See groveling and epic author's note below!

But FIRST: There are a few shoutouts/points of homage to our nearest and dearest B&W ladies in this chap. Can you spot 'em? :D

Dufour tune referenced in first scene:

The full playlist: playlist/16736184075
This chap starts with #20, and erm... *the* song is #27! :)

Things we own:
Dawn—A pair of pink and black knit slipper socks and a 2010 Rob Pattinson wall calendar. Rawr.
Nic—Five new pairs of super low cut socks, that don't peek out when I'm rocking the pink chucks (yes, I own 'em) and 2010 New Moon Calander. Dawn's got the RAWR one, I'm jealous!

Things we don't:
The Twilight characters and other stuff that SM does.

"girl is on my mind... try to ignore, try to unwind, but she is on my mind." -The Black Keys

I couldn't sit still for shit. The prospect of the approaching festivities this Saturday left me buzzing with anticipation.

Jittery and desperate to dispel this anxious energy, I tossed my bag onto my desk and strode to the corner of my bedroom, swiping my acoustic guitar from its stand.

My thoughts were occupied by my latest encounter with Bella. With a ridiculous ass grin on my face, I dropped onto my bed, lying back with the six-string Martin resting across my torso. The nerves filtered through my fingers and into the strings immediately, resulting in some odd blues/funk/folk mix. I played, picking and thinking.

I'd noticed a distinct pattern developing this past week: Run into Bella. Pretend not to think about Bella. Come home. Busy my fingers with music and play until the stupid was wiped from my face.

Sometimes I went straight to the basement to tinker with the upright piano, but other times, like today, I picked it out on old Layla. Originally my father's guitar, he'd given her to me the same way she had been gifted to him: as a graduation present and with the words, "Your first and last real guitar".

As my fingers worked out an Antoine Dufour tune, I reflected on the previous week. I'd spent so many days agonizing over whether or not to ask Bella out to do something, anything… and I'd finally done it.

Okay, so I hadn't really asked her out. I had asked her over. To a party. At which at least a hundred other people would be in attendance.

Not very personal, but that was still progress, right?

Yes, I decided, it was. I had been waiting for that opportunity, kicking myself in the ass for not blurting out that simple invitation for coffee before she'd disappeared last Thursday.

I wasn't ashamed to admit that each afternoon, I walked amongst the hundreds of people that roamed campus and kept an eye out for Bella, noticing each female with a similar shade and length of brown hair. Only the similarities always stopped there.

But last Wednesday afternoon… my prayers had finally been answered.

I'd been making the usual trek to my biochem class and, as had become a habit, taking a general note of passing brunettes… when the figure I had been searching for caught my eye.

It was Bella. A vision in blue, hair curled over one shoulder as her eyes darted across the pages of her paperback. Long hair tinted with just the slightest shade of red, coupled with the smoothest looking alabaster skin… yes, definitely Bella. My complete focus had snapped to her, and I couldn't help grinning at my luck.

I'd wanted nothing more than to speak with her, so I had. And we'd talked. And, to my delight, we'd flirted. A lot.

I didn't know it was possible for a twenty-one-year-old grown ass man to get butterflies—fucking butterflies, I tell you—but they flew around each time she smiled, each time she made one of those playful statements. I'd never felt that way before.

But with Bella… Bella... "You have to earn my secrets first, Edward," she said coyly. Oh, what I would do to uncover all her secrets…

Even now, justthinking about her saying that little phrase again, smirk tugging at her lips and betraying those seemingly innocent doe eyes… made my cock twitch.

She had been playful, but not overly suggestive, obviously not one to give in to anything too easily. That certainly hadn't kept my body from reacting to the mere proximity of her… Even as I picked away at the strings now to clear my head, I couldn't stop thinking about our conversation that day.

Somehow, I managed to keep my wits about me and uphold my side of our banter without physically drooling over the intriguing creature before me.

She suddenly broke her gaze from mine and went to take a sip from her water bottle. I was thrown off by the action, and it took me a moment to understand why: Bella seemed nervous. Or perhaps self-conscious, or something, and it was different from anything I'd seen from her up until this point. I wondered what I'd done to make her feel that way, wanting to say anything to break up the tiny ball of tension beginning to form between us.

However, before I could think any more of it, something altered in her expression; a resolution made. She turned her gaze back to me. "So, Edward, what made you want to become a doctor?"

Every time she blushed, I fought the urge to run my hand over her cheek, to see if I could feel the warmth of the blood that rushed to tint her skin.

Every time she unconsciously toyed with the hem of her top or a blade of grass, I was completely captivated, imagining her lifting that top over her head, giving me access to everything… could practically feel those slender fingers twisting in my hair.

It was all I could do to mentally keep up with half the things she was saying.

But there came a point in our conversation when a different instinct took over. The desire to touch her didn't dissipate, but rather morphed from being purely sexually-driven to more of an urge to…comfort? Protect?

I still wasn't quite sure how to label it…

We talked about our dads, and she informed me that hers was a cop. I remarked about her father scaring off all the guys that must've come calling at her door during her high school days, all the while vacillating between: A. feeling a bit nervous at the idea of going for a girl whose father carried a gun and would most definitely shoot me if he knew the things I'd imagined doing with his daughter, and B. fighting some ridiculous surge of jealousy at the very idea of any guy that had come into her life before me. But neither mattered as something in her shifted, and I immediately picked up on it.

At the response that she rarely dated in high school, I was presented with a glimpse of a completely different woman. A ghost of a former self, perhaps. In our few encounters before then, I'd witnessed Bella behave as nothing but confident and determined. But, in that moment… an air of vulnerability seemed to settle over her, changing something in me, too.

I stopped censoring myself. I told her she was pretty, though my brain screamed at the injustice of such an inadequate term. Then my hand, acting entirely on its own, reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

And I didn't want to stop.

Her skin was so soft, and she seemed to like my touch, too. I wanted to continue touching her, to continue making contact...

During our two following encounters, I'd jumped at every opportunity to touch her, however innocently. I'd cradled the hand that gripped her iPod and playfully tugged a lock of her hair when she'd teased me about my playlist. Had even shifted closer under the pretense of showing her the iPod display so the skin of my forearm could brush hers…

Layla sang out a particularly dissonant note, and I abruptly realized that I'd faded into idly strumming random chords. It was frustrating, really, the way this girl could both rile my creative energy so much that it just came pouring out, and at the same time dissolve me into nonsensical lines.

Realizing I'd hit a wall on the musical front, I returned Layla to her stand and tried kicking back on my bed to do some reading for class. However, my eyes kept darting around my room, taking inventory of the unusual clutter instead. I was mildly surprised—I usually never let it get past the point of a couple of discarded t-shirts, but over the course of the past few weeks my general state of 'what the fuck ever' had allowed for larger piles of random. Bella would be in this house in a few days' time… Was there a chance she'd want to come up to my room?

