A/N: Yes, I know you're still waiting on a Cutlass outtake. I promise, I will be writing it. I'm just overwhelmed with deadlines at the moment, so I'm not sure I'm going to get to it. (More on that at the bottom.)

This was originally written for the Stand Up for Katalina fundraiser. Thanks to everyone who contributed, surpassing the goal of $10,000 raised for cancer research. Thanks also to my fabulous beta, Tiffanyanne3, for all her help with this story.


"Do you see him?" Alice hopped up and down, trying to peer over the heads of the people crowded in line in front of us. Of course, since she was just shy of five-two, it was pretty much an exercise in futility.

"Not yet." I stepped onto the lower rail of the barricade and leaned over as far as I could, straining for a glimpse. I could just make out the steps leading up onto the platform, but the black curtain along the side blocked my view. A security guard stepped toward me and I got down quickly. Everybody knew Bodyguard Emmett did not tolerate line-cutters, panty-tossers, or barricade-jumpers. And the last thing I needed after waiting all night was to be thrown out of line.

I couldn't believe I was there in the first place. Camped out among the teenyboppers and sorority girls, when I was old enough to be their…

Well, not mother, but older sister at least. Maybe a maiden aunt?

Still, when you're a fan of Edward Cullen, star of the mega-hit TV show Time Keeper and countless movies, and you've followed his career since that first guest spot on The Emersons when he was oh-so-young, but oh-so-dreamy, and you find out he's going to be signing copies of his new memoir Cullen, Uncensored downtown, you can't be left out in the cold.

Actually, you are left out in the cold, because you have to camp out overnight or you'll never get a spot in line.

So Alice and I took two days off from our jobs at Eclipse Publishing – I'm an editor, Alice, a graphic designer – on the premise of attending our high school reunion. Instead, we spent the night snuggled up in sleeping bags on lawn chairs, sipping hot chocolate with a splash of vodka. A splash that got progressively larger as the night wore on.

Those squealing teenagers were annoying. What can I say?

By the time the sun peeked up through the buildings, we were both in need of some serious caffeine, not to mention a shower. We took turns saving our spot in line and dashed in to the hotel room we'd reserved for just such a purpose. There were times when being a little older and having a decent job paid off. Like when you had clean, shiny hair while the sixteen-year-old next to you sported smeared mascara and greasy braids.

"We're moving!" Alice squealed as we slowly shuffled toward the platform. My heart pounded with every step.

Edward Cullen.

After years of watching him…pining after him…daydreaming over him…I was finally going to meet Edward. Freaking. Cullen.

I was going to be sick.

"I see him! I see him!" Alice jumped up and down, waving and pointing, and I stretched up, tilting my head this way and that to peer between the people. Then, finally…

Finally.

We rounded a corner and I caught a glimpse of messy, reddish-brown hair, a glint of sparkling white teeth, a curve of long, pale fingers gripped loosely around a Sharpie.

Wow.

I held my copy of Cullen, Uncensored in a white-knuckled grip as we neared the platform and slowly ascended the steps.

"Picture or an autograph, not both," a man in an ill-fitting blue suit recited in a bored tone. "Keep the line moving, please."

It was ridiculous. Who could choose between a picture and an autograph? Alice and I had a plan to deal with this outrage, of course. We were nothing if not professionals.

Or something.

"You ready?" she shouted back over her shoulder, phone in one hand, book in the other. The plan was that she'd lean in while Edward signed her book, and I'd do something to draw his attention so I could snap a picture…then she'd do the same for me. Old Grumpy BadSuit and Bodyguard Emmett would be none the wiser.

It was brilliant in its simplicity.

But then, I saw him – full profile in all its chiseled glory. The morning sun cast a glow behind him, and I blinked, blinded for a moment by his stunning beauty. All those years watching him on TV and in the movies and nothing…nothing prepared me for the sight of Edward Cullen in the flesh.

"Holy crap," Alice murmured.

I opened my mouth to agree, but no words would come. Instead, I let myself be shoved along, coming closer to the man of my dreams with every stumbling step.

Then, there we were. Right in front of him. He looked up at Alice with a dazzling grin and accepted her book.

"What's your name?" he asked, Sharpie poised over the title page, his fingers – those, long, long fingers—curled around it gently.

"Alice," she replied on a sigh, toying with her hair. "I'm your biggest fan, Edward. I've seen all your movies."

"Oh, thanks so much!" he said with a smile, turning his attention to the book as he scrawled his name. Alice leaned down, just like we planned.

And I froze.

"Bella!" she hissed, eyes wide.

"Oh!" I fumbled with my phone and dropped my book on the table. "Umm…Hi, Edward!" I said, waving. He looked up, Alice grinned and threw a thumbs up, and I snapped a picture with my phone.

"Hey!" Grumpy BadSuit shouted from the end of the platform. "Autograph or a picture!"

Edward laughed and waved him off. "It's okay, Pete. Hardly a capital offense." Then he turned to me.

He. Turned. To. Me.

"And you are?" he asked, reaching out for my book.

"Huh?" I replied intelligently, caught in his mesmerizing green gaze.

"I thought it was Bella." He winked at Alice, who kind of melted into the table. I could hardly blame her. The smile and the dimple, combined with a wink? Deadly.

