault—she is just doing a favor for Emmett, after all, and this isn’t her normal thing.
At least that’s what she tells herself, and when she finally meets the guy and gets a good look at him—all six foot and then some, Christ—and she gets a hug instead of a handshake, and a warm, friendly smile with a flash of gleaming white teeth that makes her stomach flutter and she realizes with a shock that she actually likes this guy, which might make detachment difficult, but she smiles at Edward and says ‘yes’ anyway.
Bella’s always been kind of bad at following her own advice.

Chapter 3

"Thank you so much for doing this," Edward says for the millionth time in the fifteen minutes they’ve been sitting in the coffee shop. "I don’t know what I’d do if you hadn’t say yes. I’m normally not this clueless, but I’ve never felt like this about someone before. It’s like I suddenly realized that everything I thought I knew was useless, and now I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing."
"Relax," Bella grins, leaning back in her chair. "It’s not a big deal."
"No, it is," Edward insists. "I know you’re just doing this as a favor, but I really appreciate it. This girl, she’s just—" He sighs, tracing the edges of a coffee stain on the table with long fingers and blunt nails. "I’ll do anything to get her to feel the same way about me."
Bella takes a sip of her cappuccino to hide a smile, and clears her throat. "Well, why don’t we start there? Tell me how the whole thing started."
Edward sighs again. "It was love at first sight," he says earnestly. "I was at the library, looking for a pathology book and she came over to help me." He blushes. "I got a little speechless when she asked what I was looking for, though, and I think she thought I was kind of lame. She was just so beautiful, though. It made me incoherent."
Bella doesn’t really believe in love at first sight—hell, she has a hard time just liking most people based on a first impression—but it’s kind of cute how obviously head-over-heels Edward is for this girl.
She nods for him to go on.
"And smart," he says fervently. "She found what I was looking for right away—well, once I stopped stammering enough to tell her—and then she told me about this study she was reading on dogs that can sense cancer, and we got to talking."
"Okay, so you connected over a common interest," Bella confirms. "You both like animals."
"Well, not really," he says. "She’s studying to get her Master’s in psychology, so I think she was interested in the neurology part, not so much the dogs. But she did say she did an internship where they studied slices of rat brains, so she’s at least interested in animal brains."
"Uh, okay," she laughs a little uncomfortable. "Maybe not so much of a common interest then."
"Well, I like animal brains, too," he says quickly. "It’s just that I kind of like them better when they’re in the actual animal, you know, because that way they’re not dead." He pauses. "Unless it’s an MRI, or something. We could both enjoy a scan of a still-living animal’s brain."
"Yeah, that’d be a hot date," she mutters dryly. "Okay. So you talked for a while. Then what happened?"
"Well, I already knew she was the woman of my dreams," Edward says, and once again it takes her a moment to realize he’s being completely serious. "But I didn’t want to scare her off, so I just hung around at the library for the next few days and checked out a lot of books."

Chapter 4

Bella makes a mental note to cover stalking in her list of ‘dating do’s and don’t’s’ later, nodding for Edward to go on.
"And then, after a week, I got up the nerve to ask her out," he finishes. "And that’s when the whole thing went to hell."
"She said no?" she guesses.
"No, she said yes," he says morosely. "It’s just—she’s so smart. She knows all this awesome stuff about how brains work and reads these incredibly complex books, and she totally has the Dewey Decimal System memorized. So, I wanted to impress her by doing something better than the usual dinner-and-a-movie. I figured she’d want to do something more intellectually stimulating."
Bella winces, "Please say you didn’t take her to a poetry reading."
"Foreign film," he says flatly.
"A little clichéd, but not that bad," she reassures him. "Is she interested in film?"
"I don’t know," he sighs.
"Well, did she enjoy the movie?" she asks curiously.
"I don’t know," Edward repeats.
"You were there, weren’t you? Was it any good?"
He flushes. "I’m not really good at movies where you have to read instead of just watching."
Bella raises an eyebrow.
"I always get distracted watching the people, and then I miss what’s being said, and then I get bored and just start making things up in my head," Edward confesses. "And I’d had a long week at work, and I’d been on my feet all day, and I, uh. I kind of fell asleep." He winces. "And I might have snored a little."
"Okay, that’s not good," she says frankly. "But it’s not necessarily fatal. What did she say?"
"Nothing. I only woke up when the movie was over and people were starting to leave, and… she wasn’t there," he says dejectedly.
She winces. "Yeah, that’s pretty bad."

Chapter 5

Edward moans and drops his forehead onto the table, narrowly missing his coffee cup. "I know. She’s just so beautiful and classy and brilliant, and I wanted to take her on the perfect date so she’d fall in love with me, but I fucked it all up."
Bella sighs heavily. "Edward, you didn’t fuck it all up."
He raises his head a little. "Really?"
"Really," she reassures him, smiling a little. "You made some mistakes, but I don’t think it’s anything you can’t fix. She obviously liked you enough to go out with you, and I think if you make a few improvements in your approach, she’ll give you a second chance."
Edward’s face is all hope, that bright grin showing up again with a cautious edge. It turns a little shy when he asks, "And you’ll help me? Even after I told you how badly I messed it all up?"
"I’m not afraid of a little hard work," she teases lightly. "Besides, you’ve got a lot of potential."
This time Edward’s grin is all out, no holds barred, and Bella very pointedly does not notice how it lights up his entire face, or the flutter it does to her insides. Detached people don’t notice that kind of stuff, so she obviously just imagined it.
"Thank you so much," he says again—for the million-and-first time—and she waves him off again.
"Thank me later. Right now, let’s just get to work," she grins.

Chapter 6

Edward’s aware that he’s gushing, and he’s also aware of how pathetic he sounds, describing Angela like some lovesick idiot.
But that’s the problem, he really is a lovesick idiot over her, and he needs someone to slap some sense into him so he doesn’t write her an epic poem or try to serenade her outside her window, because the sad thing is he’s actually considered both things.
He even wrote a few lines of that poem before he realized nothing rhymed with Angela and he ripped the whole thing up.
But he can’t help it.
It’s not so much that it was love at first sight, although he noticed right away how beautiful she was.
It’s more that every word that came out of her mouth after that initial moment revealed something even more appealing about her, and every time Edward thought she couldn’t get any higher in his opinion, she came out with something even more amazing that just made him wonder how anyone so perfect could exist, much less want to talk to him.
That’s kind of the thing—Angela is this amazing, gorgeous, perfect person, and it’s suddenly making Edward question everything about himself, from his own attractiveness, to his job, to his intelligence. He’s never doubted himself before in a situation like this—he can tell when someone’s interested, and he’s not afraid to make the first move.
With Angela, he has no idea what to do or say or think, and it’s driving him crazy, because he can’t walk away. Even a failed date hasn’t deterred him—he just feels an even more urgent need to fix things, because if he can’t be with her, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. Die, maybe.

Chapter 7

That’s why Bella is such a godsend.
Edward had been lamenting the Angela disaster to all of his friends, most of whom were sympathetic—well, not James, but when he called Edward a ridiculous douche, it was said with affection, so that was something—but Emmett was the only one who really understood.
He told Edward that Bella had saved his life when he met Rosalie, and he even said he’d convince Bella to help him too.
And okay, Bella is a little standoffish and reserved, but she at least thinks Edward isn’t a totally lost cause, and even better, she has a plan.
They stay at the coffee shop for another half hour, working out the details. Bella says she wants an idea of what Edward wants to accomplish, so she can plan accordingly.
"Does it have to be a realistic goal?" he asks. "Because if I could just choose the fairy tale, happily-ever-after ending where we get married and have three kids and two dogs and live in the suburbs so we can commute to the city for work, but still raise our kids with a yard to play in and a porch swing out front where we’d enjoy the summer evenings, I’d totally take it."
Bella blinks and Edward reminds himself that it’s good to think about words before he lets them go rampaging out of his mouth, especially with someone he barely knows. Blushing, he amends, "Or, you know, we could work on me getting another date with her."

Chapter 8

"Yeah," Bella says. "I think that would be a logical thing to concentrate on first. Before you go and start naming your hypothetical children."
"Come on, I’m not that bad," Edward protests, although he’s pretty sure she’s joking. "I don’t have the children named. And three was just a rough estimate, not a requirement."
Bella raises an eyebrow. "And the house in the suburbs with the yard and porch swing?"
"That’s just a possibility," he says. "Something Angela and I might theoretically choose to have in our theoretical future."
"And the dogs? Are those theoretical too?"
"Of course," Edward says. "Well, I mean, they’d have to be big dogs, because dogs that are smaller than cats weird me out. And we’d adopt them from a shelter, not buy them from a breeder, and you can’t just get one, you need two so they have someone to keep them company." He pauses. "And I might have put a little thought into their names, because wouldn’t it be awesome to have two dogs named Sonny and Rico? They could keep the neighborhood safe from drug cartels. It would be seriously cool."
Bella just looks at him.
Edward groans and slides down in his seat. "Okay, okay, I know a have a problem. Stop judging me."
Bella laughs. "I’m not judging you. It’s great that you’re thinking big… just—you do know that it’s probably best to keep these things to yourself for now, right?"
"That’s why I need you, to make sure I don’t just run up to Angela and tell her that I fantasize about owning two Miami Vice dogs with her someday," Edward groans.
"Yeah, that’s the thing about women," Bella says. "I’m pretty sure 95% of them would not find that romantic."
"Seriously?" Edward asks. "Because co-ownership of a pet is a pretty big thing. It shows a lot of trust in your partner. It’s like adopting a kid together." He knows he’d think long and hard about getting a pet with a girlfriend, even Angela. Pets aren’t like the rest of the stuff you can just send back after a breakup—they end up on the streets or in animal shelters, and that’s not fair. "It’d be like me telling her I trust her enough to walk, feed, and groom my children."
"Now that’s romantic," Bella teases.

Chapter 9

Edward sighs. "See? This is what I mean. I know I haven’t been this completely clueless over a woman before. I didn’t spend nights awake trying to figure out what to say to my previous girlfriends, and I never totally ruined a date. There’s just something about Angela that turns me into an idiot who’s only capable of saying extremely stupid things." He pauses. "She’s like my Kryptonite. Really hot Kryptonite."
Bella clears her throat. "Right. But since you can’t keep her in a lead-lined box for the rest of your lives, you’re going to have to face her." She flips over a napkin and pulls a pen out of her bag. "And the best way to do that is to have a plan. We’ll divide it into three parts—the approach, the apology, and the argument.
"The approach is crucial, because you don’t want her to be busy or stressed or upset when you talk to her, so you’ll have to read her body language to make sure she wants to talk to you. The apology is where you tell her what an idiot you are, and the argument is where you’re going to convince her she should give you another chance," she explains carefully. Bella’s even sketching a diagram to go with her explanation, and Edward tries to follow the convoluted arrows for a second before completely giving up.
"Dude, I thought this was just something you were doing as a favor for Emmett," he interrupts. "I didn’t know you had a whole scientific method for dating."
"It never hurts to be methodical," she says defensively. "I’m just a very organized person."
"Okay," Edward says, taking a deep breath. "Hit me. Let’s plan this thing."

Chapter 10

The plan they come up with isn’t foolproof, but Bella thinks it is pretty close.
If Edward just follows the outline they made and if he applies a liberal amount of charm, he should be fine.
He insists he needs Bella there, though, so she finds herself in the library after work, wandering through the stacks in search of her advisee.
She’s not sure if she’s supposed to be Edward’s moral support or emergency rescue or icebreaker, but whatever. She kind of wants to see the whole plan in action, anyway, because she has a feeling Edward might go off-script without warning, and that could cause trouble.
He may need Bella to do those air traffic control signals in the background to avoid completely embarrassing himself.
That possibility only looks more likely when Bella finds Edward, at a circular table near the front desk, and sees what he’s doing.
Edward looks up from his book with a smile when Bella sits down across from him. "Hey."
"Hi," she says. "What’re you reading?"
Edward glances down like he’s surprised to find out there’s a magazine in front of him. "Oh, I don’t really know. It was on the table when I got here. I was just pretending to be reading while I was watching for Angela."
"Good plan," Bella says, taking the magazine quickly. "Except you should probably read the cover first." She shows Edward where it says ‘Blow His Mind and More!: Fifty Ways to Wow Your Man in Bed’ in big bold hot pink letters.
"Oh," Edward says, blushing.
"Yeah," she laughs. "Probably not the best signal to be sending when you’re asking a girl for a date."

Chapter 11

Edward drops his head down onto his folded arms. "I think I’m seriously cursed."
"You’re not," Bella says, pushing the magazine aside. "If she walked up when you were in the middle of reading it, then I’d say you were cursed. As it is, I just think you might have some bad karma."
"I did steal a traffic cone on a dare during my freshman year of college," Edward says thoughtfully. "You think that’s coming back to haunt me?"
"Definitely," Bella replies. "Heinous crimes against humanity like that never go unpunished. You’ll probably be struck down by lightning soon and fast-tracked to hell."
Edward laughs. "Yeah, probably. And there were so many things I wanted to do with my life."
Picking up the magazine again she teases, "Like finding out how to give a man a mind-blowing orgasm?" She leafs through a few pages. "In case you were wondering, putting the condom on with your mouth adds an extra-sexy touch to any foreplay."
Edward chokes, and of course, it’s right at that moment that Angela walks by their table. She was clearly intending to talk to Edward, already slowing down, but she stutters to an awkward stop when she hears what they’re discussing.
Bella revises her opinion on Edward being cursed.

Chapter 12

"Hey, Angela!" Edward says loudly, like he can ignore the whole thing if he smiles bright enough.
"Um, hi," Angela says. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I was just wondering if we could talk for a minute."
"Yeah, no problem," Edward says eagerly. "You’re not interrupting at all, we were just…" He gives Bella a pleading look.
"Uh, we were just reading this screenplay someone wrote for a creative writing class I’m in," Bella ad-libs awkwardly, quickly shoving the magazine under her folded arms. "People write the weirdest stuff, huh?"
"Oh, you’re a writer?" Angela asks politely.
"Are you kidding?" Edward asks, before Bella can reply. "She’s amazing. She wrote this one story that was funny and sad and touching, all at the same time. She’s like the next… uh... the next really great author."
Bella glares at Edward, but nods and smiles when Angela looks her way. "Yeah, but I don’t write about giving men great orgasms or sexy ways to put condoms on," she says, just to clarify. "That’s the other people in my class."
Angela blinks, and Bella starts to think that maybe her coming along on this thing is really not helping Edward at all.
She decides to shut up now, and just stick to hand signals.
"Anyway," Edward says quickly, "You wanted to talk?" He stands up and motions to a quieter area, away from the crowded tables, and Angela walks ahead of him. Before he follows, he sends Bella a glare, which Bella assumes means something like Dude, you’re supposed to be helping me, not convincing her I have crappy taste in friends.
Bella shrugs helplessly, and shoos him toward Angela with a weak thumbs-up.
Edward shakes his head, but goes.

Chapter 13

Angela’s still pretty weirded out by the conversation she stepped into, but she listens to Edward’s explanation for the disaster that was their date, and she accepts his apology.
Her demeanor softens a little when Edward explains just how nervous he was, even though she tells him he shouldn’t have been, that she just wanted to get to know him, not evaluate him.
Edward’s more than relieved that she’s not still angry, so he cautiously asks if he can make it up to her with dinner. She considers it for a long, terrifying second, but then she nods, and Edward can barely keep his elation from spiraling to inappropriate levels.
It would be really bad to pick her up and hug her right now, but he reminds himself Bella would not approve.
Angela suggests a restaurant she likes, something fancy that Edward’s only heard of, but he’d take her to the middle of the desert for freshly-squeezed cactus juice if that was what she wanted, at this point, so he agrees and lets her choose the date and time.
It’s still hard to contain his excitement, and he slips a little when Angela writes her cell phone number down on the back of someone’s receipt, grabbing her fingers for a quick squeeze when she hands him the scrap of paper.
She looks a little startled, but smiles before excusing herself to get back to work.

Chapter 14

Edward nearly bounds across the room back to Bella, because this is officially the best day of his life.
Every fear he had about Angela totally hating him is gone, and he’s got a date with her in four days, which will be the perfect chance to convince her that he’s an awesome guy who she’ll want to marry and own two vice cop dogs with too.
In less than 96 hours, he’ll be sitting at a table with her in a romantic restaurant, leaning over the candlelit dinner to say something clever, and she’ll be smiling at him adoringly, maybe even holding his hand, looking absolutely gorgeous in a fancy dress, and—
But that’s where Edward’s brain hits a snag, because he can picture Angela perfectly, hair up in an elegant twist and curves sheathed in something silk or satin, but when he turns his mind’s eye to himself, all he can see is a giant blank.
"Edward?" Bella interrupts, hovering anxiously. "How did it go?"
"Good," Edward says woodenly.
"She said yes? Awesome!" Bella lifts a palm for a high-five, but Edward pushes her hand down and says, "Not awesome, because I’m totally screwed."
"What? Why? I thought that’s what you wanted!"
"Because she wants to go to a fancy restaurant, and I said yes without thinking, and this?"—Edward motions to his button-down, jeans, and sneakers—"This is about as fancy as I get." His voice is rising, but he can’t help it, he’s panicking. "And what am I going to do with my hair? I can spend hours trying to get it to behave, and then as soon as I look away, it just ignores me and does whatever it wants anyway, like some kind of devious cat. And shoes, Bella! I don’t even know what kind of shoes you wear to a fancy dinner, much less own any!"
Bella’s mouth has been quirking all through Edward’s diatribe, and she finally loses control and bursts out laughing.
Edward sighs and glares at her. "What?"
"I’m sorry," Bella wheezes. "But did you just compare your hair to a cat?"
Edward blushes, shrugging. "I spend a lot of time with animals. I can’t help it."
"I get that," Bella laughs, wiping her eyes. "But now I can’t stop picturing a cat on your head, and it’s really distracting."
"Shut up," Edward says half-heartedly, but he’s smiling. It is kind of funny, especially if you imagine those stubborn little turned-up pieces at the sides making that chirruping ‘Mrow, mrow, morw’ sound curious cats do.
He doesn’t mention that to Bella, though.

Chapter 15

"Okay," Bella says, regaining control of herself. "Edward, aside from your seriously weird hair similes, we can fix all that. It’s not a big deal."
"Really? Even though we only have 96 hours to work with?" he asks hopefully.
"Really," Bella assures him, patting him on the shoulder. "One shopping trip and a haircut, and you’ll be fine."
"So I didn’t really need to have a breakdown in the middle of the library?" Edward asks sheepishly.
"Well, it was pretty entertaining," Bella grins again. "And I think Angela enjoyed it as much as I did."
"What?" Edward’s looking around him in horror when she bursts out laughing again, "Just kidding, man. She went in the back room right after you two talked. She missed the entire cat-hair rant."
"Don’t do that to me!" He smacks her playfully on the shoulder. "Jesus, you nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Yeah, well, consider it payback for telling really unconvincing lies about me being a writer. We should probably leave before she really does come back though," she teases, and Edward nods, grabbing his jacket from the chair.
Bella holds up the ‘Blow His Mind’ Magazine, "You sure you don’t want to check this out?"
"Fuck you," Edward says, flushing. "You were the one actually reading it—you check it out."
"Oh, I don’t need any help with that," Bella says, winking.
Edward splutters a little at that, totally failing at a comeback, so he just snatches the magazine out of her hand, tossing it back on the table and pushing her toward the door.

