Friends to Lovers Contest

Title : Commencement

Summary: Edward had been her BMF (Best Male Friend) almost since she started as an Assistant Professor at Selva University, although they weren't in the same department. What would it take for him to see her as more than a friend and faculty member?

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Prompt: The One With the Invitation

Word Count: 10,413

Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.


Commencement

"Are you out of your frickin' mind?"

"Please, Bella? I'll love you forever if you help me with this."

Bella stood with her hands on her hips, glaring up at her BMF. Best male friend, that is. This wasn't an easy thing to do, given that he was nearly a foot taller than her. Her pain-in-the-neck friend was starting to give her a…er…pain in the neck.

"You already promised to love me forever. Several times. Exactly how many forevers do you think we have?"

"I'll grade your papers for a week," he wheedled.

Bella sighed, already knowing that she would probably give in and go along with her friend's newest crazy scheme. Rubbing the back of her stiff neck, she turned and sat gracefully in her beloved dark purple overstuffed chair, motioning the twenty-six-year-old man in front of her to do the same.

"Explain to me again why you think it's necessary to hack magnolias from your neighbor's tree? Don't you think you're going just a little bit overboard for this Tanya woman? I mean seriously, Edward…"

Edward, perched on the edge of Bella's ancient tan sofa, ran a nervous hand through his already unruly red-brown hair. Sex hair, thought Bella idly. She may be his best friend, but she wasn't blind, and Edward was a sight for sore eyes. When he joined the biology master's program nearly two years ago, he drew the attention of just about every female in the building. Why did he always go for women like Tanya, who would use him until she found a shinier toy? Perhaps it was the appeal of the unattainable.

An hour later, Bella found herself standing watch on the sidewalk in front of Edward's neighbor's house. After all this time, she thought irritably, you'd think I would be immune to those gorgeous green puppy eyes.

"Here's the last one!" her friend called from the center of the eighty-foot magnolia grandiflora. Bella heard the "thwak" of Edward's machete, and dashed to catch the third bloom. A few seconds later, a disheveled but excited Edward leapt to the ground.

"What do you think?" he grinned.

"I think you're crazy, but the flowers are beautiful." They were, too. She gazed down at the nine-inch bloom in her arms, surrounded by its bed of dark green leathery leaves. Although they weren't her favourite flower, she loved their waxy, cream-coloured petals and strong, lemony scent. She bent her head to inhale the wonderful fragrance, enhanced by the late May heat.

"Beautiful," Edward agreed softly. Bella looked up to catch an oddly arrested expression on her friend's face.

"What? Do I have pollen on my nose?"

He smiled, that funny crooked smile that could melt a heart of ice. Good thing, too, because Tanya was definitely cast in the Ice Queen mold.

"Yes, in fact you do." He gently brushed it off with his index finger.

"Thanks." Drat that stupid blush. Hopefully she was too flushed from the heat and humidity for her friend to notice. "OK, so how to do you plan to get these to her apartment? On your Huffy?"

Edward uttered a soft curse under his breath, followed by a quick apology. His mother, he told her once, firmly instilled in him to never curse in front of a lady. Bella could see his agile brain analyzing this new hurdle. Edward knew how to drive, of course. He drove tanks and Humvees during his four-year stint in the army. In fact, they'd gone on a couple of short day trips together, and he always drove her little blue Corolla. It's just that he kept himself on a tight budget in order to save for the future.

"I suppose I could tie them to the back…" he mused.

Bella huffed. "Go put them in my car and get yourself cleaned up. I'll drive you to Tanya's, but if she is home I am not staying around to see what happens."

The crooked grin was back. "Thank you, Bella. I owe you…again."

Bella rolled her eyes and passed her friend the magnolia. "Put it on my tab. Now get moving. I have a class to teach in a couple of hours."

"I'll just grab a quick shower and change." He was already jogging to his little two-bedroom house. "Hey, I made pork chops and veggies last night. Help yourself to lunch!"

Bella slowly made her way through the familiar white screen door and into the sparsely-furnished living room. The sound of Edward humming to himself as he started the shower made her smile. Her mind went back to when she met her friend.

A little over two years ago, Bella was fortunate to find Selva University, a mid-sized Southern school that agreed to hire her as an ABD professor in their English Department. If that job offer hadn't come along, she would have been forced to drop out of the Ph.D. program in Chicago and find work somewhere in industry, work that would actually support her. Not an easy task with a Master's Degree in English. With the encouragement of both her advisor in Chicago and her department head here, Bella finally finished and defended her dissertation late last summer.

In the middle of this came Edward. He arrived as a biology master's student two months after Bella started at Selva. Tall, handsome, with crazy auburn hair that never stayed put, he immediately drew the attention of the majority of females in Chabert Hall. His quick mind and easy personality made him one of the most sought-after TA's in the department.

Bella was one of the few people who knew that Edward's carefree exterior hid a vulnerable heart and a tendency to brood. Their friendship began that day in Chabert Hall when Edward came charging down the stairs from the third floor Biology Department and literally bowled her over.

She'd been too preoccupied, reading the essay on top of the stack of papers in her hands, to notice the pounding of feet down the century-old staircase. Hasn't this guy heard of spell check, she thought irritably. Suddenly someone slammed into her from behind, sending her papers fluttering down the stairwell to the floor two stories below. Bella stumbled, and would have toppled sideways down the next flight if a pair of hands hadn't grabbed her and held her up upright.

"Careful there, pretty lady!" a pleasant male voice exclaimed above her right ear. The hands turned her around, and Bella found herself staring at navy blue T-shirt stating, "If you're interested in time travel, meet me last Tuesday." Her gazed moved upward to a teasing but slightly panicked pair of gray-green eyes.

Wow, she thought stupidly, he's even better up close. Smells good, too. Good lord, what was wrong with her?

Irritated with both herself and him, Bella roughly shook her shoulders from his grasp. "You should be more careful when you're charging down stairs. Now I have to find all of those papers."

"Well, you should be more careful where you're standing. I didn't even see you hiding around that corner."

"I wasn't hiding!" she retorted indignantly. Edward was already at the ground floor, picking up the essays. Bounding back two steps at a time, he bent low before her and held out the tidy stack.

"My humble apologies, pretty lady. Next time I shall announce my impending arrival."

Bella rolled her eyes. Seriously, this guy could charm a stash of acorns from a squirrel. She took the stack of papers from him. "Well, thank you for retrieving those. And for...um…saving me from a nasty fall."