I startled, finally getting a grip on myself somewhat. "Oh, yes. Bella. That's me. Bella. That's my name. You can write that. In the book." What was I saying? Why couldn't I stop saying it?

"If you want," I added. "You don't have to. You can just write your name. Or…"

I stopped. Finally.

"Bella," he said quietly as he scribbled in my book, and I appreciated the fact that he didn't call security over to deal with the crazy person who couldn't stop blabbering. "I decided to go with both."

"Both?"

"Both of our names," he said with a grin. "It seemed a good option."

"Oh," I said, taking the book from his outstretched hand. "Okay, thank you."

He smiled and looked at the next person in line, and I realized I was out of time.

No.

No. I had to get my picture. And I was supposed to say something intelligent about his work or his music. Something to make me stand out among all of these crazy fangirls. Something to make him realize that we were meant to be.

So, of course, I opted for blurting out, "You were amazing as the syphilis guy!"

He blinked. "Excuse me?" I was pretty sure he was re-thinking the whole not-calling-security thing.

But in for a penny…

"On that episode of House two years ago?" I fidgeted, trying not to notice Bodyguard Emmett eyeing me cautiously from his post on the other end of the platform. "I mean, when you thought you were going to die, it was so real. And sure, it ended up being syphilis, so all you needed was a shot of penicillin, but you didn't know that at first. And then they thought it was lupus or autoimmune, but they always think that—"

He laughed, cutting off my mad torrent of words. "It's never lupus."

"I know!" I leaned forward, and I could see Alice angling in for a picture. "But that scene with your girlfriend when you found out she was the one that gave you syphilis? Yeah. Like I said, amazing. You should have gotten an Emmy for that."

Then the most incredible thing happened. Edward Cullen smiled at me.

And he blushed.

"Over here!" Alice shouted, and we turned to face her, the flash on her phone blinding me for a second as she snapped a picture.

"Hey!" Grumpy BadSuit headed over, fire in his eyes.

We grabbed our autographed copies of Cullen, Uncensored and made a run for it.

Fortunately, the security guard had bigger fish to fry, and was distracted by a group of blondes who actually climbed up onto the table and tried to kiss Edward. Alice and I circled around to the other side of the barricade and managed to find a spot where we could watch the rest of the signing. Well, once Bodyguard Emmett peeled the last blonde off the man of the hour, that is. Edward finished up and waved to the crowd before ducking behind the curtain. I screamed with the rest of them, certain that he was looking right at me when he smiled.

I wish.

"I can't believe we actually got to meet him!" Alice squealed.

"And he was so nice," I added.

"And hot."

"Well, that goes without saying."

"How did the picture turn out?" She reached for my phone, flipping through the screens and squealing again when she found the photo. Caught up in the moment, I might have jumped up and down with her a couple of time, laughing hysterically.

"Excuse me, Miss?" I looked up to see Bodyguard Emmett looming over us.

Crap.

I grabbed my phone and stuffed it in my purse. Alice did the same and we lifted our chins in challenge. We weren't afraid of him.

Much.

Man, he was big. His muscles had muscles…and these really big veins.

"Look," I said, my voice a little shaky until I cleared my throat. "It's just a picture, right? I mean, it's not like we were hurting anyone—"

"Miss…"

"–and we didn't jump him and try to stick our tongues down his throat—"

"She's right," Alice interjected. "We didn't. We wouldn't do that. We're respectful fans."

"Very respectful." I held my purse protectively behind my back. There was no way this guy was getting at my picture. I checked to make sure Alice had my back and was pleased to see she looked just as determined as me. We could make a run for it, I thought, eyes scanning the dwindling crowd. Sure, Emmett was big, but he probably wasn't that fast.

And I was wiry. For a girl. Kinda.

For some reason the bodyguard seemed to be rolling his eyes and trying not to smile at the same time.

"What?" I asked, irritated.

"I'm not going to take your phone," he said, shaking his head. "I just have to give you this one." He held out a small, black cell phone in the palm of his hand. I stared at it for a moment, then looked up at him in confusion.

"That's not mine."

He did that eyeroll-slash-smile thing again. "I realize that. Edward wanted you to have it."

I blinked. "Edward?"

Edward?

"Edward Cullen?" I was having some difficulty making sense of the word.

Emmett snorted slightly. "Yes. Edward Cullen."

Edward Cullen wanted me to have a phone? But why?

"But why?"

He scratched at his jaw. "Just tossed it to me and asked me to make sure to get it to you." And with that, he saluted me with two fingers and turned and walked away. I gaped at the phone in my hand, then realized Alice was doing the same thing.

"Edward Cullen gave me a phone."

"Why did Edward Cullen give you a phone?"

It vibrated and I nearly dropped it. It flipped through the air from one hand to the other, and Alice let out a little scream as I finally caught it between my fingertips.

"Not helping," I muttered.

"Sorry."

It vibrated again. An unfamiliar number appeared on the screen. Well, of course it was unfamiliar. It wasn't my phone.

Apparently, along with losing my verbal filter, I'd also become a bit of an idiot.

It vibrated again. "What should I do?"

Alice shrugged. "Answer it?" She reached out to stop me just before I pushed the green button. "Wait. Just…be casual, right?"

"Casual." I nodded. "Right."