Chapter 16

When Bella actually sees Edward’s closet, however, she starts to think Edward was right to freak out in the middle of the library.
It’s not like Bella is the most fashion-forward person on the planet.
She doesn’t obsessively track every trend or try to stay two steps ahead of the rush, and she has no idea what’s coming out in whose winter line or why fashion shows feature such over-the-top clothing.
What she does know, however, is what looks good on people, and how to find something that will flatter a person’s features.
It’s not some innate talent or gift, it’s just an awareness of the way clothes fit and how they complement someone’s coloring. Anyone can read a couple of magazines and know the same things, but most men don’t bother with things like that.
From the looks of things, she decides Edward hasn’t bothered with much in the way of fashion in a very, very long time. Bella doesn’t claim to be any expert on haute couture, but even she can see that his wardrobe is kind of a disaster.
For one thing, it consists entirely of jeans and t-shirts, with the odd sweater or button-down hiding in the mix.
The jeans, which come in states of wear varying from ‘mostly intact’ to ‘paper thin’, are all of the baggy, shapeless, impersonal variety, and the t-shirts are either random or meant to be funny. Bella appreciates the humor of The Simpsons, but that doesn’t mean Homer’s witticisms should be plastered on anyone’s chest, especially not anyone over the age of fifteen.
"You have got to be kidding me," she laughs shaking her head. "You actually own a shirt with Edmund on it? Really Edward?"
"What?" he says grinning. "That episode was a classic and besides, don’t you think Edmund looks a little bit like me… you know apart from the whole vampire thing? Besides, you obviously watch The Simpsons if you know who Edmund is."
"Wow, just because I like the show, that doesn’t mean I feel the need to have the characters all over my wardrobe…" she trails off, "and you really are a dork, next thing I know you’ll be telling me you wish you were a vampire so you can sparkle."
"Real vampires don’t sparkle Bella," he shot back, "just those Twilight ones you women love so much!"
"Whatever," she huffed. "You’re still not keeping the shirt. Grab me some garbage bags," she kind of jokes.
Basically—what it amounts to—is if Edward wants to go anywhere less casual than his apartment or a college campus, he’s got nothing to wear.

Chapter 17

When she points out the obvious problems with his wardrobe, Edward just shrugs. "I work all day with animals," he points out. "Then I come home and live with dogs. It doesn’t make sense to own nice clothes when they’re just going to get puked, drooled, shit or shed on anyway."
"Are you telling me you purposely buy ugly clothes so you don’t care when they get ruined?" Bella asks. "’Cause that’s actually kind of a relief."
"I don’t own ugly clothes," he protests.
Bella leans in and pulls out a brown shirt with random colorful shapes that looks like it could be a fingerpainting project in some first grade class. "Edward, this shirt is so ugly that it makes Steve Buscemi look like People Magazine's sexiest man alive."
"It’s unique and original!" he defends.
"It’s terrifying. It looks like some kind of sewing machine experiment gone freakishly wrong. I think Dr. Frankenstein might have been behind its design."
"It’s not a monster!" Edward argues, clutching the shirt protectively. "And besides, Frankenstein’s monster was just misunderstood, not evil."
Bella raises an eyebrow. "I think you missed some parts of that story."
"He just needed a brain transplant. And to get laid," Edward says, grinning. "I totally saw the movie."
"Yeah, well, we’re hoping to get you laid," Bella points out, yanking the shirt away. "And that’s not going to happen without some serious shopping. So let’s go."

Chapter 18

Edward’s restless and awkward at the store, fidgeting when Bella holds things up against him and wandering off to look at belt buckles or cufflinks or anything shiny, every time Bella turns her back.
When she’s finally accumulated an armful of possibilities, including clothes that aren’t jeans and shirts having identity crises, Edward tries to convince her there’s no need to try any of it on.
"I know my size," he insists. "So just pick whatever you think will be good, and we’ll be done."
"First of all, I’m not picking clothes for you," Bella feels obligated to clarify. "I’m just suggesting things, and then you can pick what you like or try something else. And second, trying things on is not optional."
A passing sales assistant gives Bella a pitying look, obviously used to this sort of conversation. Bella sighs and puts on her sternest non-negotiable face.
"But it takes such a long time," Edward whines. "We’ll be here forever."
"But you’ll leave with clothes that actually fit you, not a mannequin," Bella says dryly. "Dressing room. Now. Go."
Edward pouts and mutters under his breath, but he takes the pile of clothes and disappears into a changing room.

Chapter 19

Bella leans against the wall near a set of mirrors and waits.
She can see Edward’s feet under the stall doors, which allows her to monitor Edward’s exact state of undress. She watches a shirt hit the floor, shoes get kicked off, and jeans slide down, belt buckle thudding against carpet. Then there’s the clanking of hangers and a pair of slacks go on, looking a little ridiculous over Edward’s hole-filled grey socks. Edward’s feet move in front of the mirror, doing a slow three-sixty, and then pause for an awkward shuffle.
"How’s it going?" Bella calls out.
"Um," Edward says. "Bella, are these pants supposed to fit like this?"
"Like what?"
"Like… I don’t know."
Bella rolls her eyes. "Well, if you come out here, I could tell you."
"Uh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea."
"Edward, just get out here… let me see you," she laughs.
She can hear Edward sigh, but then the door swings open, and her mouth goes a little dry, because the answer to Edward’s question is yes, a thousand times yes, that is exactly how pants are supposed to fit. Good God, she almost moans.
"Aren’t they kind of tight?" Edward asks, fidgeting uncomfortably. "They’re really kind of tight, Bella."
Exactly, she wants to say, but instead, she corrects, "No, they’re just pants that fit a person, instead of a piece of plywood." She leans around Edward. "Hey, you actually have an ass. I was starting to wonder."
He looks, too, twisting in front of the mirror on the wall next to her. Then his head snaps up. "Wait, you’ve been checking out my ass?"
"How could I?" she asks, smirking. "I only just found out it exists."
"I have a fabulous ass, I’ll have you know," he says, crossing his arms over his chest. "Michelangelo’s David?" he scoffs. "Well, he’s got nothing on me."
"And you’re so modest, too," she grins. "Take your fine sculpted ass back into the dressing room and try on the other pants."
Halfway through obeying, he turns and says accusingly, "So, you are checking out my ass!"
She just rolls her eyes again. ‘Cause yeah, of course she… isn’t.

Chapter 20

Edward gets bored halfway through the trying-on process and wanders out into the store, regardless of the fact that he’s barefoot and trailing price tags, claiming he wants to pick out a shirt he actually likes, not the boring choices Bella picked.
"Boring?" she demands, following him from rack to rack. "They’re perfectly nice shirts, Edward. I hate to break it to you, but you are supposed to be the exciting part of this date, not the shirt."
"They’re all just so—" he flaps his hands. "Shirts need to have character."
"They really, really don’t," she protests, because this is how someone ends up with a closet full of monstrosities, and she cannot in good conscience allow Edward out of the store with anything more in questionable pastels or loud patterns.
He holds up a silky bright yellow button-down. "See? Like this. This shirt says I’m bold and adventurous."
"Really? To me, it screams, Help! I was attacked by mustard!" she says flatly. "Or possibly, my cat mistook this for the litterbox. Neither of which is really the impression I think you want to make."
He makes a face. "Come on, it’s not that bad."
"Edward, one of my ex-boyfriends had a dog that was a mix between a Chihuahua and a Pomeranian and had alopecia," she teases. "And that dog was still less ugly than that shirt."
"There’s no such thing as an ugly dog," he replies automatically, but he puts the shirt back.

Chapter 21

After a moment, Edward traces a hand over the metal rod above it, not looking at Bella, and asks, "So, are you single?"
"Uh, yeah," she says slowly. All of her friends know about her spotty dating history, especially Emmett, so she hadn’t even thought that Edward might not. "You didn’t—"
"I thought maybe, but I didn’t want to assume," Edward says quickly. He meets her eyes and smirks. "Anyways, so this is kind of like a ‘What not to Wear’ intervention."
She laughs. "Well, I still can’t believe you actually own a pink shirt, next thing I know you’ll be telling me you walk around like some wanna-be frat boy with a popped collar."
"I was never in a fraternity and pink is a good color on me!" he says indignantly.
"No offense, Edward, but whoever told you that was blind and stupid, desperate for a commission, or hates you. Maybe even all three."
He glares at her. "It was my mom!"
There’s a long, terrifying second where she thinks she might have just crossed a very bad line and she might need to run for her life, but then Edward’s mouth twitches and he bursts out laughing, bumping Bella’s shoulder with his own.
"I did give her an ironing board for Christmas last year," he admits, ducking his head. "She was probably trying to find a way to get back at me." He gives Bella a stern look. "No more talking smack about my mom, though, or I’ll kick your ass."
"Deal," she agrees easily. "Now would you pick some shirts that aren’t loud and exciting? Maybe some that say, ‘I’m just here to make this dork look good’?"
Edward sticks out his tongue, and turns back to the racks.

Chapter 22

They leave the store two hours later, armed with everything Edward needs to look amazing on his date.
His hair is still an issue, though, so even though he complains about being exhausted from all the shopping, she drags him to a salon and turns him over to a stylist.
Bella doesn’t know that much about men’s hair, but the stylist nods when Bella asks if she can do something to maybe make it neater and easier to manage.
Edward starts to look nervous as she sketches out what she can do with her hands, reaching for a scissors to illustrate, and his hand creeps protectively to the back of his head when her fingers near a set of clippers.
"Relax," Bella laughs. "She’s just going to trim it and take a little of the weight off. More sexy and less Wookie."
"Fuck you," Edward says, bumping her shoulder, but he goes willingly to the chair and lets the stylist tie a cape around his neck. Bella waves and heads next door for a cup of coffee she desperately needs.

Chapter 23

What she’s not expecting, though, is to run into Angela at the coffee shop.
But there she is, sitting at a table with a latte and books spread out in front of her, and she looks up right when Bella picks up her drink, so it’s not like she can just walk by.
"Hi," she says. "You’re Edward’s friend, right? The writer who doesn’t write strange porn?"
Trust her to remember that. "Uh, yeah," she says. "Bella."
"Nice to meet you."
Bella nods to the books. "What’s all this?"
She sighs. "Just some studying. I’ve got a big exam coming up, so I thought I’d get some caffeine and reading out of the way at the same time."
"Nice," she says awkwardly. "So, I hear you and Edward have a date this week."
"Yeah," she says, looking down and then up through her lashes. "Dinner."
"He’s really excited," Bella tells her. "Kind of like a little kid with candy."
She smiles a little. "I’m just hoping it goes better than the last one."
"I’m sure it will be," Bella rushes to say. "You know, he was just really tired that time, and he picked the wrong thing to do. But I’m sure this time will be great. Edward’s a really good guy."
"You don’t have to convince me," Angela says with a faint smile. "I already agreed to go out with him."
"Yeah, I just wanted you to know how much he likes you," Bella says lamely. She shifts, the coffee heating her fingers uncomfortably through the cardboard cup. "Well, I should go. Have fun studying."
She nods. "See you."

Chapter 24

Bella has to leave after that, of course, so instead of enjoying the peace and quiet of the coffee shop, she goes back to the hair salon and sits in the waiting area, pretending to read some magazine that was sitting on a chair.
She’s actually thinking, because that whole encounter with Angela was just weird. Maybe she’s just used to Edward and his enthusiasm over everything, but Angela seemed extremely reserved and not very excited at all about their upcoming date.
She could just be one of those people who doesn’t show much in the way of emotion—she’s had people say the same thing about her, so she more than understands—but if that’s true, it seems weird that Edward’s so hung up on her. She doesn’t seem like the type to appreciate exuberant outbursts, which is generally Edward’s primary mode of communication, so to Bella, it seems like they wouldn’t get along very well.
But maybe Angela needs to get to know someone before warming up to them, or maybe she was just having a stressful day. Bella reminds herself that she barely knows anything about her, and that it isn’t up to her to determine her compatibility with Edward. Edward thinks she’s the best thing since the Internet, so Bella’s going to help him pick the right clothes and say the right things and hopefully win her over.
Besides, why does she care if Edward and Angela are a perfect match, anyway?
Bella’s just here for the material parts, just doing a favor, and the logistics of their relationship are really none of her business.
She doesn’t need to get involved in all this.
All right, she likes Edward, but it’s not like they’re best friends or anything. And yeah, she’s noticed that Edward’s a very attractive guy, but that’s just an impersonal observation. It’s objective—Edward has the qualities of a physically pleasing human being. It’s not like Bella spends a lot of time daydreaming about Edward’s eyes or his smile or maybe has a crush on him or something.

Chapter 25

Edward startles her out of her thoughts, sitting down next to her and flicking a page of the magazine on Bella’s lap. "Didn’t know you were a big Seventeen reader, B," he grins.
"What?" she asks, and then looks down at the lurid pink cover. Shit. "Oh, uh. Yeah. Well, I have to keep up with all my teen heartthrobs somehow, you know." She flips it closed. "And the quizzes are so relevant. Apparently that hottie sitting behind me in social studies has totally been checking me out."
"Oh my God," he squeals like a girl. "You should slip a note in his locker to find out if he likes you."
"Well, first I have to tell my BFF everything," she corrects in a giddy high pitched voice. "And maybe have a sleepover and buy a cute new shirt. But then, yes."
"Wait, I’m not your BFF?" he pouts. "I’m still invited to the sleepover, right?"
"Only if you bring ‘A Walk to Remember’ and let me give you a makeover."
Edward cracks up at that. "God, my sister loves that movie, but I can’t watch it without laughing my ass off, which kind of ruins the parts where you’re supposed to be all sad that Mandy Moore’s dying and stuff." He grins. "And you’re already giving me a makeover, remember?" He shakes his head, which makes his hair fly around.
"Oh, yeah. Hey, it looks good," Bella says, tilting her head to see the back.
"It’s awesome!" Edward says, pushing his bangs off his face. "Andrea did something totally amazing that made it not so all over the place, and she put this stuff in that made it really soft." He leans toward Bella. "Feel."
"Uh, that’s okay," she waves him off, but Edward grabs her hand and plants it on his head, and she can’t help it, she lets her fingers sink in and stroke along Edward’s head. He’s right, it’s soft and silky, and Bella feels something warm curl in her stomach when her fingers catch in the slight curls at the back of his neck, bringing their faces closer together.
Edward just grins, though, bright and friendly, and Bella reminds herself that she’s not actually a seventeen-year-old girl, and she doesn’t have a crush on Edward. She’s just observing, impersonally and objectively, that Edward has really nice, really soft hair that feels good under her hands.
That’s all.
Edward goes up to pay for his haircut, and Bella groans.
She needs help.

Chapter 26

To say Edward’s nervous about his date with Angela is like saying the Sahara is a little dry or the Antarctic’s a little chilly.
He puts on all of the clothes and accessories Bella has picked out for him, an hour before he needs to leave, then paces around his apartment, only stopping to do stupid things like try and smooth his hair down again or line up the pile of magazines on his coffee table or scrub at that coffee stain on his counter that’s been there at least a few months.
The dogs, sensing his nervous energy, follow him uneasily, and after the tenth time Edward trips over a warm, furry body when he turns too fast, he gives up and sits on the couch.
Bella left him a list of conversational topics the last time they met, and Edward smiles a little as he scans through them.
He’s not one of those people who micromanages their life—he likes spontaneity and the element of unpredictability that comes from a lack of planning ahead—but practically the first thing he learned about Bella was that she’s the complete opposite.
Bella has a list for everything and anything, and if needed, she can distill any topic into a set of neat bullet points, often alliterative, that are easily memorized. Edward lets her summarize and lecture, because it’s useful and he needs to learn what Bella’s trying to teach him, but sometimes he wonders what would happen if someone took away all Bella’s mental lists and made her just do, instead of think. She’d probably explode, or have a nervous breakdown, or go totally wild and get her tongue pierced, or something.
Edward’s smirking at that image when the door buzzes and he gets up to let Bella in.

Chapter 27

"What’s so funny?" Bella asks when Edward opens the door, as she leans down to pet the dogs.
"I was just picturing you with a tongue stud," he smirks, closing the door.
Bella gives him a funny look, but then her eyes slide down to take in the date clothes, and something else flashes across her face. She’s oddly silent for a long minute, just looking.
Edward looks down at himself, at the dark slacks and emerald green button-down the salesgirl had claimed made his eyes look amazing. "Do I look okay?" Edward asks hesitantly. "It’s not too much, is it?"
Bella shakes herself a little. "Uh, no. No, it’s not." She smiles. "You look good… um, really good."
"Well, it’s all thanks to you," Edward says, spreading his arms. "If it was just me, I would have worn my black boots and a brown belt, or something."
Bella cringes a little. "I can’t believe no one ever told you to match your shoes and belt. Seriously, Edward, even Kevin Federline knows that."
"Kevin Federline probably has a stylist to tell him what to wear," Edward points out. "Just like I have you."
"I’m not a stylist," Bella argues, brushing dog hair off the couch before sitting down.
"Then what is your title?" Edward asks. "Fashion adviser? Relationship consultant? Giver of timely guidance?"
"I prefer life coach," she says ruefully.
Edward snorts, sitting down next to her.

Chapter 28

"Well, all I need you to be right now is a giver of moral support, because I have to leave in five minutes to pick up Angela, and I need all the reassuring I can get."
"You’ll be fine," Bella says obediently, reaching down to rub Memphis’ ears. "And you can always call me if something goes horribly wrong. I can’t guarantee I’ll fix it, but I can talk you down from a ledge if it all goes to hell."
"Wow, thanks for that vote of confidence."
"No problem. Seriously, Edward, it’s going to be okay. You like her, and she likes you enough to give you a second chance. All you have to do is relax, just be yourself and it’ll be fine," she pauses. "Or try to be someone a little cooler than you are, that might help too."
Edward punches her lightly on the arm and calls her a jerk, but he lets out a deep breath. "Thank you. And thanks for watching the dogs while I’m out. They get kind of weird if I leave them alone, especially if it’s dark outside."
Bella waves a hand. "It’s fine. There’s a Twilight marathon on TV, and I’m betting you’ve got a lot of good food I can steal. As far as babysitting gigs go, it’s not so bad. I still can’t believe you couldn’t wait to get the dogs, but at least you didn’t name them after Miami Vice."
"Hey, they’re great and you know it," Edward protests. "I trust you to nurture my babies here, not put them to bed early so you can watch porn and gorge yourself on my food."
"Edward, they’re dogs," she responds dryly. "And if you’re not going to pay me, then accept that I will eat all your ice cream and watch Robert Pattinson in revenge."
Edward kneels down to rub the dogs’ heads. "Okay, guys, remember to drool all over Bella anytime she even thinks about food or sparkly dicks."
They butt their heads against his chest, and Edward laughs at the expression on Bella’s face. "Just kidding. Be good for Aunt Bella, and Daddy will be home soon."
Bella shakes her head, but stands up when Edward does. "Good luck," she smiles, brushing dog hair off the front of Edward’s shirt.
"Thanks. See you later." Edward gives the dogs one last pat, smiles at Bella, and grabs his keys.

Chapter 29

The date, overall, is not a disaster, which relieves Edward to an almost embarrassing degree.
He was seriously starting to think that his karma was fucked to hell, what with all the weird stuff that kept happening around Angela, and he had no idea why, which was kind of alarming. It made him wonder if he’d done something really terrible in a past life and didn’t know it, which led to wondering if he was a bad person and just didn’t know it, which led to the kind of deep soul-searching that Edward normally reserved for the existential crises he never got around to having.
It was worrying.
Anyway, things actually go pretty well.
Edward’s extremely nervous, which he’s sure is totally obvious by the way he babbles all through the drive to the restaurant, but Angela just seems glad he’s actually awake this time, and only smiles when he rambles about some totally random pet ferret a kid brought into the clinic the other day who swallowed thirty-two cents in change.
She looks gorgeous, hair up like he’d imagined and a dress the color of red wine that’s clingy in all the right places and flowy in the others, and Edward’s ridiculously thankful for Bella when Angela’s eyes flick over his outfit and her smile is approving, not strained.
He’s doubly grateful when they get to the restaurant, because everyone around them is dressed just as neatly, and even if Edward feels a little uncomfortable in clothes that aren’t exactly him, he’s glad he doesn’t stand out as the awkward example of what not to wear.

