A/N: This story is a collaboration between GinnyW 31 and Shug (sshg316), and was written for curious88 who won it in the Fandom Gives Back auction last November. Yes, Gin & I both fail. We're so sorry that it took us so long! But we're getting to it now! The story is outlined and plotted out to be 11 chapters, but… we both have a habit of going over. We'll see what we can do here. Thanks to twitina for looking things over.
Disclaimer: The characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer. The rest is ours.
Contractually Bound: Chapter 1
Bella Swan wiped her brow with the sleeve of one arm, her face flushed with the heat of the kitchen. She smiled as the waitress approached the pass-through, a new ticket in hand.
"Hope you have enough food back there, Bella," Jessica said, rolling her eyes. "Emmett McCarty just ordered half the menu."
"I heard that!" came the boisterous reply from the diner's corner booth, loud enough to carry over the normal chatter.
Jessica handed the ticket to Bella before loading the waiting order onto her tray. "I swear, he should give you the tip, ordering that much food."
"I heard that, too!"
"Oh, shut up!" Jessica called back with a grin, her ponytail whipping over her shoulder as she walked off to serve table two.
Bella chuckled as she began to prepare the next order, then laughed again when she noticed that Jessica hadn't been overly exaggerating. Emmett had ordered enough food for five people.
She got to work, shifting her stance in hopes of relieving her aching feet. It had been a long day, and after the dinner rush, she could go home. A nice hot bath sounded good right about then.
Humming to the radio while she cooked, she smiled as she glanced out at the busy dining area, filled with people she'd known most of her life. There had been a time when she'd thought she couldn't get out of the tiny town of Forks fast enough. She'd had dreams and goals, she mused as she cracked an egg into a bowl. Yet here she was, still in the same place, doing the same job she had in high school.
She beat the egg with a fork and sighed. For too many years now she'd been letting life pass her by, but that was about to end. She was going to do something with her life—something she should have done years ago.
A shout of laughter came from the dining area, and Bella glanced through the pass-through to see Jessica once again teasing Emmett, his wife Rosalie adding her two cents worth, as well.
Bella shook her head and chuckled as she hit the bell and shouted, "Order up!" It might not have been her life's ambition to work in a small town diner, but at least it was usually entertaining.
Bella called out a goodbye before leaving for the evening. The door clanged shut as she stretched, then wearily climbed the steps behind the building to her apartment above the diner. She was worn out by the long shift and couldn't wait to change out of her greasy clothes, take a long, hot shower, and then lounge around in her comfy pajamas for the rest of the night.
She entered her apartment, tossing her keys on to the pressboard bookshelf. The place was small, but it suited her needs. The tiny living area didn't get much light, thanks to the small windows, but she wasn't often home during the day, so it was okay. The only furniture was the sofa she'd picked up at Good Will, the bookshelf, and, shoved into one corner, a small table with two chairs that she used as a dining area. There was a narrow galley kitchen, a small three-quarters bathroom, and that was about it. No bedroom—the sofa was a pull-out. It wasn't much, but it was clean… if one could overlook the thin veil of grease that seemed to linger no matter how much she scrubbed, the result of living over a diner.
Bella sighed. All right, so the apartment was dark and dingy, but when she'd moved out of Charlie's, determined to stand on her own two feet, it had been all she could afford. Maybe, if her financial aid came through, she could get a better place in the fall. At her age, she'd prefer an apartment to the dorms, but then, even a dorm room would be better than her current place.
Excitement skittered down her spine as she thought of what the coming months held for her. It had taken her so long to work up the courage to send off her application to the University of Washington. It was a public state school, so there really hadn't been a concern that she wouldn't get in, but she'd still been a wreck. It had been a daily struggle not to think about the last time she'd waited to hear from an admissions office, but she'd managed to set aside the painful memories. Finally, after weeks of nervous anticipation, the letter granting her acceptance to U-Dub had arrived the previous afternoon.
Her life was about to change. And for once, it would be for the better.
Maybe, she thought as she grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, just maybe she could get her life back on track. She'd made some terrible mistakes—her heart still squeezed at the thought of her biggest regret—but that was all in the past. She would never forget, but she could overcome. It was time she moved on and gave herself a chance at a new life.
She set down the bottle of water on the counter and took two steps toward the bathroom when there was a knock at the door.
Bella frowned, wondering who would be stopping by her apartment—no one ever had before. Well, except for Charlie, and he was working. She hesitated as the knock sounded again, now more persistent, but then went to the door.