Gee, that's not being really fucking optimistic…

My brow furrowed then with the realization that so few of my Bella-centric thoughts actually involved my bedroom. Most of my fantasies up to this point included classrooms, my piano bench, the tree in the backyard, and even the stone edge of Drumheller Fountain… but my poor, neglected bed…

Now that I'd actually acknowledged this small deficiency of my imagination, I knew I wouldn't be able to stop myself from making up for it even if I tried. Another quick scan of my room made me realize that, even if by some miracle Bella did wind up in my room for whatever reason (she could want a place to put her coat…right? Or a place to rest…And she'd probably need to take off her costume to get more comfortable…), there was no way in hell I'd want her to see it like this.

Tossing my book aside, I hopped to my feet, immediately chucking things from my floor to my bed: clothes, books, folders, papers and the like. I grinned when I saw an unmarked, white plastic bag peeking out from under the corner of my bed—the bag from Trax. Shaking my head at myself, I retrieved the CD that lay inside and walked over to load my stereo. Pressing shuffle, the gritty and soulful strains of The Black Keys were the first to fill the room as I continued organizing.

I was in the middle of putting my books back in their proper places when "Blister in the Sun" started blaring from the speakers. I paused for a moment in confusion, not remembering having ever bought an album with this track on it, then chuckled to myself when I realized what CD it must be on.

Crossing the room, I flipped the unfamiliar case over and sure enough, 'Blister in the Sun' was the first track listed.

"The Violent Femmes," I muttered to myself. I didn't know they sang this song… I smiled again, finally losing some of my initial regret and annoyance over my random purchase.

The stereo shuffled to the next tune, and I continued listening, absentmindedly flipping through my copy of House of Leaves.

"Why can't I get just one kiss…" I mumbled along with the singer. Wait, how do I know this song…?

And then it hit me: An image of a dim room with a certain brunette beauty at its center, playfully dancing with her friends and mouthing these very words…

I couldn't help laughing at the irony and coincidence of it all, turning the dial on the stereo up. When it got to the line, "Why can't I get just one fuck?" I groaned aloud. Whereas but a few moments ago the music and activity of organizing my room had successfully pushed musings of Bella out of my thoughts, they were now, once again, wholly consumed by her.

Immediately, her friends were replaced by myself in that mental image. The song's lyrics echoed in my head but its rhythm was exchanged for something slower. Dirtier. My hands would grip her hips, keeping her back pressed firmly to my front so she could feel the effect her movements and coy looks had on me. So she could feel exactly what would earn her secrets…

The scene in my mind morphed from the hazy bar to my bedroom. We stood together at its center, the soft golden light from my desk lamp silhouetting her figure before me. There was nothing now to dilute that perfect, flowery smell of hers. Nothing to detract from the charged sensation of her skin against mine. There would be no 'accidental' brushes this time… I imagined her twisting in my arms, eyes glinting mischievously as she gently propelled me backwards to sit on the edge of my bed. Would she perform a little striptease first? Or would she be too eager for me and lower herself to my lap?

I shook my head and forced myself back to the present, staring at my bright and messy (and empty) room. Knowing I'd never get this shit done if I continued down that particular line of thought, I carefully readjusted myself with the mental promise of a hot shower later, and switched to organizing my sheet music.

But when the song on the stereo drew to a close, I pressed repeat.

Being a third-year member of a fraternity had its advantages. For example, Emmett and I didn't have to struggle to move our brown micro suede sofas to the protection of the garage, but instead got to call on the first-year SAE members for the manual labor. However, we didn't just 'supervise' when ten or so of the brothers would show up: Emmett and I would always help them out and fire up the grill for them on both days as a small token of appreciation. And trust me: those guys never turned down free food, orthe chance to get into an older brother's good graces.

Saturday afternoon arrived and the brothers helped us clear our house in anticipation of the drunken stampede. Em and I barbecued some chicken and by four o'clock, the guys were gone and our place was ready: nice furniture and breakables tucked safely away, plastic patio furniture and metal lawn chairs set out front and on the porch for the smokers and whatnot, and Em's sound system set up for Tanner (our DJ'ing SAE brother) to use. With handles of liquor, tubs of Kool-Aid mix for the hunch punch, and two other SAEs picking up the kegs, we were ready.

I was in my bedroom kicking off my shoes when I felt my iPhone buzzing from my pocket. I pulled it out to look at the display and stopped mid-toe-off when I saw I had a text waiting… from Bella.

Grinning, I quickly tapped the screen to open the message.

Hi there… It's Bella. You know, the cute cashier from Trax? :-P So how do I get to this shindig of yours tonight?

Laughing, I immediately started my reply, slightly giddy to flirt with her.

Hmm, cutie from Trax... Oh! You mean the sexy and gorgeous one? :-)

I smiled as I imagined the blush that would no doubt appear upon reading that, as it had when I'd simply called her "pretty" before. I ended the message with some simple directions, double-checked them, and hit 'Send'.

I was excited to see her tonight. I moved to sit at my desk chair, needlessly rearranging stacks of papers, my knee bouncing uncontrollably.

A few minutes ticked by before my phone buzzed again.

Sexy and gorgeous, huh? I guess I could add that to the list… ;-) Thanks for the directions, hot stuff.

I grinned and—damn it—may have even blushed a little, too. What the hell kind of man gets like this over some text flirting?

"Edward, what the hell are you doing?" Emmett's voice broke into my thoughts from what I assumed was the bottom of the staircase. "Get your ass down here and help me with this shit!"

I'd forgotten I was supposed to start cutting up fruit for the hunch punch, and couldn't even find it in myself to be annoyed with Emmett for interrupting my mood with his 'gentle' reminder.

I arrived in the kitchen to find he'd set out a cutting board, knife and bowl for each of us on either side of the island, the bags of cantaloupe and apples in between. Rosalie had already mixed the punch for us before heading to Tanya's to get ready, and the coolers sat on the kitchen table atop some old towels.

"Sorry, man," I said to him, still smiling from thoughts of Bella. He looked at me curiously for a moment before grunting and reaching for an apple. I mimicked his action and we began slicing away.

"So, did your lazy ass finally go out and get a costume?" Emmett asked. He'd been giving me shit for the past two weeks for not having anything planned. Rosalie had probably been decided on their costumes since August.

"No. But I still have those desert camo pants and blank dogtags from that rush event last year, so I figured I'd just go as a Marine or something. I assume you already have yours?"

"Oh yeah. Rosie was all over that shit. I'm gonna be a pirate, and she's gonna be my wench!" He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I rolled my eyes. "Shit… Does this mean I'm gonna be hearing lame ass jokes involving 'booty' and 'hidden treasure' all night?"

A loud guffaw was his only response. I did not take this as a good sign.

As we continued, my thoughts ventured back to Bella. I wondered what costume she had chosen, and immediately, a dozen or so images of her in different outfits flickered through my mind. Some of which were accompanied by very particular scenes….

Maybe she could come as a nurse and pretend to dress my battle wounds…

"Hey, Ed, what's going on with you?" Emmett's voice once again derailed my train of thought.

I looked up at him as I was dumping another bowl of chopped fruit into the cooler. "What?" I put a confused look on my face, trying to skirt around the obvious.

"I dunno. You've just been doing that a lot lately." He shrugged.