Chapter 30

The restaurant is a lot fancier than he’s used to, though, and there are a few moments where Edward’s totally clueless how to proceed.
He can order food and select wine, even if he’s not sure what makes one choice more expensive than the other, but when a waiter brings a little tray of sorbet cones to the table between the appetizers, Edward eats his in one gulp—it’s about the size of his pinky, after all—before he sees that Angela’s licking delicately at hers, looking a little embarrassed.
But other than that, and a few conversational mishaps, things go pretty well.
Angela’s still kind of quiet, but Edward remembers the conversational suggestions Bella gave him, and asks her about school and future plans. She talks excitedly about getting her degree, the research she’s hoping to do with a professor over the summer, a case study she’s working on with some undergrads.
It’s kind of hard to relate to that, since Edward was more than happy to be done with school when he got his Vet Tech certification, but he thinks it’s awesome that she’s so passionate about what she’s doing.

Chapter 31

He’s so happy the date is going well that he can’t resist texting Bella when Angela excuses herself to go to the restroom, just to let her know things are good.
Awesome, Bella texts back a second later. PS you didn’t tell me you had cheesecake in the freezer.
Eat that and die, Edward sends back, because that cheesecake is heaven on a plate and ridiculously expensive, for special occasions and not bad babysitters possibly neglecting his children. You’d better be taking good care of my dogs.
Edward’s phone vibrates a second later, making his silverware jump, and he flips it open to see a small picture of a pair of legs stretched out on the floor, with Sway asleep across Bella’s lap and Memphis sacked out on her feet. The text accompanying it says, Relax, they’re fine, and so is your damn cheesecake. Now talk to your girl, not me.
Edward’s grinning down at his phone when Angela comes back, and she raises her eyebrows a little when she sits down across from him.
"Bella’s watching my dogs tonight," Edward explains. "And I was worried that she was eating all my food and watching porn and ignoring them, but she just sent a picture of the dogs sleeping on her lap."
"Oh," Angela says, and she kind of looks like she’s not sure if there’s a joke there that she’s missing or Edward’s being totally serious.

Chapter 32

Edward quickly changes the subject to their food, which is pretty awesome, and Angela starts talking about how she and her friends like to cook together and take turns hosting dinner parties.
She mentions how they keep trying to find men to join the group, but as soon as they can find a guy who cooks, he’s snapped up by one of the available women and they never see him again.
Then she asks, "Do you cook?"
And Edward’s a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. Angela just said—without actually saying it—that she thinks the ability to cook is attractive in a man, and he’d be a complete idiot to say no, even if that’s the truth. He’ll just tweak the truth a little. "Yeah, I love to," he says. "Cooking is great."
She perks up at that, and Edward wishes his mouth wouldn’t just spit out things without his brain’s prior approval. "Um, well, I’m not great at it, or anything," he amends quickly. "You know, I just have a few things I can make." And by that he really means things like grilled cheese and frozen pizza and maybe even French toast, if he’s feeling really adventurous, but Angela looks so pleased to find they share an interest that he can’t bear to say that part aloud.
"What kinds of food do you like to cook?"
"Um," Edward says, trying desperately to think of something he’s successfully made. "Well, I’m pretty good at Italian food." Okay, so he’s only ever made frozen lasagna, but she’ll never know that.
"Oh, really?" Angela asks, leaning an elbow on the table.
"Yeah, it’s kind of my specialty," Edward continues, unable to stop himself. If he’s going to invent himself a culinary whiz, he’s sure as hell not going to sell himself short. "You know that kind with the spinach that comes in those little pasta rolls?"
"Cannelloni?" Angela asks, eyes lighting up.
"Yeah, that," he agrees. "I make awesome cannelloni."
"That’s so great. I love Italian food," Angela enthuses. "There used to be this great little restaurant a few blocks away from my apartment, but it closed this summer, and I’ve been craving good Italian ever since."
"You should come over, and I’ll cook for you," Edward finds himself saying, then promptly wanting to kick himself, because on a scale of bad ideas, that would be right at the top, next to spontaneously proposing or reading Angela an excerpt from the pathetic ode he wrote to her shiny hair.
But she smiles and says, "I’d love to," and when she suggests next Friday night, he agrees without a second thought, because this is the most genuinely interested she’s ever been in spending time with him, and there’s no way he’s going to let something insignificant like his total inability to cook actual food stand in the way.
Bella’s going to kill him when she finds out, but Edward really doesn’t care. He just smiles back at Angela and trusts fate to make things okay, because after all the bad karma, he really deserves something good.

Chapter 33

When Edward gets home, he’s expecting to be met by Bella and a hundred questions on how the night went, ranging from clothing to conversation to chemistry, but instead, he’s met with what’s possibly the most adorable scene ever.
Bella, who’s never caught with a hair or thread out of place—and who claims not to be a dog person—is sprawled on the floor next to the couch, head pillowed on her arms, with both dogs asleep on top of her, Sway resting her head on the small of Bella’s back and Memphis spread out across the backs of her thighs.
It looks like they spent the whole night playing and then dropped in exhaustion for a nap.
Edward only has a second to take it all in, grinning like crazy, before the dogs lift their heads and come over to greet him. The weight lifting wakes Bella up, and she groans, squinting at Edward, before sitting up and rubbing her eyes. "You’re home," she mumbles sleepily.
"Yep," Edward says, giving her a hand up and pulling Bella down to sit on the couch.
"How’d it go?" she asks, rubbing a hand through her sleep-tousled hair.
"Really good," Edward says, still riding the high of a reasonably successful date and barely able to keep his grin under control.
"Yeah. And she agreed to another date, next week."
"Hmmm," she hums.

Chapter 34

After a minute of silence Edward mumbles, "You’re going to kill me when I tell you what it is, because I’m going to make you help me, but I’ll tell you later." He rubs awkwardly at the back of his neck. "Right now we should just be happy this date was a success."
"Mmkay," she agrees. "Sorry, I’m really tired."
"Really? I couldn’t tell."
Bella’s not fuzzy enough to miss the sarcasm, and she gives Edward a cranky shove. "Jerk."
"Yeah, I know."
"M’kay. I should go," Bella sighs, standing up. "M’glad your date was good."
"Thanks." Edward stands, too. "You sure you’re okay to drive? It’s no problem if you want to stay here."
"Nah, I’m good."
"You sure? You looked pretty comfortable on the floor there, and I’m sure the dogs would love to have a human pillow."
Bella shakes her head, patting her pocket for her keys. "Nah. You might enjoy wearing more animal hair than actual clothing, but I’ve been shed on enough for one night."
Edward laughs and lets it go, because insults are a sure sign Bella is waking up. "Okay. I’ll call you tomorrow then."
"Is that when I’m going to get mad at you?"
"Yep. I’m going to wait until you’re a few miles away before I tell you what I got us into, so you can’t kill me immediately."
Bella shrugs. "Whatever. As long as it doesn’t have anything to do with a Vegas wedding or cross-dressing, I can deal with it. It can’t be worse than Emmett making me pick out lingerie for Rosalie."
Edward raises his eyebrows. "How did you get roped into that?"
"Emmett was stuck in traffic and left his Valentine’s Day present until the last minute." Bella shudders. "I love Rosalie, but there are things I never wanted to know about her, and that includes her fondness for edible panties and bras with the nipple parts cut out."
"Wow," he laughs. "Well, it’s definitely nothing like that. Angela hasn’t shared her lingerie preferences with me yet, and even if she did, I don’t think I’d tell you. That’s a little awkward."
"Then I shouldn’t have to kill you," she grins. "But if you wake me up before noon, I reserve the right to maim."
"Understood," Edward says.

Chapter 35

Bella’s phone rings at exactly 10:23 the next morning. It buzzes on her nightstand for a few minutes before she’s awake enough to answer, and when she finally picks it up, blinking at the display, she groans.
"What did I say about maiming?" she demands.
"Sorry," Edward says sheepishly. "But I couldn’t wait any longer. I’ve been up since dawn worrying about my next date with Angela."
"And waking me up to tell me that is going to make you feel better?"
"No. But I won’t be able to stop worrying until I have a plan, and you’re really good at making plans."
"You could make a plan yourself, you know," she points out.
"I like yours better. You’re good at all that detail stuff."
Bella is good with details and planning, it’s true, and right now she’s trying to figure out if there’s a feasible way for her to end this conversation and get back to sleeping in. But even turning off her phone and locking her door isn’t foolproof, because if Edward’s proved anything on his quest for Angela’s heart, it’s that he’s a persistent bastard. She sighs.
"Fine. What do you need my help with?"
"Thank God. I was going to start begging if you said no, and then send you a dozen pictures of my pathetic face and maybe camp out outside your apartment with sad music," Edward says.

Chapter 36

Bella isn’t sure whether she should laugh or be a little worried, because she’s pretty sure Edward’s telling the truth. "Sad music?" she asks. "Why would that sway me?"
"You know, it would be something about broken hearts or love lost or friends deserting people, to guilt you into helping," he explains. "But I couldn’t think of a good song that would convey that. See? I suck at details. This is why I need you."
Bella sighs. "Just tell me what you need help with."
"Okay," Edward says. "But just keep in mind that being around Angela is like downing half a bottle of tequila for me, and I shouldn’t be held responsible for questionable judgment or bad decision-making in her presence."
"I really hope you don’t say things like that to her face," she teases. "And just tell me what the damned problem is already."
"Okay, so I maybe, possibly, might have promised her that I’d cook for her next Friday."
Bella groans.
"And that I’d make cannelloni," Edward adds.
"Oh, fuck," she says with feeling.
"Do you even know how to cook?"
"Not really. You?"
"No fucking idea," she sighs morosely. "And there’s no way you can just call Angela and tell her she hallucinated that invitation?"
"Nope. She was totally psyched about homemade Italian. It was probably the most enthusiastic she got the whole night."
"Shit," she curses again. "Edward, what the hell possessed you to offer to cook when you don’t even own the ingredients for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?"
"She came right out and said she thinks it’s hot when men can cook! I had to say it!" he pauses. "And how do you know that?"
"I looked through your fridge last night. And she might think guys who can cook are hot, but I really doubt she thinks guys who lie are attractive."
"I know," he moans. "And that’s why you and I need to figure out how to make cannelloni in the next six days, so that it’s not a lie. Or at least not such a big one."

Chapter 37

Bella sighs again, resigned. "Fuck. So not only do we have to learn how to make edible pasta in less than a week, but we also have to fix up your apartment."
There’s a pause on the other end of the line. "Wait, what’s wrong with my apartment?"
"Well, for one thing, you seem to be laboring under the delusion that cardboard boxes are also useful as furniture."
"I only have a couple," Edward says defensively. "And they’re just temporary."
"Great. Now would be a fabulous time to replace them with grownup furniture. And while we’re on the subject of trash masquerading as interior decorating, that tower of beer cans really needs to go."
"Dude, that’s our beeramid!" Edward protests. "Do you know how long it took James and me to make that thing?"
"Edward, how old are you? Wait, don’t answer that. Seriously though, how long do you think Angela will stay after she sees it?" Bella counters.
Edward makes a frustrated noise, but gives in. "Fine. We’ll work on my apartment, too. But first, we need to do something about this cannelloni mess. Come on; make me one of your awesome plans."
Bella sighs again. "All right. Here’s what we’re going to do. You get ahold of a recipe – something that looks pretty easy. Then we’ll hit the grocery store, get five times the amount of all the ingredients, and practice making the stuff until you’ve got it down."
"We’re going to make five batches of cannelloni?"
"As many as it takes," Bella says grimly.

Chapter 38

As it turns out, five isn’t nearly enough.
The first batch is ruined within minutes, after Edward over-boils the pasta shells and they fall apart when he tries to plop them in the pan for stuffing. The second time he burns himself draining the pasta without a colander and drops the whole pot and they have to pick the shells out of the sink and throw them away.
Bella, who thought it would be a good idea to assign Edward to the relatively simple task of boiling pasta, nearly reconsiders the whole thing.
After the third and fourth attempts go completely wrong—Bella burns the sausage mix trying to patch up Edward’s burn, and then one of them leaves a fork in the microwave with the defrosting spinach, which a) nearly causes a fire, and b) burns the crap out of the spinach, which smells to high heaven), she really does reconsider.
"There’s got to be an Italian restaurant somewhere in this town that will deliver," she grumbles, scraping the contents of the frying pan into the garbage. "Toss it in the oven before she gets here, leave a few dirty pans by the sink, and spill some sauce on your shirt. She’ll never know."
Of course, Edward refuses. "I can’t, Bella. I promised her I’d cook, and I have to." He folds his arms stubbornly. "And you promised to help."
"That was before I knew things would be burning and lighting on fire and possibly exploding," she points out.
He grins. "Come on, you afraid to get a little dirty?"

Chapter 39

Bella’s more afraid for her life, actually, but before she can say that Edward dips a finger into the spinach mess on the counter and comes at her. Bella has to duck her arm and twist away, but even then she only makes it a few steps before Edward’s got her pinned up against the counter, waving his goopy finger menacingly. Bella gets her hands up in front of her, ready to deflect, but it’s hard to concentrate on defending herself when she’s got all six-and-a-half feet of Edward pressed up against her, especially when he’s wearing a devious smile.
"You wouldn’t," she warns, but she’s a little breathless and it comes out kind of weak and unsure. That just makes Edward’s eyes light up with evil glee, though, and Bella senses he may really do it, which is just not okay. "Edward, don’t. That stuff is disgusting; I don’t want it on me. And I really like this shirt, and it looks a lot better without food all over it. Seriously, please, don’t."
Edward just shakes his head. "B," he says pityingly, "You really need to loosen up." And then, grinning malevolently, he smears a stripe of spinach right down the middle of Bella’s face.
Bella gasps and shoves back, outraged, but it’s too late, and Edward’s already pushed away and out of reach, laughing his ass off. "You fucking bastard," she curses, looking around for something suitable to retaliate with. "You’re going to regret that so much when I’m done with you."
"Ooh, big talk," he teases, backing away. "You got something to back that up?"
"Oh, I’ve got something, all right," she threatens. "And it’s going all over your smug face." She circles Edward carefully, picking up a potholder to use as a shield, then darts for the tub of cottage cheese sitting on the counter. Edward’s eyes go wide, but he only has time to turn his head before she’s mashing a handful of the stuff into his neck. Yuck.

Chapter 40

After that, it’s all-out war.
Edward stuffs a handful of cheese down the front of Bella’s shirt, and then nearly falls over laughing when she shimmies around the kitchen trying to get it out.
She shuts him up by flicking a spoonful of sauce at him, marinara splotching his chest like a gunshot wound, and then they give up on actual calculated attacks and just fight it out, down and dirty.
The battle rages on until Edward slips on a pasta shell on the floor and takes Bella down with him, and they end up splayed out on the tile floor, exhausted and breathing hard and laughing their asses off.
The dogs run in from the next room at the noise and try to lick the mess off, and Bella has to push a slobbery Sway off her before she can sit up and assess the damage.
The kitchen is a mess, food everywhere, and Bella’s not much better—her shirt is completely ruined, stained red, green and white like the Italian flag, and her skin is sticky with spinach and sauce and God knows what.
Edward sits up across from her, shaking cheese out of his hair, and sees her mourning her shirt. "I told you to wear an apron."
She glares at him. "And I told you, you’re supposed to being doing the cooking… yours looks good on you though," she winks.
Edward looks down at the frilly, flowery travesty he’s got on, then his mostly clean clothes. "And the winner of food fights."
"Shut up, you didn’t win," she grumbles. "And I can’t believe you actually did that. What are you, twelve?" But she’s grinning, and for some reason she can’t make herself stop. Her shirt is a total loss and she’s going to smell like scorched spinach until she gets a shower, but it’s kind of funny, and this has been the most fun she’s had in a long time, maybe forever.

Chapter 41

Edward grins right back. "Well, I’d rather act like I’m twelve than eighty."
"What? I don’t act eighty," Bella protests.
He looks up from wetting paper towels at the sink. "Okay, maybe not, but you do kind of take things seriously." He hands Bella the damp towel. "You are allowed to have fun sometimes, you know."
She makes a face and starts mopping herself off. "Am I allowed to borrow a shirt? Because I think this one’s beyond help."
"Yeah, of co—" Edward starts to say, then an evil grin lights up his face.
"Oh, God," she moans. "What?"
"You’re allowed to borrow a shirt," he says slyly. "But only if you let me choose which one."
"No, Edward," she says desperately. "No, there’s no way. I’d rather wear an apron."
"That can be arranged," Edward says craftily, undoing the ties of his blue flowery apron. "Your choice."
Five minutes later, Bella is rolling up the sleeves of the ugliest shirt she’s ever seen, and Edward is struggling not to laugh. She’s starting to wish she’d chosen the apron, because even that would be better than a shirt covered in giant, obnoxious palm trees. Seriously, palm trees? Edward is so weird.
"I wish I had a picture," he laughs. "Nobody is going to believe me when I tell them."
"And nobody’s going to blame me when I kill you," she replies dryly, shoving him back into the kitchen.

Chapter 42

By the end of the night, they haven’t really accomplished much.
They’re better at getting all the ingredients ready for cooking, which Edward thinks is definitely something, but so far they haven’t produced anything that actually looks or tastes like cannelloni should.
He promises to look up a new recipe with more detailed instructions—something from ‘Cooking for Complete Idiots’, Bella suggests—and they make a plan to meet up the next night and try again. Edward even promises not to start another food fight, in the interest of wasting less time and food.
Bella nods and starts undoing the buttons of Edward’s shirt, clearly meaning to put her soiled one back on and give Edward’s back before she leaves.
"No, no," he protests. "You keep that. I’ll wash your shirt and give it back to you tomorrow. It was my fault you got dirty, so I’ll take care of it."
Bella looks pleasantly surprised, but then her eyes narrow. "Wait. You just want me to have to wear this ugly thing home."
Edward doesn’t bother denying it, just grinning.
Bella shakes her head. "Fine. Serves you right when I burn it in sacrifice to the gods of bad taste."
"You can’t burn my shirt!"
"Watch me," she threatens.
Edward meets her glare for a second, then smiles smugly. "Nah, you won’t."
"Oh really?" she asks incredulously. "And why not?"
"’Cause you love me," he says, giving Bella his sunniest smile.
Her mouth twitches like she wants to smile back, then she looks horrified.
Edward laughs, and Bella shakes her head and says, "Dude, shut up."

Chapter 43

Bella doesn’t make any more threats toward the shirt, though, doing up the buttons again and unrolling the sleeves. Edward watches and thinks it’s kind of weird, seeing someone else in his clothes, he doesn’t know what it is he likes so much about seeing a girl in one of his shirts.
What’s even weirder is that seeing Bella in his shirt earlier had hit him with the same flare of heat in his gut. It’s weird because, for one thing, she is swamped by it, and for another, she isn’t even barelegged under it—although, Edward thinks, she would probably look good like that.
She probably has really nice legs.
She has nice everything else, after all.
Which Edward’s not really sure why he’s noticed, but whatever.
Maybe it’s his new appreciation of fashion.
Bella’s jeans are cut just exactly right to pull tight against her ass when she’s leaning over, so Edward knows for a fact that that part of her—at least—is very nice.
It isn’t until Bella’s snapping in his face, saying, "Edward? Hello?" that he realizes his mind’s gone off on a bit of a tangent. "Um. What?"
Bella gives him a weird look. "You totally zoned out there. Daydreaming about Angela and cannelloni?"
Edward laughs, relieved for an excuse that’s not a little pervy. "Yeah. Specifically, what canoodling might come after the cannelloni." He wiggles his eyebrows, and Bella makes a face.
"Dude, I don’t want to know."
"Yeah," he agrees. "Okay. See you tomorrow, then?"
"Have fun with my shirt."
"Bite me."
Edward closes the door behind Bella with a grin.

