My betas:

Allison, you're brilliant. And amazing. Thank you.

Dawnie… you're just the best. Ever. Period. Thank you.

I don't own Twilight.

Without further ado…


As Edward tried to scrape handfuls of mud from his extremities, a face flashed through my mind: round and bright, painted with surprise, confusion, shock, finally… delight.


I momentarily occupied my shaking hands by tapping out a panicked text.

Alice, are you at home right now?

Nope. We went to Jasper's. Whyyy?

One less thing to worry about. I could just see the rest of this nightmare I was currently living: Alice pulling me aside to offer support of me and my feelings, Jasper walking through the background in a robe and military boots, all while Edward silently gooped mud all over our floor.

Stay there, please. I'll tell you later.

She answered immediately:

I'm a goddamn psychic. =)

I shook my head, my wet hair painting my neck and shoulders with cold strokes.

Edward had rid himself of the worst of the muck. The still-falling drizzle was preventing the mud from drying; his skin and shirt was streaked with dark brown, paint haphazardly flung at a white wall. I couldn't exactly be a vision myself; makeup was probably smudged, cute little running outfit sweaty and mud-speckled and completely inappropriate for the havoc I just wreaked. I couldn't imagine… I didn't want to imagine. I shook my head again.

"Everything okay?" Edward asked. He's asking me?

"Yes." I put my phone back in my pocket and fussed with my shorts, my legs were suddenly far too bare. "I was making sure Alice wasn't home. She, ah… she's overly helpful, sometimes." Edward laughed.

We walked the rest of the way in charged silence. I hoped it wasn't as miserable for him as it was for me.

When we arrived at my house, I willed my hands steady as I worked to fit the key in the lock. I was hyper-aware of everything around me: the cool air on my thighs, the hard goosebumps that dotted my bare arms, and of every move Edward made behind me: hot breaths, silent blinks, the drops of sweat and rain that glistened at his temples.

Mostly, I was simply aware that Edward Masen was standing on my front step, waiting for me to open the door to my home.

So he could shower.

Because, of course, I had thrown him into the mud.

This is so humiliating.

Poking my head through the door, I swallowed a relieved sigh: Alice had cleaned up. It's not like our place was ever dirty, but now it was spotless: cushions were fluffed, her dumbbells hidden, all cowboy hats properly stowed.

"You have a nice place," Edward said from behind me, velvet voice cutting through my thoughts. He was still standing outside the door, in the cold.

"Oh!" I stepped inside and waved my hands about, too wildly to be considered cool. "Please, come in."

Edward thoughtfully toed off his shoes and stepped into my entryway, and once again I had to catch my breath. He was here, in my house. Not just in front of it, standing by his car… but in it. The man from my newly-awakened dreams, who haunted me during my waking hours as well as the night. Live and talking… and covered in freaking mud.

What the fuck do you think you're doing, Bella? I tried to stomp down the harsh voice that whispered in my ear. A restaurant was one thing; a neutral location, equal ground… but your fucking home? He'll see something in here, something you don't want to talk about…

"Follow me," The words drifted from my lips like smoke, wispy and unsubstantial.

Edward stepped carefully behind me, trying his best not to drip water and mud on the rug. Always painfully considerate, even when mud on my carpet was probably the very least of what I deserved for this situation.

In my hours of obsessive planning and fretting over how this date would turn out, I would have never, in a million years, pictured it leading us here.

He followed me through the kitchen, past the table where just last night I had sat, hunched, head in my hands, texting this muddy Adonis behind me. I stopped in front of the guest bathroom, which was in a shallow hallway adjacent to the back door, and turned to face him.

I absentmindedly scanned Edward's frame, from his damp white socks, all the way up to his muddy curls and his glittering eyes. Fuck. He looked incredible, even covered in filth. Double fuck. I silently devoured every inch of him,

Edward was silent, quietly dripping onto my kitchen floor… waiting patiently for me to speak. I blushed when I realized that I had just eye-fucked him, quite shamelessly.

"So, here's the shower. Where you can… um, shower." My hands fluttered uselessly, as if I could wave the awkward away. "There are towels in there, and soap, and… a tub?"

Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

My mind was skipping like a vinyl record. In a flash of genius, I blurted out, "Your clothes are dirty." Nice. "I could, ah, wash them for you? But in the washer, not by hand."

My mouth just wouldn't stop moving as I gestured needlessly to the machines that sat quite predominantly across from the bathroom. My hands flew to my forehead and grasped at nothing, as my bangs were trapped in my ponytail. I was fidgeting, and I knew he saw it. "You can take off your… those, and, put them outside the door. I'll find you something to wear?" For the love of god, Bella, channel your inner sane person and get it together. Please.

On second thought, nevermind. Just kill me. I'll finally be quiet, and he can show himself out.

But Edward just stood there, his small grin like cool water in my desert of shame and panic. His eyes held me still, and I finally, finally shut up. He chuckled, the sound coming deep from his chest.

"Somehow, I doubt I'll fit into any of your clothes. Unless your Alice is deceptively tall." His eyes were snapping, green sparks burning low in my stomach. The smear of mud on his cheek had dried the color of ash. He was still gorgeous.

And here.

With me.

I laughed nervously, but his gentle teasing cleared my head slightly, allowed me to draw breath deep into my lungs. "No, you probably wouldn't. Fit. In my pants. Or anything else…" I winced and continued, "But I think Jasper left some gym clothes here, I'll grab them."

Edward nodded, and stepped toward me.

The hallway between the bathroom and laundry was narrow, and I shifted sideways to accommodate him. We both rotated a quarter turn, moving together like dance partners, until we ended up facing each other in the tight space.

I drew in another deep breath and smelled sweat and earth and cotton and man; my head spun in lazy circles. I stared up at him. Inappropriately, I wanted to reach up and rub at the dried dirt, brush the copper stubble and hear it rasp beneath the pad of my finger.

"Thank you, Ms. Swan," he exhaled, words fanning over my nose and cheeks. I could only blink up at him stupidly as he smiled. As I watched him slip into the bathroom and gently close the door, I wondered if he had any idea how devastating those lips were.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit…

I shoved open Alice's door and fell to my knees on the plush purple rug in front of her dresser. I avoided the bottom drawer – always an off-limits zone from rifling, even from your best friend – but checked the one above. Sure enough, I recognized Jasper's cut-off sweats and shirt from the gym… and I moaned.


The pants were innocuous, but the shirt…

Don't do this to me.

I slapped my palm flat against on my forehead.

It was bright blue, and it had a gigantic picture of the Cookie Monster's face on the front.

