If you've read my original one-shot, Weighing In, welcome to Edward's side of the story. The next chapter picks up where this chapter leaves off…
This was beta'd by the lovely natty dread. Thanks, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, bb!!!
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I sent her an email asking her to share, but so far she hasn't responded.I'll let you know when she does, but in the meantime, what's hers is hers and what's mine is not worth the paper it's not printed on.
"Edward, wait up!"
Growing up, I'd always had a thing for nature shows. There was something about the cycle of life and death, the stalking nature of the predator and the fight or flight response of its prey that fascinated me in ways I couldn't fully explain—the predator, its eyes pinned unwaveringly on its prey as it stalked ever closer, the intended victim finally noticing its would-be killer, the thrill of finding out who the victor would be. That very random train of thought went barreling through my head as I made my way across the Big Fat Chance farm, debating whether to turn and acknowledge my hunter or flee as if my life depended on it.
Against my instincts and all sense of self-preservation, I stopped, closing my eyes and sighing before reopening them, planting a fake smile on my face and turning to greet my pursuer.
"Lauren," I stated simply, exhaustion evident in my voice. I'd just arrived on the farm for the new season of Big Fat Chance that morning, and I was already too tired to participate in the ridiculously obvious and overly tiresome mating dance that seemed to be par for the course with her.
"Hey! You rushed out of the production meeting so quickly I didn't have a chance to speak with you."
I watched the overly processed, unnatural blonde as she sauntered closer, her bottom lip pulled between her teeth in a flirtatious smile which I was sure she intended to be seductive, because, well, Lauren Mallory intended everything to be seductive. If there was a way to pee seductively, I was pretty sure Lauren would have mastered it and posted it on YouTube for the entire world to see. She was a walking, talking, come hither sign—the tacky kind with the annoying buzzing sounds and blinking neon lights—and I was trying my best, and had been trying for the past three seasons, to counteract it with my own couldn't care less sign. She hadn't gotten the message. Clearly my sign wasn't as flashy as hers.
"It's so good to see you again," she said, finally reaching me and instantly pressing herself against me in what I supposed was her attempt at a hug. I responded with a one-handed pat on her back before carefully extracting myself from her grip. For the life of me, I could not bring myself to return her enthusiasm and utter a lie, even a socially acceptable white one. Instead, I forced another smile.
"Hey, Lauren. What have you been up to?"
"Oh, you know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I spent most of my time off in Europe, modeling by day and enjoying the nightlife by night. You know how that goes."
No, I actually didn't, but I wasn't going to say that and in anyway give her the impression that I wanted additional details.
"So, where are you running off to?" she asked, flipping her hair over her shoulder before nestling her arm within my own.
"I'm heading to Riley's office to talk some things over in private with him before we begin taping today," I answered as I continued heading toward my destination—now with Lauren hanging off my arm like a leech.
"Is this about the schedule? I don't know why they insist on having you guys stay here during the week. If I were you, I'd have made sure that part of the contract was taken out. My agent insisted on that from season one and I'm so glad he thought of it."
"I'm fine with the overnights. It doesn't bother me. We still have weekends free, and we can leave during the week too as long as we've cleared it with Production and made sure it won't conflict with the show's taping."
"Doesn't that wreak havoc on your time with your lady-friend? What's her name? Tina?"
"Her name was Tanya, is Tanya. Her name is Tanya. She still exists— we just don't anymore." That made a lot more sense in my head than it did coming out. "She and I aren't together anymore," I clarified.
"That's a shame," she said, looking as though it were anything but. "Well, I've told you before, I don't understand you guys who try to have meaningful relationships with people who aren't in the business. In my opinion, it's a recipe for disaster. Most girls are going to be too insecure to handle a guy with your lifestyle."
"The business didn't break us up. I just couldn't be what she was looking for, so I let her go." She mockingly arched an eyebrow at me.
"How very gallant of you, Edward. I'm sure she appreciated your selfless gesture even if it is the biggest load of bullshit I've heard in a while."
Actually, she had appreciated it, eventually. Our break-up hadn't been nearly as difficult as I'd convinced myself it would be. Of course, I lost my nerve the night I'd resolved to let her go. She just seemed so damn happy being there with my family, and I was a "pansy-ass bitch" (as Emmett lovingly called me) when it came to things like that. But I had eventually ended it— a few months later. She hadn't been pleased with my decision, and made it clear that she thought I was wrong. She accused me of "searching for something unattainable," despite my insistence that I wasn't "searching" for anything. But in the end, we did manage to remain friends. Although I was convinced she was still hoping I would eventually see the light and pick back up where we'd left off.
"It's not bullshit, Lauren. She's great, wonderful, awesome. She just wanted things I couldn't give, and I figured it was better to be honest about that than to keep pretending I could be what I'm not."
"You don't owe me an explanation. I've told you before, Edward, I'm not your typical girl. I get it. I know exactly what you want and I know exactly what you need because I want and need the same things. You're young, single, sexy as hell—you should be having fun with someone equally young, single and sexy as hell. Don't you think?"
I stiffened. Not the part of me she was probably aiming for, but the rest of me. Somewhere along this very short conversational journey we were on, the tone had become less conversational and more propositional. I'd like to say it surprised me, but I'd be lying because most conversations with Lauren eventually took that turn. I didn't know what it was about me that seemed to call to her so strongly. The only explanation I could wrap my head around was the fact that I had never answered the call. It could only be the thrill of the chase. Lauren was not the type of girl who heard "no" frequently, if at all, especially not from one of us, the standard-bearers of the true weaker sex. I was under no illusion that she really wanted me—just everything she thought I represented. Lauren would sink her teeth into me and suck me dry, leaving my carcass to wither in the sun if I ever let my guard down enough for her to find her way in.