Chapter 44

Sunday goes better than Saturday, since they actually manage to get the sausage mix into the manicotti shells, but then they get distracted with the dogs, because Edward has to show Bella this amazingly hilarious thing he discovered where Memphis will chase a flashlight beam all around the room and even jump to get it on the wall, and the cannelloni dehydrates into a crunchy mess.
On Monday they actually make a presentable version of the dish that survives baking, but then when they sit down to take their first tentative taste, Edward remembers something really, really bad. "Oh, shit."
At Bella’s inquiring look, he says, "Um, you haven’t seen any leaves lying around, have you?"
She gives him that you might be crazy, but I’m humoring you eyebrow, complete with head tilt. "Uh, no. We’re indoors, Edward."
Edward makes a face at her. "Thanks, Einstein. Seriously, do you remember me taking any leaves out of the sauce?"
"No," she says, bewildered. "Why the hell would there be leaves in the sauce? Were you stirring it with a branch, or something?"
"It was a bay leaf," Edward says, poking at the stuffed manicotti on his plate. "The recipe said you could put a bay leaf in the sauce mix if you wanted, and I think I did, this time. But I don’t think I took it out, and um." He swallows. "I think they’re kind of…"
"Kind of what?" she asks.
He winces. "Poisonous?"
Bella looks down at her plate like it’s been infected with Ebola. "And it’s somewhere in our food?"
"I think so," he says. "I didn’t see it when I was spooning out the sauce, but it might have gotten all ground up or disintegrated."
"So we have no way of finding this possibly poisonous leaf," she surmises. "Great."
"I might have taken it out," he amends. "Maybe."
"I’m not going to stake my life on maybe," she complains, pushing her plate away.
"It’s not going to kill you," he argues. "Probably." At Bella’s glare, he says, "Come on, this is the only good version we’ve got. We have to at least taste it so we know if we’re on the right track."
Bella looks pained and on the verge of refusal, but Edward’s spent way too much time around adorable little puppies, and he has the soft, pleading eyes down pat. Bella looks back down at her plate and sighs. "Fine. If I die, I’m haunting you."
"Fair enough," Edward says, picking up his fork. "Oh, wait. Is there anything you want to say, in case it’s our last meal?"
Bella just stares at him.
"Okay, I’ll go first," he says. "I’m really glad I met you, Bella. You’ve been a really good friend."
"Um, you too, I guess," she agrees. "Thanks for… making my life interesting."
"You’re welcome," he grins. "And just so you know, you have a nice ass. I don’t know why I noticed that, but I did, and I thought you should know, just in case I never get another chance to tell you."
She blinks. "Uh, what?"

Chapter 45

Edward doesn’t answer, he just stuffs a huge bite of cannelloni into his mouth, and after a second, Bella shrugs and does the same.
The cannelloni’s not actually that bad. A little soggy, and the sauce is too runny, but overall, it’s not terrible. A few more times, and it should actually be something approaching good.
Neither of them expire during the meal, which is always a plus in Edward’s book.
They do the dishes together, and Edward can’t help but laugh when he rinses out the saucepan and finds a bay leaf clinging to the edge. He pulls it out and sticks it on Bella’s arm. "Guess we’re not going to die."
"Thank God," she laughs. "I’ve had food that’s to die for, but that cannelloni was definitely not it."
"Hey," he protests, flinging bubbles at her with a soapy hand.
Bella splashes him back with cold water, then busies herself with some silverware before casually asking, "So, you want to retract anything you said when you thought death was imminent?"
Edward thinks it over for a second, and then shrugs. "Nah. I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean."
She looks at him for a long second, but then starts to laugh.
"Nothing. You just… you’re so weird."
Edward’s not sure what inspired that observation, but he’s got a comeback anyway. "Whatever. You love it."
Bella frowns and splashes him with more water, but she doesn’t deny it.

Chapter 46

Bella’s actually really not sure how to react to Edward complimenting her ass, and she spends a lot of time thinking about that one random statement in the next few days when she should be doing things like working or driving or actually listening to what Emmett is saying on the phone.
She can’t help it.
She’s got a crush on Edward—she can admit that—but it’s one thing to lust after someone you know is totally ‘in love’ and unattainable. It’s another when they casually mention they’ve been checking out your ass.
Not only that, but it’s also Edward, who is quite possibly the most random person Bella’s ever met, so it could mean nothing.
Edward says weird things all the time. And from what Bella’s seen of Edward’s thought processes, even something that highly questionable might seem like a friendly compliment. Edward’s brain kind of frightens Bella.
Besides, Edward’s still pretty unattainable, if his pursuit and hopes of marrying Angela are anything to go by. After thinking about it way too much, Bella puts it down to random happenstance and lets it go.

Chapter 47

They’re in the middle of IKEA on Wednesday, scoping out some furniture for Edward’s apartment, and Edward does it again. He’s been bitching the whole trip about the store layout, how they’re being herded along the little path like cattle, and it’s stupid that you can’t just pick a bookshelf off a shelf, you have to fill out a little card and go hunt through a warehouse to get it, and how the hell is he supposed to know what stuff is when it’s all labeled in Swedish anyway?
Bella’s mostly tuning him out, mentally comparing the finish of one bookshelf to the coffee table Edward already has, when Edward says, out of the blue, "What about you?"
She glances up at him confused. "Huh?"
"You’ve been giving me all kinds of relationship advice to get Angela," he points out. "But what about you? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?"
"Uh, um… I don’t know," she says quietly.
"Why not?" he persists.
There’s never really any good answer to a question like that, and the closest thing to an honest reply is way more complicated than Bella really wants to get into at the moment, so she just shrugs.
"Come on," Edward says, leaning against the partition next to her. "I feel like we talk about me all the time and I want to know about you."
"It’s not a big deal," she dismisses him, running a finger along the shelves, brushing titles she can’t translate. She can feel Edward’s eyes on her, but she doesn’t look up, tracing the letters on an umlaut-laden spine.
"Okay," Edward says finally. "Well, I know it’s not about anything physical, ‘cause I’ve seen you, and I’m pretty sure you could have anyone you wanted."
Bella closes her eyes and takes a slow breath, because seriously. How is she supposed to react when Edward comes out with stuff like that? Is that just another friendly observation?
"And you know everything there is to know about relationships," he goes on. "So it’s not that. So unless you’re hiding a huge doll collection in your basement or you’re secretly furry, I don’t see why you’d be single."
"It’s not anything," she huffs, trying to end the conversation. "I’m just…not really looking right now, that’s all."
But Edward looks even more interested at that. "Why not?"
"It’s complicated. And yeah, I’m good at giving advice on relationships, but I really suck at taking advice, especially my own." There’s more to it than that, but Bella doesn’t really want to go into it with Edward, especially not when her stupid little high school crush on Edward is what’s currently preventing her from noticing any other eligible men. It’s not that she thinks she’s got a shot with Edward or anything, she just spends so much time with him and thinking about him that it makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything else, including dating.
Edward quirks an eyebrow. "So you give other people advice on making their romantic dreams come true, but you can’t do the same for yourself?"
"Pretty much," she says shortly. "I think this bookshelf will fit best in your living room. Do you like it?"
Edward doesn’t answer at first, still looking at Bella with a perplexed, almost sad look on his face, but then he nods. "Sure."

Chapter 48

It takes them three hours to put the stupid thing together, and by the end of it Bella’s swearing IKEA is possibly demonic in origin, because there’s no logical way one of the stupid things that holds up a shelf could go missing for a horribly frustrating half hour and then turn up only a foot away, where they looked at least fifty times.
It’s the work of the devil.
Edward agrees, but he has to admit the bookshelf looks pretty nice when they finally get it set up.
It definitely beats a cardboard box, as far as organization of his DVDs goes, and Bella even rearranges some framed pictures between stuff and makes it all look neat and intentionally visually pleasing.
With the addition of some end tables, a few lamps, a rug and a framed mirror on the wall where his Star Wars poster used to be, the living room suddenly stops looking like a college dorm room and like an adult lives there.
It kind of freaks Edward out at first, but he has to admit it looks good.
His bedroom is another matter, but since he isn’t expecting Angela to see it on this date, that’s okay.
Edward sweeps through the apartment one more time, obsessively checking to make sure everything’s clean and in the right place, but when he surveys the living room again, Bella is half-asleep on the couch, both dogs snuggled as close to her as they can get.
They’re not allowed on the furniture, but they make do—Memphis’s spread across Bella’s feet, and Sway’s leaning up against the cushions, her head nestled on Bella’s knee. Edward shakes his head.
Bella may actually be right about the dogs liking her better.
Then again, they may just be after the half-eaten container of Pad Thai in Bella’s lap. They’d gotten takeout on the way home, since neither of them could stand another night of Italian, but Bella had only been halfway through hers when Edward was finished and too excited about the new furniture to wait.

Chapter 49

Edward takes the Pad Thai away, placing it up on the end table where the dogs can’t reach it, and she cracks one eye open to look at him. "What’s up?"
"Everything looks really good," he tells her. "I really like the bookshelf and the lamps and stuff."
"Good," she says, yawning. "So, you ready for tomorrow night, then?"
"Not sure."
Bella blinks. "What do you mean?"
He wrinkles his nose. "Well, there’s this one thing that would make me feel better about everything, but you won’t want to do it."
She sighs. "What is it?"
"It would just be really helpful if you could, you know…"
"…maybe act like Angela?"
Bella sits up, suddenly alert. "What the hell does that even mean?"
"I just want to run through it," he explains quickly. "Like a dress rehearsal. So I know what to expect."
"So now I’m Angela’s understudy?"
"No, you’re kind of like a stand-in," Edward says. "Not really her, but a person who can sort of take her place. Like a cardboard cut-out or a blow-up doll or something."
"You say the sweetest things," she deadpans. "Well, you’re right, I don’t want to do it."
Edward starts to put on the pleading look, but Bella smacks him. "Stop that. I didn’t say I wouldn’t, just that I don’t want to."
"I can work with that," he smiles ruefully.

Chapter 50

As it turns out, Bella’s not very good at imitating Angela.
When she first knocks on the door she pretends to swoon all over Edward and says ridiculous, flowery things about the furniture and the "flow" of the room, whatever the hell that means, and then she keeps slipping out of character and saying things like, "Offer me a drink, you jerk," and "Dude, if you don’t take my coat soon I’m going to get heatstroke," even though the coat is purely imaginary.
But it calms Edward’s nerves to have a plan, and he can put up with Bella bitching him out for supposedly staring at her cleavage and teasingly slapping him for "getting handsy" if it means things will go more smoothly with the real Angela.
When he finally feels comfortable, he drags Bella into the kitchen and breaks out the hideously-expensive-yet-divinely-good cheesecake from his freezer in thanks.
Bella polishes off a piece and declares it orgasmic, but then reminds Edward ‘she’s not that kind of girl and she’s still not putting out until at least the third date’.
Edward isn’t sure if this is Angela-Bella or Bella-Bella talking, but either way, they’re both overtired and stressed, so he just rolls his eyes and pushes Bella toward the door, promising to call after his date.
Bella waves to the dogs and wishes him luck.

Chapter 51

Edward makes good on his promise and calls literally the minute Angela leaves Friday night.
Bella knows the news is good as soon as she hears Edward’s voice, and she grins as he describes the absolutely perfect cannelloni he made and recounts every single thing Angela said in praise of his cooking.
"It was so amazingly awesome, Bella," he gushes. "I had it timed just right, so she had just enough time to finish her first glass of wine and then the oven timer went off and I was whipping out cannelloni and warmed bread and a salad and more wine. It was like magic."
Or good planning, but Bella lets Edward have his moment.
She’s glad things went well with Angela, obviously, and it’s awesome that she suggested another date, both because it seems like she’s really interested and things are progressing nicely.
But somehow Bella can’t manage to be very enthusiastic about anything, and she finds herself just wanting the conversation to be over, which isn’t something she normally thinks when she’s talking to Edward.

Chapter 52

It’s just—she was overtired last night, she knows that, and she’d had a bit to drink, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that she was blatantly flirting with Edward last night. There’s no other word for it—when she was pretending to be Angela and coyly fingering the buttons of her shirt and then reminding Edward saucily that her face was several inches north, she sure as hell wasn’t acting like a friend or relationship adviser.
Then she went and made a comment about putting out, for God’s sake, when she wasn’t even pretending to be Angela anymore, and Bella cringes at the memory. Yeah, she wasn’t at the top of her game—working all day, shopping with Edward, putting together the bookshelf from hell and downing several beers on a few bites of takeout left her a little out of it—but that’s no excuse for letting her guard down and practically throwing herself at Edward.
She doesn’t think Edward really noticed, beyond a little bemusement, but still.
She isn’t the kind of person that just waltzes over boundaries like that, and the only thing she can think to blame is the fact that she and Edward have spent practically all their free time this week together.
That’s the only thing she can come up with that could possibly help—a little time apart.
It shouldn’t be too hard.
Edward’s well on his way with Angela, and he shouldn’t need too much more advice.
Maybe the occasional phone call or shopping trip or whatever, but not this every night of the week stuff they’ve been doing. Bella’s laid down the basics, and Edward’s a smart guy—he can figure out the rest.
Bella’ll just back off a little, have a few excuses handy to turn down invitations, and let this stupid thing she has for Edward work itself out of her system.
Then, when she’s finally over her crush or whatever, they can just be friends, and Bella won’t have to worry about saying suggestive things or Edward catching a lustful gaze here or there.
It’s a good plan.

Chapter 53

Edward’s never been too great at the plan thing, though, especially when it’s a secret plan Bella hasn’t even told him about, and in the middle of a long rambling sentence, he suddenly says, "Hey, that reminds me. Are you doing anything on Sunday? I was thinking you should come over."
She hesitates. "Oh. You were?"
"Yeah," he says, the ‘that’s why I asked you’, ‘duh’, clear in his tone. "But if you’re busy, that’s cool."
She reaches for one of those handy excuses she planned out, but none come to mind. "Uh, no, it’s just—you don’t really need any advice on how to go watch a movie at Angela’s place, right?"
"Well, not really," he agrees, sounding a little confused. "I just thought—there’s a game on, and I thought you might want to watch it with me. You know, just to hang out and relax, since this week was so hectic," he pauses. "But it’s fine if you don’t want to; I just thought I’d ask."
Now he sounds uncertain, and Bella feels like a total ass for making it sound like she only endures his company for the sake of business. But if she lets herself go over there for no reason other than to hang out, she’ll totally be screwing up her plan.
"No, I’d like to," she says, and the reluctance there is genuine, "But I already have plans. Sorry."
"No, hey, that’s cool," he nods. "Maybe some other time, then."
"Yeah," she agrees easily, and she means that too. "Okay. Well, I’m glad your date went well, and good luck with the movie."
"Yeah, thanks," he says quietly. "Uh, I guess I’ll just see you around, then."
"Call if you need anything," she responds automatically, and then amends, "If you need any help with Angela."
Edward’s unusually quiet as they say goodbye, and Bella wants more than anything to just call back and say she’d love to hang out, that she’ll be there with beer and Edward better get some decent salsa, anything to erase that uncertainty from Edward’s voice.
But she’s already proven that her likelihood to do stupid things increases exponentially with the amount of time she spends with Edward and the only way to fix that is a little separation, no matter how it makes her feel.
Bella flips her phone shut, sighing, and resolves herself to some quality Edward-free time.

Chapter 54

It works for a few days.
Bella fills her newly free time with all kinds of things she’s been meaning to do and never had time for, and it’s actually kind of nice.
Well, until she realizes that alphabetizing her DVD collection and defrosting her freezer and organizing all her socks by color and function were things she never got around to for a reason—namely because they’re pointless and boring as all hell—and that her other friends, while nice to hang out with, kind of pale in comparison to Edward.
Emmett’s a good guy, but he’s not nearly as much fun since he got married and started worrying about college funds for nonexistent kids, and Alice and Bree are always up for a good time, but they also have an annoying habit of sliding into conversations in a language only they understand, comprised of half-sentences and expressive "hmm"s, and none of them want to watch reality TV or cheesy movies—purportedly to mock, but secretly because they love it—or laugh until banana milkshake shoots out their noses.
But whatever.
Bella will just have to get used to an existence free of bad entertainment and drinks shot out someone’s nose, that’s all.
She’ll find some new hobbies or get all her Christmas shopping done early or something.
It’s fine.

Chapter 55

Well, it would have been fine, except then Edward goes and totally fucks up Bella’s plans again by calling out of the blue on Wednesday and asking, "How do you feel about cats?"
She blinks. "Uh, I don’t know. They’re okay, I guess?"
"Just okay?"
"Well, yeah. I’m more of a dog person."
"Maybe you just haven’t given cats a chance," he counters. "I mean, have you ever actually owned a cat, or spent a lot of time around one?"
"Well, no," she admits. "Not really."
"See? I think you’re judging unfairly, here. Cats are smart and playful and intuitive and amazing. You should be more open-minded."
"Um, okay. I’ll…work on that," she says warily. "In the meantime, is there an actual reason you called? Like, something other than my heinous animal prejudices?"
"Yeah, there is."
She waits a beat. "Am I supposed to start guessing?"
Edward sighs. "No. It’s just—I kind of need a favor. A big one."
This can’t possibly end well, but Bella did say Edward should call her if he needs help, so she’s kind of screwed either way. "So tell me what it is."
"Okay. Well, sometimes at the clinic we take in animals that get left places. They’re hurt or malnourished or whatever and people bring them in, and then we take care of them until we can find them a new home."
Bella is only vaguely familiar with what goes on at a vet clinic, but even she had that much figured out. "Uh-huh."
"That’s how I ended up with Sway and Memphis," Edward goes on. "Someone had abandoned them and no one else wanted them, so I took them home."
"Yeah, okay," she continues.
There’s a long pause.

Chapter 56

"What does that have to do with me doing you a favor?" she asks carefully, and then it hits her. "Wait. Oh, fuck no. Edward, are you trying to make me adopt a cat?"
"Bella, this cat has nowhere else to go! The shelters are all full, and I’ve tried everyone I know. You’re my last hope!"
"No, I’m not, because there is no way in hell I’m taking the thing." Bella needs a cat like she needs herpes, which is to say, is not at all and fuck you very much for asking.
"It’s not a thing, it’s a living breathing animal, and if you don’t adopt him, he’s going to get put down!" Edward sounds really worked up. "You’re just okay with that?"
Okay, innocent animals dying isn’t Bella’s idea of a good time, but still. "No, but there has to be someone else who can take him. I don’t know anything about cats. I don’t even know if my building allows pets, for Christ’s sake."
"So sneak him in, they’ll never know," he protests, an impatient edge audible in his voice.
"Oh, yeah, and then just lose my apartment and live on the street? Awesome plan!"
"Bella, come on. I’m serious," Edward says, like Bella can’t tell from how not fun this conversation has been. "This cat is going to be killed if you don’t take him in. And you’d love him, I know it. He’s adorable, tiny, and bitchy, just like you."
Bella rolls her eyes. "Wow, thanks. If you love the thing so much, why don’t you adopt him?"
"I would, but I’ve got two huge, rambunctious dogs, and it’s just a kitten. He needs a quieter place and more attention."
"Give him to Angela."
"She’s allergic."
Bella does a double take. "Wait, what?"
"Yeah, she figured it out after she was at my place. All the pet dander kept making her sneeze."
"Oh. Dude, that sucks." She knows more than anyone how much Edward’s dogs mean to him, and the fact that they’re not compatible with the other most important thing in his life must be hard to handle.

