Contest entry for the May to December Romance Contest

Title: As One Does

Rating: M

Summary: "You keep giving me excuses and lashing out at me, but you know what? Not once have you said, 'Edward, this could never work because I don't even like you.' Which means," he leans in conspiratorially, "that you do. Like me."

Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable characters herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Playlist: Part 1. Blank Space by Taylor Swift, Part 2. Something in the Way She Moves by James Taylor, Part 3. Give Me Love (cover) by Alex and Sierra, Part 4. Butterfly by Jason Mraz, Part 5. Better Together by Jack Johnson


Part One

"You are so late," Esme says, not even turning to look at me as I push through the side door to the great room. Sisters are the worst. Only paying attention to you when they need something.

My arms are heavy laden with bags and the ice she begged me to pick up. "I didn't realize I was needed so badly for a run of the mill barbeque."

"No party I ever throw is run of the mill." She squeezes some mayo over a bunch of potatoes and uses her large blue spoon to stir it.

I dump my bags on the floor and set the ice on the kitchen counter next to her. Her hair is different. Bad different. She has botched highlights. She keeps going to her "friend" to get it done. What a terrible idea. Two things: one, I'm glad I have a stylist I can trust, and two, I'm glad my dad has a full head of dark hair. Her dad's hair went gray when he was twenty.

"What did you do?" I ask, lifting a chunk of her hair off her shoulder.

"Don't judge me. I couldn't take it anymore."

"I am judging you."

"When you're in your early thirties—"

I cough a laugh. She is so not in her early thirties.

"You will try to stay young, too. By any means possible."

"Whatever. So where is everyone? I thought this place'd be hoppin'. Didn't you say Jasper and Rose could invite their little friends?"

"I did. That's why it's quiet, actually. They're all outside. Some of Carl's buddies from work came, too. Lots of single guys." She scoots closer to me and nudges my shoulder with hers.

"That sounds promising."

"Too bad your hair looks like crap," she says.

"Too bad you're so old."

"Too bad you no longer have a place to stay this summer."

"Like you'd ever throw me out."

"If you bring back that stinky guy friend of yours, I totally will."

"We had just been hiking," I whine.

"Is that what you call it?" She raises an eyebrow.

I pull her hair, and she pokes me with the end of her spoon. The play fight's over then, and she turns her attention to the eggs she needs to chop. She pushes the celery toward me with a do-something-useful look.

The sliding door screeches open, and my eyes flit up to see a guy drying himself as he enters. I follow the towel curiously as it roves over his defined abs, then his chest, then his face, ending on his hair. My brown eyes meet his green ones, and he grins.

"Hi," Towel Boy says.

"Hey," I say back. Towel Boy is cute. And cut. I give him a flirty smile and almost forget how disgusting I look. I just came from cleaning out my dorm. I'm sweaty and wearing grubby clothes, and my dull brown hair is fancy enough for mopping the floor. But I don't care because Towel Boy has just thrown his towel over his shoulder and his pecs flexed as he did so.

Well, hello.

"Carl said you needed us to bring some stuff out," he says to Esme.

"Um, sure. Grab the drinks and Bella can get the ice," she says.

"I'll get the ice," he says. "I need to cool off."

"Didn't you just get out of the pool?" I ask, pointing foolishly to the backyard.

"I did. But it's a bit hot in here." He looks me over from head to toe.

I turn to Esme, like did he just do that?

She swipes a hand over her face. "Pay no attention to him. He flirts with all the girls."

"Just the pretty ones," he says, winking at me.

"What the heck? I don't even know you."

"But I know you. You're Bella. Esme said."

"Sure she did," I say, giving Esme a glare. I'm going to kill my sister. Is she trying to set me up?

Towel Boy throws the bag of ice onto his empty shoulder and cocks his head to the side. "You coming or what?"

I grab the two liter bottles and follow him outside. Immediately, I'm greeted by my niece and nephew with hollers from the pool. Rose has grown up a lot this year. She'll be starting high school in the fall, and Jasper will be in his junior year. It seems like just yesterday I was babysitting them.

A few of their friends are scattered around the yard—two boys playing Frisbee and a girl sidled up next to Rose, whispering. Probably about the boys playing Frisbee. It's nice to see them in their element. They're usually broody at family functions because they want to get out of the house. Esme and Carl keep their family close, which I admire, but it bugs their kids. This seems like a good compromise, though. Everyone is happy.

Towel Boy dodges as Jasper skims his arm across the pool top, splashing us. "Get in!" he yells.

"In a bit," I say, laughing as Towel Boy shouts, "Amateur."

We set our items on the red checkered tablecloth, and I peer around, spotting Carl and a bunch of dudes I've never met.

"You know anyone?" he asks, nodding across the way.

"Nope."

"That one with the red hair and red trunks is Garrett, he's an accountant. Don't talk to him. Boring. The guy in a suit shall remain nameless because who wears a suit to a swim party? And the one losing his hair is James. He's Carl's right-hand man, seems pretty cool, but he misses his ex-wife, and I'm pretty sure he has halitosis. Everyone else belongs to Jasper and Rose, so I'm pretty much the only person worth talking to at this party." He shrugs, like what are you gonna do?

"Really? Wow. And what makes you so interesting?"

"Well, number one, I'm pretty funny. I like music. I play guitar. And I'm going to kick your ass later on the Wii."

"Hmm. That is interesting. Only you can't beat me at the Wii. I've been playing with Jasper and Rose since they were teeny tiny. I may be old, but I'm not so very old that I'm bad at video games."

"You're not old. You're still in college. You're just a babe."

What? "Did you just call me a babe?"

"Yep. Dr. Pepper?"

I laugh. Why not? "Sure."

He pours us both a drink, and we sit side by side at the picnic table, his long legs stretching out much farther than my own. "So what do you do in the company?"

He chokes on his drink, smiling.

"Wait. Let me guess. Janitor?"

He laughs and sets his drink on the table, placing his hands on the bench beside either of his thighs. His pinkie's nearly touching mine. He swivels his head so he's looking at me straight on. "You know, your family talks a lot about you, but you're cooler than I thought you'd be."

"Oh," I say, taken aback.

"I just mean, most college girls I've met are kind of putting on a show, wearing a ton of makeup like they're going to prom."

"Prom's overrated," I say. "Besides, yoga pants are much more comfortable than a strapless dress."

"I wouldn't know."

"I hope not. Otherwise, I should walk away right now."

"Please don't. This is by far the best conversation I've had all night. See? Rose has a little crush and has been following me around since I got here."

I chuckle, keeping my mouth closed and glance at Rose. Sure enough, she's staring at Towel Boy.

"She was trying to get me to play chicken with her earlier."

"Chicken can be fun."

"Well, yeah sure. I mean, we could play it later." He raises an eyebrow, but I'm not taking that bait.

"Yeah, Jasper's been working out. He almost looks like a man now. I'm sure he could hold me up and you could definitely carry Rose on your shoulders."

"I'm no longer amused by this conversation." He turns his head toward the pool, and I laugh.

Esme pokes her head out the door. "I need help. Come help."

"I'm coming." I give Towel Boy a smile and go to save my sister.

Once inside, she beams. "I told you."

"He is so cute!"

"I know! Too bad about the hair."

I picture Towel Boy's close-cropped reddish brown hair. It's a bit short, but it looks fine. Good on him. "I think it's hot."

"You think balding in your twenties is hot."

"He's not balding."

"What? Are we talking about the same guy?"

"Towel Boy," I say.

Esme blurts, "James."

"Ew. I'm young and gorgeous. I'm not even going to bother to talk to a baldy. Especially not when Hard Abs McAbster is chatting me up."

Esme's shoulders collapse as she bends over the island laughing.

"Well, it's true. And he is cute," I reiterate.

"He is."

"Yeah, really, I expect more from you. Like covert shots of him in the copy room on Carl's phone."

She grins wide then turns around to pull a mixing bowl from the cupboard. She hands me a pint of strawberries to cut up. I turn around and catch Towel Boy sitting on the diving board. The lines of his body mesmerize me.

"You're drooling."

I laugh, caught. "Where have you been hiding him all this time?"

"In Jasper's room."

I give her a skeptical look. "That's a bit creepy."

"So is pedophilia."

"What are you talking about?"

"That's Edward. Jasper's friend."

"Edward? The Edward I keep hearing about?"

Esme nods as my mouth gapes.

The sound of the sliding door catches my attention, turning me around. My eyes go wide as I stare at Carl. I'm pretty sure I'm in shock.

"What's with you?" he asks.

"Don't mind her," Esme says, "She's just ogling her nephew's best friend. You know, as one does."

I turn to face Esme. She's smiling, but I am gutted, grossed out, and embarrassed. I drop my head to the granite and groan.

"It's okay." Esme comes around to my side and rubs my back. "We'll find you someone with all their hair. A real man."

"Someone needs a real man?" Towel Boy's voice—Edward's voice—resonates behind me.

I snap up and glare at him. "I don't see one," I spit out.

