Title: The Safe Bet

Summary: He needs a fake girlfriend, and I'm all too happy to oblige. Am I just the safe bet, or will he partake of the forbidden fruit?

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Word Count: 14,776

DISCLAIMER: Twilight and its inclusive material is copyright to Stephenie Meyer. Original creation, including but not limited to plot and characters, is copyright to the respective authors of each story. No copyright infringement is intended.

I shove the container of brownies toward Emmett as I pull out my chair. "Freshly made this morning." A giggle escapes when Jasper reaches out and swipes the them away before my favorite connoisseur can get his hands on them. "Hey, hey, no fighting," I scold playfully, watching as the two of them have a tugging match.

"No fair." Emmett huffs when Rosalie distracts him so Jasper can pop off the top and grab three. "Buzzy B made those for me."

Edward snorts as he takes one of Jasper's hard-won prizes. "Pretty sure she made them for all of us. You're just trying to hog them."

I roll my eyes at their antics, though it's flattering to watch them argue. "There're plenty to go around, besides I can make more tomorrow."

"More what?" Alice asks as she plops down beside me, heaving her heavy bag onto the table in front of her. "Jesus, Professor Banner is a hard ass. This final paper is kicking my butt."

"Glad I didn't have him," Rosalie says, looking over her perfect nails. "I've heard he's tough."

"Speaking of finals," Edward butts in, dropping the legs of his chair and raking his eyes across the group. "What are everyone's plans for the holidays?"

"Rosie and I are headed to So-Cal for both Thanksgiving and Christmas," Emmett responds with a dimpled smile. "The winters out here are brutal, and there's nothing like going home for the holidays."

"Yep, Mississippi for me," Alice chimes, still riffling through her bag.

I sigh, wishing I could be so lucky. "Not me. I'm going home for Christmas, but I'll be stuck here for Thanksgiving."

"The Windy City's calling my name," Jasper adds, stretching out his lean arm and snagging the brownie container Emmett has left unguarded. "What about you, Ed? Your parents ever decide what they're gonna do?"

"Hey," Emmett exclaims, snagging it back after allowing Jasper to sneak one more. "The rest are mine, fuckers!"

"Home for Christmas, but it's looking more and more like I might be stuck here for Thanksgiving," Edward says, ignoring the interruption. "The 'rents are planning to come to me, last I heard anyway. Who knows? They can always change their minds again."

"Sucks to be you," Jasper says, shoving the last bite of his third brownie into his mouth. "My mom's going all out this year after last year's debacle."

"Man," Edward says, grabbing his trim waist, "just thinking about it makes my stomach hurt."

"That's how I know this year's gonna be good," Jasper says with a wink. "Lots to make up for."

The two share a conspiratorial laugh and Emmett joins, even though he has no idea what they're referring to. At least, I guess he doesn't, but who knows; guys are weird. Especially these three.

I met Emmett and Rosalie during freshman year, and Alice, Edward and Jasper joined our little threesome last fall. Alice is a year behind the rest of us, but we hit it off when I was assigned to be her sophomore buddy at the beginning of last year. Edward and I met in class, where we were selected to be partners on an assignment, and where he goes, his best friend, Jasper, is sure to follow.

Rosalie stands, tossing her golden hair over her shoulder. "We still on for the study session tonight, girls?"

Alice pauses her digging just long enough to catch Rosalie's eye. "Sounds good, I need a break from all this research."

"I'm in," I add. "I'll stop by the library and grab a couple of books."

Emmett's head swivels between the three of us. "Wait a minute. What's going on here? Books from the library, no research. What exactly are you studying?"

Rosalie cuts her eyes to her beloved, and the look she gives him is almost too intimate for foreign eyes. "The Kama Sutra," she says, her voice husky and low.

Emmett gulps. "Carry on, then."

The rest of us laugh as he follows after her like a lost puppy.

A week later, I'm sitting at a lone table in the back of the library with several books spread before me, taking studious notes, when a familiar throat clears. "May I join you?" Edward asks, pulling out a seat without waiting for my answer.

"Sure," I snark with an eye roll. "Go right ahead."

His chuckle absorbs into my skin and flutters around in my stomach. "I hope I'm not interrupting you, but I figured this is where you'd be."

"Oh?" I ask, sitting up straighter and tossing my pencil to the table. "You were looking for me? This gets more interesting by the second."

"Sure, you say that now …" He trails off, his dark green eyes twinkling with mischief. "I was hoping we could discuss something." He palms the back of his neck, his eyes falling to the books on the table. "Something peculiar."

"I'm intrigued." I prop my forearms on the table and lean closer. "Do tell."

I don't miss the way his eyes jump to my cleavage, which I may or may not have purposefully put on display, before settling on my face. "Can I ask you a few questions first?"

"Sounds ominous."

He obviously has a case of nerves, which I find endearing but also unusual. Edward is a self-assured, hunk of a guy who's never seemed anything but cool and confident. A flutter of his thick lashes or a swipe through his chaotic locks is usually all it takes to get his way with any woman, me included.

"Not really … so Christmas," he says, surprising me with his topic of choice. "You said you were going home, but does that mean for the whole break or just Christmas week?"

"Oh." I sit up straighter, never having contemplated this question myself. "I'm not sure, really. My plans haven't been firmed up yet. What's this all about?"

He fiddles for a second, lining up the edges of a stack of books beside him before searing me with his serious greens. "I have a proposition I'd like to make. You can tell me to go to hell, or whatever, but I'd like you to hear me out first."

Under such a molten stare, I have no recourse but to oblige his every whim. "I'm listening," I breathe, leaning closer as his magnetism is hard to ignore.

His tongue eases across his bottom lip in one slow, sensual swipe, momentarily disorienting me. "I need a fake girlfriend," he says simply.

I'm so lost in staring at his lips that I have to repeat what he said over in my head to grasp it. "A f-fake g-girlfriend," I sputter, stunned those words just left his pretty mouth. "You're joking, right?"

"I wish I was." He sighs and pops his elbows on the table, much like I did earlier "If you'll bear with me, I can explain."

I smooth down my hair and cross my arms, doing a shoulder shimmy as I prepare myself to hear whatever ridiculous tale he's concocted. There's no way in hell Edward Cullen can't get whatever kind of girlfriend he wants.

"This should be interesting," I say, unable to hold back a teasing smirk.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," he deadpans, wiping his hand over his face. When he removes it, it's almost as if someone has kicked his dog. "I'm serious, Bella. I know it sounds crazy, but if you'll just hear me out, maybe it'll make more sense."

It almost feels like an out of body experience.

Many times I've dreamed of a moment similar to this, only the word fake was never part of the equation. Our project was time-consuming, and we spent many hours together last fall, yet never once did it venture into something I could concretely consider to be flirting. Of course, I analyzed his every move later when I was alone, but every one was second-guessable. Everything I thought might've been something ended up being nothing.

"Go for it," I say, waving as if to give him the floor.

He stretches his muscular, jean-clad legs out in front of him and opens and closes the closest book, his eyes on his hand. "My parents are coming to town for Thanksgiving, and I sorta told them I was seeing someone"—his burning greens flick to my skeptical browns—"seriously." They drop back to the book. "I know it's a stupid lie, but I'm so tired of my mom asking me when I'm going to bring someone, besides Jasper, home from college."

The bitterness in his tone wraps around my heart and squeezes. "That must be hard for you. So you've never taken a girlfriend home before?"

His head shakes, but he doesn't lift it. "I didn't want to give her the wrong impression."

"And now?" I ask softly, already knowing the answer. "Won't that happen anyway?"

"Yes." He lets out a deep, resigned sigh and lifts his troubled eyes to mine. "I just want to spend the holidays watching my mom smile. Sure, she'll be sad to hear it didn't work out later, but maybe she'll quit pushing so hard if she thinks I'm taking dating more seriously."

An unintended giggle slips out, and I hurriedly cover my lips. "Sorry," I say apologetically. "It's just, my dad is the exact opposite. He has to stifle his giddiness every time he asks if I'm coming alone and I reply with a yes."

"I'll bet." Edward snorts, and it's the cutest thing ever. "Mom and Dad dated all through college and got married the summer after graduation, so she's having a hard time understanding why I don't have a long-term girlfriend."

In hopes of lightening the atmosphere even more, I fake-gasp. "The horror. Surely, an old man such as yourself should already be engaged."

There it is; that warm, rich chuckle that sends the butterflies scampering. "She thinks so." He shifts, angling toward me and lowering his voice. "I just want to get her off my back, and I thought the best way to do that was to let her think—"

"You mean lie?" I interrupt, wanting to be clear exactly where this is headed. "You want me to help you trick your mother into thinking you're in love with me, or serious like at the very least?"

