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Fanfiction Based On Characters From Stephenie Meyers Twilight Series Rated MA for Mature Adult

Take the Ice


By BellaMarie117

Summary: Competitive figure skater Bella Swan meets NHL hockey player Edward Cullen. Bella's Olympic dreams are crushed by injury. Can he help her find the strength to take the ice again? Will they find love and friendship in the meantime? A/H, M, E/B ~*~
Once youve read and enjoyed this story, why not show the author some love, and review! http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5773626/1/Take_the_Ice Authors Blog: http://www.bellamarie117.blogspot.com/?zx=a57a305e56440293

~*~

I had never given much thought to my life "after." It never seemed like a pressing issue. When fate hands you a dream so far beyond your imagination, it's difficult to believe it will come to an end and throw you right back into the everyday hum drum of normalcy. Normal. That was a concept I was completely unfamiliar with. Normal for me was waking up at five a.m. to be on the ice before the sun rose. It was spending hours stretching and practicing, training and conditioning while others commuted to classrooms and offices. It was standing for costume fittings, listening to musical selections until my ears rang in order to find the perfect selection that would match the tone of the next piece. It was butting heads with coaches and choreographers. It was aching muscles, frustrations, and disappointments, always striving to be better. It was my lifeuntil now. For as long as I could remember I had been a skater. I loved the ice-the smooth, glassy surface provided a whole different world for me and it was better than any dream I could conjure. I felt a joy every time I set the metal of my blades to the frozen surface. My mother, Renee, picked up on my interest when I was very young and jumped at the opportunity to push and prod me onto competitive levels. Private lessons with the best coaches, consultations with past champions, different choreographers getting thrown at me left and right to come up with perfect programs, and analysts to review them to ensure we could squeeze out every possible point. Nothing but the best for Renee Swan's daughter. As much as some would criticize her for being a stage mom, projecting her own dreams and aspirations onto her

Chapter One Minnesota Nice

daughter, I couldn't blame Renee for her actions. They brought me to higher peaks than I could have achieved without her. The competition was never what drove me; in fact the politics off the ice would have beaten me down much earlier if Renee hadn't been there to take on the brunt of it. My drive was simply the feeling I got when my skates glided over the ice, allowing me to move in ways that would never occur on solid ground. No, I could never blame Renee. Even now when the rug was pulled out from under me with no cushion to fall back on. My mother had been a skater before me. She had promise but never proved to be a serious competitor. She'd never had the resources to back her and allow for the opportunities it took to become a force in the sport. Instead she'd gotten pregnant with me and married my father young. The regret of the dreams she gave up ate away at her until she could no longer tolerate life simply as a wife and mother. When she took notice of my love of skating and spark of natural talent on the ice she jumped at the chance to make me the champion she never was. Renee met Charlie Swan when she was eighteen. He had come to Minnesota from Washington for law enforcement training; she had lived there her entire life and dreamed of excitement away from what she knew. They met one night while out with friends. A whirlwind romance, a positive pregnancy test, and a quickie city hall wedding ensured that Charlie would remain in the Midwest. I'd grown up in Minnesota until the age of nine. When my parents divorced, Renee and I moved to Colorado to pursue my skating future; Charlie moved back to his hometown of Forks, Washington. His job as chief of police kept him satisfied, and he enjoyed the familiarity of the city was raised in. Perhaps that was the foundation of the difference between Charlie and Renee: he was content in the life he knew and she felt a restless need to experience new things. I was the balance between the two. While I enjoyed the travel and new experiences that came with competitive skating, I longed for the familiarity of the only place I'd ever been able to call home. I ached to feel some sense of belonging and stability. It's been years since I've been back, Renee despised her hometown and the memories it held for her, and with Charlie gone there really was no reason to return. As my standing rose and my reputation grew to the level where my name was well known and always linked with skating, Renee kept my schedule packed enough that it was difficult to catch a break. Charlie would come and meet us for long weekends every now and again, but even those had become more rare. A monotonous drone over the plane's intercom shook me from my reverie, bringing the dull throb of my knee back to the forefront of my mind. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will be landing at the Minneapolis/St Paul airport in about fifteen minutes. Local time is five-eighteen p.m. and the current temperature sits at fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Please return your luggage to their proper location and place your seatbacks and tray tables in their upright position. We hope you have had a pleasant flight and enjoy your stay in the Twin Cities." Home. I'd finally made it. It took a lot of convincing and smooth talking to get Renee on my side for this one. Some might think I'd want to be close to my family at a time like this, but as much as I loved Charlie, Washington would never be home to me, I'd only been there a handful of times. Being close to Renee right now would probably aggravate me rather than provide any sense of comfort. Minnesota was not only the middle ground between the two, but it was where I remember being happiest, before Renee and Charlie turned on each other, and before my life was completely absorbed into the skating world. Here I'd just been Bella, and I was hoping to find that again. Of course it also helped that the best doctors and physical therapists we could find resided here. I'd be meeting with Dr. Cullen on Monday to assess my injury and give me a prognosis for my recovery time. I already knew though. The second my skate hit that rough spot on the ice I saw the end, and "after" came slamming into my immediate future. It was still so clear in my head. A lazy afternoon practice in late fall; it was a lull in the season-the calm before the storm, if you will. These were some of my favorite practices. I'd set whatever music I felt like and just free skate around the ice. Of course I'd still have to throw in the jumps and leaps and sit spins in order to stay in shape, but there was no choreography to remember, no drills to run, no repetition of a single move until it was perfection

every single time. I could just skate. If I closed my eyes now I could see the ice-empty except for me. The rink practically abandoned as it was nearing the end of the day. Renee and my trainer sat in the bleachers, talking over the next set of torturous drills to add to my routine no doubt. The strains of "Swan Lake" echoed through the arena speakers. We'd recently selected the arrangement for this season's free skate and I distracted myself by imagining the movements that would match perfectly to each note. I'd set an easy pace around the ice, building up a little speed as I rounded the corner to extend my leg up into a fan spiral when I felt my blade catch on a rough patch. My skating leg stayed glued to the spot, while my body and free leg aimed to continue their intended direction. I felt my world give out from under me-my arms flying out to catch myself as my extended leg tensed and tried to retract before impacting on the ground. My reflexes could only act so quickly though and the next thing I knew, I'd collapsed onto the ice, the full weight of my body landing on my ankle to twist it in an unnatural direction. I remember the sickening crack of my head on the ice an instant later and the faint cry of concern from the stands before I felt myself float into the darkness to the strings of Tchaikovsky lulling in the background. The screeching of the landing wheels connecting with the runway jerked me back to attention; a series of rapid blinks clearing the vision from my head to bring me back to the present. I really needed to reign in on the daydreaming. As the plane came to a halt at the gate I stretched my arms up and glanced around at the other passengers gathering their things from the overhead bins and hurrying to depart as quickly as possible. I'd been lucky enough to have two empty seats in my aisle and didn't feel the need to get up and out of my seat quite yet. I waited until the initial rush died down before gathering my messenger bag from the floor in front of my seat and shrugging into my coat, figuring it'd be easier to do it now and deal with being a little too warm than trying to struggle into it while balancing my crutches and luggage in baggage claim. I realized that I never even bothered to pull out my book or iPod on the trip. I laughed somberly as I mused to myself about the very real possibility that to the other passengers I probably looked like a zombie by staring off into space for the duration of the two and a half hour flight from Jacksonville to the Twin Cities. You're really starting to lose it, Bella. Pushing myself up to stand, I hobbled into the aisle, careful to keep my weight on my good leg while I groped around the overhead bin for my crutches. I was never the most coordinated person when it came to moving over solid ground and the crutches definitely hindered what little grace I could usually pass off. I managed to make my way down the aisle and off the plane, only catching my bag on the seat once and stumbling twice. Improvement. After retrieving my suitcase from baggage claim I stared down at it, pondering just how I was going to make it out to a cab with my messenger bag, a duffle, a rolling suitcase and no free hands. "Need a hand?" I glanced slightly to my left, polite smile in place, ready to decline the offer purely out of habit, only to be met with the purest shade of emerald green I've ever encountered. Beneath the friendly warmth in those eyes was a depth and intensity that I'd never experienced in another person's gaze. I'd never taken the time to really stare into people's eyes before-always just passing glances that barely told me the general shade of their irises. Now I found it impossible to stop myself from getting lost in that vast expanse of green. I was shaken out of my reverie when a fellow traveler bumped against my crutch in his rush to grab his bag off the rotating luggage ramp. The suddenness paired with my weak knee made for a bad combination and I felt my weight start to collapse before I could react, the bumped crutch clattering against the metal barrier of the carousel

as I lost my grip on it. I threw out my arm to try and catch myself and met a warm, solid frame suddenly surrounding me. Looking up, I was once again met with those eyes. I tore my gaze away from them to quickly take in their surroundings. What I found was worth much more than a passing glance, but I figured I'd already embarrassed myself enough and mumbled a quiet "sorry" before pushing off his chest to try and steady myself. "Are you alright?" the concern evident in his velvety baritone voice. He'd yet to remove his arms from where they'd encircled me to catch my fall. "Yes, of course. I'm fine," I insisted, still straining against his hold. His embrace, though out of concern for my safety rather than one entered out of passion or desire, set my heart racing. I feared that if I let myself stay in his arms I'd lose my senses entirely. I cleared my throat nervously, managing to quietly squeak out, "Thanks," as I looked down at his arms around my torso. He must have realized that he'd yet to remove them because he retracted his hold very suddenly. "Sorry about that, you startled me for a minute there," he rushed out, nervously? He bent down to gather my fallen crutches and I took advantage of his distraction to let out a long exhale of breath I hadn't been aware I'd been holding. "Here we go," the green eyed stranger said as he offered out my crutches he'd retrieved from where they'd fallen. I quickly arranged them under my arms and leaned my weight back on them. Even months after the accident I was still wobbly on my own two feet without their assistance. "Thank you, again," I said, glancing up from under the fringe of bangs that had fallen over my eyes. I noticed his hand lift up towards my face before he rapidly pulled it back and stuck it in his pocket. "Sure, no problem" he assured me as his free hand went up to ruffle through his hair. It was a messy arrangement of a strange color-not brown, not red or orange, but almost like a bronze tone. Like his eyes, it was a shade the likes of which I'd never seen before. I found myself wanting to replace his hand with my own and smooth the stray tendrils away from his strong forehead. I even started lifting my hand before catching myself and combing through my own waves in a nervous habit. His face was completely distracting and devastatingly handsome. His nose was slightly crooked, like it had been broken at one point and his jaw was strong and chiseled with the faintest covering of scruff, not the deliberate type where it was neatly groomed and intended, but more like he hadn't remembered to shave in a couple days. My desire to run my fingers through his hair was replaced with an ache to nuzzle my cheek against his to feel it scratch against my smooth skin. "Uh, did you need some help? It looks like you've got your hands pretty full." "Oh, no. I mean, yeah, I douh you don't have to help though, I'm sure you've got places to be," I stammered, cringing a bit at my own awkwardness. Why couldn't I just suck it up and graciously accept the gorgeous stranger's help? Oh, right, a stubborn streak a mile wide and a habit of always taking care of myself without assistance. "Really, it's no problem," the gorgeous stranger said. I still hesitated, my eyebrow lifted at him in question. "I promise, there's no where I'm in a rush to be," he urged. "Sure, that'd be great. Thanks," I gave in. "Are you waiting on your bags?" I'd barely taken my gaze from his face since he caught me and as my eyes swept down I saw an oversized duffle bag at his feet next to my own bags. He easily hefted it to his shoulder like it weighed nothing, even though it looked fairly heavy.

"Nope, I've got it all right here," he said as he patted the bag before reaching down to raise the tow bar on my rolling suitcase and lifting my own duffle to rest on top of it. I grabbed the strap of my messenger bag before he could add that to his load as well. I wasn't completely handicapped and I certainly wasn't going to let him carry everything. "Is someone picking you up or are you parked?" he asked as he gestured me ahead to the sliding automatic doors leading out. "No, I'm just going to grab a cab I think," I responded, trying to simultaneously watch where I was putting my crutches, and gauge the bustling crowds around me. The last thing I needed to do was totally biff it and embarrass myself further. "Did you need a ride somewhere? I have my car parked in the overnight lot." My eyes snapped up to his with a mixture of surprise and confusion. This must be the "Minnesota-nice" everyone's always referring to. Chivalry apparently still lived on in this state. "No, really, a cab will be just fine," I assured him and he looked over to me, nodding. His face had a look that almost seemed likedisappointment? I shook it off as my own silliness, but not wanting to seem ungrateful told him that I appreciated the offer. As we hit the doors, the warmth of the overheated airport startlingly gave way to the bitter cold that lay outside and I cursed the fact that I left my mittens buried in my bag. I could already feel my ears growing pink in the frosty air and I gasped in a breath at the sudden change in temperature. He looked down at me with one side of his mouth lifted in a little smirk at my obvious reaction to the cold. "Where are you coming from?" His tone held a hint of humor as if he found my discomfort amusing. "Uh, here originally, but it's been a long time. I guess I forgot what January in Minnesota feels like," my face flushed, both from the cold and from sheepishness over what a wussy little girl I was acting like. It's not like I hadn't grown up in ice arenas and frozen spaces all my life. Suck it up, Bells. "Where have you been lately if not Minnesota then?" he inquired, a hint of real interest and curiosity to his tone. He didn't seem to be asking just to make small talk. And who would make small talk standing out front of an airport in below freezing temperatures, really? "Florida most recently. Colorado before that. Other places here and there. We've moved around a lot I guess," I said as I set my bag back down by my feet, turning slightly towards him and shifting my gaze between my own shoes and his face. "We?" "Yeah, my mom and me. She never really likes to settle, you know? And until very recently, where she went, I went." "Hmm, like a modern day nomad, huh?" "Yeah, I-I guess you could say that," I said, glancing up at him with a small smile. Why was he still standing here, talking to me? He didn't have any clue who I was, didn't even know my name. Courtesy and kindness would have ended his obligation about five minutes ago when we'd reached the curb. Yet here he stood, more beautiful than any individual person I'd ever laid eyes upon before in my life, still with his hand on my suitcase and keeping up a conversation with me.

"Are you here for awhile then?" he asked, his head bowed down but his eyes glancing up from beneath the hair falling messily over his forehead to meet my own. I couldn't look away from those eyes even if I wanted to. I felt trapped there, but not unpleasantly. "For the foreseeable future," I answered coyly. I closed my eyes and mentally smacked myself. What the hell Bella? Are you seriously getting flirtatious with the gorgeous good Samaritan who is completely out of your league? Do you really think you can pull off flirting on crutches when you can't even manage it on your best days? In your dreams. Your very vivid dreams that will now be so much more enjoyable after having his likeness committed to memory. "Well, that's good to know." I opened my eyes and raised them to meet his again; he had the most breathtaking, crooked grin on his face. I think I just swooned a bit. Totally gorgeous just transformed to completely dead sexy, panty dropping hot. I drew my bottom lip between my teeth to gnaw on it as I always was prone to when I was nervous or out of my element. Standing here flirting with a six-foot-two Adonis was definitely out of my element. And being on the receiving end of that sexy crooked smile awakened feelings I never thought myself capable of over another person. Something to process later, when I wasn't under his observant stare. "Maybe that means I'll bump into you around town sometime," he said, lifting his hand from my suitcase to tousle through his hair again. I wondered if it was a habit of his like my own lip biting. It would explain why his hair seemed to stand up in every opposing direction possible, creating a beautiful, bronze mess on top of his head. "Yeah, it's definitely a possibility. You live close by?" I asked, not wanting to end the conversation despite the cold and the fact that I should have grabbed a cab and been on my way ten minutes ago. "Yeah, St. Paul." "Cool, me too. Well I'm moving there I mean." "Downtown?" "Yeah. I'm not really familiar with the area, but from what I saw in the ad it looked nice." "My sister lives down there and she seems to love it. I'm over off Summit Hill." "Really? That's such a beautiful neighborhood. I always loved it when I lived here, all the old houses." "Yeah," he said, his eyes flickering between my eyes and my mouth as we lapsed into silence, just staring at each other. I was sprung back into the present when a biting wind swept past. I coiled into myself and let out a strangled cry. Because moaning and swearing always make you warmer, right? "Welcome to Minnesota, right?" he laughed as he reached down to take my bare hands, holding them between his own and rubbing them slightly to warm them. I was simultaneously stunned by two things. His hands were warm, especially against the frigidness of my fingers. He hadn't been wearing gloves either and should have been as cold as mine, but the contrasting temperature was wonderful. The other was that the moment his skin touched my own I felt a shock, not like the quick prick of static, but rather like my entire body had been plugged in and now had an electric current humming through it. I looked up to see if he'd felt it too, but couldn't be sure, as the only change in his expression was a slight furrowing of his brow, as if he was concentrating on a puzzle in his head. "We should probably get you a cab, it's freezing out here and you're not really dressed for the weather," he said after a moment, nodding towards my lack of hat and mittens.

"Yeah, probably should have dug out my mitten supply before landing," I smirked at my lack of foresight and he chuckled, giving my fingers a soft squeeze before letting go to hail a cab over to the curb. As one quickly pulled in, I immediately felt a sense of loss as I realized this was it, the end of this dream of a conversation with the beautiful man. Although we didn't talk about anything terribly important or probing, I felt instantly connected to him. I didn't even know his name or really anything about him, but I felt like I'd miss him when he was no longer by my side. He placed my duffle and suitcase in the trunk before slamming it shut and walking around to the passenger door to prop it open for me. He pulled the messenger bag from my shoulder and slid it across the seat to the far side. I hobbled down off the curb but hesitated before getting in, standing on one side of the car door and he stood on the other, resting his forearms on the top of it and leaning towards me. "Thanks for your help-" "Edward." "Edward," I repeated, enjoying the way his name rolled off my tongue. A beautiful, unusual name for a beautiful, unusual man. It seemed nothing about him was ordinary or expected. "It was nice talking with you." "You too-" he paused, obviously hinting for my name in return. "Bella," I provided, looking up at him from under my lashes. "Bella. I enjoyed it immensely." And there's that sexy crooked grin again. I sighed silently and gathered my crutches to shove them over in the seat. I looked up to give him a smile and a small wave before lowering myself into the cab. He didn't close the door; instead he reached down and touched my shoulder hesitantly. "Bella?" "Yeah, Edward?" "Um, my friends and I hang out at this bar on Grand almost every Tuesday night, around eight o'clock. Billy's?" "Yeah, I've heard of it." "Maybe I'll see you there sometime?" he suggested, sounding hopeful and unsure. It was so odd to see a man so beautiful acting anything less than confident, but compelling none the less. "Yeah, I could probably swing by sometime. Once I get settled in, you know," I stammered out. He wanted to see me again and that thought alone made my heart flutter in my chest. "Great! Well I'll see you around then, Bella," he stepped back from the door and retrieved his own bag before stepping in to close my door. He lifted his hand in a wave that I returned shyly as the cab pulled away. As we rounded the corner, I sat back in my seat, finally able to fully catch my breath and relax now that he was out of my sight. I gave the driver my address before closing my eyes, leaning my head against the back of the seat. I didn't know if I'd actually get up the courage to seek him out again, I'd probably psych myself out and convince myself that it was a fluke. There was no way I'd ever catch and hold the attention of a man like Edward. But for this one moment I sat, picturing his handsome face and dreaming that somehow he could be mine.

~*~

It was close to seven P.M. when the cab finally pulled up in front of the apartment building. Early enough in the evening but I was already exhausted. And starving; my stomach grumbled audibly in protest to the further withholding of food. The doorman was nice enough to retrieve my bags and help me up the elevator to my door when he caught my struggle to juggle everything with my crutches. Once I finally made it inside apartment three-eleven, my new home, the only thing I wanted to do was collapse. The complete lack of anywhere to do so was slightly problematic. First things first: Food. Not going out meant that the options were somewhat limited. Pizza it is. After dialing four-one-one to find the nearest pizza place, I put in an order for a large pepperoni and mushroom, breadsticks, and a two Liter of Diet Coke. Frankly, I didn't know when I was going to make it to the grocery store, so leftovers would definitely come in handy. With food on its way, I moved on to the second thing on my list: check in with Renee and let her know I made it to her hated homeland in one piece. She confirmed that the rest of my belongings had shipped and should be here by tomorrow afternoon and that the car she'd bought for me was waiting at a local dealership. I lasted for twelve minutes before I had to end the call. She knew the basics: I was here, I was alive, and yes, I remembered that I had an appointment with my new doctor on Monday. I didn't need to stay on the line and listen to her lament over my injuries, or complain yet again about my move, or make plans for my future in skating that likely wouldn't happen. I just needed quiet. With close to twenty minutes to spare before sustenance arrived, I decided to take in my new habitat. The apartment was bare, lifeless save for the three bags and my coat piled by the front door. It was a loft style with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and exposed brick on the outer wall. The rest of the walls were tall, empty, and white. I don't consider myself high maintenance or overly concerned with appearances, but I could already tell that an apartment full of white walls would drive me slowly insane. Looks like picking out paint needed to get added to the list. After resolving the vehicle situation and shopping for groceries. I'd ordered the basics for furniture, but the delivery status was saying tomorrow along with the rest of my things from Renee's. I had one night to deal with no bed, no couch, no chairs; no nothing. At least the heat was on and working. Thank goodness for little miracles. A quick walk through the space had me feeling slightly more optimistic. The bedroom was fairly spacious and would fit my dark wood sleigh bed and matching armoire very nicely. Once the walls were painted and a couple shelves and pictures were hung, it would be perfect. I didn't need anything fancy, but I was hoping I could pull off 'homey'. The two large windows in the room were fantastic. They ran from about waist high to the tall ceilings and would let in plenty of light when the sun was up; offering me a beautiful view of the Mississippi. The bathroom was nice enough with its slate tile floors and pedestal sink. No tub, just a shower, but on closer look it seemed to be a very nice one at that with two showerheads. An unnecessary indulgence I was certain I'd become spoiled very quickly. A closet in the hall housed a front-loading washer and dryer. I had not been looking forward to communal laundry nights so this was a nice surprise. I guess Renee can get a few things right without completely driving me nuts. She'd insisted on picking out my apartment as her compromise for "letting me go."

Chapter Two Unexpected Connections

The main room was tall and longplenty of space for the couch coming tomorrow as well as a few bookcases, a coffee table and a TV. I'd put a small table and chairs at the side closest to the kitchen to form a makeshift dining area. At this point I wasn't expecting any company, but it'd be nice to have somewhere to eat dinner besides the couch. The kitchen was bigger than I'd been expecting; the appliances were modern and there was a center island butcher block. I'd have to make sure Renee sent me more of my kitchen supplies than I'd originally planned. She sure wouldn't be using them; I couldn't remember a single meal that woman had ever cooked. And I of course, had nothing but time on my hands. Maybe I'd take up baking, become a professional cupcake snarfler and gain fifty or sixty pounds. It's a thought. The real surprise was a small room off the front entrance. Not even a room so much as a little nook. A short set of four stairs led to an enclosed space, no larger than ten square feet. A window seat sat on the far wall with built in bookcases on either side. I could already picture myself curling up there with fluffy pillows, an afghan blanket, some cocoa and one of my well worn books, knowing it would be my new favorite place. I'd cuddle up and lose myself in the pages for hours, the snow falling outside, until the light was gone and I couldn't make out the words on the page any more. With that image in my head, I knew I'd found home, that I'd made the right choice in moving here. I was abruptly interrupted from my epiphany by a light, yet rapid knock on the door. Pizza. My stomach rejoiced at the thought of food so near. I hobbled my way to the door and after struggling with the unfamiliar latch for a moment, was able to wrestle it open to reveal a tiny, dark haired woman holding my pizza box. This wouldn't really have thrown me off if it weren't for the fact that she was very obviously not a pizza delivery girl. She appeared to be just slightly shorter than my own five-foot-four-inches, but by the looks of her extremely high heels, I'd judge her to be closer to the five-foot range. She wore a black t-shirt dress covered almost completely in gold sequins with leggings that ended just below the knee. Her left wrist was obscured by the insane number of bracelets decorating it. She was pale, just a touch more color than my own pasty complexion. Her dark hair was cropped short and feathered out in soft layers around her face, which held delicate, angelic features. The most prominent of which were a striking pair of familiar green eyes. Eyes that took me right back to the airport and Edward. Aside from him I'd never seen eyes with that intensity of green. These eyes were currently lit with friendliness, excitement, and a very large dose of curiosity. "Hi! I'm Alice, your neighbor from across the hall. Three-twelve? My friend Rose and I live there together. I was so excited to see they finally rented this apartment out; it's been empty for almost four months now. Ridiculous for this area if you ask me, I don't know why no one snatched it up sooner. Do you live alone?" "Yeah," I managed to get out, caught off guard by her babbling intro. As a person of few words, I'd always been somewhat baffled by the naturally verbose. "Just me." "Great! I think you'll really like the building; it's mostly younger people. Singles, newlyweds, not very many kids or cranky old people who are going to complain about anything and everything you know? The communal spaces are pretty nice too, there's a pool and a gym on the main floor and a rooftop terrace. Obviously it's not much use now or anytime soon, but it's great in the summer for those very few months of nice weather we manage. Where are you from?" "Uh, Florida. Most recently at least. I've lived here before though." "I'm so jealous. It's only January and I'm already dying for some sun and warmth. I don't know why I stay in Minnesota when I hate the cold so much, but there you have it. Oh gosh, I'm sorry!" She held out the box of pizza to me, "I just get going and lose track of everything. Your pizza came to our place by mistake so I thought I'd bring it over and introduce myself." "Thanks," I muttered, reaching out for it before realizing that once again, my crutches weren't going to let me get it all. "Um, do you mind just setting it in the kitchen? I'm a little restricted here," I motioned down to the crutches.

"Sure, no problem!" She loped gracefully past me to put everything on the island in the kitchen. How she was able to move like that in those death traps, I will never understand. All I knew was that if I tried, I'd probably need a wheelchair instead of just the crutches. "What happened? If you don't mind my asking." "This?" I asked, gesturing to my aides once again. At her nod I responded, "Uh, sports injury. I'm not the most coordinated person." Technically it wasn't a lie. I really was very clumsy, everywhere except on the ice. And it was a sports injury. It wasn't really telling the whole truth either. But at this point, if people didn't recognize me, I wasn't eager to bring the truth of my identity to light right away. For so many years, I struggled with the celebrity that came with my skating career, never really able to enjoy being the center of attention. The only time I had been able to get past it was during my performances. That was when I truly lost myself on the icein the skating, the movement and the musicand was able to completely close myself from the audience and just... do what I did best. Once I'd started becoming a bigger competitor and winning widely recognized competitions, my popularity grew as well. It was no longer just a fun hobby that I was good atit was my entire life and the only thing I was known for. There were interviews with newspapers, magazines and TV shows. Cameras started following me more and more, especially around the larger national and international competitions, and Renee only encouraged it. She said it was all part of the sport, what was necessary for me to get to the top, to reach my potential. This time three years ago, I couldn't hide from myself. The Winter Olympics were around the corner and I was America's skating sweetheart; a sure bet to bring home the gold. My face was plastered on skating magazines, Sports Illustrated, tabloids, teen fashion magazines. I don't think I'd ever seen more pictures of myself than I did that winter. Twenty-one years old and right in the prime of my career. I had the best coach, breathtaking costumes, programs that would bring you to tears. Nothing had held me back. I shook off the melancholy and self-pity that was sure to settle in if I dwelled on the past for too long and brought myself back to the energetic little woman in front of me. "So, Alice, thanks for bringing my pizza over. What do I owe you?" "Oh, don't worry about it. I've got you covered this time. Consider it a 'Welcome to the building' gesture." "That's really not necessary." "I insist," she interrupted, waving me off before I could tell her I was more than capable of paying for my own dinner. I noticed her glancing around my apartment with a confused look on her face. "Where's all your furniture?" "It's not being delivered until tomorrow," I explained. Her mouth dropped in horror, like this was devastating news to her. "What are you doing tonight? Where will you sleep?" she demanded, a note of irritation slipping into her bell-like voice. "I don't know. I was going to whip something together; it's only one night." "Oh no, you can stay at our place. We've got a really comfy couch, you can crash there. No way am I letting you sleep on the hardwood floors in here, you're injured for crying out loud!" "Alice, really, I appreciate it but I'll be fine." "Don't even try to argue with me. Grab your PJs or whatever and come over. I'm kidnapping your pizza to ensure your cooperation." And with that, the spritely little woman grabbed my dinner and was gone, leaving me with a dropped jaw and a rumbly tummy. Did she really just do that? Well, considering the lack of pizza now sitting on my counter, I'm guessing that yes, she did just do that. Well shit. I guess I'm staying at the neighbors tonight.

Groaning just a little at the wrench Alice had thrown in my plan for solitude, I stumbled over to my bags, pulling out a tank top, fleece pants and a track jacket. I changed, grabbed my toothbrush, phone, and keys before hobbling into the hall, locking my door and knocking on three-twelve. Instead of Alice, the door opened to a statuesque blonde woman. Like Alice, she was stunning, but that's where their similarities ended. Where Alice was tiny, this woman was tall; probably five-foot-nine. She was thin, but curvaceous; definitely a contender in supermodel territory. Her long blonde hair fell in a smooth sweep past her shoulders; her eyes a deep shade of blue. She wasn't decked to the nines like Alice had been; instead she wore a gray long sleeved knit shirt and dark jeans. The simplicity certainly didn't deter from her good looks though. "Hey, come on in. Alice said you were crashing here tonight," the striking blonde waved me in with a warm, welcoming smile. "Thanks," I responded as I shuffled past her into the apartment. "I don't mean to put you out" I started and was immediately cut off. "Think nothing of it, once Alice gets something in her head there's no stopping her. We've got plenty of room, it's not a bother." Alice emerged from one of the doors off the main room, dressed much more casually in some yoga pants and a t-shirt. "Hey! I knew you'd give in and come knocking." "Well I kinda had to; you're holding my dinner hostage," I joked. "It worked, didn't it? You're here, there are places to sit, eat, sleep. Did you really want to stay in that depressing, empty apartment all night by yourself? Of course you didn't. I can tell you're a smart girl" Her mouth dropped then and she quickly threw her hand over it. "Oh my gosh, I just realized I don't even know your name! I told you, I just get on a roll and don't even notice!" "Bella, uh Swan." I mumbled out my last name, being careful not to emphasize it. At this point I wasn't willing to give up the anonymity in case either of them knew anything about figure skating. When neither of their expressions shifted from casual friendliness, I felt the tension immediately lift from my shoulders. "Well welcome to the building Bella," the blonde said, ushering me to take a seat at the bar looking over the kitchen. "I'm Rosalie and you will get used to Aliceeventually." She gave Alice a teasing wink before grabbing plates and glasses from the cupboard. I noticed more than just my one pizza was set out in their kitchen island. Instead there were three of the same familiar pizza boxes stacked together along with the smaller one for my breadsticks. "What's all this?" I asked. "Oh, we ordered pizza too. Must have been at the same time because they all just came to our place," Alice explained as she started opening up the boxes. Rosalie pulled out the bottle of Diet Coke I'd ordered and motioned toward me. "Ice?" she asked. "Yes, please." The three of us dug into the pizza and conversation flowed easily. I'd never felt so comfortable just sitting around and talking with anyone before. For how foreign the concept of hanging out and friendship were to me, sitting around talking with Rosalie and Alice just felt natural. I quickly learned that Alice owned her own event planning company where she coordinated weddings, showers, parties and various charity events. From the take charge attitude I'd already seen in her, I had no doubt she

excelled at her job as a professional taskmaster. She was a native Minnesotan along with her parents and two older brothers. Apparently, one of which Rosalie had been dating for the last two years. Rosalie worked in a shop rebuilding classic cars. She smirked at my dropped jaw and said that was pretty much everyone's reaction to hearing what she did. She'd developed a knack for it early from her dad and always enjoyed it, so when she went to college she'd gone into engineering and had been working at the same shop ever since. She'd moved here from Texas almost three years ago. Another surprising fact because her voice held no hint of an accent. She laughed and explained that as soon as she'd left the state, she'd set about getting rid of the accent as quickly as possible, though a few phrases tended to work themselves in every here and there, especially after a couple of cocktails. Her older brother hadn't quite kicked the habit and apparently still held quite the southern twang. Oddly and interestingly enough, while Rosalie was dating one of Alice's brothers, Alice was inversely engaged to Rosalie's as well. It was easy to see that both were clearly smitten with their chosen partners and I quickly discovered that the fastest way to steer the conversation away from anything about myself was to bring up Emmett or Jasper. Glancing up at the clock on the stove, I was shocked to see it was inching past eleven. Where did the last three hours go? I'd been so sure I wouldn't last past eight tonight before collapsing from exhaustion, but not once had I felt tired or bored sitting around with my two newfriends? Is that what they were? If I was being honest, I'd never really had friends before, not since I was very little at least. Renee and my coaches always kept such a strict training schedule that left very little room for socializing. She'd even removed me from school in sixth grade and insisted that tutors would be much more beneficial and easier to work with my skating demands. On the ice hadn't been any help eitherthe girls were always so competitive and fake, saying nice things to your face and then turning around to talk about you behind your back. I got so tired of trying to weed out who was truly genuine that I just closed myself off. Being here with Alice and Rose was like a breath of fresh air. They didn't know who I was, they didn't want to hang out with me because of my skating or status, they didn't have any grudges or rivalries against me. They were just two normal, albeit stunning, women offering their friendship. I'd known them all of four hours and could already say they were probably the closest to true friends I'd ever had. "So, Bella," Alice's voice shook me from my musings, "Any big plans for your first full day in town tomorrow?" "Yeah, it's going to be a little crazy I think. I've got furniture coming in and the rest of my stuff should be showing up from back in Florida. Then I've got to figure out groceries and the whole car thing. I was thinking of going to pick out some paint colors as well, but that might have to wait for another day." "Did you want some company? I don't have any client meetings tomorrow and I'm very efficient. You'd get a lot more done with two people, especially since you're down a foot," Alice teased. She looked so excited at the idea that I couldn't find it in me to say no. And really, it would be a lot easier to get things done with a couple extra hands. "Yeah, actually, that'd be great." "Don't let her push you too much, Bella," Rose warned, "Once she gets going there's no stopping her. She'll go HGTV on your apartment before you can blink." Alice tried to look offended, but wasn't able to keep the laugh out of her voice. "Is it a bad thing to want her to have a comfortable, homey and beautiful space to live in? I'm just being a good friend. Really Rose, I don't see you complaining about your living environment." "Yes, but I've had years to get used to your antics. Go easy on the rookie," Rose threw me a wink before gathering up the dishes and dumping them in the sink.

I couldn't hold back the exhaustion any longer and gave into a massive yawn. Alice giggled and pointed me in the direction of the bathroom so I could brush my teeth and wash my face. When I returned to the living room, Alice and Rose were both just laying out pillows and a couple of blankets. At the moment, I felt like I'd never seen anything more inviting than that couch. I knew I'd be dead to the world about two-point-five seconds after putting my head to the pillow. "Thanks again guys, this really does look a lot better than sleeping on a pile of sweatshirts." "Will you stop? It's no problem Bella," Rose assured me. "I'll be home around four tomorrow and will come by to rescue you from the mini-Martha-on-Prozac." "Thanks Rose, I get the feeling I'm going to need it," I responded with a cautious smile towards Alice who just laughed. "I'll give the guys a callsee if they'll be available for some manual labor. I know they've got a game in Anaheim on Friday, but they should be around recovering this weekend. We might hold off on painting until then." "Game?" I asked. "Yeah, all three of them, Jasper, Emmett and my other brother play for the Minnesota Wild." The name sounded familiar, but I didn't pay much attention to sports outside of skating, "Should I know what that means?" "NHL, Bella, they're professional hockey players," Rose clued me in. "Oh, right. I thought it sounded familiar," that also explained why I didn't know much about it. Renee detested the sport, always complaining that the local teams were trying to take over ice time. For all the games that went on in the arenas I'd practiced in, I'd never been able to watch one. Instead, Renee would drag me to the gym to work out while those "stupid, sweaty barbarians destroyed the ice." "We'll have to take you to a game sometime; they're right in the middle of the season and looking pretty good this year." "Alice, you think they look good every year." "Yeah, but I have a good feeling about this season!" Alice insisted. "Besides, even if they sucked it'd still be worth it to go ogle the boys. The speed, the stamina" she sighed with a faraway look. "Alice," I nudged in, "you are aware that two of them are your brothers right?" "Well of course, Bella, it's not like I'm giving my brothers the sex eye or anything. There's plenty of other man candy to look at. Besides, even if I'm not ogling them, I can still appreciate that I'm related to two fine specimens of the male species." "It's true. Alice's brothers are hot. Obviously I think Emmett is, but Edward's pretty good in his own right." Edward? It had to be coincidence. There was no way that Alice's Edward was my Edward. My Edward? Seriously, Bella, you talk to the man for what, ten minutes and all of a sudden he's Your Edward? "It's just too bad he hasn't dated anyone since he and Kate broke up last year. It seems like such a waste for a man that hot to be single," Rose continued. "You know he's not one to date around a lot. When he's ready he'll know," by the look on Alice's face, it was

obvious that she loved her brother and felt very protective over him. "Well," Rose offered in with a laugh, "It's not for lack of trying by the female population of the Twin Cities metro, that's for sure." "All those Rink Skanks better ease up at the next game or I won't be held responsible for my own actions, " Alice growled out. "Wow, Alice, killer. I don't think I'd ever want to mess with you," I joked as I eased onto the couch, gathering my crutches and laying them to the side but within reach. "I can't help it Bells, some of the women at these games are just horrible. And they don't even like hockey, they just come to eye fuck the players and try to sneak into the locker rooms. Is it so wrong for me to feel a little territorial over three of the most important people in my life?" "No Alice, you're perfectly within your rights to fight off the Rink Skanks," I assured her as I eased back on the pillows, wincing slightly at the pang in my knee. "Well, I'll see you in the morning, Bella. Let me know if you need anything!" With that, Alice skipped off to a door right off the main room. "You gonna be okay here?" Rose asked. "Yeah, this is perfect. Thanks again for letting me crash. It's really nice of you." "Don't mention it. I'm usually up and about getting ready for work around seven, so I apologize in advance if you're a light sleeper." "Not at all, I'm a pretty early riser," eight weeks later and I still couldn't seem to sleep in past six A.M. My body was so used to its early wake up call for training. "Alright then, sleep well, Bella." "Yeah, you too," I nodded at her before snuggling deeper into the pillow. I didn't even remember hearing her door close; I was out cold before she left the room. That night, I dreamt of sparkling green eyes and tousled bronze hair.

~*~
I awoke the next morning like I had almost every morning for the last eight weeks: to a dull, throbbing pain in my knee. Was it ever going to feel normal again? At this point it really didn't feel like it. It was slightly worse this morning than it had been for the past week due to being stuck in one position on the plane for so long yesterday. Without opening my eyes, I brought my leg up to my chest to stretch it out a bit. Looks like I'd have to break out the mild painkillers today. Getting everything moved around was not going to be fun. The light stretch eased the throbbing a bit and I opened my eyes. A quick glance at my phone read 5:48 A.M. It was still pitch black outside and the apartment was silent, but for the gentle hum of the radiator. I knew I wouldn't fall back to sleep, but I also didn't see much point in getting up yet. So I lay there on the absurdly comfortable couch, my hands resting on the pillow above my head and stared at the ceiling. Thinking back over the events of yesterday brought a small smile to my face. Meeting Alice and Rose. And Edward. Even the thought of him brought a ridiculous grin to my face and I lightly rolled my eyes at myself and my silliness. It's not like you've never met an attractive guy before, Bella.

Though I had to admit that Edward was devastatingly handsome and far surpassed any that I'd encountered. Ok, fine. So he's sexy and drop dead gorgeous, you still only talked to him for maybe fifteen minutes. Hardly life changing, right? And again my mind argued right back. Well, Bella, you've never really had that type of physical response to a man before: heart pounding, out of breath, pure, unadulterated attraction. Okay, so maybe that's true. Maybe Edward was the first man in my twenty-four years who had brought about that type of reaction in me. It still didn't change the fact that he was completely out of my league. And even if he was interested, doubtful, but for arguments sake, if he was interested, there's no way I'd ever do anything. I had no idea how to be in a relationship, date, engage in a casual fling. The only example I had was my own parents who had only recently reached a level where they could tolerate an occasional phone call if necessary. It helped that they lived half a country apart. I didn't know if I even really believed that true, lasting love existed. The concept seemed so foreign to me. Sensibly I knew that my parents loved me, but Charlie had been no more than a fleeting figure in my life for the past fifteen years since my mother had packed us up and left. He'd tried his best, and was always supportive of me. He'd even taken up texting recently in an effort to communicate with me more. In Renee's case, ninety-five percent of the time it seemed that her affections were strictly dependant on how satisfied she was with my training and performance level. Words of praise and tender gestures were few and far between in the Swan household. With the lack of physical contact, I grew to feel a level of discomfort at any signs of it. I didn't casually touch people other than a courteous handshake and tended to flinch away from the touchy feely types on the rare occasion that I encountered one, and I didn't hug. I'd always been okay with that level of detachment, but now thinking about it, it just felt wrong. How could I even think about being in a relationship with a person when the very thought of kissing and cuddling and caressing seemed more a cause for anxiety than excitement? God, Bells, maybe it's about time you shook off the Ice Princess routine. It's not like you have any cause to shy away from attention. It's not like you went through some traumatic event or anything that would cause you to fear a guy touching you. So maybe you haven't had the closest relationship with your parents. Maybe you haven't grown up with a huge circle of friends. You've never lacked for anything and you've always been free to pursue what you loved most. Stop bitching and moaning and get over yourself! The inner voice was out for blood this morning, and was on a bit of a cranky streak at that. Rather than lie there and listen to the inner rantings any longer, I got up in search of caffeine. I didn't know where they kept their coffee and wasn't about to go digging through their cabinets, so instead I pulled out what was left of my two liter and enjoyed the jump start provided by the jolt of sugar and caffeine. The clock on the microwave read 6:04 A.M. I had no clue what time to expect Alice to be up and about, but didn't anticipate seeing her anytime soon. Rather than bum around their apartment waiting, I opted to head back over to my place. I'd grab a shower, go through the light stretches my doctor from Jacksonville recommended, and make a plan of action for the day. Two and a half hours later, I was much more alert and ready to face the day. The stretches and Tylenol had done wonders for my knee and I was feeling a lot better about what I'd get accomplished today. Alice came knocking at about eight-thirty bearing coffee from the shop on the corner and it appeared that she was both a morning and an evening person. I tried not to sound accusing when I asked if she was ever not a little ball of energy; she merely shrugged cheerfully.

"So, what's the plan?" "Well the furniture is scheduled to be delivered around nine. They should be able to put everything in place, so there won't be much to do with that. The rest of my stuff should be coming in from Florida, but I'm not sure when. I'm guessing we'll probably have to wait around here for that to show up before we can go out and get the other stuff done. I started making a list of the basics that we'll need to search out," I offered her the sheet of paper I'd been scribbling on for the last forty-five minutes, listing out everything from milk, bread and eggs to Swiffer dusters and toilet paper. "Well, I think Super Target's going to be our best bet to get the most stuff in one spot," she reasoned. "You should be able to find almost all of this there." While we waited around for the delivery truck to show up, Alice dove into redesigning my entire apartment on a scrap sheet of paper, throwing out colors and accents that were 'completely necessary' for me to live in this loft. Rather than be a killjoy and argue, I decided to sit back and go with the flow. It wasn't all going to get done in one day and I'd certainly have time to insist that eight coordinating throw pillows on my living room couch was just a smidge overkill. The furniture delivery was surprisingly on schedule and Alice got to work ordering the two poor men around on exactly where each piece needed to go for optimal flow. Luck appeared to be on my side for once as the Fed Ex truck with my nine cardboard moving boxes showed up just as they were finishing. This day was going to run a lot more smoothly without having to wait around half the day to sign for them. I ushered the movers out the door and turned back to find Alice surveying the boxes with a frown creasing her forehead. "You've got more coming don't you?" she asked, like there really was no question that the few parcels couldn't possibly be all I'd brought. "Nope, that's it I think." "But really? A third of your belongings are books! How could you possibly fit everything in here?" she asked incredulously as she examined the labels. "I have my bags from the plane too," I offered. "I don't know, I don't keep a lot of stuff. I'm more of a minimalist. Less hassle." "Bella, minimalist doesn't even begin to cover it. Emmett's college dorm had more than this!" I simply shrugged. I really didn't keep a ton of belongings around and I opted to leave all my costumes and the majority of my skating paraphernalia with Renee. I wouldn't be using it any time soon and I certainly didn't need it staring me in the face reminding me every day of what I no longer had. "And your furniture," Alice continued ranting as she gestured around the room. "I mean, what you have is nice, but it's so Spartan in here Bella. We're really going to need to find you a few things to spice this place up a bit." "I can already see diabolical plans for dcor takeovers forming in your head, Alice. How about we take care of the essentials firstlike toilet paperand worry about the spiciness of my living arrangements later, okay?" "Spoilsport," she muttered. "Fine, but you can believe that this will be coming up later. And not like two months from now later, like this weekend later. I refuse to let a friend of mine, who is so cute and adorable, live in a bland apartment that could pass for a bachelor pad." "Sheesh, Alice, you've known me for all of fifteen hours and you're already taking over my life," I joked with an

exaggerated sigh. "I know! Just imagine what it'll be like in a couple weeks when you've gotten to know me better." "I don't know, I can't imagine it'll be much different." "You're probably right. I won't hold back as much though." "This is holding back?" I mocked. "You're slightly terrifying, Alice." "Only in the best ways," she persisted. "Now, do you have your list ready? We can go hit the store and get that taken care of before digging in here and getting things organized." "Sounds good. Uh, I don't have my car here yet, it's waiting for me to come by and pick it up at a dealership." "That's not a problemlet me call Jasper and see if we can borrow his truck for a bit, there won't be enough room in mine for everything." After a quick call, we were off and running. Alice wasn't kidding about her lack of trunk space. Turns out she drove a ridiculously impractical canary yellow Porsche. She also drove like a Formula one driver for the five short minutes it took to pull up to Jasper's place and I was overwhelmingly grateful that the roads were clear and dry. Alice pulled into the driveway next to a large pickup truck. Apparently there was no need to approach the door as we quickly transferred cars. A quick kiss blown towards the house on Alice's part and we were back on our way. Two hours later I was certain of two things. One, I would never willingly shop with Alice again, and two, I kinda loved the girl. I never would have expected we'd get along so well. She was peppy where I was dry, energetic and in your face where I was laid back. She wore designer heels on a daily basis and I was comfortable in my One Stars. Yet the more time we spent together, the more we got alongthe more I realized how much I'd missed in having real friendships in my life. I'd always been so busy that I'd never really had time to stop and think of myself as being lonely. Renee had always been therealong with an array of coaches, trainers, choreographers and tutorsso that I was never really alone. But, the past twenty-four hours with Alice and Rose, less than that actually, had made me realize what a void I'd had without the simple companionship that friends offered. Glancing down at my phone to check the time while we pushed our two loaded red shopping carts out to the truck, I noticed it was just past noon. I was completely exhausted. "I'm telling you, Bella, those shirts were completely necessary. And really, when you find one that looks that good, multiple colors are the way to go!" About three-fourths of the way through our shopping excursion, it had slowly started to dawn on me that Alice could talk me into anything, and in her own subtle way, had been doing so for the entire morning. Really, it didn't bother me so much. I was a stubborn girl, if I really didn't want to do something or buy something, I wouldn't. The eye opener had been when I found a Converse button up shirt in my cart; in three different colors. Don't get me wrong, it was a cute shirt, and 100% my style, but was it really necessary to buy three of essentially the same shirt? According to Alice: yes. Honestly, I wasn't really sure of half the stuff she threw in the cart. I got the feeling she snuck a lot of things past my radar. It would be a little like Christmas when we got back to the apartment and started unloading everything. "Ok, I give. The shirt's cute," I conceded. "Now can we please find some food? Gimpy remember? I need to keep my strength up."

"Alright, alright. Hey, do you like Chinese? We can grab some on the way back." "Sounds good," I said as we loaded the last of the bags into the truck and were off once again. On the way home, Alice wanted to call Jasper in to help. She was insistent that the walls needed to be painted before anything was unpacked. After some reasoning, and then shameless pouting when reason didn't work, I managed to defer her. At least for this afternoon. Back in the apartment we managed to get everything in and the refrigerated and frozen items put away before collapsing on the couch with our containers of greasy Chinese food and some chopsticks. I managed to stumble three times between the kitchen and the couch, snagging my crutches on the newly placed furniture. Alice threw me a look of baffled amusement and asked "You okay there, Bella?" My response was simply to nod and engage in a dramatic eye roll. I was so ready to get rid of my damn crutches. Like it wasn't hard enough for me to get around on my own two feet without inflicting danger on myself and those around me. I was desperately hoping my new doctor would give me the okay to lose them on Monday. Feeling sufficiently gorged, I noticed that Alice seemed occupied with a magazine that had been in her mail, so I took the opportunity to snuggle in with my pillow and get lost in my thoughts. And of course, like every other time I'd found my mind wandering that day, my thoughts immediately drifted to him. Edward. I didn't even know his last name. Really, I knew nothing about him other than he lived in the area and was completely gorgeous. Oh, and that he and his buddies hung out at Billy's on Tuesday nights. Today was Thursday, which meant I had five full days to muster up the courage to actually go. I wanted to go, simply to see his face again, to hear his smooth voice once more. But what if he was just being polite? He didn't technically ask me, more like hinted that I might check the place out sometime. Maybe he just liked the bar and thought it was a good recommendation for someone new in town? Hell, for all I know he could work there and was just trying to up their revenue in hopes of a pay increase. But if he didn't want to see me again, he wouldn't have told me a specific night that he'd be there, right? Ugh, this was all so confusing. I almost wished that it could really be like that country song: Do you like me? Check Yes or No. After lunch, Alice was called away for a bridal emergency. I'm not sure exactly what that meant, but I do know it involved a lot of high pitched squealing from the other end of Alice's phone. She made me promise to just leave everything and that they'd be by later to help get everything into its proper place. For once, I decided to be lazy and rather than hustle to get everything organized on my own, I fell asleep on my new couch with my iPod.

~*~
After two successful days of holding Alice off, she stopped listening to my excuses of jetlag and handicap when she showed up at my door on Saturday morning with coffee and muffins. She proclaimed it 'Divine Design Day' and said she'd already called in reinforcements. Jasper and Emmett would be showing up at 10:00 A.M. to help paint and set up my loft. Though I'd grumbled at the thought of another exhausting day, I was excited to meet the guys that Alice and Rose were so obviously crazy about. Apparently she'd tried to get her brother Edward to come as well, but he would be spending the day with the team doctor and a trainer after taking a bad check into the boards during the previous night's game. I'd heard Rose and Alice screaming from their place across the hall, cheering when there was a good play and swearing at the refs when they made a bad call. I'd begged off from joining them and settled in early with a book instead, but after hearing their excited play-by-play recap I'd promised myself I'd join them next time.

"Let's move it, Bella, we've got to hit up Home Depot for paint and supplies before the guys drag their butts out of bed," Alice clapped her hands at me in an effort to scoot me out the door. I groaned dramatically, grabbing my coat, purse and crutches before following Alice out the door. "Isn't Rose coming with us?" "Nope, she said if I woke her up before nine she'd start spiking my drinks with tranquilizers. She'll be up and about when we get back." "Let's not go too nuts here, Alice. My apartment does not need to be a contender for Better Homes & Gardens, okay?" "You just refuse to let me have any fun, don't you? How about I give you veto power, will that make you feel better?" "Much." "Fine. You won't need it, but if it stops you from griping so be it." We headed in the direction of Rose's BMW, Alice explaining that it had slightly more trunk space than the Porsche. As we climbed inside, I was reminded that I still needed to get to the dealership to pick up my own car. "You know, Alice, I do have access to a vehicle. I should probably stop by the dealership and pick it up sometime." "Well it's not like I'm going to make you drive yourself around with those pesky crutches." "I'm hoping the doctor lets me lose them on Monday." "That'd be nice. You have an appointment set up?" "Yeah, my doctor in Jacksonville gave me a recommendation. Renee wanted me to meet with him as soon as possible." "Where's it at?" "St. Joseph's Hospital I think it was." "Really? My dad works there; what's your doctor's name?" "Dr. Cullen?" "That's him!" she squealed. "Who him?" "My dad, silly. My last name's Cullen," she clarified. "How did I not know that?" I asked, a bit incredulous about the fact that I felt like I'd known her forever when in fact I was just learning her last name. "You can probably blame that one on me. Word vomit and all. I forget those pesky little details. Well, imagine that," Alice laughed. "It's a small world after all." "Crazy, huh?"

"Well, you're in good hands. He's been fixing up two hockey players for the last twenty-five years; he knows his stuff." Shockingly we were in and out of Home Depot in less than an hour. Alice had astounded me by pulling out a clipboard in the store complete with measurements, diagrams, and color swatches for her plan of attack. Seeing one of Alice's checklists in action cemented my impression that Bridezillas everywhere would cower in her presence. The woman was a well-oiled, list-making machine. Like she promised, I was allowed full veto power on her ideas. And like she'd predicted, I hadn't needed it once. I loved the paint colors we'd picked out and was so excited to see the bareness of my walls disappear. It was just before ten that we pulled in front of the building to unload our supplies. "Oh, good, the guys are already here," Alice commented at the sight of Jasper's truck and a brawny looking Jeep parked in the visitor spots. "Let me just call up and they can haul all this stuff. No protests, Bella," she cut me off before I could say a word. "I didn't say anything," I held my hands up in defense. "No, but I know you enough by now to know that you're not a fan of asking for help. Tough cookies, you're just going to have to get over it because you're not lifting a single paint roller all day." "Oh, come on" "Uh, uh, uh," she said, shaking her finger at me. "This is why I called in the muscle. They do the manual labor, you rest your leg, and your apartment still ends up looking fabulous without you straining yourself." "Alice, I thought your dad was my doctor, not you," I teased her and she answered by sticking her tongue out at me while dialing her cell. "We're out front, come unload," she said before disconnecting and tossing her phone back in her purse. "Aww, Alice are you always such a sweet talker?" "He likes it when I'm forceful," she lobbed back with a bobbing of her eyebrows. Less than a minute later Rose and two guys walked out the front door. One of them was immediately obscured when Alice took a running leap and threw herself around him. By his laugh and the fact that he didn't budge an inch at her enthusiastic tackle, I guessed this was a common greeting for them. The one I could see and assumed was Emmett by the proprietary arm slung over Rose's shoulder was nothing short of enormous. The man seriously had to be closing in on six and a half feet and was a pure wall of muscle. I'd probably find him intimidating if not for the boyish smile on his face, complete with dimples. His eyes were an icy blue and filled with a look of mischief. Like Alice, his hair was dark, almost black, and shaved down to almost a buzz cut. Rose tugged him over to me. "Em, this is Bella; Bella, this meathead here is Emmett." "Rosie, you know I love it when you call me names," he teased, ruffling her hair. Though she tried to glare at him, I could see an adoring smile peek through her expression before she smoothed her hair down again. "So, you're the fresh meat, huh?" Emmett addressed me. "Yeah, that's me. Straight off the butcher block."

"I like this one, babe, she's sassy. Can we keep her?" "You're such an idiot," Rose swatted him over the head. "What's with the wingmen?" "Huh?" I returned, completely confused. "The crutches. Wingmen," he clarified like this should have been obvious. "Oh, sports injury." "Ah, a player are you?" he with a light hearted smirk. "Not quite," I laughed. "I don't know Rosie, Gimpy here might not be able to keep up with us," he poked at me, ruffling my hair in a similar fashion to what he'd done with Rose. "Please, at the rate you're going I might dump you and keep her," Rose goaded him. "Go put those beefy biceps of yours to good use and start bringing stuff in," she said, lightly shoving him away. "How about Jasper does all the heavy lifting? I'll haul in the cripple," he said, swiping me right off my feet, laughing heartily at my embarrassingly girly squeal of surprise. "Oh, whoops. Goose and Mav take a nose dive," he exclaimed as my crutches crashed to the sidewalk with me no longer there to prop them up. "Man down!" "Emmett!" Alice scolded, finally extracting herself from the other man and joining us. "Can't you see she's injured? You can't just go tossing her around." "But, Alice, she's almost as small as you. Besides, she's going to have to get used to it if she's planning on sticking around." Alice rolled her eyes at him. "Well she won't stick around for long if you scare her off by manhandling her within five minutes of meeting her." "Aw, come on, she likes it. Don't you, Bella?" I was still slightly dumbfounded by finding myself suspended four feet off the ground in the arms of a complete stranger and it took me a second to answer hesitantly, "Uh, sure Emmett." And when I spoke I realized that it was true. Emmett struck me immediately as a big teddy bear, all fuzzy, soft and warm underneath his massive exterior. I liked that he was unflinchingly friendly and didn't hold back at all. I didn't even feel a twinge of my regular discomfort at being held. "See? Bella's my homegirl." "Oh, you know it, G," Rose teased with a puckered smirk and weird hand gesture. "Woman, why you gotta be all up in my flava?" Emmett laughed back at her and swung me around so I could see Alice and the man next to her. "Jazz, man, extract yourself from my sister and say hello to my little friend," Emmett said, finishing his statement in a perfect rendition of Al Pacino. "Dude, you got your make out session in already this morning, I get to at least get a hello smooch from my fiance."

"Yeah, yeah, just keep the hands where I can see 'em, Hale." Jasper reached out to shake my hand. "Pleasure to meet ya, Bella," he said and boy were the girls not joking. The man had a Texas drawl to rival any country singer, and was even wearing honest to goodness cowboy boots under his dark wash jeans. Alice was tucked under the arm not holding my hand and stared adoringly up at him. It was easy to see why she was so infatuated. While Emmett was a solid mass, Jasper was long and lanky. His dirty blonde hair was pulled back in a stubby ponytail and his eyes were the same royal blue as his sisters. I shook his hand timidly. While Emmett had made it impossible for me to remain reserved, I was still slightly uncomfortable with meeting new people, but then Jasper squeezed my hand and gave me a charming smile that put me instantly at ease. "Don't you fret, Bella," he said with a grin. "You'll get used to this bunch of yahoos in no time." I giggled quietly at his assurance, already positive that he was right. "Enough dawdling, guys, we brought you here to work, now hop to it," Alice commanded. "Yes ma'am," Jasper said, giving her a gentle swat on the butt before he opened the trunk of Rose's car to start gathering stuff up. I tried to shimmy out of Emmett's grasp, but found myself stuck. "Where do you think you're going?" "Uh, down? On the ground? Where people walk?" "No way little lady, I told you I was hauling you in." "I'm perfectly capable of walking Emmett," I insisted. "Besides Jasper needs you to help carry stuff." "Nope, I got the goods right here," he said, patting my leg before tossing me around him so I was piggyback. "Hold on tight there Bella. Rosie, rescue Goose and Maverick there will ya?" "Who?" I asked. "Your wingmen, Bella. You can't fly without good ol' Goose and the Mav to cover you." "You're really ridiculous, did you know that, Emmett?" "I know, that's what makes me just so lovable," he scooped up the bags of paint brushes, tape and rollers, leaving Jasper and Alice to carry the buckets of paint and Rose to get my crutches and we all trekked up to my place to get started. The remainder of the morning and well into the afternoon was filled with laughter and the behavior of a close knit group of friends who truly enjoyed each other. Based on what I'd already experienced with them, I shouldn't have been surprised when they welcomed me right into their group. By lunchtime I'd had Emmett laughing hysterically when I'd warmed up enough to unleash my inner snark on him. Rose, Emmett and Jasper got busy laying out tarps and taping off the walls right away in preparation to paint, while Alice directed them, clipboard in hand. I tried to stay out of the way at first, but ended up plopping in the middle of whatever room they were working on so I could enjoy their company. By late afternoon they'd made enough progress that I could start unpacking things from their boxes. I knew right away I wanted to start with my books, filling in my nook as I'd been picturing it in my head for days. Jasper lugged my three boxes of books over for me to get started on before joining Emmett in the bedroom to whip through the

last of the painting. The fact that they'd finished painting two rooms already and would have a third done by dinnertime was truly amazing to me. I'd always viewed home improvements and decorating as such time-consuming projects, stretching out over weeks. Truth be told, if I was left to my own devices that's probably how it would have goneif I'd actually gotten around to it at all. But with four able-bodied adults and Alice cracking the whip, it had been an efficient day. Opening the first box, I was filled with warmth at the sight of my old favorites. I loved booksthe feel of the paper underneath my fingers as I thumbed the pages, the musky scent of the older editions, the crisp edges of the new. I let out a content breath as I ran my fingertips over the bindings lining the box before removing them one by one. Before long all three boxes were empty, the books scattered around me in piles as I determined how to organize them on the shelves. I'd decided to go for placement by genre and then alphabetized within. When I was content with my groupings, I moved to start transferring them to the empty shelves. "Hey, Bella?" Alice called from the living room. "Do you want us to get started on the boxes in here? The paint's pretty dry so we can probably start setting things up." "Uh, yeah, that's fine," I called back. "There shouldn't be much to go in that room actually." Honestly, all I could think of were a few DVDs, a couple of throws and maybe a picture frame or two. I didn't keep a lot of knick-knacks and couldn't remember packing much that would belong in the living room. I had kitchen stuff, clothes, and my booksthat about covered it. "There are a couple boxes left out here." "What do they say on the top? I thought I labeled them all." "Um" Alice paused, looking them over no doubt. "One says Miscellaneous." "That's the one that should go in there." "The other one doesn't have any writing on it that I can see." "Huh, that's weird. I thought I remembered labeling them all so I wouldn't have to dig through everything," I puzzled for a second, thinking back to what I could have packed before shrugging it off. "I don't know Alice, just open it I guess." I heard tape ripping as I went back to lining the books on the shelves. Moments later, the apartment was filled with a brief high-pitched squeal. "Geez, Alice," I muttered to myself, "trying to summon every canine within a six block radius?" "Bella?" I heard once again, though the tone of this particular inquiry sounded different than the first. This one was filled with a blend of excitement and mischief. "What is it, Alice?" "Is there something you might want to tell me?" She coyly inquired as she popped her head over the half wall along the steps. I continued placing the books, my back mostly to her as she sat on the landing. "What are you talking about?" I asked, genuinely confused. "Is there a particular category of information you're curious about? You've only known me for four days, I'm sure there's a lot I haven't told you." "How about starting off with the reason why there's an Olympic Medal amongst your possessions?" she questioned. My head whipped around, eyes wide as a deer in headlights and saw her holding the plaque my mother had made

for me after the 2006 Olympics in her hands. Shit. "Uh" I stammered, lost as to how to handle this. I'd hoped to have a little more warning and some time to get my game plan together on what to say. Really, it didn't change anything. I didn't know why I was so resistant to these people knowing who I really was. I guess for once I'd just been grateful for the opportunity to get to know someone without having a reputation to live up to, or any preconceived notions about what kind of person I was. Well, I thought, it's too late now. Alice was sitting there, her brow raised, looking at me expectantly. I could only tell myself that it didn't matter, that it wouldn't change anything and deal with the situation that'd been sprung on me. "Where did you find that?" I asked. I know I'd left it in my room back in Jacksonville with the majority of my skating stuff. I remember holding it in my hands as I was packing, tracing my fingers over the curved edge of the metal disc before tucking it back into the drawer and closing it. "In the unmarked box," Alice said. Renee. Just couldn't let it go could you? "Was there anything else in it?" I started to move past her to check it out and was stopped by her arm barring my path down the stairs. "I don't think so, Swan. As in Isabella Swan, Olympic Silver Medalist and National Champion Figure Skater," she goaded. "Was that a tidbit you were ever planning on sharing with your new best friend?" I groaned softly, running my hands over my face before looking at her. She didn't look mad, or even disappointed. She merely lookedamused? "Alice," I started. "Yeah, okay, you caught me. And yes, I had planned on telling you. I don't know when, but I would have brought it up. Eventually. I just, I don't know. I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. I liked being able to get to know someone for once without them knowing who I was already or freaking out like I'm this big celebrity or anything. I just wanted you to know me, Bellathe personnot Isabella the skater," I continued rambling, realizing just how ridiculous the notion was. "It was stupid," I muttered, turning away from her. "No," Alice reached out and grabbed my arm before I could step away. "It's not stupid, Bella. I can kind of see why you did it. I mean, yes I've heard of you. Rose and I have watched you skate on TV so many times, in fact, I'm surprised one of us didn't figure it out earlier. I'm sure it's not always the easiest to meet new people when they already feel like they know you. I just want you to know that it doesn't matter. To me for sure and I'm certain not to Rose either. And if Jasper or Emmett know anything about figure skating, which is doubtful, they aren't going to care either. You don't need to worry about anyone here going all fangirl on you," she winked and I smiled slightly. "Thanks," I murmured before adding, "I'm sorry for lying to you guys." "Well you didn't really lie to us, Bella, you just happened to leave out a lot of information," she laughed, nudging me as we both walked down the stairs. I dropped the crutches and knelt down to start sifting through the mystery box unearthing a whole trove of my skating memorabilia. Photographs, magazines I'd been featured in, medals, even a few of my more recent costumes. Pinned to one of them was a small note in Renee's loopy handwriting. Just in case. I rolled my eyes before tossing the handful of lycra and sequins back into the box, sitting back on my haunches.