How could I have forgotten that detail? I had stared at Cookie's face for three hours just this last Saturday at the gym. How, Bella? How?

I rummaged around frantically for something else, anything else, but came up empty-handed. Nothing Alice or I owned would come close to fitting Edward… so I was stuck with the fucking ridiculous Cookie Monster.

Edward's muddy clothes were in a neat stack on the floor outside the bathroom, and the shower was running steadily behind the now seemingly very thin wood. I stared at the door, dry clothes held loosely in my hand.

He was in there, under the warm spray. Right now. Water was probably blazing hot trails down his back, over his ribs, along the insides of his thighs.

Where did he start, I wondered, my thoughts rolling like loose marbles. Did he lather his chest first, rubbing wide circles over flat muscles? I swallowed. Or perhaps his arms… bare and wet, the unmarked skin flushed harsh red between the colorful stories that marked his flesh as he scrubbed and smoothed…

And I realized that I was standing in front of my spare bathroom, staring slack-jawed at a closed door.

Clearly, I'm insane.

I stuffed the soiled clothes into the washer, spun the dial, and took the stairs two at a time up to my room.

Once safely inside, I pressed my back against the wooden door… but the motion instantly brought back images of tree bark beneath my fingers, along with heat and aching and throbbing. I struggled to focus, chest heaving, legs jelly. My eyes darted wildly around the room. I could see myself in the mirror: my makeup was intact, but my hair was a mess of loose curls, cheeks were too red, eyes too wide, shirt dotted with the dried brown evidence of my humiliation; Edward had definitely borne the brunt of the damage.



My brain momentarily focused, and the word slowly morphed into a complete thought. I should shower.

I shed my clothes in a hurry and leapt into the tub. The warm spray shocked me as it caressed my shoulder blades, beading off my breasts and tracing the angles of my hip bones, warming cold-deadened toes. Water danced around my feet, thin lines of tan and russet swirling and disappearing down the drain.

Hey! Edward is naked! I remembered pointlessly.

I pressed my forehead into the smooth tiles and closed my eyes in surrender.

How in the fuck did a simple dinner after work turn into tag-team naked showertime?

As hard as I tried to find my famous discipline, I couldn't get the image of nude Edward out of my head: smooth and wet and hard and colorful…of big hands wrapping around my waist, lifting me effortlessly, pressing me back into the steam-slick tiles so we were separated only by sheeting water washing away the last of my doubts…

With a start, I realized that my hand had found my breast, fingers gently pinching my puckered nipple. The other hand rested on my stomach, tracing light circles lower and lower.

My eyes opened with a snap. Am I nuts? Nuts or a pervert. Holy god.

I finished my shower in minutes and quickly found myself again standing in my room, dripping and stumped. After a run, I normally would have thrown on a pair of sweats and a hoodie without a second thought. But now I hesitated: I had no idea how much longer Edward would be here… and that thought brought on a whole new wave of worries, of emotions. I whimpered softly, drawing the towel tighter to my body.

I don't want him to go. The thought was pathetic. Sickening. This date had ended in disaster, but selfishly I wanted him to stay here, with me; to all me to take the odd comfort he seemed to radiate when I felt lost, frantic… like right now.

Stop it, Bella. I immediately chastised myself. He'll leave when he's ready… and that's probably very soon.

I pulled on a pair of soft cotton capris and a fitted white t-shirt. Basic. Plain. I refused to think about it anymore. He most likely doesn't give a shit what I'm wearing. He just wants to leave. He had wanted to go home at the park, after I practically threw a bucket of mud on him, but I insisted that he come here. He's probably staring at the washing machine, willing it to spin faster.

I checked my reflection again, and there I was, in all my humiliated, tired, nervous glory: now-naked brown eyes and black lashes, cheeks red and shining, damp hair loosely pulled back in a clip. I deserved to look like this: like nothing special.

I needed to calm down, get myself under control. Focus. And not fall down the stairs.

Edward was already in the living room, standing outside the kitchen door. He was looking around but politely remaining still, hands clasped behind his back. When he heard me coming he looked up, eyes quietly finding mine as I descended.

Green met brown across the expanse of the quiet room. With more subtlety than before, my eyes traced the lines of his body. He was clean and fresh, tall and smooth. Hair darker than normal, a damp mess that curled around his ears and framed his face. His torso a broad 'v', tapering to narrow hips and solid thighs… I didn't dare look lower. I wasn't sure if I would find my way back.

I forced my feet to continue moving as Edward stared back at me, his expression unreadable. I shifted my weight between my feet and mentally shuffled through my vocabulary.

How does one express, Hey! We were both just naked. How did that go for you?

Edward's face broke into a smirk. He grabbed the bottom of the shirt, which was clearly two sizes too small, and pulled Cookie Monster's face taut. He glanced down, then back up at me, quirking an eyebrow as he peered at me from under long lashes.

"Yeeeah…" I gave my now-free bangs a firm tug and tuck. "Jasper makes some bold fashion choices." At least the sweats seemed to fit him fine; they were slung low around his lean hips, but they were a bit snug on his thighs and around his…

My eyes snapped back up, and I swallowed gravel. The air between us was suddenly electric with tension, the silence vibrating.

"Your clothes are in the wash," I stated, despite the fact that the running washer was the most prominent noise in the house. Smooth.

"Great, thanks," Edward said. He didn't move. Stayed still as a statue, waiting for me to make a move.

A sighed escaped from my lungs before I could stop it. "I'm so, so sorry," I blurted out. "I can't believe… that. Any of it. What a way to end our night, huh?" I laughed, but it was clearly humorless, thick with forced nonchalance. I hesitated in still calling this whole mess a date. Dates don't typically end in mud suits and forced bathing.

"Huh." Edward nodded, and I clenched my teeth as he looked down at his bare feet. "That's interesting."


"I didn't know our date was already over."

My eyes clicked together in shock. I felt a small rush of hope breach the heavy black brick in my chest, an infinitesimal trickle of light. I very nearly smiled.

Finally, I managed to breathe out, "Oh." Again, smooth.

"Unless you want it to be over," Edward continued. "Because I truly appreciate the shower, and I can walk back to my car now…"

"No!" The sound was explosive across the living room floor, and my flush was immediate as I took an involuntary step toward him. I paused and wracked my brain for something brilliant to say – You should wait for your clothes, or I could drive you back to your car – but nothing came out. That stupid word just hung there, between us, inexcusably pathetic.

Because I had no excuse. I just wanted him to stay.

"Good," Edward said softly, "because I believe that I promised you Italian tonight."