"Doing what?" That's right, Ed. Play dumb. He's only your lone sibling and has always been able to see straight through your shit.

"Fuck off with that," Emmett said, immediately recognizing my evasion. "What's up with you these days? First, you spend a week acting weird as hell around me and Rose. Now, you're just zoning out all the damn time…" He trailed off, suspiciously. Then his eyebrows lifted, the corner of his mouth twitched knowingly. "Who's the girl?"

I froze in the middle of grabbing more fruit from the grocery bag, nearly choking on my tongue. "Wh-what?"

"I knew it." Emmett chuckled.

I leveled a scowl in his direction. "Knew what, exactly?"

"Edward, your brain hasn't been this fucked over a girl since high school. Don't you think I remember Kate?" My mind flashed briefly back to the leggy, blond junior I had crushed on hard as a freshman in high school. I cringed internally, remembering how I was a bit pathetic in that sort of, 'unrequited like' state…. Zoning out constantly to thoughts of her during class and conversations with friends, becoming sour towards all my buddies who were actually in relationships…

Was Emmett really saying I was acting like that now?

Does that question really need an answer?

"So… who is she?" Emmett asked casually, cutting more cantaloupe.

I spluttered for a minute, almost rattling off three different excuses before falling silent. Emmett continued cutting, allowing me a moment to decide how I wanted to approach the subject.

I examined his face closely, watching for any hint that he was probing for fodder for his bouts of jackassery. However, I sensed I was in the presence of the Emmett who used to like helping me with my 'girl issues.' The one who'd try his damndest to give me tips on approaching the fairer sex before I'd developed any 'skills' to speak of.

When I was satisfied that Emmett was in his, I'm your big brother, you dumbass—you can talk to me mindset, I took a deep breath.

"Okay, fine. You're right," I conceded. "There is a girl." I returned to slicing with vigor.

"Fucking finally!" Emmett rolled his eyes. "I was starting to think your dick had fallen off or something. I mean, how long has it been since Tanya?"

"Two years," I answered edgily. "And it's not like I haven't been with any girls since then," I clarified.

"Yeah, but you haven't been in an actual relationship."

To be honest, I was a bit surprised that Emmett would make that clarification. "Yeah, well-"

"Why is that, anyway? I mean, it's not like you're a damn pariah or anything. You're a Cullen, for fuck's sake." I rolled my eyes at him this time, but he continued, "I've seen the way some of those KD chicks throw themselves at you. Why not take the bait?"

I sighed, wondering how much of a homo Emmett would think I was when this conversation was over. "Because, Em. Those chicks just aren't my type. I used to think they were, but…"

Emmett stopped slicing and looked up at me when I didn't continue. "But what?"

I set down my knife and just stared at the marble countertop for a minute, trying to gather my thoughts. Why couldn't I just make things easy on myself and go for someone who was already right there? But I knew the answer to that. I'd been contemplating this same damn question for the past three weeks, if not longer.

"I don't know," I shot back, growing frustrated. "I never… I just don't feel anything with them. They're all… They've all been the fucking same, you know?" Bitterness surged through me as I thought of my attempts at dating over the past couple years. "They either wanted a hot date for formals or couldn't talk about anything but themselves, or just wanted someone to buy them pretty things. Most were condescending bitches."

Dear God, why in the hell had I agreed to all those dates?

Reeling myself back in, I realized I was getting angry. "And I know they're not all like that. I mean, look at Rose—she's gorgeous, smarter than your ass, and has a personality. Whatever. I just don't want to settle with some girl from Greek Row because that's what's easiest."

I stopped, focusing on my cutting again, waiting for Emmett to laugh or shout, "Pussy!" However, neither happened. He simply stared, chewing over my words. After a minute, he resumed his cutting in thoughtful silence, my eyes awkwardly darting as I continued to wait for any response from him.

"So this girl… She's the 'different' you've been looking for?"

I paused. "I think so… I don't know her all that well yet. But I want to, ya know?"

A thought suddenly occurred to me: if there was anyone for James to confide in, it would be my older brother. They always hung together at SAE gatherings and seemed close enough to share conquest-type information…

Is that what I believed Bella might be to James? A past conquest? The thought churned my stomach.

"Actually, you know what? You might know who I'm talking about," I began hesitantly.

"Oh, really? I thought you said it wasn't anyone from any of the sororities?"

"No, but James seems to know her pretty well, so maybe you've met her before, or at least heard him talk about her. I haven't had a chance to ask him about her yet," I lied.

"Ah. What's her name?"

"Bella." I was embarrassed that her name almost came out as a sigh.

"Bella… Bella…" he murmured, thinking.

"She's really pretty, has long brown hair…"

"Bella!" Emmett cut me off, eyes lighting in recognition. But then he frowned and my stomach gave an uneasy turn. "Bella?" he repeated cautiously. "Long brown hair, uh… great rack?"

My eyes narrowed, the fruit forgotten. "Excuse me?" was my edgy reply.

"Well," he backtracked, "I mean, I've only seen her a couple times, I think, but the way James goes on about…" he trailed off, looking both curious and wary.

I smoothed my expression, but impatience seeped into my tone despite my effort. "The way James goes on about what? How does James know her?"

"Look," Emmett continued calmly, "I don't know about this girl, Edward."

"What the fuck does that even mean, Emmett?" I practically hissed, returning my attention to the cutting board.

"I don't know. She kind of sounds like a bitch, from the way James tells it."

I rolled my eyes. Right. Bella. A bitch with that blush? Immediately, I recalled her vulnerability during our discussion. I knew bitches; she wasn't a bitch.

But then again… James had never really lied to me before. And he'd be less likely to lie to Emmett, right? I'd only talked to her a handful of times, and yes, it's possible my head may have been a bit… preoccupied with aspects of Bella outside of her personality…

I didn't want to completely ignore everything I'd felt to be true about Bella, but I needed to know more.

"And how exactly does James tell it?"

"I dunno. Maybe you should ask him…" He tried to avoid my question, but he could feel my stare. "Fine," he caved easily. "The long and short of it is, apparently she's a bit of a… slut. He said he knows a bunch of guys she's been with, but he was kinda crushing on her or whatever a couple years ago, before he started dating Vic. But when James actually tried to tell Bella he was interested in her, she was just a real big bitch to him, and apparently still is whenever he sees her. He's pointed her out to me on campus before, that's how I remembered him talking about her 'great rack'…"

"Huh," I replied, my mind already turning over this new information. I trusted Emmett to know bullshit when he saw it, but this didn't make sense. I wanted to just brush it off, to figure there must've been something Emmett was misunderstanding or that James was exaggerating about a few key points—like, Bella sleeping around a lot and being a bitch for no good reason…

I thought back to the first time I saw them interact on campus. James had been the first to say something, and she looked at him with anger and annoyance. Or was it Bella that had spoken first, inciting James' look of fury? I struggled to recall the exact sequence of events, but couldn't.

I'd known James nearly three years, and Bella less than three months. The words, "bros before hoes" came to mind uninvited, and I shoved them right back out.

