THE CHARADE

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

A Tropes Contest Entry. Public vote: 2nd place, Judge's Choice: Lily Jill, and Best Fake Dating winner.

Thank you, katinki, for being my beta, without you I wouldn't dare.

. . .

"Alright, who's going to explain what's going on? Edward?"

Carlisle offered me an encouraging smile as my vampire family, which consisted of Carlisle and Esme, Jasper and Alice, Emmett and Rosalie, and me, Edward Anthony, gathered around the dining table, ready to discuss our "issue".

I sighed.

"It looks like Jessica Stanley has nothing better to do than start a social media campaign solely dedicated to finding me a girlfriend. Because in case you didn't know, I'm "too gorgeous to be wasted" as per Jessica."

I couldn't help but huff. That insufferable girl!

"She's planning to create several fake accounts in my name, add a cringeworthy story about how I'm lonely and want to find the love of my life, post my pictures, and tag a few celebrities. Sounds ridiculous but harmless? It does to me, but Alice thinks there's the potential for this to blow up. Not sure how and when, but we will be exposed, and the Volturi will know right away… You can imagine the rest. We need a plan ASAP."

The Volturi, a bunch of Italy-based vampires led by a borderline psychopath and fellow mind reader, Aro, served as both royalty and the police force of our kind. Their main job was eliminating vampires who became too conspicuous and posed a threat to our secret existence among humans. While we found Carlisle's stories about them entertaining, none of us had any desire to encounter them in person and face their wrath.

Carlisle looked confused. "Why would Jessica want to be your… matchmaker?"

I sighed again. This was the uncomfortable part. "Her thoughts are all over the place… it's messy really. She feels like I humiliated her when I refused her advances – mind you, that was two years ago – and this is some kind of revenge disguised as a good deed, I guess?"

"A very Jessica kind of move," Jasper agreed.

With a nod, I continued. "The only thing stopping her right now is the lack of pictures, but the moment her mother gives her a new phone for her birthday, things will start moving fast. And to address your next question, yes, even without pictures, Jessica's endeavors still pose a threat to us. That's what Alice believes, at least, and I believe her."

See, Alice had a gift of precognition, a rarity among our kind. While nobody fully understood how it worked, it was undeniably impressive. When it worked, that is. More often than not, Alice's visions were no more reliable than a weather forecast, but when she was right, she was a lifesaver. Despite being an annoying know-it-all sister, Alice was not to be ignored.

"Jasper, can't you delete those fake accounts?" asked Esme.

Jasper shook his head. "I can find and erase some, of course," he replied after a short consideration. "But there's no telling when and what accounts she's going to create, or what pictures will be posted and reposted, so I'm kind of limited here." He sent me a pointed look. "We need to act preventatively. Nothing should be posted in the first place."

While Alice and I were still biding time as seniors at Forks High, Emmett, Rosalie, and Jasper supposedly attended U-Dub, although they spent more time in Forks than in Seattle, busy with their projects. Jasper was our expert in all things digital, and if he said he couldn't stop Jessica, then the situation was really bad.

We sat in silence for a while. I knew what everybody was thinking, of course. Rose, true to form, didn't wait too long before vocalizing it. "I just want to say that I'm not moving early because Edward here has made another mistake."

Rose could be so whiny.

"What did I do?" I snapped. "I can't control the stupid ideas of obnoxious teenage girls!"

Emmett snorted. "Must be fun to be the prettiest in class… but yeah, it sucks, bro. I don't want to leave either. Not because of this! You need to do something about this."

I shot him my best exasperated glare. "Do what? You want me to leave? That, I can. Maybe it's about time…"

Carlisle delicately cleared his throat. "Everybody, please calm down. We are not leaving unless it's absolutely necessary. And by "we" I mean all of us. I'm in the middle of a project at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and if we're successful, it will be huge. That's not something I want to abandon. Esme just started working on that Elizabethan house shipped from the UK… you know how long she'd been waiting for an opportunity like that. And we want our family here, not scattered around the world hiding. Alice, how certain are you that we are in danger?"

Alice, who'd been quiet this whole time, turned to me, her expression pleading. "If we do nothing, we'll be exposed and eventually dealt with. But there's a way, Edward. All you need is to get yourself a girlfriend."

For a moment there was a dead silence, and then Emmett burst into laughter, so loud I'd probably lose my hearing if that were possible. The rest of my asshole siblings promptly joined in. Clearly, the idea of me having a girlfriend was funny like that. I decided to act like a grownup and ignored them.

"Hmm, you have a point, Alice. If I had a girlfriend, there would be no need to further assist my love life. But guess what, I don't have a girlfriend and probably won't have one for the next few centuries or so. How and where would I find one on short notice anyway?"

Alice looked at me like I was deranged. "Edward, you can be really dense sometimes. It doesn't have to be a real girlfriend, although your relationship has to look convincing enough. You need a fake girlfriend."

I didn't expect that. "Wait, what? How do you mean? Like in Pretty Woman? Who, pray tell, will want to do that for me and how will I explain to them why I need it?" Despite my intentions, I felt myself getting all worked up. My knee bounced involuntarily under the table, and I had to make a conscious effort not to get up and start pacing the room."Who do you suggest? Tanya? That's out of the question. If anything, she'd just bring more attention."

Tanya was our cousin from Alaska. She had… succubus tendencies. She wouldn't mind becoming my girlfriend, all right, only I'd rather be incinerated by the Volturi than go there with her.

"Or maybe you expect me to ask someone out at school? I'm a vampire, remember? I can't date or fake date humans! You know that requires a certain amount of physical contact to be believable. They'll know that something is off right away… And I can't date vampires because… just because!"

I realized my mature self had vacated the room, leaving behind a petulant child, but I no longer cared. This was utterly absurd.

Suddenly Carlisle said, "How about that girl, Bella Swan? Do you think she could pull that off? She knows what you are, she has proven herself to be discreet, and she's smart, quiet, and inconspicuous enough there wouldn't be any additional buzz around your persona. People will get over the initial shock and go on with their lives."

