Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight.

For Alison. Many thanks for the fabulous prompt, and for supporting childhood cancer research with your auction win.

Thank you to Daisy3853 and Hmonster04 for betaing


Normally, the sound of my best friend's laugh is a good thing—it's a high, breathy sound that makes me smile almost on reflex. Alice has a killer sense of humor, too, which is one of the things that brought us together. I have a tendency to think too much and smile too little, so when she met me, I posed something like a personal challenge to her. I gave her a run for her money, though; it took me at least three months to stop being annoyed by her effervescent good humor.

Now, three years after our first meeting, Alice is my closest friend and confidant, which is why it's particularly annoying that she can't stop laughing right now.

"Will you stop?" I snap. "I'm serious!"

"He actually said that?" she wheezes. Her voice reaches a pitch so high, I'm certain the dogs at the pet shop down the hall are going crazy.

"It's not me, it's you," I say flatly. While the humor of being dumped by one of the most boring guys I've ever met isn't lost on me, it's too soon for me to laugh about it.

Alice seems to realize that laughing isn't helping the situation, and she calms down, although not before hiccoughing a couple of times in her hysteria.

"Oh, Bella, I'm sorry."

I blow a stray hair out of my eyes and turn to the pile of fantasy novels I was organizing before Alice came into the store.

"It's not a big deal. We were dating what—3 weeks? I knew it wasn't working out, but he was so perfect on paper. Tall, nice smile, good job, intelligent."

Alice rolls her eyes and picks up a book with a muscular young man in armor on the cover. "We're talking about the same guy, right? Eric Yorkie, civil engineer? Has he ever smiled? I swear he's the most literal man on the planet."

"He's not that bad," I protest. She levels a disbelieving stare at me, and I sigh. "Fine. He is."

"You know what your problem is," she continues, flipping through the book now, pausing here and there to giggle at chapter titles.

"Enlighten me," I mutter. "Emmett! Why are the bodice-rippers mixed in with the fantasy paperbacks?"

"They all look the same to me!" Emmett bellows from the back room. "Can't you just put them all in the chick-lit aisle?"

"Your problem is that you don't know what's good for you." Alice ignores our exchange entirely, dropping the book and running her fingers through her cropped hair. "You should come over on your break and let me do a reading."

I ignore her and turn around to yell at Emmett. "If you're not going to bother to categorize them correctly, just leave it for me to do later, dumbass!" Heaving a huge sigh, I turn back to Alice, who is still watching me expectantly.

Alice works at the all-natural new age store on the other side of the mall. Most days, she spends her time stocking mood-altering candles and organizing the merchandise to maximize feng shui, but she also moonlights as a fortune teller. She calls herself Madame Persephone.

She refuses to be deterred. "I'll do a private reading at your apartment, then. Come on, please?"

"I think I just need to stop dating for a while. You know, spend some time with me. Do you realize Eric is the third failed relationship I've had in the last six months? That's ridiculous."

"What's ridiculous is that you actually carry a book called Love's Secret Sniper."

"I've been meaning to read that," a low, smooth voice interrupts. Edward Cullen is leaning against the checkout counter, grinning like an idiot. "Is it anything like Public Enemies?"

"Emmett's in the back," I tell him. He saunters over to the storage room with a slight smirk on his face, and I roll my eyes at Alice.

Edward is a salesman at the music store across the hall. He and Emmett grew up together and are as close, if not closer, than Alice and me. It's not unusual for him to pop over on his breaks to hang out with Emmett, but there's something about him that just gets under my skin. He and Emmett are a lethal combination, and somehow I always end up as the butt of one of their jokes.

"I don't think giving up on men is the answer," Alice says. "You just need open yourself to wider possibilities. Remember that guy who came in here last year and asked you out? You said no."

"His ears were too big and he never pronounced the letter 'h'. "

"And right before Eric; Peter, from the pet store?"

"I'm not a dog person."

"My boss, Afton, thinks you're hot."

"His name is Afton, Alice."

"This is what I'm talking about!" She pounds her hand down on top of a nearby shelf. I drop the rest of the books I'm holding back in the box, frustrated with Emmett's less than stellar organizational skills. As I stomp up to the front of the store, Alice tails me, still talking.

"You need to stop thinking so hard. What if the perfect person is right under your nose, but you won't look twice because his eyebrows are too thick or his nose is off-center, or because he says 'irregardless' instead of 'regardless'?"

"Irregardless isn't even a word!"

"So what? Bella, if you're not careful, you're going to end up sabotaging every chance at a good relationship you have. You'll end up with someone who doesn't deserve you, or unhappy and alone. Stop being so negative and learn to say yes!"

"I say 'yes' plenty."

Alice smiles, and for whatever reason, it infuriates me. I straighten a display of bookmark clip-lights compulsively and glare at her.

"Really? Care to put your money where your mouth is?"

The words are out before I can consider them properly. "You're on."

She claps and jumps a little, and the jade beads she wears every day to keep her heart chakra open bounce and clatter against her ankh cross.

"I was hoping you'd say that."

The terms of Alice's proposal are straightforward enough. For the next three months, whenever anyone asks me out on a date, I have to say yes. No second dates are required, and I make sure that I'm not expected to kiss anyone either.

"Not unless you really want to," Alice says with a smirk. It's clear she thinks I'll want to.

There's one last stipulation that makes me roll my eyes: If I meet Mr. Right, the experiment is off.

That night, I tell my friend, Jake, about my deal with Alice. Jake is something of a surrogate younger brother to me. Our fathers are best friends, and with Jake's mother dead and mine touring the country with various medieval fairs (don't ask), our families formed a sort of nontraditional unit. His sisters are ten and twelve years older than him, so by the time he was eight, Jacob was practically an only child, just like me. The two of us bonded over years of forced fishing trips, burnt turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner, and journeys into the woods every December to cut Christmas trees.

"Aren't you worried this is some ploy of Alice's to set you up with whoever she wants?"

I sigh and let him pour me more gin and tonic from the mixer he's been shaking. "I wasn't until you brought it up. Thanks so much."

He laughs and ties his long hair back into a messy ponytail. I've never told him, but I've always had a secret desire to braid his hair. It's long and soft and shiny. I know girls who would kill for hair like Jake's.

"Don't let her push you around. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

"That's the thing, Jakey. I really think I have to do this. What if Alice is right? I've had some pretty rotten luck with guys."

"Remember the guy who took you to your junior prom?"

"Tyler Crowley. He forgot to buy me a corsage, hit on my best friend, and puked on my shoes at the end of the night."

Jake wipes imaginary tears of laughter out of his eyes. "Man, that guy was a class act. Why didn't you stay with him?"

I punch his arm, then flinch and shake my hand out. "Jesus, Jake, what have you been doing, chugging steroids?"

"That's 100 percent Black, baby." His ridiculous, overly proud expression makes me laugh in spite of my best efforts to look incredulous.

"Why didn't you and I ever go out?" My question comes out a little more wistful than I intended, and the moment is sobered.

"Ah, come on, Bells." He stares at his drink and shifts uncomfortably. "You never would have gone for that."

"If you ask me now, you're guaranteed to get a yes." I'm only sort of kidding. Alice's words replay in my head, and I wonder if I've been overlooking something incredible all this time. When we were kids, Jake and I had been inseparable. I know he had a crush on me once. Maybe, just possibly, it's not just his hair that attracts me.

He hesitates. "I don't know..."

Blood rushes to my cheeks, and I down the rest of my drink. Rising quickly, I move toward the sink and dump my ice, doing my best to look busy and unconcerned instead of slightly mortified, which I am. He reaches out a hand to touch my shoulder, and it's firm and kind.

"Would you like to go out on a date with me, Bella Swan?"

I'm still blushing, but for a different reason now. "Are you sure?"

"I wouldn't have asked if I wasn't. Now don't leave me hanging. Where's my yes?"

