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. Sorry for the ridiculously long delay—more info on that at the end of the chapter.

Disclaimer: The characters are the property of Stephenie Meyer. The rest is ours.


Contractually Bound: Chapter 3

The car's tires squealed against the pavement as Edward sped out of his parents' private drive and headed toward the highway leading to Port Angeles. According to his father, Bella and Esme had taken Carlisle's car to the small portside town to search for a wedding dress—something Bella had conveniently forgotten to tell him. It was a clear violation of the terms of their contract. Not that he should have expected any differently from someone who had previously shown no qualms about breaking her word.

His mouth pressed into a grim line as he increased his speed, flying past the few other cars on the highway. He reached up to loosen his tie, then remembered he wasn't wearing one and instead ran a weary hand across his face before once again grasping the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip.

The past few weeks had gone precisely according to plan, thanks to his tight-fisted control. With no work to distract him—thank goodness for all that family leave he'd saved up—he had been able to concentrate solely on Esme… and getting her to believe in the fairy tale he'd created. It had worked. Several well-timed public dates and then the "proposal"— his pre-fabricated story conveyed at Sunday dinner with his parents and Charlie—had gone off without hitch, despite the bile that had risen to his throat with every despicable word. He had to admit, until today's little act of rebellion, Bella had played her role to perfection, and his mother… his mother was the happiest he'd ever seen.

Now he only had to make sure she stayed that way.

It was a jagged pill to swallow, allowing Bella and his mother to reconnect, despite that being an unavoidable consequence of the charade that had become his life. This Bella wasn't the same girl he'd once known—if he'd ever truly known her at all—and so he could not fully anticipate her responses, leaving him once again grappling for control. It was damn annoying. Inconvenient, too. He couldn't afford any mistakes, couldn't allow his mother to be hurt by Bella's fickleness again.

Edward ignored the small voice inside his head that questioned if he was worried more about Esme or himself.

His lips twisted in contempt as he stepped harder on the gas and passed a slower-moving car. Sometimes he wished he hadn't eavesdropped on the conversation between Esme and Renee, that he'd never heard his mother say that her one regret was that she wouldn't live long enough to see him and Bella reconcile. The sadness in her voice had been audible—only an idiot could have missed it. There was no way in hell that Edward would allow his mother a single moment of unhappiness in her final days—not when it was within his power to change things.

So that was what he'd done. To hell with the mess it made of his life, as long as his mother was happy. Now she was happy.

And God help Bella Swan if she did anything to put that happiness in jeopardy.

He arrived in Port Angeles in record time and quickly found his father's car in front of a small wedding boutique. He parked in the space behind the black Mercedes, then shoved a few quarters into the meter before entering the shop.

The bell over the door announced his arrival, and he paused in the entry, immediately ill at ease. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. Years of steadfastly ignoring anything to do with weddings or relationships, and now here he was, of his own accord, completely surrounded by wedding paraphernalia… some of which was destined to be part of his wedding.

His wedding to Bella.

The only woman he'd ever loved.

The woman who had utterly decimated his very soul.

Shit.

His chest felt as if someone were sitting on it, and his breathing became labored. Damn it. What the hell was he doing here? He had to get out, had to leave—

Then his panicked gaze met that of his mother's, and the tightness in his chest loosened, even as a fist gripped his heart. For her. It was all for her.

With that reminder, Edward took a deep breath and fully entered the shop, taking note of Esme's narrowed eyes and pinched lips.

On any other occasion, the look on his mother's face would have been comical. Today, however, with worries of Bella's intentions on his mind, the only amusement Edward allowed was a small twitch of his mouth.

Esme was pissed.

Edward gave a small wave and shrugged his shoulders, attempting to look contrite, then maneuvered through the store to where Esme was seated in front of a large, raised dais, surrounded by mirrors.

"Hey, Mom." He leaned down to kiss her cheek, surreptitiously taking in her pale complexion for signs of fatigue. She appeared fine; her pink blouse put some color in her cheeks, and her eyes were sparkling and clear. She looked good—or at least as good as her condition allowed. "Where's Bella?" he asked. If she had said anything out of line….

