A May To December Romance Entry

Rental Exchange was the lucky winner of The Temptress "Best Young Bella" Award.

A massive thank you to the wonderful women that organized the contest. It ran so smoothly and was heaps of fun to take part in. I appreciate the time and effort it took you all. Thank you. And thanks to Lolypop82 for the amazing banner.

To my amazing beta mcc101180... Love your work.

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

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Rental Exchange.

My name is Edward Cullen. I am a professional architect, running my own business from home. As a result, I rarely have time to cook or clean. I'm interested in an exchange program. In return for free rent, I'm looking for a senior culinary student who would be prepared to cook five nights a week and do minimal housekeeping. You will have your own bedroom and bathroom. Please email me your CV. We can arrange a time for you to bring a sample of your culinary skills and see the house.

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Cullen, when are you going to learn?

You should have been more specific!

"Would you like another cream puff, Mr. Cullen?" the sickly sweet wisp of a girl in my kitchen asks.

"How are you on savory dishes, um, Tina?"

"It's Tanya. Well, I am a French Pastry major—"

"Do the French not eat savory food at all? Ever?" I know my tone is abrasive, but I can feel my blood sugar levels entering the danger zone. This is not the first cream puff I've consumed today.

She giggles, blushes, and stutters her way through some sort of answer I couldn't care less about. I peruse the list of candidates that are due this afternoon. I ask Miss French Pastry chef to pack her things.

How hard is it to find a student that can make a decent meal?

Emmett and his big fucking ideas.

When I finally manage to shuffle a begging Tanya out the door, there's a girl waiting on the porch. Not only is she thirty minutes early, but it appears she thinks she's moving in. Three backpacks, one suitcase, two enormous boxes of kitchen items, and two Whole Foods brown paper bags litter my once neat porch.

"Oh, Bella," Tanya groans. "Great." The girl continues down the stairs muttering to herself about chances and hell.

"Bella? I don't recall a Bella …" I check the frighteningly long list of potential sugar fiends.

"Actually, my name is Isabella Swan, Mr. Cullen." She offers her hand. For one so small and feminine her grip surprises me. "I'm not on your list because my life for the past forty-eight hours has been a nightmare to put it mildly. I saw your ad, and before I could respond, like I'm sure half the college has, my roommate, well, let's just say he's got a gambling addiction and sold half my shit yesterday. So I'm in desperate need of—"

"Look, Miss Swan—"

"How many cream puffs have you eaten this morning?" She rests a hand on her hip and raises one eyebrow in a move I'd describe as defiant. I take a moment to really look at her. The longest brown hair I've seen in a while cascades over one shoulder and almost reaches her waist. She's too thin, but that's what young girls these days think is attractive. But it's her eyes that get my attention. They remind me of a nymph that's up to no good. There's a cheeky intelligence staring back at me, and it transports me back in time to my days at university when the world was waiting to be discovered and explored.

"Well?" she says, raising that eyebrow again, but this time her lips curl up on one side. "Let me take a wild guess here, since yesterday the Frenchies learned how to make choux a la crème or what you'd call a cream puff. I'm pretty sure you never want to see another one of those ever again." Her eyes roam up and down my body twice in open appraisal, making me pull in my stomach and stand up tall. "I'd say you're the type of man that would kill for a bacon and asparagus omelette stuffed with the most decadent herbed goat cheese in existence, seasoned with just a hint of fresh garlic, and the perfect amount of cracked pepper and pink Himalayan salt?" That cheeky grin again. "Am I right, Mr. Cullen?"

Fuck!

My mouth actually starts watering just listening to her.

"Give me twenty minutes and your undivided taste bud attention. That's all I'm asking. I know I'm jumping the line, but if that asshole sells any more of my stuff, I'll be wearing an orange jumpsuit for a very long time."

Without a word, I step back from the doorway and gesture for her to enter.

She grabs one backpack and the Whole Foods bags. "I'm pretty sure the rest of my stuff is safe on a porch in this part of town." She grins before stepping inside.

Bella doesn't wait, but takes the lead and marches down my hall. My kitchen awaits at the end of the hall and overlooks the back deck. Walking past my office, she pauses and peruses the space. For some reason, I'm ashamed at the crazy disarray of blueprints I'm sure she can't miss spread haphazardly over every possible surface.

"Nice, Mr. Cullen. Looks as though you have to claw your way out from under that each day. No wonder you don't cook." She eyes me over her shoulder before continuing to the kitchen. I try not to watch the sway of her tiny hips in jeans that she should know are three sizes too small for her.