I give him a wide smile, blush still staining my cheeks. "Yes."

||X||

I don't want to tell Alice about my date. The way Jake and I had left things, I'm still not entirely sure if we're really giving this a shot or if he's just trying to ease me into more yeses. I end up arriving at the mall thirty minutes early for my shift, so I go into the music store where Edward works to browse their used CDs and burn up my extra time.

I'm holding a copy of The White Album when I hear a familiar voice coming from behind me.

"A fan of the classics?"

I glance over my shoulder at Edward, then go back to my perusing. "Who doesn't like the Beatles?"

His presence makes me edgy, like always. Most of the time our interactions involve a lot of teasing and me feeling embarrassed and awkward. He reaches over my shoulder and grabs a different CD.

"Have you ever heard Franz Ferdinand? If you like the Beatles, you'll really love them. This album is a good one to start with for them."

"Thanks," I say slowly. I am cautious, not sure how to take this sudden friendliness.

"This is good, too." He tosses another CD at me, now digging through the piles side by side with me. We continue quietly for a few minutes before he speaks again.

"So I heard you and Alice talking yesterday, and I was wondering—"

I dropped the case I was examining and cut him off. "Look, Edward, I know I'm some kind of a giant joke to you and Emmett, but I really don't want to talk about my love life with you."

"But I—"

"Why do you care whether I go on a hundred dates?"

"I don't!" The words burst from his lips in a short blast, and he looks momentarily stunned by his outburst. He backs away from the bin we're standing next to and shakes his head. "Just... never mind. I'll see you later, Bella."

He doesn't come by during his break that day, but I see him wandering down to the food court holding a giant pretzel sometime after lunch. He walks right past the bookstore without looking over once. It's clear he's avoiding me. Whatever. Two can play at that game.

As the day goes on, I start to feel a little bad about the way I blew up at him. Maybe he wasn't intending to making fun of me. Maybe he wasn't even going to mention my 'yes' experiment. It's possible, I suppose. I don't have too much time to think about it though, because my date with Jake is rapidly approaching.

Jake is picking me up after work for dinner, which he's done any number of times in the past. The difference is, of course, that tonight isn't just dinner between friends.

Things start out auspiciously enough. He arrives at my door in a nicely pressed button down shirt. He compliments my dress and my hair, and he holds open my car door with a funny half-bow that makes me laugh.

We don't talk much on the ride to the restaurant. Jake and I never run out of things to talk about—and when we're quiet, it's an easy sort of silence. But in the car, a new tension surfaces, one I'm not entirely sure I like. The air in the car feels thick and slightly unwieldy, like it's taken on a presence all its own. I roll down the window in an attempt to let out the suffocating air that's settled over us.

"So, um, I thought we'd go for sushi—you know, that place you like?"

"Great!" My enthusiasm sounds forced even to me.

He holds my door open again as I exit the car, and it's starting to feel more awkward and less funny. In the parking lot, his hand brushes against mine and I flinch a little. I beat him to the door so I can hold it myself, smiling a little apologetically at him as he grimaces.

We're halfway through our edamame before he sets his water glass down with a loud clunk and addresses the elephant in the room.

"This is ridiculous. We have dinner at least once a week. Don't people usually have fun on dates?"

"Ouch, thanks, Jakey. That's awesome." I glance over my shoulder for the waitress. "Check, please."

"I'm just saying we're over thinking this," he amends quickly, reaching across the table for my hand. My fingers have salt on them and strangely, that's all I can focus on as his warm hand wraps around mine. "It's just you and me, Bells. We're great together."

He smiles, and I know he's right. There's no reason this should be weird. We're two friends, out for dinner. And maybe we'll hold hands and share a kiss at the end of the night. For a second, I allow myself to think about kissing Jake. He has nice, full lips, and he always has Chapstick. I bet his lips are soft.

The evening relaxes marginally after that, and we start to talk—about his job at the mechanic's shop, about Emmett's practically allergic reaction to stocking biographies, about what our dads have been up to. By the time our food is gone, the weird tension has completely dispersed, and everything feels more normal.

I growl at him when he pulls the check out of my hands. "I'm a big fan of going Dutch."

"What kind of a date would this be if I let you pay?" he scoffs. "Then it would be just like every other time we go to dinner. Relax, Betty Friedan."

"You know who Betty Friedan is?" I laugh and give him a playful shove, and he wraps his arm around my shoulder. I try to summon up the warm, fluttery feeling in my stomach that usually predates the end of a really good date. I haven't felt it in so long, and I want so badly for Jake to be the one to provide that for me. But all I feel is the brotherly comfort that Jake always provides.

"The Feminine Mystique. I read, Bella."

"Marvel comics aren't exactly fine literature, Jake." I poke his side and twist away as he retaliates. The sound of my giggles echoes across the empty parking lot and I lunge for the passenger door of Jake's Volkswagen to avoid more tickles. Before I can get it open, he's pinned me against the side of the car, one arm holding the door shut, the other preventing me from moving so much as an inch. I'm panting from my laughter, unable to catch my breath.

Quickly, I cross my arms over my body, but Jake is already invading my space. Our faces are only inches apart, and there's a look of sudden concentration on his face. I look from his eyebrows, to his lips, to a spot just over his left ear. But then our eyes meet, and he smiles slowly before dipping in for a slow, soft kiss.

It's not like I'm not expecting it, but something about it is just so startling. Maybe it's the way he seems to focus almost entirely on my bottom lip, or the way our faces hover close together, only touching at our lips. I feel the slight brush of his tongue, and then he pulls away, watching me carefully with a slight, sad smile on his face. I take a brief inventory: heart, stomach, fingers and toes, all are completely, disappointingly normal.

He drops his hands, and I stare at my feet.

"So..." I clear my throat and look up at him. He snorts and shakes his head.

"I know, Bella. It's okay."

We drive back toward my apartment, and once again the car is silent. This time, it isn't oppressive, just quiet. As he pulls to a stop outside of my building, Jake reaches out for my hand again.

"Well, at least you got your dating experiment off to a roaring start," he said brightly.

"Jake, I—"

He waves his free hand and smiles. "It takes two to tango. You and me, we're family." When I still don't smile back, he sighs and squeezes my hand. "We gave it a shot, right? Come on, don't make this more awkward. I'm dying here. I feel like I just made a pass at my sister."

I chuckle then, and his face relaxes into a look of relief. "You're right. I guess I'm just disappointed we didn't have some kind of mad chemistry. Stupid, right?"

"Nah, I get it, I'm pretty hot." He snickers and I punch his arm.

"Good night, dork."

"Night, killer. Go easy on the boys, and keep me posted on things."

I lean over and kiss his cheek, tugging on his pony tail before scooting out of the car. Then I stand on the sidewalk and watch him drive away.

||X||

The next afternoon at work, Alice is all sympathy. After she gets over the fact that I didn't tell her about my date with Jake, of course.

"I'm sorry, honey. It would have been great if things had worked out. But look at it this way: you still have three more months of yeses ahead of you!"

I roll my eyes. "I still think my way would have been smarter. Three months of first dates? How exhausting."

"No, remember, you can stop any time... as long as you've found Mr. Right." She laughs loudly just as Emmett walks in for the start of his shift. It's Thursday, so he's dressed in khakis and a nice shirt. Emmett always dresses up on Thursdays, because Thursdays are when Rosalie Hale comes in, every week, like clockwork. He's head over heels for her, and I look forward to his ridiculous attempts to catch her attention almost as much as I do talking to Rose about her newest purchase or her book club. The icy way she treats him is hilarious, and it gives me a little bit of ammo to shoot back with whenever he and Edward start picking on me.

"Well if it isn't the Bachelorette," he says with a glib smile. I'm still not sure how he and Edward managed to find out about Alice's yes experiment so quickly, but the fact that they know means I'm in for a good three months of torture.

He makes a beeline for the checkout counter, like always. Emmett and I are the only two full-time employees at our little shop, and we have a pretty good balance when it comes to dividing up responsibilities. He's much better with book-keeping than I am, and I prefer keeping the shelves organized and stocking the new releases. Whenever something requires heavy lifting and he actually has to get involved in the organization of the store, it inevitably leads to disaster, like the time that an entire box of Jane Austen's Persuasion ended up in the self-help section.