He moves closer, the space between us feeling too intimate, too warm. "Yes, as bad as it sounds, that's exactly what I want. Will you do it?"

I can't think with him this close so I lean back, crossing my arms over my chest. "What's in it for me?"

"Now you're talking," he says, rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist. "There's a few things in it for you. First, I'll pay you, plus there's the added aspect of seeing my mom's happiness and we can't forget all that time you'll get to spend with yours truly."

"You can't be serious right now," I deadpan, lifting the bitch brow. "I should double my fee based on that last assessment alone."

"Cost be damned." He waves it away as nothing. "So you'll do it?"

"Exactly how far are we taking this?" I ask, remembering his earlier questions about Christmas.

"Can you come to Chicago for New Year's?" he asks, a hopeful spark lighting his eyes.

"I can," I say, stretching the word, "but why would I need to?"

"Bear with me here," he says, holding up his hands. "If we do Thanksgiving and you come to Chicago after Christmas and stay through New Year's then I can probably get by until summer before I have to tell her we broke up. I mean, we're good friends so spending time together shouldn't be too big of a chore, and I promise to show you a good time. Please say yes, Bella. I'll buy your plane ticket and pay you a thousand dollars."

"Shit," I whisper, shaking my head as I try to wrap my head around his plan.

A thousand dollars is a lot of money to a scholarship holder like me, and it's not like pretending to be Edward Cullen's girlfriend is going to be a hardship. Why he didn't string Lauren, the girl he was dating last month, along a little longer is beyond me, but hey, her loss is my gain.

On the other hand, I have to consider my own feelings. Can I do this and walk away with our friendship still intact? Or will old desires make me wish for things that aren't real? I'm not sure of those answers, but as I peer into his pleading eyes, I can only give one response.

"On one condition," I say, pausing for him to nod his acquiescence. "You have to promise not to fall in love with me."

A beautiful smile bursts forth, and he tosses his head back with a jubilant chuckle. It's a warm, rich sound that echoes across the quiet library. His eyes are sparkling by the time he brings them back to mine. "Deal."

The two weeks between Edward's proposition and Thanksgiving break pass by in a flurry of classes, studying and hanging out. Our friends are none-the-wiser to our plan, and I think I like it that way. The feeling of sharing a secret this big with only Edward is akin to an electric spark. A simple, knowing look is all it takes to send it racing across my skin.

Every time it happens, I have to pull myself from the clouds, from the whispers of what if and maybe. I have to remind myself this is a job, a friend helping a friend, not a bond formed from mutual attraction. I impose the word fake over the images that play in my head, obliterating them from existence.

"I can do this," I say to myself as I pace in front of the small sofa in the basement apartment Alice and I share just around the corner from campus. "No need to be nervous, Bella. You've got this."

My muscles are tense and my hands jittery as I await Edward's arrival. Jasper finally left for Chicago last night, and with the rest being already gone, Edward thought it might be a good idea for us to get together and discuss tactics. I don't know why I'm so wound up, as we've been alone plenty of times before, but I can't seem to shake the nerves.

The oven dings, reminding me I have a pan of chicken enchiladas in the oven. I do a quick shake of my arms to dispel some of the nervous energy and move to the kitchen. The smell of Mexican, cheesy goodness greets me as soon as I open the oven door, sending a wave of calm rushing over me.

Cooking always has been a coping mechanism for me. It goes back to when I was twelve; one year after my mother and father's divorce. I was a confused, lonely little girl with a father who didn't have the words to explain. I stayed that way for a while, until Mrs. Cope, our elderly next-door neighbor, took me under her wing. Each day she'd teach me something new in the kitchen, and each day my burden felt lighter until it no longer existed.

Just as I set the piping hot pan onto the stovetop, the doorbell chimes, and even it doesn't have the power to make me quake anymore. I greet him with a smile. "Edward, I was beginning to think you'd chickened out."

He lifts his nose and sniffs the air. "I knew it. As soon as I got out of the car, I smelled it. What'd ya make us?"

I pull the door wider. "Why don't you come in and see."

"Don't mind if I do," he says as he passes me.

I shut the door behind him and turn, absorbing the way his presence seems to fill the entire room. "As you can see this is our living room, and over there is our small kitchen," I say, moving past him and pointing out the two areas. "You want to sit at the bar and eat enchiladas while we form our plan?"

"Straight to business," Edward says, laying his jacket across the arm of the sofa. "I like it. Even more when there's food involved."

His light teasing manner puts me even more at ease as I point to a stool. "Have a seat while I make our plates."

"Damn, woman," he says with a low whistle. "Are you sure we even need to plan? It feels like you've already gotten your part down. Cooking and serving, what more could I ask of you?"

"Don't get cocky, asshole," I snark, loading an enchilada onto a plate and sliding it across the bar. "Drink? I have water, Sprite and orange Kool-Aid."

"Water's fine." He picks up his fork and shoves a bite into his mouth, not even bothering to blow the steam from it. "Jesus, Bella," he mumbles as he readies another bite. "This shit is amazing. Where have you been all my life?"

I slide two bottles of water in his direction. "Slow down, it's not going anywhere." Heaping an enchilada onto my plate, I move around and slip onto the stool beside him. "It does smell good, eh?"

Edward chuckles as he points to his empty plate. "Fucking delicious."

"So much for talking while we eat."

Pushing his plate aside, he props an elbow on the bar and shifts toward me. "You eat, I'll talk." I shrug and pop the first bite into my mouth, giving him the go-ahead. "This really means a lot to me, Bella. Just hearing the smile in my mom's voice is everything. I actually can't wait for her to meet you."

"Aren't you worried we'll mess this up?" I ask, my apprehension creeping in. "That we won't be convincing enough?"

"Not at all." He grabs my arm, guiding my fork into his waiting mouth. After swallowing the bite much faster than a normal person, his lips lift into a cocky half grin. "We already have the basic foundation of any great relationship. We're friends."

I tilt my head, conceding to his point. "True, but we're lacking in other aspects."

"And that's what we're going to work on today."

My jaw stops chewing as I wonder if he means what I think. "What's that?" I ask as casually as I can while everything within me is screaming for his answer.

His eyes remain on mine as he slips my fork from my fingers and lays it on the bar. "Things like this," he murmurs, sliding my plate away so he can invade my personal space. "Physical closeness, intimate touches"—his lips brush against mine—"soft kisses."

I lick my lips, wanting to savor his essence. "Is that all?" I ask softly, afraid to break the spell between us.

He hasn't moved away, and his eyes are still trained on my lips. "I'm not sure." His questioning eyes flick to mine. "Should we maybe, uh, I don't know, try—"

Overwhelmed by his closeness and emboldened by his uncertainty, I stop his words by pressing forward for a firmer, longer kiss. He stills for one second before he anchors his fingers to my waist and moves back in. His breaths are erratic, much like his movements, but I allow him to lead, to take this journey however far he's willing. Our tongues tangle like vines, slowly and methodically becoming more intertwined as we discover each other.

I don't think about the reason behind our actions. All I can think about is him. The way his fingers dig into my waist, the way his head tilts to drive deeper, the way his eyes are tightly closed. The first kiss that isn't really a kiss at all.

"Fake!" my mind screams, jarring me back to reality and forcing me to bring the most beautiful experience of my life to an end. As I withdraw, it's almost as if he remembers where he is and what we're doing, but instead of freaking out internally like I am, he remains casual—reluctant even.

His hand trails up my body, skating across my arm and landing on my shoulder before cupping my jaw and brushing his thumb over my cheek. "Interesting," he mutters, his green gaze scanning over my face to rest on my eyes. "I think we'll be just fine." His smile is breathtaking and triumphant. "In fact, Esme will be pleased."

Heat floods my cheeks as I remember it's all part of the act for him. Instead of commenting further on the kiss, I bypass it for safer conversation. "Is that your mother's name?"

"Shit!" he exclaims, suddenly withdrawing from my personal space, leaving it cold and empty. "Facts! We can't forget those pesky little things." He looks to the stove, eyeing the pan of enchiladas. "How about we eat a couple more of those and get to know each other better. Backgrounds and stuff?"

I swallow my disappointment and offer the best smile I can muster. "Sure, sounds great."

He stays for a couple more hours, and during that time, we each learn a million useless things about the other. There's no more intimacy, no more practice, no mention that it ever happened. We're just two friends chilling while learning an awful lot about who each other is outside of college life.