Granted, she was Hollywood's ideal of the perfect woman— slim build, long legs, tiny waist, huge breasts, tight ass, etcetera. She just wasn't my ideal, but little details like that didn't seem to matter to her. Over the past few seasons since I'd met her, she'd found so many different ways to 'accidentally' press herself up against me that as a result, I was now sure that her breasts were a financial acquisition, and I was pretty certain her ass was too. Not that I was judging; her body was hers to alter as she saw fit. I just wished she'd stop trying to force me along for the ride.
"Relax, playboy. I'm not getting ready to jump you right here out in the open, unless that's something you're into, in which case, we should talk later. I actually wanted to invite you to a party I'm supposed to attend this Saturday in Beverly Hills. It's another one of those 'see and be seen' kind of deals that my agent thinks is important. I need some arm-candy to help make sure I'm noticed, and you and I together will definitely make that happen."
While being asked out on a date by Lauren Mallory had to be up there on the list of things every guy wished he could have, my enthusiasm was non-existent. Emmett, on more than one occasion, had questioned my sexuality for not having gone there with her yet, considering how obvious she'd made it that I was a shiny new boy-toy she wanted to add to her collection.
"Plus, it'll give you a chance to take a relaxing walk on the beautiful side of life before you're subjected to the next sixteen weeks of this zoo with its angry hordes of hungry, hungry hippos."
But there, in a ridiculously small nutshell, was my beef with Lauren Mallory. Although she'd been fortunate enough to be born with great genes and was now wealthy enough to purchase whatever hadn't been gifted naturally, both nature and nurture had failed miserably when it came to shaping her personality. I'd be lying if I said there hadn't been a time in the beginning when I'd considered the possibility of more with her. After all, when a woman's first words to you are "God, I'd love for you to work me out," and she looks like a walking, talking replica of a Playboy pin-up come to life, it's hard not to at least think about.
Lucky for me, when the next sentence out of her mouth had been "being around all these fat fucks is going to necessitate a work-out because I swear I feel fatter just looking at them," any thoughts, fleeting or otherwise, about the two of us being anything other than colleagues disappeared. Vapidity was tiresome, and Lauren had it in excess.
"You're too kind, but I'm going to have to pass. I'm trying something different this season, and that requires me to be available to the contestants as much as possible."
"Come on, Edward, they're not going anywhere. Besides, I'm sure the first weekend here will be hell, what with all of them going through fast-food withdrawal and everything. Let the personal assistants do the dirty work while you come play with me. Trust me. My career will have more staying power than any changes these people try to make."
"Look, Lauren, I take what I do here seriously, and I'm not going to leave it to a PA to do the job I'm paid the big bucks to do. Thanks for the offer, but I'm going to stay here this weekend." Her egotistical nature irked me more than it should. I'd known Lauren for some time now, and although I knew that she was the only person at the center of her world, I still detested the fact that she seemed surprised that she wasn't at the center of everyone else's as well.
"I'm not trying to be pushy here. I just think you should really take more interest in meeting some of the Hollywood players. I know we've got quite a good set-up here—the money is nice, the exposure is good, but you should always be looking for the next big thing and you'll never find it if you're too reclusive to get out and meet people. I've been focused on what comes next from the first day I signed up to host this thing, and if you care at all about your future in this business, you should be too."
"I'm aware, and I appreciate your concern. But instead of plotting and planning my next career move, I'm trying to make sure that I'm doing the best that I can with the job that I have. So, again, I'm going to have to pass, and I guess I'll just have to pray that my future doesn't implode because of it."
We came to a stop outside of the office door. She narrowed her eyes and sighed in obvious irritation, apparently not too dense to have missed the sarcasm in my retort.
"Fine. Whatever. It's your loss. I refuse to get down on my knees and beg you."
"Lauren Mallory on her knees—now there's an image every man wants to see," came a deeper voice, interrupting Lauren's temper tantrum. We both turned toward the new arrival and watched as the tall lanky man with dark blond hair and a face that made him look half his forty-something years approached. Riley Biers, one of Big Fat Chance's executive producers, threw one arm around me and the other around Lauren as he guided us closer to his office door.
"Fuck you, Riley," Lauren spat, disentangling herself from underneath his arm. "Edward, you know where to find me if you change your mind. I'll see you… whenever," she said, flipping her hair over her shoulder as she stalked off.
I wanted to believe her irritation with me would be long lasting. Unfortunately, I'd already learned that neither the subtle nor obvious sarcastic jabs I took at her ever landed hard enough to keep her away permanently. She'd be back again. I was sure of it.
Riley chuckled as he watched her leave, quickly dropping his arm from around my neck.
"Man, is that woman still trying to catch you?" he asked, turning and opening the door to his make-shift office.
"She doesn't understand the concept of 'no'," I said, shaking my head and following behind him.
"Lauren's a fun one, Eddie my boy. It wouldn't hurt you to let her catch you for once. Then maybe she can move on to someone else."
"You've gone there?" I asked dubiously. Little & Brown had pretty strict policies regarding relationships between the on-air talent and behind the scenes crew. Off-screen drama and onscreen drama rarely mixed well.
"Quite a few times, actually. Let's just say her off-camera talents are far more impressive than her on camera ones."
"And your wife?" I asked pointedly, still taken aback by the news that he and Lauren had been together and apparently on more than one occasion, and yet she still pursued me with the persistency of a bitch in heat. I wondered what else had gone on around me that I'd been completely oblivious to.
"Not my wife for much longer, thank God. It's taking forever to pry that woman's cold dead hands from around my nut-sack, but after countless deals with the devil herself, three attorneys, and thousands of dollars in legal bills later, the divorce is almost final. Take it from me, Edward, a no-strings-attached girl like Lauren is man's best friend, but since I'm sure you're not here for a chat about my love-life, what can I do for you?" He walked over to his desk, turning on his laptop before plopping down in his roller chair and turning to face me.
"Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about some things before we start taping. I've been trying to catch you but it's been difficult."