"Bella? My girlfriend? She hates us!"

Bella Swan was another reason why the Volturi might want to incinerate us all, including Bella.

She was a student at Forks High and a human who knew our secret, which, like I said, was a capital offense in the eyes of our mighty rulers.

How did Bella learn our secret, you might ask… Probably the fact that I saved her from a careening van by stopping it with my bare hand had something to do with that. Oh, and maybe that she was best friends with a local shapeshifter named Jake, who knew about us, too (and clearly couldn't keep his mouth shut).

After Bella confronted me with her suspicions following the van accident, I tried to deny everything, but she was smart and a tough cookie, and she just wouldn't stop until she'd figured it all out.

She also knew that I could read minds, but that was due to my own stupidity. I happened to ask her the most idiotic question possible: "Bella, why can't I read your mind?" Duh.

Bella did mention that she wouldn't tell anyone, and so far, she'd kept her word. That's why we decided not to kill her. That, and because we were morally evolved, sustainably humane, vegetarian vampires. We didn't drink from people and didn't kill them when it was convenient, even if they were vile like Jessica Stanley…although sometimes the urge was strong.

For a few months after the accident, I listened to everybody's mind, trying to detect any informational leaks, but everything was quiet. Almost a year had passed since then, and I rarely saw or thought about Bella. We didn't have classes together. During lunchtime, she usually sat with her group, Angela, Mike, Ben, Lauren, and that scary monster, Jessica. I had no idea what she thought of us, or of me. She was probably just disgusted.

Bella was a good student. She had a few friends but, as far as I could tell, didn't date anyone at school. She was obviously a decent and intelligent human being, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

Could she be my pretend girlfriend?

Or more importantly, would she?

Alice clearly thought that the answer was yes, if the wide smile on her face was any indication. "I can't see everything but I'm positive that she doesn't hate us. It might work! You just need to be convincing, Edward. Use your charm for something other than coercing teachers into letting you skip classes."

She sprang from her chair, gesticulating animatedly as she spoke, and her eyes gleamed with excitement. "Bella is perfect for this! She owes you. After all, you saved her life! But don't say that. Offer her a job. She applied to some pretty awesome but expensive colleges, and she needs the money. And… maybe explain the situation to her" Her tone was suddenly very serious. "No pressure, Edward, but you must handle this right."

Or else.

. . .

The next morning, I was back to watching Bella Swan, just like a few months ago.

Bella's daily routine rarely changed. Unfortunately for me, she worked after school at Mike Newton's family's store, and by the time she returned home, her dad, Chief Swan, was already there. Thus, my only option was to drop by her place of work and hope for the best. At least it was November, so thankfully that meant a quiet season at Newton Outfitters. I waited until Mike and his mother got in the car and drove away, and entered the store. Bella was sitting at the counter, typing something on her laptop.

I'd never looked at Bella as potential girlfriend material, but I kind of had to right now. She was reasonably attractive, by human standards, with large dark brown eyes and thick, slightly wavy brown hair. She was very slender and just overall tiny. She had a bad habit of slouching and crossing her arms over her chest, especially when she was in the school cafeteria or had to talk to people she didn't know well. The majority of Forks High's male population considered her pretty but at the same time, too introverted and unattainable. With her dad being the chief of police, nobody had the guts to approach her.

I hated the inconvenience of her mind. Its silence forced me to depend on human teenagers to assess Bella's character. Top of Form

She'd confronted me ferociously after the accident, though, so I knew that she wasn't exactly the mousy nerd everybody thought her to be, but that was the only outburst I'd ever witnessed. After she figured me out, she tried to talk to me in the corridors a few times, but after receiving a couple of my icy remarks, she'd stopped. Now, whenever she saw me, she averted her eyes and changed her route.

You might say that Bella and I weren't exactly great friends.

The doorbell rang as I entered, and Bella lifted her eyes. Surprise flickered before her expression became somewhat exasperated.

Not a great start.

Feeling all the ridiculousness of what I was about to propose, I walked to the counter and said, "Hi, Bella. How are you? Can I have a word?"

She regarded me with suspicion but eventually said "Hi" and gestured for me to proceed.

Bella clearly didn't waste her breath on small talk.

"Listen, I need to ask you to do something for me, a favor. I know that we aren't friends and that you probably don't like me and my family, or worse, but I really need your help." I paused. Face blank, she waited patiently. "You know that our circumstances are… unusual."

When she didn't respond, I went on. "See, we try to leave as little digital footprint as possible, but it's getting more and more difficult with the modern technologies."

"And?"

"One of our classmates, Jessica, has devised a plan to make my face and identity very public, and we're trying to prevent it. Since she's driven by the desire to somehow find me a better half, I need to convince her that I already have one." I squeezed the bridge of my nose. No matter how I phrased it, the message persisted in its painfully idiotic nature. "Bella, what I'm trying to say is that I need a girlfriend, a pretend one. Would you please help me? I'll pay you."

There, I said it. Whew. Not my best speech but I guessed it would do.

Bella continued to look at me with that poker face of hers. I was admiring her restraint when suddenly, her upper lip began to tremble, and she let out a slightly hysterical laugh.

Great. Just like my asshole siblings.

Then, she said in a calm, almost friendly voice, "Edward, go to hell."

Oh. Did this mean that she didn't want to be my fake girlfriend?

"Um, I will… eventually. Right now, my family is trying to postpone our journey to that rather final destination." I let out a heavy sigh. "Bella, if I am exposed, we will die. That's the law of our world. I wouldn't ask if I knew of a better solution. "

Bella studied me for a long moment and then shook her head incredulously. "So, this isn't some joke? Not some vampire version of April's Fool?" She let out a little shriek. "Why me, Edward? You can ask anyone and have a dozen girlfriends by dinner time. Look at me and look at you, who would believe it?" She said the last sentence matter-of-factly.

I jumped at the opportunity. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm a freak, remember? Who would want to date me? You are perfect for this role, for so many reasons. Consider it another job, okay? You won't regret it."

Time to lay that charm a little thicker. I leaned across the counter, staring directly into her eyes.