"Subtle, Renee." "Who's Renee?" Alice asked as she sat next to me. She reached for the box, throwing me a look to ask if I minded. I shrugged and gestured for her to go right ahead. "My mother." "I take it you didn't pack all this yourself," she observed as she dug in, pulling out a couple of the magazines and flipping through them quickly. "No. Definitely not. I'd planned on leaving most of my skating stuff in Jacksonville. There's no point in having it here." "Why not?" she asked, dangling one of my skimpier costumes at me and wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. "Give me that," I laughed, snatching the material away from her. "There's no point because I'm not skating right now and I probably won't be able to again according to my doctor in Jacksonville. I didn't think it was necessary to have all this stuff around taunting me." "Bella" Alice said sympathetically, her hand reaching out to rest on my knee in a comforting gesture. "And that's exactly why she sent it all here. Because I'm just being overdramatic with this whole 'injury nonsense' according to her and should be back to training by now." "But, that's ridiculous," Alice scoffed. "Haven't your doctors told her about what's going on? Or your coaches? I mean, doesn't she know anything about the healing process that goes into recovering from this kind of thing?" "Renee doesn't hear anything she doesn't want to," I sighed, picking at the beads stitched to the fabric lying across my lap. "Don't worry about it," I waved her off along with my annoyance. "I know what's going on with my knee and I'm dealing with it. Renee's not going to push me to do anything, other than maybe jump off a bridge," I added jokingly. "Well, we're here for you, Bella. Anything you needjust say the word." "Thanks, Alice," I glanced at her once before looking back to my lap and continuing to pick at the sequins. "Look, I'm really not good at the whole mushy, emotional stuffbut I'm really happy to have met you. And Rose. It's just, nice to have actual friends for once. I mean, I know I haven't known you guys very long at all, but I feel like that's what you are. Friends, I mean," I finished lamely. "Hey," she knocked her knee against mine. "Best friends." "Yeah," I nudged her back with my elbow. "Best friends." We sat in silence for a few moments before I broke it. "Isn't that a little weird?" "No way," she assured me as she sprawled out on her back. "It's like love at first sightwith girls. But in a non-lesbian way." I giggled at her depiction of our relationship. "We're like Romy and Michelle. Or Cher and Dee. Buffy and Willow. Bella and Alice. It's just destiny." "Well that's certainly one way of looking at it," I laid next to her, our heads together and bodies sprawled out perpendicular to each other as we stared at the ceiling. "You know, as much as I enjoy you, I must admit to being a tiny bit disappointed that you're using up all my destiny and love at first sight mojo. I'd sorta been holding out on

the hope that maybe a guy would be the cause of that someday." "Silly, Bella," she clicked her tongue at me. "I'm sure you've got plenty more love mojo to spare." "Hey, lazy bums!" Rose emerged from the bedroom where she'd been helping the guys tape off the walls for painting. "Are you just going to lay on your asses all day and let us do the work?" "Yeah, that sounds about right, don't you think, Bells?" "Uh, yup, that was pretty much the plan." "Well at least let me get in on that action," Rose said as she joined us on the floor. "So, Rose, Bella here is a big time figure skater," Alice threw out, turning to wink at me. "No shit? Huh, I thought your name sounded familiar. Cool," she added and left it at that. Alice smirked at me with an 'I told you so' expression and I just shook my head, amused at the both of them. "You know Bella," Rose started casually, "You kinda kick ass out there." I let out a short burst of laughter. "Thanks, Rose." "Seriously though," Alice jumped in, turning on her stomach to face in and propping herself up on her elbows to look down at me. "The things you can do with your legs! Whoo, if I was that flexible Jasper would not let me leave the bed for days!" I giggled and moved up into a sitting position. "She's got a point, Bells," Rose laughed as she turned over, mimicking Alice's position. "That's gotta be such a perk in the bedroom. Think of all the positions you could get into. What a turn on." "Uh, thanks for that, Rose. Glad to know I can arouse you." "Not me you dork, guys. Men." "I wouldn't really know," I teased coyly, "But it's very reassuring that I've got a few fall back optionsstripper, Kama-Sutra demonstrator, naked contortionist" "Wait a minute," Alice interrupted. "Wouldn't know? As inBella are you a virgin?" she asked incredulously. I hauled myself up and turned to limp toward the kitchen and hopefully hide the blush that flooded my cheeks. "I think we've delved enough into my personal life for one afternoon, don't you? Let's leave a little bit to gossip about me for over Ben & Jerry's and pillow fights." "Bella, really, we're your BFFs. We will never 'delve enough' as you put it. But fine, you want to be all bashful and secretive about it, you go right ahead. We'll know all eventually. Rose and I are now official, full time Bella Swan spelunkers. No secret is too deep for us, we just keep digging until it's all out in the open." I couldn't tell if she meant it as a warning or just was stating the facts, but either way I was certain that I'd never be able to hide anything from Alice for very long.

~*~

Chapter Three Is There Life Without Ice?

Monday morning I awoke before the sun as usual. Instead of immediately rolling out of bed in search of coffee, I remained buried in the soft feather pillows Alice had insisted would be more conducive to a good night's sleep. I was already wired enough without the caffeine. Today was the day my path would be decided. Okay, so maybe that was exaggerating the importance of this appointment just a little bit, but I was to the point in my recovery where I'd need to make a decision as to how to proceed. I'd been stalled at this fork in the road for long enough and it was time to move past it.

A large part of that decision would lie with this new doctor. Dr. Cort, my doctor in Jacksonville, had basically said not to get my hopes up. Would Dr. Cullen say the same? Renee insisted I was just being silly and looking for attention by taking this long to recover and I couldn't help myself from wondering if she was right. Was I acting like a hypochondriac, just milking my ailment as long as I possibly could? My knee still throbbed when I tried to go without the crutches for too long, but was I just being a baby about it? Maybe I just needed to toughen up and push through the pain before it got better. There was no use lying in bed and fretting about it. I'd know soon enough. The lack of soreness in my knee this morning had me slightly optimistic as I worked through my routine of early morning stretches, appreciating the fact that my flexibility hadn't suffered from the extended break in training. My flexibility had always been a strong point in my skating, making me a stand out amongst my competitors when I was able to hold controlled spiral sequences far longer than required. If I found out I could skate again, I knew that I'd have to go back to my morning Pilates routine as soon as possible. The longer I dragged out my recovery, the more difficult it would become if I'd need to retrain my muscles to stretch beyond normal range. Honestly, I missed the rush of energy that exercise always gave me and if the past two months showed me nothing else, it revealed just how much I despised sitting around and doing nothing. The first week following my surgery had been kind of a breath of fresh air. I didn't have a rigid schedule to adhere to, nowhere I needed to be, no one I needed to see. I'd finally had the chance to just sprawl on the couch and get lost in a book. I'd re-read three of my favorite Jane Austen novels straight through, stopping only for bathroom breaks, meals, and the occasional nap. It had been fabulous. But then came the second week, and the third, and the fourth. By mid-December I'd been ready to drown myself out of boredom. Week four had also been the time when Renee started dragging me back to the arena in hopes of 'knocking some sense' into me and getting me back on the ice. The strength building exercises Dr. Cort had me doing for rehab weren't enough to satisfy her and she complained daily that the whole process was taking too long. A ten second demonstration of me falling on my ass after she pushed me out on the ice proved to her that my knee had not in fact recovered yet. She stopped trying to shove skates at me after that, but still insisted I show up every day to consult with my coach, Marcus, about my future. That was when I started thinking about leaving. With Renee in my face I couldn't think. I couldn't hear anything but her nagging and her demands. If my skating career was indeed over as the doctor initially thought, I needed time on my own to figure out what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. What I didn't need was to hang around Jacksonville and watch my mother desperately hold onto the hope that I'd still be going to Vancouver next winter to bring her the gold medal she'd been lusting for since her childhood. I'd gotten a recommendation from Dr. Cort that there were some great doctors in Minnesota who specialized in my type of injury. As soon as he mentioned it, I fixated on the idea of moving back. The doctors would appease Renee

while the location would satisfy my need for space. She didn't take the news well at first, but when she realized that this was one thing I would not back down on, she reluctantly agreed. Not without some compromises of course. Renee found my apartment, bought me a car, scheduled my doctor appointments, and booked my flight. I really didn't care about any of it. The only thing I insisted on was the timing; I wanted to flee as soon as possible. Less than a week into the New Year and I'd boarded my flight to escape the sunny warmth of Florida. Now I was here and already I was confident that this move was one of the best things that could happen to me. In just the few short days I'd been here it already felt more like home than anywhere I'd known since my parents split. I felt like I finally had the opportunity to just be Bella with no insane expectations placed on me. While I was insanely nervous about hearing what the doctor would say, I didn't feel quite the same level of anxiety that I had when my mother was breathing down my neck, ready to welcome the apocalypse if it turned out that I'd never compete again. If that was the case I knew I'd feel upset, disappointed, and extremely nervous about my future. I'd feel lost. But somehow the four horsemen weren't lurking by my front door any longer. I didn't need to just be Isabella Swan, competitive champion figure skater. I could be Bella Swan. I didn't yet know what being Bella Swan would entail, but it seemed plausible that I'd figure it out. Already I knew that Bella Swan was Alice and Rosalie's friend, and I felt like being friends with them had been a good start. That's all you need right now, Bella. A good start. With that in mind, I took a quick shower, dried my hair and grabbed a lemon poppy seed muffin and yogurt for breakfast. I was just wiping the crumbs from my counter when I heard a quick knock, followed by Alice's bell-like voice calling out as she let herself in the front door. I'd given her and Rose a spare key to my apartment the day before in case I ever locked myself outor for times like this where Alice just wanted admittance. I could already tell it'd be used for that far more often than for what I'd originally given it to her for. It may have only been a few days since we'd met, but I already knew I could trust them implicitly. Renee would say it was nave of me, but it was high time I started going with my gut. And my gut told me Alice and Rose were good people. "Good morning!" she said as she strolled into the kitchen. "Happy Lose-the-Crutches Day!" "Alice," I just shook my head at her. "You can be so weird." "Come on, Bella, you can't fool me. I know you're excited to lose the flyboys. Maybe with two less appendages to maneuver, you'll stop banging into things so much." "Doubtful, Alice, very doubtful. I've always been a huge klutz. Funny, huh? A champion figure skater who trips over air?" "I wouldn't say funny. Maybe you were just born to be on the ice, did you ever think about that?" I laughed slightly. "No, actually, I haven't." She threw me a teasing speculative look over her shoulder as she reached in the fridge for a water bottle. "Really? Hmmm. Well, maybe you should." "Sure, Alice, next time I trip over someone I'll just tell them that it's society's fault for not catering to my needs and turning the entire country's sidewalks into icewalks." She giggled a little at that before leaning onto the center island, directly opposite from me. "I'm serious, Bella, I've seen you skate. It's amazing to watch. Clumsy or not, you were born to do that."

I'd heard it said before. It was a common enough line to hear in media spreads and various fanmail, but this was the first time I heard it where it actually felt genuine. Her face showed nothing but sincerity as she looked directly into my eyes, as if she could make me believe the truth of her words if she refused to look away. I broke eye contact with her, looking down at my fingers resting on the countertop as I cleared my throat quietly. "Thanks, Alice," I looked back up at her and tried to answer her with the same level of sincerity she'd shown me. "Really. Thank you." She nodded once before the serious look on her face gave way to her normal demeanor of delight. "Come on, babe, we've got things to do. Grab Mav and Goose and let's jet." I rolled my eyes amusedly at the ridiculous dubbing of my crutches before following her to the door, stopping to slip into my sneakers and coat. She raised one eyebrow disapprovingly at my choice of footwear but said nothing. She'd made it clear to me that my wardrobe would be going through an upgrade, with or without my cooperation. It didn't seem worth my energy to argue with her at this point. "Thanks again for chauffeuring me," I said as we made our way through town. "How many times do I have tell you? It's not a problem, Bella. Besides, it'll give me an excuse to be the 'good child' and stop in to see Dad." "Something tells me you wouldn't have a hard time maintaining that title." "Yeah, but it never hurts to say hi. We're all very close and Mom and Dad are good at not playing favorites. Growing up all three of us, Emmett, Edward, and I, were so different, but they really were great at encouraging us all and supporting whatever we did. You'd think we would have had more sibling rivalry, especially with the guys being so competitive, but it was never a that way at home. We all felt equally loved by Carlisle and Esme, and we supported each other as siblings," Alice said with a content smile as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I feel like we've been really lucky to stay so close. With Emmett being drafted by the NHL, and then Edward the year after him, I was scared that we'd get split up. Not that you can't maintain relationships with distance, obviously a lot of families do, but it would have been hard if either of them moved away." "How did they end up drafted on the same team? Does that happen very often?" I asked, genuinely curious as my knowledge of the sport was fairly pathetic. "Not really, no. With Emmett, he wasn't a big name in the draft picks. I think part of why the Wild chose him was because he was a hometown boy. He's always been really good, but his name just wasn't on the radar. Then after he was on the team, they started seeing his potential. You'd think for his size he couldn't skate very fast, but he's always been light on his feet. They put him in as an enforcer with the added bonus of being able to take the opponent by surprise when he went tearing down the ice with the puck. Then the next year Edward was up for draft. I think having Emmett already there helped get him more attention, but Edward has always just been so talented on the ice. He was higher ranked going in and the Wild fought for him. Good publicity to have a set of Minnesota brothers on the team, right? And it helped that they're both damn good players." "That's pretty cool." "Yeah, they love it out there. Mom and Dad were always supportive of their dreams to go pro. A lot of the hockey parents started pulling their boys back, saying they needed to concentrate more on school and focus on getting a real job, but Mom and Dad never discouraged them. It's always been more important to them that we all find something we love than to do something more practical." Alice kept up an easy conversation for the rest of the drive there, sharing silly stories about her and her brothers growing up and getting into mischief. We pulled into the lot at St. Joseph's and signed in at the front desk, surprised when less than five minutes later, I

heard my name called. After taking me back, the nurse ran through the basics, weight and height measurement, blood pressure, temperature check, before leaving us to wait. I sat on the little examination table, determined to not freak out now that the moment was almost here. Why was I making such a big deal out of this? Oh, right, my entire life as I knew it was on the line. I knew skating was not a career with a lot of longevity, but I thought I'd have had more notice before it ended. And really, people still skated professionally well into their thirties. Just because I would have had to retire from competition soon due to my age didn't necessarily mean I'd have stopped skating all together. I blew out a deep breath and tried to stop myself from reaching up to mess with my hair as I was prone to do when nervous. I succeeded in my restraint, but couldn't hold back from chewing on my bottom lip or from anxiously tapping my foot against the side of the cabinet. Alice leaned forward in her seat and softly held my manic foot in place. "Hey," she said softly, breaking me out of my nervous trance and causing me to relax for just a split second. "You okay?" I gave a quick shaky nod before looking back down into my lap and drawing my lip back between my teeth. There was a soft knock at the door as it opened to an amazingly attractive man. He was older, if I had to guess I'd say he was in his late thirties, but if this was in fact Alice's father then he'd obviously need to be closer to fifty. His skin was pale, either naturally or due to the lack of sunlight in the dead of winter. He had the typical Scandinavian features of icy blue eyes and almost white blonde hair, which was slicked back from his face in a way that managed to look sophisticated rather than slimy. Seriously, what the hell? Wasn't Minnesota supposed to be full of small town, average people who dressed head to toe in flannel and snow gear, talked about nothing but hot dish, hunting, fishing and the weather, all with a funny accent? Why was it that every person I met looked like they'd just stepped out of some Hollywood movie? Did they put something in the water since I'd last lived here? Maybe they'd discovered some magical beauty treatment involving lutefisk and walleye fish oils. "Isabella Swan?" he inquired before noticing Alice in the chair. His professional demeanor melted completely into a look of surprised delight. "Oh hey der, Alice. Didn't see ya there!" Thankfully they were both occupied when Alice jumped up to give him a hug because I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped into my lap before I had to bite my lip again, this time to keep from laughing. Did he really just say "Hey der" as a greeting? "Well, Dad, Bella here is my new neighbor and I figured I'd bring her over and stop in to say hi to you at the same time." Alice quickly offered an answer for her presence in the room. "Really? Well isn't that something! I hope my Alice hasn't been driving you too nuts yet, Bella," he said, turning to address me, still with his arm snuggly around her shoulders. By the amused looks on both of their faces it was plain to see the affection between them, as well as his knowledge and acceptance of Alice's quirky personality. "No, not at all. Alice has been great, Dr. Cullen." "Please, Bella, call me Carlisle. If you're friends with Alice we'll probably be seeing a lot of each other." "Oh, that reminds me!" Alice jumped in, smacking the heel of her hand lightly against her forehead. "Are you and mom going to the game on Friday?"

"You betcha. We wouldn't miss it." "Awesome! Bella, do you want to come to the Wild game with us? Rose and I are going and then we always meet up with the guys afterwards. It'll be fun! Please say you'll go?" "Alice, it's not fair pulling the puppy lip on me, that thing's dangerous." "I know, Jasper gives into it every time. Please?" She jutted her lip out with a vengeance this time. I was worried her chin would recede back into her jaw at this point. "Fine. I'll go." "Oh this is going to be great! They're so much more fun to see in person than to watch on TV. Can I pick out your outfit?" "Alright, Alice," Carlisle interrupted with a laugh. "I need to consult with my patient here." "Oh, right. I'll just be in the waiting room, Bella. See you Friday night, Dad!" A quick kiss on his cheek and she was out the door. I let out a breath that felt almost too loud in the sudden silence she'd left in her wake. "Has she always been like this?" Carlisle let out a chuckle, "Yah, she's always been something of a firecracker." "She's great though, really. I wasn't just saying that because she was here," I rushed out to make sure he didn't think I'd meant that his daughter was crazy. "Alice can be a lot to handle, but she's a good friend to have on your side. Let's get started shall we?" The butterflies were back after being distracted into hibernation when faced with Alice and Carlisle's greeting. "Okay," I said, blowing out a breath to try and shake off the nerves. "Your doctor from back in Florida sent me your charts," he started, opening the manila folder. I couldn't hold back the giggle at hearing him pronounce Florida with an exaggerated long 'o'. Immediately I slapped my hand over my mouth and felt my face flush. "Sorry," I squeaked out. "It's been awhile since I've lived here and I'm still adjusting to the accent again." This time his laugh was a full out guffaw. "Oh, Bella, you are just delightful. Whaddya say we take a look at yer knee der, eh?" he said, deliberately exaggerating his accent this time. I let out a small groan of amused humiliation before nodding in agreement. "Alright, so it looks like you suffered a severe tear of you anterior cruciate ligament back in November, as well as a mild concussion due to a fall on the ice," he glanced up to confirm and continued when I nodded in agreement. "By the looks of it, your concussion healed with no lasting effects and you had reconstructive surgery on your ACL in late November. How has it been feeling post-op?" "Fine. Still a little sore if I'm doing too much. Dr. Cort had me in an immobilizer brace before the surgery and then a different one until last week. He let me take it off to start building back my range of motion. I've been doing the stretches and strength exercises he recommended every morning and am still using the crutches." "Good," he said with an approving nod as he started moving my leg through a series of bends and rotations, asking constantly about my comfort level. After walking through a series of tests, he stood back and made a few quick

notes to my chart. "Well, young lady, by the looks of it you're healing quite well. ACL recovery is a long process, as I'm sure you're aware by now, especially when the tearing is as serious as it was in your case. The soreness and throbbing you mentioned is completely normal at this stage. Your knee is getting used to being able to move again without the brace holding it in place and it takes time for it to adjust back to your activity level. If you're comfortable trying to walk without the crutches, I'd say you're safe to lose them at this point. I know you're used to extensive training and activity and you were in great physical condition before your fall; that will help in speeding up your recovery time a bit. I'd say by the end of the week, if you're consistently walking comfortably, you may start some power walking on a treadmill. You should be fine with gradually upping your activity level as long as it doesn't involve any sudden stops or turns. If you're cautious you may even return to the ice, but only slow, steady laps. No jumps, no spins, no quick changes in direction, and I'll be giving you another brace to wear anytime you're engaging in physical activity until I give the okay to stop. I have some additional exercises and stretches to add to your routine and I'll want you to meet with a physical therapist. They'll be able to track your recovery and steadily up your activity level over the next several weeks. Have you been following RICE?" he asked, referring to the formula of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation, and I nodded again. "Good. You'll want to continue that practice throughout PT and the rest of your recovery period as you become more active. We should set up a follow up appointment for early April. At that point we'll assess where you're at. Do you have any specific questions for me?" There was only one in my head, and it was deafening me waiting to be asked. "Will" I started, but the words caught in my throat. I was scared to ask. Afraid for him to answer, terrified that he would say the same thing that Dr. Cort had told me; that the tearing was too significant to make a full recovery and return one hundred percent to the level I'd been at before. "Yes, Bella?" I looked up into his eyes, which held both patience and compassion, before pushing aside my fears and asking with a resolved determination, prepared to deal with whatever the answer was. "Will I be able to compete again?" "That's a good question, Bella, and honestly one that I can't answer with certainty quite yet. It is possible and very common for athletes to come back from this type of injury, some one hundred percent, and some only to a certain extent. Part of the answer will rely on these next few months. You'll need to find a balance between re-training your knee without overworking it. The danger is in jumping back into your previous level of activity too quickly." He placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. "Over the next month you will likely feel your knee returning to normal, which is when you're in the most danger for re-injury. You might feel like you can jump right back to the level of training you were at prior to your fall. Promise me that until April you'll to stick to the exercises I gave you and listen to what your physical therapist recommends. When we meet again, we can talk more." I nodded, looking down into my lap, trying to process what he was telling me. "Bella, I don't want you to lose hope. I know this can be frustrating, but your mental determination will go a long way in helping you get back to where you were. If you're patient and resolved to put the work into your rehabilitation then I have no reason to believe you won't be able to make a full recovery and return to a competitive level." My eyes shot up to his, widening a little as I felt the first real stirrings of hope. "Really?" "I can't make guarantees at this point; like I said, much of this will depend on your willingness to adhere to your restrictions at first, and your mental resolve to get it back," he hesitated before giving me a small smile and said, "You may be an Olympian yet."

It felt like a huge weight dissolved from my shoulders and the tightness in my chest I hadn't been aware of loosened. I finally felt like I could breathe again and puffed out a heavy breath of relief. "Thanks Dr. Cu-, uh, Carlisle," I amended at the lift of his eyebrow. "No need to thank me, Bella. This one's in your hands. Just promise me you're not going to push yourself. There'll be plenty of time for that later when you're fully healed." "Yes, sir," I gave him a mock salute. "Okay then I think we're done for today. I'll get you a card for the PT I want you to meet with. Just call over and set up an appointment. And I'll see you Friday night. At the game," he clarified at my confused expression. "Right, yeah, I'll see you then." "It was a pleasure meeting you, Bella," he shook my hand as I stood, grabbing my purse and my newly retired wingmen. "Thanks again," I said on my way out to meet Alice in the lobby. "You betcha," he responded with a chuckle as he set off down the hall.

~*~
After leaving the hospital, we grabbed a quick lunch before Alice drove me to the local dealership where Renee had said my vehicle would be waiting. It was an entirely too flashy Mercedes Benz SUV that was completely not my taste. It was definitely perfectly suited to my mother and her need for all things luxurious and extravagant. I knew I shouldn't have been surprised at her selection, but found myself disappointed none the less. Not that I was ungrateful; it was merely just another example of how little she understood me. As I pulled my new car out of the lot to follow Alice home, my phone blared with Renee's familiar ringtone. Ugh. Of course she would be calling. She knew exactly when my appointment was. She'd practically arranged it herself. Typically I'd answer her calls immediately. Like a trained puppy, I thought with a dose of self disgust. But for once I hit the button on the ringer to send her call to voicemail. I wasn't ready to chat quite yet. If she was upset later I could always use the excuse that I was driving and didn't want to be on my cell when getting used to an unfamiliar car. We arrived at the building just as Rose was getting home and the girls decided we should test out my sea legs by going for a stroll around the neighborhood. "Guys, it's the middle of January. In Minnesota. And you want to go for a walk?" I asked, a bit incredulously. "For goodness sake, Bella, you're a figure skater. Please don't try to act like you can't take the cold," Alice admonished. "I'll be fine," I replied. "I just didn't think it'd be something you guys would want to do." "It's twenty-two degrees out there today. That's practically a heat wave, girl," Rose teased as she grabbed a scarf to wrap around her neck before we were back out the door. We set off on our walk with no real destination in mind. It was nice to be walking on my own again and I welcomed the activity. Less than a block into our excursion, my phone rang again, causing me to groan exasperatedly under my breath before hitting the mute button.

"Who's that?" Alice inquired. "My mom. I'll talk to her later," I said, brushing it off. "So you've been living with her up until last week?" Rose asked. "Yeah. She and my dad split up when I was younger. Charlie, my dad, went back to Washington, and Renee and I sort of went all over for awhile." "That seems so exciting. I bet you've been to all sorts of great places with your skating and all," Alice gushed. "Sort of. I mean, yeah I've travelled a lot, but I never really get to see much except the inside of an ice arena. They really look the same on every continent." "Really? You don't get to sightsee or anything?" "Nope." "That kinda sucks," Rose said and I chuckled a bit. "Yeah, a little," I agreed. "I'm really grateful for all the opportunities I've had, don't get me wrong. It's just not the super glamorous lifestyle one might expect. A lot of time is spent in gyms and on the ice, training and working out." "Not a big social scene on the skating circuit?" Alice asked curiously. "No. That part is what you'd expect. A lot of catty, ultra-competitive girls and their stage moms." "Have you ever seen anyone pull a Tanya?" Rose asked with a smirk. "Harding? No, typically the sabotage is a little more subtle than a baton to the knee," I giggled. "That's not how you got hurt was it?" Alice asked worriedly. "No, no, not at all. I fell during a practice session. Stupid really." I shook my head with a hint of the bafflement that I felt every time I thought of that day. "I'm used to falling on solid ground, not on the ice. My skate caught on a rough patch and down I went. Concussion and a torn ACL." "Ouch," Rose commiserated. "Yeah, not too fun." "There wasn't really any news about it was there? I didn't even know you weren't skating. Oh come on Rose, we all know Bella's a big celeb." Alice said at Rose's exasperated look. "It's no big deal, I can still point out the obvious that there'd be news about her." "No, it's okay." I said, looking at Rose to let her know I was fine with it. "My mom's my manager and she did a good job of keeping it out of the press. She was clinging to the hope that I'd be right back on the ice and that I wouldn't miss any notable competitions. I'm sure something will come out when I don't show up at Nationals." "Is that weird?" Rose asked. "Having your mom as your manager?" "I never really thought about it, I guess. It's just always been that way. In some ways it is strange, but a lot of ways it's just always made sense. She was a single mom when we moved away, so she was already responsible for getting me everywhere and keeping track of my schedule. As I got older she just kept doing that, and anything else

that came along with the business side of everything." "Do you miss her?" Alice asked. "I don't know if I could ever move halfway across the country from Esme." "So far it's been a nice break, actually. I just couldn't be around her when all she did was complain about my knee. I think she doesn't really know what to do with herself if I'm not skating and keeping her busy." "That would get old fast." "Yeah, definitely," I said. The remainder of our walk was filled with laughter as Alice filled us in on her latest nightmare bride and her ongoing saga of wedding dress drama. Before I knew it, we were back to our building, grabbing the elevator up to our floor. "So, it's a Monday night. None of us have to work tomorrow, and the guys are busy. You know what this means?" Rose asked with a sly grin. I shook my head cluelessly, looking between them. "Girls' night!" Alice squealed. "Girls' night?" "Oh young padawan, you have so, so much to learn," Rose said, throwing her arm around my shoulders. I crossed my arms, unsure of where to put them. "Girls' nights are the best, Bella. We eat junk food, drink cocktails, and watch Chick Flicks until we're too tired and drunk to keep our eyes open." "And that's fun?" I asked. "Uh, yeah?" Rose said, like it was insane of me to think otherwise. "Um, I'm not a big drinker," I said quietly, slightly embarrassed at the fact that what I'd just said was a complete understatement. "As in you're a lightweight or you don't like to?" Rose searched. "I...uh, don't really know," I muttered. "I haven't really drank much before. Like ever." "Really?" Alice asked with a hint of shock to her voice. I shook my head, not making eye contact with either of them, feeling embarrassed with my lack of experience. "Do you have a moral opposition to it?" "No, no, no. I just haven't. Alcohol's not such a great mix with heavy training, you know? Besides I was usually in bed by nine." "Well you don't have a bedtime tonight, sista. You up for it?" Rose asked. "Sure, I guess." "Great! We'll grab the provisions and be over in a minute!" Alice scurried into their apartment, tugging Rose with her. They didn't even close the door behind them and I could hear them calling out to each other.

"Alice, hit up the movies. What do you feel like? Hey, Bella!" Rose raised her voice a bit and I stepped into their doorway, watching in amusement as Rose grabbed a laundry basket and started loading up bottles and snacks into it. "What kind of movies do you like?" she asked when she saw me standing there, not stopping from her raid on their cabinets. "Whatever, I'm not picky." "Good, chick flicks it is. Alice, load up the classics!" "Way ahead of you, babe," Alice popped up beside me, seemingly out of nowhere, with a stack of DVDs in her hands. "We're not watching all of those are we?" I asked skeptically. A marathon was one thing, but judging by the size of her stack we could be glued to the TV for days. "No, but you never know what kind of mood we'll be in later. It pays to have a variety to select from," Alice said knowingly, tossing the cases into Rose's basket. "Okay, just give us a second to change into some sweats and we'll be right there," Rose said, finally finished with her pillaging of their kitchen. "Sweats? Alice? Do you even own those?" I teased. I'd never seen her in anything more casual than designer skinny jeans. "It's girls' night, Bella, concessions must be made," she answered with mock haughtiness. "Alright, well I'll leave the door open for you guys. Just come on over." I returned to my apartment and changed, tossing on some fleece pants and my Team USA hoodie. Even three years later that thing had the softest lining I'd ever felt. Good incentive to go to Vancouver-get a new primo hoodie. I dug a pair of fuzzy slipper socks out of my drawer and tugged them on as I heard the girls come in. By the time I made it to the living room, they'd already made themselves right at home. Alice had the TV on and was popping a disc into the player and Rose was in the kitchen making a ton of noise as she lined my counter with various bottles. Once she'd finished, she lugged the laundry basket out to the living room, still half full with bags of chips, and various snack foods. Renee would shit a brick if she saw me go near most of this stuff, I thought with a bit of a wicked grin. Tonight was going to be all about firsts: first girls' night, first chick flick marathon, first cocktail, first fatty snack food binge. I was determined to enjoy every moment of it. "What'd you start us off with, Ali?" Rose asked, tossing a bag of Doritos's over to her. "Well, we've got to save our tearjerkers for later in the night. I thought we'd start off with 'How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.' Get the laughs and the man candy going early, you know?" "Mmm... McConaughey..." Rose mumbled with a faraway look. "That man makes me miss southern boys. Just a little." "Hey, you could've snagged yourself a Texan. I got me a southern boy," Alice giggled. "And if he wasn't my brother, I might be jealous. That's okay though, Emmett more than makes up for the lack of accent." "Uh, speaking of accents," I nudged in.

"Oh my gosh, Bella," Alice burst out laughing. "I should have warned you about my dad. Isn't it just hilarious? I'm used to it, obviously, but I still get thrown off every once in awhile by some of the things he says." "That man is like sex on a stick at the State Fair," Rose said, heading back toward the kitchen. "Rose!" I exclaimed, blushing to my hairline. "Just admit it, Bella, Dr. Cullen is drool-worthy." "Yeah, he was good looking, but isn't he practically your future father in law?" "Exactly," she said, pointing at me with the glass bottle she'd picked up and uncapped. "Gives me a glimpse into my future, and my future's looking damn good twenty-five years down the road." "I'm sure Alice doesn't appreciate you associating sex and her father in the same sentence," I stammered, trying to wrap my head around the conversation. "Stop being such a nun, Bella, I know my dad's a DILF," Alice said. "DILF?" "Bella, Bella, Bella, there is so much we need to catch you up on," Rose sighed dramatically. "DILF stands for 'Dad I'd like to fuck'." I choked on the chip I'd grabbed out of the bag, coughing and feeling my face heat even more. Alice patted my on the back and giggled. "Oh, Bells, you are so fun to corrupt." "You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. Join us and together we shall rule the galaxy," Rose said in a deep voice, making weird heavy breathing sounds between her words. "Rosalie Lillian Hale, there is no place for Star Wars geekery at Girls' Night." "Alice, there is always a place for Star Wars geekery, right, Bella?" "Sure?" I said, hesitantly, not wanting to argue with that face. "You've seen it right?" she asked flippantly, like there was no doubt in her mind that I hadn't. "Actually, no." "OH MY GOD!" she screamed, her jaw dropping as she set down the bottle with a loud clang on the counter and leaned down to glare at me through the opening in the bar. "Are you kidding me? Alice, go get my special editions, this needs to be rectified immediately." "No way, Jose. Girls' Night equals chick flicks, not celestial battles." "Hey now, 'The Empire Strikes Back' is very romantic," Rose insisted. "Yeah until the dude gets his hand chopped off with a lightsaber." "Whatever, you deranged pixie," Rose turned to me. "Soon, babe, I will start your full education."

She emerged from the kitchen with three glasses of what looked like water, handing one to each of us before settling down on the couch on the other side of Alice. While my couch was fairly big, it was still a cozy fit with all three of us and I shifted closer to the armrest so I wasn't infringing on Alice's space. "You put it in?" Rose asked. "Yup, we're good to go," Alice said, reaching for the remote with the hand not holding her drink. "Alrighty then. I propose a toast," Rose said, raising her glass seriously. "To the first of very many of these nights with our new BFF." "And to getting Bella drunk so we can squeeze her for all the juicy gossip," Alice jumped in, making me laugh and almost drop my drink. "Cheers!" we exclaimed, clinking our glasses together. They both raised them to take a hefty sip while I sniffed at mine suspiciously. It looked like water, so it couldn't be too dangerous, right? Wrong. I took a sip and immediately had to set my glass on the end table while I erupted into a fit of coughing. "That's disgusting! How can you guys drink that?" I asked incredulously. "It's a bit of an acquired taste," Rose conceded, taking another sip of hers. Next round we'll make something fruity for you." "Here, Bella, I'll drink yours. Rose, make the woman a Kami," she ordered, snapping her fingers. "So bossy," Rose lamented, but disappeared into the kitchen for a minute, returning with something pink this time. "What is this?" I asked as she handed it to me. "Just try it," she said. "Rose makes the best Raspberry Kamis," Alice insisted. I sniffed it again before cautiously taking a small sip. Yum-O. There was still a slight burning as the liquid went down my throat, but it was balanced out by the delicious taste of Raspberry with a hint of something citrusy. I took another drink, eagerly this time. "Good, right?" Rose asked. "Really good, thanks," I said, sipping again. "Just be careful there, Rookie. They may not taste like it but there's a lot of liquor in those suckers," Alice warned me. "We'll keep an eye on your intake, Bells," Rose assured me at my undoubtedly worried look.

Alice started up the movie and we were off. Five hours and four Kamis, or as I'd come to learn Kamikazes, later, we were wrapping up 'Clueless' with a fit of giggles. Candy wrappers and chip crumbs littered the floor around us. The coffee table was covered in beauty products from Alice's inspired idea to do make-overs when the scene where Cher and Dee makeover Tai came on. I'd argued for a good five minutes while Alice had continuously stroked my hair, called me pretty, and pleaded until I finally gave into her intoxicated begging. "The night is young ladies, what's up next?" Rose asked, stretching out as the credits rolled. "Leo!" Alice cried out. "The night is not complete until Leo shows up!" Rose popped in the movie before grabbing her empty glass. "I'm gonna grab another, you guys want?" Alice answered with a resounding "Hell yeah!" "I really shouldn't" "Grab her another, barkeep," Alice interrupted, poking her index finger unsteadily at my face. "This girl is entirely to atic-, artiful-, articalate for her to proceed any further into this evening." Rose brought back another round as the movie started up. "Pound it down, Bells," Alice said. "You can't truly appreciate the amazingness of this movie while sober." "I'm hardly sober, Alice," I insisted. In fact I was feeling a rather pleasant case of lightheadedness at the moment. "Too sober for Leo. If you'd still say no to that man if he asked to get in your pants, you're not drunk enough," she said, pointing towards the screen. "Bottoms up!" I rolled my eyes and chugged my drink in three gulps. "Atta girl," Rose toasted me, her drink sloshing slightly over the rim. "Oops!" she exclaimed, sticking her tongue out to sloppily lap at the spilled liquor on her glass. By the time Jack pulled Rose back from the railing, our glasses were all empty and we'd morphed into an overlapping heap on the couch. Progressively throughout the night I found myself becoming more and more comfortable. Maybe it was the liquor, or maybe it was just their overly friendly nature, but sprawled out with my head in Rose's lap, and Alice curled up behind me with her head resting on my calves, I was completely relaxed. We didn't move for the entire length of the film, save for a two minute stint when Rose and Alice jumped up from the couch to imitate Jack and Rose perched on the bow of the ship. Rose had grabbed a bottle of wine to pass between us, stating "Liquor before wine, feelin' fine." By 1:00 a.m. our heap was a sobbing mess and I could barely see straight. Rather than putting in another movie, Alice jumped on the opportunity to grill me while my inhibitions were down. "Really, Bella? Never?" "Nope." "But that's just so...wrong," Rose insisted. "Your lady business must be ready to revolt!" "There are lots of people who make it to twenty-four without having sex," I insisted. "Yeah, but you're hot! Guys should have been jumping all over you by now."

"I'd jump you," Alice piped up. "Thanks, Alice. That's true friendship right there." "I know," she said, smiling sloppily as she picked fuzzies off my pants. "I don't know what to tell you guys, I've never really had much opportunity." "There's gotta be at least one hot male figure skater out there that you could have jumped on in the weight room," Rose said. "Rose, some people actually use the gym for recreational purposes." "Oh believe me, Bella, I use it for recreational purposes. My idea of recreation may just not match up with yours." "Perv," I teased. "Proud to be one." "We need to find you a guy," Alice butted in. "Rose, who do we know?" "No way, you're not setting me up with anyone." "But, Bella!" "I can find my own guy if I want to," I argued, my thoughts immediately jumping to Edward and causing me to blush. "Oh, look at that face! You met someone didn't you?" "No!" I said, just a little too quickly. "You can't fool us, honey. That face has 'crush' written all over it! Who's the guy? Is he hot? Is he here? Did you kiss him? Why didn't you say something earlier?" Alice inquired, talking over herself in her speed to drill me. "There's nothing to tell." "Bella! We've both been dating Jazz and Em for two years; we need to vicariously live through your romantic entanglements." "What romantic entanglements?" Rose stared me down, one brow raised. "You're hiding something boy related. Spill." "Fine!" I gave in. "I met a guy at the airport. We talked for a few minutes while he helped me out with my bags. That's it. Can we move on now?" "No we cannot move on, missy. Was he cute?" "Yeah, I guess," I said. "You guess?" "I wouldn't really call him 'cute'."

"Well what would you call him? Hot? Sexy? Drop dead gorgeous? Fuckhawt?" "Uh...all of the above?" I gave in, because truly he was. I had to cover my ears at the volume of their squeals. "Did you kiss him? Did you give him your number? When are you seeing him again?" "No, I didn't kiss him or give him my number. I don't know if I'm seeing him again," I said, holding back on sharing about his vague invitation for the following night since I wasn't quite sure I'd be able to work up the nerve to actually go. "Aw, Bella. Why didn't you give it to him?" Alice asked, blatantly disappointed by the turn of events I unfolded. "I don't know, Alice. I have no clue what I'm doing with guys. He didn't ask for it and I wasn't going to give it to him if he was just being polite." "I'm sure he wasn't being polite, Bella," Rose said. "Whatever, guys. He was gorgeous and sweet and yes, he gave me butterflies, but I'll probably never see him again so can we just talk about something else?" "Don't worry, Bells. Your butterflies are still out there," Alice said on a dreamy sigh. "You just have to catch them."

~*~
Oh. My. God. What the hell is that pounding in my head? I couldn't bring myself to open my eyes and squinted against the light trying to peep through my eyelids. Grabbing a pillow and smothering it over my face I let out a miserable groan. My teeth felt like they'd grown a layer of fur overnight. Oh yeah. Last night. Girls' night. Kamikazes. Wine. So this was a hangover. Already I knew that if I never had to go through another one, it would be too soon. A shrill beeping rang out from somewhere in my apartment and I forced myself to remove the pillow from my face and pry open my eyelids. The room was bright, so I'd obviously slept past my usual rising time. I sat up cautiously in the bed, simply leaning back on my hands for a moment to get my bearings. The blankets were twisted around me and I'd apparently spent the night sprawled out sideways across the bed. I vaguely remembered Alice and Rose going back to their place after a round of group hugs and sloppy dedications of love and devotion. I couldn't help but laugh a little. Despite the torturous throbbing in my head this morning, my first drunken girls' night had been a blast. The annoying beep called out again and I stumbled out of bed to search it out. The living room was a mess of pillows, blankets, and the remnants of our late night snacking binge. My phone was lying where I'd tossed it on the shelf of one of the bookcases; a quick look at the display solved the mystery of the incessant beeping. 12 Missed Calls Seriously, Renee? Nine from yesterday; between the time I ignored her first call after my appointment to when I'd passed out for the night, and three already this morning.

Wait. Make that afternoon. According to the clock on my phone it was 12:08p.m. That couldn't be right. I checked the clock in the kitchen and sure enough, it said the same thing. I couldn't remember ever sleeping this late before. While it wasn't something I intended to make a habit of, it seemed like a positively sinful indulgence. Dealing with Renee and my first hangover at the same time seemed like a recipe for disaster. Instead I started up the coffee pot in the kitchen before jumping into the shower. Twenty minutes and a thorough scrubbing of my mouth later, I was feeling mostly human. I grabbed my coffee mug and went to see how Alice and Rose made out. "Hey, Sleepy head!" Alice answered the door, chipper as always. "That's just not fair," I whined. "Seriously, woman, does nothing slow you down?" "Chipotle burritos." "Excuse me?" "Chipotle burritos. They turn me into an incoherent puddle of mush for a minimum of three hours." "I'll have to remember that one." "Come on in, Rose is suffering too." Sure enough, Rose sat at their breakfast bar leaning on her hand as she slumped over a mug of coffee, looking like she was about to collapse at any second. "Hey, Rose." "Mmh," she grunted back at me, not moving a muscle. "Alright, cranky ladies, I know just what we need today." "What's that, Alice?" I asked with great trepidation. Her tone was just a little too cheerful for my liking. "Shopping of course!" "Someone say shopping?" Rose perked up in her chair, seemingly revived from her misery within a split second. I, on the other hand, slumped lower on the counter, resting my head on my arms. "No, please for the love of all that's holy. No shopping," I pleaded. "Come on, Bells. Don't be such a party pooper, it'll be a blast!" Alice insisted. "Besides, you haven't been to the mall yet," Rose jumped in, now just as annoyingly bouncy as Alice. "So? What's the big deal about a mall, they're the same everywhere," I argued, not seeing her point. "Huh uh, Mall of America, Bella. We're talking four levels of shopping Nirvana. Five hundred stores and restaurants." My eyes bugged out of my head a little at that. "Are you kidding me? You want to drag me to five hundred stores?

I'll be dead within an hour." Alice nudged me up off the stool and scooted me towards the door."Silly Bella, half the stores in that place are of no use to us. We'll only drag you to two hundred and fifty at the absolute maximum." I stopped in my tracks and gave her a glare, for once having the intimidation factor of being taller. Of course it had no affect on her. "I sincerely hope that you're practicing to be a stand-up comedian right now and that's your opening joke." "Go get dressed. It'll be great cardio, get you back on your feet again," she said, trying to appeal to me. "Fine. Let's just not go crazy, okay?" I realized it was pointless to fight her, but I wasn't quite ready to fall down Alice's rabbit hole and get swept up in a world of endless stores and designers. I could already feel my credit card getting warm in my pocket from a marathon of swiping it through register after register. Walking back into my apartment, I heard the beeping of my phone yet again. Give it a rest, Renee. I threw on some jeans and a cozy flannel before meeting up with the girls again in the hallway. I was determined to not think about Renee or skating and just enjoy a day out with the girls. Reigning in Alice would undoubtedly be stressful enough on its own. We decided to take my car since it had the most trunk space, though that sounded somewhat ominous to me. "This is the great thing about none of us having a super strict work schedule," Alice said as we climbed in, I let Rose take the wheel since I still had no idea where I was going. "We won't have to fight the huge evening and weekend crowds." "Yeah," Rose agreed. "Tuesday's are typically pretty dead. Prime time for power shopping." Tuesday. Shit. Edward. Somehow in the whirlwind of Alice and unpacking and meeting up with the doctor and Kamikaze night, Tuesday had snuck up on me. Tonight was the night Edward said he and his buddies would be hanging out at that bar. I'd Googled it once my internet connection was hooked up on Sunday and printed out directions. It was only a seven minute drive from my apartment, but parking could be an issue according to their website. Edward had starred in my dreams every night. They weren't elaborate or erotic or even that notable aside from the fact that he was there with me. His beautiful face gazing down at me and causing excited little butterflies to flit around in my stomach. I wanted to see him again. Desperately. But as much as I wanted to go and see if that initial connection was still there, or if it had just been some figment of my imagination, I was terrified. I'd never been in a relationship before. Hell, I'd barely even been on a date. I didn't go to a traditional middle school or high school and the majority of guys I associated with on the ice were quite obviously not into girls. What if I went and made a complete fool of myself? What if he turned out to be a total jerk and just asked me to come so he could take me home for a one night stand before tossing me to the curb? What if he expected me to be this sexy, experienced, confident woman and was completely turned off when he saw me for who I really was: shy, insecure, and completely average. I loved the fluttery feeling I got whenever I thought of him, but what if I saw him again and that disappeared? Renee's relationships, if you could call them that, never lasted beyond a week or two and seemed to be based strictly on sex. As much as I was attracted to Edward, I knew I wasn't equipped for that kind of encounter, and I

wasn't sure I could face his rejection if that's all he was looking for. "Earth to Bella," Alice sang, snapping her fingers lightly in front of my face. "Huh?" "Where'd you disappear to? We're here and you haven't said a word the entire time." "Oh, sorry. Just thinking," I muttered lamely, embarrassed to be caught. "No worries. Let's go!" Alice linked her arms through mine and Rose's and took off at an alarming speed toward the doors. "Whoa there, Seabiscuit, let's keep it to a trot today; I'm still getting my legs back under me." "Oh, right. Sorry, Bella," she said, slowing slightly but still dragging me on with her. "Are you coming out tonight with us, Bella?" Rose asked. "Out?" "Yeah, we always go out on Tuesdays," she embellished. "I don't know" "Come on, Bella, you have to! I know Emmett and Jasper would love to see you again. It won't be any fun without you," Alice pleaded, bringing out the powerful puppy lip once again. "We'll see, Alice, I might be doing something." "Well, we're finding you a new outfit just in case." With that, Alice pulled me into the first store and the three of us became lost in a maze of shops and clothing racks. Well, I was lost. Alice and Rose seemed to know exactly where they were going. How, I had no idea because the mall was just as enormous as they'd told me it was. By the time we were rounding out the third floor, my feet were ready to mutiny. All three of us were laden with shopping bags and I tried to puzzle out just how I'd let myself be talked into buying so much. The pair of them were dangerous in their subtle manipulations and before I knew it I was walking up to yet another register to check out. As exhausting and confusing as it was, the day had been a lot of fun. I needed to remember never to let Alice in on that little secret or I got the feeling things would get even worse. I'd turned my phone off completely when we left the apartment this morning and stayed true to my promise of just enjoying the day. Alice and Rose were so easy to talk to about nothing and everything at the same time. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had so much fun. They kept conversation flowing seamlessly throughout the entire day. For as much as Alice talked, I would think she'd run out of things to say eventually, but that didn't appear to be the case. As afternoon drifted to evening, the girls called quitting time in order to go home and get ready. Once we'd returned to our building, we stuffed ourselves and our purchases in the elevator, shuffling down the hall to our respective doors in a chorus of rustling paper and plastic. Alice bolted inside as soon as she'd gotten their door open, itching to add her new purchases to her bursting closet. I turned to unlock my own door, shaking my head and giggling at her enthusiasm. "Hey, so what about tonight," Rose called across the hall before my door could close. "Oh, right. Um, I'm not sure yet. I'll let you know soon, okay?"

"We usually leave around seven, so no worries, you've got some time." "Great, thanks. I'll see you guys in a bit." I dropped every single bag I held on the floor, not bothering to push them to the side or take them back to the room. I was beat. It felt like I'd been swept up in a hurricane and had just come out the other side. That seemed pretty accurate; Hurricane Alice. Looking at the small mountain of shopping bags now blocking my front door, I couldn't imagine needing to buy one more item of clothing in the next five years. Of course Alice was already planning our next trip. I collapsed onto the couch and enjoyed the silence for a few minutes, resting my knee and catching my breath. I was pleased at how well my knee had held up with so much walking today. A little bit of soreness here and there, but nothing I hadn't worked through before. Guess those strength builders have been of some use after all. I was by no means ready to run a marathon, but I felt confident that I could at least be back in the gym over the next couple days. I'd have to check out the buildings facilities tomorrow. I glanced at the clock. 4:25p.m. That left me enough time that I couldn't justify putting it off any longer. I turned on my phone, ignored the number of missed calls and voice messages, and hit number two on my speed dial to call Renee. "Well, well, I guess I can call off the search party," she answered in a sarcastic tone. "Hi, Mom." "Hi, Mom? Are you kidding me, Isabella? I hope you have a good explanation for your behavior." "Behavior?" "Yes, Isabella. Deliberately ignoring my calls for over twenty-four hours, especially after an important appointment is very irresponsible." "It's not a big deal. I was busy." "Busy? What on earth could you have been busy with? You have nothing going on right now. What could you have been busy with that was more important than contacting me with an update about your knee? This is your career, Isabella. Your life. There is nothing more important than that." I rolled my eyes a bit and held the phone away from my ear as she droned on. "I was spending some time with my new neighbors. And I'm checking in with you now." "Yes, over a day after you should have. For all I knew you could have forgotten about your appointment completely." "I'm twenty-four years old, Mother, I think I can manage to get myself to an appointment by now." "Don't take that tone with me. You may be twenty-four, but this is your first time living alone. It can be a big adjustment when you've had someone else in charge of your schedule all the time." "Yes, it has been, but I seem to be surviving." "So far."

Something about those two little words put me completely on edge and I felt an agitation building within, just waiting to be released. "I appreciate the vote of confidence. Now, was there a specific reason for this call aside from confirming my level of responsibility?" "I don't appreciate your sass, young lady. I don't care how old you are or that you've gone off on this ridiculous flight of independence. I'm still your mother as well as your manager. Any information about your health as it applies to your career is most certainly my business." "It's not like it makes a difference, I know the same thing today as I did yesterday. My knee didn't magically heal itself overnight." "Can we dispense with the attitude? I must say you're being very selfish." "Selfish? Are you kidding me?" "I most certainly am not. You should be here in Florida where I can monitor your progress and decide when you're ready to get back on the ice." "I think that's my decision, Mother. Mine and the doctor's at least." "I just don't see why you're being so childish. Skating is your life, Isabella. Don't you want your life back?" "Yes. I do. But I don't want to re-injure my knee and do permanent damage because I tried to start up again too quickly." "Oh, please. You had a little spill. Hundreds of skaters fall on the ice and get right back up again. This little 'break' of yours has just gotten ridiculous. You're missing an entire critical season." "I'm aware of that. If you have issues with how my recovery is being handled, I'd be happy to ask Dr. Cullen to contact you and explain the process. Again." "Well I wouldn't need to do that if you'd take the initiative to contact me yourself with that information." "Maybe I would if I thought you'd just listen to me for once." "Are you finished with your little tantrum?" I dropped the phone from my ear before banging my head into a pillow three times, burying my face and letting out a muffled scream of frustration. "Isabella!" Letting out a deep breath, I brought the phone back to my ear. "Yes?" "Do you think you could manage to fill me in on what the doctor told you?" "I'm off the crutches. I'm setting up an appointment with a physical therapist within the next week. I can start progressively upping my activity level as long as I'm not doing any sudden changes in direction, pivots or cutting. Follow up appointment is in April and that's when I'll find out if I can return to training for competition," I said, streamlining the information for her. To the point was best when dealing with Renee. "There, now was that so difficult? I'd like you to set that appointment with the physical therapist as soon as possible," she continued without waiting for me to answer. "Maybe they'll get you motivated again. April seems excessive, are you sure that's what he said?"

"Yes." "Well we'll just see about that, I'm sure he's mistaken. We'll have to be agressive with your training once you've been cleared. I've been speaking to a new coach who I think will work wonders with you." "Wait, new coach?" I interrupted before she could continue. "What about Marcus? Why do I need a new coach?" "Marcus is much too soft, Isabella. He'd never maintain the discipline you'll need to make the Olympic team after so much time off." "Did you fire him?" I asked a bit frantically. Marcus had been my coach for the last six years, since before Torino. I felt safe with him, comfortable. He pushed me to my limits without breaking them. It made me nervous to think about the possibility of continuing on in my competitive career without him. "Not yet, but it's only a matter of time." "Don't you think I should have a say in who my coach is?" "Oh please, Isabella. You needn't bother yourself with this side of things. As your manager it's my job to make sure you have the very best. Marcus may not be the best for you any longer." "Mother, I'm asking you, please don't fire Marcus or bring someone new in without consulting me first." "You just concentrate on getting back on the ice. I'll worry about what comes next." "Mom" "We're not discussing this any further, Isabella. Now, we'll have to work on revamping your programs over the next few months. We can't afford to stick with your most recent ones, they'll be old fashioned by next season, and Alec will have to get to work on your costumes" "You know what, I'm really not feeling well, Mom, I'm gonna go lay down for a bit." "We're not done talking here. These are important issues" "That don't matter right now. At this moment I'm not a competitive figure skater. Until I've been cleared again I'm not discussing this with you." "We can't afford to wait" I cut her off again. "You're just going to have to, because I'm done." I hung up before she could say another word, jumping up from the couch to pace angrily. I chucked my cell at the couch cushions with a frustrated scream. My jaw was clenched so tight that it felt like my teeth would just weld together. Of course my phone rang again. The woman did not know when to quit. I jabbed at buttons through angry tears until it powered down. I honestly didn't care right now if I was being selfish or not. Was it such a horrible thing every once in awhile to want something for myself? After the last fifteen years of giving Renee everything she wanted, doing every program with every costume in every competition she ever signed me up for, I think I was due for a little selfishness. I grabbed a couple pillows and a blanket and found my spot at the window seat. Curling up under the throw and

hugging one of the throw pillows to my chest, I sat and watched the river. As the light faded, so did my anger, turning from frustration to despair. She hadn't asked about me once. Not really. She asked about my knee, but not me. She didn't ask how I was settling in, how I was doing on my own, if I was meeting anyone new. All she cared about was getting me back on the ice. Was that all I was to her? Just her ticket to the big show? Nothing more than a vehicle to get her where she'd always wanted to be? I wrapped my arms tighter around the pillow, wishing for once that I could hold something that would hold me back. I zoned out for awhile, just staring out the window, even when it got to be so dark that I couldn't really see much of anything. A knock sounded at my door. Alice. Shoot, I'd completely forgotten. Glancing around for a clock, I saw that it was already 7:05p.m. I made my way to the door, prying it open when it felt like it weighed twenty pounds more than it had the last time I opened it. Sure enough, there was Alice, dressed to kill in a mini dress and her typical four inch heels. The smile on her face fell immediately when she saw me. "What's wrong?" "What? Nothing," I answered, not wanting to worry her. "Cut the crap, Bella. Maybe I haven't known you for very long but I can tell when you're upset, and it's obvious you've been crying." "It's no big deal," I insisted. I thought about blaming it on my knee and how much we had walked that day, but I didn't want her to feel guilty for dragging me around the mall when I really did have a good time. "If it wasn't a big deal you could just tell me. I'm your friend, Bella. Friends help each other feel better, it's our number one job." "I'm just not up for going out tonight, that's all." "I'll stay with you," she started and I cut her off immediately. "No, Alice, please don't. I'm really not going to be very good company tonight and I know you want to see Jasper." "I see Jasper all the time, one night won't matter." "Please, just go. Have fun. I'm just going to go to bed early. I promise I'll be fine." She looked skeptical, lingering in my doorway. "Alice, really, go. I'll still be here tomorrow, you can try and coax it out of me all you want then." "Fine. But we will talk tomorrow," she insisted before stepping close and wrapping her arms around me in a hug. I stiffened for a moment before letting myself relax at the momentary contact. This was what I'd been looking for just minutes ago, and I instantly felt just a little better. I hated that something as common and casual as a friendly hug was so foreign to me that my immediate reaction was to flinch away from something so easy and comforting. Alice seemed like a big hugger, maybe it was something I'd get used to in time.

"We're here for you, Bella, you just have to let us in," she said as she stepped away. My eyes blurred a little at her words. Such a simple concept. Why did it have to be so hard for me to let her or anyone in? I nodded, turning my head and trying to stealthily wipe the tears from my eyes. "See you tomorrow, Bella," Alice turned back to their apartment to call out to Rose that they were leaving. "Good night, Alice," I said before softly shutting my door and pulling the chain, locking myself in for the night. I leaned back against it and slid down to the floor, curling my knees up to my chest. Damn you, Renee. Not even in the same state and she was still controlling my emotions and decisions. Thinking back to our conversation, I was surprised at myself. Where the hell did that come from? I'd never spoken to Renee like that before. Sure, I'd thought those snarky comments in my head, but I'd never actually said anything aloud. I'd never really stood up to her or argued back. I don't know if it I'd just reached my limit or if it was the fact that I'd finally had some distance from her and had the chance to build a backbone for once. Maybe it was the influence of seeing such strength in women like Rosalie and Alice, making their own decisions, thriving under their own merit. I had so much admiration for the two of them and how they were living their lives. Rose took on a world dominated by men and knocked it on its ass. Alice had built her business from the ground up and turned a dream into a successful business that left her feeling satisfied and accomplished. In the many years that had made up my skating career, I'd had more than my fair share of success. The list of awards I'd received and medals I'd won was extensive, certainly nothing to wave your hand at. I was proud of my accomplishments and appreciated the heights I'd achieved to this point in my life, but looking back at it, there was always someone else there pushing me to succeed. I'd train harder to please my coaches, and Renee, my fans, the critics. If I won more medals, maybe it would make them happy. If I could just win an Olympic Gold medal, maybe that would be enough for my mother. She'd finally be satisfied. I was sad to realize that I'd never really done any of it for myself. Yes, I loved to skate. Yes, I'd celebrated every one of my wins. But at the core, I'd always been competing for someone else. It was time to start thinking about what I wanted. What I needed. It didn't really matter to me if I won hundreds of Gold medals if I wasn't doing it for the right reasons. Yes, skating had become my entire life, but was it still my passion? I needed to find that driving force within myself before I even thought about returning to train again. I couldn't just do it because Renee wanted me to, because people expected me to, or because I was afraid of what my life would be like without skating. Hefting myself off the ground, I walked into the kitchen, already feeling stronger. No, I didn't have a direction yet, but I had a newfound determination to find one. I grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry's from the freezer and dug a spoon from the drawer. Alice had introduced me to the stuff when she'd snuck it into my cart at the store, insisting that every woman needed an emergency pint in her freezer. I'd thought she was a little nuts at that point, but standing here, leaning back against the counter and eating Chubby Hubby ice cream straight from the carton, I realized that she was nothing less than a genius. I glanced at the clock on the stove; 7:53p.m. Edward would be getting to the bar pretty soon, if he wasn't there already. I wondered if he'd be looking for me. Would he remember that he'd told me they hung out there? Would he be expecting me? I couldn't imagine he'd be let down when I didn't show up, we'd only spoken for a few minutes and a man as handsome as him must have girls throwing themselves in his path with every step he took. Girls who knew what they were doing. Women who were far more desirable than I was.

No, he couldn't possibly miss me. But I missed him. As weird as it sounded, I found myself devastated at the thought of never seeing him again, disappointed that I couldn't find the courage to pull myself together and go meet him. Sure, he'd mentioned that they went to that bar almost every week, but by next Tuesday, it would be ridiculous to show up and think he'd remember me. I stayed in that same spot until I hit the bottom of the carton. I tossed the empty container and dirty spoon into the sink and burrowed myself into the couch, turning on 'The Cutting Edge.' I'd fallen asleep before Moira Kelley could taunt D.B. Sweeney with her toe pick.

~*~

The remainder of the week passed quickly. Alice had shown up bright and early the next morning to grill me for details, as promised. She was skilled at extracting information subtly, but I was just as skilled at bottling my problems up inside after a lifetime of having no one to vent to. Renee was more often than not the cause of my issues and I certainly couldn't go crying to her for anything. The conversation had been a friendly battle of wills in which Alice pushed and I stubbornly held my ground. Hey, I told her she could try to coax it out of me, not that I'd actually spill my guts.

Chapter Four Time To Drop The Puck

I did give her enough to know that my mother was giving me trouble about how slow this recovery process was going and that we'd argued. I told her about my resolve to think things through and figure out exactly what I wanted before moving forward. I did not tell her about Edward and how I'd chickened out. I was pretty sure that would have earned me a lecture in 'Girl Power' and just going for it. I was still angry at myself for not making more of an effort to go meet him, even if it likely would have ended in disaster and disappointment. Oh well, Bella. The Edward Ship has sailed, leaving you with nothing but pleasant dreams in his wake. In the last few days, I'd started feeling more like myself. Not the same as I was three months ago, but more than I had been since my accident. I'd gotten back in the gym again, showing the mostly abandoned facility on the first floor of our building more action than it had probably seen in quite awhile. Though the snail's pace I'd been forced to start at frustrated me, it was invigorating to be active again, to have a purpose other than just lounging around my apartment all day long. Alice and Rose had sought me out there and kept me company from time to time. They never actually exercised or even gave the illusion of intending to by wearing workout clothes, but they'd camp out on the yoga mats and chit chat happily while I worked my way from machine to machine. My knee was feeling good. The slight soreness I felt from so much activity after a long break energized me more than anything. If it was sore, it was being used. I didn't push it, religiously wearing the flexi brace that Dr. Cullen had given me and trying to keep my pace as steady and slow as I could stand. It was easy to see that this was going to get really old, really fast. Before my accident I'd started my day with Pilates and ran a habitual five miles every morning before heading out for at least three hours of ice time. I'd take a short break for lunch and then head back out in the afternoon to concentrate on whatever program I was working on at that time, either learning or finessing the movements. To finish out my night I'd do an hour of yoga before crawling into bed, only to start up again the next day. The few stretches, weights and power walking I was allowed now were not anywhere near what I was used to and made me feel restless. I now understood why Dr. Cullen had been so adamant in stressing the fact that I couldn't push it, no matter how good my knee was feeling. Less than a week off the crutches and I was already aching for my morning

run. I did call the physical therapist and had gone to my first appointment. Seth was awesome. He was young and goofy and knew how far to let me go before reining me back in again. Physical therapy was not going to be fun, but at least with Seth to keep me laughing, it wouldn't be completely miserable. We'd be meeting a few times a week over the next two months. Renee continued to bombard me using any method of communication she could manage. My e-mail had everything from rambling diatribes to pithy one liners demanding that I answer her calls. My voicemail was rarely empty, and I'd finally had to change her ringtone when I got sick of hearing the same sound constantly cutting through the quiet of my apartment. I gave in and talked to her at least once a day for fear that if I cut her off completely she'd show up on my doorstep. She vacillated between anger at the fact that I was being stubborn and pushing back at her for once, and brushing the entire conversation off as nothing more than a moody teenager suffering from a bout of PMS. I hated that that's how she chose to see me. I hated that she had a reason to do so. I was twenty-four years old and this was the first time I'd ever lived on my own. I still didn't handle most of my finances and I barely knew anything about what went into my career off the ice. Before the accident, I showed up to everything on my schedule on time with no thought to what went into getting me there. All I'd cared about was my skating. That was pretty childish, wasn't it? Even being on my own, I wasn't really responsible for anything or anyone, not even myself if I was being honest. Renee's jabs that I was merely playing house by moving here stung because they weren't far off the mark. She was still running my life and I was still letting her. I didn't know if I had the strength to cut her off and strike out on my own, especially now with so much of my life up in the air. So I took her calls, giving her the bare minimum in response as an effort to appease her without completely backtracking on the progress I'd made by standing up to her. Without Renee, I didn't know what my life would be. It seemed that so much of who I was, was wrapped up in what she'd made me. If I looked into the mirror I saw a plain, average girl. Ordinary brown hair that fell past my shoulders and boring brown eyes that stood out on naturally pale skin that was made even more so due to how little sunlight I typically got. I was short and slim; the only notable feature I was proud of was the amount of muscle tone I boasted due to my excessively active lifestyle. Renee took the plain girl and made her glamorous. News articles called me beautiful, but only because they saw me on the ice in full costume and stage make-up. Renee attacked me with a team of stylists every time I had a photo shoot or television appearance. Maybe that's why it had never been as difficult for me to deal with. I never felt like myself at those things and it was easy to act confident with the faade of Isabella Swan, National Champion, firmly in place. It wasn't necessarily that I despised that part of it. It wasn't my favorite part by any means, the photo shoots and publicity always just felt so strange to me. I never felt like a celebrity and it just seemed like I was playing at it half the time. What I truly hated was the fact that I'd been coached in every aspect of my life. I expected it on the iceno matter how many medals you win or how high profile you getyou always need one. Off the ice was a different thing. I was coached in what to say at all times, how to act, when to smile at the cameras, what to wear, what to eat, where to go. That's why this past week has been so marvelous. No one was around telling me anything. Sure, Alice got a bit enthusiastic at times, but I knew she'd never force me into something I truly didn't like under the guise that it was 'for my own good' or 'the good of my career.' Since coming here I wore what I wanted, even if it made Alice cringe sometimes. I went to bed and woke up when I felt like it, not when an alarm blared to tell me to get my butt out of bed and to the rink. Sure, I still woke up much earlier than I truly needed to, but old habits die hard. I ate what I wanted, though I knew the incessant snacking could not continue for long without some consequences, especially when I wasn't burning the calories I was used to. With that in mind, I decided to fit in my nightly yoga session. Alice would be over in a little less than an hour and we'd be out until late. Tonight was the night of the big hockey game and I was actually pretty excited for it. Alice

and Rose really seemed to enjoy going by the way they'd talked throughout the week, and it would be fun to see the guys again. Changing quickly and pushing the coffee table up against the couch to make room for my mat, I zoned out, enjoying the routine and the welcome stretch on my muscles. "Knock knock!" I heard Alice call out just over forty five minutes later as I was in the middle of Scorpion pose. I heard the click of her heels as she came in the room but could only see from her knees down as she came to a stop in front of me. "Has anyone told you that it's really unhealthy how much you sit around and do nothing? Seriously, Bella, your laziness disgusts me," she said sarcastically. "We can't all be as blessed as you and have the ability to eat anything we want without gaining a single pound," I commented, slowly lowering my legs to stretch out in Child's pose. "All jokes aside, how the hell do you do that? It's not normal!" "I don't know, you just do it I guess." "Looks painful." I could hear the wince in her tone as I maneuvered into Flying Crow. "It's actually quite comfortable," I answered between breaths, merely chuckling at her snort of disbelief. "Are you almost done?" "Yup, just wrapping up," I assured her as I lowered back to the ground. "I did not forget about you." "Of course you didn't. I'm quite memorable." "That's for darn sure," I snickered. "Go grab a shower. I'll lay your clothes out." "Alice, we're going to a casual sporting event. I think I can pick out my own outfit." "Nonsense, Bella, you just scoot your contortionist booty into that bathroom and let me take care of the rest," she ordered, grabbing me by the shoulders and ushering me out of the room. I rolled my eyes, but did as she said. Even Alice wouldn't be crazy enough to put me in a cocktail dress for an evening out at a noisy, crowded arena. Right? Well, almost right. "No way, Alice, I'm not wearing that," I protested, pointing to the article of clothing Alice held up for me when I entered the room. "Oh, come on, Bella, Rose and I will be wearing practically the same thing." "That doesn't make it better." "What's wrong with this?" she demanded, waving the shirt in my direction. "I don't do rhinestones." Her answer was to simply raise her eyebrow at me.