Right.

I swallowed and hit that little green button. "Hello. Bella here."

Bella here? Really? I sounded like a douchey used car salesman.

A low voice chuckled over the line. "Hello, 'Bella here.' This is Edward Cullen."

"Edward?" I shot a panicked glance at Alice, who simply stared at me wide-eyed. No help at all from that quarter, evidently.

"Sorry about this," he said. "It was the only thing I could think of."

"Only thing?"

"To get to talk to you. I really didn't have a chance during the signing, you know?"

"Umm…okay?"

"What's he saying?" Alice hissed. I waved her off and she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I don't usually do this kind of thing, you know?" he said. "But could I maybe buy you a cup of coffee?"

"Coffee?"

"Yeah. There's a place over on fifteenth? Angelo's?"

I nodded, then realized he couldn't see me. "Yeah. Angelo's. I've been there."

"Is an hour okay?" he asked. "I mean, we can do it another time if you have plans—"

"No!" I shouted into the phone. Smooth, Bella. "I mean, an hour's fine. I don't have any plans."

Alice's eyes just about bugged out of her head, and I was a little worried she might be having an aneurysm or something.

"Good. Great. That's perfect," Edward said. "I'll see you then. Oh, and bring my phone, okay? My agent will kill me if he can't get hold of me."

"Okay."

"Bye, Bella."

"Bye."

I hung up and stared at the phone for a long moment. Edward's phone. Alice, to her credit, waited patiently for about three seconds before she started to scream.

~0~

"Nothing's going to happen," I said stubbornly.

"You don't know that. He did ask you out." Alice fiddled with my hair, and I batted away her hands. We were across the street from Angelo's, about ten minutes early, and I was trying to calm my racing heart.

Alice wasn't helping.

"He just wants coffee. And to get his phone back," I said lamely. "Once he spends more than five minutes with me, he'll realize how ridiculous all of this is."

"It's not ridiculous!" Alice had the grace to look affronted. "You're amazing. He's going to fall madly in love with you and sweep you away to his summer house in France or something, and you'll have amazing sex and a glamorous wedding in some castle. And Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones will be there."

I blinked. "Why would they come to our wedding?"

Alice rolled her eyes. "Because it will be the social event of the decade, of course!"

I threw my hands in the air and started to pace. "What am I thinking? He's Edward Cullen, Alice!"

"Yes, I'm aware."

"He's a movie star. He's rich and famous and beautiful and has women falling all over him. And he's young. Too young."

She shrugged. "Not that young."

"He's twenty-two."

"Yeah."

"I'm thirty-four."

"Uh huh." Alice seemed to be purposely not getting the point.

"That's twelve years, Alice."

"I can do the math."

"Right." I stopped pacing and straightened my coat. "I'm making too big a deal out of this. I'm just going to have coffee – with Edward Freaking Cullen – give him back his phone. We'll chat, and I'll be witty, and he'll be gorgeous, and I'll tell him I'm thirty-four, and we'll go our separate ways, and I'll have a great story for my autobiography."

"Or the tabloids."

I gasped in outrage. "I would never!"

"Relax. Sheesh! I'm only kidding!" Alice brushed a piece of lint off my shoulder. "Just enjoy the moment, okay? It's not like this kind of thing happens every day."

"Understatement of the century."

"Don't be nervous."

"Impossibility."

"Be yourself."

"Like that's going to help anything," I muttered dryly.

"Compliment his work, but probably not the syphilis thing."

"Oh God," I moaned, rubbing my hands over my face. "I can't believe I talked to him about syphilis!"

"Look on the bright side," Alice said cheerily. "He must have been flattered, or he wouldn't have called."

"Right." I checked my watch. "It's time."

"Go get 'em, Tiger."

I raised a brow at her.

"What?" she asked. "Just trying to be supportive."

I took a deep breath and set off across the street.

"Remember to use protection!" Alice called out.

I was pretty sure I was going to have to kill my best friend.

~0~

Everybody acts like a coffee date is easy. You know, "It's no big deal, just coffee." Like just because it's the middle of the day and you don't have to try and keep spaghetti sauce off your shirt, there's no pressure.

Believe me, there's pressure.

First of all, I got there before him, which meant I had to decide where to sit. And of course it made sense that a celebrity would want to sit in a dark corner to avoid the paps and all, but in this particular coffee shop, there were no dark corners – only a semi-dim corner behind the door to the kitchen.

And if we sat there, I didn't know if he would think I was trying to be all romantic and seductive – which I totally wasn't – but if we sat by the front counter, then everyone could see us, and he might think that I actually wanted everyone to see us because he was a celebrity. Which I didn't.

So yeah. Pressure.

Then I had to decide what to order. I mean, since he invited me, I assumed he'd want to pay for it, so I didn't want to order my usual – a quad venti white chocolate mocha – and take advantage. Maybe a grande was still too big. A tall black coffee would be inoffensive and innocuous, but I really hated black coffee.

Why did I think this was a good idea?

In the end, I decided to kind of hover off to the side of the counter and pretend like I was examining the desserts in the glass case. (Not that there was any way I was ordering one of those!) I was avoiding the barista's suspicious glances by feigning interest in an apple tart when I heard a familiar voice.