Bella looked flustered. Her heart was now beating fast and loud. I started to worry that she would just get up and bolt.

She took a couple of deep breaths. "I need to think about this. Alone." Her brows furrowed. "I do need the money, but just remember your own words: we are not friends. We have nothing in common, and I'm a really bad liar. But I owe you my life, so… I'll consider it." She pressed her lips tightly together, got up, and closed her laptop. "I'll let you know my final decision soon."

And just like that, I was dismissed.

. . .

"Anything?" I asked Alice for the fifth time.

I did that just to annoy her, since I already knew that she didn't have any news for me.

It'd been four days since I spoke with Bella, and my family was hanging out in the living room. Emmett and Jasper were hunched over a computer studying Jessica's social media accounts. Only Emmett seemed to be mostly studying Jessica's boobs.

"I thought you had to be 18 in order to have a breast augmentation," he announced.

Esme looked up from the gift basket she was putting together for Bella's dad. We'd decided that in case Bella and I started "dating", we'd want to be on the Chief's good side. "That's a great conversation starter, Emmett, now please get back to work."

"Dude, stop freaking out," Emmett said to me. "Didn't Alice see her receiving that admission letter from Brown? It's a lifetime opportunity that only costs a quarter of a million. Bella's a smart girl. She'll agree. How is she even supposed to contact you, by the way? Did you give her your phone number?"

"Yeah, I sent her a text, but she didn't reply, though".

As if it were waiting for the cue, my phone buzzed. The message contained only one word, "Okay."

I exhaled.

Now, I had a fake girlfriend, who admittedly was a bad liar, and I didn't feel much confidence either. This was going to be interesting.

I texted back. "We need to discuss the details. Can you meet me asap at my house?"

It was a bold move to invite her to a house full of vampires, but I had no choice. I just hoped my family would disappear for an hour or two.

When I sent her our address, she replied with another single, "Okay."

Thankfully, my family understood my predicament well. They quickly got in their cars and left.

It was already dark by the time Bella's red truck pulled into our driveway. She hopped out and hurried inside without looking around. Her shoulders slouched more than usual, and she seemed a little tired, but she wasn't nervous or scared. I didn't know what to make of that.

Inside, Bella took a quick glance at our living room, then at me, and said, "Hi. It's nice here."

I offered her a tentative smile. "Um, hi. Please, take a seat" I waved at the couch. As we sat down, I nervously palmed the back of my neck, not sure how to proceed. "Thank you for coming on such short notice. And thank you for agreeing to be a part of this…" I looked at her pleadingly. "I know that I'm asking for a lot and I really appreciate your… cooperation." What? Cooperation?! "I also know that you don't have much time, so I'll be quick. We need to make everybody in town and especially at school believe that we are a couple."

"A couple?"

"Yeah, we're not having a two-week fling, either. It's more serious than that. I'll be driving you to and from school, walk you to your classes, things like that. And we'll have to offer the student body some… PDA."

At that, Bella winced but didn't say anything.

I continued. "Actually, it might have to be a lot of PDA, based on their reaction. My siblings and I will be monitoring the situation, allowing us occasional adjustments. Jessica and your other friends will most probably ask you what's going on and demand details. So, you should be ready for that. Remember that Jessica is our target audience. And I'll transfer $250,000 to the account of your choice in 5 equal payments. Is that okay?"

"How long?"

"It'll need to be until prom. After that, we can safely break up since we'll be going to our respective colleges. How does that sound to you?"

During my admittedly long and overly formal speech, Bella sat very still. I could hear her heart. Her pulse was slightly elevated, but that was all I could get from her.

"Bella?"

Her back straightened, and she took a deep breath. "Listen, Edward. I'll take this job, but I have a few conditions that are non-negotiable. I mean it, don't waste my time if you can't accept them."

"Okay…"

"First off, I will only take the payment as an interest-free loan. That's already a lot of money. You'll keep the account active so that I can eventually repay you. Secondly, I have to tell Jake. He won't be happy but he'll understand. He doesn't want the Volturi here any more than you or me." She sucked in another deep breath and continued. "And lastly, this fake relationship won't be limited to you stalking me at school and occasionally sucking my face. This is a small town, and I don't want my dad to be worried while he's trying to decide if I'm being used or being stupid. I'll introduce you to Charlie as my boyfriend, and we'll go on all kinds of dates like any normal couple would." She raised her chin and gave me a defiant stare. "Now… how does that sound to you?"

During this little monologue, I observed Bella with astonishment. Her fists were now clenched, her face flushed, her shoulders thrown back… what a remarkable transformation! She looked positively intimidating.

This was the Bella who'd confronted me about my vampiric nature – fearless, determined, and articulate.

I, however, found myself completely caught off guard.

All three of her conditions seemed like unnecessary complications. While notifying the damned shapeshifter was likely a wise move and the financial issue could potentially be resolved, the prospect of becoming a full-time boyfriend, and especially meeting Chief Swan, scared me shitless. Dealing with Bella alone was stressful enough, but adding in her dad? Downright horrifying. Trying to hide how out of my element I felt, I told Bella that I had no problem with any of her conditions, but… we would have to start tomorrow.

My mouth shot off before I knew what I was saying. "Should we agree on some backstory? How did we meet? I feel like we are reenacting The Wedding Date… And yes, I watched it, Alice and Rosalie made me. Wait, we don't have to have met anywhere. We go to the same school. How about, 'after the accident last year, we exchanged phone numbers, but only recently I worked up the courage to ask you out' … is that okay?"

I was pathetic.

Bella clearly thought so, too.

Suddenly she gave me a wide smile and simply said, "It'll be alright. Just pick me up tomorrow morning, and we'll play it by ear. It's late, and I need to go. Don't worry."

This conversation was giving me whiplash.

As I watched Bella's truck drive away, it occurred to me that we never discussed that wretched PDA and what exactly that would entail.

. . .

The next morning, I parked my car in Bella's driveway at least half an hour earlier than what anyone would consider a reasonable time to head to school.