I immediately thought about my plain cotton pants, my bare face, how naked I looked and felt… but Edward lifted a piece of paper, and I recognized it as a coupon from a local pizzeria.

I laughed. I couldn't help it. I was so relieved that he wasn't upset or anxious to leave. Edward smiled and I didn't know how I was going to focus for the rest of the night if he kept doing that.

How. The fuck. Does he do that?

"Pepperoni and mushroom acceptable?" I nodded. "Delivery, yeah?" Edward patted Cookie Monster, who rested happily across his broad chest. "As awesome as this shirt is, I might only want you to see me in it."

I suddenly needed a drink.

"Would you like some wine?"Because holy shit I would. He nodded, phone already pressed to his ear.

In the kitchen, I opened a bottle and poured two generous glasses of cabernet sauvignon. I need to calm the fuck down, like, fifteen minutes ago.

Edward was sitting on my couch. He left arm stretched casually over the back, shirt pulled taut and riding up his bicep. I paused, silently studying the exposed flesh. The too-small shirt revealed more of his ink, and I wanted so badly to peel back the rest of that damn blue sleeve: a ribbon of red was etched on his skin, lying across a black and white pattern… a checkerboard? Dammit, just a little higher…

Another thought burst into my head: I wonder if he'll ever see mine?

Edward turned his head, interrupting my thoughts and catching me in mid-stare. My cheeks immediately reddened as I handed him his drink and sat down, avoiding his amused stare. The rim of my glass was evidently fascinating. I took a big sip.

The silence was consuming and it cloaked me entirely, pinched at my thin skin with insistent fingers.

"So," Edward started, breaking the stillness. He settled back against the cushions. "How do you find time for your part-time job?"

I cocked my head at him, not following. I thought for a moment I really was losing it. "Huh?"

"Your part-time job?" He took a casual sip of wine. "Moonlighting as a mud wrestler? You're very aggressive."

I nearly choked, but then I saw Edward's smirk, the shape of which I was beginning to recognize.

"Oh, god," I moaned. I rubbed my neck with my free hand, and his eyes followed the movement. "I seriously can't tell you how embarrassed I am about all of this."

"Why?" he asked. I allowed myself to give him an obvious are you kidding look, but he laughed. "Please, don't be. I have never had such an interesting first date, ever."

He took another sip of his drink. "I can't wait to see how you top it next time."

My heart stuttered beneath my ribs.

Edward had changed plans at the restaurant because of my obvious and pitiful discomfort. He'd suggested we run because somehow he knew it was what I needed to relax. He'd saved me from a muddy fall, and then proceeded to accompany me back to my house, get naked, and still offer to buy me dinner.

He was perfect. And I was a menace.

But I wanted there to be a next time so badly my arms ached to grab the thought, clutch it to me, wrap it around my shoulders and legs.

I managed to nod.

"Cheers, then." He raised his wine. "To changed plans."

We clinked glasses, and in that musical sound my muscles found permission to slowly release. Edward gently encouraged me, and we soon began to talk of trivial things: how I liked the neighborhood, how long I had owned this house. We spoke of celebrity scandals; I was surprised how much Edward knew, he said it helped him relate when he was out in offices, to make small talk while waiting for servers to come back up. As the wine snaked its way from my stomach to my extremities, we spoke of Cookie Monster and the creepy way he would pretend to eat cookies by just pulverizing them in his black puppet maw. It was actually kind of disturbing, we decided.

The doorbell rang just as I was pouring us each another glass. After our run and the fact that I hadn't really eaten a proper lunch on account of raging anxiety, the wine was certainly doing its job of relaxing my over-stimulated nerves. I was just grateful that I wasn't babbling anymore.

I sat back and watched him speak to the delivery boy, finally feeling more relaxed than I had all night. Edward insisted on paying for dinner, and I did not miss the fact that he gave the young delivery guy a huge tip. I groaned internally. He was generous, too. Of course.

To my delight, the conversation continued to flow freely as we ate in the living room, only pausing when I went to go switch his clothes to the dryer. I bit back a grin the entire time he was out of my sight.

I paused in the kitchen, appraising the wine rack thoughtfully. Would he even want more? A thick fog of doubt rolled clumsily through my good mood. He would probably go home soon; he couldn't want to stay too much longer. What if he's just dying to leave? Ugh.

I shut my eyes tightly and shook my head. The ghost of Alice whispered in my ear: You're gonna talk yourself out of it if you keep this up, and you want this. So stop.

I hesitated only a moment more before grabbing another bottle and walking resolutely back into the living room.

Edward was lounging back on the cushions, long fingers tracing the stem of his empty glass: up and down, up and down, stroking a firm rhythm on the smooth surface. All moisture disappeared from my mouth.

"Oh shit, how rude of me," he said, beginning to stand. "Please, let me help you clean up…" I motioned for him to sit, and a small giggle slipped unbidden past my lips. I liked hearing him curse… it proved that he was human, and not some man-god sent to destroy me and my professional career.

"There isn't anything really to clean up." I tentatively raised the bottle, slightly ashamed I'd even grabbed it. "Um… would you like some more wine?"

Edward grinned, crooked and sweet, and it settled hot between my thighs. "Sure, I'd love some more," he answered, velvet voice causing my hands to tremble.

Oh I want to give it to you, trust me.

Holy shit, even my internal monologue was joining the party.

I watched his throat work as he swallowed the liquid. Edward licked his lips, pink tip of his tongue finding the corner, licking a drop of red that had come to rest there. I knew right then he was, in fact, trying to kill me.

The wine was crawling through my veins on spindly legs, spinning dizzy webs in its wake. My stomach was full of greasy, delicious pizza and my muscles felt as if they were liquefying. I relaxed back into the couch, head falling back onto the cushions. My thoughts swam backstrokes through the red courage in my glass.

I turned my head and once again caught a glimpse of Edward's arm: thick and tight, swirling colors taunting me from beneath the blue fabric. I was fairly certain that his arms were stretching Jazz's shirt, but I just couldn't find it in me to care. I was very grateful for Jasper's lean build.

As much as I like that grey button-up, I thought lazily, I prefer him in t-shirts.

"You like the grey one?" Edward's voice startled me from my thoughts. "That one is a bit loose on my wrists… but if you really like it, I'll go buy ten."

"What?" I asked, but before the word was completely out of my mouth my eyes went wide, cheeks scarlet, and my mind found painful clarity.

I'd spoken aloud. I'm tipsy and speaking my secret fantasies out-loud. Fuck. Me.

Edward laughed softly. "You are a mystery, Ms. Swan."