Esme tilted her head to better receive his greeting even as she huffed in displeasure. "She's in the bathroom. What are you doing here, Edward? We're shopping for Bella's dress—this is the last place you should be!"

Edward studied her expression, seeing nothing more than motherly affection tinged with exasperation. Relieved that it appeared Bella was still maintaining the charade, he relaxed his stance and then raised his hands as if in defense. "I won't stay long, I promise. I just—"

His words abruptly cut off when he noticed Bella approaching, her worn jeans and t-shirt looking distinctly out of place among all the designer frills and lace of the bridal shop. Like his mother, she was pissed. The smile that touched his lips at the sight of her annoyed expression was, for once, unforced. Now that he knew Bella hadn't spilled the beans to his mother, he might as well have some fun while he was here. He deserved to get something out of this entire fiasco, and irritating the crap out of Bella would make his entire day. He edged past his mother, his hand gently squeezing hers as he passed to greet his reluctant fiancée.

"Edward," Bella bit out between clenched teeth, smiling stiffly as she accepted a kiss to her cheek, "what are you doing here?"

He smirked. "Mom just asked the same thing. Sorry, darling—" he couldn't resist the endearment, knowing how much she hated it "—but it's been over twelve hours since I last saw you. Dad said you were going dress shopping, and I couldn't stop myself. I had to see you."

His teeth caught the inside his cheek to hide his amusement as he heard his mother's wistful sigh. Between his mother's happy visage and Bella's thinly veiled annoyance, Edward's day was improving more and more all the time.

He watched as Bella's eyes closed for a moment, then opened as she valiantly wrestled control over her emotions. "Edward," she said, "could I talk to you over here for a moment… in private?"

His own eyes narrowed minutely at her saccharine tone, but then he shrugged. "Sure. Be right back, Mom."

Esme shook her head at him and shooed them away, her irritated expression belied by the indulgent gleam in her eyes. Edward placed a hand at the small of Bella's back, causing her steps to falter before she righted herself and led him to a small hallway lined with dressing rooms.

Once they were hidden from his mother's view, she twisted her back as she turned to face him, effectively knocking away his hand. Edward arched an eyebrow as she glared at him, flexing his hand before sliding it in his pocket, ignoring the way his fingers still tingled from touching her.

"What the hell is your problem?" Bella whispered hotly. "What are you doing here?"

His good mood disappeared in an instant, replaced by the numbing bitterness to which he had become accustomed. He stepped closer, crowding into Bella's personal space and causing her to back up against the wall. "Wrong question. The contract—which you signed, if you'll remember—clearly states that you are to clear with me any and all unaccompanied interactions with my mother. So the right question, darling, is what the hell are you doing here?"

"Oh, knock off all the legal mumbo jumbo," Bella replied, rolling her eyes. "Your mom wanted to go wedding dress shopping, so like it or not, here I am. That clause is ridiculous. I don't see how I can avoid being alone with her, not if you want her to believe any of this is real."

"The point is that you were to inform me first. You didn't, so here I am."

Bella threw her hands in the air in disgust. "You have got to be kidding me. You came all the way out here to check up on me? What do you think I'm going do—hurt her?"

His upper lip curled in derision. "I don't know, Bella. You have before. Why shouldn't I worry that you'll do it again?"

He watched dispassionately as the barb hit home. She flinched, and her face drained of color. They stared at each other, the anger and loathing between them nearly palpable. It was Bella who looked away first, but before Edward could relish his triumph, she pushed him away and moved away from the wall. Her head tilted to one side, and she lifted her chin in stubborn defiance—an expression of determination he'd seen her make many times before, although not recently.

"Stop it," she said, her voice strong and unwavering, her hands clutched into fists at her sides. "I won't put up with your snide comments and oh-so-subtle digs anymore. Yeah, I messed up—I know that! You don't have to keep reminding me."

"I beg to differ," Edward replied with a sneer. "You have no idea how much you—" He stopped speaking and took a deep breath in an effort to control his growing rage. Then he began again. "I don't care what you want or don't want. You signed the contract; you agreed to every stipulation. Like it or not, I'm in charge now, and you will do whatever I tell you to do."

