Thanks to the talented BelleduJour and 4mejasper from Project Team Beta for suffering me and making my words look pretty. *bows head* My butt is still sore after the spanking but it was worthy *winks* I promise I'll do better next time.

Extended Summary:

Bella has always felt like the Southern Belle gone wrong. Coming from an old society family, she didn't have the genetic make-up to fit in the life her Grandmother wanted for her, so she ran away.

Edward is handsome, successful and wealthy. He can have any woman he wants, but he doesn't trust any. The moment he sets eyes on the exotic beauty at the New Years' party he realizes there's more to her than it meets the eye. A few dances and a kiss turn his world upside down and soon he's trying to make her understand that she doesn't have to give up all her dreams.

As they start to know each other better, their friendship turns into something deeper, but they have to deal with their own insecurities, Bella's current boyfriend and some family and work-related problems first to see if a future together is even possible.

Note: I'm aware Bella already has a boyfriend in the beginning of the story, but I promise it'll be canon parings eventually, just be patient: my girl doesn't know what she's missing *winks*

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I don't own Twilight; I just play in S. Meyer's sandbox when she's distracted.

Chapter 1: Of Giraffes and Lions

"And now the last touch", Alice said half moving, half dancing around me. She stood on her tiptoes and fastened the necklace at the nape of my pale neck. She took a few steps backwards to examine her work.

I looked at her, immobile, waiting for her verdict. She scrunched her little brows for a few seconds and motioned with her finger, gesturing for me to turn around. I took a deep breath and spun slowly, as gracefully as my figure allowed me, light-years away from her effortless swirls.

Alice's face lightened up like a spring morning while she clapped and nodded, and I sighed in relief.

"Bella! You look so pretty in that dress! I'm sure Mike is gonna love it!"

I smiled at her, thankful to have such a wonderful friend - a friend willing to do her best to make me feel pretty- when I knew better than to believe in her compliments.

I was lanky and moved with the lack of grace characteristic of people who grew up too fast to adjust. My nose was too big, and I lacked a personality to go with an appendage of that size. My hair was that sad shade of brown that comes only from a bad dye job, a ratty brown that did nothing to bring up any colours in my pale skin. I knew all that. I had spent countless hours in front of the mirror trying to find my strong points…Sadly I only revisited the weak ones over and over before I got tired of pitying myself and decided just to give up.

I walked to the mirror to look at the final ensemble for the last time when the doorbell rang.

Alice squealed and disappeared from the room. I heard her fast steps fading downstairs; in a few minutes my boyfriend would be in the living room waiting for me.

The reflection in the mirror showed the improved version of me. I moaned. So much for improvement! I still looked like weird, awkward me, plus a too-much-on-the-girlie-girl-side pink dress, some heavy make-up and the usual ballet flats. I hated them with a passion! In my head, they were canoes, big and shapeless. I hated them more because they were my shackles, reminding me that I could never wear nice, feminine heels without looking like a lamppost, my head always too many inches higher than my date's.

My boyfriend Mike's a nice guy. He's averagely good-looking, mildly shy and has a golden retriever-like, always-eager-to-please disposition . All attributes, of course, to put him right in my league. Mr. Nice Guy and Miss Klutzy Giraffe. We made perfect sense! One day he would propose, we'd get married and live boringly-ever-after in our little white suburban house. We'd have 2.5 kids and no dog because I didn't think Mike could handle the competition. Hell! I could even paint the picket fence a heinous shade of pink. As in girlie-girl-dress kind of pink.

On that note, I grabbed my purse and went down the stairs. It's never good when you get sarcastic and start yearning for what you would never have.

"Are you having fun?" Mike offered me a sugar-rimmed glass of some blue and fruity-smelling liquid decorated with little paper umbrellas.

I smiled kindly and nodded, trying not to betray my feelings. In my mind, I keep a running list of things not fun, and office New Years' parties only came second to getting bikini-waxed.

"Lovely ladies and…others…" a voice called through the speakers. The short, bald man hired as MC was making cheap attempts to sound funny, but after dinner and a few glasses of wine, the guests were actually too willing to laugh and play along anyway. Fake smile in place, he proceeded to talk about the games we'd be playing.