He had propped an elbow on the back of the couch, fist pressed to his temple. His grin was more intoxocating than the wine: playful and sweet. Even though time and time again I spoke without thinking, his smile was sweet on my tongue, offsetting any bitter embarrassment.

"Me?" I was still nearly smothering under the shame of my unintentional confession. "I think it's pretty clear what I am," I said softly. Blue sadness licked at the edges of my words.

"Hardly." His eyes burned through mine. "I have so many questions for you."

Oh lord, anything to change the subject from my idiocy. "Ask away," I said, too quickly. Edward quirked an eyebrow, and I felt a surge of… something. Anticipation. Boldness, perhaps.

"Ask me anything," I reiterated, a little quieter than before. The words tasted dangerous, and I relished the unfamiliar flavor.

"Okay." Edward shifted, and he twirled the glass between his fingers. It was a struggle to concentrate on his eyes, and not focus solely on his moving digits. "What's your favorite color?"

"Green," I responded immediately. It was true, at the moment. It was all I saw.

"What is your favorite season?"

"Summer," I said cautiously. A smile threatened my lips.

Edward laughed. "Okay, those were warm ups." He cast a glance around the room. "I noticed that you don't have a lot of pictures around."


I was momentarily stunned by his intuitiveness, his ability to see straight through my armor and pick up on things I tried to keep so carefully hidden… things I might not have even realized were hidden...

"I've seen one or two of you and Alice, but no family pictures." He laughed. "Don't girls usually love that kind of stuff?"

I felt bad that the first real thing he asked me had to be a bit of a heavy subject. I swallowed a mouthful of bravery, trying to bear in mind that he was asking a simple question, in earnest. No big deal. Just answer the question.

"We're not big on taking pictures in this household." A chewed my lip. "Mostly Alice."

"Oh?" His vowel was unassuming, without pressure to continue.

My fingers picked at the ties on my pants, and I tried to stop myself from saying too much. "Alice lost both her parents when she was very young, and as a kid she bounced around foster homes quite a bit."

Why am I telling him this?

Confused at myself, I continued, "She didn't like taking photos because the people around her never stayed the same, so she figured, why bother remembering them?" I shrugged. "I think she also didn't like the idea of them having her picture after she was gone. She would prefer they forget they ever knew her, just like she would forget them."

"That's… sad," Edward said gently. He was watching me closely, and his eyes did indeed look a little dimmer, subdued. His face was arranged in its typical calm expression, but his eyes… I was beginning to know him through his eyes, to understand they were the key to reading his thoughts.

"She's okay now. She ended up with an elderly aunt in her early teens, and things got much better for her. More secure. And she has me now. She'll even take the occasional picture with me now…" I pointed to the top of the television: a candid of us I had taken during our semester abroad in Germany. Alice's sweet smile was tentative; my face was half-hidden in her hair. I loved that picture; it made me smile. "Of course, we had to get pretty drunk for her to take that one with me..."

I cringed. I am saying waaaay too much.

"That explains Alice…" Edward said, "But what about you? Where are your pictures…?" He stopped in mid-thought and waved his hand. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to harp on this subject; I just realized I'm being kind of weird." He laughed. "Trust me, I have plenty of other questions."

"No," I quietly insisted. "It's alright." My teeth worried at my lower lip as I tried to figure out what to tell him.

Sure, I had photos. I had taken a professional portrait every six months or so as I was growing up, which quickly ended up occupying another square on Charlie's study wall. You could see the subtle changes as I aged: my smile grew steadily colder, stiffer; plastic taking the place of ignorant, blissful youth. I hated taking those stupid pictures. They reminded me of boredom, of loneliness, of Renee constantly promising to take me to my appointments. However, when the scheduled date would approach, in Renee's place would be one of a million excuses: Sorry honey, big designing client in Albuquerque. Month-long yoga retreat in New York. Business seminar in Dallas. Next time, okay?

When her trips got longer than three months at a time, she stopped with the excuses all together. It was better that way.

With a start, I realized thatEdward was watching me and I had no idea how long I had been silent. Fuck.

"I do have one picture."


My brain was having a tough time keeping up with my instinct to share with him. My walls that I'd ever carefully built were still standing firm, but right then I was willingly stepping out from behind my barriers; violating my code, my militant control. I was about to show him… me.

"You do?"

I stood up on shaking legs and crossed the room to the bookcase, and pulled out a familiar 6x4 frame without looking at it. I thrust it into Edward's hand before I could change my mind.

"Its, ah… that." I blushed as he studied it, fingers tracing the perimeter of the frame, and blushed hotter as it occurred to me that Edward was holding probably the most personal thing I owned. The vulnerability was stark.

"You were cute. What were you, nine? Ten?" My flush spilled onto my neck as I nodded. "Mr. Swan hasn't changed much. Is this your mother?"

"Yes," I affirmed quietly. "Renee." I swirled my glass, holding the miniature whirlpool above my palm.

"Why don't you put this picture out?"

Because I can't stand to look at it.

"I just… don't." I hated that I couldn't find the words, that I was stepping back… but it was a little too much, too soon, and my head was spinning slightly and I wished I hadn't drank all this fucking wine. I do this too much around him, I decided. Use alcohol to calm down. I want to calm down on my own next time.

Next time?

Edward simply nodded and handed the picture back to me. I set it on the floor face-down, hiding the smiling figures from sight.

"You know, this exercise is a two way street." His hand found its way to his hair, and I nearly gasped at the assault on my senses: the muscles jumping under the exposed skin of his arm, the warmth from his knee bent only inches from mine, the fact that I knew exactly what he tasted like right then, sharp tannin and tangy tomato sauce.

I don't deserve his patience, I thought. I was suddenly intensely grateful to him, for feeling my frustration, ignoring my shortcomings and my inability to have a freaking conversation without shutting down. For pretending like he didn't see how scared I was, all the time.

The question was out of my mouth before I could filter it out.

"What scares you?"

Edward looked surprised, and I felt a compulsion to clarify. "Or maybe a time you were scared." Less pathetic sounding?

"Hmm," he hummed thoughtfully. He searched his glass, as if reading the answer there. I regretted the impulsive question.

"I'm sorry, that's a really bizarre question…"

"No, it's a great question." Edward's eyes snapped up to mine, and the intensity I saw there silenced my apology. "I'll tell you anything."

He shrugged. "It's actually an easy answer," he said. "It was when my father was going through his final round of chemo. We all spent nearly all our time at the hospital; my dad, my mom and me. I spent many nights spent sleeping on those unbelievably uncomfortable cots." His eyes shifted down for a split second, but darted back up to meet mine almost immediately. This time I was watching him, waiting to hold his gaze, absorbing every word he was giving me in that smooth, silken voice.

