A/N: Real life has been taking it out of me these last several months. But it's nice to be back. Balticward sends his love to all and promises he will come back to all of you in the end. Many thanks for your kind notes of support and love.

Tips for Better Living will be a relatively short story. It's a bit different than the other pieces I have written. For those of you who know me well enough, yes, I do have a little waiter in my life. But while I've borrowed from him here and there, this story is most definitely not reflective of him. Ask Philadelphic - she's met him.

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It was 3:30 p.m., and Edward Cullen was leaning against the lunch counter, staring at Rosalie Hale's ass. It was a very fine ass, peach shaped and firm. She was squatting and the black pants they all wore in the restaurant were riding low enough for him to see her thong and …

"I'm done here. Rose, take your dinner break please. Edward, stop staring at Rose's ass. Table 12 has been waiting for a warm-up for about 10 minutes now." Poppy, the owner of Poppy's Deli and Edward's boss, smacked him none too gently up the back of the head as she sailed past on her way to the door. Rose spun around and glared furiously at him.

"What?" he said with a smirk. "Just admiring the view." His coworker gave him the finger and stomped away to clock out for break, her blonde ponytail bobbing behind her. Edward laughed. Women loved him. They all loved it when Edward Cullen paid attention to them, no matter how they protested. Maybe Rose is a lesbian, he thought sagely.

"Excuse me," came a voice behind him. He sighed and turned around with a phony smile plastered on his face. "Could I get some more coffee please?"

I hate this shitty job, he thought glumly, taking up a fresh pot from the burner. Edward trudged over to Table 12 and freshened his customer's coffee.

But shitty as it was, waiting tables at Poppy's seemed to be the only work available for college drop-outs in their early 20s with very few skills and even less ambition. He'd been fired from his last job for showing up late (and stoned) one too many times. His father never failed to remind him how many favors he'd had to call in to get him the job at Poppy's.

He knew his parents, Carlisle and Esme, were in despair over him, although he was quite sure they were making a fuss over nothing. He was 22, and there was plenty of time yet to work and get serious about life. For now, he wanted to have a little fun – what was so bad about that? Yeah, he had flunked out of a couple of college programs. Some minor run-ins with the law for being drunk and disorderly, or for smoking a little weed. Broken a few hearts … OK, maybe more than a few hearts.

But it had been the issue of money – and its remarkable ability to slip through Edward's fingers – that had paved the road to Poppy's Deli. Besides himself, the thing Edward loved most in this world was spending money. Expensive clothes, the latest electronic gadgets, Grey Goose vodka and his seemingly endless appetite for recreational pharmaceuticals – Edward burned through every penny his parents gave him and much, much more. After Edward's latest binge on the party circuit had come to light, Carlisle Cullen's seemingly endless patience for his beautiful, self-absorbed oldest son finally ran out.

Edward had been faced with a choice – get a job and start paying back the massive bills he had run up, or find his belongings on the curb with the door locks changed on the family house. With winter coming on in Chicago and nowhere to crash, that choice was no choice for Edward. Resentfully, he had fallen back on the only kind of work he had ever known – waiting tables.

He hated it. Long hours on his feet in an ugly polyester uniform being treated like shit by people Edward wouldn't normally be caught dead around. Blue-haired old ladies who smelled like mothballs and handed out miserly tips. Crabby parents with their bratty, out-of-control kids. Women – and men – groping him when he brushed by their tables. All this for a pathetic wage and anemic tips that he had to hand over to his parents for payment of his debts? It was a good thing he pushed a little weed on the side, or he'd have no mad money at all.

Coffee pot still in hand, Edward glared out the front window. It was showing signs of getting dark and it wasn't even 4 p.m. yet. Winter in Chicago was a grim affair. Working Saturday nights at a neighborhood deli made it that much worse. The restaurant was dead quiet right now – Edward hadn't realized there was anyone in there until Poppy had pointed out Table 12 to him – and likely to remain so until the senior citizens showed up around 5:30 for their blue plate specials. He sighed heavily and looked down at his lone customer in the diner.

It seemed that he couldn't catch a break there either.

