A/N: This is an expansion of the one-shot of the same name. Some, but not all, of the scenes from the one-shot will appear later on. For these first few chapters I'm rewinding a bit and taking them back in time. Oh, and I'm wordy. Sorry.
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The rest comes from the gelatinous recesses of my mind. No copying, translating or reproduction of this story is allowed without my express written consent.
I was running through the dense vegetation of a forest teeming with life as its occupants flitted, crawled, slithered, and inched along their way. The scent of moss, trees, and soil converged to create a rich fragrance that perfumed the air. Each exhaled breath condensed into a small cloud of fog as both the mist in the air around me and dewdrops from the surrounding foliage blanketed my skin with a thin sheen of moisture.
My leg muscles contracted and relaxed in a steady rhythm as I continued to push my body forward. Long, thick branches of brown and green lashed out, whipping at my face, arms and legs as I sped by them. Not to be outdone, the forest floor seemed eager to join in the assault as vines and fallen branches conspired to trip me with every up and down motion of my feet. My adrenaline was pumping, but not just because of the effort my body was exerting as I pushed myself onward at an increasingly faster pace. I was searching frantically for someone, anyone without the slightest hint of where I was and which way I needed to go. I was alone and gripped by the fear that I would remain that way, racing through the thick undergrowth of the forest with no clear direction, reason, or purpose. No matter which direction I turned, endless groupings of trees greeted me as the forest stretched on in perpetuity. I saw no way out but I refused to stop trying.
It was clear from the way the green of the forest began to deepen in hue, shedding its vibrancy, that the sun had begun its impatient descent. It became increasingly harder for me to catch my breath and eventually, I slowed my pace, finally coming to a complete stop and leaning on a nearby tree for support. My legs felt numb from the exertion, and for a moment, I thought they might give out on me. As I bent forward, gripping my knees as I attempted to catch my breath, the sight of my legs caused my breath to hitch. Instead of the sun-tanned skin and lean muscular legs I was expecting to see, I saw the pale skin and thick calves of my younger years. I stood up, fully appraising myself as confusion clouded my brain. Each breath was now coming in gasps as I struggled to calm my racing heart and slow the rate of my breathing all to no avail. Suddenly, in the distance, the tinkling sound of classical music began sifting through the mist, carrying its way to my ears.
Claude Debussy's Clair de Lune? Why was Debussy playing in the middle of the forest?
Awareness began to filter into my subconscious as I awoke, grudgingly lifting my head off my pillow as I stretched my arm out, blindly feeling around my nightstand for my cell phone as the sound of my ringtone continued reverberating in my ears.
"You sound like shit, Edward. How late were you up?"
I rolled over onto my back, throwing my left arm over my eyes before clearing my throat.
"Late. Good morning to you too, Rosalie. Why are you calling me so early?"
"Uh, Edward, it's one o'clock in the afternoon, and I'm serving as your personal wake-up call today. Be proud, prettyboy, you're in a privileged class. Men all over the world would die for the chance to wake up to the sound of my voice."
I sighed in exhaustion, still trying to shake off the last remnants of my restless sleep. I wasn't caffeinated enough to sufficiently deal with Rosalie.
"Nothing like a heaping serving of ego for breakfast," I murmured to myself.
"Did you say something?"
"Nope," I lied. There were many things I needed to do today, getting into an argument with Rosalie over her over inflated sense of self was not one of them.
"Didn't think so," she bit back. "Anyway, I'm calling to make sure you know what time you're supposed to be at the airport tonight."
"I know. I have it programmed in my phone."
"Good. You guys can head straight to the house afterwards. Em and I will be there."
"Mmhm," I managed to mumble, drifting back to sleep.
"Wake up, Edward!" Her tone echoed her impatience and triggered my own.
"I'm awake, damn it. Is that all you wanted, because if so, I'm heading back to bed?" Between stress at home and the persistent bad dreams I kept having, all I wanted to do was be left undisturbed for a few more hours.
"What were you doing last night that has you so damn sleepy this late in the day? Did you two make nice?" I let out an exasperated sigh. I knew the conversation would eventually get around to this, but I still didn't want to go there.
"Rosalie, I was…out, okay? And no, not with Tanya."
"If you weren't with her, who were you with, Edward? Seriously, if I find out you're hooking up with one of those no-good ho hos, I swear on all that is holy—"
"What the fuck, Rosalie?" I growled into the phone. "What the hell are you smoking?" I was sufficiently beyond impatient and solidly in pissed-off territory. As it was, I hadn't had a good night's sleep in days, tossing and turning through the dreams that seemed to haunt me constantly. Facing a mini-inquisition from Rosalie was just enough to push me over the edge.
"First of all, you're not Emmett, so drop the 'ho ho' shit. That ghetto act works for him, not so much for you. Second, you know me well enough to know I wouldn't be out 'with one of those no-good ho hos' as you so eloquently put it. You know damn well that has never been my thing. And third, not that it's any of your business, but I went out for a late night run."
"I didn't know you still did that whole running in the middle of the night thing," she said, her voice indicating her displeasure.
"Yeah, occasionally. It helps me clear my head."
"Fifteen miles in the middle of the night? What's on your mind, Edward? You only cover that much distance when you're marathon training or stressed about something."
I rolled my eyes, abandoning all hope of going back to sleep and flipping on the lamp sitting on the nightstand. I inwardly lamented Rosalie's knowledge of my obvious tells. She had a tendency to involve herself in my life without actually stopping to ask if her involvement was appreciated. She was right, of course. I was stressed, but I was in no mood to discuss any of my issues with her and decided to shift the conversation in another direction.
"Stuff. That's all," I said, stifling a yawn. "Did you go by the office today? Jason left me a message yesterday about going in to sign the new contracts."
