Pick A Pic Challenge
Title: What Are the Odds?
Penname: Missus T
Banner: Banner #44 - Banner by Belindella
Rating/ Disclaimer: I don't own the characters of Twilight and I have nothing to do with the television show The Bachelor. Nada. I'm just playing make believe.
Rated M, just to be safe.
Summary: Best selling author Edward Cullen gets roped into being on The Bachelor. He feels a connection with a reluctant bachelorette on the first night, but what are the odds it will sustain itself until the final rose ceremony?
To see all the stories that are a part of this contest please visit:
www .fanfiction-challenges. blogspot. com

Link to the banner that Belindella customized for me! http:/bit(dot)ly/htos3A
Check out her profile and some of her twifics. http:/www(dot)fanfiction(dot)net/u/2140629/Belindella

Okay, so let me just tell you up front that I had no idea how long this was going to be when I started it. I saw the banner and had an idea; it fit perfectly and was spinning itself out in my head. When I had about a quarter of the story written I showed it to ETheHunter, and she said, "This is great, but how are you going to make it into a one shot?" (Mind you this is the same person that later said it had to have an epilogue! Ha ha!) Anyway, at that point I had already married the banner and the story in my head, so I decided to press on and see exactly how many words it would take to write a fic encompassing an entire season of The Bachelor. Turns out, it's somewhere around 17,000 words. JSYK.

Huge thanks to ETheHunter and A Redhead Thing for their beta help and encouragement. Thanks also to the Fanfiction Challengers for hosting this contest, what an amazing idea!


"Alice," I groaned. "Why do I let you get me involved in this stuff?"

"Because you love me?" She smiled sweetly.

I shook my head. "I really don't. Not today."

"Edward, you told People four years ago that if you didn't have a girlfriend when you turned thirty you would do the show."

"I didn't think it would really happen," I huffed in exasperation. "And I didn't tell People anything. I made a joke to some annoying reporter who sold his interview to them."

"Well, you know nothing you say is off the record. You did this to yourself, and now the show wants to hold you to your word."

"Ugh." I groaned. We'd been arguing for over an hour. She would never give up and when I thought she had, she would be strategizing some way to get me to do it. I gave up. "Okay, okay. Fine. I'll do it. Now what?"

"Yay!" she squealed. "Now, we tell the producers that you're in, and they sort through a billion women so you can find the perfect one!"

"A billion?" I snorted. "Thanks for the confidence that it will take that many to find a match for me."

"Fine, a lot. Not a billion." She laughed. "You fill out their dating profile and then they sort through a bunch of women's profiles and find the ones who are the best fit for you. Really it's sort of like on-line dating, but you get to meet a bunch in person to decide between them."

"Right, but I have no idea who they are, and they all know that I'm the bachelor. I really don't want to do this."

"No, Edward, they don't know it's you. That's not how it works. They match you anonymously."

"It's TV, Alice. It's not anonymous. I'm not that naïve."

"Edward, you're my brother, and I love you, but I think you need to do this. I have a good feeling about it."

I rolled my eyes. Alice and her feelings.

Six weeks later I had my bags packed and was heading to the house in Malibu that I was going to be living in for the next month while I sorted through single women filming The Bachelor: (Secret Celebrity) Edition.

Even the title of the show made me cringe. In my opinion, I was not a celebrity. I was an author who just happened to have several bestselling crime novels. I'd been on the Beautiful People list in People magazine, which was ridiculous, and I'd been one of the top ten most eligible bachelors in Los Angeles for the past two years. It was all rather surreal. I didn't run in circles with actors or sports stars, except for my brother Emmett who played professional football, but he was family. In my mind, I was a regular single guy.

I was a little nervous that this whole thing was going to blow up in my face. I mean, if I came out of this looking like an ass, the exposure would be good for book sales, but my mortification would be long lasting. Freaking Alice. She had to go and get a job with the company producing the show and help them hold me to some ridiculous comment I'd made four years ago.

Once I settled into the gorgeous beach house, I was met by the host of the show and a producer to go over some final details before filming began. I was going to meet twenty-five women, have a short cocktail party with them, and then eliminate ten of them, effectively breaking their hearts before they even got to know me. I ground my teeth and managed to smile at Jasper, the producer, who was dating my sister Alice.

"It will be fine, Edward. This is the twentieth season of the series. These women know what to expect."

I sighed. "Yes. I understand. It's just; this is not going to be easy."

Jasper smirked. "Love never is."

And so there I was a few hours later, standing in front of what was to be the girls' house for the next month, waiting for them to arrive one by one.

The first bachelorette was a school teacher from an Indian Reservation in Washington named Leah. She was extremely nervous and joked about making a good impression as the first girl that I got to meet. She was clearly a shy person, and it touched me that she'd put herself in this insane situation. She had striking features and a smile that you couldn't resist returning. I assured her that she made a great first impression and joked that since she was the first one to arrive, I wasn't likely to forget her.

I met the next few women who were clones of each other, only with different hair colors and accents, and wondered how many times I could ask myself how I'd let Alice talk me into this. Unfortunately, no matter how many times it ran through my mind, I was still there, shaking hands and giving awkward hugs to women who were thrilled to meet me. After one woman made her way into the house, I realized before she closed the door that I had no idea what her name was. I wished that I had a pad of paper to make notes. I was a writer for Christ's sake. So far I had met six stunningly beautiful women with completely different personalities, but I was beginning to confuse them, and I knew I was screwed because there were nine-teen more women to meet.

I was excited to meet them all too, on some level, but I was beginning to get overwhelmed when the seventh woman arrived.

She was a petite woman in a blue dress with a long, almost sheer skirt. She had dark hair that was pulled up on the back of her head and as she walked towards me she brought a feeling of calm and serenity. "Hi, I'm Bree from Chicago. I'm a yoga instructor." Even her voice was soothing.

I laughed. "Wow. You have no idea how much I need a yoga class right now."

"Oh good. I thought I was the only one here that was nervous," she teased.

"Oh, no. I'm fairly certain we could go in there and do a group class with everyone. I'm Edward. It's great to meet you."

"You, too." She stepped forward and gave me a gentle hug. She exuded a bizarre peaceful hum, and I didn't normally believe in that stuff.

Bree went inside, and I continued the reality TV mating ritual. The tenth bachelorette was a beautiful redhead with porcelain skin in a rose colored dress that bordered on being too short, but her hug was stiff, and she had an air of formality or seriousness. I got an odd feeling as she told me her name was Tanya, and she was a nurse from Anchorage. I felt like she was devouring me with her eyes, and I was a little uncomfortable. She smiled sweetly, so I thought maybe I'd just misread her.

As the night wore on, I met a doctor, two lawyers, a nurse and an opera singer. Then a tiny slip of a woman stepped out of the car with a smile that overtook her entire face. She wore a champagne colored dress that clung to her curves and had some sort of puffy shredded fabric collar around the neck. She was quite beautiful in a strange adolescent way that made me fluctuate between thinking she was hot and wondering if I was a pervert for thinking that. Her name was Jane, and she was ballerina with a thick southern accent.

Nearing the end, I was beginning to wonder how the hell I was going to narrow things down to fifteen women. I couldn't remember half of their names, let alone have a good idea if I wanted to get to know them more. Well, that's not entirely true, there had been a couple of women who had given me an off feeling and a couple that I knew I wanted to get to know, but for the most part, they blurred together.

The limo pulled up with the last contestant, and I sighed, tired of the process, but I wanted to give everyone a fair chance. I stretched my shoulders and watched as a small foot with a low heeled sequined sandal touched the ground. It was attached to a slender leg, but the rest of her body was blocked by the door to the car. The next thing I saw as she stood was her long chestnut hair falling over her face. Then she stepped towards me, raising her head and tossing her hair back. She wore a simple but gorgeous cream colored dress that ended just above her knee, and when I looked up to find her eyes, they met mine and her face lit with a smile.

My heart nearly beat out of my chest as our eyes locked. She was striking, and her smile was contagious. She walked carefully towards me, as if she was afraid of tripping, but her eyes never left mine.

"Wow. Edward Cullen. What are the odds?" She laughed and shook her head with a smile.

Other women had commented that they had read my books or that they knew who I was, but this reaction was unexpected.

"I don't know? One in a million?" I smiled.

"More like one in a billion, or a gazillion, in my case." She snorted, and her eyes grew wide in embarrassment as she covered her mouth and nose with her hand.

My eyes had gone wide as well, but not for the same reason. My mind had flashed back to the day that Alice was convincing me to do the show. "They sort through a billion women so you can find the perfect one!"

Before I could really think about it, she reached out to shake my hand. The moment our palms touched skin to skin, there was a jolt of electricity.

"Oh!" she cried and we both laughed pulling our hands back. "Sorry. Didn't mean to shock you like that. Some first impression, huh?"

"Well, you'll stand out in my mind, that's for sure."

"I'm not sure if that's good or bad." She wiped her hand on her skirt and then reached toward me. "Let's try this again. I'm Isabella. Bella, really, from Seattle. I'm a grant writer for a non-profit."

I smiled. There had been no shock this time when our hands met, but instead a pleasant warmth that spread through me.