"Ooh." He puts his hand over his heart like he's been shot.

"This isn't funny."

"What's not funny?" he asks, coming up beside me, stealing a strawberry from my cutting mat.

"You. You're not funny."

"I'm a little bit funny." He takes a large bite, his lips wrapping around the strawberry. The red brings my attention to the plumpness of his lips.

"Not even the slightest. What's your deal anyway? I'm in college."

"And I like strawberries." He grabs another, unperturbed.

"You're in high school. And what? Sixteen?"

He leans in close, whispering, "I'm seventeen."

I throw my hands up in a stop motion and head toward the exit.

"I think she likes me," I hear him say.

"You just pissed off my sister," Esme says.

"Your sister's hot," he says, and I close my eyes, trying to forget I just heard that.

Esme barks some orders at him.

I close the door behind me, but I can still hear them vaguely, and they're laughing. Laughing. At what? My expense? I just flirted with a teenager. A kid. And I liked it. I am sick and depraved.

I sit hard on the bench and gaze up into the sky, its orange and pink hues doing nothing to distract me from the cute boy inside my sister's house.

And I find myself wondering . . . when will he be eighteen?

. . . . .

I keep clear of Edward and do my best to ignore him by chatting up Carl's colleagues. Once dinner is served, James sits beside me and goes on and on about the business, which I know nothing about. But I smile and nod politely.

At the opposite end of the table, Edward's head is thrown back in laughter, and Rose is beaming, absolutely taken with him. Just as I was. Dammit.

I head inside as soon as I've finished my meal and begin clearing the sink. As I'm loading the dishwasher, Edward enters. I know because the hairs on the back of my neck rise.

"Need help?" he asks. Shit. He's polite. At least he's wearing a shirt now.

"No," I say.

"I'm pretty good with a scrubbie." He stands in front of the sink like I didn't just say no and starts washing out large bowls and pots.

When I'm done loading the dishwasher, I hold my hand out, and he gives me his clean dishes. I dry them and set them aside. It's a nice quiet activity and keeps my mind busy. And off Edward's warmth beside me. Sort of. He gives me the last one and washes his hands. He turns to me and dries them on my towel, his eyes on me.

"Can I ask you something?" he says.

"No," I say. I do not like the serious look in his eyes. This is almost worse than the flirty smirk he was giving me earlier.

"If I was eighteen, would you give me your number?"

I close my eyes. Breathe. "No," I lie.

"Why not?" He puts his hand on the counter and leans into it, effectively leaning closer to me. He smells like sunscreen and sun and boy.

"Because I'm graduating college soon."

"So? I'm graduating high school soon."

"Exactly." I fold the towel and hang it on the oven door.

"I know lots of people who are older than their girlfriends. My dad is seven years older than my mom."

"Yes, but I bet she wasn't seventeen when they met."

"This'll be a great story to tell the grandkids," he says.

"There's something wrong with you."

"Yeah, it's called determination."

"You love the game."

"I love that song. I've got my guitar here. I've been working on it." I stare, confused. "Taylor Swift," he explains.

I shake my head. Dammit. I do love Blank Space. I smile despite my desire not to.

"Maybe later," he says.

"Later?"

"I'm staying the night tonight, and Jasper said you were staying here."

"Yeah. For the summer, actually."

He grins at the tile. "The whole summer," he says, amused.

"Why is there so much joy in your voice?"

"Because I like you," he admits. "And because Jasper and I are good friends, and we plan on spending a lot of time together. Which means I should see you quite a bit."

"I doubt it. I work. Because I'm an adult."

"Mm. Yeah, I remember. You work at Cold Yogurt. Very adult."

I cringe inwardly, but attack because I have to. For defense. "And where do you work? Oh, wait, you don't have a job because you're a—"

"At Royal Cinema. Maybe you could bring me a yogurt sometime, and we could watch a movie together?"

"Or maybe not."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't like jail."

He laughs, and I want to punch him in his pretty face.

"You know what I find interesting?" he asks.

"No, but you're going to tell me because just like Jasper, and everyone else your age, you have no filter. Which is just awful, by the way."

"I've never had anyone complain before."

"I'll bet," I say and regret it immediately due to the large smile splayed across his face.

"You keep giving me excuses and lashing out at me, but you know what? Not once have you said, 'Edward, this could never work because I don't even like you.' Which means," he leans in conspiratorially, "that you do. Like me."

"I don't." The words are a whisper. Then stronger: "I don't even know you."

"Well," he turns to walk away, then looks over his shoulder, "I've got a blank space, baby . . ."

. . . . .

I've been settled in the basement for a few hours. I hear Jasper and Rose and Edward all hooting as they play video games. He's going to be sleeping in Jasper's room tonight. Upstairs. Just a few steps away from me. Maybe shirtless. Maybe we'll bump into each other outside the bathroom and fall onto each other's lips. Stop it. Stop.

The door creaks open, and I panic, running my fingers through my hair. I should've showered. Do I stink? I raise my arm and take a sniff.

"What are you doing?" my sister asks.

"I smell."

She shrugs and sits beside me, resting her head on my shoulder. "I'm tired of being the boss's wife."

"You do such a great job. Besides, I think these personal events are much better than going to a fancy restaurant."

"I don't know about that. I do like filet minion, but this's better on our budget." She sighs like she wants me to prod into her life.

"What?"

"My sex life is getting boring."

"Boring?"

"Just routine, you know?"

"No, I don't know. I've had two boyfriends, and we weren't together long enough for anything in the bedroom to get boring."

"The problem was they were boring. You need to find someone more fun."

I ignore her comment. "Well, you have been together a long time."

"I feel so old. I can't believe my kids are teenagers. Teenagers. When did this happen?"

"You started young. The good news is, they'll be out of the house soon, and then you two can reconnect or something."

"That's years away. I need a night out or something. A date with my man."

"You should do that."

"I can't. The kids."

"You worry too much. They'll be fine."

"I read all these articles about teenagers doing crazy things. I like to keep them close, safe."

"I am living here, you know. I'll be here, keep an eye on them."

She lifts her head suddenly and smiles.

"What?" I ask.

"And Edward? You gonna keep an eye on him, too?"

I push her. Hard.

"Ow."

I punch her in the bicep for good measure.

"What's that for?" she cries.

"You knew the whole time and didn't tell me."

"I didn't realize you were throwing yourself at him."

"I wasn't. I didn't."

"But you wanted to," she says, emphatically. "He's cute. And charming. And very mature, actually."

"You're not seriously condoning this, are you?"

"Condoning what?"

"My interest in a teenager? A boy?"

"He's not a boy anymore. He's been through a lot."

"He's the kid whose mom was sick?" I vaguely remember Esme telling me how many meals she was making for one of Jasper's friends.

"Yeah," she says solemnly. "You know, he and Jasper met in weight lifting. Jasper was there to bulk up and get girls' attention. Edward was there so he could lift his mother into bed. So tragic. But he took good care of her. He's a good kid."

"Sounds like it, but you just said something important: he's a kid."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

"The law agrees with me."

"And you didn't like James?"

I point to my head.

"Poor guy. Balding is so sad." We sit in silence for a moment. Then she says, "Edward has nice hair."

Before I can punch her again, she jumps off the couch. "Well, good night. Let me know if you need anything. And I'm glad you're here."

"Me, too," I say, arranging my blanket on the couch.

"And Bella?"

"Hmm."

"I think he has a winter birthday."

"I hate you." I throw a pillow at her laughing face. "And your hair looks so bad."

"At least I don't stink," I hear as her form retreats.

That night, I fall asleep to the faint sounds of an acoustic guitar.

Part Two

The beginning of my summer goes something like this . . .

Monday: I stand at the island eating a sandwich while Edward gawks at me from the table, inhaling canned chili with Jasper.

"What?" I ask, annoyed.

"You look cute," he says, pointing to my blue work polo.

"Shut up."

"No thanks."

"You guys are gross," Jasper says.

That night, Edward shows up at Cold Yogurt with a few of his friends. They're loud, and moms with their kids give them dirty looks, but they don't seem to care. When he's about to leave, he says, "This place sucks. They should call it Crap Yogurt. I like you, though."

Tuesday: I'm straightening my hair in the bathroom when Edward leans against the doorjamb. "Why you gonna leave all this to go to Crap Yogurt?"

I laugh all the way to work.

Wednesday: I get home from my shift to find Esme rushing out the door. "Oh, good. Can you go pick up Edward? The boys want to see a movie, but they don't want to ride their bikes. It's so, like, uncool, Mom." She says the last bit in her Jasper voice. And then I'm driving to Edward's with Jasper in tow.

When we arrive at the theater, loads of girls (Royal Cinema employees and non) eye me when I walk in. I try not to think, "Suck it, bitches," but fail. And then I end up watching a movie with them while simultaneously trying to figure out what cologne Edward wears.

Thursday: I'm starving. I failed to eat lunch since I came straight home from work and jumped into the pool. So now I'm snarfing chips and dip in the kitchen.