"Shut up, Emmett," is my brilliant reply. He clasps a hand over his chest and pulls a wounded face, and I throw the paperback I'm holding at his head. Without missing a beat, he catches it deftly in his right hand, not even bending the cover.

"Careful, Bella, don't damage the merch. You break it, you buy it."

In a less than mature moment of weakness, I stick out my tongue.

"I can think of better uses for that tongue, dollface."

I whip around, almost expecting to see Edward leaning against the security scanner set up in the entryway between our store and the mall. Instead, I see a much shorter, scrawnier boy, about fifteen years old, waggling his eyebrows at me with a huge grin on his face.

"Um, what?"

"You, me, a soft pretzel and a frozen lemonade. How's about it? I get the employee discount at the Pretzel Place." Now that I've looked at him for a second, I recognize him. I think his name is Brady. He's one of the high school kids who works at the food court. His floppy black hair is a little too long, and he's got a bit of a Dennis the Menace cowlick going on in the back of his head.

"I don't—"

Emmett clears his throat. When I look back at him, he gives me a significant look and nods toward Alice. She's got an uncomfortable look on her face.

"We didn't specify age, did we?"

"Oh, hell no, Alice."

"It's only been a couple of days! Saying no right now would be setting a bad precedent."

I glare at her, making sure she knows every bit of irritation I'm feeling in this moment. She doesn't even flinch, just raises her eyebrows and cocks her head, practically daring me to say no.

"Sure," I say, forcing the word out from between clenched teeth. Brady grins, and he looks like an overgrown puppy. I scold myself for finding anything cute about this kid.

"Great! I'll be by in a couple hours when I get my break! Awesome!" His voice cracks a little bit in his excitement. The instant he gets his yes, Brady turns into a hyperactive fifteen-year-old. Which, he is. He bounds away, presumably back to the Pretzel Place to high five all his buddies.

"I'm doing this under extreme protest, Alice. This is borderline illegal."

"Oh, shut up. It's not like you're going to make out with him or anything. He'll buy you a pretzel and you can pat him on the head and tell him to go out with girls his own age. Problem solved!"

"I hate you."

"You adore me. Now stop being so grouchy. I'll see you later, there's a new recruiter I need to scope out. I bet I can break this one in less time than the last."

Alice's new age store is next door to the army recruitment center, a tiny little space decked out with American flags and brochures and a giant banner that reads 'Be All That You Can Be!' Past recruiters have tended to be middle-aged, very conservative, and completely uncomfortable around people like Alice. She likes to mess with them. Once, she came to work a full two hours early so she could sit just outside the recruitment center and sing "Give Peace a Chance." The last one left only recently. Alice thinks it's because she did a bunch of psychic readings for him that indicated he was about to make a major career change, but I think there's only so much kook a man can be expected to take before he puts in for a transfer.

"One of these days, you're going to meet your match, Alice Brandon. And when that day comes, I will laugh my ass off."

"Don't be so bitter, Bella. You'll get wrinkles." With that, she skips out of the store, sarong flapping behind her.

The next few hours pass with excruciating slowness. The only high point is when Rosalie comes in. She looks gorgeous, as always, and she sweeps in the door and straight to the table where we keep our new releases. I don't know what keeps her coming back every week, because our inventory doesn't change that frequently and our store is a lot smaller than a Borders or a Barnes and Noble, but she never leaves without buying something.

"What're you looking for this week, Rose?" Emmett asks, abandoning his precious cash register. He leans over her shoulder and lifts a hand to touch the small of her back. She turns away right before his hand makes contact and makes a noncommittal grunt.

"You know, I've read most of our historical fiction section," he tries again. "If you're looking for something in particular, I could probably make a good recommendation." It's a decent approach, I suppose, since she's currently thumbing through a historical novel. It falls flat though, because all she does is give him a cursory glance over the top of her book before setting it down and crossing the shop to a completely different section. Then she sees me.

"Bella! Hi!" A big smile lights up her face, and she walks right to me.

The look on Emmett's face makes my smile a little brighter than it would have been, but I'm genuinely happy to see her. "Hey, Rose. How's it going this week?"

She waves the question off. "You know. Work. But I wanted to tell you, I adored the book you recommended last week. The action was fantastic."

"I thought you'd love it," I say with a smile. "I couldn't put it down. My heart was pounding the whole time."

"Totally. Do you carry any more of her books?"

"Yeah, right over here."

I really look forward to Rose's visits to our store, even if I don't understand how she could possibly have anything left to read at this point. She used to be really reserved, but after I got her to open up to me, we struck up a casual friendship. She's a social worker. I've gathered she has a standing appointment near the mall somewhere, and she always stops in after it ends. Sometimes we pick out children's books for the kids she works with, but most of the time we just exchange favorite authors and titles.

I get her checked out while Emmett sulks in the back, sending her on her way with a smile and a wave.

"I don't get it," he fumes once she's gone. "I never have this much trouble getting a girl to talk to me. I just want to tell her she's beautiful and take her out for a nice dinner. What's the big deal?"

"You can't approach her like a bull in a china shop, Emmett. She's not like that. She needs a gentle touch."

"Yeah, well, I know a certain food court employee who would love your gentle touch."

Right on cue, Brady saunters into the store. "You ready, baby?"

"Don't call me baby."

"Chillax, babe, it's all good."

"Definitely don't call me babe."

We leave the store together, leaving the sound of Emmett's raucous laughter behind us. As we make our way to the food court, I see Edward watching us through the glass in front of his store with a frown on his face. I give him a half wave and he blinks in a startled sort of way before turning his back to me and getting back to work.

"So, Brady, right?"

He nods enthusiastically.

"How old are you? Twelve?"

"I'm going to be sixteen in two months. I just got my learner's permit. Later, I could take you for a ride in my dad's Chevy Malibu." He says it with the air of someone offering a great prize, and I can't help but laugh a little.

"That's okay, I have my own wheels. I gotta tell you, kid, you're a little young for me. I only said yes because-"

"Because you have a deal with your friend. Yeah, I know." He doesn't seem remotely thrown; in fact, his cocky smile stays in place. "I heard the big guy and that kid from the music store talking about it the other day. But none of my co-workers have to know that, capiche?"

The sneaky little bastard. He must have heard Edward and Emmett making fun of me at the food court. I think back to the pretzel I saw Edward with after his break the other day and scowl.

"So you're using me?"

"Well, yeah. Duh. Of course, if you want to make out a little, you know, seal the deal, I'm down with that." He waggles his eyebrows again, and again, my laugh betrays me.

"Your co-workers aren't going to believe that you got a date with me."

"That's why you're going to tell them." His smile grows as mine disappears. "Besides, I got my eye on one of the girls at the Tastee Freeze, but she won't look twice at me. If I show up on a date with you ..."

"So you want me to make your girlfriend jealous?"

"She's not my girlfriend... yet." Brady blushes a little, and I remember what it's like to be that age. Awkward and painfully shy, I never went to dances or out on dates. I didn't call any attention to myself at all. After graduation I got over that, but it was a long, slow process to get to where I am today. I wonder if the girl Brady wants to impress is shy like I was, or if she's really as oblivious as he thinks.

"Alright, kid, I'll help you out, but we're doing this my way."

He nods eagerly, and I pull him to a stop down the corridor right before the food court, next to the arcade.

"What's her name?"

"Angela." When he says her name, a goofy smile tugs on the corner of his lips and his eyes get crinkly and happy. I rethink my puppy comparison—with a haircut and a growth spurt, this kid is going to be deadly.

"How do you know her?"

"She's in my English class. She's really smart, and cool, and I sound like a complete dork every time I try to talk to her."

"I'll tell you a secret," I whisper. "Confidentially—a lot of women really like dorks." He laughs, and I squeeze his arm. "Okay, so here's the plan. You go and get us some snacks, and I'll head over to the Tastee Freeze and do some reconnaissance."

"That's it? That's your elaborate plan?"