"Anyway, there was one night in particular – I was around eight, I think… yeah, because we still had another year together after that. Anyway, it was really late, and my dad was sleeping. My mom went down the hall to the nurse's station just for a moment, and I was left alone with him." Edward rubbed the back of the couch with the hand that rested directly behind my head, and I had a sudden urge to capture it in both of mine, to run my fingers across his hard knuckles. He watched his own fingers move in their slow rhythm as he continued.

"Dad was completely bald by then, no head hair or eyebrows. Pale. He'd lost so much weight during that round of treatment. There were some really bad nights back then. Nights when he was so sick he couldn't move, or in so much pain he couldn't do much more but blink while I read to him. But that particular night, nothing like that happened. He was just… sleeping." Edward gave me a smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. He smiled for my benefit, even while he was telling me this story, and my heart twisted in my chest.

"See, I vividly remember playing piano with my dad on the days he felt better: him sitting up tall and straight, strong hands striking the keys next to my smaller ones. But that night, as I watched him in that little light above his hospital bed, he was so… small. Broken."

"I'd never seen him completely healthy in my entire life, and the cancer talk was never hidden from me. But that was the first time I actually got that my mom and dad were mortal. That they wouldn't always be there. I know it probably sounds stupid, but that was the moment I truly understood that my father was going to die."

Edward shrugged. "That was the scariest moment of my life. A bit of a buzzkill, I apologize."

I sat, stunned, overwhelmed by his gift. Edward had opened himself to me, truly shared. No hesitation, no doubts. And stupid me, being insane and irreparably defective, I immediately craved more. I would beg him to give me more of him, to slake my thirst and keep my whispering demons away.

"That's not stupid at all," I said softly.

There was so much I could tell him. Of my mother's betrayal, and my father's decision to hate me. But I knew that I shouldn't tell him any of that, though the words and memories were jittering on my tongue like marionettes. Not if I wanted to keep up this charade, to keep him believing that I was worth his time.

But in that pregnant silence, through my thundering heart and Edward's steady rubbing behind my head, I knew that I had to give him a piece of me, too.

"Nine. I was nine in that picture." My voice was barely above a whisper, but I spoke the words, never looking away from Edward's intense gaze. The air in the room had completely changed from the light-hearted teasing and talking from before, when we were sharing pizza from a box and casting covert glances at one another. It was raw now, the air between us. Something had been opened up, and we were there together, staring and breathing, absorbing; his presence fortifying my tenuous bravery. I licked my lips, but they were bone dry and my tongue stuck to the flesh.

Edward didn't say anything. He waited for me.

"I was nine when I was the most scared I've ever been, too," I said haltingly.

I felt Edward's hand stop moving next to my ear. "You don't have to tell me," he said.

"I want to," I admitted, and I didn't care how pitiful it sounded. I didn't. If I never saw Edward again, if this night ended up being such a nightmare that he never looked my way even once more at the office, I still wanted Edward to see this tiny part of me.

"Then breathe," Edward murmured.

I inhaled roughly, the cool air filling my lungs with unexpected urgency.

"It was a Friday night, and as usual I was with my babysitter." The words were stale with disuse, the memory dusty. "Gianna was a family friend's daughter, a teenager who used to watch me after school and would stay with me until Charlie came home from work."

I hadn't spoken of this in nearly fifteen years, but the details were still clear, just as sharp as when I had to recount this night to the counselors with whom I'd been forced to spend time. Draw me a picture, Bella. How did it make you feel? Let's talk about the darkness.

But there was no darkness, I'd insist. None. I never allowed it: my first lesson in self-control.

I hadn't even thought about it in years. I hadn't allowed myself to think about this in years. After all, this incident was nothing, simply part of my past. Dealt with. Done. I always imagined it like a handkerchief, folded into crisp neat squares and tucked away into a drawer. Filed away with the other parts of my young life that didn't affect me anymore.

But now, as I inhaled deeply, I tasted phantom dust, stale breath; I willed my fingers to unclench in my lap.

I'm not that same lonely little girl anymore. I'm not. I'm not.

"Charlie had left earlier in the evening for a weekend business trip. Renee was coming home that night from a trip herself, and I hadn't seen her in a few weeks, so I was excited. I was drawing her a picture." I swallowed, ignoring the familiar ache. I continued, confessing to my hands.

"Renee was supposed to be there by 9:30pm, but by nearly midnight, she still wasn't there. Poor Gianna had called her parents twice, clearly upset and quietly assuring them that she would be home as soon as possible. I remember how agitated she was and how guilty I felt. This wasn't the first time that Renee had made her late."

I still couldn't believe that I was thinking about this, let alone talking about it. Where was this coming from? Where?

"Gianna had a trick, you see. When she would hear Renee's car pull into the driveway, she would wait until she heard the doorknob turn before calling out, 'Gotta get home… good night, Renee!' She would run out the side door and go straight home, before she could get roped into some asinine conversation about boys or school, or whatever else Renee thought a teenager might want to talk about. Gianna had done it for years and years, and Renee was used to it. She probably even knew the trick."

"So that that night, when Gianna leapt up after hearing noise at the door, I didn't think twice." I shook my head. "I was just so excited to see my mom."

"I remember sitting there on the floor in front of the coffee table, crayon in hand, staring at the door. Waiting for it to swing open, and for my mom to be standing there." I bit the inside of my cheek. "But the knob stopped moving, and the door didn't open."

"The house was quiet, and I waited and waited… and I heard the glass breaking in the master bedroom."

Edward's face was stoic as he listened to me speak, leaning forward slightly, but the green in his eyes grew darker, inky forest green. I managed a strangled laugh, slowly becoming cognizant of how weird this must be for him.

I laughed shakily. "Jesus, of all the things I could have told you… you're really getting it tonight," I said, trying to sound causal. But I didn't feel casual. I was confessing my frayed nerves, the nagging fear that I was scaring him away, and my complete confusion that I was even bringing this up in the first place.

"Please go on," he said calmly, never breaking eye contact.

I tugged my bangs away from my eyes, tucked them behind my ear. "I didn't know what to do. I couldn't move. But when I heard the voices – male, unfamiliar, more than one – and crashes and bumps coming from the bedroom, I knew that I needed to hide."

"I ran to the hall closet that faced the living room, climbed in, and pulled the door shut. There were coats and boxes on the floor, and I buried myself deep down, pulling things on top of me. I could still see a bit, through the slats in the door." I blinked against the memory, and my hands chafed at my arms involuntarily. "It was so hot in there. Hard to breathe. Itchy all over my arms, my legs. But I didn't move or make a sound, even when they came into the living room."