"The chocolate pound cake is better." I looked up to see Edward grinning down at me. I almost didn't recognize him at first. His trademark hair was tucked in a loose beanie and he wore a pair of dark glasses and a black hoodie.

"Oh, hi." I fiddled with my hair because apparently I fiddled now. "I'm uh…I'm actually not hungry."

Edward tipped his head. "You sure? It's really good." He made his way to the register and nodded at the barista before turning back to me. "Do you know what you want?"

What I want? What do I want?

"Umm…just a tall coffee. Black. Umm…th-thanks," I stammered.

Yeah. I fiddled and I stammered. And fidgeted. I was a fidgeting fiddle-stammerer.

Good lord. What the hell was wrong with me?

Edward's nose wrinkled. "Black? Really?" He reached up to slide the sunglasses down his nose and peer at me over them, but I held his piercing gaze. "Okay, then." He turned back to the barista and ordered my black coffee and a caramel hazelnut frappuccino with extra whip and caramel sauce, adding a couple of slices of the chocolate cake and an apple tart for good measure. He led me to a table in the corner – not the dim one, but not one in front of the window either – and laid out the spread between us.

"Do you always eat like this?" I asked as he dove into the first piece of cake and swallowed it down with a gulp of his coffee.

"Only when I'm hungry. Which is pretty much all the time." He grinned, swept up a bit of whipped cream with his finger, and licked it off. I tried not to stare as I took a sip of my own coffee and winced at the bitter taste.

"I don't know how you can drink that," he said with a laugh. "I can only stand coffee when it doesn't actually taste like coffee."

"Oh, come on. It'll put hair on your chest."

He snorted. "Studio'd just make me wax it."

"Really?" I reached for the sugar and subtly added two packets. Then one more. Edward, to his credit, pretended not to notice. "They make you do stuff like that?" I asked.

He nodded, shoving the tart toward me. "Sometimes. All part of the job, you know?"

"You like your job?" I took another sip of coffee, then a bite of tart to cover the taste.

"Yeah. Sure. I get paid to do what I love. Not many people can say that." He sat back, and I noticed he had a smear of whipped cream on his upper lip. "What about you? What do you do?"

I wanted to answer, but I was so distracted by that whipped cream. It just hung there, right over the bow of those perfect lips. "You have some…" I waved vaguely toward his face, and he poked his tongue out to lick away the cream.

Holy. Crap.

"Did I get it?" he asked.

Oh yes. Yes, indeed.

"Uh huh," I mumbled. Then, "Editor."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm an editor. At a publishing house."

"Oh, that must be really interesting…" The conversation flowed from there. Sure, I still fiddle-stammered on occasion, but Edward was really nice and interesting and funny, actually. He really put me at ease, and before long I found myself feeling almost…comfortable.

"You don't really drink black coffee, do you?" he asked finally.

"Sure I do," I said. But when he glanced pointedly at my still-almost-full cup, I sighed. "No. Not really."

He grinned. "Let me guess…" He studied me carefully, sunglasses long discarded on the table as he tapped a finger against his lips. "Triple white chocolate mocha?"

I found myself laughing. "Quad, actually."

Edward's mouth dropped open. "Hard core stuff."

I started to reply but was interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, three squeals. A group of teenage girls stood by our table, vibrating with excitement and bouncing on their toes.

"Hi, Edward," one of them said, twirling her hair. "Oh my GOD you're so gorgeous!" More squeals. "We're like, you're biggest fans. Could we get a picture, please?"

Edward cast a wary glance my way. "I don't know…"

"It's fine," I assured him quietly.

"Okay." Edward forced a smile, and the hair-twirler handed me her phone as he stood up. "Just click the button," she ordered, throwing an arm around Edward's waist and snuggling into him.

Edward grimaced. "You don't have to—"

"It's fine." I got up from my seat as the girls surrounded him, smiling and young and beautiful, and my mood plummeted. For a minute, I forgot that Edward was Edward Cullen. For a minute, I let myself imagine that we could be friends…more even, maybe.

For a minute, I forgot that he was too young, too beautiful, too rich, too famous. And I was none of those things.

I snapped the picture and handed the phone back to the girl. She and her friends giggled and finger-waved at Edward before leaving the coffee shop.

Edward eyed me nervously. "Sorry about that—"

"Really. It's fine, Edward. No need to apologize," I said, gathering my purse and jacket. "I really should be going, anyway."

"Bella." He reached out and snagged my arm. I stared down at his long fingers wrapped around my wrist and swallowed thickly. This was a huge mistake.

"I'd like to see you again," he said.

I blinked in surprise. "Why?"

"Why?" He laughed. "Uh, because I like you?"

"I really don't think that's a very good idea."

"Seeing you again? Or liking you?"

"Both. Neither."

"Why not?" He released my wrist then, tucking his hands into his jean pockets. "I thought we were getting along pretty well, I mean, despite the whole lying about your coffee preference thing." He tried to meet my eyes, but I looked away.

"I'm too old," I said flatly.

"What?"

"I'm thirty-four, Edward."

"So?"

"So?" I huffed. "So I'm way too old for you!"

"Thirty-four isn't old."

"Old enough." I took a deep breath. "Look, Edward, I'm flattered, I really am. You have no idea how much. But you don't want to get involved with me. I'm pretty sure you'll end up regretting it."

