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Fanfiction based on Stephanie Meyers Twilight Series Warning: Rated MA for Mature Adult.

The Best Man


By BrattyVamp

Summary: Next-door neighbors home from college, reunited for two weeks of their summer break. Childhood memories and adult hijinks abound. Will a friendly competition strengthen childhood bonds? Or will it help to forge a new relationship between adults?

~*~

1. Chapter 1

I dropped my bag on the end of my bed, and lugged my suitcase to rest near my closet door. With my hands on my hips, I turned a slow circle and inspected the room around me. A fine layer of dust covered my desk and bookshelf. Everything seemed to have been left untouched in my absence. "Thanks for tidying up, Charlie," I mentally complained. Though, I wasn't really surprised that my room was in that condition. My father was the Chief of Police, here in the tiny town of Forks, WA. The population was small, but the job kept him busy. He really wasn't home all that often. He liked to watch baseball on the couch in the evenings when he could, and his days off were, more often than not, spent at his favorite local fishing spots. I couldn't imagine that schedule had changed much since I went away to college. I bent to strip the comforter and sheets from my bed, but stopped when my eyes landed on the simple white house beyond my bedroom window. I knelt on the bed with a smile on my face, and touched the frayed red piece of yarn that was still tied in a knot to the thumb-tack stuck in my window sill. At one time, that piece of yarn was much longer, and connected two tin cans. It was a super-secret messaging system that ran between my window, and the one facing mine on the house next door. The string broke, and the cans were eventually replaced by cell phones. But I always kept that little piece stuck on the tack, to remind me of those times. Jasper. I grinned widely and jumped from the bed, concentrating on the task I had begun. I carried my bed linens downstairs and put them in the washing-machine with a hefty shot of detergent. They smelled musty and stale. I needed to clean the room before I slept in it. Jasper- or Jazz, as I had nicknamed him- was the reason I was back home in my old house. He begged me to spend two weeks of summer break with him. I grinned widely as I picked up a towel and some cleaning supplies and carried them up the stairs. Jazz and I had been best friends since we were five years old. Up until then, I lived with my mother in Phoenix. That was the year that my Mother re-married Phil, a minor-league baseball player. She decided to travel with him, while he pursued his big-league dreams. I was shipped to live with my father in Forks. Charlie, God love him, seemed totally clueless about how to care for a child. He did wellenough. I never lacked for love or his total over-protection. But he had over four years to get

used to living the life of a bachelor. I learned very early to fend for myself. And of course, I was lucky enough to have had the help of the Whitlock's who lived right next door. Larry and Joy Whitlock were good friends of my fathers. They owned the local diner and favorite hang-out for Fork's teens. They had two sons already, but added me to their fold immediately. Their youngest child was Jasper. He had unruly, wavy blonde hair, dark blue eyes, big front teeth, freckles, and glasses that always seemed in danger of sliding down his thin nose. He was six months older than I, and never tired of imparting his aged wisdom and 'the oldest is the boss' rule. We quickly became inseparable. He called me Izzy... I called him Jazz... and together we planned adventures and dreamed of taking over the world. And then there was Edward. Edward was Jasper's older brother. He was almost four years older, to be exact. And he didn't share the Whitlock's last name. Oh- he was their son alright. Loved and adored every bit as much as Jasper. But he had been adopted into their family about a year before I came to Forks. He was, the prettiest boy I had ever seen. Unlike Jasper's blonde waves, Edward had thick, straight, bronze-colored hair that stood up in a wild mess that always seemed to dare his mother's hands to just try to tame it. Impossibly long, dark lashes curtained his jade-green eyes that somehow always managed to light with a smile a second or two before his mouth caught on to the notion. He was always tall for his age... and kind... and sweet... Edward Cullen was my very first crush. I shook my head to chase away the memory. My smile dimmed, but refused to be put away. It felt good to be home. When my room was clean and my bags were unpacked, I went downstairs and threw together a quick and easy dinner for Charlie. I had just taken the chicken out of the oven when his cruiser pulled into the drive. I took off the oven-mitts and walked to meet him at the front door. "Isabella!" My dad wrapped his arms around me and picked me up off the floor. He could hug like no other. "Ugh... badge... making a permanent... impression..." I grunted. Charlie laughed and lowered me back to my feet. "It's good to see you," he smiled. "It's good to be home, Dad."

During my sophomore year of high school, Phil landed a job coaching a baseball team at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. I began spending my school breaks with my mother, attempting to forge a relationship there that had sadly lacked while I had lived with my father. And after graduation, I moved to Gainesville to attend college. Phil's employment got me a discount in tuition that was impossible to pass up. Now, it was Charlie who saw me during breaks. I grinned widely and held his hand as I walked with him toward the kitchen. Over dinner we talked about my past semester, my plans to graduate in another year, and the local town happenings. I was actually very tired from traveling, and cleaning, and managed to yawn rudely throughout our meal. Charlie smiled and waved-off my apologies. When dinner was finished, Charlie made himself comfortable on the couch with his remote in hand. I kissed him affectionately on the forehead and excused myself for bed. After a quick shower, I flopped face-down onto my freshly-laundered comforter, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. I blinked my eyes, initially confused about my whereabouts. It only took me a moment to remember that I was back in my old bedroom in Forks. But it was obviously still the middle of the night and something had brought me out of a very good dream. I glanced with bleary eyes toward the angry red numbers on my bedside alarm clock. Two a.m. I winced at the ungodly hour and closed my eyes to go back to sleep. Then I heard the noise again. The pinging sound repeated at my window. I rolled to my knees with a wide smile on my face, and knelt on the foot of my bed to unlatch the lock. The window lifted in its frame with a groan. It hadn't been used in a while. I was sure that would change. A shadowy form stood below me in the grass with his arm bent up. He'd obviously been ready to launch something else at my window when he saw me there. "You better be quiet, or you'll wake the Chief!" I whispered loudly. "Don't you know, my Daddy has a gun?" "Then get your skinny ass down here, Izzy... before I have to climb up there and get you!" I left the window open, but sprung from the bed with a laugh and ran down the stairs quietly. Throwing my front door open, I ran across the porch and around to the side of the house where I jumped up on Jasper's back and wrapped my arms and legs around him. "Why didn't you climb down?" Jasper laughed while he grabbed my knees at his sides. "Afraid you're so old and out of shape that you can't do it anymore?" I giggled and kissed him loudly on the cheek from behind. "No! But I'm still half-asleep and I would have probably fallen out of the tree if I tried. I didn't want to provide a literal injury to the term 'summer break.'"

Jasper dropped my legs and I slid down his back until my bare feet were in the cool grass below us. He turned almost immediately and threw his arms around me for a hug. He had to bend quite a bit to do so. Jasper was tall, since his growth-spurt in ninth grade. He towered over my meager five foot two inches. When he stood, he had to push the trendy frames of his glasses back up into proper place. "Let me look at ya," he said, brushing my sleep-mussed hair away from my face. I grinned goofily up at him. "Nah," he wrinkled his nose. "Just as ugly as ever." "Hey!" I punched him lightly in the stomach and he jumped away. "It's not like you are any comparison to Johnny Depp! Who, I will inform you, is quite upset. We were about to do very naughty things before you woke me up so rudely from my dream!" "Still a smart-ass. Nice to know some things never change." "You make it sound like we haven't seen each other in years," I scolded. "It's always too long," Jasper said. He threw his arm around my shoulder and we turned toward the back yard. I agreed with his sentiment. Since going away to college, Jasper and I made a point of traveling to spend time together whenever we could. We met in St. Louis just last Spring Break, and learned how to skydive at a local facility. Late nights at muddy-river bars on the waterfront rounded out our week nicely. Jasper and I communicated through letters, email, text messaging, and frequent phone calls. Because of our efforts, our relationship never suffered. We remained best friends, just as we always had been. But getting together with Jasper always reminded me just how much I had missed him while we were apart. "How's Alice?" I asked. His adorable girlfriend had joined us on our skydiving adventure. She and I had hit it off immediately. "Beautiful." Jasper's bright smile lit up the darkness, and he dropped his arm to grab my hand as we made our way toward the old tree house in his back yard. The swings below it hung in a decrepit state. It was hard to believe the old structure above still stood. "We planned most of our greatest adventures in this old tree house," I smiled, looking up at it. Jasper rested his body on a swing, and tentatively tested the strength of the ropes while he continued speaking. I moved to sit in the swing beside him. "That's actually why I wanted you to come home... to spend this time with me here." "The tree house is the reason?" I asked. "I'm confused."

Jasper had his head lowered to watch the ground as he pushed his toes into the dirt. The moonlight shone on his golden-blonde hair and turned the tips silver. Jasper looked up at me, took a deep breath, and straightened his glasses nervously before smiling. "I've asked Alice to marry me, Izzy." The look on his face was open, and happy. Yet he seemed, almost hesitant. It was like he was worried about having my approval. "Oh... Jazz..." The tears ran, unhindered down my cheeks. Jasper pulled a folded handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. Leave it to Jasper, to actually have something as old-fashioned and sweet as a hanky to offer. He gave me a moment to compose myself. "Well? What do you think?" he breathed. I smiled over at him and returned his handkerchief. "I think it's wonderful," I replied truthfully. "I'm so... so...happy for you." Jasper held out his arms, and I left my swing to sit across his outstretched legs. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him tightly while he used his feet to twist us back and forth. "I love her so much." "I know!" I sniffed and smiled up at him. "She's perfect for you. Really she is!" Jasper had met Alice in one of his music courses. He wanted to be a music teacher. Alice had always dreamed of opening a school for the arts. They fell almost instantly in love, and it was a match made in heaven. "She wants at least a year engagement," Jasper said, looking past me into the darkened tree-line ahead of him. "We'll get married after we graduate... at the end of next summer." "Are you scared?" I whispered. "Shitless," he nodded solemnly. Then his smile cut across his serious expression and he patted my back so that I would stand. He rose after me, and we both moved toward the tree house steps. Old planks hung by rusty nails hammered into the tree. Jasper broke a piece of the rotting wood with his hand and frowned. "I'm going to come out here tomorrow morning, and see what I can do about fixing these," he said. "I'll bet we could still sit up there, if we had a way to get up." "I'll help," I smiled. "But you never did tell me what the tree house has to do with anything."

"I figured it would be the perfect place to plan my next great adventure." "I live for adventure," I recited from memory. It was once painted in bright red on the inside of the tree house door. "I was hoping you'd say that," Jasper grinned.

2. Good Music

First thing in the morning, Jasper and I went down to the Fork's diner for breakfast. Jasper's father, Larry, sat in a corner booth sharing conversation with a couple of hikers. He excused himself quickly when we came in and walked over to us. "Isabella!" Larry hugged me warmly and I smiled into his soft button-down shirt. It smelled like coffee and eggs. "It's been too long honey. How have you been?" "Great," I smiled, pulling out of his warm embrace. "And after two weeks, you're going to be sick of me all over again." "Never," he laughed, shaking his head. "It's going to be great to have everyone home." "Is Waylon in yet?" Jasper asked, cutting him off. "Nope. His shift starts in about thirty minutes. I've been covering the grill. There is some sausage and eggs in the steam table I can get for you..." "We'll get it ourselves Larry," I replied, grabbing Jasper by the hand. "You go back to your own breakfast." Jasper and I walked behind the counter while Larry resumed his space in the corner booth. This diner was as familiar to me as my own home. I ate a majority of my childhood meals under this comfortable roof, and I earned extra money after school and on weekends during my teen years, working the cash register and waiting tables. "Here. Let's get you fed," I murmured, scooping a heaping pile of sunny yellow eggs onto Jasper's plate. He busied himself piling sausage links next to my offering. "You get some too," he ordered. "We are going to have a busy day." I did as I was told. With a much smaller portion of eggs, and a biscuit that I grabbed from the sideboard, I followed him out to eat our breakfast on two of the shiny red stools that sat in front of the counter.

"So, what's the plan?" I asked, twisting my seat from side to side. Jasper was scrolling through a message on his phone with his eyebrows drawn. He looked up and tucked the phone into his pocket before speaking. "Well, we have all day now. So... I think maybe we could head on down to First Beach and get a run in?" I nodded and took a bite of my meal. I was glad that Jasper continued running. We had taken up the exercise together in high school. Living in Florida taught me the importance of owning a tight beach-body. Bikini tops and shorts weren't nearly as forgiving as the bulky Washington clothing I hid under when I lived at home. With effort, I was able to be firm in the right places, and soft where I should be. I wasn't overly-muscular, but I was toned. And I worked hard at it. If Jasper was still running, I would have an excuse to keep up an exercise regime while on vacation. "Sounds great," I smiled. "Then what?" "Then we'll swing by that home improvement place on the way back into town, and pick up some things to fix up our tree house." "You were serious about that?" I asked, with my eyebrows raised. "Definitely," Jasper nodded. "I'll expect at least one camp-out up there before our break is over. Promise me." "Okay," I laughed. "I promise." With our feet slapping against the hard-packed sand, I inhaled deep gulps of the salty air and smiled. The beaches in Florida were beautiful- but nothing could compare to the quiet dignity of the Northwest seaside. The world around us was ensconced in grey. It wasn't a dreary or depressing half-shade of color. It was clean and peaceful and refreshing. I could hear the quiet hum of music that escaped Jasper's ear buds as he listened to his MP3 player while he ran beside me. I wondered what he might be listening to. He always turned me onto the coolest new music. I smiled. Music was always Jazz's thing. While his older brother was athletic and in all sorts of social after-school clubs, Jazz preferred to stay home with his music. He had a talent that I had never run across in another person. It seemed he could play damn near any instrument that he put his hands on. He spent a great deal of time, through our teen years, writing and composing, and playing music. He never dreamed of being a rock star or some brilliant song-writer. He did it because he loved it. And I was his biggest fan. That's not to say that he didn't have many friends. His musical ability didn't turn him into some emo-recluse. Jazz's naturally goofy disposition and wide smile actually made him quite popular

at school. Instead of being stuck in a particular status-group or clique... he was friends with everybody. But nobody knew him like I did. The faint strains of his music floated in the air between us, and I smiled while my mind slipped away to another day on this very same beach. "Come on Jazz! Just play something I know!" I whined, laying back on the blanket. "I will not insult my guitar by playing the Backstreet Boys. It's shit, and you know it." "Hey. Watch your mouth, or I'll tell Mom you're cussing!" Edward stood up from where he sat on the sand next to us, and moodily dusted off the back of his pants. I watched as he walked down toward the water. Jasper continued trying to pick out the chords of a Green Day song. Edward got his driver's license that year, and was grumpy because his parents forced him to drive the two of us to the beach. Jasper loved strumming his guitar on the sand, while I adored hiking to nearby tidal pools. "Fine. While you figure out whatever it is that you are doing," I wiggled my fingers towards his guitar, "I'm going for a walk." "Want company?" "Nah. You play. I'll be back soon." I trudged toward the tree line with Jazz singing softly behind me. "I hope you had the time of your life..." I hiked through the surrounding forest only a short distance before I crossed back out to another rocky beach. I followed a tidal river as the low-tide pulled the water back to its home. Along its edges, the tidal pools I sought beckoned me to lean in for a closer look. I leaned precariously over a jutting rock, digging the toes of my shoes into the stone below me like roots to hold me stable. The bright colored anemone waved me in to take a closer look. I stretched my body toward them. At the same time I felt my feet slip, I was also aware of the strong arms that wrapped around my waist and kept me from falling headfirst into the natural aquarium below me. "Whoa there Isabella," I heard Edward's voice and felt his breath against the back of my neck. He had wrapped himself around me, and tugged me to a safer standing position. "Charlie is going to kill me if I bring you back hurt again."

"Don't make fun of me," I muttered. I was sensitive about my embarrassing lack of grace, and my talent for being totally accident-prone. Edward dropped his arms and stepped back. "I'm not. It's not like you can help being a klutz. You have those long, skinny legs. You just kind of... stumble around like a baby giraffe or something." "Whatever," I rolled my eyes. "Come on," he tilted his head back toward the forest. "Let's get back to Jasper. It's getting late." I quietly followed Edward as he led the way through the woods. He wisely didn't comment when I stumbled a few times. He probably knew I was mad at him for calling me a giraffe. Jasper sat on the blanket, strumming his guitar and humming to himself just as he had been when I left. I moved to sit on one side of him, and Edward sat on the other. "Got time for one more?" Jasper asked Edward. His older brother nodded and stared at the sea in front of us. "Nothing old," I whined. "You don't know good music," Jazz scolded. "There are a few new songs that are good," Edward said softly. "Can you play that Edwin McCain song?" Jazz nodded and spent a couple minutes figuring out the chords and notes of the song Edward suggested. I laid back and looked up at the heavy grey sky with my arms folded behind my head. As Jazz began playing the song, I smiled. It was one I recognized. And then with a sound I did not recognize, a warm tenor voice started to sing along to the quiet strumming. "The strands in your eyes... that color them wonderful... stop me and steal my breath..." I laid there quietly, not wanting to interrupt so perfect a moment. The two boys I loved most in the world were creating a magic around us. I was certain I would always recall the sound of Edward's voice in the ocean wind. And in the sky above, I saw the exact color that dappled the edges of Jasper's stormy blue eyes. When the song was over, I looked over at Jasper and we grinned at one another. He turned his teasing voice to his brother. "Who knew you could sing?"

"You're the musical one in the family," Edward shrugged and looked down. He stabbed a stick into the rocks between his bent knees, looking suddenly self-conscious. "I could teach you to play," Jasper offered, tipping the edge of his guitar toward Edward. "Another day," the older boy said then. "It's late and I'm tired of babysitting. Let's get you two back home so I can go hang out with my friends." I reached out and tapped Jasper's arm, getting his attention when it was time to turn back the direction we had come. Lost in his music, he almost missed the outcropping of rocks that we used as a mile marker. He smiled over at me, and we kept our running pace back down the beach to the parking area where he had left his car. "Here," Jasper said, tossing me a clean t-shirt from a bag on the back seat. "You're going to get my car all sweaty and gross!" "What's the difference?" I asked while pulling his big shirt over my head to cover my tank top. "Your car already smells like ass and Cheetos." "Fresh-Pine ass and Cheetos," he grumbled, flicking the green felt air freshener that hung from his rearview mirror with the back of his middle finger. We both laughed while it spun on its kelly-green string. In the large warehouse-style home improvement store, Jasper and I split up. He went in search of two-by-fours to use for steps, and I went in search for paint and other items that would bring life to the old tree-house. "Did you get the nails?" I asked, when he finally joined me in the check-out line. "Yep," he tossed a bag up from his hand and caught it again. "And guess who I ran into? Tyler Crowley. Remember him from high school?" "Vaguely," I frowned, trying to imagine the face that went with the somewhat familiar-sounding name. "He said that there are actually a few guys around this summer that we might remember. I'm going to meet up with them tonight for a couple beers." "Well, that should be fun," I nodded. "Yeah. But the tree-house gets work first." Jasper pursed his lips together in his best version of a no-nonsense face. I laughed. "Okay. Right. Let's go."

It didn't take long for Jasper to rip the old steps from the tree and replace them with new, sturdy wood and nails. I climbed up to the structure ahead of him. "Get a move on, Izzy," Jasper ordered, loudly slapping my bottom with the palm of his hand. "Ow!" I yelled. "You're going to make me fall. I don't recall you slapping my ass like that when we were twelve!" "That's because your ass was bony back then, and it would have bruised my hand!" I rolled my eyes and pulled myself up to the platform that served to hold our tree house. With a few tentative steps, I tested my weight on the boards and then gave Jasper the signal that it was safe for him to join me. A few rotten places needed to be replaced. But other than that, the general structure stayed in very good shape. Jasper repaired the soft places in the floor while I repainted our credo on the door. I had to add an arrow and some extra text, but when I finished, we both grinned. The original "I" was faded to near invisibility. At Jasper's direction, I left it faded and painted the rest of the words until the new version clearly stated "Live for the next adventure." "I love it," Jasper hugged me from behind. "I do too!" I smiled. We worked together to string some tiny lights around the perimeter of the ceiling, and we hooked them to a power chord that ran to the house. They would twinkle like fireflies in the dark. I couldn't wait to see the place all lit up. "You know," I suggested teasingly. "You could always bring Alice here for your honeymoon. It's a nice, romantic getaway..." "I need more room than this when I'm getting busy," he laughed, looking down at the floor. "Oh! Ew!" I laughed and shoved his shoulders away while he grinned my favorite goofy smile in my direction and straightened his glasses. "Are we done for the night?" "I think so. I need to shower and go meet the guys." "See you tomorrow?" "Absolutely. I won't be home too late. We can run again in the morning, okay?"

"See you then." I said goodbye and ducked through the door of the new and improved aboveground hideout. I drank a couple beers with Charlie and watched the Mariners game on television to make him happy. Major League baseball had improved vastly since I came of legal drinking age. When he began snoring during the post-game highlights show, I nudged his shoulder until he woke and sleepily made his way upstairs. With Charlie off the couch, I flopped down on the still-warm cushions and flipped through the stations until I found a marathon of The Honeymooners. I actually watched five or six episodes, waiting for the black and white antics of Jackie Gleason to lure me to sleep. They had the reverse effect. If anything, I was more keyed up. And it was after midnight. Feeling devious, I wondered if Jasper was home from his night out with the boys. He said he wouldn't be out late. I pulled on my tennis shoes and grabbed my black hoodie jacket from its peg by the door. He woke me up last night. Payback was in order. When I slipped quietly through my front door, I squinted into the gloom beyond the porch and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. A heavy fog had settled in, wet and thick in the air. I quickly twisted my hair into my hand and pushed it behind my head while drawing the hood of my jacket up around my face. It helped to stave off the chilly mist. Then I stepped into the yard and made my way silently around to the side of the house. Jasper's window was easy to locate. It was directly across from my own, and the milky light from the corner street lamp weakly illuminated the white siding of his house just enough for me to make out the dark rectangular frame. The Whitlock's drive-way was on the opposite side of their house. I couldn't tell if his car was parked there unless I walked around to look. Instead, I decided to take my chances and assume he was up there in his room, sleeping-off a beer buzz. I dropped my head to scan over the sodden grass below me. My feet made sucking noises as they pulled away from the mud while I walked. I knew I would find small rocks near the foundation of their home- perfect to toss at Jasper's window. They wouldn't be heavy enough to break the glass, but hopefully they would make enough noise to wake him. I had done this countless times before. I crept closer to the house, but was suddenly shoved very forcefully off my feet. I might have screamed, but my back slammed so hard into the ground that my breath was knocked out of me. Stunned, I laid there for a moment immobile. And then I started to struggle to get my arms and legs loose from the heavy weight that was on top of me that held pinned me to the ground. I grunted in my efforts, but it wheezed out with a weak cough. "Not so fast," a deep voice snarled from the dark body above me. Harsh fingers pressed themselves into my shoulders, trying to halt my efforts to get free. The figure completely blocked the street light from my line of vision... leaving a shadowy monster lurched over me. I tried to suck in a deep gulp of air, but the man's knees were clenched around my midsection. I squeezed my eyes shut and fought for the small gasps of air that were the only salvation I could

count on to keep me from passing out. Small white dots danced behind my eyelids. Never in my life had I ever considered the possibility of being attacked... in Forks... in my own yard! The man's hands pressed my shoulders hard into the wet ground, and I could feel the coldness of the rain-soaked grass seeping into my clothing. I started thrashing my body harder to shake him off. My throat burned with a need to get more air. The tiny breaths I was able to steal were not enough. His hands loosened their positions on my shoulders, but were still unrelenting in their search for a new angle to hold me down. "You must be the dumbest damn criminal in Washington," the voice rasped. "Trying to break into a house right next-door to the town's Chief of Police!" I froze the instant I thought I recognized his voice. And he froze the instant that he realized that his hands were not shoving against the hard chest of a male like he assumed. "Whoa! Not a guy!" He shouted. He pulled his hands away from my chest immediately and the weight was lifted from me as he sprang off my body. Still, he gripped the front of my jacket tightly and hauled me to my feet before he started to pull me toward the Whitlock's front porch. Finally able to breathe, I let my feet slide behind him and took deep, healing breaths. I was shaking hard from the cold, and the wet, and the stress of the whole situation. He had made it to the front corner of the house when I finally felt I could push my voice through my trembling lips. "What the fuck?" I indignantly gasped. His feet stopped and he turned back toward me. His hand still twisted into the zippered front of my jacket. The faint light from the corner was enough to turn the edges of his messy hair bronze, but I couldn't see his face. And even if my guess had been just that... his identity was confirmed with his next incredulous-sounding word. "Bella?" Only one person in the world ever called me Bella. Edward Cullen.

3. Juice

I don't know what it was about the boys next door, but they were the only two people who ever called me a name other than my given one. Jasper started calling me Izzy when we were six years old. It was the same day that I listened to him play piano and decided that I wanted to start calling him Jazz. And Edward... well he called me Isabella just like everyone else. For a while. It was a cool day in April, and I sat on my sagging back porch steps trying to hide from the world. I didn't want to see anyone. More importantly, I didn't want anyone to see me. My already

delicate thirteen-year old self-esteem had taken its hardest hit yet- more so, even, than my constant clumsiness provided. I had just gotten my braces. They hurt. And they were horrible. And I looked like a weirdo. I hated them. And so I sat on my porch and folded my arms around my drawn knees, trying my best to bury my face into my shirt sleeves so that no one would see how terrible I looked. "Isabella?" I heard his clear voice calling across the yard and groaned. Oh God. Anyone but him. I really couldn't handle seeing Edward right now. "Hey, girl. Why are you crying?" Words I knew I shouldn't say bounced around in my mind when I felt him lower his lanky frame to sit beside me on the step. "Go away," I told him, with a muffled voice. "No way," he said softly. "Not until you tell me what's wrong." "I don't want you to look at me," I sniffed. "Ah. What happened this time?" Edward chuckled softly. "Fall down and scratch your nose? Got a black eye?" "Worse," I said through a painful grimace. "I got my braces." "Oh! I forgot about that." He sat quietly beside me while I sniffled and tried to inconspicuously wipe my nose on my shirt. Great. I had braces and I was covered in snot. "Braces aren't so bad," Edward finally said. "Let me see." "No," I moaned. "Come on... let me see." I peeked up above my arm and saw him looking at me with a caring smile on his soft, full lips. His clear green eyes encouraged me, and I raised my face a little higher. When the cool air touched my lips, I tentatively grimaced a short, toothy grin and hoped I didn't blind him with the glare of my new tin smile. "There now, I knew you could do it," he said. His eyes darted to my mouth, but only briefly. Then he nodded. "Bella- I'd say you are over-reacting terribly. Those braces aren't so bad at all. And

just think... in a couple of years that teeny little gap between your teeth will be right as rain. And your smile will dazzle all the boys." He smiled and nudged me with his shoulder. I lowered my chin back onto my arms and tried not to stare at him. There was only one boy I ever really wished I could dazzle. "Why did you call me that?" I asked, staring into the grass at the bottom of the steps. "What? Bella?" "No one calls me that," I said. "Well, I will," Edward vowed then. "Didn't you know? 'Bella' means beautiful. And you should never, never let anyone make you feel like you're not." "Bella?" He asked incredulously. I had to admit, while standing in front of him wetly covered in grass and mud, I felt the complete opposite of beautiful. "Is that you?" "Yeah, Edward," I sighed. "It's me." "Oh my God, honey! I'm so sorry! I had no idea..." "Think nothing of it," I grumbled, trying to straighten my jacket around my hips since he had so graciously decided to stop pulling me around by the drawstrings. I looked like a complete mess. "Hell... Jasper didn't say a thing about you being home! I didn't expect..." he continued to explain his behavior. "I lived in New York City for four years. I got kind of used to not trusting shadowy figures lurking in the darkness..." "I was just trying to get some rocks to throw at your brother's window," I explained. "I didn't know I was about to get tackled..." "Sorry about that. Are you hurt?" "Nothing but my pride," I shook my head. "I've had worse." "I'll bet you have," Edward chuckled. "You always were so accident prone." "Thanks for bringing up my inadequacies," I grumbled. "But you jumping me, was hardly my fault." "I said I was sorry." "You're forgiven," I said.

"I just... I can't believe you're home too," Edward said warmly. I wish I could see his face. I wish I could see if his eyes still sparkled when his voice got all warm and soft like that. "How long has it been?" "Seven years," I whispered. "You must be wrong," he shook his head. "I've been home since then." "But you haven't seen me," I said quietly. I remembered the last night I ever saw Edward Cullen. I was sixteen years old, and Jazz told me that Edward was coming home for a few days over his Christmas break. I was so excited to see him. I picked out a very pretty skirt and a bright red Christmas sweater that fit me well and made me feel very grown up. My braces were off, and I couldn't wait to smile at him and show him how much I had changed while he was gone. I sat with my knees at the foot of the bed, not wanting to go over for the Whitlock's Christmas party until I knew that Edward was there. Jasper's bedroom window was dark, but I sat up high on my knees when I saw the window next to his light with a bright yellow glow. I could see him, even though it was from an angle. Edward walked into his old bedroom and tossed a bag on the foot of his bed. Something caught his eye, and he turned his head toward the window. And then, even though his features were blurred by the distance between us, I saw him smile widely and raise his hand to wave in my direction. I put my hand on the cold glass window beside my face and smiled back. But then his head turned, and I saw that someone was in the room with him. The smile slid from my face when I saw him turn from the window, his mouth moving as he spoke. And then he moved further to the side, and I saw a girl move to place a bag beside his on the foot of the bed. He put his arms around her and I slumped back to rest heavily on my calves. Edward had brought a girl home with him, to meet his parents over Christmas break. And every one of my childish romantic dreams were destroyed. Charlie came to check on me. My red face and puffy eyes were enough to convince him that I was sick. I claimed to have the flu, and Charlie didn't think to question my haggard appearance. He went back to the party without me, and I laid curled in my bed, crying over a broken heart. Joy sent left-overs to the house. I was able to pretend illness for Edward's entire visit. It wasn't easy to fake. I felt and looked ill. By the time the New Year started, Edward and his girlfriend went back to school and I was able to say I was finally over my silly little girl crush. "I started spending school breaks with my Mom, in Florida," I continued, bringing myself back to the present. "I guess we just missed each other." "I guess so," Edward nodded. "What are you doing home, now?"

"Well... Jasper asked me to come spend a couple weeks with him." "He did?" It was news to me. "He didn't mention it." "I wonder what he has up his sleeve," Edward said wryly. I smiled in the darkness. "I think I have a pretty good idea. But I'll let Jazz be the one to tell you." He probably asked Edward to come home for the same reason that he asked me. He wanted to let him know about his engagement. "Oh. Okay." We both stood there in the darkness, facing each other. Even though I knew he couldn't see me any better than I could see him, I was terribly self-conscious about my ruined clothing and generally sloppy appearance. "Did you... want to come in?" Edward asked. "We could make some coffee... maybe catch up?" "No... I should get back over to the house," I shook my head. "It's really very late." "Yeah, my plane was delayed for the fog," Edward said. "I haven't even been in the house yet. My luggage is still on the porch." "Neighborhood safety patrol comes first," I replied. He chuckled a little and I turned to go. "I'm sure we've made enough noise to chase away any real threats in the area." "Consider yourself a hero then," I said over my shoulder. "Sleep sweet Bella. Sorry about tackling you." "Good night Edward. Welcome home." The morning sun put up a losing fight while it tried to force its way through the dense fog that still shrouded Forks. I got up and showered quickly. Because I knew the weather would be cold and damp, at least until the fog burned away, I dressed in a heavy sweatshirt and pants for my morning run. "Where are you off to this morning?" Charlie asked over his cup of coffee. I twisted my hair back into a ponytail and then straddled a chair across from him at the table. "Meeting Jazz down at the diner for some breakfast before a run on the beach." "Need a lift?" my father asked. He was already dressed in his uniform.

"Do I get to play with the buttons?" I teased with wide eyes. Until I was about ten years old, I actually thought it was pretty cool to ride around with him in his cruiser. I always wanted him to flash the lights and turn on the siren. "Come on, Isabella." He stood and finished the last of his coffee before putting his mug in the sink and turning toward the door. Charlie grinned when we pulled up in front of the diner, and flipped a switch that made the siren burst forward in one loud peal of noise before I opened the car door. "Thanks," I groaned. Nothing like announcing my arrival in grand style. "See you tonight, kiddo," Charlie waved and drove away to work. I stepped into the diner and glanced around. Jasper wasn't there yet. I frowned. I worried that he might have had to wait for me. We'd had an earlier start the day before. "Hey there, Isabella." The cook, Waylon greeted me by waving a short steel spatula over the service bar that was cut in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. "Want some breakfast this morning?" "Just some wheat toast, please. I'll get my own drink!" I skipped behind the counter and slid open the door to the deep cooler that I knew housed an assortment of bottled juices. Cheery orange bottles of orange juice were nestled in the ice right on top. Which meant, I would probably have to dig a bit to find something else. I wasn't a fan of orange juice, which always made people laugh for some stupid reason. I guess since I lived in Florida, I was automatically supposed to enjoy it. I pushed up the sleeve of my sweatshirt and plunged my hand into the ice. Gritting my teeth, I leaned the top part of my body into the cooler and stretched my arm out as far as it would go. I heard the faint jingling of the bells on the door that indicated that someone had come in, but I was intent on my task. My fingers had finally a smooth glass container, and I began to pull it free from its icy confines. "Cranberry is at the bottom," a warm voice said in front of me. I stood with a start and cracked the back of my head loudly on the countertop above me. "Ouch! Shit!" My hand flew up to rub the spot where I was sure to get a lump. Edward sat on the stool in front of me, trying not to smile. "I'm sorry Bella," he said through twitching lips. "I didn't mean to scare you." "You didn't. You just... surprised me, is all." I shook the water from my juice bottle in his direction out of spite before placing it against the tender spot under my ponytail.

"That's two injuries I've caused in as many days..." "If you are referring to my three cracked ribs... that incident happened after midnight. So technically, you've caused two injuries in one day." "Let's not try for three, shall we?" Edward's eyes flashed up at me from under his lashes, and I stood there stunned for a moment. It was the first time I had really seen him since our unfortunate encounter the night before. And to say that he had become more handsome with age would be an understatement. His hair was darker, but still messy. The bronze color played on the edges when he moved his head. His shoulders were more broad... his forearms that rested on the counter were thicker... strong. I realized then that since the last time we had seen each other, Edward had made the transition from boy to man. And from the looks of things, he had done so quite nicely. "Are you ok?" His eyes still held the same warm concern. I wrinkled my nose and smiled. "I'm fine," I shook my head. "Juice?" He took an orange juice that I offered, and I slid the cooler door shut before walking around the counter to sit on the stool beside him. Waylon came around the corner then and placed my toast in front of me, along with a heaping plate of breakfast foods in front of Edward. "Good to see you, Son," Waylon smiled. "Thanks Waylon. Good to see you too." Edward lifted his fork and took a bite of his hash browns. I tried not to stare at the way his mouth moved while he chewed. "So... where's Jazz?" I asked. I nibbled my toast and twisted the lid off my cranberry juice. "He's at home, nursing a hang-over," Edward grinned. "I guess he went out with some guys last night and tied one on." "He's a light-weight," I snickered. Edward nodded over his breakfast. "So... what are you doing here?" "Jasper said that he promised to drive you out to the beach to jog. Since he wasn't up to it, I thought I would take you."