To say that I was nervous was an understatement.

Bella and I were wholly unprepared for this. Unfortunately, our time had run out. Earlier this morning Alice had had a vision: Aro Volturi, wearing a grimace of unmistakable displeasure, stood over a table entirely covered with photos printed from the internet, Instagram posts, and BuzzFeed articles, all featuring yours truly. We had to throw dust in Jessica's eyes today, or it would be too late.

A knock on the window brought me back to the reality.

Bella looked pale, probably due to lack of sleep, but otherwise, her expression seemed as determined and focused as it had been yesterday. Her eyes looked even bigger, and there was a hint of mascara on her long eyelashes. She wore a pair of black jeans and a nice green fitted jacket instead of her usual baggy parka. She was clearly prepared to face the day.

I relaxed a little. Half of me had been expecting her to cancel our deal last minute, and honestly, if she had, I wouldn't have blamed her.

"Good morning." Bella got into the car and fastened her seatbelt.

"Good morning. Thanks for not changing your mind. Ready?"

She chuckled and then winced. She was kind of adorable. "As I'll ever be. So… how are we doing this?"

Desperately trying to sound confident, I said, "So, I was thinking that we could start just by holding hands. You know, I open the door, you take my hand, I take your bag, we walk to your first class... We need to look effortless. I might even have to give you a light kiss."

I couldn't help rolling my eyes at myself. What a moron. Top of Form

Thankfully, Bella wasn't looking at me. Instead, she studied the hem of her jacket.

"Listen, we're going to have to improvise, and I won't always have the time to ask for your permission. Like, if I can kiss or hug you… are you okay with that?"

She raised her eyes at me, looking almost amused. "Edward, please. It comes with the territory. It's okay, stop worrying so much."

I started the car. "By the way, I'm not sure if you noticed, but my hands are always cold. Ambient temperature actually. Be prepared for that, too."

She nodded. "I figured as much… a cold one. Is it difficult for you to be so close to me?"

I considered her question for a second. Admittedly, Bella smelled good, but not in a gastronomic way. Her scent was fresh and surprisingly comforting. Presuming she was worried about her safety, I answered, "No, it's not difficult. You're not in danger with me."

She nodded again and resumed the perusal of her jacket.

The rest of our short trip passed in silence. I parked at the very end of the student parking lot and, like the gentleman I was, opened the passenger door. Bella took a deep breath, lifted her head, and met my eyes.

Something happened to her at that moment. Gone was the awkward, unsmiling teenage girl with bad posture. Suddenly, inexplicably, she looked relaxed and confident, and she positively beamed at me.

Wow! Clearly, her acting skills were much better than what she led me to believe.

I felt myself smiling at her in return.

However, there was no time to speculate about Bella's talents. I helped her out of the car and took her backpack without releasing her hand. With my smile still firmly in place, we began walking.

The parking lot was already half full, so we were noticed immediately. But I wasn't about to get distracted and I only paid attention to Bella.

"How are you feeling?" I whispered, leaning closer.

"I'm fine," she whispered back. This close, she smelled even better.

I relaxed completely. I could do this!

In the minds of people passing by, we looked like any normal couple – actually, a very happy, freshly-in-love couple. I felt so encouraged that as we approached our first destination – her chemistry class – I pulled Bella closer. There, we stopped a few feet from the classroom door, preparing to say good-bye like the lovebirds we were supposed to be.

I tucked a lock of Bella's hair behind her ear, at the same time giving her my best crooked smile. She lifted an eyebrow and looked around surreptitiously. Then she grabbed me by my shirt, got on her tiptoes, and the next thing I knew, Bella was kissing me on the lips.

Really kissing.

Thanks to my vampire reflexes, I managed not to gasp in shock. I even tried to play along, but then the kiss was over. Before I could say anything, she swiped her backpack from my shoulder and walked into the classroom.

. . .

Our first day as a couple went much better than I expected.

With the exception of that kiss, everything went smoothly. I was attentive and affectionate, a perfect boyfriend, really. Bella was absolutely phenomenal. She smiled, held my hand, and leaned into me when the situation required. Overall, it was a five-star performance.

At lunch, we decided not to sit together but rather to give Bella an opportunity to talk to her usual lunch buddies. Alice and I watched and listened from a few tables away.

Unfortunately, Jessica wasn't at school today, but Mike, Lauren, and Eric did a good job making up for her absence. As she tried to answer the million questions thrown at her, Bella's face got progressively redder. It was then that I suddenly realized that literally every table in the entire cafeteria was discussing the emergence of the new couple.

Most people were just too happy to have something new to talk about, but it wasn't in an unkind way. Only Lauren was seething, and so was Mike. And Eric. Apparently, Eric harbored some romantic hopes regarding Bella.

How had I missed that before?

Alice could barely sit still in her chair. "Listen, Edward, right now everything is on track, Jessica already knows about you guys. Apparently, Lauren texted her. She'll be in the parking lot early tomorrow to spy on you. Give her something to go with. She's still determined to follow through with her plan, so that future hasn't changed yet. Are you okay? Is Bella okay?"

"I'm fine. This is easier than I thought. She's very good. Convincing. What do you think?"

"Yes, she's absolutely amazing," Alice said. "You're lucky… we're all lucky. Just make sure she continues to be on top of things until this is over. I'd go crazy if I had to play lovey-dovey with you five days a week." She rolled her eyes dramatically.

I looked at her with fake indignation. "First of all, you are crazy. And second, I don't know what you are talking about. I'm a joy to be around."

. . .

After our victorious first day, I allowed myself to think that we might just succeed.

Bella and I easily fell into a routine. It wasn't difficult, quite the opposite actually.

Using my innate vampire charm, I managed to convince Mrs. Cope to switch me to some of Bella's classes. We usually sat at the back, holding hands. Any time I heard in someone's mind that they were about to turn, I'd squeeze Bella's hand, and we'd give them a small, classroom-appropriate show. Nothing scandalous, of course.