"Which I instigated," he added with a rueful smile. "I'm Edward Cullen, by the way."

She shook the large hand he held out. "Bella Swan."

"Which department? I'm in biology."

"English." Abrupt today, aren't we Bella?

He seemed to hear her thoughts, and grinned. "If I buy you a cup of coffee to make up for it, do you think you'll speak to me in complete sentences? I'm heading over to the Student Union."

Bella hesitated. Even though they weren't in the same department, he was still a student. Of course, the student-teacher relationship policy applied only to consensual sexual relationships between students and faculty, and only while the teacher was in a position of "supervisory academic authority." But still…

Getting a little ahead of yourself, Bella? The guy is being polite. Besides, he probably thinks you're a student too.

"I'm sorry, Edward, but I really need to get these essays graded. Thanks for…"

"Hi Dr. Swan!" a perky female voice chirped. Startled, Bella had just enough time to smile and wave at her Composition 110 student as she buzzed past them.

A muttered, "Oh shit," drew Bella's attention back to the man next to her. "You're Professor Swan?" The poor guy looked mortified. "Great, I nearly gave a professor a concussion. But you're too young and pretty to be a professor!"

"You think that as soon as we get that Ph.D. in our hands, we become old and ugly?" She couldn't resist teasing him. Edward's face grew even redder, and he rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. "Relax Edward, I'm just kidding. No blood no foul, right?"

"Um…OK. Thanks, Doc."

"Unless you call me Doc…"

"Bella! Bella? Are you there?"

Edward's voice calling from his bedroom brought her back to the present. "I'm in the living room," she called back. At least her body was. The rest of her was far, far away.

"Ready?" He hurried out, now dressed in a black designer polo that fitted snugly across his broad shoulders, and light jeans. He'd towel-dried his hair, and obviously tried to comb it. It was still slightly damp, sticking up in different directions. Unthinkingly, Bella stepped closer to her friend and gently tucked a particularly bothersome lock behind his ear. Hmmm…she loved the scent of the soap he used. She even protested once when he tried to purchase something else.

"Do I look alright, mom?" he teased, grinning down at her.

More than alright. He looked adorable. Fantastic. Hot, even.

Her friend glanced toward his kitchen, his grin fading into a look of concern. "You didn't eat? I thought you liked my cooking."

"I do. I just wasn't hungry." Ignoring his frown, she turned quickly and headed out the door. "Let's go!"

They stacked the blooms carefully in the back of Bella's car, and made their way to Tanya's apartment. Oh my gods, those things are potent! Outside they smelled wonderful, but in the confines of a hot vehicle, their scent was overpowering. Edward was already rolling down his passenger-side window, muttering something about asphyxiation.

Bella noted Tanya's shiny red convertible as they pulled into an inconspicuous parking space. "So what's the plan?"

"Would you mind waiting until I find out if she'll let me in?" He suddenly looked very nervous, vulnerable. Edward was hoping that a grand gesture like this would be enough for her to give him a chance. As much as she disliked Tanya, Bella hoped that she would be gentle with her friend. She wasn't sure how she'd handle it, though, if Edward and Tanya started dating. She was certain that the blonde ice goddess wouldn't approve of her boyfriend hanging out with another woman.

Suck it up, Swan, her inner voice chided. You can't let your best friend down. "How about I wait here, and if you don't come back in ten minutes I'll drive off. Then you can call me if you need a ride."

He looked relieved. "Thanks, Bella. Don't worry – I can walk home." He winked. "If I'm going home tonight, that is!"

Bella rolled her eyes. "Go on, Casanova! Get those stinky flowers out of my car." She watched his tall, lean frame reach in for the flowers, and then walk carefully to the main door of the apartment building. He rang the bell, and after speaking into the microphone, was buzzed in. He shot Bella a grin before stepping inside, which she returned with a thumbs-up. After fifteen minutes, still no Edward, so she reluctantly drove back home.

Melancholy settled over her as parked in her carport and slowly entered into her cheery yellow kitchen. Well, no use thinking about it now. She had a class to teach.

Quickly showering and getting dressed, Bella focused firmly on the material she was to cover in her lecture this evening. This week's paper required research, so a review of APA style is in order. Maybe I should demonstrate the bibliography feature in Microsoft Word…

An elegant envelope perched atop the mail pile briefly caught her attention. It arrived a couple of weeks earlier, but Bella pretended to ignore it. It was an invitation to her Graduate School Commencement in Chicago. All Ph.D. recipients living in the U.S. were required to attend, but she didn't want to. Her friend Angela, the only other English Ph.D. to graduate with her, now taught ESL in China and therefore would not walk at the Commencement. Her parents both passed away while she was in grad school, so the only person who even cared that she was graduating was her advisor. Turning her back on the envelope, Bella made her way to her car and drove to the University.

By 10:00pm, she ran out of excuses to stay in her tiny Chabert Hall office, and reluctantly returned home. As usual, she'd left the carport light on. Not even the chirping of crickets and the sight of the cute green anoles on the carport wall raised her spirits. She stood outside, gazing into the dark sky that promised rain later tonight.

Get a grip, Bella, she chided herself. He's your best friend. You should be happy for him. With a sigh, went inside, made a sandwich and a cup of mint tea, and parked herself in front of the T.V.

Flipping through the channels, nothing appealed to her. Eventually Bella gave up and resigned herself to munching her sandwich in solitary silence. Well, she dropped Edward off at Tanya's over five hours ago. She wondered how he was doing with Tanya. Images of what Edward was doing with Tanya forced their way into her brain. Ugh!

Bella needed a distraction. Reading a good book in bed, with her cup of tea, always worked. Wash plate in sink, put in drying rack, turn out kitchen lights, straighten sofa cushions, turn out living room lights…all a familiar routine. After changing into her pajama shorts and cropped t-shirt, she cuddled into her queen-sized bed, flipped on her bedside light, and dove into chapter three of A Tale of Two Cities.

Miss Manette was just finishing her fateful meeting with Mr. Lorry when Bella's cell phone beeped. Edward? Bella jumped out of bed and scrambled to the darkened kitchen.

Crunch! "Ouch! Shit!" She grabbed the toes on her right foot and hopped the rest of the way past the evil kitchen chair to her phone on the counter. Gingerly placing her right heel on the vinyl tile floor, Bella checked her text message.

"U awake?"

At her quick affirmative, Edward immediately responded.

"2 late for me to come over?"

Of course it wasn't too late. However, she wasn't expecting Edward to knock on her door three seconds after she told him to come over.