Thanksgiving dinner goes off without a hitch. When Edward picks me up, my nerves are at an all-time high, but his soothing presence, along with his ability to slip into his role so effortlessly, immediately puts me at ease. Edward's mother is a poised and charming woman, whose infectious smile and buoyant spirit make it simple for me to understand exactly why he wants to give her this gift—even if only for now. His father, Carlisle, is a doting workaholic husband whose only concern is his wife's smile and his son's good grades. By the end of the night, I've almost forgotten that none of this is real.

And it almost feels like Edward has too.

"You were perfect tonight, Bella," he breathes. We're standing in my doorway, neither willing to walk away just yet. "Did you see my mom's smile? She was fucking beaming. She loved you."

"She's not always like that?" I ask, just to keep him here a moment longer.

"She's a naturally happy person, but not like tonight," he says, stepping closer. "That was all due to you."

His breath caresses my skin as he leans in, and I hold mine as his mouth finds purchase on my cheek, then the corner of my mouth, then my lips. Unable to fight the pull, I lean into him, taking every moment he's willing to give. But it's not as much as I'd hoped. It's never enough.

"Thank you, Bella," he says as he pulls away without deepening it. "I'll see you Monday."

It turns out, I see him Saturday instead. Just a short visit for no particular reason, and I'm soaring, reading more into it than I probably should. Nothing happens, but him wanting to spend time in my presence is enough—for now.

The following weeks share the same pattern. There are no more kisses, caresses or intimate moments, but he pops in without warning several times, each one making me giddy inside. Our friends are still clueless, and the secret itself is like an aphrodisiac, making our non-relationship seem like more in my mind.

My hopes are dashed the week of finals when I join our friends at the table, interrupting a seemingly innocent conversation. Jasper, Edward and Emmett are rehashing a date Edward had the night before. I'm crushed, but I do everything I can to pretend I'm not listening as they talk about this girl, Jessica. Apparently, she's an art major who's very liberal—in every sense. Once the conversation drifts there, I hastily make my escape.

He doesn't stop in for the rest of the week.

On Saturday, a week before Christmas, we have our last get-together of the year. Rosalie and Emmett's flight is at noon, and Edward and Jasper's is later tonight. Alice and I aren't leaving until tomorrow afternoon. As I arrive at the dining hall, my backpack loaded with various sweets as a gift to my friends, I notice that only Jasper and Edward are here.

Their heads are tucked together as they have an intense-looking conversation. I slow my steps, afraid of intruding. "Hi, guys," I announce loudly from several feet away. Edward's head lifts at the sound of my voice, and he seems annoyed. My feet falter but only slightly.

"Hey, Buzzy B," Jasper says, almost too brightly. "What ya got in the bag?"

I take Alice's typical chair, two spaces over from Edward, and prop my bag on my usual chair so it doesn't feel so obvious. "Gifts," I say without looking up. I rifle through the bag and pull out a container. "Here ya go, Jasper. Fresh baked chocolate chip cookies for you."

"Ha, I knew it," Jasper says, snagging them quickly.

I push another container filled with peanut butter brownies across the table. "And these are for you, Edward."

"Thanks, Bella," he says, not even meeting my eyes.

Before I can ask what the hell his problem is, Emmett and Rosalie join us, the former immediately demanding his own treat. By the time I've given them their sweets, Alice arrives and I pull the final container from the bag, removing it so she can have a seat. No one notices that Edward is especially quiet or that I moved from the same chair I've sat in for two and a half years.

If they do, they don't mention it.

I spend the rest of the day packing and second-guessing everything. Edward bought my ticket weeks ago, citing it was cheaper to buy them all than just my trip to Chicago and home, and I let him. It even fueled some of my fantasies of this meaning more to him. After today, I wonder if I should even go to Chicago.

The doorbell chimes just as I finish zipping my suitcase. With Alice at work and me not expecting anyone, I'm cautious as I approach the door and even more leery when I see who's on the other side.

"Edward?" I say his name like a question.

He looks tired and agitated. "Can we talk, Bella?"

I pull the door wide. "Sure."

This is it. All the uncertainty from earlier rushes through me with an additional side of dread. My fantasy is about to die before my very eyes.

Closing the door, I follow him to the living room and offer him a seat on the sofa, opting to take the chair for myself. "Can I get you something to drink?"

He shakes his head, propping his elbows on his knees. "No, I'd like to apologize. I was an asshole earlier, and it had nothing to do with you. In fact, I've been an asshole all week. I should've never gone out with Jessica."

My brows rise, as this whole situation isn't unfolding as I expected. "No? You're free to date who you want. Our deal is fake, remember?"

"I remember," he says to the floor. "But still, I let Jasper goad me into going out with her, and it was wrong. I know our deal is fake, but I've enjoyed every minute we've spent together, and I don't want it to end."

My breath stalls in my lungs. "What does that even mean?"

He chuckles, but it's not a happy one, and lifts his eyes to mine. "I'm so fucking confused," he says, running his hand through his pretty auburn hair. "Does it have to mean anything right now?"

"No," I say on a sigh. "I don't suppose it does."

"Will you sit by me?" he asks, patting the spot beside him.

When I do, he tosses his arm across my shoulder and we sit in companionable silence for quite some time. "You're still coming to Chicago, right?" he asks after a long silence.

"Is that what you want?"

"More than ever."

I spend a week and a half in Forks with my dad. It's good to see him again, and we fall right back into the same routine we've shared ever since Mom left. He spends his days at the station while I catch up with old friends. In the evenings, I go next door where Mrs. Cope and I make dinner together. It feels good to step back into old shoes.

Though I'm at Brown on a scholarship, it's still an expensive experience all around. Dad works his ass off to make sure I spend my college years studying instead of working. He's a principled, reserved man who's done the best he could while raising a young daughter alone.

My mother all but disappeared when she left. Dad keeps up with where she is at any given time, but my relationship with her is relatively non-existent. A card for my birthday is the most contact she's made, and even then, I usually toss is straight into the trash.

On Christmas morning, I get up to Charlie Swan's Christmas Omelet Special. He cooks once a year, and it's always this. We then exchange our usual gifts of new fishing gear for him and a Barnes and Noble gift card for me while sipping hot chocolate. Afterward, I get dressed and we head to the reservation. Dad will spend the day on the lake, testing his new equipment, and I'll catch up with my Quileute friends.

It isn't until we're at Sea-Tac on Wednesday when Dad finally broaches the subject he's been quietly avoiding. "So tell me about this Edwin." This is his standard operating procedure when it comes to discussing guys.

"It's Edward." I roll my eyes and give him a cutesy grin. "And we're friends."

"Friends, huh?" he asks, pinning me with his police chief stare. "It's mighty nice of you to visit your friend in Chicago."

"I didn't hear you complaining when I spent Spring Break in Biloxi with Alice," I snark in an attempt to put off the inevitable.

"Bella," he admonishes with a low growl. "Don't be a smartass. Tell your old man what's going on."

"It's new," I say, pulling up my leg and tucking it under my bottom as I twist in my chair to face him. "We've been friends for a while, but things have changed just slightly over the past month or so." I sigh under his watchful stare. "We're not dating, but things feel different, and I'd like to see where it goes."

"You still have that pepper spray?" he asks, serious as ever.

I half-laugh, half-groan. "Dad."

He tosses an arm across my shoulder and hugs me to his side in one of his most affectionate moves. "Just looking out for you, kid." He pulls away and grabs my shoulders, his eyes once again serious. "You're a grown woman now, and as hard as that is, I recognize it. But if you need me, I'm only a phone call away."

Overcome with emotion, I throw my arms around him in a tight hug. "Thanks, Dad."

The flight to Chicago is uneventful, and even the landing is smooth. My nerves make a grand appearance as the plane's wheels touch down, but one look at Edward eagerly scanning the crowd is almost enough to settle them.

When his eyes land on mine, everything fades away as his brilliant smile is warm and genuine. He's happy to see me, and he shows it with a tight hug. My eyes fall closed as I savor the feel of him, intent to hold onto this moment as long as I can.

When we finally break apart, he keeps his hands on my arms as his eyes rake over my form. "You're a sight for sore eyes."

I tilt my head, unsure what could have him so stressed. "Is something wrong?"

"Not anymore," he says with a lopsided grin. "Let's get going. Esme's been asking about your flight all week."

He puts his arm around my shoulder, guiding me to the conveyor. From that second forward, he doesn't break contact again. Not as he pulls my suitcase behind us as we navigate the parking garage. Not as we ride in the car. Our hands stay clasped the whole time as he talks about Chicago and some of his old haunts.