"Oh..." I frowned down at the crust of bread on my plate. Good old Edward, being forced to babysit again. "You really don't have to. I mean... I'm sure you have better things to do while you are on vacation." "What's the matter Bella?" Edward smirked and took a drink of his juice. "Afraid you won't be able to keep up?" My eyes narrowed of their own accord. I really didn't know Edward well enough anymore, to be able to tell if he was teasing. But the challenging tone of his voice made me grit my teeth. "More afraid of seeing you cry like a girl when I leave your ass in the dust," I smirked. "Let's go then." Edward grabbed both of our plates and carried them back to the kitchen, while I fetched two bottles of water for the trip. Always the gentleman, Edward opened my car door for me as I slipped inside. "Nice car," I complimented while he got behind the wheel. "It's a rental," he shrugged. "It's alright for now." "Do you still drive Eleanor?" I remembered that he left for school driving that old blue car that he loved so much. Jasper named Edward's car Eleanor, after a Beatles song. It stuck. And truthfully, Edward was practically our taxi-service while he still lived at home. "She died a few years ago," Edward shook his head. "I replaced her with an Eclipse." "Oooh. Sexy. A red one?" "Black," he lowered his brows and glanced over at me. "I named her Lucy." "In the sky with diamonds?" I supplied. He nodded. "I figured Jasper would approve." We both smiled and he turned his eyes back to the road. I looked at his profile for a moment, thinking of how strange it was to be sitting beside him like this. The years had changed us both. But everything felt exactly the same. With the window rolled down, I leaned my head back and let the wind whip the short pieces of hair that had escaped my ponytail around my face. The fog was losing its battle. The sun was breaking through.

4. Heat

By the time we made it to First Beach, the fog had lifted. Warm sunlight peeked through the clouds, and bathed patches of the sand with its creamy yellow light. I watched as Edward pulled his sweatshirt over his head and dropped it on the seat of the car. His t-shirt fit nicely over the solid planes of his chest, and I dropped my eyes to my feet. Suddenly, I wished I had thought to wear a lighter shirt under my own frumpy sweat suit. I stood by the passenger side of the car while Edward remained at the driver's. We both stretched our arms and legs, getting ready for a run. "It doesn't really surprise me, that you and Jasper took up jogging," Edward said over the top of the car. "Why is that?" I asked, bending at the waist to press my face toward my knee. The back of my thigh protested slightly, remembering my run the morning before. "Well... because I was in cross-country and track in high school," Edward explained. He was staring straight ahead while doing shallow lunges. "You two kids were always copying everything I did." I wasn't sure if it was his tone, his reference to Jasper and I being "kids" or his smug attitude that pricked a tiny bit of annoyance in me. "We started running long after you were gone to college," I suggested. "And neither of us joined the track team." Jasper never got into sports the way that Edward had. And I was too clumsy to ever try out for organized team activities. Jogging seemed a good fit for us both. And surprisingly, I was sure on my feet while they were moving fast. Edward shrugged as if my declaration was of no importance. While I couldn't put my finger on the reason, it annoyed me even more. I quickly pulled my MP3 player from my pocket, and started thumbing through music folders. "I usually run two miles. I hope that's okay with you," I said. "Should be fine... for starters," Edward nodded. "I haven't jogged in a while." I bit back the retort I felt bubbling up at his off-handed insult. "We run down to Banger's Rocks before we turn. Do you know the place?"

Banger's Rocks got their name ages ago. During beach parties, many a young couple stole away to let the rocks block them from view while they enjoyed any number of illicit acts behind them. "How do you know Banger's Rocks?" Edward had his eyebrows raised in surprise. I just shrugged and inserted my ear buds before I started jogging down the beach. Edward only ran behind me for a couple of moments. He caught up quickly and matched his strides to mine. His mouth was pressed together tightly, and his face held the familiar expression that he always wore when he didn't approve of something that Jasper and I were up to. He probably didn't like the fact that I evaded his question. No. I'd never had sex behind Banger's Rocks. But it wouldn't hurt to make him wonder about that! Together we ran, side by side. I let a dance track that played in my ears set my jogging pace. Edward matched his motion to the cadence my feet tapped into the sand. I glanced over at Edward from time to time, but tried not to stare at his strong profile or the muscular forearms that were held up against his sides. He had changed a lot since going away to college. But then... so had I. As our feet hit the sand in a shared rhythm, I smiled. It felt really good to be running alongside Edward. For once I wasn't chasing behind him. We were finally equals. The dynamic changed, however, when our path came across a large piece of driftwood. From where I jogged, it was in my way. So I skirted the obstacle and ended up several paces behind Edward when I got back to the original course. He didn't slow. I heard the plaintive whine of the little girl in my mind. "Edward... come on! Slow down! Wait for me..." I shook the child's voice away. I didn't need anyone to coddle me anymore. I pumped my arms and made my legs work harder... faster. Edward's eyebrows rose when he saw me catch up to him from the corner of his eye. Surprised? I grinned smugly and kept jogging. We both turned when we got to Banger's Rocks, and without speaking, we both picked up our pace. I looked over at Edward and caught him stealing a glance at me. His eyebrows lowered and his lips pressed together in a frown. Interesting. Maybe he thought I should be slowing by now. Feeling sure of myself, I quickened my pace and stepped ahead of him on our path. Edward was by my side again in an instant. We took turns then. He pulled into the lead, and I caught up. I stepped up the pace, and he caught up. My teeth clenched and my feet slapped hard on the sand. His jaw was set, and he was working just as hard as I was. I deliberately positioned myself beside him in a way that guaranteed that the upcoming driftwood would not cause me to lose time again. Edward frowned when he saw that it was in his way. But then he pushed his feet into the sand and ran straight at it, hurdling over the obstacle and staying a straight course. My mouth popped open at his determination. As soon as his feet hit the sand again, it was on. Both of us ran at a dead sprint toward his car. My head was lowered and I watched the grey sand and pebbles fly under my feet. My lungs protested and my legs were

beginning to feel numb. But somehow I pushed myself to stay neck-in-neck with Edward. We reached the car together. I put my hands on my knees and leaned forward, trying to catch my breath. My whole body buzzed with an endorphin rush. I felt positively giddy. I wasn't a little girl anymore. It felt good to be able to match up to Edward. I noticed he stood much like I was. His messy hair flopped damply across his forehead while he took deep breaths. I reached into the passenger side of the car and retrieved our bottles of water. I handed one to Edward before twisting the cap off my own. "Thanks," he said, sounding out of breath. "Sure," I smiled over at him. He didn't return my pleasant look. Instead he scowled and took a long drink of water before moving to get into the car without a word. I frowned and joined him. After driving a couple of miles in silence, Edward's surliness was beginning to get on my nerves. Had the fact that I managed to keep up with him really upset him so much? I decided to try again, to lighten the tension I felt between us. "Good run," I offered. "You're fast. I thought you said you were out of practice." Maybe a compliment would help to lighten his disposition. "Next time we should run three miles," Edward said stonily. "Two is hardly a work-out." I hoped he would have complimented me in kind. Maybe he might have noted that it was nice that I could keep up, for once. But no. He had to act like a jack-ass. I propped my leg up on the dashboard of his car noisily, and pulled up the elastic at the bottom of my pants to expose my calf. "If two miles is too easy for you, next time you should use legs weights like I do." His eyes left the road to see the blue weight that was strapped around my ankle. Then he glared beyond the windshield again with his knuckles turning white on the steering wheel. I turned my head toward the window so he wouldn't see my satisfied smirk. We didn't speak for the rest of ride home. When Edward pulled into the drive of the Whitlock's house, I jumped from the car immediately and hurried toward my own front door. "Bye," he grumbled from behind me. "Yeah," I replied. I don't know if he heard me. I really didn't care. His attitude was not deserving of my attempts at friendliness. In my hurry, I almost barreled into Charlie who was dressed in his uniform and obviously on his way out the door to go to work.

"Hey. Slow down there Isabella!" "Sorry Dad," I muttered. "Where's the fire?" "I'm sweating like a pig and need a shower," I explained as an alternate emergency. "Proceed." Charlie stepped aside with a smile. "Oh! Hey, Dad?" I asked, turning in the hall. "Can I borrow your truck today? I was thinking of heading to Port Angeles to get some art supplies." "Promise to paint something for me, and it's all yours," he grinned. Charlie pulled a key off his keychain and tossed it to my waiting hands. An afternoon away from town sounded good. And I didn't have room in my luggage to pack paper and watercolors. I could use a few supplies to provide a creative outlet while home. A few hours later, I sat at a small table thumbing through a worn travel book and sipping a strong coffee. My new block of paper, tubes of water color paints, and brushes were safely stowed in my father's truck. Not wanting to go home yet, I stopped to visit a quaint store that sold used books. I figured if Jasper planned many more nights out with friends from high school, I might end up needing some new reading material to keep me occupied. It's not like I had anyone else to hang out with. I thought of my morning run with Edward and rolled my eyes. A good book would make for better company. Seriously... where did he get off? He was fun to chat with at the diner and on the ride to First Beach. But then he was obviously pissy just because I kept up with him in a race. I certainly wasn't in a hurry to sign-up for more alone-time with him. I placed my book down on the table when I heard Wild Cherry blaring from my purse. 'Play that Funky Music' was Jasper's ringtone. I smiled while I answered my cell phone. "Izzy? Where are you?" "Sitting in a book store in Port Angeles. How's your hangover?" "Gone and I'm getting ready to give myself a head start on the next one," he laughed. "Will you be in Port Angeles a while?" "I could be. Why?" "Edward and I are driving that way. I need to talk to you. Do you know The Bloated Toad... just north of town?" I thought about the direction he mentioned, recalling the small tavern he was talking about.

"Yeah. I know the place." "Can you meet us there in about an hour?" Jasper asked. "I'll buy you a beer." "Buy me dinner too and I'll consider it," I told him. "Though getting me to spend time with your brother this evening will take more than one beer." "I'll buy dinner too," Jasper agreed. "And I'll make that beer a pitcher. Will you meet us?" "Yeah. I'll be there," I finally said. "Great. I'll see you in about an hour." We said our goodbyes and I dropped my phone back into my purse with a sigh. Maybe Jasper's presence would help to remove that large stick that Edward had crammed up his ass earlier in the day. My wish apparently came true. I was already seated bar-side at the tavern when Jasper and Edward walked in. Jazz kissed me on the cheek quickly before excusing himself right away to use the bathroom. Edward awkwardly walked over to sit on the stool beside me. "Hi," I mumbled, not meeting his gaze. I twisted my hands together on the bar before deciding to place them in my lap, but a warm grip on my wrist halted my nervous movements. "Bella? I owe you an apology." The sincerity in Edward's smooth voice caused me to raise my eyes to his. His green eyes held remorse and he offered me a soft, tentative smile. "An apology?" I asked. He dropped his hand from my arm and nodded. "I was horrible to you this morning, after our run. I really did have a nice time jogging with you. I... I wasn't being a very good sport." "Yeah. I heard you kicked his ass in a foot-race," Jasper said with a laugh as he sat on the other side of me. My eyes turned with surprise in his direction before moving back to Edward. "She was fast," Edward nodded with a grin. I turned my head to look at Jasper once more. "I would have paid to see that," he teased his brother. "This isn't going to work," I frowned. "I feel like I'm watching tennis. Let's get a table." The two men rose from the bar stools on either side of me, and allowed me to lead the way to a corner booth. Edward sat across the table from Jasper and I.

Feeling much better after Edward's apology, I sent him a small smile to let him know that I accepted his sentiment. When the waitress came by our table, Jasper turned toward me and indicated that I should order. "A pitcher of beer and some hot-wings?" I asked. "Sounds good," Jasper nodded. Edward just looked up and frowned in my direction. "What?" I asked. "I thought girls were supposed to eat things like salad with extra sprouts and drink fruity cocktails?" "Jeez Edward," I mumbled, feeling my earlier irritation creep up again. "Chauvinistic much?" "Mild, hot, or three-alarm?" The waitress ignored Edward and I and asked about our order. "Three-alarm," Jasper told her. I was still bristling from Edward's comment. "Really Edward," I huffed. "I don't know what frou-frou poodle-type girls you are used to hanging out with at Harvard. But you should get used to the fact that I run with the big dogs!" Jasper did his best Rottweiler impersonation by barking loudly twice before baring his teeth and sinking them playfully into my shoulder. "Down boy!" I laughed and slapped him on the top of his head. Jasper leaned back in the booth but threw one arm over the back of the seat behind me. Edward just looked at us both with an expression that was so comically exasperated that we both had to laugh at him. "This is actually why I wanted to talk with you both, today," Jasper smiled. I turned slightly so I could better see his face. Edward folded his hands on the table and listened intently. "I told Edward that I'm getting married." I turned my face to look at Edward across the table. He actually looked a little embarrassed. "Cool, huh?" I asked. "He thought, at first, that I had proposed to you!" Jasper laughed loudly. "I told him I was engaged... and he asked me what Charlie thought of us getting married so young!" I laughed too and shook my head. "It's not that funny," Edward muttered. "It was an honest mistake."

"Anyway," Jasper poured three glasses of beer from the pitcher that the waitress placed on the table. "My engagement is what has called you both here." Edward and I both looked at him, waiting for him to explain. Jasper drank a few large gulps of beer and placed his glass back on the table. He actually looked a little nervous. "Edward? You are my brother." Edward nodded solemnly. He looked as confused as I felt. Jasper turned his troubled blue eyes in my direction. "And Izzy? You are my best friend." I smiled at him. "The problem I'm having," Jasper said quietly, "is that I have no idea which of you should be my Best Man." Edward and I both sat back in our seats. Then we both opened our mouths to speak at the same time. "I'm your brother," Edward restated. "When we were seven... you promised..." I reminded Jasper. I looked over at Edward and saw him shooting me a dark look. I could understand his aggravation. They were related. But Jasper and I always planned to be in each other's weddings. We promised each other when we were kids. And I knew him way better than his brother did. "Silly promises made between children aren't as important as family," Edward argued. "You didn't even know his fiance's name!" I returned his dirty look across the table. "Irrelevant," Edward folded his arms across his chest. The hot-wings arrived and I picked up one of the spicy pieces of chicken and bit into it angrily. The hot sauce stung my lips immediately and I picked up my beer to soothe my mouth. Edward chose a wing too, and took a large bite while scowling. I wasn't willing to admit that the wings were too hot. So I stared right at Edward and took a deliberately slow bite. God, it burned. I couldn't even taste the chicken. My mouth was on fire. Edward finished his wing quickly and reached for another. But I raised my eyebrow when I noticed the tell-tale sheen of sweat on his upper lip. Jasper picked up a bite of food, but dropped it after the first taste. "Holy Hell. Those are like Satan's balls. I am not eating that!" Jasper took a drink of beer and looked between Edward and me with an amused expression. "They aren't so bad," I managed to say, surprised that flames didn't actually escape my throat while I talked.

"I've had hotter," Edward murmured. Yet, he still raised his napkin toward his forehead. Jasper watched us both a minute longer before he put his palms flat on the table and tipped his head back. His laughter rang loud and true across the tavern. "I knew this was going to be a good idea," he shook his head and chuckled. "What are you talking about?" I asked. I pretended to be only mildly interested in the beer I sipped. In reality, I wished I could jump inside the entire glass to cool off. "Edward is the most competitive person I know. And Izzy? I've never met anyone more stubborn than you are." "So?" Edward growled and finally placed his food on a napkin. I wondered if he noticed that I only ate one. "So last night I got an idea," Jasper smiled. "Since I couldn't figure out who should be my Best Man... I've decided that a little friendly competition might be in order." "You want us... to compete for the title?" Edward raised his eyebrows sharply. I pursed my lips together and glared at the man sitting across from me. "What's the matter Cullen?" I asked. "Afraid of getting your ass kicked by a girl... again?" "This isn't a run on the beach," he said snidely. Edward leaned toward me over the table. "I won't take it easy on you." "I wouldn't expect you to." I narrowed my eyes. "I will win," Edward said slowly. His eyes drilled into mine. "We'll see," I replied just as smugly. We both leaned back in our seats again and turned our attention to Jasper. His smile was as wide as ever. "This is going to be fun," he said.

5. Sticky Stars

"Tell us about the damn competition," Edward muttered. Jasper laced his fingers together and flipped his hands to press his palms toward Edward until his knuckles popped loudly. The

merriment in his eyes made me have to struggle to hide a responsive grin. He looked like he was up to something. "I want a bachelor party extravaganza. Three days of partying... to be held next Memorial Day weekend. And since planning the bachelor party is one of the responsibilities of the Best Man... that is what you are going to do." "I'm not sure I understand," I said. Jasper grinned over at me and continued. "Over the next ten days... you will each be asked to plan one day time event, one night out, and one epic adventure. We'll go out and do the things that you have planned. And I'll have my judges determine the winner from each round!" "Your judges?" I asked. "The guys I went out with last night have kindly offered to hang out with us and act as judges for the competition." "Great." Edward snorted and rolled his eyes. "Exactly how drunk were you when you came up with this asinine plan?" "Three sheets to the wind, big bro," Jasper nodded. "But I still think it sounds like a wicked good time!" "So we plan these... activities," I looked over at Edward and back to Jasper. "Then we all go out and actually do them. And... the dipshits you went drinking with get to determine who would make the better Best Man?" "Pretty much," Jasper smiled. "But before you start thinking of ways to sabotage each other's plans... you should know something. You will be expected to participate in every event. And you will be judged not only by your own planning abilities, but also by how much fun you are to hang around. So, Bella might have a great idea for something to do... but Edward? You could still win the round just by being the life of the party." This time, it was my turn to snort. Edward turned his frown in my direction and I picked up my beer and pretended that I didn't see him. He wasn't exactly Mr. Charming. I should be able to win the competition on personality alone. "What about the 'epic adventure'?" Edward asked. I watched Jasper intently, eager for his response. "Ah. Well... we won't be able to try those ahead of time," he shook his head. "That part of the competition will just be deliberated on by me. You come up with the coolest bachelor party event you can think of, and present it to me. I'll choose the winner. And we'll do that culminating activity during the actual Bachelor Party weekend next summer."

"Sounds like a piece of cake," I smiled. "Cake. Yes. And finger sandwiches. Maybe some punch? Isn't that the kind of party girls are used to throwing together?" Edward was taunting me. "Big dogs, remember?" I sneered. "I have no problem hanging out with the guys." "You don't have what it takes," Edward folded his arms across his chest and leaned back again. "What? A penis?" I asked. "I don't need one. I actually have a brain that I don't have to shake after I pee." Jasper started to choke on his beer, and I reached over and slapped him across the back until his coughing subsided. "So I take it, you're in?" Jasper smiled at me. "Oh yeah. Count me in," I nodded solemnly. "Fine. Whatever," Edward curled his lip. The three of us finished our beers in silence while the un-finished hot wings tried their best to burn a hole in the center of the table. I was still thinking about my afternoon meeting with Jazz and Edward while I brushed my teeth and prepared for bed. The three of us went our separate ways after lunch. I purposely didn't call Jazz later in the day, so that he and his brother could spend some time reconnecting. Reaching above my head to twist my hair into a messy top-knot, I walked into my bedroom. My feet stumbled in a moment of surprise when I saw the long and lanky figure of my best friend, draped across my bed. "What are you doing here?" I asked Jazz as I closed the door behind me, so as not to wake Charlie. "I needed to talk to you Izzy," Jasper smiled with his hands cradling the back of his head. He looked totally at ease laying with his head near the foot of my bed. His legs stretched in a straight angle that let his feet rest flat on the wall above my headboard. "Get your feet off my wall," I ordered. "I have no idea how I would explain size eleven foot prints on the wall above my bed." "Charlie would think you were getting your kink on," Jasper grinned and rolled so that he could sit up with his feet on the floor. "I came up the tree. Hope you don't mind."

"Not at all." I shook my head and glanced toward the open window. Charlie knew that the tree served as a ladder for Jasper and I. If he ever caught any other boys trying to enter my room that way, I was sure he would have cut the thing down immediately. "Nice underwear," Jazz commented while he looked down my body. I kicked at his leg playfully and moved to sit on the chair by my desk. "Is there something you aren't telling me?" He continued to tease. "I know you are the ballsiest girl I've ever known... but you aren't actually growing a pair down there, are you?" He was, of course, referring to my sleep attire of a tank top and men's boxer shorts. I pulled at the hem of my boxers and shrugged. "They were the only thing belonging to Pete that I wasn't willing to part with." The underwear belonged to my ex-boyfriend. Jasper was well aware of my past relationship and our break-up last fall. "Sentimental attachment to his shorts? Or what he kept in them?" Jasper took off his glasses and rubbed the lenses with the bottom of his t-shirt before putting them back in place. "No sentimental attachment whatsoever," I argued. "Strictly comfort." It was a wonder that Pete and I managed to keep our relationship going for the year that we did. We were as mismatched as a couple could be. He was a fraternity boy who wanted me to pledge to his sister sorority. Sorority life would never be for me. I already had a personality of my own. I liked to march to my own beat. I never had a desire to be one of the popular kids in high school. That hadn't changed when I moved on to college. Still he was handsome... and nice. And I was flattered when he asked me out. It just didn't take too long to figure out that we made better friends than lovers. "Good to know." Jasper nodded in approval. He met Pete once, and didn't really like him. Jasper spent more time making fun of his name, than trying to get to know him. "So I know you didn't climb the tree to talk about my pajamas," I folded my arms over my chest and tipped my head to the side while I looked at him. "I wanted to make sure that you aren't mad at me," Jasper rested his arms across his legs and folded his hands in the space between his knees. "I asked you and Edward here, for these two weeks... because I honestly had no idea which of you I should ask to stand up with me. And I hoped that the three of us could hang out together, and that maybe you two would come to some understanding..." "So that you wouldn't have to make a choice that might hurt one of us," I finished. "Exactly," he breathed. "So... the competition?"

"I just got that idea while I was out with the guys." Jasper rubbed the back of his neck and looked sheepish. "I don't know. It's probably stupid..." "It's very stupid," I nodded. "But it will also be fun." Jasper looked up and smiled at my words. "Really? You think so? Because Edward thinks I'm being a complete idiot." "That's because Edward has turned into an uptight jerk," I grumbled. "Come here," Jasper ordered. He slid his body to lay on the bed again, and I got up to lay down beside him. With my head resting on his outstretched arm, we both stared at the tiny glow-in-thedark star stickers that were scattered on my ceiling. "Do you remember when we put those up there?" Jasper pointed at the faded-yellow constellations. "I think I was ten," I frowned. "Yes. We thought it was cool that when it was too cloudy to see the stars outside, we could still come up here to make wishes." "We were goofy kids," I giggled. "I still remember that you wished you could marry Edward." "I did not!" I gasped. But I remembered it too. "Yes you did," Jasper pulled my shoulder closer to him. "He's the same guy Bella. He... he's just been out of the game for a while. Law school is serious business. All work and no play... ya know? Cut him a little slack. If we help him to have some fun, maybe he'll loosen up a little." "I guess," I murmured. "Will you try?" Jasper asked quietly. "I haven't really spent any quality time with Edward in so long. First he moved away to New York. Then these past three years he's been in law school... we've barely been in touch. I'm looking forward to having my brother back." "Yeah. I'll try," I replied softly. I could tell by the tone of Jasper's voice, that it was important to him. He shifted his arm out from under my head then, and moved down the bed so that he could crawl back out through the window. "See you tomorrow? Maybe we could watch a movie or something? Oh- and you have to come up with your day-time bachelor party activity. Edward already has his planned out." "Shit! What's he doing?"

"He didn't tell me," Jasper shrugged. "You can both let me know your ideas tomorrow. See ya Izzy." "Night Jazz," I said, biting my lip. When I saw his tall figure cut across the grass between our houses, I pulled my window shut and moved to the desk to turn on my laptop. I had a day-time activity for a bunch of guys to plan. At noon the next day, dressed in a pair of old jeans with tears across both knees, and a Vintage New York Dolls t-shirt, I buttoned one of Charlie's old flannel shirts around my chest to serve as a paint smock. It covered me to mid-thigh and was perfect for battling cobwebs and spiders while I crawled around in the attic space searching for my old easel and covered-palette. With old and new art supplies in tow, I went out to the backyard to set up. Charlie had requested that I paint him a picture. The view from our backyard seemed as nice a place to begin, as any. I felt inspired, looking at the billowy silver clouds that huddled together to plan rain over the evergreen tree line. Smiling, I laid flat on my back and considered the colors that danced above me. It had been ages since I had actually picked up a brush and paints. My creative impulses at school had shifted to more technologically precise works with computer graphics. Classes and projects pushed other art endeavors aside as hobbies that I had little time for. While the damp grass below cushioned me, my fingers itched to reproduce the scene above. I stretched my arms over my head happily, and felt my shoulder muscles loosen. After a short while, I stood back up and moved to the easel where my watercolor block waited for me to sketch the general outline of what I wanted to paint. Lines in place, I stuck the pencil between my teeth and bit gently into the soft wood while I squeezed my paints into the wells of my palette. A quick wash with a wide brush in clear water readied my paper for the old sienna and aqua marine that blended to provide light and darkness for my sky on paper. The white paper peeked through to form the hanging clouds, and I smiled when I saw my mind's vision take shape before me. Brown and sap green was added to the mix, and I pulled my paintbrush in straight lines mimicking the growth of trees for my background. I stepped back and looked at the shades, knowing that I would need to let it dry before I added the more detailed, closer trees to the composition. It was then than I heard a gentle cough from a short distance away. Turning my head, I saw Edward watching me intently from his back porch next door. I looked at him, wondering how long he had been standing there. "Hi," I called over. He smiled and stepped down the stairs, crossing the lawn between us quickly with his long strides. "I didn't want to interrupt," Edward said pleasantly.

"How long have you been out here?" I asked. "Since you were laying in the grass," Edward replied. "You used to do that when you were a little girl too. You'd stare at whatever you were drawing or painting like you wanted to memorize it first." I shrugged. My cheeks actually felt a little warm, but I pushed that away. It surprised me that he remembered any of my childhood habits. "This is nice," Edward remarked, stepping in front of the easel. "The sky never looks the same anywhere else, as it does here." "I know," I answered. I took in the back of his messy hair, and his broad shoulders. When he turned to face me, I looked down at the grass so he wouldn't catch me staring. "You always were so talented..." I looked up to find nothing but honesty in his eyes. It confused me, that Edward was being so nice. The compliments were surprising. "I always knew you'd go into art," he smiled. "You are an art major. Am I correct?" "Graphic art," I shrugged. "Not entirely the same thing. But it lets me put my creativity to good use. And it will allow me to work pretty much anywhere I'd like when I graduate. Did Jazz tell you?" "I guessed," he smiled. "Come with me. I'd like to show you something." He turned and started back the way he had come. I rinsed my brush in my water jar, careful to get the paint pulled away from the heel before I pinched the sable bristles back to a point and laid it flat to dry in the tray beside my palette. Edward stood on his porch waiting for me, and so I hurried to join him. "Where are we going?" I asked, when he held the backdoor open for me to enter. "Upstairs," he smiled. I hesitated in the hallway. Edward had been in a foul mood the last time I had been around him. Now he seemed happy, and relaxed. I didn't quite know what to make of it. "Trust me," he said, putting his hand on my elbow and steering me up the stairs in front of him. "Where's Jazz?" I asked, looking around. "He drove into town to get some DVD's. He said we are watching a movie later." "Oh." My feet stopped when we reached the space in front of Edward's bedroom door. I looked at the rectangular metal sign that was still tacked into the wood. In bright red and white, the sign clearly said "Keep out." It was a reminder of the red juice I had spilled across his pristine white

home-work pages that inspired him to hang that sign when he was fifteen years old. "Are you sure I can come in?" "If you promise not to destroy my report on Abraham Lincoln, I think this one time will be okay," Edward teased. I smiled and followed him into his bedroom. Edward actually made a joke. It was nice. "Have a seat," he pointed to his bed. I tried to act casual as I went to sit on the edge of the blue and green plaid comforter. Edward walked over to the book case and scanned the spines of the books there. Then, reaching one hand upward, he brought back a dark blue yearbook. "Senior year," he smiled. I stiffened when he sat beside me, and started flipping through the pages of the yearbook in his hands. Edward's nearness was a little unsettling. Sure. He was the same old Edward that I had known most of my life. But he was older, and definitely more handsome. And I had loved him from afar for so many years... it was hard not to feel a little flustered by the fact that I was actually sitting beside him, in his bedroom. "Ah! Here it is," Edward smiled. He pulled a faded piece of paper from where it was tucked between pages of his book, and unfolded it, before handing it to me. It was a sketch that I had drawn, of Edward. Edward sat in the picture window, waiting for his friends to arrive in the limo they rented for prom night. I laid with my stomach on the living room floor, sketching his profile on the tablet of paper in front of me. When he had walked down the stairs dressed in his tuxedo, I thought the butterflies that beat inside my chest would be enough to lift me off the floor. I had never seen him look more mature or handsome. I was only fourteen years old, but was completely jealous of the girl that would be wearing the corsage he held encased in a clear plastic box. Jasper played piano in the corner of the room, and looked up to see his older brother. "Nice monkey-suit," Jasper announced. Edward tugged the bottom of his jacket and frowned. "You look very debonair," Joy smiled. She smoothed her hands down Edward's lapels, and he grinned gratefully at his mother. "I still don't see why you have to go to prom," Jasper wrinkled his nose. "Who wants to do all that stupid dancing anyway?" "My girlfriend does," Edward said quietly. He moved to sit in the window then, watching for his ride. I shifted to find more comfort in my place on the floor, letting my pencil glide on the paper to shade his cheekbones and his chin. "Dancing is for sissies," Jasper continued to rib Edward from his place on the piano bench.

"Nonsense," Joy interjected. "Edward is a lovely dancer. Girls appreciate a man who can dance well." "Well, I'm never going to prom," Jasper shook his head but continued playing quiet music. "Me neither," I finally joined the conversation. "Isabella!" Joy ignored her younger son and spoke to me. "Girls should look forward to their proms! We get to dress up like princesses and be danced around the room..." Her words faded away as she moved toward the kitchen to check on dinner. I shrugged. "I don't know how to dance anyway," I spoke towards the floor. My pencil scratched across the surface of my sketch pad a few more minutes before a shiny pair of black shoes came into my line of sight. I looked up to see Edward smiling above me. "Bella?" he looked down. "Dance with me." "What?" I croaked out. My pencil dropped to the floor and my cheeks turned pink. Edward laughed lightly. "It's easy. Come on. I'll show you." He reached his long, soft fingers down toward me, and I tentatively placed my hand in his. Once I was standing in front of him, Edward pursed his lips with a look of concentration. "Here. Maybe it will be easier, if you stand on my feet." Like a dream, I moved closer to Edward. He smiled encouragingly, and wrapped his hand around my own. He pulled my other hand to rest on his shoulder before he pressed his fingers into my hip. I stepped up onto his toes, and then... we were dancing. Jasper played quietly while I stared straight ahead at Edward's white shirt. He moved us gently, from side to side, and I concentrated on staying on top of his feet so that I wouldn't trip us both. "Not so bad, is it?" Edward's breath tickled the top of my head. I closed my eyes and smiled. It was perfect. The blaring of a horn outside caused Edward's steps to falter. He released me with a quick smile and put my feet back on the ground before moving to pick up the corsage he had left by the window. Then, as if he had a second-thought, he opened the plastic case and pinched a little sprig of baby's breath from the arrangement. He walked back over to me, and my heart skipped a beat when he tucked the tiny white flowers behind my ear. I closed my eyes as his hand lingered near my cheek for a moment. "Thanks for the dance, Bella," he said quietly. When I opened my eyes again, it was to see him shutting the door as he left.

"I sketched this picture of you before your senior prom," I said in wonder. I was shocked that he had kept my drawing. "I know," he smiled and took the paper from my hands. Edward placed it between the pages of his book again, and stood. "I have a lot of your pictures," he said over his shoulder. Pointing to a piece of notebook paper that was stuck to his corkboard above his desk, he smiled over at me. I recognized the drawing as one I must have done when I was about five or six years old. The stick-figures of Jasper, Edward, and I all held hands under a sunny sky. Crayon smiles graced our faces, and even then, I had drawn a pink heart above the tallest figure's head. "I had no idea," I murmured. "Bella," Edward said softly. He returned his yearbook to his shelf, and then returned to sit beside me. "We've been friends for so long." "Yes," I nodded. It was new and happy discovery to realize that Edward had remembered our childhood friendship with fondness as well. "Don't you think... given all we've been through together... that we should be able to ... come to some sort of agreement concerning this whole Best Man thing?" Edward lowered his chin and looked up at me through his long, dark lashes. If I hadn't seen that look so many times in the past, I might have felt dizzy from the force of it. The look was lethal. But it was the same look that he used to get the last cookie from the jar. The same look Edward used to get the waitresses at the diner to let him leave early because he had a date. It was the same look he used to get out of being in trouble with his mother. It was the look that Edward used when he wanted something. And this time, he was trying to use it on me. "You just want me to give up, and let you be the Best Man!" I accused. "Bella, be reasonable. I'm his brother," Edward continued to speak in that smooth, distracting voice. "Forget it," I shook my head stubbornly. "I am not going to just hand this over to you. You'll have to win it, fair and square." "I will, you know," Edward stood. "I was trying to save you a little embarrassment." "Always the gentleman," I replied sarcastically. Jazz took that moment to peek his head around Edward's bedroom door. "I thought I heard voices in here." His head turned to look between Edward and myself. Edward appeared to be tense once again. I felt stupid for thinking that he was being nice for altruistic reasons.

"I got a couple of movies," Jasper said. "Maybe we could order a pizza and watch?" "I need to pack up my paints," I mumbled. "Will you come over after?" Jasper waved the movies in his hand to entice me with their flashy titles. "If you want..." "Of course we want you to," Edward said while he crammed his hands into his front pockets. His face was guarded. It was hard to tell what he really thought. Jasper smiled over at his brother for backing-up the invitation. "Alright," I sighed. "I'll be back over in about an hour."