"What?" "Bella, I have photographic proof that you both can and do wear rhinestones. Probably more than I've worn in the entire span of my life." "That's different. Those are costumes. In my everyday life, I don't do rhinestones, sequins or anything containing more than the absolute minimum levels of lycra." "But you can barely even tell!" Alice whined, thrusting the shirt into my hands. I held it out to give it another glance. It was a green fitted t-shirt with a small jeweled icon in the center that I'd learned was the logo for the Wild. It wasn't so bad aside from the sparkliness. "I get to wear jeans and whatever shoes I want," I negotiated, looking up to see an expression of glee on her face before I threw out my last stipulation. "And a hat." "A hat? But, Bella" "Those are my conditions. You want me to wear anything sparkly, you've gotta let me have a little." "Fine," she pouted. "Can I pick the hat?" "If either of you have a team baseball hat, I'll agree to coordinate." "Eww. I don't. Rose might have one that Emmett gave her. Let me go check." She returned moments later with a simple red baseball hat in hand, holding it out in front of her with two fingers like she was afraid its casualness was contagious. "Perfect, thanks!" I plucked it out of her hand and tossed it down on the bed next to my jeans and the t-shirt. "If you're going to cover up your hair with that thing, can I at least do your makeup?" "Just don't go nuts," I conceded. Twenty minutes later my hair was dry and pulled through the hole in the hat to hang in a wavy tail down my back. Alice held true to her promise and only came at me with a little eyeliner, mascara and lipgloss. She scurried back to her place to get ready and grab Rose while I dug out the new sweater boots I'd gotten at the mall earlier in the week. They were amazingly comfortable and just might give my Converse a run for their money in the contest for my favorite shoes. I locked up and knocked on Alice and Rose's door. They kept telling me to just walk right in, but I still wasn't comfortable doing so. "Come on in, Bella!" Rose called from inside. The sound of a hair dryer was coming from Alice's section of their apartment and Rose was zipping up her knee high black boots while perched on the arm of their couch. "Hey," I greeted her. "Hey! Alice should just be a minute. She's surprisingly fast when forced to be." At that moment the droning sound cut off and Alice bounded out into the main room less than thirty seconds later. She hadn't been lying to me when she said that she and Rose would be wearing practically the same thing. They both had similar shirts to the one Alice had foisted on me, only in red and with lower necklines and shorter sleeves. At least they had grabbed sweaters to cover up a little or I would have questioned their sanity a bit. Indoors or not,

it was still January and an arena full of ice was not the place for tank tops. From the waist down we could have been triplets, all wearing denim and some sort of black boots, though Rose and Alice went for the heels while I stayed happily flat on my feet. "Shall we?" Alice asked, opening the door with a flourish and ushering us out. We decided to take a cab over to the Xcel Energy Center since our apartment was just far enough away that it wouldn't be very fun to brave the biting night air. Alice mentioned that we'd probably meet up with the guys afterwards to either help them celebrate or commiserate, depending on how the game went, and that we didn't want to have to deal with cars and setting up a designated driver if that became necessary. I shrugged my shoulders and went along with them. It seemed like they had a routine down with these things. I could only imagine how many games they had attended with three people so close to them on the team. We pulled up in front of the arena just a few short minutes later. There were people milling around everywhere in a mixture of red and green. More than half of them were wearing some sort of team jersey and I spotted a hefty portion of those with the names E. Cullen, Em. Cullen, and Hale. With our tickets swiped, Alice and Rose linked arms with me and we fought our way through the mass of rowdy fans. "There they are," Alice pointed ahead when we hit a break in the crowd and saw Carlisle standing next to a small woman waving at us. Alice took off running to give them each an exuberant hug, leaving Rose and I to catch up. When we reached them, Rose dropped my arm to hug the woman and then Carlisle, turning her face to wiggle her eyebrows playfully at me as she did so and I couldn't help but giggle a little. "Bella," Carlisle said when Rose stepped back. "Wonderful to see you again." He pulled me into a casual hug and I about swallowed my tongue in shock. It took me a moment longer than it should have to get my wits about me again. "Yeah, uh, you too, Carlisle," I sputtered, reaching up to rub the back of my neck self-consciously. He gestured over to the woman beside him. "This is my wife, Esme." The woman was classically beautiful. I'd anticipated that she'd be breathtaking considering the rest of her family. She reminded me of old Hollywood and movie stars like Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo. She was taller than Alice, standing just around my height. Her hair fell in soft caramel colored waves around her shoulders and it was clear that Alice had inherited her beautiful green eyes from her mother, though Esme's had more of a grassy tone. Everything about her emitted an air of softness and elegance. "Such a pleasure to meet you, honey," she said, wrapping me in a quick embrace. That sealed it. These Cullens were definitely huggers. Maybe it was another Minnesota thing. "Carlisle and Alice have told me so much about you. Oh, and Emmett too, of course." I blushed at that, curious about what they'd have mentioned. "Sit next to me during the game, won't you, dear? I'd love the chance to talk to you a bit myself since the rest of my family seems so taken with you," she said with a friendly smile. "Um, sure, that'd be fine," I told her, shoving my hands in my pockets awkwardly. "Wonderful! Well, let's go find our seats, shall we? Carlisle hates to miss the warm up." Esme turned and placed her hand on Carlisle's shoulder, whispering something into his ear when he leaned down into her touch. He nodded and smiled affectionately at her, wrapping his arm around her waist and kissing her head before they walked into the tunnel leading into the arena. Alice and Rose followed immediately after them, calling for me to join them when I stayed in place, momentarily enchanted by the obvious love Carlisle and Esme displayed toward each other. While I'd been impressed and slightly envious at seeing the solid relationships between Jasper and Alice and Emmett and Rosalie, watching Carlisle and Esme together was truly wonderful.

Stepping through the short, dark tunnel I emerged at the top of a steep, concrete staircase in the brightly lit arena. It was even louder in here than it had been in the bustling corridor. The drone of hundreds of people chatting while they found their seats, with the occasional cheer of excitement as music played in the background. The game wouldn't start for another thirty minutes and already plenty of people were filling the rows. I'd never been to this particular arena before, but it looked like a beautiful venue to skate. Glancing down at the smooth sheet of ice gave me a small pang of longing. I still hadn't made any progress on deciding what I wanted, but one thing I knew for certain was that I did miss the ice. In that moment I wanted nothing more than to lace up my skates and circle around on that flawless surface. I shook myself out of my thoughts when someone bumped me slightly from behind, trying to pass me to go down the steps, and I made my way down the rows to where I saw Alice and the rest of our group. "What, you guys don't have a suite?" I asked Alice jokingly when I reached the correct row. "We've gone that route before. Esme and Carlisle like to be out in the action. Besides, it's a lot more fun this way." We were three rows back from the glass and right on center ice. It didn't seem like we could be much more 'in the action' than this. We settled into our seats, Rose filing in first, with Alice, me, and Esme following, leaving Carlisle to take the seat on the aisle. "The girls tell me this is your first hockey game," Esme mentioned casually. "Yeah," I confirmed. "Well, you're in for quite a treat, it's a fun environment," she beamed at me. It was easy to pick up on her sincere excitement and I started to understand a little bit of where Alice got her enthusiasm. "It sure seems like it," I said with a pointed look at a group of die-hard fans a few rows over that were decked out in multi-colored beads and full on face paint. One of them even had a big red foam fist that appeared to act as a cup holder since a beer was nestled snugly inside. Esme laughed a bit and informed me that Carlisle had one of them at home. I glanced over to see him intently studying a program. He seemed to concentrate on reading the stats as closely as he'd poured over my medical charts at the hospital. "Hey," Alice turned to Esme and me. "Rose and I are going to go grab some snacks before things get going, you guys want anything?" "Just a water for me, Ali," Esme answered. "No, I'm okay," I told her. Alice merely rolled her eyes at me and I knew she wouldn't listen. I had no doubt she'd be coming back with an armful of goodies that she'd try to foist off on me. "So, Bella, are you liking Minnesota? Alice mentioned you've lived here before," Esme said once the girls had scooted past us and made their way to the aisle. "Yeah, when I was a kid. My mom and I moved when she and my dad split up."

"I'm so sorry to hear that. It must have been difficult for you," she said, reaching out to pat my hand lightly. "A little, I guess. My dad moved back to Washington, I don't see him very much. My mom's down in Florida still, that's where I was living until last week." "Big change in climate," she chuckled. "It's nice though. I like the changing seasons up here. I like that it's a bigger city but not overwhelming and obnoxious." "So you're settling in?" "Yeah, it's been really great so far. Alice and Rose have been so friendly. Jasper and Emmett helped with painting and getting my apartment all set up. They're all pretty great." "Yes, we've been very fortunate at having Jasper and Rosalie around. They've been so wonderful for my children. Alice and Emmett especially, for obvious reasons." "From what I've seen they all fit so perfectly together." "They do," Esme nodded. "That's not to say they don't have their issues, all couples do, but Jasper's calmness and patience balances out Alice's quirkiness and vivacity, and Rose doesn't let Emmett get away with anything. As a mother, I couldn't be much more blessed that they've both found partners who accept them for who they are and love them just the way they are. I only wish my other son could get so lucky." "Edward, right?" "Yes," she sighed lightly. "Edward's just never been as outgoing as Alice or Emmett, he's much quieter, content to be left to himself much of the time. He's a bit more of a homebody, you could say. Not everyone understands that, especially the women he tends to meet. They all see him as this shiny prize. A professional athlete should be out partying and living the high life, right? That's just never been something that's appealed to him." "I don't know. In my experience the life of a professional athlete is anything but glitz and glamour. At least if you're putting any real effort into the sport." "Well, it's certainly nice to see a young lady like yourself be so grounded." She paused for a moment, seeming to hesitate a bit before continuing. "Bella, I hope you don't mind me bringing this up, I'm sure you get very tired of it. I just wanted to say that I've been an admirer of yours for quite some time." "Oh, thank you, Esme," I replied, feeling only slightly uncomfortable with the attention. "Well, as I said, I'm sure you get tired of hearing this all the time, but you're such a lovely skater. It's a joy to be able to watch you perform. I still remember watching the last Olympics. Alice cried at your Clair de Lune, though you'll never get her to admit it. We even talked the boys into watching. Anyways, I didn't want to make you uncomfortable" "No, no, Esme. Don't worry about it. Thank you, for saying those things. It really does mean a lot to me to hear it, especially now." "I wouldn't worry too much," Esme encouraged me, rubbing my healing knee. "If it's meant to be, it'll happen. And you, my dear, are meant to be on that ice." "What if I'm not?" I asked quietly, surprising myself at voicing my insecurities to a woman who was essentially a stranger. That seemed to be happening a lot to me lately. "I mean, maybe I used to be, but what if I'm not

anymore?" "Then you'll figure out where to go from here. Bella, from the little I know of you personally, what I've learned through my children and from watching you over the years, I'm positive that you'll find a way to flourish no matter what. It's just something that's inside you. If skating isn't in the cards for you anymore, you'll find your way." "I don't know if I can," I admitted, looking into her eyes to see nothing but confidence and compassion. "You will, dear. I think you're much stronger than you know," she spoke softly, placing her finger under my chin to lift it slightly and smile warmly at me. Rose and Alice returned, shuffling down the row past us, and like I'd anticipated, as soon as she sat down, Alice shoved a large drink in the cup holder of my seat and handed me a large salted pretzel. Rather than complain, I merely rolled my eyes and bit in. "You're a bad influence, Alice," I mumbled with a mouthful of salty bread. "I'll be a blimp in no time the way you push junk food on me." "Please. You're so tiny, Bella, as if a pretzel and a few sweets are going to make any difference. You've gotta cut loose once in awhile." "Yeah, well typically when considering snacks I have to debate if it'll be worth the extra pounds I'm going to have to try to heft into the air down the road." "We both know you're going to work it off right away anyways with those crazy circus moves of yours. Indulgence, Bella, it can be a wonderful thing," she sighed and bit into her loaded hot dog with a moan. I laughed and took another bite of the pretzel, enjoying the taste as she suggested. The hum of the crowd intensified before erupting into a series of whoops and hollers and the familiar scrape of metal on ice echoed throughout the room. I looked up to see a swarm of men making their way onto the ice. They split off into two separate circles on either side of the rink, one a mass of green, the other white and blue. Rose and Alice cheered next to me, letting loose a few ridiculous catcalls as they sought out Emmett and Jasper in the fray. Carlisle merely sat forward in his chair, resting his chin on top of his peaked hands as he studied the players. "You won't get a word out of him for the rest of the night," Esme nudged me lightly and rolled her eyes softly toward her husband. "He's in the zone now. He'll analyze every move the boys make and drag them into a rousing play-by-play later on. You'd never know he hasn't played hockey a single day in his life." "Really? Never?" I asked, truly surprised. "So, how'd you end up with two sons playing professional hockey?" "Carlisle's always been a fan of the sport, so we started them up in Pee Wee league when they were young. Carlisle was always a bit of a...well a dork, I must say. He never played any sports growing up, but he loved to watch. He got really into following statistics and predicting outcomes since math was more up his alley. He even started up a sports betting ring in college." "Get out," I laughed, finding it hard to picture the serious man in front of me taking bets and dishing out stats and giving tips on odds. "He was quite the rebel when I met him," Esme sighed nostalgically. "It's the quiet ones you've got to look out for, Bella. There's always something hiding beneath the surface." I looked out over the ice to where the players were now taking turns shooting pucks at the net. Emmett was easy to find due to his sheer height. With the added elevation of his skates he had to be closing in on seven feet. Jasper was more difficult to pick out amongst the group as they were all heavily padded and wore helmets with plastic masks over their faces. I finally spotted to him skating back to the end of the queue after making his shot. Alice and Rose

had their heads together, giggling like school girls and occasionally pointing out across the ice. "Alice, have you talked to your brother lately?" Esme asked, looking out at the ice while leaning into me a bit so Alice could hear her over the volume of the arena. "No, not since Wednesday," she answered, her gaze matching the same spot Esme was watching. "He's seemed a little distracted lately. Very quiet. I was wondering if he was getting sick or something," Esme mused, a tone of mild concern coloring her voice "He didn't say anything to me. He was really weird on Tuesday though, and then when I called him on Wednesday to ask what was up he was really moody. Even for Edward." I flitted my gaze over the players, trying to read the names on the back of their jerseys as they moved about until finally landing on number ten, E. Cullen. He was facing mostly away, waiting for his turn at the net and casually passing a puck back and forth with his stick. When his turn came, he took off in a flash, crossing smoothly down the ice, passing the puck once, twice, three times from side to side in front of him before launching it at the goalie. As he circled around the back of the net and toward the end of the line, I was able to get a slightly better look at his face. No. Way. It was difficult to see clearly through the facemask, but what I saw took my breath away. It was the same face that had appeared in my dreams every night over the last ten days. All the pieces clicked together in that instant. The name Edward wasn't all that common for a young guy. He'd said his sister lived downtown. He went out every Tuesday night with his friends; Alice and Rose went to meet up with the guys on Tuesday. The eyes. Alice's eyes. It wasn't just a coincidence that they'd seemed familiar. They were the same eyes that I'd been drowning in that day at the airport. Edward was Alice's brother. I snapped my jaw closed and whipped my head toward Alice, afraid that she would have noticed me gaping stupidly, but she was still looking over toward her brother and chatting with Esme, oblivious to my shocking epiphany. "Hey, Bella," she nudged me and pointed in his direction. "That's Edward. Number ten. You'll get to meet up with him after the game." "Yeah, great," I tried to sound casual when the butterflies started flapping in my tummy at the thought of being face to face with him again. I was half horrified and half overjoyed. What if he remembered me? What if he didn't? Which would be worse? Was he upset that I didn't show the other night? Maybe he'd be angry. Maybe he didn't even notice. Despite all those questions probing my brain, I couldn't clamp down the overwhelming excitement I felt at seeing him again. He really existed outside of my dreams. He was right in front of me. He'd been so close this entire time. I was going to see him again. Soon. "You'll have to forgive him," Alice continued, unaware of my inner struggle. "He's been acting a little weird lately and might not be the most social." "I just don't know what's going on," Esme cut in, her brow scrunched with vague concern. "He usually talks to me if there's something bothering him." "It's true," Alice said to me. "He's a complete mama's boy."

"Oh, don't tease, Mary Alice," Esme chided. "Edward's always had such a soft heart, he doesn't brush things off as quickly as you or Emmett can." "It's gotta be girl trouble," Rose entered the conversation, still ogling Emmett out of the corner of her eye as he moved around the ice. "What makes you say that, Rose?" Esme asked as I tried to burrow inconspicuously under the brim of my hat to hide the blush that overtook my face. "He was all jumpy at the bar, kept looking at the door and all over the place, couldn't keep his hands out of his hair. Toward the end of the night, he got really broody and was pinching the bridge of his nose like he always does when he's upset. You know, the usual Edward tics." "No way," Alice disagreed heartily. "I would know if he met someone. I can always tell." "You're not omniscient, Ali. Who knows? Maybe I'm wrong, but my radar says our dear Eddie has a girl on the brain." I tried not to read too much into what they were saying, but couldn't stop my mind from racing as I stared down at my fingers twisting anxiously in my lap. It couldn't be possible that he was thinking of me. Could it? Tuesday night was when he mentioned to me that he'd be out with his friends. Could he really have been looking for me? Was he upset because I hadn't shown up and he was disappointed? It seemed like such a stretch to think that I could have been occupying his thoughts in any small measure in the ten days since I'd last seen him. He'd been so dominant in mine but it had never crossed my mind that he could have been thinking of me as well. It didn't make sense. He was so beautiful and seemingly extraordinary, of course he was going to linger in my mind. I was nothing. A plain, simple girl fumbling around on crutches when we met. He didn't appear to have recognized me as a skater. There was nothing about me that would have caught his interest. No, he'd only been acting polite. From the little I knew of Esme, it was plain to see she'd have raised a gentleman. Maybe he'd met someone else. That had to be it. Looking up again, I noticed Edward glancing in our direction as he skated lazily back and forth in the line waiting for his turn. I could see recognition light his face through the mask as he found his parents in the crowd. His survey passed over me to his sister, and then to Rose until he came to a sudden halt. His blades caused a tidal wave of ice shavings as his eyes shot back to me. All the movement and sound around me ceased to exist. It was as if someone had hit the pause button on my life. My breath caught in my throat as our eyes connected through the glass of the boards and the short expanse of the rink between us, the intensity of his stare making it seem as though he were no more than two feet in front of me. I didn't know what to do. Should I smile? Should I wave? Should I look away? But I couldn't do any of those things. I couldn't even blink. I was frozen. Then something blocked Edward from my sight for just a moment, and the sounds and action surrounding me flooded in again; the play button re-engaged when our eye contact was severed. I shook my head slightly to clear the clouds from my brain a bit, but couldn't look away entirely. Edward was still there, looking in my direction, but Emmett had approached him and was tapping on his helmet. Edward said something to him and he glanced over, waving jovially when he spotted our group. Emmett nudged him playfully in the ribs until Edward shook him off and swatted him over the head, returning his gaze to me immediately.

"He's cute, isn't he?" Alice asked, making me jump slightly in my seat and blush at being caught staring. I'd practically forgotten everyone around me and was suddenly aware how painfully obvious I was being. I ducked down in my seat a little, grabbing for the drink Alice had fetched for me as a distraction. "What?" "Edward. He's cute." "Uh, sure. I guess," I responded around my straw. Cute was a drastic understatement. I sipped deeply from the icy soda in hopes that it would cool my face. "Don't try to fool me, Bella. I see you blushing there under that ugly hat," Alice taunted me, poking her manicured finger at my cheek. "Whatever, Alice," I tried to brush her off, reaching up to adjust said ugly hat. She merely giggled and said, "You're not the only one staring." I glanced around at the people surrounding us, spotting a few women giggling and waving out at the players, trying to get their attention. "Well, you said it yourself, Alice, he's cute. Of course people are going to stare." "No, silly, not the skanky puck bunnies. Edward. Staring at you." My head snapped up, my eyes automatically returning to where I'd last seen him. Sure enough, he was still there staring at me. Emmett was no longer with him, having returned to his warm up, but Edward was still standing there, his brow slightly furrowed in concentration. When he noticed me looking at him again, a beautiful crooked grin spread across his face. He shook his head a bit with a look of bewilderment before lifting his gloved hand in a slight wave. I shyly lifted my own to return the gesture, biting my lip when I realized I was grinning back at him. A harsh buzzer resonated through the arena and he skated off to join his teammates making their way off the ice on the opposite side, glancing back at me once. My gaze following his form until he disappeared into the tunnel. "Ahem," Alice cleared her throat and I looked over at her sheepishly. She simply raised her brow knowingly with a sly smile and sat back in her seat, turning to her other side to whisper suspiciously with Rose. The Zamboni circled the ice, glossing over the plethora of blade marks from the warm up, and Esme continued to ask about how I was adjusting and filling me in on some local shops and cafes to check out. Soon enough, the lights faded down as the Zamboni exited the ice, and the entire arena went completely dark. A loud rock song blared out through the speakers as a video of clips played on the screens of the jumbotron, showing highlights from the last game to get the fans pumped. The video switched to what must have been a sort of team anthem, and I was able to make out a few words as the girls sang along beside me. Something about fighting to the end, cutting teeth, and the State of Hockey. It sounded violent. The cheers picked up again when a spotlight hit the ice, following a young boy in a hockey jersey as he skated across the ice to plant a flag in the center circle. The crowd only intensified as they started clapping in unison and I found myself caught up in the energy of it all, clapping along. "Okay, Minnesota, on your feet. Here they come: Your Minnesota Wild!" The announcer rumbled as spotlights washed over the crowd and a loud foghorn blared. I rose to my feet along with those around me. I couldn't hear myself think as the crowd screamed and the players reappeared on the ice, circling like sharks on their respective sides.

"Now, let's meet the starting lineup for the Minnesota Wild!" I was amazed to hear Jasper's name announced on starting defense, and Edward on center. Emmett apparently came into play later on when they needed an enforcer. The screams were deafening when Edward was announced and I laughed incredulously, looking around at the thousands of fans shouting for him. I wondered if he got a rush out of their enthusiasm or if he felt overwhelmed by it at times like I did. The crowd quieted a bit as we were asked to stand for the national anthem and I caught Edward looking over at me again while the familiar tune was sung by a local artist. Once again I couldn't look away from him. After the playing of the National anthem, the players took their stances. I saw Edward crouch at center ice, the ref poised between him and his opponent as they awaited the drop that would put the puck in play and start the game. I held my breath as I saw the puck fall, and was instantly swept away by the speed and excitement. Alice and Rose were even more intense than I remembered hearing them when they watched the games at home. Esme was the real surprise though. The volume that tiny, polished woman could project was mind-boggling and she was very vocal in cheering for her boys. All three of them. Any time one was on the ice, and especially in control of the puck, she would shout out encouragements. I wondered if they could hear her out there. Carlisle remained in his trancelike state. I'd think he'd fallen asleep with his eyes open if I didn't see them darting around the ice and following the action. Every once in awhile his jaw would clench if there were a particularly close play. Otherwise he remained silent and motionless. I clapped along with the crowd and Alice and Rose tried to clue me in to some of the finer points of the game. It wasn't too difficult to follow along, though I'm sure I was missing out on a lot of the details. Every time I saw number ten jump over the boards and back on the ice, my eyes glued to him. Edward was truly a beautiful skater. I'm sure a hockey player wouldn't necessarily find that a flattering description, but it was the only one I had. The way he moved over the ice was both ruthless and elegant. He was impossibly fast, but hardly looked as if he was expending any energy at all. Once in awhile throughout the first period, I felt his eyes on me. Every time it was like a hum of energy running through me. "What the hell is his problem?" Alice complained, clearly frustrated. "What? Who?" "Edward. He's just being weird. Distracted again." "How so?" I asked nervously, as I hadn't even noticed. I'd been too busy watching him the whole time, but not really paying attention to what he was actually doing. "He missed a simple pass, got called off sides twice. Just stupid mistakes. Here," she gestured at him, "watch this." Sure enough, at that moment, I saw Edward pause across the ice up against the boards and an opposing player coming right at him. I cringed a bit, bringing my hands to my face as he was checked into the boards and knocked right off his feet. Jasper skated past him as he jumped to his feet and appeared to say something to him. I could see Edward set his jaw in determination and a fire burn in his eyes as he shot up the ice after the blue and white player with the puck. A few rapid maneuvers with his stick and Edward had possession of the puck. He tore down the opposite end in a break away, facing off with their goalie. He faked to the left before winding back and firing a shot at the upper right hand corner of the net, sailing right past the goalie to score the first goal of the game.

The crowd shot to its feet as the foghorn blared again and I couldn't stop myself from cheering at the top of my lungs. Seeing Edward score was exhilarating. What made it more so was the fact that though his teammates were crowded in a group hug around him, his eyes were pointed directly at me as a cocky grin adorned his face. The game stayed close after that, the lead wavering back and forth between teams, and by the last few minutes of the second period it seemed like every person in the stadium was at the edge of their seat. On the ice it was clear to see that the players were becoming more and more aggressive. I didn't catch Edward looking my way again, but enjoyed watching him dominate on the ice. He scored a second goal and had backed up one of his teammates with an assist. During a lull in the period, Rose was explaining what icing meant to me when out of nowhere, one of the white players skated up behind Emmett, his stick gripped with both hands in front of him and shoved right into him, knocking Emmett into the boards with a loud crash. Rosalie screamed in protest, and only became more belligerent when it became obvious that the ref hadn't seen anything and wasn't going to blow the whistle. Esme shot to her feet and I couldn't stop my jaw from dropping in shock when I heard what came out of her mouth. "Oh come on, Ref, are you blind? Get your head out of your ass and open your eyes!" she screamed out through the throng of 'boos'. No one else around me even flinched. Carlisle remained focused on the ice as play resumed and Alice and Rose continued their jabbing comments about the play until they caught my look. Alice glanced up at Esme then back at me and laughed. "Don't mess with one of Mama bear's cubs." I joined her laughter as Esme settled back into her seat, eyes now focused to the ice. "Can you believe that guy?" she asked, clearly stewing. "That was a textbook case of cross checking! That jerk should be in the box." "Don't you worry, Esme, Emmett thrives on bad calls. Gives him the chance to dish out some payback," Rose said, clapping as the Wild cleared the puck out of their half. I could see Emmett seething as he hung back on the home side of the ice while possession exchanged back and forth between teams. He looked like a large cat just waiting for his opportunity to pounce. Sure enough, it came with only twenty seconds left in the period when the very player who had struck him passed by with possession of the puck. Emmett skated right into his path, bracing his shoulders and flat lining the guy before scooping up the puck and darting up the ice. He quickly passed it across to a teammate who slipped it right past the goalie and into the net. Well into the third period, Edward scored his third goal of the game to bring the Wild's lead up five to three and when we'd settled back into our seats, I caught Alice smirking and shaking her head. "What is it?" I asked. "Talk about mood swings," she scoffed. "First period he acts like a complete airhead and now he pulls a three-sixty and turns into a total showoff. He's not always this good you know. Don't get me wrong, he's great most of the time, but it's not like he's getting hat tricks every game or anything. It's just weird, that's all." "Yeah, weird," I agreed, giggling to myself at Alice's bafflement. I could guess the cause for his earlier distraction since it seemed like every time he made a mistake, he'd been looking in my direction. I know every time I made a stupid mistake in a program, I became all the more determined to stick every move that came after to make up for it. Maybe Edward was the same way. The game ended with no further goals being scored by either team, and the tone of the crowd was uplifted as

people scurried up the aisles, eager to get on their way. Carlisle finally snapped out of his trance and a satisfied smile spread across his face as he and Esme exchanged high five's at a successful match. We hung around for a few minutes chatting with them before they said their goodbyes and went to find the guys to congratulate them before making their way home. The guys would be heading up here, where I'm told they routinely met up with Alice and Rose before heading over to a local hangout. Esme and Carlisle both hugged me goodbye, as well as the other girls, and Esme asked if I'd like to meet up with her for coffee sometime. I found myself eagerly agreeing, without feeling a single sense of obligation. I truly enjoyed Esme's company. It was different than Alice and Rose, but welcome at the same time. Twenty minutes later, I was officially freaking out. I couldn't stay still, fidgeting as covertly as I could so as not to not draw Alice and Rose's attention. They were chatting happily, and while they included me in the conversation, asking how I'd liked the game and telling me about where we'd be going after this, I could barely concentrate on their words. I tried to answer and comment vaguely at the appropriate times, but I think they were on to me as they shifted closer together and started whispering conspiratorially. My eyes were darting everywhere, not wanting to be caught off guard, but having no clue which direction the guys would be coming from. Suddenly I heard Emmett's friendly, booming voice call out. "Babybel!" I turned toward his voice, rolling my eyes good-naturedly. He rushed forward, scooping me up into a crushing bear hug before I could see if anyone else was with him. "Hi, Emmett," I wheezed out, feeling the strain on my ribcage as he squeezed before setting me back on the ground. "Flying solo, huh, girl? Where your flyboys at?" "Retired. Hopefully on a permanent basis." "Schweet. Now I can really toss you around. Alice complains too much when I try. And she bites too." "Damn right," Alice said, clicking her teeth together as she and Rose stood beside me. "I had to come up with some sort of defense mechanism growing up with a big bully like you." "Squirt, you wound me," Emmett said, clutching his heart before reaching out to ruffle her hair. "Damn it, Emmett!" she squealed, ducking out from under his hand to hide behind Jasper, who'd come to stand with us. Emmett moved to wrap Rose in a big hug, noisily kissing her temple and revealing Edward, who'd been standing behind him. He was holding back a little, his hands shoved in the front pockets of his jeans. Seeing him up close again without all the equipment and padding, I was able to get a better look. His hair was wet, either from sweat or a post-game shower, making it darker than I'd remembered and it hung down in messy clumps over his forehead. The scruff that had dusted his jaw at the airport was gone, leaving his face smooth, showing off the line of his jaw and revealing a subtle dent in his chin. Looking down past his face, I realized that I'd never really been able to see much of his body until now. At the airport he'd been wearing a heavy jacket and on the ice he'd been wearing pads that made it difficult to see his form. I tried not to stare, but couldn't stop my eyes from wandering a bit and taking him in. He wore a dark gray long sleeved shirt that was somewhat fitted but not clingy in the slightest. I could tell that his arms were muscular but couldn't see their actual definition. He was much closer to Jasper's build than Emmett's. From the way the fabric fit across his chest it was obvious that he was toned, but again I couldn't tell anything specific. His dark jeans adorned long legs and he wore scuffed Converse tennis shoes. Seeing them on his feet, I had to smile. I had the exact same ones at home, and in similar, worn condition. I blushed a little when I returned my survey to his face, hoping he hadn't noticed my perusal.

Our eyes locked again and I offered him a shy smile. He stepped closer, still keeping a distance of a couple feet between us. He wasn't any closer than was polite, but I felt the air charge between us. I could practically feel his warmth wrapping around me and drawing me into its embrace. "Hey," he said quietly, giving me that same look from under his lashes that I remembered from the airport. I melted a little at hearing his smooth voice again, even in such a small dose. "Hey," I answered breathily, trying to stop myself from shying away from his gaze to glance at my feet. We stood there, unspeaking for I don't know how long. I was at a complete loss for words; the only thing my mind could conjure was 'I missed you.' Certain that saying so would freak him out, I bit my tongue and contented myself with just being in his presence, feeling those burning emerald eyes searing into my soul again. "So," Alice chirped, drawing both our eyes as she appeared by my side, glancing back and forth between us. "You two know each other?" Something about her tone was a little too pleased as she asked the question she'd clearly already determined the answer to. "Yeah, sort of," Edward stammered, removing one hand from his pocket to pull at his hair. "We only met for a minute," I added when he didn't say more. "At the airport." Alice's face took on the look of a kid on Christmas morning as I remembered just a moment too late that I'd confessed to her about my baggage claim crush. It took every ounce of self-control I had not to smack my forehead with my palm. "Oh reaaaaally," she said, shooting me a pointed look as I blushed like a tomato. "Isn't that a happy coincidence? Well I guess I don't have to tell you then, Bella, that this is my brother, Edward Cullen. Edward, this is Bella Swan, our new neighbor." "Bella Swan," he repeated softly, reaching out to take my hand in his and causing a jolt of electricity to shoot up my arm at his touch. "It's a pleasure to officially meet you." "You too," I murmured in reply, a bit dazed at standing here in front of him, feeling his hand on mine. He didn't shake it as I'd have expected, merely held it, our hands clasped in the small expanse between us. "C'mon you two," Jasper called out and I looked up to see that the others had moved to wait by the doors. "We're headin' out." Edward seemed to hesitate a moment before dropping my hand. I didn't move right away, caught up in closing my fingers over my palm to try and hold onto the warmth that his hand had left there. "You're coming, aren't you?" Edward asked, his tone a mixture of hope with a hint of urgency. I looked up to see that he'd taken a couple steps toward the others. He must have looked back when I didn't follow. "Right, yeah. I am," I said, quickly joining him and walking by his side until we reached the others. Jasper had hoisted Alice onto his back with her legs wrapped around his waist, while Emmett's arm was draped over Rose's shoulders. They looked so comfortable in their own little units. I glanced up at Edward with a shy smile as we made our way through the doors and kept my arms wrapped around myself to ward off the chill of the night air. He walked close to me as we followed the group, his own hands stuffed back in his pockets. We didn't have far to walk as the place was just across the intersection, a sort of Irish pub style bar called The Liffey. We found a table toward the back corner, the guys getting an occasional congratulatory high five as we made our way through the boisterous crowd when they were recognized by fans who were obviously well into their celebrating by the looks of things.

It was quieter when we settled in around the table and I was relieved that I'd be able to hear myself think again after the noise of the arena. The couples stuck close together again, snuggling up with each other, leaving Edward and I grouped together between them. A waitress made her way over to us minutes later and Emmett put in an order for the table without so much as consulting with anyone. "It's kind of tradition," Edward filled me in, seeing my confused expression. "What is?" "We always get the same thing if we win. If we lose everyone gets to pick their own." "Why's that?" "Everyone has their own recipe for coping with a loss. Like Jasper over there needs Southern Comfort, a little clich, but it works. Emmett likes Captain and Coke when he's feeling down, the caffeine perks him right back up and before long he starts running around trying to do the pose from the commercials. Problem is, by that time he's usually too tanked to stand on one leg and ends up falling flat on his ass." "What about you?" I asked, still giggling as I pictured Emmett drunk. It wasn't hard to imagine. "Oh, Eddie here likes the girly shit," Emmett cut in. "What were you drinking the other night? Strawberry daiquiris?" Edward's face took on an adorable shade of pink and I realized he was blushing. It was good to know I wasn't the only one with that problem. "One time, man. One fucking time I order a fruity drink and it'll cost me forever." "You know it, bro. Pansy shit, that's what it is." "It was actually quitedelicious," he said, giving me an odd look that I couldn't quite decipher. "You're killing me, Eddie," Emmett groaned. "Emmett, how many times do I have to ask you to stop calling me that?" "Three million. We are currently at one million, three hundred thousand and twelve. You've got a long way to go, Eddie boy," Emmett jabbed, ruffling his hair and laughing as Edward scowled and batted Emmett's hand away. "So, what are we having then?" I asked, drawing his attention back to me and trying to save him from further harassment. "Guinness." "Which is?" "Hold the phone," Emmett raised his voice, slapping his hand down on the table in front of me. "You've never had a Guinness before?" "No." "Oh, Swan," he shook his head dejectedly.

"Cut her a break, Big Guy. It's an acquired taste," Alice defended. "What is it?" "Only the most delicious glass of awesome you will ever taste in your entire life," Emmett declared. "It's a type of beer. Irish," Edward expanded for me. "It's not just a type of beer. It's the only beer." "Emmett's a little caught up in our heritage when it comes to liquor," Alice explained, rolling her eyes at her brother. "So, you're Irish?" I asked. "As green as the leaf of a four leaf clover we is, lassie," Emmett lilted, sounding a bit like the Lucky Charms leprechaun. "Please, Emmett," Alice scoffed. "Mom's only half Irish and Dad's what, like a fourth?" She looked to Edward for confirmation. "That makes us three-eighths Irish." "The only three-eighths that count for anything," Emmett insisted as the waitress returned and unloaded a tray of glasses in front of us. The drinks looked almost black, with a layer of creamy foam on top and I eyed it a bit dubiously as one was placed in front of me. "Shall we raise a glass, boyos?" Rose piped up with a terrible attempt at an Irish brogue. "Oh Rosie, my love, you haven't a drop of Irish blood in ya," Emmett chuckled, maintaining his earlier accent. "On the contrary, I have quite a bit of Irish in me very often," she argued back with a smirk. "O-ho!" Emmett exploded into laughter, clapping his hands loudly, "Did you hear that one, Hale?" "Do you really want to start this again, Em?" Jasper drawled, leaning back in his seat and curling his arm around Alice's shoulder to tuck her in next to him. "I've got more than enough ammunition to fight back. Like last night, when Alice dressed up like" "Gross, stop right there, dude. That's my baby sister you're playing dress up with." "That's my baby sister you're sticking your Irish in," Jasper lobbed right back. "Yeah, but she I mean, she's my Rosie," Emmett stammered with a pathetic pout. "She's my Alice." "Man, I need to get some friends who aren't hooking up with my blood relatives." "I think technically the hooking up phase ends when you get engaged," Alice pointed out. "No way, that just means you're hooking up more regularly. Honeymoon phase and all that shit." "Can we just do this already?" Edward spoke up, knocking the bottom of his glass on the table. "I'm going to need alcohol if I have to hear any more."

"From the mouth of someone in desperate need of regular hook-ups," Emmett muttered under his breath, before lifting his glass toward the center of the table. Edward merely glared at him and lifted his own, along with the rest of us. "Here's to kicking ass and taking names, and sending those Canucks home crying to their Canadian mamas," Emmett toasted, making us all laugh as our glasses met in a series of loud clinks. "Well played tonight, guys," Rose added before taking a drink. I lifted the glass to my lips, my eyes connecting with Edward's over the rim. I watched the way his Adam's apple bobbed as he gulped and felt parched, eagerly drinking to quench the sudden thirst. The unfamiliar liquid wasn't what I'd expected. It was bitter, but amazingly smooth. It reminded me of Edward's voice, deep and velvety and intense, like a soft punch to my gut. "You like, Swan?" Emmett asked as I set my glass down. "Surprisingly, yes," I answered. "Well then, there's hope for you yet," he winked at me. The six of us chattered happily, mostly about the game. It was fun to listen to the guys talk about what we'd just watched from the other side. I was well aware that what went on behind the scenes was often just as interesting as what played out in front of the crowd. Apparently one of their teammates had forgotten his cup during the first period and was really paying for it by the time they made their way back to the locker room at the break. "Seriously, it was like the Canucks had radar or something!" Emmett guffawed at his peer's misfortune. "The poor schmuck took more shots to the groin in that period than I have all year!" Alice and Rose offered up their commentary on funny people they'd spotted in the stands, like the two flamboyant gentleman behind us who wore sequined logo shirts and mardi gras beads and had spent the entire second period debating the physical attributes of their home team. One of them had even taken out a pen to jot notes into their program. Alice filled Emmett in on Esme's leap to defend him and I still couldn't stop chuckling at her outburst. As the evening wore on I was amazed at how comfortable I was with these people and how easily they'd all accepted me. When I spoke, they really listened to what I had to say and responded to it. So many times when I spoke it seemed that others paused long enough to be polite before just continuing on when I finished as if I hadn't said anything at all. I would have been completely relaxed if not for the fact that sometime after the baskets of appetizers arrived and everyone dug in ravenously, Edward had slung his arm casually over the back of my chair. I was hyperaware of how close he was. Every time his arm brushed against my back I'd close my eyes and bask in the warmth that the contact caused to shimmer through me. Though I tried to hide how he affected me, I kept catching Rose and Alice shooting me coy, smirking glances and giggling together. As the snacks disappeared, the others resumed their commentary on the evening and I tensed slightly when I heard Edward clear his throat softly. "So, you're the hotshot," he lowered his arm and turned a bit in his chair to face me. "Excuse me?" "Alice has been chattering non-stop about some hot shot figure skater moving in next door to them," he chuckled a

bit, lowering his voice so the others couldn't listen as they continued to joke amongst themselves. I turned toward him, mirroring his position so I could hear better. "I wouldn't say hotshot. More like moderately entertaining," I responded, making him laugh. "Pretty cool, though. I never expected the beautiful girl tripping over her crutches to turn out to be one of the best female athletes in the world." "That's exaggerating a bit," I said, reaching for my drink to hide my blush a bit. I couldn't help but feel the butterflies in my stomach awaken at hearing him refer to me as beautiful. "Is it?" he said, the tone of his voice sincere and not really questioning at all. "You're not so bad yourself out there," I diverted, attempting to steer the conversation away from myself. "I don't know about that," he laughed, running his fingers through his hair. "Out of the two of us, I'm not the one with an Olympic medal." "Hey, you could always trade your stick in for a sequined shirt and give it a go. Show me your jazz hands," I requested. "What?" he asked with an adorable frown of confusion. "Your jazz hands, Edward," I repeated, demonstrating myself. "You can't win a gold medal without perfecting them." "Guess I'll have to work on that," he laughed. Edward and I continued to talk lowly in our corner of the table, our conversation ranging from music we both liked to books we'd read. I was amazed to find we had a lot of similar interests. We both loved Kings of Leon and Muse and hated Nickelback and Lady Gaga. He groaned when I admitted to secretly loving Harlequin romances and I laughed when he told me his guilty pleasure was collecting vintage Batman comic books. I learned that he could go on forever about classical composers and I found myself enjoying his passion and insight on songs that I'd listened to endlessly from childhood. I also learned that he played piano in his spare time, something Esme had gotten all her children into when they were younger to balance out their sports involvement. Apparently Edward was the only one who'd stuck with it. I could picture him there, sitting at the bench in front of a glossy black piano, his long, elegant fingers caressing the ivory keys. It was when I reached for my glass to ease my dry throat that I noticed it was completely empty. Glancing around the room, I realized we'd been there for hours. The crowd was thinning as the bartenders announced last call. Rose looked bleary eyed as she rested her head on Emmett's arm while Alice looked as bright eyed as ever. They all started gathering their things and I felt a slight pang that the evening was coming to an end. I chanced a glance back at Edward and noticed he didn't seem too happy to be calling it a night either, but we reluctantly stood to join the rest. "You're away tomorrow, right guys?" Alice inquired as we made our way to the front of the bar. I don't know why she even asked; she had their season schedule completely memorized from start to finish. "You know we are, baby," Jasper confirmed, wrapping his arms around her from behind. "You'll be back on Sunday morning?" "Yeah, at the ass crack of dawn," Emmett lamented.

"We should do something! All of us," she proposed, finally getting to her point and lifting a brow at me. "Don't even think about dragging my butt out of bed before noon, Squirt. You know you'd never be able to lift my bodacious body," he quipped, comically flexing his arms. "Winter Carnival is startin' up," Jasper offered. "Why don't we hit up Rice Park? Landmark probably has their outdoor rink up and runnin' by now." "Is that okay with you, Bella?" Edward addressed me. "I mean, you probably shouldn't be skating yet, right?" "No, it's alright," I assured him, enjoying the little tug on my heart at his concern. "Your dad said I might be fine to skate as long as I just circle around. I don't think a public, open rink would allow for much else, anyways." "Great!" Alice perked up. "So one o'clock? Does that give you guys enough time to recover?" "I suppose," Emmett said on a hefty sigh. "Oh, please," Rose snorted. "You'll probably be up and about before all of us." "Excluding this one," Alice amended, pointing at me. "Crazy pants over there is home from the gym and cooking breakfast before my alarm even goes off." We made our way outside and Jasper hailed us a cab since their cars were all parked back at the Xcel. We said goodnight as the cab pulled in front of us, wishing the guys good luck in their game tomorrow evening. The girls, having already finished their goodbyes, scooted into the back of the cab and across the seat, leaving enough space for me to slide in after them. I paused before getting in, seeing that Edward was still lingering there and had leaned forward to rest his arms on top of the open door. "I feel like we've been here before," he said with his crooked smile, referencing the fact that our current stances mimicked exactly how we'd stood to say goodbye at the airport. "Yeah, dj vu," I agreed with a soft laugh. "You're not going to disappear again this time, are you?" he asked. It was clear that he was trying to joke, but was sincerely curious at the same time. "It'd be kinda hard to," I said. "You know where I live." "That's true. You can't hide from me now, Swan." "I'm really scared, Cullen." "You should be." He reached out, lifting the brim of my hat slightly and brushing a strand of hair that had fallen out of my ponytail behind my ear. "See you Sunday?" "Yeah. Sunday," I agreed, not moving from my spot. "Let's go, Bella!" Rose whined from inside the cab and tugged at my leg, catching me by surprise and throwing me off balance a little. Edward reached out over the door of the cab and grasped my elbows to steady me. "Dj vu indeed," he chuckled. "What do you do when I'm not around to catch you?"

"Fall," I said seriously. "A lot." We both chuckled as he shifted around the door, running his hands down my tingling forearms to squeeze my hands once before releasing me. "Guess I'll have to stay close then." I blushed at that, biting my lip to keep from breaking into a ridiculously goofy grin. "Come on, Juliet," Rose muttered, grabbing my hand and tugging me into the cab. "Good night, Edward," Alice sang sweetly across the cab. "Night, Ali. Rose," he said to them. "Bella." "Night, Edward," I responded before he shut the door and stepped back onto the curb with Emmett and Jasper. We'd barely pulled out of their sight when Alice and Rose began bombarding me. I cowered back in my seat at the sheer volume of their enthusiastic inquiries. "Oh my God, Bella! I can't believe Edward was your baggage claim hottie!" Rose exclaimed. "Seriously, this is too crazy. When did you find out? Why didn't you say anything?" "Do you like him?" "It sure looked like he likes you." "Oh my gosh, Ali, did you see them at the bar? Both off in their own little world, they were so cute!" Rose turned toward Alice, effectively turning the conversation to talk like I wasn't sitting right beside them. "I know, and what was with that 'goodbye'? I swear, if he wasn't my brother I'd be jealous of the way he was looking at her," Alice gushed. "No kidding. Oh, to be young and in love again," Rose sighed dreamily. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," I finally cut them off. "First of all, Rose you're only a year older than me and clearly madly in love with Emmett, what are you talking about?" "Yeah, Bella, but that's different. Emmett and I have been dating for three years. We're practically married. It's different than the beginning stages of romance. Falling in love is just so thrilling and exciting!" "Which brings me to my second point," I continued. "There is no love. I barely know the guy. Yes, I'll admit to being attracted to him, but who wouldn't be? Attraction is a long way from love." "Cut us a break, Bella," Alice scoffed. "We were watching you two make googly eyes at each other all night. Maybe it's not love yet, but it's easy to see where it's headed." "How can you see that?" I asked with a hint of panic. "I don't know anything about dating a guy or being in a relationship. How can you possibly picture us falling in love when I can't even imagine going out on a date without feeling a panic attack brewing?" "Bella, you're making too big a deal out of it. Dating and being in a relationship doesn't have to be so daunting." "Yeah," Rose added. "Some people might actually consider those things fun. Comforting even. It can be really nice having someone who's always on your side." "I wouldn't have a clue what to do," I insisted, still feeling the slight edge of hysteria.

"You don't have to do anything, Bella, just be yourself. Edward seemed to like you just fine tonight. And you had fun, didn't you?" "Well, yeah," I admitted. "But that's different. It wasn't a date, you guys were all there." "Bells, you guys barely spoke to us all night," Rose stated matter of factly. "You may as well have been there on your own." "Just don't worry about it so much," Alice said, retrieving cab fare out of her purse as we pulled up in front of our building. "We'll all hang out on Sunday. Rose, Emmett, Jasper and I will all be there with you. Just go with it and see what happens." As I washed my face and crawled into bed that night, I tried repeating Alice's words as a mantra. Just go with it and see what happens. It's no big deal. Just be yourself. I knew myself well enough to know that it would take much more than repeating a few words over and over to calm me down. This wouldn't be the end of it. But as sleep crept in, I concentrated on remembering the tingling warmth of Edward's touch that still clung to my skin and visions of green eyes, glossy with laughter or focused in quiet intensity. I pictured his lopsided grin and fell asleep smiling.

~*~

Chapter Five Baby, Its Cold Outside


Chapter Links: Scratch & Spin Move Baby Its Cold Outside By the time Alice arrived to help me get ready on Sunday morning, I was a complete wreck. I honestly didn't think I had been this anxious waiting for the long program to start in Torino. No matter how many times Rose and Alice reassured me that this wasn't a big deal and that everything would be fine, I couldn't stop fretting over it. On the one hand, I was excited to see Edward again, while on the other I was nervous not knowing what to expect and terrified I'd screw up somehow and make a fool of myself. He was just so smooth. While I was just...not. So far the only embarrassing thing that had happened to me in his presence were a couple little stumbles, nothing to lose sleep over. I was worried that my lucky streak wouldn't last through a full day in his company. Added to that was the fact that we'd be going skating. Why did I agree to this again? I hadn't been on the ice in weeks, and the last time I was had not been a pretty sight. I was sure to make a fool out of myself. National Champion, my ass. My how far the mighty have fallen. I'd probably be clutching at the boards like a calf learning to walk. Who knows, maybe my fall had knocked out every speck of talent I'd possessed and I'd turn into a stumbling klutz on the ice as well as off. Weirder things have happened. I knew deep down that the reason I'd had such a hard time before was because Renee had tossed me out on the ice before I was physically read. I was ready now. If I sucked and couldn't hack it out there, what would be my excuse? Too late now, I thought to myself as Alice took a curling iron to my hair. I'd already backed out on going to meet him once and no matter how nervous I was, it wasn't going to happen again today. Even if I wanted to, Alice would be there to drag me out again. The woman was like a dog with a bone, fully determined to shove the two of us together.

The night before, the three of us had camped out on the couch in their apartment and watched the game. It wasn't quite as exciting as watching live and in person had been, but still fun when I had Rose and Alice there talking over the TV announcers to give their own version of commentary. Of course theirs consisted more of rating the sex appeal of the players and drooling over Jasper and Emmett every time they hit the ice, but hey, it was entertaining. At first I had felt a little thrown off at how open Alice and Rose were with each other. Even though they were intimate with each other's sibling, that didn't stop them from gossiping endlessly about the "dirty details." And now that Alice was certain that Edward and I were long lost soul mates who had merely been searching for our other halves, only to finally find it in each other at the most unexpected time and place (her description, not mine), they'd gotten me roped into their giggle infested chit chats. I probably found out more about Jasper and Emmett than I ever truly needed to and after listening to Alice try to give me a catalogue of Edward's charms for twenty minutes, I cut her off, insisting that if I really wanted to get to know Edward, I'd ask him, not his sister. Even if she was my BFF. While she toned it down a bit after that, she still made a point to bring him up at every possible occasion for the rest of the night. I knew she was trying to encourage me that he was a great guy so that I would fall for him, but honestly all her words did was make me more and more overwhelmed. I already knew Edward was a great guy. I could already tell that he was funny and intelligent and driven and completely wonderful. I could see with my own two eyes that he was completely gorgeous. My knees could attest to it because they tended to melt into oblivion anytime I was face to face with him. I didn't need Alice to convince me of any of that. I already knew he was perfect. What could he possibly see in me? We'd had fun the other night and it seemed like he'd enjoyed my company, but I just couldn't imagine why he'd be interested. I felt like I had nothing to offer to a man like Edward. I didn't bring anything special to the looks department. He didn't need any help on the financial end or to cling to my so called "celebrity status" because he had plenty of both on his own. He couldn't even be interested in me because of my friends or family. My friends were all his first and my family was practically non-existent at the moment. Besides, he already had the perfect parents and the perfect siblings. How could I possibly fit into any of that? Sure I enjoyed hanging out with everyone and considered them my friends, the closest I'd ever had, but being one of six buddies was a far cry from being half of a couple in a group of perfect matches. "Hey," Alice snapped her fingers in my face twice and pointed at me with a stern expression as her other hand held the iron to my hair. "Stop it." "What?" I asked defensively. "I can read your face like a Cosmo article. Stop obsessing. Just have fun. You don't have to make any life changing decisions today. We're just hanging out." "Yeah. Okay," I said, blowing out a breath and shaking off the nerves. She was right. I enjoyed Edward's company. I loved spending time with the girls and Emmett, and even Jasper. I just needed to chill out. Thirty minutes later we'd bundled up and piled into Rose's car. The Landmark Center was only a block from where we'd been the previous night and we arrived before I had any further opportunity to psych myself out. The day was fairly warm for January in Minnesota, a whopping twenty-three degrees. Since we'd primarily be outside all day, Alice had equipped us with little warming packets for our gloves and I peeled mine open to activate it as we waited, rubbing it between my palms and pulling double duty of giving my hands something to do while we waited. Glancing around, I realized just how pretty this little central spot of the city was. Rice Park was mostly made up of a large stone square, lined with wrought iron benches and housing a beautiful fountain that had been drained for the

season. A light dusting of snow took away some of the starkness of the expanse of cement. Trees lined the square block and beautiful historic buildings stood on all sides, the most impressive being the Landmark Center. It had the feel of a fairy tale castle with turrets, arches, and a jutting clock tower. I could almost picture Cinderella fleeing down the steps, dropping her slipper and disappearing into the tree line while Prince Charming searched for her. "Hey," I heard a deep familiar voice in my ear. I gasped in surprise and whipped around to face him, dropping the little packet of heat to the ground. We both reached for it at the same time, our fingers brushing and causing me to jerk back a little and stand back up. "I'm sorry," I fumbled, "I was sort of spaced out, I didn't even see you." He chuckled a bit as he stood again, reaching for my hand to tuck the warmer back into my palm and cupping his hand over it, the result a delicious spreading of heat through my entire body that made the frigid climate seem downright sultry. "I'm just sneaky like that," he smirked. I heard the laughter of the rest of the group, congregating just a few feet away and snapped my hand out of Edward's grasp, not wanting to fuel the fires of their speculation. Edward furrowed his brow at bit at me when I tucked my hands into the pockets of my black and white plaid coat, but didn't say anything as we stepped over to the others. "You ladies ready?" Jasper asked, holding out his arm bent at the elbow for Alice to link hers. "Did you bring your brace?" Edward inquired softly as we approached the benches surrounding the rink. "Yes, doctor," I teased, patting the drawstring bag slung over my shoulder that held the brace and my skates. He scrunched his face at me in amusement. "Just checking." Alice and Jasper sat down on a bench while Edward and I took the one opposite them. Emmett accompanied Rose up to the rental booth to rent some blades for her. Apparently three years in Minnesota hadn't been quite long enough for her to acquire a pair of her own. I tugged open the string on my bag and dropped it into my lap when I saw what Alice pulled out of hers. They were figure skates. I think. They were also hot pink with silver glittery laces and rhinestones outlining her initials. She didn't catch my look of amusement, but when I felt a nudge at my side, I realized that Edward did. I looked over at him to see him make the universal crazy sign of circling his finger at his temple with an affectionate grin on his face, making me giggle. Alice glanced up then, spotting us with our heads close together as she finished lacing up her skates. She wiggled her eyebrows at me as I tried to wipe the giddy expression from my face. "Come on, Jazzy," Alice ordered, reaching for his hand and practically dragging him down the rubber mat that led to the ice. Now that they were gone, I felt like I could let my guard down a little. Her eyes caught way more than I wanted them to. "Seriously?" I asked in amazement. "Yeah. She got those when she started dating Jasper. She said if she was going to marry a hockey player, she needed to own a pair of skates. That's what she came home with." "She sure is something else," I mused, tugging the brace out of my bag.

"Yeah, she's always been an odd duck." "But you love her. It's easy to see that with you and with Emmett." "They're alright I suppose," he responded. "You don't fool me, Cullen. You wouldn't know what to do without them." "Yeah, you're probably right," he conceded, lacing up his skates and pulling the bottom of his jeans over the top of his boots as I strapped on my brace, then unattached the velcro, adjusting the tightness a bit before refastening the straps. Grabbing the bag off the ground next to me, I pulled out my polished white leather skates. Hello, friends. "No rentals for you, eh, Swan?" "Gross. Do you have any clue what kind of feet have been in those things? Or do you find contracting a foot fungus romantic?" "Do you have your own bowling shoes, too?" "No. I've never been bowling." "Really?" "No, never." "Huh." As I reached down to tug on my skates, I bumped against Edward's knee. It was then that I noticed how close we were sitting. Of course, my nerves kicked in and I started fumbling with my laces, missing loops and dropping the strings. Flustered, I groaned at myself and plucked my hat off so my hair would fall forward and curtain my flushed face. Get it together, you idiot! Through the tunnel vision that my hair shield provided, I zeroed in on my hands and froze when Edward's appeared on top of them. "Here," he murmured, softly brushing my hands aside then lifting my foot to rest in his lap, causing me to sit back up. "Let me?" I pushed my hair back behind my ears timidly, biting my lip and nodding my permission. His hands were impossibly gentle as he wound the laces of my boot through the hooks, tugging occasionally to tighten it around my foot and tying it in a perfectly symmetrical bow. "Done this a few times?" I tried to tease him, but I was so stirred by his touch that it came out breathy rather than snarky. He looked over and wiggled his eyebrows at me, "Every day." "Hockey skates are a bit different." "Not so very different," he said, placing my foot back on the ground, picking up the other one and sliding my shoe off. His fingers brushed lightly against my arch, causing me to jerk a bit in reflex. He glanced at me, his brow lifted in question at my flinch. "Sorry. Tickles," I said under my breath.

"Oh really?" he asked, a devilish smirk spreading across his face. "Don't you dare," I warned, my stern tone voided by the giddy smile on my face as I tugged my foot away, trying to hold it out of his reach. "Don't what, Bella?" he inquired innocently. "You know what. Don't even think about it." "Silly, Bella. You can't control someone's thoughts. I can think about all kinds of things you'll never know." "Fine, just stick to your thoughts then and watch the hands there, mister," I ordered, bringing my foot back within his reach. He took it in his hands, tugging my leg a little so I was sitting right up against him on the bench. He crossed my leg over his thigh so my foot hung down between his legs and I had to remind myself to breathe. The touch was casual, but intensely intimate at the same time. I'd never been this close to a man. Sure, I'd hugged my dad, and Emmett and Carlisle. But those were all so vastly different. I never felt sparks of electricity when they held me. I never felt the blood drain from my head, leaving me slightly dizzy when my body came in contact with them. But every time any part of me came in contact with Edward, even the slightest, fleeting touch, I felt more intensity than I ever had before. He tugged my boot on, his arms wrapped around my leg in an odd embrace as he laced me up just as effectively as he'd done with the other. Patting my foot, he looked up at me. If he was as affected by the exchange as I was, he didn't seem to show it. He cleared his throat before smiling at me. "You ready, hotshot?" I rolled my eyes at the nickname but nodded at him, tugging my hat back on and down over my ears. He removed my leg from on top of his and stood, reaching his hand down to take mine and help me up. When I stood next to him, he didn't drop it, merely started walking down the rubber mat with my mittened hand enclosed in his. I got the feeling those handwarmers were going to be completely unnecessary. We paused at the open gate in the wood boards, leaning down to tug off our skate guards and drop them by the side. Edward started to move forward to step out on the ice, but I tugged on his hand, holding him back. "Wait." He looked back at me, his brow furrowing slightly in concern. "Just give me a second, okay?" I asked, a little embarrassed at having to do so. "Take as long as you need, Bella," he replied, stepping back to face me and taking my other hand in his. "I'm not going anywhere." "I just haven't been on the ice in awhile," I stammered, trying to laugh off the sudden bout of nerves that overtook me as I saw the ice spread at my feet. "Stupid to be nervous." "No," he insisted softly but firmly. "Not stupid at all. You had a rough fall, Bella. Anyone would be shaken up after that." I could feel his thumbs gently rubbing circles over the back of my hands through my mittens. "What are you scared of?" he asked gently. "Falling," I laughed, trying to hide how truly worried I was at stepping back out there. "I won't let you. Problem solved. Anything else?" he said confidently, leaving no room for doubt that he'd do exactly that.

"It's just...I tried once already. Getting back on the ice. It was sort of a disaster. It's not something I'm looking forward to repeating." "When was that?" "Back in December," I informed him flippantly. "What?" he snapped. "What the hell were you thinking, Bella? You could have really hurt yourself trying to skate again that soon after major surgery!" "I know! I didn't want to but they-" I broke off, not wanting to say more. "They what?" he pushed. "Nothing." "Bella, please?" he implored, his voice filled with softness and understanding. When I looked up into his eyes, they emoted the same. "It's no big deal," I tried to deflect, "My mo-, manager, she wanted me back on the ice and training." "Idiot," I heard him mutter under his breath as he dropped one of my hands to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Didn't your doctor tell her that was dangerous?" "Can we not talk about this anymore right now?" I asked softly. "God, I'm sorry, Bella. I didn't mean to drag the day down. It's not my place, that was entirely out of line." "No, no, Edward, I appreciate it. I just- Can we just-" I stammered, waving my hand feebly. "Yeah," he said, agreeing to my unspoken request. I looked out at the ice in front of us. The rink was dotted with people, some older, some younger. Some were in pairs and some in larger groups. A few young kids were circling the ice in a single file line, all clenching onto the waist of the one in front of them. I spotted Alice and Jasper in the far corner from us, clasping hands and spinning in giddy circles as their laughter filled the air, mingling with the holiday music warbling from the speakers. Everywhere I looked people were smiling and I realized I really wanted to be one of them. I had always loved being on the ice. It's where I felt at home. I felt my resolve steel inside me. I needed to stop being such a wuss. Buck up, Swan. I blew out a breath and looked up at Edward, stepping up to the edge. "Ready to jump back in the saddle?" he asked with a reassuring smile. "Yes," I said confidently. "Alright. Let's go, hotshot," he winked at me and stepped out onto the ice first, still holding my hand firmly. I stepped one foot out onto the slick surface, and then the other, leaning heavily on my toe picks to plant myself in place. "First step's the hardest," he assured me, turning in a half circle to face me and grab my other hand before slowly drifting backwards until we were at arms length. "Let's go." I allowed myself to glide forward slowly, but my legs were so tense and I couldn't unlock my knees. I caught a little on the ice, pitching forward. Here comes the wipeout, I thought, automatically bracing for the fall. But Edward was

true to his promise and right there to catch me, darting forward to wrap his arms around me and hold me steady. "I've got you," he reassured me, still holding me close. "Okay?" "Yeah," I said, nodding against the wool of his jacket. "I'm good." "Let's try that again, shall we?" he suggested cheerfully, unwinding his arms and taking his original stance. I shook it off and tried to relax this time, bending my knees slightly and letting my body naturally glide forward on the blades. It was slow, I was clutching Edward's hands and refused to take my eyes off my feet, but I wasn't falling. That was already a vast improvement. "Hey," Edward said when we'd made it successfully once around the rink. "What?" I answered, still tense and looking down at my feet. "Hey," he said again, slightly laughing this time and causing me to look up at him. "You're skating!" he exclaimed. "Please," I snorted. "Edward, a toddler could do this." "You just need to get your confidence level back up. You'll be doing triple toe-loops in no time." "Do you even know what a triple toe loop is?" "No. Do you know what a triple deke is?" "No." "No? Hmm," he smirked down at me. We continued to make our way around the ice, Edward lazily coasting backwards while I began to find my groove. My strides gradually became longer and smoother, our speed increased. I remembered how to cross my legs over. It was nothing fancy, but I was really skating again. And it felt amazing. I looked up at Edward, grinning in victory, to see him smiling right back at me. "See? Piece of cake. How's the knee?" "Good," I said genuinely. It didn't feel sore or weak in the slightest. "You want to go on your own a bit?" "Sure," I said, still slightly hesitant to let go. "Just don't go too far." "I'm right here," he assured me, squeezing my hands once and letting me go. I faltered for a moment, his arms jutting out just in case I needed him, but I was able to recover and squared my shoulders before starting up again. Edward stayed by my side, stride for stride as we circled around the rink. By the fourth passing I was feeling good again and shot him a playful grin before taking off at full speed. I heard him fumble behind me for a moment before he came rushing after me, his laugh warm and uninhibited. "You're going down, Swan," he called behind me, already right on my tail again. I felt his hands brush against my coat as he tried to catch me and whirled lightly to the right, easing just out of his grasp and turning to face him, laughing breathlessly as he skidded to a quick stop and stepped back to swoop me up in his arms. "Think you're so cute, do you?"

"Sometimes," I responded, allowing myself to snuggle into his encompassing warmth for a moment. "Hey guys!" I heard Rose call out behind us as Edward eased his arms around me and stepped back a little, still smiling down at me. "Too cool for the rest of us?" she joked as she and Emmett came to a stop against the boards beside us. "Just getting Bella reacquainted with the ice," Edward explained. "Yeah?" Alice asked, skating up beside him with Jasper right behind her. "Now that you mention it things were looking pretty friendly over here." She glanced coyly between us, raising her eyebrow at her brother's narrowed eyes. "Stop hoggin' her, Eddie," Emmett griped. "What if I don't want to?" "Too bad. Mom always said you had to share. It's my turn," he tugged my arm and extracted me from Edward's grasp, hefting me up and over his shoulder. "Emmett!" I shrieked in surprise, "Put me down." "No way, Eddie will just try and swipe you back. He got enough playtime already." "Well, gee, Emmett, that's just how every girl wants to be treated. Like some shiny, new toy." "See? That's what I always thought, too. Glad you agree with me," he said patting my butt as I felt him drift away from the others. "Watch the hands, you big octopus," I chastised jokingly. "Bella, you know I'm just doing it to rattle Eddie's cage. You shoulda seen the look on his face. If I wasn't his brother he'd have punched me." "I'm sure you're mistaken." "Nope. Not one little bit. As it is I'll probably have to watch my back at practice over the next few days. The kid knows how to hold a grudge. I'll forget all about it and Boom! Sneak attack." "He has nothing to be mad at you about," I asserted. "Sure he does. I put my mitts on his woman." "I'm not his woman." "Not yet at least. C'mon, Babybel, teach me some moves!" he demanded, quickly changing the subject. "Emmett, I just mastered skating in a straight line again, I don't think I'm up for demonstrating." "So don't demonstrate, just tell me what to do. It can't be too hard, I'm a professional." "I don't even think it's possible to figure skate in hockey skates," I continued to protest as he dragged me with him to center ice where less people were traversing. The rest of the group followed, assembling close by and watching us casually as they chit chatted.

"Please, Bella?" he pleaded, pouting his bottom lip out pathetically. "Ugh, fine." I relented. Emmett hissed out a victorious, "Yes!" complete with fist pump while I heard Jasper mutter, "This should be good," under his breath. "What do you want to learn, you goofball?" "I'm game. School me in your mysterious ways, Sensei." "You're such a weirdo." "Babybel, don't even try to act like you don't love me. Resistance is futile." "You're still a weirdo." "Quit stalling and teach me some moves, coach." "Okay. Um, let's see. Let's try just a basic upright spin, that's probably easiest." Emmett was a surprisingly diligent student. He listened intently as I described the stance he needed to take and the basic principles of the move; how he'd need to keep his feet parallel and shoulder width apart while tucking everything in close to his body to go faster. He only tried to make an inappropriate joke once about tucking a very specific body part. When I shot him an unamused look, he merely muttered, "Bitchbrow, ouch. That's a powerful weapon you've got there, Babybel," and returned to mimicking my instructions. "Wanna try?" I asked when I felt confident he had it down. "Yeah, dude, let's do this thing," he clapped, clearly amped. "Have at it, big guy," I said, gliding back from him a few feet, standing just in front of the others. Emmett took his stance, arms perpendicular, one knee bent and the other stretched out to one side. "Head up," I called over to him. "You'll move all over the place if you hunch over like that." He immediately straightened, then pushed off his leg, drawing his feet together and arms in and he spun. It was slow and it wasn't very smooth, but it was a spin by all definition. He even ended by raising his hands above his head and lifting his leg in a clumsy imitation of what he'd probably watched on TV. "Check out Tiny Dancer over here," Jasper chortled, and I looked back to see him nudge Edward in the side. Edward coughed to try and cover up his laugh and turned his face into his shoulder a bit to hide his smirk. "Lookin' good there, bro," Edward encouraged, biting back his amusement. "Very...dainty." The four of them snickered as they watched Emmett's jaw set in irritation. "Hey," he snapped at them, " You laugh at me, you laugh at my girl, Bella, here. And if you laugh at her, I will not hesitate to kick your ass." I smirked as I watched each of them attempt to look chastised before one by one they lost their composure again, leaning on each other as they cracked up. "Don't listen to the critics big guy, that was a great start." "That's not how you do it though," he insisted petulantly. "Yours probably looks way cooler. C'mon, show me." "I can't Emmett, I'm not supposed to do anything yet."