Bella scoffed. "You think you have some sort of control over me because I signed that contract. Well, you're wrong."

"Oh, really?" He crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's hear it, then."

"Look, I'm not stupid." She winced, then shook her head and continued. "You and I both know that contract is nothing more than a glorified prenup. I complete the contract, then we get the marriage annulled and you write me a check. Right?"

He shrugged, his gaze shuttered. Where was she going with this?

It was her turn to smirk, but her attitude was tempered by the tears that shimmered in her eyes. "Well, guess what, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer Man. I don't want your money. I'm doing this for one reason and one reason only—Esme." A tear slid down one cheek. "I made a mistake by cutting her out of my life, but I love her and I will do whatever it takes to make sure her last months—" her voice began to break "—are happy and fulfilled. But when it's all over, you and your money can fuck off."

His head jerked in shock at both her words and the vehemence with which they were spoken, but then he pulled himself together and responded in kind. "If you think I'm going to believe anything that comes out of your lying mouth, you're kidding yourself."

A tense silence then filled the small hallway.

After several long moments, Bella sighed, then murmured, "I won't hurt her, Edward. I promise."

"Sorry, but your promises don't hold much water with me—not anymore." Edward's voice was just as quiet as Bella's, but even he was surprised by the bitter sadness that was evident in his tone.

Bella's brow furrowed, then she inched toward him. "Edward, I—"

He shook his head and interrupted whatever she was about to say, now deliberately indifferent. "My mother wants to shop for dresses—fine. Just know that if you hurt her, the financial ramifications of breaking the contract will be the least of your worries."

She seemed to freeze where she stood, her hand raised slightly, as if she'd intended to reach out to him. The stubborn tilt of her chin returned, and her hand fell back to her side. "Fine."

"Fine."

Edward turned on his heel, more than ready to leave, but then he paused and turned back to face Bella.

"One more thing," he said. Then he stepped forward, grabbed her head in his hands, and crushed her mouth beneath his. Bella gasped at the unexpected action, and he took advantage, thrusting his tongue between her parted lips as he kissed her for the first time in eight years.

He mentally tossed aside the familiar taste and feel of her, focusing on his intent. His hands fisted into her hair, gripping her tighter as he poured every bit of fury, resentment, and bitterness she'd caused by her betrayal into the kiss. It was brutal, punishing, almost violent in nature—nothing like the ones they'd shared previously. She trembled in his arms, and for a split second, he was appalled by the pulse of satisfaction that struck him, knowing that the ferocity of the moment had shaken her.

All that changed when he felt her hands grab hold of his biceps as she plastered her body against his. And then she was kissing him back, matching his fury with her own as she sucked and bit at his mouth. Desire swirled low in his belly, and he stifled a groan as he felt himself begin to harden. Bella must have felt his body's response, because she shifted against him, sending shockwaves of pleasure straight to his groin.

Then, slowly, the kiss began to change, turning less combative and more hungry, more desperate. Bella released his arms and threaded her fingers into his hair to massage his scalp, the slide and pull of her mouth now coaxing, pleading for a response.

Edward stiffened, his heart, body, and mind warring in contradiction. Rage, hatred, resentment… he could handle those things from her. But this gentle assault was killing him, forcing emotions he had long since buried to resurface.

His eyes stung with remembered pain, and it was that reminder that caused him to break away, wrenching his mouth from hers. Dear God, what had he done? She would know… and she couldn't. Not now, not ever. With more effort than he cared to admit, he stepped back, severing their connection completely.

Bella stared at him, her eyes wide and her breathing ragged as her fingers relaxed their grip and slid from his hair, down his arms until her hands hung limply at her sides. "Wh-what…?"

Having regained control in those few brief seconds, he knew what he had to do now. Edward's gaze never wavered as he deliberately raised his hand to wipe his mouth, as if the taste of her repulsed him. "Now Mom won't ask what was going on back here."

Bella's expression went from dazed to furious in a heartbeat. Her eyes were wet with angry tears, but she blinked them away.