"Be cool, Soda Pop. I'm a girl; I know how to handle these things."

The truth of the matter is actually that I know very little about these things. My current situation makes that pretty obvious. But Brady takes me at my word with a shrug and a nod, and we make our way back toward the food court.

I'm worried that I won't be able to spot Angela, but luck is with me as I walk over to the Tastee Freeze. There's only one girl working there today, a tall girl with light brown hair, thin arms and a nervous smile. I walk up to the counter, doing my best to look cool and casual, and she asks me if she can help me.

"I think the question is whether I can help you," I say with a smile. She looks confused. I don't blame her.

"You see that guy over there?" I nod over to the Pretzel Place, where Brady is chatting with his buddies and holding a giant frozen lemonade. It has two straws in it, and I wrinkle my nose. He's really taking this date thing a little too far.

"Who, Brady?" I turned back to Angela just in time to see her blush. She covers by coughing into her elbow and hiding her face, accidentally knocking her glasses askew in the process. This girl may be more awkward than I was, and yet Brady seems totally smitten. I wonder now if there were boys anxiously trying to get my attention in high school who I never noticed because I was determined to remain invisible.

"Can you keep a secret?" I prop my elbow up on the glass counter and lean in conspiratorially. She nods, her head bobbing up and down like a bird. "We're here on a kind of a date."

She deflates immediately, the sweet smile dropping from her face. "Oh."

"But I get the sense he's really not into me, you know?"

Instantly, she perks up again, glancing over my shoulder again. I follow her gaze and see that Brady is watching us from the Pretzel Place. He's making me nervous, so I give him a big smile for the benefit of his buddies and wave over to him, trying to indicate that he should grab us a table. He seems to understand, because he immediately looks away and meanders over to the dirty plastic lunch tables that fill the middle of the food court.

"In fact, I think he's interested in you, Angela."

She startles at little at my use of her name, and then she turns beet red.

"Oh, no. You're wrong." She seems to curl in on herself, and I suddenly see where the phrase 'shrinking violet' comes from. Angela is literally folding in on herself. "I'm too tall, and I'm not pretty. Brady's cool, he wouldn't go out with someone like me."

My heart aches for her, and even though I'm not a terribly touchy-feely person, I reach out and pat her hand.

"In high school, I was every bit as shy as you," I say quietly. She doesn't respond, so I keep going. "And sometimes it's tough, really tough, to know your own worth. But you know what?"

She looks up at me, and the uncertainty there gives me the courage to finish what I know I have to say. "You're the only one who can hold you back. No one else. I know you're probably not going to really believe it until you're older. Maybe you won't ever, but I hope that's not true. You can't let a boy, or a grade, or a job tell you what you're worth. You have to be strong and go after what you want."

My throat feels strangely tight, and I'm a little embarrassed for getting so emotional with this girl, but I'm telling her things I wish someone had told me when I was sixteen. "So if you like Brady, you should ask him out. Be your own woman, Angela. Don't sit around and let other people's expectations get you down."

I give her one last smile, and then turn to walk away. When I get to the table where Brady is sitting, I chance a quick look back to the Tastee Freeze. She's still standing there, staring after me with a gaping mouth. Brady slides me the frozen lemonade, and I pick a straw, pulling it up and bending it to mark my territory.

"How'd it go?"

"I'm not sure," I admit. "But I think she's interested. Just... be nice to her, okay, kid? She's a special girl."

"Yeah," he agrees. We finish our lemonade and split a pretzel, and I give him a kiss on the cheek, ignoring the hollering from his co-workers.

"Thanks for the pretzel."

||X||

My next two weeks are thankfully date-free. Under normal circumstances, the seeming failure of one of her schemes would bring Alice down on me with a vengeance, but these days, she's a little... distracted.

You see, the new recruiter next door isn't middle-aged. He's not even very conservative. And he's giving Alice a run for her money. Major Jasper Whitlock isn't anything like his predecessors. That's been obvious since day one, when he responded to her welcome offering of a peace lily with a quiet thank you, a smile, and a quote from Sun Tzu.

"The true object of war is peace." The way she tells it, the smile was more of a condescending leer, but it's likely she's exaggerating. I've met Jasper a few times now, and he seems extremely polite.
She's been trying, unsuccessfully, to rattle him ever since.

"He's got a quote for everything!" she moans, plopping down on the bookstore floor. She tucks her legs underneath her, Indian-style, and sighs. "Stupid, pretty boy know-it-all."

"Pretty boy?" I laugh, and suddenly her rabid interest in throwing Jasper off his game makes much more sense. It didn't occur to me before, because Alice usually dates muscle-bound, dark-haired men. Emmett is more her physical type than the fair, blue-eyed Jasper. "I didn't know the Major was your type, Alice. Isn't he a little skinny for you?"

"I don't have a type," she sneers. Suddenly, she's very interested in her cuticles. "And even if I did, Jasper would not be it. Just because he's got that charming Southern accent, and he can quote Ghandi and John Locke in the same breath, doesn't mean I like him."

"Yes, you're very convincing."

There's a snicker behind me, and I turn to see Edward has just walked in. He smiles at me and nods over at Alice.

"Still mooning over the new recruiter?"

"I'm not mooning!"

He laughs, and the sound makes me feel slightly warm. I wonder if I'm coming down with a sudden fever. Discreetly, I press my palm to my forehead.

"So you wouldn't care the least little bit," Edward says to her, while, still smiling at me like we're sharing a secret, "that Whitlock was over at my store yesterday, asking if I know what kind of tunes you like?"

The way her head snaps up is comical, to say the least. "He was?" Her squeaky elf voice is back. "He was asking about me?"

"What's it to you? He's not your type." Edward strolls over to me and turns his back on Alice. "Hey, Bella, can I ask you a favor?"

Alice is gaping at him, mouth open and gasping like a goldfish, and he's completely ignoring her. I know from experience that we've only got seconds before she recovers and launches herself at us, so I agree, even though I'm not keen on doing him any favors.

"Can we talk? In private?" He glances over at Alice, who is two seconds from jumping to her feet and bum rushing us.

"Sure."

He puts a hand on the small of my back and leads me gently to the back of the store, where we keep the young adult fiction and the easy reader books. That warm, slightly feverish feeling surges again, and the spot where his hand rests feels hypersensitive all of the sudden. It's unsettling and strange, but not completely unpleasant. As soon as Alice is out of sight, though, he drops his hand and leans against a shelf.

"So, what's the favor?"

"Helping me escape Alice."

I laugh in spite of myself, and he smiles again. I've always thought Edward had a nice smile; it's warm and sincere, and the way it brightens up his whole face is startling. If he didn't spend most of his free time making fun of me, I get the feeling we would be friends.

"So..." He scans the shelves around us before his eyebrows shoot up and he reaches past me for a book over my head. His arm brushes against my shoulder, and the movement washes me in the smell of his soap. He smells like boy, that indescribable musky clean scent that's scientifically engineered to make girls light-headed. "I used to love this book."

He's holding Charlotte's Web. I can't help it—I giggle.

"Really, Edward? Charlotte's Web? Isn't that a little... I don't know, girly?"

He looks affronted. "Are you kidding me? E.B. White is the best! Stuart Little? The Trumpeter Swan? What's not to like about Charlotte's Web?"

"I'm not disagreeing with you; it's just not exactly a little boy kind of book."

"I'll have you know I used to make my mom read this book to me at least once a year until I was seven."

I take the book back from him and re-shelve it so he doesn't see my smile. It's silly, but the mental image of a small Edward, reddish hair sticking up at odd angles, tucked into bed and listening eagerly to stories about Wilbur and Templeton and Fern, strikes me as completely adorable.

"I've ruined my macho image for all time, haven't I?"

"Hate to break it to you, Cullen, but you didn't have much of a macho image to begin with."

"Edward!"

A male voice floats back to us from the front of the store, but it's not Emmett. I look at him, and he scowls, his good humor and happiness evaporating instantly.

"My manager, Mike."