"I did that hours ago. Nice try, Edward. Don't try to change the subject. This is about you and Tanya isn't it?" Sitting on the edge of the bed, I dropped my head into my hand, audibly sighing. She was not going to let this go.
"I'll take that sigh as a yes. Look, Edward, whatever's going on in that pretty little head of yours, you need to stop over-thinking everything and just go with it. All this drama between the two of you seems to be coming from your end because when I spoke to her the other day, she didn't seem to realize anything was going on."
"Damn it, Rosalie. What did you say to her?"
"I didn't tell her anything. It's not like you've told me anything to tell her anyway. I was talking about my anniversary and that led to talk about marriage, and let's just say, I didn't get the impression from her that you were in a cooling off period. Where is she, anyway?"
"She's been staying at Kate and Garrett's house to help with the baby. Look, I'd appreciate it if you'd back off and let me handle my relationship, thank you. Things with us are complicated, but that's for us to figure out. You didn't say anything about tonight, did you?" I asked, pushing myself off the bed and pacing my bedroom floor.
"Didn't you ask me not to invite her? I think that your request was absolutely ridiculous and it bothers me that you don't want my best friend there when I'm celebrating my one year anniversary with the people I love, but who am I to interfere."
"Rosalie McCarty, nee Hale, and you live to interfere. I know you don't understand it, and honestly, it's not something I really feel like trying to explain to you right now, but I just need a Tanya-free night with the family and I appreciate your sacrifice."
"Lose the sarcasm, Edward. And it's Rosalie Hale, no nee about it. Get it straight. He didn't buy me, he married me."
"Okay, okay, sorry, Rosalie Hale." I made a second attempt at changing the subject. "What was the production team working on over at the office today? Anything interesting?"
"They're sifting through applications and video entries for next season's show. God, you should see some of them. You and I are going to have our work cut out for us getting this batch in shape. I don't understand how people let themselves get so messed up and how the people around them sit back and watch them do it, no offense."
I looked up, catching a glimpse of my tired reflection in the dresser mirror. I didn't care if it was afternoon, it was still way too early to have to deal with this.
"Of course you wouldn't, Rosalie, because you're perfect and everything about your life is perfect. If everyone else had it as good as you, we'd see obesity rates drop worldwide."
I could tolerate Rosalie one on one in limited doses and I'd pretty much already exceeded my daily limit. I knew Rosalie's heart was in the right place, and she genuinely meant well. But she had been born without a verbal filter, a by-product of her wealth and class, and saw no need to censor herself no matter how potentially insulting she might be. Of course, the fact that she thought so highly of herself that she had me convinced she shit sunshine and rainbows didn't help matters.
"Oh, don't be sensitive, Edward. Put your big girl panties on and get over yourself. I'm sorry, you know many of these cases are pretty ridiculous and I can't stand bullshit excuses for how people let themselves get that way. But, go take a look for yourself. It'll prepare you for what we'll be dealing with next season."
"I'm heading there in a bit, so I might check out some of the entries. Was there anything else you wanted before I hang up?"
"I hope you don't think your attempt at changing subjects was successful. Edward, you need to man up and do right by Tanya. She's a good woman and she's good for you. Everybody's got issues, Edward, and you shouldn't let yours fuck up a good thing."
"And with that, this conversation is officially over. Bye, Rosalie."
I ended the call and tossed my phone on my bed. An early morning—or early afternoon, whatever—psychoanalysis courtesy of Rosalie I'm-not-a-McCarty-I'm-still-a-Hale was nowhere on the list of things I needed to do today.
I trudged into my bathroom, flipping on the light as I went and stopped in front of the mirror. Green eyes rimmed in red, and a perpetual case of bed head greeted me back. I groaned, opening the medicine cabinet and grabbing a small bottle of Visine. I put a few drops in each eye, before turning the faucet on and bending down to splash my face with cold water. Brief flashes of the dream that had been haunting me raced through my mind, jockeying for position.
It had been a while since I'd had these dreams though they'd been like an unwelcome, distant relative visiting me frequently throughout my life. The scene would change— sometimes I was in a desert, other times I was in a forest, but the basics of the dream never changed. I was always alone, searching for, or running from, something or someone. I could never be sure which. Though I never realized I was dreaming until I awakened, the dream always left a grimy residue of unease that would stick with me throughout the day.
I always assumed they were triggered by stress and must have been a subconscious way of internalizing the stress. It had been a while since I'd had them with the frequency I was having them now. In fact, the last time I'd been plagued so consistently by them was when I first moved to LA.
My introduction to the Hollywood scene had been an enlightening one. Fish out of water didn't even begin to describe the complete awkwardness I'd felt in the beginning. That awkwardness increased tenfold when I landed a job as one of two personal trainers for Big Fat Chance, a televised weight loss show taking ordinary people, sequestering them, and whipping them into shape one painful pound at a time. I was so different from the people I found myself surrounded by in so many ways. Unlike most of them, Hollywood fame and success had never been a goal of mine. Hell, I hadn't had goals of any sort a few years prior. The parties and mixers I found myself at felt surreal at times. There was no end to the numbers of women, or as Emmett so reverently called them Hollywood hos—ho hos for short—throwing themselves at me.
To be surrounded, wanted, and desired by people who just a few years earlier would have looked right through me— or maybe right around me, whatever— was for lack of a better term, odd. Despite all of the strides I'd taken to leave the old me behind, despite the subtle and obvious ways I'd evolved into a different person, I was still gripped by an unconquerable feeling of loneliness. None of these women got me. I doubted any of them ever could, and maybe I was strange, but I had no interest in being with someone long term who didn't get me. Not that I hadn't tried. Tanya Lebedev was proof of that.