I watched him with a mix of pity and anger. It seemed that the party committee thought that having games would be a hit. Yeah, must have been the same team of braniacs who came up with the idea of having the big convention hall decorated in a bizarre tropical-beachy theme…in Atlantic City of all places! As if we didn't have enough outside for the tourists, they had to bring the palm trees inside for the locals too. Go figure.

The Danny DeVito look-alike called all the wives and girlfriends present to step forward and he lined us up in front of a long table that was covered with a white cloth. Then he explained they had "secretly" taken something from our date's office desks and we had to identify which object belonged to our men. The rest of the ladies looked amused, I, however must have groaned loudly considering the looks I earned from them.

The cloth was removed and they started picking the matching items in order. I hid myself almost at the end of the line, determined that stalling was as good a policy as any. When it was my turn, I grabbed a framed picture of myself and received a way too happy hug and kiss from Mike, who led me to the dance floor to join the other couples.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the "reward" for finding the super secret object was a dance. I bit back another groan and started entertaining myself with the idea cutting my veins open with one of those cute cocktail umbrellas. Oh, the perks of having a wild and crazy inner life!

A few other lame games followed, and by the end of them, my eyes were focused on the friggin' umbrellas as if they held the cure for all bad in the world.

Finally, they gave us a break with the promise of more awesome games to come later…Yay! Time to hit the bar and drown my misery! At that point, I was absolutely sure that I wouldn't be able to survive the Luau Party from Hell sober.

I pushed Mike away to go and mingle with his mates, assuring him that I'd be fine on my own. I was almost tempted to pat his head and tell him "Good Boy" when he finally gave me a quick peck on the cheek and left.

I found an empty stool and sat, ordering a Southern Comfort. The barman stared at me with wide eyes, I shrugged. Graduating from the University of New Orleans had made me fairly well acquainted with my SoCo and old habits die hard…especially when I was already eyeing cocktail umbrellas with something resembling to lust. He hesitated a few seconds, but ultimately poured my drink. I gulped it greedily, enjoying the burn down my throat, and put the glass down to ask for a refill. The barman gasped and somebody snorted beside me. I gathered that "pink ladies" weren't supposed to drink that kind of thing and that fact pissed me off somewhat. I turned to look at the jerk who snorted, ready to make some snarky remark, but I was rendered silent.

Sitting two stools from me was the hottest guy I've ever seen.

Perfect face. Handsome, but not pretty in a womanly way. Strong, defined jaw dusted with a five-o-clock shadow; tousled hair an odd shade between blond and cooper; slightly full, absolutely kissable lips and a pair of mischievous green eyes that made my knees wobble.

He smirked and patted the empty stool between us.

I glared, first at him, then at the offending stool, then back at him. His cockiness sobered me up from my former speechless state.

What the fuck? Did he think that his hot-as-hell status entitled him to make a move on the ugly 'sure-to-be-drunk-soon' girl? First a snort and then a condescending pat on the seat next to him and he's the King of the Party? His hotness was overshadowed by his jerk attitude

He grinned lazily, scooted to the stool right next to me, and ordered more Southern Comfort for the two of us.

"My name is Edward. I believe we weren't properly introduced."

His voice was rich and deep. I swear it went directly to my lady bits and I knew I had to run for my life immediately. Before it was too late. Before I did something I'd regret tomorrow. Like jumping on his lap and biting his lips. Or kidnapping him and having hot monkey sex with him, Golden Retrievers be dammed.

I stood up, downed my drink in a few gulps and shook his hand that was still extended in my direction.

"Nice to meet you, cupcake! Thanks for the drink!"

And I stormed off to hide in the ladies room.

Luckily, the bathroom wasn't crowded, so I could take a few deep breaths and compose myself. My view in the mirror clearly said that Alice's version of improved and mine weren't even cousins.

A few splashes of water and some cold cream and tissues later, my face was clean again. I re-applied some mascara and lip-gloss and started working on the hairpins that held my hair up. Nothing I could do about the pink dress, but at least I could set my hair free and feel a little more like myself.

Happy with the result, I went back to the hall to look for my boyfriend.

Mike, always the gentleman, didn't say a thing about my change of look and introduced me to some colleagues. We made small talk while he held his hand on the small of my back, a gesture I've always found comforting when we're in this kind of gatherings. I glanced around many times, trying to find the hot jerk among the crowd, but he wasn't anywhere to be seen. I convinced myself that it was better that way.

