Thanks to Fran who always works her ass off at contest time to make sure countless entries are beta'd on time! As usual, 2browneyes and Sunshine were kind enough to pre-read!


This was my entry for a contest, and it won a few awards. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for it. For those of you who have read it, welcome aboard for round 2! For the rest of you, buckle up and take heed. This is where I make no promises aside from the ExB HEA. I hope you trust me enough to take this journey with me! Possible big girl panties required!

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.

I've split this into 4 sizeable chapters and will post them over the next few days. The reason for the split is because I intend to continue it into a least a 10-15 chapter fic, and I don't like a 15k chapter to start a story. Operation's posting schedule is priority, but I believe I can work with these two on alternating weeks. Sometimes having a second thing to write pushes you to do more on the first. Weird, but that's how it generally works for me.

Buckle up if you plan to take this journey!

See you soon :)