I just soak it all in. The sound of his voice, the touch of his skin, his boyish grin as he glances my way. His apparent exuberance at having me here skims across my skin and settles inside my chest like a warm glow. This is everything I'd hoped for, yet nothing like I expected, especially after the last week of school.

Esme is as warm and carefree as she was during Thanksgiving, but there also seems to be an extra sparkle in her eye as she looks between Edward and me. "Welcome to Chicago!" she exclaims as we reach the already-open front door of their three-story home in Lincoln Park. "Bella, I'm so happy to have you here, dear."

"Thank you, Mrs. Cu"—I catch myself as she gives me a playful glare—"I mean Esme. It's lovely of you to welcome me into your home."

"Oh please." She waves the notion away. "I hope to have you here many times."

For the first time since I arrived, Edward appears uncomfortable. He palms the back of his neck. "Mom, maybe we should let her get settled before you start bugging her about her next visit."

"Oh my, of course, dear." She places her hand on her chest in apology. "Forgive me. Surely you'd like to freshen up." She turns her nurturing attention to Edward. "I took the liberty of changing your sheets and putting fresh towels in your bathroom. Thank goodness the rest of your room was mostly tidy."

"Uh, what?" Edward asks, his face turning ashen.

Esme completely misses his expression as she barrels forward. "Oh, come now, kids. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. I see no reason to force you into separate rooms when any other time you're free to sleep where you choose." She leans in closer to whisper conspiratorially, "Just try to keep it down, please."

There's a lump in my throat that prevents me from responding altogether. Not that I know what to say. One part of me shimmers with an unexpected exhilaration while the other is completely mortified. Mostly for Edward. It's obvious this is not part of his plan.

With a tentative, apologetic glance in my direction, he finally finds his voice. "You didn't have to do that, Mom."

"Nonsense," she says with a flutter of her hand. "Now take Bella upstairs and let her get freshened up before you give her the grand tour. Dinner will be at six."

Edward refuses to meet my gaze as he grabs my suitcase and motions toward the stairs. "Right this way, Bella."

I pass him, hoping he'll grab my hand and make my newly ramped-up anxiety fade into nothingness, but that doesn't happen. He just quietly falls into step behind me. Once we reach the top of the stairs, he motions to another set at the end of the hall. With each new step, my uncertainty climbs higher, and by the time Edward actually touches me, I nearly jump out of my skin.

"I'm sorry," he mutters, withdrawing his hand from back. "I just wanted to open the door for you."

His meek apology for something I've basked in all afternoon almost shatters me. "Look, Edward," I say, catching his arm as it reaches for the knob. "I know this isn't what you wanted, but I promise to stay out of your personal space."

Every muscle in his body relaxes instantaneously. "Shit, Bella," he says, running his hand across his forehead and up to tangle in his hair. "It's not me I'm worried about. I didn't want you to think I'd somehow tricked you into sharing a bed with me." He moves closer, his green eyes appearing dark in the dim lighting. "If you're not upset by this, then I'm sure as hell not either."

His close proximity coupled with his evident relief flows over me like a calming breeze. I smile, wicked thoughts dancing through my mind. "As long as you don't sleep in the nude, I think we can manage."

"What if I do?" He's so close his breath fans my face. "Would that send you running?"

My eyes leave his pretty face and skim down his body before very slowly coming back to his. "How about we cross that bridge if we get there."

"I like the way you think." He smirks, twisting away and opening his bedroom door.

His room is large and well-appointed in colors of gray and midnight blue. A king-sized bed sits centered on the wall to my right, while double doors straight ahead invite me to scan the private patio outside.

"Why don't you freshen up, and I'll be back to get you in about fifteen minutes," he says, standing near the door and watching me explore. "Treat it as if it were your own."

"Thank you," I say, turning my grateful eyes to his. "For having me here and being so welcoming."

He shrugs, that boyish grin back in place. "It's my pleasure, Bella."

Turning, he exits and closes the door behind him, leaving me to my thoughts. At this point, they're nothing but calm with that rough patch well behind us. Dare I say, I'm even hopeful that these next few days will be a turning point between us.

One where the word fake becomes a distant memory.

When he returns to collect me, all the uncertainty from earlier is gone. He immediately takes my hand and steps right into the role of loving boyfriend. The rest of the evening is spent touring the house and having dinner with his parents before he offers to take me on a drive of the neighborhood. He exudes nothing but joy and happiness as he tells me stories of Jasper's and his youth in Chicago.

Most of the lights are out by the time we return home after midnight, and we quietly sneak up the stairs, careful not to wake Esme and Carlisle. It isn't until we're in his room with the door closed and nothing to occupy us when the nerves seem to creep back in—for us both.

"Do you want to shower first, or?" Edward asks, standing there looking as awkward as he ever has.

"Sure." I shrug, opening my suitcase and grabbing my sleep shirt and shorts. Once I have them, my eyes fall back to him, and I close the distance between us. "Hey, no pressure, right? Just two friends sharing a bed."

"Right," he murmurs, blowing out a loud breath. "Friends. Sure."

I giggle at his cuteness and head for the door of his en-suite. I may even shimmy my tush a little more than usual, but what's a girl to do? I shower hurriedly, mindful that he'll need hot water and unaware how quickly it might run out. After dressing and blow drying my hair, I reenter his room where he's perched on the edge of the bed with his sleep clothes already in his hands.

"It's all yours," I say, only to notice that his eyes are slowly making their way up my bare legs. I almost stumble before collecting myself and continuing to approach him. "Which side of the bed do you prefer?"

At the sound of my voice, his eyes snap upward and he swallows. "Uh, the right."

Feeling emboldened by his unease, I brush my fingers softly through his hair. "Go shower. I'll keep your spot warm."

He practically stumbles into the bathroom, and I can't help but to giggle to myself as I put away my dirty clothes. Afterward, I switch off the lights, aside from the lamp on his side, and slip underneath his soft gray sheets, feeling like I'm already cocooned in Edward.

His shower isn't as quick as mine, but I'm still awake when he struts out looking like a pajama model. He takes his time puttering around the room before he's finally forced to join me.

I roll to face him. "I don't want you feeling uncomfortable in your own bed, Edward."

He moistens his lips with that sinful tongue. "I'm more uncomfortable about the things I want to do to you in this bed." His eyes squeeze shut, as if the words have slipped out of their own accord.

Hearing his admission sends a flutter of heat rushing through me, but at the same time, I also feel a modicum of scorn. The agreement we made doesn't line up with his words. The only thing I know to do is brush it off and plow forward.

"Promises, promises," I say, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

He breathes in deeply through his nose and lets it out in a breathy chuckle. "You always know just what to say."

"Thanks." I smirk. "I think."

He takes my hand and holds it in the empty space between us, a relieved smile curving his lips as his eyes fall closed. "Night, Bella."


Within minutes, his calm, even breaths tell me he's asleep, and I close my eyes soon after, overly pleased with how great today has been. Our agreement is clear with no room for miscommunication, yet our actions are not. He could easily disengage as soon as we're away from prying eyes, yet he chooses not to. He either enjoys the game way too much, or it's isn't so much of a game for him anymore.

It's with these hopeful thoughts, I drift off to sleep.

The sun shining on the outside of my lids slowly brings me to awareness. At first, I forget where I am, but the gentle pressure across my abdomen sends my mind spiraling for answers.


His bed.

The breaths against my neck are warm and steady as I lift one lid and then the other. I'm lying on my back, and he's practically pinning me down. His face is buried in the crook of my neck, his arm is across my stomach and a leg is intermingled with my own. Instead of feeling trapped, I feel cherished for one brief moment before I let the worry sink in.

What will he think? Will it send him running?

I shift, trying to escape his hold, but he only tightens it with a groan into my neck. "Bella," he mumbles against my skin as he grinds into the side of my thigh. "Jesus."

I tentatively lift my hand and scratch my fingers through his hair, unsure if he's even really awake. "Edward," I say quietly. "Are you awake?"

He grinds into me again and stiffens. "Bella," he says again. This time stone cold reality fills his voice. "Shit. Sorry." He disentangles us and flops onto his back with his arm across his eyes.

I roll to my side, letting my hand rest on the tense planes of his abdomen. "Hey, no reason to trip. I'm not upset. People can't control what they do when they're asleep. Besides, I slept like a baby."

His arm lifts and he peeps from me beneath it. "Are you sure?"

My fingers dance across his stomach to where his shirt is crumpled, slipping underneath to caress his skin. "I'm sure."

His eyes go from light and questioning to dark and hungry. "Bella …" he breathes, trailing off as I lean closer.

