Hello - this was part of a contest some time back and I have been adding to it. Posting will happen every 10 days or so.
Beta'd by Midnight Cougar.
I groaned, letting my head fall back. I should never have agreed to let them make the final decision. "Really, Mike? That's the best you can come up with for our Sociology project? Free hugs?"
"No, Edward, it'll be great. There's five of us willing to do the hugs, and we have one person to film. Each day one of us will stand in the same place, at the same time of day, and offer free hugs. The rest of us will record numbers and do the data. We'll see who draws the most attention."
"And the point?"
He snorted. "Have you ever looked at the five of us? We couldn't be more different."
He sighed and took a long pull on his cola, burping loudly.
Eric laughed and fist-bumped him. "Nice one, dude."
I kicked Mike's foot. "Stop being such a pig and tell me."
"Okay. Jasper has that smooth, Southern cowboy thing going for him. Emmett is brawn and muscle. Jake is uber-confident, not to mention ripped. Next to him, Eric is nothing but a little wiener."
"Hey!" Eric yelled.
"Sorry, dude. You're good-looking and all, but next to Emmett and Jake?"
Eric rolled his eyes and huffed good-naturedly. "I suppose."
Mike smacked his own chest. "Me too, dude. I've got that All-American, golden-boy thing going, but next to Edward here, I'm invisible."
I scoffed at him. "I wouldn't say that."
He shook his head. "Check the mirror, Edward."
I ignored his remark—I wasn't that good-looking. In fact, I thought my looks were rather more unusual than handsome. Between my odd hair color and lanky frame, I did stick out…and often, not in a good way. But everyone saw something different.
"We can see if physical attributes and overall looks determine if people will take you up on the offer of a free hug."
I thought it over for a minute. "I don't know if your theory is right."
"Too many variables. Even if we use the center of campus, the flow is different every day. Emmett might get a day that is normally busy, so he'll get more hugs regardless."
Mike nodded. "What do you suggest?"
"We all do it at the same time. We keep counters and track our own hugs."
"What about recording it?"
Eric piped up. "I really don't like people touching me, so I'll do the recording. As long as I'm involved in some part of the experiment, I get credit."
"You sure?" I asked. "I'm fine to record it."
"Yep. Besides, Angela looks tame, but she's the jealous type. I'd hate to see her throw some girl down because she got too clingy, you know."
Mike and I exchanged a look, then grinned. I had a feeling Angela had no idea she was "the jealous type," but that was fine. I wasn't big on the thought of hugging a bunch of strangers either, but I'd do it for credit. Considering some of the other ideas we'd come up with, this one I could live with. I certainly didn't want to sit down beside a stranger in a restaurant and ask if I could taste something off their plate. Of course, Emmett's idea would involve food.
"I'll make the signs," Eric offered. "And I'll book the video camera."
"What day are we doing this?"
Mike tapped out a text, and we waited for replies.
"Thursday works for everyone. How about you?" Mike replied, looking at his phone.
"I'm good," Eric confirmed.
"Sure." I nodded.
"Noon. Campus Center."
"And we've all agreed to go shirtless."
"It's supposed to be really warm. And it'll attract lots of attention. We all agreed before you got here."
I glared at Eric. No wonder he wanted to do the recording.
Suddenly, eating off a stranger's plate didn't seem so bad.
"I don't want to do this."
Alice rolled her eyes. "You have to, Bella. Please?"
"Technically, I don't have to do anything. You just want me to."
Rose sat down, patting my hand. "Bella, you have to try. You agreed to help."
"Don't you know someone else you can use as a guinea pig?"
Rose snorted. "We need to take the shyest person we know and get them to do something that makes them uncomfortable. You"—she tweaked my nose— "are the shyest person we know. It took Alice and me two weeks to get you loose enough to laugh with us. You're too perfect a guinea pig to find someone else."
"What do I have to do?"
"We're going to take you to Campus Center and pick someone out—a complete stranger. You have to go up to them and start a conversation."
I wrapped my arms around my torso, already feeling nervous. "For how long?"
"At least five minutes."
I blew out a long breath. "Then I can leave?"
"Yes." Alice elbowed me in the ribs. "Unless the guy we pick out is so hot for you, he takes you for coffee."
"You mean you're gonna pick a guy?"
Rose nodded. "Uncomfortable, remember, Bella?"
I hugged myself tighter. Uncomfortable. Talking to another girl was hard enough, but a strange guy? Well, they got that part right.