6. Lucky

I went back out to my easel and snapped the lid off my palette. While I thought, I picked up some paint on my brush and laid the soft bristles against my paper, introducing darker trees to the foreground. The dark against the light was a good representation of my current musings. How was it that Edward could be so sweet one moment, and so totally irritating in the next? Light and dark. I couldn't keep up with him. I tapped a heavy drop of sap green paint into my water jar. Kneeling in front of it, I watched the almost-black color lose traces of itself in a spiraling trail as the water began to tear it apart. I plunged my brush into the water then, and stirred the paint away from the fine sable hairs until the water became a uniform light green color. I smiled at the difference in the jar. Maybe Edward just needed to be stirred up a little. I wasn't relaxed enough to finish my painting. And so I dried my brush carefully and packed up my supplies before taking them indoors. I wouldn't have had much more time to paint anyway. By the time I showered and returned downstairs, a soaking rain was coming down outside. My hair was already wet, so I left it down and pulled it under the hood of my raincoat. Then I ran through the yard toward the Whitlock's. Of course, I slipped. Jasper opened the door with a laugh. I laid on my hip in his front yard, feeling the rain reach everywhere my bright yellow coat did not. And my jeans were covered in mud.

"Izzy? What in the hell am I going to do with you?" Jasper called out above the noise of the driving rain. I shook my head and stood. "I've got to go change my clothes!" "Get in here. You can wear something of mine." I slopped up the front steps and stood dripping water in their entryway. "Go on up and find something," Jasper turned me toward the stairs. "Bring those down when you're done, and we'll throw them in the wash." "Thanks," I muttered. Halfway up the stairs, I met with Edward who was on his way down. His eyes moved from the top of my wet hair to my sodden tennis shoes. I looked like a drowned rat. "Who tackled you this time?" Edward smirked. "My own clumsiness," I shrugged. "It's part of the joy of being me." Edward made a show of turning his body to the side to avoid my mess while he made his way downstairs. I continued up to Jasper's bedroom where I found a too-large sweatshirt and a pair of flannel pajama pants. I tightened the drawstring to hold the pants around my hips, and a significant portion of the legs had to be rolled up so I could walk without tripping on them. I looked ridiculous. Jasper was over a foot taller than I was. But at least I was warm, dry, and comfortable. Holding my muddy clothes away from my body, I made my way to the laundry room behind the kitchen and tossed my things into the washing machine. Jasper stood in front of the open refrigerator door, holding his phone between his ear and his shoulder. "Yeah Ali. Izzy's right here. Yes..." He looked up at me. "Talk to Alice for a minute. My hands are full." I reached to take the phone from its cradle against Jasper's neck. "Hello?" "Isabella! Hi!" Alice had a voice like a bell. It was soft, and clear and had a musical quality to it that could make a person easily imagine her doing voice-overs for a Disney Princess. Which actually made it all the more hilarious to hear Alice tell someone to fuck-off. For all of her sweetness and charm... Alice was not to be trifled with. She was a bad-ass wrapped in a tiny, very feminine package. "Alice! How are you?" I genuinely loved Jasper's fianc.

"Stuck working," she replied, sounding somewhat muffled. "Sorry for eating in your ear. I'm trying to cram in a turkey sandwich while my douche bag of a boss is allowing me a thirtyminute lunch break." "I'm sorry that you have to work." "Me too, believe me. But I'll be coming to Forks soon for Edward's graduation party. We can hang out then." "Ah! Great. I can't wait to see you." I smiled and watched as Jasper pulled a couple of beers from the refrigerator. He waved one in my direction and I wrinkled my nose. I mouthed the word 'water' to him, and he procured a bottle of water to join the beer and snack food that he was juggling in his arms. "Are you keeping my guy in line?" Alice asked. "Barely," I smiled. "But you know I'll do my best." "I can always count on you," she said nicely. "Oh- by the way... Jasper told me about the Best Man competition." "Oh yeah?" "Yes. And Isabella- I am not playing favorites when I say this. Jasper was really beating himself up over trying to make the decision. I won't try to influence him in either way. But that being said... don't let those guys push you around honey. You give 'em hell." "I won't go down without a fight," I promised. Jasper shook his head at my word choice, and smiled before turning toward the living room. "Good. Now, I've got to get back to work. Tell Jasper he can call me before bed, if he wants. I'll see you later!" "Bye Alice." I pushed the button to end our call, and strolled into the living room. Edward slumped comfortably with one long leg draped over the side of the recliner. Jasper stood, putting a DVD in the player. I took up residence in the corner of the couch and grabbed my drink from the table where Jasper had placed it. "Alice said you could call her before bed," I told him. "Great. Thanks." Edward frowned from his seat. I didn't want him to feel excluded. My goal was to stir things around... get him to lighten up.

"You'll love Alice," I said to him. "She's really one of the coolest people I've ever met." "I don't doubt it," Edward said, relaxing a little. "If Jasper loves her, she must be extraordinary." "She is," Jasper turned with a grin and came to lay across the couch with his head on my lap. His feet dangled over the edge toward Edward who took in our position with a raised eyebrow. "What?" Jasper asked. "Nothing," Edward turned his face toward the television. "Sometimes I just look at you two, and see you like you are still ten years old. You two are just the same around each other, as you were then." "She's softer to lay on now," Jasper grinned up at me. I bounced his head up with my legs once before smiling down at him. With laughter and random comments, we watched the first half of an old Tom Hanks movie in which his friends threw him a Bachelor Party. "Just for the record," Jasper announced. "I do not want a belly-dancer or a donkey at my bachelor party." "Damn. There goes my idea for a nighttime event," Edward dead-panned from his seat in the recliner. Jasper and I both laughed loudly. "No hookers, and no illegal drugs!" I added. "No hookers? That leaves you out!" Jasper laughed and twisted while I bent forward and started pinching his side. In the next instant, Jasper rolled unceremoniously off my lap onto the floor. "Oomph!" he grunted. I looked up to see that Edward had grabbed his ankles and turned him off my lap. "Don't call Bella a hooker," Edward frowned with a playful look in his eyes. "I swear to God... you two never change! Now you just call each other harsher names than 'meanie- head.'" "Yeah, meanie-head!" I stuck my tongue out at Jasper who laid on the floor between the couch and the coffee table laughing. Edward shook his head and sat back down. Jasper lifted himself to sit where he had been dumped to the floor, and rested his elbows on his bent knees. "So... are you guys ready to get this thing started tomorrow?" I looked over at Edward who was also looking over at me. We both knew that Jasper was talking about the competition. Maybe Edward was still hoping that I would concede the title to him. "I'm ready," I shrugged.

"Me too," Edward said. "So... what do you guys have planned for the first event?" Jasper asked. "A day-time activity." "Paintball," I spoke up. I had researched and found a large compound nearby that rented out everything we would need for an epic paintball battle in the woods. It would be a testosteroneriddle morning of running around while shooting at each other. "That will be fun!" Jasper smiled widely. "I think so," I nodded. I turned my attention to Edward to see what he had come up with. "Well?" I asked. "My plan is more basic," he said. "A cooler of beer and Street Ball at the park at the end of the street." "I love basketball!" Jasper was practically bouncing and I bit back a groan. Edward was a sneaky player. Not only did he use the fact that Jasper and he used to always play one-on-one... but he also chose an activity that there was no way I'd be good at. My five-foot two frame would hardly be more than a hindrance when playing basketball with men who towered over me. "Who else is playing?" I frowned, realizing that I didn't even know who Jasper had chosen to be the judges and fellow partiers. "They are all guys we graduated with," Jasper smiled. "Eric Yorkie, Tyler Crowley, and Mike Newton." "Can your friends be impartial?" Edward asked with a serious voice. "Please Edward, I hardly knew them," I shook my head. It was true. The names were familiar, but I couldn't call any of them personal friends. If I recalled correctly, every single one of them had been on the Forks Baseball team... which only made matters worse. To the best of my knowledge, Edward still held some record for most stolen bases in a single season from his time spent playing baseball for Forks. The 'judges' for our competition probably revered him. "That's not entirely true," Jasper added. "I think that Mike asked you out a few times. But you always turned him down." Edward smirked while I groaned. "Great. Then one of them probably already hates me." Edward took a long drink of his beer, and I could tell he was trying not to smile. He obviously considered this new development to be to his advantage.

"Ok. So who goes first?" Jasper asked. "We'll do one of your activities tomorrow, and the other on the following day." "Edward can go first," I offered, trying to keep my voice sounding optimistic. He knew exactly what he was doing when he chose Street ball for his activity. It was going to be brutal. "Ladies first," Edward shook his head. "Like I said..." I channeled my inner-smart ass and smirked over at him with my eyebrows raised. Jasper laughed. "Okay, okay," I rubbed his palms together. "We'll shoot hoops tomorrow... and paint balls the next day. Sound good?" "Fine," Edward nodded and shrugged as if it held little importance. But the tension had crept into the room around us again, and I could feel it. Jasper undoubtedly felt it too. He frowned and looked down at the floor. My best friend was always so sensitive to the moods of people around him. I moved to the end of the couch closest to Edward, and reached out my hand to touch his forearm. He turned his head to look at my hand, and then raised his eyes to me with surprise. "Edward?" I smiled softly. "I really do want this to be fun. For Jasper. I mean... I'm not going to take it easy on you while we are competing. But I'd like for things to stay pleasant when we are not. Can we keep the competition where it belongs... and try to relax and just have a good time while we are all home?" The look in Edward's eyes softened, and he placed a warm hand on top of mine. "Yes. I'd like that Bella." He smiled. "Thanks guys," Jasper said from his seat on the floor. I slid my hand from under Edward's and sat back against the couch cushion. "But you might not find that so easy when you start battling it out," he warned. "I'm a master of strategy," Edward pretended to twirl a fake moustache, clearly joking around. "Ah! But don't forget... Izzy has luck on her side!" Jasper laughed. I hit him in the head with a throw pillow. "Do you remember that?" Jasper chuckled. "I made Mom bring her to every one of my games that season," Edward nodded and laughed with his brother. "I figured that if she could be so horrifically clumsy- yet not have landed in the hospital... she must be the luckiest person I ever knew." "You insisted that she was your good luck charm," Jasper continued, grinning. "You called her your 'lucky rabbit's foot.'"

"But then I cried," I joined in. "Because I thought that rabbit's feet for good luck charms were gross and cruel." "So I told you that you could be my 'four-leaf clover'... as long as you got your butt into the van and came to my game!" Edward finished. "You guys were state champions that year," Jasper smiled. "Bella really did have luck on her side." "I guess so." Edward grinned. "Now there's proof!" Jasper jumped up from the floor and threw me down on the couch, rolling me to my hip. "What are you doing?" Edward asked while I squealed. Jasper was busy tugging the sweatshirt I was wearing up my body. I knew exactly what he was doing, but I struggled to keep him from lifting my shirt and exposing too much of me. "Look!" Jasper cried victoriously, grabbing my shirt with one hand and my hip with the other to hold me still. Edward stood and walked over to the couch. I knew what he was looking at, and closed my eyes tightly. During my freshman year in college, I got a tattoo. It sat high on the side of my body, just under my ribs. In tiny cursive letters was the word 'luck.' I felt the soft touch of a warm finger trace the dark script. Since I could account for the placement of both of Jasper's hands, I knew it must have been Edward. I laid motionless. "That's really kind of pretty," he said softly. I shivered a little. Jasper then dove on top of me and began moving his body against mine in a sawing motion. "What are you doing?" Edward asked loudly. "Trying to get her luck to rub off on me!" Jasper rasped. I laughed and turned to push him onto the floor again. Tugging my shirt back into place, I sat up. Edward was looking at me strangely, and I self-consciously raised my hands to smooth my hair. It had dried in a tangled mess. I was sure I looked like some wild-woman. "What did Charlie say when he found out?" Edward asked. "He hated it," I shrugged. "But he was glad that I didn't get one that matched Jazz's tattoo." Jasper and I had gone together to get our tattoos during Spring Break. He had the Chinese character for 'music' inked largely on his right shoulder. It looked great on him. But mine was small, and much more obscure. After the initial red-faced freak-out, Charlie was able to ignore it easily.

"So... hey," Jasper said. "Do we have time for another movie?" I glanced at my watch and bit my lip. "I don't think so," I shook my head. "I have some things to do tonight. You know... got a big basketball game tomorrow." "That's right," Edward said. "You'll need your rest." "Hell... if I know Izzy, she won't be resting. She'll be working on her game-plan," Jasper grinned. I smiled. He knew me so well. "Throw my clothes in the dryer, will you?" I asked. "I'll give you these back tomorrow." "No problem. See you then." "Noon," Edward called as I walked out the door. "Noon," I mimicked his voice snidely under my breath. Ugh. How in the hell was I going to pull this off? I went straight to my room and pulled my shades. It was time to get serious, and Jasper didn't need to look across the yard to see me planning as he assumed I would be. I paced back and forth a few times before stopping in front of my full-length mirror. I looked like a little girl, dressed in Jasper's loose clothing. I frowned at my reflection and tried to think. In fewer hours than I was comfortable with, I would have to play basketball with a bunch of tall, sweaty, beer-drinking men. If I remembered correctly, every one of them was at least six-foot tall and athletic. Well... maybe Eric Yorkie wasn't as tall. But still... it would be very hard for me to keep up with them and manage not to be a drag while playing a sport not designed for a person of my height and stature. Damn that Edward for being so devious. I tugged my lip between my teeth and stared hard ahead of me. Their advantages? Height. And power. What did I have to my advantage? What did I have to offer... that they did not? I turned to the side and pulled Jasper's sweatshirt up my body so that I could see my tiny tattoo. I grinned. Luck was on my side. Critically, I stared at the exposed skin, and tried to imagine myself through Edward's eyes. While living in Florida didn't give me a deep-tropical tan, I did manage to maintain a light-golden skin tone that was healthy and pretty when compared to the pasty-white complexions that Forks provided. And I was glad that pilates conditioned my profile to be slender and firm. Edward wasn't treated to an embarrassing amount of pudge at my waistline. My body looked pretty damn good.

It was then that inspiration struck. I had a whole arsenal of weapons at my disposal. Grabbing Charlie's truck keys, I picked up my purse and headed out the door. Men might train to get ready for a sporting event. Not me. I just needed to do a little shopping.

7. Bounce

Just before noon, I sat on the edge of my bed and bent at the waist to tighten the laces of my tennis shoes. And while in the almost reverent position, I said a quick prayer to any deity within hearing distance to help me not trip over my own feet while trying to play basketball with the guys. My entire game plan would be blown if I ended up knocking them down like a stack of dominoes on the playground asphalt. A quick glance in the mirror almost made me want to slap myself and call the whole thing off. Almost. The men would be using their physical attributes to do well today. Why couldn't I do the same? I had carefully curled my hair before pulling it back into a high ponytail. The artificial curls added to my own waves to give it a little more bounce. And while mascara and lip gloss could hardly be considered a cosmetic-overload, it was more than I would usually wear while playing a sport. The men would be relying on their height and brawn to play this game. I had speed on my side...and hopefully, a healthy dose of distraction to offer. Edward was smart in his planning. Men liked basketball. And beer. But they also liked women. I didn't have to win the game. I just had to prove that I was fun to be around. I gave myself this last minute pep-talk, and then turned from my room before I could change my mind. When I jogged up to the basketball court, my nerves gave way to immediate irritation. Edward and Jazz stood in the grass next to the faded concrete square, throwing a baseball back and forth. I could only guess that Edward had somehow ascertained that our judges were baseball players too. The not-so-subtle reminder of his small-town glory days on the local baseball team made me grit my teeth. "What's up with the baseball?" I grumbled. "I thought we were playing basketball today?" "Just goofing around, passing the time," Edward shrugged and smiled over at me. The look in his eyes clearly stated that he understood I was on to him, and he was amused. Unfortunately, our judges pulled into the gravel parking space next to the basketball court before I could suggest that Edward 'pass the time' by shoving his baseball glove right up his... "Isabella?"

The surprised tone of one of the men that exited the car made me spin on my heels. Eric Yorkie. His face was familiar, though his tone was friendlier than I ever remembered him being in high school. "Eric? Hi. Nice to see you guys." I waved at the other two men who walked a half-step behind their friend. I recognized Mike immediately. He smiled awkwardly. The taller, dark-haired man caught my attention and I looked at him quizzically. "Tyler." He gave me his name while leaning forward to offer his hand. I shook it. "Tyler Crowley?" I asked. Hello Gorgeous! Tyler's sky-blue eyes sparkled from under a curtain of side-swept long, black bangs. "Tyler was in my band class," Jasper explained. "Drummer?" "Acne... buzz-cut?" Tyler went on to describe himself with a self-deprecating laugh. "I'm sorry. I guess you've changed a lot." I smiled up at him. Oh boy, had he ever. Edward cleared his throat loudly behind us, and Jasper began making introductions. Just as I thought, all three men noticed the baseball that Edward held in his hand like a worm on a hook, and launched into a conversation about their time playing for the high school team. I walked over to the cooler and popped open a beer. I needed something to steady my nerves and get my head in the game. "Bella?" I turned my head to see Edward motioning me back over to the group. I took another deep drink and put my bottle down on the bench before plastering a grin to my face and skipping back over to the men. "We are going to play three-to-three, half-court," Jasper said. "You and Edward can be the captains. Why don't you pick someone for your team first?" "I choose Jazz," I said quickly. Jasper grinned and moved to stand next to me. He was not the most athletic on the asphalt, but he was the tallest man out there. "Mike," Edward pointed. Mike was captain of the basketball team in high school. I could have guessed that Edward would choose him. "Tyler." I tried not to smile too widely while I said his name. He was also at least six foot tall, and the way he looked at me made me want to blush. "Ok Eric, you round it out," Edward said pleasantly. Eric wasn't as tall as the other men, but he still towered over me. At least the teams were divided somewhat fairly. I turned to walk toward the bench, but stopped when Edward called over to me. "Shirts or skins?"

"Excuse me?" I turned and put my hands on my hips. I wasn't sure if I heard him correctly. Edward twisted a devastatingly mischievous smile in my direction. "Shirts... or skins?" He repeated the question slowly, and I frowned over at him. He was already trying to point out my differences on the court. "Shirts," I flipped my ponytail and pretended that he wasn't getting me flustered. I jogged over to Tyler and Jazz, who were removing their jackets and getting ready to play. "Don't let him psyche you out," Jazz encouraged me. "He's trying to mess with your head." I gritted my teeth before donning a careless expression. Turning to send Edward a look that would let him know that his little games weren't working, I stopped and had to force my mouth to close. Edward, Mike, and Eric were peeling their shirts up over their heads. My gaze locked on Edward's long, taught obliques that stretched down to his narrow waist while his arms were over his head. He dropped his shirt to the ground while chatting with Mike and Eric. I swallowed hard while he pulled his shorts away from his flat stomach and tightened the drawstring. Damn. Edward certainly hadn't been built like that in high school. My momentary distraction caused me to turn with a stronger resolve. I quickly removed my running pants and discarded my own zippered jacket. Jazz snickered and took a drink when he saw my clothing. Tyler eyed me appreciatively with a soft smile in place. I looked up under my lashes and smiled at him. "I sure hope I don't slow you boys down too much." "It's just a game, right?" Tyler said sweetly. "Let's just have fun with it." I smiled again to show him I appreciated his attitude, and then moved to join the other men on the court. I tried to pretend not to notice the attention my clothing was garnering from Mike and Eric. My shorts were small and pink. And my white-tank could hardly be considered more than a sports bra. Edward turned mid-drink, saw me, and beer loudly sprayed from his mouth in his surprise. I controlled my expression to look innocent. "What in the hell is that?" Edward wiped his chin with the hand that still held his beer, and pointed an accusing finger at my chest. "They're called boobs, Edward," Jazz grinned. "And she started to get them when she was fifteen. Nice, huh?" I smirked to see Eric and Mike nodding at each other. I could hear Tyler laughing lightly next to Jazz. Edward scowled. "I wasn't talking about her... uh... um..." Edward's hands waved in front of me like he was trying to erase the image from his sight. I grinned and looked down to see what he was staring at.

A quick trip to the craft store had allowed me to purchase bright pink, sparkly, iron-on letters. The words "Best Man" were proudly stretched across the thin cotton on my chest. I gave the words a sneaky little bounce by clasping my hands low in front of me and pulling my arms towards one another. "I thought it was cute..." I pretended to pout. All three judges hurried to reassure me that I was right. I tried not to smile at Edward's fierce look of disapproval. "Are you ready to play?" He asked through gritted teeth. "Are you?" I asked softly. He looked into my eyes and contemplated me in silence for a moment. I could see a look of determination there that matched my own. Good. We understood each other. I did my best to keep my mind focused on the game, and not on Edward's abs as we all started playing. After a short while, it wasn't an issue. I had to work hard to play basketball with the guys. Amazingly enough, I was actually able to help my team instead of hinder it. I was small and fast. Jazz and Tyler passed me the ball often, so that I could sneak it into the fray and pass it to them when they got closer to the hoop. It was a strategy that served us well, and kept us neck and neck with Edward's team in points. We were all sweating, and cussing, and laughing. I had to hand it to Edward. The basketball game was lots of fun. "Last point wins," Mike called out, spinning the nubby-orange ball on the end of his pointerfinger. He looked smug from having made the last shot to tie things up for Edward's team. "Get the ball down the key," Jazz said, forming a huddle with Tyler and me. "Ty and I will set ourselves up for a shot. All you have to do it get the ball to one of us." "I can do that," I nodded. Tyler grinned at me. It was the move we had employed throughout the game so far, with much success. Tyler stood on the grass and tossed the ball in to me. I began dribbling the ball in, staying low to the ground. I hesitated when I saw that Mike was covering Tyler completely, and Edward and Eric were both covering Jazz. I feigned left, then right, spinning on my heels and trying to lure someone away from their blocking so that I would have an opening to pass. I caught Tyler's eye then, and saw him tilt his chin upward... his eyes flashing toward the basketball net. "Shoot the ball," he mouthed over Mike's shoulder. I licked my lips and stepped a little closer. If I missed the shot, one of Edward's team mates would likely get the rebound, putting them in position to win. My eyes shot over to Jasper. He was twisting and trying to move away from the cover of Edward and Eric. Biting my lip, I took another step and moved my arms into position to shoot the ball. My arms were over my head, and my toes had just left the ground in my jump, when a blur of a figure tore across my line of sight. Edward had noticed that I was going to take the shot, and had

leapt up and over me to block my efforts. Both of our bodies crashed in mid-air. I twisted under the impact, and fell hard on the ground, scraping my knee into the rough surface below me. "Ow.... Shit!" I yelled out. Immediately I turned to sit on my bottom while I surveyed the damage to my knee. Small black rocks were stuck into a large scratch, and blood was already pooling to the surface. The game had stopped completely, and the sun was blocked by the large shapes of the men who stood in a circle around where I sat. I felt embarrassed tears spring to my eyes that had nothing to do with the blood that was starting to trickle down my calve. I picked the rocks from my skin, and watched as blood twisted down my leg. It was what I had feared. Now I looked weak in front of the guys. "Bella? Honey... I'm so sorry. Here, let me help you up." Edward had his hands toward me. I frowned and stood without his assistance. I tried to keep my voice from wavering, but failed. "I'm fine. You guys... should finish without me. I'm just going to go down to the house to get cleaned up." "Would you like a ride?" Eric offered to drive me, and I smiled. "I live two houses down. I can make it. Thanks." I started to hobble off the basketball court with as much dignity as I could muster. I could hear the men quietly talking behind me. "Bella? Wait up!" Edward was calling my name, but I ignored him. "Come on Bella. At least let me apologize!" "Piss off, Cullen," I growled over my shoulder. "Bella... I'm sorry!" I felt tears sting my eyes. I was embarrassed more than I was hurt. His following me and calling out apologies was probably just to make himself look good to the men judging us. Once in my house, I gingerly made my way up the stairs to the bathroom. I could hear that he was still following me. "Go away!" I hissed. "No. Let me see." I turned to face him once I got into the bathroom. Edward still stood there, gloriously disheveled, sweaty, and half naked. Suddenly the small room seemed impossibly smaller. "It's bleeding." I glared. It wasn't a mortal injury, but I hoped to at least make him feel bad for it. My stony gaze lost its effect, however, when my eyes seemed unable to look away from his bare

chest. If he noticed where my attention had shifted, he hid it well. Edward was running water over a washcloth in the sink. "Sit on the edge of the tub," he instructed. "Let me help you." "You've done enough," I grumbled. "Bella? Sit!" Edward put his hands on my hips and turned me while pushing me down to sit exactly as he directed. "You don't have to manhandle me," I pouted. "You weren't listening," Edward rebutted. "Now just stay still. I think I remember where everything is..." I folded my arms across my chest and muttered under my breath about stupid, pushy, ambulance chasers. Edward turned with a smirk on his lips and his hands full of first-aid supplies. He dropped the items on the floor next to my shoes while he lowered himself to his knees in front of me. "I'm barely out of law school, and I'm already getting called dirty-lawyer names." I turned my head and studied the wall, trying to ignore the fact that his head was bowed close enough for me to reach out and push my fingers through that messy hair of his. I flinched a little when I felt him press the warm cloth to my knee, cleaning the area. "I don't know any others," I confessed. "Rude names for lawyers, I mean." "I'm sure you'd use them if you could," Edward chuckled while wiping the blood away from my leg. "You know, the last time you and I were in this situation... you sat up on the sink. I didn't have to bend over so far to clean you up." "I was smaller then..." I whispered. "Yeah, I know." Edward glanced up with a soft smile on his face before looking back down at my knee. I was ten years old, and I had fallen down while roller-skating on the sidewalk in front of our homes. Edward saw the accident, and helped me up. I was crying like a baby when he helped me to sit on the edge of the sink, and bandaged my knee. "You told me I was your hero," Edward said with a husky voice. I opened my mouth to point out how silly I was as a girl, but then hissed instead when I felt the sting of the antiseptic spray that Edward applied to my torn skin. "Shit."

"Sorry," Edward murmured. And just as he had when I was ten years old, Edward moved his face closer to my leg. My fingers dug painfully into the side of the tub when Edward pursed his lips and blew his breath across the pooled disinfectant to cool my skin as it dried. I could only swallow hard and mentally curse my body for over-reacting to such an innocent gesture. Despite the physical changes we had both undergone since seeing each other last, Edward was treating me the same as he always had. There was no reason for my heart to be pounding so rapidly in my chest. In a second, I felt his hands smoothing a bandage over my knee. "There... all done," he spoke, looking up at me. His face was so close. His eyes glinted darkly in the bathroom light. "You cheated," I breathed. What was wrong with my voice? Edward raised his hand and traced the strap of my tank top on my shoulder with the back of his fingers. My skin burned where he touched it. "You were playing dirty too. And you know it..." Our eyes warred. Neither of us was willing to back down. "What's the damage?" Jasper's loud voice from the hall caused us both to startle guiltily. "Does Izzy need stitches?" Edward stood and opened the door quickly. "Hell no. It's barely a scratch." Edward dismissed the injury and took his t-shirt from Jasper's hands. He pulled it over his head and moved into the hall while Jasper moved into the bathroom with me. "Are you okay?" His worried eyes met mine, looking for affirmation. "It's a small battle wound," I grinned. "I'm fine Jazz." "Well, you should both know that the guys decided that Bella wins the point for this round." Jasper put his hand on my knee. "They all thought Edward was too rough with you." "Woo-hoo!" I squealed and threw my fists up over my head while Edward scowled. "Ridiculous," he muttered. "You're just afraid that I'm going to win this thing," I said smugly. "Don't bet your cute little fanny," he growled before turning to go.

"I have a cute little fanny?" I asked Jasper, grinning widely. "Sure you do," he shrugged. "And don't think I didn't notice you using it to your advantage today." He tried to look stern, but it was a pale imitation of Edward's scowl. I just shrugged and flipped my ponytail over my shoulder. "No more of that. Got me, Swan?" Jasper said. I expected him to wag a disapproving finger in my face in a moment. "Fine." I nodded and acknowledged his request. The first point of the competition had been awarded to me. We could go into the next activity fresh, and I wouldn't be at a disadvantage. Though, I was a little worried about how hard Edward might fight to catch up.

8. Ready, Aim, First Aid

"I wish I was going with you," Charlie said, while pulling his favorite fishing hat down over his head. "You already have plans with your friends," I reminded him. "Maybe we can round up another game before I leave." "Sounds good Isabella. You have fun. Don't be too rough with the boys." Charlie left me to finish my glass of milk in the kitchen. He must have met Jazz and Edward at the door, because I looked up to find my neighbors sauntering in to fill up the small space around me. "Nice shirt," Jazz grinned and complimented my simple blue t-shirt with the Wonder Woman emblem emblazoned across the front. "Thanks," I smiled. "I'm trying to tap into my reserved super-powers." "You'll need them," Edward said smugly. The small grin that tugged at the corner of his mouth let me know that he was being playful. "No hostilities off the field," Jasper reminded us anyway. "Which reminds me. Just to keep things light... I thought the three of us could go get some dinner tonight? Some place civilized, to counter the brutality that's bound to go down today." "Sounds nice," I laughed. "Sure," Edward nodded. He palmed his keys and looked at me.

"You ready?" "Ready as I'll ever be," I shrugged. Truthfully, I was a little nervous. While Charlie had taught me the basics of shooting a gun at a firing range when I was younger, I had never actually played paintball before. The idea of running combat-style through four acres of wooded area while trying not to get taken out of the game by five very enthusiastic men made my palms sweat. I should have thought my idea over more carefully. "I feel like Bugs Bunny during rabbit season," I said quietly while we got into Edward's car. "Be vewwy, vewwy qwiet..." Jasper teased in an Elmer Fudd voice. "We're hunting Bellas," Edward added with a wink in the rear-view mirror. "Very funny guys," I grimaced. I gave Edward the directions to the facility that I had found on the internet, and then stared out the window at the morning fog that danced around the base of the trees that we passed next to the highway. When we got there, I jumped from the back seat and went to meet Skinny John, the owner. Skinny John turned out to be anything but. In fact, I was pretty sure that his forearm alone was bigger than my waist. But he had a wide open smile and an easy attitude that came with owning a business he obviously loved. He shared one of his welcoming grins with me when I gave him my name. I had reserved a two-hour game and equipment for six of us to play. "Let's get you all suited up while we wait for your friends to get here," Skinny John told us. Jasper and Edward quickly donned padded coveralls from the shelves that lined the wall inside the equipment shack. They laughed when Skinny John directed me to the children's supplies to choose mine. I zippered a bulky padded suit over my clothes and shuddered when I considered how different I looked today compared to yesterday. My curves were completely covered. As a matter of fact, with my large goggles in place, I could have passed for a teenage boy. "She's bringing sexy back..." Jasper started to sing as I walked to join them. "Don't quit your day job," I muttered. He grinned and delivered a fake punch to my shoulder while we walked out the door to wait for the other men. "Speaking of job," Jasper frowned. "I should give Alice a call." Edward sat beside Jasper on the edge of a picnic table and nudged him with his arm sympathetically. Jasper only had to rearrange the private music lessons he gave in order to come home for two weeks. Alice wasn't able to take the time off work to join him. We knew he missed

her. He walked away, punching numbers into his phone, and Edward slid down the wooded surface until the gap between us was gone. "So... have you played paintball before?" Edward asked. His safety goggles were pushed up high on his forehead, and they made his hair stick up in wild directions. "Nope," I sighed, once again wondering at the wisdom of my plan. "I was just looking for a daytime activity that didn't put me at a complete disadvantage." "Like basketball." Edward was looking at his knees. "Sorry again, about yesterday." "I'm fine," I reassured him. "But of course, if you really feel that bad about it, you can buy my dessert tonight." "Loser today buys dessert," Edward wrinkled his nose and looked over at me with a challenge in his eyes. "I don't want you to become complacent." "Fine," I laughed. Jasper moved back over to join us when the other three players arrived. Eric, Mike and Tyler greeted us outside before going into the shed to get suited for the sport. Skinny John showed us how to use the air-charged paintball guns. We were asked to choose our colors before we filled the hoppers with the round paint capsules. "Give her pink," Tyler smirked over at me. I couldn't help but blush a little bit. Even dressed like a boy, he obviously remembered my girlie-attire from the basketball court. "I don't mind pink," I shrugged. "As long as you boys don't mind running around looking as if you'd been hosed down by Pepto Bismol!" The men laughed at my threat and I pushed my goggles into place before covering my head with the protective face mask. Ugh. At least the color of my paintballs helped me to retain a small portion of my femininity. Skinny John helped us all to find our starting places, indicating that we should start running into the trees at the sound of his air horn. The same alert would sound when it was time to come back to the shed at the end of our game. We had four acres, sectioned off by neon-orange plastic fencing, and if we received three-shots, we were to remove ourselves from the playing area and wait at the shed for the other casualties to arrive. I was sweating a little in my coveralls. My strategy was simple. I wanted to get deep into the trees as quickly as I could, and try to find a hiding spot while the other men took themselves out of the game. As soon as I heard the air horn behind me, I startled and then ran. Not fast enough. I had barely made it to the trees when I felt the sharp sting, similar to a wasp bite, on the left side of my butt. I turned to see Jasper's bright blue mark splattered against the back of my pants.

"Ow! Damn it Jasper! What is this... Forrest Gump? You shot me in the ass!" I was screeching over my shoulder as I continued to run. My butt was on fire and I wanted to make sure I didn't get hit again. "You shouldn't have given me such an easy target!" I heard his laughter fade as he ran in a different direction. I hoped someone was giving him chase. He deserved to be popped by one of those paintballs too. Even through my coveralls, that hit had made my eyes water. I was sure to get a bruise. I ran deep into the wooded area, only stopping when I saw the orange fencing ahead of me. Following the line and staying behind trees, I listened for the sound of the large men running through the woods. Every now and again I heard someone yell out a taunt or an obscenity. For the most part, they weren't near enough for me to hear them. I hoped they would shoot each other and be forced to drop out of the game. It didn't matter to me if none of them wore my pink mark. I didn't really feel the need to shoot anyone. I wasn't even sure I remembered how to use the gun as Skinny John had instructed. I just wanted to be the last person standing. I really shouldn't have been surprised when it started to rain. I was thankful for the tree canopy that provided some cover. But thick drops of water still bounced through the pine needles and leaves, leaving the forest floor slippery and dangerous for me to try to navigate. I slid along and almost landed on my sore backside when I heard rumbling voices and running footsteps nearing. Dropping to my knees instead, I crawled headfirst into a clump of bushes to try to hide myself. "Fuck you Cullen," I heard Mike cuss and laugh. "That's my last hit. I'm heading back to the shed." "Who else is left?" I heard Edward speaking. His voice sounded breathy from his run and attack. "Jasper and Tyler took each other out. I got Eric. That just leaves you and Isabella." "Ah..." I wished I could see his face. I pressed myself as low to the ground as I could, not even caring about the wet bracken below me. "Think you two could end this without bloodshed today?" Mike asked. I could tell he was moving away by the sound of his voice. "I'm sure we'll manage," Edward assured him. His voice stayed steady. He wasn't moving. I tried to control my breathing and I slid my head closer to the edge of the bushes. I wanted to be able to get a better idea of where he stood. I couldn't even see his feet. But I knew that he hadn't gone. I could hear his breathing. I froze. If I could hear his breathing, he might be able to hear mine. A new plan sprang to mind. If I could wait him out until the air horn sounded, we could both exit the game tied as winners. I didn't know how many hits he had taken. But if he had more than one, I might still be considered

victorious. I tried to snake my way back under the cover of the bushes, but my foot hit a twig and it snapped ominously below me. I sucked in a breath and held it. "Be-lla?" Edward's voice was soft. Shit. I knew he would have heard that. "Be-lla?" He continued to use a low and coaxing voice. "I know you are nearby. Why don't you come on out, and let's just finish this game now? One on one. You and me..." I grimaced and tried to make myself smaller under the cover of the bushes. But I saw a flash of color through the foliage in front of me, and I could see that Edward had actually moved very close to where I was hiding. His knees were slightly bent, and he turned back and forth on his heels as though he were searching the area for my hiding place. It really was only a matter of time before he would see me too. I bit my lip and lowered my gun in front of me. Obviously, I would not be able to hide. "Come on Bella," Edward continued to taunt. "I know you're here. Just come on out. Are you afraid?" His voice had dropped and it sent chills right down my spine. He sounded playfully menacing at most. I wasn't literally afraid of him. But damn if he didn't have a way of making my body turn to mush sometimes. Aggravated by my response to his low voice, I scrunched up my face. No way was I going to be beat by my silly one-sided attraction to Edward Cullen. With a surge of newfound determination, I clutched my gun to my chest and threw myself sideways out of my hiding space. I only knew the general direction in which he stood. In slow-motion like some Rambo movie, I rolled up to my knee, yelling while I pressed the trigger of my air gun. My arm muscles strained against the gun's recoil. And still I let loose a wild-growling scream like some warrior princess in battle. I looked up and barely registered the shock in Edward's eyes beneath his goggles. The yell died on my lips when- still in slow-motion- my eyes lowered. While Rambo movies were filled with blood and gore... none could match the gruesome image of the bright pink paint that spattered in three distinct splotches against the front of Edward Cullen's pants. His gun fell to the wet ferns, his hands cupped his crotch, and the man fell to his knees on the wet forest floor. Oh, how the tides had changed. The air horn sounded before Edward was able to pick himself up off the ground. His face mask was pulled back around his neck, and his goggles were pushed back up into his messy hair. His face was twisted and his jaw was clenched. He looked absolutely livid. "Edward... I'm sorry!" I said again, slipping on the wet leaves and struggling to keep up with him as he stomped his way toward the rest of our group at the shed. "I swear... I didn't mean it."

