This story was written for sleepyvalentina for the Twilight Gift Exchange at LiveJournal (see my profile for the link). A huge thanks to GinnyW and DeeMichelle for beta reading. The prompt asked for anything New Year's related. This bit of fluff is the result.
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns all recognizable characters and settings. No copyright infringement is intended.
When you walk in the noise disappears
Where you begin is perfectly clear
All this time I felt so confused
Then came you and I just knew
~ I Just Knew by Better Than Ezra
New Year's Eve
Even in the throng of people, Bella Swan had never felt so alone.
The ballroom at the Water's Edge Hotel was filled to capacity, the pulsing beat of the music all but drowning out the chatter of the crowd. Technically, the event was a fundraiser for Olympic Children's Hospital, and before the night was through, four hundred of Seattle's most rich and powerful would fork over more than a million dollars. But before the checks were written, they would ring in the New Year with dinner, dancing, and laughter.
Bella lingered on the periphery, an untouched glass of champagne held in one hand, the other surreptitiously tugging at the neckline of her gown. She'd told Alice it was too low, but had she listened? Of course not. It didn't help that she could never refuse Alice anything. One look was all it took, and Bella would fold. It was a good thing, then, that her friend rarely asked anything of her.
Her new high-heeled shoes, purchased just for this evening, were pinching her toes, and she fidgeted, then sighed. She'd been there less than half an hour, and already her feet hurt and her friends had abandoned her. They were so caught up in each other, they probably hadn't even noticed she was missing.
"Figures," she muttered under her breath. A passer-by gave her a strange look, and Bella blushed. Great. Now she was talking to herself and people thought she was insane.
Sighing again, she finally took a sip of her champagne as she looked around, her eyes falling upon one of the round dining tables just off to one side of the dance floor. There they were, obviously having forgotten completely about her, just as she'd suspected. A small smile appeared on her face as she watched the three couples talking and laughing. Their happiness made her happy, despite the pang of loneliness she felt whenever she was with them. It was hard being the odd one out all the time, but she refused to allow her jealousy and insecurities to affect their friendship. They'd been good to her, were her family. She would never let anything interfere with that.
Her face fell as she noticed the two adjacent empty chairs at the table. The chairs mocked her, reminding her that while they all had found someone to share their lives with, she remained alone, with nothing more than an empty chair as her companion.
Bella cringed as she remembered that the chair would not remain empty … at least temporarily. Esme's cousin had recently moved to Seattle from Chicago, and she wanted him to meet all of her friends, certain that he would fit in with the group; she was probably hoping that he and Bella would hit it off. If that were Esme's intention, it wouldn't surprise Bella at all if her friend had gotten the entire gang in on it. Dinner was going to be hell.
Grumbling under her breath, Bella turned away from the table and its two empty chairs and headed toward the bar. She would need something stronger than champagne to deal with her friends' matchmaking attempt.
She ordered a Long Island Iced Tea from the bartender and tried to clear her thoughts. It was possible that Esme just wanted Bella to meet her cousin so that he would soon meet the woman of his dreams. After all, that was how it seemed to work with the last three men she'd dated. But knowing her friend the way she did, Bella knew that it was far more likely that Esme wanted to her to be as happy and in love as she was. Unfortunately, Bella doubted anything would come of it; she'd long since concluded that love probably wasn't in the cards Fate had dealt for her.
Sure, it would be nice to have someone of her own, someone who knew all her weird idiosyncrasies but still adored her, someone who was the other half of her soul. Her friends had found that—thanks in no small part to her. Now they were happy, and she was alone. It seemed to be the way of things.
She turned her head, able to see her friends in her peripheral vision. Alice, Esme, and Rosalie had been her roommates since college, and now that they were all married—or engaged in Esme's case—Bella spent much of her free time on her own. Regardless, a man was the last thing she needed right now. Not because she didn't want love, and not because she didn't desire companionship or passion. It was only … well, why bother when it wouldn't work out? And, she had to admit, the aftermath was not something she relished going through again. Hopefully she wouldn't have to. Ever since the Carlisle fiasco, she'd managed to stay away from the dating scene. So far, so good. She rapped her knuckles against the top of the wood counter, not wanting to jinx that particular New Year's resolution.
"Knocking on wood?" a voice said, right behind her ear, and Bella jumped at the unexpected sound, her drink sloshing over the rim of the glass.
Whirling around, she almost knocked down the man in the elegant tuxedo who was standing behind her. Strong hands gripped her shoulders firmly but gently, steadying her as he looked down at her, his green eyes sparked with concern. For a moment, the world stopped, the noise of the ballroom fading into the background. All she could see was him, and all she could hear was the roaring of her heartbeat in her ears. Despite having never seen the man before, she felt an instant spark of recognition, as if she knew him …. Then, just as quickly, her surroundings snapped back into focus.