I smiled at her, feeling very much at ease. "Nice to meet you, Bella. I'm Edward." She started to pull her hand away, and I felt like, for some reason, I needed her to know that I wanted to spend more time talking to her. I said the first thing that came to my mind. "Let's talk later about why you're so surprised to see me here."

She blushed. "Um. Okay. That sounds good."

She pulled her hand from mine, leaving me feeling a little adrift, which was completely insane, and then she walked into the house, glancing over her shoulder at me once. As soon as the front door closed behind her I felt the beginnings of panic rise in my chest. What had I gotten myself into?

I entered the house with our host, Mike Newton, who was an average guy with a voice like a radio broadcaster and a smile that hinted at mischief. He was like Ryan Seacrest in the first season of American Idol; personable and seemingly untouched by the trappings of Hollywood, although he clearly thrived on it. The women had already begun sipping cocktails and gossiping about me when we joined them. Mike gathered everyone around me for a toast, and I felt a little overwhelmed by the attention. The cameras zoomed in, microphone booms hung over us, and twenty-five women hung on my every word.

"Thank you all for joining me in this adventure. I am thrilled to have met each and every one of you." I raised my glass, and the women did the same. I tried to look around and catch all of their eyes and then finished the toast, "Here's to writing our own story." There was laughter and murmurs of approval, and then the group splintered apart and most everyone drifted away, leaving me to talk with the first group of the night.

Throughout the cocktail party, I chatted with as many women as I could, trying to make mental notes on each of them. I sat with groups of women in the living room and the bar area and then stood outside with another group. A few women pulled me aside to talk privately, and I was beginning to get a feel for who I wanted to send home, but there were still a few women I needed to talk to, Bella included.

Suddenly there was a hand on my back, and I felt a tall body slide up against mine. It was at the same time sexy and suffocating.

"Edward," a sultry voice said near my ear. "You didn't come to find me."

It was the redhead. Tawny or Tanya. Shit. I didn't remember. "Well, I've been a busy man. Let's talk now."

She managed to always be touching me in some way as we talked. Her hand on my arm, her hip against mine, reaching out to straighten my lapel. I honestly lost track of what we talked about a couple of times because I was wondering where she was going to touch me next. It wasn't like I was waiting for her to reach out and grab me, but I wondered if she did this with everyone. It certainly made an impression, and like our exchange earlier, it left me cautiously curious about her.

There were women among the group that I was not curious about, however. One woman lived with her parents and had an extensive collection of romance novels and six cats. Another had three Chihuahuas that she considered her children. One woman was particularly interested in how many red carpet affairs I attended in the last year and if I had tickets to my brothers' football games. She wanted to know if I lived near any other celebrities, and I wanted her to go away. Another woman was either seriously hitting on the bartender or had way too close of a relationship with Captain Morgan for my taste. Don't get me wrong, I like the Captain, I sail with him on occasion, but I like to be able to steer my own ship, if you know what I mean. There was also a woman with the longest, most frightening, fake fingernails I'd ever seen. I didn't know how she ate or held a pen, let alone put on her clothing. These women I didn't feel the need to know anything more about, and I felt like a dick because of it. But when faced with the requirement of sending ten women home, I had to start somewhere.

At one point, I found myself sitting around a table near the pool with four women including Jane, the ballerina. She was the most engaging person out of that small group. She had traveled extensively for performances and was well versed on any number of topics, but it was her confidence that singled her out. While the other women hesitated to ask questions or talk too much about themselves Jane acted like we were old friends and launched into deep conversations about topics that surprised me. There was another woman at the table who I enjoyed talking with as well, Siobhan, a medical student. She was tall, with dark hair, and fair skin. She had an Irish accent and used different terminology that made everything she said sound interesting. She, Jane and I seemed to talk with ease while I struggled to draw the other two into the conversation. We'd been talking for a while when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bella step outside.

Her eyes scanned the pool area until they landed on me. She paused, and before she could turn around and go back inside, I stood, excusing myself from the table and called her name.

She stopped and turned towards me, smiling shyly. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

"You didn't. We were just talking, and I wanted to have some time with you. Come over here."

I led her to a smaller bench that was just large enough for the two of us. I wasn't sure if I did it on purpose, but the seat was so small that when we sat down our legs brushed, and I felt that same heat that I'd experienced when we touched earlier. I gave her a lopsided smile, and she chuckled.

"I'm intrigued, Bella. Why were you so surprised to see me here? It was surprise, yes? Not disgust or something else, right?"

"No, surprise is correct. Nicely surprised. " She laughed. "Honestly? I was prepared to meet some hot guy who was a total douche. That's what these shows have all been like. And it would be okay if I got sent home on the first night by a douche, but I recognized you when I got out of the car, and while I don't really know you, I've seen some interviews with you, and you're not that douchey."

"I'm not that douchey?" I laughed. I couldn't believe we were having this conversation.

"Oh, heck." Her eyes got wide and a blush crept up her neck and cheeks. She shook her head. "No. You're not, not at all."

"It's okay." I smiled. "Just help me understand. Why would it be okay to go home on the first night if the guy was a douche but not if he was an okay guy?"

"Because I wouldn't care if some loser sent me home on the first night, but if it was someone I liked, that would hurt. I never really expected to even want to stay."

I shook my head laughing. "Why the hell did you apply?" I noticed that she had said she wanted to stay, but I so wasn't touching that.

"My friend Rose talked me into it. We both applied. It seemed like a good idea. I mean, what could it hurt? And then when people said, 'Bella, you haven't had a boyfriend in forever!' I could at least say, 'Hey I applied to be on The Bachelor.'" She laughed. "I'm not really selling myself to you, am I?"

"Oh, on the contrary. I'm absolutely intrigued."

Mike opened the slider and called me inside to deliberate. Bella looked panicked at the thought, like she hadn't told me something important, or she was afraid of being sent home, which was laughable to me; I didn't want her to go anywhere. I couldn't do anything but squeeze her hand in reassurance before I was led to a small office with twenty-five pictures on the wall.

Mike told me to take my time and remove the photos of the girls I wasn't keeping and place them on the desk. I easily removed six pictures, and then the process became more difficult. There were nine or ten women that I was sure I wanted to continue talking to, but after that I wasn't sure. Sadly, it was this last group of women that sort of blended together. They were the ones that I hadn't really gotten to know. They'd said very little, or I'd been distracted by someone else vying for my attention, and hadn't really gotten to know them.

I deliberated for a few more minutes, and then just had to do the best I could, remembering small details about the women and making my final decision. The worst part about the process was that I knew it was only going to get harder. Mike brought me back out into the bar area, and the women were lined up in three rows waiting for me. I called them up one by one to accept a rose and continue getting to know me, starting with the final few I had chosen, so that I wouldn't forget their names, and finishing with what I was calling in my head my top five: Jane, Tanya, Bree, Leah, and Bella. Jane and Tanya looked quite pleased with themselves and not at all surprised to have been given roses. Bree had blushed furiously and hesitated, almost as if she wanted to ask me if I was sure I wanted to keep her. Leah bit her lip and giggled in excitement, throwing both of her arms around me in a tight embrace, and Bella came towards me with her eyes full of laughter and amazement, as a smile spread across her face.

The night finished out with quick goodbyes to the women who were going home and another round of drinks with those who were staying. Although a part of me wanted to stay and continue getting to know them, I was relieved when Mike said it was time for me to go back to my own house. I had a feeling that I was definitely going to appreciate the quiet there and the time alone it would give me to process everything I'd learned about these women and my reactions to them. My fingers were almost itching to get to my computer so I could write down some of my thoughts.

A season of The Bachelor airs over nine weeks on television, but in reality it's filmed in just over a month. It's really not a very long period of time to find and fall head over heels in love with someone, but that's what I was here to do.

After the first elimination, I took all fifteen women on a date, if you can call it that, to a bowling alley. It was like a crazy dysfunctional bowling league full of sisters who hated each other and wanted to steal each others' toy; the toy being me. Those of the women who didn't participate in the teeth gnashing, sat back and blended into the lanes, if that was possible, while the others made a show of hair tossing and showing off their ability to one-up each other. It was a rough date, because honestly, I didn't get a chance to really talk to all fifteen women. I found myself sacrificing time with a couple of my favorites, because I knew that I wanted to keep them, but I struggled to at least talk and joke with them, so that they would know I was interested, and they would accept my rose.

Several times that night I found myself mysteriously standing next to Bella, unsure of how, or why, I was there. She would smile, or say something self-depreciating and laugh at herself, and I found it difficult to move away from her to either be passed back and forth like a hot potato or try to coax conversation from nervous flowers. The following afternoon, Mike took me to the office so that I could deliberate and remove more pictures from the wall. Then after dinner, I joined the ladies at a cocktail party and culled five more bachelorettes off the top.

With ten women left, I got to take two groups of four on a date and then had a date with just two women. It sounded great from the outside, but I didn't have any say in planning these dates, or to be honest, in deciding who got to join me on which date. It was a crap shoot for all of us at that point. The first group of four and I went to a dinner theater, and the second group went with me to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Then I took Leah and a girl named Makenna to a Japanese steakhouse for sushi and teppenyaki, where they cooked on the griddle right in front of you.