"I was waiting outside," he smiled sheepishly. "What's wrong with your foot?"

"I bashed it on that!" She indicated the chair.

"Ah! The Seat of Darkness!" He reached behind Bella's shoulder and switched on the light above the table. A frown settled between his eyes, studying the offended foot.

"It's already bruising. Sit down and let me look at it."

"Edward, it's fine…"

"Please?"

With a resigned sigh, Bella sat in the Seat of Darkness. She really needed to learn to resist those pleading green eyes. Edward crouched in front of her, resting her right heel on his jean-clad thigh and gently probing her damaged toes.

"Well, there's no swelling, and I can't feel any unusual movement. How much did it hurt when I moved it?"

"Not much more than now."

Edward looked relieved. "Good. I think it's not broken, only bruised. Keep it propped up, though, just in case."

"OK Doc," Bella retorted with a grimace. His gentle fingers on her feet invoked a slew of strange feelings in her, all of which she doggedly ignored.

"No, you're the doctor. I'm just a master's student." He sighed and carefully placed her foot on the floor before standing. Seeing the expression on her face, he held up a hand to forestall her. "Yeah yeah, I know. Only three more months, and then on to the doctorate. If I pass my master's thesis."

"You will," Bella assured him confidently. Edward was both brilliant and meticulous, and she knew that his research advisor was pleased with his work.

Edward regarded her silently for a moment, then stepped backward toward the door. "I should probably go now. I obviously got out of bed."

Bella glanced down at her skimpy shorts, giving her faded cropped shirt a tug. Oops, she'd forgotten that she wasn't dressed for company. I hope these shorts cover in the back.

Before she could reply, Edward spotted the envelope on the counter. "The Graduate School of Northwestern University?" Taking a closer look, he continued, "This is the RSVP card for your Hooding Ceremony and Commencement, and it needs to be postmarked by tomorrow!" Her friend gazed down at her curiously. "Why haven't you sent it in? I thought Ph.D.'s were required to attend."

Bella flushed. She didn't want to discuss this with him. "I don't want to go."

"Why not? It's a big deal, Bella."

No, she did not want to talk about this. "Right, and who's going to be there? Nobody! My parents are dead, Edward! I have no other family, there are no other English Ph.D.'s attending, and no one there will give a damn that I'm graduating! What's the point? They can just mail the paper to me."

"Won't your advisor be there?"

"Well, yes, but so will my creepy co-advisor, the old guy who always found excuses to talk with me about non-dissertation topics when I was alone."

Edward's gray-green eyes darkened. "You didn't tell your advisor? Did he say anything inappropriate?"

In her mind, Bella heard Dr. Weber's excited, whispering voice. "Bella, you must feel this chemistry between us, no matter how much you deny it. But alas, we cannot act upon it now, while you are my student." Fortunately, it happened in his office, with a desk between them. If he had tried anything, though, he would have felt the swift application of her booted foot to his private parts.

"Look Edward, I really don't want to discuss him now." Bella knew how strong Edward's protective instincts were. He'd already interceded on her behalf twice, including the time when a psychotic student and his friend deliberately parked their cars in front of and behind hers, blocking her exit. The psychotic one was leering at her through the window, holding a switchblade, when Edward appeared out of nowhere, squeezed the guy's hand behind his back until he let go of the knife, and slammed him into the side of Bella's car. The friend jumped in his own car and took off, but she and Edward held the psychotic man until the police and Psychiatric Emergency Services came.

"You didn't want to invite me?" Uh-oh…now he was hurt. "I guess it makes sense. You can't really show up with a student in tow…a younger male student, too."

Dammit! Fix this, Bella! "Edward, you're my closest male friend, and you're less than four years younger than me. I…I just didn't think you'd be interested in going."

"Of course I'm interested! I would be proud to see you walk for your doctorate. Don't you know that less than one percent of Americans have Ph.D.'s? It's a major accomplishment. This is something to celebrate, not hide because you think no one cares." He crouched in front of her again, placed his hands on her upper arms, and looked her directly in the eye. "I care, and you should too. You fought for that degree!"

Bella swallowed quickly, taken aback by the intensity of his tirade. "But it's more than 900 miles from here, north of Chicago."

Her friend leaned back on his heels, sensing victory. Folding his arms, he smirked as his countered, "That's what, fourteen hours without breaks? We've done long road trips before. Heck, we drove to St. Louis only a few weeks ago for my cousin's wedding, and that was nine hours."

"It'll be about $200 for gas, plus hotel."

The man in front of her shrugged. "So cost is worrying you? We can stop in St. Louis and stay with my cousin, and in Chicago we can stay with my sister." His smirk grew into a full grin. "She is a theater major at Northwestern."

What? "Your sister is at Northwestern, and you didn't tell me?"

"Yup." Edward was clearly enjoying this. "We could fly, if you wish. Tickets are only about $320 each."

"Only? You seem to have an exaggerated idea of what new professors are paid, Edward. I have student loans, you know."

Yes, he did know. He also knew that she was paying off her parents' debts, too. For some reason they added her to their credit cards, and when they died she inherited their $60,000 in unpaid bills. Almost all of her income went to rent and debt. Just twenty more months, she reminded herself, and I'll be free of it.

"Then let me cover the airfare. It'll be my graduation present to you."

Bella gaped at him, the pain in her toes completely forgotten. "What? No!"

They studied one another, each trying to determine what the other actually wanted. Edward eventually stood up, his shoulders drooping slightly.

"It's OK if you don't want to go, Bella. Or if you don't want me to go. I'm sorry I pushed you."

She couldn't take it any more. "If you're with me, then I want to go," she blurted. Good lord, what did she just admit? He wants Tanya, you idiot!

Her friend's face, however, lit up like a little boy's on Christmas morning. Apparently, this made her verbal filter completely abandon her, because her next remark was, "Tanya won't be happy if you're travelling with another woman though, not even if it's me."

Edward barked a short, derisive laugh. "Especially if it's you! What Tanya wants doesn't concern me, Bella."

"But…we…you just hacked down magnolias for her! You've been …" Oh geez. "What happened tonight?"

He glanced at the clock before looking back at Bella, his handsome face conflicted. "It's past midnight, and you have an 8:00am class tomorrow."

It was then that Bella noticed the tired lines around her friend's beautiful green eyes. He doesn't look like a man who finally went on a date with his dream girl, she thought.

"It didn't go as you hoped," she stated flatly. "I'm sorry, Edward. She turned you down?"

"No, I turned her down."