"Um …" Feeling dazed, she shook her head. "Sorry. You caught me off guard."
He smiled, and Bella's breath caught in her throat as the crooked grin transformed an already attractive face into one that was unbelievably handsome. He was tall—she would bet that even in her high heels she could tuck her head beneath his chin. He moved toward her a little as someone bumped into him, trying to get past the crush of people, and she breathed in his warm, masculine scent. All thoughts of swearing off men went right out the proverbial window. Whoever this guy was, she wanted to know more.
"No, don't apologize. It was my fault," he said, his tone sheepish as he ran a hand through his unruly hair; she couldn't help but note the unusual shade of brown. "I'm Edward, by the way."
Flustered yet strangely at ease, she offered him a small smile. "Bella," she replied. "And really, it's okay. I'm pretty clumsy all on my own, so I probably would have fallen over eventually anyway. At least this way you were around to catch me, right?" She abruptly stopped when she realized she was babbling. Mortified, she felt the flush spread across her cheeks.
He chuckled and asked for a beer from the bartender before turning back to her. "So … you were knocking on wood about something."
"Hmm? Oh, yeah," Bella said, recalling his initial question, then took a sip of her drink in a vain attempt at cooling her heated skin. "It was nothing. Just, you know … for luck."
"It's silly, I know."
Her face was aflame with embarrassment, but couldn't seem to drag her eyes away from him. Even as she stared, she felt the sting of disappointment; there was no way such a gorgeous man had come alone. His date was insane to let him out of her sight for a single second.
The alcohol she'd consumed must have loosened her tongue, because the next thing she knew she was blurting out, "I bet your date is missing you."
She wanted to kick herself.
His grin widened, and she swore her heart skipped a beat. "I'm here with friends. No date."
"Oh." She couldn't help but smile back. He was alone!
"What about you?" he asked. "Surely your date is around here somewhere...?"
Bella laughed. "No. I'm with friends, too." She turned and waved a hand at the table where her friends were seated.
When she looked back at Edward, she caught his odd expression before his face cleared and he smiled again.
"I've been hanging out by myself until the dinner begins," she continued, apparently unable to stop herself from speaking. "I don't want to play seventh wheel until I absolutely have to."
"Seventh wheel, huh?" He leaned against the bar, one eyebrow arching inquisitively.
Heat washed over her at the picture he made, and although she relished the warmth, she finished the last of her drink, then set the glass on the bar. "They're all coupled up," she explained. "I'm the odd one out, and given the circumstances, sometimes it can be a little … awkward."
She peered up at him, and although he said nothing, his forehead wrinkled in confusion. Before she could even think to stop herself, Bella was telling him everything. "See the big guy on the end, next to the gorgeous blonde? That's Emmett and his wife Rosalie. We used to be roommates—Rosalie, I mean, not Emmett. Well, actually, all four of us girls used to share an apartment. Anyway, I met Emmett a year or so ago at the school where I work—I teach high school English here in Seattle. Emmett was the new PE teacher, and we sort of hit it off. He was new in town, so we went out a few times, and I really liked him. For our fourth date, I decided to invite him to a Mariners game, so he could meet my friends. He and Rosalie took one look at each other and … well, love at first sight isn't a myth, I can tell you that."
"And you're still friends with them?" Edward asked, bemused.
Bella shrugged. "Sure. I mean, we weren't serious or anything, and they're soul mates—it's not like they went behind my back or anything. They got married a few months later. And that is where Alice—the tiny one with the short, black hair—met Jasper." She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "He was my date to Emmett and Rosalie's wedding."
Edward's eyebrows rose in surprise. "No kidding."
"Nope," she said, grinning. "I met him at a bookstore. We were both in line and got to talking about literature and history … and Jasper ended up asking me out for coffee. He offered to take me to the wedding when I whined about going alone. I was surprised—men usually don't like weddings, and it was only our third date. Anyway, he took one look at Alice and wham! There it was again … love at first sight. They hopped a plane to Vegas two weeks later and got married by Elvis."
He laughed and then crossed his arms over his chest. "And the last one?"
"You're getting the idea now, huh? That would be Esme, and the man next to her is Carlisle, her fiancé. Three months ago, I tripped off a curb and sprained my ankle pretty badly—I'm a klutz, remember? Carlisle was the ER doctor. He's actually the reason we're all here tonight—he's on the fundraising committee for the children's hospital. Anyway, he bandaged me up and then asked me out. I figured with my clumsiness, having a doctor around wouldn't be a bad idea." She smiled as he laughed again. "We went out to dinner, and few days later he called to ask me to a movie. When he came to pick me up …" She paused and looked at Edward expectantly.
"Let me guess," he said, shaking his head in amusement. "He took one look at Esme and wham."
Bella nodded. "Wham. They got engaged on Christmas, and the wedding is this Valentine's Day."