After school, I sometimes stayed at Bella's to watch TV with her dad, to whom I was introduced and who gave me a perfunctory father-of-the-girlfriend's speech. Sometimes Bella and I would go on a date to the local diner or to the movies. During one of my hunting trips, I found snowdrops on the outskirts of Olympic Park. I thought they would look good in Bella's living room, so I brought them to her, twice, both times carefully transplanted into tiny pots that I had borrowed from Esme. Charlie raised an eyebrow and smirked on both occasions.

As expected, Jessica had ambushed Bella on the day after our big coming-out, subjecting her to a thorough interrogation. Bella was fantastic as usual, saying all the right things and even creatively throwing something in about me being more than just a pretty face. That was… really nice of her, although that particular message was completely lost on Jessica. The latter now walked around in a permanent state of annoyance and disappointment. However, somehow, she still held out hope that I'd come to my senses and start dating movie stars or something.

Three weeks passed, and Alice still saw the same future of death and desolation. Jessica was clearly dumber than I'd thought.

Obviously, it was time to up our game.

I should point out that Bella and I were now much more comfortable in each other's company than in the beginning. When she wasn't pretending to be my girlfriend, she often remained quiet and absorbed in her thoughts. At first, it alarmed me, especially since I wasn't privy to her thoughts, but then she explained that she needed time to recharge. I could only sympathize.

We talked about nonconsequential things. I found that we had similar tastes in music but not in literature. Her tastes ran more toward Austen and Emily Brontë. Garbage, if you asked me… I'm a Mary Shelly guy through and through. Bella wanted to know about my life, both as a human and a vampire. I'd never had anyone ask me about that stuff, much less someone I wanted to share it with. I had my journal for that anyway. Honestly, it was refreshing and liberating to talk to her like that. She wanted to be a copywriter and maybe write a book eventually, or at least try. Somedays, we talked for hours, and sometimes we would go for days without saying much at all.

Either way, I started to notice that I was liking my weekends less and less because I missed Bella's company.

But… since that surprise kiss on our first day, Bella and I didn't really do any PDA, other than holding hands and staring at each other like besotted fools, of course. Occasionally, I'd kiss her hair before saying goodbye – only because it was convenient, with me being so much taller, and because, well, I liked the smell of her shampoo. Bella never repeated her bold kiss. We were too PG for this school and we needed to do better… which I informed Bella as we were driving to school one crisp winter morning.

"What? What exactly do you mean? Up the game how?" She looked at me with wide eyes. "A heavy make-out session in the parking lot? Or maybe hiding in the janitor's closet and then making a dramatic exit in the state of half-undress? No thanks!" She laughed.

I glanced over at her, horrified. "Let's stick to things that won't get us expelled. How about I kiss you, and you go with it? Since we, um, already did a similar thing before?"

"Hmm okay. Just no tongue… Or teeth".

Sure, Bella acted nonchalant, but I could feel her unease.

I made an attempt to reassure her. "You know, forget about it. Jessica will eventually realize that we are a steady couple and give it up. I don't want you to be uncomfortable."

Bella sighed. "No, I think we need to do this. I'm alright, really."

"You sure?"

She nodded.

A brilliant idea suddenly occurred to me.

"Do you… do you want to practice?" I drummed my fingers against the armrest as I spoke. Was I nervous? "It sounds stupid, but maybe we should rehearse before going live, so to speak. Just to get over our performance anxiety?"

She hesitated for a moment, then looked me straight in the eye. "Okay."

The ball was in my court. Why did I suggest this again?

I took her hand and leaned over the console. I'd seen people kissing, in reality, in movies, and in their fantasies a million times. But with Bella, I felt like a student who was about to take an important exam completely unprepared. Only now did I realize how brave she'd been when she'd kissed me that very first day.

Her face was so close, her familiar scent overwhelming.

I slowly brought her hand to my lips and gently kissed the inside of her palm. She gasped. Her heartbeat accelerated as her lips parted. I knew that was my cue. Her lips looked soft and so very warm. She trembled slightly. My hands automatically moved to her hair, sliding through the silky strands, and the next moment Bella was kissing me with all she had.

It was glorious, a light, giddy sensation that I didn't want it to end, ever.

I licked her lower lip, and she moaned. Things quickly got out of control. Bella's hands were now roaming my chest, causing me to feel a certain pressure south of the border. And when her tongue finally found mine, I damned near lost my mind.

Suddenly, there was a loud whistle, and a noise came from the outside of the car.

Heart thudding, Bella broke the kiss. I glanced toward the sound, only to find a bunch of freshmen standing not far away, giving us thumbs up. Bella quickly jumped back into her seat and lowered her head. With her cheeks crimson red, she looked like she'd rather transport herself to a parallel dimension.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what happened to me. I was supposed to hear them approach… I'm really sorry."

She attempted smoothing her hair with her fingers, took a deep breath, and said, "It's okay. This is why we're doing this, right?"

She had a point, but I still felt bad.

"Let's get out of the car. I need a few human minutes in the bathroom before first period."

As it turned out, our little tryst in the parking lot was witnessed not only by those freshmen but also by a few seniors, and once again Bella and I became the talk of the school.

Jessica cornered Bella after English class, eager to pry for details. I was nearby, of course, listening. Frankly, I didn't like her line of questioning. Her main concern was my performance in bed… how gross. Bella seemed to have recovered well after the shock of this morning. Her answers were vague enough, but they definitely made Jessica believe that even more interesting things took place when Bella and I were not at school.

This, in Jessica's eyes, was a sign of a "real" relationship, and at lunch, Alice reported that that disastrous future was finally not as solid as it had been before. Yet we'd still have to continue this new behavior, at least until everybody got tired of us.

So, we continued.

We kissed in the corridors, near the lockers, and in the parking lot. We kissed in the classroom when the teacher wasn't looking, in the cafeteria when everybody was looking (the additional bonus was that I didn't have to pretend that I was eating, since nobody paid attention to that anyway). And of course, we kissed in the proverbial janitor's closet. We earned quite a few ew's from both sexes but gradually we became old news.

Just like I'd wanted.