Bella ushers me into a chair at my table, navigates my kitchen like she's lived here longer than I have, and gives me a brief life story without me uttering a single word.

Her current, or I should say ex, roommate has an online poker addiction, which hit a new low when I posted my ad two days ago. He sold her set of Japanese kitchen knives—which stole 347 hours of her youth as she slaved away at Taco Bell to buy them—her dearly beloved Kleenmaid mixer—which she considered a family member—and the TV to enter an online poker championship. Needless to say, he didn't make it past the first round. Bella decided enough was enough and grabbed what stuff he might sell this morning and turned up on my doorstep. She has six months left of her Culinary Arts Associates Degree, and after she's paid her dues in some fabulous Seattle kitchen, she plans to open her own restaurant like a real "grown up."

The mention of being a grown up reminds me to stop watching the way her hips move, in an almost delicate dance, as she maneuvers around my kitchen. Emmett might be right about it not being healthy to lock yourself away with nothing but email contact with clients for years on end. Before I know it, she's sauntering toward me wearing a smile that should be illegal and carrying my omelette and a freshly squeezed orange juice.

"Ta-Da!" The plate slides in front of me, and just the aroma alone makes me moan. "Wait 'til you taste it." She stands at my side—that hand on her hip again—watching as I slice into the delicate yellow goodness. It's cooked to perfection. Not too runny, not too hard. Perfect eggs. The flavors explode one by one as I chew the first mouthful.

"Ompf, my Gog!" I moan.

She laughs, and it's music to my ears as my taste buds slide into heaven. Bella takes a seat, props her elbows on the table, and rests her head in her hands, watching me. That smile is growing with every mouthful, and her eyes are full of mischief as she tracks my fork from plate to mouth. I know she knows I'm going to give her the room. Her excitement is almost tangible, and it's contagious. I haven't felt this alive, or dare I say, young in years.

"I'm in, aren't I?" She almost purrs.

I laugh, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand. I just inhaled that omelette and would happily demolish another if given half a chance. "Do you want to see the room? The rest of the house?"

"Nope. At this point, I'd live chained up in your basement if you wanted to me to."

Orange juice sprays from my lips at the mention of chaining her up.

Christ!

"Ah, no chains. I promise," I say between coughs. She simply winks at me and moves to clean the dishes. "Just leave that." I cough again.

Smooth, Cullen. Real smooth.

She turns. "Mr. Cullen, you're stuck with me now, so I might as well get started. Rent and utilities in exchange for cooking and cleaning. It's a done deal."

"Um, ah." She stops and studies me with an intensity I'm not used to having lived alone all this time.

"Yes?"

"Any, ah, leftovers?" I don't know what the hell has gotten into me, but I can feel the heat in my cheeks.

God dammit, you're a grown man.

Fucking act like one.

Her eyes positively sparkle with joy, and it warms my cheeks further knowing I've made this tiny thing in her tiny fucking jeans happy after the rough times she's just described.

"A man with an appetite is sexy as hell. You know that?" With that, she bends to open the oven and reveals a second omelette. I try to think of anything at all other than this young beauty in my kitchen calling me sexy. I try to hide by pushing my glasses up my nose, as she delivers the second plate saying, "A good chef always has a backup. Bon appetite, roomie."

The doorbell rings, and I'm punched back into reality. The spell this kitchen goddess has put me under completely erased the fact that I have a list of applicants to see.

"Shit. That's my eleven o'clock."

Bella is still by my side and steals the list of applicants before I can stop her. "Oh, good God, you owe me big time. Victoria" —she points to the next name on the list— "can burn toast. I'm serious. She's the only student to ever have set fire to the kitchen. I'll take care of these." With that, she heads off toward the door with my list in hand.

I turn, not wanting to let my omelette get cold, and follow her swaying hips down the hall as she opens the door.

"Bella? No! What are you doing here?" a high-pitched voice whines.

"Moving in, Vic. See you in class."

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-~R.E.~-

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Later that evening, Bella and I are on the back deck sipping red wine under the stars. It's a gorgeous night, and the cool air is what I need to try to ease my pain. My belly has been abused from the amount of food I just consumed. Years of frozen dinners left me making an absolutely pig of myself when she pulled a side of succulent roast beef from my oven. She's without a doubt earned the title of kitchen goddess. And if I don't watch myself, I'll be ordering larger trousers online by the end of the month.

"You got a girlfriend?"

Red wine enters my lungs as I choke, cough, and splutter for the second time today.

Get a grip.

"No. Ah, don't get out much really. Working from home. Ah … yeah. No."

Fuck! You sound like an inarticulate freak.