"There were three of them. Men that I'd never seen before. They were trying to be quiet, but I could see them looking around. One of them – the tallest, I remember – he looked down and saw my drawing on the coffee table. 'Where's the kid?' he asked the others. He turned and called out: 'Isabeeeella! Are you here, sweetheart?' It sounded like he was singing."

I looked at Edward, whose face was still as impassive as before, but his eyes… oh god, his eyes. They were snapping, emerald fire. "When the police arrested them later, they determined that these men had been casing the house for some time, figuring out our routine, our names. They had somehow found out that Charlie would be gone that weekend and planned the break-in when he would be gone."

"What happened then?" Edward's tone was tight, little urgent.

I sighed. "They searched for me. They opened up the closet door more than once, looking for me… but they never moved anything around. Finally, I heard one of them say, 'He must have taken the kid with him.' "

I let out a hard laugh. "Three grown men couldn't find a child hiding in a closet. Criminal masterminds." My attempt to lighten the mood was lame, and Edward remained still, only moving to blink.

"While I was hiding, I was so sure that Renee would be there any minute, or maybe Charlie would come back home…" My voice trailed off. I didn't want to tell him any more of this stupid story. I smiled to cover the silence, but it felt wrong. I knew it, and worse, I knew he saw it. I decided to end this stupid, pointless story as quickly as possible. "Anyway, eventually they left, Charlie came home, saw the place ransacked, and he called the police. The men were found a few days later, and that was that. Very scary." I talked fast, hoping that Edward would be satisfied with that. What an incredibly unpleasant tale… Jesus Bella, really?

"I thought Charlie was gone for the weekend," Edward said slowly.


"He was." Let's move on.

"How long were the men in your house?" Same strange voice. I wanted to touch his tense arm, but I didn't. Of course I didn't; I was too busy destroying our time together by telling a ridiculously depressing story.

"They left very early the next morning. The police said that they must have taken their time during the night, knowing that no one was home and that their car was hidden from the street." Please just drop it now. I'm so sorry I started this…why did I tell him this? Why?

"How long did you hide?" The question was almost obscene, the answer shameful. Even then, sitting on that couch with Edward, I could feel my muscles screaming and twitching from being crouched down for so long, the dust tickling my nose and the taste of copper blood in my mouth where I had bitten into it to stop from sneezing. And that odor: musty and wet, the ammonia stench burning my nostrils as my soggy pants chaffed my sensitive skin as I prayed they couldn't smell it. I had tried so hard not to go, but eventually I just couldn't take it anymore, after silent tears had cut streaked down my face. It was… humiliating. I hadn't felt that in a long time.


I considered lying. It would be so much easier to lie, to tell him it was all over in an hour. That I called Charlie, he came home, Renee walked in a minute later, and we shared a group hug and had ice cream.

But that's not what happened. It was dirtier than that. More disgraceful. But I couldn't lie to Edward, not when he looked at me like that, not with his wild hair and glowing, intense eyes…

I'm so past this, though. This doesn't matter, and it hasn't mattered for years. Being scared now was not acceptable.

My cheeks were on fire, and I knew I needed to be honest. Just say it, and move on.

"I stayed there until the police came, until Sunday evening." My mouth moved, making shapes and pushing out sounds, confessing things I hadn't admitted to anyone, ever. Not even the counselors, who I finally convinced I was better when I told them that the nightmares stopped. I was had been glad; I just wanted to stop talking about it. To stop thinking. Concentrate on school. Dancing. Anything else…

And it worked: the nightmares had stopped.


"When Charlie came home, he called out to me. I heard him. I told everyone I hadn't, but I did. But I was so scared, and tired… I didn't trust my own ears. So I waited, listened for him look for me, panic, call 911. It wasn't until the police actually searched the closet that they found me."

It had been the only time I had ever seen Charlie cry.

The memories were vivid and shocking, made brighter and louder by the wine and the intensity of Edward's proximity.

He finally broke the silence.

"That's…" I felt his hand move, but he replaced behind my head. "I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry that happened to you."

"You know what the fucked up part is?" I asked suddenly. Edward's eyes widened slightly, and I vaguely registered that I had cursed for the first time in front of him. But I felt a wave then, something foreign… as all feelings still were to me, quite frankly. With dull horror I recognized anger, and the fact that I wasn't going to shut my mouth.

"When Renee came home and found out what happened to me, she was horrified. She apologized over and over, saying her flight had been cancelled, she tried to call…" I could see Renee's face, which looked so much like my own, tears ruining her makeup and staining my shirt black as she rocked me, back and forth, like the pendulum.

"So, as if to prove how sorry we truly was, she stayed. Six months. Two weeks. Four days. The longest she had been home at a stretch since I could remember. And Charlie, too… he came home on time. We ate dinner together. They read to me, and went to my performances and recitals…" I was speaking quickly now, and distantly I knew that I must sound crazy, look worse… but the words were spilling from my mouth, black gunk that lined my insides, escaping from some deep place in me that I hadn't even been aware existed.

I reached down and snatched the picture off the floor. "This is the only picture I have of all three of us." I held it in both hands, finally turning the frozen faces up. "Isn't that crazy? About three months later, we went to the zoo. It was the first spontaneous family outing we had ever taken, one that wasn't scheduled or staged or scripted. We went together and stayed all day, and ate hotdogs and watched the giraffes, and Renee held my hand and Charlie smiled at me."

I swallowed thickly as I looked at the picture: smiling, red-cheeked Bella between a younger Charlie and beautiful Renee, a woolen hat covering my ears. Me and my parents. It hurt so much to look at it, so shockingly much, fucking feelings existing so close to the surface. I longed for numbness.

"Of course, eventually, Renee left again," I said, my voice softer now. "She promised she would be back in a few days, but I knew the minute she left it was back to like before. I don't think she could help it." I drew in a shaking breath, and realized that I was dangerously close to losing it. Right there. "So that was the most scared I had ever been… but also it gave me my mom and dad back, for a little while."

I collapsed into the silence, finally spent, confessions exhausted.

The room was dead silent except for Edward's slow breathing. I looked up at him, and stared. His face was hard, tense and lined. He was watching me so intently, and I saw that his fist was clenched in his lap, tendons straining beneath the skin. His jaw was clenched tight, and his bicep was flexed.

Oh god. I was immediately mortified. I had upset him, made a complete fool of myself by talking about my bizarre childhood experience that I shouldn't even remember anymore. Where had that come from?

Worst first date in history.