On each of the group dates there seemed to be one woman who I connected with more than the others. At the theater it was Jane and at the museum it was Bella. Jane was in her element at the theater, talking about stage lighting and telling people how different set changes might have worked. Her running narrative took the pressure off of me to entertain everyone, and we felt like one great big happy tour group.

At the museum however, Bella didn't lead the group, but almost immediately broke off from everyone and took her time looking at each installation thoughtfully before moving on. When I eventually joined her to look at a few pieces, she smiled shyly, and I felt the pressure leave my chest. We didn't need to make inane small talk, but we quietly asked questions or commented about what we were looking at. By the time Tanya rudely, and loudly, interrupted us, I was struggling to not take Bella's hand or hook my pinky with hers just to physically feel the connection that was hanging between us.

After those dates, I still felt confident in narrowing down the field, although the women gave me some very good signs to help me along. Makenna's very vocal distaste for sushi and those who ate it sealed her fate. The girl didn't know what she was missing, and her unwillingness to try and her general negativity were a turn off. I sent three other girls home that night as well. One that confessed to me that she might be in love with her ex, one that seemed a little too interested in herself, and another who told me she couldn't understand why people would want to come to an art museum if they didn't have to. I sighed, internally thanking her for helping me with my decision. She didn't need to worry about me ever bringing her back to a museum, or anywhere else for that matter.

After the rose ceremony I was left with six women: Bree, Bella, Jane, Tanya, Leah, and Siobhan. If I was honest with myself at that moment, I could have narrowed it down even further. But that wasn't how the show worked, and every time I began to forget that it was a reality TV show, a camera or microphone was shoved between me and one of the women, and I remembered that everything we were doing was going to be broadcast on national television.

It was interesting to see the differences in the women and yet think that somehow we had all scored as somewhat compatible in whatever algorithm or formula they used to cast the show. Alice swore that it was a scientific matching program that said we should be compatible. The rest of the things that got in the way were what she called, environmental interference. I had to wonder if she was somewhat correct in her thinking, because, of the women that I saw as my favorites, although they were totally different from each other, they were each attractive to me in their own way.

The following evening I went on a date with Bree, Bella and Leah to tour Universal Studios. It was the most I had laughed since we started filming. The three girls complimented each other well personality-wise, and honestly, a passerby might have thought they were the best of friends. They included each other in conversations with me, asked questions about each other and made the whole experience enjoyable. The rides and tours let the women take turns sitting next to me, and I contemplated the feelings I had for the three women.

Sitting next to Bree, I was relaxed and calm, philosophical even. With Leah, I was curious. There was an excitement about her as she experienced everything for the first time. She commented that there had been little money for vacations in her childhood, but it wasn't a complaint, just a fact, and she barely paused before she oohed and aahed over something else she saw. Then there was Bella. I was running out of ways to explain the way that I felt around her. She made me nervous and excited in one breath, and her smile soothed me in an instant.

Next up was a group date with Jane, Tanya and Siobhan. It was an afternoon hiking in Griffith Park and a sunset picnic. If the first three girls could have been best friends, these three were mortal enemies. I cursed the reality TV gods for choosing to send this combination of women on one date. Jane, for how physically fit she was, was a slow hiker. Tanya practically jogged to the summit while Siobhan kept pace with me. The three women hardly spoke more than a word to each other the entire night aside from thinly veiled snide comments directed at each other. It was really uncomfortable for me, especially when we sat down to eat.

We sat on a blanket and because Tanya practically sat on top of me, Jane moved in and sat close on my other side. Siobhan sat on the farthest corner of the blanket, unsuccessfully trying not to show her disgust with the other two women. I tried to ask questions that they could all answer, but it was like pulling teeth. I had to speak to each woman individually to get any information from them.

I really couldn't believe the difference from the previous night. There was no relaxing around these women at all. Tanya pushed her flirting to a new level, feeding me fruit and completely shattering all of my personal space. Jane followed her lead, and I was afraid that I was going to get caught in the middle of a cat fight. Siobhan on the other hand, seemed to have completely shut down after her brief bout of anger.

I was actually a little jealous of Siobhan's ability to block out what was going on. It was such an awful and uncomfortable date that it was comical. It was exhausting, and I went back to my beach house that night feeling spiteful and considered sending the lot of them home.

I woke the next morning feeling discouraged. This show was supposed to help me find a fiancé, or someone that could potentially become my fiancé. Hell, even a girlfriend would be nice. Once I'd been talked into doing the show, it was really the point of this whole endeavor for me. Alice claimed it was about publicity and marketing, but if I was doing this, I was all in. My mother had joked that everything in life was a learning experience and even if I didn't find someone, I would still have grown from being a part of the show. She was right of course, but that's not what I was hoping for. The bottom line was that I was thirty and perpetually single. I wanted a wife and family, but I hadn't been doing anything to find someone on my own.

I was making coffee when there was a loud banging on the front door that I recognized, but was surprised to hear, well, here.

I pulled the door open. "Emmett? And Lo?"

"Dude! Where are the babes?"

My brother burst into the house like a tornado, calling me "Dude" as he usually did, which he knew I hated, and giving me a bear hug. Behind him came my friend Lo, or Laurent, who had done my Public Relations before I signed with a full-service agency. He gave me half a hug, slapping me on the back and saying hello.

To say I was shocked to see them was an understatement. I had been under the impression that I would be on my own in this quest until the top four women met my parents. Jasper, the producer Alice was dating, had been a godsend. He listened to me try to straighten out my overlapping feelings of guilt for sending people home while being excited about the potential with the women who were staying. Although I felt confident in the six that remained, it was an increasingly difficult process to send these women home.

"Not that I'm not thrilled to see you guys," I laughed. "But what are you doing here?"

"Breakfast, Dude." Was the answer I got from Emmett as he made his way towards the kitchen.

I looked at Laurent in confusion and he laughed. "I'm assuming you didn't really read over the contract?" He shook his head with a smirk. "Typical, Edward. We get to spend the day with your lady friends and bring back the dirt on them. We even get to decide who you take on a one-on-one date tonight and who you send home tomorrow. You do get a veto if you really want to keep one of them though."

I cocked my head at him as I processed what he'd said. "What?"

"Exactly what I said." He laughed. "Come on, we'll talk over breakfast. I don't like it when Emmett gets hungry. I'm always afraid he'll eat the furniture, or me."

We started to the kitchen, and I grabbed his elbow. "Lo, you have no idea how glad I am to see you guys."

He smiled. "I brought you some Valium. I figured you'd be rocking in a corner somewhere by now, but you seem to be doing well." He was halfway kidding, and I was halfway considering taking him up on it.

I sighed. "It's okay. I mean, I'm okay. Shit. Let's eat and talk."

So we did, with Emmett shoving every piece of protein into his mouth that he could find while Lo and I enjoyed pancakes and fruit. I was seriously taking advantage of the cook the producers so kindly provided me. As we ate, I flipped through my journal and the notes I'd typed up on my laptop, and I told them a little bit about each of the six remaining women, trying not to show bias towards any of them and pointing out questions or concerns that I wanted them to try to scope out for me.

Much sooner than I wanted, they headed off to meet my girlfriends, I guessed you called them. If not that, what? Ladyfriends? Potential wives? That sounded archaic. Shit. I was usually good with words. I didn't like not being able to give something a name. Lo was right, I was lucky I wasn't shaking in a corner somewhere by now. Damn him for even mentioning it.

They returned around four in the afternoon after spending the entire day with my - shit, I mean, the ladies. Emmett made just as an obnoxious entry as he had earlier, bypassing the knock and entering with a loud, "Dude! How do I get on this show?"

I grabbed a couple of beers and met them in the living room to debrief. "So...what did you think?"

"Seriously. I don't know how you're going to decide."

Of course he didn't. Emmett had a hard time choosing anything. He was used to just saying he'd take it all, or one of each. He was really a gluttonous bastard, but his workouts for the NFL kept him in shape. I felt strongly that he'd look like Jabba the Hutt if he had a desk job. Maybe that was brotherly jealousy raising its ugly head, but probably not.

"Edward, the ladies are lovely," Lo chimed in.

"Mostly." Jabba, I mean Emmett, snorted.

"Mostly?" I wondered who my brother didn't approve of.

They launched into the nitty gritty, telling me who they really liked and who they thought had to go. I wasn't surprised that they liked Bella, Bree and Siobhan, but I was floored that they thought the two that had to go home were Jane and Leah. I was still waiting to hear their thoughts on Tanya.

"Wait, back up. You need to explain yourselves. Jane and Leah?"

"Oh yeah." Emmett waved his hand in the air like it was a no-brainer. "See, Leah doesn't really want to leave the Res. She's lived there her whole life, even commuted to go to college. Did you know that?"

"Ah, no. I mean, I knew she'd grown up there and that she taught there now."

"That's an important detail, Ed." I hated it when he called me that, too. "Write it down."

"I'm not going to forget," I said a little incredulously.

"Whatever. Write it down. You write everything down. Anyway, you're not moving up north to her homeland, so yeah, she's out."

"Emmett, I don't think homeland is politically correct."

I silently thanked Lo. I had been biting my tongue.

"Whatever. And Jane? Yeah. She's nuts, and you don't need that to go with your nuts, Dude."