Bella smiles at me over the rim of her glass. Those cheeky eyes are dancing with glee. I gulp more wine, wondering what she's thinking.

"Hmm … that's a surprise."

I raise an eyebrow in question, too nervous to open my mouth.

"Well, you're a catch, Edward. This house" —she gestures to our surroundings with a view of the water— "you run a successful business that leaves you too busy to even eat unless ordered to. You work out and are in great shape from what I can tell, and you're the sexiest man I've ever seen in dark-rimmed glasses. Why on earth weren't you snapped up back in the day?"

Fuck!

Back in the day?

How old does she think I am?

I shrug and gulp the remains of my wine. I've never been a man of many words, but Bella seems to have stolen the few I had command over. "You?"

"Nope, no girlfriend." Those sinful eyes dance with glee, and I'm one hundred percent sure she knows what that thought has just done to me. "Seriously though, no. How long have you got?" She smiles and reaches to refill my wine glass. "I've sworn off boys. I had to. I seem to be a magnet for assholes and bad boys that steal my shit and break my heart. I'm going to hold out now for a real man. No more immature boys that are, well, after one thing."

Down, boy!

Christ, Cullen.

What has gotten into you?

She's half your fucking age.

And she's after a man, not a geriatric, which she probably thinks you are.

I gulp more wine, and when half my glass is gone, I ponder whether drinking in this girl's presence is a really stupid move. Having only known Bella for less than eight hours, I cannot for the life of me explain why her and her playful, mischief-filled eyes have suddenly gotten under my skin. There's a strange swirling tension inside my chest. It's like half protective father, half territorial Neanderthal that wants to keep this girl safe, make her smile, and give her the world on a silver platter. Maybe Emmett's right, and I've been isolated and alone for too long. Maybe I should have joined that dating website he always goes on about. Made time to date and put myself out in the world instead of taking on yet another client. Maybe this sweet, young thing is going to be the death of me.

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-~R.E.~-

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The next morning when I wake, the house smells like cinnamon and Christmas. Bella has cooked. When I asked her to cook as part of our deal, I in no way meant she had to make me breakfast, but from the sweet aroma wafting up my stairs, there is no way in hell I'll refuse whatever she offers.

Throwing on my gym gear, I follow my nose.

Christ!

Bella is bending over, sliding a tray into the oven when I enter the kitchen. Her, god dammit, shorts? Are those things really shorts? Well, they barely cover the essential parts they were designed to cover.

Fuck me!

Turn around!

Leave, you fucking pervert.

I take a few steps backward; I spin around and slam into the wall. I know she's heard me because giggles fill the air as I peel myself off the doorway I'm hugging.

"Morning, E. Pancakes are almost done. Don't you just love the smell of pancakes in the morning?"

Think!

"Mmm-hmpph."

Smooth.

"Take a seat and I'll dish you up a plate. Hungry?"

I discreetly slide my glasses off my nose while nodding. If I can't see her barely there shorts, then I can't see what they aren't exactly hiding enough of either. Partial blindness might be the only way I'll survive this living arrangement if that's what she's going to wear when she's home. Bella fades into a soft lens of muted colors—mostly her long mahogany hair is the highlight to focus on now. Reprieve. I'm starting to think I better make time for a health check. Make sure my heart is up to being stopped this early in the day, not to mention my cholesterol levels if yesterday is anything to go by.

"Um, you don't have to cook breakfast, you know." I'm staring out the window, not game to look in her direction, otherwise I won't be able to stand up in front of her.

"I know, but I don't want you changing your mind. I can't go back to living at my old place. I just can't." The sadness in her voice does make me look. In fact, I put my glasses back on and focus on her face. She's sad. Or frustrated maybe? No, that look is defeat. Living there and having the tools of her trade stolen has cost her dearly. It makes my blood boil.

"You should call the cops. How much were those knives anyway?"

"Don't ask. I worked so hard to save that money. I was the only one at college with a professional set, and now they're gone. The cops can't do shit." She rubs her fingers together making a fist, and I get the impression she's missing the feel of her knives in her hand.

"What are your plans today then?" she asks, blowing on her coffee and taking a deep breath.

It's like a cloud has lifted from above me. My architectural business boomed since I first took the chance and went out on my own. I've lived and breathed drawing and designing every minute of every waking hour in that office ever since, and let the last twelve years slip past without really living them. Having someone ask about my day catches me off-guard but in a good way. I rub my chest.

"Oh, ah, designing. You know."

She rolls her gorgeous eyes. "No shit, Mr. Fancy Architect, but what exactly will you be designing today?"