Seeing the puzzled expression on Bella's face, he reached for her hand and pulled her to her feet…foot. "Come on. You crawl into your nice, cozy bed, and I'll tell you a bedtime story."

A couple of minutes later, Bella found herself tucked under the covers, with Edward sitting cross-legged on the floor next to her. He'd already agreed to her demand that he stay the night on her futon. She didn't want him walking over a mile home in the rain at one in the morning.

"Well, Tanya was excited about the flowers, going on about what a sweet grand gesture it was, and that no other man had done something like this for her. Eventually I got up the nerve to ask her to dinner. She wanted to drive her own car. Man, she's a crazy driver! I saw my life flash before my eyes at least three times. I had to practically yell at her to put down that stupid phone, quit texting, and keep her eyes on the road!"

Bella giggled. "A lot of people think that cute, crazy drivers are endearing." She hoped Edward wasn't one of those people. But then, he was infatuated with the woman, so maybe he thought everything about her was cute.

He merely rolled his eyes. "Anyway, she picked the most expensive place in town, which was fine with me. I wouldn't take a woman to a crappy place, especially on our first date."

This is true, mused Bella. Edward always treats women well. The old-fashioned manners didn't hurt either.

"We talked for about two hours. Tanya drank a few glasses of wine, and that helped take away the layer that she shows the rest of the world, so that I could see more of who she really is."

Uh-oh…this didn't sound good.

"Underneath everything, Bella, she is amazingly insecure. She thinks that her looks are the most important part of her, because without them men wouldn't be attracted to her. I told her that not all men wanted a painted doll – I certainly didn't. She's used to a lot of male attention. It's like a drug to her – I don't think she can live without it. I also figured out that she can't handle her men paying attention to other women." Edward paused, blowing out a breath before continuing. Apparently he suddenly found the side of Bella's bedspread very interesting.

"She said that she liked me very much, and that she would stop seeing the other three men if I would do the same. Other women, I mean. She desired me and only me."

Bella's heart sank. "Great! That's what you wanted." There, that sounded supportive, right?

"I thought I did. But as the evening wore on, all I felt was…disappointment. I'd put this gorgeous woman up on a pedestal, unattainable." He ran his hand pensively through the unruly bronze mop atop his head. "I don't know what I expected if I actually got to talk with her for any length of time. Scintillating conversation to match her beauty, I suppose. At first I was floating on golden clouds, just happy to be with her. But then all through dinner we talked about her. Other than my name and the fact that I am a biology grad student, she didn't want to know any more about me. Later we went back to her place, and she invited me…uh…inside."

Inside? Oh…

Edward looked up and grinned at her. "Bella, I can feel your blush from here."

"So did you…um…?"

"No."

Oh, thank God. As a friend she knew she should listen, but she didn't want to hear the details of Edward's sexual encounters.

"There was a faint smell of cologne in her bedroom, and all I could think about was if she ever bothered to change the sheets."

"What?" Bella choked a laugh. "Edward!"

He merely smiled and shrugged. "Anyway, to summarize, I thanked her for a lovely evening, she thanked me for dinner and the magnolias, and I showed myself out. Then I came straight here."

"No hints at future plans?"

"Nope."

Poor guy. His dreams of being with his perfect women lay shattered around him. "You seem to be taking this awfully well," she observed.

He frowned thoughtfully. "That's what I thought too, as I walked over here. It's almost as if I've been purged of an addiction or something. I should be upset, but I'm not. Just disappointed." Edward shot her a contrite smile. "I'm sorry I dragged you into that whole magnolia fiasco."

"It was worth it," mumbled Bella. She fought against her drooping eyelids, wanting to be there for her friend.

Edward chuckled softly. "You're about to pass out, aren't you? I'll head over to the futon and let you sleep."

"OK." Edward's soft, velvety voice came from far away. She felt him lean over and kiss her on the forehead.

"Sweet dreams, Bella."

The next three weeks flew by. At Edward's insistence, Bella responded to the Commencement invitation with "one guest," and went through the painful process of ordering a Northwestern University doctoral gown at the last minute. She knew she should purchase one anyway, because she would wear it to Selva's commencement ceremonies twice as year. If only the thing weren't purple!

Over multiple dinners, she and Edward eventually decided that because her Hooding Ceremony was in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday (what genius planned that?), there wasn't enough time to drive. Bella still didn't approve of him paying for her flight, but when she realized how angry and offended her protests made him, she let it go. For now.

Now, waiting to board their 5:45am flight to Chicago, Bella felt a now-familiar tingle of anticipation. In the past week or so, she truly began to look forward to this trip. Of course, she knew that Edward was a large part of that. She grinned over her shoulder at her friend standing behind her. He was also excited, not only for the trip and for watching Bella graduate, but also because he would be seeing his youngest and favourite sister. Bella and Edward, at this point, were used to travelling together. Over the two year span of their friendship, they'd made several sojourns to different cities and sites, including two hiking trips. This, however, would be the first time that they would fly.

"You're practically bouncing," observed Edward, his voice low and teasing in her ear.

"I'm excited!"

"I can see that! Look, the line's moving."

Soon Edward was storing their carry-ons in the overhead compartment, and they settling in for the short hop to Atlanta. Gentleman that he was, he offered Bella the window seat, knowing that she would want to watch the scenery. Of course, being able to stretch his long legs into the aisle had absolutely nothing to do with it…or so he innocently claimed.

The five-hour flight passed quickly, even with the layover in Atlanta. Arriving in Chicago, Edward easily retrieved their rolling flight bags and they quickly made their way across the ramp to the waiting area.

"Edward!"

Edward hastily dropped the handle of his bag, just in time to intercept a running hug from a petite twenty-something woman with spiky pixie-cut hair.

'Whoa, Alice!" he laughed, squeezing her to him. Releasing the human whirlwind, Edward looked her up and down with a grin. "Did you grow? Oh wait, that's just those crazy heels."

Alice mock-frowned. "Why is it you're my favourite brother again? Oh, yeah, that's right. You're my only brother!"

"I guess that makes him your least favourite brother too," commented Bella.

Alice's grin widened as she turned to the woman standing passively a couple of steps away. "I don't even know you yet, and already I like you. You must be Bella." She stuck out a small, perfectly-manicured hand. "I'm Alice, the better half of this sibling set."

Bella laughed, shaking the proffered hand. "I don't doubt it! Pleased to meet you, Alice."

She and Alice chatted away happily on the way to the parking garage, while poor Edward barely got a word in edgewise. When Bella glanced back at him, trailing behind the women, she noticed that he had a contented smile on his face. At her "everything OK back there?" look, he merely winked.