"So, what you're saying is that every man who shows an interest in you ends up meeting his soul mate and married off in a matter of days."
She laughed. "Not quite that quickly, but pretty much. Don't worry, though—I'm all out of roommates," she assured him with a wink.
He looked at her searchingly, then murmured, "Or maybe it's your turn."
She took in a strangled breath and stared at him in shock. One corner of his mouth lifted slightly as he lifted the bottle of beer to his lips.
Shaking her head as if to clear it, Bella surprised herself by flirting back. "You better hurry up then and make a move, because I suspect they're trying their hand at matchmaking tonight."
He arched an eyebrow, and she nodded. "The two empty chairs at the table? One is for me, of course, but the other is for Esme's cousin. He just moved to Seattle a few weeks ago, so she wanted to introduce him to everyone. But between you and me, I'm pretty sure it's a set-up. Now that they all have each other, they can't wait to marry me off, too."
Edward looked startled for a moment, and then his cheeks turned pink. Bella wasn't sure what that was about, but she found the blush endearing … especially when it was happening to someone other than her, but even more so because of how adorable it made Edward look. Suddenly, he straightened, his gaze focused somewhere behind her, and he cleared his throat.
"I've really enjoyed talking with you, Bella," he said, looking over her shoulder, "but I think your friends would like you to you join them."
Bella turned her head, and sure enough, Alice was waving her arm off, trying to get her attention.
"Oh." Disappointed that their all too brief conversation was at an end, Bella looked back at Edward and said, "Maybe you can save me a dance for later?"
She wanted to sink into a hole at her uncharacteristic boldness. Even worse, she had no idea how to dance, but she wasn't ready for their time together to come to an end. She'd never felt this intense of an attraction before. Not to anyone. And by her calculations, she should at least have tonight with him before he met his soul mate. It was asking for a world of hurt, but there was something about this man….
"Absolutely." Then he tilted his head to one side as he studied her with wary eyes. "You said you're clumsy—it's safe to dance, though, right?"
She laughed and smacked his arm lightly. Chuckling, Edward grasped her shoulders and directed her toward table, where Bella's friends were waiting.
"Oh, it's okay, Edward—you don't have to walk me back." She felt yet another blush spread across her cheeks at the zing of awareness that raced down her spine as he placed his hand at the small of her back and guided her through the crowded room.
"Please," he said, leaning down so that she could hear. "It will be my pleasure."
As they approached the table, Bella's eyes narrowed as she took in the expressions on her friends' faces—they were awfully excited to see her. Then she noticed Esme's eyes darting between her and Edward, her expression rather smug, and it all made sense.
"Oh, shit." She clapped a head across her mouth and abruptly stopped walking, causing Edward to stumble into her. His hands steadied them.
"What is it?"
"You're the set-up, aren't you? Esme's cousin." She glanced up at him over her shoulder.
"I'm afraid so," he admitted with a grin, the hand on her back urging her forward. "Looks like you're stuck with me for the night."
As he led her to the table, Bella could only think that she wasn't so sure she minded her friend's matchmaking efforts. Edward held out her chair for her, his fingers trailing along her upper arm as he then slid into his own seat. Her skin tingled where his fingers had dragged along her skin, and she shuddered at the delicious shiver that followed in the wake of his touch.
No, she decided. She didn't mind at all.
Dinner was surprisingly easy. Edward and Bella talked mostly with each other, the conversation kept light, even though neither one of them seemed able to look away from the other for more than a few seconds.
Bella was attempting to listen attentively to her dinner partner, only asking a question here and there or making the occasional quip, wanting to let Edward talk. Not only was she genuinely interested in learning more about him, but she had been horribly embarrassed when she'd realized that she hadn't let him get a word in edgewise when they'd been talking at the bar. Not that Edward had seemed to care—he'd seemed more than happy to listen to her ramble on—but she normally wasn't so forthcoming. Most people would have called her shy, in fact. Introverted. She didn't know why she'd been so chatty. For some reason, she was comfortable with him—and she wanted him to know her. She wanted to know him.
She'd thought she'd felt attraction before—after all, she'd had enough of a connection to the other three men at the table that they'd asked her out. But this …thing with Edward was like nothing she'd ever experienced before. It was powerful, and whatever it was, it scared her a little. For now, however, she was content to simply enjoy her time with him. Especially since no one else was paying much attention to him at all. Her either, for that matter.
After the initial introductions had been made, the rest of the table had oh so nonchalantly carried on their own conversation, ignoring the two single people and all but forcing them to carry on their own conversation. Bella thought she even saw Rosalie kick an exuberant Emmett when he'd attempted to draw Edward into conversation.
Subtlety was not their forte.