I know my cheeks are heating again. It's been too long since someone who wasn't a paying client cared how I spent my time.

"The new Conservatory of Music actually. I got the contract, and they want a few structural adjustments done from the tender design." I have no idea why I'm having trouble looking her in the eye. I'm not a shy person, but with Bella it's …

"Wow, you're designing the whole project. That's huge. Can you show me later?"

"Yes, um, sure." Bella wants to look at my work. Today is a good day, and it's only just begun. "You?" She's moved behind the kitchen island so her barely covered delightful butt is out of view. The knot in my stomach relaxes.

"Classes 'til six. It's the day from hell, but thanks to you, I got a sleep in since I'm within walking distance now. I'll be saving on public transport too living here." She beams.

I want to ask about her financial status but it's too personal and too early to go there. Bella is slightly older—at twenty-five—than all the other applicants were, and it makes me wonder why she started college late. I get the impression she's been living on the edge of her budget, and knowing I'm taking the pressure offer makes me smile. I glance at her around mouthfuls as I savor every morsel of my pancakes, bacon, and eggs. She throws her phone in the backpack on the island and ties her hair back.

"I better be going. I've got some stuff to see to before class."

What.

The.

Fuck?

Blueberry pancake joins last night's red wine in my lungs as I grab for my coffee to end the third choking fit in her presence. It doesn't help, just scolds.

"You okay?" She's stopped next to me and doesn't know whether to pound me on the back or dial 911.

I wave my hand in the air, not sure even what I'm trying to convey. It might be wait or help or water. Coughing again, I eventually clear my windpipe and drag a deep breath into my abused lungs.

"You're going out, um …" I suddenly realize I'm going to sound as ancient as she must think I look.

Fuck!

"You were saying?" She waits.

I allow my eyes to drift south and bask in the milky white glory of her naked thighs, slender calves, and cute painted bare toes. "You're wearing that to school?" My voice breaks. I feel like a teenager all over again. Emmett would be rolling on the floor if he witnessed this.

Her lips twitch in the cutest way possible, and I know she's thinking I'm an old foggy, in that senile grandfather kind of way.

"Well, as a matter of fact, E, my clothes—"

"E?" I look at her and hope—a feeling I had also forgotten. I think she's nicknamed me already.

"Edward is way too formal since we're living together." She makes a scandalized face and that makes me laugh. "You are definitely not an Eddie." She pokes her cute pink tongue out at that idea. "So, E it is."

"Well, Miss B," I say, watching with more interest than I should have for her reaction. Her smile lights up the room and makes my chest ache with distant memories of love and affection. I rub the center of my chest and hope she doesn't know why. That is out of the question, but I feel as though I'm waking up after sleeping for eternity, and that feels good—too good.

"I just grabbed what could be sold yesterday before I came here. Didn't have room to carry all my clothes too. I doubt the asshole will have much luck selling my shitty gear, but the thought of heading back there." She rolls her eyes. "He's gonna know I've moved out, and the shit will hit the fan about utilities owing, yada, yada, yada, but the way I see it, he owes me. So my tank and shorts will have to do for a few days."

"Hardly shorts. They don't cover, ah, enough," I mutter before I can stop myself. "You might get … burned or …" I fill my mouth with pancakes so that I can't say anything else embarrassing. She grins, nibbles her lip, sighs and slowly shakes her head at me. I try to decipher what that means as I watch her sashay down the hall and out the door.

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-~R.E.~-

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My morning has been totally unproductive. All I can think about is the young woman I'm now sharing my house with. She has invaded every pore of my body in a way I wasn't expecting in the least.

I finally admit defeat mid-morning, leaving my computer to head to my weights room. Living alone allows me to utilize the space as I need rather than what it was designed for. I've never needed a formal dining, but the high windows allow plenty of light and give me a view while I work out. I'm lying back on the bench press, lifting as many pounds as I can to distract myself from Bella. I need to concentrate all my energy on raising the weight bar in front of my face.

Breathe in. Focus. Exhale, lift. Breathe in. Hold steady. Exhale, lower the load.

Repeat.

Repeat.

By the time I'm done, my arms are crying in agony, and sweat is dripping down my torso. I settle the weights back into the rest and sit up, grabbing for my towel.

"Shit!"

Bella is leaning her hip against the doorframe watching me. I grab for my t-shirt and hold it in front of my bare chest.

"What the—"

"Sorry," she says. "Actually, I'm not." She grins that wicked smile that matches the mischief behind her eyes and leaves before I can say anything more.