There was nothing I knew of her that supported anything James had told Emmett. I knew I could trust Emmett, and I had no solid reason not to trust James. Sure, James could talk a lot of shit, but Em seemed to paint him as fairly vulnerable when he'd come to him with his 'situation' with Bella; his crass comments perhaps just a defense mechanism?

Still… I also knew it would be next to impossible to fight the attraction I felt towards Bella. But was her flirting with me a sign of James' claims? I couldn't really believe that was true, remembering yet again the vulnerability she'd unintentionally shown at some simple compliments and the mere mention of dating in high school. And there was still the undeniable… pull and instinctual knowledge that she was a good person. That she was definitely someone worth knowing. And having never been one to judge solely based on hearsay before, why start now?

I knew I couldn't just ask her outright if James' words were true, but I wondered how I could find out. The thought that she'd supposedly been around enough for James to call her a slut—a guy whose standards had brought him to the likes of Victoria—sank my stomach. And I realized it was because I really liked her.

These ping-pong worries were going to drive me fucking crazy.

Coming out of it, I blinked, surprised to find myself emptying apples into the cooler. And Emmett was staring at me curiously again.

"What?" I asked, annoyed. My confusion and emerging sadness made me irritated, and part of me wished Emmett had just kept his big mouth shut.

"Look, Edward," he began tentatively, "I shouldn't have said anything. You're a good judge of character, but I'm just looking out for-"

"I know, Emmett," I cut him off, softening my tone. I couldn't blame him for trying to keep an eye out for me—it's what he'd always done. "And thanks."

Emmett nodded, sweeping cantaloupe skins and apple cores into the empty plastic bags. I helped him in silence. I knew he was waiting for me to say more, to tell him what I was going to do next, and he was allowing me more time to think. For that, I was thankful. I didn't know what I was going to do.

"I think I'm just gonna see where this goes for myself," I said suddenly.

He nodded, a thoughtful expression upon his face. "That's cool. Is she coming tonight?"

I smiled, remembering our texts. "Yeah, she is actually." But another thought intruded and my half-smile disappeared. "You don't think it's gonna be an issue with James here too, do you?"

Emmett hesitated, lifting our used utensils and dishes from the counter, carrying them to the sink. He didn't answer.

"Look, I know he's said all this stuff, and I don't want to just dismiss it all… but she seems like a good person to me. So… until I see otherwise… I dunno, I guess I just want you to give her a chance, too. No matter what you've heard from James."

He took a slow breath and turned to smile lightly. "Sure thing, baby brother. You trust her—I trust her." Then his smile turned into a wicked grin. "So she must have a really great rack, huh?"

And with that, the serious mood was diffused.

I barked out a laugh and flipped him off over my shoulder as I left the kitchen.

"Oh, I'll take that as a 'fuck yeah'!" he continued to yell after me. "Can't wait to see what she comes dressed as tonight!"

"Fuck you, Em!" I shouted back.

I couldn't help laughing, appreciating both his serious and jackass affirmations that whatever happened next, he'd be on my side.

"Hey, Edward!"

"Goddamnit…" I mumbled before shouting out, "WHAT?!"

"What do you get when you cross a pirate with a zucchini?" A beat of silence. "A SQUASHBUCKLER!"

Thirty minutes. That's how long this had been going on. For the past thirty minutes, Emmett had been popping his head out of his room at random intervals, shouting pirate jokes across the house—in a 'pirate voice', no less.

I sat perched on my bed, lacing up my tan combat boots when another yell floated through my open door from down the hall.

"How does a pirate get his mast up?" Another pause. "He uses a wench!"

I rolled my eyes, but laughed. Some of them were actually kind of amusing.

After slipping the dogtags around my neck, I stepped out into the hallway. At the same time, my brother's head appeared around the edge of his door frame at the opposite end of the house, eye patch in place and mouth already open to call out my name again. He grinned at my annoyed expression and shouted, "Hey, Edward!" anyway.

"What's a horny pirate's worst nightmare?" He didn't bother pausing this time. "A sunken chest with no booty!" His head disappeared with his loud laughter just as I heard the front door opening. Reluctantly cracking a smile, I shook my head at my brother's antics and made my way to the stairs.

I reached the landing to find Rosalie and Tanya, already dressed in their costumes, with extra decorations for our living room in hand. Rose was, of course, dressed appropriately to compliment Emmett, her tight bodice revealing enough to make up for the fact that her long legs were hidden by layers of skirts. Tanya was dressed as Cleopatra, her strawberry blond hair stuffed underneath a short, black wig.

"Oh, very nice, Edward!" Rose greeted appreciatively, completing a quick once-over of my Marine get-up.

"Thank God you're here, Rose. Maybe you can shut that jackass up," I said, nodding to the ceiling.

Rosalie and Tanya giggled. "Has he been assailing you with crappy pirate jokes?"

"You, too?" My eyebrows raised in question.

"He's been texting us all afternoon with them," Tanya laughed.

"And you fucking loved every single one of them!" came Emmett's voice from the stairs behind me. He bounded down the last few, comically skidding to a halt at the sight of his girlfriend. His eyes roved over her form and Rosalie simply placed a hand on her jutted hip, smirking at her boyfriend's obvious approval.

"Oh, me hearty…" Emmett groaned, stepping closer to her.

"Hey, Tanya…" he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, not taking his eyes from Rose.

Tanya chuckled and rolled her eyes. "Yes, Emmett?"

"How does a pirate tell his wench he wants to have sex?"

Rosalie was already laughing as Tanya asked, "How is that, Emmett?"

He took the last step to Rose and grabbed her by the hips, yanking her forcefully to him. "Drop yer sails and prepare t' be boarded!" He landed a loud, smacking kiss on her laughing lips, not a single one of us able to contain our amusement.

Emmett was still groping Rose and planting sloppy kisses on her face when the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of Zach and Brandon with the kegs, and Tanner with his sound equipment. Rose finally detached herself from Emmett so we could help the guys, and so she and Tanya could put up the rest of the decorations.

An hour later, our living room was replete with stringy cobwebs, plastic spiders and rubber bats. At capacity already, a steady stream of people continued pouring through the front door. Emmett and I had taken our traditional shot of whiskey to kick off the evening half an hour ago, and were both busily greeting familiar faces.

A grating giggle drew my focus to the foyer, and I stilled, looking frantically until I spotted Rose. Jessica was here.

Rushing to Rose's side, I grabbed her by the arm. "Rosalie," I hissed, "what the hell is Jessica doing here?"

Rose rolled her eyes at me. "Well of course she was gonna come! All the KDs knew about it. Plus, she's been raving about the 'totally awesome date' you guys had a few weeks ago. She thinks you just forgot to ask for her number, so she believes you'll see tonight as the perfect opportunity to… reconnect." Rose was barely stifling her laughter by the time she finished speaking.

Never hit a lady, never hit a lady…

"Very fucking funny, Rose. I don't know what the hell you were-" My delayed rant on our mismatched date was interrupted by a squeal.

"Hi, Edward!"