But no one wanted to hear me whine, as Rosalie sought to frequently remind me. "You're a fucking pretty boy now, so lose your fat-boy issues and get over it, already." That was Rosalie's idea of a pep talk when she deemed me "too fucking emo" for her taste. Get over it. As if it was that simple. She had no idea how much I wished I could get over it. There was no way to explain to her how conflicted I felt at times. How I felt like I could go back to the old me at any time. How I constantly battled to keep myself from falling back into some of my unhealthy, but comfortable, habits, food being chief amongst them. Up until a few years ago, food had been by constant companion, my comfort, my drug of choice. Understanding and breaking that addiction had been one of the hardest struggles of my life, and it never ended.
And now, the dreams were back again. I didn't know if it was a reflection of my tiredness that day, or the general malaise with life that had begun to settle over me. I was going into my fourth season as a trainer for Big Fat Chance and though I was grateful for the opportunity, and recognized how incredibly lucky I was, my discontent was growing. I couldn't put a finger on why, and I hadn't figured out how to shake the mood that had been gradually settling over me. All I knew was that I wanted more, even if I couldn't quite define what "more" was.
Later that afternoon, I made my way to Universal City and to the offices of Little & Brown, Inc., the production company behind Big Fat Chance. I put my John Hancock on all of the required forms before heading over to the Big Fat Chance production department. I walked in, taking a moment to absorb the laid-back atmosphere of the office, before spotting the person I was there to see. Angela Weber was the head Production Assistant for Big Fat Chance and she'd been with the show from the very first season. She was sitting at her desk, cradling a phone between her right shoulder and ear as her fingers flew across her desktop keyboard. A pair of wire-rimmed glasses were perched on top of her head, functioning as a headband holding her long brown hair away from her face. A chewed number two pencil was perched delicately behind her left ear. At that moment, she looked up briefly, waving me over before turning her attention back to the person on the phone, her computer, or both—I couldn't be sure which.
When I was within hearing range, she turned her attention to me again, putting her hand over the receiver.
"Hey, Edward, do you have a second?"
"I do. What's up?"
"Since you're here, I want to introduce you to our newest PA. He's going to be on the farm with us this season. Just give me a sec to finish this call, okay?"
"No problem, Ang," I said, lowering myself into one of the office chairs sitting near her desk. Within moments, she'd finished her call, sighing with relief as she turned to face me.
"What's with the ear jewelry?" I asked nodding towards the pencil behind her ear.
"Oh, this? It gives me character and makes me feel like I'm doing something important. You know I was a journalism major and always saw myself covering important news stories, and well, I'm here instead," she said, gesturing to the room around us. "The pencil screams 'I'm doing something important, back off' don't you think?"
"That must go over well with the guys."
"What guys, Edward? I have no life. You know this. Don't make fun of the socially bereft. We don't like it. Anyway, are you here to see how the other half live?"
"Not exactly. I have to be somewhere in a couple of hours and it doesn't make any sense for me to head back home so I figured I'd spend the time here."
"Hot date?" she asked, winking at me.
"Hardly. Rosalie and Emmett's first wedding anniversary is in a couple of days and we've got family flying in tonight to celebrate."
"Oh, that's right. They had a Christmas wedding, right?" Angela asked.
"You know Rosalie. Even Jesus has to share the spotlight with her." Angela laughed, nodding in agreement.
"You guys crack me up. And yes, that sounds exactly like Rosalie. She was here earlier today, by the way. She wanted to take a look at some of the entries."
"I know. That's actually one of the reasons I'm here. I figured I'd see what this year's field looks like."
"Ah, sneak peek, eh? I'm on to you, Cullen. Doing a little reconnaissance so you'll know how to bring them to their knees on the Farm?"
"I'm not that tough, Angela." She arched an eyebrow in rebuttal. "Okay, I am that tough, but no, I just want to see what this crop looks like."
"Well that works. The new guy is actually down the hall going through the applications that casting sent over so we can kill two birds with one stone. Follow me," she said, edging out of her seat and heading down the hall.
I followed her through the maze of desks, most of which were empty probably due to the upcoming holiday. We came to a stop in front of one desk so thoroughly covered by papers that I couldn't tell what the desktop actually looked like. A short, brown-haired man looked up at us in surprise, before hopping to his feet, looking first at Angela and then back to me just as Angela began the introductions.
"Edward, this is Ben Cheney, our newest Production Assistant. He's been with us for about a month now. Ben, this is Edward Cullen, BFC trainer extraordinaire. I've worked with Edward for the past three seasons and I can assure you, despite what you've probably heard, he's actually a really nice guy." I extended my hand to him just as he did the same.
"Ben's actually going through the first batch of applications and DVDs casting sent over, looking for callbacks," Angela continued. "Edward here wants to scope out the applicants and I have a crapload of work I have to get back to so you guys can hang tight, make nice, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon." Angela gave a quick playful salute to the two of us before turning back towards the hallway we'd come down.
"Oh, and Edward?" she said, turning back around. "Lauren was here earlier and asking whether you were coming in today. I told her you'd contracted a wicked Amazonian virus and would probably be in hiding but I don't think she bought it. You've been warned." She winked at me as I rolled my eyes.
"Thanks for the heads up, Ang," I said, the exasperation evident in my voice.
"Hey, Angela? Are we still on for tonight?" Ben interjected quickly just as she was heading down the hall again. Angela's eyes nervously flitted to mine and away quickly as her cheeks colored.
She nodded briefly before hurriedly heading away from us. I turned to look at Ben, my eyebrows raised in question.
"It's nothing like that," he offered, responding to the knowing look I was giving him. "I just moved here from New York and she offered to show me around, that's all."