Regrettably, Danny the MC decided it was a good time to resume his awful party games. Oh, joy! I wondered if I could get some confetti to toss in the air to show how much I was enjoying the idea.

"Lovely ladies and…dudes," he blared through his mic. "Time for the dancing games! Shake your hips!"

Whistles, catcalls and a round of applause gave away the fact that his audience was even more buzzed than during the first round. I didn't attempt to hide my groan this time; it wasn't like anybody would notice. Shake our hips? Seriously? Should we move like Jagger too?

Where's a fucking cocktail umbrella when you need it?

"But before we start these great games, let me introduce you to our Postman! An applause for our postman, please!" he roared and "Please Mr. Postman" by the Beatles came from the speakers. A mousy boy with a severe case of acne entered the room dressed like a cartoon postman, complete with red satchel bag hanging across his shoulder, and stood next to Danny. I sincerely felt bad for the guy; he looked beyond mortified. Gauging his age, I imagined he must have been one of those ramen noodles college students, too desperate to turn down the job.

Danny explained we could approach our postman and write a short anonymous message to be delivered to any of the party guests. We only had to address it vaguely, not by name, but using some sort of hint.

"For example - Beautiful lady in the red dress," he said, wagging his brows while looking at one of the secretaries and making her blush. "You can reply, but the postman can't reveal the sender. You have the rest of the night to use our mail service."

Judging his face, I guessed he thought he was playing cupid. It sounded like a screwed-up office version of high school's Invisible Friend, only the participants had traded the acne for balding heads and prominent bellies.

"Now, our first game - the hat game!" He produced a few funny looking hats from a bag and placed them on the table. The couples will start dancing with the partner they choose. I'll give the hats to random gentlemen who have no partner and each one will choose who will wear the hat. Everybody knows that is not polite dancing with a hat on, so when a man gets a hat on his head, he has to leave his partner to dance with the one who gave him the hat, wear it for the rest of the song and look for another victim to do the same in return when the next song begins. One rule only - nobody repeats, once you have already worn a hat, nobody can put another one on the same person. All clear?" he paused and looked at us. Once he was happy everybody got his game, he screamed "Music please, Mr. DJ!"

'Wicked Game' by Chris Isaak started and Danny looked so smug that I was almost picturing him as an old villain from a black and white movie, twirling his moustache.

Mike pulled me close to him and we started swaying to the music. A few seconds later, a hand came from behind and put the most ridiculous hat I've ever seen on top of Mike's head. He cursed loudly, and I couldn't help laughing. The thing was full of pink and green feathers and what looked like bananas hanging all around it. My laugh died when I saw Edward grinning like a Cheshire cat. He bowed, amused, glanced at Mike shaking his head and took me in his arms, dancing away from my very flustered, very stunned boyfriend.

Oh, my God! I thought he had left! How could I have left my guard down like that?

One minute I had the clammy hands of Mike loosely touching my back and gripping my hand and the next, Edward was holding my body so sensually that I had trouble breathing. His gaze, intense and sinful, captured my eyes; his touch was scorching my skin. I was suddenly very aware of his body. One of his hands roamed down my back, the subtle touch setting me on fire inch by inch over the dress. The other hand cupped my neck, tracing small patterns over the exposed skin and playing with my hair. His movements relaxed me in a strange way. I slipped my arms around his neck and rested my head on his shoulder.

Suddenly I felt that nothing around us mattered anymore. Just the two of us rocking gently to the music. We danced like that for a few songs; I couldn't find it in me to care about my good old Golden Retriever. I didn't want the music to end; I was enjoying it too much. Deep down I knew it was a stolen moment, a taste of something that would never be mine, something I'd probably crave the rest of my pathetic life…but that night, while the hats kept changing places, I could have it.

His embrace became looser when the last song ended. He cupped my chin and raised my face so our eyes met again; his smile seemed sad. Mike stepped in, throwing his arm over my shoulders, and Edward disappeared into the crowd.

I missed the warmth of his skin as soon as he turned his back to walk away.

Somehow, I managed to convince Mike to get us drinks, and I claimed an empty table. There was no way in hell I was sitting at the bar again. As much as I appreciated my boyfriend's quiet love, I didn't want to stain my memories of Edward. I wanted to burn them in my mind and have them with me for the rest of my boring life.

