'Love Actually' Contest

Title: Almost Her

Characters: Edward/Bella

Disclaimer: I do not own Twilight or any of the characters herein.

Image that inspired you: Number 17

The brunette across the room smiled and lowered her head so that she was looking at me through her lashes. I knew the gesture, and I appreciated it. Even from the other side of the bar, I could imagine that her eyes were brown. Not a flat brown, but warm and welcoming. The eyes would be familiar to me, I was sure. Except that they weren't familiar at all.

Misinterpreting my answering smile, she leaned over and whispered to her friends before standing. I knew that she was headed in my direction, and I didn't want to lead her on. Something kept me in my chair, though. It was the way that she moved; it felt as though I knew her from another time and place. If I tilted my head to the side just a bit and pretended, even for a moment, I was carried back…

Fifteen years before that night in the bar, I met the love of my life. I was only seven, but I knew it even then. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen, with big brown eyes and a tangle of dark hair. The scrapes on her knees and elbows did nothing to take away from her smile. She was the girl next door, the person I ran to when my mom yelled at me, or I got an F on my math test, or when my dog died. Even at seven years old, she possessed a heart bigger than the whole state of Texas, and I wanted to marry her.

I had to stop thinking about her, because the pretty brunette was pulling out the chair next to me and sitting down. She did have brown eyes, just as I had suspected. And they were just as warm as I thought they would be. With a simple introduction and an offer to buy me a drink, she had my divided attention. Divided, of course, because she only made me think of her.

The girl from my past was not the girl of my present, and that fact broke my heart. The sparkling eyes that spoke of a gentle soul were similar, but not the same. The eyes I wanted to see had turned cold when we were sixteen and I allowed Kate Robinson to kiss me behind the bleachers of the football field. Of course, Kate wasn't the girl I wanted to kiss, but she was the girl that was willing to let me experiment. The lips I wanted to touch only pursed with distaste when their owner found that I had given physical affection to another.

How was I to know that she wanted me the way that I wanted her? When I told her that she was the one for me, I was rebuffed in the way that only a teenager can be. My heart was broken, of course, and my life was over. For all of the drama that ensued, it never occurred to me that my feelings might actually be real. It wasn't until I sat in a crowded bar and spied a brunette across the room that I realized just how fully my heart would always belong to her. To Bella.

But the brunette at my table was Angela, not Bella.

Because she looked so much like my lost love, and she even sounded like her at times, I continued to talk to Angela. Part of me felt bad for using her to recapture the most beautiful part of my youth, but the rest of me just couldn't let her go. I could have told her at any point in the conversation that my heart was taken and always would be. I could have explained the way that Bella used to hold my hand as we skipped stones over the lake near our neighborhood. I really should have told her, but I needed those few precious moments with someone that was almost Bella. I promised myself that I would break the news before I let things get too far.

When we were walking through the front door to my car, I realized that I had passed the point of no return. We were both a little bit tipsy, and it caused Angela's eyes to shine even brighter. Her smile was even wider than it had been, and instead of making me smile, too, it squeezed my heart painfully. Against the driver's side door, she waited for my first kiss, but my first kiss had been given long ago to another. Another almost Bella.

My lips met Angela's anyway, and in the recesses of my mind, I wondered if it could ever match the kisses that I had never given Bella. She was sweet and shy, and I could tell that she appreciated my attention, but I couldn't help but think that Bella's kiss would have blown my mind. Angela's kisses were nice, of course, but they shouldn't have left me thinking of someone else.

"I never do this," she murmured softly. "But would you want to…"

"I can't," I replied, showing the first sign of intelligence all evening.

With only the slightest bit of regret, I led her to her car and saw her safely inside. I didn't give her my number, and I didn't ask for hers. To do so would have led me down a dangerous path where I would have settled for her, and she would have only gotten a small piece of me. I could have been happy with her, I was sure. I might have made a life with Angela, and I knew that just from our brief meeting. I knew it because she was almost her.

Instead of taking chances and offering shards of my heart, I watched Angela drive away. I knew it was forever, just as I had known it was forever when Bella said goodbye. I had watched the love of my life from the corner of my eye throughout our senior year. I had silently cheered as she had given the Valedictorian speech. And I had cried myself to sleep when I heard through the grapevine that she was going to go to college in Florida and live with her mother and stepfather. Florida was as far from Forks as anyone could get and still stay in the United States. She might as well have moved to Australia.

There were chances to date in college, of course. And there were plenty of brunettes with brown eyes and soft smiles. None of them had ever come close, though. Not until Angela. I wondered if I had done the right thing by letting her go, but her tail lights had already disappeared into the darkness of midnight.