"You know how crazy things are with the start of a new season. But you've got me now, so what's up?"
"I've been giving a lot of thought to my role on Big Fat Chance these past few months, and I've decided I want to take a new approach this season. I think I might be able to get through to the contestants more effectively if I try to tone it down a bit—a little less sarcasm, a little more encouragement, more one-on-one time with the contestants."
"Why would you do that? Everyone loves you, Edward. The Cullen temper is legendary and makes for great TV. Every time you reduce one of them to tears, our ratings skyrocket. America eats that shit up. Don't change a thing."
"I know it makes for great ratings, but this is really about more than just that. We're trying to change lives, aren't we?" He studied me a moment, the way you might stare at someone streaking through a football stadium—part surprise, part disbelief, part humor.
"We're here to make good TV, nothing more, nothing less. If people's lives get changed in the process, well then, good for them, but always keep your eye on the prize. If we don't attract the eyeballs, we don't get paid—we go off the air and no one's life gets changed. Don't forget that."
"Right, yeah, no, I know, I just—"
"You're just a good kid with a bleeding heart. I get it, but keep that shit under wraps while you're here. You've got a job to do and contrary to what you might think, it's not to change lives. I've gotten where I am by doing what works, and I'm sure the same applies to you. This works. Why fix what isn't broken?"
"I get it, Riley. Business as usual."
"You're damn right it's business as usual. 'Business as usual' is what's going to pay my wife's alimony for the next few years. 'Business as usual' is what paid for all the work Lauren has had done to morph herself into the sex kitten she is, and don't forget, 'business as usual' pays for that expensive car fetish you have. That's your shiny black Vanquish I saw parked out back, isn't it?" He wasn't expecting an answer, so I didn't provide one. Irritation crawled along my skin as I tried to figure out why at that moment my car fetish, as he called it, made me feel just as uninspired and materialistic as he and Lauren were.
"Look lively my friend, we start taping in a little more than an hour. You should probably get down to wardrobe and makeup." With that, our conversation was over, and the ideas that I'd been ruminating over for the past ten months had been carelessly dismissed without even the grace of a flick of his wrist.
"Yeah, I'll do that," I called over my shoulder as I walked out of his office, much less excited about the next sixteen weeks of my life.
As I scanned the crowd of potentials a little while later, a sea of excited faces all clad in black tees boldly proclaiming their states of residence looked back at me. Thirty-six of them would be heading back home in a week's time, most destined to return to the habits and lifestyles that had brought them here in the first place. Only fourteen would make the first cut, and then it would be a weekly race for survival to lose as much weight as possible to make it to the end and hopefully be crowned the winner of Big Fat Chance. That was the object of the game, and though I understood it, I hoped, even more so now than before, that the goal of improved health and quality of life ranked higher than the financial reward dangling like a carrot at the finish line. Only one person could walk away with the grand prize, but everyone could potentially end up a winner. At least that's how I was determined to see it through my new Pollyanna tinted glasses.
A familiar face jumped out at me from the crowd and it only took a second for me to place the face. Bella Swan. Even though I'd spoken to Ben about her a few times since I'd first seen her audition tape and knew she'd received a call-back, I wasn't sure if she'd agreed to compete on the show once the shock of finding out she'd been selected to compete wore off. She'd been on my mind off and on for months, having unknowingly become the inspiration behind my yet to be debuted (now stymied) new and improved, more sensitive training techniques. I'd become a regular at the Borders bookstore closest to my home, and though there was no Highly Effective Non-Verbally Abusive Physical Training Guide for Dummies (I'd have to talk to my agent about writing one because there should have been), I was the proud new owner of several dozen self-help for Dummies books geared toward teaching everything there was to know (in four hundred pages or less) about the art of communicating, motivating, coaching and mentoring effectively.
From what I remembered of Bella, aside from the pornographic food moaning, she should have graduated by now and I wondered what she'd ended up doing with herself afterward. Decked out in a black t-shirt with the word "Washington" sprawled across it, she stood silently, excitement clear on her face, her hand captured in a death grip by the state of Pennsylvania. I didn't know how to interpret the excitement on her face. Did it mean she'd come to terms with the fact that she needed help? Had she embraced the idea of being here? Was she ready to have her life changed? Riley's words came flooding back to me at that moment, and I frowned to myself, deciding to ignore whatever quack advice he'd given and go with what my heart and my pricey new book collection was telling me to do.
Despite what he seemed to think, I was here to change lives and I saw nothing incompatible about doing so while still making compelling TV. I'd prove it was possible. I could own a Vanquish, a Ferrari and a shiny silver Volvo, and still give a damn about changing someone's life. Fuck Riley and his jaded indifference. He wasn't the show's creator, he was just a producer, and if I wanted to get in touch with my softer side, damn it, I would, and no one was going to be able get in the way of that.
Except Bella Swan.
The road to hell is paved with the best laid plans of mice and men. That was going to be the opening line of my soon-to-be written self-help for Dummies guide, though after the disaster that was our very first training session, I was thinking my book would be less How To and more How Not To.
Things had started off promising. Shortly after I'd arrived, Ben yelled out the group assignments, splitting the fifty contestants from the fifty states into two groups. Coincidentally, Bella ended up in my group. At least it seemed like a coincidence until Ben exited the stage and walked over to me, saying, "Hey, I gave you the group with your girl in it."
"My girl? Who? Bella? She's not my girl," I said, bristling at the way that could be interpreted. "This is a gossipy town. Let's try not to get any rumors started on the first day, Ben."
"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it. It was just a figure of speech. It's my first time on the farm, remember? All I meant was that I know you had your eye on her a while back and I figured you'd want first crack. I've got to tell you, she wouldn't be my pick to win this at all, but then only one of us has been the winning trainer for three seasons in a row."