"I'm so… that was… screwed up. I shouldn't have said any of that." Edward's tight features didn't relax, and the truth of this whole situation finally slammed into me; I felt small and ashamed. "I'm screwed up," I whispered.

I looked around the room, searching for escape. "I'm so sorry…" I stood, my body humming. I needed to hide from these things I had long ago learned to control. To bury myself in motion, in work, in anything that dulled the pain...

"I should check on your clothes," I mumbled. I took a step away.

"Please don't."

Edward had stood also, his full height now towering over me, overwhelming me with his size and presence. As I moved away, he quickly reached out and firmly grasped my hand in his. My fingers tangled with his automatically.

I froze completely, my entire attention shifting to the parts of me that were touching him. His hand was hot, searing my bare skin when I finally, finally felt his palm pressing flat against mine.

I jumped a little bit; it was like a static shock. His electricity flowed right through me, filling me, rooting me to the spot. I looked up at him. His jawline strong and perfect, the stubble dusting it copper and sparse. A steady pulse beat in his throat, and his eyes flashed down at me, full, gleaming. Pleading.

"Please." The word was spoken into charged stillness, caressing my heated skin, my trembling limbs. "Don't run away now."

"I'm just…" I was helpless. I didn't have anywhere to hide: no distance, no movement, no barrier. His hand was big, bigger than I had thought. It encased my smaller one in his completely, and it fit. It just fit, the curves and knuckles, fingers laced tightly. I held on. "How can you be here still? You're so… and I'm just… hopeless."

"No." His word was firm, and I felt the instinct to argue, to convince him I was bad. Didn't he see that yet?

"You're incredible." His thumb moved slightly against the back of my hand, and my skin sang. His gaze caressed me weightlessly, the curves of my flushed face, my ears, my wide, confused eyes.

"There is nowhere else I would rather be right this minute," he said quietly, and his voice was liquid warmth. "I don't think you understand that yet. But I hope to convince you… if you'll let me try."

I said nothing. I was so scared that I would tell him how I was feeling, and scared that I would lose the opportunity to tell him, too.

"If you want me to go now, I'll go." His voice tumbled from his mouth and rubbed me like fine sandpaper, and I saw his gaze flicker to my lips.

I shook my head vigorously, a whimper tugging in my throat.

"What do you want, Ms. Swan?"

I looked up at him, straight into his handsome face, and was sure and unsure about everything, ever, all at the same time.

"I want you to call me Bella."

I think my heart really did stop when slowly, slowly, Edward brought his free hand up to my face, fingers stretching until they met with my overheated skin, his feather-light touch ghosting my forehead as he gently brushed my bangs aside. His eyes were glowing in the low light.

"I will."

My pulse throbbed through me, each beat making my body gently sway.

"I don't want you to leave," I whispered. The words were brittle, and I feared they would break before they reached his ears.

But Edward smiled, a familiar melody, an embrace we had not yet shared. His fingers tightened on mine.


We were standing in the middle of my living room, and I was still reeling a bit from what had just happened. I looked down at our hands, still clasped between us; his were soft, what I would expect from a computer tech. But I knew that he was also a musician, and I could now imagine what these fingers felt like touching ivory and onyx, striking calm chords that resonated through my entire being, sweeping and pounding, brushing and tapping. The promise of sound and silence, held in the palm of my hand.

I bit my lip. Hard. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed he was staying, so grateful he would be here to calm me and I wouldn't be alone after all of this to obsess, to pick myself apart and convince myself that this was a disaster…

A thought then came, small and unfamiliar. It was calm and confident, spoken to me in the quiet of the moment. It wasn't Alice's sweet, steady voice, or Isabella's harsh, cutting tone. It was my own voice, clear and true.

Aside from the pathetic confession, this night has actually been kind of… incredible.

I slowly raised my eyes, and there he was. Still there. Standing next to me, watching me think. I had already memorized the glittering gold in his irises, the pink of his lips; they were stained slightly darker from the wine. His chest rose and fell with each steady breath. And his skin was so hot and dry underneath my palm, solid and real.

Reality infiltrated the warm haze:

Okay, I have him here… what do I do with him now?

I knew what I wanted to do. What my body was practically begging me to do. But I couldn't… I couldn't return his touch. I wasn't ready.

Not yet, my own voice whispered, and my heart jumped at the rare, hopeful thought.

"Do you, ah…" my voice was rusty, and I tried again, pushing the words out quickly. "Do you want to watch a movie?" It was the first activity I thought of that was non-creepy, or at least not let's stare at each other for another hour creepy. Which I was perfectly content to do, sincerely, but I was pretty sure I had reached my quota of bizarre tonight.


"I'll go get us some water." As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them. Because that meant I had to step away, and my hand was coming with me. It was inevitable, of course; I couldn't exist in Edward's palm for the rest of my life. But damn my stupid mouth for ending it so soon.

"I'll pick one out," Edward angled his chin toward the movie rack, and I nodded, my head bobbing loosely on the stem of my neck. I paused, probably much longer than I should have, trying to memorize the feel of his weight attached to me, his heat so close to mine.

I finally stepped away, and our hands hung between us for a moment, connection holding, before gently sliding away. I was immediately cold.

In the kitchen, I leaned against the counter for support. Time was completely beyond me; for all I knew, we could have been out there talking for minutes or months. I glanced at the clock and saw that it was after midnight. Holy shit, we've been talking for hours! We still had work tomorrow, but I couldn't find it in me to give a shit. I would stay up all night with him.

I was shaken, unsettled; I knew that in my situation, my control were tenuous at best, and I couldn't help the sour doubt that this would truly ever happen again.

Again, shame coursed through me as I remembered what I had told him. What the hell was that, Bella? I had worked so hard to forget all of that, and the unbidden memory scared me. But I couldn't think about that now, I couldn't…

I closed my eyes and spoke to the voice inside of me, the one that tried to make contact before.

Listen, I thought crazily. My seams were bulging, unprocessed thoughts and emotions fluttering wildly beneath my skin. Please pull it together. Think about it all later. Don't shut down. Do not confess anymore childhood traumas, do not ask any stupid questions. Just go back out there and watch a movie like a normal human being, and maybe, just maybe, this can work out.

This strange concept – optimism – propelled me back out the door, cool glasses already sweating under my touch.

Edward had a movie in his hand. He looked up at me a bit sheepishly as he handed it to me. It was my special edition Pulp Fiction.

"That one acceptable?" he asked. "You have… awide selection of chick movies." He attacked his hair, which I noticed was a little puffier than normal.

"Oh, those are all Alice's. She's a sucker for a romantic comedy. The Tarantino is mine." Now my voice sound way, way too loud.