At twenty-two, my life was just beginning, and yet I felt as though it were over. College graduation had me wondering where I would go next, but I knew the first step was home. Even if I couldn't look at the little house next door or talk to Chief Swan, I owed it to my parents to visit with them before I took my next step. My mother would probably ask me about my love life, and I would have to tell her to mind her own business. She would stop pushing the issue, too, because she knew who held my heart.

Arriving home was bittersweet, of course. I avoided the sight of her childhood home, but my eyes traveled to the tree house instead. The childhood battles were still fresh in my memory. She had been my lone ally against the other kids in the neighborhood. Together, we had valiantly defended a tree house that belonged to me anyway. There was nothing that she wouldn't have done for me, and she knew I felt the same for her.

Rather than visit with my parents, I climbed the rickety rope ladder instead. The memories were so palpable that I believed my vision was real when I saw her huddled in the corner of the platform. Her knees were pulled up to her chin, and her toes were pointed toward each other, just as she had always sat. Slender arms were wrapped around her legs, hugging them closely to her chest.

She looked so real that I spoke before thinking.

"It's you."

There was reverence in my tone and probably in my eyes. When she lifted her head and met my gaze, she had to have seen every last emotion. I wanted to touch her, feel the silk of her skin, just to know if she was real. Her face betrayed nothing- not one single emotion.

With that sight, I knew it was over. If she couldn't forgive me after six years, then she would never forgive me. My stupid hormones and lack of courage had lost me the love of my life, and there was nothing that I could do to bring her back. Again, I wondered if I should have just gotten Angela's number the night before. Almost her had to be better than no her at all.

"There was a guy," she started, and tears welled in her eyes.

There went the very last pieces of my heart. If I had any hope that she had held on for me, it was completely dashed. I crawled into the opposite corner of the platform and pulled my own knees to my chin. She was talking, and I would listen, even if she was saying goodbye forever.

"Riley. He was in my Comparative Lit class, and he sounded just like…" Her voice drifted off as the tears spilled over. There wasn't much moonlight, but the little bit there was turned those tears to jewels.

"Did he hurt you?" I asked softly, my hands clenching painfully. Whoever he was, I would find him.

"Not as much as you did," she whispered. "I wanted to love him. I really wished that he could fill that void, but I guess there's just no one…"

I wasn't sure what she was trying to say. In my muddled mind, it sounded as though she had tried to replace me. There was no way to be angry, either, since I had tried the very same thing just the night before.

"He was tall and he had this hair… Not like yours, of course, because no one could have hair just like yours. But it was close. And his eyes weren't as green, but they were almost… And he…he was almost you, but then he wasn't at all."

Her words sunk in finally, and my own tears formed. For six years, I had thought only of her. Wanted only her. Dreamed of only her. In her own way, she was telling me that she felt the same about me.

"Just last night," I admitted, "I met a brunette with brown eyes. She was so sweet and I could tell that she had a good heart. I let her buy me a drink and talked to her for hours, and I even kissed her in the parking lot." With those last words, I cringed a bit, knowing that my wandering lips were the reason that we fell apart in the first place.

"I wanted to be able to give her everything, and she was the kind of girl that a guy like me could love forever. The only thing was…she wasn't you."

So much wasted time. I crawled across the floor to sit beside her, and she didn't move away. Instead, she reached out and took my hands in hers. Telling her the truth would be hard, I knew, but it couldn't be harder than living without her for another minute.

"I met the love of my life when I was seven years old," I whispered. "She had big brown eyes and tangled dark hair, and she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. She still is."

A sob escaped her and I felt my own tears spill down my cheeks. "I met the love of my life when I was seven, and he kissed another girl when we were sixteen. I was stupid enough to think that I could forget him when I went away to college, but I only missed him more."

"I could have moved on eventually, I think," I admitted, taking over the confession. "I might have opened up to someone else, and I might have been some brand of happy at some point in the future."

But there was no one else like her. There was only the possibility of a worthy substitute, and that wasn't fair to anyone at all. I knew it and she knew it.

"It might have happened for me, too," she acknowledged. "Maybe a guy like Riley, who looked just like you, or maybe someone that was your exact opposite, just so I'd never think about you when I looked at him."

The fact remained that she was irreplaceable, and she was also right there. Summoning every ounce of my strength, I reached for her. She easily allowed me to pull her into my embrace, warmth meeting warmth as she melted against my chest.

"It should have been you," I whispered, tilting her chin up slowly. She had every chance to push me away. Every chance to tell me that I wasn't the one she wanted.

Instead, she smiled that smile that I remembered from childhood, and then she met me halfway.

Just as I had expected, she blew my mind. Her lips were warm and soft, but there was strength in her kiss that told me she wanted me just as badly. I could only groan as we melted into one, with lips and tongues pressing gently and hotly all at once.

With that kiss, every previous notion was erased. There was no way in hell that I might have been happy with someone else- no way at all that I could have settled for almost her.

Summary credit goes to Ernie Halter, whose amazing song inspired this story.