"I didn't say anything. We're all adults here," I replied. Who Angela spent her after work hours with was absolutely none of my business and I was fine keeping it that way.
"Anyway, it's really nice to meet you, man. I'm sure you get this a lot and I promise I'm not some crazed fan, but I love what you do on the show. You're like some kind of drill sergeant or something the way you whip people into shape. My mom and sister love you. They're scared of you, but they love you."
"Thanks, Ben," I said, not completely comfortable with the compliment and wanting to get the focus off me. "So…" I said, gesturing to his desk in an obvious attempt to get back to the reason I was there.
"Oh, yeah. Here, excuse the mess," he said, waving his hand toward his desk. "I promise it's organized chaos. I know exactly where everything is."
"Well, you know what they say— a messy desk is the sign of a genius."
"Oh, yeah?" Well no, I personally believed a messy desk was a sign of a messy desk but who was I to judge?
"Something like that. So what can you give me? I want to take a look at what I'm up against this season."
"Here," he said, handing me a stack of applications with DVDs attached. He looked around as if he were searching for something. "Hmm, there aren't any free players here. If you head down the hall, second door on your right, there's an empty office with a TV and DVD player. You can play them there. Let me know if you see any that interest you."
"Will do." I walked toward the office, nodding to the handful of staff members I passed along the way. After finding the empty office, I went in, closing the door behind me and settled into the large leather office chair. I turned the TV on, and since the DVD player could hold six, I loaded six different ones and leaned back as the first one began to play.
The faces and stories began to blend together after a while as everyone said the same thing, they needed our help, they couldn't lose the weight without us, this was their last chance. I swapped out the first six DVDs for another set and was surprised by how many people seemed to do little to make themselves stand out from the crowd. They didn't seem to realize that to be chosen from a field of thousands, something would have to stand out about them. None of the entries were really catching my attention and some time had gone by before I realized I was daydreaming and not even paying attention to the images on the screen. The lids of my eyes began to grow heavy as I fought to pay attention to what was on the screen.
I hadn't realized I had fallen asleep until I was roused—and maybe just a tad bit aroused— by the sound of a woman moaning coming from somewhere around me. What the hell? Sitting up, I wiped my eyes and looked around, feeling disoriented and trying to figure out where I was and why I was there. As reality slowly crept in and I realized I'd fallen asleep watching audition DVDs, the sound of someone moaning filled the room again.
My eyes flashed up to the screen as I identified the source of the sound. Those sounds, those fucking sounds, were like something straight out of one of my high school fantasies, sensual, lusty, and pretty damn exciting. It felt like an eternity passed as I waited for my mind to catch up with what my eyes and ears were processing. The images on the screen looked innocent enough, but the images those sounds conjured in my mind, naked bodies, heat and sweat, were definitely not.
What was this?
I scrambled, probably a little too eagerly, for the remote and skipped back. Whatever the hell was going on, this applicant had definitely managed to catch my attention. As I got to the beginning of the clip and let it play, I again marveled at how innocent enough the scene looked and I started to wonder if maybe I had been imagining sounds that weren't there.
A woman sat at what appeared to be a kitchen table, judging by the cabinets I saw directly over her shoulder. If she was wearing makeup, I couldn't tell, but I could tell that she was young, probably in her early twenties. Her long brown hair fell around her shoulders and from what I could tell from the video it appeared her eyes might be the same hue. She was pale, very pale, ivory was the word that popped to mind looking at her face, and I wondered for a moment whether being in the California sun would help her get some color or send her to the emergency room with second-degree burns.
"I'm Bella Swan, and this is my life. Ask me what you want, I can't promise I'll be entertaining but I can promise I'll be honest."
I heard the sound of someone else speaking off camera and I clicked the mouse to raise the volume so I could hear clearly.
"So Bella, tell us where you live."
"Well, Jane, is it alright if I call you Jane or am I supposed to pretend like you aren't here? I suck with this kind of thing, you know that."
"It's fine, Bella, just keep going. It's just me and you."
"Fine. I'm from Forks, Washington, but I'm currently a resident of Seattle."
"What are you planning on doing with your life?"
"Wow, we're just bypassing the small questions and going straight for the gold, huh?"
"That's the only way to go, Bella. Come hard or go home. You know that's my motto for life."
I watched as the woman on camera, Bella, smoothed her long brown hair back, pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and sat up straighter, facing the camera.
"Well, Jane, I'm still working on that. I'm somewhat of a work in progress at the moment, but I am doing something. Right now, I'm finishing my Bachelor's degree, which has been pretty much the focus of my life for the past four years. After graduation, I don't know. I guess the world is mine for the conquering, and I just have to go out and figure out where to stake my claim."
"Bella, you didn't actually answer the question. You promised truthfulness and I need you to honor that promise for my sake and yours."
Bella's face seemed to tighten into an unreadable mask as she let out an exasperated sigh. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed together as she stared hard, almost glaring, at something or someone off camera. I assumed from the severity of the look Jane was likely the recipient of the death glare and I was strangely fascinated by the dynamic between the two of them. Just as Bella looked as if she were ready to speak, a plate of what looked like chocolate chip cookies slid into the frame towards her. She looked down at the plate and back at Jane, her eyebrow rising in obvious confusion.
"I want you to be comfortable while we do this because I need you to be as much yourself as possible if this video is going to be successful for us. I know these make you happy, so feel free to partake. It won't interrupt the flow of the video."