Chapter 57

Angela’s allergies are no fault of Bella’s, but the fact that she didn’t even know about it and that Edward’s probably been worrying about it all week is, and she feels like a jerk for pushing Edward away. "So… the Miami Vice dogs from your fantasy life?"
Edward’s quiet for a moment. "Guess it’s not going to happen." He sighs. "Can’t have her sneezing every second and hairless animals wig me out, so I guess we’ll just have to have a lot of fish or something."
"You could still name your fish Sonny and Rico," Bella says helpfully, trying to lighten the tone a little. "And you could even have a Starsky and Hutch set to go along with them. It’d be a whole crime-fighting legion of fish."
Edward laughs a little. "Yeah, maybe." He sighs again. "So, should I give you the innocent little animal spiel again, or should I start calling random people from the phonebook?"
Bella takes a deep breath, then thunks her head back against the wall.
It would really be nice if all her reasonable objections could stand up to Edward’s pleading, but the fact of the matter is, there was never any question of the outcome.
Bella was never going to say no, not when Edward needed something and she could give it. She may not want to do it, but she can’t refuse, especially when Edward goes all mopey and depressed on her. "Neither," she says. "Just tell me what I have to do to make the little hairball mine."
"Oh my God, Bella, I love you so much," he gushes, his mood doing a complete 180 so fast it leaves her dizzy. "You’re the best person in the entire world. And I’ll pay for his shots and the adoption fee and I’ll get you food and a carrier and a litterbox and everything, you don’t have to worry about any of it. And I promise to keep looking for somebody, so you won’t have to have him forever."
"Yeah, all right," she agrees, like hearing a certain three words come out of Edward’s mouth didn’t affect her in any way. "Take it easy."
"You’re seriously amazing. If there was any way to hug you through the phone right now, I would."
"I believe you," she says dryly. "You’ll just have to molest a pillow and pretend it’s me, or something."
"No way, I’m saving all this up for the next time I see you," he promises. "Prepare to be hugged to within an inch of your life. And then I’ll tell you again how awesome a friend you are. There might even be worshiping involved."
"Dude, it’s just a cat."
"I know," he laughs. "But I really, really appreciate it. It breaks my heart when we have to put them down, you know? They’re like helpless little kids."
Yeah, Bella knows.
Bella learned early on how to separate herself from things—work, clients, relationships, people—but Edward’s not the type of person who can do that.
He throws himself into everything, feels everything, puts his entire self into every little thing he does because he doesn’t know any other way. His work and his life are tangled together—he turned two of his clients into his family, and he cries at the end of Homeward Bound every damn time, and he actually keeps pictures of Sway and Memphis in his wallet, to show off to friends like a proud dad—but, the bitch of the thing is, she doesn’t want it any other way.

Chapter 58

Bella’s made an art of compartmentalizing, shoving pieces of herself in dark corners so they don’t touch, don’t rub up against anything else, don’t mix or blend or get messy, but even if Edward could do that, he wouldn’t.
He’s honest down to his bones, and he’d see holding part of himself back as an untruth, a lack of faith.
Bella sees it as necessary to her survival, but she’s noticed that lately, around Edward, some of her boundaries are starting to crumble.
Things that should stay separate are mixing, and what was supposed to be strictly business has crossed over into a mix of friendship and fun that leaves Bella confused and off-balance.
She had thought some time apart from Edward would help, but as soon as she had picked up the phone and settled into their normal banter without thinking, the rush of feelings she likes to pretend is just friendly affection came back at full force, and that whole thing about absence and fondness?
May just be true.
Either way, spending time away from Edward now just leaves Bella feeling disconnected and off-kilter, missing something fundamental.
It feels wrong.
"Anyway, I’ll bring the little guy over tomorrow after work," Edward says. "You’re going to love him. And thanks for doing this. It really means a lot to me."
"Yeah, I know," she sighs, still trying to sort through what she’s feeling. "I’ll see you then."
She flips her phone shut, but it’s a long time before she actually makes herself get up and make some dinner, caught up in questions that circle endlessly with no answer in sight.

Chapter 59

Edward brings the cat over the next day, and stays just long enough to tell Bella the cat’s name is Smudge, he bit Edward three times when he tried to get the cat into his carrier and his main hobby—besides biting—seems to be glaring suspiciously.
"Great," Bella says, peering in through the bars at the small form huddled in the back corner. "Is there some reason you gave me the most antisocial cat you could find? Are you trying to tell me something?"
Edward laughs, unpacking a bag of food and toys onto the counter. "Yes, Bella, I couldn’t think of another way to bring this up, but that habit you have of biting me needs to stop. It makes me uncomfortable."
"Wait until I start licking myself all over," Bella says without thinking, still focused on the cat, but then wants to smack her head on the counter.
Edward just laughs, though. "We’ll have the hygiene talk later."
He gives Bella a sheaf of papers with instructions for feeding and care. "He’s already got all his shots, and it’ll be awhile before he’s old enough to need fixing, so for now he should be good. Don’t worry if he wants to stay in the carrier for a bit or hide under the couch—cats need to get used to bigger spaces. And call me if you have any questions or whatever." Edward surveys the kitchen like he’s trying to remember what he forgot, then pats his pockets to reassure himself his keys and wallet are where he left them.
"In a hurry?" Bella asks, bemused. She’s never seen Edward this businesslike before, but something tells her there’s more to it than that. She’s never seen Edward this harried before, either.
"Yeah, sorry," Edward says, checking his watch. "I’ve got to get to an appointment. Sorry about leaving you the cat like this—I’ll stop by tomorrow and see how you’re doing, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Don’t worry." Bella stares at the bit of fur visible through the carrier sides. "We’ll be fine."
Edward rushes out.

Chapter 60

Bella sighs, and then goes to stand in front of the carrier.
She opens the little door, bends down to eye level, and takes a good look at the cat crouched in the shadows. "Well," she says to it. "Looks like it’s just you and me." The cat makes a noise, half-mew and half-growl.
"Okay, let’s just get something straight," she says sternly. "I’m sure you’d rather be somewhere else, and quite frankly, I feel the same way about you. But that dork that brought you here has magical powers of persuasion, so we’re just going to have to make the best of the situation for now." She pauses, and the cat just watches her, bright blue eyes wide. "You don’t have to like me," Bella tells it. "We’ll just have an understanding between us, okay? I’ll feed you and clean your litterbox, you refrain from mutilating me, my furniture, or my belongings, and we’ll just cohabitate with as little interference as possible. Deal?"
When she’s finished talking, the cat pauses for a long second, as if deep in thought, then comes forward. He comes out of the carrier, paws silent on the counter, and lifts his head to Bella’s fingers, which are still extended. Bella tenses, wondering if the start to their relationship is going to involve blood, but the cat just sniffs her hand delicately, and then pushes his head up, rubbing along Bella’s hand.
Bella catches on after a second, and realizes that the cat—the terror of a cat that bit Edward three times and has a nasty habit of glaring—is arching up into her hand eagerly, petting itself on her fingers, and purring like an outboard motor.
Bella raises an eyebrow. "Not such a little monster after all, huh?" The cat just chirrups, eyes squinting shut in pleasure, and butts against Bella’s stomach.

Chapter 61

By the time Edward rings the buzzer the next day, Bella has figured out that he was totally and completely wrong about the cat—he’s not an antisocial, biting little terror. In fact, she’s pretty sure Smudge’s the most lovable little ball of fur to ever exist.
He follows Bella around all day, trotting after her with his little tail held high, and he cuddles at any opportunity, even if she’s just standing still for a second—he’ll dive at her feet if they stop moving and try to crawl in her lap if she so much as moves to sit.
He purrs hard enough to shake his little frame if Bella so much as lays a hand on him, and if she picks Smudge up, he’ll nuzzle right into a spot under her chin, inside her shirt collar, and be perfectly content to curl up there as long as he can.
They’ve only spent one day together, but already Bella knows that she can pick Smudge up with one hand curving under his ribcage, and that her fingertips fit just right under Smudge’s ears, where the fur is impossibly soft, while her thumbs stroke along his face as the little thing stands on her chest or lap.
Smudge’s a talkative little thing, all chirps and meows and rumbling little grunts, and he’ll squawk indignantly if he’s hungry or Bella’s hand slows its petting.
The little furball’s also frisky as all hell, and he zooms up and down the hallways at the slightest suggestion of play. Bella actually catches herself hiding in her bedroom, peeking out around the corners before ducking back in, teasing him with any spare string or shoelaces around the house, and she’s already thought more than once about picking up some jingling balls or furry toys on her way home from work.
It’s just too adorable when Smudge ducks down, tail lashing behind him, eyes bright and that ready-to-pounce look in his eyes, Bella can’t help but smile back.
It’s kind of like when Edward gives her that playful smile of his, mischief in his eyes, and Bella knows she’s in for something messy or crazy or embarrassing, but she knows it’ll be fun.
Actually, Smudge reminds her a lot of Edward, what with the constant chirruping and demanding attention and insatiable attitude for troublemaking.
One time the cat even gives her a slant-eyed look that’s so Edward that Bella’s actually kind of freaked out.
She doesn’t tell Edward that, though.

Chapter 62

Smudge ducks under the couch when Edward comes in, and Bella shrugs and says the cat’s a little shy.
Edward laughs. "That’s an understatement. He makes Scrooge look like a social butterfly and a nice guy."
"Really?" she asks. "He seems pretty friendly to me."
He blinks. "He does?"
"Well, yeah," she says happily. "It took a couple minutes for him to come out of the carrier, but then he was all purring and rubbing. I can’t get him to stop following me around."
Edward just stares at her. "Bella, we almost named him Oscar because he reminded us of Oscar the Grouch."
"Oh, come on, he’s not that bad," Bella says, reaching under the couch to shoo Smudge out. "Here, you’ll see. He loves to pet himself on peoples’ feet."
Sure enough, Smudge heads straight for Edward’s feet. But instead of rubbing his face on them as Bella expects, he bats at one for a second before grabbing Edward’s big toe between both sets of front claws and sinking his teeth in.
"Ow, fuck," Edward yells, and their hands collide as they both reach down to disentangle teeth and claws.
Bella ends up with Smudge in her lap, and the cat curls up there, purring loudly, watching Edward with a satisfied look. "Okay, that’s weird," she observes.
"Yeah," Edward says, eyeing Smudge with mistrust.

Chapter 63

Bella finds it really weird to be in the middle of a staring contest involving a cat, so she tries changing the subject. "So, your date with Angela is tomorrow, right?" Bella asks. "Friday night?"
Edward nods.
"And you’re watching a movie?"
"Yeah, something one of her friends recommended."
"Sounds good," she says cautiously.
Edward just nods again, and Bella’s about to ask him what’s up, because Edward only gets this quiet when something’s wrong, but then he bursts out, "I’m really nervous."
"About what?"
"Everything! What I’m wearing, what I should bring, if I should leave my shoes on or take them off, if I’m going to be able to stay awake this time—"
"Okay, okay," she says, laughing a little. "Relax. Why didn’t you say something earlier? Or call?"
"I didn’t want to bug you," he says, a little hesitant, and she realizes that’s what’s been off this whole week, that Edward’s been acting like he’s not sure he’s welcome or that Bella wants him around.
"Don’t be stupid," she chides him, letting genuine warmth seep into her voice. "That’s what I’m here for."
Edward smiles then, big and bright and real, and Bella feels it as much as she sees it, like a physical touch, tugging at something deep in her chest. But she only has a second to contemplate what that means before Edward’s launching into a thousand questions, and Bella falls into her role, calming Edward’s panic with advice.

Chapter 64

An hour later, Edward has exhausted all his ‘what if’s’, and Bella’s making them some coffee to reenergize
Edward stands next to her. "There’s—there’s just one more thing I wanted to ask you," he says, and he’s acting shy and hesitant like before.
"Okay," Bella says, handing Edward his mug.
"This is…God… Okay." Edward’s actually blushing, and Bella forgets her coffee. "So, I’ve been trying to take things slow with Angela, because I really want to do this right, and things have been—there hasn’t really been an opportunity to—"
"To…?" Bella prods.
"To kiss her," he blurts out. "I mean, I gave her a peck on the cheek after the date at the restaurant, but she didn’t go for anything more, and then when she left my house she was sneezing a lot and it was kind of gross. But then when she asked me over to watch a movie, I kind of got the feeling that it was maybe implied."
Before Bella can reply, he goes on, "I don’t want to assume anything, obviously, but any way you slice it it’s still two people in a dark room together, and she did tease me about staying awake—I promised her I’d be wide awake for the whole thing, and she did this—this thing, with her eyes. Like a little sly look-thing. And then she smiled a little, and it was like—smug… or something. Like, oh, you’ll be awake, all right, but because of her, not the movie."
"Yeah, I got the hint, there, thanks," she all but snaps. "So? What’s the big deal?"
"What do you mean, what’s the big deal?"
"Well, it’s a good thing, right? You do want to make out with her, don’t you?"
"Yeah, of course I do," Edward says. "But what if it’s awful?"
"It won’t be awful," she says dismissively, sipping her coffee again. "Don’t be stupid. Your karma’s fine now."
"No, I mean—what if I’m awful?"
Bella blinks. "Is there some reason you would be?"
"Well, maybe!" he throws his hands into the air, narrowly missing spilling coffee everywhere. "It’s not like I’m new at it, or anything, but it has been kind of a long time, and I’ve never really thought about it before. What if I’ve had bad technique this whole time, and no one’s ever told me?"
"I think you’d know," she retorts.
"But this is Angela, and it has to be perfect. This is my chance to really show her how I feel, and I’m pretty sure she isn’t going to give me a second chance if I fuck it up." Edward pauses. "Um. Bad pun. But you don’t have any tips?"
Bella clears her throat. "Uh, Edward? How am I supposed to give you tips on kissing?"

Chapter 65

"Oh," Edward says, blushing a little. "Well, um, yeah." He looks hopeful. "You don’t have some handy rules for that? The 5 M’s of making out, or some rules of tongue?"
Bella nearly snorts hot coffee out through her nose. This nose-snorting thing is becoming commonplace around Edward, and it’s kind of troubling.
"I think it’s best if you just go with your instinct on this one," she says. "Having a plan is good, but things like this are better if you’re not overthinking them."
"Okay," Edward says, licking his lips. "Help me with a plan, then." When Bella makes a face, he pleads, "Just an outline, okay? Just give me something to go on. I’ll feel a lot better if I have a basic idea of where I'm going."
Bella sighs, but caves.
Her inability to say no to Edward is also kind of troubling.
"Okay, fine. Um. Well, just from the little I know about Angela, I think you’re right about taking things slow. So you’d want to start with easy, gentle, getting-to-know-you kind of kisses, where she’s always got the option of stopping or letting it go further."
He nods, focusing intently on her words, and Bella feels herself blushing a little.
Talking about kissing with Edward’s a little weird, especially when it’s going to be Edward doing all the things Bella’s saying.
She can almost picture what it’ll be like, what Edward’s mouth will look like spit-slick and kiss-swollen, the soft sounds his lips will make on—on Angela’s, Bella reminds herself firmly, jerking her gaze away from Edward’s mouth.
Edward’s looking at her expectantly, and she clears her throat.
"Right. So you’re not just going to bend her head back and stick your tongue down her throat, you’re going to ease into it. The first kiss is to make sure she’s on the same page—you pull back, leave a little space, and let her come to you if she wants to keep going. Then do it again, but with less space, and you keep doing it until there’s barely any room between you and there’s no hesitation."
"Okay." Edward wipes his palms on his jeans, and then moves to stand in front of Bella. "So, the first kiss is kind of like—"
Bella leans back, away. "What are you do—" she nearly shrieks.
"Bella, come on, what if I’m terrible? I just need to make sure I’m doing this right. Please."
"And you want to practice on me?" she puts another foot of space between them. "Bad idea, Edward. Very, very bad."
"Come on," Edward repeats, moving forward again. "It’ll be like the last time you pretended to be Angela." He smiles a little. "And you can yell at me for staring at your boobs again."
This is a bad idea. Let me reiterate…very, very bad.

Chapter 66

Bella knows this is a bad idea.
She hasn’t exactly labeled her feelings for Edward, but she knows they’re not what they’re supposed to be in the platonic friendship they’ve got going on.
Making out with Edward—for practice or otherwise—is not going to help those feelings in the least. But Edward’s not thinking any of those things; he’s just thinking this will help him with Angela.
Maybe if Bella just kisses Edward this once and gets it over with, she can get it out of her system.
She knows that doesn’t make much sense, but she has this problem with saying no to Edward, and she’ll take any excuse she can get to kiss him at this point.
"Yeah, well, you keep forgetting my face is up here," she jokes, then swallows hard when Edward meets her eyes and sees her consent.
Edward’s eyes flick over her face, studying her.
"So, um." He licks his lips again—which is really fucking distracting—and Bella’s so caught up in watching his tongue flick out to wet his lips that she almost misses him darting in.
She jerks back unconsciously, her lower back hitting the counter’s edge and her coffee sloshing. She quickly sets the cup on the counter before she spills hot liquid on something sensitive. "Dude, a little warning would be nice," she says, trying to play off how rattled she is.
When she turns around, Edward’s right there, not touching her but holding her in place all the same, and for once, Edward doesn’t have a reply or retort. He just reaches up to catch her chin with his thumb and forefinger, tilting up, and leans in again.

Chapter 67

The kiss is just like Bella told him, a gentle press of lips, no pressure and no hurry, but it sends a flare of heat through her, and she’s responding before she even thinks about it, pushing up into him.
He exhales, like he’s relieved, breath warm against her cheek, and then returns the kiss. He catches her lips with his own, keeping it chaste and slow, waiting to be met halfway before continuing. Bella figures Angela wouldn’t say no to any of this, so she keeps saying yes—moving things along—and Edward responds with gentle, exploratory kisses, learning every detail of Bella’s mouth, getting to know her like he’s supposed to do to Angela.

But then Edward pulls back, just enough space for a ‘no’ between their lips, and even though Bella knows this is where she should stop, should joke that Edward knows her well enough by now, she doesn’t.
She doesn’t even think about Angela or what she’d want, she only knows that this is what she wants, that she won’t and can’t stop now. She crosses the infinitesimal gap between them and seals her mouth over Edward’s once more.
Edward makes a little noise in the back of his throat, and then suddenly he’s sliding his hand around the back of her neck and going for it, kissing her hungrily, tipping her head back and curling his tongue against hers.
Somewhere in the back of her mind Bella recognizes that things are spiraling out of control, but she’s more concerned with the way she’s suddenly hot all over, prickles of heat racing across her skin, and all she can think about, besides how amazing Edward’s mouth feels on hers, is getting closer, having more.