He turned to leave, satisfied that his point had been made, but paused his steps when Bella spoke once again, not bothering to face her.

"I'd call you a son of a bitch, but Esme is the sweetest woman I know. I won't call you a bastard, either, since I know your parents were married when you were born. Guess that just leaves asshole."

A muscle near his eye twitched, and then he strolled out of the hallway to the main area of the shop.

The asshole needed to kiss his mother goodbye.

Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting in his car in front of the bridal shop, watching through the window as Bella and his mom laughed while they searched through a rack of dresses the saleswoman had brought out for their perusal. He'd meant to leave immediately, but something had kept him from starting the car.

Instead, his mind replayed his "conversation" with Bella inside the shop. In some perverse way, he was proud of her for sticking up for herself, for not letting him run roughshod over her. He'd been reminded of the old Bella—his Bella. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he remembered her quick comebacks, and his body still burned with the lingering effects of the kiss they'd shared. God, it had been so long since he'd felt anywhere near as alive as he felt when he was with her.

He glanced up, his breath catching as, through the window, he saw Esme hold up one of the dresses in front of Bella, looking for her opinion. Bella reached out to touch the fabric, and the ring on her finger caught the light, causing the diamond to sparkle brightly. The resulting tableau sent a wave of longing crashing over him, leaving him breathless in its wake. That was his ring on her finger—his ring—and for the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to wish that it was more than just an act, that they really were in love and preparing to spend the rest of their lives together….

As quickly as the thought came, Edward shut it down. Shoving the key in the ignition, he started the car and pulled away from the curb, heading back toward home. As he drove, he berated himself for his momentary lapse of control.

Damn it. Bella had always had a way of drawing him in, and still did apparently, but he refused to allow himself to be vulnerable to her and her every whim again. He'd learned his lesson eight years ago, and learned it well. He couldn't afford to lose control. There was something more than just his heart at stake this time—Esme's happiness. It didn't matter what happened to him; in the end, when this was all over, every moment of struggle, of frustration, of heart-rending, gut-wrenching agony would be worth it.

And he would do well to remember that.

~o0o~

"I'm sorry, Esme. What?" Bella knew she needed to focus on her surroundings, but her mind was still replaying her strange conversation with Edward. Okay, if she were being entirely honest with herself, she was growing used to his erratic and unpredictable behavior. Her mind, however, was intent on replaying that stupid kiss. It had been the most passionate, yet painful kiss she could have imagined. When she had emerged from the hallway after having composed herself, Esme had studied her face closely, and instead of smiling widely as Bella had anticipated, her eyes had narrowed. Bella thought she'd seen a flash of motherly concern cross the fragile woman's features, but it was gone too quickly for her to be sure.

"I wanted to know what you thought of this one," Esme repeated as she pointed to a white gown that the sales associate was holding for her.

"That's… erm… lovely," she stammered before she took a calming breath. "But I was thinking of something a bit… I don't know… plain? Less wedding gownish?" Bella swallowed hard and turned her gaze from the stunning dress in the attendant's hands and forced herself to look at Esme. They'd been at this task for quite some time already, and whereas she'd been able to fake a few laughs and plaster on a smile for Esme's benefit, the façade was slipping away.

"I do wish that your mother was here for this part."

Bella nodded. "Me, too." Renee had been nearly as ecstatic as Esme to hear about Edward and Bella's engagement. Bella knew that both women had shared a dream of their children marrying from the time they were infants. Charlie had been more cautious, but with a few well-placed phrases, Bella had been able to convince him that the wedding was what she wanted.

"What type of dress do you want?"

Bella shrugged. In truth, she didn't want a wedding dress. She wanted something as unweddingish as possible. Why couldn't they stand before the Justice of the Peace, say their vows, and be done with the matter? Or better yet, a trip to Vegas and only pretend to get married. Bella sighed. She needed to remember that this wasn't about her—it was about Esme.