Granted, these kisses were nothing like our kiss in the car, not even close. But I still enjoyed them. Bella seemed to enjoy them, too, but with her perpetually silent mind, I could never be sure. She always acted like the perfect girlfriend. When I asked her about it, she blushed and muttered something under her breath. When I'd ask again, she just said that she was playing her part, and that her opinion was irrelevant. Whatever that meant. Regardless, I decided not to bring it up anymore, and thankfully our friendship didn't suffer. We actually found ourselves spending more and more time together.

To Mike's utter displeasure, I often drove to Newton Outfitters to bring Bella a snack and occasionally helped with heavy items. After her shift, we'd do our homework in Charlie's living room. Later, Bella would go upstairs, and I'd sneak through the window into her room, where we'd talk some more.

I'd never felt more content in my life, and that was all Bella.

April came and went. Final exams, graduation, and eventually prom were just a few weeks away.

At some point, Jessica had reconciled with Mike, and she seemed to calm down a little. They were even planning to attend WSU together. She still couldn't forget about her idea of helping me find a "worthy" girlfriend, but at least she didn't try to take pictures or do anything equally drastic. Right now, she was campaigning for her and Mike to become prom king and queen, and that took up most of her energy. So, we were quite sure that we were out of the woods.

Bella and I, of course, were going to attend the prom together. I tried to convince Bella to let me buy her a dress for the occasion (something Alice told me to do), but like usual, she refused, because apparently, she'd already agreed to go dress shopping with Angela and the rest of her girlfriends.

The dress-shopping excursion took place on Friday. I had nothing to do that day, so while one part of my brain was occupied by a book I was reading, the other wandered back to Bella. If I were being completely honest with myself, I didn't want our little charade to end. But she had all her beautiful human life ahead of her, and as a good friend, I felt bad for having such egotistical thoughts.

Right as I was about to say goodnight to my family and possibly go for a quick hunt, Alice screamed.

A short but horrifying vision flooded her mind.

"It's Bella!" Alice raced across the room. "Edward, she's in danger! You've got to get to her! She's in Port Angeles, behind some library… wait, no, it's a bookstore. She's about to be attacked. Run! No, take a car!" She let out a gasp. "Oh, God, it's probably too late…"

I barely heard her words.

Fear and confusion shot through my body, numbing my brain. All I knew was that I had to move.

I jumped into my car and sped to the highway as fast as the engine would go. At this hour, the roads were empty, so I broke every speed limit on the Olympic Peninsula.

What was she doing there so late, and by herself? Where were her friends? Why a bookstore?

There weren't many places to get in trouble in Port Angeles. But surely Bella had found one.

Fury made me stomp the gas. I couldn't believe she'd strayed from her friends. I couldn't believe I'd not gone with her.

Why did she have to put herself in danger like this?!

I knew that bookstore – the only one in Port Angeles – very well. It took me 25 nerve-wracking minutes to get there.

As I threw the car in park and rushed out, I heard sirens and saw two police cars.

My dead heart sank as I sprinted towards the blue and red lights.

As soon as I saw her familiar green jacket, my steps faltered. "Bella?"

She turned, eyes wide with shock. Her jacket was torn, but otherwise, she was alive and at least not visibly damaged. A female police officer stood beside her, talking to her. Nearby, two thugs that I saw in Alice's vision, were handcuffed, ready to be loaded into the cruiser.

"Bella?" I said again. I raced to her and, without thinking, crushed her in my arms.

Only vaguely did I realize that I was shaking. She was crying and hugging me back, saying something I couldn't make out. All I could hear was her beating heart. My beautiful, brave girl was fine. Even though I was late. If I could, I'd have been crying now, too.

"Are you hurt?" I asked.

"No, I'm fine. I'm just in shock, I guess," she muttered into my chest. "An elderly couple was passing by. They heard me and called the police. Everything is fine."

She was trying to comfort me, not the other way around. I needed to toughen up, and quickly, too.

"Alice saw you," I said quietly. "I came as soon as I could. Thank God, you are alright. Can I take you home?"

They dismissed her after a few more minutes, promising to contact her tomorrow. As soon as we got in the car, I turned the heater on max. Our ride home was quiet. She rested her head against the window and watched the passing trees through the glass as her heartrate slowly calmed down.

Since Charlie was on a fishing trip, Bella invited me in. There was no way I'd say no. Once inside, she immediately collapsed on the couch, and, not knowing what else to do, I started making her tea.

"Charlie is going to lose it," Bella whispered.

"Good." I barely suppressed a growl. "Those lowlifes deserve his ire, and mine, too. They should be thankful to be alive."

"Thank you for running to rescue me." She hesitated. "I… I don't know how it happened. One moment I was in a crowded street, and the next, there was nobody there, and those two appeared out of nowhere." A tear slid down her cheek. "I was so scared, Edward. I screamed and begged. I didn't kick them in the balls, I wasn't brave…." She started sobbing in earnest now, and it was too much.

I couldn't bear this.

I dropped to my knees. My arms wrapped around her. I kissed her face – her closed eyelids, salty with tears, her cheeks, her lips.

As I kissed her, my pain gradually subsided, but I didn't deserve it. It was her pain that mattered. She was the one who'd just got assaulted, not me. I made an effort to put some space between our faces.

"Bella, I'm so sorry."

She didn't open her eyes, only whispered to me, "Please. Please, Edward."

Then I was kissing her again, and suddenly, Bella was on my lap, moving urgently and kissing me back, hard. I melted into her. I swam in her scent, her softness, and everything was right in the world, if it still even existed. I wasn't sure and I didn't care.

And because my brain was clearly impaired, just like when we kissed that time in my car, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head. "God, this is so good… your real boyfriend is going to be one lucky bastard."

The moment the words left my mouth, I knew I screwed up.

Bella froze. For a long moment, we stilled, stuck in this rather interesting position. But then she silently got up, turned her back on me, and started preparing another cup of tea, like nothing at all had happened.

She didn't make eye contact with me once.

I couldn't move. I just knew that I needed to say something to try to salvage this, but deep down, I felt the dread and the finality of what had just happened.