I was trying to be serious, but Edward cracked a grin. "So dramatic," he said. "I'm not asking for your hand, Bella. I just thought we could hang out a bit. Have some fun, maybe? Is there a law against that I'm unaware of?"

"But the media—"

Edward's smile fell, his words almost icy. "I don't care about the media."

"You know they'll have a field day if we start hanging out."

"I don't care," he snapped, then he pinched the bridge of the nose and exhaled heavily. "Look, Bella, I don't live my life for the press or the fans. Really, I couldn't care less what the media has to say about my private life.

"That said, I know what I do can be hard on my friends, and I understand if it's too much of a hassle for you."

Great. Now I felt like crap. I looked at him and all of the sudden I didn't see the movie star anymore. I just saw a guy – a nice guy – who thought I thought he was too much of a hassle.

"That's not what I meant." I sat down with a heavy sigh, and Edward did the same. "I don't really know what I'm doing here," I confessed.

Edward's lips lifted in a small smile. "Having coffee?"

I grimaced, shoving at my cup. "If that's what you call that stuff."

He laughed. "Look. I meant what I said. I'd like to see you again. Hang out, you know? But if the whole paparazzi thing freaks you out, we can keep it quiet."

"You think so?" I asked, raising a skeptical brow. "Those guys camp out across the street from your house, Edward. You think you can hide stuff from them?"

"You planning on coming to my house?" Edward smirked. Good lord, is he flirting with me?

I flushed and he took mercy on me. "Believe me, those guys only see what I want them to see," he said. "I've gotten pretty good at sneaking around. I've been here for almost two hours, haven't I? And not a camera in sight."

"Well, except for those fangirls."

"The fangirls are beyond my control," he said, a mock serious frown on his face. "They have resources the FBI would envy."

I couldn't keep back the smile. "It's frightening, really."

"Terrifying." He leaned forward across the table. "So, are we going to do this?"

"Be friends?"

He winked. "For now."

How could I resist? "I suppose we are."

~0~

"What am I doing?" I wailed.

"You're spending time with a gorgeous, intelligent, filthy-rich-and-famous actor with an amazing ass."

I collapsed forward onto Alice's kitchen table, my forehead hitting the wood a little too hard. "Ouch."

"I don't know why you're fighting this so much," Alice said, pouring a glass of wine and shoving it toward me unceremoniously. "You like him. He obviously likes you. Why not go for it?"

"We've had the twelve-year age difference discussion, right?"

Alice shrugged. "So you're a cougar."

I glared up at her sideways. "I am not a cougar. Cougars are in their forties."

"Well, puma then. Whatever." She waved a hand. "I don't get what the big deal is. Look at Ashton and Demi."

"They broke up," I pointed out. "And everybody made fun of her."

Alice peered at me over her wine glass. "Is that what you're scared of? That Jay Leno's going to make jokes about you?"

"No!" I said quickly. "Yes. I don't know. Maybe?" I sat up and took a swallow of wine. Then another one. "It's just so complicated."

"What does Edward say?"

"He says I'm overreacting. He doesn't care what the press says or what the fans think."

"Sounds like a smart guy." Alice picked through the candy dish in the center of the table and unwrapped a truffle, popping it into her mouth with a satisfied smile.

"He doesn't know what he's doing," I said quietly.

Alice stiffened. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing."

"Bella?"

"Alice?"

"Don't 'Alice' me. Tell me what you mean," she said sternly, picking out another truffle and tossing it at me. I chomped into it with a glare.

"Okay," I said after swallowing the rest of my wine. "Let's say we get along, right? Everything works out and we're blissfully happy."

"What a tragedy."

"Shut up. I'm making a point here."

Alice mimed zipping her lips and waved for me to continue.

"Eventually, he'll want things… Maybe five, ten years down the road, he'll want to get married, have kids. And I'll be in my forties, Alice. What if I can't give him that?"

Alice stared at me for a long moment. "You've got to be kidding me."

"Don't mock me!"

"I don't need to. You're doing a bang-up job of it yourself!" She shook her head but reached out and grabbed my hand.

"God, Bella, women in their forties have babies all the time."

"And then there's the media. I can't wait to see the headlines: Cougar Sinks Her Claws into Cullen."

"I thought we'd decided you're a puma."

"Not as many opportunities for alliteration," I mumbled into the table, having decided lying on it was a much better position for wallowing.

"Bella. I swear I'm going to slap you. You're freaking out over press coverage and babies ten years down the road? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I don't know!" I whined like a five-year-old. "I just…" I rocked my head back and forth against the table, my voice almost a whisper. "I'm afraid if we get involved, one day he'll regret it. His career will be ruined and he'll resent me. He won't have the life he wanted, and it'll be my fault."

Alice was silent long enough that I finally peeked up at her through my hair to find her sitting and looking into her wine glass. She swallowed the rest of it down and pinned me with a penetrating stare.

"What?"

Still, she just looked at me. Unblinking. It was kind of creeping me out, to be honest.

"You think I'm being ridiculous."

Alice raised a brow.

"And that I should let him make his own decisions. You think I don't have a right to hold back in some misguided attempt to protect him."

Alice poured herself some more wine.