Campus Center was crowded. It was warm today, and there were more people milling about than usual. I swallowed nervously as I looked around. Rose and Alice were going to pick one of these strangers and make me talk to them.
Carry on a conversation for five minutes.
I could barely carry on f a conversation for a minute about anything—unless it was the book I was reading. Glancing down at my Kindle, I wondered if there was any chance whomever they made me talk to, liked to read as well. It would be so much easier if they'd let me talk to another girl, but they'd said no. They did promise to stay close, and if I was too uncomfortable, they would rescue me. I was sure they agreed to that because they were worried I would refuse otherwise.
I wanted to refuse.
I knew I was shy—far too shy for most people to be bothered with. They took my silence one of two ways: they either thought I was a snob or too bored to bother. The truth was, most of the time I was so tongue-tied, I simply couldn't speak. I had gotten better—Rose and Alice had helped. But when I met new people, I was still very hesitant.
My name being called made me turn, and I watched my two roommates coming toward me, smiling and waving. I clutched my bag a little tighter, knowing it was time.
They joined me, looking around the crowded center with interest.
"It's busy today," Rose mused.
"Lots of choices," Alice agreed.
"We could put this off," I offered. "Or go to the library—I can talk to someone there."
The library was so much safer.
"Bella, you can't talk in the library."
"You can if you keep your voice low."
Rose snorted. "So low there'd only be lips moving and no sound coming out. We're on to you, Bella. You're talking to someone in this square."
I sighed. It was a good try.
Rose glanced around. "What on earth are they doing?"
I followed her gaze, my eyes widening. Five guys were taking off their shirts, while another was filming them.
"Hello there, biceps," Rose muttered.
"Lookie at that cowboy." Alice grinned as she ogled one of them who was wearing a cowboy hat.
My eyes locked on one of the guys standing slightly to one side. Of all of them, he looked the most uncomfortable—not that he had any reason to.
His hair was what I noticed first—it was brilliant in the midday sun, shimmering and coppery on his head. He was tall and lean, but his shoulders were broad. He was too far away for me to make out his features, but I could see he was a good-looking guy. Very good-looking. He looked familiar, and I realized I had seen him around campus a few times—his hair was difficult to forget. I had never spoken with him or been close enough to see how attractive he was.
He leaned over and spoke to another guy next to him. His friend was dark-haired, with russet skin, and not at all shy about being bare-chested in the middle of a busy spot. He laughed at what whatever the taller guy said, flexed his muscles, and lifted a sign.
All five of them had the same sign, and on cue, they separated and began milling around, shouting out their offer, their friend filming the whole thing.
I shuddered a little.
"Perfect," Rose breathed.
"Excellent," Alice added.
"No!" I gasped. "I agreed to talk to someone. Not hug a bare-chested stranger!"
"That one." Rose pointed to the russet-skinned boy. "Man, has he got a six-pack."
My heart rate picked up. He was laughing and smiling, hugging girls, posing for pictures, obviously loving the attention as he flirted with every girl. I looked around the crowd, immediately noting the differences. The cowboy Alice liked simply stood, his arm outstretched, waiting for hugs. The massive body builder Rose was drooling over called to the women and flexed his arms, gaining lots of attention—and hugs. A blond boy worked the crowd, pointing at different girls and going to them, often chasing them as they skittered away.
And the copper-haired boy was swamped. Girls were crowding around him, and he wasn't doing a thing. He smiled and hugged them, laughing and joking, yet he seemed removed from the whole spectacle. He didn't encourage any other interaction with all the women. He hugged and moved on.
"You can hug the six-pack, Bella. Ask him for his number, too."
"No," I pleaded. "Not him. I can't…" I swallowed down the panic, trying not to hyperventilate. "I can't, Alice."
She rubbed my arm soothingly. "Okay, Bella, I understand. Don't get upset. We'll just pick someone for you to talk to."
Even though she smiled at me, she sounded disappointed. I straightened my shoulders and made up my mind. Needed to do this—for my friends and for me.
"What?" Rose asked.
"I'll go hug him." I pointed toward him—the copper-haired boy. I knew I was cheating, but he would hug me and turn away, and my job would be over.
"You'll hug him?"
"I think he's the one doing the hugging."
"Are you sure?" Rose asked warily, but I knew she wanted me to do it.
"Okay. You have to hug him back. And talk to him."