I look down, praying she didn't notice the slight touch of grey hair that has unfortunately sprung up on my chest. My father went grey at forty, and I fear I'm following in his footsteps, although it hadn't mattered—until now.

Putting on my shirt, I head for the kitchen. I can hear pots and pans clanking together.

"What are you doing here?"

"Home for lunch. I can now since I'm so close. It's another way to save for me, and you get lunch too."

"No, that's not necessary." I feel like I've got a servant rather than a roommate that cooks a bit.

"Don't you like my cooking?" Miss Evil Eyes asks. I return her glare, narrowing my eyes.

"Seriously, don't come home just for me. I haven't eaten this well in years and can survive until dinner."

"I like cooking for you, E," she says before disappearing into my massive fridge. "And the lunch time show is spectacular. Wouldn't miss that workout for anything."

Cheeky little minx.

All I hear as I retreat to shower is her laughter, and yet again, I can't wipe the smile off my face.

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-~R.E.~-

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Weeks turn into months and a routine begins to emerge. I rise earlier than ever in my life and shower before breakfast. It's become a necessity to relieve the tension in a certain part of my anatomy before entering the kitchen. Even though Bella reclaimed the rest of her wardrobe weeks ago, she still dresses in the "nonexistent, torture a man's soul to death" shorts every morning. Breakfast is a battle, unless I've taken the matter into my own hand. Since this nymph of a girl has cooked her way inside my heart and soul, I've turned into a hormonal teenager all over again.

Over breakfast, we discuss our day, a ritual I absolutely love. She goes off to school, and I hit the office. Most days, I'm sucked into the vortex of my work, and before I know it, Bella is tapping me on the shoulder and hauling me out for lunch. She either returns to college for afternoon class, or turns the kitchen into a real working restaurant, practicing her culinary skills. Sushi chef one day, classic French the next, then tapas bar the day after that. And I become the eager and willing taste tester that now needs to run every afternoon in addition to my weight training to make sure my trousers buckle up.

I then work until Bella can't wait any longer and drags me out onto the deck for a quiet dinner, followed by several glasses of fine red wine. Some nights, we tell each other stories. Other nights, we just sit in silence and watch the moon rise. It's our slice of heaven—well, mine anyhow. I can't imagine Bella not being here. The more I get to know her delightful soul, the more I need my early morning shower ritual. And the more I want to punch myself for thinking the thoughts I've had about her while I'm in there.

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-~R.E.~-

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"You always wear those glasses?" she asks over the rim of her wine glass.

It's after-dinner deck time under the stars, and Bella is on her third glass. The fact that Bella seems to enjoy our post-dinner chat as much as I do warms my insides faster than the wine. She's never once left the table and headed for the TV.

"Don't get me wrong, I love them. I love them a little too much. They suit you, especially with your hair such a, such a wild array of crazy. I just wondered—"

"You always say what's on your mind?"

She grins. "Yep, gets me into so much trouble. And I've promised myself I'm staying away from trouble, but, well, do you? Oh, and the 'wild array of crazy' was a compliment by the way."

I can't stop the grin that forms when sweet, young Bella pays me a compliment. The time we sit together out here and chat is my favorite part of the day. Every night, I feel like the Cheshire Cat as we trade useless pieces of information about ourselves. I want this girl to know me, but I know that's the most selfish desire I've ever had. She's a young, free spirit about to embark on the adventure that is her life, and it would be wrong of me to get in the way of that.

"Yes," I answer, trying not to allow my thoughts to sour my night. "I'm practically blind without them."

"They're sexy. The dark rims" —she motions to her own face— "they really look good on you."

I'm struck dumb, yet again. I don't know where to take this. I know where I want to take it, but then I remember her age. My age.

"Thank you, Miss B." I smile and stand. "Think I'll be off to bed now. Good night."

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-~R.E.~-

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"Emmett, you don't understand," I groan into the phone. Bella was wearing a bikini and a sarong when I entered the kitchen this morning and no amount of "showering" could have prepared me for that sight.

"Dude, she sounds amazing. Why on earth are you complaining?"

"I'm not complaining. God, I just feel like a dirty old man in my own home. She's the sweetest thing, and I can't get her out of my fucking head."

"Again, what is the problem, Edward? By the sounds of things, she digs you."

"She's twenty-five, Em," I half yell. "I'm heading for my fortieth birthday in a matter of weeks in case you've forgotten. I feel like a fucking cradle snatcher."

Emmett listens, argues, and eventually hangs up, saying that I need to get over myself and just go with the flow. A girl doesn't tell a guy she thinks he's sexy for no reason.