Edward walks in from the backyard clad in a towel. Damn. He looks good and wet and naked and yes. "Are you checking me out?" he asks, grin ablaze.

"No," I snap, crunching on another chip.

"You kind of are."

"Well, put that away. It's obscene."

"You put that away," he points to me.

I look down to see my bikini. "You know what? I shouldn't have to get dressed after I go swimming. I live here. It's summer. I'm going to get back in after I eat these."

"Fine. You don't get dressed. I won't get dressed. I can do this all summer." He goes to the fridge and gets a soda, bending over, the towel showcasing his nice ass.

I stomp over to him and snatch the towel from his waist leaving him in his sopping swim trunks. "Hey!" he bellows.

"Let me show you." I take his towel and tuck it under my arms, then pull the strings at the top of my bikini, poking them under the towel.

"You are naked now," he says, mouth going slack.

"Mm hm."

"That is obscene."

I go to the fridge and get myself a soda, too, giving him a show like he gave me.

"So that means you were picturing me naked?"

Friday: Edward stayed the night last night, which means Esme makes pancakes the next morning. Can't say that bothers me. What does? His cuteness. Her comments.

Esme and I are cooking the pancakes, side by side. Okay, I'm not doing anything but watching. Still, I'm moral support or something.

He takes these massive bites, like he's never going to have enough time to finish his pancakes. And he eats a stack of five at a time. All with a smile on his face.

"Where does he put it all? I mean, seriously. He's all muscle." Esme catches my gaze.

I give nothing away.

"He sure has been walking around half naked a lot. Like he's trying to get someone's attention. Must just be a senior-in-high-school thing."

I stab my pancake and take an angry bite.

"Maybe you should just kiss him. Like get it out of his system."

"Your hair is still ugly, and you're a lot older than I am," I say and walk away.

She laughs because she's my sister and evil like that.

It's now mid-summer, and I can't seem to avoid him. I thought it would be easy. After all, I have work, and he has work, and he doesn't live here, but I underestimated one thing. Maybe two. One, teenagers hang out with their friends all the time. Like all the time. I have seen Rose for approximately fifteen minutes since I've been here. And two, Edward was true to his word. He is determined. Any time he can get me to look at him or talk to him or do anything with him, he will. Like right now.

I'm poolside with my book, trying to relax after my shift. Serving frozen yogurt is hard. Not really. But just going to work sucks in general, so I like to relax when I'm done.

But I can't relax because Edward is just inside the kitchen—door open—playing his guitar and singing. Singing. All this, while Jasper is scheming to get a girl he likes.

I can't stop glancing his way, so I try to change things up by slipping into the pool. But that's a mistake because when that happens, Jasper and Edward miraculously come outside. Edward's not fooling anyone. He just wants to see me mostly naked and wet.

"I just wish she'd stop being so bitchy," Jasper says.

"She's not bitchy; she's irritated. Maybe if you stopped chatting up Emily, she'd chill," Edward says.

"First of all, swear jar. And second, he has a point," I say, propping my arms on the side of the pool. I keep myself low so my boobs aren't in view.

"If you won't listen to me, listen to your aunt. She's a smart one. I can tell."

I ignore Edward. "Girls your age over analyze everything and want to know for sure before going after a guy or saying yes or whatever. So if she's seeing you show interest in another girl, she's going to stay away."

"So what? I'm just supposed to only talk to her? I only talk to, like, three people as it is." Jasper tips the pool chair he's sitting on, so it's balanced on two legs.

"Well, no, but just keep your flirting to her."

Edward laughs. "He can't really flirt," he says, pointing to my nephew, who's frowning.

I smile. I like seeing this side of him—Jasper, all vulnerable. It's cute.

"Flirting's great. It's fun; you should try it. But trust me on this. If she sees you talking, even animatedly, with someone else, forget it. She'll assume you're flirting and that you like that girl instead of her."

"Girls are so complicated." He sends the legs of his chair back to the concrete with a thud.

"Not really," I say. "I think it's pretty obvious when we're interested in someone."

I keep my eyes on Jasper, but feel Edward's gaze on me. Solid. Strong. Heated.

"How is it obvious? I say hi, and she says hi. And then she adds something mean. That's, like, it." Jasper sounds so young. I forget what it's like to be sixteen, trying to figure out how the other sex ticks.

"Hi's can be pretty obvious. How does she say it?"

Jasper tilts his head to the side and bats his eyelashes. "Hi," he says in a falsetto.

Edward picks up his chair and scoots away from Jasper, making me laugh.

"Yeah, I'm with Edward. Don't do that again."

"I need a spy. Someone who knows girls to tell me what all this shi . . . izz means."

"You should bring Bella on a date, and she could decipher Alice afterward."

"Yeah, like that's not awkward. Hey, Alice, want to go on a date with me and my aunt? Dude, no."

"I'll go, too. It'll be a double."

"Absolutely not. I'm not dating you," I say.

"That could work. Come on, Bella. Please. You have to help me. This girl's driving me crazy. It'll just be, like, dinner. Like we're all just hanging out and having dinner."

"We could order pizza in and invite her," Edward suggests. "Your parents are going out tonight, and Rose has got that sleepover, so it's kinda perfect."

Ugh. Why did I promise to keep an eye out for my sister's nearly grown children this summer? It was the worst idea I've ever had. Especially since Edward is here all the freaking time. Looking at me. And looking good. And making me laugh.

I dunk myself under the water and swim away, then back. I take the steps and head straight to my chair, pulling my towel up. I can see Edward and Jasper in my periphery. Jasper's hands are in prayer pose.

I tuck my towel around my waist and breathe deep before looking into Jasper's pleading eyes. "Fine," I say because I'm a fool.

"Yes!"

"But I'm not paying for all that pizza; you guys are pigs."

"My treat," Edward says, grin wide. Cute. Flirty. No.

I point to my nephew. "He pays."

"I'll bring dessert. What do you want? Pie, right? I saw you go through a whole one last week after Esme made that batch for church."

"Seriously, and then you blamed it on me," Jasper says, complaining.

"How did you know that?" I ask Edward.

"Just observation."

"Observe this," I say, flipping him the bird.

"My aunt is so cool," Jasper says, his voice fading behind me as I walk away.

"She's so hot," Edward adds, and Jasper makes a barfing noise.

What am I doing?

. . . . .

Alice shows up just after Esme and Carl leave. She's a waif of a girl with dyed black hair and an all black outfit. Jasper wears polos from Abercrombie, so I don't get it—get her—until she opens her mouth.

"Didn't you fools say we were eating? I'm starving. And you better not have gotten something stupid like cheese because I need some serious toppings on my pizza."

I like her so much.

"Pizza's on its way. And this is Bella," Jasper says.

"Hey," Alice calls from the kitchen. I'm on the couch playing the Wii with Edward, who's crushing me at Super Smash Bros. "Hey, dork," she adds as she slaps Edward upside the head. She tackles him, which gives me the second I need to go in for the kill.

"Ah! Yes!" I wail and give Alice a high five for helping me out.

"I play winner," Alice says, sitting beside Edward.

Jasper stands awkwardly behind the couch until I nod for him to sit down. The idiot sits on the rocker.

. . . . .

We snarf pizza while we play. Alice talks and talks and talks about the plays she suspects Mrs. Henry will be doing this year and what parts she wants to play. Jasper interjects saying things like "good idea" and "you'd be great at that." He has no game.

Edward bumps me in the elbow now and then like can you believe this idiot? I cannot. Edward had me wrapped around his finger the second I met him, and Alice and Jasper are the same age, go to the same school, and had three classes together last year. I mean, seriously. Get on that, Jasper. Make your move.

I decide to help him. I pull rank and tell them I want to watch a movie. I have Alice choose, and I lower the lights. I make popcorn and head back to the couch to find Alice and Jasper seated on the floor and Edward taking up more than half the cushioned space. I hand Alice the popcorn and cram myself into what little sliver is left beside Edward.

In the dark, I feel fearless, like I can watch him more, so I do. And notice all the things about him. Like how he changed tonight. Put on a clean shirt and fresh jeans. Both look worn. Not purposefully worn, but actually older. He runs his hand up and down his thigh where the denim is shredded, and I want to feel that mass of fibers against my fingers. Feel the way his breath hitches when he realizes what I'm doing.

As soon as I realize where my thoughts are going, I shoot up and start cleaning the kitchen. I hand wash the plates to stay away as long as I can, but Mr. Clean joins me at the sink. This kid. No.

"Go watch the movie," I say with a smile, trying not to give away the fact that I was just fantasizing about groping his leg.

"I work at a movie theater. I've seen it." He pulls a towel out of the top drawer next to the sink and starts drying.

"Did you get enough to eat? There's more."

"Thanks, Mom. I'm good."

I shake my head at his joke.

"Good pizza," I say, trying anything to keep this boring and mundane.