We emerge from the stacks a few seconds later. Alice is gone, but in her place is a blonde man wearing a polo shirt bearing the logo of the music store across the hall. His hair is messy like Edward's, but unlike Edward, I get the feeling this guy spends a lot of time making his hair look like that. When he sees me, his eyebrows shoot up.

"Break's over, Edward. You've had your fifteen, and Seth is swamped at the counter."

He sighs and nods, glancing back at me with a shadow of his bright smile before crossing the hall to return to his own store. I get a glimpse of his hand buried in his hair before Mike steps in front of me and blocks my view.

"I don't believe we've met?" When Mike smiles, his lips pull back and reveal two rows of ridiculously straight teeth. I wonder if smiling like that makes his cheeks hurt, and how much his parents spent on orthodontics.

"Um, Bella. I'm Bella."

"Beautiful," he says smoothly, taking the hand that I hadn't offered him and grasping it lightly. His skin is dry and cool, and his fingers are callused. I'm taken by surprise, so it's a few seconds before I realize that he's essentially holding my hand. I pull my arm back and clasp my hands behind my back.

"Shouldn't you get back to work? If the store is so busy, I mean."

"They can get by without me for a few more minutes."

We stand awkwardly. He seems content watching me, but I'm starting to get seriously uncomfortable. Emmett isn't due for the start of his shift for another half hour, and Alice is long gone. I'm going to have to save myself.

"Okay, well I actually have some... paperwork to do, so I have to get back to work. We've got a shipment coming in tomorrow, you know how it is."

I hope my face isn't giving away my lie. Emmett does all our paperwork, and he's anal retentive about it, so he never lets me anywhere near it. We are getting a shipment tomorrow, but he's probably had the necessary forms filled out since last week.

"Of course," Mike says, although he looks disappointed. "I know how it is. The responsibilities of management and all."

I'm not even an assistant manager, but I don't bother to correct him. It looks like he's about to leave, and I'm anxious for this weird encounter to be over with. He bows his head and smiles that odd, cheek stretching smile again.

"I hope I see you again soon, Bella."

||X||

That Thursday afternoon, the store is chaotic. There's no rhyme or reason to it, but sometimes we simply get rushed with customers. Usually, it happens on weekends, but occasionally, the mall will get busy on a weeknight and we'll see three or four times out usual foot traffic.

Luckily, Emmett and Jessica are both working with me when things start to get bad. Jessica is a senior at the high school just down the road. She's sweet, if a little gossipy, and is positively obsessed with Edward. He rarely comes to visit Emmett when she's working because she makes no secret of the fact that she thinks he's the dreamiest boy to hit the market since Taylor Hanson. She has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

"So then I told her that if she really liked him that much, she could have him. I mean, I'm not going to fight over a guy who can't even hold a door open for me once and a while, you know?" She's rambling about some boy at school, and I'm listening with half an ear as I ring up purchases.

"Uh huh, definitely."

"And it's not like Lauren is going to date him, or whatever. I mean, she's not really into relationships. She'll probably just sleep with him and move on, like, two seconds later." Her chipper voice dips down into the conspiratorial tone she uses to share secrets. Until Alice, I never really had girlfriends, and after getting to know Jessica, I'm starting to realize why. Women are exhausting.

"Hey, Bella!"

I turn toward the sound, relieved to have an excuse to leave this conversation. Rosalie hurries up to the counter; she looks flushed, like she's been running.

"Running late, Rose," I tease. "I was beginning to think you were going to stand me up!"

Her blue eyes widen a little, and she laughs breathlessly. "Never," she promises. "It's been a hell of a day, though. Looks like you're not faring too much better."

She glances around the store. Our normally straightened shelves have books stacked on the ends or hanging off precariously in places, and Emmett has a line five people deep at his register.

"Just one of those days, I guess. Jess, you want to take the register for a second?"

"Sure."

I duck out from behind the counter and Rose joins me in the middle of the store.

"So, what are you looking for today? A mystery? Another action-adventure? Maybe a romance?"

"I'm not sure," she says thoughtfully. We browse quietly, and every once in a while I hand her an option. Nothing seems to be catching her eye today, and she frowns and sets down every book I had her. After about five minutes she sighs quietly.

"You okay?" I ask. She smiles at me, and in that moment, she seems to decide something

"Yeah, I think so. But can I ask you something?

"Of course!"

"Do you maybe want to grab a drink with me later? Or we could get dinner, if that works better."

I open my mouth to say yes, and then I take in the cautious set of her eyes and the way she keeps biting her lips. She's nervous. Is she...

"Like, a date?" I blurt. Her eyes drop and she pulls her entire bottom lip into her mouth.

"If you want?" This is a new side to Rose. She's usually so confident.

I think about her weekly visits to the store, her complete disinterest in Emmett's advances, and the way she seeks me out every time she comes in. Then I hear Alice's voice in my head, insisting that we never put age limits on our yes project. She'd probably say the same thing about gender.

"I'd like that," I say finally. Her bottom lip reappears and she smiles.

"Great. Can I have your number?"

A few taps on her phone, and it's all arranged. She promises to call me after my shift ends and walks out of the store with a smile on her face, head held high. I wander back to my register in a daze.

"Ugh, finally," Jessica says, dropping the book she's holding and scoots out behind me. "I have to pee. I'll be back."

Emmett glances over his shoulder at me and sighs. "Ah, man. Did I miss Rosie?"

"Yeah, you definitely did."

"Oh well. I guess I'll have to put my master plan off for another week."

"What master plan is that?"

"The one that involves wooing her until she realizes that we're made for each other, of course."

I snort, and I can practically hear his pout in his next words. "You don't think a girl like her would want a guy like me?"

"No, Emmett. I don't."

"Why the hell not?" He's actually hurt now, and I hurry to explain myself.

"Because I don't think she wants a guy."

There's a pause. It's almost like every sound in the store has been sucked up into a vacuum. The silence is only broken when Emmett turns, face pale, mouth wide, and shrieks in a voice Alice would be proud of:

"What?"

"She... uh, well, she just asked me out."

He looks at me, horror-struck, as what I just said sinks in. "Rosalie... likes girls."

I nod reluctantly and look away, hating that I was the one who had to break this to him. Despite his jokes, I think Emmett was really into Rose, and I feel weirdly guilty about this sudden turn of events.

"And ... she asked you out. And you said yes?"

I nod again.

"Wow."

"Yep."

I hear him turn around and continue with his checkout duties. We don't really speak for the rest of my shift, but he smiles at me when I leave for the night, so I think he's not too upset with me.

Rosalie calls a half hour later, and we arrange to meet for dinner later at a restaurant downtown. She says it's one of her favorites, an Italian place ironically named "La Bella Italia." I've got about an hour to get ready by the time I get around to freaking out. What the hell does one wear on a date with another woman?

I do the only thing I can think of. I call Alice.

"Um, Bella, this isn't a great time." She sounds nervous, and I can hear music in the background. At first I think that means she's at work, but then I realize that I'm hearing a guitar, not a sitar.

"Where are you?"

"Did you need something?" She's ignoring my question, but I let it slide because I'm desperate.

"I have a date tonight and I have no idea what to wear. Help me!"

I hear a sharp intake of breath, and then the music fades further into the background. "Omigod you have a date! Good, it's been forever since that sad excuse for a food court rendezvous. We need to get your social calendar up and running, or what's the point of The Yes Project?"

"The Yes Project?"

"That's what I'm calling it. Now tell me about your date! Who is he?"

"Um. Well..."

"Bella," she huffs. "I can't tell you what to wear until you tell me a little about the guy." She gasps, like she's just thought of something. "Is it Edward?"

"What?" I can't imagine why she would think that.

"Well, he dragged you off to the back of the shop the other day, and I thought because he— you know what? Never mind. Who is it?"

"Do you remember me telling you about our regular customer who Emmett totally loves?"

"Rosalie, sure." There's a beat, and then she squeals. "You have a date with a girl! Oh, Bella, this is perfect."

Again, I'm nonplussed. "Come again?"