Removing the cringe from my face, I rearranged my features into politeness. "Jessica," I spoke through clenched teeth, trying to make my tone as gracious as possible, unsure if I succeeded.

Jessica flung out her arms, wrapping them tightly around my neck. "How are you?" she shouted into my ear. I patted her lightly on the back and was about to respond when I spotted her near the door.


Fuck. Me.

She was dressed as a female Robin Hood—complete with hat and feather—and I couldn't help smiling. When my eyes made it to the knee-high boots that wrapped her delicious legs, leaving a tantalizing bit of thigh bare just beneath the hem of her skirt, I couldn't help drooling. She looked so fucking sexy, and did it without resorting to any tiny excuse for a costume.

I hastily pulled away from Jessica, nearly knocking off her kitten ears in the process and hoping she hadn't mistaken my hesitance while ogling for a lingering hug. "Good to see ya, Jessica. Have a good time tonight, alright?" I patted her on the arm with a polite smile. Not bothering to register her slightly confused expression, I stepped around her, making a beeline to the front of the house.

I absentmindedly threw smiles, waves and other acknowledgements along the way, trying to be a decent host but anxious I'd lose track of Bella with all the people around. But finally, finally, I reached the foyer.

She was in the middle of whispering something into her friend's ear when she noticed me standing a few paces from her. Her lips stopped moving, morphing into a tentative smile as she turned her head to face me. Her eyes quickly swept over my body before a light flush colored her face and her eyes met mine again.

"Hi." I heard the grin in my voice before realizing it was even on my face.

Bella's smile grew, but her eyes flitted to the crowd passing around us, reverting to that tentative look. "Hi," she finally said back.

That look… To me, that slightly nervous, innocent expression spoke volumes. Bella is different, I silently affirmed. Fuck what anyone else had to say.

Instantly, a hesitance I wasn't aware of lifted, and I was suddenly struggling to repress some of the fucking giddiness I felt that she was actually here, in my house.

"I'm glad you found the place okay," I continued.

"Oh! Well Jazz was able to help out, since he was pretty familiar with the route…" She nodded her head to her left and for the first time I noticed Jasper, decked out in what I recognized to be his old baseball uniform from his days on the UW team.

He stepped forward, a slightly smug expression on his face. "Hey, man. Extended your invite to these ladies, but it seems you beat me to the punch on one count…"

I grinned, shaking his hand, but my eyes returned to Bella's. "I'm very happy you all could make it."

Her slight blush hinted that she might have understood that I was mostly referring to her.

I finally took note of the friend she had come with, recognizing her as the tiny-framed girl I'd seen on my first visit to Trax. She looked cute in her little sailor girl costume, but I supposed I could hardly be considered a fair judge when Bella was in the room…

Her friend was looking at her expectantly and Bella finally rolled her eyes before smiling at me again. "Edward, this is my best friend, roommate and boss, Alice."

My mind latched on to the most important title of 'best friend' and I took her hand, pulling out my best smile from the Cullen Charm Arsenal. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Alice."

She looked at me speculatively for a moment, sizing me up. My posture straightened, smile still firmly in place, knowing I was under evaluation for Best Friend Approval Rating.

Alice smiled, squeezing my hand. "It's nice to meet you too, Edward."

Feeling myself relax a bit at Alice's easy greeting, my attention returned to Bella. Her eyes fell to the floor as her lip drew between her teeth, and I wanted to be the one biting that lower lip…

Suddenly the sound of Rosalie's aggravated voice drifted above the music. "Emmett, where the hell are we going?!"

I groaned internally, already half-expecting what was coming…

"You didn't even let me refill my cup," Rose grumbled.

We all turned to see my brother coming down the hallway, determinedly tugging on his girlfriend's hand, long layered skirts swishing as she stumbled to keep up.

"Sshh, babe, trust me. You're gonna wanna meet—" Emmett cut himself off once he noticed us all staring in silence at the spectacle they were creating. "Oh, Edward, hi! 'Sup, Jazz! Who are your lovely friends?"

My dumbass brother's lack of any subtlety was already embarrassing. I shot an apologetic look at Bella, who seemed curious. I turned back to Emmett to find him staring expectantly, a wide, dimpled smile stretching across his face.

Rolling my eyes, I took a deep breath. "Emmett, this is my… friend, Bella, and her roommate Alice. Who, coincidentally, are both friends with Jasper as well." I stepped aside to gesture between them. "Bella, Alice, this is my brother Emmett and his far better half, Rosalie."

I watched carefully as they all shook hands, relaxed by the genuine smile on Emmett's face, wondering at the thoughtful expression on Rosalie's. It seemed Emmett truly was going to put all of James' comments aside and get to know her himself. I wondered, though, how much he had shared with Rose…

"It's nice to finally meet you, Bella," Emmett said, throwing a wink in my direction. I wanted to kick that fucker in the teeth.

"Likewise," Bella grinned. I smiled at her, relieved I'd at least given her some kind of Emmett warning.

Emmett turned to Alice then, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Hey, Alice, where can you find a couple of Buccaneers?"

Rosalie rolled her eyes and latched onto his arm, yanking him into the living room. I groaned, swiping a hand over my face. "Emmett—"

"Under your bucking hat!" he shouted over his shoulder as they disappeared into the crowd.

Bella, Jasper and Alice laughed as I turned back, smiling apologetically. "How about we get you guys some drinks?"

Leading them down the hall to the kitchen, I was hyper-aware of Bella's presence behind me. I was already contemplating ways to get her on her own somehow. However, I knew she and Alice would likely stick to each other's sides for most of the night since they didn't know anyone else here. Luckily, I had yet to see James, which temporarily eased my worries of them running into each other any time soon.

We reached the small lines of people at the keg and cooler. A couple of guys boisterously greeted Jasper, and even more gave Bella and Alice an appreciative once- (or twice-)over. I did my best to keep from glaring back at them. I turned back to the girls to ask what they would like—and, admittedly, to block them from view.

But I was interrupted by Emmett…again.

"Edward! Let the hotties party and get your ass over here for some more shots!" He had his hands cupped around his mouth, shouting from the counter across the kitchen. He wiggled his eyebrows. "And you gotta see Wheeler's costume!"

He would surely die a slow and painful death.

Bella was smiling when I looked to her again, as if she knew I didn't really want to leave her side. "Yeah, let the hotties party and go take your shots!" she teased.

I hesitated a moment, torn between just giving my brother the finger and knowing he could get a lot worse if I didn't placate him now.

I looked to Jasper. "Take care of their drinks for me, will ya?" He nodded, smirking knowingly.

Turning back to Bella, I grinned at her with a wink. "Party on, hottie. I'll be right back."

Approaching Emmett, he immediately put his hands up defensively. "At ease, soldier, you'll get back to her in a few. You didn't need to be all up on her right from the start. Jasper will take care of her and her friend for now." He shoved a shot glass in my hand. "Bottoms up, baby brother!"

Scowling, I tipped back the glass. I swiped my hand across my lips and made to turn around, but Emmett wrapped his arm around my shoulders.