"You think it doesn't have anything to do with that anyway. That what I'm really afraid of is falling for him, because I'll get older, and he'll still be gorgeous, and he'll get tired of me because I'll be all decrepit and gray-haired and wrinkled and won't be able to keep up with him anymore."

Alice ate another truffle.

"Oh God, I'm just a giant coward, aren't I?" I sat up and reached for the chocolates, popping them into my mouth at alarming speed. "I'm a big chicken," I mumbled through the candy. I glared at Alice. "Okay!" I snapped. "I get it. I'll stop being dumb."

Alice shrugged and sipped her wine stoically.

"But I still don't want to end up in the tabloids," I grumbled. "Bella Bags Boy Toy."

"Why not Hunk Hooks Hot Honey?" Alice suggested.

I snorted and poured some more wine, and we sat in silence for a while.

"Alice?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

~0~

If Edward were an ordinary guy – and I don't mean he wasn't normal, but if he were the kind of guy who didn't have paparazzi popping up from behind bushes, and bloggers speculating about what kind of underwear he wore – I would have fallen for him like a ton of bricks.

Fast. And hard.

But he wasn't ordinary, and I was more than a little protective of my heart, not to mention my privacy. So by mutual agreement, we took things slow. Really slow.

It wasn't easy. At least not for me. Edward was, after all, Edward – smart, funny, gorgeous, and irresistible.

Edward, however, seemed to have no problem with it.

We hung out. We went to coffee, to dinner. Movie night or Sunday afternoon barbecues with his friends. Walks around the city or in the park and, true to Edward's word, the media was none the wiser. Once in a while, a grainy photograph would pop up online of the two of us together, but when asked about it, Edward either laughed it off and said we were just good friends or demurred entirely and changed the subject.

Edward didn't pressure me. Sure, every now and then I'd catch him staring at me in this intense way that made my stomach flip and my palms go all sweaty, but then his face would split into this teasing grin, and it was like it never happened.

Like we were friends. Which was what I wanted, of course. But somehow it left me feeling a little…bereft? Or maybe the word was frustrated.

Yeah, that kind of frustrated.

Whatever Edward did, no matter how innocent, seemed to drive me absolutely crazy. He'd take my arm to keep me from stepping on some spilled coffee, and my breath would hitch when his fingers touched my skin. He'd reach up to shove a strand of hair away from my eyes and my cheeks would heat. He'd smile or laugh or wink and my mouth would go dry, and I'd have to turn away before I gave into the temptation to throw my arms around him and kiss him senseless in the middle of the street.

In a word, I was a mess. A mess of teenage hormones trapped in a nearly middle-aged woman's body. And I really had no idea what to do about it.

Then, Edward invited me to the set of Time Keeper for a night shoot at an abandoned warehouse in the industrial district. And during the dinner break, he backed me up against the door of his trailer and kissed me breathless.

"I'm sorry," he muttered when he finally pulled back, his mouth close – so close – to mine. "I hope this is okay."

I just nodded, wrapped my fingers in his hair, and pulled him in to finish what he started.

Friends could kiss, right? I mean, "friends with benefits" have sex, so it couldn't be that weird for friends to just kiss. Right?

Right.

I hoped that was true, because after that night, Edward and I did a lot of kissing.

"I should go," Edward gasped out between kisses as we stood in the shadowed alcove at my front door a week later, arms and legs tangled, or as tangled as they could be without being horizontal.

Horizontal. Now there was an idea.

"Or…" I couldn't stop licking at his mouth, tasting his teeth. He tasted a little like wine, combined with the chocolate custardy thing we'd shared for dessert. What was that called?

Then he sucked lightly on my lower lip, and my knees buckled. Why am I thinking about dessert?

"Or?" he asked, moving down to nuzzle at my neck, his fingers slipping under the hem of my sweater and stroking at my skin.

"Or what?" I gasped when he nibbled at my throat and swirled his tongue around just so.

"You said 'or.'"

"Oh." He came back up to my mouth again and I was lost in the heat…the wet…the hardness pressed up all along the front of my body. He groaned, and the sound sent a shudder through me…a wanting.

"Oh…yeah," I said, pulling back so I could take a breath. Edward's cheeks were flushed, his lips kiss-swollen and wet, and it was all I could do not to dive back in and…

"Or," I said, forcing my gaze back up to his and swallowing my nerves. "Or you could not…go, that is."

Edward stared at me. And stared at me. And said nothing.

Crap.

"Or not." I waved a hand and stumbled back a step, flustered. "I was just kidding, anyway. I mean, you've got things you need to do, right?"

"Bella—"

"Early morning or whatever. And I do too, now that I think of it." Heat flooded my cheeks. What was I thinking, propositioning him? Sure, a little making out was fine, but good God, if we had sex, he'd see me naked. And underneath these clothes was not the body of a twenty-year-old supermodel. "Yeah. I have an early meeting. I almost forgot—"

"Bella—"

"So I should probably go in. And you should probably go. Right." I turned around to unlock my door, but Edward grabbed my arm.

"Bella, listen to me."

I froze, my back to him as I tried to regain some semblance of dignity.

"It's okay, Edward," I said quietly. "I get it. You don't need to say anything."

"No, you don't get it," he said, tugging on my wrist until I turned around, my gaze firmly fixed on the ground. "It's not that I don't want to stay," he said. "Not at all."