Bella's eyes remained on Jane for a few seconds longer, her bottom lip once again held hostage by her teeth as she appeared to be trying to work something out in her head. Her mask crumbled and her face relaxed as she sighed again, pulling the plate of cookies directly in front of her and grabbing one. She mumbled something to herself that I didn't catch before taking a bite. I watched as her face smoothed out, all the remaining stress lines disappearing as her eyes closed and her head dropped back slightly. A sound I could only describe as a moan of pure ecstasy, long and drawn out, and still sounding as sensual as it did the first time I'd heard it, wound its way from her lips.
"I am the bomb."
I watched as she finished chewing and took some more bites, her eyes never reopening as additional moans of pleasure periodically escaped her lips.
"If you'd asked me what I was good at, I'd have had an answer for you right away. This is what I'm good at. I kick ass at making food so good you could cream your pants. And for the record Jane, you better edit every bit of this shit out. I'm not even joking."
"I'm not an idiot, Bella. That whole little display would have no place in a video submitted to my class. Let's keep going though. Your life and what you're doing with it, that's where we left off. And I don't want a play-by-play of what you're doing now. I want to know what your plans for your future are."
Bella's eyes eventually reopened and she stared directly into the camera for a few seconds before answering.
"I don't know that I have any. And I know that sounds pathetic as hell and trust me, I feel pathetic saying it but it's the truth. I don't know. I know there was a time in my life when I had goals and I know there was a time in my life when I had aspirations. I can't tell you when those changed or got lost or whatever, because I don't know that either. I'm kind of living day by day. Right now, my life plan is finishing this degree program. After that's finished, I guess my life goal will be sitting down and figuring out some new life goals."
"What do you attribute that to? Your lack of plans for the future…"
"I don't know what I attribute it to. Do you have some theories of your own, Jane? Clearly you do, so feel free to share."
Bella's tone was clipped and from the agitated way she was now gnawing on her poor bottom lip, it seemed this was terrain she and Jane must have traversed before.
"Well, since you've asked, I don't think you feel good about yourself and I think that's what's holding you back. You count yourself out before you ever get started. You assume the worst of people and assume that they're assuming the worst of you. I think you've found unhealthy escapes to deal with all of these emotions that you refuse to acknowledge and I think the weight of it all is slowly smothering the life out of you."
The uncomfortable silence that loomed after Jane finished speaking was deafening as Bella stared, unblinkingly at where I imagined Jane must have been sitting. Just as I was wondering how long the stare-down was going to last, Bella moved slightly, sitting up a little straighter, that mask of indifference slamming back into place over her face, and opened her mouth.
"So as I was saying, at the moment, my plans are to finish my degree. After that, I suppose it's off to the job market to see who's willing to hire a girl fresh out of college with a newly minted B.A…."
The sound on the tape tapered off and the image faded to black, replaced by a new image of what looked like a small brown-haired girl.
"I'm Jane, I'm Bella's best friend and have been for as long as I can remember despite the fact that she makes me want to cause her severe bodily harm sometimes. As you can see, she needs your help. Although, she's not quite at the point where she realizes she needs your help. She's beautiful and brilliant and I'm tired of watching her stand on the sidelines too afraid to live her life.
"She doesn't know she's submitting an audition tape for Big Fat Chance. She thinks she's helping me out with a school project. She loves this show and watches it religiously. I'm hoping if she's fortunate enough to be selected as one of the contestants, this will be what she needs to jump start her life. At the risk of sounding like everyone else's audition tape I'm going to say, she needs this, desperately. Her life is passing her by and as painful as it is to watch, it has to be more painful for her to live. Her application is in the envelope with this DVD. Thank you for your time."
The DVD ended and in seconds the next one was playing. I wasn't paying attention, though. My mind was still on the clip I'd just watched. A part of me wanted to snatch the DVD out and run it straight to Ben with instructions to make sure Bella received a call back, while another part of me was hesitant to bring someone on who was still so deep in denial about what she was doing to herself. Making the kind of life changes that she would need to make, the kind of life changes that I had had to make, was tedious work. It would take perseverance and strong dedication and I didn't think it was something that she could be tricked into by a well intentioned friend.
At the same time though, Bella reminded me so much of myself eight years ago that I almost felt like I had just been visited by the ghost of Edward past. That same indifference, that same mask, that same ability to deflect, those were all characteristics that I'd worn like a talisman for so much of my life. But my ability to rid myself of them hadn't come until I'd made the decision to be different. What people failed to understand, what I hadn't really understood in the beginning, was that it was about so much more than just losing the weight. She would need to shift her whole idea of herself and it wouldn't be easy. In fact, it would probably be the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life and if she managed to accomplish it that would just be the starting point. She'd have to figure out how to sustain it for the rest of her life and avoid using food to anesthetize her pain.
I grabbed the remote and skipped back to the last DVD. When I saw Bella's face pop up on the screen again, I used the remote to skip forward until I reached the point on the DVD where the cookies were pushed across the table. I hit the "play" button and watched the scene play out again. The damn moaning was as hot as it was the first time and I felt like a total pervert for thinking so. I tried to chase those thoughts out of my head as I hit the "pause" button and skipped back again. I still hadn't caught what Bella was mumbling to herself before she started eating the cookie and for some reason, I really wanted to know what she'd said. Turning the volume up as high as it could go, I leaned forward in my chair to get a better listen. I watched again as Bella pulled the plate in front of her, grabbing one of the cookies.
"My drug of choice."
Those words were uttered so softly, but the resignation they held was too loud to be ignored. This girl was me, right down to the language she used to describe the way she felt about food. Maybe in some cosmic way, I was being presented with an opportunity to relive my own metamorphosis. I felt a little narcissistic for feeling that way, but the opportunity to train someone who seemed so much like my former self seemed too exciting a proposition to let pass. I rolled my chair over to the other end of the table, grabbing the phone and dialing.
"Ben, this is Edward. Can you come here for a sec?"