All attempts at subterfuge were abandoned, however, once dessert was finished. All three couple immediately took to the dance floor, Alice practically dragging poor Jasper behind her in her haste to leave Bella and Edward alone.
They looked at each other and burst into laughter.
"It's like we have the plague or something," Bella said, snickering at her friends' antics. "They couldn't get away from here fast enough."
"I can't remember the last time I laughed so much." He picked up his glass of wine and took a sip, looking at her over the rim of the glass. "I like it," he said. "I like you."
Bella fingered the napkin in her lap, her cheeks burning yet again. "I like you, too."
Edward angled his body toward her and leaned back in his chair. "That's hard for you, isn't it?"
She shrugged. "I haven't had much luck with this"—she waved a hand between them—"lately."
"I thought you didn't mind what happened with the others."
"I don't. Not really, it's just …" She paused a moment, a deep v appearing between her eyebrows. "I'm glad they found each other. I'm even glad that I was able to play a part in that, but at the same time …" Bella trailed off, not knowing how to put her thoughts and feelings into words without seeming bitter or jealous. She was neither of those things.
"It still hurts," Edward said, his voice low as he placed one of his hands over her clasped ones. "It doesn't mean you're not happy for them or that you don't love them. But it's only natural that your feelings were hurt."
Bella slowly exhaled and then lifted her eyes to his. "Yeah, that's … that's exactly it. I mean, they were all so apologetic, and who am I to stand in the way of true love? Still, rejection hurts, no matter what the circumstances." She glanced away. "They don't know. They'd feel awful if they did."
Edward squeezed her hands and then released her. "Your secret's safe with me."
It might have been a cheesy line, except the words were so sincere that Bella had to believe him. "Well, maybe I'd feel better if you told me a secret—then we'd be even," she teased in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Edward laughed, and she couldn't help but join him; it was infectious. "Okay. You want a secret. Hmm. All right. How about this—I didn't move to Seattle for a new job."
Bella frowned slightly. "But I thought Esme said—"
"Because that's what I told her, and I do have a new job, but …" He ran a hand through his hair and then shrugged. "I don't know why I decided to leave Chicago."
"Did you like living there?" she asked, resting her elbows on the table, her chin propped in her hands.
"Sure. Chicago's a great town. But I felt stifled, restless. I wanted to do something different, but I didn't know what. I kept feeling this draw to Seattle—I don't know how else to explain it. It made no sense at all. I'd never even been to Washington before, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it."
"So you just did it?"
He smiled crookedly. "Yeah. I went to work one day and put in my two weeks, then cancelled the lease on my apartment and applied for a job in Seattle. Everything just sort of fell into place." He gave her a lingering glance. "Like it was meant to be or something."
"Do you do stuff like that often?" Bella blurted; his last statement had sent her mind into tailspin.
Edward laughed. "Never. I'm sort of anal, usually. A planner. I've never done anything so spontaneous in my life. But it just felt right, you know?"
She nodded, allowing herself for the briefest of moments to wonder if Fate had brought him to Seattle for her.
Of all the stupid ideas, she chastised herself. Edward saw the grimace cross her face and misunderstood.
"It's okay, you don't have to get it. I know I don't!" He gave a self-depreciating grin. "That's why I haven't told anyone—they'd all think I'm crazy."
"Oh, no, I don't think you're crazy," she assured him.
His expression turned skeptical.
"Really," Bella said with a laugh. "Would I lie to you?"
"I don't know," he said, eyeing her. "Would you?"
"Only for your own good."
"So in this case …?"
"I'm lying. You're a total nut job."
He burst into laughter, and Bella smiled widely. She attempted to quash the hope that was rising in her chest, but it was too late. She really, really liked this guy.
She was in so much trouble.
They left the table to walk around the room, ending up outside on the terrace with Edward's jacket around Bella's shoulders. The evening was spent talking about anything and everything, both serious and not so serious. She learned that Edward had been a composer for an advertising firm in Chicago, writing jingles for television and radio commercials. His new job was writing the background music for a popular series of videogames. Emmett was going to have a coronary when he found out that Edward would get advance copies of the games so he could write the musical score. They discussed their various interests and then moved on to their families, their childhoods, and past relationships. When Edward began to share his desire for home and family, Bella knew she was falling hard and fast. She had no time to process that realization, however, because in that same moment, Edward took her hand in his and smiled crookedly.
"Dance with me," he murmured, his eyes never leaving her face.
Bella looked around the deserted terrace. "Here?"
"Why not? We can hear the music."
Her breath quickened as he led her to the center of the terrace and took her in his arms. "I have a confession to make," she said, her voice trembling ever so slightly. "I don't really know how to dance."
Edward didn't immediately reply. Instead, he lifted her arms and placed them around his neck, then wrapped his own around her waist and pulled her close, until their bodies were only a hairsbreadth apart.
"Neither do I," he confessed. "I just wanted an excuse to hold you."