"Aw, come on. You probably don't even need your gimpy leg. Don't know you some fancy schmancy spin on one leg?" "Well yeah, but-" "Do that, do it!" "I swear to God, Emmett, if I reinjure myself showboating for your whiny butt, I'm making you answer every angry piece of fan mail I get. Handwritten. And you have to sign it with a lipstick kiss." He didn't answer, only waved his hand at me in a gesture to get going. I hesitated for another minute, weighing in my mind if this was really a risk or not. Come on, Swan. A scratch spin's one of the easiest things you know how to do. There's nothing scary about a fucking scratch spin. Child's play. It's like riding a bike, you never forget this crap. "Fine," I huffed, shoving against him to push off. Emmett stood back with the others, whacking each of them over the head as he skated down the line and hit the breaks to stand next to Edward. "Have some respect," he scolded. I chuckled as I passed behind the five of them, drifting backwards and circling to get a little speed up before stepping down on my good leg, spinning slowly at first with my leg extended slightly out in front of me, bringing it in as I accelerated until my arms were tucked close and my free foot was crossed over my standing ankle. The world around me disappeared into a haze of colors, the blade of my skate whirring over the ice in a tight circle. I raised my tucked arms slowly up above my head until I spun in one long line. Well, as long as I could manage with my stature. Slowing slightly, I stepped out of the turn, lifting my back leg to exit the move and glide to a stop. I dug my toe pick in and placed my hands on my hips, pursing my lips slightly and giving one satisfied nod. Not too shabby. "Holy," Jasper started. "Shit," Emmett finished. "How the hell do you not fall over after that? Aren't you dizzy?" Rose asked. "It's all in the spotting," I shrugged. I wasn't being modest, a scratch spin was basic, a fundamental. "It's not a very difficult move once you've got the technique down." Edward shifted uneasily back and forth between his feet. Emmett noticed and poked him in the side, giving him a look I couldn't make out. Edward narrowed his eyes at him and flicked him in the forehead. What was that all about? "Okay, Swan, enough of this twirly shit. Get to the good stuff. I wanna jump!" Emmett clapped Edward on the back and skated forward to me again. "Emmett-" I tried protesting. "Pretty please, Bella? Just one little jump?" he whined, gliding down to one knee in front of me and grabbing my hand. "Alright, alright. On your feet. But this one I can't demonstrate." I talked him through the basics of a loop jump, one of the most basic and probably one of the only ones that he might be able to pull off without a toe pick. He was just as attentive as he'd been for the spin and I could see the

light of boyish excitement in his eyes as he learned something new. It took about ten minutes of me repeating and refining my directions, trying to walk him through the jump step by step. Finally, I just had to let him give it a go. Emmett circled around me a couple times, getting his momentum. He prepped before launching his massive form into the air. I knew instantly this was not going to be pretty. Sure enough, as he touched back down on the ice, his skate slipped out from underneath him. His feet comically whiffed back and forth as he tried to catch himself unsuccessfully. He reached out blindly and managed to snag a bit of my coat. As he went down, so did I. In a pile of limbs, we landed together on the ice with an exaggerated 'oof!' I lay there for a moment, literally two feet off the ice due to Emmett's bulky size, trying to catch my breath and get over the shock that always comes from falling unexpectedly, until I noticed something shaking underneath me. Moments later I heard Emmett snort before his booming laughter erupted. It only took a second before I joined him, rolling off to lie next to him on the ice. Our heads together, our arms clenched around our stomachs as we dissolved into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. "Very graceful, Emmett," I managed, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye. "Five point seven at least." "Bias!" he shouted. "I demand a recount. This shit's rigged!" "I think you should stick to hockey, babe," Rose suggested as she crouched down at Emmett's side. I reined in my laughter as I saw the rest of the group surrounding us. "Rosie! Did you see me, baby?" "Yes, Emmett, I saw," she assured him with a joking tone of condescension. "That was marvelous." "Damn straight, woman," he said, reaching up to smack her butt and pull her down on top of him to peck her lips. "Just you watch, I'm gonna be the next Michelle Kwan." "Better watch your back, Bella. Looks like you've got some competition in the makin'," Jasper drawled sarcastically. "See, Emmett," Edward smirked at his brother as he crouched beside me, "This is why I never let you play with my toys. You always try to break them." He winked at his brother as he reached his hand out to help me up. "I can't help it if I play rough, can I, baby?" he directed the last part of his question at Rose, who still lay sprawled on top of him. "On that note," Jasper coughed. "We'll just leave you guys to your little perv fest here." "He didn't hurt you did he?" Edward asked as the four of us coasted off to the boards along the side of the rink. "No, I'm fine. They're very...uh, affectionate," I gestured to where Emmett and Rose were now feverishly making out in the middle of the ice. "That's nothing," Edward said, matching my line of sight. "You should see them when we go dancing. It's disgusting." "Dancing, Cullen?" "I've been known to cut a rug now and then," he grinned impishly. "Maybe if you're lucky someday you'll see for yourself." "I'm looking forward to it."

Rose soon escaped from Emmett's grasp, slapping his hands away when he tried to pull her back in. She joined us, stretching her jaw out a little. "Lockjaw, sis?" Jasper ribbed her. "Shut up," she elbowed him in the side. "You're just jealous you didn't talk Alice into mackin' with you first." "C'mon, tiger," Alice tugged on Rose's arm and reached out for my hand, pulling us in the direction of the exit. "We're taking a break, guys. You go roughhouse or whatever it is you manly men do." Edward and Jasper cruised away to grab Emmett while we made our way back onto solid ground. There was a small stand selling cocoa just off from the rink, still on the rubber so we wouldn't have to take our skates off. We grabbed a few cups and settled down on one of the benches where we could still see the guys clearly. It was plain to see how well the three of them got along. They truly looked like three brothers messing around together, trying to knock each other over and beat each other as they raced around. Emmett was the biggest, but Edward was quick and Jasper was slippery. They were evenly matched and it was supremely entertaining to sit back and watch them. "So you and Edward seem to be getting along just fine." "Don't start, Alice," I pleaded. "What? I'm just making an observation." "Well keep your observations to yourself. We're friends." They shared a pointed look before Rose coughed exaggeratedly, "Denial!" "Guys, I know you mean well, but please, just lay off a little." "We're not trying to give you a hard time, Bells," Rose soothed. "I just wanted to say you guys looked good out there. It was nice to see you both smiling," Alice said before cheerfully changing the subject. For the next twenty minutes I listened to her and Rose discuss the pros and cons of a buffet versus a sit-down meal for her and Jasper's wedding in June. I half listened and half watched the people milling about around me as I sipped my cocoa, enjoying the relaxed lull in the afternoon. Once our cups were empty, we got back on the ice and joined the guys in a rousing game of tag. An hour and a half later Alice called it quits. She and Jasper packed up their skates and stepped inside to warm up a little. Rose and Emmett were still horsing around and flirting shamelessly on the far side of the oval. Edward and I settled for lazily skating laps again, my hand held in his. As the afternoon dragged on, the ice had become less and less crowded with people and it was easier to relax. While Edward and I talked a little, for the most part we were content to just skate in a comfortable silence, listening to the music over the speakers now that the dozens of people weren't around to drown it out. One of my favorites came on, making me sigh contently. After a couple lines I heard Edward humming quietly along and I grinned up at him. "What?" he asked when he noticed me staring. "Nothing," I shook my head and looked away, still smiling. "You know this one?"

"Of course. It's one of my favorites." "Oh yeah?" he smirked and looked forward again. Instead of humming this time, he sang softly in a smooth baritone, "I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice." I laughed a little, but inside I was melting at his voice, singing softly, just for my ears. "Come on, Swan," he said, nudging our joined hands into my side. "Sing with me." "Uh uh," I protested. "I don't sing." "Never?" "Not where anyone can hear," I clarified bashfully. "Please? I shook my head, but felt my willpower waver at the imploring look in his amazingly green eyes. "Beautiful, please don't hurry," he continued on with the song, harmonizing with the female singer in the recording over the next few lines. I didn't want to listen to him singing with her. "The neighbors might think," I joined in quietly at the start of the next verse, glancing up to see Edward grinning. He didn't miss a beat and continued with his line. We sang back and forth playfully, my voice gaining volume as I became a little more comfortable and realized that he wasn't going to laugh at the fact that I was just slightly off-key. Soon I could no longer hear the voices through the speakers, only the sound of Edward's and mine together, overlapping line by line. As the song continued, Edward grew slightly more flirtatious, attaching actions to the lines he was singing. When he sang, "I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell," he plucked my blue cable knit hat from my head and ruffled my hair. At "mind if I move closer," he did so, tucking his arm around me while still holding my hand in his, causing my own to twist slightly behind me. He was playful enough with his actions that I didn't feel uncomfortable. Yes, I could tell he was flirting, but it seemed more for the sake of acting out the words we were singing than anything else. His voice was still strong and full of laughter. At that point at least. But then the next verse started, and his voice softened. "Baby, it's cold outside," he crooned as our movements slowed until we were barely moving. "Oh, darlin' it's cold outside," Edward circled in front of me and eased us both to a stop. "I'm lucky that you dropped in," we stood there face to face. I was fully unaware of anything around me. The only thing I saw was Edward. The only thing I felt was Edward. He'd kept our arms entwined, nestled at the small of my back. His other hand reached up and brushed a lock of hair from my face, tucking the curl behind my ear. But he didn't lower it. He kept it there at the side of my face, slightly woven in my hair. "Look out the window at that storm," he still sang along, but just barely. I realized that at some point I'd stopped entirely. I could do nothing but look up at him, my lips slightly parted and hardly breathing. "Man, your lips look delicious," he whispered with the song, his eyes darting down to my mouth then raising back up to my eyes with a look more intense than I'd ever seen before. He was silent then, leaving the song to continue on without our accompaniment, as we simply stood embracing and staring. I saw the intent flash through his eyes just an instant before he slowly began to lower his head. I felt myself giving in, my eyes drifting closed. I held my breath in anticipation of the feel of his lips on mine.

But it never came. Instead I felt Edward's body jerk forward against me suddenly, my forehead knocking into his jaw, his arm tightening around me as we both lost our balance and toppled over. Edward landed on top of me as we splayed out on the ice, knocking the air from my lungs. The hand that had been in my hair had reached around to cradle my head and protect it from smacking into the ice. We stayed perfectly still for a moment before I heard him speak into my ear. "Are you okay?" his voice full of concern. I nodded almost imperceptivity into his shoulder. "Bella?" he asked, his voice still slightly panicked and alerting me to the fact that he had not felt my nod. "Yes," I managed breathlessly. "I'm okay. Are you?" "Yeah. Something bumped me. Sorry I bulldozed you," he apologized. "And now I'm crushing you. Gosh, I'm sorry, Bella." He rolled, reversing our positions as we both pulled back a little. The moment we looked into each others faces, the comedy of the situation flooded in and we burst into a fit of laughter. As I started to gain control of myself, my brain started kicking in. My stupid, over-thinking, neurotic and insecure brain. It took in the fact that my face was tucked against his chest, the wool of his coat soft yet scratchy against my cheek, the sound of his laughter floating over me. It took in the fact that our legs were tangled together and his arms were around me. It took in the fact that he'd almost kissed me thirty seconds earlier. And what did my brain do? It sent off massive warning bells. Warning! Warning! You're in over your head here, Bella! Step away, fast! "What do you say we call it quits before I give you any more bruises," he joked, and I jumped at the opportunity to escape and collect myself. Stepping off the ice was like stepping back into reality and the change was like a punch to my gut. As soon as I crossed the threshold in the boards, I felt myself start to shake. I tried to remove my skates as quickly as possible, strapping the guards back over the blades and tossing them haphazardly into my bag along with my brace. "Everything okay?" Edward asked. "Yeah. Fine, why wouldn't it be?" I replied, a little too quickly to come off as casually as I'd hoped. "You got really quiet all of a sudden." "Just tired." "You want me to take your bag to Rose's car? I think we were going to walk around for a bit, maybe grab dinner." "Yeah, that'd be great. I'm actually going to go find a restroom," I told him, awkwardly gesturing towards the building. "Okay. See you in a minute," he said, gathering up both of our bags. I made my escape before he even had a chance to stand, trying not to sprint as I turned away from him and headed towards the doors of the Landmark, but I could only manage to tame my steps to a swift power walk. I darted up the stairs and shoved through the heavy doors, attempting to tame my breaths at least until I could make it into the bathroom and out of the general public. By the time I found the ladies room, my breath was coming out in heaving pants. I felt overheated and

claustrophobic and clawed at the buttons on my coat to try and release myself. I knew it wasn't the coat that was causing my unease, but it helped a little to be free of it as I made it into the bathroom. Luckily it was empty and I practically collapsed onto the counter, hunching over and burying my head in my folded arms. What the fuck is your problem, Bella? Seriously. Why do you have to be such a fucking basket case? Still bent over the sink, I managed to control myself a little and lifted my head to see my face in the mirror. My cheeks were flushed, my nose red, and my eyes wide and bright with panic. My hair was a wavy mess. Reaching up to smooth it, I realized that Edward still had my hat from when he'd shoved it in his pocket during the song. The song. The kiss. Well, almost kiss. My fingers ghosted over my lips as I recalled how it had felt in that moment, his mouth just a breath away from my own. I could practically taste him. That moment out on the ice before we'd fallen had been one of the most perfect moments of my entire life. I'd stood there in the arms of a beautiful man and been this close to kissing him. But that moment had been practically a dream. When reality kicked in, I realized what a joke it had been for me to think for one second that I could kiss him. Men like Edward didn't belong with girls like me. That was the problem. He was definitely a man, and I was quite obviously stuck being a girl. He was sexy, and strong, and talented, and independent. He needed a woman who could live up to that, who could take care of herself. Who wasn't so fucking lost. He deserved better. I heard voices approaching and quickly locked myself into a stall, not quite prepared to face the outside world. It sounded like two young women. They were chuckling and making small talk as they went about their business and I mostly tuned them out, just waiting for them to finish and leave me to my solitude once again. "Oh my God, did you see the Cullen brothers out there?" One of them asked, catching my attention. "So fucking hot." "I know right? I mean, Emmett's supposedly taken, but since when does that mean anything? I mean he's a professional hockey player, you know he's getting some ass on the side." My jaw dropped a bit at the gall of this person. She had no idea who Emmett was. No, I hadn't known him for very long, but I knew without a doubt that he could never cheat on Rosalie. Could he? I guess people cheat all the time, it wouldn't be unheard of. Renee had cheated on men more times than I cared to remember. But Emmett? I just couldn't imagine it. "Edward's single though, and really he's the one I'd rather take a ride on," the second woman said, with a sort of growling purr at the end. I wanted to plug my ears. I really didn't want to hear this. Especially now. But I couldn't not listen. I had to be some sort of masochist. "Seriously. The man's totally gorgeous," the first one agreed. "I'd let him put his stick in my net any day of the week. He's probably a fucking god in the sack, I mean just one look at that sexy little smirk of his gets my panties wet." "Total clit master. You gonna go for it?" "I don't know. He's been all over this other chick all day." "You could totally manage. You're so much hotter." "No, I know. I just don't feel like getting in a catfight. Maybe I'll try and slip him my number, have him call me when

he's gotten rid of the other one." "Sloppy seconds, Bree?" "Nah. You can tell she's not the type that'll put out. He can put her to bed early and come crawling into mine." The women made their way back out the door, still tittering and gossiping with bravado. The words they'd spoken were disgusting. I wasn't stupid enough to believe that those were the types of women Edward would be interested in. I wasn't naive enough to believe that Edward was completely inexperienced, but I wasn't cynical enough to believe he was a total man whore like those women had made it sound either. The problem was that he needed someone right in the middle. He didn't need a pathetic little girl like me to tuck in early. He didn't need a slut like her who could go all night. Someday he'd find a woman just as wonderful as he was who could be his partner, who could go to bed with him and snuggle against his shoulder. Who could hold him just as solidly as he held her. I was unrightfully jealous of that faceless woman. It didn't matter that Alice thought we'd be perfect together. It didn't matter that he seemed to enjoy my company. Deep down, I knew that I didn't stand a chance. I could never be worthy of him. The truly terrifying part was that I was falling for Edward, and falling fast. And I didn't have a clue how to stop it. "Bella?" I heard Alice's familiar voice call out as the door squeaked open again. "You in here, babe?" Rose followed up, their voices casual, making it apparent they had no clue that I'd been on the verge of a full on panic attack only minutes earlier. "Yeah," I called out to them, trying to make my voice as even as possible. "I'll be out in a second." "Okay, we'll be right out front. We're gonna grab food and then take a walk through the sculptures." I waited until I heard the door close before I slipped out of the stall. As I buttoned up my coat, I made myself take a few deep calming breaths. You can do this, Bella. Just stop freaking out and go back out there and hang out with your friends like a normal person. I vowed to forget about the women and what they'd said. It wouldn't be fair to Emmett or to Edward to act differently towards them based on the nonsense of two total strangers who had probably just been blowing smoke. Neither of them had done anything to betray my trust. Quite the contrary. At the same time, I knew I couldn't act the same way completely with Edward. I couldn't let myself get in any deeper. I couldn't lead him on either, letting him believe I was something that I just wasn't. I wouldn't ignore him, he didn't deserve that, I just couldn't let myself get so close to him. Stepping back outside, I pulled my mittens on as I approached the group standing at the base of the steps. Edward looked at me with a questioning smile when he saw me stop across the circle from him, standing between Rose and Alice and I tried to smile back reassuringly. I'm pretty sure it came out as a grimace. They'd decided on a restaurant while I'd been hiding out in the bathroom and we started walking. Not wanting to get paired up with Edward again by default, I stuck close to the girls, drawing Alice into casual conversation in an effort to stealthily draw her away from Jasper. It worked like a charm. Soon enough, Alice, Rose and I walked arm and arm a few steps ahead of the guys as we made our way to the restaurant. At dinner, I tried to inconspicuously keep up my subtle avoidance of Edward. I still sat by him, not wanting to split up the other couples and not wanting to hurt his feelings by putting myself as far as possible from his side, but I didn't fall into an easy conversation with him as I might have. Instead, I made an active effort to focus on the exchange of the other members of our group, offering my own input at lulls in the conversation to ensure that

Edward couldn't get my attention and draw me into a dialogue. I knew as soon as he said a single word to me in that soft voice, intended only for my ears, I'd be helpless to stop myself. I tried not to look at him over the course of the meal, but caught myself unconsciously stealing glances out of the corner of my eye from time to time. By all accounts, he looked normal. Happy and enjoying himself. But I could make out a slight hint of a wince in his smile, as if he had to force it, and there was a tightening around his eyes. Regret flowed through me at the idea that I could do anything to hurt him, but it was better this way. It had to be. We returned to the park, which had transformed in the time we'd been gone. When we'd left, the sun had been low in the sky. Now that night had fallen, hundreds of twinkle lights sparkled through the trees lining the park, casting the square in a fantastical glow. The ice sculptures that had looked impressive in the daytime were now made even more so by the lights shining from within, emphasizing the peaks and valleys of the carvings. We wandered around, taking in the sights as a group. "What's going on?" Alice demanded out of the blue. Looking around, I realized that she and Rose had subtly separated us from the guys, moving ahead of them just far enough that they wouldn't be able to hear anything we said. "What are you talking about?" "You've been weird since we left to go to dinner," Rose said. "I haven't been weird-" I insisted. "Yeah, you have. You're really not a very good actress, Bella," Alice pointed out. "You know, my coach always told me that acting was one of my strong points. Guess I should fire him for lying to me," I deflected in a dry tone. "Isabella Marie Swan," Alice groaned, "We know something's up. You may as well just tell us what it is." "How'd you know my middle name?" I asked, both in another attempt to divert and out of true curiosity. "I googled you," she said casually. "You googled me?" "Of course, Bella, it's my job as your best friend to keep tabs on what's being said about you. This way I can both keep you informed and lay the smackdown on any idiots out there trying to say shit." "Wow. That's oddly sweet. And creepy." "And you're avoiding the subject. What's wrong?" "Nothing's wrong. I just got a little nervous, that's all," I relented, trying to play down the full extent of my nerves. "About what?" Rose probed. "About Edward?" Alice asked and I nodded. "Bella, Edward's a good guy. He's not going to pressure you if that's what you're worried about." "Seriously, my brother's a complete gentleman. I don't think he's even capable of pushing a woman past her comfort zone."

"Especially you," Rose added. "You should see the way he looks at you, Bella." That was part of the problem. I did see the way he looked at me. And I had no idea how to handle it. "It all just seems so fast," I explained. "I don't know what to do or how to act." "So tell him that," Alice suggested. "It's not that easy." "It is, Bella. You're the one making it difficult," Rose said gently. We fell back with the guys and continued around the park, walking around the slabs of ice that had been carefully carved into their intricate shapes. Emmett kept everyone laughing by alternating between trying to imitate them and making inappropriate comments or gestures. He got a very dirty look from a couple of older ladies that just happened to walk by when he made a dirty joke about the size of the elephant's trunk. I felt the tension start to loosen it's strangle hold. It was difficult not to feel comfortable in the company of these people. Of course as my guard lowered, so did my resolve. It wasn't long before I noticed Rose and Emmett and Alice and Jasper start to pair up. As they should. They were couples in love, why wouldn't they want to have some time alone? Of course this left me with Edward and it was impossible to avoid someone when they're the only one you're with. The others were still close by, but if you didn't know we were all together, you wouldn't be able to tell. "Bella?" Edward asked hesitantly and I tensed but made myself look up at him standing there next to me. "Would you want to maybe walk with me for a bit? I mean you don't have to or anything, I just thought it would be nice to get away from them awhile. Give them some space," he stammered out his words, practically talking over himself and when he gestured towards his siblings. He seemed slightly uncomfortable at seeing them all so cozy together, but not in a way that was disapproving of their displays of affection. My brain said no. So of course, I told him yes. At my agreement, the tightness disappeared from his eyes and his smile lost all signs of being forced. I kept my hands in my pockets to maintain some semblance of self-preservation. For the first couple blocks, we made small talk filled with awkward pauses and uncomfortable sounds as we worked to find our footing with each other again. I was trying to find a balance between being friendly and just letting myself go completely. He, I'm sure, was trying to make sense of what was going on in my head that had caused such a drastic change in my behavior. The further we traveled, the easier our conversation became. I felt myself relaxing as the bright lights of the park faded behind us and the streets darkened as we made our way up town through the quiet streets. He told me about concerts he'd been to for bands and singers we shared a mutual interest in. I told him about getting to meet Michael Buble at a charity exhibition awhile back. He shared funny anecdotes about Alice and Emmett, and I told him about my first interactions with all of them. Things no longer felt strained or forced. I couldn't hold on to my worries when he laughed genuinely at something I said or when he smiled his crooked smile in my direction, his eyes glowing with happiness. I felt my brain quiet down and my heart take over. As we turned the next corner, my breath caught and I felt the fairy tale rush back in. The block in front of us appeared to be a miniature version of Rice Park. It was just one small square block that was completely surrounded in bare trees webbed with white lights. Two sides were lined with birch trees in a bed of stones that appeared to be a streambed. On another side was a small pavilion, a stone platform covered by an arched roof lined with lights. Snow had started to fall lightly as we walked and covered the walkways in a thin, white blanket.

It shouldn't have affected me so much, not after seeing the grandeur of the larger park, but this little spot was so different. Like we'd stumbled upon a secret magical place that no one else was aware of. Unlike the bustling crowds at Rice Park, this place was completely abandoned and isolated. There wasn't a single person in sight, nor sound of a car passing. Not a single footprint marred the snow on the ground. It was just us. "Wow. This is so beautiful," I sighed, turning in place once we'd reached the center spot to take in the full view of our surroundings. "Yeah, not a lot of people know about this place, but it's one of my favorite spots in the city. Especially in the winter, when it's like this. Quiet, empty. I come here to get away sometimes." "What do you need to get away from?" "I don't know. Everything? Don't get me wrong; I'm very fortunate. My family's amazing. I'm lucky to have a job doing something I love. But sometimes I just need to escape. As great as my family is, they're all very intense. It can be somewhat overpowering. And now with them all paired up-" he drifted off. "Third wheel?" "Yeah, try seventh wheel. I suppose that's appropriate. They're about as subtle as a semi-truck," he moved to sit on the ledge of the platform, his feet just barely touching the ground. Snow speckled his hair and stuck to his coat. "I've gotten that impression," I commiserated, boosting myself up to join him on the ledge, my feet dangling much further off the ground. "Don't let Alice steamroll you. She likes to push her limits, but really, she'll respect your boundaries. Well, most of the time," he chuckled. "It must be nice," I mused, "having such a close family." "You're not close to your family?" "I don't have any siblings. I barely ever see my dad." "And your mom?" "I guess it depends on your definition of close. Proximity wise, we've always been close. I lived with her up until I moved here. She's always been very involved with my skating. But other than that-" "What about grandparents? Aunts, uncles?" "Nope. Only child of only children. And all my grandparents have passed away. At least I'm pretty sure they have, they were never really around." "Did you have a lot of friends in Florida?" "Not really. It's pretty hard to maintain relationships when you log the kind of hours you need to be at the level of competition I was at. God, listen to me. Poor, spoiled girl right? I don't mean to throw a pity party, I've had it pretty good." "Don't be ridiculous, I asked. And it doesn't matter how much you have or how successful you are. You can still get lonely." I glanced up at him from under my lashes. The look in his eyes was like a warm fleece blanket wrapped around me, full of comfort and understanding without a hint of pity or judgment. I couldn't look away, and I found I didn't want

to. A breeze swept by, blowing my hair and flakes of snow around my face, but still I didn't look away. "Are you cold?" he asked and I realized I was shivering. He didn't wait for an answer before rubbing his hands up and down my arms and then folding me into him, cocooned up against his chest. I sighed and felt myself melt into his form, his head resting on the top of mine, my hands folded and pinned between us. I'd never been so warm. I don't know how long we sat there in the silence and the falling snow. Minutes, hours. I would have been content to stay there forever. His arms loosened around me, his head lifted from mine and eased back just far enough that he was able to look down at me as I raised my head from his chest. Time slowed again. I could almost see each individual flake around us make its descent through the air as my heart pounded in my ears. I was fully aware of his hand on my waist. I felt the trail of heat his fingers left as he raised his other hand up my arm and to my face, dusting a flake of snow off my cheek before lightly anchoring in my hair, his palm cupping my face. His face lowered, hesitating just a breath away and his eyes searching. Then his lips touched mine, just a whisper of softness and warmth pressed against them before he pulled back, resting his forehead against mine for a moment before advancing again, my eyes fluttering closed the instant his mouth met mine again. The kiss was achingly gentle at first, a dance of silken caresses and brushing touches. The taste of him was intoxicating as his breath melded with mine and consumed me. Little by little the kiss deepened. He didn't push, or even move his hands, just increased the pressure and fervor of his mouth as we lost ourselves in this maiden exploration. His tongue traced along my bottom lip and a faint, wanton moan drifted in my ear. I was shocked to realize it had come from me. The sound he emitted in response was low and guttural and hit me straight between the legs. An avalanche of emotions, predominantly desire, swept through me and I groped for purchase. "Stop," I gasped, surprising both of us. I never thought about breaking my lips from his, it simply happened. But now that it had, I knew that I meant it. I'd stopped for a reason. I'd told him to stop for a reason. "Bella, what is it?" he asked, still just a breath away from me, his voice low and gravelly as if he hadn't spoken in a long time. "I can't," I whispered, not having the courage to open my eyes and look into his. "What?" he replied and I wasn't sure if he was confused or if he simply hadn't heard me. I swallowed thickly, opening my eyes and repeating myself slightly louder. "I can't, Edward." "What is it, Bella? Can't what?" "I can't do this," I pulled back a little, feeling his hand drop away from my face and the other from my waist as I put a slight distance between us. His eyes had dimmed, a mixture of rejection and disappointment and I couldn't handle the fact that I'd put that look there. So instead of acknowledging it, I slid off the platform, taking just a step away and looking out at the empty park. "I'm sorry. I'm sure I'm not making any sense here. I'm all over the place and it's probably giving you whiplash. I honestly wasn't trying to lead you on or anything. I never should have let that happen. But you're just so sweet and perfect and this whole day has just been wonderful and I just couldn't not kiss you. Well most of the day, at least. The part of the day when I wasn't acting like a complete moron. Or maybe the part where I thought I could do this was when I was acting stupid, I don't know." I rambled, trying to make sense of my thoughts as they rushed out through my lips. "Edward, I like you. A lot. I'm sure I'm not actually supposed to say that to you, I mean girls are supposed to be coy

and play hard to get, right? But I have no concept about what the hell I'm doing here and I am just so far in over my head it's not even funny. I'm not sophisticated or flirtatious. I'm not skilled or clever in this area, I just feel overwhelmed. I can't do this. I'm not ready for this. For you." "Bella-" he spoke up for the first time, right behind me. He must have stood up and moved while I was ranting incoherently. Instead of listening, I rushed to cut him off. "No, please. Don't say anything. I'm so embarrassed. I mean I've been practically throwing myself at you and now I do this. God, I'm such a moron. You should get as far away from me as possible, it's probably contagious," I babbled, feeling the sting of moisture building in my eyes. Though I tried to fight them off, I felt one traitorous tear spill down my cheek. "Bella," he softly urged, his hands on my shoulders to turn me to face him, his index finger raising my chin when I refused to look up. "Look at me, please?" I couldn't refuse him and lifted my eyes to meet his. He softly rubbed the pad of his thumb over my cheek, wiping the single tear away. "I would never rush you or push you into something you don't want or aren't ready for. I don't regret kissing you, but if what you need is for me to just be your friend right now, I can do that. I can be your friend." "Why? Why would you do that Edward? I'm such a mess." "I've grown rather attached to your type of mess." "I'm not good for you, Edward. You deserve so much better." "Why don't you let me decide what I deserve?" I paused a moment before asking skeptically, "You want to be my friend?" "Yes, Bella, I do." I searched his eyes and found nothing but sincerity swimming there. "Okay," I agreed softly. "Okay," he repeated. "So, friend, can I get your number so I can text you while we're on the road this week?" I let out a bit of a strangled laugh, thankful that he seemed to be telling the truth about wanting to be my friend, and relieved that he was able to break the tension I was feeling just a little. "Yeah, I can do that." It's the least I could do since I was such a failure at giving him anything more. I took the phone he offered and programmed my number in. When I handed it back, he pressed a button. An instant later I felt the buzz of my phone in my coat pocket. "There you go. Now you have mine, too." "Thanks." "Should we head back?" "Actually, I'm kind of tired. We're not too far from the apartments. Do you think-" I started, pausing to bite my lip, unsure if it was appropriate to ask him to walk with me or if I should just let him get back to the others. "May I walk you home, Bella?" he asked, releasing the cause of my struggle. "Are you sure? I mean how are you going to get back, then? We can just go and I'll see if Rose will-" "Bella, I'm sure. May I walk you home?" he repeated.

"Thank you," I replied quietly. The ten minutes it took for us to make it back to my apartment building were filled with silence, although this time it wasn't completely comfortable. My hand felt empty without his in it and I shoved it deep in my pocket, my thoughts caught up in the raging storm within me of doubt, self-pity, and disgust. Why did he have to be so perfect? Why did I have to be so defective? Soon enough, he'd get tired of my shortcomings and grow frustrated with the fact that I was so viciously faulty. He wouldn't stay, I was certain of that fact. I was selfish enough to wish he would, even knowing I wasn't capable of more. He walked me to my door, insisting that he needed to know I'd made it safely inside. I lingered in the open door and gave him a small smile. "I'll talk to you soon?" It came out like a question. "Yeah," I confirmed. "You're going to be gone for awhile?" "Just a few days." "Well. Be safe," I requested and the corner of his mouth lifted. "You too. Take it easy on the leg." "I will," I assured him. We lingered there awkwardly, neither one of us wanting to say goodbye. I wished with all my heart that I could lean in and kiss him goodnight. I wished I could tell him I'd been wrong, that we should be together, that we belonged together. But I couldn't, because we didn't. He didn't belong with me. After a long pause, he sighed softly. "Good night, Bella." "Night, Edward." I slipped inside and closed the door with a quiet click. I locked the deadbolt and engaged the chain, closing the world out and myself in. I didn't know how to loosen the chain inside me to unlock the door to my heart. I was aching to open it, but I couldn't figure out how. I curled up in my window seat and watched the snow falling out the window. The city was like a snow globe, a world separated from me by the glass. Was I always going to be closed away from everyone else? It had always been that way. I feared that it always would be.

~*~

Chapter Six Who Says You Cant Go Home?


Chapter Links:
SDIABR Skate Move Ina Bauer Move Spiral Sequence

This day royally sucked. In fact, the next four days promised to be altogether unpleasant. Nationals.

A lot of the time figure skating was relatively low on the public radar and didn't come up in regular conversation, but Nationals threw the skating scene into the spotlight. Millions tuned in to see who was newly discovered, who was promising, who was fading. Last year, I'd been at the top of my game and Nationals had been a zoo. It was a maze of interviews and last minute rehearsals; early call times and stressing out over make up and costume adjustments. Last year I'd stood in front of thousands of cheering people as I listened to the Star Spangled Banner playing while I tried to adjust to the heavy weight of the medal that had just been placed around my neck. What a difference a year made. This year I'd stocked up on my guilty pleasure foods, pulled the chain on my door and barricaded myself in front of the TV in my sweats and fuzzy socks for a little self-inflicted torture. I was so sick of the constant pity party going on in my head lately. I'd always considered myself fairly strong and self reliant, working hard to earn everything I got in my career and not expecting it to just be handed to me. On the ice I had confidence. It gave me one area to feel really good about myself and my abilities. It never used to bother me so much that I was so clueless off the ice because at least I had a place I could go to escape. When I fell, I lost that place, and lost myself right along with it, and I had no idea how to get it back. At least recognizing that I was being a whiny baby had to be a step in the right direction, right? Well, it wasn't going to change tonight, that was for certain. Tonight was a prime set up to feel sorry for myself. It was Thursday night; Ladies Short was slated to start in about twenty minutes. I decided that was the perfect amount of time to hunt down some vodka to add to my milkshake and start on my goal of getting good and truly snockered. I've never been a big drinker; I'd never really seen the appeal and with Renee eying me like a hawk it would have been next to impossible to indulge anyways. All the more reason why getting trashed tonight would be thoroughly satisfying. I mixed up the vanilla vodka shake in the blender, opting to add another splash of liquor in for good measure, and pulled out the biggest cup I could find in my cupboards. Of course the cup had to be the ginormous plastic souvenir cup from the first Wild game I'd gone to with the girls. And of course, that made me think of Edward. Again. Why couldn't I get that man out of my head? Sure, he was gorgeous, no one could or would argue that. And completely sexy with those toned athletic muscles. And he was amazingly talented on the ice. And he had a smile that made me weak in the knees. Don't even get me started on the kiss. Okay, so there were plenty of reasons why I couldn't get him out of my head. Maybe it was the fact that despite our talk where I'd insisted that I wasn't interested in anything more than friendship, he continued to call and text me at least once a day, often more than that. I had been so sure when I'd told him I didn't want to be anything more than friends, he'd just cut his losses and I wouldn't hear from him again, unless it was a group thing. But he'd completely caught me off guard when he still

wanted to talk to me and have us get to know each other. The first text message had come in later that very night and said nothing more than Sweet Dreams. He continued to text me throughout the following day, just casual little notes to say hi, filling me in on what he was up to as he prepared to depart with the team the next morning. I avoided them at first. Sure, I'd pounce on my phone every time it made a sound so I could quickly devour every word he wrote, no matter how mundane, but I didn't respond. Just after seven o'clock that evening, my phone rang. Edward. I was too nervous to answer and let it roll to voicemail, only to hear the chime a few seconds later, alerting me that there was a new message. I took a deep breath and dialed in. "Bella, I know you're home," came the sound of his throaty voice, slightly distorted by the cell phone, but still completely alluring, "I'm not going to stop calling until you answer, so right now you should hang up the phone because it's going to be ringing again in about ten seconds." I couldn't help the giddy smile that possessed my lips and quickly hit the button to end the call. It was less than seven seconds later that my phone rang again. Yes, I counted. "Hi," I answered sheepishly on the first ring. "It's alive!" he exclaimed with an exaggerated sigh of relief. "You know I was a little worried that you gave me the wrong number and I'd been texting some random old dude all day." "It's a good thing you didn't say anything embarrassing then." "Ah, so you did read my messages," he said. I could practically see that cocky smirk on his face. "Okay, I give. You caught me. Yes, I read them." "You know, typically it's polite behavior to respond when a friend texts you." "Thank you, Emily Post," I responded sarcastically. "Hey, my mama raised me right. I can't help it that I'm a stickler for etiquette." "So how does that explain your brother?" "Well Emmett's really adopted from a pack of gorillas. We just keep that on the down low so his feelings aren't hurt." "That's so charitable of you all." "Why didn't you write me back?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject. He didn't sound mad or even hurt, merely curious. "I don't know," I answered evasively, because frankly my reasons for not answering seemed shaky even to me. "Do you not know how to text?" "Yes, I know how to text. I'm not that sheltered," I informed him with amused indignation. "Did you forget who I was and got creeped out by the fact that some random guy wouldn't leave you the hell alone?" "No," I giggled at the suggestion. "You're very memorable, Edward."

"Did you get frostbite last night and all your fingers turned black and fell off?" he continued to inquire. "No. Gross." "I'm all out of ideas then. Why didn't you text me back?" he asked seriously. I paused, worrying my lip between my teeth as I debated what to tell him. He'd just think I was being stupid if I told the truth. Before I could come up with something he spoke again. "Bella, stop biting your lip and just tell me." "How'd you know I was biting my lip?" I asked, a bit surprised at his intuition. "Because it's what you always do when you're nervous or trying to figure out what you should say. Please just tell me?" I couldn't be anything but honest with him when he used that tone, so I answered in a timid voice, "I was scared that you didn't mean it. That you didn't really want to be my friend and you were just saying it to my face to avoid any awkwardness. I didn't really expect you to call me. Or text me. And when you did I just didn't know what to say." "All right, first, we're both a little awkward, so that's just plain unavoidable and something we're going to have to deal with," he said, making me laugh softly. "Second," he continued, and I could picture him counting off his points on his fingers. His long, elegant, sexy fingers. Stop it, Bella. I shook my head and tried to concentrate on what he was saying. "We've now had three separate occasions where we've talked and have never had any issues with finding things to say. And third, I have not and will not tell you anything I don't mean. So, having said that I will tell you that I was being honest with you when I said I want to be your friend. But-" he hesitated and I held my breath. But. But you're not worth the wait. But I've decided it's too much effort. But I need a real woman who can satisfy my needs. All these options and more swept through my head as I waited with bated breath to hear which one he'd go with. He blew out a heavy sigh and groaned a little, the sound muffled as though he'd covered his mouth with his hand or a pillow. "Look, you told me that you like me. Did you mean it?" "Yes," I said, quiet but unhesitating. If he was willing to put himself out there, I needed to be brave enough to try and do the same. "So, I'm evening the field here and telling you that I like you too, Bella. A lot, probably more than is really logical, but I do. And I do want to have more with you, when you feel like you're ready. I'm not saying that to pressure you and I hope it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable. I guess I just want you to know that I'm not going to give up that easily." "I don't want you to," I told him in barely more than a whisper. The tension drained from my shoulders and the cracks that had appeared on my heart when I'd stupidly turned him away began to fade just a little. I didn't want him to give up on me. I wanted to believe that someday I could be enough for him, even if I wasn't there yet. "Good. But until that day comes, I want to be friends. I like talking to you and spending time with you. That's enough for now," he said sincerely, making my eyes water slightly. "So, do you think you can answer my texts?" his voice jokingly exasperated and made me choke out a watery laugh. "I think I can manage that."

We spoke for three hours that evening. He told me about where they'd be travelling in their four days on the road and about the teams they'd be playing. I filled him in on my time with the physical therapist and my newfound hatred for wall sits. He put me on speaker phone while he packed and I did the same while I cooked dinner, muttering replies around mouthfuls of pasta because I was too entranced in the conversation to remember my manners and swallow before speaking. It took twenty minutes after he said he should hang up and get to bed for us to actually hang up. Something he referred to as the "Minnesota Long Goodbye." When we'd finally disconnected, I clung to my phone, trying to hold on to the feelings of comfort and happiness that just listening to his voice filled me with. Less than thirty seconds after we'd hung up, my phone chimed with a text alert. Missing you already, friend. I laughed, texting him back and ordering him to get to bed. I collapsed back onto my pillows, burying my face and letting out a girlish squeal. I am in so much trouble. The next text had come the following morning after they'd departed on their road trip. He'd sent me a picture message of a cornfield with a note that read, Greetings from picturesque Iowa. He continued to send me updates throughout their trip of road signs and small monuments as they journeyed to Tennessee where they'd be playing the Nashville Predators that night before heading north to Ohio and then returning late Thursday. Apparently the guys caught on because Edward's notes became interspersed with self-portraits of Emmett making funny faces and suggestive comments; he even managed to send me a shot he'd snapped of Edward, an adorable scowl on his face and his arm stretched out like he was trying to swipe his phone back. I set it to come up every time I'd receive an incoming call from him. Every message made me smile. He was always friendly yet flirtatious and I was becoming more and more comfortable with responding in kind. He seemed to know exactly what to say before I even knew what it was I needed to hear. Despite my resolve, I found myself falling for him that much more with every new chime on my phone. My hesitation with Edward wasn't because I wasn't attracted to him. I was, almost embarrassingly so. Every time I saw him, or even pictured him in my mind, I found myself swooning and completely losing my train of thought. My mind just shut down and the only thing there was Edward. If I was being honest with myself, I was scared, completely terrified was more accurate, of how he made me feel after knowing him such a short time. My experience with men was so non-existent and my knowledge of relationships in general was skewed by having Renee as my only real life example. Frankly her skipping around from man to man left a bad taste in my mouth. I'd always hated when she'd bring home a new guy. Before I'd even have the time to commit his name to memory he'd be gone and she'd be off to the next one, sometimes not even waiting until she'd ousted the first one to the side before she brought in the next. On top of all that was the memory of her failed marriage with my father. Our home had been a battlefield for that last year leading up to their divorce, a cacophony of screaming and shouting and thrown objects when Renee really wanted to make a scene. Edward just seemed soamazing. I didn't have it in me to disappoint him, so instead I continued to hold back. My phone pinged just as I finished blending my milkshake, alerting a new text and making my heart leap with anticipation in my chest. Just coming into town. Let me know if you need a shoulder. Could the man be any more fucking perfect? He knew I was down about Nationals. We'd talked about it briefly the night before when he called after he got back to their hotel after the game; the game I'd recorded to re-watch on my own just so I'd be able to pause it every time Edward was on the ice.

The girls and I had a standing date to hang out together and watch the game whenever the Wild played. Sometimes we were at my place, but a lot of the time at theirs since they'd gotten an extended sports cable package strictly for the purpose of catching every possible game their boys played. Now that's devotion. What really threw me for a loop was that neither of them had asked about what happened on Sunday. With all the talk that went into our little outing, the only mention of it had been the next morning when Alice brought me back my skates and asked if I'd had a good time. I'd brushed it off and she hadn't brought it up again. I wondered if Edward had said something to her and was worried that she was only lulling me into complacency; waiting for me to relax my guard before she pounced and sucked me dry of every thought and detail about what had happened between us. In the four days since what I'd come to refer to as Bella's Gold Medal Blunder, I'd spent more time overanalyzing the situation than I'd care to admit. In physical therapy I'd switched from counting reps to counting off the reasons I was insane to push him away. I couldn't think about anything else. I'd stood there in the most epically romantic moment of my entire life and told the beautiful man kissing me to stop. Every text and call from him just drove the point home that much more. What a mess you are, Bella. Renee had been texting me off and on all day, just checking in to make sure I'd be watching that night and giving me pointers on things I should be studying and looking for in my "competition." No need to get lazy just because you're sitting on the sidelines after all. I was truly tempted to just shut off my phone for the remainder of the night, but then I ran the risk of missing a call or a text from Edward, and no matter how much Renee was bugging me, that just wasn't something I was willing to give up. His messages were the one thing that made me smile in the midst of this depressing nightmare of an evening. A pounding on my door came just a few minutes before the program began and I obstinately burrowed into the couch, slurping my vanilla concoction through a straw and vowing to ignore whoever it was. "Bella," Alice called through the door, "We know you're in there. Please open the door." I really just wanted to be alone. I didn't need to drag anyone else down or let them see how truly pathetic I was acting. Of course, this was Alice and she didn't give up easily. When I didn't answer, she tried her key. The door opened just a crack, the chain preventing her from coming any further. "I'm serious, Bella, open the door. We're not leaving until you do so you may as well just get your butt over here and undo the chain. I can be really annoying if I want to be." "She can, trust me," came another voice, one that caught me off guard and had me moving to the door before I could process my decision to let them in. I shut the door, unhinging the chain and re-opening it just a moment later. There in the hallway stood Alice, Rosalie and Esme. "You're not watching this alone," Rose commanded, brushing past me to enter the apartment. I could do nothing but stand back and let them in. "Hey, Sweetie," Esme greeted, pecking my cheek as she passed. "Aww, I see you started without us," Alice said, taking in my set up of blankets, tissues and comfort food. "Don't worry. We brought back-ups." With that, she held up the grocery bag she'd been holding behind her back and started pulling out pints of ice cream, stacking them in my freezer.

"Here," she said, holding out a carton of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ben & Jerry's to me with a spoon and motioning for me to hand over the vodka shake. "Believe me, sugar and good company are going to make this night a lot better than alcohol." I sighed and handed her the cup, popping the lid off the ice cream carton and digging in as I slumped toward the living room. Alice followed carrying spoons and ice cream to distribute as we all piled onto the couch, Rose on one end, Esme on the other, with Alice and I smushed in the middle. The evening was full of laughs as they all kept up a commentary, gossiping about everything from the costumes and music selection, to moves they liked or didn't like. They distracted me with questions about what went on behind the scenes, grilling me on what the other skaters were like in real life, and I actually found myself enjoying the broadcast. For once it was kind of nice to just sit back and watch the sport I loved. Sure the pang of longing was still there and my mind was jumbled with thoughts like "Man, I could do that move so much better," or "I would use that piece of music so much differently if I was out there." I couldn't help myself, I'd always been a fierce competitor. Edward would text every once in awhile, just little notes, typically something to make me laugh. I tried to be discreet with checking them and responding back, but that's tough to do with three people practically sitting in your lap. The only downside to the evening were the occasional messages from Renee. At first I'd glance at them, rolling my eyes at her comments about the various programs. After the eighth one I gave up even opening them, only checking so far as to see her name before tossing it back down on the coffee table. Halfway through the broadcast, the next group of skaters were in their warm up and the commentators were prattling on about the usual nonsense. I mostly tuned them out as I caught up with Esme a bit until I heard something that made my heart stop. My name. Everyone was silent as we all zoned in the TV. "Missing from competition this season is last year's champion, Isabella Swan, who seems to have disappeared during the off season. No announcements have been made as to Swan's official status and whether or not she's made the decision to retire. Swan, who was a silver medalist at the Torino games and a consistent performer, has been considered by many to be the United States' best chance to bring home the gold at next winter's Olympic games in Vancouver. Various sources have attempted to contact Swan's representatives, but have been unable to obtain a status report on America's skating sweetheart. She is not slated to appear at any of the remaining competitions of the season. Time will only tell if Swan has fallen off the map for good." "Ouch," I muttered, falling back against the pillows. Esme wrapped her arm around me and pulled my head down on her shoulder. "That wasn't so bad," Alice encouraged, squeezing my leg. "It's no surprise that you'd be mentioned, Bella. You won last year and aren't there this time around." "I know, it's not a shock," I agreed. But it still hurt to hear. My phone rang this time with Renee's familiar tone. Apparently a text just wasn't going to do for this one. I groaned and reached forward to silence the ringer, falling back against Esme's comforting shoulder. "Your mom?" Alice asked, nodding to the phone. "Yeah, she's in rare form tonight." "What's her deal, anyways?" Rose asked. "I don't know. She used to skate. She always wanted to compete, but her family didn't have the resources when she

was younger. Then she had me..." "Total stage mom, huh?" "I suppose you could say that. My career has always been important to her, at times even more so than it was to me. You know I wanted to quit? When I was about twelve or thirteen I hated it. I just wanted to be a normal girl who went to school and had friends, crushes, boyfriends, whose biggest complaint was about having too much homework or too many chores. My skating was getting a lot more intense as I moved up the competition levels and I was so sick of it. I threw just about the biggest tantrum you could imagine, embarrassed the hell out of her. All she did was up my training hours so I'd be too exhausted to whine at her," I recalled, nuzzling into Esme as her hand soothingly stroked up and down my arm. "What a bitch," Rose muttered and I merely shrugged, not really finding it in me to argue. Renee wasn't a very kind person, and though I felt like I should defend her, purely based on the fact that she was my mother, I couldn't justify it to the women surrounding me. "I'm glad, in part, that she made me stick it out. I really do love it," I insisted, "I just wish I didn't have to give up so much in order to have it in my life, I guess." "Did you even want to be a skater, honey?" Esme inquired softly. "I guess so. I always enjoyed it and it seemed like the one thing I was actually any good at. I was so awkward and clumsy when I was a kid. Let's face it, I still am most of the time. On the ice I wasn't. I liked feeling strong and beautiful for once. And it made my mom happy, which used to make me happy. I never really thought about doing anything else. I guess that's why this whole thing has thrown me for such a loop." Alice diverted our attention back to the program when the next skater took the ice wearing a monstrosity of hot pink feathers and sequins and we returned to our running banter. Coverage wrapped up for the night, set to return on Saturday with the free skate, and I mentally patted myself for making it through the evening. I figured the girls and Esme would start to gather their stuff and head out. I should have known better. "So, let's talk about Edward," Alice commanded, turning slightly on the couch and resting her elbow against the back to face me. "Alice," Esme chided her daughter. "No. I've given you three and a half days to mope and overanalyze. That's my limit." "What do you want from me, Alice?" I asked, slinking back from her slightly. "I want you to tell me why you're pushing him away when it's so obvious that you like him. Don't even try to deny it," she rushed on when I opened my mouth, "You've had this giddy little smile on your face every time you get a text from him. And yes, I know they're from him, because you're certainly not getting that swoony look over notes from your mother." "It's complicated," I muttered, picking at my sock and not bothering to argue with her. "I'm a smart woman. I think I can keep up." "Alice, I think you should leave this alone. It's between Bella and Edward," Esme spoke up as she stroked her hand down my pony tail. "Bella, I'm only saying this because I care about you. I just want to see you be happy, and right now you're not happy. I wouldn't say anything if I thought that this was what you really wanted."

"It doesn't matter what I want." "Of course it matters. Don't be ridiculous," Rose said, adjusting herself so she could peek out from behind Alice. "He should be with someone who's more his equal. I'm sure there are plenty of women out there who could give him so much more than I could, who could make him happy." "Honey, Edward and I are very close. I won't betray his confidence, but I will tell you that I've never heard him talk about a woman the way he talks about you," Esme soothed. "Seriously, Bella, I've never seen him act like this over anyone. Not even his ex-girlfriend," Alice insisted. "If you don't want anything more than friendship with him, then that's one thing, Bella, and that's just fine if you don't, that's your choice. But if what's holding you back is some misguided fear that you're not good enough for him, I'd really find that very sad," Esme said, nudging my chin around to face her. "He's a grown man, Bella, who is capable of making his own choices on what he wants and who he wants. You owe it to yourself and to Edward to give him that choice if it's something you want." "But it doesn't make any sense! Don't you see? I don't have anything to offer someone like him. Over the last few weeks I've come to the realization that my life's a joke. I'm a pre-teen living in the body of a twenty-four year old. I'm not responsible for anything; I barely have control over anything in my life. All I had was skating. Every part of my life was devoted to what went on within the two hundred feet of the ice rink. Now, without that I just feel lost and pathetic. How could anyone find that attractive?" I ranted, "And he's just so perfect." "Bella, I'm my son's biggest fan. But he is very far from perfect. He's stubborn and moody, he tries to make decisions for other people and he can be a bit of a hot-head. He cracks his knuckles and jiggles his knee when he's impatient or nervous, which shakes the whole damn couch. He's practically toxic after a game or practice and his hair's always a disaster because he can't keep his hands out of it. He's a good man, but he's not perfect," Esme entreated. "You can't put him up on a pedestal, Bella. It's not fair to either of you," Rose urged. "Or fine, put him up on that pedestal, but open your eyes and realize that you're good enough to be up there with him," Alice prodded. "Seriously, take a look in the mirror," Rose continued, "You're gorgeous and talented and strong and funny. You're one of the sweetest people I've ever met in my entire life. So maybe you've been a little sheltered. That's not a fault of yours, and you left that behind. You were brave enough to leave everything you knew and come here. That makes you pretty amazing in my book." "You're not pathetic, Bella. You've had your life handled for you and choices taken out of your hands, but you made the choice to come here. Your mom wanted you to stay in Florida and you stuck to your guns and did what you thought was right for you. So, take that determination and start following through with it," Alice implored, "Take charge of your life, Bella. What do you want? Because you're the one who needs to be content with your life. Your mom won't be around forever." "Honey, we can tell you how wonderful you are from now until next Christmas. It won't make a difference if you can't see it for yourself. See it and truly believe it," Esme said. "Look, we're not expecting you to run over there and confess your undying love to him. We know this isn't easy for you. You're just starting to break out on your own and everything's up in the air. You're probably overwhelmed. Just think about it. Don't turn your back completely on something that could make you both happy," Alice finished, leaving me slightly dazed at the onslaught they'd just imparted on me. "Wow. You three are a force to be reckoned with," I shook my head in admiration.

"Hell yeah we are! Wonder team power," Rose exclaimed, punching her fist out in front of her. "Activate!" Alice cheered, touching her fist to Rose's with Esme following suit quickly after. "Get your warrior fist in here, Bells. This is your official initiation," Rose informed me. "Do I get a t-shirt?" I asked with a small smile, reaching my hand out and joining their circle. An hour later when we finally wrapped things up and called it a night, Esme pulled me aside as the girls gathered up empty ice cream cartons. "Bella, for what my opinion's worth, I think my son is very lucky to have you come into his life," she told me softly and I felt my eyes moisten at her words. "Thank you, Esme," I managed, blinking back the tears before they could fall. "Your opinion means a lot to me. More than I can really say." She held me close for a moment and I let myself relax into her, soaking in the maternal embrace. After they left, I couldn't stop thinking about all the things they'd said and what we'd talked about. Esme was right, it really wasn't fair for me to make the choice for Edward. I'd had my choices made for me so many times and I hated to even think of doing that to him. I did like him. I did want more than friendship with him. But I needed to get my act together first. I wouldn't saddle him with my emotional mess. As I crawled into bed, I began outlining my plan for Operation Bella.

~*~
Saturday night, we went to meet up with the guys at a restaurant in a little village on the outskirts of the city called the Chatterbox Pub. Heading into the evening I had my usual case of the jitters. Though we'd talked every day, I hadn't actually seen Edward since he dropped me at my door that night after the Carnival. I'd gotten to be so comfortable with him over the phone and worried that it wouldn't be the same when we were face to face again. Apparently I shouldn't have worried. The guys were already waiting outside when we got there and Emmett pulled me into one of his signature crushing bear hugs, followed by a quick, friendly squeeze from Jasper, which surprised me a little because he'd never struck me quite as physically affectionate as the others, except toward Alice. Then I was face to face with Edward and I didn't have even an instant to feel awkward. The grin on his face was contagious as he pulled me into a hug, snuggling me close and holding on a few seconds longer than necessity called for. I let myself selfishly melt into him, enjoying the fact that I never felt my usual discomfort for displays of affection with Edward. His touch was always comforting yet exciting at the same time. He uttered his usual, "Hey" as he pulled back, keeping a hand on the small of my back as he ushered me through the door with the rest of the group. The restaurant was fairly loud due to the Saturday night crowd, the environment hip and eclectic. There were the normal booths and tables, but there were also groupings of mis-matched armchairs and couches, one of which centered around a TV where a group of people were playing Super Mario Brothers. "Have you been here before?" I asked Edward as we were led to our table. "Yeah, a few times. The service kinda takes awhile, but they have a ton of board games and stuff you can check out, so we usually get one of those going." When we got to the table, Edward pulled his coat off and made me burst into giggles. "What's so funny, Swan?"

"Nothing. I just think I'm going to need to leave my coat on for the rest of the night." "Why's that? What you got on under there?" he asked suspiciously, playfully pulling at the collar of my coat. I unbuttoned it to show him the source of my amusement. "We match!" In fact, our outfits matched almost completely. We both work dark jeans paired with black and white Converse sneakers and a black and red plaid flannel shirt. His was unbuttoned and he wore a white shirt underneath, and I wore a black knit cap over my straightened hair, but other than that we were identical. He smirked and shook his head as he helped me out of my coat and draped it on top of his on the hook. "I can't help it that I'm such a snazzy dresser that you want to copy me." "Yeah, right. You're totally en vogue, Edward. What is that a Batman t-shirt?" I teased, nudging his flannel aside so I could see better. "Hell yes it's a Batman t-shirt. Don't be mocking the style, flannel twin." "Well, Alice hasn't seen my outfit yet, that's the only reason I was able to get this far without her yelling at me." As if on cue, Alice spotted me and groaned. Emmett chuckled and said, "Aww, it's like Sadie Hawkins. You two should go find the barn and have a roll in the hay." I blushed, probably to the point where my skin matched the red of my shirt and pulled the knit hat down over my face just for a moment, cursing the genetic makeup that had saddled me with such an easily affected complexion. "Bella, you're just as ensembly challenged as my brother," Alice groaned, "Couldn't you have worn something cuter? You know, not plaid?" "It's comfy," I shrugged, defending my wardrobe choice. "So are sweatpants and you wouldn't wear those out in public now would you? Would you?" she emphasized the last two words at the look of consideration on my face. "Leave her alone, Ali. I think she looks cute," Edward interceded from his spot behind me. "Of course you do, Al Borland. It's my job as your sister and someone with far better taste to inform you that flannel is in no way attractive," Alice lobbed back at him over my shoulder. "On the contrary, I find flannel very sexy," he informed her as he wrapped his arms around me from behind and stroked his hand softly across the fabric over my stomach, bunching the material and rubbing it softly between his fingers. Then he leaned his head down and whispered in my ear, "It's very compliant to my touch." I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head and my breath caught in my throat. It's very possible that I choked on my own tongue. My mind wandered into a completely-inappropriate-for-public place involving Edward and flannel sheets. And it was very sexy. "Hmm. It seems you may be right, Edward. What do you think, Bella?" "Huh?" I squeaked, my voice embarrassingly high as I snapped out of my daze to see Alice looking at me with a sly and expectant smirk. "Do you think flannel's sexy?"

"Um, yeah. Sure. Can we sit down now?" I asked a bit desperately, extracting myself from Edward's arms and plopping down in the booth next to Rose. I saw Edward and Alice share a look as they sat down, sticking their tongues out at each other and concluding their disagreement. The next two and a half hours were a blast, and very comfortable once I remembered how to breathe again. No one ever made me feel like an outsider, they treated me as if I'd always been a part of their cozy little circle. The longer I knew them all, the more I became aware of how much I'd needed this in my lifefriendship and laughter, people who liked me and were interested in who I was and what I had to say. People who seemed to really care about me. The evening was a frenzy of entertainment, whether we were laughing our asses off over a game of Apples to Apples, or bickering over who got the last of the seasoned French fries smothered in beer cheese fondue. We were so caught up in our game of Trivial Pursuit that we ended up eating with plates of food in our laps to make room for the board on the table. Every round or new game, we'd switch teams. Once it was boys vs. girls, another time couples, though it wasn't expressed that way since technically Edward and I were not a couple. When Alice called for a siblings round, Emmett called dibs on me, enjoying the fact that he finally had a partner in crime to fight the "wonder twins", aka Edward and Alice. Teaming up with Emmett was a blast, though I feared for my eardrums. When the others were winning, he'd razz them with trash talk, trying to distract them into making a bad move. Every time we made a good play, he cheered obnoxiously and insisted on "exploding knuckles" complete with bomb-like sound effects. In the end, we won by a hair and I thought Emmett was going to pop my head off when he wrapped his colossal arm around my neck, snatching the hat off my head and vigorously rubbing his knuckles over my scalp while he declared our victory. "Damn it, Emmett! You're going to suffocate me in your smelly armpit," I shouted, swatting at his arm to try and free myself. "Babybel, you're the coolest little sister ever. Sorry, Ali, your services are no longer necessary," he teased and stuck his tongue out in her direction. "You and Eddie can go lick your wounds while Bella and I bask in our total domination." During the remainder of our time at the pub, I savored the environment and the company. It was difficult to imagine that less than three weeks earlier I'd lived in such a solitary existence. I was certain that I'd never be able to return to that now that I knew what I'd been missing all along. Sometime in the middle of the meal, I felt something graze against my calf under the table. Glancing quickly around the table, I honed in on Edward, sitting across from me. He was paying attention to some story Jasper was telling, but there was just the slightest hint of mischief in his eyes and he appeared to not be paying complete attention to his friend's words. Testing, I swirled my ankle, lightly nudging against the object that had been touching me. There. His eyebrow quirked, his mouth turning up in that signature crooked smile, and his jaw clenched just slightly. I grew bolder with my exploration, nuzzling my leg against his as inconspicuously as possible. The only acknowledgement either of us made was when he glanced over at me once and graced me with a wink. Other than that, we brought no attention to the mild flirtation taking place and continued to engage in our coy little game of footsie until the suggestion was made to head back to Alice and Rose's place for a movie. Back at their apartment, Rose and Emmett curled up on the couch while Jasper and Alice snuggled in an oversized armchair. Edward and I sprawled out on the floor, lying on our stomachs, propped up on our elbows. We watched Transformers, mostly to appease the males in attendance, but I actually found myself enjoying it with Edward filling me in on the background, his whispers sending shivers down my spine. Alice and Jasper ditched out halfway through, heading back to Jasper's place. When the movie finished, Edward and I glanced back to see that Rose and Emmett had fallen asleep at some point; Rose snoring lightly as she sprawled out on Emmett's massive chest, Emmett's mouth gaping open with just a hint of drool on his chin. "Aw, isn't that precious?" I gestured back at them before resting my head on my arms in an effort to get more

comfortable. "Yeah, you'd almost think they were sweet and innocent if you didn't know any better," Edward chuckled as he rolled over onto his back, folding his hands under his head. I couldn't stop my eyes from wandering. Due to his position, his t-shirt had raised just enough to reveal a sliver of skin along his abs and a narrow strip of gray peeking out from the waist of his jeans. I tried to control the color flooding my cheeks at the sight, though the flush was most definitely due to the desire coursing through me, rather than my typical bashfulness. As much as I tried to contribute to the conversation we lapsed into, I was undoubtedly distracted by the visions of Edward and myself in various states of undress flooding my mind. Until I'd met him, I'd never been so bombarded with feelings of lust and desire, by erotic thoughts and the frustration of sexual tension. It was all so foreign to me, but I was beginning to actually welcome the foreign emotions he'd awakened in me. My eyes started drooping as we laid there, talking in hushed voices with our heads close together. The last thing I remembered seeing that night were Edward's green eyes, this time in reality rather than just my imagination.

~*~
Monday afternoon, I walked into my apartment after my Physical Therapist appointment feeling distracted. That morning after working through our regular routine, Seth informed me that my knee was healing well and I was already progressively building up my strength and range of motion. Then he dropped the bomb and advised me to find a rink and start putting in some ice time a few days a week. I hadn't been expecting to get back on the ice for weeks, maybe not even until I'd met with Carlisle again in April. But Seth assured me that it'd be the best thing for me since it's where I'd gotten the majority of my exercise before the injury. He suggested that getting back on my skates and gradually getting back into my routine would help move along my recovery, the exception being that I couldn't jump, one foot needed to be on the ice at all times until he told me differently. My mind was a jumble and my feelings mixed at the news. On the one hand, I was relieved and excited about the possibility of getting back on the ice, on the other I was nervous. I hadn't decided yet if I really wanted to compete again. Did I even want to try? I didn't call Renee, but I did text Alice and Rose on my way home to let them know the turn of events. I knew they'd be excited, but it wouldn't crush them if I came to the decision that it just wasn't going to happen for me again. Renee would be epically pissed off if I told her I was done, but I needed to stop basing my decisions on her reactions. Thinking of her first and me second was what had led to my sad state of affairs. I needed to figure out what the hell I was doing. There were so many thoughts jumbled up in my head, each one fighting for the forefront. What should I do about skating? What should I do about Renee? What should I do about Edward? How long could I keep living in this odd state of limbo? One thing was certain, I wasn't going to find any answers by sitting around my apartment. Before I could second guess myself, I dug out the sheet of information on a local rink that Renee had found for me to get ice time when I got to that point. I called in and jumped on it when the woman said they had time available that afternoon. Changing and grabbing my bag, I drove to the one place I knew of that I could be alone to just think. I pulled up in front of a large stone building and though I'd never seen it before, it was familiar all the same. Just like every other rink I'd been to in my life. In the past, the rink had been more my home than anywhere I'd ever lived. I'd spent more time there than anywhere else, that was for damn sure. The sound of the cooling system always gently humming in the background, the scrape of metal against ice, the crisp smell of frozen water mixed with the dingy scent of sweat, the way the air caught in your lungs and prickled against your skin, these things were comforting to me. They said home. Now, I sat in my car in the empty parking lot, more afraid to go home than I'd ever been. There were so many 'what if's' running through my head. What if I don't belong here anymore? What if I couldn't do this? What's the point in even trying?

Finally, my more practical side kicked in. I'd paid to rent the space, was I really going to just sit out in the parking lot and mope? You're pathetic, Bella, it's just a damn rink. Get off your ass and walk in the door. I grabbed my duffle and walked to the door before I could revert back to my wimpy cowering. The doors were heavy, a welcome weight in my hands and I was met by the familiar wall of cold, crisp air as I entered the arena. Metal bleachers lined one side while player benches lined the other, the ice marked with the lines and circles that made up a hockey rink. It made me think of Edward and I instantly felt just a little more at ease. The building was quiet and empty. I'd rented the space for two hours this first time, not exactly sure how things would go. I'm sure there were maintenance people somewhere, but at the moment I was entirely alone. I walked along the outside curve of the boards, my fingers trailing along the rim until I came to the hatch that would lead out onto the ice. It opened with a metallic clack and I stared down at the smooth surface, just inches in front of my feet. I wasn't ready to lace up my skates. Even though I knew I'd been on the ice that day with Edward and the whole gang, this was so completely different. There, I knew there was no pressure to perform, to show results. On that day I was just a regular girl who didn't need to know anything more than how to skate around in a circle with her buddies. Once I set my blades to this ice it would be the real test of if I could get back to it or not. I'd need to try spins and spirals and I needed to be prepared to come to the conclusion that I was truly finished. I wasn't ready to find that out yet. Instead, I shrugged out of my coat and draped it over the boards before stepping out onto the ice in my street shoes. Renee would be horrified at me, tarnishing the ice with the dirty soles, dragging little rocks out onto the clean surface. At the moment, I just needed to be here, to find the connection that I'd always had. I walked along the edge, keeping close to the boards, until coming to a stop at the top of the oval, just behind where the goalie net would normally sit. I leaned back against the glass and sank to the ground, my knees pulled close to my chest as I felt the welcome coolness seep through my jeans and chill the palms of my hands. All right, Bella. Enough is enough. It's time to figure out what the fuck you're doing. There's no one here telling you what to do. There's no one here expecting anything from you. It's just you and the ice. I closed my eyes, leaning my head back against the boards and meditating on the questions in my head. Do you want this, Bella? You, not Renee? Why do you want to skate again? Do you want to compete again? Because if you get that chance, it's you who has to put in the work. It's you who has to put yourself out there again. Renee could make all the demands she wanted but in the end it's your body that'll be taking the punishment of training, your nerves that have to make it through the stress and anticipation. It's you who'll be suffering if you fail, it's you who will triumph if you succeed. Not her. Thirty minutes later I was still wrestling with those questions and searching for the answers as I stared out over the empty ice, when the door to the arena opened, a disruptive clang cutting through the silence followed by quiet footsteps. "Bella?" The familiar voice squeezed my heart and I couldn't be annoyed at the interruption. I raised my hand above my head, tapping against the glass and pointing down so he could make out my location. I heard him chuckle from just on the other side of the glass then the sound of his feet lightly jogging over to the entrance, only to step through the gate a few moments later and crossing to stand in front of me.