In less than a minute, there was a quick rap on the door followed by the door opening and Ben's head peeking around.
"You need me?"
"Yeah, I've found one I think is a definite callback. Her name's Bella Swan, and she's from Washington state. I want you to take her application and run it to casting. Let whoever's there know this is one I'm personally marking as a keeper, okay?"
"No problem, Edward. Anything else you need?"
"Sometimes things get lost in the shuffle so do me a favor and keep tabs on this one. I want to make sure she's in the running."
"Gotcha. This one real BFC material?"
"There's something about her, but only time will tell."
That evening, I sat in my car outside of Los Angeles International Airport fiddling with my mp3 player as I waited to receive the call letting me know I could pick up my passengers. I was feeling quite upbeat and had been since I'd left the BFC office earlier that day. I'd come to the realization that I needed a new challenge and that was why I had been feeling so melancholy as of late.
I was proud of all of my training successes, on and off the show, but it wasn't until earlier that I realized I hadn't been forming connections with my clients the way that I had when I'd first become a physical trainer, before I'd joined the cast of Big Fat Chance. When I'd joined the show, the ever present cameras made me nervous and I found myself quickly irritated by some of the contestants who seemed more concerned with winning the prize money than changing their lives. That combination annoyed me to no end and as was my habit, my irritation translated on screen in to me coming across as a hard ass. The show's producers loved it though, and strongly encouraged me not to hold back my inner asshole. Of course, they worded it a little better than that, but the general idea was understood.
The excitement I was feeling over the possibility of having Bella on the show had highlighted for me the enthusiasm I had been missing. I tried to tamp down on my excitement because I knew there was a somewhat extensive vetting process she would have to go through before being selected as a contestant. They'd have to make sure—to the degree that they could determine those things—that she wasn't crazy, psychotic, or too imbalanced to be put in the spotlight. Still, I resolved within myself to approach this season of Big Fat Chance with greater zeal. This was going to be the season I brought out my kinder, gentler side. I would make a real attempt to get to know each and every one of the contestants on my team, learn their strengths and weaknesses, learn to motivate them without the yelling and sarcastic remarks, regardless of whether Bella made the cut or not.
My cell phone vibrated, alerting me that I'd received a new text. I picked it up and smiled, shifting the car into drive and heading towards arrivals. I drove slowly, scanning the median as I passed, trying to find the faces I was expecting to see. When I found them, I flipped on my right turn signal, pulling over to the curb and stopping the car. Once I'd put the car into park and popped my trunk open, I jumped out, keys still in the ignition, walking quickly over to the couple standing on the curb.
"Carlisle," I said, smiling as I pulled the older, blond man into a tight hug. Carlisle grinned back at me, his blue eyes twinkling as he patted me on the back.
"Edward, it's so good to see you, son. It's been too long."
"It has been," I replied, slowly pulling away from him and turning towards his companion. "Esme, you are as beautiful as ever."
Esme smiled back at me as she pulled me down into an even tighter hug.
"Edward, my dear, it has been entirely too long. I don't know how I've survived without your flattery!" We both chuckled as we exited the embrace. I moved to grab the bags that were sitting next to them, placing them in the trunk of my car. Carlisle opened the front passenger door of the car and helped Esme in before sliding into the backseat.
"How was the flight from Chicago?" I asked, sliding my seatbelt across my lap and preparing to pull back out into traffic.
"Long, as usual. But it's nice to get away from the cold and snow and join you guys for the holidays. We miss you all so much," Esme said, glancing over at me and tousling my hair.
"We miss you guys too. How many more months until you all are joining us permanently?" I asked, already knowing the answer but a bit embarrassed to let them know how much I was looking forward to Carlisle's impending retirement and their eventual relocation to Los Angeles.
"June thirtieth is my last day at the hospital and Esme and I already have one-way tickets back to LA for July fifteenth," Carlisle said, as I glanced at him through the rearview mirror. "Rosalie has promised Esme that she'll introduce her to a few realtors while we're here on vacation so we can start the house hunting process."
"Good. That'll give me a few months to help you guys get settled in before I'm expected back on the Fat Farm."
"Ah, the Fat Farm," Carlisle said, contemplatively. "How is that going for you?"
"It's going. We head back to tape the season finale in a few weeks. I was actually at the office earlier today looking at some of the audition DVDs and I'm getting a little excited about the upcoming season. There was an entry from a girl who reminded me of myself back then, Carlisle."
"Eh, same stubbornness, same unwillingness to see what she's doing to herself."
"That does sound like you. Why did she enter if she doesn't think there's a problem?"
"She's got a friend in her corner. Her friend entered her behind her back."
"That will be quite a surprise for her if she's selected. You know what I've told you before, though. The likelihood of someone changing is small if they aren't willing to recognize that there's a problem."
"That's true," Esme said, chiming in. "But both of you men know firsthand that having someone believe in you, advocating for you, supporting you, can mean all the difference in the world."
"It does," I said in agreement. "I'm hoping she makes it on the show and I'm excited to have the challenge. If I can be half the inspiration to her that you've been to me Carlisle, she'll be a better person for it."
"I'm sure you will be, son. I'm sure you will be."
The ride seemed to pass by quickly as we talked about what we'd been doing since the last time we'd seen each other. Carlisle Cullen had been the closest thing I'd ever had to a father before he eventually signed the paperwork necessary to make it official and actually became my father. He and Esme had welcomed me into their family with open hearts and open arms and I was a different man because of it. I shuddered to think about what would have become of me without their influence in my life, and although I wasn't a religious man, I thanked God on a regular basis for leading me to them.