I bit back my smirk. He wasn't talking to anyone, but both Rose and Alice were too focused on their own wanna-be-huggers to notice that.
"Sure." I nodded.
"Okay. That works. We'll meet you back here in a few minutes," Rose muttered, then left, Alice hot on her heels.
I took in a deep breath. I could do this. Lots of women were getting hugs; I would simply be a face in the crowd. Obviously, today was an experimental day for many.
Looking around, I stepped forward, slowly making my way over to the copper-haired boy I had picked. I ran my hands down my skirt, then fisted the material tight. There was a break in the crowd, and I stepped forward.
I startled when a body—a large one—moved in front of me. Large, bulging, russet-colored arms stretched wide, blocking my path.
"Hey, sweetheart. You looking for a hug? You've come to the right place. Come on and get some Jake lovin'."
I gaped at him, petrified. I didn't want a hug from him. He was too much. Too overwhelming. I stepped back, wildly shaking my head. He stepped forward, grinning widely. "Come on. Don't be shy. A hug will make you feel so much better." He winked. "If you want more, I'd be happy to help you out with that, too."
I froze as he advanced.
I was going to kill Rose and Alice.
I saw her right away. She was standing with a couple of other girls, looking shy and nervous. Her hands fidgeted and tugged on her clothes as she glanced around, never making eye contact with anyone. She was short, her dark hair falling past her shoulders and midway down her back. Auburn glints caught the sun, making her hair shimmer. I had seen her around campus a few times but never got close enough to find out her name. She seemed to disappear before I could ever get near enough to talk to her.
Maybe today was my chance.
After we removed our shirts and held up our signs, it became a sea of arms and faces. Women, girls, and even the occasional guy came for hugs. I kept tapping the number counter attached to my sign; although, a few times I was sure I had forgotten to hit it.
The whole time, I tried to keep an eye on the shy-looking, petite dark-haired girl. She seemed to get upset, but one of her friends calmed her down. When I saw her friends leave, heading in Jasper and Emmett's direction, I held my breath as I watched her move toward me. She had almost made it, then Jake stepped in her path, his arms stretched wide. I growled under my breath, causing the woman I was hugging to pull back, startled.
"Sorry." I grinned. "I need lunch. I forgot to eat."
She gave me a strange look, and before anyone else could take her place, I lowered my sign, dropping it to the ground. I hurried forward, ignoring the grumbles that came from behind me. I could see the look of utter panic on the girl's face as Jake advanced, his booming voice telling her to "come get some Jake lovin'." Her head shook frantically, and I knew in another second, she was going to run. I pushed past, elbowing him out of the way.
"What the…" He frowned at me.
"Leave her alone," I growled at him. "Mine."
His eyebrows shot up and he laughed, holding up his hands. "Relax, Edward. Lots of pretty girls to hug."
Then he turned and held up his sign. "Come and get it, ladies! Jake at your service!"
I rolled my eyes and focused on the panicked woman in front of me.
"He's loud but harmless."
She didn't say anything.
She blinked. Her cheeks went pink and she swallowed. "Bella," she whispered.
I moved closer. "Your name suits you."
Her eyes shifted away from me, and her fingers began tugging her skirt so hard, I was sure she would tear it. I stepped a little closer.
"You can ignore him. I do. Just don't feed him—you'll never get rid of him then."
The smallest smile curled her mouth. "Okay, no food," she murmured.
"Are you all right?"
"Good. I need you to be okay."
Her dark eyes widened at my words. I had no idea why I said them, but I meant them.
"Can I give you that hug now, Bella?"
"What's your favorite color?" she blurted out.
That made me pause. "Um, blue."
"Do you like school? What are you taking? Do you drink a lot on the weekends? Or do you like coffee? What about cookies—do you like cookies?"
I shook my head at the sudden word vomit and the randomness of her questions.
"Um…yes, I'm majoring in psychology, I drink alcohol on occasion, but I do prefer coffee, and I love cookies." I smiled at her. "Do you bake cookies, Bella?"
Her head bobbed.
"Maybe you'd make me some."
Her mouth formed a small O, and I chuckled.
"You shouldn't feed Jake but feeding me is a good idea."
"Do you like coffee?"
"Yes," she whispered. "With cream."
"Good to know. What's your favorite color?"
I smiled. "My eyes are green. My mother says they're like emeralds." I shook my head. "I think she's full of it."
"I think…" She paused, biting her lip. "I think they're beautiful."
"I think you're beautiful."