"It was. I only order from Munk's. I had a lot of pizza when my mom got sick. My dad was working his second job at nights, so I went through them all. Munk's is the best."

"Your dad works two jobs?"

"Cancer's not cheap. Esme told you, right?"

"Yeah. Sorry. Sucks. All of it."

"Yeah." He reaches for the glass I just washed and dries it. Why is this so comfortable with him? "You think he's got a chance?" he asks, nodding toward Alice and Jasper.

"If he opens his mouth," I say quietly. "I've never seen him so quiet before."

"I keep telling him the same. He gets hyper when he sees her and talks to all these other girls, but then when she shows up, he's mute. Or a mouth breather. Like . . ." He looks me over, mouth agape.

I chuckle. "Boys are stupid."

"Stupid fun. Speaking of fun. You wanna go bowling on Friday? Jasper and some of the guys are going to Event."

"No." I smile even though I shouldn't. I really like his attention.

"Yeah, bowling's not that great." He sets a glass in the cupboard and stands beside me, eyes on me. "How about we see a concert instead? This kickass band is playing at Junk Space—Bucket Love?"

"Edward," I say, turning fully toward him. I look over his face—his hopeful eyes, his mouth, the bottom lip fuller than the top, his jaw, which ticks as he awaits my words. "I am not going to date you."

"But you want to. Right?" He tries for cocky, but it comes off unsure.

I don't respond. Instead, I wash and dry my hands and take my seat on the sofa. Edward joins me a moment later, his arm around the back of the couch. He leans in, his breath at my ear. "At least I've got better game than he does."

I snap my head to catch his eyes, and we laugh silently at Jasper's expense.

. . . . .

"Are you still out?" Esme asks as I get into my car.

"Heading home right now."

"I'm stuck at the department store. Rose needed new bras. Again."

"Mom!" I hear Rose balk in the background.

"Sweetie, she knows you have boobs. We all know." They have been getting a lot bigger as of late. "Anyway, looks like I'll be a while. Jasper's at the beach. He's been there since lunch. Can you pick him up? I didn't give him a time. I just said I'd come when I was done, but this is taking forever."

"Sure thing. I'll head straight there."

"Yay. I think we'll get some dessert or something. I deserve a treat for finding out how big my daughter's boobs are."

"I'm right here, Mom!" Rose again.

. . . . .

I pull into a parking space and see Jasper running around the beach with a few guy friends and Alice. Yay, Jasper. They're playing Frisbee and throwing each other around. Edward's not playing, but I hear his guitar. I follow its sound to find him sitting near a small fire, guitar in his lap, playing something smooth.

I hold my ballet flats in my hand as I walk through the sand to sit next to him. He looks over and smiles at me. I close my eyes and take in the sound of the ocean shushing against the shore, the strumming of his strings, his soothing breaths, in and out. I could stay here forever and be at peace.

"How was—"

"Shh. Don't ruin it," I say.

We sit in silence, continuing to enjoy each other and our connectedness for a bit, unencumbered.

The song comes to an end, and I sigh. "That was so pretty."

"James Taylor," he says.

"Do you only play songs by people with the name Taylor?"

"Nah. I do some Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz. I know loads of folk."

"You like folk music?"

"Yeah. I didn't know it until I started playing for my mom when she was sick. She kept making requests. I couldn't say no, so." He shrugs. I want to wrap him in my arms so bad.

"That must've been really hard. Knowing there was nothing you could do."

"It—yeah. I just made it a point to do whatever she wanted. If she wanted me to read to her or tell her about my day or play guitar or whatever, I just did it."

"Did you ever feel lonely?"

"Not at first. I had a girlfriend, but she got—she didn't understand. I wanted to be with my mom, and she wanted to go to Homecoming. I liked her, but I liked my mom more."

"That sucks."

"That's one of the many reasons I like you."

"What's that?" I ask. I know I shouldn't, but I'm curious.

"You just get it. You know what to say. You don't feel sorry for me or pity me or treat me like I'm fragile. You just say, 'dude, that blows.' That's all I wanted to hear. That and I kind of wanted to get laid."

I knock his shoulder with mine.

"I would've been happy to just lay my head in a pretty girl's lap and napped or something." He gazes longingly at my thighs. Oh, geez.

"Poor baby," I say and scratch the base of his neck, moving my hand through the back of his hair.

"That's nice," he says, lolling his head forward as I rove my hand fully through his hair now. It's short, rough against my fingers, but thick and soft at the same time.

"You guys look like monkeys," a boy shouts. "After she's done eating your lice, why don't you take her into a tree and do her from behind?"

Edward takes off running after the dude. He tackles him and pins his arms to his sides, growling something in his ear.

"Okay! Dude! I get it. Off limits. I won't say anything else," the guy says, laughing.

Edward jumps off him and stomps on his butt for good measure. He sits heavily beside me, breathing hard.

I can't stop shaking my head. "I cannot believe that just happened."

"He's a jerk. He doesn't know who you are to me. Just ignore him."

And who exactly am I to you? I want to ask, but I already know the answer, and I cannot hear him say it. Not in this setting. Not with the way I feel about him right now. I mean, he went from sweet and endearing to defending my honor in zero seconds, and I'm kind of bothered by how much I like that.

"You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah," I say quickly then yell, "Jasper! Ten minutes!"

He finds me with his eyes and nods.

"So what about you? What about your family? What are they like? Besides Esme and Carl."

"Uh," I start, not so smoothly. It's hard to concentrate after what just happened. "My mom is a teacher, and she is one of those people who is happy all the time. And she loves everything. Every cute little nothing. She could spend three hours in a Hallmark store."

"Ah. Yes. I have a grandma like that. She has this Christmas tree that sings when you walk by it. I want to throw it across her lawn every year. It scares the crap out of me."

I laugh easily with him.

"My mom buys these puppets 'for the grandkids' she says," I use air quotes to provide emphasis. "And I'm like Rose and Jasper are teenagers. They don't want puppets. They live in her study. It's creepy. They have these large eyes like this." I use my index finger and thumb to demonstrate for him.

"That is so sexy."

I burst out laughing.

"I'm not kidding. Look." He copies me and does something wonky with his mouth as well.

"So hot," I say.

"Told you." He lets up and asks about my dad.

"My dad . . . is white trash."

His shoulders start to shake with his laughter.

"He is. He likes his beer and his guns and his heavy flannel, and he hunts and fishes, and he'd live in a trailer if my mom let him. But he is the nicest guy you'll ever meet. Let me get away with way too much when I was a kid." I think back to all the times I should've been grounded, but Dad let me out of the house anyway and covered for me.

"And he's your dad, right? Esme has a different dad?"

"Yeah. My mom had her way young, and he left, which is why she freaked out when Esme started so young, but I don't know. Carl and Esme have always felt right to me. They were always mature. And my parents never had to support them or anything. They were just young, you know."

"Yeah, I know." He looks at me like I'm young, too. I get it. I'm ready now.

I take a deep breath and try to sway the conversation elsewhere. "It's kind of like how I knew by the time I was thirteen what I wanted to do for a living."

"And what's that?"

"I'm working toward becoming a PA—physician's assistant. It'll take a while, but the schooling's not as awful as becoming a doctor, and you still get to work with patients and talk to them like they're people, not just a list of symptoms."

"We need more people like you in the medical field."

"Well, thank you. I broke my leg in the eighth grade and fell in love with my PA—Eric Yorkie. He was gorgeous and so nice and he touched my leg."

"Ooh. Kinky."

"When you're thirteen, everything is kinky."

"You were a young eighth grader."

"Not really."

"Did you start school young?"

"I was four, so I guess so, yeah."

"So . . . you're only 20?"

"Yeah."

"We're not as far apart as I thought we were."

Jasper jogs up, spraying sand our way. I curl into Edward to protect my face.

"Sorry. You ready to go? Alice needs a ride, too. Is that okay?"

"Yeah. Just pile in."

"Shotgun," Edward yells, and for the first time tonight I feel just how far apart we truly are in age.

Part Three

"Put that one there," I say, pointing next to my bed, and Jasper deposits a box. He heads back downstairs to fetch another one.

"This one?" Edward asks, coming into my dorm.

"In the closet."

He sets it down then promptly closes the door with himself inside. "This is what it's going to look like when your roommate comes home and you hide me."

I rush to the handle and hold it still so he can't get out. He wiggles and pushes it, forcing me back, but I buck up and surge forward. "You want into my closet, then you can stay there."

The pressure on the handle leaves, and I open the door, victorious. But I am not victorious because what greets me is Edward, arms raised, hands gripping the clothing bar, shirt bunched up, exposing his abs. "Put that away!" I say, turning around. "It's indecent."

He chuckles. "Nah. I'm gonna stay here. You can chain me up and use me as you wish."

I slam my eyes shut, blocking that image out of my mind.

"Are you remembering that time I was in nothing but a towel?"

"No," I say fast. Too fast.

"Are you blushing?"

"Ah!" I scream. His words were right at my ear. I smack his arm, and he laughs.

"Jumpy much?"