It had been through Carlisle, that I first met Emmett, his nephew through marriage. Emmett, the son of Esme's only sister, had lived in Los Angeles with his parents until his parents were killed in a car accident and he was sent to live with Esme and Carlisle, the only next of kin capable of raising a rambunctious twelve-year-old boy. When Emmett and I met, we clicked right away and he quickly became my best friend. When he'd eventually been offered the opportunity to return to the city of his birth and head up the cast of another Hollywood weight loss show, he'd asked me to move with him.
According to him, my new and improved body was meant for the sun and fun of LA. It had been hard leaving Carlisle and Esme behind in Chicago. They'd come to mean so much to me. But they, too, felt I could benefit from the change in scenery and joined forces with Emmett to convince me to leave the Windy City behind. I had, of course, and while I didn't regret that decision, I did miss having Carlisle and Esme's presence in my daily life.
"So Edward, how're things going with Tanya? You haven't mentioned anything about her." Esme's question broke through my wandering thoughts and I tried not to visibly wince as she broached the one topic I tried to stay clear of with her and everyone else—my love life.
How were things going? I didn't really know how to answer that. Tanya and I had been dating exclusively for a little over a year. We were comfortable and we worked well together, but while I was sure we loved each other, we weren't in love with each other and that was beginning to pose a problem—for me at least. Tanya was constantly hinting that she thought it was time for us to take our relationship to the next level. Okay, hinting wasn't a strong enough word. She'd actually put my e-mail address on Tiffany & Co.'s email list, and had even had a personal representative call me to schedule a time when I could come in and "view some of the selections my girlfriend might be interested in." She was a subtle one, that Tanya.
She was more focused on outward appearances than the actual substance or quality of our relationship though. To her, we made sense together, and even though she admitted that she felt the same absence of passion that I felt, she was willing to overlook that since everything else seemed to fit. On paper we did make sense, both twenty-six, both highly ambitious and motivated people. She was an attractive woman and I knew she found me attractive as well, but there had never been any fire in our relationship—no spark. It wasn't that we'd lost it. We never had it. We'd just fallen together because it seemed to make sense.
She was Rosalie's best friend, and once Rosalie and Emmett became joined at the hip, Tanya tagged along with Rosalie as I tagged along with Emmett whenever they decided to come out of their bubble and spend time with friends again. After a while, we began doing things together, just the two of us. And before I'd even fully realized it, we were a couple. It didn't hurt that around that same time, she'd lost a roommate and I'd lost a room when Rosalie decided to move in with Emmett. Our relationship made Rosalie insanely happy—I think it relieved some of the guilt she felt about abandoning Tanya for Emmett. Emmett, on the other hand, wasn't impressed. He didn't think I was ready to settle into a long-term relationship because as he so poignantly put it, "I hadn't slept with enough women to sufficiently make up for my ass deficit."
I didn't agree with Emmett. I'd gone out of my comfort zone when I first arrived in LA, losing my long held virginity and trying to master the art of the meaningless hook-up like most twenty-something guys. But it didn't take me countless numbers of nameless women to realize that I wasn't most twenty-something guys. I was different. I found it impossible to escape who I'd been in the past. And since in the past, I had been a reclusive, classical music loving, no-ass getting fat boy who was far too self-conscious to ever even ask a girl out, much less sleep with one, I wasn't able to transform into a modern day player, sweeping women off of their feet one panty-dropping smirk at a time no matter how hard Emmett pushed.
Still, despite my lack of desire to become a Hollywood playboy, I realized I wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea of marrying someone just because it was expected and comfortable. I wasn't naïve enough to think there was a soul mate out there waiting for me to knock her off her feet, or any of that Hollywood bullshit, but I'd recently decided that my relationship with Tanya had run its course and it was time for us to go back to just being friends. I was just too chickenshit to tell her. I was waiting for either her to make the first move or for the start of the new Big Fat Chance season so I would have the perfect excuse to move out and make a clean break.
"Things are the same," I said, choosing not to elaborate and not knowing where to begin even if I did elaborate.
"Well, doesn't that sound downright romantic," Esme scoffed. Esme was as proud of all of my accomplishments as any mother would be, but she made no bones about the fact that my love life troubled her. Carlisle had once confided to me that she'd wondered if I had been too emotionally scarred during my younger years to ever be able to find a woman who could hold my interest. After a good laugh, I'd asked Carlisle to reassure Esme that I wasn't damaged, and that the minute Mrs. Right, walked into my life and announced herself, I'd latch on to her with the grip of a lion on his prey—without the blood, and violence and killing part, of course.
"Just so you know, that's not what Rosalie has been telling me."
My eyebrows rose slightly as I glanced away from the road for a second to look over at Esme.
"And what exactly has Rosalie been telling you?"
"She seems to be under the impression that there may be a wedding date set soon."
If I'd been drinking something, I would have choked.
"A wedding date?! I haven't even asked her to marry me yet!"
"Oh, so you are planning on asking her?!" Esme chirped, tiny lines appearing around the corners of her brown eyes as she smiled in excitement.
"No, that's not what I mean. It's not like that… it's… it's… it's complicated, Esme. I wish I could explain it."
"Don't wish, just explain."
I glanced in the rearview mirror again, catching Carlisle's eye. I tried to nonverbally send my SOS signal so he would rescue me from the conversation. He shrugged his shoulders though, and made a face that indicated there was nothing he could do. I sighed.
"We're not in love, Esme. I refuse to marry someone I'm not in love with."
"Well then why are you two together?"
"Because that's just what happened, but trust me, there isn't some deep emotional connection here. And that's not just me speaking. She feels the same way. She's just willing to move forward despite that."
"What are you looking for that she's not providing, Edward? Sometimes, it is possible that in our search for perfection we can lose out and miss the obvious."