Chapter 68

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Edward jerks back and says, "Fuck, ow!" and Bella looks down to see Smudge sinking his teeth into Edward’s foot again.
The sight of the tiny cat latched onto Edward’s sock, and Edward’s attempts to shake him off, break the spell, and suddenly Bella realizes just how out of control things have gotten.
She’s pressed up against the counter, granite digging into her back, her hands are on Edward’s hips, keeping him close, and worst of all, she’s completely turned on.
Smudge finally lets go, skittering off down the hall, and Bella does the same, quickly, dropping her hands and turning toward the counter to hide her reaction.
Her coffee’s sitting there, from earlier, and she takes a big gulp, hoping the hot liquid will keep her from dwelling on the taste of Edward in her mouth.
Edward shuffles awkwardly behind her. "Um. Was—was that okay?" he asks, a little breathless.
Bella closes her eyes, trying to slow her heartbeat back to normal. "Yeah," she says, voice coming out rougher than she intended. "I think you’ve got it."
"Okay," Edward says. "Uh, good… um, thanks."
There’s another long moment of silence, only broken by the rustle of Edward fidgeting. After a minute, Edward says, "I should probably go, then."
Bella turns just enough to see Edward’s face, then realizes that was a mistake.
He’s flushed, lips slick and swollen, and Bella has to clench her hands around the mug of coffee to stop herself from jumping him right there, pushing him down on the tile floor and taking this thing as far as it can go.
But that would be a bad idea; it would fuck everything up, and Bella doesn’t even know if Edward’s really reacting to her or Angela.
She just hopes like hell the coffee mug can stand the pressure of unrequited lust.
Edward interprets her silence as agreement, and nods. "Okay. I’ll call you after my date tomorrow, okay?"
She just nods.

Chapter 69

When Edward lets himself out, Bella unclenches her fingers from the mug, dumps the coffee in the sink, and slides down the cupboards to sit on the floor.
She leans her head forward to rest it on her knees, ignoring the throbbing ache in her chest and wetness in her panties.
She tries to figure out what the hell just happened.
When Edward does call, a few days later, he doesn’t say anything about the date, and Bella doesn’t ask.
It takes them a minute to find a safe topic of conversation, but after she tells him about Smudge’s latest trick—hiding until Bella walks down the hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen, then running full speed past with only a pause to jump and bat at her leg with his paws before he’s streaking off.
"Scared the shit out of me the first time he did it," she laughs, and Edward cracks up and makes fun of her for being scared by a six-pound bit of fur, and then, without any fanfare or heartfelt conversations, they’re back to normal.
Bella’s not sure how it happened, or why, but she’s not going to question it.
When Edward invites her along on a Christmas shopping trip, she says yes without thinking.

Chapter 70

Edward picks up a bright pink mixer, tilting it to see inside the bowl. "You think she’d like this?"
Bella shrugs. "I don’t know. Does your mom cook a lot?"
"Well, yeah," Edward says. "I don’t know if she uses a mixer, though."
She shrugs again. "She can always return it if she doesn’t like it."
"No, I have to get her a really good present," Edward tells her. "Last year was the thing with the ironing board, and I have to make it up to her with something seriously amazing."
Bella laughs. "I still can’t believe you got your mom an ironing board for Christmas."
"She needed a new one," Edward says indignantly. "It was a totally practical gift. I don’t know what the problem was."
"The problem isn’t the ironing board. It’s what it said."
"It was a gift! All it said was ‘I love you and you iron a lot.’" It made sense to Edward—he figured she’d appreciate something useful rather than another knickknack or World’s Greatest Mom mug. And she does do a lot of ironing. He just wanted to make it a little easier for her.
Bella shakes her head. "Forget about practical stuff, okay? She’s your mom. Get her something she wants, not something she needs."
Edward’s still not sure she didn’t want the ironing board—she doesn’t hate ironing, or anything—but the glares he got from his sister were enough to convince him Bella’s probably right. He sighs. "Fine. But no clothes. And she has enough jewelry for eight people, so that’s out, too."
Bella pushes him down the department store aisle. "I’m sure we’ll find something."

Chapter 71

Half an hour later, Edward has a scarf that Bella promises only says complimentary things, and Edward says, "Awesome. Now I just need something that says ‘I’m totally devoted to you’ but not in a creepy way."
"For Angela?"
"No, Bella, for you," Edward says, making moony eyes at her. "You’re the Sandra Dee to my Danny Zuko."
"You’re really failing at the not-creepy part," she observes.
"You love it," he grins. "And yes, I’m talking about Angela." He pauses. "Not you or Olivia Newton-John."
Bella rolls her eyes. "Yeah, I got that, thanks. Do you have any idea what you want to get real-Angela?"
Edward shrugs. "Something nice?" He picks up a candle decorated with snowmen. "Does this say ‘I love you, be mine’?"
Bella looks at it. "It’s more like ‘I love you, Grandma.’"
Edward sighs and sets it back down. "And I suppose ironing boards and mixers are out?"
"What did I say about practical gifts?"
"Yeah, yeah. Hey, this is awesome," Edward says, holding up a t-shirt with "Ho, Ho, Ho," on the front.
"If you give her that, you’d better be halfway across the country before she opens it."
Edward laughs and sets it back on the rack. "Actually, I was thinking about that."
"Giving her a bad gift and running?" she asks confused.
"No, about being halfway across the country. I know we haven’t known each other long, but I was thinking about inviting her down for the holidays." He straightens the other t-shirts on the rack. "Not for the whole time, obviously. Just a day or two, so she can meet my parents."
Bella doesn’t say anything, and when Edward looks up for a reply, he finds Bella staring at him like he just sprouted antlers and a glowing red nose. "Uh, Bella?"

Chapter 72

"Yeah," Bella says, shaking her head. "Um. Are you sure that’s a good idea?"
"I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you," Edward points out. "I know it’s kind of a big step, but I’ve been planning to marry her since I met her, so it’s not really that sudden for me."
"Yeah," Bella says, but her voice sounds a little odd, kind of tight. "But it might be for her. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like such a good plan."
"But maybe I could just invite her for New Year’s, or sometime after Christmas," Edward argues. "That way it wouldn’t be so much pressure. Just dinner with my family, not all the relatives and whoever."
"I don’t know," Bella snaps, busying herself straightening a rack of ties.
Edward frowns.
Bella’s never this indecisive about things, it’s part of the reason why she’s so good at giving advice on anything and everything.
She always has a firm opinion, and it’s usually right. But maybe she does have an opinion and thinks Edward doesn’t want to hear it?
"Come on," Edward says with a little smile, cajoling. "You can tell me if I’m way off, here. I can take it."
Bella shakes her head, not looking up from the ties. "It’s not—I don’t know, Edward. I don’t know Angela or your family, so I can’t tell you what to do."
Edward huffs a laugh. "That’s never stopped you before."
Bella does look up, then, but instead of a smirk to acknowledge Edward’s teasing, the look Edward gets is closer to a glare.
"Bella? What’s—"
"I just… I can’t talk about this with you," Bella interrupts harshly. Her fingers are clutching the ties so tightly now that her knuckles are white.
"What do you mean?" Edward asks, totally confused. If Bella can talk him through making out with Angela, why wouldn’t she be able to discuss this? It doesn’t make any sense.
"I just can’t, okay? Would you just fucking let it go already?"
Edward recoils slightly at that, and Bella shakes her head, letting go of the ties. "I have to go. Just leave me alone!"
"What? Is something wrong?"
Bella’s eyes catch Edward’s for a second as his question hangs in the air, and even though Edward can’t read the mix of complicated emotions he finds there, he can tell that the answer is yes, that something’s very wrong.

Chapter 73

He reaches out for Bella, to catch her arm or shoulder and keep her there until he can figure out where this conversation went so wrong and what she isn’t telling him, but Bella twists away from his hand and shakes her head again before taking off down an aisle.
Edward’s left completely confused, arm still outstretched, with no idea what just happened.
He can’t move, he wants to fix it, fix everything, but he doesn’t even know what happened in the first place.
His mind is still spinning when a saleslady stops next to him. "Can I help you find something, sir?"
Edward looks down at her. "Do you have anything that says, I’m really, really sorry, even though I don’t know what the hell I did and you won’t even talk to me, but if you’d just tell me what’s wrong, I’ll do anything I can to fix it?" he rambles desperately.
"Jewelry," Laura—as her nametag reads—says firmly, pointing over at the counter. "That’ll help."
"No, it's… it’s not like that," Edward sighs.
She looks a little bewildered, then. "Uh, no, sir. I’m afraid we don’t sell anything like that."
Edward sighs again, heavier this time. "Never mind."

Chapter 74

Bella’s always been good at being detached.
It isn’t something she planned, or something she’s wanted for herself, it’s just the way she’s always been.
In college, she had to take plenty of humanities classes, history and sociology and literature, but she didn’t like the uncertainty of it all—everything was about interpretation, perspective, and theoretical approaches.
Bella hadn’t liked writing a paper about what an author might have been trying to convey with symbolism, she wanted to know.
She wanted facts, hard and fast, not possibilities with vague basis in fact.
Leaving it up to personal interpretation was too messy, too weak, and not enough to hold on to.
Math, on the other hand, she liked and was her best college course. Math has rules and laws, specific reasons why equations work the way they do, and numbers don’t lie or change according to opinion.
There is always an answer to be found, and a sensible way to find it.
That’s why she went into financial planning—money can be managed according to history and mathematical predictions, and stock and bonds and mutual funds are firm, definite.
Most of all, even though Bella has to deal with customers who have their own opinions on what would make them the most money, in the end, the only person Bella has to trust is herself.
That’s the way she likes it.
She likes things that are concrete, solid and real, and she can’t just put all of herself into whatever she does—she can’t just take it on faith that something’s going to work and risk letting it all go.
But somehow, with Edward, that’s all gone to hell.

Chapter 75

Bella slams the door so loud that she scares Smudge, the kitten ducking behind the corner, and if that isn’t a sign of how messed up things have gotten, Bella doesn’t know what is.
This was just supposed to be a favor for Emmett—some relationship advice for a friend, maybe a little guidance on fashion and relationships—and that was it. But somehow, a month later, Bella’s so tangled up in Edward that she can’t see straight, and she’s got a fucking cat.
Bella slides down the wall and sits next to the door, wondering what the hell has just happened.
At first, she let herself think it was just a crush—that it was some purely physical thing related to proximity or chance or the phase of the moon—and if she chose to ignore it, the infatuation would fade.
But then, as she and Edward became friends, grew closer, spent more time together, it became clear that nothing was fading.
In fact, this thing—which Bella still refused to label—just kept growing.
Yes, she wants Edward, recognizes that he’s an attractive guy and has a mental list of inappropriate things she’d like very much to do to him, but, if Bella is actually being honest with herself, she knows it’s more than that.
It’s not just lust or attraction.
Because Bella’s seen more of Edward these past few weeks than any of her friends or family, and she’s grown used to it—to being the center of Edward’s attention, to being the recipient of his affection, to being the focus of his concentration.
Somewhere along the way, she forgot the real reason for that and let herself enjoy it.

Chapter 76

It felt completely normal to lead Edward around the department store, picking out presents for his mom and family members, and it was only when Edward mentioned Angela coming to visit him that Bella realized how far gone she is regarding her feelings for Edward.
Because she doesn’t want Angela hanging around Edward’s family, visiting Edward’s hometown, staying at his house.
She doesn’t want it to be Angela doing those things, because she wants it to be her.
She wants to see Edward’s favorite parts of Chicago, to see the house he grew up in, watch his family open their presents on Christmas and exchange a grin with Edward when his mom loves the scarf.
She wants it to be her that Edward introduces to his parents, her that Edward holds hands with under the table, her that Edward wants and loves.
That’s pretty fucking scary, because Bella’s never let herself really invest in anyone.
She can advise someone on how to make a relationship work, she knows the basic steps and goals, but she’s never been able to fit herself into the equation. She’s never been able to just throw herself into anything the way Edward does, and her inability to give all of herself pushes people away and is obviously, a lack of trust issue.
She always keeps some part of her back for herself, something she can’t afford to give away, and at a certain point in every relationship, weeks or months or even a year in, it becomes a problem that she can’t let go of that one last bit of distance.
Yet somehow, with Edward, she let go without even knowing it.

Chapter 77

Bella just offered everything she had to give like it was a gift on a silver platter, and Edward took it. He knows things about her that no one else in the world does—some are stupid, inane little details, but some are things she couldn’t say to anyone else.
Somehow, with Edward, the words just came out, without Bella’s intention or permission, and Edward, being himself, just listened, no matter if she was confessing to her weird aversion to clothing with stripes on it or a childhood fear of getting lost that still leaves her a little shaky when pressed into tight crowds at a concert or fire drill.
It’s like all of her has been turned inside out, visible for everyone to see, nothing hidden anymore.
It’s terrifying.
And it hurts like hell, because no one’s ever done this to her before, no one’s laid her open like this and really seen her, and it’s all for nothing, because he’s never going to feel the same way.
Edward doesn’t even know.
He’s worked his way so deep into her life, so far under her skin, that he’s literally all she can think about, and yet he has no idea and definitely doesn’t feel the same way about her.
He’s blissfully focused on Angela, and other than a kiss that went on a little too long and that comment about her ass, Bella has no reason to believe Edward has any feelings for her other than friendship.
This is the first time in her life that she’s ever been able to lose that protective distance, to actually admit that she wants something—needs it, even—and it doesn’t even matter, because she can’t have it. It’s completely unattainable.
He’s her friend, nothing more, and it doesn’t matter that her life has aligned with that Mariah Carey Christmas song and all she wants this year—more than anything she’s ever wanted before—is Edward, because he is not hers to have.
It’s all for nothing, because he is never going to love her back.
Smudge reappears, rubbing his silky head against her clenched fingers and purring loudly, and she uncurls her fist to pick him up, tucking Smudge’s little furry body against her chest. She can feel Smudge’s heartbeat against her skin, small and quick, and she counts the beats, matching it with her breathing, ignoring the messy, painful rhythm in her own chest and the wetness she feels on her cheeks.

Chapter 78

"Edward? Is something wrong?"
"Huh?" Edward looks up from his plate, which he’s spent the last ten minutes transforming into a food forest. Stalks of broccoli are planted in mashed potatoes around a gravy lake, and Edward’s in the middle of poking the last of his roast beef into a cabin-like shape. It’s pretty awesome, as far as food sculptures go, but from Angela’s tone, she’s not impressed.
"I’ve been talking for the past five minutes, but I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said."
"Sorry," he sighs, setting down his fork. Normally, when he’s with Angela, he’s listening eagerly to every word she says, looking for an opportunity to show her how attentive and interested he is, but today it’s not happening. "I’m just kind of…"
"Distracted?" Angela fills in. "Yeah, I can tell. Also, possibly depressed to the point of dying, because I’ve never seen you leave food on your plate before."
Edward flushes. "That obvious, huh?"
Angela nods sympathetically. "Did something happen with Bella?"
Edward blinks, a little taken aback. "How did you—"
She shrugs. "Well, normally, you talk about her all the time, but you haven’t mentioned her at all in the past few days. Then there’s the distracted and depressed part. It seemed likely the two were related."
Edward sighs. "Yeah, we had a fight. Well, kind of. I don’t even know what went wrong, but Bella won’t answer her phone and I have no idea what I did or if I even did anything at all. And I have no idea what to do about it."
Angela blinks. "So she got mad at you and didn’t say why and now she won’t talk to you?"
"Pretty much."
"And you don’t even know if it’s because of you?"
"Nope," Edward says.

Chapter 79

"I mean, I know I can be kind of clueless sometimes, but I’ve gone over the whole thing a million times, and I can’t think of anything I did or said that would piss her off. It was just a random conversation, and then she was yelling and storming off." He sighs. "I don’t know. Maybe she’s just in a bad mood, and she’ll get over it on her own. I’m just not sure what to do. We’ve never fought before."
"Never?" Angela asks, raising her eyebrows in disbelief.
"We’ve only known each other for a little more than a month," Edward points out. "We haven’t had time to get mad yet."
"A month?" Angela repeats. "Wait, what?"
"Yeah," Edward says, unsure why that’s surprising. "I met her right after you and I had our first date. Why?"
"I just thought you’d known each other for years," Angela says. "I mean, the way you talk about her, it’s like—"
"Like what?"
She shakes her head. "I don’t know. Never mind." She folds her arms on the table. "Anyway. Maybe it’s not even you she’s angry at. Or maybe she’s not angry at all."
"Then what could it be about? I was just talking about going home for Christmas when it happened."
Angela shrugs, taking a sip of her water. "What’s Bella doing for Christmas?"
"She’s hanging out with Emmett and his wife for part of the day," Edward says. "Other than that, I don’t know. Probably not a lot."
"Maybe she’s a little bit jealous," Angela suggests. "You’re going home and seeing your family, and she’s hanging out with a friend." She shrugs. "Holidays without your family can be hard. Nobody wants to be alone this time of year, after all. Maybe she’s lonely."
Edward takes a moment to mull that over.

Chapter 80

It would make sense if Bella isn’t actually mad at him, but the more Edward thinks about it, the more he actually kind of hopes Bella is mad at him for something he did.
The truth is, if Bella is upset about him leaving and taking Angela and having Christmas at home with his family—because she’s lonely—that makes Edward’s chest hurt in a way that’s completely unrelated to anger, for one thing, and for another, he has no idea how to fix that.
He doesn’t really know to fix Bella being mad at him, either, but he hasn’t tried everything yet.
He doesn't want to push, but if it came down to it, he’d be outside her door with enough food to last him the weekend, and he wouldn’t leave until she told him what was going on and how he could make it right.
This, on the other hand, he’s pretty sure can’t be solved by camping out or stalking.

Chapter 81

They’ve only talked about Bella’s love life once, after all, and she wasn’t exactly forthcoming, so he has no idea what issues Bella may have, or what reasons for being single.
As far as he can tell, from what he knows of her, there really aren’t any good reasons.
Bella’s gorgeous, for one thing—it’s not hard to miss, especially the way she turns heads whenever they’re out in public—and besides that, she’s a nice person and a good friend.
Edward was a little wary of her at first, the way Bella was all no-nonsense and distantly polite, but it didn’t take long to discover that under that uptight Type A personality, Bella’s a lot more.
Smart, funny, and compassionate, for a start—for all that she pretended to complain, she was there any time he needed her, making endless batches of Italian food or watching his dogs or giving guidance during an early-morning freakout.
If she’s willing to do all that for Edward, just for a favor, then he can’t imagine why people aren’t lining up to date her. Plus, she’s better at cooking than Edward—or at least better at following directions—and extremely organized and really nice.
What more could someone ask for?
She’s even a good kisser.
Edward probably shouldn’t be thinking about that, but the thing is, he’s kind of had trouble not thinking about it lately. He just wanted to make sure he was doing everything right, and he’s always learned better from doing, not listening, so it made sense that this could just be another thing that Bella taught him.
But then somewhere in the middle Edward forgot that he was pretending to kiss Angela and just started to kiss Bella. He couldn’t help it—no matter what he was telling himself in his head, his body recognized it was Bella, and at some point he realized that not only was that fact not impairing his enjoyment, it was sort of increasing it.
It was one thing to recognize, in a sort of vague way, that Bella’s attractive. It’s completely another to figure out he’s attracted to her while sticking his tongue down her throat. Especially since they’re just friends for God’s sake, and Bella was just helping him out.

Chapter 82

Then there’s the part where Edward hasn’t quite been able to stop thinking about it, because he’d never really thought about kissing her before, but even if he had, he’s pretty sure that kiss was beyond anything he could have imagined.
If the damned cat hadn’t bitten him, he’s pretty sure he would have been perfectly content to make out with Bella for a couple hours at least, until he was satisfied that he knew every single detail of her mouth.
Actually, it’s probably a good thing they stopped, because he was kind of unexpectedly turned on by the whole thing, and she really didn’t need to know that because, again, awkward.
That might have even been okay except the next night, when he was supposed to be putting the moves on Angela, he was having a little trouble concentrating. He tried to kiss her. Her lips were soft and pliant under his, and she was definitely saying yes, so he must have been doing something right, but it just wasn’t the same—not what he was expecting—and shit.
He was not supposed to be thinking about someone else while making out with the ‘woman of his dreams’. She was a little miffed when he pushed away and wanted to stop, actually, but Edward thought going any further while distracted was a really bad idea.