"You're so closed-minded," she explains. It's clear from her tone she thinks this should have been obvious to me. "You always date the same kind of vanilla guy. That's why you're unhappy in love; you need to expand your horizons! I just didn't think you'd actually follow through with the project unsupervised!" Then she gasps again and adds, "Does Emmett know?"

"Yeah, he took it pretty well. We'll see how long that lasts. Surprisingly enough, he didn't even make any threesome jokes." I look at the clock again. Somehow I've managed to waste 20 minutes on the phone with Alice, and I'm still standing in my underwear. "Alice, clothing. Focus."

"Oh! Right." She directs me through my closet to a skirt and blouse she made me buy last time I was brave enough to go shopping with her. She's got flawless taste, but I'm not a shopper, and once Alice gets going, nothing stops her until she's ready to be stopped. It's draining. I've given up resisting her on purchases, though, because she's always right. When I look in the mirror ten minutes later, I smile in relief.

"Thanks, Alice. You're a lifesaver."

"Gotta go! Are you okay now? Ready to roll?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

"Perfect. Have fun, babe. Don't over-think it. Relax. And don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

"Roger, wilco. Night, Alice."

She doesn't say goodbye, but the line goes dead. I shake my head at my phone, making a mental note to make her explain just exactly what she was up to tonight. Then I snap a rubber band onto my wrist and, with a final swipe of my lip gloss, I declare myself ready. Operation Same-Sex Experimentation is a go.

||X||

La Bella Italia is adorable, all exposed brick and low lighting. The tables even have red and white checked tablecloths covering them, and tea lights wink at me from every side.

Rose is waiting at the bar with a glass of red wine in her hand. She waves me over and smiles. She has a dimple on her left cheek. I never noticed that.

"Did you find the place okay?" she asks, turning to the bartender. "What would you like?"

"Oh, um, chardonnay?"

"Put it on my tab," she tells the bartender. "We'll be at my usual table, just have them put it on the bill."

"Your usual table, huh?" I wink at her, which elicits a laugh. "What are you, a member of the mafia? I didn't know who you were with."

"I coulda been somebody!" she cries, and a nearby patron stops his conversation to stare at us. "I coulda been a contender!"

We crack up, and the entire bar is staring now. A waitress approaches us slowly, and once our laughter dies down, she clears her throat and says, "Your table is ready."

Our table, as it turns out, is rather secluded. The restaurant has a narrow balcony with three or four two-tops cluttered along the railing. We sit at the end of the line of tables, cloistered in the corner where we can see the entire restaurant but no one can see us.

"I love people watching up here," Rosalie confesses. "The wait staff knows me because I come at least three times a week, and they know I love this table."

"Three times a week?" I ask, glancing down at the menu. The food looks good, but not that good.

"I'm a terrible cook," she admits with a sheepish smile. "I probably should be saving my money instead of eating out all the time, but you only live once, right?"

"Cheers to that." I lift my glass and she clinks hers against it. They chime merrily.

"I'm glad you agreed to come out with me," Rosalie says, a little softer now. "I've wanted to ask you for a while, but I wasn't sure if you'd be interested."

I have to laugh a little at that, because it seems that she and Emmett have both been undertaking master plans to score a date. "To be honest, Rosalie, I've never been on a date with a girl before."

She snorts. "No, really?"

I blink. "Huh?"

"You looked so shocked when I asked," she explains. "I'm glad you said yes, but anyone with eyes could see you were a little thrown. I figured you'd never done anything like this before."

Letting out a big gust of air, I take a sip of my wine. "Full disclosure, I'm kind of in the middle of a dating experiment."

"Playing a few innings with the other team? Sowing your wild oats, so to speak?" She raises her eyebrows, and I can feel the apprehension behind her question, light and joking though it is. I don't want to hurt her feelings—that was never my intent.

"No, nothing like that. It's just that I've been having some bad luck with relationships lately, and my friend Alice says it's because I'm not 'open' enough. So, basically, I'm saying yes to everyone who asks me out for three months. It's been almost three weeks, so I guess we're down to about two now."

"Oh." She stares for a minute, then glances down at her menu. "Well, that's not exactly what I expected you to say. How's it going so far?"

"I've actually only had two dates. Well, one date and one slightly-illegal rendezvous." I tell her about Brady and Angela, and she laughs and nods sympathetically in the right places. When I share what I told Angela, she smiles.

"I wish you had been around when I was a teenager. My high school boyfriend was an asshole."

"Boyfriend?" It's probably rude of me to sound so surprised. She sighs.

"I was the homecoming queen and captain of the dance team in an upper middle class suburban high school. Coming out of the closet wasn't really an option. That and my parents are pretty conservative, so I thought getting a nice, suitable boyfriend would keep them happy and suspicion-free." She pauses to take a drink. "Anyway, Royce was a piece of work. But I actually have him to thank for my career in social work, so I guess it wasn't a total waste of my time."

"What do you mean?"

"He was a prick. Not your normal high school boy kind, either. Looking back, I think he learned it from his father. His parents had a messy relationship, and they didn't hide it well. But eventually he started getting abusive with me." I gape at her, and she adds quickly, "Not physically, and nothing that I recognized at the time as abuse. He was an emotional abuser, though, and pretty manipulative. Eventually, I started going to see the school's social worker. She noticed that I had lost a bunch of weight and seemed depressed. She made a huge difference in my life. She was the first person I told I was gay."

"Wow." The things Rosalie has gone through as an adolescent sound more traumatic than anything I've experienced, even as an adult. I feel small in comparison.

She shrugs. "I guess I just wanted to make that difference to other people. For the most part, I've been able to do that, although the down side of my job is that there are a lot of people you just can't help."

"Still, you're out there doing your part," I say. "You're changing peoples' lives. That's very… impressive."

"I work for the state," she laughs. "It's been a long time since anyone has called me impressive. So, thanks."

Our conversation turns to lighter topics after that, and we talk straight through three glasses of wine each, appetizers, and the main course. My food is delicious, as promised, and the only gaps in conversation are the natural pauses that come from sharing dinner with a friend. It's the best first date I've had in years.

When the check comes, I swipe it before Rosalie can pick it up. "It's on me," I say.

"I invited you, I should pay," she protests, but I just shake my head.

"No way. I had a great time, let me buy you dinner."

She rolls her eyes, but there's a smile on her face, so I hand the waitress my card. It was still light out when I arrived at the restaurant, but the sun has set now, and the street lights are glinting off the marina.

"Want to take a walk on the boardwalk?" she asks, and I notice that a shy edge has crept into her voice again.

"Sure."

As we walk, I think about what a great time I've had and how impressed I am with Rosalie now that I know her a little better. She's strong, beautiful, smart, and interested in me. If she were a guy, I'd be thanking whatever God is in heaven for sending her, but as it stands, I'm just confused. I think she's gorgeous, but does that translate to attraction? Is this something I'm even capable of?

I've got just enough wine in me that I decide to answer this question immediately.

"Rose?" My voice sounds a little higher than usual, and it echoes a little through the empty boardwalk. She turns to face me, a questioning smile on her lips. I take a deep breath and step forward into her personal space. "I just want to try one thing."

Her breath hitches a little as I lean in, ever so slowly, but she doesn't move away or tell me to stop. I take that as a good sign, and keep moving forward. I close my eyes right before my lips touch hers.

It's not like kissing a man. She smells different, for one thing. Her perfume isn't overpowering, but it lingers on her clothes, a sweet, powdery scent that suits her perfectly. I'm close enough to her that I can feel her pressing against me; instead of broad shoulders and hard planes, Rosalie is narrow and soft, and her curves meld with mine in foreign ways. It's not unpleasant, but it's also not thrilling. It's just a little weird.

I sigh and pull away, and we continue down the boardwalk.

"So, I think I'm straight," I say, simultaneously disappointed and relieved. I'm not sure I could deal with the complications of throwing another gender into my dating pool, but I can't help but think it's too bad I'm not attracted to Rosalie. She really is almost perfect for me. Almost.