"No. Go get another box."

"Hey, look. I know everyone's on their way back up here with box 500—"

"I don't have that much stuff," I say.

"But, look, I know I . . ." He rubs his forearm and stares at the ceiling, then drops his eyes on me. "I know you think I'm just a kid, but I really like you, Bella. You. I think you're funny and I like talking to you and I like—"

"I cannot believe your luck," Esme says. "No one gets a single."

"This is a single?" Edward asks, eyes full of mirth.

I roll my eyes and then swing around to see Esme already opening my boxes and throwing crap around like it's hers.

"Stop. I can organize my own sock drawer," I say.

"No, you can't. You have terrible laundry habits."

"Can we go?" Jasper whines. "I have a date with Alice in an hour, and it takes thirty minutes in this traffic to get home."

"I am not your chauffeur."

"You kind of are," he says. "Moooooom." I do not want kids. He's so whiny. How does Alice kiss that mouth? Sometimes I see his childish behavior and feel bad I helped him get the girl.

"You are the one that begged me to come here. I told you I would help Aunt Bella on my own, but no."

"I didn't want to come. That was Edward. You know I don't help willingly."

All eyes zoom to Edward, whose hands are in his pockets, his shoulders up to his ears.

"Just go. I'm good. Everything's up here. It's not like I haven't done this before."

"As long as you're sure."

"I'm sure." I turn my eyes to Jasper and pull him in for a hug. "Tell Alice I said hi, and good luck with her auditions this year."

"Yeah," he says.

I hug Esme with a "Thanks for everything."

She squeezes me and whispers, "Anytime."

Everyone edges toward the door, Edward lagging behind. I give him an awkward, small wave.

"It was fun hanging out over the summer," he says.

It was. You made my hours at Crap Yogurt bearable when you came in. And every time I heard you play the guitar, I felt like you were serenading me. I nod. "It was." I keep my eyes on the floor.

"Welp, we're off. Have a good year. See you at Thanksgiving at the latest," Esme says.

"Bye. Thank you."

She heads out the door with Jasper in tow. Edward follows behind but stops, hand on the doorjamb. "If I called you, would you answer the phone?"

"You don't have my number," I say.

"But if I did?"

I tuck my hands in my back pockets and roll onto the sides of my feet. I'm fifteen, and a boy just told me he wants to call. I'm pretty sure I'm doing a terrible job at hiding my smile.

"Okay," he says, voice hopeful. With two slaps to the doorjamb he leaves.

And I breathe free for the first time in weeks.

. . . . .

I get the first call the second Sunday after school starts for all of us.

"Have you ever had to read Of Mice and Men?"

"Boringest book ever," I reply.

"I know. I just want everyone to die."

Then the following Sunday.

"I'm not working this Friday. Want to see a movie with me? I get free tickets."

"I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to brag to your date that the date is going to be free."

"So that's a yes?"

"Why are you so—"

"Awesome?"

"Persistent."

"I don't know. Why do I have a killer grin? Why did my mom get sick and not that terrible boss of hers that stopped helping her the minute she couldn't work anymore? Things just are."

"Yeah, but you're like . . . I don't even know," I say, contemplating what to say. Charismatic? Enthusiastic? Contagious?

"I've got kind of a carpe diem complex, I guess. Seeing death at your door does that to you. So, carpe diem, Bella. Say yes."

"Edward."

I don't hear from him for a while after that, which is fine. I'm busy with school and even go on a few dates, all the while wondering what a cute, seventeen-year-old wearing faded ratty jeans is doing.

Tonight, though, I change things up and hang with Angela. We meet downtown and hit up some of our favorite boutiques. Angela finds a great pair of jeans that hug her ass, and I find a scarf so soft it reminds me of fingertips grazing my skin. I love it.

We eat dinner and are headed toward our cars when we decide to see a movie last minute. We're arguing what to see when I spot a familiar bicyclist setting his lock in place. He walks right past me and up to the ticket booth.

I nudge my friend who won't shut up about the merits of a Tom Cruise action movie. "That's him," I mutter to Angela. She's heard all about my crazy summer.

"Where?" she asks, peering around the crowd.

"The red hair."

"Edward," she blurts, her loud mouth grabbing his attention.

He turns and catches my eyes. He smiles, but it's small, shy. Is he not happy to see me?

"Hey," he says, hands deep in his pockets. His easy confidence seems to be missing tonight.

"Hi. This is Angela."

"Hi."

"Bella was just telling me how much she wants to see the new Tom Cruise, but ugh. Those movies are so annoying. You mind taking my place?" That bitch.

"No problem." His smile is back, but still a bit weaker than usual.

Angela and I say our goodbyes. When I hug her, I mumble, "I hate you."

She smiles and gives Edward a flourishy wave.

"We don't have to see the Tom Cruise," I say, staring at my shoes, feeling shy.

"I already have my ticket," he says, flashing it before my eyes. "I'll get you another."

"You don't have to."

"My mom says gentlemen always pay."

"And you're a gentleman?" I raise a brow.

"Sometimes. Mostly. I try." We move forward in line a bit, and he scoots close to me. "You willing to let me try tonight?"

"Sure, why not?" I have no idea what I just agreed to. Why am I even here? And why is he here? He works at Royal Cinema, miles down the road, where he can get in for free.

Edward's uncharacteristically quiet as we get snacks, and the movie is not as horrible as I thought it would be. To my surprise, Edward doesn't try anything, either. I thought he'd at least go for my hand. I'm left relieved and disappointed and utterly confused.

We decide to pick up a dessert when the movie's over. We grab a seat outside and dig into our ice cream bowls.

"Why weren't you at your theater?" I ask

"Anonymity is nice sometimes."

"What's your deal?" I finally say, unable to stand it anymore.

He shrugs.

"You don't seem very you."

"I don't feel very me today."

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

"But . . ." I motion for him to finish the phrase.

"My mind's just buzzing. It was nice to have some company tonight, though."

"If you wanted company, why didn't you have a date with you? I'm sure there are plenty of girls your age willing to go to the movies with you."

"I guess. Not really interested in them. Besides, I don't think I would've gotten what I needed tonight with someone my age."

"What you needed?"

"Comfortable silence. Companionship. Understanding. No pressure. I don't know."

"Seriously, you okay?"

He sets down his bowl and licks his lips clean. It's distracting. Those lips.

"My mom had some tests done today. We don't find out the results until tomorrow."

"Oh, man."

"I just wanted to stay home, but I was driving my parents nuts, so here I am, trying to distract myself."

"Is it working?"

His eyes search mine. He looks peaceful, more grown up than I've ever seen him. "Yeah, I feel good. You make me feel good."

I nudge him with my shoulder. "Just not too good."

He leans back, kicking his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. "That's because you hate me."

"I don't hate you," I say playfully, licking my spoon. "I just don't trust you."

"You don't trust me, or you don't trust you?"

I dart my eyes away from his face, and he laughs. He pushes my thigh, his warm palm searing me.

I laugh with him, effectively admitting my attraction to him. "I've already told you, I don't like prison."

"You won't go to prison. I won't press charges. Neither will my mom. She gets it. She likes you."

"She likes me? She doesn't even know me."

"She knows of you."

"What is wrong with you?"

"So much. But right now, what's wrong with me is I like this girl and she refuses to admit she likes me back."

I shake my head.

He shrugs. "See?" All sad puppy.

"Did you know that pedophiles . . ." I go on to share with him an article I read recently on NPR's website.

He looks me over, eyes serious. "You're worse off than I thought."

"What does that mean?"

"I mean, you've looked this up. That's how into me you are."

"Oh, shut up."

He leans forward, his shoulder pressing against mine. We're both facing the ice cream shop. "Just admit it."

I peek at the sidewalk, gaze at his shoes. They're scuffed and old, the rubber splitting from the canvas off his Airwalks, like he can't afford to buy new ones. It's endearing. He's endearing. And I do like him.

"Fine," I say, the words barely escaping my lips.

"Fine?"

I turn slightly to find his eyes on mine, his smile making me feel weightless. He leans in, his forearm brushing mine, sending a rush of heat through my body. He kisses me. It's soft and warm, and the sweetness of his mouth surprises me.

I'm kissing Edward.

I touch his cheek and pull back slightly as I brush my finger over his soft lips.

I'm waiting for his smartass remark, for his cocky grin. Instead, I get sincere eyes and a truly happy smile—a boyish smile—and I'm so completely gone for him.

I open my mouth to speak, but he beats me to it. "Don't say it. I'm likely to start crying, and I've already done enough of that today."

I search his eyes and find no mirth there. "Is your mom going to be okay?"

"I hope so. It's routine. She gets these checks regularly, but every time my heart's in my throat, and I can't keep myself from remembering how it was, having to hold her hair when she threw up, having to carry her to her bed when she was too tired and weak to get there herself."

"You're a good son."

"Nah. I just have an amazing mom."

"Aww," I say, bringing some levity to the conversation.