The woman was thin and plainly dressed. (Edward prided himself on wearing only the coolest clothes and brands, and this woman definitely wasn't sharing any of his fashion taste.) Her jeans weren't a recognizable brand, and she was wearing scuffed, clunky snow boots. The winter jacket hanging over the back of the chair was non-descript. The end of a Burberry scarf poked out of one sleeve – probably fake, he thought with an inner sniff of disdain. Her frizzy brown hair was bundled into a lopsided pony tail that was sprinkled with gray.

As Edward stared off into space beside Table 12, the woman seated there cleared her throat and looked up at him inquiringly. He realized he had been wool-gathering and started guiltily. Then he looked down at her, and his heart gave a sudden, great leap.

Her face was as plain as the rest of her. Pale skin, no make up, a few wrinkles around the eyes. Edward was lousy at guessing ages; all he could tell was that she was older than him and definitely not hot. But her wide brown eyes were deep and intense as she looked at him – looked at him. For the first time since he had started at Poppy's six weeks ago, Edward felt like someone had actually seen him – not as her personal purveyor of coffee and corned beef sandwiches, but as a human being. The feeling was so unexpected that he jerked backward, slopping coffee on the table in the process.

"Sorry," Edward mumbled. He fetched a rag, wiping up the coffee which had fortunately not spilled on the documents she had strewn on the table in front of her. Glancing at the pages, he wondered if she was a student – it looked like she was writing an essay.

"Thanks," the woman said when he was done, her voice mild and polite. But both the moment and the feeling had vanished, and Edward's chronically short attention span had drifted to his sudden, powerful desire for a smoke. He retreated behind the counter for a few minutes, fidgeting impatiently. Rose wouldn't be back from her break for another 30 minutes. He couldn't wait that long for cigarette!

Edward rang up Table 12's coffee bill and dropped it on the table in front of the woman, hoping she'd take the hint and pack up. He shot the shit with the dude washing dishes in the kitchen for 15 minutes. Ducked out of the kitchen to check - no sign of Table 12 leaving.

Fuck it, he suddenly thought. She won't even notice I'm gone. Grabbing his leather jacket, Edward slipped out the back door. He shivered in the alley as he lit up his Camel Light, inhaling the smoke greedily. It tasted so good that he figured Table 12 could wait while he smoked a second one.

Ten minutes later, his face red with cold and his reddish brown hair wind-blown, Edward ambled back into the dining area. Table 12 was empty. Probably a dine 'n dash, he thought. Good thing it was only a coffee.

Glumly, he walked over and picked up the little black tray with the bill in it. A bottomless cup of coffee at Poppy's cost $1.68 – and there was a stack of coins on top of the bill that totaled exactly $1.68, right to the penny. Peering down, he could see something written on the slip. He picked it up, his lips moving silently as he read to himself.

Tip #1: Never judge a book by its cover.

"Thanks a lot … fucking cheap bitch," he cursed, tossing the plastic tray back on the table. Coins bounced in all directions, and the invoice slip fluttered off the tray to the floor.

Underneath the slip was a crisp $20 bill.

Edward froze, confused. He picked up the bill slowly, squinting at it. There was something more written on the money.

Tip #2: And never make assumptions either, kiddo.

Edward spotted a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye, and he glanced up at the big window at the front of the restaurant. Outside in the fading winter light, he saw a woman walking away down the sidewalk, the ends of her scarf fluttering wildly in the wind.

He looked back down at the $20, his heart thumping uncomfortably and a strange sensation stealing over him. No one had ever left him a tip that good on just a coffee order before. His tips tended to be small; the generous ones usually came from hot cougars or gays looking to get into his pants. Sometimes they even wrote their phone numbers or email addresses on the bill, hoping to score some young ass. But big tips certainly didn't come from shabby customers whom he had basically ignored and then abandoned.

The feeling in him got stronger as he stared at the Jackson in his hand. It took him a moment to place it because it had been so long since he had felt anything remotely like it.

It was shame.

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A/N: More to come from Shalloward in the days ahead ... read 'n review!