Her stomached flipped. "Oh."
"Is that all right?"
"More than all right," she replied, not caring that her heart was shining in her eyes.
His arms tightened, closing the gap between them, and then he began to move. They weren't doing much more than rocking side to side in a slow circle, but with his arms around her and his mouth lingering at her temple, Bella couldn't have cared less.
Her eyes closed as they swayed. Being in Edward's embrace felt like heaven. Like she belonged. Like home. If he were to leave her now …
Even the thought was too much for her tender heart to take. Panic flared, and her whole body stiffened. Edward noticed.
"You okay?" He looked down at her, his face wrought with concern.
Her hands slid from behind his neck to push at his shoulders, and she took a step back, causing Edward's arms to fall to his sides. "I'm fine. I just … um … I need to … um …" Damn it, why couldn't she think faster? "I need to … powder my nose! I'll be right back. Don't … don't go anywhere. Okay?"
He was visibly perplexed by her odd behavior, his brow furrowed and his mouth tight, but agreed. "I'll wait at the bar."
"Great." Relieved, Bella turned on her heel and, as quickly as safety would allow, fled through the crowded ballroom toward sanctuary—the ladies' room.
She stared at her reflection in the large mirror above the row of sinks. Her pulse was racing, her cheeks were flushed, and her breathing was rapid. Her fight or flight response had kicked in, her panic had been so acute. She held her wrists under the cold, running water. It was the only thing she could think of to help her cool down; her make-up precluded splashing water onto her heated cheeks.
It didn't help.
Giving up, Bella dried her hands and sat on a bench in the ladies' lounge. There wasn't much time to mull things over. She had to decide right then and there if she truly was willing to risk heartbreak again or if she would protect herself by keeping Edward firmly in the friend category before it was too late.
Unfortunately, she had a feeling it had been too late from the moment she'd laid eyes on him.
So … what should she do now?
She looked up and saw all three of her friends looking at her worriedly.
"Are you all right?" Esme asked as she sat down beside Bella on the bench.
Rosalie and Alice sat on her other side, and Alice explained, "We saw you tearing across the ballroom. You looked upset."
"Bullshit." Rosalie was blunt, as always. "We're your best friends. Talk to us."
With her mind in turmoil, Bella reluctantly bared her soul, giving them the good, the bad, and the ugly. Having already told Edward about the hurt and rejection she'd felt seemed to make it easier to finally share her feelings with her friends, as if there were healing in the telling.
They listened intently, and when Bella was done, guilt colored their expressions. That was the last thing she wanted.
"Stop it," she admonished. "It's not your fault. None of them were meant for me—they were meant for you. I know that."
"We didn't mean to hurt you, Bella." Tears had filled Alice's eyes, and her lower lip trembled.
Bella leaned forward to hug her tiny friend. "I know you didn't. I really do."
"But we did," Rosalie said, her tone unusually subdued.
Esme, however, had always been more observant than the others, and she focused on the real issue. "We should have noticed, yes. But that doesn't explain today. This is about Edward, isn't it?"
Bella's eyes filled with tears, and with a choked sob, she nodded. "I like him, Esme. I really, really like him. More than I've ever liked anybody."
Comprehension dawned on Rosalie's face. "And you're afraid that it will turn out like it did with Emmett and the others."
"If things follow the pattern, we won't even make it through tonight," Bella explained as a tear escaped her eye and slid down her cheek. "I don't think I could take it again, especially not with him. I've never felt anything like this about anyone before."
"Then you've got to decide if he's worth the risk," Alice said. "That's what love is, Bella—a risk."
"Not for you guys," Belle muttered.
Esme smiled. "You don't think we risked anything? We risked being hurt by giving our hearts to someone we'd barely met. Not only that, we risked our friendship with one of the loveliest people we've ever known." Esme squeezed her hand, and Bella felt the unspoken promise to talk more about that at a later time. "Right now, you have to decide what you're willing to risk for love. And you have to decide if Edward is worth that risk."
Put that way, Bella found her decision was easy. Something deep inside her knew that Edward was worth every risk. And if it turned out badly, she'd rather have had him for a little while than not at all. The worst that could happen was that she'd have another great friend.
"You're right," she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I'm going back out there." She rose to her feet, ready to face her fears … and Edward. She looked at the three women who were the best friends anyone could ask for. "Thank you."
After the women had dried their tears and touched up their make-up, they left the bathroom and headed back out to the ballroom. Bella felt at peace with her decision, as well as a frisson of excitement at the possibilities. Edward seemed to be as into her as she was with him. Maybe, just maybe he was feeling the same connection, the same undeniable attraction. She couldn't wait to find out.
She left her friends at the table, where the guys were awaiting their return, and then maneuvered through the crowd to the bar to find Edward.