"Uh uh uh, come say hi to some of these jackasses first. You don't want to look like a bad host, do you?"

"You know I could fucking kill you right now, right?" I growled, jaw clenched.

Emmett threw his head back in laughter. "She'll still be there, Ed. Relax. Trust me."

He led me to a group of people huddled around a guy dressed in black and with Barbies and paperclips glued to his clothes: a Chick Magnet, as the letters in white said across his chest.

Thirty minutes passed of Emmett keeping his arm firmly around my shoulder and steering me around our house, knowing otherwise I'd have escaped. I was itching to get to Bella again, worried that James would escape my notice and get to her first. The liquor eased my earlier nerves, and now I just wanted to prevent an awkward encounter. Or worse, her leaving because of him. She didn't know that I knew James, that I had any connection to him at all… I wondered how that could that affect things when she found out? That depends on their history…

I was in serious danger of slipping back into the ping pong worries when Emmett stopped us between the kitchen and living room.

"Damn, Edward, that's your girl, isn't it?" he said from beside me. My girl… heh.

Attempting to ignore the pleasant feeling that overshadowed my lingering doubts, I followed his gaze. My fists automatically clenched upon finding Bella moving in the middle of the makeshift dance floor, hands on her thighs and playfully undulating against her short friend. Shit. I willed my cock not to respond, but I pictured her dancing with me, against me, so close, that supple ass against...

"Yeah," I finally ground out through clenched teeth. Not working, not working…

"Shit, Ed. AOL, man… AOL," he muttered.

I frowned. "AOL? Emmett, what the hell does that even-"

"Arrrrrgh Out Loud, me hearty!" he bellowed. He hoisted his fake sword in the air and charged off into the crowd, leaving me rolling my eyes yet again.

My head swiveled back to Bella. Clearly, Emmett had given me some sort of green light to go to her by finding her for me and leaving me the hell alone. It's not still too early to attach myself to her for the rest of the night, right?

"Edward!" I nearly jumped out of my skin when a screeching voice stopped me in my tracks. Goddamn it, Jessica.

I looked to my left, seeing her bouncing awkwardly along with the music, eyes glossy and lips parted in a smile that only reminded me of Droopy, the cartoon dog. She was drunk.

"Dance with me!" she demanded. Before I could even draw a breath for my refusal, she reached out and latched onto my forearm, dragging me into the crowd. She stumbled to a stop and backed up, immediately grinding her ass into me.

Don't think so.

I grabbed at Jessica's waist to move her away from me, but she confused the action for enthusiasm. Her movements became a little more uncontrolled, likely thinking she was amping up her sexiness. Ignoring my gag reflex and trying harder to control her wiggling hips, I succeeded in at least keeping them a few inches away from my quickly fading Bella-inspired-semi.

Cursing Jessica's interference, I scanned the clumps of decorated bodies and breathed a sigh of relief when I found Bella again. Alice was shouting something in her ear, and she responded by draining her cup and nodding to Alice. Bella continued to dance as she moved away.

I watched Bella's movements, plotting how to get closer to her, wishing it was her I was standing behind. Her arms were waving and twisting above her as her head moved from side to side, eyes closed and a small smile playing across her lips. A guy came up behind her—some ATO bastard that actually used to seem like a decent guy—and tried to do just what I'd imagined myself doing.

My patience was gone. Jaw clenched, I whipped my head around, searching the crowd. I randomly grabbed the arm of a masked guy clad in all black and pulled him to where I was standing.

He stumbled over his feet before letting out a muffled, "What the-"

"Here," I stated simply, moving his arm so that his hand went to Jessica's side.

"Oh, hell yeah, dude!" he shouted at me over the music and latched on to her waist with both hands. Jessica continued to gyrate even more enthusiastically, clueless to the fact that a ninja had just taken my place.

I spun away, making for the spot I'd last seen Bella. Keeping my eyes trained on her, I was relieved to catch the annoyed look she shot her new dance partner. Clearly, she was not interested in any of the shit-tastic moves he had to offer.

Finally approaching her side, I touched her arm lightly. She swung her head in my direction, a slight scowl marring her features before she smiled for me.

"Hi," she said over the loud music. Annoyance flashed in her eyes as they flickered to the guy behind her, who continued to obliviously thrust his pelvis at her ass. That was all the cue I needed.

"Wanna dance?" I asked, desperate to get her away from the ATO douche.

"But I'm already dancing, Edward," she said slyly.

Wait, would she seriously rather dance with this a-hole? I doubted myself for a moment, but she winked, slinking to the other side of me, effectively placing me in between her and her previous—and apparently unwanted—'dance partner'.

Grinning at that hot shit, I gave the poor, glaring bastard a small shrug and turned to face Bella. She was still smirking and moving her body in delicious ways and good God I wanted her.

"Are you having a good time?" was all I could muster the brain power to ask.

"I am now," she replied.

Our movements remained somehow in sync, though we moved more with the crowd than with each other. I tried to avoid the typical, clumsy, sex-with-clothes moves that accompanied masses of drunken partiers. For one—my moves were fucking better than that. For two—the ramifications of such actions might have been beyond the scope of my alcohol-impaired control. I made sure to keep a couple inches between us as we danced.

My eyes only left her when she pointed out an absurd costume, or a guy flailing/thrusting behind a scantily-clad girl. We'd laugh, and then I'd pull some equally-ridiculous or old school move that would make her laugh harder. A few times, I briefly worried that I was making myself look like a total jackass, but then I'd hear her laughter and think, Who the fuck cares? I loved that she didn't use one of those self-conscious girl-giggles either—it was real.

The nerves that had appeared when Bella had first arrived were being tempered by the alcohol in my system and from being with her this way. It seemed the same was true for Bella: the comfort she exuded a contrast to her tentative state at the door.

Several girls tried to come up and sidle Bella out of the way, but I was quick to maneuver around them to be close to her again, ignoring the icy and sometimes confused stares aimed at both of us. Each time, Bella would give me a small, shy smile accompanied by another sexy move that only made me want to get closer.

After the hyped-up tempo of the past few songs, everyone was panting and sweating, the air thick with the smell of a party. The change to the next tune was a welcome one as Tanner smoothly transitioned into a slower R&B song with a tango-esque bass line.

Bella and I automatically locked gazes and the goofy grins slipped from our faces, fading into something calmer. Something intimate. Already feeling the opening notes and understanding it would be more awkward to keep the space between us, we took a step closer to one another.

A corner of her mouth turned up and I felt my own mirroring the action as I finally touched her, my hand finding her hip. Her smile widened, drawing my eyes to her perfect lips before moving lower. Forcing myself not to linger on the vee of her neckline, where her chest was still heaving with her deep breaths… I instead continued to where my fingers were traveling lightly over the green fabric covering her curve, creating five pulsing points of a certain connection between us. I wanted desperately to feel her and that without the barrier of clothes…

More pricks of electricity connected with the skin at the nape of my neck, drawing my focus back from images of Bella sans clothing. She'd drawn her arm up to rest on my shoulder while her fingers splayed beneath my hairline. That gave me chills, and as I looked to her face again, I immediately wished for the sake of my control that I hadn't. She had unconsciously drawn her lower lip between her teeth again, looking up at me through her eyelashes. I bet she knows exactly what that look fucking does to me…

And my body reacted to her. To her costume, her closeness, to that pink skin drawn between white teeth, to fucking flowers and berries… and just… Bella.