"You couldn't find a more comfortable spot to daydream?" he teased, looking down at me, one side of his mouth turned up in a small smile. "This seemed like a good one at the time," I told him, leaning my head back so I could see him better, standing tall above me. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, tugging the hair at the back of his neck with one hand. I shook my head and gestured to the empty space beside me. He folded himself down next to me, mirroring my position, his hand flat on the ice resting just beside mine, his pinky finger so close to touching my own that I could feel the warmth and electricity that always came from his touch. "How long have you been sitting here?" "Awhile," I answered before turning my head to look at him. "What are you doing here?" "I figured you'd be here. After you got the okay from the physical therapist." "How did you-" "Alice." "Ah," I nodded in understanding and returned my gaze to the empty ice. "I didn't tell her I was coming here," I realized and lifted my brow at him. "What are you stalking me now?" "No, no!" he exclaimed, holding his hands up defensively. "I was passing by and saw your car out front. No, really," he insisted when I continued to gaze at him speculatively. "Edward, relax. I'm just giving you a hard time," I said, smiling at him to assure him that I wasn't upset. His features relaxed in relief and he dropped his head back against the boards. "You know, I skated here as a kid. Back in Pee Wee league we had all our games here." "Really?" "Yup. You are sitting on the exact same ice where the legendary Edward Cullen got his start," he said seriously. I snorted and gave him one of those 'you've got to be kidding me' looks. "So modest." "I know, right? No, really though," he continued softly, the mock arrogance of his tone fading away, "It's always been my favorite rink." "This?" "Yeah. I still come here sometimes to skate when I want to get away. I remember getting my first goal here, my first penalty, chipping my first tooth. That's a hockey rite of passage, you know." "I did not know that." "I've actually chipped three and lost one completely." "You're lying," I said, "Your teeth are perfect." "I do not tell a lie, see?" he said, baring his teeth to me and pointing out the little notches in three separate teeth. "It looks to me like you've got a full set there," I said, craning my neck to inspect.

"This one," he said pointing to the incisor just to the left of his front teeth. "It's fake." "Huh. What was your first penalty for, do you remember?" "Yeah, high sticking," he chuckled, "I was a bitenthusiastic, I guess you could say. Man, my mom went nuts when they sent me to the box, had all the other hockey moms gasping in horror that sweet little Esme Cullen even knew what half the words coming out of her mouth meant. That's the other reason I love this rink, all the memories of seeing her and my dad cheering in the stands. They still come to as many games as they can, but there's just nothing compared to those days." I smiled at him softly before closing my eyes and resting my head back against the boards. I was happy for Edward that he had those memories, but I couldn't help but feel a slight tinge of envy for what he had growing up, for what he still had. Just once it would have been nice to see Renee in the stands as my mom, not as my manager. I knew figure skating wasn't Charlie's idea of a good time, but it would have been nice to see him there for me. "Do you want me to leave?" he asked quietly, shyly. I realized I was frowning, and I didn't want him to think it was because of him or anything he'd said. "No. You can stay," I told him without looking at him, then rushed on so he wouldn't think he was obligated to do so. "I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to, or if you have other things to do." "Bella?" he quietly cut me off, and I turned back to meet his eyes, pools of emerald green that looked so inviting. "Yes?" "I'll stay." "Okay. Thanks," I said with a small smile. We lapsed into a comfortable silence, just his presence easing my mental burden. There was always an underlying tension when Edward was near, it wasn't necessarily unwelcome, just an awareness within every nerve of my body that he was close by. At the same time his proximity caused me to relax and stopped my mind from racing. "You know there's no street shoes allowed on the ice," he teased lightly, flicking his finger at the sole of my boot. "What, are you gonna turn me in?" "You know it. I take my ice maintenance very seriously, Swan," he answered dryly. "Hey, Edward, what are those on your feet?" I asked with exaggerated curiosity, copying his gesture and flicking my finger at his sneaker, "Oh wait." "Oh, caught in my own web. Why you gotta bust my chops, Swan?" "Don't dish it out if you can't take it." "Well, what do you say we both ditch the shoes and lace up our skates then. That'd solve the problem, wouldn't it?" "I don't know," I said, closing in on myself slightly. "Bella. It's what you came here for," he said, his tone serious yet casual, as if I shouldn't have any hesitation. "I know. I just don't know if I'm ready yet," I muttered, squeezing the toes of my boots to give my hands something to do.

"Ready for what? You were fine once we got on the ice last Sunday." "That was different," I insisted. "It doesn't have to be." "You don't understand." "Then make me understand, Bella," he demanded, quietly but firmly as he took my chin in his hand and urged me to face him. "Don't brush me off, because I'm here, and I'm listening." "What if I'm not this girl anymore, Edward?" I asked, exposing my insecurities to his penetrating gaze. "I don't know how to be anything else." "Bella, being a figure skater doesn't define you. It's only a part of who you are." His hand softened its hold as his fingers caressed my cheek and I couldn't stop myself from leaning into his touch if I wanted to. But I didn't want to. I wanted to revel in the comfort he offered freely. "It's the only thing I know." "What do you love about being on the ice?" he asked, the tone of his voice shifting from soft and intense to his normal, casual cadence. "What?" "Humor me, Swan," he said, lightly tapping his finger on the tip of my nose before dropping his hand. "What do you love about being on the ice?" I thought seriously about his question and realized the best answer was simple and honest. "It's where I feel happiest." "And why is that?" "Because on the ice I feel strong. I feel capable, confident. I feel like I know what my purpose is and who I am. I've never felt that way anywhere else." "Do you think that all just disappears because you took a tumble? You tore your ACL, Bella, don't let it break your spirit," I gazed deeply into his eyes as I allowed myself to truly soak up his words. He was right. I was being such a baby about this. Why was I letting it all get to me so much? Skaters fell all the time, athletes were injured every day and they got back on their feet. Why would I be any different? It was only different because I was allowing it to be. "Let's go," he said, pushing himself up to stand and offering his hand to help me up. "You're not getting anywhere by sitting here watching the ice melt." I didn't hesitate before nodding and taking his hand. "Okay." "So, do you have a routine or standard warm up?" he asked as we sat on the first row of the bleachers, pulling our skates out. "Not really. I usually just do laps and stuff with my iPod." "Do you have it with you?" "Well yeah, but I'm not gonna wear headphones with you here. That's a bit antisocial, wouldn't you say?"

"Can I see it?" he asked, holding his hand out. Digging my blue Nano out of my skate bag, I handed it over to him, showing him the playlist I typically used before he disappeared behind the stands. I continued lacing my skates, then strapping on my brace and pulling my multi-colored legwarmers down over the ankles of my boots. Less than a minute later I heard the opening of chords of Snow Patrol's Set the Fire to the Third Bar emitting from the speakers and echoing through the arena. Edward reappeared with a little smirk and sat next to me to quickly lace up his skates. "How did you-" "I can't reveal my secrets," he stopped me with a sly grin and a lift of his eyebrows. "You ready?" We stepped onto the ice together and took off at a steady pace around the ice, easily matching the beat of the song in the background. So far so good. Nothing different than what I'd done at the Landmark rink. As we warmed up, Edward would occasionally increase his speed, which in turn caused me to increase mine to stay in line with him. At first it wasn't even noticeable, but then I started to feel myself falling behind him more and more. I'd grit my teeth and dig my feet in, rushing forward to get back in line with him. The third time this happened, I glanced over at him with a slight hint of exasperation. He answered my look with a cocky smirk. He moved right in front of me, turning to face me without losing any speed. "C'mon, Swan, I know you can skate faster than that." I glared at him before quickly darting to the side and propelling past him, taking him by surprise a bit before he recovered and gave me a run for my money. We were neck and neck most of the way around the ice, but while I threw myself into my strides, I could feel him overtaking me as we neared the unspoken finish line. "I win!" he shouted triumphantly as we crossed the blue line in the ice with him in the lead. "That wasn't very chivalrous of you," I complained, shoving him aside lightly when he circled around me. "Didn't your mom teach you to always let a lady win?" "Not when my male pride is at stake, woman. Chivalry takes a backseat when it's my manliness on the line," he joked back dryly as we made our way to the boards for a water break. "You know, hockey skates are built to go faster, of course you're going to beat me," I said, leaning my elbows on the barrier and sipping from my water. "Excuses, excuses," he drawled, sidling up next to me and nudging me with his elbow as he drank from his own. "You're really just gonna let me win based on an equipment technicality." "It's not a technicality. It's a scientific fact that hockey skates are designed for speed and agility while figure skates are not." "I don't know, Swan, from what I've seen you're very...agile," he said, waggling his eyebrows at me suggestively. "What are you talking about, you haven't seen me skate," I deflected, chugging my water to quench my suddenly dry throat and cool my flushed skin. "Have you?" When he didn't answer I looked over at him. He was pulling at the hair just above his neck and smiling sheepishly. "Have you?" I repeated, needling him in surprised amusement and poking at his side. "Maybe..." he conceded with a mischievous smile. "Really? Macho hockey player Edward Cullen watches figure skating competitions? That's so...cute."

"Laugh it up, Swan. I just watch for the short skirts," he razzed me, lifting his eyebrows. "So, what's your favorite move?" he asked conversationally. "Spirals," I answered after considering for a moment. "Cool. What the hell are those?" "It's a glide on one foot with the other extended in the air," I explained, chuckling. "Is that something you can do without putting too much pressure on your knee?" "Sure," I shrugged. "Awesome. Show me," he requested, hopping up to sit on the ledge and folding his hands in expectation. "What? Now?" I asked, stepping back a bit and biting my lip as I wrapped my arms around myself. "You got anything better to be doing? If you want to get back on your feet, you need the right motivation. Your favorite move is probably a good place to start, don't you think?" "Yeah, but here? In front of you?" I clarified hesitantly. "Bella, you've skated in front of millions of people and you're freaked out at skating in front of me?" "Well...yeah. I just sorta zone out when I'm performing in front of a crowd." "So, pretend I'm not here if that helps." "I can't do that." "Why not?" "I just can't." "If you can't give me a good reason then I'm just going to sit here all night until you do it," he said, placing his hands on the barrier on either side of him and leaning back slightly, implying his intention to settle in for awhile. The look in his eyes left me no doubt that he would hold true to his promise. Or threat. However you wanted to look at it. Rather than argue, I decided he was right. It was silly to be nervous about skating in front of him. It was time to step up to the plate and see if I could still make the cut. I took off around the ice, crossing my feet over as I moved backwards to gain momentum. When I knew I'd gained enough speed to propel me through the sequence, I faced forward, extending my right leg well above my waist behind me and stretching my arms out. The cool air of the arena breezed over me and I could do nothing but grin and close my eyes as I came to one realization. I could do this. I had to do this. For me. Skating for me was like breathing, it was natural; not always without effort, but essential all the same. There was nothing compared to the pure joy I felt when I was like this. There was nothing closer to flying. The jumps may get you air bound, but the stress associated with them had always voided a lot of the enjoyment in my opinion. For me, there was nothing better than gliding across the length of the ice in a strong, steady spiral sequence. As I curved around the far side of the rink, I lowered my leg and flipped to face the other direction, raising my other leg straight up behind me and bending at the waist until my fingertips brushed the ice.

There's no place like home. The second position took me back the length of the ice and I straightened up, taking a few steps to regain my speed as I moved into the final section of the sequence. The same one that had led to my injury, the fan spiral. I took a deep breath and forced the nerves from my body as I switched back to my left leg, extending my right in front of me, lightly bending my standing leg to support myself and fanning my arms out above my head as I swung in half circle, ending with a dig of my toe pick right back where I'd started from in front of Edward. I'd done it. "Well look at that," Edward quirked his brow and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. "Now I thought that looked pretty fucking phenomenal. You're not too shabby, Swan." "Aww shucks, I do declare that I've never received a sweeter compliment, sir," I trilled in a silly Southern Belle accent. "Can't go letting you get a big head. It won't fit into your cute little hats," he said, snatching the cap from my head. "Hey! Give it back," I laughed, jumping up next to him to try and reach where he held it above his head. "Why do you cover your hair up so much?" he asked. "I don't," I insisted, my brow furrowed in confusion. "Yeah, you do. Practically every time I see you, you've got a hat on." "You're ridiculous." "No, really. The game, at the carnival, Saturday and now here," he ticked off on his fingers. "Four times does not a habit make," I chanted, snatching my hat out of his grasp and stuffing it down on my head as I hopped back off the ledge. "Besides, it's winter in Minnesota." "Bella," he whispered, lowering himself to stand in front of me, his hand reaching up and slowly sliding the hat back off my head, my hair falling forward over my shoulders. "You don't have to hide from me." "You're reading too much into this," I tried to say as evenly as possible, not wanting him to realize just how much his words and actions were truly affecting me. "Am I? I don't think so," he maintained seriously and had me looking up at him from beneath my lashes. Within his gaze, I felt completely bare, like he could see every part of me, but the exposure didn't leave me feeling insecure or uncomfortable. I didn't know what I felt or how to describe the way he was looking at me. The closest I could come was...adoration? "It's really nauseating how perfect you are, do you know that?" I said, clenching my hands at him in mock frustration before laying them tentatively on his chest. "Hope you've got a strong stomach, because I'm not going anywhere," he said softly, stroking the back of his index finger lightly down my cheek, before grasping my shoulders and nudging me back. "Now enough slacking, let's get to work." "What?" "What'd you expect? You do one awesome move and just call it a day? Is that the kind of training schedule that won you an Olympic medal? Because if so I'm totally switching to figure skating. Charmed life you people lead."

"Smart ass," I huffed at him. "It is very intelligent, actually. Got a 2025 on its SAT's. What'd your ass get?" "My ass didn't take the SAT's," I said, rolling my eyes at him. "Seriously? Well isn't that the kicker. I banged my head against the wall for six months over that stupid test." "I can see I really missed out on a lot," I said dryly, circling back and forth lazily to keep my legs moving. "Oh, you did. The beauty of the SAT's was a little something called 'study dates.'" "I'm sure you were a very popular study partner." "I can't help it if I'm gifted." He said, blowing on his fingers and rubbing them on the lapel of his coat. "Do you need to borrow this to contain that massive ego, Cullen?" I deadpanned, offering him my hat. "Thanks," he said, surprising me when he actually snatched it from my hand and tugged it down on his head, covering the sexy bronze mess of his hair. "I don't know if teal is quite your color," I teased, gliding to stand in front of him and batting softly at his nose with one of the tassels hanging down from the ear flaps. "You're just jealous that it looks better on me." "You've got me there," I mused quietly, tying the strings in a bow under his chin and patting his cheek with a grin. "So, what else do you have in your bag of tricks?" At his question, the song over the speakers changed over and the bluesy electric guitar riffs of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room resonated through the arena and filled me completely with the desire to skate. I'd always loved skating to this song. It was never anything I could use seriously, too contemporary for any competition and too sexy for an exhibition piece. But the beats, the rise and fall, were the perfect backdrop for the smoothness that I loved about figure skating and I'd come up with a routine to after the first time I heard it. I wouldn't be able to do the entire thing with my knee, but knew I could get through most of it easily. Edward was right. I needed to remember what I loved about skating. I needed to get my confidence back. And there wasn't a different routine in my arsenal that could do that as well as this one. "I don't know about tricks. But I may have a few things up my sleeve, Cullen," I murmured coyly, giving him a gentle push back up against the boards and backing away to catch up with the routine just before the words kicked in. I forgot about everything but the feel of the ice under my blades, the sway of my arms and my hips. What I'd loved about this routine was that I never had to think about it. There were no negative memories associated with it since it had never been performed in public, I had no memories of mistakes I'd made or points that had been knocked off. The music coursed through my veins and made me slightly euphoric. I'd always been confident on the ice and I was finally starting to get that back again. Part of the way through, my moves brought me closer to Edward. He'd boosted himself back up on the boards and was watching silently, holding my hat in his hands. I gave him a small wink as I passed, but he didn't even blink and he had the oddest expression on his face. Edward sat on the boards with a glazed over look to his eyes and for a second I almost thought he wasn't watching me skate at all, that he'd spaced out completely. But every time I glanced over at him, his eyes had followed me and remained trained on my form. With a jolt, I came to the shocking realization that maybe Edward really liked my skating. Like, really liked it. I'd never thought of figure skating as all

that alluring or sensual, but seeing the look of desire in Edward's eyes, I'd never felt sexier. I decided to test my theory out a bit and added more of a swerve to my movements and a sway to my hips, giving myself over to the music and allowing myself to believe, even if it was for just a moment, that I was an enticing and seductive woman who could captivate this beautiful man in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, I discretely searched for any alterations to his behavior. There. I'd dipped down into a Bauer, a parallel lunge with a layback, and purposefully took my time raising my torso back up. As I came up I watched him and could see the subtle but unmistakable differences. His knuckles were white as his grip tightened on the hat still in his grasp. His jaw had clenched and I could just see his Adam's apple bob as he appeared to swallow. Then his knee started to bounce just slightly and I remembered Esme's recollection that it was one of Edward's nervous habits. I had to turn away to hide the grin of giddy satisfaction that overtook my features as the glow of confidence and accomplishment flooded through me. There was no denying it. I made Edward nervous. Edward was attracted to me. Edward thought I was sexy. Me. Though he hadn't been secretive about telling me he liked me, seeing the proof of it staring me in the face drove the point home far more than any amount of words could. That epiphany gave me the little boost of confidence I needed. I'd been casually flirtatious back and forth with Edward all week, but he'd always initiated it. It was time to give him something back. The next time I passed his side of the ice, I skated much closer to him, grabbing his attention and shaking him out of his daze a bit. I lingered close and crooked my finger at him. "You just gonna sit there on your lazy ass all day or are you going to get out here and skate with me?" I requested, attempting to make my voice alluring and desperately hoping it didn't come off as ridiculous instead. He smirked, rubbing his hands over his thighs for a moment before lifting himself from his perch on the boards, barely touching his feet to the ice before taking off to catch up with me. It took mere moments before his steps were perfectly matched to mine, our skates moving in unison as we curved our way around the ice. As we rounded the corner of the rink, I felt the warmth of his body close in behind mine, not touching, but shadowing my position. His hands reached down and found mine, intertwining our fingers and raising our arms together. His chest moved in to press against the back of my shoulders. I'd never been a pairs skater, and I didn't think Edward had really done any before either, but our steps melded together so seamlessly that it seemed impossible that we'd never done anything like this together before. He brought my arms up over my head, expertly leading me to turn and face him, our arms now crossed in an x between us and I leaned into him, raising my leg in an arabesque before he tugged me back around. I breathed deeply and decided to take a chance, lacing my fingers through his and pulling him gently into me, wrapping our joined arms around my torso, one at the waist and one across my shoulders, shuddering slightly at the intensity of the feeling of him encasing me so thoroughly, his head resting against the top of mine. I felt his arms slip away, still holding my hands as he turned me towards him once again. His eyes were dark and intense, a deep evergreen as opposed to their normal sparkling jewel tone. His fingers loosened, brushing against mine once before letting go and bringing his hands to rest on my hips, my own sliding up his arms to lightly grip his biceps. As the song came to a close, he laid me back into a dip, touching his forehead to mine for just a moment before he eased back and waggled his eyebrows at me. I giggled, grateful that he'd done something to break up the heavy tension that had formed between us as we skated. He'd promised not to push me and seemed intent on keeping to his word, which made me feel safe in exploring and expanding my comfort zone with this thing, whatever it was, between us. "You sure you've never figure skated before?" "Nope, never." "Huh. You know they probably have an open slot on the men's Olympic team if you wanted to give it a go. You'd be

really adorable in spandex." "I think I'll pass." "Oh come on, you and Emmett could do it together, a little Blades of Glory action," I said, rolling my tongue in a sassy purr. "Ugh. Great. Now I'm seeing my brother in sparkly pants. The horror of that man free-balling it in skin tight material was not an image I ever wanted in my head. Thanks a lot, Swan," he muttered, reaching out and digging his fingers into my sides as I burst into giggles and tried to escape. "No, no, stop! Edward, please, I can't breathe," I pleaded between uncontrollable laughs as he continued his attack, until he eventually swept me up and threw me up over his shoulder. "You've committed a heinous crime, Swan. You must be punished," he taunted me and I seized the moment, grasping onto his sides and tickling him from my perch on his shoulder. He jerked slightly and chuckled. "You really have no idea what you just started," he warned, dropping me back lightly to my feet before he swooped in again. We chased each other around the ice, coming together, then breaking free and stopping only briefly to catch our breath before reengaging in our flirtatious war. I'd call for a truce and he'd sneak past my guard when he went to shake my hand. I'd feign surrender only to pounce when he came close to help me up. In the end we sprawled on the ice, out of breath and exhausted. As we lay there in contented silence, just gazing at each other, I finally acknowledged that I truly wanted Edward. As more than a friend. Being with him was easy, as natural as breathing, as skating. I was mildly afraid that would all change if we started dating, but he made me feel elated, like I could just float away on a cloud of bliss, and it was hard to imagine that would go away. I still didn't believe that I was enough for him, not where I was now at least, but I finally believed that I could get there. I would get there. I still felt like I had some work to do on Operation Bella first. When I did tell him I was ready, I wanted to be capable of standing beside him as an equal. I didn't delude myself into thinking whatever happened between us would be a quick, casual fling. I wanted to be ready to enter into a relationship, one with the potential to last, not doomed to failure because one party was too stunted to contribute anything of worth. Edward had told me he'd wait until I was ready and I trusted him. I made a silent promise then and there to not keep him waiting for long.

~*~

I woke up to the blare of my alarm on Tuesday morning at six-thirty a.m. I felt refreshed, I felt resolute, I felt like I was ready to take control of my life. The previous night I'd laid in bed with a notebook and thoroughly outlined my plans for "Operation Bella." I had a checklist of goals I wanted to accomplish and numbered them by priority level. Alice would be so proud. I'd never seen anyone in my entire life make lists like that woman could and did on a daily basis. Hopping out of bed, I ripped the sheet of paper from the notepad and brought it with me to the kitchen, slapping it front and center on the fridge with a Minnesota Wild magnet in the shape of a hockey puck that Alice had given to me. Seeing that symbol holding my list up was sure to be a good motivator for progress. While I wanted to pull my life together for myself, the thought of being with Edward, really being with him was a definite bonus.

Chapter Seven Stay The Course

My first task was to get back into a routine. I'd always had structure to my life, and while I didn't necessarily want to return to the rigidity of how it used to be, I did want to gain back some semblance of order. Starting that very day, I'd be up at six-thirty, grab a quick breakfast and head to the gym by seven for an hour and a half of cardio, weights and stretching that would gradually increase as I got back to full strength and hit my stride. After that it'd be time for a quick shower with a little cushion to ease into the rest of my day. I'd run any errands that I needed in the morning; I still had my physical therapy appointments three times a week and on my off days I'd fill in with grocery shopping or what have you. Then I'd be back home to tidy up a bit and attend to any laundry, dishes or general apartment maintenance. Lunch next, and then I'd be starting back to daily sessions at the rink. Three hours was far less than what I was used to when I was competing, but it would do nicely for now. In my time there I'd be working on getting back my strength and my confidence, making baby steps toward getting reacquainted with the skills that had been lying dormant for the past couple months. My evenings wouldn't be quite as structured. I still wanted to enjoy the freedom of this new life I'd dropped into. I wanted to have time to spend with my friends, now that I had them. I wanted to be able to just hang out and watch TV or read a book. Relax. My one concession to routine was that I'd need to return to a regular bedtime of ten-thirty to get in the rest I'd need with returning to such an active lifestyle. I could just picture the kind of hazing Emmett was going to give me over being a party-pooper for calling it a night so early, but maybe he'd surprise me. The man was a professional athlete after all; he couldn't be completely without discipline to his life. Saturday and Sunday would be a bit of a break, but Monday through Friday my job was to focus on that routine. Also high on my list was the task of contacting Marcus, my coach, and taking some sort of control over my own finances. Calling Marcus would be easy, the latter might prove to be a bit more difficult. Everything I had to my name was somehow linked to Renee. As time went on, I was starting to see more and more just how thoroughly she'd ensnared me in her web. My entire life had centered around her. She was involved in every part of it up until I'd left. That needed to change. If I wanted to be an adult, I needed to make some sort of break. Her name was attached to all my accounts and I wasn't quite sure how to go about severing that link, especially without pissing her off to the point where she'd be showing up on my doorstep. Inviting Renee back into my life was definitely something I did not want at this point. For the pioneer days of the new heading in my life, I'd be studying up on what it really meant to be an independent adult. From what I'd laid out already, it seemed pretty fucking boring, but the end result was sure to be satisfying. Munching on a breakfast bar, I tossed on my workout clothes of black cropped yoga pants and a grubby gray t-shirt before lacing up my running shoes and grabbing my keys, cell phone, and iPod. I popped my ear buds in as I filled up my water bottle in the kitchen, turning it to my most upbeat workout playlist aptly named 'Kicking Ass,' before locking up and heading down to the main floor. I waltzed through the glass door in the gym with a smile on my face and a spring to my step. No more whiny Bella, no more pathetic moping and self-pity fests, no drowning my sorrows in a vat of fatty foods and ice cream. Well, that one wouldn't be disappearing completely. I'd grown rather fond of a few of the new foods that had been introduced into my diet since I'd gotten here. Like Hostess Cupcakes and Cool Ranch Doritos. Elimination would definitely be taking it too far. I still needed to have some enjoyment, didn't I? Moderation would be key and I rolled my eyes a bit at the thought that shifting back to monitoring my nutrition was probably a necessary "adult thing" to do. Goodbye binges, it was fun while it lasted. I was singing along, bopping my head to the sounds of AC/DC coming through my speakers as I headed straight to the treadmill to start my morning run when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I gasped, and probably shrieked slightly in surprise, though the volume of my iPod saved me from the full mortification of hearing the exact sound that came out as I whirled around. My hand flew to my chest in an attempt to contain my pounding heart, but when I saw who it was the pounding only increased, though the cause of it shifted from shock to a rush of excitement. There in front of me was Edward, in a gray t-shirt and black basketball shorts, showing far more of his delicious muscles than I'd ever seen due to the fact that it was the dead of winter. "You scared me half to death, what are you doing here?" I shouted over the volume in my ears as I swatted him

none-too-gently on the shoulder. He gently tugged the cord, dislodging the ear buds from my ears and knocking the volume down to nothing more than a faint buzz as they hung down by my neck. "Concentrate much, Swan? We called out to you as soon as you walked in the door." "We?" I asked, glancing over his shoulder only to find Emmett and Jasper resting on the seats of two different weight machines. "Babybel! Top 'o the mornin' to ya, lassie," Emmett boomed, filling the room with his cheerful voice as he motioned us over. When I came to a stop next to him, he tugged me down into his lap, making me squeal a little bit as I tried to get back up. His mammoth arm barred me from escaping and instead I resigned myself to perching uncomfortably on his legs, attempting to avoid putting my full weight on him. "Stop squirming woman," he chuckled. "I wouldn't have to squirm if you weren't such a pushy oaf. What are you guys doing here anyways?" "A little bird might have mentioned that this was the up-and-coming hot spot for active minded young adults." "Oh really? Would this little bird be of the species Cullenis Alici?" I asked wryly. "You've been studying up on your ornithology, girl! Way to rock that sexy brain. Hope you don't mind company," Emmett said. "Seriously, you guys came to work out?" I asked, lifting my brow in confusion. "Well, these sure ain't our church clothes, little lady," Jasper drawled. "Don't you guys have some fancy-schmancy, ultra-manly weight room somewhere?" "Well sure we do, Bella, but I bet it's a lot more fun to check out your cute little ass running on a treadmill than it is to watch a bunch of sweaty dudes struttin' around trying to show off their muscles." "Aww, Emmett I'm so touched that you'd rather ogle me than a bunch of meatheads." "I'm just a touching kinda guy, Babybel." "Emmett, I have absolutely no doubt about that," I deadpanned. "Touch, touch, touch," he teased, punctuating every work with a poke of his finger at random spots on my body. "Emmett," Edward practically growled at him. "See, Bella? I told you he gets testy," Emmett chuckled and Edward merely rolled his eyes, taking hold of my hands to try and extract me from Emmett's grip. Emmett held for a minute as the two of them stared each other down during their brief little tug-of-war. "Hey, guys, didn't we come here to work out?" Jasper piped up. I gave him a look of gratitude as Emmett finally released me and Edward pulled me to his side. "You're right, Jazz man, it takes daily maintenance to keep these beauties up," Emmett boasted arrogantly, flexing his bicep and tilting his head to plant a noisy kiss on the bulging muscle. "C'mon, Swan, give it a kiss." "No way, Emmett," I said, shifting back a little behind Edward in case Emmett tried to shove his arm any closer to me.

"Aww, it's okay to be jealous little Olive Oyl, not everyone can have the big guns like ol' Popeye here," he grunted while giving a display to rival any body builder. "Did you seriously just refer to me as Olive Oyl?" I scoffed, placing my hands on my hips. "Yeah, you and your scrawny little girl arms," he said, circling his thumb and forefinger around my bicep and wiggling it. I didn't respond, instead I glared at him with a haughty raise of my brow, and brushed past him, shoving him slightly aside on my way to the rack of free weights. "Uh oh, Bitchbrow made an appearance. This should be good guys," I heard Emmett say as I internally smirked, glancing over my options and feeling the challenge spurring me on. I plucked out a forty pound weight easily, dropping it to my side as I looked right at Emmett. I stared him down as I did a quick, steady series of ten reps, never breaking eye contact or letting him see any sign of struggle. When I finished, I set the weight back on the rack and turned back to him. With a completely straight face, I mimicked his earlier action and flexed my bicep, turning my head to kiss it before crossing my arms and looking at him expectantly. "Fuck, that's hot, Bella! What other tricks do you do?" he asked like an excited little puppy with a new toy. Instead of answering his question, I ignored his plea, clasping my hands to my chest in an imitation of a weakling damsel. "While you tough men stay here and lift these big, scary weights with all that brute strength of yours, I'm just gonna take my scrawny little girl ass over this way and take a stroll on the treadmill for a couple minutes," I said airily, keeping up my mocking display as I looked up at him with doe eyes and tried to seem impressed before passing right by all three of them. Once my back was to them, I winced out a silent "Ow!" Forty was about ten pounds more than I was used to, but the look on Emmett's face was worth the little bit of muscle strain. "Aw, dude, she's pissed," I heard Emmett whisper loudly as I made my way to the treadmills. I giggled a bit under my breath at his tone. I wasn't upset in the slightest, but he didn't need to be let off quite that easily. "Well, Emmett you insulted the girl, what'd you expect?" Jasper asked as I stretched my calves out by the treadmill, pretending to be oblivious to their conversation when in reality, I listened in on every word as I chuckled to myself. "I was just teasing, giving her a hard time. I didn't think she'd be so sensitive. How was I supposed to know?" Emmett asked defensively. "Dude, you compared an Olympic athlete to a wimpy, anorexic cartoon stick figure." "You're such a moron, big brother," Edward groaned. "Eddie, you go talk to her. She's got a soft spot for you. Just go on over there and run your fingers through your sex hair a bit to distract her so she's not mad at me anymore." "Sex hair, Emmett?" Edward responded, offense coloring his tone. "Yeah man, that shit's got magic powers or something, chicks all fall under it's spell." "You know, that's really not the right way to go about getting me to help you." "Okay, okay, okay, Edward will you please go talk to Bella for me?" Emmett pleaded with a level of politeness I'd never heard him use before. "Wow, Emmett. You must be really desperate, you didn't even call me Eddie."

"Just get your ass over there." "Get off me, man, I'm going," Edward muttered in exasperation, "Go play with your dumbbells or something." I was just finishing up stretching out my left quad when Edward reached me, stepping up on the treadmill next to the one I'd planned to use and leaning down to rest his chin on his arms, leaning over the side bar. "Hey, Emmett didn't mean anything by it, he's just doesn't always think before he opens his mouth." "I know," I said easily, stepping up onto the mat and keying in my specifications. "You're not really mad at him, are you?" Edward chuckled after a minute. "Nope," I said with a smile that Emmett couldn't possibly see, "but he can sweat it out for a bit." He laughed and straightened out. "Mind if I join you?" "Don't you have iron to pump with your fellow y-chromosomes, Cullen?" "The view's much better over here, gets the heart racing," he said as he started up his own machine. "Are you really flirting with me right now?" I asked, a bit incredulous. "Always, Swan." "On a treadmill. When we're both in grungy workout clothes." "No time like the present. I don't like to waste the opportunities that come my way." "Alright then, Lothario, see if you can keep up with me," I challenged, pressing down the button to increase the speed. Thirty minutes and a good four miles later, we were both breathing heavily as we hit the cool down cycle. Panting, I stepped off to stretch out my legs again, catching both the water bottle and sweat towel Edward tossed to me. I caught myself ogling as Edward ran his towel along the back of his neck, and then took a deep gulp of his water. A trickle escaped out of the corner of his mouth, running down over his jaw, down his neck and into his t-shirt. I spaced out a bit imagining the path it took under his shirt, over his defined pectorals, then down over the peaks and valleys of his abs, maybe getting caught in that little trail of hair leading right into "See something you like, Swan?" Edward's amused voice snapped me to attention as I realized he was fully aware of just where my mind had taken me. "Nope, not a thing," I quipped, determined to brush it off like it had never happened, though the blush on my cheeks was a clear indicator that I was thoroughly mortified. "Sure," he said, laughing a bit but not saying anything else. For a moment I relaxed, thinking he was just going to drop it. As we wiped off the bars of the machines, he casually pointed at my face. "Hey, Bella, you've got a little bit of drool on your chin there." I reached the back of my hand up on auto-pilot before I realized that he was mocking me. I dropped my hand and glared at him before laughing sheepishly, "Very funny, Cullen. You're a riot." "I thought it was pretty amusing," he said with a cocky smirk as he finished wiping down the treadmill before snapping his towel at my hip. I decided it was time to give him a taste of his own medicine. I remembered his reaction to me at the rink and wondered if I could elicit a similar one from him off the ice. It was certainly worth a

try. On the ground just behind the treadmills, I stepped my legs out past shoulder width, purring "Mmm, that was a hard run. My muscles just feel completely ravished," as I stretched my arms high above my head, my chest jutting out a bit and the hem of my shirt raising to show a good two and a half inches of skin, then bending in half to touch my toes with a moan of pleasure. It was a cheap move, but hey, he started it. I knew it had worked when I heard the most deliciously sexy, guttural groan from where he stood to my left. I smirked a little and slowly raised myself up to stand in front of him and innocently asked, "Something wrong, Edward?" "God, Bella, you're driving me crazy," he groaned from where he stood, leaning back against the treadmill for support as he rubbed his abs like he had an ache in his stomach. "I'm not trying to. Well, maybe just a little," I conceded with a giggle. "That's just it. You don't have to try, even a little," he said, reaching forward to stroke the back of his hand over the apple of my cheek. "Eddie," Emmett whined, bursting the little bubble we were in as he and Jasper joined us, "I sent you over here to help me out, bro, not get your flirt on!" "I believe your request was that I 'distract her with my sex hair' actually," Edward said, lifting his fingers in quotation marks as he took a step back from me. "Bella, are you still mad at me?" Emmett pouted, imitating Alice's puppy dog look. I pursed my lips to look like I was thinking it over and he hurried on, "I promise never to call you scrawny or Olive Oyl ever again. From now on you're like Xena, or Lara Croft, or Wonder Woman. Please don't kick my ass." I gave in and laughed as he ducked under his arms in playful fear. "No, Emmett, I'm not mad at you." "You should kick his ass anyway, Bella" Jasper suggested. "I'd pay big money to see you flatten this dumbbell like a pancake." We made our way over to the weight machines, each working through our own routines. The guys apparently had a system of rotating musical selections, each getting a set of four songs of their choice before moving on to the next person. Jasper started us out with a variety of twangy country songs featuring Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, Edward's was much more my style with the Stones and Aerosmith. Then Emmett's turn came. "Emmett, turn that crap off!" Edward moaned when he heard his brother's choice. "Dude, don't be hatin' on the Gaga. This is platinum quality shit right here." "Emmett, you actually listen to this garbage?" I scoffed. "Hell yeah, Babybel. You can't read my, can't read my, no you can't read my poker face," he sang along in a screeching soprano, pretending to sing into a microphone with one hand, aiming his pointed finger around the room and grinding his hips to the music. "I think I just threw up in my mouth a little," I said dryly, returning to my reps. As I worked my way through the machines, I couldn't help but notice how nice this was. I loved hanging out with the girls, but spending time with the guys was just as much fun. It was different, but surprisingly still comfortable. Emmett was always joking around and Jasper was quiet but witty when he wanted to be. I never anticipated feeling such a close bond with the two of them, but they truly felt like two older brothers, at least how I imagined it would be. Despite my lack of experience of prolonged interaction with the male species, they never once made me feel uneasy. Then of course, there was Edward. He definitely did not feel like a brother, but the friendship I was already building with him rivaled what I had with Alice. Again, it was different, but just as great. Of course it didn't hurt that all three of them

were devastatingly attractive and working up a nice sweat with those firm muscles. A girl couldn't help but appreciate the sight. Seriously, it's like a puck bunny's dream come true, I thought. They should take their shirts off and make a calendar. They'd make millions. Finishing up my weights, I plopped myself down on the mat to round out my workout with some stretches. I started off on my back, lifting my leg and holding it down, my thigh pressed against my chest and knee resting against my shoulder. "Geez, Bella, you got any bones in that body of yours? You're like rubber band girl," Jasper winced a bit. "Dude, I bet Eddie'd lend her a bone," Emmett snickered quietly. Edward must have heard because he appeared right behind him and clapped him loudly over the head. "What?" Emmett asked. "You know what, numbskull." After repeating the stretch on the other leg, I eased into a split, bending my back leg to hold my foot to the back of my head. "Holy...err, Bella? You think you could help a brotha out, give Rosie some lessons, you know what I'm sayin?" "Emmett, you perv, these are serious athletic stretches, not material for your dirty fantasies. You should be ashamed of yourself," I scolded him, waiting until he looked chagrined before shooting him a devious smile."Besides, who's to say I haven't already?" "Babybel, you're fuckin' awesome," he exclaimed. "I could kiss you right now. But I won't, cuz I like my nuts where they are and Eddie'll rip 'em off. Dude, I'm totally diggin' out the Kama Sutra guide tonight." "Emmett, for fucks sake, how many times do I have to tell ya' to quit talking like that about my sister when you're around me?" Jasper grunted. "Jazz, dude, I can't help it that your sister's smokin' hot and just happens to be the woman I'm in love with. You're my homie, you're gonna hear things you don't want to." "Jasper, just tell him about that time you and Alice fooled around in the backseat of his Jeep at the Drive-in, that'll shut him up," I spoke up from my perch on the mat and was met with the astonished looks of three men. Jasper turned bright red while Emmett and Edward burst out laughing. "Jesus Christ, there is no privacy in this group. Bella, just you wait honey, your time'll come when this will all come back to bite ya' in the ass," Jasper warned me. "Believe me, Jasper, I'm dreading it already," I groaned, moving into a wide spread eagle, my legs practically in a center split as I reached forward, resting my forehead on the mat. "So...Bella..." Emmett probed. "What?" I asked skeptically, my voice muffled by the mat when I refused to look up at him. "What do you chicks talk about up there in your little female fortresses of mystery?" "Oh the usual, hot guys, the pros and cons of thongs versus boy shorts, topless pillow fights, make-out experimentation..." "Aww man...I wanna be a chick. I'd totally make out with me."

"Dude, she's kidding," Jasper said. "It's still a nice visual," Emmett sighed with a bit of a far-off look to his eyes. "Emmett, I'm going to say the same thing that I said to Alice...that's a little gross considering one of said chicks is your little sister." He immediately shook his head and shuddered, the dreamy smile giving way to slight revulsion. "Man, Bella, why you gotta spoil my fantasies? Visual cockblocker," he muttered, looking like someone had just stolen his lollipop. I laughed and glanced over at Edward who had been strangely silent through the entire exchange. He was looking at me, but not really at me. He had that same odd, glazed expression on his face that I'd noticed there a time or two before. "You okay, Edward?" I asked and he jerked to attention. "Uh, yeah, fine, just uh, just spaced for a second, I'm good," he stammered quickly, anxiously turning his head into his shoulder and coughing uncomfortably. A rosy hue took over his cheeks that I recognized as a blush. It always caught me off guard to see him like that. Edward always seemed so confident and self-assured, what in the world could cause him to blush? I was fully aware of my penchant to do so, but that was another thing I was determined to overcome. Grown women shouldn't blush at the drop of a hat. "You sure, Eddie boy? You're looking a little feverish," Emmett said with a waggle of his eyebrows as he reached over in an attempt to check Edward's temperature. "I said I'm fine, Emmett," Edward insisted, flicking his hand away. I noticed him fidgeting a bit as he tugged at his hair and he seemed to be purposefully avoiding my gaze. I couldn't stand to see him looking so unsure of himself, even if it was over a joking comment from his brother. Even if he was used to it, I didn't want him to ever feel even the slightest tinge of discomfort. "You know, Emmett, maybe you'd have some color on your face too if you were doing more than just sitting around trying to look pretty. Why don't you get up off your lazy butt and build up a sweat like the rest of us?" I snarked, keeping my tone light enough to let him know I wasn't truly criticizing. "Ooh! Dude, you got told," Jasper guffawed, clapping his hands in amusement. Edward looked down at me as the two of them launched into a session of ribbing and I winked up at him, trying to offer just the slightest bit of the reassurance that he always seemed to be giving to me. The smile that spread across his face warmed my heart, filling me with a faint glow as I realized that maybe Edward didn't have to always be stuck encouraging me and making sure I was comfortable. Maybe I could comfort him too.

~*~
For the rest of the week, I stuck to my routine with slight alterations. For one, Edward joined me every morning in the gym. Sometimes we talked, other times we just plugged in our ear buds and worked out side by side in a companionable silence. It was nice to have the company and the added bonus of starting my days off with a sweaty Edward in loose shorts and a thin t-shirt was pretty great as well. The best part was always when he lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the perspiration off his brow, giving me a clear view of defined abs and a truly enticing 'V' leading into his gym shorts. The first time he did it, I dropped the weight I'd been using for curls with an embarrassingly loud clang of metal. At least I'd been able to brush it off when he'd asked if everything was okay, claiming I'd just lost my grip and blaming the redness of my face on the physical exertion. It was physical exertion all right. I'd had to hold myself back from jumping him and attacking his jaw line with my tongue. I could practically taste the salt on his skin. That was another surprise. As the days passed, my thoughts about Edward became increasingly more erotic in nature. Thank God he wasn't a mind reader because it would have been mortifying for him to be privy to the

direction my brain went every time he flexed his arm, or licked his lips, or chugged his water. Or breathed. Guess this was my mind and body's way of making up for missing out on that "boy crazy" stage of teenage-hood. All that lost time compacted down into days of constant sexual frustration. I woke up at night completely aroused and restless from dreams of Edward and I together, his hands on my body, his lips on my skin, the feel of his muscles under my fingers. It wasn't just lust that permeated my brain. The sexual side of the attraction I felt for him was new and exciting, but there was so much more to what I felt for him. He was sweet, kind, and hilarious. He always made me laugh, and he got my sense of humor. He seemed to have endless patience, especially when it came to me, but he never let me forget the fact that he liked me as more than a friend. The flirtation between us was something I'd started looking forward to every morning and I had to say, I was actually getting pretty good at it. It always gave me a surge of confidence to see the signs that I was affecting Edward just as much as he affected me and little by little I became less inhibited around him, not having to concentrate as much on what I should say before I said it. After our workouts, he'd leave to go home, usually followed by afternoons at practice or prepping for an evening game. Some days he'd have work to do for local endorsement deals or charity organizations. Every morning when we parted, I felt a slight pang at having to say goodbye. The morning had easily become my favorite part of the day. Emmett and Jasper had shown up one other time, but typically it was a time for just the two of us. Though I was sad to see him go every morning, my days were fulfilling. I felt like me again. Not the same me I'd been before, but a new me, and I felt, a better me. I had goalsboth on and off the iceand I had the determination to succeed in those goals in both areas. Early on in the week, I sat down and started mapping out a budget, with Alice offering up her knowledge. She had a lot of experience working with them in her event planning, and though budgeting a wedding was completely different from plotting out day-to-day expenses, I still trusted her judgment. I had a small checking account of my own and was given a monthly allowance to handle my expenses. The majority of my funds were wrapped up with Renee's. I'd still been a minor when my career took off and the money started coming in and once I turned eighteen there had been no discussion on changing that arrangement. Somewhere down the line that would need to be dealt with. In the meantime I needed to find some sort of disposable income that wouldn't raise too many red flags with Renee. I thought about finding a job, but if I planned to return to training I'd only have to quit a couple months down the road. I'd stewed over that for two days before inspiration struck one afternoon while driving to the rink. The car. The hoity-toity monstrosity. I hated it from the beige paint job to the ostentatious upgrades. The thing probably cost a fortune and was way too extravagant. I'd be just as happy driving a used sedan, and Renee had paid in full. With my money, technically. So, why not kill two birds with one stone? The next morning at the gym I'd mentioned to Edward that I was thinking about trading it in, not filling him in on the motivation behind my sudden decision. He'd eagerly offered to help me hunt for a new car and work with a dealer to trade. Part of me had been stubbornly determined to get through "Operation Bella" all on my own. I was tired of having everything handled for me. I didn't want to shift from letting Renee run my life to letting someone else take over. But neither Alice nor Edward tried to overpower me. Even with their help, I knew I was in control of the final decisions. They never tried to talk me into one direction over another, merely helped lay out my options and left the choice up to me. Edward helped me narrow down what I needed in a car and went with me to test drive a few. The entire process was slightly overwhelming with all the different options and specs, but in the end I was happy with my choice to trade in the BMW for a little used royal blue Mazda 3. It was sporty, which I liked, and offered up great safety ratings, which Edward insisted on. The price difference left me with a nice chunk of cash to add to my account, and the satisfaction of making a large purchase primarily on my own. Once I actually had money in my account, I put a call into my landlord to ask about the procedure to have the lease changed over to my name and wrote a check for

the next six months of rent payments. On the ice, I'd started to gain a lot of my confidence back. It was rare that I had an audience, though the girls had shown up with lunch one day, and Edward had come and asked me to take a break so we could go grab some cocoa together at a local coffee house. On my own in the rink every day, I was able to focus on my skating, working on skills that I wanted to improve, playing around with combinations I thought about incorporating into future programs. No one else was there dictating to me, yet I didn't have trouble staying focused and motivated on my own. I was fully aware of the fact that whennot ifI returned to competitive training, I'd need help. With that in mind, I put in a call to Marcus, the coach I'd been working with for six years. He'd gone to Torino with me, he knew my strengths and weaknesses, and I was confident he'd listen to me. It had always been clear that he and Renee didn't mesh well, but she stuck with him because he was a great coach who produced results. Marcus had been excited to hear from me as I filled him in on my progress; what the doctor had said, what I was doing with Seth in physical therapy, what I was working on at the rink. He was encouraging and gave me a few pointers of his own. He also assured me that he'd be willing to come to Minnesota when I got the green light, all I had to do was give him a call. I was relieved to have the guarantee of a good coach who knew me to help me dive back in. I knew Renee wasn't gone from my life, and while I was seeing more and more of how wrong her actions had been for so long, I still had hope that things could get better. She was still my mother. Despite her flaws, I needed to believe that at the core of it all, she wanted what was best for me, that she loved me. The past few times I'd spoken to her, she'd actually been fairly pleasant. I think the fact that I was back on the ice every day had pacified her just a little and significantly cut down what she could bitch at me about. Of course I didn't tell her about the car, or really any of the changes I'd been making in my life. No need to call in the wrath on myself before I knew I could weather the storm. While I was steadfast in the direction I was heading, I wasn't about to rock the boat by inviting her back into my life so early in my journey toward independence. I was fully aware that I wasn't ready to face her yet and stand my ground. Sunday afternoon, we went to the last Wild home game the guys had before they went out on the road for nearly two weeks. Esme and Carlisle were there again, and it was great to see them. Carlisle asked about how my knee was feeling and Esme pumped me for details on how I was doing now that I was back on the ice. She and I sat with our heads together chatting for a lot of the game and I was amazed once again at how comfortable I felt with her after spending so little time in her presence. She was the embodiment of grace, her very nature was soothing. The game ended up in a tie, but it was just as much fun as the first game had been, more so even due to the fact that I really knew three of the players and felt more knowledgeable about what was happening on the ice. I found myself jumping to my feet and shouting right along with Esme when one of the opposing team's players hooked his stick around Edward's wrist while on a breakaway, and cheering loudly when Emmett scored a goal to put them in the lead for most of the second period. During one of the intermissions, Alice and Rose had taken me to "The Hockey Lodge" aka the store filled to the brim with all sorts of Wild paraphernalia. Everything from t-shirts and sweatpants to autographed pucks and key chains. There was even a shelf displaying bobble heads of many of the players on the team. I was sorely tempted to get a little Edward for my bookshelf. I did splurge a little, getting myself a pair of comfy sweatpants with the team logo and a couple of long sleeved t-shirts. When Alice and Rose mentioned wanting to grab a snack before the game started back up, I shooed them out and told them I'd meet them back at our seats. With them gone, I snuck to the far back wall, nervously glancing around to make sure no one I knew was close by and tugged down an oversized jersey with E. Cullen and his number, 10, prominently displayed on the back. I chose their green version, the one he'd been wearing the first

night I saw him play and quickly folded it up, stuffing it to the bottom of my pile as I headed to the checkout line. I didn't want anyone to know that I'd bought it and made sure it was buried deep inside the opaque bag that I carried back to the stands with me. I just wanted it for myself. He'd be leaving for thirteen days and maybe having that little piece of him close by would help me miss him just a little less. And I would miss him, I knew that without a doubt. I was already dreading the next morning when I'd walk through the glass doors of the workout room to find it empty. After the game wrapped up, we decided to head back to Alice and Rose's place and order some late-night pizza. I broke my self-imposed bedtime and I knew I'd pay for it the next morning, but it was worth it to spend a little extra time with the guys before they left. We started up a game of Texas Hold 'Em, with Edward initially pairing up with me to teach me the basics. It was hilarious to see how differently each of them played. Alice barely paid any attention, betting randomly and paying more attention to distracting everyone with random gossip. Rose had a terrible poker face and it was easy to see when she was thrilled with her cards or disgusted at her draw. Jasper was surprisingly fidgety, his fingers always on his chips, shuffling them elaborately, stacking them, laying them out and re-stacking them. Edward was a stone wall, he didn't flinch and barely moved a muscle to lift the corner of his cards before quickly laying them flat again. I had no idea how he even saw what he had half the time. Emmett had his baseball hat pulled low and a pair of dark sunglasses on in an attempt to hide his reactions. During the hand he was fairly still, his concentration rivaling Edward's. The difference came at the end of the hand when Emmett would very vocally express his take on the previous hand, shoving his victories in everyone's faces, or making up excuses for why he'd lost, usually with a lot of vulgar language. His favorite complaint was that Alice didn't know what she was doing and kept throwing off his groove by staying in a hand that she had no business betting on. After the first round I felt like I'd finally gotten the hang of it and broke off on my own. An hour into round two, Alice had bombed out in flames when she went all-in on a pair of threes, with Rose following shortly after. Jasper was down to his last few chips, Emmett was dominating and Edward and I were fairly evenly matched in the middle. Rose was dealing the hand and when I lifted the corner to find pocket aces. I had to bite down on my lip to hide the giddy grin that wanted to escape. I calmly set down my cards and called, moving the play along. Rose laid out three cards for the flop: king, ace, two, a heart and two clubs. I ran my tongue along my teeth and tried to look hesitant as play went around. Emmett raised the bet immediately by fifty, followed by Jasper calling. I chewed my lip, counting out my chips and taking my time. "What's a flush again?" I asked, trying to sound a bit clueless. "It's when all your cards are the same suit. Like all clubs," Edward explained patiently. "Oh, right. Hmm. I guess I'll call." Edward quickly called as well and Rose laid down the turn card. Queen of spades. The check went around the table as the remaining three players considered the options. I decided it was time to up the ante a bit and threw in a minimal amount, hopefully not enough to scare anyone away. The call went around the table with no one surrendering and Rose pulled out the river to the fucking ace of diamonds. Four aces. I couldn't believe it. I gave nothing away as Emmett raised the bet. He couldn't possibly have anything better. There weren't any options for a straight or a flush. Jasper called and I jumped on it, pushing forward a stack of chips and raising a decent amount. Edward folded, Emmett called and Jasper pushed the rest of his chips forward to go all in. With the bets on the table, Jasper flipped his cards to show King, three. The double aces gave him two pair. Emmett cheered and flipped his to show King, Queen, just barely knocking Jasper out of the game. I just sat back, smiling lightly as I watched him prematurely celebrate. "Hold on a sec, Em. Don't you want to see what Bella has?" Edward piped up. "She went for the flush, Eddie, you heard her, but fine, flip 'em there, Babybel so I can collect my winnings."

"You're right, Em, I probably shouldn't have stayed in for so long. I don't know what I was thinking," I said, flipping up the ace of clubs first and watching with a smirk as his face fell. "Shit, the newb swiped me with an ace in the hole," he lamented, flopping back in his chair. "Don't you wanna see my other card, Emmett?" I asked sweetly. "Whatever, Bella, you already won," he pouted. "Yeah," I sighed. "But the beautiful thing is, not only did I win...I kicked your ass," I said as I flipped the second ace over in my hand. "You've gotta be fucking kidding me," he said as his jaw dropped and he swiped the card from my fingers, holding it close to his nose like the face would change if he stared at it hard enough. "You had fucking pocket rockets?" "Bella, nice play there," Jasper said, giving me a high five and pushing chips at me as he laughed at Emmett sitting there dumbfounded as he stared at the cards in front of him. "I don't mind one bit losing out to ya'. Teach this goon a lesson, he needs to get knocked down a few pegs." Alice settled herself into his lap, her head snuggled into the crook of his neck and his hand securely resting around her waist, his fingers playing with the hem of her shirt. The look on both their faces was one of pure contentment. Seeing them together made me long to have that for myself, that confidence that you belonged in the other person's arms and that you'll always be welcomed there. Glancing over at Edward as the cards were dealt, he caught my eye and gave me one of his deadly combinations of a crooked smile and a subtle wink, and for the first time I started to feel like I had the potential to have that someday. The next hand, Edward folded right away, leaning back in his chair to watch the action unfold. He edged in closer to me, his fingers snaking their way to my cards before I smacked the back of his hands. "No peeking. You wanted to see my hand, you shoulda put your money in." "Sheesh, killer," he laughed before brushing his nose against my ear and whispering, "I like it when you're all forceful. We'll have to play a private game sometime, just you and me." "Edward?" I sighed, purposefully breathless as I turned to look up at him through my lashes, our faces close together as I made a point to lick my lips and put on what Alice and Rose had referred to once as my "bedroom eyes." "Yeah?" he asked, barely more than a throaty grunt as his eyes deepened to a dark forest green. "Don't even try to distract me. I'm on a roll here and I fully intend to kick your brother's ass," I whispered to him before giving him a cheeky pat on the jaw. "Minx," he muttered, leaning back into his seat and shifting a bit uncomfortably. "Fair game, Edward. You can't be the only one having all the fun. Let's just call this payback for that little stunt you pulled at the Chatterbox with my flannel." "Stunt, what stunt?" he asked innocently, "I sincerely enjoyed the feeling of your fabric. In fact, you should wear flannel more often, gives me an excuse to get my hands on you." "Something tells me you don't really need an excuse to try." "You complaining, Swan?" "I didn't say that, Cullen," I said, turning my attention back to the cards on the table.

In the end, Emmett's refusal to accept the fact that a newbie, a girl newbie at that, could whip his ass is what finished him. He played every hand, desperately throwing chips out left and right to try and get back in the game. Edward took him out easily with a pair of tens to Emmett's failed attempt at a straight. By then it was well past midnight and rather than dragging it out any further, Edward and I called a draw with his whispered assurance that we'd pick it up some other time. I felt a shiver down my spine and instantly knew exactly what I'd be dreaming about that night. Edward dropped me at my door when we called it a night so the guys could head out and get some sleep. We stood there a bit awkwardly for a moment, both a little unsure how to leave things. I wanted to hug him, but didn't feel comfortable initiating it. No matter how many times he'd told me he liked me, or shown me with his actions, I couldn't quite shake the lingering fear that he'd reject me, or that he'd wake up and realize that he was too good for me. Yes, I was making progress, but I wasn't ready to just let go of my insecurities and jump unhesitatingly into his arms. "Will you text me from the road?" I asked shyly, clasping and unclasping my hands in front of me. "Yeah," he answered, placing his hands over mine to still their movement and instantly settling some of my nerves with his touch. "It works both ways, you know. You don't always have to wait for me to text you first." "'Kay," I said softly, staring down at our joined hands. "Bella?" he asked and I looked up at him. He wrapped his arms securely around me, one around my lower back and the other over my shoulder as his fingers twined into my hair, lightly grazing the nape of my neck. I slid my arms around his torso and rested my head on his chest, feeling my entire body melt into his. His cheek came to rest on the crown of my head, and it seemed to me that his body relaxed into mine just as thoroughly as my own. He stood there for a minute, not speaking or making any indications of separating anytime soon until he squeezed his arms tightly around me once. "Have a safe trip," I said as I slipped out of his arms, "Try not to lose any more teeth." He laughed and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear before lightly flicking his finger down my nose, "No promises." He gave me a crooked little smile and turned to leave. "Edward?" I asked suddenly, my hand jutting out to hold onto his wrist. He turned back, his eyes questioning. I had to give him some indication of my feelings before he left. I stammered a bit and couldn't look him in the eye, but I managed to get the words out. "I'm uh, really going to...miss you," I said, biting my lip and finally looking up at his face. I didn't have time to take in his expression before his arms were around me again, this hug just a little more firm than the last. "I'll miss you too, Bella," he whispered as I burrowed into him for just another moment. I felt the softest pressure of his lips on my forehead before he pulled back, squeezing my hands once before dropping them. "I'll talk to you tomorrow," he said, waiting until I nodded to him before he turned once again to leave. Watching him go, I realized that half my brain was ready to just throw caution to the wind, run after him and kiss him. The more sensible part told me to stick to the plan, get through my goals and then I'd be free to run after him all I wanted. The thirteen days they were gone alternately flew by and dragged on. Anytime I talked to Edward on the phone, it seemed like we only spoke for minutes before having to hang up, when in reality it was typically close to an hour. My mornings in the gym seemed to drag on forever without his presence. There was a game on TV almost every other night and Alice, Rose and I would settle in to watch. It helped to be able to see him on the screen, even if his face was obscured by the mask of his helmet most of the time. Since they were always the away team, the crowd was never very supportive. Their goals were met with quiet groans as the crowd seemed to pretend nothing happened, their good plays were met with booing and their mistakes with cheers. In an effort to make up for it, the three of us cheered our heads off for them. Obviously they couldn't hear, but it still seemed like the right thing to

do. I loved my time out on the ice. With the music playing and my skates on my feet, the world just slipped away entirely for a few hours. I missed Edward, to the point where it was obvious to me that I couldn't keep holding back for much longer. My feelings for him were so much more than friendship and I wasn't sure how long I could keep up the charade. A part of me was nervous at how deeply I felt for him already, worried that jumping into a relationship with him would swallow me whole. Every part of me yearned for him and I knew it couldn't possibly be healthy to think about him as much as I did. The thing that gave me hope was that I was still functioning fine without him there. I kept to my routine, I had fun with the girls, my laundry got done and my apartment was mostly clean. Sure, I'd indulge in snuggling into the couch with some blankets and a bowl of ice cream every once in awhile while re-reading his texts or listening to his voice in his messages, but that was fairly normal, wasn't it? And maybe I slept in his jersey almost every night, but mostly because it was comfortable, not entirely because it soothed me to imagine his arms wrapped around me instead of the fabric. While he was gone, I was determined to dig in and make progress to bring me that much closer to my goals by the time he returned. I started researching all the different competitions available to my class, which ones I'd need to attend to qualify and where I'd get a bye to advance as a result of my previous ranking. Renee had always submitted me to any competitions I attended and I was sure there was some sort of strategy to it all. It couldn't hurt to bone up on my knowledge of just what went into that side of my career. Edward texted me every day and tried to call me every night, though he admitted once to not wanting to disturb me when their games ran late as he knew I was still putting in early mornings. It took me ten days before I mustered up the courage to take his advice and call him first. The elated surprise in his voice on the other end smoothed away every nerve I'd felt in dialing. Any time I felt myself swooning at his words, or blushing over a text, I reminded myself: Just stay the course, Bella, the reward will be worth it in the end.

~*~
I sat in the lobby of a little deli on Thursday, waiting for Esme. She'd called me earlier in the week, asking me to join her for lunch and I had no hesitation about accepting the invitation. I really enjoyed spending time with Esme, she was just so friendly and irresistible. It was easy to see where her children got it from. The Cullens must have been some sort of supernatural coven, because in only a few short weeks I'd fallen under their spell and couldn't imagine my life without a single one of them. The click of heels coming through the doorway had me glancing up to see Esme, slightly out of breath as she hurried in the door. "Oh, Bella!" she called as she saw me, crossing over to wrap me in a quick hug. "I'm so sorry to keep you waiting, traffic was a mess. Don't you look lovely, that shade of blue is very becoming on you." "Thanks," I said, flushing a bit, unused to accepting those kinds of easy compliments. While Alice and Rose seemed to consistently try to bolster my confidence and Edward made me sigh when he called me beautiful, I'd never had a parental figure who was so free to offer praise, even such a casual remark as Esme's had been. We got a table quickly and engaged in easy small talk over the menu selections as we made our choices and put in our orders. "I'm so glad you agreed to lunch with me, Bella," Esme said, giving my hand a friendly pat on the table. "Thanks for asking me," I returned shyly.

"I hope you don't mind me saying this, and please know that I feel no sense of charity or pity toward you. You're a grown woman and you're very capable of managing yourself, even if you're only just starting to realize it. From what you've said, it seems as though you're not very close to your mother, that your relationship has never been the most, well, loving or supportive I guess. I know what it's like to grow up with a disapproving mother figure, Bella. It can be very difficult to blossom when the weeds are trying to hold you down," she said, a tone of sadness to her voice. "My mother was a very hard woman to please, very cold and only concerned with image. She and my father had a loveless marriage, but remained together for appearance sake. You didn't get divorced back then, it was far too scandalous. Besides, my father kept her more than comfortable and she was free to spend her days at the country club. I was their only child, and honestly I think the only reason they had me was because it was expected," she said, pausing as our food was delivered, lightly thanking the waiter and gesturing for me to eat as she picked up her own fork, continuing on between bites. "I grew up with nannies, some stuck around for awhile, others only stayed a few weeks. My mother was a very harsh employer and very critical. When I was old enough, she wanted to groom me to follow in her footsteps. Marry rich and live a comfortable and fairly meaningless life. I was only able to get away for college because my father insisted to her that I go. It was the only time I saw him stand up to her. He usually just sat by and let her take on the role as the parent; he was barely home, concentrating on work and probably avoiding as much interaction with her as possible. Once I left for school I was able to see that there was a whole world that my mother wasn't a part of and that I didn't have to end up like her. And then I met Carlisle, who helped me see that the idea of marriage doesn't have to be a trap or just a legal contract that you enter into because everyone expects it of you. When you love someone, it can be one of the most wonderful gifts you could ever give or receive. "Bella, I told you this, because I hope that if you'd like someone to talk to, you'll feel comfortable coming to me. I know you do have a mother of your own, and you have Rose and Alice who are both wonderful people and very good listeners. But if you need me, I'm here for you, Bella. You're very special to me, dear," she reached up to smooth a bit of hair from my forehead. I couldn't speak for a moment, my throat thick with emotion, but I finally managed to say quietly, "I'd like that very much, Esme." "Good. Alright, now what's the deal with you and my son?" she said, cheerfully changing the subject and catching me off guard as I choked a bit on the sip of water I'd just taken. "Um, what do you mean?" I sputtered after I got control of my coughing. "Bella, I may be nearly thirty years older than you, but I'm not blind. I've seen the way you look at him at the games, the way he talks about you. If there isn't something going on already, there will be." "I don't really" "I just want you to know, I would never betray your confidence. Anything you say to me does not leave this table." "Well..." I hesitated a moment more before I felt all the anxiety still lurking beneath the surface start to leak out. "I mean, you already know that I like him, you were there the night of Nationals when I spewed all over you and Alice and Rose. And I'm trying, I really am trying to reevaluate my life and to start seeing the things you all told me. I don't think I'm good enough, I've been told my entire life that I'm not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, but I want to be. I don't want to be this pathetic, whiny baby anymore. I mean, I see Alice and Rose and they're such strong women, it seems like they don't even have to try, they're just so confident and sure of themselves and I want that so badly. So I'm trying, I put this whole plan together of how I can maybe get that, and then maybe I can finally be normal and have a relationship with Edward without feeling like some kid sister that he got stuck with and has to take care of all the time. I'm twenty-four, no one should have to take care of me, I should be taking care of myself. So that's what I'm finally doing, but maybe he won't want to wait or he'll find someone else or"

"Bella, Bella, stop," Esme cut me off, grabbing my hands in hers. "I need you to listen to me for a moment, will you do that?" I nodded, biting my lip, a bit embarrassed at how much I'd unloaded. "You are good enough. Whoever told you those things is severely mistaken. When people have to constantly push other people down, it's typically because they're trying to make themselves feel better. And it does for a little bit, but then the moment passes and they're back to just being bitter, so they do it again and again. None of those things are true about you. You are just as strong as Alice and Rose are, and every person feels insecurity, some are just better at hiding it. The changes that you're making in your life? That's great, and very admirable. I truly believe you can do anything you set your mind to and taking those steps will hopefully help you to start seeing what the rest of us already do, but Edward's feelings for you aren't determined by a checklist. He cares for you because of the person you are. He doesn't need you to be perfect, he just needs you to be yourself, the beautiful, wonderful person that you are." "You really think so?" I asked timidly, staring down at her hands over mine. "No," she said firmly and I looked up at her in dismay. "I know so." My face softened and I gave her a small smile. "And, Bella, it doesn't matter how old you are, everyone needs to be taken care of. The wonderful thing about being in a relationship is having a partner there to support you. They take care of you and you take care of them." "Do you really believe I could take care of him? I can barely handle myself." "I believe it, and what's more important is that Edward believes it. Don't be afraid to let yourself lean on him a bit, he can take it. It doesn't mean he'll carry you, it just lightens your load a bit to have someone to share it with. Now, what do you think about dessert? Because that bread pudding has been eyeing me from three tables over."