But he wasn't there. A twinge of doubt had her frowning, but she shook it off; he had probably gone to the bathroom or something. She asked the bartender for a glass of water, then turned to watch for Edward. The dance floor was becoming more crowded the closer it got to midnight, and now it was teeming with couples wanting to be in the middle of the action when the clock struck twelve. Butterflies appeared in her stomach as she wondered if perhaps her New Year's Day would start with a kiss. Suddenly she wanted that more than anything—not just any kiss, but a kiss with Edward. She could only hope they were on the same page.
It was at that moment, however, that she finally found Edward. The joyful gleam left her eyes as she watched him dance with a woman in yellow. She couldn't make out the woman's face, as her back was to her, but she could see Edward. He was laughing and smiling—just like he had with her—and she knew it was over before it had even had a chance to start. A bitter laugh escaped her lips. Right on schedule, she hadn't even made it through one date this time. She felt like an utter fool.
Her hands were shaking as she set down her glass. Without a second glance, Bella left the ballroom, stopping only to pick up her purse and coat. Once she was safely inside a taxi, she sent a text to Alice, letting her know that she'd gone home and she'd see them the next day for the football game.
The taxi driver remained graciously silent as tears dripped down her face unheeded. The taxi's glowing green clock turned to midnight, and another year began. Bella closed her eyes against the pain. She'd allowed herself to hope, to open herself to the possibilities … but nothing had changed. She was still alone.
Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be.
New Year's Day
"No!" Bella shouted as she opened the front door and Rosalie attempted to enter her apartment.
Everyone froze in place outside her door, and six confused faces peered at her as she used her arms to barricade the doorway. Bella couldn't blame them; she probably looked slightly crazed. Her hair, she knew, resembled a haystack, and with her red-rimmed eyes and wrinkled clothes … yeah. Slightly crazed just about covered it.
Okay, maybe more than slightly.
After a horrible night's sleep, where she'd tossed and turned, hearing Emmett's boisterous laughter, seeing Jasper's empathetic gaze, feeling Carlisle's compassionate touch, and sensing Edward all around her, she was determined to swear off men for good. To hell with them all, she'd decided. Knocking on wood, however, hadn't done her much good the previous night. She needed something stronger—she needed as much luck on her side as she could possibly get, and what better time to start than New Year's Day. Was she going overboard? Probably. But after last night's events, she was resolved to do whatever was necessary to protect herself.
And if it took her mind off Edward … well, that was even better.
According to her research, with everyone coming over to watch the football game, she'd needed to begin the execution of plan Change Bella's Luck immediately.
Unfortunately, Rosalie had already almost ruined everything.
She glared at her blonde friend. "I told you on the phone—Emmett comes in first." Turning to the huge, dark-haired man, she asked, "Did you bring it?"
Emmett blinked and hesitantly showed her a bag of potato chips. "Well," he began, looking at her with wary eyes, "I brought this. There's always a bunch of salt at the bottom of the bag."
Which meant he had forgotten. But salt was salt, right?
"Fine," she muttered and grudgingly opened the door to let him in. Then she paused, her eyes narrowing. "You don't have flat feet, do you?" she asked, recalling what she had read early that morning. His eyebrows looked okay—no unibrow or anything—but she didn't know about his feet ….
Emmett slowly shook his head no.
"Okay," Bella said, breathing a sigh of relief.
He stepped inside, making a big production of crossing the threshold, but the look he gave her made clear he thought she'd lost her marbles. Bella rolled her eyes and then said to the rest of them, "You can come in now."
"Gee, thanks," Rosalie sniped.
Bella gave her a saccharine smile and then welcomed everyone else. Emmett grumbled when she made him walk through her apartment and then leave by climbing over the balcony and hopping to the ground before he could come back inside. The rules of first footing had to be followed.
Thankfully she lived on the first floor.
With that all taken care of, Bella lingered in the kitchen while everyone else settled in the living room, getting ready to watch the game. Carlisle and Jasper seemed amused by her antics, Emmett was still complaining under his breath about having to go through an obstacle course just to watch a football game, and the girls kept giving each other pointed looks.
Bella ignored it all and focused her attention on the food. Each couple had brought a dish to share, so she concentrated her efforts on what she had mentally dubbed "food for luck." Thank goodness the store on the corner had been open that morning. She was stirring the pot of black-eyed peas when her friends entered the kitchen.
"What is that God-awful smell?" Rosalie asked, her eyes widening as she caught sight of the stove and counter. "Ew. What is all this shit?"
"You're supposed to eat it on New Year's. It's for luck," Bella retorted.
Alice sniffed at a bowl on the counter, her nose wrinkling. "Is this sauerkraut?"
Bella nodded. "And black-eyed peas and … oh, lentil soup. I got some ham, too. For sandwiches. It's in the fridge."