Even in the near suffocating heat of bodies packed around us, I could feel the more distinct and charged awareness of Bella envelop me as we began to move together. Despite the crowded room, this was by far the most intimate situation we'd ever found ourselves in. I couldn't keep my hands off of her now that she was giving me access. My unoccupied hand reached of its own volition to graze her upperarm, my fingertips ghosting down her smooth skin to the hand hanging at her side. I played with her slender fingers before weaving mine through them, bringing our hands up to my chest to rest between our bodies.

I'd never touched her with such intent, with anything that couldn't be categorized as 'innocent,' per se. And the intentions that underlay my touches right now were a far cry from innocent.

My heart was still pounding but my breathing slowed as we settled into the sensual rhythm belying the duet's words of misconception. Our hips swayed back and forth, our quick-quick-slow steps pushing into and retreating from each other in turn. I observed her for a few beats of the song: her lowered eyelids, flushed cheeks, and that same small smile from when I'd watched her dancing before gracing her mouth.

And then she stepped in even closer, one of her legs situating itself between my own. I sucked in a breath as she made contact, undoubtedly now feeling what she was doing to me.

I wondered what she thought about the evidence of her effect on me. Would she be somehow offended by my involuntary reaction? Her body was so warm and firm… Would I be able to stop myself from bringing her even closer?But there was no way I could step away from her now.

And I still needed more.

Our eyes locked and my breaths grew deeper. I noted her hooded gaze and parted lips: she definitely didn't seem to be offended. Out of instinct, my hand swept around to her lower back, exerting slight pressure, bringing our torsos in contact, our linked hands trapped between us. More than anything, my fist itched to clutch the material of her costume.

She didn't seem to mind the feeling of me hard against her hip at all. Rather, her fingertips gripped the back of my neck a little tighter, and her movements against me felt a little more… deliberate. She knows exactly what she's doing.

Was this an invitation? Oh, fuck… My imagination and my cock liked that idea a little too much, and a particularly purposeful move caused me to draw in a sharp breath through clenched teeth. My fingers abandoned their mission to stay relaxed and instead curled at her back, collecting a fistful of her dress. She grinned deviously in response, bottom lip between her teeth again.

I wanted to kiss her.

My fingers relaxed and spread across her back, smoothing upwards a bit, urging her even closer. Keeping our fingers locked, I lifted our hands, extending a finger to run along the edge of her jaw. Her lids fluttered a bit and I could feel her quick breaths washing over my face as my head leaned closer to hers…

We were sent stumbling to the side, roughly knocked by a few enthusiastic dancers. The song had changed and we hadn't even realized it, those around us already carrying on to the fast tune. Righting ourselves, we looked at each other, obvious surprise left in the wake of our near-embrace. Surprise at being interrupted? Surprise that we'd almost shared our first kiss in the middle of a room full of drunks? Surprised that she'd felt my erection against her body, and pressed even further… Motherfucker! In any case, I wanted to shank somebody.

Our gazes locked and I watched half a dozen unidentifiable emotions flit across her features before they finally settled on… amusement? She looked so fucking pretty.

She giggled and I laughed, too, at only God knows what, exactly. The intensity of the moment we'd shared was swiftly dissipating, fading into a bearable tension.

I must've looked like some kind of jackass with the way I was beaming. I'd never been this fucking thrilled and pissed at the same time over an almost-kiss. It hadn't happened, but at least I was sure that it definitely would have if not for those assholes… There was no mistaking that.

I wanted her alone now, though. Alone and close and touching again.


"Do you—"

We both started to speak at the same time. With a small smile, she gave a nod, offering to let me speak first.

"Would you like some more to drink?" I asked.

"Oh, no, thanks. Alice had me chug two cupfuls already… She was going to bring me back another anyway, but I guess she got sidetracked," Bella explained with a look around the room. Her quiet smile brought back my frustration over our interrupted moment.

"Would you like some water or anything?" Anything?

"Water would be great, actually," she answered with a bright smile. "But, um… would you mind if I used the restroom first?"

"Oh, sure!" I pointed her in the right direction. "I'll have your water ready for you in the kitchen when you're finished."

There was a slight hesitation on both our parts before we parted with wide grins. I watched her turn, noticing the back of her dress was wrinkled from my grip. Fuck… What had just happened rushed back to me again, and I decided I needed to act once she returned. She was receptive and I wanted that kiss…

"Whooaa, Ed!" Emmett. Of course.

"Did I somehow miss you hauling Bella off to your bedroom for a quickie? What's with the shit-eating grin?"

"Fuck off and pour me a shot," was my reply as I followed him to the kitchen, 'shit-eating' grin still in place.

"Now that's what I like to hear!" Emmett clapped me on the back and dragged me to the counter once again, immediately reaching into the cupboard for our bottle of Jack.

I allowed my brother and a few of our friends to distract me while I waited for Bella. However, after ten minutes had gone by, my eyes were practically glued to the opening to the living room, just waiting for her to appear.

"Fuck, Edward, just go find her!" Emmett laughed, shoving me in the direction of my stare.

I swatted at him half-heartedly and threw a, "Catch ya later," over my shoulder before exiting the kitchen.

Skirting along the edge of the living room to the back hallway, I approached the only bathroom downstairs. A line of inebriated party-goers later, and Bella was nowhere to be found.

"Is there a girl in there dressed in a Robin Hood-type outfit?"I asked the Playboy bunny standing at the door.

The blonde swung her head in my direction, teetering before steadying herself against the wall. "Wha?"

"The person in the bathroom," I said impatiently. "Is it a girl dressed in a Robin Hood costume?"

A look of confusion seeped over her face. "Robin Hood is a guy…"she slurred slowly. "Why would a girl be wearing a Robin Hood costume? Some bitch in a skanky devil costume cut in front of me… Though I guess Satan is a guy, too, right? Oh, god, I have to pee," she rambled on and crossed her thighs, still leaning against her palm. She squinted at me. "Hey, you're Edward, aren't you? You're hot. You wanna make out?"

"Um… no thanks," I mumbled, looking for Bella. My neck craned, searching the sea of pulsing bodies for a flash of green from her costume or anything to point me in the right direction. I moved back into the kitchen to see if I'd somehow missed her along the way. No Bella.

Maybe she saw the line and decided to search elsewhere? My thoughts flashed to mine and Emmett's bathrooms and I made a beeline for the staircase around the corner. Just as I reached the landing, I looked up to find her about half-way down the staircase. Relief flooded through me until I noted the expression on her face: she looked upset.

Shit. My stomach lurched. I'd wanted nothing more than for Bella to have a good time while she was here. Did I miss James? There'd been a significant chance she'd run into James, but I had yet to see him in the house. Or was it someone else completely that put that look on her face? My eyes scoured the bodies around her.