"She is very dedicated, Edward. Her practice and exercise schedule is demanding to say the least. With your strange hours when you're writing, I don't know how the two of you would ever see each other. That, and she seems fairly obsessive-compulsive. With your rather, ah, similar tendencies when you write, she's a bad idea."

I looked back and forth between them. These two people knew me very well. They had valid points, and I was struggling to understand how I had not seen them as well. I guess I had considered that Leah might not want to move, but I hadn't really thought about it, if that made any sense. But Jane? I hadn't really thought about her from the perspective they were talking about. I wondered, if she was that busy, how she had time to be on the show. Siobhan had explained that she was between placements and had two months off, so the timing had been perfect, but come to think of it, Jane hadn't said anything about missing work or having a show to rehearse when she got back.

"Dude, you didn't ask her?"

I looked at Lo. "Did I say that out loud?"

He smiled. "Yeah."

"No, Em. I didn't ask her."

"You're slackin'. This TV gig has you all out of sorts. It's a good damn thing I'm here then because I asked her."

"You did?" I looked at Lo. "He did?"

He nodded back. Damn. Emmett had balls.

"Heck yeah. You wanna know why she's here?"

Now he was going to lord it over me, but I knew his game and short circuited it. "Yes, please."

"Good call on the please, bro." He nodded at me. Dick. "Doctor's orders."

"Doctor's orders? What does that mean?"

Emmett opened his mouth, but Lo cut him off. "She sprained her ankle. She's had problems with it before, and the doctor knew she'd be working it too hard if he didn't order her not to. Apparently her ballet company agreed."

"Wow. Why is she here? I mean, why would you apply if you didn't really want to take the time off?"

"She did apply though, that's the weird thing," Lo continued. "She said she knew that filming would be when she was between shows. She wants to be here, I just don't believe that she's ready to make any changes when she gets home." He shrugged. "It was perfect timing to get injured, but she's not giving up dancing anytime soon."

"Nah, Dude. She'll be the old lady dance instructor smacking her cane on the floor."

I shook my head at both the image and my brother. "You've watched Fame one too many times, Em." I sighed. "Okay. I hear you. But you like the others?"

"Oh yeah, Dude. The others are great. I don't know how you'll choose. But I will say this, bro. I bet that yoga chick is flexible as hell."

Shaking my head at Emmett's filthy mind, I turned to look at Lo. He pursed his lips a little and shrugged. "I truly liked most of the other ladies, but I think you'll need to get to know them yourself to really narrow it down. I have one in mind, but, it's ultimately on you."

I nodded. "You said most. I have a feeling I know who it is out of those four you that have questions about."

"Tanya," Emmett sighed her name. "That is one crazy-fuckhot chick. I really think she's more my type than yours."

I rolled my eyes. "Lo?"

"Crazy and fuckhot. Not crazy-fuckhot."

Oh, no. "Did she touch you a lot?"

"Yeah," they said simultaneously, but it meant two completely different things.

I shook my head. I'd been leaning more towards crazy with her. Especially after her bitchy behavior on our hiking date. She acted superior to the other two ladies and seemed to have the attitude that she was already my girlfriend.

"But you don't think I should send her home?"

"Nah, Dude. Keep her around. Let her eye-fuck you a little longer."

"For what it's worth, I thought she should go home over Leah," Lo added.

"Thanks, Lo. Really, thanks to both of you. I can't believe the things you found out."

"Do you want the good news?"

Emmett was practically giddy. He was a giant child. A giant, gluttonous man-child. I sighed. "Lay it on me."

"Your one-on-one date tonight?" His eyes actually twinkled as he withheld her name. "Izzy."


Lo shook his head. "Bella."

"I liked calling her Izzy. It pissed her off."

"I can imagine." I laughed. "Very cool. I feel like there's something special about her."

"Ugh. Don't get all cheesy, Dude."

"Isn't that what I'm here for? To find someone special?"

"Yes, it is Edward," Lo agreed with me. "And I think she's definitely worth getting to know better."

"I guess, but you don't have to say it like that. 'Someone special.' You sound like mom." Emmett cringed, as if sounding like our mother repulsed him.

"Whatever." I rolled my eyes at him.

"Your date sounds interesting, though." Lo grinned. "Dinner at Opaque."


Em grunted. "It sounds fucked up. You'll love it. It's that restaurant where you eat in the dark."

We talked for about a half an hour more about the restaurant and the ladies, but somehow, mostly we talked about Emmett and football. It was actually kind of a relief. I was tired of thinking about the ultimate outcome of this dating rodeo, and I needed a good hit of testosterone. Then Mike Newton showed up. I was really beginning to hate that guy. He told them their car was out front. We said our goodbyes, and they wished me luck. Then I showered and got ready for my date, wondering exactly what to wear to a restaurant where you ate in the dark.

The limo picked up Bella, and she climbed in the car with me, immediately lying down on the long bench seat. "Oh thank you, god. I was going to kill someone if I stayed in that house a minute longer."

I loved her theatrics and laughed. "Nice entrance."

"Sorry. I'm better. I just needed to flail about for a second." She chuckled and sat up, grinning. Her leg brushed against mine, and I felt the familiar warmth spread through me that physical contact with her always brought.

"Flail away."

"No, I'm good. Too many women in one house." She was wearing shiny lip gloss that distracted me when she spoke. I struggled to listen to her words as I thought about how soft her lips would feel beneath mine. She sighed and flashed a smile before continuing to speak. "So, your friends picked me for the one-on-one date. That's kind of cool. It would be better if you'd chosen me, though." She stopped short, her eyes wide and covered her mouth with her hand, a pink blush rising in her cheeks. She did that a lot; put her foot in her mouth and then was embarrassed. She told me that it was part of the reason her job was to write grants; she wasn't a people person, but a paper person. I would have argued her on it; I thought she had an adorable personality.

I raised an eyebrow. "How do you know I wouldn't have?"

She bit her lip, and I wanted to reach forward and gently rescue it. "Really?"

I shrugged like I didn't know, but my smile gave me away.

"Now that's just mean."

I laughed and managed to change the subject. One of the rules of the damn show was that I was supposed to keep the ladies guessing until the end. One producer had said something to me about nibbling, but not tasting, the fruit, and I was too disgusted to even really process what he was trying to say at the time, but now, as I narrowed down the choices, I couldn't imagine tasting and then telling someone they were bad fruit. Unripe? Bruised? Fuck. Again with not being able to put things into words and with that ridiculous analogy even.

We talked about her work at a community center and some of the most recent programs they had started. She was passionate and intelligent. She made me want to write her agency a big fat check, so I knew she was good at her job. I told her a little bit about my writing process, how I still started using paper and pen and then progressed to the laptop. She made a joke about me being the guy with the leather notebook all the time, and I couldn't help but laugh at how dead on she was.

"Moleskin." I corrected her with a shrug.

We were still laughing when we arrived at the restaurant. We headed inside, where, once we chose our menu, they blindfolded us and led us into the pitch black dining room. Bella muttered over her shoulder to me that she didn't see the need for the blindfold if it was already dark, and I told her to look forward, which was ridiculous, because she couldn't see anything, but I didn't want her to trip. The aide, I didn't know what else to call him, who led us to the dining room would also help us if we had problems dining in the dark. Bella had blushed when they explained it, making me laugh and shake my head at her. Dirty mind.

The brochure said things like, 'Opaque – Dining in the Dark - caters to the senses and a deeper consciousness. Not just a meal, but a truly unique, sensual experience.' Bella had snorted over that, and I told her that I thought presentation was an important part of a meal. My mother had beaten that into us with years of setting an amazing table. When I mentioned that to Bella in the car, it led to an important conversation about family and the fact that she really only had her dad and her best friend. Her mother and step-dad were more like her friends than parents. She told me she was a little intimidated by the Ward and June Cleaver-ness of my parents, but I promised her if she met them, which the stupid rules wouldn't allow me to come right out and tell her that she would, that she would see how really down to Earth they were.

We picked up our conversation in the darkened dining room, talking quietly, as somehow the darkness demanded, about what we saw in our future in terms of marriage and family. We seemed to take advantage of the blind anonymity, even though it was just the two of us, baring our souls much more than we had up to that point. It was freeing, yet terrifying, to not be able to see her facial expressions and reactions as we talked. Eating was interesting, and involved a lot of hands brushing each other and fingers gently caressing faces as we tried to sample and share our food. There was a lot of bumping and "oh, sorry's," as well as a fair amount of laughter.

The chocolate lava cake was my undoing. She licked the last bit of chocolate sauce from my finger, and I gave up. Sighing, I leaned forward, awkwardly finding her face, and kissed her. She tenderly returned my kiss, and it was the best damn fruit I'd ever tasted. Stupid phrase. We pulled apart, and I knew if I could see her, she would be trying to search my eyes for clues as to how I felt, for what it meant. Or maybe I was projecting myself onto her because it was certainly what I wanted to do at the moment. This pitch black dining room was a blessing and a curse.

We rode back to the girls' house in the limo, Bella tucked under my arm, talking quietly still about everything and anything, except our kiss. We said goodnight in the car, and though I wanted to, I resisted kissing her one more time. I watched her walk into the house through the tinted glass and then flopped my head back on the seat.

The following day I had to send two women home and pretend in front of everyone that what happened between Bella and I hadn't happened. Reality TV, my ass.