Mike was a serene, harmless, shallow pool. No risks, no excitement, but also nothing to worry about; just safety and routine. Edward was the deep ocean. Never knowing when a storm would strike.

I wondered how it'd feel being his girlfriend. No. Scratch that! I wondered how it'd feel to be Edward's woman. The term girlfriend and something as manly and intense as Edward just didn't mix. Girlfriends are tame, pink-dressed beings who attend office holiday parties. Men like him didn't have one of those.

The "Postman" snapped me out of my inner ramblings. I took the note and smiled; it was addressed to the "pretty girl in the pink dress." I recognized Mike's sloppy handwriting at first sight. It read "You look pretty tonight."

Leave it to my Golden Retriever to push the dagger in deeper while trying to be romantic.




That's exactly what others see in me. Ordinary. A shallow pool.

I thanked Mike for his kind gesture when he came back with our drinks. He seemed pleased, the hat incident erased from his mind, as he sipped his beer with a content face.

I excused myself and made my way to the ladies' room.

The postman approached me again when I was walking down the corridor. He was blushing as he gave me the note, and I couldn't understand his attitude at first. Untill I read the note…

It was addressed to the "stunning creature with the wild hair". The penmanship, elegant and firm, was clearly masculine, but I haven't seen it before. It read "I want to lick that luscious neck of yours."

I let out a weird noise, somewhere in between a strangled moan and a gasp, which might have sounded like a dying animal. Letter-boy and I must have looked the same shade of crimson when he timidly asked me if I wanted to reply the message. I shook my head and tried to hide my smile before I lunged into the bathroom.

I stared at my reflection in the mirror for a moment while I was washing my hands. Something was different. Could it be? I was glowing and all it took was an improper line in a scrap of paper.

Feeling bolder and carefree, I went to look for the postman. On a second thought, I wanted to reply to that message. What harm could it cause? After all, it was just a party game.

I decided to send a new note; I wanted to keep mine so using the same paper wasn't an option. I took a page from the note block in my purse and wrote: "To the wicked green-eyed creature: I'd take you up on the offer, but I'm not sure you'd enjoy the experience." I folded it in a half and gave it to the very surprised letter-boy, with instructions to deliver it to Edward.

I was feeling very pleased with myself by the time I reached our table, so I allowed Mike to drag me to centre of the dance floor to play another lame game.

Danny was holding a box full of what looked like tangled ribbons, long ends hanging on opposite sides of the box. He explained that the ladies had to pick a ribbon from their side, and the gentlemen had to do the same from theirs; then he'd take away the box and each of us had to disentangle the ribbon and dance with the partner on the other end.

It appeared much easier when he said it. When the jumble of ribbons hit the ground, everybody started crossing their hands, passing under them, trying to untangle the darn ribbons before somebody pulled with too much force and the knots got tighter. Add some tanked dancers to the mix, and it's safe to say we weren't doing a great job at it.

One minute I was distracted pulling my ribbon and the next Edward was standing right in front of me. Smirking, he took a piece of my ribbon that wasn't knotted and pulled a Zippo from his pocket. I watched dumbfounded as he swiftly burnt the strip of red plastic till it was free from the messy pile in the middle of the room.

"I'm sure I'll enjoy it immensely" he whispered in my ear. His breath was warm, doing strange things to my body.

"Shall we?"

And I knew that although he was talking about dancing, his eyes were promising other things. He smiled crookedly and led me to the less illuminated corner of the dance floor. I wanted to bite him…so I just said yes. To whatever he was offering.

The music was light and made me feel happy and giddy.

The female voice sang "Let's dance little stranger, show me secret sins…"

I let the music carry me, swaying to the rhythm, enjoying Edward's closeness. For the first time in my life, I felt small, feminine. He was very tall; I had to look up to hold his gaze, and his shoulders were broad, protective.

We seemed so at ease together as if we had known each other forever. His smile was gorgeous and comfortable. However, even when he was in a relaxed mood, anybody could say that Edward was a domestic animal; there was something wild about the way he moved. A touch of something I couldn't define. Passion maybe? I pegged him for a passionate man. One of those men who'd never make love once a week, without desire, just out of routine. A man who'd prefer body heat to central heating. A man who wouldn't need a woman to feed him, do his laundry and pick the shampoo he would use. Men like that need a woman with capital W. Men like that didn't need a swing on the porch. Or a fucking pink picket fence.