The same pattern continued all the way to Alice's apartment. Edward's sister somehow managed to squeeze her little white sports car into a parallel parking space no bigger than a small canoe.

"You like it?" asked Alice, noticing Bella's gaze travelling up the four-story 1920's red brick Gothic style building. Yes, she did like it. It had character, with the white stone around each of the windows, and stone and wood entrance with the glass sidelights.

Alice opened the front door and starting leading Bella and Edward up a narrow wood staircase. "I'm on the third floor."

By the time they reached Alice's dark wood apartment door, Edward was puffing slightly from the exertion of hauling two flight bags up all those steep stairs. "You need to work out more," his sister teased, fighting with the door lock.

With a resounding click, the door swung open to reveal a tiny Bohemian-style apartment that suited Alice's personality perfectly.

"Welcome home," grinned Alice. "It's not big, but I love it." Bella could see why. Instead of a sofa, the living room was filled with multicoloured pouffes and a couple of cozy-looking pillow chairs. The apartment also had a tiny white kitchenette, and she could see a comfy-looking queen-sized mattress on the floor in the next room, flanked by very low end tables. The welcoming aroma of jasmine tea added to the Bohemian feel. Edward was already rolling their suitcases into the small bedroom.

"So," announced his sister, "you two make yourselves at home. I've put fresh linens on the bed, so it's all ready for you!"

"But where will you be sleeping?"

"Oh, I'll be at Jasper's. He's my fiancé."

Bella glanced around the living room, mentally rearranging the furnishings into some sort of nest, before looking at the bed again. She and Edward exchanged considering looks, prompting Edward to state, "Alice, Bella and I aren't a couple. Perhaps …"

His sister's horrified expression halted his speech. "Omigosh, I'm SO sorry! I just thought that…oh jeez…"

"It's OK, Alice," soothed Bella hastily. She really liked Edward's sister, and hated for her to be upset. "We'll figure something out."

"This is great, Alice. Thanks for letting us crash your place," Edward chimed in. "If you don't mind, Bella and I should get dressed for her hooding ceremony. It's in an hour."

Alice nodded. "I can swing by and drive you there." The three of them agreed on a time, and Bella scurried of to the bathroom to freshen up and change into the short sleeveless black dress she brought to wear under the doctoral gown.

When she emerged from the tiny bathroom, Edward's muttered, "Damn!" surprised her.

"What happened?" she asked, worried. "Is everything OK?" Had he forgotten something?

Her friend stood by the apartment door, eyeing her up and down. "You look beautiful, Bella. You look…hot."

Cue the flaming cheeks. "Thanks. So do you." He did, too. The slim-fitting black slacks and single-breasted blazer emphasized his tall, lean build. Those, teamed with his crisp white shirt with the top two buttons open, highlighted his crazy reddish-brown hair and laughing green eyes. Yep, definitely hot. Friend, she reminded herself. He's your friend.

As promised, Alice chauffeured them to Cahn Auditorium, a beautiful 70-year-old theater building on the south side of the campus. Edward helped Bella sort out her purple doctoral gown and tam.

"How do I look?" she asked nervously, brushing an invisible speck of lint off one of the black velvet front panels. Now that Bella was actually wearing the gown and four-corner velvet tam, she finally began to feel like a Ph.D. graduate. I did it, she thought to herself. I really did it! She didn't know who was glowing more, herself or Edward.

Edward gazed at her, smiling, before reaching forward and grasping both her hands in his. "You look magnificent. I can't express how proud I am of you." He squeezed her hands. "Somehow, now it's real."

For an instant Bella thought she glimpsed a touch of sadness in her friend's eyes. "What's real?"

He shook his head slightly, dropping her hands. "Nothing important, just a reality check. You're so far above…"

"All guests take your seats please!" a good-natured older man in academic garb shouted. "Graduates, line up in order of the numbers on your cards!"

"I'll see you soon!" promised Edward with a grin. Then he turned and vanished into the crowd. Bella watched his broad back for as long as she could, wondering what he meant by her being "so far above." Above what? Him?

Amidst all the bustle, she didn't have time to ponder the puzzle further. Before she knew it, Bella found herself standing in line on the steps of the great wooden stage, royal blue, purple and white hood in hand. The air smelled of fresh floor wax. She briefly envisioned herself skidding on the stage and landing in a heap. Don't be ridiculous, she scolded herself. Think positive.

She nervously rubbed the velvet between her fingers, squinting against the lights to find Edward in the audience. Ah, there he was, waving at her from the left side. She grinned back, his handsome face lighting up when he realized she saw him.

"Isabella Marie Swan," the Dean intoned. There was Dr. Zhao, waiting for her at the stage's half-way point, looking like a petite, proud grandmother in her Syracuse regalia. Bella barely registered crouching in front of her dissertation advisor while the sweet Chinese lady gently placed the hood over Bella's head and arranged it carefully on her shoulders.

"Congratulations, Bella," she whispered, engulfing her in a warm hug. Dr. Zhao's dark eyes sparkled with happy tears. Bella's euphoria continued as she crossed the stage. That is, until she spotted her co-advisor seated among the other faculty, smiling and clapping.

Alright, don't panic, Swan. He won't try anything. It's probably all blown past by now. Besides, Edward's here. It was the last thought that gave her the most comfort. Making a conscious effort not to look at Dr. Weber, she carefully made her way back to her seat.

After the ceremony, Bella scanned the crowd backstage for a familiar mop of bronze hair. Why didn't we arrange to meet somewhere? she thought irritably. That was really stupid.

"Bella!" Oh great, she knew that rather high-pitched male voice. And that cologne. Reluctantly, she turned to face her nemesis.

"Hello, Dr. Weber. Nice to see you again." Yeah, right.

"Congratulations, kid. I hoped you'd come back for graduation." He clapped her uncomfortably on the shoulder. "Dr. Zhao didn't mention it to me. It was such a pleasant surprise to see you standing there in the queue."

"My friend convinced me to come," she admitted, wondering where said friend was at the moment. Dr. Weber's voice began taking on that slightly breathless quality that indicated he was excited. She hated it. "Actually, I'm going to meet him now."

"Oh, I'm sure…he is it?...he's out in the lobby somewhere. Come, let's look for him."

"No need," Edward's cheerful baritone interrupted. "I already found you." Bella turned toward her friend with a relieved smile. He was, in fact, directly behind her. His answering smile didn't reach his eyes, however, and she could practically feel the tension in his body.