I don't worry about how he'll react, I just move. My lips press against his, firmly at first, but then I ease up, lightly skimming across them several times. His hands anchor to my shoulders as I slip out my tongue and tease for him to open. He does. Eagerly. Our tongues twine together, and a mutual, satisfied sigh settles between us.

"Good morning, Edward," I say as I pull away with several pecks and a soft smile. "Don't sweat the small stuff."

His eyes are still slightly glazed over as he stares at the ceiling above him. "I wish it were that easy," he murmurs, tilting his head and gazing in my direction.

"What does that mean?" I ask, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. "You're so hard to read sometimes, and then others … I don't know what you want from me."

"More than I should," he responds with a heavy sigh.

He doesn't say anything further, just gets up from the bed and disappears into the en-suite with his clothes for the day. My frustration mounts as I wait for him to be done so I can do my own dressing, but when I come out, it's as if a light bulb has been switched. He's back to loving boyfriend mode, all the cryptic ramblings from earlier nowhere in sight.

The next two days follow the first. We spend time with his parents and time alone. Almost every second, whether around people or not, is spent as if we're a perfectly happy couple. Our touches are intimate, and we share several more kisses. Our closeness is more than a fake relationship calls for, and by Friday night, New Year's Eve, I've almost forgotten the word fake even exists.

The party at the Whitlock's house is in full swing by the time we arrive. Edward introduces me as his girlfriend, and he jokes with Mrs. Whitlock over Jasper missing the momentous occasion. Apparently, he left Tuesday to spend the holiday in Cancun, and we won't see him until we're back at Brown.

I'm relieved, honestly. Until I can make sense of what's going on between Edward and me, I'd rather no one else have any insight into it. After all, it could end up being nothing.

The champagne flows freely, but I'm careful not to drink too much. Just enough to keep a slight buzz. Edward follows my lead as he introduces me to many people I may never see again. We dance the night away, our bodies always pressed close, and count down the minutes until the clock strikes twelve.

… 4

… 3

… 2

Unsure what to expect, I brace myself.

… 1

This kiss is unlike any other we've experienced. He's hungry and searching as he pulls me tightly against him, and he thrusts his tongue into my mouth. I don't question it. At all. I fall into it and forget that everyone around us exists. By the time we break apart, catcalls are coming from the people who're standing close by.

Heat floods my cheeks, and Edward's fingers lift to brush against the hot skin. "So fucking beautiful," he whispers, the arm around my waist tightening. "Can we leave now?"

I only nod.

The car ride back to the Cullen house is filled with tension. Anticipation zings across my skin and collects in the pit of my stomach. Low music from the radio is only background noise to the hum that's vibrating between us. The dash lights bathe us in a blue glow that's the perfect match to my mood.


As soon as the car is parked, he's around to my door and stealing me into the night, his arms hovering protectively around me. He doesn't bother with lights as he expertly guides me up both flights of stairs and into his room, removing my coat as soon as the door is shut behind him.

I hold my breath as I face him, afraid the spell will be broken when stark reality prevails, but it never does. His lips crash against mine, hungry and tinged with desire, his hands roaming my waist, arms and shoulders; they never stop seeking. By the time I realize we've moved, we're by the bed in a flurry of open mouths and tangled limbs.

Clothes are discarded sloppily as words lodge in my throat. I don't question him. This. I want it too much. It's not part of the deal. It's more. It's everything. Fake has no meaning here.

It isn't until we're naked and tangled across the bed, body parts lined up deliciously so, when Edward freezes, his eyes going wide. "Shit!" he exclaims, attempting to pull away, but I lock my legs around his waist. "What are we doing, Bella?"

"I know what I'm doing, Edward," I snap, angry he'd take things this far before trying to pull back. "Do you?"

"In the technical sense," he replies, his focus somewhere above my head. "And God, I want to. So fucking bad." His eyes flash to mine, lust surging in their dark depths, before he drops his forehead to my shoulder. "But this is beyond our agreement."

I scratch my nails against his scalp, trying to offer assurance. "It is, but you don't hear me complaining." I bring my lips to his ear. "I'm so turned on right now."

His hot, heavy breaths fan against my breasts, causing my nipples to strain toward the heat. Every deep rise and fall of his chest causes his skin to slip against mine, taunting my body, sending my nerve endings into overdrive.

"There's a first time for everything," he mutters, lifting his head, his eyes intent on my lips. "Fuck it."

What transpires after those words are spoken is hot and passionate and messy. Every so often Edward's insecurity creeps to the surface, but my urgency for his touch chases it away. He can do no wrong. His every stroke, kiss and grunt are perfection. Fire flows from his fingertips, and passion radiates from his lips. Words are no longer required as our bodies sing the same tune, reaching the pinnacle together and stumbling into the abyss.

With breaths calming and skin still tangled, Edward says, "Jesus, Bella, I never …"

I smile as I pull him closer. "I know." My sated body sinks into nothingness, and my minds quickly follows.

My pelvis thrusts upward, seeking the fingers that tease and flick at the sensitive skin. My eyes jerk open as a breathy moan claws itsway from my throat. "Mmm, please," I rasp, fists tightening in the bed sheet beneath me.

"Shh, Bella, I've got you," he whispers as featherlight lips trail over my chest. "Let me take care of you."

His soft voice mixed with his stimulating touch renders me unable to do anything but give in to the heady feeling that surrounds us. My body sings under his exploration, and my heart thunders a matching beat as he brings me to the precipice before exchanging his fingers for his impressive cock.

In the pre-dawn morning, braced above me, Edward's hands caress and his lips explore in a new journey. This one is more sensual. Deeper. Surer. The soul-deep connection almost brings tears to my eyes. Our bare skin slides together creating the most delicious friction as he touches every part of me, inside and out.

His every thrust takes me higher, and my muscles begin to quiver beneath the onslaught. "Fuck!" he growls into the silence. "Feels so good …"

His words, his touch, his presence. Everything crashes together as wave after wave of euphoria pulsates within me. "That's it, baby," he croons, sending another tide rippling through me.

"Aghhh," he grunts with two final thrusts before collapsing half on me and half on the bed. His heavy breaths puff against my neck, and his fingers trace a lazy pattern on my stomach, whisking me off to dreamland once more.

The same sensation wakes me hours later, and this time the sun accompanies it. I slowly open my eyes to Edward popped on his elbow, his free hand tracing over my naked stomach.

He gives me a lazy grin. "Morning."

"Good morning to you," I say, trying to hold back my smile. "No weirdness, I see. I like it."

"What's to be weird about?" He shrugs one shoulder and slips his hand higher. "I never imagined it could be so …" He pauses, his face scrunching up as he searches for the right word.

My eyes fall closed as he tweaks a nipple. "Yeah, me neither," I say, sighing from the feel of his touch. He withdraws his hand and when I open my eyes, his are studying me intently. "Is something wrong?"

"Everything's wrong," he says, leaning closer. "But who gives a fuck."

His lips connect with mine in a slow dance of appreciation mixed with subtle hints of want, but it's obvious from his hesitance to deepen it that we won't be attempting round three. "We should get dressed," he says, sitting up. "Our flight is at six, and I promised Mom we'd spend the day with her."

"Do I have time to shower?"

"Take all the time you need."

As promised, we spend the rest of the day with Esme. If possible, Edward's even more affectionate than he's been all week. I feel like I'm walking on air, yet I can't help but wonder if this bubble will burst and send me crashing to earth once we're back at Brown.

After returning to campus, nothing is discussed between us, and it seems it doesn't need to be. We're not home two hours before he's texting me, just little, silly no-reason texts that send my heart into overdrive. By two days, he's already stopping by unannounced. We don't have sex again right away, but everything else is there.

His hands roam my skin, his lips sear me with fire, his grins touch my soul and his velvety soft voice lulls me into complacency. It doesn't bother me when he acts like nothing at all has happened in front of our friends orwhen I notice he only comes by when Alice is on shift.

It's mid-January before one thing leads to another and we find ourselves sharing a shower, and it's another week before he invites me to his and Jasper's condo for the first time. As I've come to expect with Edward, Jasper's nowhere to be seen.

"What's up with you, Buzzy B?" Emmett asks as I take my usual seat. "My sweet tooth sure has been aching lately."

"I told you to warm her up first." Rosalie shoots an elbow into his ribcage and narrows her eyes before turning to me with a smile. "Don't mind him. Chocolate is way overrated anyway."

I giggle at the pair of them. "Is this your way of telling me I'm slacking in the treat department?"

A large, toothy grin breaks out on Emmett's face, but Rosalie keeps a more even expression. "If you want to make some, I guess that'd be nice," she says, trying to keep the hope from her voice.