I spent the day debating between Tanya and Leah as the one to go home. I genuinely liked Leah, while the verdict was out on Tanya. It was fairly clear to me that neither of them were suited for me, but neither was Jane. When Emmett and Lo had pointed out the similarities in our personalities I wondered if I'd seen a little bit of myself in her. My brother had gotten a strange look on his face and asked when I'd taken ballet, but Lo understood, saying that most likely I saw her success and hard work as things that I recognized and valued, but, he reminded me, those traits are only good when presented in moderation. I knew about becoming obsessive and overdoing things. I generally walked a fine line with my writing when I really got into a groove. I wondered what it would be like to live like that every day the way she did for months instead of days or weeks at a time. I knew full well that I was miserable to live with when I was like that, and Lo and Emmett were right; that was not something that I could invite into my life. While that revelation was useful, it brought me back to the decision at hand, and I found myself again weighing the pro's and con's of crazy fuck-hot vs. fuck-hot and crazy.

In the end, I decided that crazy was crazy no matter how you sliced it, hot or not, and I presented roses to Leah, Bree, Siobhan and Bella. I think all six of the women were shocked by my choices, and everyone was certainly floored when Jane stormed out with not so much as a goodbye to any of us. I had expected an awful reaction from Tanya, but she stood almost rooted to the spot until Leah hugged her and said goodbye. Then Tanya straightened up and pushed her shoulders back. She marched out of the house on her incredibly tall heels, issuing me a jolt from her evil eye on the way past.

A waiter brought out a round of champagne, and as we sipped, the ladies realized that this meant we were headed home to meet their families. From the looks on their faces, this was not a good thing for everyone.

I started my meet the families week two hours outside of Chicago with Bree. Dinner with her parents revealed an interesting family. Her mother was an elementary school teacher, who dreamed of quitting the rat race and working on her 'art' full time. She had a studio off the back of the house that was full of landscapes and still life portraits that definitely needed work. Her father was a foreman in a furniture factory by day, but was the founding member of a garage band that played a few local gigs each year. She had a brother in New York City, but he hadn't been able to make it out to meet me.

They were great, fun people, and I understood why Bree had found herself drawn to yoga and relaxation. Her parents were like two kids with attention deficit problems they way they jumped from topic to topic. I left that night without learning much more about Bree and not having a great feeling as to whether her parents liked me or not, but aware that they only wanted their daughter to be happy. They'd repeated that at least ten times over the course of dinner.

In Boston, Siobhan and I took a cab to meet her family at the Irish pub that her father and uncle owned and ran together. The family had moved to the United States when Siobahn was in grade school, but her father had tried to maintain his accent to help business at the Pub. He said both the tourists and the local Irish liked to listen to him talk. They were a tight-knit family, quite proud of Siobhan's accomplishments and her dream to be a doctor. Her older brother, Liam, was set to take over the bar with their cousin, Riley.

It wasn't so much that I didn't seem welcome in their establishment, but there was definitely an air of discontent. When I got a moment alone, I asked Liam if there was something I should know. He hesitated, but finally admitted that Siobhan had been expected to marry a neighborhood friend that they'd know since they arrived in the U.S. The family had been shocked when she announced she was going to be on a dating show, assuming she was eventually headed back to Boston and their friend Charles. I knew I needed to hear Siobhan's side of the story, but it was disconcerting all the same.

Next I flew cross country to Seattle and then hopped a flight to Port Angeles and was driven west to Forks where I met up with Leah at the hotel. Then we headed for La Push and the Quileute reservation to meet her family. People piled out of the house as we pulled up, and I had no idea who anyone was. I knew that Leah only had one brother, so I was surprised at the number of young men that stood on the lawn. It turned out that Leah's brother, Seth, had invited his closest friends over to judge me, and everyone, except me and maybe Leah, thought that was normal.

I answered quick fire questions and felt intense scrutiny as they served us venison and smoked salmon. I never really understood what Leah's parents did for a living, but from the number of people who dropped by while I was there I got the impression that her dad was highly respected in the tribe and on the reservation. I left, having confirmed all the things that Emmett and Lo pointed out to me. Leah was never leaving the Res, and I certainly wasn't welcome.

The quick flight back to Seattle was somber. It was a sad revelation that someone that I found appealing was really a dead-end street. I could have imagined fighting for her, for us, but with this insane filming schedule and the connection I felt with the other women, it was really just goodbye.

The following day, Bella and I met her father, Charlie, and her best friend, Rose, at Rose's apartment in the city. Bella's dad was the Chief of Police in a small town that was up near La Push, but he'd been in town for some crime scene seminar and swore Rose's place was more homey than his bachelor pad. He went into the other room and Bella explained that Rose had been the thread that tied her and her father together. She'd insisted that Bella make the drive home to visit each holiday because her father usually had to work. At some point the line between friend and family had blurred, and Rose was a part of them.

They were an example of family being what you made of it. Rose's parents had passed away when the girls were in high school, and she didn't have any other surviving relatives. Bella had told me before parents were divorced, and she joked that she'd save me the torture of meeting her mother for later. Everyone seemed to think that was funny, including her father, who explained that his ex was a teenager in a grown woman's body. I laughed, too, saying I understood, because it reminded me of my brother, but I hoped he'd outgrow it if he ever had children.

I sat with Charlie in the living room watching Sports Center while the girls cleaned up from dinner. They refused our help, and I had a feeling it was really so they could catch up in private. Of all the fathers, I had been the most nervous to meet Bella's. It turned out however, that we got along amazingly well. He'd read my books and complemented me on my use of actual police procedure and for not 'faking and fucking' forensics, as he put it. He bitched about television and other writers who created an illusion of immediate lab results and unrealistic evidence. We were so engrossed in conversation that when I noticed the girls standing in the doorway watching us, I had no idea how long they had been there, but Rose was wiping her eyes and Bella was grinning.

By the time I got back to Los Angeles, I was well decided on who I wanted to come up to Big Sur with me to meet my parents. If you got right down to it, I was fairly sure of who I wanted to give the final rose to, but I was terrified that I was rushing into things. How could I feel this strongly about a person that I hadn't been exclusively dating? That I had only met weeks ago? I had never believed in the love at first sight theory before, no matter how many times my father told me that he knew when he met my mother that she was the one for him. I think I didn't want to get my hopes up, or make a mistake that would destroy one or both of our hearts later.

No matter how confident I was in my decision, it had been nauseating to send Leah home. I had walked her out to the limo so we could talk for a moment. She was sad and gracious at the same time, and her tears broke my heart, but she knew, as did I, that we couldn't have worked together.

My father was a Cardiologist at Salinas Valley Memorial Health System and my mom, who had been a nurse when they met, worked in an art gallery two days a week. My dad said that he had done his time at larger hospitals, and he welcomed the slower pace Salinas offered. He'd made a name for himself with some critical research early in his career, but found it much more enjoyable to work with patients and to focus on preventing heart disease than treating the results of it.

Unfortunately, the girls would only be meeting my parents. They had already met Emmett, and he was still in LA training for the upcoming NFL season, while my sister Alice couldn't join us because it was a conflict of interest since she worked for the network. I'd argued that they couldn't use that reason to prevent Alice from coming, or I could have gotten out of filming the entire show. Alice had giggled, and part of me had wanted to shoot myself for not thinking of it sooner, but in reality, mom was meeting Alice's new boyfriend as well, and I was going to be sure to let her know.

Siobhan was first to meet me at my parents. She and my dad immediately hit it off and were lost in conversation about ventricles and aortas. Mom smiled and took the opportunity to catch up with me a little bit. My mother was usually full of wisdom and advice, talking my ear off and giving opinions on things that I'd rather we not talk about, but on this day, she was more quiet. After we ate, I cornered her in the kitchen, concerned that something was very wrong.

She sighed and looked around the corner at my father and Siobhan, heads together, deep in conversation. "Edward, you know I trust you to make your own decisions." I tried not to laugh at that thought, she tried to get her two cents in on everything. "If you're serious about her, you need to be okay with that."

"Mom, they're just talking about work."

She smiled, wistfully and almost sad. "Yes, and she'll talk work with every doctor she meets and every person who thinks they might be the slightest bit ill. You've seen it."

I remembered the family vacation to Mexico that got postponed after dad did CPR on a fellow traveler in the airport, and how Emmett and I were never sure if he'd make it to one of our sporting events because someone, somewhere, might have had a heart condition that dad needed to see.

I sighed. "I understand, Mom."

"Do you? I just want to be sure. Don't get me wrong, that's not a complaint about your father by any means, but you need to go into this with both eyes open."

I nodded and gave her a hug. "Thanks, Mom. I love you."

I went back to the hotel that night with a little bit more to think about.

Bella came over the following day and met my parents in the garden. My dad was astounded by her sports knowledge, which I knew was thanks to Charlie. She surprised my mother with her ability to jump from a conversation about batting averages to asking a question about a particular kind of rose in the garden. Bella explained that since she didn't really grow up with her mother, Charlie had sent her to every women's group in the county, including the garden club, for motherly guidance. Since he was the chief of police, they had welcomed her with open arms.