"Ah, you must be the friend our Bella spoke of." She could tell that her co-advisor was sizing Edward up.

Edward placed his left hand in the small of Bella's back and reached around her to shake the gray-bearded man's hand. "Edward Cullen."

"Dr. James Weber." Bella mentally rolled her eyes. Unlike the majority of Ph.D.'s she knew, Dr. Weber was one of those who always introduced himself with his title. It didn't help that he believed his beard made him look like Ernest Hemingway.

Edward's hand on her back twitched, causing her to look up at her friend. Yup, he was thinking the same thing.

"So Edward, are you also at Selva? Bella hasn't mentioned you."

That's because I don't communicate with you, thought Bella irritably.

"Yes, although I am in the Biology Department."

Bella felt her friend's hand move so that he now had his arm lightly around her waist, sending little tingles up and down her spine. Instinctively she moved closer to him, earning her a gentle squeeze and a warm smile when she glanced up at him.

"Ah, a biologist! The scientific mind! I have always been fascinated by biology, particularly human reproduction. Tell me, Edward, what is your area of research?"

Uh-oh. Edward doesn't respond well to patronizing. This won't be good.

"I am deriving models to predict the impact of covalent histone modification levels on the expression level of genes and the structure of transcribed messenger ribonucleic acid. As you may know, histone modifications impact several chromatin-dependent processes."

"Predict?" scoffed Dr. Weber. "I don't believe you can predict anything in genetics. Correlation, maybe. Correlation is the process of demonstrating a relationship between…"

"I know what correlation is, Dr. Weber," Edward interrupted through gritted teeth. His body was rigid with anger, but he kept his voice deceptively soft. In an effort to calm her friend, Bella reached over and covered his hand with hers. His green gaze instantly met her worried brown one, and he relaxed slightly.

"James, I'm sure that this man knows more about his field that you do." Bella's petite advisor, Dr. Zhao, appeared suddenly from the other side of Edward. How did she not see her? Jeez, that wonderful lady moved as silently as a cat.

Dr. Zhao introduced herself to Edward, then suggested they make their way to the reception outside. "Bella, do you and Edward have any plans for this evening? I would like to take both of you to dinner to celebrate."

Bella hesitated, looking to Edward, who still held her hand while they walked, to discern what he wished to do. Personally, she would like to go, but if Weber planned to be there…

"What time were you thinking, Lina?" inquired Dr. Weber.

"Seven o'clock," Dr. Zhao responded promptly. "I have already made a reservation for four, because Bella told me that her boyfriend would be travelling with her." Seeing Weber's frown, she added, "Oh, I just realized! This is the evening that you and your wife attend your swing dancing class."

"Yes," he replied grumpily. "Victoria won't be happy if I'm not there."

Did he really just pout? On Edward the little boy pout was cute, but on Hemingway here…not so much.

"Well Bella, it looks as if we shan't be spending time together this evening after all. Tomorrow, then." He reached out to hug her, forcing her to release Edward's hand.

The unwelcome scent of his cologne engulfed her. If she didn't associate it with Weber, Bella would actually like it. Then she felt his hot breath in her ear. "I tried to forget you, but the chemistry is still here, Bellissima. Let me know when you wish to be rid of this boy of yours."

Bella immediately pulled away. "It won't happen," she retorted angrily. There was more she wanted to say, but she couldn't with Edward and Dr. Zhao covertly watching her.

"Farewell until the morrow, Bella. Lina, Ed," he nodded to them and disappeared into the crowd, black robes fluttering behind him.

Immediately the atmosphere felt clearer. Dr. Zhao's wise black eyes glittered mischievously. Then it dawned on Bella.

"You planned that, didn't you? You knew he wouldn't be able to come to dinner."

"Not at all, Bella. It is simply a coincidence. However, the reservations are for six, not seven."

Edward grinned. "You are one devious lady. I knew I liked you."

The petite elderly woman laughed. "I like you too, Edward. And so, clearly, does Bella. Where are you staying? Do you need to stop back there to freshen up, or would you like to go straight to the restaurant?"

"I would like to get out of this hot gown!" replied Bella. The tam, heavy hood, and non-breathing fabric were becoming uncomfortable.

"My sister dropped us off here," explained Edward. He glanced at his watch. "How far away is the restaurant? It's already five-thirty."

After some discussion, Bella opted to change and fluff her hair in the Auditorium's luxurious restroom. She removed her regalia and handed it to Edward, before going to repair the damages.

When she returned, her advisor seemed to be engrossed in a heart-to-heart discussion with her BMF. Some time later, Bella found herself eating mushroom ravioli in her favourite Italian restaurant, laughing with two of the most important people in her life.

All through dinner, Bella had the impression that Dr. Zhao wanted to talk with her about something. When Edward excused himself to use the restroom, her suspicions were confirmed.

"That young man is in love with you."

Bella shook her head, unaware of the sad expression on her face. "No he isn't. He is my closest male friend, though. We met two years ago."

"Yes, I know. He told me. He worries that your friendship with him could jeopardize your career, because you are a professor and he is a student. He isn't your student, is he?"

"No, he is in a completely different department." She knew that Edward was concerned about the impact of their friendship, but she didn't realize that it bothered him so much that he spoke with her advisor about it. Then again, something about Dr. Zhao made people want to confide in her.

Her advisor shrugged her fragile shoulders. "Then it doesn't matter. I told him the same thing. There are many married couples where one is a professor and the other is working toward their degree."

"But we're not even a couple!" protested Bella. "Edward was just…" Drat, she couldn't tell Dr. Zhao about Weber's comments.

"Just putting on a show for James' benefit?" supplied the lady next to her shrewdly. "That may have been his intention, but he didn't seem to mind. You, I think, are attracted to him as well."

"The majority of the female population is attracted to him." She grimaced. "I am too old for him, and I come with too much baggage."

Dr. Zhao looked thoughtful. "He mentioned that he is three years younger than you, and that you regard him as a younger brother. Is that the case?"

Bella could feel the blush creeping into her cheeks. "I've been trying to, but no, I don't."

"Then what is your plan, Bella? I have yet to find you without a plan."

"He will graduate in a few months, and then either leave or go on for his Ph.D. Either way, his new life will begin and he will forget about his old friend the English professor." The thought of Edward leaving sent a dull ache through her heart.

"And you?" Dr. Zhao prodded softly.

"I will try to move on as well." For a moment Bella thought her words were too quiet for her advisor to hear.