Esme's eyes narrowed, studying Bella for a moment, before she glanced at the saleswoman. "We'll be back with you in a moment." Once the saleswoman had stepped away, she turned her attention back to Bella. She slowly walked over to where Bella was standing, then raised her hand to gently brush her finger across Bella's forehead. "I remember the very first time I saw you. You were two weeks old before I got a chance to visit. I had wanted to come see you sooner, but Edward had been getting in his molars, and he always got sick when he was teething."

Bella felt her face relax into a small smile at both Esme's gentle touch and the soothing tone she used every time she told a story about their past. It was comforting and reassuring, and it was one of Bella's favorite things about her pseudo-mother… and one of the things she knew she'd miss the most once Esme was gone.

"Charlie answered the door when we got there," Esme continued, "and he looked absolutely beside himself. The poor man was jumpy, fidgety, and nervous as all get out. Then I heard your wails coming from the other room. I carried Edward inside but immediately set him down when I found your mother with puffy eyes and tears running down her cheeks while she begged and pleaded with you to stop crying. Your dad started pacing, and that just made the atmosphere in the room that much more tense."

Both women were smiling now as they pictured Charlie in an agitated state—the big, burly Chief of Police had been known to fret over the simplest things when it came to his beloved daughter. Bella had seen her father in such a mood many times over her lifetime; it was never amusing at the time, but there was a warmth that built up in her when she thought about how much her father obviously loved and cared for her.

"I immediately took over. I told your father to go into the station just to get out of the house for a while, and I sent your mother upstairs to take a shower and then a nap. Renee handed you right over to me before she disappeared up the stairs. I'd love to say that the minute she placed you in my arms you stopped crying, but no such luck. You were pretty inconsolable." Esme ran her fingers from Bella's brow along her temple, then tucked the hair behind her ears, and finally rest her hand on Bella's neck, absently rubbing her jaw with her thumb. "I tried bouncing you as I walked around the room and sang. I told you stories, patted your back, rubbed your tummy—really I wasn't having any more luck than your parents, and I was starting to get a bit worried. I'd seen how upset your mother looked when I'd told her to go shower, and I knew if you kept it up she'd never get any rest. Finally, I spread a blanket out on the floor and laid you down on it. My biggest concern through all of that, though, had been that Edward would start crying along with you. Instead, he stood next to the couch and watched the entire thing, completely entranced by you."

Dropping her hand from Bella's neck, Esme then gripped Bella's hand, squeezing it tightly in her reassuring grasp. "When I put you on the floor he immediately walked over. Of course that made me nervous—I had no idea what he was going to do. My fears were completely unfounded, however. He went right over, sat down next to you, and started to rub your head. I swear, the very second that he touched you, you quieted. Edward continued to run his hand over your head for several minutes, and then he leaned down and kissed your forehead before he said something that I would swear was the word 'pretty.'" Esme chuckled. "Well, maybe. He could've been trying to tell me that he was petting you like he would our cat, but I like my version of it better."

Bella giggled softly at Esme's words and admitted to herself that she liked Esme's interpretation better, too.

"Anyhow, I like to think that once you realized he was there, you were just as entranced by him as he was of you. After he kissed you, he stood up and went over to his bag and pulled out his blanket. He walked right back over to you and put it on you. Of course, it was covering your face and you started to fuss almost instantly, so I pulled it down. While I was doing that, Edward was back in the diaper bag, and he came back with two pacifiers. He put one in his mouth as he was toddling back and then promptly stuck the other one in your mouth. Then he curled up on the floor next to you, grabbed the corner of his blanket in one hand, and patted you with his other. You were both asleep in minutes, and you were nearly inseparable for the longest time. I will be the first person to admit that day was the very first time I found myself dreaming of this, Bella."

She gripped Bella's hand tighter and took a breath before looking her squarely in the eyes. "I don't know everything that happened between the two of you eight years ago, but make no mistake, my son has loved you from the moment he saw you." After a beat, she added softly, "And he always will."

"Thank you," Bella whispered, wondering if Esme knew how much the story she'd just told had stirred her emotions.

Esme smiled a bit brighter, and when Bella grinned back, there was a slight sparkle in her green eyes that hadn't been there before that told Bella that everything was going to turn out okay in the end. "Now, let's find you a dress." With that, Esme promptly waved the sales associate back over to them, and they went back to their mission of finding a wedding dress.