Chapter 83

Bella’s awesome, that much is clear, and if someone as—apparently—clueless as Edward is, can see that, he has no idea how she hasn’t been snatched up already.
She said she wasn’t looking, the one time they talked about it, and he has no clue what that means—that Bella’s getting over a bad relationship, or she’s given up on love, or whatever—but either way, it all still boils down to the same thing.
Bella’s unhappy, and Edward doesn’t know how to help.
Inundating her with his presence doesn’t seem likely to help, if she’s not angry, so he just does the only thing he can think of, which is calling her. Angela’s texting someone on her own phone, anyway, and she just waves him off when he tells her, so he heads outside the café and leans against the wall while he dials.
It goes straight to voicemail, no surprise, so Edward leaves a short message.
He’s left a dozen already, all variations of "Hey, I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’m sorry if I did something, please call me," so this time he keeps it short and sweet. "Hey, Bella. I’m going to be flying out to Chicago on Friday, and I just really want to talk to you before then. We don’t have to talk about what happened, okay? I just want to make sure that you’re…I just don’t want to leave with things like this. Okay. Talk to you soon, hopefully."
It doesn’t solve anything, but somehow he feels a little better, just for having done something. He goes back into the restaurant. Angela looks up when he comes in, and smiles when he sits down. "So. You said you had something to ask me?"
"Right," Edward says, and takes a deep breath. "Well, the thing is, I had this idea about you and Christmas. I know it’s short notice, but…"

Chapter 84

Bella’s at Emmett’s when her phone beeps with a new voicemail. She ignores it, but Emmett looks up from the hockey game they’re watching. "Your phone’s making noise again."
"I know."
"And you’re not going to see who it is?"
"I know who it is," she sighs.
"Then why aren’t you answering?"
"Because it’s not someone I’m interested in talking to, obviously," Bella says irritably. "Can we be done with the interrogation now?"
Emmett slants her an inscrutable look, then nods. "Fine. If you get me another beer."
Bella sighs, but gets up anyways.
It’s worth walking to the kitchen and back to avoid awkward questions about why she’s not taking Edward’s calls anymore. Especially because her main reason for not picking up is that she doesn’t know if she can handle the awkwardness that’s certain to follow.

Chapter 85

When she gets back with two beers, Emmett’s got her phone open and he’s scrolling through the call logs. "Give that back," Bella demands, putting the beers down before quickly reaching for it.
"No," Emmett replies, leaning away and pushing her back. "Not until you tell me what’s going on."
"Nothing’s going on," she replies defensively, lunging for the phone again.
"Right," he says sarcastically, standing to move away. "That’s why Edward’s called you thirty-two times over the past week and left you ten voicemails… but I’m sure it’s nothing."
"Fine, it’s not nothing," she admits. "But whatever’s going on between Edward and me is none of your business." She knows she’s being a bitch, but she can’t help it.
Emmett stops her with a hand on her shoulder. "Bell, you come over here looking like shit and acting like you want to roll over and die, whatever’s going on is sure as hell my business." His face softens a little, concern replacing seriousness. "You look like you haven’t slept or eaten in a week, and I just want to help."
Bella sighs, anger draining away as quickly as it appeared, and drops back onto the couch. "I know. And I appreciate it, but you can’t help with this."
"Maybe not," he admits. "But keeping it all to yourself isn’t helping, either."
Bella sighs again. "Fine. It’s just—I made a stupid mistake. I mean, I knew Edward was totally gone for Angela from the very beginning. I knew it before I even met him, for Christ’s sake. And I helped him get a date with her, and gave him advice on how to get her to love him back." She pauses, staring down at her feet. "But we were spending all this time together, and we got to be friends, and I… I let him get to me."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, he’s got this totally perfect girlfriend he wants to fly home for Christmas, to meet his family, and I should be happy for him."
"But you’re not," Emmett finishes for her. "You’re miserable."
"I thought it was just a stupid crush," she mumbles. "Just one of those stupid, pointless infatuations that’re there and gone in a couple days. But it didn’t go away; it just kept getting worse, and then he kissed me, and I realized I didn’t want Angela to meet his family, because I don’t want him to be with her at all, because I want, I’m… it’s just… fuck—"
"You’re—oh," Emmett says, his voice changing completely. "Oh. Fuck, Bell."
"Yeah," she agrees, dropping her head into her hands.
"Sorry. That’s… that just really sucks."

Chapter 86

There’s a long minute where the only sounds are the screech of the ref’s whistle on the TV and Rosalie humming in another room.
Finally, Emmett sighs. "So you’re just going to ignore him forever?"
"Not forever," she says. "Just… for now."
Emmett snorts. "That’s mature."
"I can’t talk to him right now," she sighs. "He’s all happy about Angela, and I can’t pretend that I am, too."
"Bella, the guy has called you thirty times in the past week," he points out. "I think it’s safe to say he’s worried about you, not looking for an opportunity to gush about his girlfriend."
She shrugs.
"You can’t just pretend he doesn’t exist," he says, exasperated. "That’s not fair to him, Bella."
"None of this is fair!" she explodes. "You think it’s fair that I fell for the guy I was supposed to be getting some other girl to fall for?" She sighs, shaking her head. "This is why I don’t get involved, because it always ends up being one huge fucking mess."
"You can’t choose who you care about," Emmett says. "But what you do about it is your choice. You’re the one who told me that."
Any reply Bella may have had is interrupted by her phone ringing. Emmett’s still got it in his hand, and he glances down at the display before looking up at Bella. "It’s Edward."
Bella closes her eyes, but after a second she reaches out to take the phone, standing to move away from Emmett.

Chapter 87

"Hey, Edward."
"Hey," he replies, sounding surprised. "I didn’t think you were going to answer."
"Yeah, sorry about that," she says sheepishly. "I, uh… I haven’t really been feeling that great lately, so I had my phone off for a while."
"Oh, no. Are you okay?"
"I’m fine," she lies.
"Are you sure? I could come over, if you need some company. Or I could bring you some soup, or something. I know I suck at cooking, but I’m really good with can openers and microwaves."
Bella closes her eyes as Edward talks. She’s not really lying—she’s felt like crap the whole week—but the genuine concern in Edward’s voice is just making things worse, increasing the ache in her chest. "No, I’m good."
"You sure?"
"Yeah. I’m actually over at Emmett’s right now, so he’s making sure I don’t die of dehydration or whatever."
"Oh," Edward says. "Okay. Well, he’s probably better at the whole nourishment thing than me, anyway, but just let me know if you need anything, all right? I don’t leave until Friday afternoon, so you’ve got three days to change your mind."
"And Bella," Edward pauses for a second. "Just in case I don’t see you before then, Merry Christmas. Have a good time with Emmett, okay?"
"Yeah, you too," Bella replies. She wants to just leave it at that, but some perverse instinct prevents her from just hanging up. She has to know. "So, is Angela coming out there with you?"
"Yeah," Edward says, and Bella can hear the smile in his voice, bright and wide. "I asked her earlier today, and she said yes."
Bella bites her lip until she can trust herself to speak. "Hey, that’s great."
"Well, it’s all thanks to you," Edward says. "If you’d left it up to me I’dve probably serenaded her from outside her window, and she’d have thought I was a creepy stalker and gotten a restraining order."
Bella winces at the reminder that this is all her fault. "Yeah, no problem. Look, I should probably go."
"Okay," Edward says. "Just…Bella?"
"Are you sure you’re okay? You sound funny. Upset, kind of."
Bella lets out a breath. "I’m fine. Just not feeling great."
"Sorry, I should let you go. Call me if you need anything, okay? Anytime."
She swallows hard. "Okay. See you."
When she hangs up and turns around, Emmett’s not even pretending not to listen. He takes one look at her face and holds out the beer she brought him.

Chapter 88

Two days later, Edward can’t get his conversation with Bella out of his head.
He should be thinking about things like flights and getting the dogs ready for the kennel and how the hell he’s going to fit all the gifts he bought into his suitcase without spending all of Christmas naked, but instead, all he can think about is Bella.
Their conversation was supposed to reassure Edward—he’d been worried about her, after all, since he had no idea what was going on or why she was even upset—but while Bella said all the right things, including several times that she was fine, Edward can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong.
Bella wasn’t herself on the phone.
She didn’t respond to any of his attempts at humor or sarcasm, and there was something in her voice—something that was just off—that sparked a flare of worry deep in the pit of his stomach.
She didn’t sound sick, no scratchy voice or congestion, she just seemed tired and—well, the only word Edward can think of to describe it is resigned.
Like people are sometimes when he has to tell them that their elderly pets probably won’t be around much longer, or that there’s not much he can do to help an older pet’s failing health. There’s hurt there, and sometimes fear, but not surprise. They know, deep down, that it’s inevitable.
Edward has absolutely no idea why she would be feeling like that, since she’s young and healthy and not a pet, and trying to figure it out is driving him crazy.
She hasn’t called him since they talked, and he’s had to stop himself more than once from just picking up his keys and going over to her apartment to check up on her, because if Bella’s hurt or sick or needs something, then Edward should be there.
He wants to be there.
He wants to do whatever it takes to make her feel better, and even if he can’t help or fix anything, he just wants to be there, anyway, because anything’s better than sitting here worrying.

Chapter 89

He’s eyeing his keys again, trying to remind himself of all his reasons not to drive to her place—like a) he hasn’t been invited, b) Bella could be sleeping or not want company, and c) it borders dangerously close on stalking—and completely failing—because a and b have never stopped him before, and he’s not going to peep in any windows or anything, at least not unless she doesn’t open the door—when his phone rings.
It’s Angela, and she sounds irritated. "Edward, you promised to email me that travel info yesterday."
Oh, yeah. Oops. "Sorry. I was going to do it right after work, but then I got kind of distracted." For a second there, he’d totally forgotten that Angela was even coming with him to Chicago.
"Okay, but now I have no idea if we’re even on the same plane or not. The flights are all really crowded, so I had to take the first open seat I found."
"I’m sure it’ll be fine," he says. "We’ll work something out." Maybe he can stop by Bella’s on the way to the airport, and ask her to check up on the dogs while he’s gone. They’re crazy about her, after all, so it wouldn’t be a weird request. And then Edward can make sure Bella is okay, and it won’t be as creepy as just showing up without a reason.
"Edward? Hello?"
"Oh, sorry," he sighs, realizing Angela’s been talking this whole time. "I didn’t hear you. What were you saying?"
"Is something going on?" Angela asks. "You seem really preoccupied."
"I’m just kind of worried about Bella," he admits. "I talked to her a couple days ago, but she didn’t sound good."
Angela sighs. "Edward? I’m… I don’t think this is a good idea."
Edward blinks. "What, talking about Bella?"
She huffs. "Well… I think you’re… just never mind. No, I mean me going home with you… it’s not a good idea."
"Oh," he says, after a second.
"It just seems a little fast," Angela continues. "I like you, Edward, but I’m not sure we should be doing this right now. Maybe we should just… slow things down a little."
From the tone of her voice, he gets the feeling that by ‘things,’ she means their entire relationship, and that ‘slow’ is more like a really nice way to say ‘end.’

Chapter 90

Edward waits for the panic and hurt to hit, for that heart-sinking, soul-crushing despair and devastation that’s bound to follow the woman of his dreams walking all over said dreams and dumping him five days before Christmas, but… it doesn’t come.
Strangely enough, he doesn’t feel much of anything at the moment.
He supposes it could be shock, but he’s not particularly surprised by the announcement. Mostly, he just feels like he knew this was going to have to happen sometime.
He and Angela do have some things in common, but for the most part, they’re very different people.
Their senses of humor are miles apart—Angela never laughs at his lame jokes and he misses her more subtle ones—and she gets embarrassed much more easily than him, preferring to ignore something going wrong rather than laugh at her own mistakes the way he does.
Their friends are different, their hobbies are different, their career paths are different, and sometimes it feels like they spend more time trying to find commonalities than they do enjoying each other's company.
She’s a wonderful girl—she’s everything he thought she was at the beginning, smart and funny and beautiful and nice—but the two of them just don’t fit the way Edward desperately wanted them to.
He’s always questioning himself around her, trying to be what he thinks she wants him to be, and he’s never really sure if he lives up to her standards or not. Angela never seems quite comfortable around him, like she’s a perpetual visitor to his life, and he feels the same in hers—he doesn’t fit.
He doesn’t mesh, and maybe they could work on that, but the only solution Edward sees is for one of them to change, to reshape themselves to match the other’s expectations, and he has to wonder if the time and effort would even be worth it.
Because the thing is, there’s a place he does fit.

Chapter 91

There’s a person who shares his sense of humor, his friends, his interests, and slid into Edward’s life like there was a place just waiting for her to fill it. It took him a while to wear down the walls Bella has—they weren’t immediate friends, and it still took a while before she would just relax and be herself around him—but now he feels like they’ve known each other forever, that they can talk about anything.
They’re comfortable in each other’s lives, like they are meant to be there.
Bella’s given him all kinds of advice on how to change—how to be the boyfriend Angela wanted, the person he thought he should be—but Bella doesn’t care if Edward can’t cook to save his life. She may roll her eyes at one of Edward’s unique shirts or tease him for considering sandals an all-purpose shoe, but she’d never expect Edward to dress or act a certain way around her.
Angela clears her throat, and Edward realizes his little epiphany must have taken up a good amount of awkward silence. "Oh. Sorry," he says. "Um, I think you’re right about the slowing down thing."
"You do?" she asks, sounding a little shocked.
"Yeah," he agrees. "There’s some stuff I need to think about, and some time apart would probably be good."
"Oh. Okay. Well, do you want to call me after the holidays, then?"
"Sure," he lies. "Have a great Christmas, okay? Talk to you later."
"You too," Angela says, still sounding bewildered. "Bye."

Chapter 92

Edward’s already onto the thinking part, because the thing is, a month ago, he would have been ecstatic about Angela coming home to meet his family. He’d probably have been calling her five times a day to remind her, and calling his mom another five to make sure everything was perfect at home, and being so nervous and excited that he couldn’t sleep.
Instead, he forgot he was even going to ask her until she reminded him, and then it slipped his mind that she was even coming, and the reason for that was because he was thinking about Bella.
Bella, who he kissed.
Who he was thinking about when kissing Angela.
Who mocks him for his bad fashion choices and devotion to his dogs, but also spends an hour on the phone calming his nervous insecurities or three nights trying to make the perfect cannelloni, if Edward needs it.
Bella, who looks at him sometimes like she can’t believe Edward is really that weird, but always with a hint of a smile behind her scornful look, like she just doesn’t want to admit that she likes it.
Bella, who will sometimes, if you catch her off-guard, smile without any cynicism or sarcasm, just a genuine, bright grin that crinkles her eyes at the corners and causes something warm to stir in Edward’s stomach, making it impossible not to smile back.
Bella, who’s gorgeous, and a good kisser and a good friend and gets Edward better than Angela, through no fault of her own, ever will.
So Edward’s feeling pretty good about Bella, after the thinking led him to that conclusion, but the problem is, he has almost no idea if Bella feels the same about him. He knows Bella looks at him sometimes, eyes catching on his hands or mouth like she doesn’t even notice she’s doing it, and there have been a few times when Bella’s gazed at him for just a second too long, like time skipped a beat, and there was a hint of something in her eyes—a nameless something that may be more than just friendship or affection.

Chapter 93

Then there’s the time they kissed.
Edward’s pretty sure he wasn’t the only one affected by that little moment—Bella started out barely responding, but by the time they were interrupted, she was arching up into Edward, pulling him closer at the hips, and when he pulled away, she was flushed and breathing just as hard as him.
Remembering that moment is what seals the deal for Edward.
A few looks and a maybe-practice kiss aren’t a lot to go by, but he’s not Bella—he doesn’t need a detailed plan and diagrams to do something.
All he needs is a gut feeling and a healthy dose of hope, and he’s got both of those in spades right now.
So he doesn’t think about it, he just moves.
His every instinct is telling him to get to Bella, to find out if there’s any chance the feeling might be mutual, so he grabs his keys, gets in his car, and goes.

Chapter 94

The door buzzer wakes Bella from a nap, and she only pauses a second to take in her surroundings before rolling off the couch and stumbling blearily to the door.
She’s still waking up, so it takes her longer than it should to realize exactly who the person standing outside her door is. When it finally does sink in, she blinks. "Edward? What are you doing here?"
He smiles a little. "Talking to you, obviously."
Bella rolls her eyes. "No, I mean, shouldn’t you be packing or planning or something? Don’t you leave for Chicago soon?"
He rubs the back of his neck, looking away. "Actually, no. Change of plans." He takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly like he’s working up his courage, then meets Bella’s eyes. "Angela’s not coming to Chicago. We broke up."
Bella stares for a second, barely able to comprehend something so surprising, before her brain flips on and she realizes just how bad this is. "Edward, fuck." She pulls the door all the way open, dragging Edward inside by the hand. "I’m so sorry. Are you okay?"
He comes easily, trailing her into her living room. "I don’t… I’m not really sure."
Of course he isn’t… what a stupid question.
The guy’s clearly heartbroken.
Bella pushes his shoulder, urging him to sit on the couch, and settles cross-legged on the cushion next to him. "What happened?"
Edward shrugs, picking at the loose threads at the edge of the cushion. "Nothing, really. We just both realized it wasn’t really working. She thought things were going too fast, so we agreed that we should take some time off to figure out if this is what we really want."
"Wait, what?" she asks, frowning. "You agreed to take some time off? Edward, you’re so in love with this woman that you’d have already proposed if I hadn’t banned you from jewelry stores. You didn’t even try to change her mind?" She’s still kind of fuzzy from her nap, but even she can see the total disconnect between what Edward’s saying and his obvious devotion to Angela.

Chapter 95

Bella can’t say that she’s really sad that Edward and Angela broke up, because she’s never thought they were that great together, but that doesn’t matter now. Edward is head over heels for Angela, and she has to suck it up and help him get her back.
"Yeah, that’s kind of the other part," Edward says, looking up at Bella from under his eyelashes.
She sighs and leans back a little, scrubbing her hand through tousled hair. "What other part?"
He doesn’t answer right away, eyes cutting away again, and she’s about to ask him again when she realizes exactly where Edward’s looking.
Bella’s in casual clothes, a pair of baggy sweats and an old t-shirt that shrunk in the wash a while back, and when she reached up, her shirt rose accordingly, leaving a few inches of her stomach above her pants bare, and Edward’s gaze is fixed on that small strip of skin.
Bella shifts hastily, letting her shirt fall back down, because that’s not what’s supposed to happen.
Edward isn’t supposed to look when she inadvertently shows a little skin—Edward’s not even supposed to blink, because he’s in love with another woman, even if that relationship’s a little… complicated… at the moment. He’s sure as hell not supposed to look up at Bella like that, heat and want in his eyes.
"I’ve kind of been thinking about someone else," he confesses, his eyes not leaving hers.
Bella’s mouth is suddenly very dry. "You… you have?"
"Yeah," he says softly, laughing a little. "It’s stupid… I’m stupid that I didn’t notice at first, because I’d never felt anything like that about anyone before. But when you’re kissing the girl who’s supposed to be the ‘woman of your dreams’ and all you can think about is kissing someone else, you have to admit something’s not right."
Hope blossoms in her chest, easing the dull ache that’s taken up residence since she last saw Edward, but she reins it in, making sure it doesn’t show on her face, because this is her heart on the line here, and she has to be sure. "Edward, what are you saying?"
Edward swallows nervously, clenching his hands together in front of him, but his gaze stays steady on her. "I’m saying that I’m attracted to you. I have been for a while, and I like you, really a lot, and I think that we could be more than just friends." He swallows again. "I want us to be more than friends." He bites his lip. "And I’m wondering if there’s any possibility that you feel the same. If there’s any chance you’re willing to try… If… if you feel something for me too."
Bella realizes that he should probably think that over, consider the risks to admitting her feelings, give it a moment to settle so her thoughts are clear and she can make a rational, logical decision.
But she’s never been good at following her own advice, so instead she kisses Edward.