"Save it," he bit back. If he was walking awkwardly, he tried to hide it. I knew that my hits to his pelvis must have hurt. Just the one shot I had received on the rear felt achy and sore. And I had leveled three paintballs at his nether regions at close range. The men stood from the picnic tables as we approached and when their eyes easily saw my mistake, shocked silence surrounded us. "Party foul, Swan," Eric frowned. "You don't shoot a guy in the nads!" "I swear it was an accident," I moaned, wringing my hands in front of me. The others had already removed their jumpsuits and returned their equipment. I followed Edward indoors and quickly un-zippered my own coveralls before laying them on the counter with my goggles and headcover. I looked over to see Skinny John shaking his head while handing Edward a bag of ice. My cheeks burned to think of the reason that he needed it. I followed him outside, and he still wasn't speaking to me. The other men stood and folded their arms across their chests. "Edward wins this one," Mike said cooly. "Un-necessary violence." "Fine," I nodded. "I honestly didn't mean to... uh..." I licked my lips and looked over at Edward. "Edward wins." I conceded the game. I knew it looked like I was trying to retaliate for the foul on the basketball court, and I was trying to make amends. "In light of ... recent injuries..." Jasper said. "I propose that we don't start our next round of the competition for at least two days." Edward nodded slightly and I was hit by a wave of guilt again. I hung my head and walked to the car, getting in the back seat quietly. Jasper and Edward said their goodbyes, and soon joined me in the car. Jasper had taken the keys from Edward and offered to drive. Edward lowered himself into the passenger side seat gingerly. "You should ice 'em down man," Jasper suggested. "It will help." Edward grunted a little when he lowered the ice bag to his lap. I bit my lip and struggled not to cry. I felt horrible about the situation. Jasper noticed my expression in the rear-view mirror and put his hand along the back of Edward's seat when he turned to look at me. "Hey Izzy. He's fine. You don't have to beat yourself up so much." "I really am sorry. I didn't do it on purpose," I sniffed. I couldn't help it. Edward turned his head and saw the tears that threatened to squeeze from my eyes. His features softened. "Bella? Honestly. I'm okay. Don't worry about it. Alright?" I nodded. Edward took a deep breath and sent me a little smile.

"Two of those shots hit my legs anyway. I might have let on to be in a little more pain than I really am." Jasper chuckled beside me and put the car in reverse. "Why would you do that?" I wiped at my eyes. "You had me really scared!" "Well... I figured that if you won yesterday based on a sympathy vote... I might as well wring-out the same mercy today." I folded my arms across my chest and stared out the side window. I couldn't really be mad at him. The hit he had taken probably did hurt a whole lot worse than my silly scraped knee. I couldn't blame him for working it to his advantage. When Jasper pulled over on the side of the road at a small food stand, Edward and I both looked over at him curiously. "That sign says they have fish tacos!" Jasper grinned, unbuckling his seat belt. "They are serving food from the back of a camper trailer..." I pointed out. "The best food comes from stands like these. I'm hungry. Who else wants one?" "I'm sitting on ice," Edward pointed toward his lap. I shook my head. "I don't want to spoil my appetite for dinner." I wondered for a moment, if they still wanted to go out for dinner at all. "Well you know I could eat now and still be hungry later. I'll be right back!" Jasper slammed the car door behind him while he went to go order a couple of fish tacos from the ramshackle food stand. "If you want some food, I'd be happy to get it for you," I offered. "I'm not really hungry," Edward said. "But, thanks." "No problem." I stared at Jasper while he stood waiting for his food. He sauntered back to the car, pushing back the foil-lined paper around his taco with his teeth before taking a bite. "You guys don't know what you are missing," Jasper munched happily while he continued to drive down the road.

"Bella's right," Edward shrugged. "I don't want to spoil my appetite either. She lost... so she has to buy me dessert." He was back to teasing me, and I heard forgiveness in his tone. I smiled from the backseat. Everything was going to be alright.

9. Bella and Edward sitting in a tree

I fastened the small silver hoop at the back of my ear and then surveyed my image in the mirror. Needing a definite change from my androgynous morning ensemble, I had chosen to wear a cute tank-top and summer skirt for my evening out. A light cardigan finished the look just as I heard a knock from downstairs. "Isabella!" Charlie called out. "Coming!" I pushed my hair behind my ear and hurried down the stairs as safely as my strappy heeled sandals would allow. When I rounded the corner toward the door, I stopped short. Edward stood shifting his weight from foot to foot awkwardly. He wore a nice bright blue button-up shirt and black jeans. If it weren't for his uncomfortable looking expression, I would think he looked damn-near perfect. "Hey Edward. Where's Jazz?" I asked. "There's been... a complication," Edward began. Charlie chuckled and walked back into the living room. "What kind of complication?" I asked, raising my eyebrow. "Fish Tacos," Edward said soberly. "Food poisoning, we think. Jasper is feeling... under the weather." "Oh no! I should go see if he needs anyth..." Edward's warm grip around my arm stopped me as I moved past him. "Not tonight." He shook his head. "The entire upper level of the house is pretty much quarantined for nastiness. Believe me. You do not want to go up there." "Gotcha," I nodded and frowned. With a sigh I dropped my arms to my sides. It sucked that Jasper was sick. I had really been looking forward to going out. "Well, thanks for coming over to

tell me." I reached for the door handle and Edward remained with his feet planted on the hardwood floor. "Well... I'd still like to go out to dinner. Unless... you'd rather not," he said. I was surprised. I thought he would deliver the news and go. He must have misunderstood my hesitation as me turning down his offer then, because he shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to leave. "No. I'd like to go..." I hurried to stop him. "I mean..." I swallowed hard. "If you are sure you still want to." "You owe me dessert," Edward smirked then. "After shooting you like I did, I think I should pretty much pay for dinner entirely." "I won't argue with that," Edward grinned. "I'll be home later, Dad," I called over my shoulder. Edward held the door for me, and I led the way out toward his car. Something about being inside the confined area of Edward's car, in the dusky-evening light felt strange and a little uncomfortably intimate. To alleviate the odd tension I felt, I reached for his stereo buttons. "Do you mind?" I asked. "Not at all," Edward shook his head but continued to stare forward while he drove. I pressed my finger against the small black button to search through radio stations, and stopped when I heard a familiar song. I leaned back in my seat then, and felt my shoulders relax downward while the edges of my mouth curled up. "What is this?" Edward asked after a minute. "You don't know Kings of Leon?" I looked over at him in surprise. Edward shook his head again. "They are Jazz's favorite band right now," I filled him in. "He turned me onto a CD of theirs...well over a year ago. He's fairly obsessed with their music." "Never heard of them," Edward replied quietly. I bit my lip to keep my next thoughts from tumbling out. It was tiny details like these that made me feel more certain than ever that I deserved to be Jasper's Best Man. Edward didn't even know the kind of music that Jasper liked to listen to. I restrained myself from rudely pointing out his ignorance. I didn't want to fight with Edward tonight. "I hope this is alright?" Edward pulled into the parking lot outside the town's one and only nice restaurant. Well... if one could consider dark wood paneling and stuffed animal heads on the wall as being high-end.

"The Lodge?" I laughed. Edward hurried around the car to open my door for me. "I didn't know how far out you wanted to drive for food," he answered. "And since I skipped lunch today... I was too hungry to wait much longer." "This is fine," I assured him. I hadn't been in The Lodge since Charlie treated me to dinner right after my high school graduation. As we were led to a small table that was lit with a flickering candle in a red jar, I giggled a little under my breath. "What's so funny?" Edward asked. He pushed my chair in under me like a gentleman which only made my internal musings more humorous. "You know," I whispered as though I were letting him in on a big secret. He sat and leaned over the table toward me to better hear my words. "If I were still sixteen... this would have pretty much been considered a dream date. Present company included." "Really?" Edward's eye brows shot up and he leaned back in his seat with a surprised smile on his face. "This was the nicest place in town," I shrugged. "How would I have come into play?" Edward asked. "You were the cutest boy I could think of," I replied seriously. "It's funny to me now, to actually be sitting with Edward Cullen... at the Lodge... for dinner. Be still my girlish-heart." I giggled again and Edward laughed warmly. "I'll try hard not to blow the fantasy for you," he chuckled. I hid my smile behind my napkin until I was able to better control my laughter. The waitress came by for a drink order, and Edward shook his head and looked down at his menu. "Wine?" I suggested. Edward nodded and asked for two glasses of the house red before chuckling into his menu again. "Why are you laughing now?" I asked. "Forgive me," he smiled over the edge of his menu. "I'm just not used to thinking of you as being old enough to drink." "You are not that much older than me, Edward," I said while rolling my eyes. "Four years isn't really that big a difference." "The difference between twenty-five and twenty-one is a lot smaller than the difference between eighteen and fourteen," Edward said quietly. I smiled down at my menu. "Sure. Because I'm not jailbait anymore," I teased. Edward laughed pleasantly.

"That you are not," he agreed. Conversation between Edward and me was surprisingly easy. We continued laughing through most of our meal. When the topic strayed to the morning trip to the paintball field, I dropped my eyes. "I really do hope that you are okay..." "I'll be fine," Edward passed me the basket of bread and I took a breadstick. "I'm pretty sure I'll still be able to father children someday..." His attempt at humor was appreciated. "If it helps to know, Jasper shot me in the butt with one of those things. I have a nasty quartersized bruise... purple with yellow in the center... right in the middle of my butt cheek. It's pretty gross. So I didn't exit the game entirely unscathed either..." "Surprisingly, that does make me feel marginally better," Edward laughed. He continued to fill me in on the antics of the other men as they had taken each other out of the game. Edward actually had two shots across his back and only needed one more before he would have been out as well. Luckily (he explained) he had found Mike before Mike found him. "Poor Mike," I shook my head. "Sure. Pity him now. But you couldn't muster up enough pity to let him take you out on a date in high school," Edward teased. "You have no idea how hard it was to date in high school!" I huffed. "Even if I was interested in Mike... which I wasn't... it was almost impossible to get around Charlie. And the ones that my father didn't scare away... Jasper took care of!" "It's a good thing I didn't stay right next door," Edward laughed. "You would have had three men chasing all your beaus away!" "Very funny," I muttered. "Did you know that the first real fight Jazz and I ever had... was over a boy that I dated?" "Was Jasper jealous?" Edward asked with a look of intense interest. "No," I snorted. "Charlie finally allowed me to start dating. And I really liked this guy. But Jazz insisted he was all wrong for me. I argued with him and told him that he had to let me make my own decisions. We got into a wicked fight and we didn't talk to each other for two weeks." "What happened?" Edward asked. "Jazz was right," I mumbled. "I went to prom with the guy. I gave him exactly what he was looking for... you know." Edward's eyes took on a hard edge that let me know we were on the

same page. "Then a couple of weeks after prom I caught him making out with one of the cheerleaders in the hallway by the boy's locker rooms." "God. I'm sorry Bella." "Don't be," I shook my head. "We all learn from our mistakes right?" Jazz was the one that held me while I cried. And he missed his big piano recital after he punched my ex-boyfriend and broke his hand in the process. "Hopefully that experience didn't ruin you for our gender entirely!" "Are you asking me if I'm a lesbian?" I asked with wide eyes. Edward sputtered a bit on the sip of wine he was taking, put his glass down and wiped his mouth before smiling over at me. "No!" Edward laughed. "I was merely going to ask you if you had any relationships after him!" "Oh!" I laughed lightly at my own mistake. "Just one," I smiled. "I dated a guy named Pete, for about a year, right after I moved to Florida." "What happened with Pete?" Edward rested his chin in his palm, his dinner finished. "We just weren't right for each other," I shrugged. "I really should have known right from the beginning. But I was new... and I didn't have any friends there. Pete was handsome and popular... and I was completely flattered that he liked me. I mean... after the whole rotten experience here in Forks, I kind of wondered if there was something wrong with me. Ya know?" Edward reached across the table and put his hand on top of mine. "The idiot in high school is the one that had the problem," Edward said quietly. "Not you Bella." "I figured that out with time," I smiled. Edward pulled his hand back to rest on his lap beneath the table edge. "So... you and Pete just... broke up?" Edward asked. "It was an amiable agreement," I nodded. "We still talk once in a while. No harsh feelings. We both knew it wasn't going to go anywhere else." "That sounds familiar," Edward nodded. "What about you?" his statement inspired me to ask. Edward opened his mouth but we were interrupted by the waitress asking if either of us would like dessert. "I'm buying," I reminded Edward. He nodded.

"Do you mind if we take it to go?" Edward asked. "I have an idea." "Sure," I nodded. I ordered a piece of white chocolate strawberry cheesecake, and Edward ordered the triple-chocolate cake. The waitress returned with our desserts wrapped and placed in a bag with plastic utensils. I paid our tab, and I let Edward lead me out to the car once more. "You know," Edward began once we were in the car. "I am surprised that you and Jasper never made it official." "Made what official?" I asked curiously. "You know," Edward raised his shoulder. "I just always assumed you two... would end up together." "Oh God," I rolled my eyes in the darkened interior of his car. "I think we both told you about a million times that Jasper and I never liked each other like that!" Edward shot a disbelieving look over in my direction, which prompted me to ask "What?" in a high-pitched voice. "Don't pretend!" Edward reprimanded. "You forget that I walked in on you two kissing!" "Ugh. Don't remind me," I huffed. "That was... purely experimental. I made him do it. And it really was kind of your fault." "My fault?" Edward laughed. "Oh yes. I have to hear this. How exactly was you making out with my little brother, in any way, my fault?" Edward pulled into the space in front of his house and shut off the engine before turning his body to give me his full attention. "Okay. So you know how Jasper and I used to have sleep-overs up in the tree house?" I asked. "Yes..." "Well, we were up there sleeping one night. And I heard a noise that woke me up." "Go on." Edward had a half-smile on his face that was a bit distracting. He was just waiting for me to finish my story. I was glad for the relative darkness that would hide any tell-tale blushing. "I peeked out the window of the club house... and I saw you and Mary Beth Stratford making out like crazy on your back porch!" Edward's mouth popped open with a surprised expression. I closed my eyes and recalled with perfect clarity how my attention had been held captive by the groping teenagers on the Whitlock's back porch. The porch light had illuminated them completely. Their ragged breathing

carried through the quiet night air to my tender young ears. And Edward's cheeks had been such a lovely and flushed shade of red that I couldn't bring myself to look away. "I remember that night," Edward breathed. "Mary Beth let me feel her up!" "I know!" I giggled. "Shit. And you spied on us?" Edward laughed low. "How old were you?" "Fourteen," I smiled. "It was right before you went away to New York." "You shouldn't have been watching," Edward tried to frown but his eyes were bright. "I couldn't help it," I giggled. "It was the first... fairly sexual situation I had ever stumbled upon. I felt like such a deviant." "We were just kissing, Bella," Edward replied. "Oh, I know," I nodded. "But after that I became convinced that Jasper and I should practice. You know. Just in case anyone ever wanted to kiss me like that. So I'd be ready!" "And I happened to catch you two 'practicing'?" Edward asked. "Yes. It only happened that once. We compared notes and kept it very scientific." "You two didn't ever practice anything else...did you?" "Ew!" I shoved Edward's shoulder and opened the car door to step outside. "Follow me," Edward whispered. It was fairly late, and we didn't want to call attention to ourselves outside. "Where are we going?" "You mentioned the tree house," Edward shrugged. "I just wanted to get some fresh air. But now that seems as good a place as any to enjoy our dessert." Edward stopped at the base of the tree with our bag of sweets in his hand. "Ladies first," he nodded up toward the steps while I removed my shoes. "Forget it," I shook my head. "I'm wearing a skirt. If I climb up first, I'll be giving you an up close look at my paintball battle wound!"

"Show me yours and I'll show you mine," Edward whispered. I turned with my mouth open in surprise, only to see Edward with a wide and playful smile across his face. His eyes twinkled at his obvious joke. "You are horrible," I laughed quietly. Edward moved around me to take to the steps first. "You know," I continued while I climbed the tree behind him. "You are so much like your brother sometimes. If not for your last names being different, I would completely forget that you were adopted." "Me too," Edward said from above me. I crawled up into the door way and reached for the extension cord to flip the switch and turn the tiny twinkle lights on around us. "Pretty," Edward mentioned, looking at the lights. "Why is that?" I asked, moving to sit beside him on the wooden floor. I took our desserts out of the bag and handed Edward one of the forks. "If you don't mind me asking." "What are you asking?" Edward looked at me and stuck his plastic utensil into the rich-looking chocolate cake in front of him. "Why do you have a different last name?" I asked. "I mean... I know Joy and Larry must have asked you if you wanted to change it..." "They did." Edward pulled the brown cake from the fork with his teeth and chewed it a moment before swallowing. "I guess I just never wanted to forget where I came from." "Is it weird, that I'm asking you this?" I worried out loud. "Not at all," he shook his head. "It's not like you and I have ever sat down and discussed my adoption." "I never thought to ask," I bit my lip. Edward looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and then took another bite of his cake. It inspired me to take a small bite of the cheesecake that I had balanced on my lap. "My mother was only seventeen when she had me," Edward began to explain. "She wasn't ready for a child. She was a child herself. My grandmother helped her through my first year. And then when my mother turned eighteen, she left. My grandmother became my legal guardian and she raised me until I was eight." "What happened then?" I encouraged him to continue. "She died of cancer," Edward sighed. "Joy and Larry were the very first foster-family that took me in. And it wasn't long before they offered to adopt me. So you see... I was very fortunate. I didn't have some messed-up childhood. I didn't come out of my youth with emotional scars and a rap sheet. I was always loved." Edward put a piece of the chocolate cake on his fork and held it

forward for me. I leaned in and pulled it into my mouth, savoring the bitter dark chocolate against my tongue. "Larry and Joy offered me their name," Edward continued. "And I would have been proud to have been a Whitlock. But my Grandmother was a really wonderful woman. I didn't want to ever forget my beginnings. So... I stayed a Cullen." "I can't believe I never knew that," I shook my head. "Did you ever look for your mother?" "She's in the house sleeping," Edward tilted his head toward the white house beyond the tree house window. "I never felt the need to look for my biological mother, no." Edward lowered his eyebrows. "I never felt that anything was missing from my life." "You are lucky," I mumbled. "I think a lot of kids end up really messed up for going through similar things." "Aside from my horrible competitive drive, I think I'm fairly well-balanced," Edward chuckled. "You blame your childhood for your competitiveness?" I asked. "Without a doubt," Edward nodded. "You see... I always pushed myself very hard. I was in clubs... social groups... sports. Hell, even college and law school. I always wanted to succeed and be the best at everything. I guess it was my way of trying to make Joy and Larry proud. I wanted to make sure they never regretted bringing me into their home." "I think maybe I never noticed, because you never seemed to be that way around Jazz," I said quietly. "You didn't compete with him for anything." "Of course not," Edward huffed. "Jasper is... one of the greatest people I've ever known. You know how he can... affect the moods of people around him? It's like he makes you happy just by being near?" "Yes," I sighed. "The happiness sort of jumps off of him and glomps on to anyone that is close." "He's always been that way," Edward shrugged. "He never treated me like an interloper in his house. He accepted me as his brother right away. I would have never tried to take attention from him... wouldn't have stolen anything that he wanted..." "You are an awesome brother," I concluded. "He still thinks the world of you." "It's mutual," Edward said then. I pulled a piece of my cheese cake onto my fork and offered it to Edward much as he had offered his cake to me before. He looked into my eyes while he took the creamy treat from the end of the fork. Licking his lips, he closed his eyes and savored the taste for a moment. Then he looked over at me with a mischievous grin. "What?" I asked.

"My dessert is so much better!" Edward dug back into his chocolate cake while I laughed. "Really Edward? Seriously?" I giggled. "Our dessert has to be a competition for you too?" "I can't help it. The chocolate sin explosion here in my take-out box thoroughly kicks the sugaryass of that wimpy piece of cheese cake you've got over there." I laughed at his silly joke and then looked with surprise as a blonde head raised itself above the floor boards at the door. Jasper climbed into the tree house and sat between us. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I thought you were sick." "It passed," Jasper said, reaching for my cheese cake. "No pun intended." "How can you want to eat now?" Edward laughed while Jasper wrinkled his nose at my dessert but continued to eat it. "I'm empty. I need to fill 'er up," Jasper chuckled. I shook my head at his silly logic. "Well, I'm glad that you are okay." I leaned forward on my knees and kissed Jasper on the cheek. "Good night boys. I'm going home and going to bed. Edward? Thanks for the night out. It was fun." "Yeah, it was," he smiled. "Thanks for going with me. Good night Bella." Jasper muttered a good night around a mouthful of my cheese cake, and I carefully made my way down the tree house steps. I carried my heels in my hands while I ran through the damp grass to my own back door. I could hear the boys talking in the tree house. The sound made me feel carefree and happy. Their voices were a couple of octaves lower than they had been when they were children... but surprisingly... their laughter felt the same in my heart.

10. A Whole New Can of Worms

I followed Jasper along the river's edge, still laughing at his fishing attire. Our fathers were both standing side by side further down the bank. While I opted to roll up my jeans and shove my ponytail through the back of a baseball cap, Jasper had borrowed one of Larry's floppy-fishing hats and a giant pair of wading boots. "So... Izzy has an admirer..." Jazz sang out.

"Huh?" I asked, trying to concentrate on my footing. The rocks below my feet were tiny, but not conducive to helping me keep my balance. "Tyler," Jazz stopped and turned to look at me with a grin in place. "He was asking me all sorts of questions about you while we were waiting for you and Edward to come in off the paintball field." "Really?" I couldn't help the warm rush that came to my cheeks. "Like what?" "Like... he wanted to know if you have a boyfriend. Stuff like that." "What did you tell him?" "I told him no. But that you would never date a drummer. They are nothing but trouble!" "You did not," I gasped and shoved my shoulder into his arm. Jasper dodged away from my push with a laugh. "No. I didn't. I told him you were single," he said. "Tyler's a pretty cool guy. He's going places too. You could do worse." "Going places?" I sat in the rocks at the edge of the water and started poking a long stick into the muddy bank in front of me. Jasper lowered himself to sit to my left. "His band," Jasper continued. "Crawl?" "Should I have heard of them?" I asked. "Maybe not yet," Jasper shook his head. "Some movie filmed up here for the better part of last year." "I remember Dad mentioned that," I shrugged. Extra traffic in the area kept Charlie busy. "Well, Tyler's band recorded a song that was picked up for the soundtrack," Jasper said. "They are gonna get huge. You should snap him up before the video hits and he becomes a mega-star!" I laughed and looked down. "Tyler is a good-looking guy," I admitted. That hardly covered it. He probably could have rocked the runways in Milan. "Do me a favor? Wait until the competition is over if you two decide to start something up, okay?" Jasper played with a hook on the edge of his hat. "Edward would have a stroke if he thought you were trying to influence the competition that way."

"I promise," I nodded. I still had a year left of school in Florida. I doubted much could come of encouraging Tyler while I was home. But it wouldn't hurt to flirt and have a little fun. I sighed. "What's wrong Izzy?" "Nothing's wrong," I shrugged. "I guess not all of us are lucky enough to meet our 'Alice'." "Aww... you'll meet your 'Alice.'" Jazz promised. "He's out there waiting for you." I laughed lightly at his continuation of my phrasing. Alice was obviously Jasper's soul mate. I longed for that same type of connection. When Jasper tipped his head to study the sky, I mimicked his posture and did the same. "Tell me how you proposed," I suggested, while watching the puffy white clouds move lazily against their lazuline background. "You might be disappointed," I heard him chuckle beside me. "It wasn't planned." "Tell me," I repeated. "Well... we were in my apartment, studying," Jasper began. "Alice was on her stomach across my floor, working on a project that required showing her complete plans for the School of the Arts that she hopes to one day open." "Go on," I smiled. I looked for the images of the story he told in the clouds above me. "I looked over... and she was doodling in the margins of her paper. She does that when she's thinking. Anyway, I wondered what she was concentrating so hard on. Paint color? Furniture? You know she has a unique style. I was guessing that she was lost in thoughts of interior design." "And?" "She laughed at me. She said that paint samples and fabrics were 'exterior' and not 'interior.' She was busy planning how to get funding for scholarships that would allow under-privileged children the ability to attend the school." "Wow," I breathed with a smile. I turned to look at Jasper. His profile was set with a dreamy smile of his own. "I know. I moved to lay beside her on the floor. And I took her pen. She didn't say a thing when I grabbed her left hand and drew a little band all the way around her ring finger." My breath caught in my throat. I just watched him smile up at the sky while he finished his story. "I said ...'Alice? One of these days I'm gonna make you marry me. And I'll put a real ring on this finger, as soon as you want one.'"

"What did she say?" I whispered with tears in my eyes. "She rolled over to face me. And she said 'What are you doing next summer?'" Jasper and I both laughed. My heart was light. "You make me proud," I told him. "I try," Jasper said. I stood up then and reached to grab the stick I had left on the ground. When I leaned forward, my balance shifted and I began to slide down toward the water. "Jazz!" I yelled and threw my arms out to grab his outstretched hand, but it was too late. I stood with one foot on the rocky bank, and the other firmly buried up past my ankle in mud. Jasper looked at me with a dumbfounded expression before tipping his head back and laughing. "Stop it," I hissed. "There is nothing remotely funny about this. Pull me out, will you?" Jasper finally raised his lanky frame off the ground and wrapped his hands around my forearms. He held my body upright while I pulled my leg out of the murky sludge it was trapped in. A new round of laughter flew from his generous mouth when we both realized at the same time that the muddy bank of the Sol Duc River was holding my tennis shoe captive. "Should have worn waders," Jasper snorted. "Then you wouldn't be in this mess." "Shut it," I muttered. Still holding one of his arms for balance, I reached down and stuck my hand into the slimy mud, arguing with the mire until it finally saw reason and returned my footwear. "Better now?" Jasper chuckled and helped pull me up to the drier ground. "Peachy," I groaned. Having had the foresight to roll up my jeans, only the edges of the denim were dark with water. But my left foot was completely covered with mud, as was my right hand and the sodden tennis shoe I held in my fingers. "Only you," Jasper shook his head, "Could get covered in mud on a mostly-rocky river bank." "You too," I joked. "You like my luck to rub off on you. Remember?" I took my muddy hand and deliberately wiped a long, dark trail of mud down the center of his t-shirt. "Well... share my luck today!" "You are gonna pay for that, Swan!" Jasper stomped into the water with his large rubber boots and grabbed two handfuls of the sticky muck. I squealed and tried to dodge his attack, but still

ended up with mud on my shirt, arms, and across one cheek. Using my shoe as a weapon, I managed to streak Jasper with a fair amount of mud as well. "Damn it... You kids get on outta here and head back home," Larry yelled down the bank. "You're scaring all the fish with that god-awful noise!" "Sorry!" Jasper and I called back in unison. We laughed again and turned to make our way back up to Larry's truck. He'd share a ride home with Charlie, later. We re-programmed all of Larry's pre-set radio stations on the way home, just to be brats. And we laughed and sang along to a cacophony of 80's music we found broadcasted locally. "What's Edward doing today?" I asked during a station break. "I don't know," Jasper shrugged. "My guess is that he's got his face stuck in a book. I made him promise to wait a couple weeks and take a break before he started to study for the Bar. But I suspect that he digs around in his books when he has some free time anyway." "Any idea what he has planned for tonight?" Edward's night-time activity was on our schedule for the evening ahead. "No clue. I bet he'll tell us when we get home." "It would be nice to know ahead of time," I nodded. And we wouldn't have to search far to get our answers. Edward was just getting out of his car when we pulled into the Whitlock's drive. "Where were you off to?" Jasper asked, while closing the truck door behind him. "I went to the diner for lunch," Edward replied, looking at both of us with an amused expression. He stepped close to me and tugged the brim of my baseball hat down over my eyes. "Well... there you are Bella! Just when I get to missing that little girl next door... you show up all covered in mud!" "Whatever." I rolled my eyes with a huff. "So... what are your plans for the night?" Jasper turned toward his brother. Edward kept his eyes on me while he answered. "What's a bachelor party without exotic dancers?" "You hired Jasper a stripper?" I asked incredulously. "No." Edward shook his head. "But there is a.... Gentleman's Club... on the other side of Port Angeles. We are all going."

"Hell yeah!" Jasper did a happy little jump in his giant boots and pumped his fist up in the air. "I'm getting a shower! Catch you two kids later!" Jasper left me standing there, squinting unhappily up toward his older brother. "The Slapping Beaver is a strip joint. I don't see where being a 'gentleman' has anything to do with cramming dollar bills into a g-string to get tits in your face!" My hands were on my hips and I wanted to kick him in the shins. "You're cute when your face is all covered with mud," Edward laughed. "Don't change the subject, Cullen," I snarled. "You only chose to go to a strip club to make me uncomfortable!" "Could it be that I really just thought it was something Jasper might like to do?" he asked, feigning innocence. "No," I ground out. "Because if you gave it any real thought... you would have come up with something like I did. My night time event includes beer pong and darts, at a local bar." "Ah. Playing up the fact that Jasper loves to throw darts," Edward nodded appreciatively. "Well... he also loves naked women. So we're even." "You are rude!" I frowned and felt the dried mud on my cheek pull at the skin. "And you are just put out because your curvy little figure won't be so unique where we are going!" "Argh!" I threw my hands out to the side. "You make me so mad!" "It's fun to piss you off," Edward smiled. The humor in his eyes forced a smile from me in return. "Fine. Play the game the way you want," I shook my head in defeat. "But you won't break me, Cullen. I'll have a fist full of dollars and a cigar between my teeth. It's going to take more than nipple-tassles and g-strings to get me to back down." "Good. Be ready to leave at eight." I was eleven years old, and was wearing my brand-new purple bikini. It had tiny white flowers on it, and I thought it was the prettiest swimsuit in the store. Jasper and I sat in his kitchen, dripping water on the floor while we took a break from running through the backyard sprinkler and ate cherry popsicles. I rubbed my tongue against the inside of my lip, and felt the small scratches that the soft-wood of the popsicle stick left behind. My fingers and my mouth were sticky with the taste of summer. Jasper had a red stain down his chin.

"You look like a vampire," I laughed at him. "I vant to suck your blood!" He stood with his arms extended- his fingers curled like talons. "Not so fast, young man.," Jasper's mom stopped him. "You need to get cleaned up." "I'll meet you out there," Jasper said, as we tossed our garbage into the kitchen trash can. "I'm going to wash my face." "Okay! Thanks for the treat, Mrs. Whitlock!" "Anytime dear," Jasper's mom replied. She was already scrubbing at Jasper's face with the wetted corner of a dishtowel. She apparently thought she would have a better chance at removing the stain than Jasper would. I went out the back door but stopped on the top step when I saw Edward in the backyard, throwing a Frisbee back and forth with a couple of his friends. None of them stopped the game to acknowledge me, so I skipped lightly down the steps and started to make my way to the sprinkler Charlie had set up for Jazz and I in my own yard. I slid a little in the wet grass when I heard a low wolf-whistle behind me. I had seen enough on television to know that a wolf-whistle was usually delivered by a man towards a pretty woman. I felt a blush heat my face. I wasn't sure which of the older boys had whistled. But I was definitely the only girl around. I turned to face them. As soon as I did, a skinny dark-haired boy held the Frisbee to his side and started laughing. "Oh man, Ed! I thought that was your brother in a bathing suit for a minute!" "She's built like a hockey-stick!" The other boy laughed. Edward stood there, frowning. "Cut it out guys. She's just a kid." I heard Edward's scolding voice even as I was turning to flee to the safety of my own house. "They shouldn't make bikinis in baby-sizes," one of the boys said behind me. I couldn't tell who the voice belonged to. Tears filled my eyes and I tried to get away from their mean comments. "Her boobs are bigger than your IQ, ass-wipe!" I smiled as I recognized that voice. Jasper jogged up beside me and threw his arm over my shoulder. "Don't let Mom hear you cussing," Edward called over. "Your brother has a smart mouth," the nasty boy complained. "He needs to be careful, or I'll shut it for him..." "Try it and see what happens..." I heard Edward warn.