"Of course I d—"

The loud thump from Alice's bookbag interrupts me. "It can't be tonight, I have a study session planned with Riley."

Rosalie leans closer, all interest in chocolate lost to the possibilities of Alice and a guy. "Is study session code for"—she waggles her brows—"you know."

Alice lets out a peal of laughter. "Maybe."

"Aw, man, fuck Riley," Emmett mutters, a huge pout on his lips.

Edward chuckles to my left. "Come on, Em, you can last for one more day. I'll even buy you a Snickers to help."

Jasper struts up then, flopping into his chair on the other side of Edward. "What's going on?"

Edward tosses his hand toward Emmett. "He's pouting because Bella can't make him sweets tonight. Apparently, Alice has a guy coming over."

Jasper shrugs. "Buzzy B can use our kitchen. I need some more cookies anyway."

Edward stiffens beside me. It's not enough for everyone to notice, but I sure do. "I don't think anyone even asked Bella if she wanted to make fucking cookies," he snaps petulantly, sending Jasper a glare.

Instead of calling Edward on his attitude, Jasper gives him a challenging smirk as he leans forward to make eye contact with me. "Will you make me some cookies, please?" He bats his long lashes over-exaggeratedly.

Even as I giggle, in the back of my mind I worry if I'm over-stepping with Edward. "I don't mind as long as you're sure you want me messing up your kitchen."

"Done," Jasper says, his smirk shifting from challenge to triumph.

The two of them have a momentary stare-down I can't even begin to understand, so I lightly touch Edward's thigh. He keeps his eyes on Jasper a moment longer before slowly swiveling his gaze to me, questioning.

"Are you sure you don't mind?" I ask softly.

He scans my face before that wry grin lifts the corner of his pretty mouth. "You going to make me some brownies, too?"

"You know I will."

"Then you can ride with me."

With that settled, everyone seems to be happy. The six of us eat our lunch and discuss classes for the remainder of our time. I catch Jasper and Edward giving each other weird looks at least twice, but Edward doesn't seem to be upset with me so I let it slide. Edward and I agree to meet after my last class of the day so he can drive me to the market before we go to their place.

The apartment is silent when we enter, and Edward turns on the lights as he leads me to the kitchen. As soon as the bags are on the bar, he takes me in his arms and kisses me hard enough to curl my toes.

"What was that for?" I ask as he pulls away.

"Do you know how hard it is to be around you and not touch you?" he asks, caging me against the bar. "To sit beside you and feel your skin calling to mine."

"Then why do you?" I ask simply.

His brows draw down in the center of his forehead. "What do you mean?"

I run my hands up his chest. "We haven't discussed it, but why are we still keeping this a secret?"

His hands tighten on my waist. "I … I'm not ready, Bella. There are still things I need to figure out." He steps closer, his lips so close I can taste his breath. "Everything about you is perfect. You're perfect. You're a complication I never saw coming."

He doesn't allow me to reply. His lips are urgent against mine, forcing me into submission, begging me for the time he needs, demanding that I comply. I answer with a resounding yes. I tell him with my actions to take whatever I have to give.

In one swift move, I'm lifted to the bar, his jeans creating delicious frictions as his mouth trails across my cheek and down to my neck. I push my palms against the smooth granite and my head falls back, allowing him to continue leaving a trail of fire across my skin as his fingers go to the buttons of my blouse.

"What about …" I trail off as a breathy sigh escapes. "Jasper?"

"Oh, he's not missing this," Jasper says from somewhere behind Edward. His voice is a mix between surprise and sarcasm.

My head snaps up and Edward freezes, his breaths stuttering against my neck. He finally collects himself and turns, shame burning pink across his cheeks. "Jasper, I …"

"Don't." Jasper lifts a hand, his eyes narrowing as hurt filters into his tone. "We'll discuss it later." With a disappointed sigh, he wanders off down the hall and a door snaps closed seconds later.

The first few minutes after his departure are awkward for both of us. Edward seems suddenly unsure and I'm mortified, but I shove it aside and lose myself in baking. I can't imagine how I'd react if it were Alice, so I totally get Edward's sour mood. We've kept this huge secret from everyone, only to be caught red-handed, and by Edward's best friend, no less.

By the time I have the first batch of brownies in the oven and have moved onto mixing the chocolate chip cookie batter, Edward's mood has snapped back. He's definitely not hoisting me onto the bar for a hot and heavy make-out session, but he's also not avoiding me either.

It starts with sneaking a taste of the raw cookie dough and evolves into our usual affectionate banter and intimate touches. For the next two hours, Edward stays close as I bake a flurry of goodies for our friends. Once we're done, we work side by side to return the kitchen to its pristine condition before I stack the containers in my bag.

"I'm sorry we got caught," I say, shoving two Tupperware bowls toward Edward. "Maybe these will help smooth things over."

"No worries." He waves a nonchalant hand. "He'll be okay. We've been friends for a long time. He had to know something was going on." He rounds the bar then, his arms encircling my waist. "My guess is he invited you here because he already suspected it."

"Sneaking cookies, I see." I brush errant crumbs from the corner of his sexy mouth. "Maybe telling our friends wouldn't be so bad. Maybe just something like the sex is hot, and that's all it is right now."

"Is that all it is, Bella?" he breathes, his lips feathering against mine as he speaks.

"Not for me."

He kisses me then, hard and deep, the emotion behind it saying what his words don't. It's not for him either. There's a heap of passion, a modicum of lust and a tinge of uncertainty all swirling between us as we communicate on the most primal level. The level that's always said more than our words.

He sighs as he pulls away. "I liked seeing you make yourself at home here. Let's do it again sometime."

"Yeah?" I ask, still in a kiss-drunk haze.

"Yeah." His smile is happy and relaxed as he helps me into my coat and takes my hand to lead me to his car.

When we get together with our friends the next day, Emmett is over the moon as he shovels brownie after brownie into his mouth. Rosalie eventually has to take the container and hide it. Jasper acts like his usual laid-back self, not even a hint of the hurt from the night before. The disappointment, though, is Edward acts the same, aside from a few covert brushes against my thigh.

Like my good friend.

I don't hold it against him, as he's by my place that same evening while Alice is at work. I don't question him either. He's been open with me about his hesitance and until he's ready, who am I to push? Patience is a virtue, and I have that in spades. After all, look how far we've come. From fake to—now.

Whatever it is, it's real.

The following Thursday, just as I'm about to enter the John Carter Brown Library, Jasper's voice makes me pause. "Buzzy B!"

I turn, moving down the steps as soon as I spot him. "Jasper, hey! What are you doing here?"

He shoves his hands into his pockets as he stops before me. "I was hoping to catch you before your next class."

"Oh? Did you need something?"

"Yeah, I do." He rocks back on his heels, looking around for a minute. "You know how Edward and I are supposed to watch the Super Bowl together Sunday?" He doesn't stop, as it's a rhetorical question. Our whole group knows. "Something's come up for me, and I was hoping I could talk you into coming over instead."

I fiddle with the strap of my bookbag, slightly confused. "Shouldn't Edward be asking me that?"

"I know he'd love to have you there." He toes the concrete before hitting me with his apologetic baby blues. "Look, I know I was an ass last week, and I was hoping I could make it up to him, to the both of you. You could maybe make a few game snacks and show up a little early to surprise him?"

"I don't know, Jasper," I say hesitantly, shaking my head. "This is kinda your thing. I don't want to insert myself where I'm not actually wanted."

"You're wanted, trust me." He touches my arm, calming my fidgeting instantly. "I'll be back before half-time, and I promise to join you guys and act normal. Please, I need to show you I can be supportive."

"Okay." I nod, his assurances a balm to my frazzled worry. "If you're sure?"

"Positive." He beams then, a large, toothy smile transforming him from worried friend to gleeful coconspirator instantly. "How about five? That work for you?"

"Five is perfect."

By the time Sunday rolls around, I'm a nervous wreck. As usual, though, cooking calms me and even manages to allow some excitement to replace the nerves. With an oversized insulated cooler of Tupperware containers and a thrill of the unknown coursing through me, I begin the two-block walk that'll lead to either divineness or disaster.

As I arrive at the door, the TV is echoing loudly and my knock goes unanswered. I strain my ears, trying to make out any movement from the walls beyond the door. A masculine murmur blends into the background noise of screaming fans and sports stats.

I knock one more time and still no answer.

I war with myself, half on the verge of returning home dejected and half on the verge of barging in and demanding he acknowledges my presence with pleasant surprise. I turn to leave, but a shock of make-or-break confidence rushes through me, stopping me in my tracks.