I thought about trying to explain to him that my interest in Bella Swan had nothing to do with her potential to win and everything to do with her potential to succeed, but decided against it. He wouldn't have understood the distinction anyway.
I led my twenty-five contestants, Montana through Wyoming to be exact, into the farm's gym and had them take up positions on the floor mats. I began leading them through a series of stretches to gently prepare their bodies for the pounding I was going to unleash. Getting in touch with my sensitive side didn't mean I was going to be easy on them. Easy was what had brought them here. I was bringing the pain—affectionately, of course.
They stretched— arms raised, legs extended, necks rolling from side to side. Some of them took to the light exercises with a grace that belied their heavier frames, others, not so much. I walked among them, observing each one's effort, correcting basic forms, and giving words of encouragement. I eventually ended up in front of Bella Swan who was sitting on the floor, both legs pointed straight in front of her as she attempted to bend her upper body over enough to touch her face to her thighs. She made it about half way there before she stopped.
"Bend over a little more," I said gently. Her head flew up, her brown eyes wide with surprise, as she met mine.
"That's as far as I can go," she replied.
"You can go further," I responded. "Try to stretch those muscles until you feel the burn in your hamstrings." She held my gaze a few seconds longer before audibly sighing and once again resuming the forward stretch. She made it half way again and stopped.
"No. I really can't go any further. The art of pretzel contortion isn't one of those things I studied in college." Ordinarily, I'd have made her continue trying until I thought she'd reached as far as she could go. But my leaf had been turned, so instead I smiled at her in response. She had a sense of humor. I could appreciate that. I'd take a funny contestant over a moody contestant any day. Since she felt she'd reached her limit, I'd move on to another hamstring stretch instead of pushing her on this one.
"Spread your legs." Her eyes widened perceptibly as color flushed her face. It took a second for me to understand her reaction. Yeah, I'm not always the sharpest tool in the shed, but by the time I did, she'd recovered.
"What, no dinner, no movie?" Peals of laughter erupted around us, and I could tangibly feel some of the first day's tension leaving the room.
"Nice. Everyone spread your legs in a 'V' formation. We're stretching the inner hamstring muscles now," I called out as I walked back to my place in front of the contestants. They did, and I joined them on the floor, using my body to demonstrate the way I wanted them to fold themselves over each leg, one at a time, to stretch the muscles in their backs, abdomens and hamstrings. As I sat up to observe their progress, my eyes found Bella who at the moment was the only person still sitting straight up and not even attempting to mimic my movements.
"Is there a problem?"
"I really can't bend that far over."
"You may not be able to get all the way down, but you could at least try to get most of the way there." She sighed and bent her torso over in a half-hearted effort to follow through.
"Further." She sighed again, exasperated. What was with all of the damn sighing? The girl was going to blow out a lung if she kept it up, and I was starting to get a little exasperated myself. This was as easy as things were going to get. If she couldn't put forth the effort for basic stretches, my actual work-out would kill her.
Her gaze locked with mine, and that aforementioned evaporated tension? It returned with the force of a runaway freight train. Some of the other contestants quieted, and one of the cameramen, Jimmy, moved quickly to take up a position in front of Bella, circling like a shark sensing blood.
Our stare-off continued for a few seconds more before she turned her attention to Jimmy, leveling him with a withering gaze. She snatched the rubber band thingie that held her ponytail in place, letting her hair fall around her face like a silky brown curtain as she bowed her head, dramatically lowering her torso, and—you guessed it—sighing, as she attempted another half-hearted stretch.
My inner asshole clawed at my insides, begging to be released, but I held him off, deciding instead to kill her with kindness.
"Thank you. That's much better." It wasn't, and she knew it, but this wasn't a battle I wanted to continue so I took the high road, the road less traveled (at least by me), and let it go.
I had them do ten more minutes of stretching, only occasionally glancing over at Bella who continued to put the "lack" in "lackluster" but deciding not to engage her further. She was probably just nervous, and the attention I was giving her most likely wasn't helping.
We finished with stretches, and I asked (instead of telling— in keeping with my new state of Zen) each one of them to take a position on one of the dozens of treadmills that lined the walls of the large room. A couple of production assistants walked in, handing out full water bottles to each contestant as I explained the importance of staying hydrated. I gave them a quick tutorial on working the machines as a few guys from the camera crew darted into place between them. They lived for this—capturing those first inevitable looks of surprise, terror and regret in the faces of the contestants as the reality of what they'd all signed up for hit them with the force of a sledge hammer.
"Alright everyone, turn them on. I want your speed at 3.0, and let's get this season started." There were a few whoops of excitement, a couple of groans, and the hum of a couple dozen treadmills all powering to life.
Minutes ticked by as I moved around the gym, throwing out "good jobs" and "keep up the pace" comments like candy at a parade. Only, instead of wide smiles, they gave back grunts, and the occasional grin-mace, an attempt at a grin high-jacked by a grimace of pain—my favorite. It meant they were feeling the burn.
"I'm Edward Cullen, as I'm sure you all know by now, and this is your official welcome to Big Fat Chance. How's everybody feeling so far?"
The bravest amongst them, a hefty blond guy who was positioned on the very first treadmill, blue eyes cold as steel as he met my gaze with pure stoicism and determination, let out a primal growl before yelling, "Is that all you've got?" Oh, I liked him already. The cocky ones were the most fun to break.