"Well, not everyone survives breast cancer. It was awful, but, in a way, I feel lucky to have been by her side. I have a perspective most people don't have. I don't, like, take things for granted. Like pretty girls who make me laugh."

I kiss him again, this time giving myself permission to run my hands through his hair. I drag my fingers down his neck. His breath is ragged at my ear. "God, it feels good to be touched."

The life goes out of me, and I freeze. What am I doing?

"I'm sorry," he says immediately. "I didn't mean to—I don't want to scare you away."

"No. It's—you didn't. I just—this can't—we can't."

He nods. "Yeah, so you said." His shoulders droop, like he's resigned.

"Can I give you a ride home? You can put your bike in the back."

. . . . .

The drive is quiet, and we keep our hands and lips to ourselves.

When I pull up into his driveway, his eyes are on mine, searing into me; the heat in the car picks up.

He leans in, and I pull back, resolute.

"This sucks," he says, pulling at his short hair.

I hold my hand up. "I . . . can't."

"You can. You choose not to."

"It's a bad idea."

"There's a lot more to relationships than sex, you know."

"I know that," I spit out. How dare he? He's not the one who'll get into trouble if anything happens between us. He's such a child, blaming me for keeping us apart.

"It's not my fault you want to jump me."

"It's not my fault you keep throwing yourself at me."

"Just forget it."

"Already forgotten."

Without another word, he's out the door and stomping toward his house, his bike at his side. He looks like a little boy about to throw a tantrum, and I guess he is.

I feel ragey the whole ride home. Once there, I slam my keys down on my desk and undress angrily, throwing my jeans into my hamper. I lie in bed, running scenarios through my mind. What does he expect me to do? Just forget my age? Just forget that I could very possibly get into trouble for having a relationship with him? I wish I'd never met him. I wish I'd never even heard of him.

Yet, as I attempt to fall asleep, all I can think about is the way his lips felt against mine, the way he didn't try to push me in any way. He simply opened his heart, not expecting anything in return. And that is rare in any relationship and something to think about. So I do. I think about it all night long. And sleep in, missing my morning classes the next day.

. . . . .

I do laundry in a daze and work on a few assignments that are due later in the week. When I sit down to dinner, my phone buzzes. It's Edward.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.

Then later: Thanks for the company last night.

Is your mom okay? I get the courage to ask.

Yes, she's healthy. Great, even. Me, not so much. Because I'm an idiot.

You're not an idiot. You're young. There's a difference.

That's the last I hear from him for quite some time.

Part Four

"You're old," I say to Carl as soon as I open the door.

"That's what I hear, but I get to eat my favorite meal tonight. Thanks for coming."

"Of course."

I take a seat at the kitchen table and thumb through a magazine, waiting for everything to get set up for the birthday dinner. I'm not feeling very helpful tonight. I've been studying for a big exam and just feel down lately.

"Hey, Aunt Bella," Rose says from the fridge where she gets herself some water.

"Hey." She turns around and wow! She's stunning. "You need to stop growing," I say.

"No thanks. It's nice to fit into my jeans better. Hips. Who knew?" she says, enthusiastically.

"How're things?"

"Good."

"Any boy news we can rush through before your mom comes nosing around?"

"Oh em gee! Yes. This guy, Emmett, who's a junior! He's friends with Edward, so I see him a lot. Anyway, he told Jacob who told Claire who told Leah that he wanted to ask me to the winter dance. And I checked with Edward because I didn't believe it, and he said it was true and that maybe he could take Jessica so we could double so my mom doesn't flip out."

"That's awesome," I say, all the while feeling irrationally angry that Edward may be going to some dumb high school dance with some dumb girl who's not me. Me, who's awesome, by the way. And sexy, and has way bigger boobs than Dumb Girl Jessica.

"I really hope he asks me. And Mom better be okay with it, or I'm going to . . . I don't know what I'm going to—"

"You're here," Esme says, pulling her hair into a ponytail before checking the oven. "Let's eat."

. . . . .

A week later, I'm still in a funk even though I passed my harrowing test. The problem is Edward. I haven't heard from him. Haven't seen him. Haven't even thought about him.

That last one's a lie.

A big one.

In an attempt to have some fun, and forget about Edward for at least a while, I decide to attend one of Lauren's parties. We've been friends since freshman year where we met in English 101.

Angela and I are hopped up on cute boys and flirting like mad. I've danced with two hotties, and I'm looking for a third when I see him. Edward. He enters the kitchen, some friends at his heels, all surveying the goods—college girls. No, thanks. I do not want to see this. I do not want to see him.

I slip outside before he can catch my eye. I do not need to be talking to him whatsoever. Even though I really, really want to. In fact, I kind of miss him.

I peek through the windows to see him dancing with a few girls. He's got some moves. What I wouldn't give to be able to dance with him, to feel him pressed up against me.

The girl closest, gets on tiptoe to say something to him. He throws his head back in laughter, and I hate that bitch. I want to make him laugh. I want his smiles.

I ignore him after that, turning my attention to Angela. I'm watching her and Ben, her latest crush, play a round of Cornhole when an arm slips around my shoulder. He smells the same—good. I like it. I hate it. I close my eyes. Why is this happening to me?

"Hi, Edward," Angela says. Traitor.

He gives her a wave and leans in. His lips rest at my ear for a brief moment before he speaks. "Come here often?" is his line.

"Yeah, you?"

"Nah, but now I will."

I shake my head. He's unbelievable. "Who do you possibly know here?" I grit my teeth, irritated. If he would just stay away, I could forget about him, move on, find someone my own age. I think.

He squeezes me closer and points across the way to a girl wearing a short skirt and a bright red tank. "That's Jessica. Her sister lives here."

Jessica. Dumb Girl Jessica. The maybe dance date.

"That's Lauren's sister? Seriously?"

I pull back to get a good look at him. Why is this so annoying? Why do I want to make a voodoo doll resembling Jessica and stab at it for days on end?

"Small world, huh? I mean we hang out with the same people in the same places. We both like swimming and pizza and T. Swift. It's like serendipity or some shit."

"Did you just use an adult word?"

"Why? Did it turn you on? Make me look more adult?"

"You owe Esme a dollar." And, because I'm slightly intoxicated by his cologne and pissed, I lean in and say, "And it did kind of turn me on."

The cup at his lips drops lower, and the stunned expression on his face is comical. "No shit?"

"None. Wanna go somewhere?"

"Hell yes."

"What about your friends?"

"What about 'em?"

I slip my fingers between his, and his intake of breath is loud. "C'mon."

He follows me through the house and into Lauren's room. I've never done anything like this in my life. Once the door is closed and locked, we stand absolutely still, staring at one another, our hands still clasped. "You can't kiss me."

"Okay." He stares at my lips.

"I mean it."

He nods, peeks his tongue out of his mouth to wet his bottom lip, and I'm gone. I lunge. My lips are on his, firm and steady. My hands in his hair keep him still, and his arms pull me fully into him so we're pressed against one another.

"Is this happening?" he asks, short of breath.

"Absolutely not." I dive back in, and this time I roam my hands down his chest, around his waist, and up his back.

His fingers squeeze my waist and inch under my shirt. My bra clasp is in his hands. I freeze, my lips open, breathing against his. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing. Sorry. Nothing. Don't stop." He drops his hands down to my hips and kisses me again tentatively until I forget about the bra incident and just feel his lips on mine.

We stay that way for several minutes and get to know each other's sighs as our pace slows.

"Why do you have to be such a good kisser?" I whine and drop my head to his chest.

"Because I am." I swat his chest, and he laughs, his eyes shining with mirth.

"I'm totally going to wipe that smile off your face."

"I doubt it." His smirk dares me.

I grab the hem of his shirt and yank it up over his head so fast he looks dazed. I walk straight forward, forcing him to edge backwards until he hits the bed with his knees and sits down. I grin triumphantly, but I don't expect him to grip my hips, pull me down, and drag us both to the head of the bed.

He wraps a strong hand around my back to pull me close and kisses me, slow and deep. I have to keep the upper hand or this is not going to end well. Like I-would-go-to-prison not end well.

I tilt his head back and attack his neck with kisses. He smells amazing. I smooth my lips over his collarbone and across his chest. His breathing's picked up, and he's watching me. His stomach shivers when I lave my tongue across it. He mutters a much more adult word than shit when I grip his jeans and yank before biting his hipbone.

I straddle him again and press a kiss to his pulse point. "You owe more money to the swear jar."

"It was worth it."

"I know," I say and roll my hips slowly while pressing a kiss to his swollen lips. I roll them again, and he sighs, dropping his head back where it hits the wall with a low thud.

"Want me to stop?" I grind again.

"No." It's a gasp.

I yank his head from the wall and kiss him deep while I continue moving my hips over him. I've never been angrier with my clothing in all my life. My shorts are in the way; my shirt strains over my breasts uncomfortably. I hate it all, and so does Edward, though he doesn't complain.