The doorbell rings, and I race to sign for the package I've been tracking for the past ten days. Finally, they're here. Closing the door, I head to the kitchen, discard the shipping container, and open each individual wooden box. The metal gleams with deadly precision, the blades razor sharp. I arrange them in size order and cover the whole set with a towel, leaving a note on top.

For my Kitchen Goddess.

Returning to my office is hard. I want to lay in wait to see the look on her face when she realizes what I've done, but she always checks in on me at my desk when she comes down the hall. If I'm not here, completely absorbed in work, she'll know something's up.

The key turns. I grab the nearest blueprint and stand, leaning over my desk, praying I've laid it out the right way up.

"I'm home. Grilled cheese do for today? I've had too much sun." Her voice echoes down the hall to me. Bella's been at the beach, taking a much-needed break from her hectic schedule. She'd begged me to join her, but I knew I wouldn't survive endless hours of bikini torture, and my delivery was finally arriving today.

"Hmmph, sure," I mutter, feigning disinterest. After she passes my doorway, I tiptoe down the hall behind her, playing the part of the teenager I've completely turned into.

I hear her backpack hit the countertop. Silence follows. I can't risk peeking around the doorframe even though I'm desperate to see her face.

Then the squealing begins. It turns into shouts of "Oh my God." Followed by chanting "Edward! Edward! Oh my God, Edward!"

I round the corner just as Bella is tearing toward me. She jumps, and I grab her as her legs wrap around my waist and her arms encircle my neck.

"Oh my God, you didn't, but you did!" She's tucked her head in against the side of my neck, and I've never felt more complete than I do in this moment with this beautiful girl wrapped around me. It's joy. It's ecstasy. It's her happiness that is my undoing. I rub her back, and she lifts her head. Her eyes and smile are the most beautiful things I've witnessed in years. I can tell she can't believe what I've just given her, but at the same time, I know she's never giving them back.

"Edward, it's too much, but oh my God, I love them." Yep, just as I thought. My heart pounds. I can definitely make up for my lecherous morning thoughts by showering her in kitchen utensils and spoiling her rotten under the guise of stocking my kitchen to make life easier. If only I'd thought of this sooner.

Bella's eyes travel to my mouth. She nibbles on her bottom lip before meeting my eye. And suddenly I need some private shower time all over again. The only problem is that if I don't put her down soon, she's going to know what a creep I really am.

"Edward," she whispers, staring at lips again.

Fuck!

Abort! Abort!

There is a fucking line, and you will not cross it, Cullen!

I drop her to the ground and head for the kitchen island. I need coverage, and the knives offer the perfect distraction. Clearing my throat, I ask, "So did I get the right ones?"

Bella appears at my side. I won't risk looking at her, but feel her hair tickle my arm. She rests her hand on top of mine on the countertop and twines our fingers together. It sends a spark through my system, and I do everything in my power not to groan at the contact.

"Yes, they're perfect. Like you." She sighs.

My heart rate spikes, and I can't seem to get enough air. I squeeze her hand, lean over, and place a quick kiss on the top of her head, then escape to the protection of my office like the coward Emmett called me earlier.

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-~R.E.~-

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It's Christmas in July. Literally. Each week, boxes of kitchen supplies arrive as ordered. Bella is giddy with delight, and I'm happier than I've been since I was her age. I feel young and carefree, and I am so well feed it should be a crime.

Her new candy apple red Kleenmaid is whirring away on the bench. Bella is making a full six course French dining extravaganza to celebrate its arrival and her last exam for the semester. The Seattle Conservatory of Music is now under construction, and it's my finest project yet. I'm actually proud—like stand and shout from the highest mountain proud. It's a feeling I don't often experience, and I wonder how much the girl in my kitchen has contributed to that, but regardless, this time I'm taking the moment to really savor it.

Since it's a celebration dinner, I'm out of the office and watching Bella create her masterpieces one by one. I steal morsels of whatever she isn't guarding, and I know it's driving her crazy. The little chef perfectionist doesn't want me to taste anything until she knows it's mouthwateringly sublime—her words, not mine.

I disappear into the cellar and select two bottles of wine that I've been keeping for way too long. Dinner is like nothing I've ever experienced before. In fact, since Bella moved into my life, it's like my whole world has only just begun. She's going to make some lucky son of a bitch very happy one day, and that causes the delicious meal I've just devoured to churn inside me.

We're sitting opposite each other out on the deck, sipping the last of the '92. I don't want my thoughts to ruin this moment, but all I seem to do when I look at her these days is wonder what if.

Bella sets her glass on the table, and her eyes zero in on me. I know that look. Trouble.