She giggles, nudging my shoulder with hers. "That's a shame; we could be really good together. But I'm not interested in chasing straight girls, so if you're sure …"

She looks over at me, and I nod, once.

"Then I guess we'll just stay friends," she finishes. "Otherwise, who's going to tell me what to read?"

"At least Emmett won't be bothering you anymore. He almost cried when I told him we had a date."

She snorts. "He's persistent, I'll give him that."

"He's a super nice guy. And he really does know his stuff. He gives off a bumbling, dumb jock vibe, but he reads more than I do. I think you'd like him."

"Well, maybe now that he won't be trying to get into my pants," she laughs ruefully. "I can't tell you how old that gets."

"Don't be so sure," I joke. We've arrived at my car, and I reach out to give her a hug. "If I was ever going to be with a girl, I think it would have to be you. I'm sorry it didn't work out."

"Don't be stranger," she says. "And thanks for dinner."

||X||

I have the next two days off of work, which gives Emmett and Alice plenty of time to spread the news about my foray into lesbianism far and wide. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Goth girl who works over at the teeny-bopper boutique is eyeing me up like a piece of meat. I'm so distracted that I run right into Edward, who's coming into work from the opposite direction.

He grunts and steadies me with one hand. "Whoa, there. What are you, part bulldozer?" He rubs absently at the spot near his sternum where I head-butted him.

"Sorry, just a little out of it."

"I see that. Thinking about your girlfriend?" he teases. "I hear she's hot. Way to go, Swan."

"You are such a child," I grumble. With a start, I realize his hand is still on my shoulder, anchoring me. It's kind of … nice. Then he drops it, and I get annoyed again. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get to work."

He nods and waves me off, but doesn't move from his spot in the middle of the hallway.

Alice is waiting for me in the store. "I'm going to pretend you haven't been ignoring me for the last two days, because we don't have time for that."

I clear my throat guiltily and drop my purse behind the counter. She left a couple of voicemails and text messages while I was out, but they all involved setting me up on more dates, and my outing with Rosalie has taken a little bit of my will to see the project through.

"And what is so pressing that you don't even have time to say hello to me?"

"Oh, you are in trouble," Emmett sings under his breath. I glare at him, but he's on the other side of the counter and out of my reach.

"You've got dates. Lots of them."

I whirled around, not bothering to hide my irritation. "What are you talking about?"

"I asked around. Turns out, a lot of guys are interested. You have quite a long line of admirers. Some of them might surprise you."

Emmett snorts, but I have bigger fish to fry than that oaf. "I haven't even been asked. What are you, my yenta now?"

"You committed to this, and you've got two months to left. Don't be mad, I just want you to get the full experience." She bats her eyelashes and pouts. I hate it when she does stuff like that—her face is so childlike that she looks like she's going to throw a tantrum if I say no. But she does have a point. I signed on for this.

"At least have the guys ask me, Alice. I want to know what I'm getting into."

||X||

That's how I end up on no less than twelve dates in the next month.

There was Demetri, who had the good humor to make fun of his own ridiculous name. He was sarcastic and mildly entertaining, but his brand of humor was so self-effacing that I was uncomfortable for most of the date.

James was good looking enough, for a blonde, but all he wanted to talk about was hunting. I will never be able to unlearn how to skin a squirrel. Let's just say there were diagrams involved.

Marcus was still hung-up on his ex-wife. I'm pretty sure I was his first attempt at dating since the divorce. At one point near the end of dinner, he started crying. I paid for my half of the check and wished him the best of luck before practically sprinting from the restaurant.

Riley kept making comments about how good I smelled. When I finally told him that I was not wearing any perfume, just soap, he told me I was lucky to have a natural scent that was so "edible." I excused myself from the bar by telling him that I had a headache, and I watched over my shoulder the entire walk back to my car. Riley creeped me out.

Twelve men, twelve dates. Some of them are okay, some of them are awful, but not one of them is Mr. Right.

||X||

Alice is blissful, basking in all of my yeses, despite the less than successful dates attached to them. Well, she might also be blissful because she's been spending all of her free time with Major Whitlock. The night of my date with Rosalie, she was out with him. Apparently, she asked him out after Edward told her about Jasper's reconnaissance mission to the music store. She marched up to his desk, right in front of the giant American flag, and asked him to go to dinner with her. He smiled and told her she'd kept him waiting a long time. They are disgustingly happy.

I'm jealous.

One thing that I'm beginning to realize is that first dates are the ultimate gamble. You put your money on the table and throw the dice, praying frantically that they'll land in the perfect combination. Two months into my Yes Project, I'm ready to cash out my chips and call it a loss.

There has been one interesting development, though, and it isn't related to the yes project—at least not directly. Edward and I are friends now. Well, friends who occasionally pick on each other, but we established a sort of truce after I slammed into him in the hallway outside the book store. He doesn't gang up on me with Emmett, and I let my defenses down far enough to carry on civil conversation with him. He has really good taste in music, and we've gotten in the habit of trading recommendations, music for books. These days, it's just as likely that Edward is stopping in to see me as it is he's there for Emmett. Even if I'm not working, sometimes he'll still leave a CD for me to listen to, or a short note scrawled in his distinct, mannish script.

He still teases me, most of all about The Yes Project, but it's more a gentle ribbing than anything else. We mock the guys I go out with, and he makes predictions about what horrendous thing will happen on my next date. Emmett doesn't usually participate; in fact, I get the impression he doesn't find Edward's jokes funny, which is odd. Lately, he's been rolling his eyes every time Edward makes a stray comment about one of my dates.

||X||

It's a Tuesday night, and I'm working the closing shift alone. Emmett went home around dinner time, and the mall is a ghost town. I haven't seen a customer since three. The mall is still open, but the stores around me are devoid of customers and the employees are stocking and cleaning and out of sight, which leaves me feeling a little abandoned. I pull out the book I've been reading to pass the time and get as comfortable as I can on the high, backless stool behind the counter.

The sound of voices from the music store distracts me, and I set down my book and peer across the way. Mike, Edward's manager, is leaving for the night. I groan softly, and bury my head in my book, hoping to discourage any interruptions. Although I'm sure that he knows about my dating experiment (I think Alice issued some kind of bulletin to all mall employees), he hasn't asked me out yet. I say yet, because I'm positive he wants to. He's come into the bookstore a number of times now, just to say hello, make small talk, and stare at me until I get so uncomfortable I have to excuse myself. Tonight is no exception.

"Bella! Working hard or hardly working?" Mike dashes across the hall, and there's no way I'm going to be able to avoid him now. I scan the hall, desperate for a customer, but the only person I see is Edward, who is standing in the doorway to the music store with a stony glare on his face.

I'm so thrown off by the ugly look on Edward's face that I forget that Mike is flirting with me.

"I'm fine, Mike, how are you?" It's the wrong response, but he doesn't seem to notice.

"That's great, glad to hear it." He stares for a second, and I take that time to look over his shoulder again. Edward looks like he's trying to decide whether he should risk leaving his store unattended or just stay put. I wish I knew what's getting him so worked up, but Mike interrupts my thoughts again with an awkward throat clear.

"I happen to have tickets to an amateur improv night at the civic center on Friday. I was wondering if you'd like to accompany me?"

He must have practiced those two sentences in front of a mirror or something, because they sound almost mechanical. The smile he gives me is practiced, too—instead of his usual, toothy grin, he gave me a carefully arranged smirk. He probably intended it to be a cool, easy going look. It falls far short of cool.

Still, I can't exactly say no, even though sitting through an amateur improv night sounds like my idea of the innermost circle of Dante's Inferno. So I tell him yes and give him my phone number, trying to hide my sigh as we walk through these steps that have become second nature to me.

After he's gone, I drop my head onto my arms and yell, the sound muffled by my shirt.

"You sound like I feel." Edward has made up his mind about coming over here, it seems. His voice is hollow, and tinged with anger and something else. Defeat?

"Long day?"

"Just the last five minutes."

I pick up my head to look at him. "That doesn't make any sense."

"So you're going out with Mike, huh?" He smiles, but it's more of a grimace.