"Who is it?" she asked. Her dad was a cop—there was no way she was opening that door without knowing who was on the other side, even in Forks.
There was a pause, and then she froze as a voice she'd never thought she'd hear again drifted through the door.
"It's Edward. Edward Cullen."
He'd been sitting in the side parking lot of the diner for nearly two hours, catching stares from more than one patron as he anxiously tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. He had a perfect view from where he sat, he could see several of the tables, the long bar from where he was parked. Most importantly, however, was the fact that he could see the small woman who was standing in the kitchen, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a navy blue apron and armed with a spatula. More than once he contemplated going inside the small restaurant, but this wasn't a social call; there was nothing pleasant about the meeting he had planned. Edward hadn't asked anyone outright where he could find Bella or what she was doing, but in the time since he'd moved back to the West Coast just over a month ago, he'd quietly listened when Renee had flown in just over three weeks ago to visit with Esme and had given updates on Bella.
Edward had been both shocked and angry when he'd discovered that Bella was working as a short order cook at the diner in Forks. She'd had the opportunity to do something with herself, and instead she was wasting her life and her potential in this godforsaken town. Yes, he'd been angry when he heard about it, but now, sitting in his car as he watched her in the kitchen, serving up greasy food and laughing while she spoke with those around her, he became furious.
She had absolutely no right to be happy.
Shortly after seven, the light in the back of the restaurant turned on, and he watched as the backdoor opened. She'd removed her apron and was simply dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans. Edward's knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel when he noticed a thin sliver of skin that became visible—even from his vantage point—as she took a lifted her arms above her head, arched her back, and stretched.
It took several minutes for him to calm himself enough before he exited his car. He let his annoyance and anger lead him, clutching onto both as if they were his only lifeline, as he walked up the steps she'd just trudged.
Standing outside the dark wood door, he glanced one last time at the papers clutched tightly in his left hand. He should've carried them in a briefcase. Edward Cullen always used a briefcase; it gave him power. Image was everything in his world, and he knew that the simple sound of the clicks as he first opened and would later close his briefcase would have intimidated far more than the words he'd rehearsed in his head hundreds of times over the last few days.
His hand squeezed even tighter around the documents, crumpling them slightly, as he considered his own stupidity for allowing himself to become so caught up in his feelings that he'd failed to separate his professional mind from the typically repressed emotional one. He'd hoped that he would be able to control himself around her. It had been eight years, and apparently she still had a hold on him that rivaled no other. It seemed that when dealing with Bella Swan he still had a habit of losing his senses and doing stupid things. The small piece of metal residing in his pocket had always been his proof of that.
God, he hated her.
Just that single thought alone fueled the anger that had slowly been ebbing away as he'd stood outside her door. He couldn't afford to allow anything to interfere in his mission.
With one more breath and a newly firmed resolve, Edward raised his hand and knocked on her door.
He paced back and forth across the small living room floor, four steps from the coffee table to the bookcase and back again. He alternated between running his hands through his hair and pinching the bridge of his nose, both clear signs of irritation and frustration. Standing in the middle of her living room after so many years had passed was truly the last thing he wanted to be doing. Until a month ago, it was the last thing he'd ever expected to be doing. He hadn't wanted to see her again. He hadn't wanted to return to Forks. And he sure as hell hadn't wanted to be presenting her with this proposition.
Well, at least he was framing it as a proposition. Although he wouldn't have been surprised if she referred to it as coercion and manipulation. Edward Cullen knew exactly what he was doing.
The rustle of paper drew his attention back to the woman sitting at the kitchen table. An elbow on the table, her hand on her forehead, she pored over the pages in an effort to try to understand all of the legalities… all of his demands. It was obvious to Edward that she was worried he was trying to take advantage of her.
"You have got to be joking," Bella said as she flipped another page of the contract, shaking her head as she continued to read.
"Which part?" he asked, stepping over to the table. He placed his palms on the wood surface before quickly removing them and wiping them off, grimacing the entire time.
She flicked a glance in his direction. "All of it," she said, her tone incredulous. "You don't honestly think that anyone will believe this."
Edward eyed her levelly. "Why not? We all believed you before—or have you forgotten?"
He took great pleasure in the look of shock that crossed her features, but all too soon she regained her composure and moved her eyes back to the document in her hands, saying nothing.