Still, I tried. "I'm sorry. That… that came out all wrong… I don't know what I wanted to say, but that was not…"

She finally looked at me, her eyes red and tired.

"Edward," she said in a resolved, calm tone. "Go to hell."

. . .

"I screwed up… badly."

It was a typical Pacific Northwest morning, cloudy and gloomy, and Jasper and I were hanging out in the backyard. Jasper was perched on a large wet rock while I was lying in the equally wet grass. It weirdly reminded me of an old-fashioned therapy session. I was the patient, of course.

"Yeah, you did," he said.

"Man, I was so out of line. I just wasn't thinking." I pressed my palms into the hollows of my eyes, trying to focus.

"No, you weren't." Jasper looked at me impassively. He'd been blocking my attempts to read his mind (a skill that my whole family had perfected a long time ago) by reciting The Book of Changes in Chinese.

"Jerk." I flicked a pebble at him. "Thanks for repeating me." Then I sighed. "But what do I do? How do I make this right?"

Jasper was silent for a moment and then said, "First of all, I think you need to decide what is right. And for whom. For you or Bella?"

"I don't know. I just… I just don't want to cause her pain. She's my friend, and we…" I frowned. "No, I owe her so much. I clearly hurt her, and I want to take it back."

"I see." Jasper sighed. "Edward, I'll be honest with you. It's time to make up your mind. If Bella is just a friend, you're not supposed to be dry-humping her, especially when she's vulnerable like that." He cut me a chastising glare. "But if she's your hired girlfriend and your relationship is strictly business, you're not supposed to be dry-humping her either, at least not outside of business hours." He hesitated. "If she's more than any of that, you should stop being a baby – albeit a very talented and sophisticated baby – and start being the man you want to be. And for the record, I still don't condone dry-humping in the given circumstances."

"Ouch." I winced. That was a well-deserved punch. "Aren't therapists supposed to be nice to their patients? Like gently let them come to their own conclusions, or at least not insult them!" I flashed him a grin. "Thanks for finally admitting my sophistication, though."

"Your deflection tactics don't work on me. So, what is she?"

"She's… important." I closed my eyes and saw her in every glorious detail that my vampire memory had preserved for me. It had just started drizzling, but instead of drops of water on my face, I felt Bella's gentle touch and the calming scent of her hair. "When I thought that something might have happened to her, I lost my mind. Does that mean I'm in love with her?"

Jasper shrugged.

"I know you can give me some insight," I said, grimacing. "But I'm not going there. I'm vampire and she's not. Plus, everything between us is… fake, "fake" being the operative word. It's just an agreement." I felt some weird phantom ache in my chest. "She's going to have a bright future, and I'm messing with that for all the wrong reasons."

"You don't need my insight and you don't need me to figure this out. No one needs to tell you that you are in love, you just know it."

I angled toward him, incredulous. "Did you just quote The Matrix?"

He just shrugged again.

"Anyway, like I said, I don't want to figure anything out," I said cheerfully. "Bella is my friend, and that's the extent of it. I just want her not to hate me."

"I don't think she hates you. But you need to talk to her." He gave me a small, knowing smile. "You might find out that she's indeed a bad liar after all."

I rolled my eyes and got up. "Thanks, Oracle, that wasn't cryptic at all."

. . .

I both longed and dreaded seeing Bella again on Monday.

Full of nervous energy, I was about to get in the car and drive to her house when I received a text. "Flying to Jacksonville to visit Mom. Will be back in time for the finals. The school thinks I have the flu. Hope that's okay."

I ran back to the house where Alice was still getting ready for school. "She left! Did you know?" Alice had been blocking me since Friday night, and apparently, that was why.

She nodded calmly. "I decided not to tell you because if you interfered, it would be worse."

Helpless, I looked around, trying to figure out what to do. "How much worse?"

"In my vision, she withdrew from Brown, lost her deposit, tried to transfer the rest of the money back to you, and started looking for a job instead of going to college. Oh, and of course there was no graduation or prom." Alice shook her head in disapproval. "She received her diploma by mail."

How could it all go so wrong so quickly?

"Edward," Alice said. "Give her a week and then talk to her. It'll be okay in the end, I just know it…. Now, do you want to drive to school together?" Without another word, she gave me a quick hug and headed outside.

Thankfully, nobody at school questioned Bella's flu diagnosis, and because of my visibly foul mood, nobody tried to approach me either. Even Jessica didn't venture as much as a "hi". Although in her mind, she immediately began calculating if she could somehow benefit from my temporary singleness.

At this point I couldn't care less. I missed Bella terribly. I missed her calming touch, her witty remarks, those adorable mannerisms, like when she tried not to smile at my lame jokes, or when she rubbed her forehead when she didn't like something.

It finally dawned on me that I was, indeed, very much in love with her.

That, or I'd picked up some unknown vampire disease, because my stone heart literally ached. Or, okay, maybe figuratively… But not loving Bella was an impossibility, laughable really.

And maybe, just maybe she returned my feelings.

Was that what Jasper had meant when he said that she was a bad liar? That she wasn't acting, after all?

There was only one way to find out, but Bella wasn't here. No, she was in sunny Florida where freaks like me weren't allowed. All I could do was wait for her to return.

The week without Bella dragged. At one point, I sent her a text. "Bella, I'm sorry. Please come back."

She read it but didn't answer.

Finally on Saturday, Alice saw Bella heading to the airport. I considered another text, but then my phone buzzed, and a new message appeared on the screen. "I'll be back tomorrow morning. Can we talk somewhere?"

I immediately texted back. "I can pick you up at the airport, and we can talk on the way home. Or make a stop somewhere. Just send me your flight details."

She replied a second later. "It's okay. Charlie's picking me up. Meet me at my house at 2 pm."

So, Charlie would be home. It was Sunday after all.

In the past, this would have made me uncomfortable, to say the least, but the present me, empowered by my newly discovered feelings for Bella, feared nobody. If circumstances allowed, I was willing to ask Charlie for Bella's hand on the spot. I realized that probably made me sound like a psycho.