"Don't listen to them," Jasper said once we got inside my house. "They're ass-wipes." I laughed and wiped a tear from my cheek. Jasper was fond of his new favorite curse-word and it always made me giggle when he used it. "Yeah. They're ass-wipes," I agreed. I reached down to pull on my pump, then stood and smoothed my hand down the front of my shirt. While I wouldn't be as voluptuous as the silicon-enhanced dancers we would be spending time with that evening, the years had been generous in supplying me curves that I could now be proud of. My red button-up blouse was probably a little too dressy for a strip club, but I figured it would be classy enough when paired with skinny jeans to prohibit me being mistaken for an employee. I took a deep breath and checked my watch. It was time to meet the boys. I noticed that Edward's eyes scanned my appearance as I walked toward his car. The two brothers were leaning against the driver's side, talking while waiting for me. "Drawing strength from your clothing choices again?" Edward asked smugly. "Red is supposed to be a power-color. Is it not?" "Cullen... I could be wearing baby-duck yellow and I'd still kick your ass in this competition," I muttered. Jazz laughed heartily and I reached for the door handle to get in the back seat. "We aren't taking Edward's car," Jasper put his hand out to stop me. "Tyler offered to be the designated driver tonight. He's got a van that he usually hauls band-equipment around in. It's big enough for all of us to ride together." No sooner had Jasper explained, than a large blue van pulled up in front of the Whitlock's house. Tyler jumped from behind the wheel and opened the sliding back door to reveal two bench seats, with Mike and Eric in the back. "Nice," Jasper complimented while ducking his head and climbing into the van. I moved to join him. "Care to ride up front, with me?" Tyler asked quietly. I smiled at his sweet suggestion. "Nah," I replied. "This is Edward's night out. He can sit up front. Tonight, I'm just one of the guys!" "That's going to be tricky to remember," Tyler complimented me. "Especially with the way you look tonight." "Yeah, yeah," Edward muttered while moving around the van. I tried to ignore him while I stepped up and into the back. Tyler closed the door behind me, and resumed his position as driver.

"So... where to?" Tyler aimed his question to the man in the passenger seat. Edward directed him to just east of Port Angeles. For the rest of the drive, I listened to the men around me psyche themselves up for a night of drinking and scantily clad women. "Got your money ready, Swan?" Jasper asked. "Oh yeah," I nodded in jest. "Bring on the T and A." Mike and Eric laughed loudly from the seat behind me, rubbing my shoulders like I was a boxer about to step into a ring. To be honest, I felt like I needed the prep. I had no idea what to expect, or what I was about to get myself into. I just knew that if I let my own discomfort bring down the mood of the people around me... Edward would win. Since the Great Paintball Incident of '09, our score was tied. I couldn't afford to lose a point tonight.

11. The Slapping Beaver

When Tyler opened the van door for us, I followed Jasper outside and stood with my feet in the gravel, staring up at the blinking neon sign. 'The Slapping Beaver' was displayed proudly above an innocuous looking single-story building with darkened windows. "Looks like it's packed tonight," Eric said, while glancing around the parking lot full of cars. "Should be fun!" Mike agreed, and the two men flanked Jasper as they began walking toward the entrance. "You ready?" Edward asked. "Sure," I shrugged and walked beside him. Tyler fell into step at my other side, and I tried to calm my nerves as I listened to the crunching of our steps in the gravel leading us closer to the building. The hallway leading in from the door was narrow. I ended up pressed inside a close circle of the men that I had accompanied. I could see that pulsing red lights bounced around the room in time to electronic music that filled the air. I tried to peek around the large bodies around me, to take in my surroundings. From movies and music videos, I had expected a large, central stage with dancing girls doing choreographed numbers. While there was a small, rectangular stage near the back wall, most of the action seemed to be taking place on and around several small round stages that were set up in various locations around the large room. Each stage had a private dancer on it, and a pole that went from ceiling to floor. Chairs were placed on the floor, around the circumference of each stage, for paying customers to sit and enjoy the show up-close. And from the looks of one man

who sat while a dancer ground her hips in his face... it looked like the customers were treated to a whole lot of attention for the tips they provided. "Is this table okay?" Tyler asked. I was thankful that he had stopped at a rectangular-table that was set back and away from the small round stages. I wasn't sure I'd be able to pretend composure if I had to sit close to the actual dancers. "It's fine," Jasper answered for me. All of the men moved to sit without argument. I smiled when Tyler held a chair out for me. When I looked up, I saw that Edward still stood, with his fingers wrapped around the top of a chair that he had pulled out as well. I awkwardly sat down in the chair that Tyler offered, since it was closest to me, and shot a smile across the table toward Edward. He was already sitting and not looking my direction at all. Tyler lowered himself into the seat beside me, and moved himself up so that the side of his thigh touched mine beneath the table. If Jasper hadn't already warned me that Tyler might be interested, I certainly would have started to suspect on my own. "Sorry," he whispered over. But he didn't look it. "Don't be," I shook my head and grinned. I didn't mind Tyler sitting close. He wasn't being gross or sleazy. And he was definitely gorgeous. I was just going to have to remember my promise to Jasper and not let things get out of hand while Edward and I were still locked in our competition. It wouldn't be fair to anyone. In the meanwhile, Tyler's nearness might help to dispel some of the attention I seemed to be garnering from various men sitting at nearby tables. I tried to ignore their curious stares. My guess was that not many women were typically seen fully-dressed inside these walls. A pretty waitress wearing tiny lingerie strode up to us in her ridiculously tall heels. I smirked as the men at my table tried to pretend not to ogle the ample cleavage that poured from the top of her bustier, and her long legs encased in garter-belt and stockings. "I'll buy the first round," I offered, to prove I wasn't bothered in the slightest by her attire. The waitress dimpled over at me while I ordered two pitchers of beer and a coke. Tyler grinned at me when I tagged his drink to the order. "Let me guess," the bottled-red head purred. "Bachelor party?" Her heavily made-up eyes scanned the table of men in front of her. "More like 'practice' for a Bachelor Party," Jasper explained. "I'm not getting married until next summer." The leggy waitress swung her hips while she walked over and sat across Jasper's lap. She pouted prettily and mussed the top of his hair with her red-laquered finger tips. "Oh pooh," she said. "It's always the cute ones that are stolen from us in their prime!"

Jasper grinned like a kid in a candy store and adjusted his glasses when she stood up and sashayed off to get our drink order. "I'm gonna tell everyone that I'm the one getting married, if it's gonna get me attention like that," Mike laughed. The other men joined along. "Come on," Eric suggested, hitting Mike in the shoulder. "Let's go throw down some cash." The two men stood and walked to a couple of available seats near a small stage. I watched for a moment as they placed some money on the edge of the circle in front of them. The dancer there was quick to treat them to a view that surprised me. Needless to say, g-strings didn't offer a lot of coverage when a woman was laying on her back while holding her legs in a spread-eagle position in the air. "Well... she's very limber," I pointed out. "Yes, she is," Jasper chuckled. Tyler reached out and poured me a beer from one of the pitchers that just arrived at our table. I took a drink quickly and glanced around. After realizing again that I was being stared at by more than one curious set of eyes, I looked back down. "What's wrong?" Jazz asked. He leaned over the table, and looked concerned. I tucked my hair behind my ear and leaned in so as not to be over-heard. Tyler and Edward followed my lead and leaned in as well. "I don't like being stared at," I muttered. "It's a little ...unnerving." Edward chuckled and leaned back in his chair. "I need to use the restroom," I continued. "And I don't want to go alone." "Come on," Jasper grinned and stood. "I'll go powder my nose with ya." I took his outstretched hand gratefully and left Tyler and Edward at the table behind us. "I really don't know why they are staring," I muttered near Jasper's arm. "It's not like they don't have naked women everywhere to occupy their attention." "You're the prettiest girl in this bar," Jasper said warmly. "And I'm proud of you for keeping your shit together tonight. Keep up the good work, okay?" "Okay," I smiled. "Now hurry up in there." Jasper crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his back against the wall near the women's bathroom door.

I used the facilities quickly, and hurried back out to Jasper. He was standing, staring at our table with a frown on his face. I looked to see what had him so serious looking. I saw that a very tall, blonde dancer was standing next to Edward. Her hand was on his shoulder, and they were talking. Though I knew it wasn't my place to feel so possessive, I had to fight down the way I felt about her touching him. It didn't make a lot of sense to me that Jasper looked upset though. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I just hope he's not up to no-good," Jasper shook his head. I never did find out what Edward was up to. The blonde had moved away to another table before we got back to ours. "I see you had company," I smiled as I sat in the seat beside Tyler once more. "They just go from table to table, trying to see who wants private dances," Tyler informed me. I nodded and grinned as Mike and Eric came back to our table. "Edward bought shots," Tyler informed them. Sure enough, I had managed to miss the five drinks that had been added to our table while I was away. "Purple Hooters," Edward smiled. "To my little brother!" We all cheered and raised our glasses together before drinking to Jasper. I swallowed the tangy liquid and placed the glass back on the table. Edward clapped his hand on Jasper's shoulder and leaned in to talk to him a minute before they both stood to walk toward stage seats. It bothered me, more than it should have, to see my guys sitting there getting attention from a stripper. "You're a little far from the action," I looked over at Tyler to distract myself from whatever Jasper and Edward were doing. "Don't you want to go over there with the other guys?" "I think I have the best seat in the house, right here," he smiled. I couldn't help the blush that pulled up and into my cheeks. Tyler reached and traced his finger across the top of my hand that was resting on my leg. He seemed to think better of the action though, and brought his hands back up to the table. I was at a loss as to what to do with my own hands then. I reached for the change that the waitress had left on our table, and started to spin a quarter on its side across the hard black surface. If Mike and Eric noticed our brief awkward exchange, they certainly did not let on. The waitress came by and flirted enough for Mike and Eric to buy the next round of beer and shots. I kept myself busy by lining up one of the empty glasses and trying to bounce my quarter into it. A college-drinking game... it took a few tries before I had the angle just right. Holding the quarter on edge between my thumb and middle finger, I was able to bounce the quarter off the table and into the glass in front of me. "Besides playing 'Quarters'," Tyler surprised me by speaking near my ear. "What else do you study in Florida?"

"Graphic design." I pushed my hair behind my shoulder and smiled over at him. He didn't move away. His bright blue eyes looked curious and kind. "I should show you some of the designs that we've been considering for our CD cover," Tyler said. "You could give me your opinion." "Oh! That's right," I said. "Jazz told me that your band was really doing well. Congratulations." "Thanks," Tyler actually blushed. "I think it's just luck. We were heard by the right people, at the right time." "It's thrilling, all the same," I complimented him. "You're going to be a very busy man!" Tyler shrugged and put his palm out toward me. I dropped the quarter into it, and he turned his attention to trying to bounce it into the glass as well. "So... will you take a look at our designs, sometime?" "I'd be happy to," I grinned. When the quarter bounced off the rim of the glass and rolled over toward Mike, he stopped it by slapping his palm against the table. "I haven't played 'Quarters' in ages," Mike grinned. "It was Isabella's idea," Tyler pointed at me. Eric moved his chair closer to the table, and the men started to move the pitchers and cups out of our way so that we could play. "What's going on?" Edward asked as he and Jasper made their way back over to us. "We're playing 'Quarters'," Tyler explained. Jasper and Edward moved in to join our game. For a while, it became very easy to forget our location. We bounced the coin off the table... laughing and forcing each other to drink when the quarter successfully landed in the glass. I lost count of the number of pitchers and shots that were brought to the table. We were all having too much fun playing our silly game. I was feeling tipsy from all of the alcohol consumed. When I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned away from the game. "Hmmm?" I asked. I recognized the Amazonian blonde dancer behind me. She had been talking to Edward earlier. "Come with me, sugar," she said with a smile. I turned and looked over my shoulder at the guys. The game had halted and they all watched me curiously. "I'll... be right back?" I posed it as a question, hoping one of them say something to stop me. Jasper looked as confused as I felt. I stood and let the dancer pull me by the hand until we were a short distance from the table.

"I'm sorry,' I finally stopped her from dragging me any further. "I don't really know what's going on." "One of your admirer's has bought you a private-dance," she grinned and blinked her false eyelashes at me. I closed my eyes and groaned. Jasper's words from earlier made their way through my alcohol-hindered brain. This must have been the 'no-good' that Edward had been up to. "Listen, I'm really sorry," I shook my head. I was glad that my back was to our table so that they could not see my face. "I'm... not really into this kind of thing. I don't... you know... like girls..." The dancer let her head fall back and laughed a deep-throaty sound. "Oh honey, believe me. I know! We can spot 'em a mile away. And even if you did play for the 'girl's team'... I'd be willing to bet that table full of hotties that you've been sitting with all night would be enough to make you love men again!" I chuckled and shook my head. "So you see..." I tried to explain. "A lap-dance is really not-necessary..." "I was paid three-hundred dollars to give you a dance honey," the dancer started to pull me forward again. "Why don't you just sit back, and let me handle everything? Men eat this shit up." "Fine," I sighed. The more I thought about it, the more disgruntled I became. If Edward had paid this woman three-hundred dollars to try to make me uncomfortable, he was going to be sorely disappointed. I'd give him a show for his money! More than one of us was capable of fighting dirty. The dancer led me to a chair that was placed in a cleared portion near the small stages. I threw my shoulders back, and tossed my hair behind me, trying to pretend not to be bothered by the attention we received just for having walked to the chair together. Then the music started, the dancer pushed me to sit in the chair, and the show began. I refused to look at my table. I knew that if I saw Edward's smug face, I wouldn't be able to hide my anger. So instead, I pretended to be totally interested in the gyrating motions of the woman in front of me. She bent, she twisted, she did the splits. I even managed to stay still and not bolt from my chair when the woman did a front walk-over that ended with her ankles on my shoulders. The flashing red lights surely hid my raging red face. I sat there and concentrated on not being mortified by the whooping and cheering I could hear from the darkened area in front of us. "You can do better than that," the woman breathed near my ear. "We usually don't allow touching. But I think you have a point to make..." The dancer took my hands and put them on her hips while she straddled my lap and continued to shake and shimmy and grind above me. I bit my lip and allowed hands to smooth up and down her sides. She smiled encouragingly and

nodded. "Keep it up," she whispered again, pretending to grind even closer to me while she talked. "Mr. Messy-hair at your table looks like he's about to explode." I couldn't help the laugh that burst from me. I could imagine Edward's face. He would be totally pissed that his plan was backfiring. That mental image alone spurred me on. I pushed the girl by the hips and turned her in front of me. Playfully, I slapped my hand across her bottom before I pulled her down onto my lap again with the naughtiest looking grin I could muster. The girl spread her legs over mine and whipped her hair around while I trailed my fingers up and down the outside of her thighs. I couldn't bring myself to touch her anywhere less appropriate. The dance did nothing for me, whatsoever. And I knew that she was a professional who was just doing her job. But when the song ended, she still stood up in front of me, leaned in, and placed her overly-glossed cherry-red lips right against mine. "That was hot," she grinned. I forced myself not to rub her lip gloss away. "I'll bet I'll make tons of tips tonight, thanks to you," she giggled. "Yeah well... it was interesting," I replied vaguely. "You should come up on my stage with me!" The dancer pulled me by the hand toward the steps. "Just for a couple of minutes! The guys at your table would flip!" I was shaking my head while she pulled me forward. I absolutely knew I wouldn't remove any of my clothing. But a small part of my mind considered that it might be fun to take one small spin around that pole... My foot had no sooner reached the first step than I felt myself being spun around by a strong pair of hands on my waist. Too much alcohol and my own lack of general coordination caused me to pitch forward. But instead of falling to the floor, I was thrown unceremoniously over the shoulder of one seething Edward Cullen. If the flash glimpse I had gotten of his face before I was upside down and dangling over his back was any indication, pissed-off was an understatement. I heard general boos and grumbling from deep voices around us, while Edward carried me toward the exit. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on not getting sick. His shoulder was pressed into my stomach and the ugly pattern of the carpet on the floor blurred by at an alarming rate. I felt the night air and knew we were outside. I heard Edward's determined steps below us. And I felt him lower me to the ground when we got to the van. It was only then that I dared to open my eyes. "What in the hell do you think you are doing?" I asked angrily, rubbing at my tender stomach. "I should ask the same of you!" Edward snarled. "Quite a show you put on there, Bella!" he complimented sarcastically.

"You had no right to grab me... and... haul me out of there..." "Your little stunt nearly caused a riot," Edward argued. "If I had let you start taking your clothes off... I don't know how any of us would have been able to get you out of that mess!" "I was not going to take my clothes off!" I was shouting now. "And as for my little stunt," I continued. "I wouldn't have had to sit through that at all if you hadn't paid that woman to give me a lap-dance!" "Wait. What?" Edward paused with his hands in his hair. "You heard me," I huffed. "Was it really so important to you to try to embarrass me like that?" "Bella? What in the world are you talking about?" "She said that she was paid three-hundred dollars to give me a lap-dance!" "And you think that I paid her?" Edward's eyebrows arched up in his surprise. "Jasper and I saw you talking to her..." I felt tears in my eyes and cursed myself for my inability to stay calm around him. "Bella... she came to our table and asked if we wanted private-dances. She went to all the tables." "So... you didn't...?" "If I was going to get someone a lap-dance, it would have been Jasper. But I didn't... because Alice made him promise that he wouldn't get that close to any of the dancers." "I thought that you..." "Bella. I wouldn't deliberately try to humiliate you. You have to believe that..." Edward moved closer to me and raised his hands slowly to push my hair past my shoulders. I closed my eyes and leaned just the top part of my body forward, until my forehead rested in the center of his chest. "I'm sorry for yelling at you," I muttered. In a second, I felt his hands move to lightly stroke up and down my arms in a soothing motion. The friction through my thin dress-shirt felt like silken heat up and down my arms, and I suddenly and irrationally felt the need to close the gap between us. "That means someone else in there paid for that dance," Edward murmured quietly. "And I'm sure whoever it was, thought it was worth every penny."

"I don't want to go back in there," I shuddered. "I only... you know... went through with it because I thought I was getting even with you." Edward chuckled deeply. "Pay-back by sexual-frustration," he said quietly. "Very effective..." His words caused me to catch my breath. Certainly he couldn't have meant the comment in the way it sounded. I tipped my head to look at him. Edward's hands stopped their movement, but tightened around my arms instead. We looked at each other in silence. I wished that Edward's face was as easy for me to read as Jasper's. I stared into the deep green depths of is eyes and tried to pick out truths. I only saw my own questioning gaze reflected back at me. He looked... intense. And the longer I stared, the more I was convinced I might drown under the weight of the moment. Yet neither of us said a word. Edward released my arms and stepped away as Jasper and the other men started to cross the parking lot toward us. I missed the heat of his hands immediately, and reluctantly tore my eyes from his. I felt slightly drunk... and confused at best. "If the college thing doesn't work out, I think I've figured out a new career for you," Jasper shouted from three cars away as they moved closer to us. "Shut up Jazz," I muttered. He laughed when he stepped next to me and threw his arm over my shoulder. I was pulled against his side tightly and Jazz looked down at me with an adoring smile. "Are we going anywhere else?" Tyler asked, while unlocking the van. He slid the back door open and Mike and Eric climbed inside. "I think we should call it a night," Edward said. He was still looking at me strangely. Perhaps he was worried about my emotional state. Jasper turned me away from him and held my hand to help me up into the van. In a minute, we were tucked away inside the dark recesses, and Tyler was driving us home. I pulled my feet up onto the seat beside me, and nestled into Jasper's side. The men all laughed and talked about the evening. From what I was able to ascertain, my slide to the bottom of public humiliation didn't take anything away from the festivities. And by the way Mike teased Eric behind us, I might have even added a little to his. I pretended not to hear them. There was no reason for more than one of us to have to be embarrassed. I dozed off a bit, cuddled against Jasper. I woke when he nudged me to tell me it was time to get out of the van. I was still sleepy as I stood on the sidewalk between our houses. Jasper kept his arm around me, and I appreciated it. "Umm," Eric shuffled his feet and crammed his hands into his jeans pockets. Both he and Mike turned to look at Tyler who shook his head a little to the side to move his bangs away from his eyes.

"We had a little trouble with the judging tonight," Tyler took over the explanation that Eric might have been meaning to begin. "We all had a great time going to the club. It was a good plan for a night out." "But Isabella was totally the entertainment for the night," Mike added. I felt my face heat instantly and Tyler's voice cut in right away. "He meant playing 'Quarters!'" Tyler hurried to reassure. "It was awesome of you to start up the game at the table." "Thanks," I mumbled. I hadn't really meant to start a game. But we all did have fun when we played it. "Anyway," Mike stepped in. "We decided that tonight ends in a tie. We had fun with both of you. And you managed not to hurt each other in any way... so that ought to count for something. Right?" Edward and I both laughed lightly. I looked over at him, and he seemed fine with the decision. "Tomorrow night is the tie-breaker," Edward nodded. "Fine with me." "Yeah. Me too," I shrugged. "Someone else can drive tomorrow night," Tyler suggested as he moved to get back in his van. We all bid each other goodnight, and went our separate ways.

12. Ambush

Despite the somewhat late night out, I woke bright and chipper. Charlie was still in the shower, so I hurried downstairs to make him breakfast before his day at work. I felt guilty for not having spent very much time with him so far, while home on my vacation. He needed to be spoiled a little. I had time to put eggs, bacon, and toast on his plate before Charlie made his way down stairs. "Isabella?" he asked with a smile from the kitchen doorway. "What's the occasion?" "I felt bad that we've not spent time together," I replied. "I missed you. Orange juice?" "Please."

He sat while I poured the sunny orange liquid in his glass. I pulled up my own plate, but enjoyed simple coffee instead. "So what are your big plans for tonight?" Charlie asked while eating. "We are going over to Moe's," I told him. "Keeping it local. Moe told he he's got beer-pong set up in the back room now. And some fun new set-up on his darts. You know Jasper loves darts." "I've never beat him," Charlie shook his head. "How late do you work?" I asked. "I don't know. Maybe until around ten?" "You should come by and have a couple beers with us," I offered. "My treat." "Thanks honey. I might do that!" Charlie grinned and patted my hand before standing to put his dishes in the sink. I stopped him. "Leave them Dad. You work too hard." "You are really too good to me," Charlie smiled. "I'm going to wash your truck for you too,' I said, while picking up our dishes. "It will be sparkly and pretty for your next trip out to the river." "So I can get it all muddy again," Charlie laughed. "You picked a good day for it. Looks like it's going to be a scorcher!" A 'scorcher' in Forks, Washington turned out to be a very sunny eighty-two degrees. It was warm enough for me to wear a small faded t-shirt and shorts when I went outside to hose down Charlie's truck. I tried to keep clear of the splash-back though. It wasn't nearly warm enough for the icy water that came from our garden hose. With my ear buds in place, I danced and sang quietly to myself when I put the bucket of soapy water next to the driver's side front-tire and made my way around the hood with a large sponge. Satisfied that I loosened some of the grime, I dropped the sponge back in the bucket and made a circuit around the truck with the hose. I pressed the trigger on the spray-handle and watched as the sudsy water dripped down to the ground below the truck. So engrossed in my task and with the music in my ears, I flinched when a bright blue object whizzed past my ear and broke with a splash against the windshield of my father's truck. I recognized the broken plastic immediately for what it was, but wasn't able to react fast enough to avoid the water-balloon that broke across the center of my back. Instantly the freezing cold water drenched the back of my shirt and my shorts. I cursed loudly and ran around the bed of the truck, looking for cover. Two more waterballoons crashed beside me. One hit my shoulder and managed to send its icy contents down the front of my body as well.

When I made it to the safety of the driver's side, I opened the door and quickly tossed my ipod onto the seat. Then I closed the door again and peered through the glass, trying to see where my attacker was aiming from. The evidence of blonde as well as bronze colored hair that stuck up above the railing of the house next door, let me know that I was out-numbered. "I dropped the hose!" I yelled out loudly. "Quit throwing the balloons! I'm un-armed!" A heavy balloon lobbed from their porch, and crashed on the hood of the truck next to my head. "So help me God, you boys are going to pay!" I warned loudly. Jasper and Edward both laughed. One more balloon glanced off the top of the truck and broke near my feet. "Fine, we're out of balloons!" Jasper called over. I slowly lifted my head to peek over the hood of the truck, and saw both men walking down their steps to come over. Their hands were empty. I glanced down at the bucket of water by my feet. "Very funny," I stayed where I was. "It's not warm enough to get wet!" "Don't be a baby," Jazz made a face. "It's plenty warm enough." "We were just having fun," Edward smirked as he stepped closer. Close enough to be a victim to my plan for justification. I threw my soapy sponge right at Jasper and before Edward could spin away, I reached and tossed the entire bucket of water right at the center of his chest. It was a flurry of movement then, as both men yelled and I hurried around the hood of the truck to retrieve my hose from where it lay on the ground. I pressed the handle and was thoroughly soaking Jasper when Edward moved up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I struggled and kicked as Jasper fought the water and came closer. The cold water from the trigger handle dripped down my hands and arms and made my fingers numb. It was easy for Jasper to pry it out of my grip. Edward slung one arm to cross over my shoulders, with the other firmly wrapped around my waist while Jasper turned the hose on me. I squinted my eyes and turned my face away from the arctic blast while Edward laughed and held me tight. He was getting just as wet as I was, but didn't seem to mind. "Admit defeat," he chuckled near my ear. "Fine! Fine! You win!" I yelled. Jasper stopped spraying me immediately and stood with a giant happy grin on his face. My hair strung wetly down my back and water dripped from my clothing while Edward released me to stand on my own. All three of us were completely soaked. "Happy now?" My teeth chattered. "I'll probably catch my death of pneumonia." "You won't catch a cold," Jasper sighed. "You just need to get out in the sun and warm up a little. Mom has towels on the line out back. Come on."

I shivered and squished in my wet tennis shoes as I followed them both to their back yard. Edward handed me a towel first. "Th-thanks," I muttered. He just grinned and laid his towel in a sunny patch on the lawn before lowering himself onto his stomach on top of it. "You'll warm up in no time," Jasper ensured me. He put his towel on the ground too, so I did the same and lowered myself to lay between them. "Bella?" I turned my head toward Edward. His cheek was pressed against his towel and his face was turned in my direction. "Blame Jasper. It was all his idea." "Oh really?" I took a moment to really look at Edward as he laid there with his eyes closed. His lashes lay gold-tipped against his rosy cheek. His hair was made dark by water, and brushed wetly against the side of his neck. My eyes traveled down to take in the way his thin t-shirt molded to the contoured muscles of his back and narrow hips. I swallowed hard and tore my eyes away from his physique only to see that he had opened his eyes and was watching me. My cheeks flamed to realize that he had caught me checking him out. Edward's expression was unreadable. He just quietly looked at me in that disconcerting way of his. As awareness surfaced, I turned my face away and looked the opposite direction. It was crazy and foolish for me to be so distracted by Edward after all of this time. My crush on him had ended years ago. And yet, I was so easily made aware of this strange pull he had over me. I could only attribute it to the fact that he was disarmingly good-looking. I mean, any girl would notice. And yet- when I closed my eyes I could feel the weight of his fathomless stare almost as though he had touched me. It was ridiculous. In fact, he hadn't even said a word. I must be desperate for a little male attention if I could let my imagination get away from me so easily. "Penny for your thoughts?" Jasper asked from beside me. He had taken off his glasses and they were resting in the grass between us. The sun kissed the tip of his nose and brightened the edges of his hair while it curled toward the warmth and tried to dry. "Remember that time I fell in the creek?" I asked. "Jasper... wait up!" I hissed at the boy that laughed and ran much too fast through the undergrowth. I couldn't keep up his pace. "We have to hurry to get back before Charlie gets home," Jasper called out from somewhere ahead of me. We were both told to stay out of the woods. Some hikers had seen some large wolves in the area, and Charlie wasn't convinced that it was safe for us to hike alone. "We'll get back in plenty of time," I argued. "I know. I found a short-cut!"

I stopped when I found Jasper. He was standing at the end of a mossy-tree that had fallen above a creek bank. It formed a bridge over the bubbling water below, and Jasper jumped up on top of it to walk across. "We can save time if we cut across here," he told me. "I'm not so sure..." I mumbled. We were close enough to home. It wouldn't take that much longer to walk to where the water was shallow enough to wade across. "Come on, chicken!" Jasper called out. "I'm not chicken!" I grumbled. I pulled myself up the green tree-trunk and gingerly began to step across. Of course, I made it no further than half-way before I lost footing and slipped off the side. I landed hard on the rock bottom below. The icy cold water swirled around my chest, and my ankle twisted painfully below me. "Izzy! Are you alright?" Jasper was instantly alarmed. The water wasn't high, but it was very cold. And I knew I couldn't stand on my own. "You are going to have to get my Dad," I tried not to cry. Facing his wrath was more upsetting than the dull ache of my ankle. "I'll be right back!" Jasper called. His blonde hair disappeared from sight, and I tried to scoot myself toward the creek edge. I couldn't stand on my leg, but I knew I needed to get out of the cold water. When Jasper arrived with Edward, I was almost completely out of the water, and sitting on the hard rocks next to the creek. "What in the hell have you got yourself into?" Edward asked, as he cautiously made his way down the steep bank beside me. I bit my lip and tried not to cry. It was almost as bad as being yelled at by my father. "It was Jazz's idea," I wailed. "The worst ones always are," Edward chuckled as he made it to me. I winced when he tenderly touched my ankle. "Well, I don't think it's broken." "O-okay," my teeth chattered. "Your lips are blue," Edward breathed near my face. "We need to get you out of here so you can warm up." "It took both of us to get you up the side of that creek bank," Jasper smiled at the memory.

"And Edward carried me the rest of the way home on his back," I added. The very same back that I had just been admiring. The same boy... all grown up. "You were freezing," Edward murmured, adding to the conversation. I turned and looked over at him. "I felt like I was carrying a block of ice." "Sorry," I whispered. He smiled with his eyes closed. "Don't worry about it Bella," he said. "I think I liked always coming to your rescue." "Well... I don't know about you two. But I'm going in to call Alice before I grab a shower," Jasper informed us. "I need to go in too," I said, sitting up. "I should probably rinse the truck off first..." "You go ahead," Edward rolled to sit up and pushed his hair away from his face. "I'll rinse off the truck before I head in. I have to wait for my turn to shower anyway." "Thanks," I told him. "Don't mention it." Edward didn't meet my eyes again. I got up and walked to the house. My sports-jersey style t-shirt was maybe a little too snug. But as I pulled on my old converse high-tops and flipped my hair over my shoulder, I had to admit that I liked the 'cute tom-boy' effect. It was perfect for a very casual night of fun and games at Moe's bar, right here in Forks. Clubbing in a city could be fun. But something could be said about the good time that could be had in a familiar little small-town bar. You could jump the bar to jockey your own beer... and you could be free to let loose and get a little silly. I was looking forward to it. Tyler's blue van was already parked at the curb when I went outside. The other men must have been inside. But Tyler lazily leaned on the side of the vehicle and smiled as I walked up. "You get to sit in front with me, tonight," he pushed his hair to the side. I smiled at his cute expression. "I thought someone else was going to be the designated driver tonight?" "Someone else can drive home," Tyler smirked. I grinned and let him lead me to the passenger side door. He opened it for me, and I climbed in. "Hey guys," I smiled toward the back. "Who's up for a little fun?" "I wonder if Moe put a pole in the back?" Jasper asked smartly. "Shut up!" I yelled and reached behind to slap at him. Edward smiled and I turned myself back in the seat to face forward while Tyler drove us the short distance to the bar at the edge of town.

"Moe! We're here!" I yelled out as soon as we all entered the small establishment. I hurried to lean over the bar and kissed the old proprietor loudly on the cheek. Moe and my father had been friends more years than I could remember. I had talked my plans over with him, and he promised that we could essentially have the run of the place. The few locals that chose to line the bar also knew our parents, and had no issue with what they referred to as "young folks livening the place up" for the evening. "Got that beer pong table set up in the back, just like you asked for, Missy," Moe told me. "Thanks, Moe." We all turned to go to the back room when I noticed one of us was missing. "Jazz? Where's Tyler?" "I think he stayed outside to have a smoke," Jasper told me. "Okay..." I smiled. "Be right back!" I jogged to the door and stepped back outside to find Tyler leaning with his back to the building. He took a slow drag from his cigarette and turned his face toward me with a smile. "Does this bother you?" he asked, holding the glowing red tip of his cigarette up for me to see. "Nope," I shook my head. "But I'm not a smoker, myself." "Good," he smiled. "It's a nasty habit." I moved until I matched his pose against the side of the building. "We're going to play beer pong," I told him. "Are you any good?" "Not bad," he shrugged. "Why?" "Because I want to win," I giggled. "I need to know who to pick for my team." I turned to go back to the bar when Tyler stopped me with a hand on my forearm. "Isabella?" He tossed his cigarette to the ground and stomped it under his heel. His hand was still around my arm, and I looked up to see why he stopped me. "I need to ask you something." "Yeah?" He released his grip on my arm to push his bangs aside.

"I'm having a party at my place at the end of the week. Just a backyard barbeque," he shrugged. "The guys from my band sort of ... you know... wanted to get together with some friends before we go to LA to do some recording..." "And?" I smiled for him to continue. "I was wondering if you'd like to come. You know... as my date?" His words surprised me a little, and I felt the smile leave my face in a moment of indecision. "Tyler... I," "If you don't want to, that's fine..." "I would like to come to your party," I interrupted. His smile was instant and I felt the need to elaborate. "But I don't think it's a good idea to come as your date. You know... with this whole competition thing... and you are a judge... and I promised Jazz..." "I'm not a judge after tonight," Tyler said quietly, moving to stand directly in front of me. "Oh." I was unsettled by his closeness, but not enough to make me want to move away. "Tell you what," Tyler said with a husky voice. "Come to my party. I won't invite anyone else. And I'll save you a seat by the fire. Just in case." "Thanks," I smiled. "That... actually... sounds nice." Tyler moved his hand up to brush his fingers down my cheek. Warning bells went off in my head. If I wasn't careful, he would end up kissing me. And while the idea was appealing, I had made a promise to Jasper. I stepped back from Tyler's touch just as the front door opened. Edward stood looking at both of us silently for a moment. Tyler turned his body to face Edward squarely. I felt like I was in the middle of some odd stand-off. "Is everyone ready to play?" I asked, walking toward the door. "Yes. I was just coming to find you," Edward explained. "Good. I think we're ready," I said. Though I had done nothing wrong, I felt somehow guilty under Edward's steady gaze. I stepped around him into the bar, and moved quickly to the back room to play beer pong.

13. Some Prefer Lemon

Edward won the coin toss and called Tyler to his side first, thus ending any question about which team he might play for. I chose Jasper and Mike finished my team. Only a few locals infiltrated the back room of Moe's place while we played beer pong. Most were curious about the loud shouts, laughter, and obscenities that poured out of the area while we tossed the tiny white ball back and forth toward the stacked cups and drank heartily. I knew Edward picked Eric to be on his team because he was guaranteed to stay sober as our designated driver for the evening. But I didn't even care about strategy. I was having a damn good time. Tyler's attention across the table was welcome. He continued to flirt lightly with me throughout the game. I had to concentrate very hard to hit the cups, and not pay so much attention to the darkly handsome guy that leaned on the table at the opposite end. When he bent forward to make his own shots, he would blow the hair out of his eyes and send me a rakish grin each time. "Down girl," Jasper warned quietly by my ear. "Edward is on to you. I don't want any fighting tonight." "A promise is a promise," I shook his hand off my shoulder. "I'll be good." "Thank you." Jazz pushed his glasses up his nose and ruffled my hair before walking away. I almost pouted a little at the reprimand. But he was right. Edward was sending Tyler some dirty looks. I didn't need him thinking that I was trying to influence the judging that way. "Hey Cullen!" I shouted with a grin. My voice brought Edward's eyes away from Tyler and across the table to me. "Yeah?" "Losers this round have to dance on the bar!" His smile pulled wide across his lips. "You're on!" he called back. It was a good thing the jukebox music of choice was eighties hair-bands. After an embarrassing defeat, Jasper, Mike and I had to climb up on the bar to dance to Def Leppard's 'Pour Some Sugar on Me.' I laughed while Jasper stole the show, and tried hard not to fall off the bar while I danced beside him. When he turned to sandwich me I between him and Mike, their efforts were like something off of Saturday Night Live. I laughed and tried to remain standing while they bounced me between them. "Alright. Enough is enough," Edward laughed with me. He reached up and put his large hands on my hips. With my hands against his shoulders, he lowered me carefully to the bar room floor.