Originally she had tried to argue that she neither needed nor wanted a wedding gown. It was only going to be a small ceremony and Bella had argued that she didn't want to fuss with all of the particulars. Esme, however, had insisted, and since this entire affair was for her benefit, Bella hadn't the heart to tell her no. Now, searching through the throngs of white satin, taffeta, silk, and lace, Bella's stomach twisted in the most uncomfortable ways.

The entire experience just felt wrong. Both Esme and the sales associate, Jenny, had been showing her some of the most extravagant gowns in the shop. All of them beautiful, but none of them were something that Bella could envision herself wearing in her worst nightmare. She didn't want something that showcased her or the occasion; she wanted something that would make her feel as if she were fading into the background. But if that wasn't enough, Bella also knew that she didn't want to think too hard or to put too much thought into this decision. So, when Esme insisted that she start trying on dresses, Bella didn't argue; she simply did as she was told and tried to avoid looking in the many mirrors that surrounded her in the dressing room or the ones that were out where Esme was waiting to see how each one looked on her.

Put the dress on, ask Jenny to do up the back, step out and show her soon-to-be mother-in-law, do a slow turn so the dress could be viewed by Esme from all sides, go back into the dressing room, and remove the dress, only to step into the next one.

An endless cycle in which Bella repeated the steps to herself in her head so as not to think about how she looked, how the dress felt on her, how the fabric crinkled and brushed against her skin when she walked.

That all fell by the wayside when she heard Esme gasp as Bella stepped out of the dressing room wearing the eighth dress.

"Oh, Bella," she heard Esme say.

Her eyes snapped up to meet Esme's gaze. "What?" she asked.

"That dress is perfect."

And that was all it took. Bella couldn't help herself as she turned her head and caught her reflection in the mirrors. She couldn't hold back her own gasp as her eyes took in every detail.

It was the dress.

Bella had been a typical girl, when she was younger and very much in love, she had dreamed of her future. She had envisioned the house that she and Edward would live in, the children they would have, their Christmases, their birthdays, their careers, school picnics, graduations, family vacations, anniversaries… she had pictured it all, including the wedding they had one day hoped to share with their families. And in those visions and daydreams, Bella had pictured a dress… her dress… this very dress.

She took in the way the hugged her curves, accentuated her breasts, and downplayed her hips. It wasn't princessy or showy. There were no poufy bustles or hoopskirts. The dress was simple white satin with just the perfect amount of lace and delicate beadwork to accent it.

It was simple.

It was beautiful.

It was elegant.

It was almost identical to an image she'd once clipped out of a bridal magazine during the first few months after Edward had left for college.

It was perfectly Bella.

It was perfectly Edward.

It was perfectly… them.

And for just a moment, she could revel in that, she could dream, she could want, and she could feel.

"What do you think, Bella?"

She hadn't even noticed that Esme had stood up, or that she was standing right beside her, looking in the mirror. For a fraction of a second, their eyes met in the reflected glass, and Bella knew that this was what Esme wanted for them. Esme saw the same things in the gown that Bella had seen, and in an effort to please them both, she fought down the nauseating guilt that had begun beating down her door the very moment that Bella had opened her eyes and looked into the mirror.

With everything that she had, Bella wanted to tell Esme that she didn't want the dress, that it was uncomfortable, or that she thought it made her look fat—something, anything just so she wouldn't have to walk out of the boutique with a sales slip verifying the purchase. But she couldn't bring herself to do it. She'd lied about enough things over the years, and Bella simply couldn't bring herself to lie about anything else. If she was going to marry Edward, regardless of the reason, then she was going to do it right.

With a deep breath to steel her resolve, Bella turned her head to look at Esme and nodded. "You're right, it's perfect."


A/N: We sincerely apologize for the super long wait. Shug had to deal with some issues regarding one of her children and had to take a hiatus from fandom for a while. She's back now, though, and so updates should be more regular. Thank you so much for all the PMs and emails over the past several months. We're thrilled to know that, even with what little we had posted, the story had captured your attention. Thank you, thank you!