Her cheeks flushed darker. It was highly attractive.
"Now we know a little about each other, how about that hug?"
She bit her lip again, drew in a deep breath, and nodded.
Reaching out, I tugged her into my arms, enveloping her. She was stiff and unyielding, her hands still buried in her skirt, not hugging me back. She felt warm and small in my embrace, her head tucked right under my chin, as if it belonged there. I lowered my face down, inhaling her scent. She smelled like a summer day—flowers and sunshine. I slid one hand up her back, fisting her silky hair, that felt soft against my skin.
"Relax, Bella," I murmured. "I've got you. You have nothing to worry about."
Hesitantly, her hands slipped around my waist, and I pulled her closer. She let out a long, shuddering breath, and like a long cascade of water, she became fluid, melting into my body. She gripped my skin as she buried her face to my bare chest, her warm breath tickling the light smattering of hair. She melded to me perfectly, her softness aligning with my harder angles so well, it was as if she'd been made for me. I ran my hand up and down her back, pressing gently on the warm skin I could feel under her shirt, bringing her as close to me as I could.
She sighed again, and I smiled into her hair. Unlike all the other people I had hugged today, I didn't want to let her go. Unable to resist, I nuzzled her head. "You fit so well here, Bella." I tightened my arms. "I think you were made for me to hug."
She didn't say anything but tilted up her head. Our eyes met: shy, hesitant brown versus curious, wanting green. My gaze flickered from her eyes to her full mouth and back again. Her gaze widened, her hands gripped me harder, and I knew she wanted to kiss me as badly as I wanted to kiss her.
Everything and everyone around us faded away. We were no longer standing in a busy Campus Center with hundreds of bodies moving past us. It was only her and me, lost in a bubble of us. Slowly, I began to lower my head, not breaking eye contact. Somehow, I knew I had to take this slow—Bella was much too skittish for me to push this too fast.
Her eyes drifted shut as my mouth hovered overs hers—so close I could feel her small pants of hot breath on my skin.
I brushed my lips over hers softly—so soft they barely touched—but I tasted the sweetness of her mouth. The quietest whimper escaped her throat, and I pushed closer, wanting to kiss her again…and again.
Then, reality set it. Cat calls and shouting startled both of us.
"Hey, get a room!"
"Hug her, Edward, not eat her!"
Bella stumbled back, her hand covering her mouth as she stared at me, horrified.
I swung around, glaring at Jake and Mike. "Shut it, you fuckers! Mind your own business!"
I turned back, but it was too late.
Bella was already running, moving quickly through the crowd and disappearing around the corner.
I could still taste her. Smell her fragrance. I knew how she felt wrapped in my arms, pressed to my body.
I knew if I let her go, I would regret it.
Hurrying over, I grabbed my shirt, pulling it over my head. I saw Emmett talking with the blonde girl who had been with Bella. I put my hand on her arm, getting her attention.
"Please. What class does Bella have next?"
She regarded me coolly. "What are you going to do?"
"Wait for her. Talk to her."
"No, I mean really shy. Almost fearful of strangers. I'm shocked she let you hug her."
Obviously, she hadn't seen the fact that I had done more than hug her. "Please," I begged. "I need to talk to her. She's upset, and I don't want her upset."
"Why? You don't know her."
"I know she likes coffee with cream, bakes cookies, likes the color green, is very sweet, and I have to be careful."
She gasped. "She actually talked to you?"
"Are you going to ask her out?"
Normally, I would tell her it was none of her business.
"Yes, if she'll go."
"You'll have to be patient."
"I get that. But I can't be patient if you don't tell me how to find her."
She glanced at Emmett, who smiled at her. "Edward's a good guy. I've known him for years."
"Okay, fine." She sighed. "She has a double free period. She'll go to the library."
"Okay. Thank you."
"You'll find her hidden in the English Lit section near the back. There's a funny little layout and a table that is hidden from view to the right by the end of the shelves. She always sits there."
"Thank you, ah…"
"Thank you, Rose."
"You hurt her, you'll answer to me. And I'm a ball-buster"
"I don't want to hurt her. I want to get to know her."
"I hope she lets you." She shook her head sadly. "She might not."
I wasn't sure what she meant, but I was determined to find Bella and figure it out.
I pushed my way through the crowd, not caring if I hadn't finished my part of the project. I had hugged a lot of people, and we could base the averages using Eric's video footage.
But, right now, I had something far more important to do.
Thanks for reading. See you soon