"Too bad they didn't have a pole for you to twirl around," Edward smirked and teased me. "I have a feeling Jazz would be a better stripper than I would!" Edward playfully frowned up at his brother who was still shaking his ass on the bar. He hit him in the leg with a shake of his head, and Jasper laughed and jumped down to join us. "Where's Tyler?" Mike asked. "I want to play darts!" "Outside improving the whiteness of his smile with another cigarette," Edward said moodily. "Hey," I hit Edward lightly in the arm. "Be nice!" Edward turned and went to the bar to talk to Moe then, grumbling under his breath about how musicians were not to be trusted. I looked up at Jasper, hoping he'd have some explanation for Edward's surliness. "He's right," Jasper shrugged. "We musicians shouldn't be trusted!" He gave me his best lecherous grin, but in his half-drunken state, he just looked goofy. I laughed and shoved him away from me. "Okay. Let's play darts while you are still sober enough to see the board!" I grinned. "Honey... I could drink another twelve-pack and still dominate this game," Jasper laughed. I laughed too. He was only telling the truth. Jasper was awesome at darts. I chose this night out because I knew for a fact he would have a good time. And so far, everything was going according to plan. Everyone was relaxed, everyone was comfortably buzzed, and everyone was having fun. Edward walked over to the group when Tyler rejoined us. "I talked to Moe about the darts," Edward began to explain. "The board is rigged with sensors. It's pretty easy. If you hit a spot and make the red light up there go off... you have to take one of the white slips of paper out of that fish-bowl on the bar. Then, in order to get your points, you have to do whatever that paper says." "It's like Dare Darts!" Jasper was almost slurring and I cracked up at his enthusiasm. "Bring it on," I looked at the men around me. "Unless you boys are afraid?" "Hell, no. I'm in," Tyler smiled and stepped over to my side. Mike and Eric both agreed and Edward had already moved to press the buttons on the electronic dart board that would start our game.

It was clear from the beginning that Jasper would win easily. Even after he was the first to set off the red light, and was forced to eat five pickled eggs from a large container behind the bar, he still threw darts better than the rest of us. I probably would have hurled. Mike's alcohol consumption made him a truly, terrible contender. Tyler and Eric held their own. But it was Edward and I that seemed to be neck-in-neck for the second place position. Every time I managed to get ahead, he would catch up and hit the points needed to take the lead in front of me. I was getting incredibly frustrated. "Give it up," Edward finally smirked. He was pleasantly drunk and was wearing a pink feather boa, thanks to his recent trip to the fish-bowl. "You aren't going to beat me." His smug attitude irritated me, even through my buzz. "Wanna bet?" I asked smugly. It was obvious Jasper would win the game. But I could probably take Edward for second-place. So far we had been throwing evenly. "Are you suggesting a side-wager?" Edward asked, with his eyebrows raised. "Why not?" I asked. "Tell you what..." Moe called out. "Whichever of you two knuckle-heads comes in third... has to stay behind tonight and help me clean up this mess!" "You're on!" I nodded. Edward shrugged like it didn't matter. It only made me want to beat him more. Of course, my next throw hit a sensor that sent me right up to the fish-bowl. I groaned when I read the paper. There was no way I could get my points. "What?" Jasper asked, siding up to me. He read over my shoulder and laughed. "It's not fair!" I complained. "Rules are rules," Edward called out. "It says I'm supposed to wear my shirt on my head for the rest of the game!" I wailed. Edward smirked and Tyler grinned widely. "Rules are rules!" Eric mimicked Edward's earlier statement and got punched in the arm by Mike for his outburst. "I can fix this," Jasper muttered. "Hey Moe? Hook me up with a pair of scissors... will ya?" Moe handed Jasper an orange-handled pair of shears. "Arms up," Jasper instructed. Oh hell. I wasn't sure if I trusted Jasper in his drunken state holding a pair of scissors so close to me.

"Be careful," I whimpered. Jasper smirked and moved in a circle around me, carefully snipping the bottom six inches of material from my shirt. When he held the long strip of cotton in his hands, and my entire abdomen was bare, he reached up and tied the jagged piece of material around my head like a headband. "I'd say that's close enough," Jasper winked. "Any problems?" His suddenly fierce countenance as he faced the other men was enough to dissuade any arguments. I got my points, smiled, and walked over to join the play once again. We continued to drink. We continued to do silly dares from the jar. Jasper continued to win, and Edward and I continued to battle for second place. Somehow Eric managed to never set off the red light sensor. We were treated to an image we'd all be happy to forget when Mike Newton had to go outside and press his bare-butt against the bar room window to show us his 'canned ham.' Tyler had to sing 'What's New Pussycat' while standing on his head in the corner. All in all, it was a great game. "This is your last shot," Edward had moved close to whisper near my ear. I shivered and stepped back to glare at him for trying to distract me. "Better make it count," he smiled. I needed to take the lead now, or he could very easily win. Our score was tied. "Step back and see how it's done." I pretended a confidence I did not feel. When Edward moved to lean next to Jasper at the table beside us, I stepped to the line and concentrated on the board. Edward's cocky smirk pulled the side of his mouth up while he watched me. I swallowed hard and let the dart fly. Bullseye. Bullseye! My mouth opened wide in my surprise and I threw my arms over my head yelling in victory as soon as I saw my dart buried in the center red spot on the board. Celebratory cheers rose around me, and the guys patted my shoulders roughly. It took a moment before I realized that the red light above the board was blinking. We all stopped and stared then. "You don't get the points, unless you do the dare," Edward shoved his finger toward the glass container on the counter. My feet felt sluggish beneath me, and the path seemed to elongate like I was marching down death row as I carried myself toward the paper that would determine my fate in the game. "You can do it," Jasper encouraged me. I reached into the jar, swirled the paper strips around under my finger tips, and grabbed one tight in my grasp. "What does it say?" Tyler asked. I read the words with dread in my heart, but was able to look up with a smile.

"Tequila body-shot," I laughed. No problem! I could handle that dare with ease! The other men seemed to realize it the same time that I did. They were congratulating me again when Edward stepped to the line and threw his last shot. "Bullseye!" He yelled. We all turned incredulously toward the sound of his happy proclamation. "I got a bullseye too!" "Bullshit, Cullen!" I stormed over to the board. Sure enough, his dart had landed in the centertarget as well. "Well? Now what?" Jasper asked. "Let them both do the dare," Moe shrugged. "They can both do the body-shots. And you guys can all choose who the winner is. The loser stays behind to help me clean tonight." He repeated the conditions of our bet. I cringed. But then I straightened my shoulders and tossed my hair behind me. "I am willing to bet I've spent more time at Frat parties than Mr. Harvard here. Break out the tequila. This game is mine." "Don't make me call your bluff Bella," Edward said with a deep voice, moving to stand in front of me. "I'm creative when pressed into a corner." "Put your money where your mouth is," I dared him. "The game isn't over until the final points are tallied." "Bring the tequila," he said to the side while looking into my eyes. I couldn't remember the last time I had seen him look so determined. Moe lined up two tall shot glasses of tequila, and a salt shaker. "Lemon or lime?" he asked us. "Lemon," we replied in unison. Edward and I both laughed a little while Moe placed the garnish beside our shots. "You first," Edward smirked. I smiled at him with as much saucy confidence as I could muster, and put my hands against his chest to direct him until he sat on the barstool behind his legs. I forced my mind to not consider how hard his chest felt under my hands. If I gave it too much thought, I would chicken out. "Rules again?" I asked over my shoulder. Eric stood up with a grin. "Once you get the shot set up... no hands. And don't spill your drink. You need to drink the whole thing for it to count." "Simple," I smiled. Edward just looked at me with one eyebrow raised. I took his cocky look as a dare and stepped forward to kick his legs apart on the floor. Then, I moved to stand directly

between his thighs. He didn't say a word. He just watched as I reached past his arm for a slice of lemon. Then I looked into his eyes before twisting his hair into my hand and tugging his head sharply to the left. He smiled when I did it, and I rubbed the lemon against the side of his neck. "Hold this," I ordered, placing the lemon between his fingers. "No problem," he murmured. I could see him fighting back that damn smirk of his. I picked up the salt shaker, and shook the tiny glass container until the white granules rained down and stuck to the lemon juice on Edward's neck. "Last chance to back out," I warned him, while pressing my shot glass into his free hand. "Bring it," he smiled and closed his eyes. He looked so comfortable that I started to feel more pissed than nervous. He really thought I didn't have the nerve! Working with my aggravation to strengthen my resolve and alcohol in my bloodstream to provide bravery, I leaned forward and touched my tongue to the bottom of the salt trail on his neck. Edward jumped a little at the initial contact, which made me smile. He wasn't as sure as he pretended to be. With the flat of my tongue pressed against his skin, I pulled my mouth up his neck. Mmmm... citrus... and salt... and the indefinable taste of the man in front of me. I blamed the alcohol when suddenly my hormones kicked into over-drive and all I wanted was to bite him and suck his warm skin into my mouth. I shook my head. This was Edward that I was having these decidedly impure thoughts about. I gritted my teeth and concentrated on the end goal. Fifty points for the bullseye and the body shot. When I reached the end of the salt, Edward held the liquor to my lips. I put my mouth around the shot glass, and tipped my head back until the tequila fell into my mouth. Then I swallowed hard and pulled my head back down to drop the glass with a dull thud to the floor. Edward smiled while he held the lemon to my mouth, and I bit into it eagerly to chase away the harsh flavor of the tequila. "Bravo," Jasper clapped beside me. I grinned and put the lemon rind on the napkin on the bar before beginning to step away from Edward's legs. "Not so fast," Edward straightened himself on the stool and looked me directly in the eye. "I win." "What?" My voice sounded as incredulous as I felt. "You haven't even had a shot yet!" "Nope. But when I do... I win." He stood and adjusted the neck of his shirt. "You can't be so sure of yourself." I placed my hands on my hips and gave him a dirty look.

"Oh yes I can Bella," Edward smiled. "The rules distinctly stated 'no hands.' You used my hands to hold your lemon and your liquor. You are clearly in violation of the rules!" My mouth popped open and I turned to look at the guys. They were shrugging and nodding in confirmation to Edward's statement. "Damn dirty lawyer!" I huffed. "I'd like to know how in the hell a person does a body shot without having someone hold the shot glass!" "Someone holds it," Edward said lowly. He put his hands on my shoulders and turned my back to the bar. "Don't say I didn't warn you," he whispered near my ear. I was struck speechless when Edward dropped to his knees in front of me. "What are you doing?" I asked. Then I breathed "Oh..." Edward already had his lemon wedge in hand, and was meticulously dragging it across the skin of my abdomen. I had to stop myself from trembling when I felt a drop of juice slide down my stomach toward the waistband of my jeans. Edward didn't look up from his work. He simply brought that gorgeous head of his closer toward me as he reached to the bar for the salt shaker. "Lean back," he commanded. My body automatically moved to accommodate him, and I pressed my arms back against the stool behind me. The salt tickled across my skin until it stuck to the wet lemon juice. Edward placed the shaker back on the bar and stood with the shot glass in hand. "You asked for this," he whispered with something a bit dark and dangerous glinting in his eyes. Edward quickly bent one long finger into the collar of my shirt and tugged it down until the deep V-shape he created exposed an obscene amount of cleavage and the center of my red bra. His face had taken on a clinical look of professionalism when he firmly wedged the shot glass between my breasts. Shocked by the coolness of the glass as well as his actions, I opened my mouth to protest. Edward didn't give me time to say a word. He shoved the edge of the lemon into my mouth. "Bite it," he ordered through gritted teeth. I complied and pressed my teeth into the bitter skin of the fruit. Edward didn't waste time. Back on his knees, he gripped my hips in his hands roughly and pressed his face to my stomach. I felt sure he could feel my stomach muscles clench when his tongue licked away the long line of salt that he placed there. My eyes actually rolled back a little, and I hoped to God no one else noticed. His fingers gripped me even more tightly as he rose far enough to reach the shot glass with his mouth. I stared at the top of his head while he pulled the shot glass away from my chest with his teeth. He drained the glass and dropped it to the floor immediately. Then Edward reached forward and bit into the lemon, tearing it away from my mouth with only the barest hint of his lips on mine. He stood and raised his hands over his head, to the cheers of the four men who stood behind him.

"Nice work, Cullen," Mike clapped him on the back. "Harvard boys can party too," Eric laughed, giving him props. I stood, with my chest heaving, trying to gain control of my respiratory system. Edward turned and grinned at me with a bright yellow smile before he pulled the fruit away from his teeth. The sting of the citrus and salt had made his lips shiny and dark. I stared a little longer than I should have. "Fine," I said, while trying not to sound as dazed as I felt. "You win." I escaped to the ladies room under the pretense of having to wash Edward's 'gross spit' off my stomach. As soon as the door was closed behind me, I rested heavily against it and cupped my face in my hands. What in the hell was wrong with me? I moved to the sink and tried to straighten my hair, frowning at my furiously red cheeks. Turning the water on as cold as it could go, I splashed the refreshing liquid on my face and mentally berated myself for letting my impulses get the better of me. Edward was beautiful. There was no denying that. And the body shot had been... sexy as hell. But he only did it to win a game. He hadn't meant anything by his actions. After a few minutes I had sufficiently cooled down enough to step back into the bar and pretend that all was well. Thank God, I had reinforcement. I didn't have to face any teasing or knowing glances from Edward. When I returned to the bar, I saw that Charlie had indeed decided to join us for a few beers. My father laughed while Moe filled him in on our evening. I was grateful when he only mentioned that Edward and I tied for second place, and didn't elaborate on that particular part of the game. I joined him at the bar and tried to avoid Edward's eyes completely. Tyler made it easier by sitting on the stool beside me. Between Tyler and my father, I was able to push my own awkward feelings aside more easily. After a while, the jukebox started to play a power-ballad. Charlie put his drink down and grinned over at me. "I'm in the mood to dance with a pretty girl. Isabella? Are you up for it?" "Sure," I grinned. I let my father lead me out to the tiny dance floor that was nestled into the corner of the room by the rainbow-hued jukebox. "Have you been keeping these boys in line?" Charlie asked nicely. "It hasn't been bad," I shook my head. "They're all good guys." "Good thing," he nodded. "I'd hate to have to call down the thunder..." I laughed and I stepped close to my Dad so that I could rest my head on his shoulder.

"I lost a bet and I have to stay late to help Moe clean up," I mentioned. "I'll stay and help," Charlie smiled. "I can push a broom and we can get out of here faster." "Thanks Dad," I smiled up at him and yawned. "I'm glad you decided to come," I told him honestly. "And not just because you are going to help me clean." Charlie laughed at my sleepiness. "Don't mention it honey. I'm just happy you're home." "Me too, Dad," I sighed and closed my eyes. "Me too." "Maybe you and I can hang out tomorrow. Do something fun." "You got it," I nodded. "We can talk about it later. I think someone wants to cut in." I opened my eyes and let Charlie turn me out of his arms. I expected to see Jazz, or even Tyler offering to dance in his place. My steps faltered a little when I saw it was Edward. "Charlie," Edward nodded with a very serious expression. My stupid heart began that overreacting thing again. I stared down at the floor between us. Edward stepped up to me and filled that void quickly, taking my hand in his. "Bella?" Edward asked. Not wanting to make a big deal out of nothing, I tried to smile again and not tense up as he pulled me closer to dance. Dancing with Edward wasn't the same as dancing with my father, and I had to mentally remind myself to keep my distance when his hand pressed hotly into the bare skin at the small of my back. "I don't want you to be mad at me," Edward said quietly. "What would I have to be upset about?" I blinked, genuinely surprised. He had won our game, fair and square. I certainly wasn't going to hold a grudge. It wasn't his fault that my body went into some sexually-charged hyper-drive just because of an innocent party game. "You've been avoiding me," Edward pointed out. Apparently I hadn't done as good a job hiding my discomfort as I thought. "I didn't mean to treat you disrespectfully," Edward muttered. His voice was husky. His apology helped me to see how ridiculous I was behaving. "We've had a lot to drink," I smiled. "I promise. It wasn't that bad!" "We have had a lot to drink," Edward allowed. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something else, but his attention was taken over my shoulder. "I think the guys are ready to leave. I just... didn't want to go until I was sure everything was okay between us." I squeezed his hand a little and smiled up at him.

"You warned me," I said quietly. Edward's eyes burned into mine, and I wanted to cringe at the breathy quality my voice had taken because of it. "All is fair in love and war?" Edward's voice had dropped deceptively low, and I felt a shiver move down my spine. He looked at me as though he were waiting for my agreement, or a confirmation of some sort. I didn't even know how to reply. It was clearly another warning. He reminded me that we were, indeed, still in a competition. I swallowed hard and licked my bottom lip nervously. I felt Edward's fingers tighten against my back, and instead of instinctively stepping away from the threat in his eyes, I helplessly moved closer. "Eduardo!" Mike called out. Edward cringed at the sound, and we both stepped away from each other quickly. "We're leaving. Let's go!" "I have cleaning to do," I mumbled, trying to shake off the strange spell he seemed to have cast over me. "Charlie will give me a ride home later." "Yeah... well... okay then. Good night, Bella," Edward said while turning away from me. I watched the strong lines of his retreating form as he crossed the room to meet with the other men. Eric led the way for his inebriated passengers to follow him out to the van, and I waved good night from the doorway. Tyler offered to stay to help until Mike called him "Romeo" and pulled him in a sloppy headlock into the waiting vehicle. Jasper and Edward made their way to the van with their arms thrown over each other's shoulders. Even though I had no idea what our judges had decided about their scoring for the competition, the sight of the two brothers enjoying their time together made the evening feel like a complete success.

14. While Others Prefer Lemonade

Completely sober by the time Charlie and I arrived back at the house, I wished my father a good night and sleepily trudged into my room. I yelped a little out loud and hit the door with my back when I realized that I was not alone. Jazz was stretched out on his stomach across my bed, looking for all intents and purposes, as though he had passed out with his face buried in one of my pillows. Once my heartbeat resumed its normal pace, I kicked off my shoes and walked to join him. I was too tired to even bother undressing. "'Bout time," Jazz muttered when I climbed up onto the bed beside him. He rolled and pulled me into his side immediately. "I thought you were asleep," I said quietly, shifting my shoulders so that I could lay on my back with his arm as a pillow.

"I was. You walk like an elephant." "I do not!" I slapped at his side and he chuckled a little. "Took you long enough to get home." Jasper remarked on my tardiness, but didn't begin to explain his presence in my room. "Yeah. Some jokers had a party at Moe's bar," I grinned up at the ceiling before yawning loudly. "Charlie and I had our work cut out for us, cleaning that place up." "Tonight was a lot of fun, Izz," Jasper whispered. "I wanted to let you know, that I had a really good time." "That's good," I smiled. "I mean... that's the point. Right?" "I guess." Jasper's voice had dropped, and I picked up from his tone that his mood had shifted. "Is something wrong?" I asked quietly. His body tensed beside me, answering without words. "Mike, Eric, and Tyler left me stranded," he muttered. "They all unanimously agreed that tonight's event ended in a tie again." "That means..." "That they were useless as judges," Jasper said harshly. "It comes right down to me having to make the decision anyway. Based on whatever you two come up with for the last event." "What did Edward say about that?" I whispered. "He's fine with it," Jazz shrugged his shoulder under my head. "He must have been drunk or something. He was actually in a really good mood. He didn't even bitch about their decision. He just thanked them all for a fun night and whistled his way up to bed." "I'd like to have seen that," I laughed lightly. "You don't seem too upset about it either," Jasper complained. "Well... I'm not. The decision should have been yours to make in the first place." Jasper didn't argue against my reprimand. "You can just end this thing now." "I actually suggested that to Edward, earlier," he admitted. "I told him it was stupid for you two to have to keep planning the last part of this." "And what did he say?"

"He said that you and he are a lot alike, and that he had a feeling you would want to see it through to the end." "Well. There it is, then," I nodded. Edward was right. I didn't want to quit. He didn't either, apparently. I laid there and stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. With Jasper breathing heavily beside me, I relaxed on my bed and let my mind wander back over the events of the evening. Tyler had asked me out. I smiled in the darkness as I remembered. He wasn't obnoxious or pushy about it, and I really liked him. But then an image of Edward's frowning face when he found us outside talking took over the memory. And that serious expression changed to something different... something confusing, when I allowed my mind to recall that damned body shot, and the way I felt when we danced. Yeah... the warm-fuzzy feeling provided by Tyler's invitation was stomped out like a cigarette under his heel when I allowed myself to revisit my reaction to Edward. It wasn't fair. I frowned for a totally different reason when a nasty stench made itself known in the small confines of my room, and more specifically from the area right next to me. I coughed and covered my nose. "God, Jasper," I groaned. He laughed sleepily beside me and I was accosted by another wave of stink. "Blame the pickled eggs and beer," Jasper laughed. "Ugh!" I rolled out of the bed and started to move toward the door. "Where are you going?" Jazz whispered. "I'm not sleeping in a cloud of ass," I hissed. In the hallway, I procured a pillow and a blanket from the closet and trudged downstairs to make a bed on the couch. Thankfully, the confusing memories from the night stayed at bay, and I fell asleep as soon as I got settled in to the worn and comfortable cushions below me. I woke with an evil swath of sunlight torturing my eyes, and birds sounding the devil's chorus outside the window. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty," Charlie chuckled from the chair in front of me. I smoothed my hair away from my eyes and scrunched my face up while I pushed against the nasty taste on the roof of my mouth with my tongue. "Oh God," I groaned and threw my arm over my eyes. "What time is it?"

"Almost noon," he chuckled. I could hear him pulling his boots on, and I peeked from under my arm to watch him lace the old worn leather up around his ankles. "What are you doing today?" Charlie wasn't wearing his uniform. But he wasn't dressed in his casual fishing clothes, either. "Heading out to the reservation," my father replied. "I promised Billy I'd help do some work on his roof. Then we're going to have a fish fry." Billy Black had been one of my father's close friends for as long as I could remember. I practically grew up with his children. "Want some company?" I asked. Charlie's face lit-up. "You sure you don't want to hang out with your friends?" "I'd actually really like to spend some time with the old man, today," I teased. "As long as there is no drinking involved!" "I can't promise that I won't knock back a few," Charlie said. "But we'll bring some diet coke for you." "Thanks." When Charlie left for work the following morning, I jogged outside to check the mail. "Good morning, Joy!" I waved over to Jazz and Edward's mother. She was loading the trunk of her car with boxes and returned my greeting with a large smile. I left the junk-mail where it rested in our faded, white mailbox and went to help her with the last items on her porch. "What are you doing today?" I asked, placing the box beside the others that were nestled in the small space of her trunk. "Going down to the diner to do inventory," Joy grinned. "Then I'm running these things and whatever we come up with at the diner down to First Baptist." I nodded. It had been a chore that I enjoyed when I was younger. Joy and Larry always donated extra restaurant and food supplies once a month to the local food pantry. The rooms added on to the back of the First Baptist church served as a sort of storage area where donated food and clothing were sorted and packaged to be distributed to the needy. Most donations helped locally with those who faced financial hardships, emergencies, or had medical problems. "Can I help?" I asked. "Charlie's truck has more room than your trunk. And I'd really love to pitch in." "That would be wonderful Isabella," Joy smiled. "I could use the help. I've over extended myself this morning. I promised to help out down at the Senior Center today too."

"Let me take care of this," I nodded determinedly. "I'll pick up the rest at the diner, and you won't have to worry about a thing." "Thanks, honey," Joy smiled. She helped me transfer her boxes to the back of Charlie's truck. I grabbed Charlie's keys from the peg inside the door, and straightened my ponytail before jumping behind the wheel to head down to the diner. Once there, I said hello to the familiar faces inside, and grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler behind the counter before walking through the kitchen and moving toward the back room. "Good morning Isabella," Larry smiled over at me. "Hi!" I kissed Larry and on the cheek and offered him a sunny smile that faltered on my face when his oldest son walked around the supply shelf holding a clipboard. "Bella? What are you doing here?" Edward asked pleasantly. Nervously, I tucked a stray piece of hair back into my ponytail and shrugged. "I told your Mom I would help take the donation over to First Baptist today," I explained. I felt self-conscious for a moment, standing there in my cut-off shorts, and white tank-top with a large flannel shirt partially buttoned over it. I chastised myself immediately and pulled my shoulders back. It's not like I needed to be dressed nicely, or be wearing make-up just because Edward was around. His eyes traveled down to my beat up converse sneakers and back up to my eyes. He looked at me just the same as he always did. It was stupid for me to worry about my appearance. I was doing community service. It wasn't a beauty pageant. "We could use the help," he nodded. "The boxes by the door are all ready. Want to pull around back?" I nodded and went to move the truck to the space near the back door of the diner. While Larry and Edward loaded the heaviest boxes, I helped with the smaller, more manageable ones. Edward and Larry lowered their heads over the clipboard and papers that held their monthly inventory, changed a few more columns of numbers around, and pulled a few more boxes together. When they were loaded, Larry slapped the side of the truck and thanked me again before going inside. I was a little surprised when Edward moved to get into the passenger seat beside me. "You're coming along?" I asked stupidly. His intention was obvious. Edward grinned and rolled down the window. The day was already getting warm. "Think I'm going to make you and the ladies down at the church unload all of these boxes by yourselves?" I felt really silly and shook my ponytail behind me before carefully backing out of the small drive-way and turning out onto the main road.

"So... it's been a while since I've done this job," I mentioned to make small talk. "I used to help your Mom with this all the time." "Longer for me then," Edward smiled. "I used to help too." "I didn't know that." I looked at him from the corner of my eye. "I imagine there are a lot of things you don't know about me, Bella." We rode in silence for a few more minutes. "What is Jazz doing today?" I asked. "He drove down to Seattle last night to see Alice," Edward said. "I thought you two might have spent some time together yesterday..." I began. "Oh, we did," Edward nodded. "He didn't leave until around eight last night." "Well, that's good," I smiled. "If I had known you were home alone last night, I would have invited you out to the reservation. Do you remember the Blacks?" "Yeah. I think so..." "They had a fish fry last night after all the men worked on Billy's roof." "That sounds like fun," Edward nodded. "It was okay," I shrugged. "It was nice to spend the day with my Dad. But I felt like a third wheel around Billy's son. Jacob was home and he had his fiance, Leah, there." "Now that kid used to follow you around like a puppy," Edward laughed. "I thought I might have to chase him off once or twice!" "Jacob was harmless," I giggled. "He and Leah make a really cute couple." I sighed and pulled into the space behind the church, feeling somber as I turned off the engine. "Why the frown?" Edward turned in the seat to face me. I hadn't realized that my features had slipped into a more solemn expression to match my thoughts. "I don't know," I shrugged. "Jacob and Leah...Jazz and Alice. Sometimes I feel like I've just been doing something wrong." "What do you mean?" Edward sat, curiously watching me. I felt awkward for even mentioning my silly insecurities.

"I mean... sometimes I see couples with this weird... cosmic connection. Ya know? And I wonder why the rest of us seem to have to stumble around aimlessly...never finding that same sort of..." I shook my head. I couldn't really put my thoughts into words. "Maybe we just aren't looking in the right place," Edward offered. I looked over at him, thankful that he added himself to the group of the hopeless and aimless. It made me feel better. "Aw. Who wants to get married right now anyway?" I wrinkled my nose and reached for the door handle. "We're young and there is too much fun to be had!" Edward laughed and opened his door as well. Seriousness pushed aside, I pulled down the tailgate and we both started carrying boxes to the small room behind the church. "Edward! Isabella!" The white haired woman who opened the door for us gave us a smile that pressed her soft wrinkled face into cheery lines under her bright blue eyes. "Clarie?" I stood smiling at the kind older woman that I hadn't seen in years. "What a nice surprise," she said, moving to pat us both on the back. "Us girls are quilting for the troops," she smiled. "Do you need help? Or do you remember how we do things around here?" "I remember," Edward smiled. "We'll take care of everything." "Good, good," she smiled and fluttered her hand over her white, curled hair. "Come by and say hello to us, before you leave. Alright?" "We promise," I smiled. Clarie stepped ahead of us, her soft shoes padding lightly on the linoleum and her blue flowered skirt swishing with her movement. Edward gave me a truly distracting and cheerful grin and allowed me to step into the room ahead of him. Together we worked to unload the truck. I had to tie my flannel shirt around my waist and I was thankful that my hair was tied back. It was hot work in the sun. When the boxes got too heavy to carry, I helped by jumping into the truck bed and shoving them closer to the tailgate for Edward to reach more easily. I tried not to stare when his own perspiration started to make his shirt cling to his straining arms and chest. Lord, he presented a distracting image. With that task complete, I shut the tailgate with a bang and went into the slightly cooler temperature of the storage room. Edward stood with his back to me, leaning over the counter and reading some papers that were left there. I greedily stared at his back, before closing my eyes. I was fairly sure it had to be some sort of sin to be staring at Edward's ass in a church. "Hey," he smiled, looking over his shoulder. "Are you in a hurry to get back? Or can we stay a while and put some of this together?" I moved to stand beside him and saw what he was looking at. On my trips to help out here before, I sometimes helped with the lists that the ladies from the church provided. Papers itemized things that were needed for certain individuals or families. We then re-packed care-boxes with the donated items available on the storage shelves, sealed them, and labeled them for delivery.

"I don't have anything else to do," I smiled and shook my head. "Let's do this." Edward handed me my own packing sheet, and we retrieved boxes from below the counter. Together we moved around the small space, getting re-accustomed to their storage system and packing the items on our lists into the boxes. I checked off each item as I placed it in the box. It was nice and comfortable working alongside Edward. I stole glances at him occasionally. When he caught me watching him once, he smirked. "What?" he asked, raising his eyebrow. "It's nice to see you so relaxed," I said then. I busied myself by searching for another item on my list, and spoke around the shelves between us. "It feels good to help the community," Edward explained. "I like being home." "Do you still consider this home, then?" I asked. Edward dropped a can into his box and then turned to look at me with exasperation. "Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?" His arm rested across his box while he waited for my reasoning. "You seemed hell bent to get as far away from here as possible," I shrugged. "New York? I mean... you can't get much further away from Forks than that." "You're right," Edward nodded. "I was young. And I spent my whole life living in small Northwestern towns. I wanted to go out, and see the world. And New York seemed like a great adventure." "And now?" I asked. "Now... I miss this place," Edward nodded and looked around. His eyes went back down to his list and he checked a few items off before moving past me to reach something on a high shelf. I tried not to stare at the expanse of his stomach that showed when his shirt pulled up. "What about you?" Edward lowered his arm with a can in hand and contemplated me. He tossed the tin between his palms while he looked into my eyes. "You went to Florida. That's pretty far removed from good old Forks, too." I turned away from him and moved back to my list. "I didn't really want to leave," I said. "I couldn't let Charlie spend his retirement money on my schooling. I knew I could afford to go to school in Florida on my own. So I did." "Ah... that explains it," Edward moved up beside me again. "You still fit in here." "If that is your way of calling me 'small town'..." I rounded on him with a frown in place and my hands on my hips. Edward didn't step back, but a small smile pulled at the corner of his mouth.

"Why does 'small town' have to be an insult?" Edward reached a hand out and lightly pulled the hem of the flannel shirt that was tied around my waist. "I've missed this small town." I swallowed hard and stepped backward. Edward was doing that thing again. He was unintentionally making me think all of the wrong things and have all of the wrong reactions. I needed some space to clear my head. His hand dropped and the edge of my shirt tickled the skin on my leg when it drifted back to place. "Almost done here?" Edward's voice had lowered to a quiet, husky sound. "Almost." I licked my lips and moved away. "I just have one more thing on my list." Edward nodded and began to tape his box closed. I felt jittery when I moved away and pushed the step-ladder over near the shelves. I could see the box of gauze pads that I needed to complete my list, on the top shelf. Unfortunately, Edward had me a bit distracted, and I moved a little too hastily as I stood on my tiptoes on the top of the step-ladder, reaching above my head for the medical supply. I squeezed my eyes shut and didn't even have time to squeal when I felt the ladder tilt under my feet. I expected to feel pain after landing on the floor, but instead felt the breath knocked out of me as I was caught in a vice grip hold in Edward's warm arms. I opened my frightened eyes to see Edward's face, inches from my own. My arms were around his shoulders, and I was completely crushed against his chest. "Uh..." Yeah. I wasn't really articulate in the moment. "Easy there," Edward murmured. My heart was surely beating hard enough for him to feel it through the thin t-shirt I wore. "My hero?" I offered in a small voice as a joke. Edward tossed back his head and laughed while he lowered me to the floor. His arms hesitated to release me right away. I knew that he was trying to make sure I was steady on my feet so that I wouldn't fall again. "Are you kids done in here?" Clarie smiled from the door with two glasses of lemonade in her hands. Edward finally stepped away and went to retrieve the offered drinks. "Almost," I said over my shoulder. I took a couple minutes to compose myself while I put the gauze in my box and taped it closed. After I labeled my offering for distribution, I turned and found Edward leaning against the wall, waiting for me. He gave me a smile while I took the drink from his hand. "Thanks," I smiled. "Anytime, Bella." I had a feeling he wasn't only talking about the lemonade.

With glasses in hand, we walked into the quiet church hallway and followed the sound of chattering voices until we found the women that were working around the large quilting frame. Smiles and light voices lilted above the care-worn fabric that was stretched across the homemade wooden structure. Deft and calloused fingertips pushed shiny silver needles in and out of the patches that would someday make a blanket to be gifted to a member of our armed services. There was something magical about how the different and aged pieces were being assembled together to create something new and beautiful. It was a familiar and welcome sight. Edward and I were greeted pleasantly, and we chatted while sharing smiles and memories of days past. We finished our drinks and shared the comfort of a remembered history. Any of our previous awkwardness dissipated, only to be replaced by that warm glow you always feel when you find your way back home.