However, when I arrived at Bella's house a few minutes before two, the Chief's cruiser wasn't in the driveway. I rang the doorbell. The door opened, and then, after a week of misery, I finally saw her.

Bella looked even thinner than when I'd left her a week ago. Her skin seemed almost translucent, and there were purple shadows under her eyes. Her usually vibrant hair hung dull and lifeless. She looked… miserable, and it was all my fault.

"Come in," she said, showing me into the living room like she would a stranger. "Thanks for meeting me. I'm sorry I had to leave. I just needed time to think. Is everything alright? Jessica?"

I assured her that everything was under control. "Bella…" I started, but she raised her hand to stop me.

"Look, I need to tell you something. It probably seems like I overreacted... I did, I know that. The problem is, this agreement of ours, it's been hard on me." She took a deep, stuttering breath. "I overestimated myself. I thought that I could do this, but the lines are becoming blurred. I'm just not friends-with-benefits material." She hugged her chest protectively and continued without looking at me. "So, I'm asking you to break up with me, okay? We could spread some rumor that you've met someone. I don't know, maybe you met someone in Port Angeles at a party? Whatever works."

I moved closer to her side of the couch and took her hand. She tried to snatch it away, but I gently covered it with my other hand. "May I?" I asked.

She sat up straight, tears already shining, ready to overflow.

"Bella, why don't you break up with me?" The words felt like a stab in my chest. "Why don't we say that you've met someone?"

Bella laughed quietly. "Yeah, you're funny. I'm just going for the more plausible version. What people will actually believe." She fished a paper napkin out of her pocket with her free hand and blew her nose. She laughed again. "Also, to satisfy Jessica, my new boyfriend would have to be in the same league as you. Last I heard, Henry Cavill's taken."

I smiled. This was our familiar banter, and I was grateful for this temporary relief.

"Don't stroke my ego. According to my family, it's already inflated beyond reason." I ran my hand through my hair, trying to calm myself. "But to be really honest, I don't want to break up with you. Not now, and…" My eyes dropped to our joined hands. "Not ever."

She jerked her hand out of my grip and scooted away from me. I dropped my knees in front of her.

This was my moment.

I reclaimed her hand, unconsciously stroking her silky skin with my thumb. "Bella, I don't want to break up with you, and I don't want to pretend anymore... I can't. I'm in love with you."

She let out a soft gasp and stared at me with wide eyes. Her heart was pounding.

"I know that's probably unacceptable for you, because…" I shook my head. "So many reasons. The fact that we're different species for one, but also because of all the limitations of my life. So, yes, my hopes aren't high, but I thought you should know." I swallowed. "I really want to be that lucky bastard, but… but if that's not an option, I want to be with you in whatever capacity you'll allow – your friend, your chauffeur, your backpack holder, I'll take what I can get." Ignoring the dull ache in my chest, I gently brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. "I'm sorry that it took me forever to figure out how I felt about you, and I'm sorry that I hurt you. Please forgive me."

With these words, I closed my eyes, suddenly afraid to look into hers.

"Oh, Edward," Bella whispered, and then, slender, feminine arms wrapped around me.

My stone heart sank.

A friend then. Because I'd never heard of someone hugging their chauffeurs like that, not to mention backpack holders.

She huffed when I didn't respond. "Look at me."

Always the clown, I opened one eye. Her face, still wet from tears actually looked happy, and she was so adorable that I couldn't be sad anymore. I could be friends with this heavenly creature. I could and I would!

"I've been in love with you since the moment you saved me from Tyler's van."

Wait, what?

For a moment, I stared at her, trying to make sense of her words. "What? But how? Not that I'm complaining, but you hated me! For guarding my secret, for being so hot and cold." I shook my head incredulously. "God, I was an idiot."

"Yes, you were positively infuriating." Bella laughed as she threaded her fingers into my hair. "But it was so easy to fall for you. Because… never mind, I promised not to inflate your ego. Anyway, I had no chance, so I just ignored you, or at least I tried." She blushed. "And then you made me that offer. I knew it was a bad idea, but my brain came up with all kinds of excuses. That it was my duty to repay you for saving me. That my heart was already broken so it couldn't get any worse." She chuckled. "How naïve I was. Being friends with you was the best thing that ever happened to me, but it also hurt me… too much." Then she leaned closer and flashed me a heart-stopping smile. "So, just a friendly piece of advice, you don't want to be just friends with me. And luckily for you, you don't have to be."

If you thought, after all this drama and mutual confessions, that we began kissing each other like two love-starved people, well, you're not wrong.

So many things needed to be discussed, but they could wait.

The house could have been burning down around us and we wouldn't have noticed.

Admittedly, I was eternally grateful for my vampire senses when I suddenly picked up the sound of Charlie's cruiser door slamming. We had just enough time to disentangle ourselves. I even managed to open a textbook. Although, next time I really needed to remember to turn the light on, too.

Charlie showed remarkable restraint and didn't say a word. He was definitely growing on me.

Anyway, as it turned out, one of the great bonuses of fake-turning-real relationships is that you don't have to tell people about it. They already think it's real. And that was how we managed to stay out of the public eye and safe from the wrath of Aro and the Volturi. More importantly, it was how I found the love of my life.

If you're curious about the rest of our story, sorry, I can't tell you. That's private, and, plus, you never know if Jessica is reading this... On the second thought, I've never seen Jessica reading anything but her own Instagram, so I guess I can divulge a few secrets.

After graduation, Bella and I went to Brown. She loved it there, and I was just happy to be there with her. This time around, I chose a major that allowed me to find a decent job after four years, and not my usual twelve. Also, Bella and I agreed that two doctors in one vampire family were one doctor too many, so I decided to try software engineering this time. She found an internship at a well-known advertising agency during her senior year, and, of course, they wanted to keep her afterward. My family soon moved to the East Coast, too, and we visited Carlisle and Esme often. The Volturi eventually found out about Bella, but by the time they decided to pay us a visit, there was no longer a reason for them to fret about anything.

That, however, is another story.

THE END