"Are you kidding, Tex?" I asked after glancing at his shirt. "This isn't even big enough to qualify as a taste of the hurt you all are going to be feeling after today. Alright, people, crank up the speed. I want each of you up to a speed of 3.5 and I want you to increase your incline to two. Let's show those folks at home you've got what it takes!" There were fewer whoops of excitement and a few more groans as the musical hum of the machines increased in pitch. I watched, still pacing the room slowly to gauge each contestant's progress. The smiles were gone, and almost all of the camera-ready grin-maces had converted from "grin" to full on "grim." Jimmy and his crew frantically weaved in and out between the aisles getting close-up shots of the contestants with the most expressive 'O' faces—'O' as in "Oh, for the love of all that is holy, what the hell am I doing here?" that is.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Jimmy crouching down by one of the treadmills, directing the camera up into the face of one Bella Swan. She was staring directly at me, her face a strange mixture of emotions— one part pain, that was obvious, the other part… dazed adoration? That didn't make sense. Pain? Yes. Regret? Even better. Adoration? Clearly, I wasn't working her hard enough. As I stood there practicing my non-existent face reading skills, the various emotions caravanning across hers careened to a sudden halt as her eyes squinted closed and her face bunched up into a look of pure agony. Ah, now that's the look I wanted to see.
I smiled to myself, sliding my gaze to the contestant next to her, a young guy with skin the color of cinnamon whose head and face were dripping so much sweat that his shirt had turned a deeper shade of black as a result.
"You're doing good, Oregon. Are you feeling that burn, yet? Are you loving that feeling of your muscles coming to life after years of disregard?"
"Yes, sir," he shouted back between halting breaths. I could tell he was ready to collapse with exhaustion, but he was using every bit of strength he possessed to keep himself going.
"How much do you want to be here, Oregon?"
"Very much, sir!" His eyes darted to mine—fear and utter fatigue roiling through them.
"How bad do you want this, Oregon?"
"Very bad, sir!" A look of determination edged its way onto his face. I liked this kid.
"How old are you, Oregon?"
"I'm eighteen, sir."
"Your momma trained you well. You can call me Edward. Keep up the good work."
"Thank you, Si—Edward."
I kept moving, my gaze landing on Pennsylvania, the tiny contestant next in line. Well, I supposed tiny wasn't the best descriptor. She was short, I would guess less than five feet, but I could tell body-mass wise, she was probably one of the heaviest of the female contestants in my group, if not the heaviest. She, too, was sweating profusely, her face a deep shade of pink, her hair a black sticky mess of tendrils glued to her face, and her eyes somewhere far away. Despite her size, she was keeping pace well, and although she wore the same pained expression all the other contestants wore, she wasn't wavering. I hated to bring her out of whatever zone of concentration she'd entered, but my job was to pick the strongest seven from this group, and in order to do that, each of these people needed to be tested.
"Okay, I think we need to stop." The abrupt interruption cut off my words as my eyebrows knitted in irritation, my attention pulled back in the direction I'd just come from. Bella Swan. Of course, it would be Bella Swan again.
"We just barely started. Why do you want to stop?" In truth, I'd had them going for at least an hour and a half at this point, but endurance was going to be a trait they would have to master quickly if they were going to survive on the farm. Their typical work-outs would span an ordinary person's work day—a fact they'd all been made aware of.
"Um… this is hurting like hell, Edward, and I'm pretty sure something's going to tear that wasn't meant to be torn, so I'd like to stop. Now." Bella Swan giving up, now there was a sight I hadn't seen in—oh, wait, that's right—that's all I had seen so far. Enough was enough, though. Using kid gloves with her clearly wasn't going to work.
"No," I said, turning away from her and directing my attention back to Pennsylvania. Short, sweet, to the point, no verbal fireworks necessary—that would shut her up. I had a firm grip on my delicate patience now, no thanks to Bella Swan.
"No?!" A firm grip, that is, until it slipped.
"No. That's why you're here, because you've always given up too easily. What has giving up ever gotten you before, except one hundred plus pounds of extra body fat, a few stretch marks, bad posture, and a pretty pathetic love affair with food? I mean, come on! You moan when you eat! Who does that?"
Well, shit. Not only had my patience slipped, it had plunged straight down to the gym floor, crashing into a million pieces and slicing Bella with a few shards along the way. I could still salvage this though. I just had to think.
Cage your inner asshole, Cullen, and retake control. She probably doesn't mean to question your know-how. She's just expressing her resistance to change, which is perfectly acceptable and maybe even a little understandable given the amount of pressure she feels to conform for which you, as her leader, need to—
"Ow! I don't think it's supposed to burn like this!"
Oh, fuck the self-help bullshit. She was questioning my know-how, and I didn't appreciate it.
"And you would know that how? It burns. It's supposed to. Consider it your body's way of sending you a big fat 'fuck you very much' for the way you've treated it throughout your life."
"Can you not be such an ass? Seriously?"
Me the ass? Me the ass? Really? That softer side of Edward Cullen I'd been flirting with turned to ice as I spun around, stalking closer to her treadmill and unleashing the fire she'd been stoking all afternoon.
"You knew my style before you came. You know how we do things here. You know how I operate. If you can't handle me, you shouldn't have come. If you can't handle this, you shouldn't be here." My voice was like marble— smooth, cold and hard. "This is not a damn picnic in a meadow. This is real. This is grow up, take responsibility and get your shit together time. I thought that was why you came, but if it's not, do yourself and your fellow contestants a huge favor and leave now. Look around the gym. Do you want this as much as they want this? There are forty-nine other people here ready to change their lives. Why are you here? I thought this was your time. Is this your time?! Is this your Big Fat Chance?"
Her gaze flitted toward the other contestants before coming back to rest on me. She was quiet, which was unexpected. I thought maybe I'd finally gotten through to her until I noticed that the belt of her treadmill was moving slower than the ones around her and realized that at some point she'd either reduced her speed or never increased it to begin with.
"Pick up your pace."
"No." This girl was going to be the death of me if I didn't kill her first.
"No is not an option. Pick up your pace, Bella!"
"No! I need a break, okay?! We can't all be chiseled gods with endless endurance and the fucking fountain of youth dripping out of our pores! You're pushing me and my body a little too hard right now and I'm taking a damn break."