15. Cheesey Breezy

Edward excused himself to place our glasses in the church kitchen. When he returned to the room, I could tell that he was ready to say our goodbyes. We bid the ladies a good day, and then walked in silence back out to my father's truck. Once inside the cab, I started the vehicle and turned to take us home. "Jasper called a little while ago," Edward said. "Oh yeah?" "While I was putting our glasses away." "Is he on his way home?" I asked. Edward shook his head. "He's staying over one more night." "That's nice," I smiled. "He wants me to drive to Seattle," Edward continued. "I mean... I know that I'll meet Alice during my graduation party. But they seem to think it will be nicer to get to know one another without me having to divide my attention between guests..." "They're right," I nodded. "You should go. Alice is tons of fun. You'll love her." "Come with me." I almost drove off the road, but managed to straighten the steering wheel.

"Damn dog," I muttered, pretending to look for the road hazard that caused my reaction in the rear view mirror. "I mean it. Come to Seattle with me," Edward repeated. "It would certainly make the drive more interesting. And... you said it yourself. Being the third wheel is awkward. Save me from sharing such an unfortunate situation!" I looked over at Edward and he actually batted his eyelashes in such a completely comedic way that I couldn't help but giggle. He switched our roles and was playing a caricature of a damsel in distress. "You are absurd," I chided. "Will you come?" I stared at the road ahead for a moment while I contemplated his offer. It was pointless. I knew I wouldn't refuse him. "Yeah," I sighed. "I'll go with you." "Wonderful!" Edward rocked back in his seat and happily hit the side of his fist on his thigh. I grinned at his enthusiasm. "I need a shower. I feel sweaty and gross," I told him. He turned to look at me, and I shifted in my seat. I was a mess from lifting boxes. "Has anyone ever told you, that you make 'sweaty and gross' look good?" he asked. I turned to look at him with wide eyes, and saw the playful look on his face. "Flattery will get you everywhere, Cullen," I laughed. "But you can ease up. I already agreed to go with you." "I just wanted to buy a little insurance... make sure you wouldn't change your mind," he laughed. At our houses, we agreed to meet back up in an hour. I quickly took a shower, changed clothes, and began to pack an over-night bag. Knowing Alice, she'd want to go out and I would need something less casual to wear than the almost-four hour car ride would call for. As I tossed a summer dress into my bag, I hummed happily and wondered if Edward would like it. My hands hesitated for a moment and my fingers clenched on the soft cotton when I realized the path my thoughts had begun to travel down. Sometime during my rush to get ready, I had already started to feel that excited buzz... anticipation... almost as though I were preparing for a date. It was Edward's fault, really. He shouldn't have been so friendly and fun to spend time with all morning. The familiarity of the old and welcome chore, the warmth of the summer sun and the tartness of the lemonade... heck...every sweet smile Edward shared with me had somehow

triggered a nostalgia that carried me back to my younger years. It was the only explanation I had for feeling giddy about getting to spend even more time with Edward today. I made a mental note to myself to be careful. I could enjoy my evening, and Edward's pleasant company. A little fun and flirting never hurt anyone. I just had to be sure that I recognized it all for what it was. I needed to keep things in the proper perspective. I called Charlie down at the station, to tell him where I would be, and then slung my bag over my shoulder with only minutes to spare. Edward was walking out his front door at the same time. I admired his worn jeans and soft-looking v-neck t-shirt from a distance as he tossed his bag into the back seat. He turned and dropped a pair of dark sunglasses over his eyes. "You ready?" He asked. Oh boy, was I ever. With a new and determined swing to my step, I decided to stop over-analyzing things and just enjoy myself with the disarmingly attractive man who held the car door open with a crooked smile on his face. "Yep," I smiled. I put my own bag next to his and then moved around to the passenger side of his car and got in. My own sunglasses were in place, the windows were down, and the music was turned up. It was going to be a great day for a road trip. If I worried at all about running out of things to talk about on the drive, I needn't have. Edward was engaging and funny while he shared stories from school and asked me to elaborate on some of my own. "Speaking of school," I finally interrupted the joking. "I am surprised that you are actually taking a day off when you could be sneaking off to study for the Bar." Edward glanced over at me and I laughed. "Jasper told me." "I haven't been studying that much," Edward shook his head. "I have to take a refresher course this fall. The testing isn't even until January." "So you have plenty of time," I pursed my lips. "Still..." "Still what?" I asked. He cocked his head to the side, motioning toward the back seat. I turned and saw a thick binder shoved half-way under his over-night bag. "You brought your study material!" I laughed. "I knew you wouldn't be able to resist!" I unbuckled my seat belt just so that I could turn and push the top half of my body between the seats. I pulled the heavy binder to my lap and buckled up again. "Want me to quiz you?" I asked. Edward's eyebrows lowered. I wished I could see beyond the dark frames of his glasses. "You don't have to," he said.

"I don't mind," I shook my head. "I won't even tell Jasper!" Edward smiled widely then and I flipped the binder open to the first printed page. What I saw at the top surprised me, and I hesitated for a moment, staring at the words. "It's called reading," Edward joked about my silence. "Top to bottom, left to right... a group of words together is called a sentence..." I looked up from the paper on my lap and laughed loudly. "You did not just quote Tommy Boy!" "Chris Farley was a genius," Edward said seriously. I laughed again. "How is it that a guy who can learn and memorize all of this," I flicked the pages on my lap, "can also quote Chris Farley movies?" " I guess I'm kind of strange, huh?" Edward shrugged. "Actually, I think it makes you kind of perfect," I smiled sincerely. His lips twitched a little and I could swear I saw his face grow slightly pink. I had to force myself to look away from the delicate color there underneath the stubble on his cheek and neck. "I didn't know that you were studying for the Washington State Bar Exam," I finally explained my pause and tapped the words on the page. "I thought I explained earlier, that I'm coming home," Edward glanced over to me and then back to the road. "You said you missed home. I didn't know that you were moving back," I said. "Oh. Well... yeah. I've given it a lot of thought. I'd like to stay here in Washington." "Forks?" I asked. He grinned. "Maybe not Forks," he shook his head. "But close." "I'm... surprised." I bit my lip and stared out the window in front of me. "Why?" "I guess I figured you would end up being some big-city lawyer on the East Coast," I admitted. Edward frowned and twisted his hands on the steering wheel. "You aren't the only one," he said quietly. Before I could ask him to elaborate, he shook his head again and continued. His voice was calm and very serious. "I spent so much time getting through

law school. I buried myself in studies and lost touch with friends and family. I don't want to continue on that route with my career. I don't want to work eighty hours a week and never see my family. And for that matter, I'd like my children to have a yard... with grass in it. And neighbors next door to play with..." he turned and smiled at me with his final statement. I couldn't help but smile back. "I want to provide a comfortable home. But I don't need to be rich and work in some corporate high-rise. I can help people with my career, and be happy with more important things." I don't know why his words made me feel like crying, but I turned to stare out the window so that my emotions wouldn't be so clearly seen on my face. "I admire you for knowing what you want," I said quietly. "You'll have it all, Edward. I just know it." "And what about you, Bella? What do you want?" Edward asked. "I just want to be happy," I shrugged. "As far as work goes...who knows? I can work from almost anywhere. At one time I planned to travel a while after college... but I don't know about that now." "Since your traveling buddy is getting married, huh?" Edward moved his arm over to nudge my shoulder. I turned back toward him and smiled then. "Who knows?" I asked again with a wry grin. "Maybe I'll just end up living in a van... down by the river!" Edward threw back his head and laughed when he realized that I was quoting Chris Farley again, from a Saturday Night Live skit. "Throw the study guide in the back," Edward smiled over at me. "We've got better things to do!" For the next hour, we traded quotes and our favorite parts of skits by the late and great comic. After stopping for gas and drinks, Edward allowed me to bring the study guide back into the front seat. I was incredibly impressed that the same man I had just laughed non-stop with could also describe in great detail his understanding of the substantive law and could answer hundreds of questions concerning the rules of professional responsibility and ethics. I lost count of how many flashcards I prompted him from. Edward listened intently and explained the notes he had meticulously typed out. I smiled. I should have known that Edward would excel in anything he set his mind to. His sense of humor and his intelligence made for a lethally sexy combination. I was falling into dangerous territory with my thoughts, and I knew it. But somehow, I couldn't be bothered to care. Every laugh, every smile, every casual touch drew me right back under his spell. As we neared the ferry that would take us to the city, Edward took off his sunglasses and tucked them into his visor before rubbing his fingers across his brow bone.

"Enough for the day?" I asked. "Yes, please," Edward smiled politely. "And thank you." "No problem." I tucked the last set of cards back into his carefully organized binder and placed it in the back seat once again. Before long, Edward handed me a folded set of directions he had printed from the internet, and I navigated until he pulled up into the designated parking area beside Alice's apartment building. "You know something?" Edward grinned over at me. "When we aren't fighting, I think we make a pretty good team." It was my turn to blush. "Too bad we're so damn good at fighting, huh?" I laughed. We both got out of the car, stretching our bodies before Edward grabbed both of our bags and led the way up the stairs to Alice's apartment. Jasper opened the door quickly when Edward rang the bell, and in a flurry of greetings he almost didn't see me standing behind his brother's much larger frame. "I hope you don't mind, I brought a date," Edward smiled and moved to the side. I blushed when he used the word, even though I knew he was teasing. Jasper grinned and pulled me inside. "Ali? Izzy is here too!" I heard Alice squeal from inside the apartment as Jasper ushered us in. I was wrapped in a tight hug before I could even put my bag down. "Isabella!" Alice exclaimed. "Jasper didn't tell me that you were coming too!" "He didn't know," I laughed and extracted myself from her embrace. "Edward just asked me to keep him company on the drive." "Excellent idea man," Jasper announced, hitting him in the shoulder. "Ali? This is my brother, Edward. Edward... this is my Alice." "Very nice to meet you," Edward greeted her nicely and pushed his hand forward. Alice ignored his formality stood up on tiptoes to pull him down for an eager hug. "Screw the handshakes. We're going to be related soon," she giggled. I laughed too. Alice was a perfect match for Jasper in every way. Wide violet eyes fringed with dark lashes looked bright upon her porcelain pale skin framed by dark hair. She almost reminded me of a hand painted china-doll. Yet despite a beauty that should have been intimidating, she had an aura that seemed to put people naturally at ease around her. Unless you were on her bad side, you really couldn't help but fall in love with Alice. I could see Edward's shoulders relax immediately.

Edward smiled widely over at Jasper, and Jazz moved to put his arms around Alice's waist. "I hope it's okay that I tagged along?" I asked. "Oh sure," Alice waved her hand. "I'm glad you are here. We might be a little cramped for space, but we'll figure it out." "We want to go out for dinner. Are you guys hungry?" Jazz asked. "Starving," Edward replied. "Main bathroom is first door on the right," Alice pointed down the hall for Edward. "Come on Isabella. You can use the bathroom in my room." I let Alice pull me by the hand until she shut her bedroom door behind us. "Hello? I know Jasper can't be expected to spill details like this. But why didn't you ever tell me that his brother was so good-looking?" "I never thought about it," I shrugged. "And you came as his date?" Alice asked. "No. No," I shook my head. "He was joking around with Jasper. We've never been more than friends." "Hmm." Alice's eyes narrowed and she tapped a delicate fingertip to her small chin. "Are you sure about that Isabella? I mean... I usually get pretty accurate hunches about things like this..." "Ugh," I rolled my eyes and smiled so she wouldn't take offense. "If you are picking up on anything... it's only because I had a huge crush on him when I was a little girl. But believe me. It was always one-sided." "Maybe, and maybe not." A small dimple played near Alice's mouth. "But I'm willing to drop it... for now." "Thanks," I breathed. "You were the luckiest girl in Forks, to grow up next to those two," Alice giggled. "I agree!" She smiled and left me to freshen up in her bathroom. I washed my face, combed out my wind-blown hair and reapplied a little make-up before donning the pretty summer dress I had packed. Alice must have changed clothes while I was in the shower. I was glad that she had chosen to wear a casual dress as well, so that I didn't feel over-dressed. I was the last to arrive in the living

room and felt a little self-conscious. My hand fluttered nervously near my collar bone, and Edward's eyes noticed the movement. He walked across the room while Alice and Jasper continued to talk quietly, and took my hand. His fingers were warm and reassuring around mine. "Stop fidgeting," Edward scolded. "You look lovely." "Thank you," I whispered and looked down. "You look great, too." In his jacket, button up shirt, and faded jeans... Edward certainly did meet Alice's assessment of being one of the best-looking guys in Seattle. "Hey," Jasper said, looking curiously between the two of us and down at the way Edward was still holding my hand. I sort of wanted to smack him when Edward noticed his brother's glance and dropped my fingers. "Since you two seem to be working under some truce or something for the moment... I thought we should go to a little fondue place that Alice has been wanting to try. You know... because fondue originated in Switzerland and all." "Promise me anything dipped in chocolate and I'm up for it," Alice nodded. "I'll keep that in mind later," Jasper joked. "Ew," I wrinkled my nose. Edward laughed and moved to offer me his arm. He raised his eyebrow in a silent question and I smiled and placed my hand in the crook of his elbow. He asked me along to make sure that he didn't feel like the third wheel. I didn't like the role myself. It seemed to me, we could help each other out and just enjoy the evening. "Neutral dining it is," I agreed. Alice's tiny frame fit her very tiny little car. She insisted on driving, and so Jasper folded his long legs into the passenger side seat. Edward and I were fairly cramped together in the back. I didn't mind. Alice tore down the city streets at a terrifying pace that made me glad my view was partially hindered. And the advantage to her driving like a mad-woman was that we actually arrived to the waterfront eatery in record time. We didn't have to wait long to be seated, and Jasper and I mostly made faces at one another and tossed things across the small table to amuse ourselves while Alice made good on her promise to get to know Edward. Ever inquisitive, Alice turned her questions to our shared childhood stories. Eventually we all were able to laugh and join together to share some of our history with the girl who was about to enter our unofficial family circle. I was, perhaps, guilty of being a little too impressed by Edward's charm. When he held out my chair, and sat close enough for our legs to touch beneath the tiny table... when he ordered for me, and when he kindly brushed my hair to rest behind my shoulder when it fell too close to the fondue burner... it was easy to pretend that we were on an actual date. I blushed at his attentiveness and had to remind myself that he really was just saving me from a fiery accident. He looked out for me like that. But I was a bit worried that my appreciation was a little too

obvious on my face, because Jasper kept giving me curious smiles and I had a feeling I might be in for some hard-core teasing from him later. It was too simple to sit back, and lose myself while listening to Edward's warm voice as he spoke to Jazz and his fiance. From time to time, his eyes would find mine, and he would favor me with a little smile. Alice seemed to be paying attention to moments like that too. I didn't care. I was having such a pleasant time that I would take whatever ribbing I received for it. A mixture of cheeses bubbled and simmered in the communal pot on our table, and we carefully speared breads and meats onto the long forks provided. Alice scolded Jasper good-naturedly as he bumped her arm while she was trying to dip a bite into the creamy sauce. "Will you stop?"' she giggled. I reached my fork forward too and smiled at the two of them as they jostled each other back and forth. "What is he doing?" I asked, only partially paying attention to the bread I dipped. "It's Swiss tradition," Jasper growled playfully and bumped Alice's shoulder. "If a woman drops her bread in the pot, she has to favor the men at the table with a kiss!" "Since when did you become an expert on Swiss tra..." I was cut off when Jasper knocked Alice's arm hard and both of our forks tangled. She giggled and pulled her fork back empty, but mine was empty as well. "Come here," Jasper ordered with a self-satisfied chuckle. He pulled Alice across his lap and stole the kiss he had worked so deviously hard for. My mouth hung open for a minute before I dared to look over at Edward. Edward sat beside me with a small grin on his face. He watched Jasper and Alice for a moment before his eyes darted to mine. "I... uh..." I stuttered. Edward just laughed lightly and shrugged. "When in Switzerland, huh?" he asked. I swallowed hard. "Let's go, Swan," Edward teased. "Pucker up!" His playful expression knocked my worry away and I laughed and rose slightly out of my chair to lean forward. Intent to plant a kiss on his cheek, I was surprised when a large clatter behind our table caused Edward's head to turn further toward me in reflex. His quick movement resulted in my lips hotly pressing against the corner of his soft mouth. Our eyes were wide open... un-blinking... and the surprise I saw in his expression was surely a mirror of my own when I felt the thrilling shock that passed between us during that innocent contact. I gasped at the foreign sensation. He must have exhaled in surprise as well. Our breath mingled and I felt light-headed. Or maybe it was the look in Edward's eyes that made me feel

dizzy and warm. It was ridiculous. It wasn't even a real kiss. But every nerve in my body seemed to suddenly stretch and pull toward him for more of that wonderful feeling. I blinked and blushed furiously, tearing my eyes away from his to clear my head. Flustered, I dropped back into my seat. Edward and I reached for our drinks at the same time, and took deep swallows of the flavored iced-tea we had ordered. I caught Edward looking at me from the corner of his eye. The waiter behind us muttered under his breath while he cleaned up the dropped serving-dishes and suddenly the entire situation seemed too silly not to laugh. A giggle escaped my lips before I could stop myself. Edward set his glass back on the table and laughed as well. Alice and Jasper finally decided they would come up for air, and looked at us quizzically over the table. "What's so funny?" Jasper asked. Their preoccupation over Swiss tradition had allowed our entire embarrassing situation to go un-noticed. "Nothing," Edward shook his head and looked remarkably more stable than I felt. "Let's order some dessert!" After dinner, we were all uncomfortably full. Jasper suggested a walk, and Edward and I strolled along the sidewalk behind him and Alice. The couple in front of us held hands and talked quietly while we followed in silence. I irrationally wished that Edward would take my hand again, as he had in the apartment earlier. I contemplated the danger of harboring such thoughts while I listened to the lull of the quiet voices ahead of us and the soothing sounds of the nearby bay. When the strains of music from an outdoor caf carried over to us, Jasper and Alice stepped together to dance in the shadowy walkway. Edward grinned at me, and we both moved to stand with our forearms pressed to the guard rail beside us. I stared at the water I could hear more than see, and let the breeze blow my hair behind me. "I'm glad that you decided to join me," Edward said warmly, looking straight ahead as well. I turned my head and watched the breeze play with the ends of his soft hair. "I'm glad you asked me," I told him. "It's been a lot of fun." "Yes," he agreed. His head turned and he seemed to be studying me across the small space between us. "What?" I asked, perplexed by his attention. "That shade of blue looks beautiful on you," Edward remarked. My breath caught and he casually looked out toward the darkened water again. A particularly strong wind blew against us, and I twisted my body away from its force. When I did, my skirt blew around my legs. I threw my arms down to trap it against my body. Edward, ever chivalrous, obviously had the same idea. With the errant material under his hands, I could feel the heat of his palms pressed firmly against the sides of my thighs.

"Sorry," I muttered. His eyes were focused on the way the strap of my dress had slid down my arm during my efforts to keep from being totally exposed by the strengthening bay breeze. He released my skirt, but only to raise a sure hand to carefully slide the dainty strap back into place on my shoulder. "Thanks," I whispered. He didn't reply. My skin tingled where he touched me, and I wished for just a little more light so that I could have a better idea what he was thinking. His eyes glinted darkly in front of me, and as usual, I was left to imagine the emotions I could not read. "The wind is picking up," Jasper said as he and Alice moved over to us. "I think we might get some rain. Are you ready to head back to the apartment?" "I think so," Edward murmured. We walked the short distance to the car. I shivered a little in the dropping temperature, and so I appreciated when Edward took off his jacket and pulled it around my body to let me borrow some of his warmth while we walked. And I tried really hard not to read too much into his behavior when he put his arm over the back seat of Alice's car and nestled me into his side during the drive home. I sat there in the darkness, for not nearly long enough, breathing in his scent and trying not to over-react to his nearness. Yes. My imagination was running away from me. He was merely being a gentleman. But it felt really good to take the comfort and attention that he offered. I snuggled into Edward's side and soaked it up while I could. Edward actually seemed almost reluctant to release me when we got back to the apartment. For a moment before I pulled away, I could have sworn I felt him inhale deeply with his nose pressed to the top of my hair. I had butterflies in my stomach just from the possibility that his mouth might be close to me again. And a whispering little voice in the back of my head suggested that maybe, just maybe, he was as aware of me as I was of him. While I knew that I shouldn't... I was helpless against wishing it could be so. "I'm beat," Jasper made a show of yawning loudly as soon as we got in the door. It was pretty late, and the long drive earlier in the day had taken its toll on me. I wouldn't complain about an early bedtime. Alice shuffled her feet and looked nervously around her tiny apartment. "I really don't have permission to use my roommate's room while she's away," Alice explained. "So I guess that Isabella could sleep with me, and you boys can bunk out here on the fold-out bed..." Jasper looked absolutely crestfallen to be losing a night with Alice. Edward stepped up to the plate for his little brother. "You two can share your room," he told Alice. "We don't want to intrude. If you have a sleeping bag or an extra blanket, I'll be fine on the floor. Bella can have the couch." "Thanks," Alice said with a wide grin. Jasper looked positively chipper. After they delivered our blankets and pillows, Alice and Jasper bid us goodnight and disappeared behind the door down the hall.

"I'll just... get dressed for bed," I said. Edward shrugged and continued laying his bedding out on the floor. I removed his jacket and placed it across the arm of the sofa before leaving the room. I hurried to brush my teeth, wash my face, and tie my hair back before slipping into my comfortable tank top and boxer shorts. I blushed a little bit about the idea of Edward seeing me in my ex-boyfriend's underwear. But hey- it wasn't like I knew we would be sharing a room for sleeping. And what I wore was hardly indecent. I made my way on silent bare feet back out to the living room. "All yours," I whispered. Edward nodded and averted his gaze while I climbed under the blankets and settled onto the couch. When Edward returned, I was the one to stare. He carried his clothes in his arms and wore a tshirt and boxer shorts that were very similar to my own. I tried to pretend nonchalance as he dropped his items into his overnight bag and moved to lay on the floor. "Can you reach the light?" he asked. "Sure," I whispered. I raised up and reached behind me to flick the switch on the lamp. I noticed when I did, that Edward was watching me just as closely as I had been watching him. There was no way that this strange awareness was one-sided. I wasn't sure what to contribute it to, but it was there like a tangible thing in the room between us. I wasn't sure when, or how it happened. But it was like a third person in the room that we both seemed hell-bent to ignore. The city lights that filtered through the window edged Edward's profile with a silvery glow. I rested my cheek on my pillow and watched him until he turned to face me in the dark. "You were right," he whispered. "Alice is amazing. She's smart and she's pretty. And she's perfect for Jasper." "I know," I smiled. "It's kind of awesome to see them together." "Do you ever..." Edward stopped mid-sentence. "Do I ever, what?" I urged. "Do you ever get jealous? At all?" he asked. I giggled quietly at his question. "No," I said easily. "I mean... wouldn't we all like to have something so wonderful? Sure. I guess I am envious for what they've found in each other. But I am more happy for them, than jealous." "That makes sense," Edward said quietly. "Sometimes I think..." "Yes?" I breathed. His deep voice whispering through the darkness was doing strange things to me.

"I think that maybe we look so hard for that one perfect thing, that we look further than we need to. Sometimes... it's where you least expect it. Maybe it was in front of your face all along... and you never really knew it." My breath caught painfully in my chest as his quiet words hung in the air between us. There was no other sound but the beating of my heart in my ears. As close to a declaration as I could have ever imagined from Edward... I closed my eyes and let my heart absorb what he seemed to be telling me. When I looked over at him again, he had shifted to his back and was staring at the ceiling once more with his arms bent and his hands hidden beneath his pillow. "Are you referring to anyone in particular?" I asked. I silently willed him to speak the words that I had been waiting forever to hear. "I don't know," Edward said. I could see his jaw tense while he pressed his lips together before he spoke. "Consider Tyler, for instance," he said with a deep voice. "You knew him in high school but didn't even remember seeing him. Yet he wasted no time, at all, in asking you out when he saw you again." My hopes plummeted at the shift in conversation. Tyler? He had been speaking about Tyler? "He asked me to be his date, for his party tomorrow night," I said in a strangled sounding voice. I felt like I was drowning in disappointment. "We should get some sleep then," Edward said distinctly. "It will be a long drive home and another long evening once we get there." His voice had a hard edge to it that unfurled a painful ache in my chest. Edward rolled to his other side, and I stared at the dark curve of his back in front of me. I promised myself when I was sixteen years old, that I would never again be hurt because of my silly, unreciprocated feelings for Edward Cullen. Yet one day of working beside him, laughing and talking; one evening of sweet looks and friendly touches; one almost-kiss... and my heart betrayed me. I opened myself back up to those girlish fantasies and the possibilities that he might care for me as more than a friend. And while I cursed my fickle heart in the darkness and tried not to cry on my borrowed pillow, I remembered the lesson I had learned all of those years ago. If it didn't hurt so much... they wouldn't call it a 'crush'. He offered me friendship, and nothing more. The pain felt exactly the same.

16. Hit and Run

Something was tickling my nose. I squeezed my eyes shut more tightly, and rubbed my weary hand across my face. The tickling returned almost immediately. I batted at the irritating sensation

once more. When the whisper-soft annoyance returned again, it was accompanied by a soft chuckle in front of me. "Knock it the fuck off," I growled. Jasper laughed louder now, certain I was awake. I opened my eyes with a squint against the sunlight coming through the window, and saw Jasper sitting on the floor in front of my face, with a long piece of my hair held between his thumb and forefinger. The tickling device and perpetrator of said crime was identified and I was ready to punch him if he did it again. Jasper must have noticed the death-look on my face, and dropped my hair with a frown. "Since when did you ever wake up in such a pissy mood, Izzy?" "Since I didn't get more than two hours of sleep last night," I argued and rolled to my back to stretch my arms over my head. "Well, your mood matches Edward's then." Jazz continued to sound sullen. The mention of his brother made me cringe. I had slept like shit; mostly because I tossed and turned all night, thinking of the man that slept on the floor across the room from me. His behavior had been confusing to say the least. At first, I had blamed myself for seeing signals where there were none... for getting my hopes up over the least-little things. But as dawn crept closer to the skyline, I played and replayed my day with Edward in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I had not imagined things. Edward had sent me mixed-signals and was at least partially responsible for opening those doors on the emotions that I had hoped would have stayed securely closeted away. If my feelings were bruised and if my heart was tender... he was at least partly to blame. Just yesterday, I had been the one to think that a little harmless flirting would never hurt a soul. And maybe Edward felt the same. Maybe I clutched his actions a little too tightly to my chest and pretended that there was real sentiment behind them with a little too much ease. Now I was left feeling emotionally exposed and raw. But I refused to see Edward as totally innocent in helping me to feel that way. "Where is he?" I croaked. My throat was dry and my head hurt. "He's in the kitchen with Ali. She's talking his ear off and trying to sweeten his disposition with some of her blueberry muffins and coffee." "Coffee sounds good," I nodded. Slowly I curled my body up toward a sitting position and looked around the room. Edward's sleeping items were folded neatly on the chair in the corner. Jasper stood when I did, and silently went about helping me to fold the blanket that I had slept beneath. He placed it on the stack in the chair, and I tossed my pillow onto the top. "Do you want breakfast?" Jazz asked. He looked concerned, but I wasn't up for discussing the reason for my peculiar mood with him just yet.

"Maybe a shower first?" I asked. He nodded and I grabbed my bag before trudging down the hall to Alice's room. I made a point not to look in the kitchen as I passed. I really wasn't in the mood to see Edward just yet. I needed time to steel myself and shake off the dissatisfied and unhappy feelings his careless playing with my emotions had caused. Intentional or not, he had hurt me. I hoped to wash the lingering bitterness away in a hot shower, and prepare to face the day with a stronger sense of self-preservation. The water did wonders to help clear my mind. By the time I had shampooed, rinsed, and repeated... I felt much better. I wasn't angry with Edward, per se. I was merely more resolved than ever to put my feelings for him in their proper place. Edward had suggested last night that I consider Tyler. Well... I planned to take his advice. No. Not out of spite. Tyler was kind, and handsome... and genuinely interested in me. Edward was right. Tyler was the type of person that I should be opening my heart up to. He didn't play games. He made his interest in me known. I didn't have to guess what he was thinking or feeling. Now it was up to me, to decide what I wanted to do with that. I planned to keep an open mind when I went to his party. I combed through my wet hair and left it down my back to dry. After carrying my things into the living room, I finally made my way to the kitchen. "Morning everyone," I said, forcing brightness in my voice. "Good morning!" Alice watched me, seeing far more than I wanted her to. But she placed a mug of coffee in my hand without commentary. Yeah- she pretty much rocked like that. "I'd like to leave as soon as you're ready," Edward mentioned in lieu of greeting. I just nodded while he walked from the room. "Told you he woke up with a bear up his ass," Jasper whispered. I giggled a little into the lip of my mug and Alice landed a playful elbow to his ribs. Jazz rubbed the spot and left the room to follow his brother. Alice merely stepped across the small linoleum floor and turned so that we stood side by side, resting against her kitchen counter. "So... last night. You... and Edward...?" "Didn't sleep well," I offered to end her speculation. "I thought... I mean... you two seemed to be getting along really well." The warm brown liquid in my mouth tasted bitter on my tongue, and I swallowed it back with a healthy dose of self-derision. "We always get along well," I said distinctly. "It's what we do. We are friends." "Ah." Alice nodded and seemed content to drop the subject. I was completely thankful.

Tossing the last bit of coffee down the drain, I rinsed my cup and took a muffin for the road. Alice and I joined the men in the living room. "I was just telling Edward to go home and nap," Jasper explained as we entered the room. "I'm going to stay until Ali has to leave for work...and then I'll drive home too. I should only be a couple of hours behind you. Then we can all go to Tyler's party together tonight." "About that," Edward reached to grab his over-night bag. I moved to do the same. "I don't really know if I'll be going to the party. I have things to do..." "Like what? Study?" Jasper frowned. "You told me you would lay off of that for a couple weeks. Come on man. Are you really trying to say that burying your nose in a book will be more fun than spending some time with your brother? We don't have much time left!" "No. No... of course not," Edward shook his head. "I'm sorry. I'm just pretty tired." "Well, like I said; Take a nap, old man!" Jasper laughed, sounding relieved that Edward had a change of heart about attending the party. I tried not to speculate about the reason he wanted to skip out on our plans. I hugged Alice tightly, reminding her that I would see her in less than a week for Edward's graduation party. Edward thanked her again for her hospitality. And before I knew it, the apartment door was closed behind us and Edward and I were walking silently to his car. Our trip home began nothing like our drive yesterday. Easy conversation was noticeably absent. Even the sun hid behind the clouds to avoid the awkward tension that surrounded us. By the time we left Seattle and were on a stretch of highway that would lead us back home, the quiet had become oppressive. I watched as Edward's long fingers touched the buttons on the car stereo. Before long, soft classical music filtered from the dash and side speakers to replace the silence that sat like a third passenger between our seats. I slumped sideways and let my temple press against the window beside me. Soon the blur of green beyond the glass morphed into peaceful grayish-blue ripples. The sound of the symphony that filled the car turned into the reassuring crash of waves against the shore. I drifted away to visit three familiar children who laughed, and threw rocks, and ran with carelessly bare feet down the stretch of beach in my mind; where learning came through play... laughter held no cynicism... and love never hurt. I groggily blinked my eyes open when the gentle hum of the engine under my ear silenced. Looking around, I saw that Edward had pulled into a gas station. I straightened in my seat, twisting my slightly sore neck to the left so that I could see the man that still sat behind the wheel. Edward hunched his shoulders forward and rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep," I whispered. He turned his head when he heard my voice and looked at me for a moment before offering a slight smile.

"That's okay," Edward said. "I just needed to stop for some more coffee before I drive us both off the road." "Oh!" I frowned when I looked more closely at his red eyes and disheveled appearance. He looked like I felt. "Well...I've had a little sleep now. Would you like me to drive? Wait a minute... how long was I asleep?" I was still trying to wake up and was not making much sense. "You were asleep for about two hours," Edward stretched his shoulders. "And no. I'll be fine once I get a cup of coffee. Would you like one?" "Sure," I smiled. Edward moved to get out of the car, and I lowered the visor to utilize the small mirror on the underside. My hair had dried in long, ropey tendrils. I caught it all back in a messy twist and wiped the sleep from the corner of my eyes. By the time I finished, Edward had returned and handed me a paper cup of coffee. I thanked him with a smile before tearing back the perforated triangle on the plastic lid to release the steam. "Edward took a long drink of his, wincing at the temperature of the fluid before placing it in the cup holder on his side of the console. Without another word, he turned us out of the parking lot and back out toward the highway. The music was turned low, and I felt obligated to make an attempt to stay awake. So I cleared my throat, took a sip of my coffee, and shifted in my seat to better look at Edward. "I really am sorry that I fell asleep," I began. "I should have been trying to help you stay awake." "Don't worry about it Bella," Edward sighed tiredly. "To be honest... you are pretty entertaining while you sleep." "I am?" I wrinkled my forehead in confusion before a suspicion caused me to cover my face with my hands. "Did I talk in my sleep again?" I asked with my voice muffled by my palms. "It's a habit for you?" Edward asked. "I've been told," I muttered. I pulled my hands away from my face and snuck a look at Edward from the side of my eye. I hoped I hadn't said anything too humiliating. He was staring straight ahead, but his lips seemed to be curled up at the side with a small grin. "I couldn't make out much of it. But..." "What?" I asked. "You did say my name a couple of times." He rubbed his hand against the back of his neck and looked a little uncomfortable. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks but tried to diffuse the situation immediately.

"I dreamt we were kids again," I admitted. "You and Jasper and I were all running down the beach." "We used to have fun, huh?" Edward smiled, noticeably relieved. I smiled too. "I'm glad that you decided to go to the party tonight," I said. The smile dropped from Edward's face, but I continued. "You and Jazz don't get to spend enough time together. And I know you are moving back to the area and all. But you are going to be busy studying for the Bar... and Jasper is going to be back in Seattle for school. You two really should enjoy every minute you have together... while you still can." "You too," Edward said. "You'll be leaving to go back to Florida soon." "I leave in a week," I nodded. "I decided to stay a couple extra days when I found out your parents are throwing you a graduation party." "Well... thank you," Edward nodded. "It wouldn't feel right if you weren't there." I stared through the windshield and reminded myself not to place too much importance in his simple statement. "Why the hurry to get back?" Edward asked after clearing his throat. "Are you taking summer classes?" "Renee and Phil are going to take a vacation before the next semester starts," I said. "I promised I would be home to watch the house. "Ah." Edward just nodded in understanding. "You'll have to make sure I have your phone number," I smiled and reached over to shove his shoulder playfully. "I mean... I might need help while I'm performing all of my Best Man duties this year." "You mean I might need help while I'm performing my Best Man duties this year," Edward scoffed with a grin. "No way, Cullen," I laughed. "My plans for the Epic Adventure are awesome. You are going down." I smiled when I considered the truth of that statement, in regard to the plans I had made. "I'm waiting for a phone call to confirm mine," Edward said. But the playful edge was gone from his voice and he sounded very serious. "Bella... there is probably something you should know about the plans I've made..." "Nope." I held my palm up toward him to stop his words. "I don't want to know about it ahead of time. I don't even want to think about it tonight. I'd like us all to be able to have fun at this party, without thinking about the competition."