"So you don't have a girlfriend, and I've never seen you go out clubbing. Soooo, what about your, well, your needs?"

The second bottle was a bad idea.

I've lost count of the times I've inhaled wine into my lungs since she moved in. Red wine is good for the heart, but I doubt it's good for the lungs.

"Uh, um, Bella," I say between more gulps of wine. How on earth did we get here? "I'm not going to discuss—as you so delicately put it—my needs. I can't. It wouldn't be right."

"Edward, I'm not a child you know." She sits forward on the edge of her chair.

"I know that, but you're practically half my age, and I don't think it would be appropriate. You don't need to worry. I've got it handled, okay?"

Christ!

"Are you telling me you're good with your hands?" Her eyes dance over the rim of her wine glass as she takes another sip.

"Bella," I warn, trying not to wriggle in my chair.

"You don't have to admit it if you're embarrassed. But you could just nod." She watches me with the intensity of a hungry hawk. I feel just taking my next breath will confirm my morning ritual since she's moved in. Giving in, I nod. I can't fucking help myself.

She beams. "I'm good with my hands too."

Fuck!

"Bella, please," I beg. I will beg and do whatever I have to in order to end this conversation that is causing my pants to tighten. I can't even let the hope of her wanting me the way I want her to enter my head. That's not an option.

"Edward, what's wrong? We're both single adults—"

"No."

"E, in my entire life, nobody has ever treated me the way you do. I told you I was looking for a man, and I, well, I think I've found him." She looks vulnerable for the first time ever. This brave, intelligent, feisty creature is showing me a weakness, and that weakness is me.

Fuck no!

"Bella, baby, just because someone is nice to you does not mean you have to repay them by doing, well, doing that." I cannot believe I'm actually turning my goddess down.

"Nice? You call showering me in endless expensive gifts nice? Edward, you spoil me rotten, and you treat me with so much respect it almost hurts. You make me laugh, and some nights out here, I want to snuggle up on your lap rather than sitting across the table from you. You do so much for me that I feel this arrangement is hardly fair."

"Bella, please, please. Stop. You do way more for me than we agreed. You don't have to cook for me three times a day. That wasn't the deal." And since I met you, I feel like I'm alive again. I think, but sadly don't admit out loud.

"Are you kidding me? Watching you eat my food does amazing things for my ego, and my libido. And let's not forget where we live. If you would've seen the roach-infested shithole I used to live in, you'd freak. And that cost me a small fortune."

"Look, I don't know how we ended up here, but if you think for one second, I'm going to let you pay me in sexual favors for living here. I mean …" I drag my fingers through my hair in frustration. "Christ, what sort of an asshole do you think I really am?"

"Oh God, no! No, Edward. You've got me all wrong. I, shit, I just …" She bites her lip and the worry lines that are marring her delicate brow fill me with all kinds of rage. I hate seeing her upset. When she speaks again it's the most meek sounding I've ever heard her, and it crushes my heart. "I'm just trying to say that I think you're a very attractive man and, well …" She shrugs her shoulders.

"That's, fuck, that's very flattering, B. But it's not possible. Can't you just accept that making you happy, makes me happy, so that's why I do it?"

"If you think saying things like that is going to keep me away, then you have no idea how women operate."

I let out a deep breath. It's no use. This cannot happen. "The college would have my head on a pike if they discovered anything was going on between us. It would be inappropriate considering our arrangement. I'd look like a freaking Sugar Daddy." I groan as the words leave my lips. I would, and there is no denying it.

"I'm not going to tell them." She looks aghast that I would suggest as such. "And what's so wrong with two consenting adults enjoying each other?"

"Look," I say, preparing myself for what's about to come. "I don't want you like that. I'm sorry."

"Bullshit!"

"Bella." I sigh. "I'm old enough to be your father."

"Stop saying that! It's bullshit too. You aren't my father, and that's the last person I think of when I look at you, Edward. I mean, how long is it since you looked in the mirror at yourself? Is it so hard to believe that a woman could be attracted to you?"

"Not someone as, fuck," I groan. "Not a creature as magnificent as you are."

"Thank you." Her eyelashes seem to touch the delicate skin of her pale cheeks as she looks down for a second processing my words. When she looks back at me, the determined Bella I know and love is back. "You do not look your age. You're gorgeous. And we get along better than any of the guys my age I've dated. I mean, age is just a number for fuck's sake."

"I can't." I stand and grab my wine glass. "And I won't." Walking away from that table is the hardest thing I've done in forever, but I won't allow this to happen. It's not right, and I care for the girl sitting alone opposite me more than I ever thought possible.