She stalked toward the gym door, Jimmy tracking her every move. Within seconds she was gone and with her went the irony of the fact that the very girl who'd unknowingly inspired my decision to approach my job differently was the same one who personified its failure.
"Pennsylvania!" I called, trying to get the attention of the short, black-haired lady. It was later in the afternoon, and after having given the contestants some time to relax and refresh after their work-out, Rosalie and I had just finished going over some pointers on basic nutrition with them. Bella hadn't been there, and I hadn't seen her at all since she'd stormed out of the gym.
"Alice. Brandon. Alice Brandon, or Mary Alice Brandon even, if you'd prefer. It's a southern thing. Don't ask me about it. My mom was a southern belle and my father a Yankee, and they had one of those epic cross country, cross cultural romances, really, because let's face it, the North and the South can be like two totally different countries sometimes. So since you can take the girl out the South but can't take the South out of the girl, or something like that, I ended up with Mary Alice, though I tend to only go by Alice although I don't think I'd object to Mary Alice. But a whole state? Come on, really? I did overhear my high school crush tell his best friend that I was as big as a house on more occasions than was probably good for my sanity, but since I'm here to change my life and leave all of that behind me, it seems oddly oxymoronic that I'd lose the lovely 'house' analogy and end up a whole state, don't you think?"
"I'm sorry, Alice." I said her name with emphasis, least I be bludgeoned with another diatribe as long as the first. "I saw you grab Bella's water bottle from the gym earlier. Have you seen her since then?"
"I have." I waited for an elaboration, but there was none.
"In my room."
"Do you know where she is now?"
"Since she's not down here I would guess she's still there." Really, I didn't understand how she'd gone from speaking more words in one minute's time than most people spoke in an hour, to having to have them pried from her lips like a treasure.
"Is something wrong with hers?"
"Wrong with her what?"
"Her room. You said she's in yours. Is something wrong with hers?"
"We share a room."
"Well why didn't you just say that the first time?"
"You didn't ask."
"Are you always this cryptic?" Annoying. I meant annoying, but I'd already succeeded in thoroughly pissing off one contestant today and I wasn't aiming to insult another.
"No, actually, I'm not. I'm just not sure what I think about you yet, Edward Cullen. No offense. Don't get me wrong, I think you're good at what you do. But that little display you put on in the gym today with her? I'm not sure how I feel about that. I've had my share of dealing with guys like you, and while I understand you're the ticket to my healthy future and all that jazz, I hope you don't mind me being blunt, but I'm not sure I like you very much at the moment. Again, no offense. But that could change. I'm nothing if not forgiving and I'm willing to forgive you, I suppose, but you may have to earn it."
She lost me somewhere around the first "no."
"What about her?"
"Can you tell me where your—her—room is so I can speak to her?"
"Don't you mean Washington?"
"Bella. Shouldn't she be Washington? If I'm a state, it's only fair that she be a state too. Are you giving her preferential treatment?"
"Did it look like she was getting preferential treatment?"
"Point taken. You know you could just wait for her to come down here."
"I could, but I'd prefer to speak to her away from the cameras, if that's all right with you."
"Second floor, end of the hall, last door on the right. It's the one with '210' on the door."
I shook my head in confusion before thanking her and turning to walk toward the staircase. If everything with these contestants was going to feel like pulling teeth, I was in for a rough season.
"And Edward?" I stopped to look at her.
"Please don't forget, this isn't easy for any of us. Clearly, we're people who haven't learned how to process emotions in a healthy way. You can't even imagine how humbling this is, trying to do that now in a room full of strangers, who for better or for worse, at some point, are all going to be gunning to get you out all while a cameraman stays firmly wedged up your ass. It's not easy."
"I know, Alice. I do. Thank you."
A few minutes later I was standing outside of room 210, knocking on the door, prepared to offer my act of contrition. Somehow I'd ended up locked in a power struggle with Bella Swan, and although I was still confused as to how that had happened so quickly, I wasn't happy with the way I'd lost control. She'd been my first real test of my new resolve, and I'd failed. Miserably.
I heard her tell me to come in and I opened the door, taking a deep breath as I swallowed my pride, ready to offer my sincerest apology over a nice firm handshake.
Except, I couldn't. Because she was naked. Not naked naked, but definitely naked. With the exception of a barely there towel, it was all her. It was one of those moments when your brain grinds to a screeching halt as you try to reconcile your mind's expectations (clothes) with the reality before your eyes (no clothes), and when those two don't match up, your brain hits "pause" and waits for common sense to rescue it.
Why the hell is she naked? Better yet, why the hell is she naked and inviting me in? Shit. What if someone else came up here and found me, with her naked? Shit.
Even in my head, that sounded weird and it conjured up an image of me being naked in the same room with naked Bella. Oh, great, now she's naked Bella. And just like that, because clearly my brain was enjoying its moment in the sun to thoroughly fuck with me, the echo of a seriously breathy moan started rattling its way through my brain as I recalled my first introduction to Bella Swan. Now I felt like a pervert. A real, certifiable pervert for layering that sound, which was totally innocent, on top of this image. And she was standing there, a little dazed, very confused, and all of a sudden, the power came back on upstairs, thank you, brain, and I scrambled to explain myself before she, too, could come to the conclusion that I was, in fact, certifiably a pervert.
"Your roommate told me I could find—" She'd started saying something at the very same time so I stopped, but I didn't have a clue what that was because now that my brain had decided to grace me with its presence again, all I could think about was the fact that I needed to leave. Now.
"I'll just talk to you later," I said, grabbing for the door.