Lunch was delicious, and the conversation never stopped. My parents asked about her family and she told them about her dad and Rose, as well as her mother in Florida. We talked about our experiences in college, Bella at Washington University and me at USC, and her job at the community center. My mother asked about my newest book project, and I was impressed to know how much Bella knew about my books. After our meal, I helped my mom carry some dishes into the house.

"Edward, she's wonderful."

I smiled. "Isn't she? There's something about her."

"You can't take your eyes off of her, and she just lights up when you speak. It's so adorable!"

"Thanks, Mom."

"Oh, my goodness! She's the one that Emmett liked, isn't she? He told me her name was Izzy."

"Don't call her that."

"Oh, I know. Your brother said she hated it." She waved a hand and laughed. "Well, at least you know she can put up with your brother."

We rejoined my father and Bella outside and continued chatting until it was time to go. From the look on his face I could tell that my father was smitten with Bella, and when she stood to leave, he asked if she was willing to relocate. We all laughed, knowing that I couldn't really give anything away, and they still had one more suitor to meet, but she smiled at him and nodded.

"If the right person asked, yes, I would relocate."

He nodded back at her. "Good to know."

One more night in a hotel. One more woman to meet my parents. Bella's visit had gone better than I had expected, but I was still concerned that she was too good to be true. I was relieved to see how my family responded to her as well, but this thing wasn't over yet.

These dates with my parents seemed to be getting earlier and earlier, and Bree came over for breakfast with my parents. My mother had made a full spread of pancakes and turkey bacon, my dad was a Cardiologist after all. There was fruit and yogurt and some free trade coffee that my mother loved. I wondered how well Bree and my father would get on, since he frequently encouraged his patients to take yoga and relaxation classes as proactive health changes.

Things went well until my dad began talking about a new treatment regimen for peripheral artery disease that the New England Journal of Medicine was recommending. Bree visibly tensed and then tried to change the subject. I tried to ignore it, but my mother wouldn't let it go. It turned out that Bree wasn't a big believer in the field of medicine. She preferred a holistic health approach and had concerns that medications caused more harm than good in the long run. Dad and I had been a little dumbfounded by that, but mom managed to say something about having had some concerns when us kids were little and needed immunizations, but she explained that she'd done her research and felt much better about having us protected. Bree started to say something else, then changed her mind and smiled shyly at the three of us. I didn't know what to think, but my father had recovered and quickly changed the subject to his favorite places in Chicago.

I went back to the hotel that night feeling shaken, questioning whether or not there were hidden things that I didn't know yet about the other women as well. I didn't sleep much and had worked myself into a near panic thinking about it. Jasper came by and we talked for almost an hour. He helped me think through my questions; only to ask me again as he left if I thought this would be easy. I threw a pillow at his receding form.

When I arrived at the girls' house that afternoon, I spent some time talking with each woman before the rose ceremony. In the end, I stuck to the decision I had made earlier, and though I was sad to see Siobhan go, I felt like we weren't really what the other was looking for. She wasn't in a place to make a decision about the long term future, and somehow, through the course of this show, I was. Her degree needed to come before anything else, though I could see how she would want to think otherwise. It's never easy being alone, and it's hard to think that there's something else you need to accomplish before you can start living your life, but we wouldn't have survived her residency, and when it came down to it, we both knew it.

Mike ushered me out of the house almost as soon as Siobhan left. I'd shared a toast with Bree and Bella quickly, and then it was time to go. It was unusual, as I normally got to hang out with the ladies for a while after the rose ceremony. Mike said something about not seeing the two women together again until the final rose ceremony, and I sighed. This show and its rules.

I woke early the next morning and caught a flight to Jamaica. I spent the first night at the resort alone, settling in before my first overnight date, or whatever the show called it. Bree and I went to Croydon on the Mountains, a plantation in the foothills of the Catadupa Mountains. We were given a private tour, where we sampled fruit and some Jamaican cocktails made from them. We held hands as we hiked the property and saw amazing views of the ocean as well as tropical rainforests and waterfalls. We had barbeque for lunch and enjoyed fresh Blue Mountain coffee, made from plants grown there on the plantation. Most importantly, we spent time together without the time constraints of a short evening date. We were both more relaxed, and as she talked to me about all of the benefits of citrus fruit and vitamin C, I came to understand how much I liked this woman, quirks and all.

We were driven back to the resort where we had dinner on the beach as we watched the sunset. When we finished our meal, it was time for the awkward 'invite the girl to my room' moment. I was not an avid Bachelor watcher, but even I knew that it was a rather huge faux pas not to invite her to my suite, whether I intended anything to happen or not. She accepted, and we finished our coffee before going to my guest room, closing the door and leaving the cameras behind us.

We both heaved a sigh of relief and sat down to have a soul searching talk, entirely off the TV record. I needed a clearer view of what she saw in her future. While I couldn't get my head around her fear of medicine, I had no idea if my seasonal love affair with Nyquil or my fondness for the occasional Ibuprofen was a deal breaker for her either. Did she see a house with white picket fence and a couple of children and dogs, or chakra aligning vacations to Sedona? And if she wanted both, could the two of us make those things work together? Our conversations had danced around it after leaving my parents' house, but we'd run out of time to address it and what it meant for us.

In the morning, after only a couple of hours of sleep, we hugged, and Bree returned to her room for what I assumed would be a day at the beach. I ate breakfast from room service and headed out to meet Bella for a day of cruising on a yacht and snorkeling. She met me wearing a beach cover-up and hat, and I had to laugh. She really did have porcelain skin that I could only imagine burned easily. We headed out, standing at the rail, watching as the hull cut through the water. I put my arm around her, and she molded to my side, feeling the familiar warmth that being with her always brought me. We reached the spot near Doctor's Cave where our captain wanted us to snorkel, and I helped Bella slather herself in eco-friendly powerful sunscreen, and then she returned the favor. The sea life was gorgeous, as was the joy on Bella's face and the way she wrinkled her nose and sputtered when she accidentally swallowed salt water.

After snorkeling we took the dinghy to shore and enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch of fresh fish with fruit salsa. I was still uncertain about how oddly sure I felt that Bella was the one. I felt like the odds of feeling that connection with her on the very first night and having it last through the final episode were astronomical, but we were getting down to the end of things, and I needed to know if she felt the same.

"I know this is difficult and one sided, but I really need to know how you feel about all of this. If you're open to what could come of it?" I was talking in circles, dying to know what she was thinking.

She sat her fork down and rested her chin in her hand. "Edward, I'm as open to it as I can be. I mean, I want to drop my guard and say, here I am, all of me, but if I do that and you walk away from me, I've got nothing left. I wasn't prepared for that when I came on the show." She shrugged. "I'm not sure you can prepare for that, except by holding onto a little piece of your own heart."

I knew what she was saying, and I wanted to tell her not to worry, but I couldn't say anything that would give away what I was feeling, and I certainly didn't want to mislead her in anyway. So instead I nodded and smiled. "But you're not opposed to, well, the possibilities?"

She laughed. "No. I'm not opposed. Terrified, but not opposed."

I couldn't stop the smile that spread across my face. "Good to know."

She raised an eyebrow. "Good to know there are possibilities."

My stomach fell. Shit. I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Bella..."

"No. God. I'm sorry." She ran a hand through her hair. "This sucks. I know you can't say anything. I just, I'm glad that you're not asking me what I'll do when I get back to Seattle. That wouldn't be a good sign. If I was looking for signs, and I'm trying not to."

She sat back and studied me, and I didn't know how to react, then she reached forward and took my hand. "I know this is hard for you, too. You must be miserable." I cocked my head, wondering what she meant. "You're a writer. Words are your life, and here you are, not able to speak your mind. At least you've been keeping your journal."

I nodded, a little surprised at how well she understood me. "I hate not being able to put things to words, or say what I mean."

The corner of her mouth raised and she shrugged a shoulder. "It's almost over. That must make you feel a little better."

"You make me feel better." It came out before I could stop it.

She stared back at me, her eyes wide and questioning. I knew she was trying to understand what I meant, but I had already said too much.

I cleared my throat and reached for the pitcher resting in the sand beside me. "More lemonade?"

Her eyes closed for a second and when they opened, the moment was behind us. She nodded and smiled. "I'd love some."

We returned to the boat after lunch, and the Captain took us back out for more snorkeling. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on deck and talking. Eventually, we went below and showered, getting ready for a sunset dinner right there on the yacht. Grilled lobster with vegetables and pigeon pea rice, which led to a long conversation about pigeon peas, which were actually kidney beans, as the sun dipped lower and lower into the water.

I was struggling to find a reason not to choose her, although I struggled to find a reason not to choose Bree either. Well, aside from the holistic health bit, which was a bit like not choosing someone for religious differences and that was ridiculous. Was I attracted to them both? Yes. Well, I was attracted to Bella, certainly. She had soft, smooth skin that I always found myself wanting to reach forward and touch. I'd stopped myself more than once from running a finger down her arm or cupping her cheek in my hand so I could caress her lips with my thumb. Her touch heated my blood, literally. I was definitely attracted to her. Bree had tanned skin that looked warm, and she wore a perfume that smelled woodsy and comforting. Her body was to die for and she had the flexibility of, well, a yoga instructor. So yeah, I was attracted to her, but again, it wasn't quite the same.