~*~
Saturday night. Valentine's Day. The guys had returned late the previous evening and Edward had texted me to let me know they'd made it home. We'd chatted a little earlier in the day, but neither mentioned any sort of plans to get together. Obviously with the holiday, the couples would be out enjoying some romantic alone-time. At around eight o'clock, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be seeing Edward that night. It's not so bad, Bella, I told myself, You'll see him tomorrow morning bright and early. The six of us had plans to meet up the next morning for pancakes and catch up after the guys' trip. Guess you'll just have to hold out for a few more hours. Besides, did you really think he'd come rushing to your door the moment he was back in town? The man probably had much more important things to do. Like plants to water, or mail to sort through. I grabbed a blanket off the couch and prepared to snuggle into my window seat with a book and just enjoy a quiet night to myself. Before I could even flip to the right page, there was a knock on my door. That's weird, Rose and Alice left hours ago. My brow furrowed in confusion as I crossed the room and looked through the peep hole, gasping in pleasant surprise when I saw Edward there on the other side. My immediate reaction was to want to throw off the locks and jump into his arms. Then I remembered exactly what state I was in. I groaned softly, cursing the fact that I couldn't just pause time and go change before greeting him. Instead, I settled for undoing the locks and trying to hide behind the door. He grinned when he saw me, and I couldn't help but return it, uttering shy, "Hi." "Hey. Mind if I come in?" he asked, raising his brow in question when I stayed behind the door. "No, come on in," I said, opening the door wider to let him pass.

"Very cute, Swan," he said, waving his hand over my outfit of a teal waffle knit hooded shirt, short, striped cotton shorts and gray knit legwarmers, my hair tossed up in a haphazard ponytail. "You always wear those tiny shorts? Because if that's the case I'm going to have to show up unannounced a lot more often." I giggled and blushed a bit before noticing exactly what he was wearing. "I could say the same to you, Cullen. Too lazy to put actual clothes on? At least I have the excuse of being in my own home." He wore a thick, red zip up hoodie with the team name spelled out in white across the chest, and loose black sweatpants. He looked good enough to eat. Or snuggle. Yeah, the man looked down right snuggly. "The evening called for casual attire," he winked before setting a backpack down by the little steps to the nook and glancing around. "You know, I've never actually been inside your apartment before." "Yeah, you're right," I realized, "So, what do you think?" "It's nice. Very you." "What does that mean, exactly?" "Warm, comfortable, inviting, beautiful." "That's me, huh?" "Well, not entirely," he said, turning to me and cupping my cheek, his hand still cold from outside. "You're a lot more than that, Bella." "What are you doing here, Edward? Don't you have a hot date or something?" I smirked, letting myself press against his hand just slightly. "Yeah, I'm lookin' at her. You didn't have to get so dressed up, but I'm not complaining." "Who, me?" "Yup," he said, reaching into the pocket of his sweatshirt and pulling out a tiny pink box of Sweethearts candy and holding it out to me. "Will you be my Valentine, Bella?" The man was deadly. My heart swelled to the point where I thought it would burst and I could practically feel myself glowing. I gently took the box of candy, glancing up at him playfully to say, "Well, I guess I'll have to. It's too late for you to go find someone else and I'd hate to leave you without a Valentine. That's just pathetic. Besides, you brought me candy." "I brought more than that, Swan," he said, turning around and grabbing his bag before heading into the room and flopping down on the couch like he'd been here a million times before. I felt a slight twinge of happiness that he seemed so comfortable in my apartment. He set his bag on the coffee table, unzipping it as I sat down beside him. He pulled out a bag of popcorn, a small stack of DVDs, a frozen pizza, and a couple bottles of Guinness. "Aw, how romantic, Cullen," I gave a cheesy sigh, "Pizza and beer, it's like a guy's dream Valentine's Day." "I brought chick flicks," he defended himself and held up a couple cases. I glanced through them quickly, picking one up. "Miracle, Edward? Somehow I don't think this qualifies as a chick flick." "Hey, I cry every time at that movie, Swan," he said and I snorted. "What, are you mocking my sensitivity?"

"Not at all," I giggled, swiping the pizza from the table and heading toward the kitchen, peeking my head back out the door to call back, "Crybaby!" "Hey, who you calling a crybaby?" he yelled after me. "The man who just admitted to crying at a hockey movie." I popped the pizza in the oven and went back to join him, not sitting down yet as I reached for the DVD, smirking at him. "So, should I pop this in and grab the tissues?" "That's it," he muttered, grabbing me by the waist and throwing me down on the couch, hovering over me as he attacked my sides, tickling me relentlessly as I kicked and screamed for him to stop, laughing so hard that tears started rolling down my face. "Uh, huh," he said with a cocky smirk, "who's crying now, Swan?" "Fine, fine! You're not a crybaby. Any man would cry at Team USA beating the Soviets!" I cried out. "That's what I thought," he said, stopping his attack abruptly and jumping up to put a movie in. Settling back in on the couch and popping the tops off the bottles of beer before handing me one and easing back, setting his feet up on the coffee table. "Nice socks," I quipped, looking down at his fuzzy sock covered feet, "I have a few pairs of those myself." "These things are awesome. Most comfortable socks in the universe." I set my feet up next to his, having to lean down a little further on the couch than he was to manage it. "Nice legwarmers," he said in the same tone I'd used. "They're veryFlashdance." "What, are you going to tell me you have a drawer full at home?" "Nope, I might have to test yours out though," he said, setting his beer down on the end table beside him, grabbing my ankles and swinging me around on the couch a bit so my feet rested in his lap. I gasped when he slid his hands up my calves under the warmers, part from surprise, part from the tingling sensation his touch set off, but mostly from the fact that his hands were fucking freezing. "Cold!" I shouted, cringing back from him fruitlessly since his hands were thoroughly attached to my legs, "God, Edward, your hands are freezing!" "Thus the reason I'm borrowing your leg warmers...duh!" he stated in jest. "Yeah, my leg warmers. That are supposed to be keeping my calves roasty toasty, not thawing out those ice blocks you're trying to pass off as hands. Use your sweatshirt or something." "Nah, these are so much more effective," he insisted, raising his legs up onto the couch and stretching out behind me without removing his hands. We lay there, our heads at opposite ends of the couch, mine coming to rest just above his knee and his on the arm of the couch, our faces staring inward as we watched each other instead of the previews. "You know your sister likes to lay like this, too," I told him, a little amused at the similarity. "Yeah, we used to do this a lot when we were growing up. We both liked to read, so we'd take over the couch on rainy afternoons or when it was too cold out. This is much better though," he said, picking up my foot and lightly rubbing my arch as we lay there. "You have very cute toes." "Foot fetish, Cullen?"

"Not typically," he laughed, "But yours are just so fucking adorable, Swan." We chatted for a bit, deciding to wait until the pizza was done to start the movie so we wouldn't have to get up. I noticed the credits had finished and turned to see the DVD menu for The Princess Bride come up on the screen. "I thought you wanted to watch Miracle," I said. "No way. You have to earn the privilege of watching that movie with me. It's a sacred experience, Swan. Very few have earned the right." I snorted and jumped up when the buzzer on the oven went off, slicing up the pizza on the cardboard circle and bringing the entire thing back out to the living room with a roll of paper towels and a couple of plates. We dug into the pizza and I ate ravenously as I realized I hadn't eaten much that day. "Mmm, this is good," I mumbled around a bite of deliciously gooey cheese. "You're pretty easy to please, you know that? Five dollar pizza, ninety-nine cent candy..." "What, are you calling me a cheap date, Cullen?" I said in mock offense. "Believe me, Swan, when I take you out on a date I'll do better than candy hearts and a stack of DVD's," he assured me over a bite of pizza. I blushed and contained the giddy smile by stuffing my face. The pizza was consumed quickly, our dishes set off to the side as we cozied into the couch to watch the movie, our feet back on the table as we watched the tale of Wesley and Buttercup unfold. "What do you think the five kisses are?" I asked as the credits rolled. "What?" "At the end, the story says Wesley and Buttercup's kiss was better than the top five of all time. What kisses are they?" I clarified. "You want to rank kisses?" "Yeah, why not. Top five movie kisses of all time. What are they?" "Well, there's a lot of factors in that. What are the parameters?" "I don't know. They say in the movie that theirs was the most passionate and pure. So no porno kisses. They have to be romantic, not just sexual." "So no sex at all?" "Right. All parties must be fully clothed. No groping or anything that counts as moving past first base." "Fine. You start, what's one of yours?" I pursed my lips as I flipped through my brain, trying to think of what said "iconic movie kiss" to me. "Snow White," I said as it popped into my head. "As in the Disney movie?" Edward laughed a bit incredulously. "Yes. Prince Charming gives her the ultimate kiss of true love, thus breaking the spell and ensuring that they live happily ever after. I'd say that puts them in prime contention for top five," I explained, defending my choice.

"Bella, how could that possibly count? First off, they're animated. They're not even real people." "You didn't specify that as a rule," I pointed out. "Fine, I'm instating it now. No cartoons. Must be living, breathing actors." "What's wrong with Snow White?" I demanded. "That's hardly a kiss," he scoffed "The chick's basically dead, she doesn't kiss him back. Making out with a comatose princess is not passionate, it's creepy." "Fine. I'll concede. What's one of yours?" I asked and we launched into a full on debate. Spiderman won out over The Notebook and Breakfast at Tiffany's for Best Kiss in the rain on the grounds that The Notebook led to sex and neither of us liked cats, eliminating the Hepburn classic. Romeo & Juliet was on both our lists, though we couldn't come to an agreement on which version was better, the 1968 original or the Claire and Leo remake. Ghost was eliminated for general squeamishness when we unanimously voted that making out while elbow deep in silt was not romantic. In the end, Titanic and Gone With the Wind joined the ranks and we still couldn't agree on a fifth. "I can't believe you think Transformers has one of the best kissing scenes ever. You're such a guy." "No arguments there. What's wrong with that one?" "You just like it because Megan Fox is scantily clad and they're making out on top of a Camaro at sunset. Total male fantasy." "I repeat, what's wrong with that one?" "I just can't believe you want to waste one of your five on skeezy Megan Fox." "It's my vote to waste." "I still say Pirates of the Caribbean." "Talk about gender fantasies. Pirates, Bella? Really?" "What? It's a good finale kiss." "Mmhmm. Sure," he said skeptically, as he sat back into the cushions, casually tugging me to rest my head on his shoulder. "You ever had a movie worthy kiss?" I asked, not really sure I wanted to know the answer. "Maybe," he responded in a teasing voice, "You?" "Maybe," I parroted, "What's yours?" "You first."

"No way. Besides, you've probably had dozens." "Nope. Just one." He didn't elaborate and I didn't offer up my own. "Edward?" I asked softly, playing with the strings of his sweatshirt, "Have you ever been in love?" "I thought I was once." "With Kate? Alice mentioned her name and that you broke up last year." "Yeah, with Kate. We dated for just over two years, broke up last winter." "What happened?" "You really want to hear this?" he asked, placing his fingers under my chin and lifting my face to his. "Yeah, why not? We're friends, right? Friends talk." "Well, yeah, but" "I want to know, Edward, and I'll listen. But only if you want to talk," I assured him, willing him with my eyes to see how much I wanted to be there for him, like he was always trying to be for me. He blew out a breath, snuggling down into the couch a bit and tucking me in against his chest. "We met shortly after I was drafted. I was twenty-two, still unknown. I was drafted right out of college, but like most rookies I didn't see much ice time yet. She was in her last year of school, studying business. We met at a fundraiser event that Alice dragged me to. Kate's family was very well off, the kind that likes to make sure everyone knows how wealthy they are, you know?" he asked and I nodded, even though it was hypothetical. "When we first met, Kate didn't seem like them at all. She was sweet, focused on school, ambitious. She was a bit of a party girl, but I figured that was normal for how old we were. She told me she wanted to go to grad school and get her MBA. We started going out and I got caught up in the whirlwind of it all. It didn't matter to me that none of my family seemed to care for her much, because I did. It didn't matter that her parents seemed to disapprove because she told me she loved me and I thought I loved her," he sighed, pausing for a moment, his fingers playing with the ends of my hair. My own slid to the nape of his neck, gently scratching his scalp and hoping it offered him some sort of comfort. "My hockey career started to take off and I didn't even notice when things started to fall apart until it was too late. With my game and practice schedule and her schooling, we barely saw each other, and when we did, we always seemed to be bickering about something. She told me she wanted to drop out of school, that she wanted to get married and start a family right away, but I was hesitant. We were still so young and I wasn't ready. More than that, I just knew deep down that I wasn't ready to marry Kate, that I wouldn't ever be. I just couldn't picture our lives together long term. I couldn't see what our wedding day would be like, or what our kids would look like. I just couldn't imagine a life with her. Despite that, I stayed with her because for the most part it was comfortable. It's not something I'm proud of, but it was nice to have someone waiting for me when I came home, not having to deal with the pressure of dating or looking for someone new. "She became really resentful and that's where her true colors started to come out. One night during a pretty bad fight she completely lost it. Screamed at me for stringing her along for so long, told me she'd been cheating on me for months and that she'd only stayed with me for the money. That she'd wanted to marry me so she wouldn't have to work and she'd be taken care of, that with me travelling so much she could be married to me with the added advantage of barely having to interact with me. Probably so she could go out partying and picking up random men on the side. I snapped, told her it was never going to happen and she left." "That's horrible," I said softly.

"It was for the best," he shrugged, "I shouldn't have stayed with her as long as I did. It wasn't fair to either of us when it was clear to me that it wasn't going anywhere." "Have you dated anyone since?" "Not really, a little here and there but nothing that led to anything. I've never been one to play the field much. That was more Emmett's territory. Until he met Rose at least." "Why not? I know it's not for lack of female interest." "What are you trying to say, Swan?" he said mischievously, the humor finally returning to his voice. "Edward, don't play dumb. You know you're gorgeous." "Actually, Bella, I was wholly unaware of this fact. I think you're going to have to illuminate me." "You're full of hot air," I said, leaning forward for a moment to grab the box of Sweethearts off the table and opening the flap as I returned to my spot. "No wonder you have such a big head." "Believe me, Bella. That's not the only thing that's big." "Edward!" I said with a shocked laugh, as I leaned back from him to gape at him a bit as the blush flooded my face. "What? I was talking about my ears. Get your mind out of the gutter, Swan," he said, tugging on my ponytail. I scrunched my face at him, chucking a purple heart at his forehead. It bounced off and landed on his sweatshirt, where he plucked it off and ate it. "Thanks!" I rolled my eyes at him, scooting down a bit and laying my head in his lap, my legs curled up on the couch beside us as I lay facing the TV, sucking on candy hearts and trying to stop my eyes from rolling back into my head when his fingers started stroking my hair. "So, what about you?" "What about me?" I said, suddenly very intent on my study of the little candy hearts. "Any heartbroken young men coming to beat down your door that I'm going to have to fight off?" he asked, holding his hand out in front of me for a candy; I heard him pop a few into his mouth when I poured them into his palm. "No, you're safe from that. No rejected suitors to contend with," I said dryly. "Really? Huh." "What?" "Nothing." "I know, it's pathetic. Twenty-four years old and never had a boyfriend, only recently had my first real kiss..." "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he cut me off. "Hold the phone. How recent is recent?" "Um, in the not-so-distant past?" I tried to recover, mentally smacking myself for the slip-up. "As in within the past few days? The past month? The past year? Work with me, Swan," he said, trying to nudge me over to face him.

"Edward" I pleaded, fighting against his hands at first, but losing the battle as he turned me to lay on my back, facing up at him. "It's hours isn't it? Some guy climbed out your window and scaled down the building when I came knocking. You really shouldn't waste your time on a wuss like that, Bella." "It was you, alright?" I exclaimed. "Really?" I nodded once, completely embarrassed as I scrunched my eyes closed, just waiting for him to start laughing at me. It was pathetic. There were eight year olds with more experience with boys than I had. But he didn't laugh. Instead, he stroked his thumb over the crease in my brow, soothing it as my eyes fluttered open. "You know, for a rookie you're a pretty great kisser." I snorted, "Yeah, sure." "You know how you asked if I ever had a movie worthy kiss?" he asked quietly, soberly, "It was that one. Best kiss of my entire life." I gazed up at him and the intensity of the look in his eyes left me no room to doubt the truth of his statement. I was completely speechless and could do nothing but stare up at him in wonder. Then his face creased dramatically in mock injury, his hand comically clutching his heart as he sarcastically muttered, "At least it was until you rejected me, cut me straight to the core, you heartbreaker." "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can see you're truly wounded. It was probably good for you. Can't have every girl falling at your feet, pretty boy. I bet you've never had a girl keep you waiting once in your entire life," I joked wryly. "Bella," he whispered, his face serious again, "I have a feeling I would wait a century for you. Because I believe you're worth it." His fingers stroked along my cheek. I felt like I was getting whiplash. One moment he was impossibly sweet and took my breath away with the words coming out of his mouth, with look in his eyes. The next he was joking lightheartedly and making me laugh. It was confusing and exhilarating all at once. "I promise I won't make you wait that long. I'm sorry you have to wait at all," I whispered back, regret filling my tone. "I'm not," he said, laying down on the couch and pulling me up against him, tucking my head to his chest, my forehead resting against his chin. "The best things in life are worth waiting for."

~*~
I was going to ask Edward Cullen on a date. Esme was right; it was ridiculous to think that I had to be "fixed" before I went out with him. I started to realize that "growing up" was a continually on-going process. I still felt like waiting had been the right thing to do, because on that day at the carnival, I hadn't been in a good place to start a relationship, and in the weeks since that day, Edward and I had built a solid foundation of friendship that I truly treasured. I felt comfortable with him, even when he made my heart race. While I still didn't 100% understand what he saw in me, I didn't question that he did have true feelings. As for my own, I knew that I wanted to be with him. I wanted to try and be his girlfriend. I could still continue working on "Operation Bella" without having the goal of dating Edward at the end. I needed to trust that he would stand by my side and help me grow. What I really needed was to start trusting myself. In the six days following Valentine's Day, I attempted to work up the courage to ask him, to tell him I was ready. At the gym, I talked myself out of it every morning. In a small act of vanity, I shuddered at the thought of asking the man I was falling for out on a date with pit stains in my shirt and my hair a frizzy, sweaty mess of a ponytail. Most

evenings we hung out as a group, and while we did get time to ourselves once in awhile, I didn't feel comfortable asking him while surrounded by our friends. They'd start running their mouths soon enough when they got word of it. Then it was Saturday. One week after he'd shown up at my door and swept me off my feet with Sweethearts. It had snowed heavily that week and the forecast was sunny and mild. Alice had suggested we indulge in a day of "childhood nostalgia" by heading to an area by Jasper's place that had a perfect sledding hill. When we showed up, bundled in heavy snow gear from head to toe, the guys were already there, surrounded by colorful plastic sleds and engaged in a snowball fight. Jasper had lined up three sleds, planting them in the snow for a barricade. Edward had built up a small wall of snow that he'd burrowed into like a bunker, barely lifting his head above the shield to fire his missiles. Emmett didn't bother with any blockers, freely running around, pelting his opponents with snow and not even flinching when he was hit multiple times by both sides. Edward was facing the opposite direction and didn't see us approaching. I held up my hand to Emmett when he saw me so he wouldn't give me away as I gathered up a few snowballs, packing the moist snow tightly in my hands and lining them up along the crook of my arm. I snuck up behind Edward as quietly as I could with the help of Emmett and Jasper shouting to try and distract him. I got within ten feet and then rapidly fired right at his back, knocking the hat from his head and causing him to curl into a little defensive ball as the others burst out laughing. He finally raised his head and saw me standing there, casually tossing my final snowball back and forth between my hands. "Rules of engagement, Edward, never let your guard down," I smirked. "Oh yeah, Swan?" he asked with a hint of bravado, "I've got a rule for ya. Never start a fight when you don't know your opponent." With that warning, he shifted just enough that I could see the epic stockpile of perfect snowballs he had lined up along the wall he'd built. I didn't have time to even turn before he started pelting me with them, grabbing up an armful and chasing me when I squealed and tried to run away. I attempted to scoop up snow and retaliate on the run, but it slowed me down too much. After tossing a few random armfuls of snow, I gave up and just ran, darting back and forth, pivoting at the last second to try and throw him off my tail. Eventually he ran out of ammo and just took off after me, catching me easily around the waist and tackling both of us into a deep snow drift. I could barely catch my breath, I was laughing so hard. I could hear the screams of the other four down the field and realized they must have continued on with their war. We laid there buried in the snow, indulging in a wild fit of laughter and I reached up to brush a bit of snow from his hair. When he noticed what I was doing, he shook his head like a dog, spraying my face with falling snow and starting up the laughter again. After a few minutes, we settled down a bit and Edward leaned back to peek out over the snow. "Sneak attack?" he suggested, his face full of boyish mischief. "Count me in," I said as we set to work forming snowballs, working in silence as to not draw attention to ourselves. When we had enough, we settled into our snowdrift, waiting for the enemy to approach. It took about five minutes before we heard the others start to call our names. By the sound of it, they were all still too far out of range, so we shot each other a look, holding our fingers to our mouths in a shushing motion. "Well where did they disappear to?" Alice asked. "Maybe they finally got their shit together and went somewhere to make out," Rose said and I had to slap my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. "Eddie!" Emmett yelled out, "Don't come crying to me when you get frostbite on your jock! If you're gonna fuck around, take it indoors, man!" Edward groaned, his face turning bright red before he buried it inside his coat. "Hey," I nudged him and whispered as inspiration struck, "Wanna have some fun with this?" "Define fun," Edward responded.

"Just go with it, okay?" I suggested, opening my mouth and bursting into muffled giggles. I could not believe what I was about to do. Breathing deeply and waving my hands at my face in a calming motion, I tried again. "Oh, Edward, that feels so good," I moaned, making sure it was loud enough that the others could hear me, barely getting the last word out before I burst into embarrassed giggles, muffled by my mittens. Edward's jaw dropped in shock before he buried his face in the snow, his shoulders shaking and his face scrunched in a silent laugh when he lifted it again. I gave him an exasperated swat and motioned for him to help. "Mm, Bella, yeah, just like that," he groaned loudly. "Dude, did you hear that?" we heard Emmett say and collapsed together to keep our composure. "Yeah, man, where'd it come from?" Jasper asked. They were still far enough away that we decided to keep it going to lure them in a little more. "Oh, God, yes," I panted, louder than my initial attempt and Edward backed me up with an exaggerated moan. "Baby, that's amazing, keep doing that," Edward practically shouted as we both grabbed for snowballs, preparing to pounce as we heard the footsteps closing in on our location. We heard them whispering to each other, obviously trying to sneak up on the amorous entanglement they were expecting to find. Edward counted off one, two, three on his fingers and we popped up out of the snow, pummeling them all with snow. Soon enough we were engaged in a full on snow war. There were no teams; it was every man for himself with each person eating their fair share of snow. The war led straight into sledding when Alice plucked one of the boards out of the snow and took off down the hill to escape Emmett's attack. Emmett followed right after her, complaining that she cheated by jumping the gun and demanding they hike back to the top to start the races. I don't know how many times we climbed the hill only to slide back down again, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, once we ended up getting five of us on one sled, but only made it halfway down before Emmett tried to jump on top and sunk us straight into the hill. I made it back to the top after a run with the girls to find Edward lying out on his belly on a sled, motioning me over to him. "Hop on, Swan," he requested. "Edward, I'm not sitting on you." "No, don't sit, you lay like I am." "What? You're outta your mind," I laughed. "I mean it! Trust me, you've gotta try the Superman." I rolled my eyes, gingerly lowering myself on top of him, my stomach pressing into his back as I clutched his shoulders. "Okay, when we get going, hold out your hands like this," he said, spreading his arms out to the sides. "Ready?" I nodded, and he must have felt it because next thing I knew, he'd pushed us off and we were flying down the hill. At first, I remained as I was, grasping onto him. "C'mon Bella, put your arms out!" I did as he said, feeling a slight rush of adrenaline as we sped faster and faster down the hill. As we came to the end, our sled hit a bump, spilling us both out into the snow in a jumble of giggles. We lay there catching our breath and saw that the others were making their way back up the hill. "Hey," Edward whispered, "Wanna see something?" "Sure," I shrugged.

"Come here, we have to hurry while they're distracted or they'll see," he said, eagerly grabbing my hand and pulling me along the bottom of the hill with him. Edward kept hold of my hand, leading me to a thick gathering of trees the lined one edge of the field. The ground was sloped and as we made our way deeper into the brush, we weren't able to see the field at all. About thirty feet in, there was a slight alcove, like a little cave-like indent in the snow. Edward let go of my hand and got to work digging out the snow and packing the sides down. I moved in to help him and within minutes, we'd tunneled through and burrowed into a fairly sizable hole. We were completely hidden from everything; the only sign of our location to the outside was a hole just big enough for Edward to shimmy through on his belly. We crawled inside, bumping a bit in the close quarters. "We used to come here when we were kids," he told me as we snuggled in together, faces close and legs intertwined a bit in the small space, the light dull as it was mostly blocked out by snow. "I always used to hide out in the brush along here. Emmett and Alice were always so loud and sometimes I just wanted to get away where they'd just leave me alone for a bit. It's sunken down enough that you can't see from across the field and you can enter or exit from the trees at either end, so they never found exactly where I was." "I'm sure that came in handy." "Yeah, until one time I accidentally took a nap down here and woke up to my parents frantically yelling my name looking for me. Mom screamed at me for giving her a heart attack at the same time she was practically choking me with a hug," he laughed, recounting the memory and I chuckled with him, being able to perfectly picture the scene. "Your mom's really great." "She said you two spent some time together. She didn't tell me anything," he rushed on when I blushed, reassuring me. "I just- I'm glad that you two get along so well. And that you can talk to her." "Me too," I said quietly. "She really cares about you, Bella. All of us do," he said seriously, his eyes imploring me to believe him. "I care about you too," I said softly, then looking up into his eyes, clarified, "All of you." My heart began to pound as I realized this was it. It was just him and me, no one else, and there was never going to be a better moment. Taking a deep breath and mustering up every bit of courage I possessed, I looked deeply into Edward's eyes and asked, "Edward, would you go out with me? Like on a date?" I bit into my lip as I waited for his answer, doubt flooding me now that the words were finally out there. He reached up, tugging my lip from my teeth with his thumb and rubbing the spot softly once as his face broke into a grin. "I thought you'd never ask."

~*~

Oh God. Oh God. Please don't let me hyperventilate and pass out before he even gets here.

Chapter Eight Dont Think, Just Jump

It was Friday night I had been pacing to the point where Alice started worrying about the wear on my hardwood floor. She and Rose had been over earlier in the day to help me pick out an outfit and do my hair, at least that's what they'd told me. I really think they had been attempting to get me to calm the fuck down. I'd been freaking out since waking that morning. Edward had an early morning practice at the Xcel and hadn't been able to meet me as had become our routine, but he'd texted me at the same time we'd always met. Can't wait for tonight, Beautiful. -E Oh Lord, how will I ever live up to this? What the hell do you even do on a date? Was I supposed to act differently? Would he be expecting anything from me? Should I wear a dress? Maybe I should pack extra breath mints just in case. For the entire week since I'd asked Edward out, I'd done a fairly decent job of keeping my cool. On the outside. I didn't let my nerves show to anyone, and only mildly indulged in freak out mode in private. I even managed to pull off acting completely normal while at the gym every morning with him. My insides however were in turmoil. While running errands earlier in the week, I'd actually gone so far as to pop into Barnes & Noble for a few minutes, ransacking the magazine racks and self-help section. I left with the current issue of Cosmopolitan, boasting headlines like 100 Love Questions, 20-Word Answers to All Your Relationship Issues and His Girlfriend Wish List, Do You Have These 9 Surprising Traits?, as well as the embarrassingly appropriate, Dating for Dummies. I kept that one well hidden under my mattress, only taking it out when I was laying in bed with the door locked. Despite my intensive studying, I was insanely nervous. It seemed like there was so much riding on this one night. Alice and Rose were both so excited when I told them Edward and I were going on a date. I'd had a ringing in my ear for the rest of the day from the volume of Alice's enthusiasm. Jasper and Emmett were less vocal, but even they had said some sort of comments to the effect of "it's about time." And Edward. Though he acted completely normal around me, there was the sporadic mention of the approaching event and every time "our date" came up, he'd get this excited look on his face, sort of like a little boy who knew his birthday party was only a few days away. What if the night was a complete disaster? I couldn't stand to let them all down. I didn't want to be a failure, not at this. He refused to tell me anything about what we'd be doing, just to be ready at seven o'clock and to dress casually. Of course my idea of casual was greatly different from Alice's, but I did manage to get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt, even if said t-shirt was covered up by a chunky blue sweater cardigan. The three inch heels I'd agreed to wear to dress things up just a bit clacked loudly on the wood as I paced and wondered once again why I thought I could do this. Glancing in the mirror by the front entryway, I tried to look at myself objectively. Alice had curled and tousled my hair to fall in seemingly artless waves down my back. She hadn't gone crazy with the make-up, merely enhancing my eyes with a smoky shadow and mascara and painting my lips with a natural gloss. The girl in the mirror was actually pretty, the blue of her sweater setting off the paleness of her skin and the chestnut brown of her hair. Then and there I decided that Alice was a genius. I still looked like me, just a more polished version of me. So many times when I was dolled up for competitions or photo shoots I felt like a complete fraud, hiding under the heavy, caked on make-up and cans of aerosol hairspray. Not this time. Tonight, I was Bella. And for once Bella felt beautiful. I was so caught up in my thoughts that when the knock finally came, I jumped with a start. My feet got tangled up in

themselves when I pivoted towards the door and I ended up falling flat on my butt with a thud loud enough that I was afraid it could be heard through the door. Indulging in a small groan of irritation at my own body's betrayal and offering up a brief prayer that this would be the worst I'd suffer tonight, I picked myself up, brushing non-existent dust from my pants and carefully made my way to the door. Time to get your game face on, Bella. I took in a deep breath, holding for exactly ten seconds before exhaling, expelling my nerves with a calming gesture of my hands just like I used to every time I got stage fright before a skate. I opened the door, my smile in place and hopefully looking calmer and more confident than I actually was. And I remembered exactly why I thought I could do this. Because it was Edward, and when he looked at me with that crooked grin, I felt like I could do anything. "Hey," he greeted me with amusement sparkling in his eyes. "Hi," I responded bashfully, my forced smile transforming into a genuine one as I clutched onto the doorframe to keep myself from falling over, either from my shoes or from the knee-melting grin attacking me. "You okay? That was a pretty loud thud I just heard," he said and I leaned my head back, rolling my eyes toward the ceiling and cursing my clumsiness. "You couldn't just pretend you didn't notice, right? Yeah, I'm fine," I assured him, moving slightly back from the door to get my purse. "Wait just a minute now," Edward stopped me, stepping into the doorway and reaching out to snag my hand before I could move too far away, "gimme a turn there and let me see for myself." "Are you serious?" "Completely serious, Swan. You could be gravely injured and that's not really how I'd like to kick off this date," he stated soberly. "C'mon, turn around and let me do a quick inspection." He made a twirling motion with his finger and I huffed a little, turning a quick circle and looking up at him expectantly as I faced him again. "That's what I thought," he said softly, "You're not 'just fine' at all. You're gorgeous." I wanted to blush and make a snarky comment about him laying it on a bit thick, I'd already agreed to go on a date with him after all, but I just couldn't. The look in his eyes was so genuine that all I could manage was a sigh and a quiet, "Thank you." Finally I was able to step back and take a good look at him, my eyes trailing down over his form to drink in the sight of his long legs in dark wash jeans, the light blue button up with sleeves rolled up to reveal his toned forearms, laying open to reveal a gray undershirt that fit snugly over his chest and bunched slightly at his waist. His jaw was cleanly shaved, his hair a beautiful mess on the top of his head, though it appeared that he'd attempted to tame it a bit more than usual. I wanted to run my fingers through it and get it back to normal. Should I return the compliment and tell him he looks gorgeous too? Because he was. Do you call a man gorgeous? Do they like that? Maybe they prefer handsome, or hot. Instead of speaking up and possibly saying the wrong thing, I avoided the subject altogether. "What's with the bag?" I asked, catching a glimpse of a small, brown shopping bag in one hand, hidden mostly behind him. "Right. These," he said, reaching his hand into the bag and retrieving a large bushel of tulips, "are for you."

I wanted to swoon. I wanted to let out a girlish squeal of delight. I wanted to hug him. I couldn't do anything but stand there gaping at him, completely at a loss for words. The flowers themselves were beautiful, a dazzling array of simple, brightly colored buds, tied together with a simple blue ribbon. The man holding them was so much more breathtaking than every single one of the perfect blossoms. "Don't you like tulips? I knew I should have gotten something else, but I saw these and I know how down you've been this week with how gloomy it's been outside and thought you could use a little taste of spring," he finished lamely, his hand still stretched out to offer the bouquet to me. Just when I thought he couldn't get any more perfect, he brings me a rainbow of flowers to brighten my gloomy skies. Open your mouth and say something, you big dummy! "No, I love them. These are beautiful," I sighed, indulging in drinking in their scent for just a moment. Looking up at him over the blooms, I was relieved to see the pleased smile back on his face. "Just give me a second to put them in some water," I said before turning into the kitchen to grab a...crap. "Shoot, I don't think I have anything to put-" I started, glancing back to see Edward in the kitchen doorway holding out a simple glass vase. I chuckled, taking it from him. "What, were you a boy scout or something?" "Always be prepared," he spouted seriously, leaning against the doorjamb with the casual ease he always seemed to have. I took a moment to play with the arrangement, stroking the silky petals as I placed each bloom with tender care into the vase. I'd received flowers before, hundreds in fact, but none of the elaborate, exotic and elegant arrangements I'd received could come close to the beauty of the simple bouquet that now adorned my kitchen counter. "Are you ready?" he asked, rocking back on his heels a little as I finished. "You're really not going to tell me what we're doing?" I inquired as I opened the closet to retrieve my coat. "Nope, you're just gonna have to sit back and be surprised." "This is probably a good time to tell you that I hate surprises." "You obviously haven't had enough good surprises in your life," he said, gently extracting the coat from my hands and holding it out so I could slip my arms in. He settled it into place over my shoulders, softly gathering my hair and sliding it out from beneath my collar, almost weighing it in his hand for a moment before letting it fall down my back. "Let's get going." On our way out to his car, he held every door for me, often placing his hand softly at the small of my back to usher me through and always reaching for my hand as we walked. The fact that he seemed so at ease should have calmed me, but it had the exact opposite effect, and I don't think I said more than three words on the entire drive to wherever it was he was taking us. The man brought me flowers, with a vase just in case I didn't have one of my own. He was a complete gentleman, helping me with my coat and opening doors and he probably didn't need to read Dating for Dummies in order to think of all that. Everything just seemed so natural to him, there were no awkward pauses before he remembered he should be doing these things, he just did them without a thought. Whereas I felt the need to over-think

everything, barely able to open my mouth without questioning if it was the right thing to say. "Here we are," he said, bursting me out of my little bubble of self-inflicted anxiety. "Oh, right," I sputtered, quickly unsnapping my seat belt and reaching for the door handle. "No wait," he said, placing his hand gently over mine on the center console. "Just stay for a second, okay?" He waited for me to take my hand from the door and nod my agreement before he hopped out of the car, almost jogging around the hood to my side to open the door for me and help me out. As soon as we stood on the curb, I dropped my hands from his, stuffing them into my coat pockets and a bit unsure of what to do next. It was like that first time at the airport all over again. I wanted to touch him, but didn't know what was appropriate or if I'd come off as clingy if I tried too soon. "Are you okay? You've been really quiet so far," Edward asked, moving to stand right in front of me and block me from the wind a bit between his body and the car. "Yeah, fine," I replied, though I couldn't manage to speak any louder than a nervous whisper. "Bella," he said, the tone of his voice informing me he wasn't going to let this go until I told him the truth. "It's just that I've never really done this. Been on a date," I stuttered a bit, looking down at the ground between us. "That's the problem, Bella," he said, sounding a bit exasperated and I flinched slightly. He caught the movement and hurried on, "no, not that you haven't dated is a problem, it's the fact that you're so worried about this being a 'date.' Bella, look at me, will you?" he implored, lifting my chin gently to meet his gaze, those same friendly and familiar eyes. "It's just me. Just you and me, and nothing has to be any different than every other time we've hung out together. Don't let one little word freak you out." "Okay," I said after a moment, physically making my shoulders relax and reaching up to lightly touch the back of his hand propping up my chin. "I'm sorry I'm acting so silly." "Hey, don't apologize. Just enjoy yourself. Er, you don't have to," he stammered, dropping his hand and all contact between us, "enjoy yourself that is. I mean I have fun with you and like hanging out with you, but that doesn't mean-" "Edward," I cut him off by placing my finger gently over his lips. "I love spending time with you." He grinned and I pulled my hand back slowly, rubbing over the spot where his lips had touched with my thumb in an attempt to just absorb him into my skin. "Shall we?" he asked, offering his hand to me and squeezing softly when I slipped mine into it. We walked for almost a block in amiable silence, only the sound of the wind breezing through the bare trees around us. I hadn't noticed when we parked, but glancing around I saw that we were in a residential area. "Where are we?" I asked, a bit confused as to where we could possibly be going. "You'll see. We're almost there." "You're not gonna drag me to some basement and torture me, are you?" "As much fun as that sounds, I like to save the torture chamber until at least the third date." As we approached the end of the block, the noise picked up a little and more cars passed on the street in front of us. We turned the corner to a small strip of storefronts and Edward tugged back on my hand, gesturing with his head at the first door as I almost walked right past.

Leaning back a bit from him, I tried to read the sign and managed to make out The Nook on the door as Edward ushered me inside. The place was packed with people and the restaurant itself was fairly tiny, boasting what couldn't be more than a dozen tables and a few stools along the bar. People lined the front wall and were stacked against the bar as they waited their turn at a table and I prepared myself to settle in for a long wait. Edward didn't even pause, keeping my hand securely in his as he strode right past the crowd. "Edward, what are you doing? Shouldn't we wait back by the door?" "Not necessary," he answered, raising his hand to wave at a man working the taps as we passed the bar, "I've got connections." He winked and lead me up a tiny ramp to the back section of the restaurant. There was only one small table lined up against the wall, the rest of the room taken up by a dart board, pool table and a couple arcade games. Unlike the tables we'd passed that held only napkin dispensers and ketchup bottles, this one was topped with a small bud vase of multi-colored gerbera daisies, a flickering tea light and a little printed Reserved sign. I paused by one of the chairs, turning to look back at Edward with an amused look of confusion. "Something tells me this place doesn't typically take reservations." "I always thought you were observant, Swan," he mused, stepping behind me to slide my coat off my shoulders and settle it on the back of my chair as he held it out for me and settled in on the opposite side. "So do you always use your celebrity status to try and impress the ladies?" "Are you saying you're impressed?" he shot back. "No, I actually went to high school with one of the owners. His dad used to own this place and passed it down to him and a buddy a few years back." "Ah, I see. 'Connections,'" I said, curling my fingers in quotation marks before reaching for the menu propped behind the napkin dispenser. "You don't need that," Edward said and I quirked my eyebrow at him. "You want a Juicy Nookie." "A what?" I asked a bit flabbergasted. "Just trust me, please?" I shrugged and took his recommendation when the waiter arrived a moment later. "I think you just wanted me to say Nookie," I teased him as the waiter scurried off, leaning forward with my arms resting on the table so he could hear me better over the droning volume of the busy restaurant. "Well, there is that," he smirked, sitting up closer to the table as well and resting his forearms on the edge as he played with my fingers. "I take it you come here often?" "Almost every week. Emmett and I used to come here after practice and pack on every single ounce we'd just burned off on the ice." "Did you ever play on different teams?" I asked, taken aback when he pushed back a bit, then reached over and grasped the seat of my chair, pulling me around the table and right up next to his. "I couldn't hear you," he explained with an innocent smile at my questioning look. "You could have just asked me to speak up, you know." "I could have; this was a more efficient solution. Now I can hear you perfectly and do this at the same time," he said,

curling his arm around my shoulder and snuggling me up against his side. I didn't even try to hold back the giddy smile that took over my face as his fingers casually played with the ends of my hair. "Now what was the question?" I had to rack my brain for a moment, every thought having flown from my brain at the feel of his arm resting on me. "Oh, right, did you and Emmett ever have to play on different teams?" "When we were really young and the ages were separated out more," he said, easing us right back into casual conversation, "but we've never had to play on opposing teams. I always think it'd be weird if one of us got traded some day and we had to face off against each other." "Now that would be an interesting matchup. Cullen versus Cullen." "I think my mom's head would explode if she had to try and cheer for both sides." "She's hilarious. Can you actually hear her out there?" "Sometimes. Depends how loud the rest of the crowd is and how far away on the ice I am, but a lot of the time, yeah. I noticed you backing her up last time around." "Well that guy was a jackass trying to hook your wrist like that. He should have been headed straight to the penalty box, it was a total cheap shot!" I responded, sitting up so I could look at him, a hint of the fervor I'd felt at that moment seeping back into my voice. He laughed heartily and nudged my head back against his shoulder "You know, you're kinda sexy when you're scrappy," he murmured, turning his face so his throaty voice whispered directly into my ear. I shivered a bit when I felt his nose graze lightly against the shell of my earlobe. My eyes fluttered closed and I remembered back to that first day at the airport when I was filled with the urge to just nuzzle against his cheek. Though the tantalizing scruff wasn't present, I still thought that sounded pretty damn appealing. Barely moving, I nestled myself under his arm, my head fitting into the crook of his neck like a perfectly cast mold. The world floated away as I felt more than heard him sigh against me, both of us content to balance against each other, quiet and still. He held me up as I held him, and it was perfect for a moment. I couldn't stop myself from subtly sniffing the collar of his shirt, inhaling the scent that was solely him; slightly musky, lingering notes of fabric softener and soap, and completely intoxicating. "Here we are, a coupl'a Nookies," the waiter said, setting a couple baskets of food down in front of us and popping the bubble we'd formed. I gasped a little, jerking my head from its spot as if awakening suddenly from a dream, a little dazed and not entirely comprehending my surroundings. "Hey," Edward protested when I made to scoot my chair back to its original spot, "Where do you think you're going?" "Back to my spot?" "What's wrong with where you're at now?" "I don't know, you'll probably elbow me in the face when you're chowing down on some Nookie," I teased. "I can watch my wingspan if it means you'll stay close," he said with a wink, tugging the basket the waiter had set down on the other side of the table over in front of me. I smiled at him, biting down on my lip to tame it from spreading into a full fledged goofy grin and turning to focus my attention on food rather than the urge I had to just crawl into his lap and live there for ten or twenty years. "Holy sh-" I gaped at the basket of food in front of me before clapping my hand over my mouth. It probably wasn't

very ladylike to curse on a first date. "Looks good, right?" "It looks like a heart attack waiting to happen," I responded with mild horror, holding the basket closer to my face to inspect its contents. "But what a way to go. You try one bite and tell me it's not worth it," he challenged, handing me a few napkins before laying one out in his lap. Staring down at it a bit dubiously I asked, "So what exactly makes this a 'Juicy Nookie'?" "All the cheese is cooked into the middle so when you bite into it it's sorta like a volcano of melty cheese." "Sounds...er, adventurous?" "Just take small bites at first and you'll survive, Swan," he said, playfully nudging my arm with his elbow as he picked up his burger and gestured for me to do the same. I hesitated, watching him first to make sure cheese didn't start attacking him before taking a small test nibble of my own. It took me three small bites to break through to the middle, cheese oozing out onto the french fries in the basket. The first good bite I took was amazing; bread and meat and hot cheese just melting on my tongue in a delicious combination. "Oh my God," I moaned a bit around the bite in my mouth. "See?" he grinned, taking another bite of his own. "It's delicious," I managed to eke out between enthusiastic bites of my burger. "It's a good thing I'm not a pairs skater, my partner would kill you." "Please, Bella, you practically weigh less than my hockey pads." I rolled my eyes a bit but indulged in the slight glow of vain pleasure. I was completely aware that I was by no means out of shape, but it had always seemed like no matter how much effort I'd put in to watching my nutrition or hoofing it at the gym, nothing had been quite enough to merit a kind word from Renee. It had always been "don't eat that, Bella, you'll never get your ass in the air if you don't keep your weight down" or "you'd better add a mile onto your run today, you're looking a little pudgy today." I didn't need people telling me I was tiny or thin or pretty, but it still boosted my pride a little to know that all my effort to maintain my form wasn't completely unnoticed. We spent the rest of the meal engaging in effortless conversation. It felt like we never ran out of things to talk about when we were together. There was always some new facet to unlock and discover about each other. Before Edward I'd never felt so interesting. It seemed like my life was devoted to skating and that's all there was to me. With Edward, he wanted to know about what books I read or wanted to read, what movies I loved or couldn't even stand to watch the whole way through. Music was always a topic we could stay on for hours. It was a passion both of us and we had very similar taste. I loved telling him about bands I'd found that he hadn't heard of yet but knew he'd love. He was eager to hear about anything I was willing to share about my life on and off the ice and he never once looked bored, his questions never sounding forcibly polite. I found myself eager to talk to him in a way I'd never been before. When I talked about my skating, it never felt like I was boasting, as I'd felt so many times when doing interviews or speaking to people in the past. He was genuinely interested and in the dim light I could almost see a faint look of pride in his eyes as I told him stories of some of the bigger competitions I'd been involved in. My favorite part was always listening to him talk. It didn't matter if he was laughing over memories of his family and growing up or passionately defending the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald to me, whose books I despised and he listed amongst his favorites, the cadence of his voice was like a lullaby to me, soothing every rough edge of my soul

into complete contentment. I wanted to just record him talking so I could fall asleep to his husky, velvet voice every night. Before I knew it, our food had disappeared, the empty baskets long-since pushed to the back of the table so we could lean in, venturing back into our own little world where no one else existed. He had his head resting on the palm of his hand, propped up on his elbow, his other hand softly resting on my knee under the table. I mirrored his position, my fingers softly caressing the back of his hand, tracing the topography of bumps and ridges covered by soft skin. "Are you going to eat that?" I asked at a break in the conversation, gesturing towards the forgotten pickle slice laid out on the napkin next to his empty basket. "What, you wanna nibble my pickle, Swan?" he asked with a suggestive lift of his brow as he passed it to me. I leaned a little lower on the table, edging the tiniest bit closer to him and putting on the "bedroom eyes" a bit as I opened my mouth, wrapping my lips around an inch and a half of pickle and taking a crisp bite. "Mmm, tasty," I murmured, giving him a sassy wink. I didn't know if it was the ease I felt in Edward's presence that lowered my inhibitions or if those tips in Cosmo on flirting successfully were responsible, but I didn't even blush. It didn't feel awkward or even cheesy to flirt with innuendo, not with Edward. It felt comfortable, in the most alluringly uncomfortable way possible. "Alright then," he said, slapping his hand down on the table and pushing his chair back. "I think we've had enough of dinner, don't you? Wait right here, I've gotta grab something from the bar." Edward rushed off and I chuckled to myself at his sudden sense of urgency, stretching my legs out a little and tugging my coat on. He returned less than a minute later, plopping back down in his chair and sliding a box wrapped in plain blue paper in front of me. "Edward, you can't get me presents," I automatically argued pushing the box back in front of him, "You already got me flowers and dinner." "You need these for the next part of our date. It's the last one, I promise," he insisted, gently sliding the box back in front of me, his hand remaining on it to keep it there until I gave in and picked it up, carefully sliding my thumbnail over the tape holding it together. "Oh, you're one of those people, are you?" he laughed. "Just rip the paper, Bella." I cocked my brow at him and returned to my careful unwrapping, taking even more time to slice through the tape. "By the time you get the box open, we'll be too old to use what's in it," he teased and I gave in, quickening my pace a bit as I slid the paper from the box, balling it inconspicuously in my lap. "Don't even think about throwing that at me," he warned. "I'm not afraid to retaliate and every witness in this joint will back me up and say you started it." I giggled and tossed the crumpled paper onto the table before lifting the lid on the box. "You got me shoes?" I asked, a bit baffled when I saw what lay beneath the tissue lining. "Bowling shoes. Or do you find contracting a foot fungus romantic?" he asked, returning the comment I'd made to him that day at the winter carnival. "We're going bowling?" I asked snapping my eyes up to meet his, the idea exciting me much more than I would have expected as I lifted one of the pearly blue sneakers to get a closer look. "Indeed we are, Swan. Let's go see if we can get you your first strike."

The bowling alley was right next door to the restaurant, a tiny, slightly run down basement joint with rickety machines to set the pins and return the balls, the lanes worn from years of use. "It's not the fanciest, but it works," Edward said, his hands shoved awkwardly in his pockets as he studied my face, trying to determine my reaction. He was right, there wasn't a single thing shiny or new about the place and the air was a bit musty from the lack of circulation, but I loved it. The jukebox in the corner was churning out grainy oldies and the sound of the heavy balls rolling and crashing into the wood pins was exactly as I'd always pictured it should be. "This place is great," I said enthusiastically, hugging my shoebox to my chest and looking up to see him staring back at me, searching for something. "What?" "Nothing, I just wasn't sure what you'd think." "What do you mean by that?" I asked, truly curious. He seemed to fidget a bit, scuffing his toe against a hole in the worn carpet as he answered. "Look, you're not the only one who's a bit out of their element tonight, Bella. I haven't really dated a lot lately, hardly at all really since...well, it's been awhile. And the girls I have dated, I mean I told you about Kate and she doesn't have anything to do with tonight, but she never would have come with me to a place like this, no one I've gone out with before probably would have. You're so different from anyone I've ever met, in a good way, the best way really. And I feel like I've gotten to know you pretty well by now, but there's still so much about you that I'm still learning and I'm just never sure..." he trailed off a bit, staring over my head at the wall with a sort of grimace on his face. "Edward, what is it?" I beseeched him, reaching up to softly feather my fingers against his cheek, trying to return his gaze to me so I could try and decipher exactly what was running through his mind. His hand reached up and covered mine, pressing his cheek into my palm. "Bella, I know you've been exposed to some of the finer things in life, it's not like world class athletes live off of Kraft Mac & Cheese and PB&J sandwiches on paper plates. You're probably used to linen napkins and five-star hotels and everything first class, not that I think you need that stuff, I don't. It's just; I don't want you to think I can't give that to you. I could have hired a driver and taken you to the nicest restaurant in the city with champagne and dozens of red roses, but that's not me, Bella. This," he said, gesturing to our surroundings, "greasy burgers and run down bowling alleys, that's me. I want to give you everything you deserve and more, and..." He cut off, swallowing deeply and darting his gaze away from mine again. I reached my other hand up to cup his face, gently stroking over the ridge of his jaw just below his ears, not pressuring him to continue but trying to ease whatever had brought on this sudden bout of anxiety. He finally looked back down at me, his hands encircling my wrists with a gentle but firm pressure as if he were trying to anchor me to him. "What if it's not enough for you?" I would have laughed if he didn't look so worried. As it was, I tried to battle down my disbelief that he could feel even the slightest bit insecure around me and figure out how to reassure him that he had nothing to worry about. "Edward," I whispered, my voice soothing, my fingers tightening on his face to focus his attention on me and my words. "Tonight has been one of the best nights of my entire life, not because of where we've been, but because I've been with you. That's all that matters to me. I'm not going to argue and claim that I haven't had those things, but I don't need them, and honestly they've always made me uncomfortable. I'd rather be here eating greasy burgers with you than eating in the finest restaurant on the planet with anyone else." His lips curved into a soft smile, his fingers trailing down from my wrists over my forearms to hold my elbows, bringing me closer to him so that my arms rested on his chest, my neck craned back to maintain contact with his eyes as I whispered, "You're so much more than enough." His arms banded around me, mine still folded between us as he held me, my forehead coming to rest just under his collarbone for a moment before he pulled back and suggested we grab our score sheets and get started.

The heavy mood passed and we were both back to the easy repartee we always seemed to have when we could both relax and just enjoy being together. I teased him when rather than renting a pair of shoes for himself, he crossed to a row of lockers along one wall, quickly flipping the combination lock open and pulling out a green bag holding a pair of sleek black and gray shoes and a shiny, custom slate colored ball. "You're just full of surprises," I giggled, turning the ball in my hands to make out his name and a tiny symbol etched beneath the finger holes. "What's this?" I asked, pointing it out, lightly passing over the smooth surface with my thumb. "Family crest," he said, holding it up a bit higher to point out each individual aspect of the marking, "See here's the lion for courage, the hand stands for faith, sincerity and justice, the clovers are for perpetuity, and the chevron for protection." "Wow, that's really cool," I said, inspecting it closer before smiling up at him. "Yeah, it's always been around somewhere in our family. My grandmother used to wear a locket that she passed down to my mom when she died and my dad had a door knocker made when they bought their first house. They've moved it with them every time they bought a new place." "How many houses have you lived in?" "Three, well two with my parents and then the one I'm in now. They moved once before I was born and then again when I was about six to the house they're still in. It's pretty much the only one I remember living in growing up." "Must be nice, that continuity," I said. "It is. I'm glad they're still there, that they didn't move into a smaller place when we all moved out. It just says 'home,' you know?" I nodded, though I didn't really know. I could imagine. "So, what exactly does bowling involve? You just roll the ball and try to knock down the pin thingies right?" "Kinda. There's a bit more nuance to it, Swan," he said, tugging my hand over to our lane, laying out our score sheet on the slanted table and filling our names in with a stubby pencil while I scoured the racks for a ball in the appropriate size and weight, ending up picking out a light blue and white one just because it was cute and matched the shoes he'd given me. Lacing them up, I had to grin. They fit perfectly. I shouldn't have been surprised, Alice was his sister after all and there's no way she was clueless as to his plans for the night, though she hadn't spilled a single word to me. He thought of every detail, he'd even tucked a pair of socks into the shoebox for me. I rolled my eyes remembering his words of uncertainty about the evening. No one had ever put so much thought into just spending time with me. How could he believe this date was anything less than perfect? Once we had our balls on the return rack, Edward stood at the top of the lane with me, briefly explaining the rules of the game, trying to show me the technique behind making the 'perfect throw' and things to avoid, like lofting the ball too high into the air. He went first, taking his stance while I stood off to the side, moving a few graceful strides and releasing the ball onto the lane with hardly a sound, curving just a bit as it approached the pins to knock down every single one with a resonating crash. "Showoff," I muttered good naturedly when he gave me a satisfied smirk. "Nope, just pure talent, Swan." I rolled my eyes and plucked my ball off the rack as he sat to mark his score, propping his chin on his hands to

watch me make my throw. "Stop looking at me," I laughed, exasperated when I could feel his eyes boring into me from behind. "I have to look or you'll try and cheat and say you knocked over more pins than you really did," he chuckled. "So, look at the pins, not me." "What if I want to look at you?" "Don't," I gave him a look of warning, chuckling a bit when he playfully covered his eyes, obviously peeking through his fingers. I held the weight in my hand, letting my arm adjust to the it for a moment before stepping forward and attempting to replicate the movement Edward had done. My ball wasn't nearly as quiet or as fast to move down the lane, nor did it stick close to the side only to swoop in and attack at the last second, but it did stay fairly straight, striking the formation just to the left of the top pin, knocking over eight. "Hey! Not bad," Edward exclaimed as I looked back at him with a giddy grin, "You're a pretty quick study, Swan." I didn't get the spare, but as we worked our way through the frames I managed to refrain from completely embarrassing myself, only landing in the gutter three times, causing Edward to grin in delight when I'd glare at the pins and fire the next ball down the lane with a sense of vengeance. I got my first strike in the seventh frame, though my excitement was eclipsed by the complete joy I felt when Edward swooped me up and swung me in a heady circle, whooping out a cheer at my accomplishment. After a sad showing in the tenth frame, I went to stand just over Edward's shoulder to watch him tally up the scores. My hair fell in a curtain just by his face and he looked back at me with a grin, grabbing the hand that I'd rested on his shoulder and tugging me to sit sideways in his lap, his arms threaded through mine as he continued to mark the sheet, his chin perched on the curve of my shoulder. We went through three rounds and I found myself getting progressively more competitive along the way. I didn't like losing, even if I knew there wasn't much chance of me beating him. He didn't hold back to let me win, as some might have, rather challenging me to get better and offering me tips to improve my stance little by little. By the end I was within seventy points of his score and couldn't hold back the grin on my face as he mused that he'd have to get me my own ball before long as he tucked my shoes into the locker with his. We left the bowling alley shortly after ten and Edward informed me that we had one more stop to make. This time we drove, the sounds of Iron & Wine's Flightless Bird, American Mouth crooning softly through the speakers as we made our way through the dimly lit streets. He pulled to a stop and I didn't even try to reach for my door before he could cross to my side and help me out. A hard breeze blew through the air, causing us both to cringe, burrowing into each other on the sidewalk to try and avoid the biting cold, laughing breathlessly at the chill because really that's all you could do. At a break in the wind, we made a dash for the door, his arm still cradling me close to his side and laughing as we stepped into the warmth. The wind had tousled his hair into a ridiculous mess and he'd obviously caught his reflection in the window as he reached up, frantically attempting to comb it back down. "Don't," I urged him quietly, stopping his movement and softly brushing through the strands he'd smoothed down over his forehead, mussing them up again and savoring the feel of the silky texture beneath my fingers. "I like it this way." "What? An uncontrollable mess?" he chuckled, still fighting against my fingers to tame it. "It's not a mess," I said, batting his hand away to try and fix the damage he'd inflicted on it by trying to mat it down on his head. "It's sexy." "Sexy, huh?" he smirked and I tried not to blush as I curled my fingers back. "I have to say I'm kinda partial to the tousled look on you as well," he said, his hand brushing once over the length of my hair.

"Can I help you?" the girl behind the counter asked and I remembered we weren't alone. Though, glancing around, we kind of were. We were the only two people in the place aside from the girl across the counter. Looking in the display case I cocked my eye at Edward. "Ice cream?" "The best ice cream." "You do know it's February right? And that it's like negative twelve degrees out?" "You can never go wrong with Izzy's, Bella. It's a thing of delight all year round." We ordered our cones, strawberry for me and mint chocolate chip for him, with a tiny sample scoop, dubbed an Izzy on top. We sat at a high top table in the corner, kicking our feet together under the table as we licked our cones, the shop quiet and deserted when the girl went to the back room. He was right, it was a perfect end to the evening, sitting there stealing looks at each other and giggling together, I blushed every time he caught me glancing at him over my ice cream. I took a big lap of my cone, darting my tongue out to catch a bit that I could feel clinging to the corner of my mouth, my jaw dropping a bit when Edward reached his hand out, rubbing the pad of his thumb over the corner of my mouth to remove it, bringing his thumb back to his own mouth to lick the remnants of strawberry ice cream from his skin. "Mm, I'll have to try that next time," he said with a wink as I tried to remember how to exhale. We were kicked out shortly after and I could feel the night coming to an end. I didn't notice any difference in Edward's demeanor as he drove towards my building, but I could feel the butterflies start to dance in my stomach as I imagined what was to come in just a few short minutes. He'd walk me to my door, I had no doubt about that. What would happen then? Everything I'd read, every movie I'd watched, told me that a kiss was inevitable. I didn't know how exactly to feel about that. I wanted to kiss him again. I could remember the feel of his lips pressed against mine and was eager to replicate it. Part of me was scared that I'd freak out again. I was starting to get used to Edward's casual touches but was still unable to initiate them on my own unless he'd touched me first. Was I ready to kiss him again? Ready or not, I could feel it coming. He pulled into one of the visitor spots by the front door, escorting me inside, up the elevator and down the hall to my door. I felt like I was in a daze, the entire thing playing out just as I'd imagined it would in my head. Stopping in front of my door, I unlocked it but didn't make a move to open it and step inside, instead turning to face him and pausing, unsure what to do next. "I had a great time tonight, Bella," he said, smiling down at me, his eyes seeming to glow in the soft light of the hallway. "Me too," I said softly, biting my lip in anticipation. He stepped in closer to me, taking the hand that wasn't holding my keys. "We have a game tomorrow night and I'm doing something with my parents on Sunday. Would you maybe want to do something on Monday night? Just you and me?" "Yeah, I'd like that. A lot," I said with a bashful smile. He grinned back and wrapped his arms around me in a warm hug which I eagerly returned though my heart was pounding so hard that I feared he could feel it against him, even through two layers of heavy coats. Leaning back just slightly he stared deeply into my eyes, lowering his face to mine and rubbing the tip of his nose gently against my own, once, twice, three times while my breath caught in my throat at the intimate gesture. He pulled back, a content smile on my face that I couldn't help but return.

"I'll see you Monday morning," he said, releasing his hold around me and stepping back as I nodded my assent. "Good night, Bella." "G'night, Edward," I responded on barely more than a dreamy whisper as I leaned back against my door and watched him leave, fumbling blindly for the doorknob behind my back and slipping inside once he was gone. I practically floated into my bedroom, kicking off my shoes, dropping my coat to the floor and flopping back against the pillows with a huge grin on my face. The night had been so perfect. So he hadn't kissed me, and that was a little weird, but his sweet Eskimo kiss felt like the finishing touch to a wonderful dream. I was actually a little relieved. Though I was dying to kiss him again, I'd been a little nervous that telling him I was ready to go on a date would jump start this passionate physical relationship that I wasn't entirely sure I was prepared for. I wasn't going to worry about it too much. He showed me in so many different ways that he found me attractive and wanted to be with me, maybe he had his own reasons to hold back on that side of things. After brushing my teeth and washing my face, I crawled under the covers and drifted off to sleep reliving every moment of the evening, flashing pictures and echoing sounds and phantom touches sending me off into a peaceful slumber.

~*~
Alice came knocking on my door the next morning, tossing my purse at me and telling me we were heading out for a "morning after" brunch and recap session. Apparently these had become tradition between her and Rose as a way to decompress after a big event in either of their lives. They took me to a pancake house filled with antique furniture that reminded me of an old Victorian sitting room and offered up the best banana pancakes I've ever tasted in my entire life. Over bites of syrupy goodness and sips of coffee, I replayed the events of the previous night, skimming over the highlights at first and then diving into more detail when Alice insisted that they needed to hear more. They sighed and squealed alternately as I described him showing up with tulips at my doorstep and the various locations he brought me to. Their excitement was catching and I was wrapped right back up in the elation I'd felt the previous evening. "So did he kiss you?" Rose asked as I came to the end. "No," I said under my breath. "No? What a doofus!" Rose cried. "He takes you on a wonderful date and then doesn't even kiss you good night?" "I don't know, it seemed like he wanted to, but he pulled back at the last second and gave me an Eskimo kiss instead." "Aww," Alice fawned, "Don't you just want to snuggle him? Edward's always been a sweetheart." "Oh come on, Alice. You'd really rather snuggle than get ravished, all wild and sweaty and hot?" "Not everyone likes to put out on the first date, Rose," Alice teased, her tone obvious that she didn't mean it as a criticism, Rose's response of a playful scowl and flick of an empty Splenda packet at Alice's forehead showing that she didn't take it as such. "Seriously, how do you guys talk about this stuff? Isn't it weird?" I asked the question that had lingered in the back of my mind since the first time I discovered they were dating each other's brothers. "It's all a matter of perspective, Bella," Alice explained, "When we're having girl time, it's not my brother, it's my best friend's boyfriend."

"It's not a fool proof process, but it works pretty well," Rose agreed. "We were friends before either of us started dating Emmett or Jasper. It was a little awkward at first, but when you think about it, it's kinda perfect, you know? Who better to date my brother than my best friend? And I know I won't wind up getting stuck with some bitch I don't get along with for a sister-in-law someday." "That makes sense, I guess," I said. "Except now I've got twice the work of blocking to do," Alice groaned, shooting me a friendly wink. "I don't think you'll have to worry about blocking anything soon when it comes to me, Alice." "You never know, Bella," she chuckled, "Mom always told me it's the quiet ones you had to look out for." "And Edward's definitely a quiet one," Rose agreed. "I wasn't talking about Edward," Alice said, giving me a pointed look. "What?" I asked. "You, Bella, you're a quiet one. I can tell though, you've got some fire hidden under all that sweetness and light. My brother's never going to know what hit him."

~*~
Monday night, Edward showed up at my door with a bulging paper bag of Chinese food and Scrabble. We sprawled out on the floor, poking each other with chopsticks and trying to slip made up words past the other ones guard to use up the high point letters. Every once in awhile I'd catch him looking at me with this odd, serious expression, but he was always quick to recover when he saw me looking, shooting me funny faces or reaching over to tickle me. When I walked him to the door at the end of the night, he scrunched his face up, bending down enough to rub his nose against mine, making me laugh. Tuesday I finally made it to my first group outing at Billy's. Hanging out with the group as part of a couple was only slightly different than it had been hanging out as Edward's friend. Edward was more open about touching me, lazily draping his arm across my shoulders or wrapping his arms around me from behind. He was also quick to glare at any male other than Emmett and Jasper who tried to come near me. I'd never admit to it, but the fact that he was so protective made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as long as he didn't take it too far. His angry face was actually pretty sexy as long as it was directed outward. Part way through the night, Emmett was trying to teach me the finer art of darts when Alice shouted from across the table where we'd set up camp right next to the board. "Oh my gosh, Bella, I completely forgot! You have to take the plunge with us this weekend!" "What is she talking about?" I muttered lowly in Emmett's ear as we stepped over to the table. "Polar Bear Plunge, Babybel. You're so doing it!" "I'm not doing anything until you tell me what 'it' is." "It's a charity event to raise money for Special Olympics," Jasper filled me in. "We've done it the past two years, it's a blast, Bella," Alice said. "What exactly is involved in a 'plunge'?" I asked, still skeptical.