I watch as my hand slowly reaches for the knob, and even squeeze my eyes shut when it grasps it tightly, only to snap them open in surprise when it gives. A shuddering breath escapes and I steel myself, pushing open the door and stepping inside.

I'm wholly unprepared for what I find.

Edward is pressed against the other side of the bar, only his profile visible. He's shirtless and tense as Jasper's palm is splayed across his chest. "What do you want from me?" Edward asks, frustration tingeing his tone.

Jasper's stance softens, his hand traveling to Edward's shoulder in a tender caress. "I just want you to love me."

"I do," Edward replies as if he's in pain, and the words rob me of breath.

Jasper's eyes flick to me, and they may even narrow in defiance. "Then show me!" he demands, stepping closer to incite the dare.

My throat closes in on itself, my entire being solidifying into an immobile statue as Edward answers his plea. With quick, strong movements, he fists Jasper's shirt and rips it open, buttons scattering across the marble floor. Hungry lips collide and hands race across heated bare skin. In a flash, Edward is perched on the bar top, much like I was just last week, as Jasper's fingers claw at his buckle. Lips never stop tasting skin and low, impatient growls echo across the room.

Emotion pulsates in the air, making it thick and oppressive. The intimacy between them burns as bright as the sun. Love. Lust. Anger. It's all projected in that one short instance. For the first time, Edward's cryptic comments make sense, everything becomes crystal clear.

They are the couple, and I am the game.

A strangled cry escapes as I drop the cooler of snacks and run. Somewhere in my mind I can hear Edward calling my name, but it only pushes my legs harder, forces my feet to run faster. Away from him, away from it all.

Everything changes that day.

Friendships splinter like old, worn wood and my carefree college existence fades into withdrawal and avoidance. The people who once made my days brighter are now the ones I no longer wish to see.

It hurts too much.

For the first two weeks, Edward sends a daily text with three simple words.

Let me explain.

And every day, I delete it.

The news has rippled through our circle, causing waves of confusion and mistrust. Emmett's hurt over being kept in the dark, not understanding why his two best friends couldn't be open with him, and the girls are angry on my behalf. I just want to pretend none of them exist.

And it works—for a little while.

After three weeks of avoidance, the ache of embarrassment starts to lessen and I feel guilty for shutting out people whose only sin is being great friends. To everyone. Me. Them. I flinch as the image of Jasper and Edward flashes through my mind. The hurt comes hurtling back like it was just yesterday, and I crawl back into my shell.

Though I live with Alice, and she was there for me that night in a way I'd never hoped to need her, she understands my need for space and doesn't push me to engage. The following week, I work up the courage to text Rosalie, making sure she knows my withdrawal has nothing to do with her, and even meet her alone for lunch once.

It isn't until Spring Break, when the campus is a ghost town that the inevitable comes calling. After a lengthy trip to the library, I come home to a person sitting by my door. Edward. His knees are drawn to his chest, and his head is buried in the crook of his arm. He doesn't lift his eyes until I clear my throat.

As he jumps to his feet, I notice they're hollowed out, much like the rest of him. "Bella," he says, relief coloring his tone. "Can we talk?"

I simply shrug and move past him, unlocking the door and motioning him inside. "Have a seat. You're familiar with the place," I offer, waving nonchalantly to the sofa while inside I'm steeling myself for the conversation to come.

He sits, his elbows propped on his thighs, his face in his hands. I follow and take the chair, hugging my knees tightly to my chest. An uncomfortable silence stretches between us as the proverbial band becomes tighter and tighter. If we stay this way much longer, something is going to snap.

He finally lifts his head. "I'm so fucking sorry, Bella," he rasps, and his eyes speak of his pain, but it's nothing compared to mine.

I'm dead inside.

I snort. "For what?" There are so many things. Does he even realize?

He winces at my tone. "I deserved that."

"Let's get one thing straight right now," I say, jabbing my finger at him. "You don't even deserve to be talking to me."

"Okay, Bella, fuck!" He holds up his hands. "If you'd just give me a chance I can explain."

"Then answer my question," I say, enunciating each word.

His eyes fall to the carpet beneath his feet. "Mostly, I'm sorry about hurting you. It was never supposed to go that far, but I couldn't stop. You're this …" He shakes his head. "I still don't understand what happened. We had a deal. You and me. We were both good with it, and it spiraled out of control."

"Don't you dare put this on me," I say, pointing a finger he can't even see. "Our deal ended on New Year's morning!"

"But don't you see? It was before that," he says, lifting his tortured eyes to my angry ones. "From the moment you stepped foot in Chicago, all bets were off. I couldn't stop thinking about you, touching you, kissing you. You were driving me insane!"

Even now, my heart speeds at his confession. It's everything I ever wanted. Before. Now they're just empty words. They mean nothing, and yet my physical response can't be controlled. But with every exaggerated beat, the fissures in my heart stretch and pulse with agony.

Tears sting my eyes, but I blink furiously, refusing them an outlet. "Perhaps we should start at the beginning," I say, my tone flat. "I know what happened between us, but it seems there's this whole other"—I pause, my tongue suddenly too thick—"part of you I was unaware of. Explain it to me, Edward. Make me understand!"

"I've never said the words to someone else before." He swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing. "I'm gay, Bella. I always have been. Jasper is my boyfriend, and we've been together for years."

Even though it was obvious their connection is deep, I'm wholly unprepared for the truth. My mouth opens, but the words die in my throat. How does one respond to that? What do you say when the man you've fallen in love with tells you he's gay and always has been?

Nothing. There is nothing more to say. "Then why are you here?"

"Exactly!" he exclaims, standing abruptly. "Why am I here?" His sudden burst of energy is unexpected as he begins to pace the floor, seemingly at war with himself. "I carried on an illicit affair with my fake girlfriend behind my boyfriend's back for weeks." He pauses his frantic pacing and turns to me. "But you want to know the worst part? The worst part is that for the past month, all I can think about is you! I won't let him touch me. We barely even talk. I'm so fucking angry at him for hurting you like that."

"So he did it on purpose." The words slip out unbidden as my mind works to paint the entire image. "What did he know and when?"

Edward's fire dies as quickly as it was ignited. He crumples in on himself as he drops back onto the sofa with a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry, Bella," he says again, refusing to meet my eyes.

"No!" I lean forward and slap my hand against the coffee table to get his attention. "You don't get to do this! You came here! You're going to give me my answers!" His eyes go from shock to shame to something all too familiar as he gazes at me. I cross my arms and narrow mine in return. "You have a lot of nerve," I spit, disgusted with his inability to, even now, maintain a modicum of decency. "You waltz in here and announce that you're gay, yet here you sit looking at me like"—I wave my hand in his general direction—"that."

"I can't fucking help it!" he says, throwing his hands in the air. "Your passion, your anger, it just does something to me. I can't look away. Right now, I want to touch your blazing red skin to see if it will burn me."

Even though they shouldn't, his words affect me. They sink inside, sending an electric charge to the very fissures he created. I take a deep breath in an attempt to gain control over the chaotic surge of emotions warring within me. Hope, anger, pain and regret all battle to be the frontrunner, yet stark reality takes center stage.

"Edward," I say carefully, leaning toward him in hopes of softening the blow. Somehow, I'm suddenly sad for him, sad for myself for being caught up in his confusion, as it's obvious he doesn't even realize. "I'm sorry for being so blunt, but you're definitely not gay." I shrug apologetically. "At the very least, you're bi."

All my anger dissolves as I stare at his pretty, demonstrative face. His expression begins with contemplation, which fades into disbelief and then quickly flips to denial, but his constant thoughts continue to play out on his face like a movie reel. He finally settles on the correct emotion; the one that describes him perfectly.


His mouth opens. "I … I—"

I cut him off with a sharp shake of my head. "There's nothing you can say to change anything that's happened. It hurts, I'm not going to lie, but at least I have a better understanding now."

"I'm glad somebody does," he says sarcastically, standing to walk off the nervous energy. His hands claw through his hair as he does several circuits behind the sofa before his feet freeze, and his eyes snap to me. "It's only you." Holding my gaze, he moves to prop against the arm of the couch. "I've only ever wanted to sleep with you, and I couldn't make myself stop."

My breath catches at the honesty in his words, but I push it away, refusing to acknowledge the power he still holds. "So you're generally attracted to men?"

His mouth opens, but he pauses as his face scrunches up in thought. "Jasper," he finally says, crossing his arms defensively. "I'm attracted to Jasper." He snorts. "Or I was."

My understanding of living a gay or bisexual life is limited, so I'm neither inclined nor prepared to make an assessment that most likely has no basis to his situation. This is something he's going to have to figure out on his own, but I'd venture to guess it's more about the who than the gender.