"Bella?" Worry laced my tone. "Is everything alright?" She looked up at me as she reached the bottom step.

She seemed to be contemplating something and hesitated a moment before she smiled. "Yes, everything's fine."

"Are you sure?" I pressed—she certainly hadn't seemed fine coming down those stairs. If there was something truly upsetting her, then I hoped she would let me know.

"Yeah," she smiled wider, biting the inside of her bottom lip nervously. "I just got a little lost. I hope you don't mind—I think I used your bathroom. The one down here had a really long line…"

"Of course! I'm glad you found it okay," I reassured her. It would've been nice to have actually seen her standing in my bedroom. Just knowing she'd been in there, though, would be fuel enough for later, I was sure.

I searched her face for a few more seconds for any remaining traces of whatever I'd seen moments before.

"Do you want to step outside for a bit? For some fresh air?" So we can be alone? I added silently, hopefully.

"Sure," she replied, sounding relieved. Placing my hand on her lower back, I guided her back towards the kitchen, promises to have her water ready for her forgotten. We shifted our way around people until we reached the sliding glass door that opened to the back patio.

Luckily, anyone who'd chosen to stray outside had apparently chosen the front of the house, where we'd set up the extra chairs and tiki torches. The backyard remained empty and silent. I led her towards the lone oak that grew in the middle of the yard, belatedly wondering if it was such a good idea to bring her to the locale of one of my specific fantasies.

A couple dozen feet past the tree, the grass sloped downward to meet the edge of a pond that ours and a half dozen other houses circled. This was a spot I'd come to often on days when Seattle was blessed with nice weather, most often with a book or Layla in hand. A picnic table sat nearby, but I was usually most comfortable just propped against the trunk of the tree itself, which I supposed was where my fantasizing of Bella had come into play.

Our paces slowed to a stop a few paces past the tree, both of us silent and staring out into the water. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her shiver and immediately cursed myself.

"I'm sorry, you're cold. I should've thought…" My hand shot to my hair, assaulting it in frustration with myself for bringing her out into the cold without a damn jacket.

"N-no, I'm good," she involuntarily stuttered and gave a shy smile.

Chuckling, I pulled her to me. "Come here, you." I pulled her back to my chest as she laughed lightly.

My hands traveled to her arms to chafe them for warmth, keeping my movements quick and forceful. My arms began to slow, however, and my hands lightened their touch, gradually submitting to the overwhelming desire to transform my actions into soft caresses instead. Her body's heat seeped through our layers of clothing and into my own as she slowly relaxed against me.

My 'problem' from our dancing adventures had dissipated for the most part, but I was going to need something to take my mind off the feel of her so near. That flowers and berries smell of hers was strong with her this close, and I only found myself feeling greedy, wanting more…

"I come out here a lot," I blurted. Really? This is what you come up with?

"Do you?" Bella said softly, almost a whisper.

"Yeah. I like looking out at the pond. It's… peaceful." I rolled my eyes at myself. Just shut the fuck up, Ed. Pussy.

She relaxed further into me. My hands had completely dropped pretense, now moving with the light touches I'd been craving. "Yes, the view from here is great. It is peaceful."

The Jack in me granted the courage to push us further past the "innocent touches" border. My arms stilled in hesitation for a moment before enveloping her fully, lightly trapping hers at her side.

I thought I heard a sigh leave her lips, and the sound bolstered my confidence. Wrapping the fingers of one hand around her opposite arm, the other slipped around her waist, bringing her flush against me. A moment later, I felt her small hands curl around my forearms, and a smile lifted my mouth. She apparently didn't mind me holding her so closely. All for warmth's sake, right?

The 'other' Ed enjoyed the proximity, too… and she didn't seem to mind him, either.

A moment passed, and everything felt so…comfortable. We didn't say anything and I could tell neither of us felt the need to, either.

But then something changed. Bella's fingers flexed on my forearm, and my grip on her small body tightened minutely. I had to wonder if it was simply because I'd been anticipating it, hoping for it, but that tiny, insignificant exchange was all it took.

The intensity we'd both experienced while dancing had returned tenfold. I could tell she sensed it too in the way she pressed her back a little more firmly to my chest and tensed her grasp on my arm. The action sparked a wave of want, hardening me further. She most definitely could feel it, but I didn't push or press against her.

My head bowed, bringing the tip of my nose in contact with the soft skin of her shoulder left bare by her dress. Her fingers gripping me massaged my skin and my own mirrored the action on her stomach and arm. I inhaled slowly, deeply, drinking in her scent as a small tremor passed through her.

Bringing my lips in contact with her skin, I spoke softly, "Cold now?" Though I knew the shiver wasn't brought on by the temperature.

The tender brushes of my lips against her neck were teasing me; I wanted—no, needed—to taste her skin now. So when she answered with a whispered, "No," I pressed my lips to her neck. The slight tilting of her head was enough encouragement, and my tongue tentatively slipped out to meet her skin.

Sweet Jesus. It was the sweet flower of her scent, mingled with the slight salt of her evaporated perspiration. In a word, it was fucking perfect. And then she moaned…

Adjusting my hold on her, I held her securely, needing to feel more of her. Her body slumped against mine as my hands smoothed over her taut stomach, remembering the way she moved to the music.

Her hands grasped my forearms again as my lips continued their assault on her delicate neck, forging a trail from the exposed bit of her shoulder to a particularly inviting spot below her earlobe.

"Bella," I found myself saying, my voice all whispered want against the shell of her ear.

She shifted slightly in my embrace and turned her head, inviting my gaze to meet her own. I stopped kissing her skin. The connection of our stares was almost tangible.

And this time… this time I knew we wouldn't be interrupted.

*peeks out from behind pillow fort*

Anyone still out there? Hellooo! *echoes*

So yeah... it's been FOREVER AND A HALF (Dawn: I grovel at all your pretty feetsies. This one was all me. In short, RL is an unrelenting WHORE. In the worst way).
We've missed you all more than you could possibly know, and apologize for the ridiculous delay!

A larger than life THANK YOU to our betas: ahealthyaddiction and Vixen1836.
Sara-you held my hand and talked me through more ish than you should have (with this chapter and otherwise), and I am eternally grateful for your constant friendship.
Tiffany-even amidst all your real life craziness, you take time to make my randomness sparkle and shine (did that just rhyme?). Adidasward wouldn't be Adidasward without your mad skillz.

We would LOVE to hear from you if you're still with us, or if you've just joined us!

Speaking of... we would also love to hear how many of you heard of OTIOL! We've gotten bunches of new readers (despite the fact it's been an eternity since we've updated) and are dying to know where you came from!

The fantastic news? Nic has already written the next chapter, and it only needs some tweakage and betaloving! Which means reviewers get teased! :D

Dawn's Rec of the Week:
Master Race- A new story from our dear Babette12! It's very intriguing so far; you should check it out!

"Alienated from the Cullens, Edward finds himself bored in South America. When he 'hears' another vampire creating a master race he is intrigued. But who would be the perfect genetic material and what will be the cost to the human mother?"