Stepping back from the table, Edward renewed his pacing. This time, however, his eyes took in the postage stamp-sized apartment. The living area had about the same square footage as his first college dorm room. There were two small windows, each about the size of a pizza box, with heavy drapes blocking out most of the light. The once white ceiling had several large yellow stains where water had obviously leaked down from the roof, and though clean, the entire place smelled and even felt like grease from the diner just below. She should be thanking him for taking her out of this hell hole. Then again, he thought as he noted her ragged appearance, she looked as hellish as her apartment.
For just the briefest moment, he began to wonder what had happened to her. This was not the same girl he'd known all those years ago. The Bella he'd known never would have done this to herself. She would have never wasted her life by hiding out in the same small town she'd sworn she hated as she was growing up. She wouldn't have dropped out of college—community college at that—to work at a diner. Hell, the Bella he'd known had dreams of attending university, of marriage and children and...
Edward looked around the small, desolate, depressing room again and shuddered—she'd had dreams. Closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, Edward reminded himself he didn't care.
More rustling from the direction of the table and he turned his attention back to her. He watched as she grabbed the well-chewed pen that had been sitting on the table and signed her name in that horribly messy script that he'd loved to tease her about when they were growing up.
She'd signed it.
Satisfaction coursed through him, and he breathed a sigh of relief before taking the few steps, leaning over, and swiping the contract into his hands. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the final, most important part of his plan. Edward couldn't even bring himself to look at it again.
The ring made a quiet ding as it hit the table and bounced slightly in front of her.
She eyed the offensive piece of jewelry warily, completely unaware of the true symbolism behind it. He sneered as Bella couldn't even bring herself to pick it up to examine it more closely. Edward was well aware that having a ring practically thrown at her with complete disregard for her thoughts or feelings wasn't the average girl's romantic fantasy, but hadn't he always told her time and time again that she was anything but average? The sentiment sickened him now, but served to convince him that she was getting nothing less than she deserved
"What do we tell them?" she asked quietly.
"In two weeks' time, I'll take you on a quiet picnic lunch and tell you how, now that we've reconnected, I could never let you go." Edward found he had to swallow down bile as he spouted off his carefully planned lie.
"Why are you giving this to me now?"
He leaned forward, his hands again resting on the sticky table, but he tried to ignore it. This was important, and he wanted to make certain that he was very clear. He waited until Bella raised her eyes from the small gold band to meet his gaze before he spoke. "Because I don't want to confuse the lines, Bella. This is an arrangement—a contract—nothing more. This is a small town and we will have to be seen in public for this to be believable, not to mention family dinners and so on, but I want to make it clear—" he leaned even closer to her and brought up his right hand to grip her chin "—you mean absolutely nothing to me."
Dropping his hand and standing back up, he walked to the door. With his head down, he reached out to turn the knob and said, "I will be here Sunday at three to take you to the house."
He didn't wait for an answer before he yanked the door open and then slammed it shut behind him. He couldn't get out of there fast enough.
Bella remained at the kitchen table for hours, the ring sitting in front of her, as if it would burn if she dared to touch it. She'd been completely unprepared to see him again, had hoped she never would. Now he was back, just as she had begun to take control of her life, and he was going to ruin everything. The optimism she'd felt earlier in the evening was now gone, leaving her feeling more desolate than she ever had before. Of all the times for him to reenter her life, he had to pick now….
Ruthlessly, she shoved her selfish thoughts aside, remembering that there were more important things to consider than how her life would be affected. It didn't matter—she didn't matter. She'd only agreed to Edward's plan for one reason, and one reason only: Esme. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the woman who had once been like a second mother, but she refused to allow them to fall. She did not deserve the release crying would bring.
She'd brought all of this on herself. He'd been so angry, so hard. So different from the boy she'd once known. The guilt that had gnawed at her for eight years returned with a vengeance. Meeting his demands—especially given the circumstances—was the least that she could do. And maybe, just maybe, she could somehow make amends for all the pain she'd caused.
With aching slowness, she reached for the ring, her hand only moving a few centimeters at a time. Carefully grasping it with trembling fingers, she admired the diamond solitaire with a detached eye. The stone was a single cushioned cut diamond; if she had to guess, she'd say it was no more than half a carat. Not overly large, but big enough that it could be easily seen. The band was white gold with a delicate vine pattern etched all the way around. She ran her fingers along the circumference, her mouth slightly curving into a small smile at the fine detail. Her breath caught, however, as her thumb slipped through the band and she felt what could only be engraving on the inside. She swallowed hard, and her hands shook as she tilted the ring to look inside.
Forever & Always.
The dam holding back her emotions finally burst, and the magnitude of what she had done washed over her. This time, she was unable to hold back the tears.