And then, as Bella talked about a ski trip she'd taken with Rose, I found myself thinking about things from a different angle. Could I walk away from that final rose ceremony knowing I would never see this woman again? The answer was the beginning of a panic attack, with a tightening of my chest and rapid shallow breaths that were quickly becoming gasps.

"Edward!" Bella's voice pierced my terror. "Are you okay?" Her hands were on my shoulders and her face was close to mine.

I wanted more than anything to kiss her, but I didn't want to scare her, or mislead her, or mostly start something I couldn't finish. I nodded, looking into her eyes, feeling my breathing begin to slow as the revelation sunk in. "I'm okay. I'm good." I nodded. "Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you."

She put a hand on my cheek. "Are you sure?"

I nodded. "I'm sure." I may have been trying to convince the both of us. I put my arm around her and pulled her to my side, so she sat next to me on the bench. Only then did I realize that she'd come around the table during my little freak out. I closed my eyes and groaned. "Ugh. I'm sorry, Bella. This whole thing is a little overwhelming."

She reached over, her arm stretching across my chest and her hand rested on my shoulder so we were sort of hugging as we sat there. "Trust me, I know."

We stayed like that until we docked and it was time to head back to the resort. Once again, it was time for me to invite my date back to my room for the night. My nerves the night before had been nothing compared to this. All of the insane fruit analogies came rushing back as she kissed me with her acceptance of the room key.

I thought of the bachelors before me, especially the one a few seasons ago with the rumored performance problems, even I knew about that guy, and I wondered how many of them had already made their decision at this point? There were things that Bella and I needed to discuss in private and questions that I wanted to ask her without tipping my hand. The door to my suite closed behind us, and we were blessedly alone for the first time, free from everyone's gaze, except my conscience.

My turmoil and concerns, no matter how insane or valid they may be, kept me up after Bella had fallen asleep. We'd talked through most of the night, telling stories about our pasts and asking hypothetical questions about what we wanted in life. We'd kissed a little more, but we both seemed hesitant to let things go too far. Eventually, I watched the slow rise and fall of her chest and took in the peaceful look on her face, and I was amazed at the emotions she stirred in me even as she slept.

In the harsh light of day, I had made a serious decision, and I could only hope that my heart was leading me in the right direction.

The flight home was uneventful and lonely. I wasn't allowed to travel with the ladies, and I wondered if they flew back to California together. I realized how uncomfortable that must be for them and was glad that I was sitting next to a woman my mothers age who was returning from a trip to Jamaica with her bridge club. When I got home, I spent another night pacing in the beach house before a sales person from Neil Lane was chauffeured out to meet with me in the morning.

It was a little overwhelming to be looking at engagement rings and thinking that I could potentially be engaged by the end of the night. I say potentially, because I wasn't one hundred percent sure that I was going to ask her. I was considering maybe just giving her the rose and hanging on to the ring for a while because I didn't want to be the dumb ass that gave someone a ring as a promise to ask them anything. I was either asking, or I wasn't. I hadn't decided yet, and Jasper assured me that was fine. He also told me that he had a feeling that she would say yes if I asked. I said he'd been spending too much time with my damn sister and her feelings about things.

The rings were gorgeous, but it didn't take me very long to find the one I thought she would like. It had a brilliant round center diamond with diamonds surrounding it and more down the band as well. It was white gold with mill-grained edges and had the feel of old Hollywood. I could easily imagine it on her hand as she talked excitedly or reached for something. I took a deep breath, trying not to think about what I would do if she said no.

There was production staff in and out of the house all day setting up the walkway and weird altar for the final rose ceremony. I worked out in the fitness room at the house, trying to burn off some of my anxiety, and ate a light dinner. I found a Tom Ford tuxedo hanging in my closet after my shower and slowly got ready, thinking over the words that I would say to each woman when they met me at the end of the aisle. I knew what the outcome would be when I agreed to do the show, but my god, I had no idea it was going to be so hard to tell someone that I genuinely cared about that they weren't the one for me.

Mike Newton found me standing in the living room looking out the window at the ocean. He asked if I was ready, and I wanted to punch him. How the hell did you get ready for this? But I sighed and nodded. "Do you need me outside?"

"Can you tell me how you're feeling?"

"Nervous, Mike. And I don't feel like talking." I stretched my shoulders and walked out to the pool area with cameras and a mic boom following in my wake. The sun started to bleed red and dipped into the sky. All I could think of was the old saying red sky at night, sailors delight. A bubble of laughter almost burst out of my mouth at the randomness at that thought. God, I hoped the night turned out delightful.

Mike was apparently used to bachelors being assholes on the last night, because he followed me out to the end of the walkway and just stood in my space for a few minutes. Then he sighed and checked his watch before saying, "It's time."

It was foreboding, like it was time for me to walk the plank or something. I needed to get myself into a better place mentally. I had no idea who was walking in first, and I needed to be prepared for either woman.

About five minutes later, I could see Mike through the windows leading Bree outside. She saw me and her face lit up. She wore a light purple sleeveless dress with a cowl-neck that showed off her figure and stiletto heels that my sister would envy. I smiled, my hands sweating as she made her way towards me.

"Hi." Her voice was breathy, nervous. She hugged me, and when she stepped back I was holding both of her hands in mine, and she was smiling at me hopefully.

I smiled back at her. "You look beautiful."

I didn't understand how my throat could be dry when there was sweat dripping off of me. I swallowed hard, and her smile faltered. Why would she think she could tell what I was going to say just by that action?

"You are an amazing woman. Your mere presence puts me at ease and makes me feel better, always," I started. She exhaled, relaxing, and it was a knife in my gut. "We have some pretty fundamental differences, and I was awed at how willing you were to try to find a middle ground. I can't thank you enough for being here and putting your heart on the line." She tried to resist smiling, biting her lip instead. I exhaled and continued, steeling myself for her reaction. "I wish I could say that I've fallen in love with you, but the truth is that I've given my heart to someone else. I'm sorry."

Her eyes got wide and she pulled her hands out of my grasp. Tears welled in her eyes, and I repeated my apology, as if it meant more to say it again. She blinked a few times, and I could see her nostrils flare as she took deep breaths through her nose and processed what I had said. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and she moved to wipe them on her dress before she rejoined them awkwardly.

"You really love her?" It was barely a whisper.

"I do. I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

She looked at me with wide eyes, and I could see the questions swirling in them. How long had I known? Had she missed any hints or signs? How had she let this happen to herself? In a strange way I had asked myself all of the same questions when I realized that I knew exactly who I wanted to give the final rose to.

Twice she opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself. The calm that usually emanated from her was distinctly missing, and it was my fault. Finally, she sighed and shook her head as she spoke. "I can't talk to you right now."

"I understand."

"No. You don't." Her voice was hard, it was absolutely unlike her. She closed her eyes and then exhaled. After a second she opened them and stepped forward, shocking me with a tense hug. She spoke quietly near my ear, "I hope you find happiness, Edward. You're a wonderful man."

Then she turned and walked away, leaving me standing there, feeling broken. I watched her go into the house, where Mike met her and escorted her out. I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea how I was supposed to go from that to professing my love to someone, but that was exactly what was expected of me.

I didn't know how they did it, the jockeying of limos in and out of the long driveway so that each woman had no idea if she was the first or second to arrive at the house. After some undetermined amount of time which felt like seconds, but I'm sure it was more like ten minutes; Mike came back and asked if I was ready again. I seriously wanted to cold cock the bastard, even if he was just doing his job. I nodded and turned around to face the water, hoping he would leave. A camera was crammed in my face, but I heard Mike go inside, and I was able to relax for a few seconds before turning around and waiting for Bella.

When I saw her coming out of the house it was one of those time stands still moments that you think are so ridiculous in books and movies. She wore some kind of necklace that caught a ray of the fading sun and sparkled at me. Her hair was down in waves, and she wore a gorgeous red Grecian gown that made her skin look even more pale than usual, but in a beautiful, glowing way.

She walked towards me, hesitantly picking up the hem of her gown to walk carefully across the bridge that angled over the corner of the pool to meet me. She said hi, and I found myself in a moment of déjà vu as I hugged her, but when she started to step back I held her close, keeping my arms around her. There were things to say, but I didn't really care. In that moment I needed to show her how I felt. Our eyes locked, and I bent my face to hers and kissed her. I could imagine someone in the production booth screaming at the video stream that I was doing it all wrong, or hell, maybe they were cheering at what this would do for the ratings. I didn't really give a shit. All that mattered was Bella, right there, in my arms.

She was kissing me back, but I realized that she hadn't put her arms around me; they rested gently on my hips. I pulled back, my hands cupping her cheeks and kissed her one more time before straightening to look down at her hopeful, but uncertain face. My hands slid down to her elbows, and we stood together for a second before I found my voice.

"You look beautiful." I smiled at her and resisted kissing her again. "Thank you, for taking a chance and coming on this show. I know you were nervous about who you were going to meet, and I'm glad I wasn't too douchey for you." She laughed, and I wanted her to relax, but I could still feel the tension in her arms. "You are so much more than I ever expected to meet. I have felt a connection with you since the very first night when you got out of the car, and it's just grown stronger."

"Edward," she whispered, searching my eyes again.