"Wait!" I stopped, turning around in surprise at the fact that she wasn't screaming profanities at me. I'd expected verbal confirmation of my perversion along the lines of "you pervert!" So, "wait" was a bit of a surprise. Although, maybe she was one of those women who wanted to punctuate her scream with a hearty slap to the face. But I supposed a slap might be warranted. I had, after all, put her in a compromising position. Compromising position?Now I was thinking about—
She was talking again, but unfortunately it coincided with my brain short-circuiting, and had she just asked me why I was looking at her? I wasn't even looking at her! Or at least I wasn't until I thought that, but of course, now I was, and oh, would you look at that? Her whole body turns red when she blushes, or at least the parts of her body I could see, which shit, made me think about the parts that I couldn't see. I really did need to get out of here, for my sake and maybe for the lawyers—because I was sure after this there would definitely be lawyers—but I needed to explain why I was here in the first place.
"Uh, I wanted to talk about what happened earlier and I didn't want to do it on camera." Just look in her eyes. Look in her eyes. Look in her eyes.
Her hand moved and my eye involuntarily followed, which now meant I looked like I was staring at her breasts even though I was really staring at her hand clasping her towel. At least I was until I thought about her breasts, and then I'm pretty sure I was staring at them, or at least where they were under the towel, and it would only be a moment before she realized that too, and then I was sure that slap was coming—
"So talk. I'm listening." She was unflappable. Her voice was strong, no nonsense, and it was enough to clear the juvenile haze that had descended on my brain.
"I may have pushed you a little harder than I intended, which I regret, but I don't do well with failure." There. I put it all on the line, forgetting my pride, explaining where I was coming from and offering my deepest apology. She couldn't miss the sincerity.
"Do well with failure? I've been here all of one day and you're already calling me a failure?!"
Or, maybe she could.
"Is this some new age training technique, Edward? Because if it's supposed to be motivating me, it's not fucking working!" There went my book dreams.
"No! I'm not calling you a failure! Jesus!" This day needed to end, now. Between Lauren and Riley earlier, Pennsyl—Alice in the middle, and Bella Swan sprinkled throughout the rest of the day, tomorrow couldn't come fast enough. "Look, you're here to change your life." I was pacing now, trying to measure my words carefully to avoid another foot in mouth situation. "I assume you're here because you know Rosalie and I are good at what we do. I can guide you through this process if you'll let me. I'm paid to help you do that, but you're going to have to step up your game and stop the whining or you'll never make it past the first round." There. That should have done it. Now the ball was in her court.
She was pacing now and, oh, hell. I give up. She went on and on, and I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't help but be frustrated at the impasse we seemed to have reached. No matter how hard I tried, she wasn't going to hear me. I wasn't sure if she was intentionally being difficult or whether she really was missing the point of what I was saying. I caught the tail end of her words, something about not being able to do this anymore, and I decided I'd had enough. Why was I expending so much personal energy on a person who was so convinced she couldn't do it? Maybe she couldn't. I'd thought she reminded me of myself, but maybe I was wrong.
"Look, pretty boy, I get it. You're perfection personified with your rock hard body and Hollywood life." I froze—everything else she said disappeared as those words rang through my head. My life to date could have been described as many things, but Hollywood was not one of them. She'd probably seen some magazine do a story on me; maybe she knew I collected cars. I didn't know what random fact she'd tucked away that had made her conclude that she could define and dismiss me so thoroughly. I'd had a lifetime of people treating me that way. It didn't matter whether they were passing judgment on the old me or the new me. She wasn't different at all. She was just like Lauren, only with a few extra pounds and real boobs.
"Don't." I collected myself, trying to make sure I didn't say anything that I would later regret.
"You don't know a damn thing about me, Bella. You think because you've seen me on TV for a few seasons that you know everything there is to know about me? You think you've got me pegged because I have a nice face and as you say, a 'rock hard body'? I would expect someone like you to know better than that."
The momentary silence was deafening, the only sound registering was the furious pounding of my heart. Maybe, after all of that, I'd finally gotten through to her.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean, Edward? Fat girls should know better than to judge a book by its cover? Well fuck you, Mr. Prom King. You don't know shit about me!"
Apparently, getting through to Bella Swan was an art I would not be mastering any time soon. I'd obviously said the wrong thing. Again.
She spit fire at me, her eyes flashing with fury as anger colored her face a deep shade of red. She had the nerve to call me a fucking prom king. Me—who spent prom night on the couch, draining a two liter of Coke while cramming the last of an extra-large stuffed pepperoni and cheese pizza into my 291 pound body while watching reruns of Malcolm in the Middle—a prom king! I'd known one prom king, a fucking prick of a kid named Tyler Crowley, and I was no prom king. And then, just like that, I was right there with her; meeting her fire with fire, my eyes—green to her brown—sparking with just as much fury. Anger bubbled deep within me, thick, hot, threatening to erupt, and I was there. I was right there, so close to boiling over. And then I wasn't.
"I've been you, Bella. I was you, for too damn long and I am so fucking grateful every day that someone finally came into my life, holding a mirror up to my miserable existence, and kicking me in the ass. And even though I've worked as hard as I've worked and come as far as I've come, the journey's never over. It never fucking ends. Do you know I still look in the mirror and see every damn flaw?"
The rage that had been burning white hot tempered, the intensity waning, and I was left naked as all other pretenses blew away like ashes in the wind.
"I still see the overweight kid I was for more than half of my life. But I don't make excuses. I stopped making excuses. I decided I was worth the fight, and now I do what I have to do to make myself a priority and not let my demons choke the life out of me one fat cell at a time. And you're worth it, too. But you'll never achieve anything if you don't start believing that."
I was baring my soul, sharing my anguish, offering a piece of myself to her in a way I had never done with anyone else before. I didn't know why, but I was laying my insecurities out, revealing my past and present pain, pinning her with my gaze, and imploring her to understand me, to trust me. Wonder of all wonders, I could see that she got it. Whatever confusion had tainted all of our other interactions, this she got. This she understood.
"Bella, you have to believe that I've got your best interest at heart. You have to know that I won't push you harder than you can handle. You have to trust me. This won't work if you don't trust me."