.

-~R.E.~-

.

The next morning my house does not smell like heaven, or Christmas, or even burned toast. It's quiet—too quiet, and I forgo my morning shower routine to check why it feels so off axis.

The kitchen is empty and still sparkling clean.

No pancakes.

No bacon.

No Bella.

Her room is empty and her bed hasn't been slept in. Panic rises in my chest as I search every room in the house. She's nowhere to be seen. I double back up to her room and spy her laptop on the desk. Then I race to the kitchen and check the pantry for her knives. She would never ever leave those behind. They sit in a neat row, all lined up on the top shelf.

And then I see her. I can breathe again. Bella is out on the deck, curled up fast asleep on the daybed. She's huddled in on herself from the cool night air, and as I sit beside her tiny frame, I notice streaks on her face from tears. She was crying and fell asleep out here after I left. After I walked away from a gorgeous girl telling me she's attracted to me. Telling me she wants me, and my age is irrelevant to her.

I'm a fucking idiot, and a bigger asshole than any of the ones she's ever dated.

I lean over and scoop her into my arms. She's freezing and stirs as I pull her against my chest. I hurt the only person in the world that I never wanted to, trying to protect her.

"Edward?" she groans. "What—"

"You fell asleep out here. I'm putting you to bed." I carry her inside and up the stairs. She snuggles in against my neck and sighs, nearly breaking my heart in two.

"'Tis cold."

"I'll warm you up." I gently lay her on her bed. Walking into my room, I pull the quilt from my bed and bring it into her. She's pulled her legs up close to her chest. I lay down behind her and swaddle us both in my quilt. Wrapping my arms around her small frame, I kiss the back of her chilled head. "I'm sorry, little one. So sorry about last night. Forgive me? I'm an old fool."

She nods her head before drifting off to sleep in my arms.

.

-~R.E.~-

.

Bella wakes an hour later. She's still tucked up against my chest and is toasty warm again. I've done nothing but think about our predicament, playing our conversation over and over in my head. This gorgeous girl wants me. I want her more than I thought possible, but I worry about what people will say—how people will judge her. I don't give a fuck what they think of me, but I worry about her.

Bella rolls over and snuggles into the crook of my shoulder. She sighs. I kiss her forehead as gently as I can. It's my apology for being a crazy, old fart.

I roll onto my back so that my neglected morning wood won't rub up against her. She's slowly stirring back to life, and I know this time of having her in my arms is coming to an end.

"See what you're missing out on," she says, rubbing her cheek against my chest, snuggling in deeper.

"Bella," I warn. She sighs and sits up, stretching her arms over her head. I take that as my chance to put some space between us. At least she's not mad at me over last night. Relief.

"Listen, I'm sorry. Okay? I really am. But I swear I have your best interests at heart." I move to her desk chair and cross my ankle over my knee.

"I'm sorry too. I knew I shouldn't have gone there last night. Rosalie said you would never make a move, but I just wanted to know if maybe—"

"Rosalie? Who is Rosalie and please for the love of God tell me you haven't spoken to her about you and me like that?"

I get the eye roll. "Relax, she's my friend—"

"And that's exactly how the college would find out. Friend A whispers to Friend B, etc, etc." Another eye roll.

"Listen, I'm trying to apologize too, okay? This is hard. I practically proposition you—which I totally didn't mean it to sound like I was only wanting to do it because of what you've done for me. I wanted to do it because I like you, Edward." She looks away from me and little Miss Vulnerability is back. I hate seeing her bare her soul. It makes me worry and want to protect her from the world, but what I really need to protect her from is me. It tears me apart. Finally she looks back at me with the saddest puppy dog eyes ever. "I just wondered if, well, if it was only me feeling that way?" she whispers.

God, dammit!

I have to put her out of her misery. I can't let her think I don't think she's the most attractive woman in the universe.

"Bella, it's not just you. I, fuck, I can't even begin to describe how much I want—"

"I KNEW IT!" She jumps up and actually fist pumps the air. "I knew you secretly had a thing for me." Her eyes are full of the wickedest mischief imaginable. She's gone from vulnerable to triumphant in point two seconds. She grins. "Now it's just a case of catching you in moment of weakness."

The little witch just tricked me.

Oh fuck!

I'm a dead man.

.

-~R.E.~-

.

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I'm so sorry I have posted this one shot as two chapters. FFn is being a pain and won't upload my whole chapter. It will let me upload two smaller chapters, so that's how I'm posting. I've been trying for 5 days now and am sick of it not working. So sorry. Please click chapter two for part two of this one shot.