Unable to resist, I looked up to find him watching me closely, his eyes pleading.

"You think I don't want to come inside?" he asked quietly. "You think I don't think about being with you…all the time? God, Bella, it's all I think about." He reached up to trace his fingers over my cheek. "Touching you. Making love to you. God, it drives me crazy thinking about it. Lying in bed at night and—" He pulled his hand away, clenching it into a fist.

I blinked. "I don't understand."

He let me go and turned away, taking a few steps before turning back to face me, one hand tugging at his hair. "Here's the thing. If I'm going to be with you, I want to be with you."

"Okay…?" I still wasn't getting it.

Apparently, he could tell, because he squeezed his eyes tight for a second in frustration before taking a deep breath and opening them slowly.

"I want to walk down the street holding your hand," he said finally. "I want to take you to premieres and on press tours and vacations and kiss you whenever I feel like it."

That was so not what I had been expecting. So it made sense that it took a moment for me to process it. He watched me, throat working and fingers twitching at his side like he wanted to reach out.

"Let me get this straight," I said slowly. "Are you saying you won't sleep with me unless we go public?"

Did guys actually do that?

He paled. "It's not an ultimatum."

Apparently, they did.

"Kinda sounds like one."

"No!" Edward reached for his hair again, and for a moment I worried his nervous habit might result in male pattern baldness. It would be a shame to lose that hair.

Maybe he should take up nail biting. Or bridge-of-nose-pinching.

I shook off the ridiculous train of thought as Edward got himself together. "I'm not saying I won't sleep with you unless we announce it to the media."

"Good," I said.

"But." He held up a placating hand. "I need for you to understand how I feel, Bella. I know it sounds kind of ridiculous or old-fashioned or whatever. But this is important to me."

He glanced at me and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I'm not talking about a press release or couch jumping on Oprah or anything like that," he explained. "You and me? We're nobody's business but ours. I don't care what the press does or doesn't say. I've told you that before.

"I just don't want to hide you, Bella. Hide us." He stepped closer and reached up to twist his fingers idly in the tips of my hair. "If we're going to be together, I want us to be together. All in. To hell with the rest of the world." His dark gaze lifted to meet mine expectantly.

I opened my mouth to respond. And nothing came out.

"I know you're not ready for that," Edward said quietly before leaning in to kiss me once more, soft and sweet and not nearly enough. "And if you push it, I'm not gonna lie, I'll probably give in."

His lips twitched in a half grin, and I barked out a laugh, surprised.

"You make me sound like a villain out to steal your virtue," I said, more comfortable now that we'd eased into teasing territory.

"Oh, you wouldn't have to steal it. I'd give it willingly," he said, leaning in again to press a few trailing kisses up my neck. "Over and over again." His breath tickled at my ear, and I shivered.

"Oh," I managed.

"But I'm asking you not to push it, Bella," he said, straightening again, all signs of teasing gone. "This is important to me. I hope you'll respect it. Just like I'll respect the fact that you're not ready just yet."

Wasn't I ready? I was feeling kind of ready, actually. Especially when Edward kissed my neck.

Unfortunately, I must have said that part out loud, because Edward laughed. "No, you're not," he said. "But when you are, let me know." He stepped back, away from my front door.

"Ball's in your court," he said with a wave before turning to walk down the sidewalk and into the night.

~0~

"So let me get this straight," Alice said. "You want to have sex with him. He wants to have sex with you."

It was about twenty minutes after Edward had left, and I was lying on my bed sideways, head hanging off the end with the phone kind of half pressed to my ear. It had been fully pressed until Alice had screamed. Now I was a little gun shy.

"Yeah."

"But he doesn't want to keep the relationship a secret."

I sighed, looking at the upside down bookshelf on my far wall. "Nope."

"And he doesn't want to have sex with you if he has to keep it a secret – the relationship, not the sex. Not that the sex should be announced to the media—"

"Right." I was getting a headache with all my head-hanging and upside-down-bookcase looking, so I rolled over and pulled a pillow under my chest.

I heard Alice groan with frustration. I kind of knew how she felt.

"So now you're at home…alone…not having sex because your super hot boyfriend wants – God forbid – for the world to know he's your super hot boyfriend?"

"Ummm…yeah?"

"Oh God, I'm going to scream again."

"Please don't."

"Okay, okay. I can stay calm." Alice took a few long, slow breaths. "Let me ask you this: What exactly are you afraid of?"

What was I afraid of?

"I'm not sure."

"Is it still the age thing?"

I sighed. "Yeah. There's that."

"And the movie star thing?"

"Yeah."

"And the screaming fans writing you hate mail thing?"

I bit my lip. "I hadn't even thought of that. You think that's going to happen?"

"Probably." I heard a clink and figured Alice was pouring a glass of wine. I kind of wished I had one.

"Well, it looks like you need to ask yourself one question, Bella," she said finally.

"What's that?"

"Are any of those things worse than not having sex with Edward. Freaking. Cullen?"

She had a point.

"You have a point."

"I know I do."

I got up and walked to the kitchen, snagging an open bottle of red off the counter.

"So what are you going to do?" Alice asked.

I poured myself a glass and took a sip before answering.

"I suppose I'm going to put on my big girl panties and quit being such a wimp."