I groan, and since I'm not covering my mouth anymore it's much louder. I think I hear an echo in the empty hallway.

"I just want this to be over," I grumble. "I'm so frustrated. I know we joke a lot about my dates, but Edward, I'm exhausted. I don't have another month of dates in me. He's taking me to an amateur night at the civic center. What the hell does that even mean?"

"I told him that was a terrible idea," he mumbles. He puts his hands on top of his head, lacing his fingers together and letting his elbows pop out next to his ears. His eyes snap open, and he gives me a long, hard stare. "When do you close?"

I look at the clock next to the register. "Ten minutes."

"Perfect. Come over to the store when you're all locked up. I'm going to take you somewhere."

"What?"

"You're not allowed to say no, remember? Hell, if Mike can drag you to an improv night, you can come somewhere with me after work. No buts."

"Where are we going?" He's already halfway across the hall, and I have to yell for him to hear me.

"It's a surprise!"

"I hate surprises!"

"Too friggin' bad, Swan! Ten minutes."

Then he's gone, hidden behind walls and shelves full of music, and I'm still staring after him in shock. I think, I think, Edward Cullen just said he's taking me on a date tonight. I close the store in a daze. The grate is locked two minutes early, but I don't care. Edward is waiting for me on a bench next to his store, hands in his pockets and a smile on his lips.

He really does have a nice smile.

"You ready?"

"Um, I guess. You still haven't told me where we're going."

He purses his lips and shakes his head, then stands up and starts walking without a word. We're not headed toward the main parking lot, so I decide to go fishing for information.

"Should I drive?"

"No need."

That could mean that he's driving, or that we're not driving anywhere at all. I try again.

"I don't have a lot of cash on me, so—"

He turns around and starts to walk backwards in front of me, a condescending frown on his face.

"I thought you were old hat at this stuff, Bella? What kind of losers have you been going out with? No, never mind. Don't answer that. I know what kind of losers you've been going out with. Keep your money. You won't need it." He smiles and turns back around. We're headed toward the food court, but right before we get there, he veers off down a side hallway. Alice's store is down here, and the recruiter's offices, and the arcade. That's it.

The arcade's grate is locked, but it sounds like there's still someone in there.

"Ben? You in there, man?"

A black-haired boy not much taller than me appears out of the gloom. "Edward, dude! I was starting to think you weren't gonna show up." He pops the grate from the bottom and lets us in. I've only been to the arcade once, right after I started working at the mall. I remember they have skee-ball and whack-a-mole.

"You know how to lock up, right?" Ben says to Edward. "I've gotta open tomorrow, so I'll stop by your store and pick up the keys in the morning. Your tokens are on the counter." He grins at me and winks. "Have fun, you crazy kids."

Once he's gone, Edward tugs down the grate again, closing us in. The only light comes from the pinball machines and electronic displays on the arcade games. I can see the outline of Edward's body nearby, but his face is in shadow. He moves towards me, and I feel every nerve ending in my body stand up and take notice. This amped up, electric feeling is completely new, but I'm not complaining.

"Ben owed me a favor," he says, and I see neon lights reflecting off his white teeth as he smiles. "So we've got this place to ourselves tonight, plus all the tokens we want. Have you ever been to the arcade before?"

"Once, but I'm not very good at video games. I'm more of a skee-ball girl."

He laughs and crosses in front of me to the far wall. He fiddles with a switch there, and more lights illuminate the corner of the arcade, where three skee-ball machines are lined up next to a basketball toss game.

"You're on."

Edward is ridiculously good at skee-ball. It's something to do with how he flicks his wrist when he lets go of the ball. Or maybe I'm just distracted by the strange, fluttering feeling that fills my stomach when I watch him aim, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth. He beats my score five games in a row.

"What do you say, best seven out of thirteen?"

Past telling me that I couldn't say no to his invitation, Edward hasn't said or done anything that indicates this is a date. My patience has officially run out, so instead of answering his question, I say, "Okay, I give up. What are we doing right now?"

"We're playing skee-ball. You throw the ball up the ramp and try to score points. What's not to understand?"

"Ha ha. Seriously. What are your ... intentions here? I'm confused."

He laughs. "Shouldn't your dad be around if we're going to have a talk about my intentions? Or at least an older brother?"

"My dad definitely does not need to be involved in any aspect of my love life, and Emmett is the closest thing I have to an older brother. Unless you want to give him a call, I suggest you cut the crap."

Sighing, Edward drops the ball he's holding back into the machine. He reaches out and takes one of my hands in both of his, absently playing with my fingers and avoiding my eyes. The gesture is sweet, intimate. My heart is pounding in my ears, and my breathing seems unnaturally loud.

"We're friends, aren't we, Bella?"

"I think so." I'm not sure where he's going with this line of questioning, but I can't help but hope that it's somewhere good.

"You like me?"

"Yes."

He takes a step closer and lowers his voice. "More than the other guys you've been going out with?"

"Yes." My voice is softer now, breathless.

"I'm not making you uncomfortable right now?" He lifts his eyes from my hands, and lights flicker off his pupils, turning his normally green irises gold and black and red.

"No," I whisper. One of his hands reaches up and tentatively touches my cheek, and my eyes flutter closed. I feel like I'm having an out of body experience.

"I think you're wonderful," he confesses. "I have for a long time. I guess I just didn't think you'd feel the same way."

"But you were always so mean to me!" I peek up at him, and he snorts.

"Bella, I teased you. I was... you know, flirting with you. Badly, I admit, but the intent was there." His fingers trace my cheek bone, and I feel goose bumps start to pop up all along my neck and arms.

"You ... like me?"

"I like you like you." He grins, and I laugh. "I couldn't let you go out with Mike before you knew that. You know, in case it changes anything."

"I've been out on a ton of dates. Why should this date with Mike matter so much?"

"Because I really, really don't like that guy." His other hand cups my chin, and he takes another step forward. He's so very close now. "And I couldn't stand knowing that he got up the nerve to ask you before I did."

"So you're marking your territory? That's kind of Neanderthal of you."

"Yep."

And then I think I'm going to have a heart attack, because oh my lord, Edward Cullen is kissing me. I had absolutely no inkling that I wanted him to, but now that he is, I'm having a hard time coming up with a reason for him to stop. His breath is minty, and his lips are soft but firm. He's taking his time; his hands are still cupping my face and he's not using his tongue, but there's something so erotic about this moment. When he pulls away, I'm flushed and panting, and he's not much better off.

"So, does it change anything?"

"Alice said I could only stop with the project if I met Mr. Right."

"Didn't I tell you? My middle name is Right. Used to be 'Always Right', but I had it legally changed, just for you."

"What if you're just Mr. Right Now?"

His hands have been drifting lower, over my shoulders and down my arms, and now he wraps them around my waist and tugs me even closer. "If that's what you want." He bends down and his lips brush my ear. "But fair warning, that's not my intention."

This time, I kiss him. I've caught him off guard, but once he catches up with me, he throws himself in to it with everything he has. He's no slouch in the kissing department, that's for sure. I reach up and pull on his shoulders, because he's not close enough. Suddenly everything—the teasing, the shift in his attitude toward me lately, the secret smiles, and the small gestures he's been making –all of it makes sense. This makes sense. Edward and me.

When we stop this time, I'm grinning from ear to ear, and Edward is wearing a matching smile.

"What are you thinking?" There's wonder and apprehension in his expression.

"Such a girl, Cullen," I tease. "I'm thinking ... I'm thinking that I like you, too. And that we should continue this over dinner."

"Anything else?" The hopeful expression on his face makes me feel invincible, and the adrenaline rushing through my body thanks to all the kissing has left me daring and confident. I deserve to date someone who looks at me like this, who cares this much, and who leaves me breathless and giddy. Two months ago, I'm not sure that I would have believed that, or even would have had the guts to follow Edward into this dark arcade. I have so much to lose, but even more to gain. And I want to take this gamble, so it's time to put my money on the table. I'm all in.

"Yeah. I think I have a date to cancel."