There was a crisp tension now. I could feel it on the back of my neck, in my toes, skittering along my spine. Something had shifted between us. The room seemed smaller now that I knew what his skin felt like under my fingers. I was filled with anxious energy and as I watched him settle down on the far end of the couch; I got the distinct feeling we were both just a little bit unsure how to proceed. It was actually a little comforting; Edward apparently didn't know exactly what to do now, either.

I started the movie and assumed a small space on the other end of the sofa. I curled one leg under me and folded the other against my chest, my arms wrapping around me and forming a ball of awkwardness. I didn't know where to put my limbs, or where to lay my head. I kept my neck rigidly straight and trying to ignore the how stiff I must look. Edward, on the other hand, spread out a bit, bringing one bent knee up on the cushion next to me, left arm lounging on the couch back. He looked more at ease; I wish I could catch it from him.

Throughout the opening breakfast scene, Edward and I traded glances. I would feel focused heat against my cheek and I would turn my head slightly to see points of green pointed at me, and lips turned up ever so slightly. He would quickly snap his attention back to the television, and I would follow his gaze back to the movie, excitement dancing though my body. Then, in a show of boldness that would have shocked the old me, (hell, it shocked the new me a little bit, too), I would steal a look at him, barely turning my neck until he caught me, and then my eyes would dart away. I had to bite my lips to keep from smiling.

While we were engaging in eye-tag, my body wouldn't stop fidgeting. I stretched my leg down onto the ground, only to bring it back up. I laid my arms at my sides, but then wrapped them around me again; first one arm, then the other, then both. Head up and down. Toes curled and straightened.

"You okay over there?" Edward asked, and my stupid flush, which I thought had finally shown me mercy and gone to bed for the night, splashed my face and neck with crimson.

"Yes. I'm just…"

I looked at Edward, and he was so sweet and smiling and cute, and his eyes were so green and I was so fucking exhausted from running and drinking and feeling…

Fuck it.

I sighed. My forehead dropped onto my bent knee. "I don't know what to do with myself." I knew it was a rare display of vulnerability; blame it on the atmosphere, or the wine, or the way Cookie Monster stretched tight across his pecs… but at that moment, there was nothing left in me to be calculating.

"You…" I watched as Edward swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. He looked down before looking back up right at me, eyes glittering.

"You could come here."

He lifted his arm up off the couch, held his hand out to me, palm up. Scooted his leg over. Angled his chest toward my direction. The movie played on in the background, hollow voices filling the cavernous pause between us, while Edward just watched and politely waited for me to decide, as he always did.

And for once, I moved without thinking.

I crawled across the couch toward him, cheeks blazing fire, lungs unable to flex. His eyes, his breath, his smell… they all drew me closer, magnetically. As I did that night against the tree, I breathed in his heat into my lungs, felt it lick my exposed skin.

But unlike that night against the tree, I wasn't going to pull away this time.

As I approached him, however, my mind was trying to process a million details at once: Oh shit oh shit oh shit. I don't know where to put anything. He smells amazing. Should my legs touch his? Fuck, he's got nice hands. What about my hands? Holy shit, where should I put my hands? And for godsake, what about my big stupid head?

But Edward decided for me.

His left arm came down and around me, grabbing me, scooting me closer. I slid down his side as he pulled my body against his, enveloping me in the smell of soap and sweet, of honey and night and him. My body settled into the crook of his shoulder, as his arm wrapped around me. He gently brought me back onto his broad chest, my head resting next to his neck.

It was…

I can't describe it. It was beyond words.

Beyond control and boundaries and carefully drawn lines, beyond walls and doubts and me.

His heat seared through my thin clothes, under my skin, permeating deep in my muscles. I was aware of every square inch of me that was pressed to his firm body. There was fire everywhere: across my skin, in my head and chest, between my legs, beneath my closed eyelids. Everything. Everywhere.

And incredibly, miraculously, mercifully… my mind was silent and steady, uncertainty forgotten. I wondered idly how I could have lived every day before this moment and never felt like I did now. Never feeling him. It wasn't fathomable.

Edward's arms drained the tension away from me.

"Is this okay?" I felt his words against my hair, and I vaguely registered that I nodded against his chest.

More okay than anything, ever, in the history of things being okay.

I didn't know where my voice was; maybe it was back on the other end of the couch. It wasn't important, anyway. My hands slowly crept up, up, until they found purchase, sliding along his skin. My fingers tightened around his arm, feeling soft hair and raised veins, the firm give of muscles flexing gently beneath my touch. Oh god, his bare forearm, that pale skin that had taunted me so many times the past months from across the room that now rested lightly across my chest, pressing my breasts flat and firm. My fingers curled around him, and I sighed contentedly.

Edward continued to hold me as the movie played on. My fingers grew bold, gently moved over him in circles and swirls, lightly tracing my name, over and over again: Bella Bella Bella, as if I could silently give it to him, give myself to him, give him permission to take me.

Periodically, I felt Edward turn his head into mine and heard his deep inhalations; soft sounds muffled again my hair, and gentle pressure intermittently on my scalp.

My fingers told him what I felt, how he made me feel.

Safe. Calm. Excited. Hopeful. Alive.

"Thank you," I mumbled. My mouth felt swollen, and I struggled to stay sentient, to take in every detail.

"For what?" Edward's whisper was gravelly through the darkness, pure sex sliding across my neck, my lips.

My eyelids were heavy, lead weights now attached to my eyelashes, and my tongue curved to mold around words I wasn't entirely sure I was saying out loud.

"…for existing."

The last thing I heard before the warmth met with darkness was Edward's low, rumbling chuckle.

Poor Bella. She's built her entire life with the idea that she could handle anything on her own, by herself, through sheer will and discipline.

Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, Ms. Swan.

Like most of you, my life is insanely busy… corporate job, brutal commute, wedding planning, stupid sleep. Hence, the long time between updates. I can promise you this: Disciplined Breakdown will be absolutely be completed. I work on it every single day, even if only for ten minutes at night before I pass out at my desk. I will not forget it, or you, or disappear into thin air. (My dearest RockABelly, this is my solemn vow. Thanks for the favorite.)

I want to sincerely thank you all so, so much for the love and support. Everyone. Every single review, every PM or message on Twitter means more than I could possibly express. Smooches and awkward hand-holdings all around!

If you're on Twitter, come find me! I get all excited when I get a follow request that isn't porn spam. ahlthyaddiction

So I am working on chapter 13 right now, I will have it up ASAP, no ETA as of yet. Please feel free to PM or email me any questions, comments, recipes, etc.

I adore you all. Can we make out already?

- ahealthyaddiction