"You deserve happiness too, dear Bella. You lost your only family while you were working on your dissertation. I saw how much you struggled, how much you sacrificed." Bella saw her eyes focus on a spot behind her. "Now the opportunity is there. Don't throw it away over insecurities. Talk to him."

Bella felt Edward arrive before she saw him. He slid into the leather booth opposite the women, smiling a greeting. The smile faded, though, when he observed Bella's face.

"What's wrong?"

She merely shook her head in response, forcing a smile and shoving her melancholy thoughts to the back of her mind. Enjoy the moment, she advised herself sternly.

Dr. Zhao came to her rescue. "We were talking about the bitter sweetness of graduation. I am happy to see my students begin new lives, yet sad that they are leaving the nest." Bella nodded in agreement.

Of course, Edward knew her too well. Avoiding his probing gaze, she kept her eyes on her mentor and quickly switched the subject.

It was almost nine o'clock by the time Dr. Zhao dropped them back to Alice's apartment. To their surprise, she scrambled out of the driver door to hug them both. "Bella, I'll see you in the morning. It was a pleasure to meet you, Edward, although it was quite sneaky to pay for all our meals when you went to the restroom!"

Edward grinned. He loved getting the upper hand. Seriously though, how could anyone resist that charming smile? It seemed that not even Dr. Zhao was immune. "You're welcome!"

On the way upstairs, Bella savoured the thought of kicking off her high heels and relaxing for a bit. Who knew that a hooding ceremony and dinner would be so exhausting? These shoes definitely didn't go well with steep narrow stairs, either, although walking on tip-toes helped. What's more, her short black dress fitted a bit too snuggly around the hips for climbing.

"I can't wait to take these shoes and dress off," she commented. "Neither one is meant for stairs." A stumbling sound behind her made her turn her head in alarm. "Are you OK?" He insisted on carrying her regalia for her, but she could tell he may be even more exhausted than she was.

"Yeah. I just tripped on the hem of the gown." His face was flushed, and his eyes looked…odd. He'd had only one glass of wine at dinner, though. It worried her. She hoped he didn't have a fever. He was sick several months ago, and it took over a week for his fever to recede. Bella hurried up the rest of the steps and unlocked the apartment door.

An hour later, they were both settled comfortably on the poufees in Alice's living room, working on their laptops. Eventually, Edward lifted his computer off his lap, stood up, and stretched.

"I don't know about you, but I'm beat. If you don't mind, I'll head to bed."

Bella agreed. "Me too. We've been up since before the crack of dawn!" Suddenly, she was nervous again. "Um…what do we do about the sleeping arrangements?"

Edward bent and held out his hand to help her up. The tingling from earlier came back full force. .Fantastic.

Her friend glanced around the floor. "I think I can assemble a bed out of these…" he mused doubtfully.

"No way, Mr. Six-Foot-Two. Half of you will be on the wood floor. You take the mattress and I'll sleep here."

"But…" Suddenly he chuckled. "We're being ridiculous. There's plenty of space for both of us on the mattress. It isn't as if we haven't slept together before." He flushed. "That didn't come out the way I meant it. I'll go have my shower now."

Bella grinned. "I know what you meant."

By the time Edward appeared in his gray t-shirt and lounge pants, Bella already had the bed sorted out. The room, of course, , so the bed was placed into the corner to leave as much floor space as possible. With a contented sigh, her friend immediately snuggled under the covers on the wall side of the mattress.

"I like the corner," he responded to her quizzical look. "Besides, you'll be getting up first in the morning, and I don't want you to wake me up when you crawl over me."

Bella rolled her eyes, but had to admit that he was right. She quickly found her toiletry bag and pajamas, tied her hair back so that it wouldn't get wet in the shower, and ducked into the tiny black and white bathroom. A few minutes later, she stood in her tank top and sleep shorts, brushing her teeth for the second time while attempting to calm her nerves.

It's just Edward, she reminded herself sternly. As far as he's concerned, you may as well be Alice. Or a cousin. Or a large bag of potatoes. He probably doesn't even think of you as a woman. Pull yourself together, Swan!

Taking a deep breath, Bella turned out the light, opened the bathroom door, and stepped into Alice's bedroom. The room was in darkness, the only illumination being a faint glow through the curtained window. She carefully slid into the bed, staying as close to the edge of the mattress and as far away from Edward as possible.

After a few minutes of laying on her side as immobile as possible, barely breathing, her friend's sleepy, amused voice murmured, "You're going to fall out of bed, Bella. Scoot closer to me and go to sleep."

Bella moved about four inches, but couldn't fall asleep. Instead, she listened to Edward's even breathing, acutely aware of the man sleeping less than three feet from her. His scent drew her in, and she remembered the security of being held is his arms today. It felt so right, even though she knew he was just acting.

She imagined how it would feel to be wrapped in his arms now, held against his lean body. In those ridiculous romance novels that her mother used to read, the man would have some sort of erotic dream and begin acting it out with the willing heroine, who happened to be sleeping next to him. Yeah, right. Edward's going to have a dream and start making love to you in his sleep. Fat chance.

Carefully, she rubbed her thighs together, seeking friction to relieve the tingling between her legs. I need him, she thought. I want to feel his body on mine, pressing me into the mattress and soothing this ache inside me. She abruptly realized that she was subconsciously willing her friend to roll on top of her. What the hell, Swan? Jeez, this really did sound like a bad romance novel. Perhaps she'd had more wine than she thought. Was she seriously considering seducing her BMF? What kind of sicko was she? But to feel him inside me…Ugh, Bella, get a grip!

Bella didn't notice that she was still slowly moving her thighs together and subconsciously scooting backward toward Edward. Suddenly, she felt his right leg lift and rest on hers, effectively pinning them down and preventing them from moving. She froze, completely tense. Oh shit, he must have figured out what I was thinking and is trying to make me stop. Either that, or he is completely asleep and doesn't even realize what he's doing.

She remained utterly still, alternately hoping that he remained asleep and willing him to wake up. Eventually, when Edward showed no signs of being awake, Bella relaxed. Listening to his deep even breathing, with the clean scent of him and warmth of his body surrounding her, she eventually fell asleep.

A few hours later, Bella awoke to daylight filtering through the linen curtains. Why am I so warm? she wondered drowsily. And why is my pillow so hard? She opened her eyes and encountered a chin covered in reddish-brown scruff. Her head wasn't on a pillow at all – it rested on Edward's gray t-shirt, which, in turn, rested on…covered… Edward's chest. What's more, her legs were tangled up in his. Uh-oh.