Too soon, the song came to the end, and I knew it was the last one. It was almost midnight and everybody would start pairing up for the count down. After that, the company personnel would gather in a private conference room to share their goals for next year, pat each one another's backs, and the party would end.

The huge plasma screens in the hall blared to life, the Times Square ball being the center of attention; the guests stopped fighting the ribbons and cheered.

Edward stared intensely at me and then dropped his arms, gently pushing me toward where the rest of the guests were gathering. There was a taste of promise in his eyes, and something else that I could only describe as melancholy.

I walked towards Mike while I briefly wondered if Edward was missing somebody at this moment. Was he sad because he wanted to be with some woman who wasn't present? Was there somebody in his life or did he just felt lonely?

My boyfriend smiled at me and put his hand on the small of my back again. I felt like growling.

Happy people wearing funny hats cheered from the screen. Lady Gaga and Mayor Bloomberg pushed the button to start the ball drop. Then the countdown began.


The tick-tock sounds reminded me of a heartbeat.


At 10, the people in the party started counting out loud too.


The ball dropped. Mike gave me a peck on the lips. People were cheering, whistling and squealing. The fireworks in the city echoed with the ones coming from the screens. 'Auld Lang Syne' sounded muffled though the speakers, drowned by the celebration racket. 'New York, New York' followed. And that was the cue for the company staff to move to the conference room.

A few waiters offered us champagne. I knew Mike would be toasting with his mates in the other room, so I took a flute and walked toward one of the doors behind the bar that led to the glass terrace. It was slightly open, and I welcomed the cool breeze on my face. Pressing my forehead against the glass, I let my mind wander through the things that happened during the night.

Unexpectedly, an arm pulled me onto the terrace and slid the door shut. A second later, I was back in the arms of a certain wicked male.

"I though you had left the party early."

He shook his head and smiled sadly. "I couldn't stand the thought of seeing him kissing you at midnight."

The look in his eyes told me he was telling the truth, though I couldn't understand why he would feel that way.

"Besides, I wanted my kiss too."

He took me in his arms and leaned closer. That mischievous spark in his eyes was dancing again. "And you still owe me," he said an inch from my lips, his breath mingling with mine, his hand caressing my neck. "You sure you want this?"

I breathed a yes all too eager, because I wanted everything he could give me, even when I was certain I wouldn't see him again.

He pulled me to him, capturing my lips with his. They felt soft and warm and all kinds of amazing. He kissed me softly a few times, and then he pulled back for an instant.

He was holding back, giving me the chance to tell him to stop.

The moment his lips touched mine again, I began kissing him back as if my life depended on it. The extreme tenderness of the first touches slowly vanished and turned into the world-shattering passion I was expecting from him.

When he nibbled on my bottom lip, I moaned and opened my mouth to him. We explored each others' mouths with tongues and teeth, licking, sucking, biting and tasting.

At some point, he must have pulled me against the wall, because when we were both breathless and had to come up for air, I noticed the change in our positions.

He leaned on me resting his forehead on mine, both of us panting, his toned body still pressed against every inch of mine. He kissed me gently once more, his lips lingering on mine and then travelling along the line of my jaw to my ear.

"I still want to lick your luscious neck," he whispered, kissing my earlobe.

I moaned, his lips barely touching me, his breath making my whole body tingle in anticipation. He traced my neck with his nose, stopping every now and then to graze his lips against my flesh. He repeated that pattern a few times, up and down, his breathing turning heavier, his hands roaming, caressing my ribs and the sides of my breasts. Then his tongue slid slightly against my tender skin, leaving a trail of wetness behind.

The cool breeze made me shiver, and he chuckled. He pulled me closer to him, shielding me from the cold with his warm body, stroking my back. He took his sweet time sucking and nibbling my neck, and by the time he raised his head and looked into my eyes, I wasn't shuddering from the cold. It was pure undiluted desire. I could see the same hunger reflected in his eyes.

Footsteps and noises of chatting people started to come from the hall. I knew the party was over and with that, my minutes in heaven with Edward were over too.

He grimaced and kissed me one more time. Slower, more tenderly. Then he slid the door open and I stepped back into the hall.

A/N: How you ever been to a lame Luau Party?