"And this is all supposed to bring good luck?" Esme asked, laying a hand on Bella's shoulder. Her gentle tone almost broke her.
But she couldn't cry.
"Yes." She focused on stirring and ignoring the sting of tears that she absolutely refused to shed.
She knew they thought she was insane, and maybe she was. All she knew was that she needed to do this. She had to take control of her life somehow.
And this was what she'd been reduced to.
She really, really wanted to cry.
Esme's question startled her, and she dropped the spoon. "Why what?"
"Why do you feel the need to do all this?"
"Please don't ask me that. I won't be able to … I can't … not without crying. And I can't cry. Not today."
"Bad luck?" Alice asked, her gray eyes filled with concern.
The knot in Bella's throat tightened, and she couldn't reply. She just nodded.
"Okay," Alice soothed, wrapping her arms around Bella's waist and hugging her from behind.
"Here. Let me help," Rosalie said, always one for action rather than words. "The trash is full—I'll take it out."
"No!" Bella knew she had to be driving them all insane, but she couldn't help it. "Nothing can go out of the house. Not even trash. Not until tomorrow."
That was all Rosalie could take.
"What the hell is going on with you?" she demanded.
Esme stepped forward, prepared, as always, to be the voice of reason, but Rosalie shot her down before she could even utter a word.
"No way," she said, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder. "Something is wrong—really, really wrong—and I'm not about to ignore it. Tell us what's going on right now, Bella. This is ridiculous!"
And with that, Bella promptly burst into tears.
The four of them huddled on Bella's bed, while the guys watched the pre-game show, and Bella poured her heart out. She told them about seeing Edward dancing with the other woman and how happy he'd looked. She told them about her plan and how she'd found the list on the internet about New Year's superstitions and things that would bring her luck in the coming year. Underneath it all was the sharp pain of having once again opened her heart, only to have it trampled beneath the feet of Fate.
"Why does this keep happening to me?" she wailed after explaining what she'd seen after they'd left the bathroom the previous evening. "I let myself believe I'd finally found the one for me, and now I just feel empty. I hate feeling like this!"
Rosalie and Alice immediately responded, pulling into their arms in a group hug.
Esme quietly slipped from the room, then returned moments later. "I didn't want the beans to burn," she explained, then settled on the bed beside the others.
"I know it's stupid to be this upset over a guy I just met," Bella said, sniffling as she took what comfort she could find in her friends' sympathy. "But I thought he—" She sniffled again and shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe this doesn't have as much to do with Edward as it does with me being overly sensitive after all the other times …."
Guilty looks were once again exchanged, until Bella glared at them, reminding them that while she had been hurt, she wasn't holding any grudges.
"I hate to ask this, Bella," Alice said, her hand gripping her friend's, "but are you sure you're not getting ahead of yourself here? I mean, you didn't even talk to him. It could have been perfectly innocent."
Bella snorted and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "What else could it be? I mean, this is me we're talking about. This is how it works. God, he was even right on schedule—Emmett was three dates, Jasper two, and Carlisle one. Edward didn't make it through a single date. It's like some sort of creepy countdown to the destruction of my love life." She sniffled. "I should have known better than to get my hopes up."
"He really did seem to like you," Rosalie mused, but then her expression hardened. "Well, it's his loss."
Her loyal words, however, hit Bella the wrong way. "Is it really?" she snapped. "Was it Emmett's loss? Or Jasper's? Or Carlisle's?" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. It's just … everybody wins but me. I'm the loser in all this. And it sucks, even if this is the way it's supposed to be."
"Why don't we just leave this for now," Esme suggested. "Let's go watch the game and get your mind off things, even if just for a few hours. Maybe things will look differently later."
Bella agreed but secretly thought that spending the next few hours with three happy couples wasn't going to help. It would just be a reminder of that she'd lost her chance before she'd ever really had it.
Bella watched the game from the warm cocoon of what she lovingly referred to as "the comfy chair," an old, ratty avocado green recliner that used to belong to her dad. When she'd been a little girl, he'd often watched baseball from the recliner, with Bella tucked in at his side. He'd given it to her when she'd first moved in with the girls and they'd had no money for furniture. Of course, now she had a great leather sofa with a matching loveseat, but she'd still kept her dad's old chair. It could comfort her like nothing else, sort of like a stuffed animal or an old blanket. It reminded her of home and of the safety of her daddy's arms. Whenever she sought solace, she found it in the comfy chair.
Today, however, she wondered if perhaps she gave the chair too much credit.
Jasper and Alice were sitting on the floor, and Rosalie and Emmett had taken the couch, leaving the loveseat for Carlisle and Esme. Initially, the women had sat at a respectable distance from the men, but as time passed, they were drawn together like magnets, moving closer and closer until they were practically glued at the hip, arms thrown about shoulders and heads nuzzled into necks. Bella smiled a little, knowing that they couldn't help but be drawn together. They loved each other, and that couldn't be denied.