He kisses what little skin he can reach around my neck and even dips his finger into the collar of my crewneck to get to my collarbone. "Can we please—"

"No way," I say, breathless. I'm so close, and so is he.

"Just your shirt."

"No."

"Why?"

"Because I—no. I said no."

He groans petulantly, and I feel like a damn kid. A fifteen-year-old at her first dance, dry humping in the backseat of her date's car. Only this is worse because I'm an adult and in my friend's bedroom. What is wrong with me?

That question is answered when Edward rears up, pressing so hard against me. I shatter, my body spinning out of control.

What's wrong with me?

I really like Edward. A lot. That's what's wrong.

I crush my lips to his, opening wide and devouring him the way I wish I could with my body. He follows me over, jerking until he stills beneath me. We both hold still, breathing heavily wrapped in each other's arms.

A knock at the door brings me back to reality. "Lauren! Some guy's asking about the drinks."

"Jessica," Edward mouths.

"She's not in here," I call, embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed. And still hating Jessica.

"Oh, sorry," Jessica says, and then it's silent.

Edward hugs me to his chest and breathes me in, but my arms go limp as my guard goes back up.

"Hey. You okay?" he asks, trailing his fingers down my arms.

"No, I'm not. This is . . ."

"Really great?"

"How can you say that? You're seventeen!"

"And it was hella-awesome."

"You don't get it. This is wrong."

"It's not wrong. It's fine. We didn't do anything wrong. We even stayed within the bounds of the law."

I shake in disgust and swing my leg off him. "This can't happen again. You can't kiss me again. You can't—not even flirting—not even—"

"What?" He tilts his head, looking adorably rumpled and relaxed.

"I can't see you again. I can't. It's not safe. This isn't safe." I'm walking the room now, pacing, running my hands through my hair.

"We did okay." He looks around the room, searching for something. I spot it before he does and toss him a box of tissues from Lauren's dresser. The weight of the moment hits me when he unbuttons and unzips to clean himself up.

"What did we do?"

"We made out and got each other off. What is the big deal?"

"The big deal is I wanted to do more."

"Yeah, join the club."

"This isn't a joke!" I pull at my hair and turn around as he finishes his cleaning.

"Come here. Let's talk about this like adults."

"Like adults?" I huff a laugh and sit as far away from him on the bed as possible.

"Why are you so scared? We just can't have sex. That's okay."

"Maybe for you."

"Ah," he says, looking me up and down. Like I'm the problem. Like my desire to have sex so bad is what's keeping us apart.

"Don't do that. Don't look at me like I'm some brazen woman."

"You were pretty aggressive. I don't mind. I thought I was going to combust when you pulled on my pants."

I stare at his jeans, more specifically what's under his jeans, and when I meet his eyes, he's grinning.

I'm not. "Look. I know myself. I know how I am and how I like things, and if you'd asked me one more time to lose my shirt, I would've, and then we would've gotten naked—"

"This is a great story. How does it—"

"And then jail!"

That shuts him up.

But he's even cuter now that he's solemn and a bit forlorn. I want to kiss his pouty lips. I have got to get out of here, so I stand.

"I have to go. I'm sorry, Edward, but this just can't happen."

"Bella, wait—"

But I'm already gone.

. . . . .

I feel like garbage as I drive home because I've come to a conclusion: I'm sick. Sick and depraved. I took advantage of a kid. Because I like him. And because I was jealous. And because he was willing.

I can never ever ever ever do it again.

I call Esme for confirmation. If anyone can help me be strong, it's her. She's always been good at lectures and pick-me-ups, and I need both.

"I'm sick."

"Then go to a hospital. Why are you calling me so late?" Esme's voice is rough.

"I'm mentally ill."

"What is going on?"

"I molested him in my friend's bed."

"Edward?"

"Yes, who else?"

"Well, I don't know."

"Of course you know. Everyone knows."

"And no one cares, Bella. Honestly. I mean, I think you should wait. That'd be the responsible thing, but you guys are kind of cute together."

"Don't tell me that. That is the exact opposite thing you're supposed to say."

"Well, it's true. And look at the facts: I started early. Mom started early. Then she basically had two families. The women in our family are unconventional. We do what feels right to us, and that's what you're doing."

"But it's not right."

"It's not right right now, but it will be. Just keep your pants on; you'll be okay."

"I wanted to get naked with a seventeen-year-old tonight. That doesn't concern you?"

"Ew! All right, saying it like that sounds really awful. You're right. But stop. Take away his age." I do. I think about him. And, damn, I like him so, so much. "Does it feel right with him?"

"Yes," I say.

"Bella, you're being smart about this. You have to be, but I also think you're freaking out a bit too much. Jasper doesn't care. Even Rose is over it."

"What?"

"Jasper and Edward were talking about it the other night, about what it would be like if you two got together, and Jasper as all, 'Whatever, dude, just don't kiss her in front of me. Gross.' And that was it."

"I cannot believe what I'm hearing."

"And Rose had that crush, but now she seems over it. She knows he likes you, and that's okay."

"And what about Jessica?"

"Who's Jessica?"

"Some bimbo."

"Never heard of her. We good? Can I sleep now?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"Just don't have sex; you'll be fine."

I'm quiet for a moment. I can't wrap my head around her words.

She sighs. "Bella, I think he's good for you. And I haven't seen him this happy since his mom got free and clear of cancer."

My heart swells at her words. Really? I make him happy? I do that? I hadn't really thought of that. And he makes me happy. Apart from all the age drama. I need to sleep on all this.

"Sorry I woke you up," I say.

"It's okay."

"He's a really good kisser."

"Don't tell me that stuff. He's like my kid."

I laugh softly. "Got it. Talk to you later."

"Goodnight."

But is it a good night? I have no idea.

Part Five

Over the next few weeks I feel calmer. Better. But still not quite accepting of Esme's words. It can't be that simple; it's not. And I feel as though I have to apologize to Edward for what happened, but what do I say?

I spend countless hours staring at my phone, typing out various text messages to Edward to do just that. Sometimes they're short and sweet; sometimes they're letters, novellas, telling him how I feel and what I'd like to do but can't because I just can't. I don't send any of them.

Basically, life sucks.

But I'm finishing up this semester like a pro, getting all my assignments done on time and acing tests.

Thanksgiving comes and goes, and Esme allows me to make the mashed potatoes this year. I'm fairly certain, based on the look on her face when she ate them, she'll never allow me to do that again.

And I'm right. Because when I offer to make something for Christmas dinner she says, "No, don't worry about it. You just finish up the semester." Which is code for, "You tried to kill me with mashed potatoes last time, and I'm not letting that happen again."

But she does pawn off choosing a gift for Mom and Dad, which just sucks because they're nearly retired and don't need anything, and my mother returns everything anyway.

"My girls!" Mom says brightly, when I come upstairs from Esme's basement.

"Hi, Mom." I hug her and then go directly to Dad, who gives the best hugs. They're nonjudgmental or something.

"Hiya, Christmas Bells," he says, his mustache tickling my neck.

"Dad, I'm 20. Almost 21. You can stop with the Christmas Bells."

"But it's Christmas!"

We open presents, taking turns oohing and ahhing over each other's gifts, then sit and eat dinner together. Rose and Jasper gulp up every minute of attention from their grandparents. It's fun to hear their grandparent-friendly versions of their school year so far. I've heard some of the grittier details and have even been a part of a few of these tales. I grin, thinking of all the time I got to spend with them this summer and even feel nostalgic about it a bit.

We clean up and sit around the living room. We're chowing on dessert when the doorbell rings and we hear singing.

Rose runs to the door and opens it wide, exposing our carolers.

I step back stomping on Dad's foot.

It's Edward. And, presumably, his parents singing us We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And as freaked out as I am, I cannot stop the smile that spreads across my face as I watch Edward strum his guitar and sing his heart out, his dad singing bass to his tenor. It's the cutest thing ever.

He's the cutest thing ever.

When they've finished, they bow, and his mother hands over a plate of cookies to Rose with a "Merry Christmas!"

"You didn't have to do this!" Esme says.

"Nonsense. You have done so much for my family, and I can never repay you." Edward's mom gets teary, and so do I.

"Oh, gosh," Esme says, wiping her eyes. "This is Elizabeth and Edward Masen, and their son, Edward Junior."

"Junior," I mouth as Esme continues. "These are my parents, Renee and Charlie, and my sister, Bella."

Edward's parents' eyes sweep to me, and they both smile. "It's so nice to meet you all. You've raised amazing girls."

"It was all her," Dad says pointing to Mom.

"Well, we don't want to keep you. Just wanted to say Merry Christmas and thank you and all that."

There are waves and hugs and rushed goodbyes from everyone, but I stand still as I watch Edward hand his guitar over to his dad. He nods in hello to me, and I smile back.

"Can we talk? Just a sec?"

"Sure." I head out and close the door behind me before Mom can say anything. Edward's parents head to the car as we saunter to the middle of the driveway. I fold my arms over my chest. It's cold out here. "What's up, Junior?"