She pulled her legs free and made to move quickly back to her side of the bed, but an arm tightened around her upper body. "Shhh," whispered Edward's sleepy voice. He didn't even open his eyes. "Don't move. This is nice."

Bella had to agree – it was nice. Unceremoniously squashing her practical inner voice, she did as her friend asked. After a few moments, he looked down at her through half-lidded eyes. "You OK?"

She nodded against his chest. She was very OK.

Edward sighed contentedly. "I could get used to waking up every morning like this."

"What?" she teased. "With a woman in your bed? I suspect that wouldn't be difficult."

"Not just any woman. One woman."

Bella's mind started going off in crazy, happy directions, all of which her practical self quickly halted. "Only one woman? I thought most guys wanted at least two."

His chest shook lightly with laughter. "Haven't you figured out by now that I'm not most guys?" Then he turned serious again, pulling away from her. He shifted to his side and propped his head on his hand, studying her. Bella mimicked his pose, self-consciously running a hand through her sleep-disheveled hair.

"Whenever we travel somewhere together," commented Edward, "It is so easy to forget that you're a professor and I'm a student."

Bella rolled her eyes. "I'm not even four years older than you, Edward."

"It's not the age, it's the status. You're in a completely different league from me. Professors and students don't mix, at least not as…" He came to an abrupt halt, glancing at the clock on the low table beside Bella. "Come on, we'd better get dressed if we want to grab some breakfast before the Commencement. You can go first if you want."

She didn't want. She wanted him to finish that sentence. "At least not as what?"

"Let's talk at breakfast," he urged, scooting off the base of the bed. Knowing that there would be no budging him, Bella complied.

Half an hour later they were strolling into one of the favourite student coffee hangouts, regalia slung over her arm. Knowing that the ceremony would be outside, Bella opted for a cool cotton tank dress to wear under her gown. Edward wore a dark green polo and light jeans. Of course, he drew more than his fair share of appreciative looks from several female patrons.

Like last night, he kept a hand in the small of her back as they walked to their table This time, however, there was no Dr. Weber. "If that guy over there keeps ogling you, I may need to accidently spill his coffee down his over-washed purple shirt."

"Edward!" What was going on with this possessive streak this morning? He didn't sound sorry. Bella decided to let it slide. She had more important things on her mind, such as who his "one woman" was.

They bantered back and forth while they sipped their coffee, waiting for their food to arrive. It was half-way through the meal when Bella found a good opening.

"So Edward," she began, a propos nothing. "When you were saying this morning that you didn't want to wake up with any woman, just one woman, what did you mean?" Smooth, Bella. Edward choked on his coffee.

"That I'm not in the habit of sleeping around," he managed, his face bright red. Most of it was probably due to the coffee that tried to escape into his lungs.

"Oh." Well, that successfully deflated her balloon. "So no particular woman in mind, then."

Edward's green eyes narrowed. "What exactly are you asking me, Bella?"

Bella attempted to appear nonchalant. Even to her own ears, her voice sounded overly bright. "I was just wondering if you were reconsidering Tanya."

Ah, now she'd truly shocked him. "Tanya? Absolutely not!" As soon as she insisted that I drop all of my female friends for her, that was it."

A wave of relief washed over her. That wave turned to ice at his next words. "There is someone else, though. I realized when Tanya made her ultimatum that there was a woman I wasn't willing to give up, unless it would be better for her if I did."

Bella began to feel light-headed. Coffee, she instructed herself. Sip the coffee. "Do I know her? Does she know how you feel?"

He regarded her intently. "Yes, and no." He hesitated. "We are friends, and I'm afraid to ruin that friendship if she doesn't feel the same way."

She swallowed. "Why wouldn't she?"

"Because she deserves better than me. In spite of the fact that she is several tiers above me, she still considers me a good friend. If I presume more, than she'd probably run away screaming."

Bella struggled to catch her breath. Was he saying what she thought he was saying? "What if you are her BMF, and she is secretly hoping you want more?"

Edward's coppery brows knit together in confusion. "BMF?"

"Best male friend."

"Ah." His handsome face cleared, although his intent expression remained. "How do I find out if she wants more? What if she doesn't, and I lose her friendship?"

By now Bella's entire body was vibrating. "Just ask her," she responded softly. She half expected him to say, "Good idea! I'll do that as soon as we get back."

Thank God he didn't. Instead, he ran his hand through his already unruly hair and took a deep breath. "Bella, I really hope you already know what I want to say. I love you. I'm in love with you. Is there any chance you would ever consider me as more than a friend?"

"Yes. I think I've been in love with you for a long time now."

Edward sagged with relief. For a while they just sat there, grinning stupidly at each other, their food completely forgotten. The waitress returning to give them the cheque jerked them back to reality.

"Oh shit, look at the time! You've got only fifteen minutes to get to the stadium." Clearly, declarations of love released his verbal filter.

They walked quickly down the sidewalk. Suddenly, Edward grabbed her hand and pulled her into an alley between a couple of stores.

"Edward, what…" Her question was cut off by his lips covering hers in an urgent kiss. A kiss that, after her initial surprise, Bella enthusiastically returned.

Eventually Edward pulled back, flushed and slightly out of breath. "I've been wanting to do that for so long," he grinned down at her. "Last night, when you were scooting back against me, all I could think about was holding you in my arms…and how it would feel to be inside you."

"I wanted that too." Bella reached up and met his lips in another searing kiss. When her hips started moving involuntarily against his, Edward gently pushed her away.

"Bella, if we don't stop I may wind up rushing you back to Alice's instead of to your commencement."

"Is that an invitation?" she teased. "I accept!"

Edward laughed. "Don't tempt me! I'm hanging by a thread here. Come on, love, it's time for you to be graduated."

Later that morning, when Bella's name was announced and she stepped onto that sunlit stage in full doctoral regalia, she heard three voices cheering at the tops of their lungs. Squinting into the stands, she spotted Alice, Jasper and, most importantly, her Edward, all standing and applauding her.

This was the moment when all those years of poverty, sleep deprivation and intense work finally paid off. She was here, officially receiving her Ph.D. Although her parents may no longer be alive to see her, she liked to think that they knew, somehow. She hoped they knew about Edward, too. The words of the keynote speaker echoed in her mind.

"We do not call this a graduation, because the term 'graduation' implies an ending. Instead we use the word 'commencement.' Commencement, a beginning, the start of the next, new, wonderful stage of your life." In Bella's mind, it all began with an invitation.


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