She snuggled deeper into the chair and tried to focus all her attention on the television screen. The first quarter was about to end when the doorbell rang. Bella was about to go answer it when Esme stopped her.
"It's okay, sweetie. You look comfortable. I can get the door."
"Thanks," Bella said with a smile. Curiosity was getting the best of her, however, and she strained to listen as Esme opened the door, not knowing who would be stopping by on a holiday that wasn't already in the room.
"I got here as fast I could."
Bella's head whipped around toward the doorway, her heart in her throat.
"Edward," she whispered.
Even though she knew there was no way he could have heard her, he turned until he was looking right at her. He looked as devastated as she felt. His already unruly hair was out of control, sticking up all over as if he'd repeatedly run his hands through it. His eyes mirrored hers, red-rimmed and bloodshot. Deep purple smudges marked the skin beneath his eyes, indicating that he'd slept about as well as she had.
It was the look on his face as he saw her, however, that spoke volumes. Relief and joy warred with fear and trepidation, and in that moment, she knew that whatever she'd thought she'd seen the night before, she'd been wrong. So very wrong.
She was out of the chair like a shot, and Edward barely had time to open his arms before she launched herself at him, wrapping her limbs around him like a vine. Once again, she felt the bone-deep connection that had drawn her to him the night before.
She was home.
"Bella," he murmured into her hair, his relief palpable.
She buried her head against his neck and gripped him tighter. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I was so stupid. I'm sorry."
Edward said nothing, choosing instead to leave behind their rapt audience for the privacy of the kitchen. He hitched her up onto the counter, but she clung to him, refusing to let go … not that Edward had loosened his hold either. They remained locked together, both needing the reassurance that could only be found in the other's embrace.
Finally, after several long minutes, Edward spoke. "I didn't know what happened until Esme called me. You just disappeared. I thought maybe I'd misread things and you weren't interested."
The pain in his voice sliced through Bella like shards of glass. She hadn't meant to hurt him … she hadn't realized that she could.
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "I just saw you with that woman—"
Bella leaned back just enough so that she could look in his eyes. "Girl?"
"She was the fifteen-year-old daughter of one of Carlisle's colleagues," he explained. "She was bored, and Carlisle asked me to keep her occupied for a moment while her mother talked shop with the one of the hospital's board members."
Bella wanted to kick herself. "I'm sor—"
Her apology was cut short when Edward covered her lips with his. His mouth was demanding but also gentle, coaxing, and Bella responded with a passion the likes of which she hadn't known she was capable. Her body was on fire, desperate for his touch; the kiss was like none other she'd experienced in her life. She didn't just feel it down to her toes—she felt it deep down, to her very soul.
And she knew. Edward was it for her. Like Rosalie and Emmett, Alice and Jasper, Esme and Carlisle … they were meant to be Bella and Edward.
Fate. Destiny. Soul mates. Whatever it was called. What it all boiled down to was that he was hers, and she was his.
Meant to be.
Their breathing was ragged when they finally ended the kiss. Edward pulled her ever closer and rested his forehead against hers.
Bella, always the wordsmith, felt the need to put the experience into words.
Edward laughed. "Yeah. Wow." His fingers ghosted along her cheek as he studied her intently. "How could you possibly believe I'd want anyone but you?" he murmured, his eyes closing as he breathed her in.
"It's happened before," Bella muttered, squirming at the reminder. "Several times."
"Fools. Every last one of them. But I'm selfish enough to be grateful for their foolishness." His eyes opened, and the intensity of his stare took her breath away. "I knew from the moment I saw you that you were the reason I moved to Seattle. I felt stupid saying it last night, when we'd just met. I didn't want to come across like some kind of stalker or something … but I know, with everything that is in me, that it's the truth. You're the one for me, Bella. You're the reason I'm here."
Overwhelmed that he felt the same way, Bella peppered his face with kisses, muttering her agreement in between each press of her lips. "You're … the one … for me … too. I know it."
No more words were needed. To Bella, it felt as if she'd been searching for Edward her entire life, without ever having known it. Now that they'd found each other, she wanted nothing more but to curl up in his arms and just be together.
She didn't know how long they stood there, locked in each other's arms. The sounds of the football game drifted into the room, along with the occasional shout by one of the guys, but Edward and Bella were in no hurry to join in.
"Bella?" Edward said after several interminable moments, his lips brushing against her temple.
"What is that horrible smell?"
She couldn't stop the girlish giggles that escaped her lips. Then she pressed a hard kiss to his mouth and said, "It doesn't matter. I don't need it anymore."
"No? What do you need, then?"
She smiled, pressing her face against his neck. "I already have everything I need—I have you."
A/N: Links to the articles Bella found on New Year's superstitions can be found on my profile page. :)