"It's out at Lake Calhoun. They cut a big hole in the ice and people jump in, usually in teams," she shrugged as if this were a normal thing for someone to consider doing. "What? You people want to go jump in a frozen lake in February, are you nuts? I mean you three, I could see, you're crazy natives," I said, pointing out the Cullen siblings, "but you two? You're from Texas for goodness sake, what are you thinking?" "Oh c'mon, Bella, it's fun. Besides, it's for a good cause," Rose said. "And it's already March." I rolled my eyes a bit, as if less than a handful of days made any difference when the lake would still be every bit as cold as it would have been two weeks ago. "Yeah, Bella, you're an Olympian. Don't you want to help out your fellow athletes?" "Oh nice guilt trip there, Alice. I can support my fellow athletes while staying warm and dry, thank you very much," I argued. "Please, Bella?" she pouted at me with those puppy dog eyes. "This is one of those peer pressure moments everyone talks about, isn't it? You know, 'If your friends all wanna jump into a frozen lake, would you do it too' kind of things?" "I'll jump right next to you," Edward offered, slipping his arm around my waist, his fingers gently squeezing my hip. All around me were pleading faces and I could feel my resolve crumble to dust. "Ugh, fine. Just don't talk to me about it, I can feel the onset of hypothermia just thinking about it," I shuddered. "Don't worry, Beautiful, I'll warm you back up," Edward promised, whispering softly in my ear. At the end of the night, Edward held me back a bit to say goodnight while the others went ahead to the car. They were leaving the next morning for an overnight game in Toronto, returning Thursday night. He gave me his normal Eskimo kiss, holding onto me just a little longer than usual, telling me he'd call from the road and that he'd see me when they got back into town before he pulled back and walked me over to the girls. Though his parting gesture was never awkward and always welcome, I was thoroughly confused. Every time Edward and I were together, especially alone together, I could almost drown in the sexual tension. Not that things were ever tense between us, far from it. He made me laugh more than anyone, even Emmett; he was a great listener but seemed eager to talk as well, so it never felt unbalanced. He was always finding ways to touch me or be near me and it never once made me uncomfortable, well not in the way I was used to at least. The discomfort came from the encompassing awareness that filled me in his presence, like every cell of my body was at attention. But he still didn't kiss me. Every time we parted ways, he'd hug me and lean in to rub his nose against mine. As much as I loved those sweet little moments, I couldn't help but feel a bit thrown off. Though I didn't have much experience in the realm of dating, I knew that he wanted to kiss me. It was the look in his eyes every time his face was close to mine, I could see the desire I felt reflected back at me. I didn't doubt that he wanted to. I just couldn't figure out why he wouldn't. I wasn't quite brave enough to just come out and ask him about it and I certainly didn't have it in me to initiate a kiss first, especially not knowing what his hesitation was. So instead, I fretted about it, tossing and turning in my mind all the different possibilities. By Thursday afternoon as I unlocked my door after returning from my daily rink time, I still hadn't come up with anything. Completely lost and slightly frustrated, I dropped my bag in the entry way with a huff, stomping into the kitchen and pulling out my emergency stash of Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream. Why wouldn't he kiss me? He said I was a good kisser, 'best kiss of my life,' I believe had been his words, so what

was the problem? I'd asked him on a date hadn't I? Shouldn't that mean something? I was interrupted from my daze by the chime of my phone. Taking it out of the pocket of my skate bag, the half smile that had started to form at the thought of talking to Edward fell. Renee. No point in acting like a baby and avoiding her, Bella, I said to myself and connected just before it could switch to voicemail. "Hi, Mom." "Hello, Isabella. Were you just at the rink? I tried to reach you earlier." "Yes, Mother, the same time I've been there every day. I'm just walking in the door to my apartment," I said impatiently as I crossed the room to flop down on the couch. Best get comfortable. "Good, I'm pleased to hear you haven't completely lost your discipline." "Were you just calling to check up on me or was there something else?" "There is something, actually. Have you set your follow up appointment with Dr. Cullen yet?" "He said April, Mom, it's still another month away." "I think you should call him again and see if you can get in earlier. You said your physical therapist thinks you're progressing well and you seem to be skating just fine. If you can get in and have Dr. Cullen release you for training we can get moving again. We're going to have to be very aggressive if you have any hopes of being in peak condition come this fall." "Mom, I know I'm going to have to work hard, but Dr. Cullen's been very insistent that I can't push it too soon or I'll risk re-injuring my knee, possibly permanently this time." "Isabella, you said yourself that you're barely ever experiencing any soreness or discomfort. This has gone on for long enough." "He said this is a crucial time for recovery, that I'll feel back to normal but that my knee's not strong enough yet to support any significant jarring or landing my jumps." "Well it can't hurt to just call him. Maybe he'll have changed his mind once he checks you out again." "Maybe," I conceded softly, not because I thought Carlisle's diagnosis would be any different than it was in January, but because I just didn't see the point in fighting Renee over the point. I'd mention it to Carlisle the next time I saw him, he'd tell me the same thing and I'd pass it on to her. "Well in any case, we need to start discussing what will happen once you've gotten released." "What's there to discuss? I told you I already spoke to Marcus and he'll be coming up here to get to work with me," I said firmly, unsure of where the problem was. "Yes, and I've already told you my annoyance with you going behind my back to contact him." "He's my coach, Mom, I would have thought you'd be happy that I took the initiative to look ahead." "There's really no need to re-hash this all again, what's done is done. I've been speaking with a prospective coach,

Phil Dwyer and I think he's going to be just perfect." "You talked to a new coach without telling me? Mom-" I protested angrily. "Isabella, Marcus is a fine coach, but you need the best if you want to win. Phil is just what we need to get you back on top." "I want Marcus. He knows me, do you really think what's best for me right now is to have to adjust to an entirely new coaching style?" "Oh please, what kind of adjustment period would there be?" she scoffed and I could just picture her waving her hand at my concerns, "A coach is a coach, he tells you what to fix and you listen to him." "If a coach is a coach then why can't I have Marcus?" I said, not caring if it sounded petulant. "Because Marcus is too soft. You've lost an entire season, Isabella. You're not going to make up for all that lost time with Marcus babying you like he does. You need a coach who will tell it like it is and push you to be better." "Marcus does challenge me, but he does it with an awareness to my limitations." "That's just it, Isabella. You can't afford to have limitations, not if you want gold. Did you watch Nationals? Have you been watching the international competitions? Japan and Canada have been dominating lately and you can bet they're working their asses off to be even better come next February in Vancouver. If you want to rise to their level we need to take some drastic steps to get you there." "I'm not a machine, Mom, I'm a human being. Human beings have limitations. You can't just press a button and expect me to perform how you want me to!" I shouted, my voice progressively raising as I could feel her start to close the cage back in on me. "Stop being overdramatic, I never said that. But the best are the best because they know how to push beyond their limitations." "And that's why I'm not the best, right Mom? Because I'm not willing to kill myself over a stupid medal." "Where is all this coming from, Isabella? This little rebellion of yours is not appreciated." "This rebellion as you call it, comes from you going too far this time. How dare you contact a new coach without my consent? This is my life!" "It's my job as your manager to provide you with the tools to win. Phil is a tool, just as Marcus has been a tool. Think of this as an upgrade." I knew she wouldn't back down, not without me at least appearing to take her advice into consideration. With a defeated resignation, I muttered "Fine. I'll meet with him. Just meet with him. Marcus remains my official coach for now; I won't back down on that." "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" she said, her voice back to its overly-polite tenor now that she wasn't meeting resistance. "I've gotta go, Mom. I didn't stretch yet and I can feel my hamstrings tightening up," I muttered, barely waiting for her to say goodbye before I hit the end button. I'd stretched at the rink before leaving, but I couldn't stay on the phone with her another minute longer. I couldn't stand to feel myself crumbling to her will yet again. Why did everything have to be so difficult with her? Why couldn't she just listen to me, just one time? Why didn't it make any difference what I wanted in regards to my life?

I could see now that it wasn't all mothers who acted like that, like I'd always assumed was the case in the back of my mind. Esme wasn't like that. Why was it so easy to find comfort in Esme when my own mother, the person who should be supportive of me, encouraging, compassionate, just couldn't seem to find it in herself. Was it me? Maybe I drove her to this point. Esme hasn't known me for that long, maybe it's only a matter of time before she and everyone else started to feel the same way. Lying on the couch, miserable tears falling down my cheek to absorb into the cushions, I stared off at the wall in a daze, trying to clear my mind entirely of the whole situation. I'm not sure how much time passed, but the room was almost completely dark when I heard a knock at the door. I scrubbed my hands over my face, trying to pull myself together, and flicked on the lamp on the end table. No one needed to know I'd been wallowing in the dark. The knock came again when I was halfway to the door, this time with Edward's voice calling out, "Bella?" Hearing him set something off inside me that almost brought me to my knees and I was suddenly desperate for him to just hold me. For someone to just hug me and let me know that I mattered. I ran the final few steps, tripping over my skate bag, still sitting in front of the door where I'd haphazardly dropped it. I threw open the door to him, gasping out his name once before I threw my arms around his waist, burying my face into his shoulder and shuddering softly in relief when I felt his arms firmly encase me. "Hey, what's this? What's wrong, Bella?" "Nothing, I just missed you," I mumbled, the words muffled by his shirt when I refused to move even a centimeter from my spot in his embrace. I was shaking, but I couldn't control it. I felt safe, I felt wanted, I felt welcome. And I never wanted to lose that now that I'd finally found it. "Well I missed you too, but I don't think that's all this is," he said, his tone full of worry as he stepped inside, not loosening his hold as he kicked my bag off to the side and nudged the door closed behind him with his foot. We stood there in silence, his hand stroking my hair soothingly until I stopped trembling. When I'd gotten a little more control over myself, I tried to ease back, whispering, "I'm sorry. I'm okay." Quickly peeling out of his coat and toeing his shoes off on the entry rug, he took my hands and led me over to the couch, laying back on the cushions and opening his arms to me. I didn't hesitate for even a moment, crawling on top of him in an effort to get as close as possible, searching out the comfort his touch always brought me and clinging to it as firmly as my fingers clung to the fabric of his shirt. "Talk to me, Bella," he said after a minute of just holding me, breathing against me. "I just, I was talking to my mom right before you got here," I said, pausing then, not really sure what to say. I knew I was upset, but not really sure of how to share exactly what I was feeling. "Did something happen?" he inquired. "No. Well, yes and no. She just doesn't listen. I told her weeks ago that I want to go back to my old coach when I start training again and it's like it just goes in one ear and out the other. She found this new guy that she wants me to use. Apparently she's been meeting with him for awhile now to work up a 'plan' for when your dad says I can compete again, even after I told her I wanted to stay with Marcus." "Is that common in figure skating? I mean, neither of my parents have ever really had any say at all-" "She's my manager, Edward," I interceded quietly.

"What?" he asked, his voice full of confusion. "My mom, she's my manager." "Your mother? Your mom's the one who shoved you back out on the ice within weeks of major knee surgery?" he growled, his voice more hostile than I could ever remember hearing and I could practically feel him vibrating with anger beneath me. I eased back from him, a little nervous at the tone of his voice and could only manage a hesitant nod. His jaw was clenched tight, I could almost hear his teeth grinding together. "That's just- She-" he sputtered, searching for the right words before he met my eyes and his entire disposition softened a little. He gently urged my head back to his shoulder, softly kissing my forehead and pressing his cheek to the spot his lips had grazed. "I'm sorry, Bella, but that's just fucked up." "That's Renee," I shrugged, because really that's the only way I knew to describe it. "Has she always been like that?" "Honestly, I don't know. I didn't notice quite so much when I was younger. I thought that's how all moms were; at least that's what it seemed like with the other skater's moms. After Torino, when I came home with a silver, was when I started noticing it more. She seemed to be pushing me a lot harder, her critiques were a lot more harsh and personal; she never really said anything encouraging. Before, she was still hard on me but she was good about telling me when I did something well or different moves were looking good. After Torino, nothing was good enough. I'd skated clean programs and still came away a loser in her eyes." "Loser? You got a fucking silver in the Olympics, Bella, I don't think that qualifies as losing," he snapped and I couldn't help the little half smile from forming on my lips at the offense he seemed to feel on my behalf. "To her it did. It wasn't gold. In her mind, she'd done everything right, got me hooked up with the right coaches, hired the right choreographers, chosen the right music and dressed me in the right costumes; it had to be something I did or didn't do. I wasn't flirtatious enough with the judges, I'd let my nerves show, I'd taken one too many prep steps to transition into a move. Everything became a source for her scrutiny. To her, there's been no question that I'll go to Vancouver and that this time I'll get her what she wants." "Have you thought about, you know, not having her as your manager anymore?" "What, firing her?" I asked and he nodded against me, "I don't know if I could. I feel like if I did, that's it, there's no coming back from that. I don't know if I can cut my own mother completely out of my life, no matter what she's done or not done to me." "Bella, just because she'd stop being your manager doesn't mean she'd stop being your mother." "I think it might," I responded truthfully, sharing one of my deepest fears for the first time with another person. "With her that might be exactly what it means." "Why do you say that?" "Sometimes it feels like that's all I am to her, just her skater, her ticket to the top. I don't know what would happen with us if that went away." "If she's stupid enough to miss out on everything else you have to offer, I don't think she deserves the chance." "I never felt like I did, have anything else to offer. Not before you, well you and Alice and everyone." "Bella," he whispered, brushing the hair back from my face and looking at me with such tender adoration that I felt

my heart would just implode under the intensity. He leaned forward ever so slightly and I thought for sure that this would be it. His face pausing less than an inch from my own, his breath warm against my lips, his eyes darting down to my mouth for just a moment before looking back into my eyes. I saw the shift occur, so subtle that if I didn't know what to look for I'd have missed it. It was the same shift that had happened every time we'd gotten this close for the last week. He'd lean in, my breath would catch in anticipation, just waiting to feel his lips on mine, and at the last second his eyes would change. Instead, he'd softly brush his nose against mine, sometimes with an adorable grin on his face, sometimes impossibly tender, sometimes intensely serious like he was right now. Every time though, he'd pause as if catching himself, erecting the slightest, almost imperceptible wall between us. After brushing his nose against mine three times, slowly trailing the tip of his down the ridge of mine, he settled back into the cushions, cradling my head to his chest and twirling my hair between his fingers lazily. He made no indication of continuing our conversation or starting a new one, he was almost entirely still and completely silent. I couldn't stand not knowing what was going through his mind. So many things about this thing between us, this relationship, were such a puzzle to me. Reading through all those books and magazines, I remembered tips on being flirtatious, on holding back and presenting an air of mystery, on playing hard to get, not laying yourself completely out there too quickly. I just couldn't make sense of those things. I didn't know how to play games, too naive to try and learn the rules. I just hoped that Edward didn't play them either. "Edward, can I ask you something?" I whispered quietly, nervously, nuzzling into his chest and trying to gather the strength to follow through with my own request. "Anything, Bella." "Why-" I started but the words caught in my throat. I shook my head almost imperceptibly against him, nervously picking at the sleeve of his shirt. "Ugh, never mind, forget it." "No, what is it?" he entreated me with his eyes and his voice to continue as he nudged my face up to look at him. "You can tell me." "Why haven't you tried to, you know, kiss me?" I managed on an uncomfortable cough. "I mean we already have, I guess I just assumed when we went on a date..." "Bella, it's not that I don't want to. I do. Frankly sometimes it's all I can think about. The thing is, Bella, I'm not a saint. I'm a guy. I just don't want to make you uncomfortable or make you feel like I'm pressuring you to move faster than you want to. I'm not saying if I kissed you I'd end up ripping your clothes off, but-" He paused, his expression full of doubt and irritation, though it was clear to see that it was directed inward at himself. I tried to implore him with my eyes as he had done for me, reassuring him that I'd listen to anything he said and try my best to understand. It seemed to work because he looked back at me, softly fluttering his shaky fingers against my cheek. "I don't think I could take it if I kissed you only to have you pull away from me again. I get why you did, and I'm not holding it against you or anything. I just can't do it again. I need you to be sure this time," he spoke, his voice husky and rough and filling me with shame over causing it. "I'm sorry, Edward." "No, Bella, I'm not saying that to make you feel guilty or pressure you. Look, I know this is all new to you and that'd be enough to freak anyone out. But it's not just you who's scared or nervous here." "What are you afraid of? Me?" I asked, unable to hide the complete sense of absurdity at the thought that I'd scare anyone, least of all him.

"No, well not specifically. It's just, I think we have something really amazing between us, and I don't want to fuck it up by rushing anything. I like where we are right now and I'm not going anywhere. I'm not in a hurry with you, Bella," he said, tucking me back into his arms and showing me with his touch what his words had just said. He softly kissed the crown of my head before murmuring in my ear with a husky whisper, "But don't take that to mean I won't be thinking about getting you naked just about every moment of the day until then." I giggled a little, a soft blush coloring my cheeks at the thought of that happening someday; equal parts eager and nervous for it to become a reality. "You might be disappointed." "Bella, I don't think that's possible."

~*~
Saturday morning, I stepped out into the hall bright and early to find both Rose and Alice leaned up against the wall, large, dark sunglasses covering half their faces and travel mugs of steaming coffee in their hands. When they saw me emerge, they simply shoved off from the wall and slumped down the hallway to the elevator with heavy steps. "Good morning to you too," I muttered with amusement. "We're not talking to you," Rose called back over her shoulder as she angrily stabbed at the down button. "What did I do?" "You and my darling brother ditched us last night, leaving us twice as many margaritas to consume, thus resulting in massive hangovers that you're obviously not suffering from," Alice illuminated me. "I thought you didn't get hangovers, Alice," I pointed out. "I was mistaken. Gravely mistaken. Apparently all it takes is one Margarita past my limit to turn from bright and chipper to the brink of death," she moaned, inhaling the fumes of her coffee without drinking. "We went about this entirely wrong," she muttered, turning her attention to her comrade, "We should have waited about twelve hours and gotten drunk this morning before going to jump into the freezing lake. Not last night so we now have to jump into said lake while hung-over." "Well shit, Alice, you're the planning queen, why didn't you foresee this and save us the misery." "Those margaritas just looked so tasty." "Don't say that word to me," Rose groaned painfully. "What, tasty?" "No. The other one. The evil one. The Death Star of beverages." I couldn't hold back the snort at her comparison, drawing their attention back to me. "I so want to hate you right now," Alice muttered, sipping her coffee. "Uh, sorry?" "No you're not, Bella. You're not sorry at all for sneaking off with your new boy toy for some quality alone time," Rose said, lifting her shades to give me a saucy wink.

"You're right. I'm not. Especially seeing the sorry state you two are in." "Oh, we're not even bad. You should have seen Emmett and Jasper. Tequila is not their friend." "What'd you guys do anyway?" Alice asked. "Not much, just came back here to watch a movie. It was a long week." "Mm hm, sure, 'watch a movie,'" Rose mocked with a suggestive tone. "Yes, we watched a movie. That's it." "Really? He still hasn't kissed you?" Alice asked incredulously and I shook my head. "Rose, we need to knock some sense into that boy's thick skull." "No, guys, please don't say anything. I get where he's coming from and I don't want to make a big deal out of it so can we please just drop it?" They shrugged in agreement, and we continued to chatter easily as we made our way to the front entrance. I could hear the guys before I could see them, the smile spreading over my face before I even turned the corner. They stood in the lobby, Jasper and Emmett looking just as miserable as the girls. Edward's face lit up when he saw me, straightening from his perch against the wall. I wanted so badly to just run to him and hug him. Then why don't you, Bella? Why are you always holding back so much? My inner voice was amazingly persuasive this morning and I took the length of the floor in three bounding steps, leaping straight into his arms, my feet dangling off the floor as he caught me with a laugh in mid-air. "Well," he mumbled against my hair, "good morning to you too, Beautiful." "Aw, look how cute they are, Ali," Rose cooed, nudging her in the side as she slumped against Emmett's chest where he still leaned against the wall.. "C'mon Rosie, we're just as cute as they are," Emmett argued a bit petulantly. "No, Emmett. We were never that cute. Your hands wander too much to qualify us as cute." "Yeah, I guess you're right," Emmett said, rubbing his hand over Rose's butt and giving her a playful pinch. "Let's go, lovebirds," Alice giggled and dragged Jasper out the door. Edward ended up driving Jasper's truck as the rest of them were still nursing their hangovers. Jasper and Alice snuggled up in the back corner, whispering so low that no one could make out a single word they said. Rose had her head propped against the window, leaning as far away from Alice as possible. Her mouth hung open and it looked like she could have been sleeping. Emmett took up half the bench seat in front, squashing me in the middle between him and Edward. By the time we pulled into the lot at Lake Calhoun, our entire company was alert and raring to go. While the temperature wasn't completely unbearable, it still had enough bite for me to question the sanity of every single person milling around the area. Alice signed our team in, turning in our donations and whatever they had raised, we huddled up, taking up residence on a patch of sidewalk that wasn't directly in the midst of the crowd that had started gathering, awaiting their turn at this insanity. The first jump was scheduled for ten and would go by the order that teams signed in. We were slated at number seventeen, so we settled in for a bit of a wait and I enjoyed the distraction that the people surrounding me provided with their humor and playful banter. Before long I heard a flurry of screams

followed by the sound of multiple bodies hitting the water as the first team took their turn and I let out a groan of dread. "Excited?" Edward asked from behind me, clasping his hands at my shoulders and shaking me once. "I don't think that's the exact word I'd choose to describe it," I muttered and he chuckled. "C'mon, Swan! Get pumped, just think of the adrenaline rush!" he said, briskly rubbing my arms and attempting to instill some of his energy into me. I grimaced up at him and he laughed at my pathetic attempt at a smile. "Don't think, just jump, Bella." Our turn came well before I was ready as we tossed off our blankets and coats by the edge where we'd emerge. But as we lined up along the opening, I did start to feel excited. Sitting on the sidelines and watching everyone else take the plunge made me nervous and shaky, but standing there on the brink, forced to face the challenge, I realized that I was ready. Though I was dreading the cold, I couldn't stop the little thrill of anticipation the started flowing through my veins, especially looking up to see Edward with such a carefree, giddy grin on his face. "Ready?" he asked and I nodded. Polar Plunge He took my hand, with Alice clasping my other as we crouched as a group, and took the plunge. Before I hit the water, I heard Alice squeal, Emmett yell out 'Cowabunga' and felt Edward's grip tighten on mine as he gasped out in surprise. I didn't have time to blink before I too hit the water and felt the wind knocked out of me, the prickling stab of the cold in a million tiny needle points all over my body. Surprisingly, I felt completely refreshed and energized, bursting up through the surface and laughing breathlessly as I saw Edward pop back up beside me. "Fuck, that's cold," he gasped, tossing the hair out of his eyes and yanking me into him, running his hands over my face as he wrapped his legs around me to try and hold me up with him as he treaded in place. "You okay?" "Yeah. Cold," I managed to chatter out on a laugh. "C'mon, let's get out of here before we get hypothermia," he suggested, swimming over to the edge where our friends had already climbed out to wrap up in heavy blankets and go in search of the hot tubs. Edward hoisted himself up out of the water first, reaching down to practically lift me up from the freezing water and into his arms, unfolding a blanket and wrapping it snuggly around the both of us. He shuffled us off to the side a bit so we wouldn't be in the way as we clung to each other, teeth chattering and shivering. He ran his hands up and down my back under the blanket, trying to warm me with the friction and I tried to do the same to him, giving up after realizing I wasn't really doing any good and instead just wrapping my arms around his waist and burrowing into him. Before long I stopped shaking. I felt completely at peace with my cheek resting against the wet fabric of his shirt, hidden within the cocoon of fleece, hearing nothing aside from the sound of his breath and the steady drum of his heart. The air was cold, our clothing drenched, but I felt no rush to move even an inch from where I stood bundled in the blanket and Edward's warm arms. Then I was shaking again, no longer from the cold but from the realization that there was another plunge I needed to take. One I was more than ready for. Don't think, just jump, Bella, I heard Edward's voice echo through my mind. So I did.

Before either of us realized it, my lips were on his and Edward froze, his arms tight around me, stiff and unyielding. He didn't move a muscle, his lips warm and soft beneath mine, but unresponsive, he almost seemed to cease breathing entirely. Discouraged, I almost pulled away. But then I felt his lips curl into a smile beneath mine, his arms slacking their hold on my shoulders just enough so he could move one hand down to the small of my back and press me close to him, the blanket still folded around us, shielding us from the air and the world around us as a whole. Just him. Just me. Suddenly he was kissing me back, and the sensations running through me at the feel of his breath mingled with mine sent sparks shooting from my head all the way down to the tips of my toes. Hesitantly, I slid my hands around his waist, trailing my fingers up his spine until they reached his shoulder blades, anchoring my body to his as I opened myself up to him. It started out softly, a series of feathery light brushes of his lips against mine, deepening into a lazy exploration as we became less willing to separate our mouths for even the quickest of breaths. My grip became less tentative as I moved one hand up to thread my fingers into the wet, partially frozen hair at the nape of his neck, causing him to emit a low, satisfied hum in his throat as he angled his head slightly to the side, altering the depth of the next meeting of our lips as I sighed into the embrace. Well before I was ready, I felt him start to pull back and I fisted my fingers into his hair, crushing my lips hard against his and inhaling the deep groan that he let out as his tongue swept against mine. By the time he pulled away again, I'd started to feel light-headed from the lack of air and the onslaught of emotion his kiss stirred in my soul. Though his lips broke from mine, we did not separate. He merely dipped his head to press soft, pecking kisses to my cheek, my neck, my collarbone, getting more and more playful with each one as he smiled against my skin and started laughing, the utter delight on his face when he eased back to look at me making me happier than I could ever remember being in my entire life. He leaned down to chastely press his lips to mine once more, our lips barely meeting from the size of our matching elated grins. When he pulled back this time, he gazed down at me with a contemplative smile. "Are you sure this is new to you, Swan?" I giggled, tightening my arms around his waist and resting my cheek to his chest with a contented sigh. "I'm a fast learner." "You know, they always say that players make the best coaches." "You gonna coach me, Cullen?" "I dunno, Swan," he mused, nudging my face up with his own, his next words spoken against my lips, "maybe you can coach me."

~*~

Spring in Minnesota is not a pretty time. It seemed like Mother Nature just couldn't make up her damn mind, wavering back and forth between the biting cold of winter and the thawing days of spring, sometimes shifting within the span of twenty-four hours. Outside, the streets were dirty and everything was brown, the patches of snow that still lingered here and there were covered in a dingy film. Despite the drab surroundings, I always seemed to be in a cheerful mood. Three weeks had passed since my "first date" with Edward. Two since I got up the guts to kiss him again. The days since seemed like a dreamy haze, full of chaste 'good morning' pecks in the gym before we hopped on our respective treadmills, playful kisses when we were just hanging out at my apartment, or

Chapter Nine Thatll Leave A Mark

passionate embraces before we said goodnight. We didn't progress beyond that, his hands never wandering from my waist or tangled in my hair, but he didn't seem to be complaining, and I certainly wasn't. I took him at his word that he wasn't in a hurry and just let myself enjoy the initial phase of our relationship, especially liking the fact that we could steal kisses from each other whenever the mood struck, something Edward took advantage of very often. Still, there was so much more to it than just kissing. That friendship we'd been building from the start didn't disappear or even alter that much at all. I always thought that people said dating changes things, but with us it didn't seem to. Edward said it was because essentially we'd been dating from the start and I was just finally catching up to the program. I suppose in a way, we had been. When you think about it, dating is all about getting to know another person and expressing a mutual interest in spending time together. So yes, you could argue that we had been "dating" since mid-January, but no matter when it all started, I was happy with where we were for now. Earlier this morning, Edward had walked me up to my door after our usual workout, leaving me weak in the knees from a searing kiss before he ran home to get ready. Apparently the Cullens, and by extension the Hales, always had big plans for this day. St. Patrick's Day. It was only nine a.m., but I could already see the occasional festive person milling around on the streets below, all decked out in green. Alice had left me a shopping bag the night before with "my uniform" for the day. I knew you were supposed to wear something green, but what I didn't realize is just how far these people went with the holiday. One that had never even been a blip on my radar in the past. Well it's sure ingrained there now, I thought as I laid out the clothes on my bed, it's all any of them could talk about for the last week. I took one look at the green tartan mini-skirt before grabbing it up and storming across the hall. "Alice Cullen!" I shouted as I pounded on their door. She appeared just seconds later, an innocent smile on her face as she said good morning. Too innocent. "What were you thinking giving me this?" I inquired furiously, shaking the offending fabric in her face. "Take this back, I'm not wearing it." "C'mon Bella, you'll look adorable!" "I'll look like a street walker. Or a slutty Catholic school girl." "You know, we went to Catholic school. Our uniforms were never nearly as cute as that skirt is." "That's not the point," I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "Bella, you're not going to look like a slut," she insisted. "The skirt isn't as short as it looks when it's on, and besides, you have an awesome pair of legs, you should show them off. It's going to be warm out today for once, I thought you might want to take advantage of the nice weather." I gave her a look of disbelief. "Will you please just try it on? If you hate it, that's fine, I'm not going to make you walk around uncomfortable all day. Just try it, please?" "Fine," I gave in with an epic roll of my eyes as I stomped back to my apartment, indulging in a huffy slam of my door before I headed to the bathroom to wash off the morning workout. Thirty-five minutes later, after a truly indulgent shower, I was gritting my teeth and dreading the fact that I'd have to tell Alice that she was right. Again. The outfit was cute, sexy without being overt, and I really liked it. The green plaid skirt was paired with a fitted black v-neck sweater and a pair of knee high black socks with green and orange argyle. At the bottom of the shopping bag had been a shoe box with a pair of brand new kelly green low top converse sneakers. The girl knew my weak spot. Looking in the mirror, I still thought the outfit could have been an homage to the Catholic School girl, but at least it

wasn't a slutty costume. Once my hair was dry, I decided to just go with it and embrace the look, tying my hair in low hanging curly pigtails, sort of a Dorothy of Kansas look. I threw on a light jacket and grabbed my purse to head over to Alice and Rose's, knowing they'd try to fix me up with make-up even if I attempted it on my own. Rose and Alice could be pushy at times, especially Alice, but for all my groaning and complaining, I didn't mind it so much. Neither of them ever tried to fashion me into someone I wasn't. I was used to being dolled up all the time. I used to hate it because I always came away feeling like some unrecognizable 'Bella Barbie,' but with the girls, every time I came away from one of their little makeovers I still felt like me, just a cuter, slightly more confident me. "Holy moly, Bells, you're hot," Rose commented when I opened their door, knocking on my way in to alert them to my entrance. I still wasn't 100% comfortable just barging into their place like Alice was with mine, but I was getting better. "Thanks, Rose, didn't know you swung that way," I joked, setting my bag by the door. "I don't. But if I did, you'd definitely be my type, baby," she winked at me and grabbed her leather motorcycle jacket from the closet and called out to Alice, "Come on, Pipsqueak, let's go!" "I'm coming. I'm coming," Alice said as she practically sprinted out of her room and began frantically digging through her purse, making sure she had all the essentials no doubt. "Bella, you look great! See, didn't I tell you?" she said when she saw me. "Oh, and I have just the thing!" she said, snapping her fingers and dashing back to her room, only to emerge seconds later with a couple of small green hair ribbons to tie in tiny bows just below my ears. "There. Perfect." "Edward's gonna flip his shit when he sees you," Rose chuckled. "I know, right? I want front row seats for that," Alice giggled, going back to grab her purse off the couch. "Let's do this, ladies." The two of them were quite the pair. Rose wore a bright green tank top with "Ireland" spelled out across the bust, strategically torn skinny jeans and peep-toe heels that matched the hue of her shirt. Around her neck she had strings of mardi gras beads in green, orange, and white. Alice took her devotion to the holiday far more seriously. She too sported the multi-colored beads, but paired with a lime green graphic t-shirt that said "Kiss me, I'm Irish," a black pleated mini skirt that was shorter than my own, and a pair of black tights with brightly colored shamrocks. The kicker was the streaks of lime green extensions she'd added to her hair, not hanging past her own short length. Alice didn't do anything half-way. We were meeting the guys uptown at eleven, so we stopped at a Starbucks on the way for coffee and berry coffee cake. We took advantage of the rare warm spring morning by sitting outside on a cement ledge to enjoy our makeshift breakfast while we awaited their arrival. "What's the agenda for the day, Alice?" I asked, taking a bite of coffee cake that I knew I shouldn't be indulging in. "Well, the parade starts at noon just over that way," she gestured to the side, "and ends up over by the Landmark where they have music and dance groups performing. We usually stop in and check it out for a little bit, it's pretty cool. Then of course once the guys start complaining, we head to the bar, where we will likely live for the remainder of the day." "So basically we walk around for a couple hours and then go get drunk?" "Yeah, sounds about right," Rose agreed. "What exactly is so special about this day?"

"It's just a chance to have fun, Bella," Alice said, "celebrate our heritage, drink good beer, listen to awesome music, loosen up for a day." "It's not my heritage though," I pointed out. "Everyone's Irish on St. Paddy's day, lassie," Rose argued in her terrible accent. "Plus, it's a great day to people watch. There are some major crazies out there." Minutes later, Rose was leaning out on the ledge, keeping a look out for the rest of our group when she let out a low whistle. "Take a look at that." Alice and I leaned out with her to look up the sidewalk where Rose was focused and spotted the guys up the street. I was eternally grateful I was wearing sunglasses so it wasn't completely obvious to the world just how overtly I was staring. Edward looked like pure, undiluted, walking sex. I mean, he looked great all the time, but the man looked good enough at that moment to make me want to spread my virginal legs to him right then and there. His jeans were perfectly fit, his deep green graphic t-shirt alternately clingy and loose in just the right places. He had a black, leather jacket on over it, left casually open; army green converse on his feet, bed-head in full effect, and aviators covering his beautiful green eyes. I'm pretty sure I licked my lips, but I couldn't be certain; my brain had suddenly gone on strike. He hadn't noticed us yet, none of the guys had as they talked amongst themselves. "Man, we are the three luckiest bitches on the face of this planet," Rose sighed. I barely spared a glance at Jasper and Emmett, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on Edward, but I could easily agree with that statement. I really was lucky. I had great friends. A great...boyfriend? A great apartment. A great job. My life may not have been perfect, but the pros were now far outweighing the cons. When the trio of men was less than half a block away, Alice catcalled out to them, gaining their attention as she sprang away to greet Jasper with an enthusiastic hug. Emmett and Rose lapsed into their typical greeting of mutually eyeballing each other with looks that said they were well aware of just how good they both had it before Emmett scooped her up to hitch her legs around his waist. Edward had stopped dead in his tracks for a moment before one side of his mouth turned up into that signature crooked smile and he jogged over to where I stood, smoothing my skirt out self-consciously. "Hey," he said as he came to a stop in front of me, sounding slightly out of breath, though I knew the minimal amount of physical exertion from the jog wouldn't have phased him at all. "Hi," I answered back quietly, biting my lip in a shy smile. I wondered if we'd ever get over this, the initial moments of shyness and uncertainty. There always seemed to be just a moment of hesitation on both our parts, though it often disappeared quickly. He leaned in, placing a soft, sweet kiss on my lips, and there it was gone. I let out a happy hum as I pressed my lips more firmly against his, saying 'hi' again, this time without the traces of insecurity as he linked his hands with mine. He kissed me once more before pulling back, holding our joined hands out to the side so he could look me over. "You look like a sin just waiting to happen," he groaned, making me wish I'd left my hair down so I could hide my blush. "Did you really go to Catholic school?" I asked. "Yup. None of us really practice, but we suffered through hitting the confessionals for a number of years." "Something tells me Emmett had to do the most penance." "Nope, Alice. She was a troublemaker," he whispered loudly and I laughed.

"Hells Bells," Emmett whooped out, swinging me up into a quick hug while I prayed that my skirt covered everything necessary. "If the chicks at CDH all looked like you, I would have been chasing a lot more skirt through those high school halls." "More?" Alice scoffed as Emmett set me back down."You could barely fit in what you had! Emmett, if you'd spent any more time chasing skirts, you'd have missed out on half your games and you'd be flipping burgers instead of other players." "Hey, I can't control my animal magnetism. The ladies just naturally flock to me." "You're an animal all right, Emmett, a big, smelly one," Alice teased him. "Rosie, are you gonna let her talk to me like that?" Emmett pouted. "You're a big boy. You can handle the truth," she said, coming to stand next to him, then raising up on her toes to whisper something undoubtedly suggestive in his ear. "Come on," Edward said, clasping my hand in his. "Let's go stake out a good spot." The parade was loud and boisterous, full of people decked out in their finest "Irish Pride." One woman had gone so far as to dye her little West Highland terrier green. The streets were packed with people, all celebrating and enjoying the lovely spring morning as the bagpipes droned and the rat-a-tat of the drums resonated through the crowd. Edward held me snug against his chest the entire time, leaning down to speak in my ear over the noise of the crowd and pointing out objects of interest left and right. I kept my sunglasses firmly in place as we stood in the crowd, shielding my eyes from the sun, but also effectively disguising myself. It wasn't often that I was recognized, but it did happen on occasion, and I didn't know if I was entirely ready to give up on my invisible status. Minnesota didn't have much in the way of paparazzi, but with how many cameras were flashing around, I wasn't eager to take my chances of being caught on film. Soon enough, the parade had passed us by and we took our time walking over to Rice Park where we stopped inside to enjoy the local bands and dance troupes for a short time. At a late lunch, over baskets of fish & chips and pints of Guinness in a nearby pub, Alice brandished a sheet of temporary tattoos, insisting that everyone needed more "Irish Pride." She passed it around the table with a pair of tiny scissors she always kept in her purse "for emergencies" and gave any hesitators the evil eye until one by one they gave in and grudgingly cut one out to mark themselves. Edward grabbed the sheet from Rose and gave it a quick study before cutting one out. I reached to take the sheet from him, but instead he tossed it onto the table top before taking my hand in his, turning it over so my palm was facing up as he gently eased the sleeve of my sweater up to expose my wrist. He stripped the protective layer from the tattoo and placed it ever so gently on the skin of my inner wrist while my veins pulsed beneath his fingers. He dipped the corner of his napkin in a glass of ice water, continuing to cradle my wrist in his palm, and pressed the cool, wet cloth to my suddenly overheated skin. After a few light dabs against the paper, he lifted the corner, testing, before dropping the napkin back on the table, peeling off the rest of the tiny scrap and lifting my wrist closer to his face for inspection. His eyes met mine as he parted his lips ever so slightly and blew on my skin to dry the pressed on ink. I didn't even see what he'd marked me with, I couldn't tear my own eyes away from the darkening green of his; my damp skin experiencing a delightful juxtaposition of his warm breath and the chill of the water evaporating at the same time. After one final drying exhale, he eased my wrist up to press a soft, lingering kiss to the spot he'd just given so much attention. I couldn't completely hold back on the breathless hum of pleasure his touch elicited in me, but I was able to smother most of the volume by pressing my own lips together. The look in his eyes told me he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I decided I shouldn't be the only one to suffer.

Before he could see it coming, I yanked my wrist from the gentle hold he had on it, clamping it onto his neck as I practically jumped into his lap to fuse my lips to his, my fingers diving into his hair just as forcefully as my tongue dived between his parted lips to brush against his. He either wasn't able, or just didn't bother to disguise his own moan of pleasure as he eagerly responded to my touch, banding one arm around the small of my back to hold me to him while his other hand cupped my head at the exposed nape of my neck before stroking down the length of my arm to land on the naked skin of my thigh, not trespassing beyond the hemline of my skirt, but still effectively driving me insane. After a few moments the desperate meetings of our mouths, Edward regained his senses and pulled back, slightly panting as he rested his forehead against mine. "God, Bella," he said on a breathless laugh, "you get inked and instantly turn into a wild woman." "Only when you're the one doing the marking," I giggled, leaning forward to lightly peck his lips once more before pulling away and sitting back in my chair, which he instantly pulled just a little closer to his own. I finally looked down at my wrist to see what he'd chosen and burst into giggles. It was a graphic depiction of a four-leaf clover with the words 'Get Lucky' curving around it. "Is that supposed to mean something?" "Not at all," he said innocently. "Do I get to do you now?" I asked, picking up the abandoned tattoo sheet and perusing my options. "Do you really think that's a good idea?" he turned to whisper in my ear, as he traced the tip of his nose along the curve of my jaw and kissed the soft hollow just where it transitioned to my neck. "Yeah, you're probably right," I agreed, tossing the paper back down and nudging his head up so I could lay mine on his shoulder. "Besides, I don't need a temp when I've got the real thing," he said. That caught my attention. "What do you mean the real thing? Do you have a tattoo?" I asked with a surprised smile, pulling back and darting my eyes over his form as if I could determine it's location even through the layers of his clothing. His pleased smirk at my reaction was just slightly arrogant, but I was too curious to bother slapping him down for it. "Where is it?" "A gentleman doesn't reveal his secrets," he said. "Bull, then you shouldn't have said anything! How come I haven't seen it? Do you have a Tweety Bird tattooed on your ass, Cullen?" I teased, trying to think of the most embarrassing option. "Oh no, I know, it's a Batman symbol on the back of your shoulder, isn't it?" He laughed heartily and tugged me back down to his side. "Neither. And if you're good, someday I might just let you see what it really is." "Such a tease," I muttered, flicking my fingers against his chest in mock frustration. "Do you have one?" "What, a tattoo?" I asked, not looking up into his eyes. He could read me entirely too easily. "Yeah." "What do you think?" I asked sarcastically and raised my eyebrow at him, giving him a look that hopefully said "are you crazy?" because I didn't want to open my mouth and lie to him. "That's too bad, Swan, tats can be really sexy."

"I hate needles," I said, because it was the truth, and an expected response that would hopefully be convincing enough to have him drop the subject. "You're pretty tough, you could handle it," he argued, to which I gave a non-committal hum. "You definitely don't need one to be sexy though," he said, placing a tender kiss on my collarbone and stroking his thumb along the length of it until the edge of my sweater blocked him. "Your skin is perfection just the way it is." "How do you always know exactly the right thing to say?" I sighed. "I merely speak the truth." "Edward, hey!" a voice called out behind us, drawing Edward's attention to the source, a tall, fairly thin man with jet black hair and dark brown eyes. "Hey, Ben, how's it going?" Edward called back a friendly greeting, slipping his arm from around my shoulders and standing up to shake the man's hand once he'd approached our table. "Not bad, thought we might see you out and about today." "Can't break tradition," Edward chuckled and reached his hand back to me, giving me a quick, reassuring smile as he pulled me to my feet and against his side. "Bella, this is Ben Cheney. He's a right wing on our team. Ben, this is Bella, my girlfriend." It was the first time Edward had introduced me to anyone as his girlfriend, or even used the term in my presence, and I couldn't stop the elated glow that spread through me, coming out in the form of a giddy smile. I just barely managed to remember my manners and offer my hand to Ben to shake, saying a quiet, "Pleased to meet you." "You too, Bella. Don't let this guy push you around too much, okay? He can be a bossy prick sometimes." "Hey, now, I'm only bossy when you're lagging on the ice and not covering the puck. Is Angela here?" "Nah, she had to work today, poor girl." "Angela is Ben's girlfriend," Edward filled me in. "You'd probably like her; she's like a less insane version of my sister." "Yeah, isn't that the truth?" Ben chuckled, glancing past Edward and spotting the others at the table, giving them a slight wave. "Looks like you've got the whole gang out." "Who are you here with?" Edward asked, looking around. "Oh, I left Crowley and Newton back at the bar," he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the crowd swarming around it. "They were attempting to put the moves on a couple very unfortunate girls. It was too painful to stay and witness." "Did you want to join us?" "No, that's cool. I should probably check in with them and see about heading out. You guys have fun." "Alright, see you at the X tomorrow." "See ya. Bella, very nice meeting you," he said with a friendly smile before turning to weave through the crowd of people on his way back to the bar.

"He was nice," I said as we sat back down, facing in toward each other this time, our knees bumping together in the gap between our seats. "Yeah, he's a good guy. The two he's with, not so much, but Ben's solid." "What's wrong with the other two?" "They just fit the stereotype, that's all," Edward said, sliding his hands under mine, our palms flat against each others. "What stereotype?" I asked. "A lot of people think professional hockey players, well male pro athletes in general, I guess, are nothing but a bunch of womanizing jerks who sleep around with a ton of women simply because they can. Crowley and Newton play right into that, going out and picking up different women every opportunity they get, talking them into bed by throwing around their status as an NHL player and never calling them up again afterwards." "That's-" I paused, searching for exactly how to respond. "It's disgusting, that's what it is," Edward muttered, raising our hands up between us, spreading his fingers, and thus mine as a result. "It's disrespectful." I had to smile at the tone of his voice, clearly displaying his distaste for his teammates' behavior. I remembered the girls from the bathroom at the winter carnival, the way they'd spoken so casually about propositioning. Even then I'd known Edward wasn't like that, but hearing him now, after having the opportunity to get to know him more, to get to know his family and the company he kept, I knew that not only was it behavior he wouldn't partake in himself, but something he wouldn't advocate in anyone. He was too much of a gentleman to find it acceptable. "So, girlfriend, huh?" I asked, bringing up the subject that had lingered at the back of my mind since the word escaped his lips. I curled my fingers, slipping them into the open spaces between his and linking our hands, studying them rather than looking at his face. "Well, yeah. What else would I call you?" "I don't know," I shrugged, biting down on my lip. "I guess we never said anything formal." "Bella?" he urged me to look up at him, gently easing my lip out from between my teeth and stroking it once with the pad of his thumb. "Yeah?" "I think of you as my girlfriend. That is, if you want to be," he smiled at me, just the slightest hint of uncertainty in his eyes as I searched his face. A shy smile turned up the corners of my mouth. "Does that mean I get to call you my boyfriend?" "Damn straight it does," he leaned in, every trace of uncertainty gone, and grinned against my lips.

~*~
Saturday morning, the girls and I pulled up in front of a beautiful Victorian on Summit Avenue, looking like it came straight from the pages of Dickens or the Bronte sisters. It was three stories, built completely of wood painted in mocha brown with ivory trim. A covered porch ran the length of the front of the house and a polygonal tower spanned the top two stories, jutting up into the sky with its pointy turret.

"This is your parents' house?" I gaped as I stepped onto the sidewalk. "Yup, home, sweet home," Alice chirped, taking my hand and tugging me up the walkway behind her. "Did you wear pinafores and button-down shoes as a kid?" "Huh?" "Nothing. It just looks like something out of a storybook, that's all." "It does, doesn't it? Oh and lookie here, it comes complete with a gentleman waiting to court you," she giggled when the front door swung open and Edward stepped out onto the porch. "Shut up," I nudged her in the side as we made our way up the steps and Edward pulled me away for a quick kiss. Rose and Alice slipped inside, calling out for Esme as they walked straight toward the back of the house. "Welcome to the Casa de Cullen," Edward said as he took my hand and walked with me inside the door, my eyes darting everywhere all at once trying to soak in my surroundings. "I can't believe you grew up here. I'm completely jealous right now." "Not a mausoleum?" "No way! It's gorgeous. I mean you can tell it's historic, but it still feels like a home, not like you'd be scared to sit on the furniture." "It's all mom, she's dabbled in interior design and did a lot of it herself." "Well she did an amazing job," I said, peeking around the corner into a sitting room that held a beautiful polished baby grand piano. "Why thank you, Sweetheart," Esme's voice rang out pleasantly as she approached from down a long hallway, a half apron in a floral toile tied around her waist and a ruffled chiffon blouse on top. "I'm so glad you're here," she said as she greeted me with a quick hug and grabbed my hand. "Edward, go find the boys and keep yourself occupied, I'm stealing Bella." "Mo-om," he whined in protest, making me giggle, and he shot me a look, "What are you laughing at, Swan?" "Nothing, I can just perfectly imagine you throwing a tantrum at age six in that exact same voice." "Yeah, well I'd have risked getting grounded if it meant I got to play with you for five more minutes," he grinned, pecking me on the forehead. "Make sure Rose doesn't steal all the banana bread before I get a piece, she always tries to sneak it." "So," Esme said as she linked her arm through mine and led me back toward the kitchen, "it looks like you two are getting along rather well." "Oh, Esme," I sighed, holding her back from approaching the doorway where I could hear Rose and Alice, "he's just so wonderful. I'm so worried I'm going to mess it all up. I mean, it's been so great for the last couple weeks and everything just feels natural with him-" "You know what, honey? You worry far too much. Just relax and let things happen. If you just be yourself, I don't

think there's much you could do to screw things up. Now, let's go get to work on brunch. I'll share my secret recipe for banana nut bread with you. It's Edward's favorite and no one else knows just how to make it." Brunch with the Cullens was effortless. There were so many of them, but there was such a casual acceptance of each person, and so many different dynamics going on that just seemed to flow in perfect sync with each other. Jasper and Rosalie were treated as parts of the family, and to my surprise, I realized that I was welcomed as one as well. The girls worked in the kitchen, cutting fruit, cooking up home fries and a French toast casserole that filled the house with the drool-worthy scent of cinnamon. The meal itself was a symphony of voices, all talking over each other, sometimes broken off into smaller groups, sometimes everyone focused in on the same topic. The highlight of the meal had to be when Carlisle regaled us all with a selection of Scandinavian jokes staring Sven, Ole, and Lena, most of them fairly raunchy in their punch lines. It was a whole new side of the good doctor that I'd never anticipated, and as I cracked up and blushed profusely at a particularly dirty one, I wondered how I'd ever take him seriously at my next appointment. At the end of the meal, I stood and started stacking a few dishes, intending to take them back to the kitchen and help with clean up. "Here, Beautiful, I've got that," Edward said, taking the plates from my hands and kissing my temple. "Go, relax. I'm sure mom would love to take you on a tour." "I can help," I insisted. "Nope. House rules, those who cook don't clean. You're not welcome in the kitchen again until every plate is sparkling." "Sheesh, you people are strict," I giggled and leaned my face up for a quick kiss before leaving him to search out Esme and beg her to show me around. Turns out begging was completely unnecessary. Esme was all too eager to show off her masterpiece with Rosalie and even Alice, who was obviously more than familiar with the layout, joining us as we strolled through the hallways. They highlighted special points of interest along the way, like the doorknob that Edward had broken off one afternoon when he was nine and ended up stuck in his room for three hours before his parents noticed because he'd been so quiet, or the dent in the hallway of the upper floor from the summer Emmett had decided he missed sledding and rode one of Esme's laundry baskets down the staircase, resulting in him crashing straight into the wall, or the window Alice had tried to climb through one night in high school when she broke curfew and ended up slipping and falling backwards to land in Esme's pristine flowerbeds. Once Esme had been assured that her daughter was not hurt, she was angrier about the death of her carefully tended plants than anything else. In the room that had once been Edward's, a small stack of newspaper clippings sat out on the bureau, the top one looking very familiar. It was a clipping that had shown up in the Pioneer Press the morning after St. Patrick's Day featuring a photo of Edward and I at the pub. I could recall the exact moment that was captured. It was right after I'd called Edward my boyfriend and he leaned in to kiss me. My initial reaction had been to be upset at such a personal and intimate moment being splashed all over the news, but the picture was so precious that I couldn't feel bitter about it. Our lips, just barely touching and curled up in matching smiles. When I picked it up to look it over for what must have been the thirtieth time in four days, Esme crossed to stand next to me, fanning through the papers with her thumb. "I really need to get caught up on these. The stack just keeps getting bigger." "What are they all?" "They're clippings of the kids-the boys from hockey mostly; there are a few from bridal magazines that mention Alice." "What do you do with all of them?"

"I have an album, sort of a scrapbook, to keep them all in. I don't leave it out anywhere, it could probably come off as boastful to cut them all out and show them off. But I just have to keep them. I'm so proud of each and every one of them." "So, what about this one? You're proud of your son being featured in the paper for a PDA in a bar?" "There's nothing wrong with showing affection, Bella. But no, I kept that one because I can't remember the last time I saw my son so happy." "He does look happy here, doesn't he?" I asked, stroking my thumb over the image of his face. "Yes, he does. You make him very happy, Sweetheart," she said, kissing my cheek and leaving me alone in the room. I sat on the bed, the same one that Edward had slept in as a child, as I read the blurb underneath the photo. "Out and about celebrating the luck of the Irish in St. Paul was Wild Hockey Center and Captain, Edward Cullen, pictured here looking very affectionate with Olympic Figure Skater Isabella Swan, whose mysterious absence from the competitive scene has been the talk of the skating community for the last several weeks. Swan has apparently relocated to Minnesota and sources say the local hockey stud and dazzling ice princess recently started dating. Attempts to contact Swan's representation for information on the National Champion's future in skating, as well as the nature of the budding relationship, were unsuccessful." Being recognized had been exactly what I'd been afraid of. While I wasn't hounded, I had been stopped a time or two on the streets since it came out. Renee hadn't mentioned anything when I'd spoken with her briefly the day before, and she hadn't called up screaming my ear off, so I could only hope that she hadn't seen the local paper. She would find out about Edward and I sooner or later. It was nothing I was ashamed of, not in any way, shape or form. I just wasn't eager to bring it to her attention. Things were running so smoothly between Edward and I. I didn't want anything to spoil that. "Hey," Edward alerted me to his presence with a knock on the door jamb. "Can I come in?" "It's your room." "It used to be," he said as he sat next to me, scooting back on the bed and propping his knees up so he could pull me back between them to rest against his chest. "Doesn't look quite the same as it did when I was younger. Smells a lot better now, too." "Oh really?" I laughed. "Yeah. Teenage boy and sweaty hockey equipment is never a good mix." "I can imagine." "I like this picture," he commented, resting his chin on my shoulder and holding up my hands that held the newspaper clipping. "You would." "What's not to like? It's a good picture. Me kissing my beautiful girlfriend." "You don't mind having your name splashed around the headlines?" "I'm not a fan of that part of it so much, but it's never been a major issue. I don't go out and get into trouble so the

press doesn't bother with me much." "No skeletons in your closets, huh?" I teased. "Nope. My closets are pathetically spic and span," he said, extracting the clipping from my grasp and laying it on the side table before wrapping his arms around me, content to just sit quietly. "So, how many girls have you kissed on this bed?" I razzed him after a minute. "Zero." "Oh, come on. You never once snuck a girl into your room?" I inquired with disbelief. "Nope, I snuck into theirs," he returned with a wink. "I was too scared of my mom catching me." I shifted around, sitting cross-legged between his knees and walking my fingers up his arms playfully as I looked up at him. "So, does this mean I get to be your first for something?" "Hmm," he hummed, rubbing his hands over my back and dipping his head. "Just promise to be gentle with me," he murmured right before pressing his lips to mine.

~*~
As it got later on in the day, I decided to pull Carlisle aside and check in with him to get it over with. He'd stepped into the kitchen for a moment to fill his coffee mug, and I jumped at the opportunity to get his attention without anyone else around. "Carlisle, may I speak to you for a minute?" I requested quietly from the doorway. "Yah, sure. Would you like to go to my office?" "Um, that's probably not necessary," I fumbled, "It shouldn't take long." "It's no trouble. Less chance of interruptions," he said, gesturing to the other room as a loud burst of laughter rang out. "Yeah, okay." "Right this way," he offered, escorting me up the stairs into the room Esme had pointed out earlier as his home office, shutting the door quietly behind us and gesturing for me to have a seat as he perched on the edge of his desk. "What can I help you with, Bella?" "I know I shouldn't be bothering you with this stuff in your home, I should just make an appointment or call you when you're working," I stammered, reluctant to discuss with him something that I didn't even feel the need to discuss. "Please, Bella, I'm here whenever you need me, as your doctor or a friend. Just know that the doctor-patient confidentiality transcends the walls of the hospital. Anything you speak to me about stays between us. Now, what's on your mind?" "Well, I know you said to come in for my next appointment in April, and I'm still planning on it. I'm doing the physical therapy and Seth's been great. I've been skating almost every day and my knee is feeling good, but I know you said that when it's feeling better is one of the riskiest times to reinjure..." I trailed off, and he was observant enough to take over when I didn't continue.

"That's correct. While your ligament has healed to the point where it's no longer causing you physical discomfort, it still needs time to regain the strength required for the intensity of the pressure your level of activity demands of that joint." "See! Exactly," I exclaimed, unable to keep my seat as the frustration simmered. I crossed the room to stare out the window, overlooking their sprawling backyard, still mostly in hibernation. "That's exactly what I thought, and just what I told her, but will she listen to me? No." "Who are you referring to?" "My mom. She called me and wanted me to move my appointment up. She thinks you'll change your mind and say it's okay to just jump back in right now, or two weeks ago when she originally wanted me to talk to you. I haven't done anything you or Seth said I shouldn't," I assured him turning back around to face him but still staying by the window, "I don't want to risk hurting myself further. She's just so...difficult. She's never really understood the nature of my injury or just how serious it is. In her mind I took a little fall and have just been exaggerating the severity of it for all these months." "Well, I'm glad to hear you haven't listened to her. I assure you that this type of injury can be extremely serious if not dealt with properly, resulting in permanent damage that would affect your everyday life, not to mention end your skating career. I know April is only a couple weeks away and it seems like such a short time that it shouldn't make any difference, but it does. You're still healing, and the more time you're able to keep the strain off it, the stronger it'll become." "So, do you think I'll need to wait even longer? Would it be better to not start training again yet, even after the appointment in three weeks?" "Four months is a perfectly satisfactory recovery period, Bella. You should be fine as long as you're cautious at first and pay attention to how you're feeling. If you notice your knee swelling or giving you trouble, you'll want to make sure you're icing and resting it. And you'll want to keep using the brace for a bit. You probably won't need it past the first few weeks, but when you start jumping again, you should have it on until you feel confident to go without." "Okay. That's good. Nothing different than I was expecting, or from what you initially told me." "Did you have any other questions?" "No. They weren't even really my questions. You wanna call my mom and tell her all that? Maybe she's actually listen to you," I said, only half joking. "Unfortunately, our confidentiality prevents me from sharing any information regarding your health." "Even with my mom?" "Yes, once you're over eighteen, your health is completely your business. You'd need to sign off on a waiver for me to share anything, though-" he paused for a moment, looking unsure of how to progress. "Bella, may I speak freely for a moment?" "Of course," I said, curious as to what he wished to talk about. "Esme has shared with me a little about your mother. Please don't be upset at her for telling me, my wife and I have a very open relationship, we don't like to keep secrets from each other." "No, it's fine." "My family's all quite enamored with you, and though I have had less opportunity to get to know you than the others, I care about you and your well being. I'd have to strongly discourage you from granting your mother any

further access into your affairs, in regards to your health and otherwise. It just seems like an invitation for trouble." "You're not mistaken," I sighed. "That's something I'm working on. It's complicated." "If you need any assistance; advice, recommendations? I hope you know you can come to us." "Thank you, Carlisle." "You betcha. Shall we go see if Emmett left any of those cookies untouched?" "I wouldn't count on it," I giggled. "You go on ahead; I'm just going to stop in the restroom quick if that's okay." He walked back down the stairs and I slipped into the bathroom, sitting on the closed lid of the toilet while I pulled out my phone and typed out a quick message. April 7th and not a day sooner. Doctor's orders. Just drop it.

~*~
The remaining days of March began to fly past, and not just for me. With the busy wedding season at it's beginning stages and the approach of her own wedding to Jasper creeping steadily closer, Alice was in and out more often than normal. She seemed to be an amazingly calm bride from, I could only imagine, her occupation and how many other weddings she'd had to deal with for other people. She and Jasper had decided on a June date where they would be wed at the family lake cabin in Northern Minnesota. She'd said it would be a small, relatively private affair, which may have surprised me if I hadn't gotten to know her so well. While Alice looked stylish and enjoyed her time as a social butterfly, I'd learned that at the core, she was a woman who cherished her family above all. I had no doubt that she'd still turn it into an elegant affair, completely suited to both her and Jasper. Her latest 'wedding chore' was to assemble and address her invitations. She'd already drafted Rose and me for a girls night slash invitation assembly line for when they would arrive in early April. The guys were equally busy as the regular season was coming to a close and the race for a spot in the playoffs kicked into high gear. Their standings left them a good chance to make it, but they weren't guaranteed a slot. Their practice times were expanded and when they weren't at the arena or on the road, they were all fairly exhausted and usually just wanted to crash and hang out around one of our apartments. For my part, I remained focused on my goal to be ready for April and my appointment with Carlisle. I didn't want to get my hopes up entirely, but if he gave the okay, I would be ready to jump back in. I was getting antsy to train again. The World Figure Skating Championships were just gearing up to take place in Los Angeles over the upcoming weekend and unlike the depression I'd felt over Nationals, this time I was filled with a restless longing to be there, to be finalizing my routines and anxiously awaiting my section assignment. Worlds would essentially set the number of slots appointed to each country for Vancouver. Prep for the Olympics was already getting underway and I was eager to get back in on the action. Edward and I tried to spend any spare time together that we could manage, either alone or with our friends. One afternoon he talked me into playing hooky and catching a matinee at the movie theater where we kicked our feet up on the empty seats in front of us, propped up the movable armrest and snuggled, our fingers caressing in the shared tub of popcorn and drinking from the same straw in the massive cup of soda. Our physical relationship remained steady with innocent kisses and lingering embraces. There were times I longed for more than that, for him not to break away any time he felt a kiss getting just a little too deep, for him to loosen the tight control he seemed to have on himself that wouldn't allow his hands to wander. I didn't know how to communicate that to him, so for the time being, I enjoyed the point we were at, allowing myself to get steadily more comfortable and confident in what we had together. When we couldn't see each other, we still talked on the phone or texted. He knew my appointment was coming up, but I didn't share exactly when it was to take place, not wanting to distract him when his own career was so busy.

I went to every home game I could manage, cheering wildly from the stands. I was stopped a time or two by fans in the crowd who recognized me, knowing from the article that I'd be there to support Edward. Alice and Rose giggled every time I was approached, telling me it was odd for them to see me as Isabella Swan, Ice Princess, rather than just Bella, their buddy. Knowing that my location was now public knowledge should have prepared me a little for the phone call I received one Thursday afternoon, and what led to it. As it was, when I picked up my phone I almost dropped it right back down again in shock, managing to press the talk button and lift the phone to my ear. "Dad?" I asked, confused and curious as to why he'd be calling. He so rarely called me, especially out of the blue. He'd always make a point to contact me for my birthday and around the holidays, and we'd e-mail occasionally to keep each other appraised of any significant events going on in each other's lives, but I hadn't heard from him since I'd arrived in Minnesota. I heard his throat clear through the line, slightly muffled as he must have held the phone away from his mouth before he spoke. "Hey, Bells, er Bella. How's it going, kid?" "Good, great, umokay, I guess," I stammered, always feeling slightly awkward with our conversations, the discomfort not aided by the fact that he always seemed to be just as uncomfortable. "How are you?" "Oh fine, nothing much to report." "Nothing exciting happening in Forks?" "Not too much. Harry Clearwater hooked himself a big trout a few weeks back, and Billy Black's been over a lot lately to visit the flat screen with hockey season in full throttle." "Oh, yeah, that's right. Billy's son plays, doesn't he?" I asked, vaguely recalling him mentioning it a time or two in the past. "Yup, Jake's in Chicago with the Blackhawks." "Huh. I forgot about that," I mumbled, faintly curious about whether or not Edward or the guys knew him. I'd never met Jake, but I knew Charlie and his dad were good buddies. "That's err- actually what led me to call," he stammered, and I wondered if he still had his mustache and if he still twitched it when he was uncomfortable like he used to when I was a kid. "What? Jake? I don't even know him," I said, feeling a bit baffled. "No, no, not Jake. Uh, the hockey games. We were watching the Capitals play Minnesota last night and I saw you there in the stands." "Huh?" I asked dumbly. "On TV, Bells. They showed you in the stands during the game on ESPN, mentioned something about you and one of the players." "Oh," I said quietly, unsure how to respond any further. Was he checking up on me? Was he upset that I was dating a hockey player? Why would he even care? I mean, I know he was my father, but he'd taken so little interest in my life that it just didn't register with me what the purpose of this call could have been. "I just- I don't- Look, Bella, you've got your own life and I don't want to meddle with that. I just wanted to say you looked good. Happy. It was good to see you like that."

"Um, thanks, Dad," I murmured. "Yeah, well, it's not my place, like I said. I just, I hadn't heard about you dating any other boys in the past. I just hope he's treating you well." "He is, Dad. Edward's great. He's a good guy." "Good, that's good. Okay, well, I just wanted to check in, say 'hey.' How's your mother doing?" "I don't know, Dad. She and I aren't on the best terms right now." "You okay, ba- Bella? I know she can be a difficult woman." "Yeah, I'm starting to see just how difficult," I said on a long sigh. "Anything I can help with?" "I don't know, Dad. I don't know how much you know about my skating, what's going on right now. It's just all so complicated," I muttered, flopping back on my pillows. "What seems to be the trouble, kid?" "Maybe nothing. Mom's just hounding me a lot lately. I've been trying to break out on my own more since I've moved away from her, but she's still in charge of so much with my career, my finances, I'm just not sure how to change that, get her to give up some of her control on my life." "Your finances?" he asked, a tinge of surprise in his tone. "Does your mother still handle your accounts, Bells?" "Yeah, she always has. Why? Dad?" I prodded when he didn't answer. "Yeah, sorry, I'm here," he grunted after a moment. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be bugging you with all this. It's not your problem," I muttered, embarrassed that I'd opened myself up to him so much. Being around the Cullens had really started to mess with my ability to just keep things to myself and shut the hell up. "Bella-" he started. "No, really. It's fine. I'm handling it. Like you said, you don't want to meddle, and I don't want to drag you into my issues. I'm glad you called, Dad. It was good to hear from you," I said, effectively winding down the phone call. "Yeah, right. Well, I hope things work out then. You take care of yourself, Bells." "Yeah, you too." "Always do," he muttered and there was an awkward pause before I disconnected. I lay there staring at my ceiling, a frown creasing my forehead. What was that all about? From both of us. So often our calls were similar to those of casual acquaintances. We never really delved into each other's lives past the pleasantries. I never really knew what to say to him, and I never really thought he cared that much about what was going on in my life. He'd never taken an interest in my skating, and for so long that's all I felt I had to talk about. When I was a kid, he'd rarely come to the rink, his work schedule at the time had made if difficult for him to ever come to my practices and he'd only come to a couple of my performances. My mom had always been there, so maybe he thought I hadn't needed him there too. I'm sure figure skating and sequins weren't really his scene, it shouldn't bother me so much that he couldn't seem to just suck it up and find an interest in it for me.

But he hadn't, and I was doing just fine on my own. Sure, things with Renee were complicated, but I'd figure it out. I didn't need Charlie to fix it for me. Maybe I'd wished for my daddy to swoop in and save the day when I was a little girl, but that just wasn't how things were with me and Charlie. Not everyone was a Daddy's Girl.

~*~
The following Tuesday, I sat in the waiting room of St. Joseph's, alone this time around as I anxiously awaited my name to be called. I hadn't told anyone about my appointment that day. Edward had a long afternoon practice, Rose was working, and Alice had a number of client meetings and errands to run. I didn't want to bother them, but even more than that, I didn't want to jinx anything. I already felt like I was starting to put all my eggs in the basket that would result in today being the day I'd get my green light. My skate bag was in the trunk of my car and I'd already called the rink to lengthen my afternoon ice time for the day, just in case. I didn't know what I'd do if Carlisle told me I wasn't ready yet. I had to be ready. The nurse called my name, walked me through the preliminary steps and left me waiting for Carlisle, who didn't keep me waiting long. "Big day, Bella," he said when he walked in the door, patting me affectionately on the back before he flipped open the chart. "I hope so." "Well, let's take a look and we'll find out," he said, launching into his examination. Fifteen minutes later, I had my answer. He didn't even need to say the words, the encouraging smile on his face told me everything I needed to know. "So?" I asked, trying not to get ahead of myself. "Bella, I want you to remember what we talked about. Don't push it too much, listen to what your body's telling you, and wear the brace to start, but in my professional opinion, you're good to go." "Really?" "Really. You'll save me and Esme a seat in Vancouver, won't you?" he requested with a grin. I couldn't hold back the squeal of excitement any longer as I leapt up and gave him a huge hug, pulling back after a moment, embarrassed at my forwardness. "Sorry! I'm sorry, I'm just so relieved. Thank you so much, Carlisle." "Hey, I didn't do anything. You take the credit for this one." "So, can I really jump again? Today?" "Yes, but-" he held up a finger, "I have to qualify that. You cannot push yourself too much. You can jump. Start off with singles and ones that are a little lower on the difficulty scale at first. You're not going to be landing perfect triples right up front. If I can make the request, I'd like for you to either call or text me afterwards, just to let me know how your knee is feeling." "Okay, I promise," I said, ready to bolt out the door, practically vibrating in excitement. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go find some ice, Bella."

I didn't need to be told twice. I grinned at him, saying a quick goodbye before I made a hasty exit, heading straight to the rink. Within fifteen minutes I was standing at the entrance to the ice, an impressive feat due to the fact that it would typically take close to twenty minutes to make the drive from the downtown hospital to the arena. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins, spurring me on. All I wanted to do was take one quick spin around the ice and launch right into a perfect triple axel. At the moment I felt like I could actually pull it off based on pure adrenaline alone. And wasn't that just asking for trouble? I made myself take a step back, lifting my leg to rest my heel on the boards in a long stretch, consciously controlling my breathing in an effort to just calm down and not rush into anything that could result in me landing right back in Carlisle's exam room. When I felt limber enough, I slipped off my guards , dropping them just outside the boards, and glided out onto the empty ice. I considered putting on some music, but opted against it. I didn't need anything more pumping me up right now or I'd be bouncing straight through the metal ceiling. I wondered if Alice felt like this all the time, she always seemed to have more energy than could be realistically contained within such a small person. Okay, Bella. Start slowly. Let's not get too ahead of yourself. I made myself work through my warm-up laps, letting the long, steady strides soothe me further. It worked. Sorta. Until I came to the end of my obligatory fifteen laps. Then I was right back to being a ball of pure nerves and energy. Maybe I should wait for Marcus. No, that's stupid. You've been jumping for how many years? If you can't manage to pull off one teensy little single toe-loop on your own, you may as well just quit now. I really hated when my inner voice was right. Let's go, Swan. No time like the present. I pushed off, steadily building my speed as I curved around the ice. I felt myself steadily approaching a speed that could launch me into a solid double if I so chose. Not so fast, Swan. Baby steps. Lightly kicking my foot out in front of me in preparation, I took a deep breath...and panicked. Just as I was about to dig my toe pick in, a series of images flashed through my head, all involving pain and disaster. "Shit," I muttered as I pulled my leg back, returning to a slow drifting pace. Was there such a thing as PTSD when it came to figure skating injuries? I'd fallen a million times before. Every skater fell. There's a reason that falling properly was the first thing any good instructor taught you. And sure, it still hurt sometimes, but the reward of that feeling of elation the one time you didn't fall was worth every botched attempt. With that in mind, I took off around the ice once more, the scraping sound seeming to whisper in my ear "Come on, Bella. Come on, Bella." Sort of like the little engine that could. Maybe that would help. As I crossed my feet over I chanted softly, "I think I can. I think I can." I hesitantly stuck my foot out once more, bracing myself as I dug in my pick, disconnected with the ice for one split second, and fell.