The air between us was charged, both of us coming down from the adrenaline high our sparring had induced. She started pacing again, biting on her bottom lip and seeming to mull over my words.
"So, Edward, is part of 'trusting you' having to deal with you bringing up embarrassing habits of mine in front of everyone?" Embarrassing habits? What habits? I didn't know her well enough to know her habits. I wasn't sure what she was talking about, and I tried to flip through my mind's catalogue of our interactions to try to decode her meaning. And just like that, the moan was back. Not in person, obviously, but just as loud and as sensual as it had been the very first time I'd heard it. What the hell was wrong with me? Christ, I really was a pervert.
"Yeah, that. I apologize for that. That was…" a porno-worthy moan. Made me think of totally inappropriate things, "…inappropriate. The producers let us look at some of the video entries from time to time and yours left somewhat of an impression on me…" Yeah, so not only was I a pervert, but it occurred to me I now sounded like a stalking pervert who had heard her orgasmic-like response to some kick ass cookies and could still call that response to mind some ten months later. That slap was definitely coming now.
"They were really good cookies." Or, maybe not.
"I bet," I said grinning, relieved that it seemed like I might make it out of her room with my face intact after all.
Her eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment. I didn't even try to interpret that look; she spoke again, and in true Bella fashion, confused the hell out of me.
"Earlier, in the gym and… now, you keep calling me Bella. How do you know my name?" Was she serious, or was I in the Twilight Zone?
"Isn't Bella your name?"
"It is, but I never told you my name and I assume all of my paperwork has me listed as Isabella, anyway. So how do you know my name?" I was still confused. Hadn't I already declared myself as the deranged stalking pervert I'd become when we were talking about her cookie episode?
"Like I said, you made an impression. I saw your audition tape and it was…different." Okay, there was the moan, and that left an impression, but in truth, there had been more than that. "I saw something in you, something that maybe you yourself haven't seen yet. You stand out, in a good way. I probably shouldn't be saying this, but I think you have a real good chance of being successful if you're selected to stay. I can't promise you you'll be picked to stay, obviously, but I don't want to see you blow that chance because you gave up before you even got started."
I cringed. I couldn't help it. I'd tried to be honest and spoke from the heart, but I seemed to have a way of saying the wrong thing when it came to her.
To my surprise though, there were no fireworks. In fact, she pretty much agreed with me. Although, even in agreeing, she still managed to hand me a piece of my ass, but I was starting to find I liked that. Who knew I had a little sadomasochist in me?
Finally on the same page (after what felt like lifetimes of trying to get there), apologies given (and seemingly accepted), I stuck out my hand for that firm handshake I'd originally shown up to get. She stepped closer, gripping her towel so tightly I was afraid one of those little blue veins in her hand might burst. She reached for my hand and when we touched her hand was softness and warmth, and more. More? Of the two of us, I was the one fully dressed, and yet in that moment I felt…exposed—as though she could have seen right through me. The feeling was unsettling.
I left shortly after that, my brain clouded with images, and questions and feelings I couldn't even begin to translate into coherent thoughts. So I didn't. I sprinted across to the building where my room was located, changed shoes and snatched up my iPod. I took off running, heading straight for the quiet comfort of the surrounding parkland, leaving thoughts of the infuriatingly stubborn girl who'd finally agreed to let me help her change her life behind.
I stayed away from Bella for the rest of that week, not mentioning anything about what had passed between us that first day. In the gym, where it mattered, I was relentless, constantly correcting her form, pushing her further. I was still trying to wield a softer hand, but she seemed hardwired to challenge and provoke me, and effectively rendered my efforts fruitless. We were fire and ice, though which of us was which on any given day seemed to change.
I watched her though. In the gym when she didn't think I was looking, in the kitchen as she tried her hand at making healthier meals, and even late at night when most of the farm's residents were asleep. As I'd set out for my late night run, I'd pause, sneaking glances through the door of the gym; watching as Bella, Alice, and Tex worked out late into the evening, pushing each other on, night after night.
By the time decision day rolled around, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to keep Bella in the game. She was definitely one of the hardest workers in the group I'd been assigned, and though she continued to test my patience, she deserved her spot on the show. That didn't stop me from trying to mess with her head, calling every other pick I'd chosen first. As I stood on the stage, Lauren and Rosalie flanking my sides, the thirteen other newly minted cast members of Big Fat Chance standing behind me, I called her name.
She didn't come. Instead, she stared unseeingly past where I was standing to the contestants behind me. I waited, as did the rest of her captive audience and still, nothing. Oh, for the love of—
"Would you prefer to go back to Washington?" She looked up, startled and confused as if she'd forgotten where she was.
"Did you say something?"
I sighed, answering her, "I want you on my team, Bella. Are you ready to take the chance?" Had I mentioned that this woman was going to be the death of me?
She slowly made her way to the stage, muttering to herself as she came. She murmured a quiet "thank you" to me as she passed, joining the other contestants.
"Well, now that everyone has finally joined us on stage," Lauren started, her plastic smile doing little to deflect the scorn in her voice, "I'd like to officially welcome you to season four of Big Fat Chance. As always, there will be a number of twist and turns, some you and your trainers will see coming. Others that will catch you all off guard." She paused for effect, as the field of contestants, both on stage and off, exchanged whispers over what her pronouncement might mean for them.
"I'm sure each of you is grateful to be standing here." She waited for confirmation of this as the chosen contestants clapped, whistled, and cheered in excitement. "Well, get ready because when you leave this stage, you will be taking part in your very first weigh in. And for the first time in Big Fat Chance history, one of you will be packing your bags and heading home…tonight." She smiled big, a genuine smile this time, "Good luck and let the games begin."
A/N Thank you to BelleDean for rec'ing this story on Twimpage! Thank you to everyone who's been rec'ing this story on Twitter and elsewhere.
The reviews, alerts and PMs make me insanely giddy. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I truly appreciate it.