"Will you explain it to me?" I ask quietly. "Your history with Jasper and how this whole fake girlfriend idea came about?"

He looks away, his eyes dropping to the floor. "I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have."

"I need to hear it," I say a little more insistently.

With a heavy breath, he drops into the corner of the sofa and looks straight ahead as he begins his tale. "Jasper and I met in kindergarten and hit it off from day one. We were joined at the hip from then on." His eyes fall to his lap. "When we hit the teen years, things started changing. I don't know how either of us ever worked up the nerve to make the first move, but it happened." He lifts his head, his eyes almost daring me to react. "We started fooling around when we were fourteen, and by the time we were seventeen, we'd already had sex."

I take a breath and blow it out, keeping my voice low and even. "And you kept it a secret?" I offer, hoping he'll elaborate.

"Yeah." He shrugs, his cheeks pinkening. "We're both manly guys, and we always worried it'd change how people viewed us. When we came to Brown, we discussed being open, but in the end we decided to keep what was ours private."

"I've seen you with girls, Edward," I remind him, pushing for answers I need as much as he needs to share the words.

"That was our thing, ya know?" His brows furrow, wanting me to let him off the hook, but I won't. I need this. He sighs. "To keep up appearances, we'd both date. Once, twice, a handful of times, usually until she started pushing for more." His face hardens into concrete certainty. "Never once was I even attracted, much less tempted to sleep with any of them."

"Until me," I utter, the words almost choking me.

"Until you." He nods once. "Everything I said when I asked you was true. My mom was constantly hounding me, and when I pressed Jasper about coming out to our families, this was his solution."

The shock of hearing Jasper's part, even from the beginning, snatches a gasp from deep inside me. "He knew everything all along," I say, my anger simmering below the surface. "But why me? Why did you choose me?"

Edward looks down, picking at his fingernails. "He, um … Jasper chose you."

"So I was just a fucking game, then?" I jump up, needing to move away from him before I do bodily harm. "From the very beginning, I was lied to. A means to an end for you. A nice little target for you and your boyfriend."

He stands and moves in front of me, his hands up. "Stop it, Bella! I didn't lie to you. I just fucked up and let things happen that weren't part of our agreement."

"Why!" I scream, palming my chest, tears of anger burning my eyes. "Why would you do this to me?"

"You were the safe bet," he says quietly as he slips his hands into his pockets, his eyes falling to the floor. "The opposite sex. Someone we liked. A good friend I didn't want to lose." His head lifts, the dark circles beneath his eyes more prominent under the bright light shining from the kitchen. "I essentially ate the forbidden fruit."

The tears spill over my cheeks, and I angrily wipe them away. "You could've just told me the truth. I would've still said yes, and it would've saved me a whole hell lot of heartache."

He steps closer, his manly scent and heated skin only inches away. "I'm not sure it would've made much difference." He grips my hand and brushes his thumb over my wrist. "I knew about Jasper. Hell, I love him and I still couldn't stop myself. I miss you so fucking much, Bella."

As much as it hurts me to do it, I take a step back, separating us. "I need the rest," I say, retaking my seat in the chair. "How long did Jasper know about us before he planned his little scene?"

Edward perches on the edge of the coffee table, staying close. "If I'm being truthful, I'd say he felt something was off after Thanksgiving. Even though nothing happened between you and me, I already felt it. That's why he goaded me into going out with Jessica. He left Chicago for New Year's because he didn't want to watch you playing the part which technically belonged to him." He pauses and shakes his head, his jaw tightening. "We had sex before he left, but it was all wrong. Angry."

"So you slept with me to get back at him," I offer, feeling reasonably certain with that scenario. "Makes sense."

"Not at all," Edward barks, causing me to jump. "I had sex with you because I couldn't fucking resist. I've never wanted to have sex so much in my life, and it's never felt so satisfying." He leans closer to drive his point home. "Before that day you saw us, I hadn't slept with Jasper since before New Year's."

His confessions are both painful and encouraging. Maybe he did have some sense of self as he tried to navigate such a convoluted situation. "What made that day different?"

"I was a mess," he says, rubbing his face harshly. "Jasper and I were constantly snapping at each other, and I knew I had to end things with you, yet I didn't want to. After he caught us the week before, I acted like it was nothing, like I had some kind of right to make out with you since he's the one who wanted the whole fake thing in the first place. It was stupid and selfish, and I was hurting him. It all blew up that day, and he pushed me until I cracked."

"I'm sorry for just barging in," I say, tugging at a loose thread on my T-shirt. "You were lying to me, but I knew you had some kind of hidden issue. We weren't a couple, and I should've never let myself into your apartment. It may be mostly your fault, but I'll admit my part."

"Never apologize to me again, Bella." He reaches over and takes my hand. "This has been a life-altering mess, and I take full responsibility for it. In hindsight, I'll probably learn a lot from this whole mess, but that lesson will never beworth the price of hurting you. I'm so fucking sorry."

I take a deep breath, and with it I release as much of the pain and anger as I can. "Thank you for coming to talk with me, Edward. It actually helped." I bring his hand up and press it against my cheek, allowing the nostalgia to flow over me, before releasing it and dropping my hand to my lap. "I think you should go be just as frank with your boyfriend."

His hand hangs in the air for a moment longer, as if he's unsure which path to take. He finally drops it with a resigned sigh. "My heart brought me here, Bella, but if you think that's what's best …" He trails off, and I don't change my mind.

"I know it is," I offer instead.

He stands and I do the same, following him to the door. I'm far from healed after this encounter, but I'm better for it. My questions have been asked, and I'm accepting of the answers given. Only time can repair the gaping wound inside my chest.

I open the door, and he pauses in front of me. "Can we still be friends?" His eyes are pleading and mine fall closed, refusing him the power to sway me.

When I reopen, his hopeful expression drops instantly. "You know we can't. At least not now." I give him what I hope is a reassuring smile. "Maybe one day."

With a heavy exhale, he slowly leans forward and presses his lips to my forehead for a good ten seconds before pulling away. "Bye, Bella."

I learn some very valuable truths from his visit. I fell for a man I didn't even know. A man who doesn't know himself. With the space he used to fill still aching, I begin forming a plan to remove myself from this equation.

Monday morning, I fill out the paperwork that will transfer me to U-Dub come fall, and Tuesday, I notify Alice of my intent to leave as soon as the semester ends. The remainder of my year is spent with my head down and my heart tattered. I do spend time with the girls, and even send Emmett a bowl of brownies here and there, but it's not the same.

As soon as my final class is dismissed, I'm on a plane.

The summer is long and lazy. Days are spent with old friends and rediscovering some of my favorite haunts. First Beach is always a good time, and my friends from the reservation are never too far away. Evenings are spent cooking with Mrs. Cope and catching up with my father.

He never digs into what brought me back, choosing instead to not look a gift horse in the mouth. He spends his off days tinkering with my truck, wanting to ensure its dependability for the trip to Seattle that's looming in the not-so-distant future.

On an unusually sunny day in Forks, just after noon, a father hugs his daughter close and wishes her a safe trip. He's a man of few words, but his quiet presence says everything I ever needed to know. He's happy I'm close. He loves me dearly.

My first day at U-Dub dawns gray and dreary. A cool, foggy mist envelops the campus, obscuring its beauty and matching my mood to perfection. I go through my morning classes, my head in the clouds and my heart in Providence.

During my afternoon break, I finally find my way to the dining hall, a place I skipped during my tour last week. The buzz of voices is too loud and bodies are everywhere, none of them the ones my heart yearns for. Selecting a sandwich and a water, I scan the crowd for a quiet space. In the far corner, a small, round table sits empty and beckoning.

With a sigh, I cut through the crowd, keeping my eyes focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I sit with my back to the room, picking at my sandwich and mourning times gone by.

"Excuse me." A hand shoves into my line of vision, and every cell within me stops moving. "I don't believe I've had the chance to introduce myself. I'm Edward Cullen."

My eyes trail up the long, slim fingers all the way until I'm staring into light, hopeful green eyes. I set my sandwich on a napkin and draw my arms around myself. "What are you doing here?"

His shoulders slump as he drops into the seat beside me, his eyes focused on his clasped hands. "I know who I am now. What I want." The earnestness in his gaze as it lifts to mine causes my heart to slam against my ribcage. "I love Jasper, but I'm not in love with him. I know who I want, even if it means starting from scratch."

Waves of sincere honesty flow over me, so I allow my heart to lead by shoving my hand forward. "Nice to meet you. I'm Bella Swan."