"Ha. Do you have mustaches all over your pants?"

"PJ's. Rose got them for me."

"They're cute." He pauses, looking me over, then his smile widens. "So hi."

"Hi."

We're quiet for a moment before I blurt. "I'm really sorry about what happened. At Lauren's."

"Why?" He sounds exasperated.

I jerk my head back in surprise. "Because it was inappropriate and not okay. And I feel terrible for taking advantage of you like that."

He takes a step forward, his knee brushing my mustached pants. "It was awesome."

"I disagree."

He gives me a look, like do you really?

"I disagree for different reasons."

The smile's back.

"So if you weren't mad, why haven't you been calling me?" I ask.

The smile's wider. "I was busy. School. Work. Holidays. Too busy fantasizing about this hot girl."

"Your parents are right there."

He shrugs. "And they know all about you. Want to meet them?"

"I just did."

We're at a standstill.

"I didn't call you because I knew you were mad. At least mad at yourself or this situation or whatever. And knew you'd need time to cool off."

"Well, yeah, I kind of did."

"Kind of?" He tilts his head, taking in my expression.

"I miss you, you idiot."

"Good."

"Good?" The nerve.

"Yeah, because while you were trying to calm down and trying to figure out how to live Edward free, I was turning eighteen."

He spins and walks away, grinning over his shoulder as his parents wave and shout, "It was nice meeting you, Bella."

I wave like a dumbass and watch as Edward—newly adulted Edward—gets into the back of his parents' sedan to sing more Christmas carols.

What is this life?

"Who was that?" Mom asks as soon as I'm in the door.

"I'll tell you when you're older," I say and go straight to the basement.

As I open the door, I hear, "He's quite attractive. Looks a little young, but who am I to judge?"

I stay down there and try to go to bed, but fail because Edward starts texting me.

You looked good tonight.

So did you.

You've never said that before.

I always wanted to.

What else did you want to say?

I'm at my sister's house. I hear Jasper fighting with my dad over Monopoly. It's too weird to flirt right now.

But if you could?

I would.

. . . . .

And I do. A lot. Texting feels safe. It's always felt safe with him. So he and I flirt incessantly over winter break through texts. So much so, that on a girls' night I'm completely distracted, forcing Angela to ask, "All right, who are you sexting?"

I tell her everything while smiling and happy. And it's all because of one miniscule change—the age of a boy I like.

When I get home after my shift at Crap Yogurt, Edward texts me. Permission to call?

Permission granted, I type back.

"So I love that we're texting again," he says in greeting, "but I feel like I have to say—to get it out of the way—you did not take advantage of me."

"That's exactly what a kid who was taken advantage of would say."

"Okay, but in this case, it's not true. You weren't seducing me or stalking me or luring me into your dorm. No matter how much I wanted you to," he adds.

I giggle. It feels good to laugh and mean it and feel free about all of this instead of guilty. "I still feel awful."

"You shouldn't; you didn't do anything wrong."

I worry my lip and take my shoes off, setting them in my closet. I peer up at the clothing bar and remember Edward hanging from it looking hot as hell.

"Did you know in a lot of places the age of consent is much younger? Like sixteen."

"Did you look this up?" I ask.

"You googled some shit, and I googled some shit."

"Don't say shit."

"Why?" I hear the smile in his voice.

"Because it makes me want to do—"

"Shit?"

I laugh and groan. "Why do you have to make me laugh?"

"Because I love that sound."

"Cheeseball."

"Seriously, you know how annoying it is to hear girls my age laugh? They don't even laugh. They giggle, but it's not even a real giggle it's a fake giggle. It's the most annoying thing on the planet."

"Tell me how you really feel."

"I really feel like I want to see you."

"Now?"

"Now."

"No."

"Why?"

"Because it's late, and I have homework, and I don't know. Just no."

"When then? When?" So eager.

I'm quiet, contemplative. Can I really do this? Just be okay with this?

"When, Bella?" he pleads.

Yes, I can. Well, I can try at least. "This weekend?"

"Perfect. I'll pick you up."

"You have a car now?"

"No, I'll take my dad's just to freak you out and remind you how weird this is."

"Great. Sounds great." My sarcasm seeps through.

"So, you know those religious people who are all 'I'm waiting until I get married to have sex,' and it's this big deal and they wait and wait and wait and then get married and bam just like that lose their virginity?"

"Um, sure. I guess."

"Well, this is just like that."

"Yeah, I don't get it."

"It's like we've been waiting for this silly thing, this event to happen before we could be together, and now it's happened. Event over. I'm eighteen. It's cool now. Everything's cool."

"Well, cool then."

"You mean it?"

"I'm trying to."

"That's all I can ask."

. . . . .

Friday night when Edward picks me up, it's awkward. I'm awkward. And he looks scared of me. Scared like I'm going to bolt or throw up. And I just might. Turning off my previous mindset is going to be hard. This still feels so wrong.

Our dinner conversation is stilted, and when he goes to hold my hand when we take a walk downtown, I fiddle with my hair to escape his fingers. It's lame. I'm lame.

We stop at a waist-high fence and look over the beach. The sun's set already, but the sky's filled with deep purples and blues. I huddle into my coat and press myself closer to Edward, seeking heat. "Thank goodness," he blurts. "I was starting to think I'd ruined everything."

"It's me. I'm being weird."

"You're totally being weird," he says, catching my eyes.

"I'm sorry. This is really hard for me. I can't just flip a switch and forget that for the past however many months—"

"Eight."

I laugh. He was counting? Of course he was. "I'm trying to flip that switch. I'm trying."

"What if—now hear me out—we tried to flip another switch?" He gives me a close-lipped smile and sends his eyes Heavenward.

I lower my head to his shoulder and laugh heartily into his coat.

"It was just a suggestion," he says. "You don't have to wound my ego so badly."

I peer up at him. And laugh even harder.

He looks sufficiently humbled and boyish and oh, so cute.

"Okay, enough laughing. Seriously. Like the thought of kissing me is so hysteri—"

I cut him off. With my lips.

He opens his mouth, and suddenly we're frantic, his hand in my hair, another tight around my waist, pulling me in.

"You can—mm—really kiss," I say breathless when his lips go to my neck.

"Good," he says and sucks hard.

My mouth gapes, and I need to be wearing fewer clothes, but we're in public, and I need a distraction, so I keep talking. "I couldn't stop thinking about it."

"Yeah?"

"Your mouth. The way you—"

"What?" His head pops up, eyes level with mine.

"That. That look. That earnestness. That . . . whatever that is."

"It's want." He pulls my face to his and kisses me, deep and fast then slows his pace, warming us both, heating us from the inside out.

"I want, too."

He searches my eyes and grabs my hand, roughly pulling me along to his father's car. Once inside, his coat is off, and I follow his lead but don't stop there as I climb on top of him and lick his neck.

"God," he groans.

I roll my hips, and he holds me still.

"I really want this, but here in this car. I just . . . can't."

I climb off him and sit on the passenger's side. I lean my head back against the seat and sigh happily. I don't even care. I'm just happy I'm here with him.

"There's more to relationships than sex, you know," I say, repeating him.

"So I hear. Sucks, huh?"

"Totally."

He rolls his fingers over the rips in his jeans, the noise grating yet somehow soothing.

"I love when you do that."

"Do what?" he asks, surprise in his voice.

"Rub your hands over your legs like that. It always makes me want to join you."

His eyebrow and smile quirk up.

I take it as an invitation and run my fingers over his knee to his inner thigh then back on top raking my nails over the threadbare area. His muscle tightens below my hand, and I squeeze.

He grips my neck and draws me in for a kiss, his tongue telling me yes; he likes that.

"I never cared about my age before. Never felt like I was dying to grow up or get out of my parents' house or any of that. Until I met you, and then it was like time stopped, and all I wanted to do was smash the clock with a sledgehammer because it was going so damn slow."

"It was so slow," I say, kissing him again.

"But now we're here."

"We're here."

He kisses me again, awkwardly leaning over the console. He pushes his hand up the back of my shirt, grazing my bra's clasp with his cold hand. This feels familiar.

"I remember this," I say against his lips. "Yeah. You tried this in Lauren's room."

"Oh, shit. Don't think about that and get all weird again."

"I'm not getting weird. But I am thinking about it." I settle back into my seat, Edward's hand sliding out of my shirt and resting on my knee. "And I'm thinking I liked it but didn't want to like it, but now I can."

"You can?"

"Yes."

He grins, leans forward to kiss me, sweet and lingering.

"So I have one question for you, Edward?"

"Hmm?"

"Why are we sitting in your car like stupid teenagers making out when I'm a freaking college student with a single dorm room just waiting for us?"

"Shit," he says, getting it.

"Shit indeed." I buckle up. "How fast can you drive, Edward?"

"Let's find out." He starts the car. Taylor Swift is on the radio. He clasps my hand over the console, gives me a megawatt smile, and follows up her words with, "And I'll write your name."

And I've never been happier.


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