"Bella, I've fallen in love with you, and I hope that you feel the same." I paused to reach in my pocket, and she gasped as I lowered myself to my knee. "I know this is fast, but I can't let you walk away without asking. Will you accept this rose, and will you marry me?"

She took the rose, which was a relief, but she stood looking down at the ring box in my hand with tears gathering in her eyes, and I had no idea what that meant.

"Someday. We don't have to rush," I added quietly.

She snorted and grinned down at me, licking her lips, and torturing me a little longer. "I never expected this." She wiped a tear from her cheek, and I was doing everything I could to keep the hopeful smile on my face when I was feeling increasingly nauseous. "It is fast, and I should say it's too soon, but I can't." Her smile widened, and she nodded. "Yes. I can't believe I'm saying this, but, yes!"

I slipped the ring onto her finger quickly, like it bound her to me, and she couldn't change her mind once she was wearing it. I stood up and kissed her again, the way I'd been dying to for weeks. For a few moments, I forgot about the cameras, and we murmured quietly to each other between kisses.

"God, I love you. Thank you for saying yes."

"I was so afraid you weren't going to ask, or you weren't going to pick me." She smacked my arm. "You were so good! I really didn't know who you were going to choose!"

"I couldn't tell you." I picked her up and spun her around, unable to touch her enough.

She laughed in delight. "Don't drop me in the pool! Rose will kick your ass! She bought me this dress."

"Rose scares me. I bet she would kick my ass. We should set her up with Emmett."

"That is genius!" She giggled.

They continued filming us, and we tried to act normal, to hug and kiss and ignore the cameras as much as we could.

"I can't wait to call my dad and Rose!"

"My mother is dying to know if you said yes."

"You got to tell them?"

"I didn't have to. She knows. She's just like that." I leaned down and kissed her again. I couldn't seem to stop. But god, I wanted to do so much more with her.

Her hands wound into my hair, and she molded herself to me. "Are we almost done here?"

"We have to be." I turned my head towards Mike. "Can we go?"

"A few more minutes." He snorted. "You act like you want to be alone together or something!"

"I'm going to kick his ass," I muttered, not entirely meaning to say it out loud, but either way, Bella cracked up laughing.

After a few more pictures and kisses Mike gave us a nod, and I picked her up with a wink to carry her over the bridge and into the house. I closed the door and left the cameras behind us. We were finally alone. Wonderfully, perfectly, alone, together.

00oo00 Six Months Later 00oo00


Bella's voice distracted me, and with my fingers poised over the keyboard, I completely lost my train of thought. I turned my head and raised an eyebrow at her for interrupting me.

"Don't raise that thing at me." She laughed. "Are you at a place where you can stop? Everyone will be here soon."

I glanced at my watch, amazed that the day had disappeared as I worked. My latest book involved a crime spree in Seattle that my character, Aro Voluterra, went to investigate as a favor to his cousin Caius. I had been engrossed in writing an important scene, being careful not to give away too many hints as to who the villain was for, apparently, much longer than I thought.

"Shit. It's almost five?"

She smiled and nodded. I looked around and realized that at some point she had brought me a sandwich, which I had eaten most of, and replaced my coffee mug with a large bottle of water.

"Bella, I -"

"Shhhh," she cut me off, coming over to sit on my lap. "It's okay. I'm kind of getting used to the crazy man you become when you write. But you're the one who wanted to invite people over to watch the game."

I sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't actually invite them. It's my year to host the Superbowl party. My family keeps hoping that we'll actually get to go to the game and watch Emmett play, so until then, we watch together on the television."

"Hey, I'm excited to spend time with them, but I'm not interested in doing it without you tonight. So you need to grab a shower and meet me in the kitchen." She kissed me and then stood, trying to pull me to my feet.

"Let me save what I was working on." She stood by my chair, waiting. God, she really was getting used to this. She knew I wouldn't stop writing if she walked away.

"You can come back in here after half-time. Everyone will understand."

"I'll have had too much to drink by then." I laughed.

She pulled me to my feet. "I'm sure I can find something for you to do with your hands instead of typing. Let's go."

I stepped behind her in the doorway brushing her hair aside to kiss the back of her neck, then put my hands on her waist. "What would I do without you?"

She put her hands over mine and looked over her shoulder at me with a grin. "Starve. And masturbate. A lot."

I threw my head back laughing and she pulled me into the hall then let go of me and headed towards the kitchen. As I stripped and climbed into the shower, I was struck by the changes that she had brought into my life.

We'd had to hide our relationship from everyone except our closest friends and family until the show aired, and then we had to wait for the entire season to be shown. So for three months we texted and talked using the code names Ross and Rachel. We'd argued for hours about it. I wanted Luke and Leah, but she'd rolled her eyes and called me a nerd. The only good thing about it, was that it gave her time to get her affairs in order up in Seattle and be ready to make the move down to Los Angeles. On the night we taped After the Final Rose we'd gone six weeks without seeing each other, and there was a U-Haul truck full of her belongings parked in front of my condo. We hadn't spent a night apart since.

I toweled off and dressed, running my hands through my hair and leaving it unruly the way she liked it. I found her in the kitchen, tossing chicken wings in sauce, and I was still amazed that she was taking the time to make all kinds of food for the party and hadn't just ordered in. It was another change she'd brought to my life; eating in more often than out.

She looked over her shoulder at me. "Hey, can you start on the guacamole? Everything except the avocado is cut up. Then you just have to mix it together and mash it a little."


I moved to the refrigerator and started pulling out the little dishes that she'd filled with ingredients and got started. We worked side by side for a few minutes before she put the wings in the oven and washed her hands before getting other dishes out of the refrigerator. Then she sighed and leaned on the counter, taking in the spread of food we'd, well mostly she'd, prepared. I walked over and boxed her in, putting my hands on the counter on both sides of her body.

"Thank you for doing all of this and for dragging me out of my cave. You're pretty amazing, you know that?"

She grinned and put her arms around me. "I am pretty amazing, but I don't mind when you go in your cave and write. You come out all scruffy and sexy."

I chuckled and then stepped forward, molding our bodies together, and kissed her. What I had intended as a soft, romantic kiss morphed into something more powerful as she moaned and pulled me even tighter against her. We were so distracted that we never heard the door open, and I jumped out of her arms when someone pinched my ass.

"Shit!" I yelled, whipping around to block Bella from whoever the intruder was.

"Dude! Izzy! What's up?"

"Emmett," I muttered. Giant, gluttonous, cockblocking man-child.

"Jackass!" Bella called out with a laugh. She said if he insisted on calling her Izzy, she would call him by a nick name as well.

Alice and Jasper laughed at our exchange, and Emmett narrowed his eyes at us. "You two better get your touchy feely out of the way, we saw dad pulling into the parking lot."

I had to laugh at him. I was an adult, kissing my fiancé, and he was calling it touchy feely. I wasn't afraid if my parents saw us, so just to irritate him, I pulled Bella back into my arms and kissed her, making out right there in the kitchen. Alice squealed in laughter. Emmett said something about getting a room. My mother slapped the back of my head.

"Ow, mom!" I was laughing.

"You have guests." She tried to look mad as she shook her head, but she was laughing. "Hi, Bella!" she gushed before she kissed her on the cheek and gave her a hug.

We were all laughing a little, still standing near the doorway and the entrance to the kitchen when my dad came in with my Superbowl surprise trailing behind him.

"Oh my god!" Bella shrieked practically breaking my eardrum. "Rose?"

"Sweet baby Jesus. Who is that?" Emmett asked as the girls hugged each other.

"That's her best," Alice answered.

"She's the best alright," he leered. Jasper and I laughed at him, and Alice raised her lip in disgust.

Bella began introductions but Rose interrupted when she got to Emmett. "Holy shit! Emmett McCarty?" She looked back and forth between Emmett and Bella trying to figure out the connection.

"Rose, meet my brother Emmett. He dropped the Cullen from his name when he joined the NFL." I grinned, already proud of my matchmaking.

She stepped forward and shook his hand. "Wow. I've been telling Bell's dad since the Steeler game that I'd love to have a minute to talk to you about those missed tackles."

My eyes bulged out of my head, and I looked at Bella who was cracking up. "Rose, let the man get a beer before you try to help him improve his game."

Improve his game? I thought Emmett was going to strangle her, but when I looked at him, he was eyeing Rose like a sandwich. The giant, gluttonous man-child had met his match, and it was going to be a blast to watch.

"Come on inside everyone, don't just stand in the doorway," Bella laughed. "Make yourselves at home. Can I get anyone a drink?"

I put my arm around her as my family filed into the condo. Everything was just as it should be, and I couldn't imagine my life without her.


Thank you so much for reading and not being intimidated by my insanity, I mean, the length of the fic! I hope now you see why the banner and the story were so connected in my mind.
While I love Edward and Bella from this story, I'm pretty smitten with Emmett, too. Giant, gluttonous cockblocking man-child.
After all that reading, I'd love it if you left a note and let me know what you thought!

One more time, I can't thank ETheHunter and A Redhead Thing enough for their beta skills and encouragement.

Thanks again, all. This contest was such a great idea and so fun to be a part of!

To see all the stories that are a part of this contest please visit:
www .fanfiction-challenges. blogspot. com

Engagement Ring