"Esme, I'm not looking for perfection. Honestly, at this point, I'm not looking for anything. My job has me away from home so often that I barely have time for myself, much less someone else. Tanya is a great woman but I think she's too willing to settle for less. I just don't think it's fair for either Tanya or myself to stay in a relationship that isn't as fulfilling as it should be for either of us."
I decided to go in for the kill. Whether I believed that shit or not, and I most certainly did not, I knew it would get her off my back. Esme was nothing if not a hopeless romantic.
"Esme, don't you think I should find someone who means to me what Carlisle means to you? What Rosalie means to Emmett? That's all I'm asking for and while I may not be scouring the earth looking for that, I'm not averse to it and trust me, Tanya and I aren't that."
Esme huffed as she turned towards her window. I knew I'd hit her soft spot. Despite how desperately she may have wanted to see me with someone, she didn't want it to be a hollow existence. She'd had that before Carlisle. She knew what it was like to be caught in a loveless marriage, suffocating and struggling to find a way out of it. If I knew anything about Esme, it was that she would never want me, or anyone else she cared seriously about, to experience that.
"Will she be at Rose and Em's tonight?" Esme asked, still looking out of the window instead of turning towards me.
"No. I asked Rosalie not to invite her and she said she wouldn't."
"How'd Rose take that? Tanya's her best friend isn't she?"
"She is and I guess she took it well. There really wasn't anything to take. I didn't tell her anything about how I've been feeling. I just told her things were a little strained between Tanya and I right now and I'd rather not have her there this evening."
From my peripheral, I saw Esme's reddish-brown hair sway as she nodded her head in understanding. The rest of the drive passed in silence, the music from my mp3 player the only sound, though the air in the car remained a bit charged. When I pulled up to the massive house Emmett and Rosalie had recently purchased, Emmett came bounding down the driveway ready to greet us before I'd even put the car into park. The sight would have probably seemed threatening to anyone who didn't know him, despite the huge dimpled grin on his face. Short, black curly hair topping off his enormous 6'5 bulky, muscle-man frame, he appeared way more intimidating than he actually was.
"Mama E! Daddy C! Welcome back!" Emmett shouted exuberantly as he opened Esme's and then Carlisle's door before turning back to Esme and pulling her out of the car and into a bear hug.
When Emmett had gone to live with Esme and Carlisle he'd immediately insisted on calling Esme "Mom." Esme, however, felt strongly that wearing that title felt disrespectful toward her deceased sister and insisted on "Auntie E" as had been their practice. Emmett, every bit as insistent and strong-willed as his aunt, felt "Auntie" didn't give her her just due and after much back and forth, the two of them eventually reached a compromise and settled on "Mama E". In reality, that usually got shortened to "Ma" anyway, but we all knew Esme secretly adored the endearment.
"EmBear! I have missed you, darling!" Esme said, laughing and squeezing him every bit as hard as he was squeezing her.
At that moment, Rosalie walked up and the hugs and excited exclamations began again.
"I hope you've cooked something special for us, Rosalie because I'm absolutely starving." I said teasingly, hoping that any earlier tension between the two of us was forgotten. She, Emmett and Esme started towards the house, Carlisle and I trailing behind with the bags.
Rosalie turned to me, arching her eyebrow before rolling her eyes and continuing up the driveway.
"Please, boy. You'll be eating catered food tonight. You know I don't have a domestic bone in my body."
"That doesn't matter, baby," Emmett said, throwing his right arm around Rosalie while his left remained firmly around Esme. "My Lee Lee's body's too damn tight to hold anything else, anyway. Ain't that right, Lee Lee?" he said, dropping his arm from around her neck and smacking her butt.
Carlisle and I rolled our eyes at one another, too used to Emmett and Rosalie's exuberant public displays of affection to say anything.
The house was a step up from the old condominium Emmett and Rosalie used to share and since it had been purchased since the last time Esme and Carlisle were here, Emmett started their tour the moment they entered the house.
I followed Rosalie into the kitchen and stopped in my tracks when I saw Tanya standing at the counter mixing drinks. My eyes darted towards Rosalie who seemed to be trying to avoid my gaze as a smug smile took up residence on her face.
"Edward, how could you forget to tell me Esme and Carlisle were coming in tonight? Luckily, Rose called me in enough time for me to get here from Kate's house." Tanya said in her singsong voice seemingly oblivious to the tension that had taken root in the room the minute I'd realized Rosalie had invited her against my wishes.
"Yes, Edward, how could you have forgotten? It's lucky for all of us that I happened to call her this morning. This dinner wouldn't have been complete without Tanya here, don't you think?"
Rosalie had the nerve to look at me, narrowing her eyes as if challenging me to make a scene.
I loved Rosalie as a sister, I really did, but her knack for meddling in my life had gone one step too far. All I'd wanted was one evening away, one Tanya-free evening, to catch up with my family and step outside of the pretend perfection of our relationship. But Rosalie forced my hand and in the battle of wills between myself and Rosalie, I was not going to let her win. She had just handed me the motivation I needed to do what I had to do.
"Tanya, we need to talk."
A/N I'm a big fan of telling people "thank you" so please indulge me for a sec while I say thanks to some folks. I promise I don't have an Oscar complex and I won't always be writing novel-length author's notes:
1. Thanks to hmonster4 and gustariana for hosting the Indie Writers' Contest. I'd been too chicken to write and post anything on my own and that competition was my motivation to get off the sidelines and jump into the fray.
2. Thanks to Heather Dawn and Kassiah. More than likely, you're reading this now because Heather stumbled onto the o/s, rec'd it to Kassiah and Kassiah pimped it on the Fictionators' blog.
3. Thanks to keepingupwiththekids for auctioning her beta services in the FGB auction.
4. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I truly appreciate it.