~0~

It was easier said than done, this quitting being such a wimp thing. When Edward said the ball was in my court, he really meant it. He kept on as we had, maintaining a safe distance in public and pretty much avoiding any alone time, maybe because he worried I would push him too hard.

I thought about it. I wouldn't actually do it. I'm not that much of a creep. But I couldn't help but think about it. Often when I was lying in bed at night. Alone. All the while trying to build up the courage to do what I needed – what I wanted to do.

The following Saturday afternoon, Edward and I went with some friends to an open-air concert in the park. Alice came along, as did Bodyguard Emmett, who kept a discreet distance that did not lessen the intimidation factor one iota. Edward's cousin Jasper, who had just moved to town, came along too and seemed to be having a great time. In fact, he and Alice hit it off right away, and found a place next to each other on one of the blankets we had spread out on the grass. The rest of us pretty much ceased to exist to them, which was at the same time sweet and a little bit irritating.

Why was it so easy for her?

The sun was bright in the clear sky overhead as the band started to play – a bluesy rock number drifting over the lazy afternoon breeze. Edward was sprawled out next to me, legs crossed at the ankles as he leaned back on his palms, eyes closed and face up to the sun. Every now and then I could hear someone squeal or say Edward's name, and I knew camera phone shots of our little group were probably already on the Internet. Edward didn't seem to mind, though. He sat up a little so he could take a sip of the bottled water leaning against his leg, a slight smile on his face as he caught my eye.

"Having fun?" he asked.

I nodded, nerves twisting in my stomach. I knew what I wanted to do. I just wasn't sure if I could actually do it. All the eyes on me – on us – had my face heating, and I raised a trembling hand, slowly, to touch his cheek.

His smile fell, green eyes taking on an anxious glint. "Bella?"

I slid my fingers along his cheekbone and into his hair, stroking the soft strands briefly before tracing down his face again…brushing a thumb across his bottom lip.

He gasped, warm breath gusting over my thumb as I took a shaky breath.

"Are you sure?" he whispered.

Again, I nodded as I leaned in, closer and closer. Edward didn't meet me halfway, but I didn't expect him to. This was my choice. My move.

I paused, gathering my courage, and he smiled slightly.

"Come on," he urged. "Don't be scared."

His eyes were warm, comforting.

"Take the plunge with me, Bella. Let's fall in love."

I smiled back, leaning ever closer until my lips almost brushed his. "Too late," I whispered.

He laughed, the sound making me tingle all over. "Yeah," he said. "Me too."

And then I kissed him. And maybe Edward gave in at that last moment and leaned in just a little to meet me. It didn't matter, though. Because once our lips finally touched, he pulled me close, wrapping his arms around me and breathing into the kiss – through me – tasting and teasing and smiling.

Around me, I could feel a million camera phones snapping pictures, and I found I couldn't have cared less. Edward finally pulled back, fingers tangled in my hair as he nuzzled at my neck before planting another series of soft kisses on my lips.

"For the bloggers," he said with a teasing grin. "Wouldn't want them to miss anything."

I laughed as he pulled me onto his lap, settling me between his legs so I could lean back against his chest. I caught Alice's eye, and she winked at me before turning back to Jasper. Edward toyed with the ends of my hair, then swept it out of the way so he could kiss my cheek.

"What made you decide to do it?" he asked after a while.

I shrugged. "I decided I cared more about you than about any of them." I waved a hand toward the crowd.

He nodded. "You sure it wasn't because you wanted to have sex?"

"No!" Then, a beat later: "Well, okay, maybe a little."

Edward snorted, burying his nose in my neck. "I do love you, you know. Just want to make that clear."

And a tingling shiver ran through my body as I lifted a hand to run it through his hair. "I love you, too. Just to be clear."

We settled in to listen to the concert, but I glanced at him over my shoulder. "We are going to have sex, though. Right?"

Edward's laugh rang through the air.

And it only got louder as he sprang to his feet and grabbed my hand to drag me out of the park.


A/N: I have an original short story in an anthology that's just been released – along with six other authors, including a few you may know from fic – Lissa Bryan, SydneyAlice and Emily Bowden. The anthology is called Romantic Interludes and my story is called A Piece of Cake.

Emily Valentine is a matchmaker who doesn't believe in love.

Well, at least not the hearts and flowers, see-your-soulmate-across-a-crowded-room-and-the-world-stands-still kind of love. No, Emily is a pragmatist – a scientist – and she's abandoned her family's tradition of matchmaking based on instinct and uncanny intuition for a more scientific approach to pairing people up.

Emily believes love is more about compatibility and common interests than anything mystical.

But a run-of-the-mill job turns her world on end when swoony cake designer Sam Cavanaugh pops up as a potential match for her newest client. The attraction she feels for him throws a wrench in her plans, but she's not going to succumb without a fight.

Emily is nothing if not practical. And reasonable. But she's about to learn that sometimes the best things in life…are neither.

If you'd like more information, check out my OFic website – link's on my profile.

Oh, and my Twitter Fiction story WINDOW is coming up as well. I'll have more info on my website about that soon – and the sequel to MORE releases this fall. In between, I hope to have the Cutlass outtake for you. I'll do my best! Thanks so much for your patience and support.