"Oof," I groaned as the air left me and I allowed myself to just flop back on the flat surface for a moment, the ice soothing against the spot where I'd landed heavily on my hip. "That's gonna leave a mark." You see, Bella. That's why you don't hesitate. You hesitate, you fall. As I laid there steeling myself for another attempt, I oddly recalled a scene from an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie I'd watched as a kid. Ginger was trying to teach Fred to dance, with him comically falling all over himself, and her. How did that song go again? Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Start all over again. So, that's what I did. Again and again. And again. Falling every time, always for different reasons. Not enough speed, too much rotation, not enough rotation. The pain in my hip was throbbing, now in competition with what would likely be a colorful bruise on my shoulder. It did nothing to deter me, it merely egged me on, determined to just land once. Then, on what must have been my twenty-fifth attempt, I felt it. Gritting my teeth, I jutted out my foot in front of me. This had to be the one. Perfect speed, perfect timing, there was no way I was not landing it. As I took off into the air, time seemed to slow for just one moment, all my focus narrowed in, visualizing a seamless return to the ice, and one second later it was a reality. I glided out of the landing, my back leg suspended behind me, arms extended for balance as I lowered to come to a stop, and burst out laughing triumphantly. Finally. I didn't stop there, the remainder of my afternoon at the ice filled with attempts at various jumps, but never testing beyond a single rotation. That would come in time. Some came easily, while others had me eating a lot more ice and adding to the collage of bruises forming just under my skin. After three hours I was tired, I was sweaty, I could barely move. And I felt fantastic. Edward, knowing the time I always wrapped up for the day, called just as I was wiping down my blades. After a quick chat, he'd asked me over to his place for dinner that night. I'd never been to his house before and I was excited to get that insight on him. Would it be modern or vintage, like his childhood home had been? Would it be clean or would he have stacks of randomness on every open surface? Would it be the typical 'bachelor pad' or something completely different? I wasn't sure what to expect, but I had fun guessing while I drove home and rinsed off, giving myself a few extra minutes under the hot water to ease the aches. I could already see purple. Dressed casually in jeans, a tank top, and one of the button-ups that Alice had talked me into that first day at Target, I swiped on a quick layer of mascara and lip-gloss on the way out the door, remembering at the last second that I'd promised Carlisle an update. "Bella, how'd it go?" he answered after two rings. "Good. Well, okay. I survived and my knee is still in tact, so that's something right?" I chuckled with self-deprecation. "It'll get easier, Bella," he affirmed, "You're going to have to be patient." "I know you're right. It's just hard to accept that I can barely land a single when I know I'm capable of more." "You're still capable; you just need to retrain your knee to support you. You'll get there."

"Yeah. I'm a little worse for wear, but my knee's not hurting." "I'm glad to hear that. Listen, Bella, I want to give you a heads up," he said, his voice full of reassurance. "What is it?" "Your mother called here this afternoon, trying to get some information about your appointment. We didn't tell her anything, I told you about our confidentiality agreement, but I just thought you should know." "Thanks, Carlisle. It's not really a surprise. I haven't been as open with her lately so it makes sense that she'd seek out the information elsewhere." "Well, you tell her when you choose, it's completely up to you." "Kay. Thank you again." "Have a good evening, Bella." "Yeah, you too. Tell Esme I said 'hello,' will you?" "Of course, she'll be pleased to hear it." Less than a minute after ending the call, I rolled my eyes and lifted the phone back to my ear after hitting the speed dial for Renee, holding the phone between my ear and shoulder as I locked up behind me. She wouldn't back off until I gave her something. I was surprised when her voicemail kicked in. It was so rare that she didn't answer my calls. Maybe she'd gone out for the night. I shrugged, leaving a brief message saying that I called and would talk to her later before turning my phone to silent. I didn't need her interrupting my evening with Edward. I eased into my car with some delicacy, already feeling the bruises emerging all over my body from the number of falls I'd taken that afternoon. It was not going to be a pretty sight. Following Edward's directions, it took me less than ten minutes to pull up in front of the address he'd given me. When I parked and stood at the top of the walkway, I had to smile. It looked like him. It wasn't pretentious or overbearing, but managed to be elegant and beautiful while still appearing warm and comfortable. It was a craftsman style bungalow in gray and white with a low-slung gabled roof and a wide front porch with tapered columns of stone bases and white wood. It was completely charming. Especially when the front door opened and Edward stepped out on the front porch, leaning on the railing as he waited for me to make my way up the sidewalk, giving me a light kiss in greeting before pulling me inside. He took my coat, hanging it in the front closet while I slipped out of my shoes, glancing around the front entryway. "So?" he said, rocking back on his heels a bit, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his jeans. "So?" I returned, not sure what he was searching for. "What do you think?" I chuckled a little. "I don't know, so far I've seen the coat closet. It's very organized." He laughed in return, his shoulders relaxing as he removed his hands from his pockets, reaching for mine. "Yeah, I guess I should let you see the place before I ask you to form an opinion. And I get to take you on the tour this time, let's go!" he urged, eagerly tugging me further into his house, our socked feet padding across the light hardwood

floors. The more I saw of it, the move I loved his home. Every part of it fit him and he seemed completely comfortable in his surroundings. The dark wood beams across the ceiling, the built-in bookcases stuffed to the brim with books and framed photographs, the stone fireplace with wooden logs in place and ready to burn, the elegant piano in the sitting room, closed off by beautiful French doors, the newly remodeled kitchen with stainless steel appliances and dark wood cabinets. As much as I loved my apartment, it was nothing compared to this. "I can officially say now," I said as we ended the tour in the kitchen, "that I'm in love with your house. Wanna trade?" He laughed, wrapping his arms around me. "That depends, Swan. What are you willing to offer?" "Maybe I'll just have to come over more often." He hummed, rubbing his nose against mine. "Mm, I like the sound of that. You're always welcome." "You probably don't want to extend such an open invitation. I might have my mail forwarded to the window seat in your living room." "You won't hear any arguments from me," he said, pressing his lips to mine. "You know, you already have one of those in your apartment." "I know. I love mine. I don't think I could ever live somewhere that doesn't have one." "So what, you're a window seat addict?" "You could say that. It's just the perfect spot to curl up and get lost in a book or dream the day away." "Well, you're more than welcome to dream in my window seat." The oven timer beeped, and he backed away from me to grab an oven mitt. "You cooked?" I asked in genuine surprise. "Uh, no. I don't cook. I wish I could take credit for this...but mom spoils me with frozen meals every once in awhile. This one's all her," he said as he pulled a pan of lasagna out of the oven, the smell of garlic and cheese and tomato sauce wafting through the kitchen. "I did unwrap the garlic bread and put it on the right pan, though." "Wow, you're a real Mario Batali," I mocked, leaning against the island as he pulled plates and glasses from one of the cabinets. "Can I help?" "I think we're all set. Best part about lasagna is it's low maintenance," he said as he cut into the pasta with a spatula, scooping portions out onto the stoneware plates. "That enough for you?" "Yeah, looks great," I said. He tossed a couple pieces of garlic bread onto the plates before handing one to me. "Wine's already on the coffee table," he told me as he swiped a couple cloth napkins from the counter as well as two forks. "I figured we'd eat in the living room. I don't use my kitchen table very much." "Works for me." We settled into the plush cushions of his suede couch, heartily digging into the delicious pasta. "How long have you lived here?"

"A couple years now. I used to have an apartment near where you're at now, but I missed living in a house. I like having a space of my own, no one else around." "Yeah, I know what you mean. Apartment living isn't always the greatest. This place is beautiful. Not at all like a bachelor pad." "Well, I'll admit to having a fairly extensive game room in the basement. I try not to let the neon signs and sports memorabilia spill over into the rest of the house." "Did Esme decorate for you?" "She helped. I can take credit for a lot of it though. I'm not completely without taste." "Well, it's impressive either way," I said, tossing down my fork with a clang and setting my plate on the coffee table. "You done?" he asked, reaching for my plate to take it back to the kitchen. "Yeah, ugh. I couldn't eat another bite. Your mom's such a good cook." We settled into the couch together when he returned, the fullness of my stomach making me drowsy as we curled up against each other and talked lazily. I almost caught myself dozing off when he shifted a little, bumping against a particularly tender spot on my shoulder in the process. I couldn't hold back on the sharp gasp at the twinge of pain. "What's wrong? Are you okay?" he asked in concern at the look of discomfort on my face. "Yeah, fine," I brushed it off, not wanting to make a big deal of it. "What is it?" he asked "Nothing, Edward. Just a bruise. Don't worry about it." "It's gotta be pretty bad if you're making that face. Can I take a look?" "Edward-" I protested. "Please?" he pleaded, melting my resistance with the look in his eyes. "Fine. You won't shut up until I let you anyways." "Glad we understand each other," he smirked as I unbuttoned my over shirt so he could nudge the fabric aside and see my shoulder. "Jesus, Bella," he winced, as the deep purple skin of my shoulder was revealed. "What the hell did you do? Take a dive bomb into the ice?" "Uh, sort of." "You shouldn't be doing anything that would lead to something like this. What were you doing?" "Jumps." "Bella-" he began to voice his objection but I shook my head, interrupting. "Your dad said it was fine. I had an appointment with him this morning."

"You had your appointment? What did he say? Why didn't you tell me?" he fired off, one right after the other. "Yes, I met with him. He said I could start back to my regular training again." "Bella, that's great!" he exclaimed, pulling me into a hug and making an effort to avoid the bruise on my shoulder. "So, I take it you got started right away." "Well, yeah. No time to waste and all that jazz. It wasn't a pretty sight, but I managed to land a few singles without falling. Though I fell a lot before I got to that point. Thus the bruises." "You have more of these?" "Probably. One for sure on my hip that I can feel." He studied me for a moment before standing, reaching for my hand. "Come with me," he requested. "Where are we going?" I asked as he led me toward the staircase. "Upstairs. I have something that'll help." "What's upstairs?" "My room." "Trying to get me into your bed, Cullen?" I asked with my brow raised as I followed him up the stairs. "Not for the purpose you're thinking of," he said, glancing back at me over his shoulder. "I'd like to wait until you're not wincing in pain every time I touch you for that to happen. Stay here for a sec." He left me standing by the top of the stairs as he stepped into a small room, probably a bathroom, just off the main space. The entire top floor was his bedroom; the ceiling sloped on the sides with a peak down the center, windows dotting the front and back walls and a skylight angled over the queen sized dark wood sleigh bed. The walls were painted a light, mossy green, chocolate brown curtains and throw pillows accenting the space, and an ivory comforter covering the bed. "Do you have a tank top on under that?" Edward asked as he came back into the room, a small plastic jar in his hand. "Yeah, why?" "Take your shirt off." "What?" I exclaimed, caught off guard at his demand. "The over shirt, Bella," he rolled his eyes. "Keep the tank top on and lay down." "You're awfully bossy in your bedroom," I muttered, unbuttoning my shirt the rest of the way and draping it over the foot of his bed. "That's something we can explore further some other day. On your stomach, Swan." I did as he said, sprawling out across the width of the mattress, my head resting on my folded arms. "Well, now that you've got me here, what do you plan to do with me?"

"This," he said, holding the jar in front of my face as he climbed up on the bed, crawling on his knees as he moved next to me. "Mineral Ice? Edward, this really isn't necessary. I have some of my own at home, I can do this later." "Or we can do it right now and you'll already be feeling better later." I grumbled a bit, but didn't argue as he twisted open the lid, setting it down on the mattress as he climbed over me, one knee placed on either side of my back. He scooped out a glob of the blue gel, rubbing it between his hands before stroking the skin of my shoulder, rubbing in the therapeutic ointment. I moaned a little as the soothing warmth kicked in after the initial chill, aided by the comforting touch of his massaging hands. The scent of menthol warring against the fragrance that was exclusively Edward that permeated the blanket beneath me. "Okay?" "Good. Really good," I groaned, feeling the aches of my body fading as he continued to work his way over my shoulders, paying special attention to the area that was most colorful, working out knots of tension in my back that I hadn't even known were there. My skin was pliable under his firm fingers, my muscles practically liquefying as he lathered them with attention. Once he'd finished my arms and shoulders, he scooted down a bit until he was perched closer to my knees. I felt him edging up the hem of my shirt as he asked again, "Is this okay?" "Yeah," I said, the sound coming out as barely more than a croak as he folded the fabric up, working his hands over the skin of my lower back, rubbing in small circles along the waist of my jeans. My breath became shallow as desire coursed through me. I wanted his hands on me and not for the purpose of healing. I wanted to feel the weight of his body pressing me into his mattress, not to know he was poised on top of me, but so carefully avoiding contact. Not for sex, I knew I wasn't ready for that, but to feel more of that passion that I knew he held back on. He was still rubbing against my back, though he'd stopped applying more gel. I hesitated a bit, not wanting to mess up his bed by smearing it with medical ointment, but then I heard him groan ever so quietly as his thumbs stroked across the two shallow dimples in the small of my back, and I prayed he wouldn't mind. I rolled over easily between his legs, his hands retreating as access to my back was blocked. I stared up at him for a moment, steeling myself and dazzled by the darkening forest green of his eyes as he stared right back down at me intensely. I propped myself up on one arm, reaching my other hand up to curl around his neck and ensuring that he couldn't withdraw any further. I firmly urged his head down, raising myself up just a little more to meet him when he refused to cooperate completely. He didn't hesitate when my lips met his, but he didn't give in either, still obviously holding himself in check as I brushed tender caresses of my mouth over his. I knew he had me, so I lifted the hand that had been propping my body up to grasp the back of his shoulder, attempting to tug him down on top of me and slightly succeeding. He lowered me back until I was lying flat, but still hovered above me, dipping his head down to kiss me. It wasn't enough. I tugged insistently against him, raising one of my legs up in an attempt to lower his body as I distracted him by tracing the tip of my tongue over his mouth. "Bella," he gasped, jerking his head back, "We can't-" "We're not. We won't," I whispered assurances as I placed open mouthed kisses against the length of his neck. "Just kiss me. Please?" He broke. His hand dove into the mass of my hair and he let out a low groan as he hungrily possessed my mouth, his tongue sweeping against my lower lip before slipping inside to probe against mine, finally lowering himself on

top of me, our bodies in alignment. The room was filled with sighs and quiet moans, the sound of rustling fabric as we moved against each other. I delighted in the weight of his body against mine, the hard, muscular planes feeling so much better than I'd ever imagined. It was a completely new experience, so different even than all the times he'd held me close in a hug or snuggled me on the couch. I barely had time to register exactly what that difference was before it was gone. He twisted his body off mine, not breaking our kiss and rolling me with him until we both laid on our sides. I let out a moan of protest and he eased back for a moment, his breath panting as he whispered, "I can't, Bella. I just- Not yet. I can't." "What's wrong?" I asked, my chest heaving as I caught my breath. "I only have so much self-control. I don't think either of us are ready for that yet." "So, we can't-" "No, no, no, we can do this," he rushed out, "It's just, if I have to pull back, you need to let me, okay?" "Yeah, okay," I agreed, my gaze flicking back and forth between his eyes and his lips, wishing he would just stop talking. He granted my unspoken request, stroking my hair back behind my ear and leaning in again. I pressed forward, resuming the passionate dance of our tongues threading my arms through his to curl over his back, my fingers kneading against the tense muscles as I lost myself in him and felt him loosen himself once more. We lay there for what could have been minutes or hours, only parting for moments to breathe before coming together again. This time I was the one who reeled us in, gradually shortening the amount of time our lips met until they were no more than soft, brief pecks, placing a final kiss upon the tip of his nose before rubbing mine against his and smiling as he looked into my eyes. He sighed, his hand easing its hold on my hair to brush lightly down the length of it. I hummed in contentment, enjoying the view of his face resting on the mattress right in front of mine. "Bella?" he whispered in the silence of the room. "Hmm?" "Why didn't you tell me? About your appointment?" he clarified at my raised eyebrow. "I know it was important to you, that you were nervous about it." I shrugged the shoulder not pressed into the mattress and bit my lip. "I don't know. You've been so busy, with playoffs coming up and everything. I didn't want to bother you. You had enough on your mind." "Bella," he rolled over me, pinning me against the bed and blocking out everything from my view but him. "I'm never too busy for you. Got it? I always want to hear about things that are important to you, or even if they're not important. If it matters to you, it matters to me, okay?" "Kay," I whispered, releasing my lip just before his met mine in a lingering kiss of reassurance.

~*~
The following evening, the guys had a game in Detroit and the girls and I were settled into Alice and Rose's apartment for Girls' Night slash Invitation Assembly. Alice was kind enough to allow us to have alcohol near her pristinely stacked elements, though her "clear liquids only" rule left us with concoctions of Sprite and Vodka. I don't know why she had that rule. If something spilled they were going to get ruined anyway, clear liquid or not.

The game was on in the background as I stuffed, Rose sealed, and Alice stamped, precisely lining up the postage and address label perfectly on every envelope. I had to admit, they invitations were pretty. Simple white cards with a soft green ink embedded into the paper, a leafy design framing the scripted words. I was amazed to hear that Alice had hedged over whether or not to give me my own invitation, considering attaching my name to the one set aside for Edward. In the end, she'd given me my own, just in case I might like to have a copy, though she was not quiet about the fact that she fully expected us to attend together. The fact that she was looking ahead and picturing us together made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I hadn't thought much about my future here, but now that it was brought to my attention, I knew that I still wanted to be here, with these people, with Edward, and celebrating two of my dear friends. "So, Bella," Alice began, clearly leading into something. "What?" I asked, giving her a bit of a skeptical look as I stuffed the next envelope. "I know it's somewhat short notice, but I was wondering if you might consider standing up with Rose at the wedding." "What?" I sputtered with a mixture of confusion and surprise, "Like as a bridesmaid or something?" "Yeah. It would just be the two of you. You wouldn't need to wear matching dresses or anything, but you'd have flowers, be in some pictures, hold my back-up tissues for when I completely lose it when Jasper says his vows." "Alice, do you really think that's a good idea?" "Bella, don't be ridiculous. You and Rose are my best friends; of course I'd want you there with me." "Yeah, but I mean you haven't known me for very long, do you really want me in your wedding?" "It doesn't matter how long we've known each other, Bella. We're like female soul mates. When it's right, you just know." "Really? You really want me to be one of your bridesmaids?" I asked with a shy smile as I let myself see past all the logical reasons why she shouldn't ask me and accept the possibility that Alice could quite possibly be a life-long friend. "Is that a 'yes'?" she squealed, launching across the table to hug me, only holding on for a moment before she flinched back. "Oh, shit, did any of them get crushed?" "No, Alice," Rose reassured her with a roll of her eyes. "They're all in perfect condition." She turned toward me with an exaggerated whisper that Alice could still hear. "Thank God you said 'yes.' Now she has someone else to pester with all this crap." "Hey!" Alice shouted indignantly, swatting at Rose with a book of stamps as I giggled. "I'm not that bad." Once the invitations were finished, lined neatly in alphabetical order in one of Alice's many "wedding supplies" boxes, we sprawled out in front of the TV to watch the rest of the game. The final score came in with the Wild winning 4-2. If they won their next home game on Saturday against Edmonton, they'd clinch their spot in the playoffs. I lingered on their couch for a bit, knowing it would take Edward a few minutes to wrap things up and have the chance to call me and that I wouldn't go to bed until I'd talked to him. Alice was talking about going to look for dresses for her wedding when she stopped herself. "Bella, is someone knocking on your door?" she asked, straining her head a bit to listen. We were all quiet for a moment when I heard the sound she'd been referring to. "It can't be for my place. Who would it be?"

The knocking came again, louder this time, and unquestionably from across the hallway. I furrowed my brow and headed to their door, glancing out their peep hole and gasping before I threw open the door. "Mom? What are you doing here?"

~*~

Chapter Ten For One Second I Felt Whole


"Mom? What are you doing here?" I gasped at the sight of her standing before me. Part of me wondered if I'd had more to drink that night than I'd realized and the vision in front of me was an illusion. Or a nightmare. If Renee was here in reality it couldn't be a good thing. I highly doubted she came for a nice, friendly visit to her only daughter. I closed my eyes once, wishing that I'd open them again to see an empty hallway in front of me. But when I opened them again she was still there, the slender five-foot-seven brunette who looked so much like me, yet so very different. My mother was an attractive woman, but there was no friendliness to her face, no lines that showed evidence that she ever laughed or smiled. Her skin was darker than mine, her hair much shorter and kept in a stylish bob. She was perfectly put together, as always, from the matching pumps and designer purse to the French tipped manicure on her pristine fingernails. "You look surprised to see me, Isabella. I can't imagine why." "You never said anything about coming here, so yes, I'm surprised," I muttered, stepping out into the hallway and clicking the door shut behind me. I could imagine Rose and Alice trying to listen in on the other side of the door, but I didn't need to make it easy for them to eavesdrop. Not on this conversation. "I wasn't getting any answers," she said in a bored voice. "What are you talking about?" I asked, trying to keep my voice low. "I told you everything you needed to know." "Everything, Isabella?" she leveled me with a skeptical lift of her brow, the same look that she'd passed along to me that Emmett had so lovingly nicknamed the 'bitchbrow.' Renee's was far more effective in my opinion and I felt myself shrinking under its presence, shrugging uncomfortably in response. "How was your doctor's appointment yesterday?" she asked knowingly. "I would have told you last night if you'd answered your phone." "Don't play games with me, Isabella. I'm fully aware when your appointment was. How long does it take to hit a button on your phone?" "I went straight to the rink after my appointment and called you when I was done," I insisted, though in truth it hadn't been immediately after I finished and it's very possible I wouldn't have called her at all had Carlisle not mentioned that she was poking around. "Regardless. My presence here is obviously necessary. You've been quite uncooperative at a distance and while that may have been okay while you were recuperating," she said with a roll of her eyes, "it's not going to fly now

that you're better. You refuse to return to Florida, so here I am." "So, what, you're moving here?" "That's yet to be determined." "Where are you staying? Not with me," I inquired, the idea horrifying me more than I could say. "I should say not. You think I'm going to bunk on your couch for the foreseeable future? Not likely. I've a room at the Saint Paul Hotel." "I see," I whispered. It was just like her to bed down at the most expensive place she could find. "What exactly are your plans while you're here?" "What a silly question," she scoffed, "The same things I've always done. Nothing has changed, Isabella. You wanted to run away on your little adventure and I let you have your way for a time. Now it's time to get back to work. This little interlude is over." "This 'interlude' is my life now, Mom." "Really? What exactly is your life here? You lie about all day, play with your little friends, your little boyfriend." I gasped softly at that, like the wind had just been knocked out of me. She smirked without a trace of humor. "Oh yes, I know all about you and that hockey player. I'd have expected more from you than to go slumming with some ruffian at the first chance you got. Then of course you never did have very good taste." "He's not a ruffian. You don't know anything about what kind of person he is. Say what you want about me, but leave him out of this," I said with far more passion than I'd ever thrown at her over any words of insult toward me, my fists clenching so tightly that my knuckles were white. Edward was different. He was good and unspoiled by my mother's tarnish. He didn't deserve that. "Bells? Is everything okay?" I heard the door behind me open and Rose call out softly from behind. "Yeah. Fine," I muttered quietly, turning toward her without making eye contact. "I'll see you guys later, okay?" "Are you sure?" Alice prodded and I looked up to catch her throwing Renee a speculative glare. "Of course. I'm good," I insisted, though I was anything but. I couldn't bring them into this, nor would I ever want to. It was better that Renee was contained as much as possible. I didn't want her touching any part of the life I'd made here, afraid that it would all shatter under her icy touch. "Okay. We're right here if you need anything," Rose said, her tone an obvious attempt to reassure me that the offer was more than just a casual pleasantry. I nodded and pulled my keys out of the pocket of my sweatshirt, unlocking the door and leaving it open for Renee to follow. I didn't know how long she planned to stay but I knew I didn't want to keep talking in the hall of my building. "I don't know why you wanted to live in an apartment. Such nosy neighbors," Renee muttered as she stepped in and shut the door behind her. "They're not nosy, Mom, they're my friends." "How can you let them call you that awful nickname? Your father used to call you that," she said with derision. "He still does." "That's right. Your father mentioned speaking to you recently. Aren't you a little old to be crying to daddy,

Isabella?" she said, craning her neck around as she tried to take in the surroundings. "What are you talking about? You talked to Dad? Why?" "Did you think whining to your father was going to do any good? When has he ever taken an interest in your career? What was the purpose of bringing him into this?" she asked as she roamed further into the room, her heels clacking on the floor as she walked the perimeter, stopping to lift objects off the shelves along the way to inspect them. "I barely said anything to him," I exclaimed, feeling even more foolish now for having opened myself up to him. "He asked how I was doing and I mentioned that things were a little frustrating at the moment." "That's not all you discussed, if I'm not mistaken," she tsked her tongue at me with an air of condescension. "Really, Isabella, you're very nave if you think he'd care about your petty little problems. The man's halfway across the country. Half your life it's been like that, and even before then it wouldn't have done you any good." "I know," I whispered in a defeated tone and repeated, "I didn't say anything to him." "Well, in any case it's all a matter of 'he said, she said.' Oh good gracious," she complained as she stopped just in front of the couch, "it's a good thing I got the hotel room, this place is positively cramped." "You chose it, remember?" I said, reaching my fingers up to rub at the bridge of my nose where I felt a massive headache closing in. "Yes, well, I suppose it's rather quaint. You never seemed to show an appreciation for the advantages that are offered to you." "It's not a bad thing to not need that stuff to be happy." "No. Just a waste," she sighed as she picked up a picture frame from my bookshelf. It was a photograph of the six of us at the Polar Bear Plunge. We were all soaked and shivering with the biggest grins on our faces. I was tucked snuggly under Edward's arm with Alice on my other side. I loved that picture and the happy memories associated with it. Seeing it in Renee's hands, the look of mild distaste on her face, made me feel violated. I didn't want her here. I could already feel her threatening to spoil the sanctuary I'd built for myself. Just a little longer, Bella. It's late. She'll go back to her hotel room and hopefully any future interactions could take place somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn't mine. Somewhere she couldn't infect with her negativity. "Shouldn't you be getting back to your hotel?" I asked, trying not to give away just how desperate I was to be rid of her. "If you were travelling today I'm sure you're tired." "You're right. It is late. Of course that didn't seem to stop you from socializing into all hours of the night," she said with a pointed look in the direction of the door and the girls' apartment on the other side. I didn't bother responding. It wasn't worth it. The more I shut my mouth, the quicker she'd be gone. "I'll be back in the morning. We'll have breakfast and start figuring out this whole mess," she informed me as she crossed to the door. "No!" I exclaimed, sputtering to recover from the initial gut reaction. I couldn't have her back here again. I already felt like I should scrub the entire place from top to bottom in order to remove any trace of her. "I mean, uh, why don't I come to you? I mean that would be easier for you wouldn't it? Nine o'clock? I can come by the hotel after my workout." "I suppose that will be fine," she accepted. "We'll be going to the rink after. You'll need to meet up with Phil and get started right away."

"Phil? That coach? He's here?" I inquired with surprise. "Of course he's here. There's no time to waste." "Well yes, I know. I just didn't think he'd be here. I've never even spoken to him. We haven't made a decision yet." "You'll speak to him tomorrow," she said slowly, like she was speaking to a toddler. "As for a decision, I really don't see what the problem is. "I told you I'd talk to him," I reminded her. "I still want Marcus as my coach." "If you're going to be difficult, fine," she huffed. "We'll do a trial run. You give Phil two weeks, starting tomorrow. At the end of that period we'll talk about it. You have to try, Isabella. You can't just fold your arms and pout for two weeks." "I'll try," I muttered, wanting to do exactly that. "Good. I'll have Phil join us for breakfast," she said airily as she made her exit. When the door closed behind her, I flipped the lock and pulled the chain, the weight of it feeling heavier than ever before. I felt completely sapped of my energy, like a virus had ravished my body and left nothing but a weak shell behind. That's how I felt. Weak. Empty. Frustrated that she could make me feel like that so easily. Angry with myself that I let her. Alone. So alone. I couldn't shake off the heavy cloak of betrayal at Charlie's actions. He'd called her. Renee never called Charlie. Never. It had to be him who'd initiated it. Why? To tattle on me? To laugh at the petty complaints of the spoiled little girl? I felt stupid for having said anything to him at all. Renee was right. What good could it have done? He didn't care. Why did I ever think he would care? Dragging myself to my bedroom, I collapsed onto the bed, not even bothering to pull off the slipper boots I'd worn to Alice's place earlier that night. Glancing at the clock, it read 11:36 p.m. Could it really have been such a short time ago that I'd been giggling and carefree with her and Rose? Just minutes really since my only worry had been staying awake long enough to check in with Edward. How quickly the wind can change. At the thought of Edward, I groped blindly at my bedside table, feeling around for my cell phone and bringing it in front of my face and lighting up the screen in the darkness of my room. 1 New Voicemail The sight of that tiny message on my screen was enough to break the dam and I felt tears overflowing to drop down my cheeks, absorbing into the fabric of my pillow. I couldn't call him back now. He'd know something was wrong immediately. I'd just tell him that I'd fallen asleep and hadn't heard my phone ring. Needing to hear his voice though, I pressed the button to dial into my voicemail, desperately jabbing at the keys to put in my password. "Hey, Beautiful," his velvet voice came through the speaker, "I was just calling to say goodnight. Guess you're already sleeping or something. I'll call you tomorrow when we get back. Can't wait to see your sweet face. So, yeah. I miss you." I shut off my phone, my tears growing into heaving, breathless sobs as I clutched onto my pillow and wished it was Edward instead. Something that could hold me back and tell me everything would be okay. Instead I lay awake for hours, alone in the dark, my sobs fading to soft hiccupping sniffles as my eyes drooped, eventually drifting off into a restless slumber.

~*~

The next morning I went through my workout in a zombie-like trance. Edward wasn't back in town yet, so I was on my own. For once I was okay with that fact. I didn't want him to see my bloodshot eyes or the puffy bags beneath them. By eight-thirty I was already exhausted and the day was just beginning. I had no doubt it would be a long one if Renee had her way, which she would. She always did. Despite my dragging feet, I scurried through my shower and quickly dried my hair before throwing on jeans and a t-shirt with my sweater boots as the weather had faded back to crisp and chilly. At the last minute I switched my hoodie for a cardigan, not wanting to give Renee just one more thing to complain about. Maybe I should put on earrings? I decided to skip them, knowing that finding a pair of earrings would just inevitably make me late and then she'd be cranky over my tardiness and wouldn't even care about what I was wearing. The hotel was just a few miles away and I was lucky to find a spot on the street to park, rushing into the ornate lobby as I checked my watch. 8:58 a.m. I blew out a breath of relief. Not late. Of course, she was already there sitting in one of the plush love seats in the lobby, sitting very close to a gentleman I could only see from the back. Phil, I assumed as Renee noticed me, raising her brow and blatantly checking her watch. I raised mine back at her, feeling just a tiny bit triumphant when her face went blank again after discovering the time. Can't pick on that one, can you? She leaned in and said something to the man before they both stood just as I approached them. "Phil, this is my daughter, Isabella," she said, one hand wrapped around his forearm and the other one gesturing toward me, then back toward him as she introduced us. "Isabella, Phil Dwyer." He was tall, probably close to six-foot-three, and completely bald, though it was clear that it was by choice and not genetics. His shaved head was shiny, almost as if he'd slicked oil over it. He was younger than I'd anticipated, maybe mid-to-late thirties. He was very fit underneath the sport coat he'd paired with blue jeans, bulky almost. "Isabella, pleasure to meet you," he spoke in a low voice, the tone instantly putting my back up. It was obvious he was a schmoozer. I'd met more than my fair share in my lifetime and he was definitely one of them. He reached for my hand, lifting it to his lips in a move I'm sure he thought was suave, but in reality was just creepy. "I've seen lots of video on you. Very impressive. You're quite the little skater, aren't you?" "Thank you," I whispered quietly, wanting to flinch back a little from his touch. His hands were clammy and much too warm. I tried to politely yet firmly extract my own from his grasp. Renee gave me a look from over his shoulder that told me to play nice. "Pleased to meet you as well." "Well, ladies, shall we?" he offered with a sweep of his arm toward the restaurant sitting just off the lobby. His hand rested lightly at the small of my back, just how Edward had done so many times since I'd met him. With Edward, it felt natural, polite, and always made me want to melt into him. With Phil it made me stiff and uncomfortable, and I straightened my back as I walked in an effort to move away from his hand. Once we were settled in, further pleasantries were made until the waiter showed up. I was starving after my morning workout and asked for a spinach omelet and toast. "Oh, no," Renee protested. "You know you can't eat that Isabella, it's way too many calories. She'll have a bowl of granola and half a grapefruit," she told the waiter, handing him the stack of our menus and dismissing him. "Mom, I'm burning tons of calories, an omelet's not going to hurt anything," I said, though it was useless to fight her on it. She'd already gotten her way. "By the looks of things you've been having a few too many omelets since you've moved here." "I weigh the exact same I did back in Florida," I said defensively, "I haven't gained a single pound since I've been here."

"Hmm. Must just be your choice of attire then," she muttered. "Come on, Renee, ease up on the poor kid, she looks good," Phil said, shooting me a slick wink that made me want to cringe and pull my sweater closer together to cover every inch of skin that was showing. "Just lay off the omelets," she ordered, never willing to not have the last word. She then turned her attention to Phil, her face transforming from the sneer she'd directed at me to complete fascination. "So, Phil, why don't you fill Isabella in on some of the things we've been discussing? You have such wonderful ideas." Phil and Renee completely took over, leaving me to try and absorb it all, barely getting more than a timid agreement in here and there and finally just giving up and silently chewing my granola, stabbing at my grapefruit with just a little more force than necessary out of frustration. It didn't matter if I didn't agree with something, that much was clear. The two of them had formed a solid union and there was no option but to strap in and go along for the ride. The main points I caught were more hours on the ice, more conditioning than I'd done in the past, more repetition, more strength training than I was used to, more sex appeal to my programs. Always more. Their talk alone wore me out and I really wished I'd just ordered that fucking omelet. When Renee tried to shift things over into talk about endorsements and publicity was when I drew the line. One step at a time. I needed to have a shot at competing again before I went spouting off to press and sponsors. Luckily we'd finished eating by that point and I was able to make a quick escape, claiming I'd forgotten my skate bag back at my place and that I'd need to go back and retrieve it before meeting them over at the rink. I hadn't forgotten it, but the few extra minutes of reprieve were worth the annoyed look Renee shot me as I excused myself. I couldn't sit in my car where I'd parked, if they passed by and saw me, she'd say something. I couldn't drive straight to the rink. I didn't want to go back to my place, just in case Alice and Rose were hanging around. I just didn't have it in me to try and act like everything was okay. The idea of potentially falling apart on some random side street just felt pathetic, and that's when it struck me. Edward's. He would still be gone so I wouldn't have to actually talk to anyone or face the disapproving looks from my friends at just how truly weak I was when it came to my mother, but I knew that just being somewhere close to him would comfort me. Within a few short minutes, I'd pulled up in front of his house. His silver Volvo sat parked in the driveway as he'd hitched a ride to the airport with Emmett. I parked behind it and after a moment's hesitation, got out and climbed the few short steps to his porch, leaning back against the door and sliding down to sit on the cold cement. I was so disgusted with myself. Renee had been in town less than twenty-four hours and already she'd swooped in and stolen the reins right back out of my hands. I hadn't even put up a fight. It's like I hadn't even had it in me to try. Everything had been going so well these past few weeks. I'd finally felt like I'd started to find my place. I'd stood my guard to Renee on more than one occasion over the phone. Why was it so difficult for me to try when she was in front of me? Why did she always have so much power over me? I sat there for fifteen minutes, trying to draw strength from the place that held such warm memories, that held so much of Edward. Eventually I gave in, climbing back in my car and heading toward the rink, knowing I could only stay away so long before they'd realize I was taking longer than I should to grab my bag. Pulling in, I saw a beige Cadillac parked outside, Renee's rental car no doubt. As I parked next to it, I remembered that she was unaware of the fact that I'd traded the Benz in. Great. One more thing to pile on the plate. Feeling just slightly stronger after having a few moments to regroup, I cracked my neck and straightened my shoulders before pulling on the door, noticing Renee and Phil standing together by the bleachers. Something about the two of them together struck me as odd, but I couldn't narrow down exactly what it was. "Why didn't you change at your apartment, Isabella? You can't skate in jeans. Go. Change," she ordered with a dismissive flick of her hand. I rolled my eyes and stalked off toward the locker room. So much for standing your

ground, Bella. Getting out on the ice with Phil was so different than the many times I'd stepped out on the very same surface over the past number of weeks on my own. There was no music drifting through the speakers or the ear buds of my iPod. There were no casual laps around the width to ease into the session. After a quick stretch against the boards it was all go, go, go. Phil gave me three warm up laps before he started snapping out instructions. Shoulders back. Don't swing your arms so much. Smoother crosses with your legs. Longer strides. Not so stiff. Now you're too lax, tighten up. It was frustrating. It felt like every miniscule change I made to my form brought about a whole slew of more critiques. This wasn't the way I worked. With Marcus, he was patient. He let me try to figure out my issues on my own at first, offering his pointers when it was clear I wasn't catching on to something on my own. With Phil, there were no chances to fix anything before he called out the next problem. If he was that harsh about my basic movements, I didn't even want to think about what he'd say when we actually had to work on techniques I knew I struggled with. After only forty-five minutes with Phil, I knew I couldn't have him as a coach. I was ready to pull my hair out or just burst into frustrated tears. Renee was no help, she backed him up every time, mentioning that they were things she'd noticed before and how observant he was to catch so many flaws right up front. She'd give me these looks every once in awhile that just screamed, "You see? I told you this guy would be great." By the end of the three-hour morning session I was spent. I'd never felt so clumsy on the ice in my entire life. Phil threw me off; he made me jittery, my movements stiff and jerky. I'd tripped up on more simple steps than I ever had before. Of course in Renee's mind the blame was solely at my feet. It was my fall and the time I'd been off the ice that made me struggle, not the fact that Phil was a demanding tyrant. "Okay. Let's break for an hour, grab some lunch and come back to hit it again," Renee said, clapping her hands together as I pulled off my boots, repressing a groan at the aches in my feet. "Again?" I sputtered in disbelief. Was she crazy? "What are you talking about? We went three hours, Mom." "We have a lot of lost time to make up for. Three hours isn't going to be enough, especially with how rough you're looking right now. Honestly, Isabella. Even your scratch spin's looking wobbly. We've got a lot of work to do." "I'm exhausted, Mom. Do we really have to do another session today? I'm not supposed to be pushing my knee so much yet." "Your doctor released you for competitive training." "Yes, but he also said to ease into it." "And that's what we're doing. I haven't seen you try a single jump out there yet," she said, as if that was some sort of favor to me. "Fine. Whatever. I'm going back to my place for an hour and a half. I'll meet you back here at three," I caved and stomped off before she could argue. Back at my apartment I rinsed off, letting the jets pound a little of the tension from my shoulders. If I was in for another three hours of activity there was no way I was going back without washing off the sweat I'd already built up. I threw together a quick sandwich, slapping a second together when I devoured the first one in less than two minutes. When I'd finished I still had an hour to go. I took an ice pack from my freezer and decided it might be a good idea to sit with it on my knee for a little bit. It wasn't hurting, but there was something to be said for preventative measures. As I sat there and caught my breath, I knew there was only one thing I wanted to do. Before I could hesitate, I dug

out my phone and dialed Edward's number. I had no idea if he'd answer or what he'd be doing, but I just wanted to hear the sound of his voice. Something that could remind me that he was real, that the life I'd started making for myself here was real; that he hadn't disappeared like a wonderful dream that I was just now waking up from. He didn't answer, but his voicemail was enough to calm me down, my eyes closing as I soaked in the husky tone of his voice requesting me to leave a message. I did so, just a quick little "Hey, sorry I missed you," before hanging up again. I wanted to go put on his jersey and slide under the covers and hide away. Instead I indulged in a loud groan before tossing the ice pack back in the freezer and heading back out the door. Let the fun continue. If I'd thought the morning was rough, it was nothing compared to the afternoon. Phil had me moving on to more complicated spins. The constant repetition combined with my drained energy level left me dizzy and off-balance. I had to step out of more than half of them, bending at the waist to try and gain back some sense of equilibrium. It was in one of those moments that I heard the metallic clang of the arena doors followed by Renee's shrill voice calling out, "Young man, this is a closed practice. You can't be in here right now." I glanced up, my hands still rested on my thighs as I tried to catch my breath. When I saw whom she was addressing, I couldn't stop the grin from spreading across my face. Every ache in my body, every tense crease to my brow, every worry disappeared at the sight of his crooked grin through the glass. I was off in a flash across the ice, gliding to the gate and unlatching it as Edward rounded the outside boards, not even seeming to have heard Renee's censure. He stepped right onto the ice and swooped me up into his arms, squeezing me tightly against his chest and holding my head close to his. "You okay?" he whispered in my ear with faint concern tinting his tone. "Yeah. I'm good," I responded against his cheek, because in that moment I was. Until an irked "Ahem," sounded from behind him. I snuggled into him just a little more for one instant before pulling back, giving him a small nervous smile before taking his hand and turning us to face my mother who stood just outside the entrance to the ice, an expectant and annoyed lift to her brow. "Edward, this is my mother, Renee. Mom, this is Edward." "Ms. Swan," Edward greeted politely, though his voice was colder than I'd ever heard it. He held out his hand and she glared at it for a moment before giving him the briefest handshake I'd ever witnessed. I would have been mortified if I didn't catch the slight smirk on Edward's lips. She immediately dismissed him, focusing in directly on me. "We're not finished here, Isabella." "Mom, we've been at this all day," I complained. "We're not finished," she repeated slowly, punctuating each word. "Just give me a minute then. Please?" "Take it outside," she finally conceded, turning to walk away, calling back over her shoulder, "There's no street shoes allowed on the ice." "I don't think your mom likes me very much," Edward whispered as he crouched next to where I sat on the bleachers to take my skates off. I glanced up at him to try and apologize for her when I realized he wasn't the slightest bit upset. Instead he seemed amused. "She doesn't like anyone very much," I whispered back, enjoying the sound of his laughter as he took my hand to

walk with me out the doors to the arena. Once we were outside, he bent down to scoop me up, lifting me right off my feet until I could wrap my legs around his waist, his arms holding me securely against his chest as I circled my arms around his neck, leaning my head down to breathe in his scent. I never even noticed that he'd moved until he set me down on a picnic table nearby, sitting me just on the ledge so he could stand between my legs, his hands cupping my face and combing back into my hair as he pressed a lingering kiss to my forehead. "How are you doing? Are you sure you're okay?" "Yeah," I exhaled, closing my eyes and enjoying the feel of his cheek rested against my brow, my hands sliding up his arms to circle his wrists lightly, anchoring myself to him. "It was a little bit of a shock. She just showed up last night when I was over at Alice's." "She mentioned that this afternoon. Alice. She came and got us from the airport," he clarified, pulling back just a little, his eyes searching my face for something, probably to see for himself that everything was really alright. "I'm sorry we didn't get to talk last night," I murmured, reaching up and grazing my knuckles lightly over his jaw line. "I missed you," he said, lifting my chin with his index finger before fitting his lips over mine. I sighed into his kiss but couldn't let myself go entirely. I felt like Renee's eyes were all around me and I couldn't stomach the thought of her seeing me like this. It felt too private, too perfect. "I missed you too," I whispered as I pulled back, rubbing my lips together and savoring his taste. "Congratulations, by the way. One more to go, right?" "Let's hope so. For regular season, at least," he chuckled. "You looked great out there." "It's tough work being a superstar, but somebody's got to do it," he mocked with feigned exhaustion and I snorted, smacking playfully at his chest. "I should get back. I'd rather not get scolded any more for slacking off," I muttered, sliding off the edge of the table, where I was pulled instantly into Edward's arms once more. "Don't let her push you around, okay?" I sighed, snuggling into him just a little more without answering. I couldn't promise him that. Because, no matter how many times I'd told myself that I needed to break out of her grasp, she somehow always managed to pull me back in. After Edward left, I crept back inside, hoping to strap back into my skates and get out on the ice before Renee could say anything. Neither she nor Phil were anywhere in sight though. I glanced around as I sat on the bleachers, trying to figure out where they could have gone. Then, just as I'd finished tying my laces and tugged my arm warmers back into place, I saw them emerge together from the locker room, Phil swiping at his chin, my mother's perfect clothes in the slightest state of disarray and a satisfied smirk on her face. That's when I figured out what was so weird between them. They were sleeping together, I was sure of it. I'd seen that look on my mother's face countless times before, after she'd returned home from her latest conquest. The knowledge punched me right in the gut, but I didn't have any time to process it before Phil called out for me to get back on the ice.

~*~

The following afternoon, I told Renee I was cutting out at five. The group had made plans to hang out and relax before their big game the next afternoon. She didn't protest nearly as much as I'd have expected, probably because it would give her and Phil more time alone together. I couldn't process my feelings on that matter. I felt hurt and betrayed, though I couldn't really explain why. It had something to do with the fact that I really didn't like him and she so clearly fawned over his every word. It was like she was choosing him over me. "Plans with your little friends?" she inquired as I packed up my bag. "Yes, actually." "I don't know why you bother," she baited me, and of course I couldn't stop myself from biting at the lure. "With what?" "You don't fit in." "You've never even met them," I argued. "I don't have to meet them to know that. You're a novelty to these people, something shiny and new and interesting. You're a figure skater and people think that's cool. They see that you lead a life that seems glamorous and is entirely different from their own and they want a taste of it. Someday they'll be able to tell people how they once knew Isabella Swan. It'll be a conversation starter at their dinner parties. That's all you'll be to them. You don't belong here. You'll never belong here. They'll all tire of you soon enough. Especially your little boyfriend. When you don't give him what he needs, he'll toss you aside and move on to the next." "You don't know him. You don't know a thing about him. Edward cares about me," I insisted, though my words sounded weak, even to my own ears. As she spoke I could feel myself wilting, curling into myself as her venom spread through my veins. "You think so now. Just wait and see." I couldn't stay. I snatched up my bag and practically sprinted out of the arena, jumping into my car and blindly jabbing my key into the ignition as hot tears filled my eyes. I knew better than to listen to her. I knew these people and they'd shown me in so many ways that they truly cared about me. It was that voice. Renee's voice that always sounded so certain. The same way she'd spoken to me for my entire life, the one I'd always believed. I could feel the doubt seeping in through the cracks. I wanted so badly to just pass her words off as a pack of blatant lies, but I couldn't squash that tiny little part of me that wondered if there was a grain of truth to her words. That night when the six of us went out, I couldn't get Renee's words out of my head. I felt like I was in some sort of out of body experience. Part of me was trying to laugh and joke around with them like always, while another part stood to the side with a skeptical eye, trying to dig beneath the surface of every word and action of the five people in my company, searching for any hints of ulterior motives or hidden meanings, condescension or pity in their looks at me. I never found any, but still I couldn't stop looking for them. I felt stiff and awkward with them in a way I never had before. I had to stop myself from flinching away any time one of them touched me, even in the most casual ways. The skeptical part of me was worried about opening myself up to them any more than I already had. What if Renee was right? I felt like it would kill me if that were the case, if one day they all just got bored and went back to their normal lives without me. I'd already felt the stab of betrayal from Charlie and I wasn't nearly as vulnerable where he was concerned. No, after years of neglect I shouldn't have been surprised at Charlie's actions. But if it happened with Emmett. Or Alice. Or Edw... I couldn't even think of it. I wouldn't survive it. Not if I didn't rein back some part of myself to keep locked away from them. From everyone.

Halfway through the night, Alice pulled me away from the group. "What's going on, Bella?" she asked quietly once she had me on my own. "What do you mean?" "You've just been acting a little weird tonight. Like you're uncomfortable or something." "No I haven't," I said a bit defensively as I folded my arms in front of me, even though I knew I must have been. There's no way I could have been acting normal with the mess that was going on in my head. "Yeah, Bells," Rose spoke up as she stepped over to join us. "You have." I didn't answer. I couldn't even look at them because I was worried they'd see right through me like they so often did. "We're not mad, Bella, we're just worried about you. I know your mom stressed you out when she wasn't in town and now she's here," Alice faded off. "We just want to make sure you're okay." "Yeah. I'm okay," I nodded, glancing up at them quickly before averting my eyes again, trying to add some sense of assertion to my claim. "I'm alright. Just tired, I guess. It's been a long week." It was the truth, but a lame excuse just the same. "Okay. Well, we're here if you need to talk. Three in the morning or whenever. We're here if you need us." I nodded to placate them, but already knew I couldn't open up to them, not about this. Though I was surrounded by people, some who I'd become very close to, I felt entirely alone. No one could understand what Renee did to me and I didn't want to make them understand. I didn't want them in on that pathetic part of my life, my personality. So instead, I hid that part deep down for the rest of the night, and tried to act like the Bella they'd come to know, the Bella that thought she could belong here.

~*~
Saturday morning I drove to the rink, hoping to appease Renee with a few extra hours on the ice so that I could make an escape for the guys' game later that afternoon. She'd been cooperative the night before, after all. I should have known better by now. As soon as I walked in, Renee hailed me over to where she stood with both Phil and another woman. She was thin and bleach blonde with a severe face and cold gray eyes. She looked vaguely familiar but I couldn't place her. "Isabella, this is Heidi Shapiro," Renee introduced me, and that's when it clicked. Heidi was a big time choreographer amongst the senior level competitors. She was best known for a rather daring interpretation of Carmen she'd done for Tanya Denali six years earlier that won the twenty-eighth ranked skater a bronze at Nationals. Heidi had solid, creative programs. But they weren't me. At all. They were always very flirtatious, sometimes suggestive. Her music selections were bold where I preferred soft and classic. Elegance and grace versus fire and sex. I greeted her politely before requesting Renee to step away with me for a moment. Once we'd stepped into the locker room, I turned on her. "What is she doing here?" I whispered angrily. "She is here as a very large favor. You need strong programs if you want to get back on top of the pack. Heidi's

programs paired with the right skater are a guaranteed win." "They're not me, Mom. She's totally not my style." "Your style shifts with each program," she countered. "That's your job. It's acting." "I don't feel comfortable-" "Competition isn't about comfort," she cut in. "If you're comfortable you're not pushing yourself." "Marcus and I always choreographed my programs together." "Marcus isn't here, and you're not a strong enough choreographer to do it on your own." "How would you know if you've never given me the chance?" "Now's not the time to play around. You need someone who knows what they're doing." "Why today?" I asked, switching gears when I accepted that I wouldn't get anywhere with her on that point. "Why didn't you tell me she was coming here?" "She's very busy right now. She's in very high demand and I wasn't sure we could nab her. She could only be here for one day and then it'll be a few weeks before she can return. She needs to look at you to get a feel for your skill level and technique. When she returns she'll have your long and short put together." "Just like that, huh? What if I don't like her programs?" "It's not a matter of like or dislike. It's a matter of what's going to get results. Now, let's get out there. She has a flight tonight at nine. We've got a lot to do between now and then." "I'm supposed to-" I started to protest and faded off under the intensity of her stare. There was no point in even mentioning the game. She'd laugh at the idea that I'd want to go to some silly hockey game rather than work with a world-renowned choreographer. "Nevermind. I'll be out in a minute." I thought about calling, but knew I'd get wrapped up in talking to him and would only end up getting snapped at by Renee again for wasting valuable time. So instead, I sent a quick text to Alice, letting her know I wouldn't be able to make it so they wouldn't worry, then typing out another to Edward, hesitating before I sent the message. I can't be at the game tonight. Something came up that I can't get out of. I'm so sorry. I'll call you later. Good luck! -B It seemed so pathetic and not nearly enough, but when Renee rapped on the door, I decided it would have to do, sending it off and silencing my phone as I exited the locker room.

~*~
Pulling up in front of Edward's house the next morning, I was a little nervous. Edward had seemed okay the night before when I'd finally gotten to check in with him after the game, obviously disappointed that I hadn't been able to make it, but not angry; at least that I could tell. I wished he would be angry. I deserved his anger for letting him down, for not standing my ground, for being such a fucking weakling when it came to my mother. All the steps I'd taken, all the progress I'd made toward breaking off on my own, toward building my own life. What had taken me weeks to accomplish had only taken hours, moments really, to destroy. I was back at ground zero and I couldn't find the strength to start climbing again. I wanted him to be angry with me so I'd feel better about the fact that I hated myself.

Instead, he greeted me with a smile, open arms, and a soft kiss, as though nothing had changed. And maybe for him nothing had changed. Maybe it was just me who felt like my entire being had been taken apart and rearranged in the wrong order over the past few days. "I'm so sorry," I whispered against his neck as he held me. "Hey, what did I say last night? Stop apologizing, Bella. Things come up. I know that. I'm sorry you missed it, but I understand, okay?" he urged me to accept his words, pulling back just far enough to rub his nose against mine in that sign of affection that had become so thoroughly ours. "You shouldn't have to be so understanding. I should have been there. I told you I would be," I murmured, placing my hands on his chest and focusing in on one of the letters printed on the fabric there. "Bella, it was just a game." "It was important to you," I insisted, looking up into his eyes. "And there will be others. Don't worry so much about it, Beautiful. I'm not," he said, brushing my hair back and dipping his head down to kiss me softly. I still felt bad for missing something so important, but knew it was pointless to continue wallowing in guilt, at least out loud. Instead, I fixed a smile on my face and asked, "So what did you want to do today? I have the whole day off." "I just want to stay right here with you. I've missed you these last few days," he said, taking my hand and pulling me over to the couch so we could lie back against the cushions. "I know. Things are busy right now," I sighed as he tucked me up next to him, our feet lazily rubbing against each other's. "For both of us. How's your training coming along?" "Okay I guess. Phil's...well, he's tough. I don't really like him, but I said I'd give him two weeks, so-" "What don't you like about him?" he asked, stroking my hair in a way that never failed to instantly soothe me. "I don't know. I just feel like he brings out the worst in me. I never feel like I'm getting anything right, he's always so critical, never says anything positive. I don't need a coach to blow smoke up my skirt and tell me how wonderful I am, don't get me wrong. It's just hard to hear so much negativity all the time," I muttered as I toyed with the buttons of his overshirt. "I'm sure you're doing great. It's only been a few days, Bella," he said, trying to be encouraging. "I know. I'm just impatient I guess. I want to be back to doing everything I used to be able to do." "You'll get there soon." "Yeah," I breathed, nuzzling into the nook of his shoulder just a little more. I hoped that was the case, but at this rate I couldn't be sure. "So, you don't think you're going to stick with Phil?" he asked after a moment. "I don't want to. I like my old coach. Phil just makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes-" I stopped myself, not really sure if I should say anything. I didn't really have proof after all, and what good would it do to talk about?

"What?" he said, urging me to continue. "I think he and Renee are together. Like together together." "What, like sleeping together?" he asked, his hands stilling in my hair. "Yeah." "Have you talked to her about it?" "No. I wouldn't even know what to say," I mumbled into his chest, stroking the unbuttoned seam of his shirt as his fingers returned to their comforting movement through the strands of my hair. "Well, how does it make you feel?" he asked, kissing my forehead and leaving his lips to rest there. "I don't know. Hurt? Confused? I don't understand why she'd do that to me. I mean, maybe it has nothing to do with me and they really like each other, but it just bothers me. I don't know if she was already with him before she decided to push him on me or if she wanted him for my coach first and they got together after. Either way, it bothers me." "Then tell her that," he entreated me, his soft lips speaking against my skin. "You can't successfully work with a coach if there's so much festering under the surface. "I know. Maybe," I yielded, unsure I'd be able to actually bring up the awkward situation with her. I knew Edward wouldn't accept a 'maybe,' he'd keep talking until he was sure I'd do something about it. I could already feel him taking a breath to launch into the discussion further, so I changed tactics and went for evasion. "So, playoffs. Are you excited?" "Yeah," he said after a moment's hesitation, obviously reluctant to let the subject go, but hopefully understanding that I couldn't give him more at this point than I already had. "It's going to be crazy, but we've got a good team this year. Hopefully we'll have a good shot at going far." "You're gonna do great," I said, lifting my head from his chest to gaze into his eyes. "I mean it. You're so amazing out there." "We'll see how things go," he said, twirling a lock of my hair between his fingers. "I hate that there's so much back and forth, it gets old pretty quickly." "You're away first, right?" I asked, already a little nervous about that fact. He'd been gone before and I'd been fine, but I already felt so shaky, even with him there beside me. "Yeah, for a few days. I'm going to miss you, Bella. So much," he whispered, leaning forward to meet my lips with his. "I'll miss you too," I sighed, kissing him once more before resting my head back on his chest and saying what I thought we both wanted to hear. "It'll go fast, I'm sure. You'll have so much going on." "Not enough. It already feels like forever and I haven't even left you yet," he lamented, squeezing me tight for just a moment. "Yeah," I agreed. We lay there in silence for some time, content to be together at the moment and dreading the days of separation to come, at least for my part. Of course in the silence, my mind had room to wander and it wandered to just the place I

didn't want it to. He'll tire of you soon enough. When you don't give him what he needs, he'll toss you aside and move on to the next, Renee's voice hissed like a snake in my ear. In all the times we'd been together, he'd been so careful with me, almost hesitant. He was so open with physical affection, but only to a certain point, and though I knew he'd mentioned something about self-control that day he'd rubbed me down with Mineral Ice, I couldn't help but wonder if it was something more than that. "Edward, can I ask you something?" I whispered as I raised my head from his chest. He didn't answer, simply brushed my hair back behind my ears and waited for me to continue. I opened my mouth to speak and couldn't get the words out. I didn't think I could stand to hear him answer if it would be anything that could fit with Renee's claims. So instead I leaned in and whispered, "Kiss me." His hand curled around to cup my neck and urge my lips down to his, exhaling on a groan as our mouths melted together, a blend of warm, soft lips and wet, grazing tongues. I moaned as he traced my lower lip with the tip of his tongue before thrusting it between my lips, my hand fisting the fabric of his shirt as his tightened it's grasp on my hair. I needed more. I needed him to touch me, to show me how much he wanted me. To make me believe I belonged here with him and that he couldn't let me go, ever. Filled with determination, I shifted on the couch, throwing one leg over his body and lifting myself up to straddle him, my lips never leaving his. Edward moaned deeply at the change of our positions, and I greedily swallowed the sound emitting from his throat. His hands immediately dropped to my hips, either to hold me back or aide me, his fingers clenched in tight fists around the hem of my shirt. Instantly, I felt the hard length of him pressed up against me, the evidence of his desire that I was searching for, that I craved. I pressed myself against him, my hips straining to feel him even closer before his hands tightened and stilled my movements and he tore his mouth from mine. "Bella," he groaned, his eyes clenched closed and his brow creased in concentration. I wasn't ready to stop yet. I could still feel those cracks in my heart that were swelling with Renee's poison and I wanted something to flush it out and fill them again. I lowered my lips to his neck, pressing wet, open-mouthed kisses up the length of it, feeling the muscles practically vibrating in strain beneath their trail. When I reached the juncture of his neck and his jaw, I fastened my lips to the tender skin and sucked, my hips trying to fight against the unyielding force of his hands. "Jesus Christ, Bella. Stop. Please, God, you have to stop," he asserted, practically throwing me off him, but only to rest against the back cushions of the couch, his body still lined against mine. "What is it, Edward? Did I do something wrong?" He rubbed his hands furiously over his face and groaned. "No, you silly irresistible woman. Fucking Christ, you were doing everything absolutely right and that's what's wrong." "Why?" I asked, completely confused and trying to fight the sting of rejection. "Because, Bella. You're not ready for that. No," he continued quickly when I opened my mouth to speak, "I know that I always tell you that you need to let me make decisions for myself and I'm not trying to do that here. I know it sounds like it and it might be a little, but sex, taking that step, it's important. At least it should be and it is for me. I don't want that to be something casual that just happens at some random time. Not with you. You're too important. This is too important." "But it's not just sex, Edward. You won't let me touch you; you barely touch me, at least not in that way. Why are you always so quick to pull away from me?" I asked, unable to keep the hurt entirely out of my voice. "Bella," he breathed, cupping my cheek and nudging my face up so I was forced to make eye contact with him. "I want you to touch me. I love that you want to try different things with me. I don't want to discourage you from doing that. And I so badly want to touch you. I want to memorize every inch of your skin and find every little spot

that makes you sigh and moan my name," he whispered, trailing his index finger down the length of my throat and drifting across my collarbone. "Then why don't you?" "I'm afraid to let myself go with you," he admitted, staring deeply into my eyes. "I just- I want you so badly and I'm afraid if I don't stop myself quickly enough I'll push you further than you're ready. And I'm not sure you'd tell me to stop, even if you weren't ready." "I probably wouldn't," I conceded, brushing a lock of hair back from his brow. "I just feel so wonderful every time I'm with you, especially like this, I guess I get a little swept away at times." "We'll get there, Bella. And you're right; we can try things without taking it too far too soon. I'll work on it, okay?" I nodded and dropped my head back down to his chest, feeling the slightest bit better about the situation. We lay there curled together in silence for a few minutes before Edward asked, "Are you hungry? Do you want to go find something to eat?" "No. Can we just stay here for a little longer? Just like this?" I pleaded. "As long as you want, Beautiful," he sighed and shifted us just a little so we could lie together comfortably. "There's no where else I'd rather be." After just a few moments of lying together, Edward started to hum softly. I felt the vibrations of his chest against my cheek just as much as I heard the low sound in my ear. I recognized the tune right away, a soft smile gracing my lips as I closed my eyes, snuggling into him as he began to quietly sing the lyrics of the chorus. "If I lay here, if I l just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world?" he crooned. My mind emptied, every thought of Renee and Phil and playoffs and stress simply fading away until there was nothing but Edward and I and that moment. I drifted off before he could finish the song.

~*~
Monday morning the team departed for Calgary where they'd be starting their first series of the playoffs against the Flames. Their first two games would take place away, keeping them out of town until Friday. I'd been able to see them off when Renee cut practice short, claiming she had plans that evening. I didn't even care that her plans most likely involved Phil; I was just so excited to get to see Edward once more before he departed. I didn't want him to leave for most of the week without getting to say goodbye. What I didn't count on was that when he left, he took the only part of me with him that had a chance at standing up to my mother. When he left, he took everything with him, and of course the fact that I was so weak without him made me even more ashamed. I felt like a shadow that had lost its body, detached and just a wisp of the person I'd become, a person I'd been happy with. The worst part was that I knew how wrong it was. I was completely conscious of the fact that I was slowly disappearing, falling back under Renee's grasping control, but I felt completely powerless to stop it, there were no branches to cling to pull myself back out of the quicksand. Even though he called, I never had the opportunity to speak to him. I couldn't have my cell phone on at the rink, which was almost all the time now. I had more missed calls than answered ones and by the time I'd get around to calling him back, he'd be busy and I'd reach his voicemail. It was a frustrating game of phone tag that made me feel hopeless that I'd ever get to hear from him on anything other than a short message. My own were always brief and vague, not wanting to drag him down by my misery and loneliness. Even my texts were sparse and no more than a "Great game" after their first win or the occasional "I miss you."

I didn't see the girls. Every once in awhile there'd be a message from one of them mixed in with the ones from Edward. I didn't even make it to their place to watch the guys' game, as Renee had wanted me to join her for dinner that night. Without them, without him, there was just nothing. There was only Renee and she fed on my weakness like a shark scenting blood in the water. I was withering away and the realization made me want to simultaneously curl up and cry, and to step out of my own body so I could turn around and slap the shit out of myself for being such an idiot. At just after noon on Wednesday, Renee and I were seated at a small deli to discuss 'strategy' over lunch. For Renee, that ranged from what competitions I'd need to register for to costume and make-up decisions, sponsors we needed to woo to press outlets she'd be trying to set up interviews and appearances with, and everything in between. All her talking gave me a headache. I didn't want to fly to New York to speak with ABC News and then clear across the country for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. I didn't want to pose for a MAC ad in nothing but a pair of figure skates and some lip-gloss. I couldn't think about anything other than the fact that this had just started and I already felt completely dried up. Maybe I couldn't do this anymore. Maybe I wasn't cut out for the ruthless competition and the circus that surrounded it at this point in my life. I didn't feel a drop of passion or desire to skate when I stepped out on to the ice to work with Phil. Maybe I was done. I'd have to find something else to do and skating could just be a nice little hobby. That thought broke my heart. After all the work I'd put in already, I couldn't stomach the idea of quitting, but I honestly didn't know how much longer I could last like this. "Bella?" a familiar voice snapped my out of my haze and my head whipped around to see Esme making her way toward our table. "I thought that was you. I'm so happy to see you," she said warmly as she leaned down and kissed my cheek. "Esme. Hi," I responded, feeling the instant comfort she always gave me trying to fight off the stiffness of knowing my mother was right there judging me. "We missed you at the game on Saturday." "Oh, yeah. I'm sorry. I had uh, something," I stammered, my gaze flitting uncomfortably back and forth between her and Renee. "How are you doing, Sweetheart? How are you feeling?" she asked before she took notice of my companion. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was interrupting." "No. Not at all," I assured her, grateful for the fact that she had. If I had to hear one more word on publicity, I might have lost my lunch. "Actually, Isabella, we were in the middle of something," Renee said tightly with a pointed look. "I apologize, you must be Renee. I'm Esme Cullen," she introduced herself, offering her hand to my mother. When Renee took hers, I was struck by the differences between them. They looked fairly alike, similar builds, though Renee stood a good three inches taller, both dressed in elegant, designer clothes. Esme was paler, yet everything about her projected softness and warmth. Renee was all hard lines, cold and harsh. They couldn't have been more different, in my opinion. "Cullen?" Renee asked curiously. "Yes. My husband's been working with Bella on getting her knee fixed up, and my children have all become very

close with her. You must be very proud, Bella's a very remarkable woman," Esme said, brushing her hand down the length of my ponytail. "That's nice of you to say, Mrs. Cullen." "Not at all, it's simply the truth," she returned with a warm smile, though I could detect the slightest hint of steel beneath the softness of her tone. "Yes, well, as I said, Mrs. Cullen, Isabella and I were in the middle of something," Renee said, clearly trying to hurry her along. "So you said. Bella, do you think you could walk me out?" Esme requested, "It'll just take a moment." "Of course, Esme," I said, pushing my chair back and standing quickly, eager to escape, even for just a few seconds. "Isabella-" "Mom, it'll just take a second. We have plenty of time before we're supposed to be back at the rink," I reminded her, walking away with Esme before she could argue any further. "I'm so sorry, Esme," I immediately started once we'd