Chapter 96

Edward makes a startled noise at suddenly having Bella so near, her mouth pressed against his and their noses brushing as she pushes closer, but it shifts lower into a moan when she nips lightly at his lower lip.
His mouth slips open on a gasp, and then their tongues are touching cautiously, meeting and sliding against each other as she gently explores his mouth, learning him like she advised him, what feels like a million years ago.
Edward makes another little noise at the back of his throat when Bella coaxes his tongue into her mouth and sucks, but then he’s pulling back, taking a harsh breath. She follows him unconsciously, but he leans back. "Um," he says. "Should I take that as a yes?"
She blinks. "You seriously have to ask me that?"
He grins, his lopsided smirk flashing. "Just wanted to be sure," he teases, sliding a hand around the back of her neck and dragging her back to his mouth.
That’s more than fine with Bella, who’s pretty sure kissing Edward just became her favorite activity in the entire world, even surpassing necessary things like eating or sleeping or breathing.
She knew Edward was a good kisser from that other time, but they’d barely gotten started then when they were interrupted, and she wasn’t exactly in the right state of mind to enjoy it before.
Now, though, when she doesn’t have to worry about Angela or Edward inadvertently finding out how she feels, she can relax and enjoy the experience, and fuck, she’s really enjoying it. Edward keeps making those little noises every time she does something he likes, whether it’s a rough swipe of tongue along his teeth or a thumb brushing the hollow under his jaw, and she’s quickly addicted, seeking out hot spots to earn another sound.
Edward, for his part, cups the back of her head with warm palms, rubbing thumbs behind her ears, sliding his hands to her hips and growling, "Come closer."
He pulls hard, and she has to plant a knee on either side of his hips to avoid completely overbalancing and ending up on the floor. The movement leaves her straddling Edward’s lap, and the worn sweats she’s wearing provide only the thinnest barrier against the heat and rough material of Edward’s jeans.
She shifts experimentally, sliding a little closer, and even if his hands hadn’t clamped tight on her hips at the movement, the hard heat against her thigh makes it pretty clear just how much he’s also enjoying their makeout session.

Chapter 97

Edward’s hands slide around to span her lower back, holding her in place, then they slip under the hem of her t-shirt, brushing bare skin as they glide up.
Bella’s responding before she can think, arms going over her head. His hands are all over her, in an instant stroking up and down her back and chest like he wants to touch every inch of her, and all Bella can think is that she should return the favor.
She’s got his fingers tangled in the buttons of Edward’s shirt when his hands land on her ass, aligning her just right across his lap and rocking them together.
The sudden rush of pleasure is a shock to her system, and the sharp breath she takes suddenly brings into clear focus exactly what they’re doing. Or, more specifically, where they’re heading, at roughly the speed of a runaway locomotive.
"Edward," she says breathlessly. "Hey, Edward."
"Mm," he replies, lining kisses down her jaw and neck.
"Hold… uh, hold on a sec," she pants, pushing at his chest.
Edward leans back obediently, and Bella almost forgets what she’s supposed to say when she takes in the sight, his hair tousled around his flushed face and his lips pink and slick with spit. She swallows hard. "Um. We should slow down."
It comes out like a question more than a statement, and Edward raises his eyebrows. "We should?"
"Yeah," she says, more firmly this time. "You just broke up with Angela and figured out you’re attracted to me. We should just… take it easy." She rubs her thumb along her bottom lip, which is still wet and tingling.
Edward’s eyes track the movement, and he looks up at her with a hint of incredulity. "Take it easy? I haven’t gotten laid in a long time, Bella, and you’re sitting here grinding on my lap and you want me to take it easy?"
She knows what he means, because sitting in Edward’s lap is making it difficult for her to remember why they’re even having this conversation. Her heart knows exactly what it wants to be doing right now, and it sure as hell doesn’t involve talking. But Bella has to say something, because she’s done with assumptions and misunderstandings. "I know. But just a few days ago you were in love with Angela, and—"
"I only thought I was in love with Angela," Edward corrects. "Cleary I didn’t even know what love was until I figured out how I feel about you, because I never felt anything for her like I do for you."

Chapter 98

"Fine, you only thought you loved her," Bella says. "But this—you and me—I can’t just be casual about it. This last week, not seeing you or talking to you, it was—" She shakes her head. "I can’t just be an experiment or your rebound fuck. I won’t, I deserve better than that. I deserve all of you, or I don’t want any of you at all."
Edward’s eyes soften, and he rubs a thumb gently along her hipbone. "I know. And you’re not. You could never be that to me. I don’t want something casual, or a rebound or experiment." He sighs. "And I know you—I know that you want some kind of proof or a guarantee—but I can’t give you any. You’re just going to have to trust me on this, okay?" His voice drops an octave, and he pins her with his gaze. "I know what I want. What I’ve wanted, and I’m stupid for not seeing it sooner. But I want you Bella… only you."
Desire is plain in his eyes, heated enough to make her shiver, but there’s something else there, something steady and solid behind it, and it’s that unnamed reassurance that makes Bella nod and breathe, "Okay."
"Good. Can we please have sex now?" he asks bluntly. "Because I think I might die if we don’t."
Bella laughs. "Well, I don’t want to be responsible for your death. I guess we’re just going to have to."
"Oh, thank God," he grins, pulling her down for another searing kiss.

Chapter 99

Bella finishes what she started earlier with Edward’s shirt, urging him forward to pull it off, then slides her hands down to the front of his jeans.
She wants to explore all the newly-bared skin in front of her, to learn every inch of it and map the spots that are ticklish or sensitive, but right now she agrees with Edward—they need to take the edge off.
Besides, there’ll be more time for exploration later.
Just knowing that this won’t be the only time, knowing that Edward wants this and the two of them can—theoretically—have all the sex they want, floods Bella with heat, and she makes quick work of the button and zipper, pushing denim and cotton aside so she can take Edward’s cock in her hand.
Edward moans and bucks up beneath her, encouragements and exclamations falling from his mouth as she experiments with pressure and speed.
It’s intoxicating, and when an idea comes to her, she doesn’t even think about it, just backs off the couch onto the floor and pulls Edward forward to the edge of the cushion, dragging his jeans and boxers down to his ankles before sliding her lips over Edward’s cock.
He groans, "Oh, Fuck," and Bella barely has time to get comfortable, slipping lips and tongue around the head and sliding down farther to suck, before he’s jerking his hips and coming.
Bella swallows as best as she can without much warning, wiping the excess from her mouth with her hand.
Edward sprawls back on the couch. "I thought you said you didn’t want to kill me," he says breathlessly.
She climbs back on top of him and giving a short, smacking kiss. "I lied."

Chapter 100

She doesn’t move to take it any further, not sure if he wants to taste her lips after she’s had a mouthful of his cum, but he makes a protesting noise, drawing her back in, and kissing her thoroughly, tasting Bella and himself eagerly.
Then he’s sliding a cautious hand down her stomach and under the waistband of her sweats, dipping his fingers into her soaked folds, and she reaches down to help, shoving the pants down over her hips.
Edward’s hands are huge, all wide palms and long fingers, and she’s had more than one impure thought about how they’d feel on certain parts of her anatomy. This feels even better than she imagined, though, and it’s not long before she’s arching into his hand and coming over his fingers.
After a few minutes of silence where they both catch their breaths and process what just happened, Bella says, "We should move soon."
Edward squirms a little beneath her. "Yeah. I can’t actually feel my legs right now. I think all circulation below my waist has been cut off."
"Dude, why didn’t you say something?" Bella asks, starting to shift her weight.
"Because I don’t care," Edward says, keeping her in place with firm hands at her hips. "Besides, it could just be because this was the hottest thing to ever happen to me. Maybe your blowjobs are just so awesome they blew all the fuses in my brain."
She snorts into his neck. "I’m trying really hard not to make the obvious joke here."
"I’m going to have to check out that book from the library—what was it called again? Something about blowing his mind in bed? I’ll have to see if they have something like that in a men’s magazine—so I can return the favor."
"Or we could just have a lot of sex," she suggests. "I’ll let you practice on me whenever you want."
"Mm, generous," he smiles dropping a kiss on the corner of her mouth.
"That’s me." Bella stretches, groaning a little at the pull of tight muscles. "Come on, I need to clean up."

Chapter 101

Bella stands, yanking up her sweats, and heads for the bathroom. Edward appears in the doorway a few seconds later, and Bella tosses the damp washcloth in the hamper before pushing him toward the bedroom.
Her bed’s messy and unmade, pillows scattered from a sleepless night, but she doesn’t care. She flops down on the mattress and stretches out, watching out of the corner of her eye as Edward once again strips down to boxers.
He’s just climbing on the bed when there’s an irritated squawk and Smudge’s head pokes up from behind a pillow, where he’s apparently been napping.
"Shit," Edward says, backing away. "I don’t need another bite from you, dude."
Bella tries to pick the kitten up and move him to the floor, but Smudge squirms out of her hands and makes a beeline for Edward, tail waving high behind him.
He pulls his feet back and covers his crotch protectively, making Bella snicker, but Smudge only sniffs at his knee delicately before looking up at him.
Edward looks back, raising his eyebrows, and Smudge, apparently satisfied, squints his eyes and rubs his head against Edward’s knee, purring loudly.
"What the hell?" he asks, offering a tentative hand and watching Smudge arch into it like it’s an amazing massage.
Bella yawns, turning her face into the pillow. "Guess he likes you now. Or he’s happy I got to have a mind blowing orgasm."
He laughs. "What a good little kitty." Then the bed dips, and he’s stretched out behind her, warm and solid, and she relaxes into sleep without a second thought.

Chapter 102

When Bella wakes up a few hours later, it’s dark outside, and Edward’s kissing and nibbling along her spine.
The first observation is just a meaningless detail, but the second one has moisture pooling between her thighs already, Edward kissing and sucking each knob of bone from her shoulders to the back of her neck, and she quickly turns over to cover that mouth with her own.
He kisses her lazily, hands roaming over her back, before pushing her onto her back and sliding between her legs. He tugs Bella’s sweatpants down, shucking his own boxers, and then they’re naked against each other for the first time, and it’s pretty damn awesome.
He rocks down with his hips, drawing an appreciative moan from her when his cock presses against her entrance, and he’s totally on board with this plan, happy to get off like this, pressed skin-to-skin, but then she pulls back for a second and murmurs, "I want you to fuck me."
He nearly bites his tongue in surprise. "What?"
"I want you to," she says breathless, shifting beneath him and spreading her legs wider.
"Fuck," he groans. "I don’t know. Maybe we should wait."
She makes an impatient noise. "Didn’t we already talk about taking it easy? And how that’s not what either of us want?"
"Yeah, but this is a little different than getting each other off on the couch," he points out.
"Yeah," she admits. "But I’ve wanted this for so long."
He’s still not convinced, but she just says, "I want to do this with you. I trust you," looking up at him with those wide, earnest eyes, and he’s powerless to resist.
Besides, he can’t deny that he wants to do this. He’s in love with Bella, after all, and the idea that she can be his—all of her, from head to toe, heart and soul—it’s a heady, intoxicating feeling. "Okay," he relents, kissing her hard. "Okay."

Chapter 103

First things first.
He climbs over to get at his discarded jeans, fumbling through his wallet for the condom he keeps there.
It’s lucky he even has it, given how long it’s been since he’s been in a situation with the intention of doing this.
When he kneels between her legs, gently pushing her thighs apart, her chest is rising and falling a little faster than normal. He runs a reassuring hand down her stomach, rubbing for a second, until he paused.
"Edward?" A flash of heat shot through her from the look in his eyes. "What is it?" He looks at her, and she squirms, suddenly feeling completely exposed under his gaze. Her voice falling to a whisper. "Is everything okay?"
Her breathing accelerates as he leans in further.
"What is it?" she repeats. His body covers her, her head tilted to look at him, and she sees the dark arousal in his eyes.
"Bella, I… I… this." His hands slip into her hair as his lips cover hers, taking her breath away. She opens her mouth willingly under him, her breath escaping in a whimper as his tongue moves, taking everything she offers.
"I know," she gasps pulling back.
His lips find hers again in a bruising kiss, one hand tangling in her hair, gripping it, pulling ever so slightly so that her pulse skyrockets at the tingling in her scalp. Tugging her head to the side he latches onto her neck, his teeth and tongue teasing her mercilessly until her body arches against his, one hand fisting in his hair as the other clings to his back.
His lips travel higher, up to her ear, and he nibbles and sucks, making her quiver in his arms, her breathing heavy and accelerated. He nips her gently and she whimpers; lost in the feelings he’s evoking in her. He pulls back to look at her, his fingers lightly playing over her back, feeling her twist and arch as he teases.
"You are beautiful," he murmurs. She blushes, still unaccustomed to the compliment. "So, beautiful," he whispers softly as one hand reaches under her, deftly snapping open the clasp of her bra, pulling the lacy thing free from her body.
His eyes darken as he looks at her, and she feels completely exposed, completely vulnerable.

Chapter 104

Her mouth goes dry at the sight of him, hard and masculine, and so erotic as he just stares at her, depriving her of his touch.
One hand reaches out, and she watches, her eyes glazed over as he caresses one breast, teasing and stroking until her chest heaves with shaky breaths. All her focus was on the one nipple that he was teasing, rolling between his fingers, pinching, and then kissing.
She gasps loudly, her body arching violently in response. Oh God, his mouth is on her. Licking and sucking, teeth tugging at her nipple until she is mindless with desire and need.
The look in his eyes is almost predatory, and she feels her body respond, her clit throbbing in its quest for attention. "Can I taste you?" She groans at the question, the images it brings forth sending or fresh wave of heat through her.
"Yes," she hisses. And he does. He kisses, licks, and sucks at her clit until she’s teetering on the edge of orgasm. Her body pulses, and she moans as he pulls back, looking up at her.
"So good," he murmurs, staring up at her. "So hot, so wet." She whimpers helplessly, her hips arching toward him, begging shamelessly for more.
"Edward, please. More… I need…Oh!" She muffles her scream as his fingers slip inside of her, thrusting gently, stretching her, probing until they find that spot inside that makes her stiffen and jerk, makes her toes curl and her legs shake.
"I’ll give you more," he rasps, his mouth closing on her clit.
She digs her hands into his hair, needing something to hold onto as he brings her higher and higher. His thrusting fingers and the desperate sucking at her clit leave her breathless and mindless.
Everything in her is focused on the pleasure he’s bringing her, and she arches her back, grinding herself further into his mouth. He growls, and the vibration is all she needs to push her over the edge, her entire body stiffening as she explodes into orgasm and then wave upon wave of relief washes over her.

Chapter 105

He holds her tight, lapping at her gently until her hands fall to the bed, bracing her there. His arms crush her to him as he buries himself deep inside her. She wraps her legs around him, bringing him closer, deeper into her body as he thrusts.
"Jesus, Bella. You’re so wet," he groans, the rasp of his voice is dragging her closer to the edge again, and she can feel her orgasm building. "Oh, shit. I’m not going to last long. Oh, fuck."
He looks down at her, the pace of his thrusts increasing and he leans back on his knees, angling just right to hit her exactly where she needs it. She arches, gasping as thrusts again. One more and she knows she’ll come.
"Come for me, Bella. God, you’re so beautiful when you come. Come for me." One more powerful thrust and she’s flying. Her arms cling to him, needing the anchor as she shakes, clenching around him, feeling him stiffen as he comes inside her.
They stay still for a moment, regaining their composure, and he holds her tight. "That was incredible," he whispers softly. She nods, burying her face against his chest so he couldn’t see the emotions that run rampant through her.
Weaving a hand through her hair, he tilts her head to face him. "Come here," he whispers gently. His lips met hers in a kiss so sweet and so gentle that tears prick at her eyes. His lips stroke against hers, his tongue dipping into her mouth, drawing hers into his own mouth. His fingers brush through her hair, ever so softly brushing down her face reverently. He pulls back slowly, letting his hands trail down her spine and over her arms. "I love you," he breathes.
"I love you, too Edward… so much," she says smiling.

Chapter 106

They clean up again a bit before settling down, but this time Edward’s not tired. Instead of dozing off, like Bella is beside him, he’s wide awake; his mind is going a million miles a minute.
Because, for one thing, he just had sex with Bella.
Sex… with Bella.
It’s hard enough to believe that he just slept with the girl who’s been his friend for two months and only something more than that for a few hours, because Edward really didn’t see this one coming.
He didn’t come over to her apartment intending to make love to her like this.
He was thinking they’d be able to talk, hoping that maybe Bella would be amenable to his more-than-friends plan, and not even considering—well, not much, anyway—that they’d do much more.
He’s still kind of shocked that Bella agreed, much less that she kissed him and sucked him off, and they made love. He’s still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that she feels the same about him, that they both said ‘I love you’.

Chapter 107

Actually, judging by the way Bella was during sex—and the possessive hand that’s currently resting over Edward’s heart—he’s pretty sure that she’s been wanting this longer than he even realized.
It makes sense now and it’s not surprising, if Bella wanted Edward, that hearing about his Christmas plans with Angela had upset her. He just wishes he’d figured things out sooner, both because he could have spared Bella the misery, and he could have had this—had Bella—sooner.
He spent his whole life not knowing he wanted this, after all, having no idea how good it would be with Bella, and if things had been even the slightest bit different, he might be on a plane with Angela right now, flying to Chicago blissfully unaware what he was leaving behind.
And that’s a chilling thought, because while Edward only has a few minutes of cautious kissing with Angela to compare to, everything about being with Bella is ridiculously, exponentially better. Just knowing that he had almost left Bella here miserable, and enjoyed himself at home, almost makes him sick.
He can’t suppress a little shudder, and Bella must feel it, because she lifts her head off Edward’s shoulder and says, "You okay?"
She looks like the definition of well-fucked, hair sticking every which way and mouth bruised, eyes dark and face completely relaxed, so when Edward grins and replies, "I’m awesome," it’s the God’s honest truth.

Chapter 108

Bella nods thoughtfully, but she doesn’t lie back down.
"What about you?" Edward asks carefully.
"I’m good," Bella says automatically, but then she ducks her head a little. "I’m just—are we—? Is this…"
"I can’t really answer until there’s a question in there," he smiles, but he keeps his tone light to let Bella know he’s teasing.
She sighs. "I know. I don’t even know what I’m really asking. I just, I want to be sure. About you. About us."
"I know," Edward replies, lifting a hand to stroke along the back of her neck. "And I know you’re the expert life coach, but maybe it’s time for me to give you a little advice." He rubs his thumb under her jaw. "Because you know all about planning and perfect relationships, but I know a thing or two about following your heart, even when you know it’s going to be a crazy ride and you’re not sure where you’ll end up."
She smiles a little at that, and Edward returns it. "Just trust me, okay? I can’t promise you things will be perfect or we’ll know exactly what to do, but I can promise you one thing—you can trust me and I love you."
"I do, and I love you, too," Bella says, and she looks a little surprised that she’s saying it so easily. But then she grins, and it’s that no-holds-barred happy grin that Edward loves so much, and as always, he’s helpless not to grin back.
Because they’re going to be okay.
They’re going to be fine.
He doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to go, or what he’s going to tell Angela or his family, or even what they’re going to do tomorrow. But he knows he’s going to wake up next to Bella, and they’ll work it out together, and that’s good enough for him… for now because he knows life doesn’t go by without a hitch.


Well, it took him long enough

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