"Fine," Edward sighed. "But I warn you. I won't lose." "We'll see," I shrugged. A part of me was desperately curious to know what he had come up with. But I didn't want to start second-guessing my own plans. The second half of our journey went by quickly, since we were once again talking with each other. At our houses, I reminded Edward to get a nap, and promised I would be ready to leave by seven o'clock. That gave me plenty of time to rest, shower, get dressed, and get in the proper mind-set for a fun night out. Tyler had made his intentions quite clear. Without the competition hanging over our heads, I was free to have fun and explore where this new interest might take me. With a few minutes to spare, I ran lightly down my stairs. Charlie eyed me speculatively from the couch. I knew my short denim skirt wasn't exactly appropriate for a cool Washington evening, but I had paired it with a light summer sweater and tennies to make it casual. And, let's face it. When planning to meet up with a good-looking guy at a party... 'cute' kicks 'practical's' ass any day of the week. Still, I self-consciously tugged at the hem of my skirt to make it look longer than it was. Charlie noticed, but wisely didn't comment. "Where are you off to?" My father asked. "Tyler's house. He's having a backyard barbeque," I offered. "The Crowley's place?" Charlie rubbed his chin. "Well you be careful up there kiddo. A couple of jack-asses almost got hauled in the last time he threw one of those shin-digs. They can get a little rowdy." "I'm going with Edward and Jazz," I told him with a grin. "Ah. They'll take care of you then. Have a good time. I'll see you in the morning." "Night, Dad!" I kissed him on the forehead and then walked quickly out the front door. I jogged across the space between our two houses and Jasper opened the door before I had a chance to ring the doorbell. "Looking good, Izz," Jasper smiled. "Thanks. You too." My grin faltered when Edward stepped out and closed the door behind him. His eyes traveled down my legs and he frowned. "Aren't you going to be cold?" "She'll be fine," Jasper scoffed. He took my hand and led me out to the car, opening the door for me before he got in the passenger side seat. Edward was still grumbling, but I could barely hear him. Jasper turned the volume of the stereo up to drown out his voice. He grinned at me over his

shoulder, and I smiled back. It was good to know that at least one of my friends was looking forward to a fun evening. Tyler's house was situated at the end of a long drive. We had to travel about a mile off the main road into a deep wooded area before his house came into view. Voices and music filtered through the air from behind his home, and the three of us followed the sounds around the side of the house. Clusters of people already dotted the yard, chatting loudly with drinks in hand. I spotted Tyler immediately, bent to stoke the large fire that blazed in the fire-pit in the center of the patio. He straightened his tall frame and brushed his hands off on the front of his pants before his eyes turned to find where we stood. A large smile broke across his face when his eyes met mine. "Awesome! I'm so glad you guys could come!" Tyler closed the gap between us with a fast stride, greeting all three of us while looking directly at me. "Hi," I smiled. "Hi," he returned, stopping to stand in front of us. Finally breaking eye-contact, he stepped into host-mode and motioned behind his shoulder with his thumb. "The keg is on ice up on the porch if you want beer. We have a pretty full bar set up for mixed drinks on that table right over there," he pointed again to his right. "And we are going to fire up the grill for dinner in just a little while." "Sounds great," Jasper grinned. Edward nodded and looked around. I wasn't really in the mood to worry about his sullen attitude. I hoped he would loosen up and enjoy himself. But it was hardly my main concern at the moment. Tyler stepped to my side and placed his hand against the small of my back before leaning down to speak closer to my ear. "Come on, Isabella," Tyler coaxed. "I have a few people I'd like you to meet." "Okay," I nodded and smiled up at him. I let him lead me away. With a glance over my shoulder, I saw that Jasper was already pulling Edward toward the make-shift bar. I recognized a couple of familiar faces from high school, standing in that area. I knew they wouldn't have any trouble mingling and finding company. I turned my attention back to the smiling man who walked beside me. I really wasn't surprised when Tyler dropped his hand and caught mine in his warm grip. The look on his face seemed to be asking permission. I smiled up at him, in an effort to encourage his attention. His thumb passed softly over the side of my hand, and he grinned before playfully tugging my arm and running me through the grass to meet his band mates. Tyler was truly an attentive date. The somewhat scary-looking bass player from his band worked at the grill. I found that despite his tattoos and multiple face-piercings, he was actually a very

quiet sort of guy. When I inquired about the piece of the tattoo on his neck that I could see above his collar, he grinned and explained that it was a tribal design that represented something to do with their first album. All of the members of the band had a similar design to commemorate their first bout of success in the music business. When I asked Tyler about the location of his, I was rewarded as he reached behind him to grab the back of his shirt. He pulled it up and over his head to show me the large design that was inked in heavy black lines between his shoulder blades. Good Lord, that boy was built fine. I inwardly gave myself a high-five and traced the pattern with my finger. Tyler grinned at me over his shoulder before pulling his shirt back on. I shifted my eyes and saw that Jazz and Edward were standing on the other side of the fire, a few feet away. Jasper was smiling and laughing with a couple people who loosely formed a circle there on the grass. Edward was scowling at me over the top of his cup. I raised my eyebrows in question before he caught me watching him and turned his head toward a pretty brunette that was standing to his left talking to him. I turned away from the sight and took the plate of food that Tyler offered me. Tyler and I sat in a couple of chairs by the fire while we talked and ate our dinner. It was easy to laugh as we recalled certain teachers that we both shared in high school. I felt truly bad that we hadn't gotten to know each other earlier. But Tyler shrugged off my apologies as unnecessary. During our conversation, my eyes travelled back over to see Edward and Jasper talking with their heads bowed toward one another over by the bar. Tyler turned his head to follow my gaze. "Can I get you a drink?" Tyler asked politely. I blushed, knowing I had been caught looking less than attentive. "Whatever you're having is fine," I smiled, giving him my attention once more. He stood and walked over to where Jazz and Edward stood. I pretended to watch the fire as I glanced at the three men from the corner of my eye. Tyler chatted with them both for a bit, but returned quickly with two bottles of water. I raised my eyebrow in question. "You said whatever I was having," Tyler laughed. "At my last party, things got a little out of hand when a couple of guys had too much to drink and started acting like assholes. I thought it would be smart to keep a clear head tonight, in case I need to diffuse anything like that again." "Water is great," I nodded and twisted the cap. Tyler tapped the top of our bottles together in a sort of 'cheers' and took a long drink. I watched his throat constrict as he swallowed and thought again about how ridiculously handsome he was. "Why is it that some girl hasn't snapped you up?" I asked quickly. Tyler smiled and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Who's to say that I've found anyone that I'd like to let try?" I smiled over at him. Tyler lowered his hand and started tracing a small circle on my exposed knee.

"Same question, back at ya," he asked softly. My breath caught a little at the feel of his warm finger tip on my skin. "You want to know why some girl hasn't snapped me up?" I asked, being flip. Tyler laughed and let his hand lay against my leg. "You know what I mean," he argued with a low voice. I licked my lips and looked over at him. The fire played on his raven hair and lit his sky blue eyes with dancing sparks. Those eyes were very studiously staring at my mouth. "Tyler... let's do a few!" We were interrupted by the voice of who I recognized as the lead singer of Tyler's band. He shook his head at me in apology, and then got up only to return with a five gallon bucket that he flipped and placed between his feet. The chairs around the fire were filled with his band members and a few guests who were lucky enough to have grabbed the seats fast enough. Other people closed the circle as the sound of acoustic guitar filled the air. Tyler grinned at me and lightly slapped a rhythm on the bucket with his hands. Songs that I guessed were on their new album were played in an acoustic set that brought hearty applause from the guests. After three songs, Tyler moved the bucket from between his knees and grabbed my hand. I looked at him in confusion until he pulled my arm and tossed his chin up to indicate that I should stand. I stood and smoothed my short skirt out with my free hand. Tyler put his hands on my hips, turning me in front of him and pulled me down to sit on the edge of the chair between his legs. I smiled and leaned back into the warm circle of his arms. The rest of the band played on, not minding that his simple percussion no longer accompanied them. I shivered when I felt Tyler's warm breath on the side of my neck. He leaned forward and inhaled deeply beneath my ear. "You smell really fucking good," Tyler whispered. I smiled and turned my head to look at him. Our faces were really close, and I decided that wasn't entirely a bad thing. I had been waiting to see if he'd make the first move. I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth, and his eyes watched the action eagerly. "I'd really like to kiss you right now," Tyler said plainly. My heart sped up and I'm sure my cheeks turned pink. I nodded a bit... trying to let him know that I wasn't opposed to the idea. "I would," Tyler grinned and kissed the soft material on my shoulder instead. "But I feel like we are in a goddamned fish-bowl." I turned my head to follow his gaze, and saw Edward, once again, staring and frowning darkly. "Ignore him," I shook my head. "Edward and Jazz slip into big-brother-mode whenever I'm interested in a guy. My father probably even put them up to keeping an eye on me tonight." "Whenever you're interested in a guy, huh?" Tyler grinned at me. "And... are you? Interested in a guy?"

"I'm trying to figure that out," I shrugged and laughed. He laughed too. I pushed aside the tiny voice in the back of my head that reminded me that I might be interested in the wrong one. Edward told me to consider Tyler. Damn it. I intended to do just that. "Come with me," I said, standing with a sudden determination. Tyler looked confused until I offered my hand. "Let's take a walk and get out of the fish-bowl for a little while." The wicked smile that pulled across Tyler's face would have made any girl's knees go weak. I pointedly ignored Edward while I led Tyler toward the darkened tree line. We hadn't made it far from the yard before Tyler threw his arm over my shoulder and pulled me into his side. "How far are we going?" he asked with the firelight fading in the distance. His words held a double-meaning that I could not ignore. "I haven't decided that yet, either," I smiled. I turned out from under his arm and started walking backwards, further into the shadows provided by the trees. Tyler grinned and kept moving toward me. We both stopped and I groaned when I heard loud footsteps following our path. "Bella?" Edward's voice was rough as he called my name loudly, and I cringed. Tyler huffed in annoyance and rolled his eyes before putting his hands in his pockets. I frowned and turned toward the sound of our approaching visitor. "Can I help you?" I asked. I could hear the frustration in my own voice. "I need to talk to you." Edward stormed into sight then. He looked angry and I took a step forward to meet him. "Can it wait?" I hissed in a loud whisper. He should be able to guess that it wasn't exactly an opportune time. "No. It's important," Edward said stubbornly. He practically glared at Tyler over my shoulder and straightened his frame. I shook my head. I doubted anything that Edward had to say to me was all that important. This was the equivalent of him chasing a boy off my porch, and we both knew it. I narrowed my eyes at him, completely pissed off that he would ruin my time with Tyler. Especially after he had been more than clear, last night, when he suggested that I should explore my options. "Tyler?" I asked, not removing my eyes from Edward's face. "Yeah, Bell?" He asked. "It's Isabella," Edward clenched his jaw and I watched his fists tighten at his sides. It was completely irrational for him to be behaving so poorly. Maybe he thought he had to make up for lost time in the over-protective department.

"Tyler?" I asked again. "Would you mind if Edward and I had a few words? We can continue... our date... when I've finished." "That's fine," Tyler agreed. I didn't miss that his shoulder nearly knocked into Edward when he walked past to leave us alone in the woods. Not trusting myself immediately, I turned and stormed off a few feet into the deeper growth of the forest. I heard Edward following me. Finally, deciding I had gone far enough for my voice not to carry across to the ears of the partygoers, I rounded and faced him. "What in the hell is wrong with you?" I asked angrily. "You are not my father, Edward. And I'm pretty sure that even Charlie has acknowledged the fact that I am an adult!" "If you want me to treat you like an adult... you should act like one! It's reckless and irresponsible for you to wander away from a party with a guy you barely even know!" "Good Lord! Thanks for the tips on 'Stranger Danger' Sergeant Cullen. In case you've forgotten... Tyler and I actually went to school together. It's not like we just met!" "You don't know him well enough! He could have led you away and... done anything out here. He could have taken advantage of you... and no one would be around to help..." "How in the hell do you know that I wasn't the one trying to take advantage of HIM? Huh?" My voice rose and I moved forward, putting both hands on Edward's chest to give him a solid shove backward. "I'm a woman, damn it! Maybe I like to be kissed! Did you ever think of that? And not because of some traditional obligation dictated by melted cheese!" Edward's fingers wrapped around my wrists strongly as I reminded him of our painfully embarrassing moment that occurred only the night before. Instead of me pushing him backward, he tugged me and I stumbled into his chest. I was breathing heavily and had to tip my head up to look at his face. "So you wanted to be kissed?" Edward's voice had dropped dangerously low. He sounded almost menacing. "Yes" I retorted stubbornly. "Fine," he snarled. Before I knew what he was doing, Edward bent his head and pressed his lips to mine. The immediate spark of awareness that surged between us caused me to stand stock still for a moment, completely surprised and unsure what to do. But when Edward dropped my wrists and pushed his hands into my hair, angling my head to press his mouth more fully against mine, all bets were off. Edward was actually kissing me. My mind didn't need to make decisions. My body acted on its own. My hands clutched at his shirt and I pulled him closer. He groaned against my lips then, and I opened my mouth, anxious to swallow the sound.

Kissing Edward was more than I could wrap my mind around. It was everything I ever dreamed of... and yet nothing as I imagined it would be. Seeing him kiss Mary Beth on his back porch had in no way prepared me for the heat that scorched me from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, churning and swirling, and melting my bones and muscle until all that was left was a quivering mess of need. The way his fingers pressed into me, made me know he was burning just the same as I. I reveled in finally having absolute proof that he felt this unexplainable connection between us, just as surely as I did. It wasn't guess work. I couldn't misinterpret the way his body pressed urgently against mine. His lips were soft, but demanding... firm and unyielding. He sucked my bottom lip between his teeth and bit lightly before pulling a breath away. "God damn it Bella," Edward said throatily. "Slap me. Push me away. Tell me to stop." "I don't want you to stop," I whispered urgently. And I pushed my face forward to search for his lips again. He groaned but gave in to me. I felt myself moving backward, and clutched his shoulders instinctively to stop my fall. But then I realized that he was moving me. I knew it when I felt the rough tree bark scratching through the thin sweater on my back. Edward pushed his whole body against me then, and my head swam. "If you knew half of the things going on in my mind right now, you wouldn't be saying that." His words sounded agonized. I couldn't speak. I needed more of him. I was dizzy with want when I pushed my hands up into the back of his hair and pulled him toward me again. This time, Edward used his tongue to tease my mouth open, and deepened our kiss. He tasted like spiced rum and limes... and I couldn't get enough of him. I hadn't had a single drop of alcohol, and yet I felt completely intoxicated. His hands had left my hair and were torturously moving up and down my hips. I shuddered when I felt evidence of his arousal pressed firmly against my stomach. It was a heady and powerful feeling to know that he had that reaction to me. Me. Finally he wanted me just as much as I wanted him. I bit my lip when his mouth pulled away from mine and slid down a scorching path on my neck. Everything about the moment was perfect. It all felt... so very, very right. Until the words he muttered against my skin brought me back to reality. His mouth sucked and nipped at my neck while he fought a battle with himself and whispered harshly against me. "This is wrong," he moaned. "This is so wrong." His words were as effective as being doused with a glass of ice water. My fingers moved to his chest where I began to use all of my strength to push him off of me. It took a moment for Edward to realize my intentions. But when he did, he stepped away quickly. His chest heaved. His hair was standing in wild directions designed by my passionate grip. His cheeks and lips were as dark as I knew they would be. But his eyes... were clouded with guilt. How could he think such an amazing moment between us was wrong? That what we were doing was a mistake? I had been foolishly celebrating my childhood romantic fantasies being fulfilled

in a very adult way... and Edward was the same as he had always been. He didn't want me then. And he didn't want me now. Then, because he was the one that suggested it, I slapped him. I slapped him as hard as I could. My palm stung and my heart hurt. His head snapped to the side, but he stood motionless. Edward didn't say a word as I shoved my way around him, and left him standing there with his own remorse to keep him company.

17. Long OverDue

I was still breathing heavily when I stomped my way out of the wooded area behind Tyler's house and entered the warm circle of light provided by the fire-pit in the center of the cleared yard. I licked my lips and looked around with wide eyes, searching for the man I had sent away minutes before when Edward came looking for me. I met Jasper's gaze first. He looked alarmed when he took in my appearance, but I shook my head frantically, stopping his feet from moving to me and sending him the message that I was not in the mood to talk about it. He frowned and turned his eyes to the tree line behind me instead. I finally saw Tyler talking with a group of friends closer to the house, and I took a deep breath and walked over to join them. The conversation stalled when I stepped up, and I smiled apologetically up at Tyler. "Sorry," I muttered. "I wondered... if you might be able to give me a ride home?" Tyler frowned down at me with a worried expression on his face, but nodded easily. "Sure. Let me just run in and get my keys." I walked around the side of the house, not wanting to risk seeing Edward again before I left. Tyler jogged down his front steps with his keys jingling in his hand. He opened the passenger side door of his blue van for me, and I climbed into the seat wordlessly. After we bumped our way down the rocky drive and pulled onto the main road, I finally chanced a look over to Tyler. His features were illuminated in a white glow from the dashboard lights. He looked straight ahead as he drove, giving me no indication as to what he might be thinking about my strange request to leave the party. "I'm really sorry," I mumbled. Tyler turned to look at me then, and favored me with an understanding smile. "I'm guessing that you and Edward aren't getting along, again."

"You could say that," I muttered. "It's fairly obvious that you two... have a... volatile relationship," Tyler laughed lightly. "I think we were all impressed that you haven't killed each other by now." "He makes me very angry," I admitted. Tyler reached over and offered his hand. I took it easily, and stared down at the way his fingers wrapped around my own. It was meant as a comforting gesture. But I didn't feel comforted. I was just more annoyed that Edward had managed to ruin my evening. Tyler pulled up in front of my house, and turned off the engine. When he shifted in his seat, he didn't drop my hand immediately. He just looked at me for a moment in the semi-darkness. "I'm sorry I made you leave your party." I couldn't stop apologizing. Tyler squeezed my hand in response. "There was only one person there that I really cared to see anyway," he hinted. I turned a sad smile up in his direction. Tyler took a deep breath and then his features hardened to a more serious expression. "The guys wanted to have this party as a send-off. We leave in two days for LA, and I probably won't be back for several months. Things are going to get pretty busy." "Yeah," I nodded. "You'll have fun though. You're going to be great. I just know it." Tyler smiled at my compliment and looked at our joined hands once more before he spoke again. "I've already gotten a taste for how fake it can all be. How caught up people get in the glamour and everything. That part of it isn't for me. I'm not like that. I want to make good music, and have a good time. But I don't want to lose myself in the craziness. Does that make sense?" "You seem like you've got a pretty good grip on reality," I grinned. "I think you're going to be fine!" "Reality..." Tyler said softly. He pulled our hands up between us and lowered his head to brush a soft kiss across the back of my knuckles. "That's why I'm so glad I met you, again," he smiled. He seemed almost to be talking out loud, to himself. "I need real people in my life... to keep me grounded... to remind me of what's important. Someone like you, Isabella." My throat suddenly felt tight. My confusion had hit an all-time high tonight when Edward had finally allowed whatever it was between us to break-free. He might have regretted it... but it was there. Neither of us would be able to deny it anymore. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt that I was inexplicably still tied to Edward. And whether he wanted to be or not, at least a part of him was attracted to me in the same way. And now Tyler... this sweet man... was sitting here in this van declaring that he wanted me to be a part of his life? I shook my head to try to make sense of my jumbled emotions. "I'm leaving... I'll only be here another week."

"I know," Tyler shrugged. "But I'll be gone too. I'll likely be traveling for the better part of the next year. But I think it's worth trying, Isabella." He turned his eyes to me then. "You are one of the coolest chicks I've ever met. You're funny, and smart... tough as hell, and beautiful too. I think it's unfortunate that we had to meet again when we were both under time constraints. But I'd like to keep in touch... and see what could come of this..." I searched his face, waiting for a spark of... anything... to light in my chest at his words. Hope? Possibility? Excitement? My eyebrows dropped when I realized that I was still so tangled up in knots over Edward that I couldn't even fairly consider what it was that Tyler was suggesting. It saddened me to know that my feelings for another man were blocking my chance for happiness with this one. Tyler wanted me. Edward did not. Eager to chase my confusion away, I looked deeply into Tyler's eyes and tried my hardest to find the connection that I needed to loosen the binds that Edward had on me. He took my desperate gaze as an invitation, and leaned toward me. I could tell then, that Tyler would kiss me. I wanted him to. Quickly I pulled my hand from his grasp and ran it lightly up the side of his neck, behind his ear. I let my fingers cup the side of his head, under his hair, and I directed him to come nearer. I sighed when his soft lips finally met mine. Tyler's kiss was deliberate and slow. His mouth warmly covered mine, and we fit together wonderfully. With my eyes shut tight, I contemplated the texture of his hair under my hand. He exhaled and smelled like cinnamon. His lips caressed mine in a way that wasn't awkward or strange. It felt familiar and nice. Nice. Nice? Tyler pulled back when I sighed again. I didn't want 'nice.' I wasn't sure what I needed. But 'nice' wasn't going to cut it. He smiled and looked at me. And suddenly I released my seat belt and surprised him by turning to sit sideways on his lap between his chest and the steering wheel. I pushed my hands into his hair then, and tugged his face back to mine. Tyler got the idea immediately. His hands pressed into my back and brought me tightly against his chest. He groaned and angled his head, teasing my mouth with his tongue and meeting my desperation with an eagerness I appreciated. I tasted his lips and pushed myself closer, trying to crawl into him to escape the persistent force that felt like invisible hands pulling me away. I think I might have growled in frustration. Tyler's hands left my back. One moved up to tangle in the hair at the back of my neck. The other moved purposefully around my hip and under the front of my sweater. We were both breathing heavily as our lips and tongues moved together and I concentrated on how the new aggression made me feel. Even with his warm palm wrapped around the side of my ribs, and his thumb carefully brushing the bottom of my breast... his kiss didn't bring the spark of electricity that I had felt when I was with Edward. I stiffened when I realized where my thoughts had taken me. I was comparing him to Edward. It wasn't fair, and suddenly I just wanted to cry. Tyler noticed when I stopped responding. He

broke our kiss and looked at me for a minute before kissing me softly once more, trying to bring me back to the moment. I felt miserable. I placed both of my hands on his chest, and looked at him sadly. Tyler searched my face then until he apparently found what he was looking for. He closed his eyes with a groan, and let his head fall back onto the head-rest behind him. "Fucking, Cullen," he muttered under his breath. Shocked that he saw through me so easily, I pulled myself from his lap and sat in my own seat once more. I twisted my hands together in front of me, but didn't have the heart to pretend that I didn't know what he was talking about. "I'm so sorry," I whispered. Would I ever run out of apologies for this boy? "Does he even know?" Tyler asked. He left his head tilted back, but turned his face and opened his eyes to look at me. There was no harsh judgment in his eyes; only a weary resignation. "No," I shook my head. "It's not like that. For him..." We sat in silence for a minute. "Isabella?" Tyler finally asked with a deep voice. I turned and looked at him again. "Yes?" "Will you do me a favor?" "I...can try," I offered. I felt I owed him something for his kindness, if nothing else. "Keep my number. Please." He gave me a soft, sad smile from where he sat. "Just in case Edward doesn't pull his head out of his ass and realize what a lucky bastard he is." "Okay." I nodded, feeling wretched for the lie. I hoped someday if Tyler and I crossed paths again, that we could be friends. He was an amazing person. His only fault was one that he could never over-come. He wasn't Edward Cullen. I smiled my thanks to Tyler and stepped out of his van. The door closed heavily behind me, providing the sound of another goodbye and failed attempt to find something that might make me forget about my feelings for Edward. I trudged upstairs like a robot, undressed, and washed my face before tumbling into bed. My thoughts continued to plague me. I was suspicious, suddenly, that maybe Edward was the real reason that none of my attempts at relationships had ever worked out. Surely, it was easier for me to try to get along normally with someone else, when Edward was across the country. But with him near, it was impossible. It seemed very clear to me that I had always somehow compared the men I was with to him. And every one of the small group had been found lacking. I pulled my pillow over my head and yelled my frustration into the soft fibers.

For the second night in a row, I tossed and turned because of Edward Cullen. I fretted that I might never be able to find a man that I could allow myself to be happy with. Eventually, I worried myself to sleep. And somewhere in that slumber, I found myself pressed against a tree with Edward's lips melded to mine once more. I could feel him. I could taste him. I writhed on my sheets, desperate for my dream to not end the way reality told the tale. But my imagination couldn't create a happy ending for me. "This is wrong," I heard him echo through the sleeping recesses of my mind. I woke in the morning feeling empty inside. With my music turned up so loudly that I couldn't hear the surf beside me, I forced my feet to carry me swiftly down the sandy beach. The harder my heels dug into the sand, the more my muscles burned, the easier it was to force myself to concentrate on something beside the turmoil of emotions that had caused me to get yet another lousy night of sleep. So wrapped up in my own world of thought and motion, I was completely taken off guard at the feel of a hand gripping my shoulder from behind. I screamed in fear, flinging my arms to the side to ward of my attacker, and twisted my leg beneath me in the process. I turned as I fell, and landed on my ass in the sand. "Shit, Izzy," Jasper stood, out-of-breath and looking down at me with apology. My earbuds had loosened during my tumble, and I could finally hear him. "I've been yelling your name. I didn't mean to scare you." "My music was loud..." I mumbled. I accepted his hand up, and brushed the coarse sand from the back of my track pants. "I had to run like hell to catch up to you," Jasper shook his head. "Running from demons this morning?" "You could say that," I agreed wryly. I tested weight on my turned leg, and found my ankle to be a little sore. Instead of picking up a jogging pace, I opted to walk instead. Jasper strolled beside me. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming for a run? I would have joined you." "I didn't want to wake you," I shrugged. "Well, I saw Charlie on his way to work, and he told me you were down here. I hope you don't mind." "You know I don't." I turned a small smile up in his direction and he nodded and returned the gesture. "I wasn't sure. You've been avoiding me." "I haven't. I had things to do with my Dad yesterday," I lied. He didn't technically need me to tag along with him. But it was a nice diversion from my worries.

"So... wanna tell me what the hell happened at the party between you and Edward?" Jasper finally asked. I huffed and rolled my eyes before turning them to stare at the sand in front of us. "What did Edward say happened?" I hedged. "He told me that he kissed you." My feet tripped me up a bit and I stopped to look up at Jasper. "He did?" "Yep. Let's just say... the night got pretty interesting after you left." "What happened?" I asked curiously, walking once more. "If I tell you... will you fill me in on your side of things?" "Yes," I nodded. I was actually a little shocked that Edward had disclosed anything to Jasper about what had happened between us. I was curious to find out what was said. "Right after you left with Tyler, Edward came out of the woods looking all fucked up." "Huh?" I asked. "Aside from a rather obvious handprint across his face... he was just... out of it. I am not sure I've ever seen him so pissed." "He was pretty mad at me." "No, Izzy. He was mad at himself. And he was completely enraged when he found out that you had left with Tyler." "I don't understand," I frowned. Jasper sighed beside me. "I asked him what happened. He told me that he kissed you. And he felt like shit about it. I mean... you should have seen the way he was beating himself up." "I can imagine," I muttered. I could still hear the self-derision in his voice. "He said that you hit him... and that he deserved it. He thought he was protecting you from being taken advantage of. And then he, himself, was the one that did the very thing he was trying to keep you protected from." "Christ," I moaned. "He makes it sound like he attacked me. Jazz... he kissed me. I kissed him back. That was it!"

"Then... why did you hit him?" Jasper asked. I dropped my head and gnawed my bottom lip. Truth time. "I hit him because... he didn't want to kiss me," I whispered. The hole in my chest burned around the edges while I said the words out loud. "I wanted it. I've wanted it for so long. It hurt to know that he didn't." "Izz? I can guarantee you that if a guy ever kisses you, it's because he wants to. You can't make someone do something they don't want to do!" "He actually told me it felt wrong," I groaned with my fingers splayed out in front of me. "While he was kissing me... he told me it was wrong! Do you have any idea how that made me feel?" "Ouch," Jasper sucked air through his front teeth and frowned. We walked for a few minutes down the beach in silence. "Izzy... I think I can understand a little how he feels. I'm sure he didn't mean it the way it sounded." "I don't know how else to take it," I shook my head stubbornly. "Think about it," Jasper implored. "All of his life he's thought of you... as sort of a kid sister. If you are somehow moving into some other category in his mind... don't you think he might be a little freaked out about that? I mean... he probably feels like some creepy pervert for kissing you. Not to mention the whole 'trying to protect you' thing. I'm sure that there was a whole lot of 'wrong' swimming around in his head. Sure... it was stupid for him to say that shit out loud. But it might not be as bad as what you think." "I've never thought of him as a brother..." I admitted. "What kind of best friend would I be if I didn't know that already?" Jasper put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his side. "Do you really think I never noticed the way you looked at him?" "Was I that obvious?" I asked. "To everyone but Edward," Jasper laughed lightly. "But I thought you moved past all that in high school..." "I thought so too," I whispered. "I tried..." We were back at our vehicles, and Jasper leaned the back of his legs against the front of my dad's truck. He folded his arms over his chest and stared out at the beach.

"I can't lie and say that I'm not shocked," he told me. "I didn't see that you still had feelings like that. And I certainly didn't imagine that Edward would..." Jasper shook his head and left the sentence hanging. "You said the party got interesting..." I re-routed the conversation. Jasper smiled. "Edward decided to slam back a few drinks. When Tyler came back... Edward was half-drunk and decided to take his foul mood out on him." "Oh no," I frowned. "Nothing happened," Jasper shook his head. "Edward made some shitty comment to Tyler. Tyler told him he was a moron for not knowing what a good thing he could have. Edward shoved him. I grabbed Edward and told him that Tyler was right... then apologized to everyone and drove his drunk-ass home." "Where is he today?" I asked. "Hiding," Jasper smirked. "Strangely enough, he made plans to spend the day with our father. He offered to go with Dad to Port Angeles for something. I think he's just trying to lay low." "Oh." I had nothing better to offer. I had done the same thing the day before. Apparently we employed the same methods of avoidance. "So... don't let him keep hiding," Jasper said. I looked up at him to try to figure out what he meant. "He's obviously trying to figure out his feelings right now. Help him." "I don't know how," I said. "I think you're wrong... I think he might have certain feelings for me. But he certainly doesn't want to have them." "Change his mind." Jasper looked firm in his opinion. I licked my lips and kicked the gravel under my toe. "You guys are telling me your final plans for the competition tomorrow. Maybe when that's over and done with, Edward will be in a better frame of mind to consider the possibilities." "I'm not sure..." I mumbled. "You won't know, if you don't try," Jasper argued. "I'm on your side here. I mean... if you really care for him. How perfect could that be for me? Two of the people I love most in the world... I could count on you to always take care of each other and keep each other happy even when I'm not around. It would be awesome." "You're getting ahead of yourself," I said sternly. "You don't know what's in his head right now."

"You're right. I don't." Jasper grabbed my hand and held it between his. "But you don't know either. And you won't know until you just ask him. He's a lawyer for Pete's sake. Present him with the facts and let him figure this shit out." "What if he decides he doesn't want me?" I asked quietly. "Then, he really is a moron," Jazz said decidedly. "Just promise me... before you leave... that you'll let him know how you feel. Tell him. Give him the chance to know what he'd be missing, at least." I took a deep breath and looked into Jasper's encouraging gaze. I tried to borrow the optimism I saw there, but it wasn't enough to chase away my doubts. Still... I couldn't deny him. "I promise," I whispered.

18. Crossing the Finish Line

We drove home in the separate vehicles that we arrived in. My promise to Jasper felt bitter on the back of my tongue. But deep down, I knew he was right. When I was a young girl... my feelings for Edward could never amount to more than secret fantasy and fairytales. Now, I was finally in the position to act on the desires of my heart. But I hesitated, afraid of facing the same disappointment that had stung me time and time again. Edward obviously felt at least some level of attraction for me. I would never know if that could turn into more, unless I was willing to take a chance and try. Edward might not return my feelings. There was a very good chance that he would turn me away. However, without that confirmation, I might continue to hang on to all of the stupid 'whatif's' that were prohibiting me from being happy with someone else. I wasn't sure I'd ever have the ability to completely move on unless I knew for a fact that we would never be more than friends. I would have to tell Edward how I felt. He would take the knowledge and use it to tighten the ties between us, or cut them loose and set me free. One way or the other, it needed to be done. I owed it to myself to be honest for once. I wouldn't lie to myself any longer. And though it might hurt in the end... I didn't want to lie to Edward either. I promised Jasper I would talk to Edward sometime before I returned back to Florida. I just wasn't quite sure when I would take that plunge. As it stood, we had successfully avoided each other for two days. That gave me very little time to work with. And then I had to deal with the whole 'nerves' issue as well. I wasn't nearly as brave as Jazz gave me credit for. I could still remember with perfect detail the last time I considered letting Edward know how I felt about him. He left for college and my words were left unspoken.

Jasper lugged the last of Edward's suitcases down the front steps, walking beside his brother. I watched him throw his weight back and twist at the waist to toss the heavy rectangular piece of luggage into the trunk of Edward's car. "It's going to be really weird with you gone," Jasper said while Edward reached to slam the trunk door down over his stowed items. I stood with my thin canvas shoes getting soaked through by the morning grass at the curb. "Don't go trying to steal my room, when I'm away," Edward teased. "Yeah right," Jasper scoffed. "I've got the best room anyway." Edward stood with one hand in his front pocket and pulled his free fingers through the messy locks on top of his head while he contemplated me for a second. "You're probably right," he allowed, still staring over at where I stood. Edward knew that Jasper and I loved having bedroom windows that faced one another. He was the one that had helped us tie the old tin cans with a length of red yarn to string between our window sills as our earliest form of house-to-house secret-communication. Jasper would never give up that bedroom. I twisted the hem of my shirt under nervous fingers and frowned. I wished it could be so simple. But there would never be a piece of red yarn long enough to connect us to Edward's destination; New York. "Don't worry. I'll stay in touch," Edward said softly, as though he were reading my mind. I looked up and saw the sad smile on his face while he looked over at his brother. Edward turned his eyes to me then, and removed his hand from his pocket, motioning me to move closer. I walked toward his car, and stood side by side with my best friend. "It won't be the same," Jasper said. "Do you remember last summer... when we all went to the County Fair?" Edward asked, dipping his head and favoring us both with a warm smile. "Yeah..." Jasper said. "Do you remember our number one rule of the night?" Edward asked. "Never eat a Jumbo hot dog with extra chili before riding the Tilt-o-Whirl?" Jasper asked. He had learned that particular lesson the hard way. Edward laughed. I shook my head. "If one of us should get separated from our group..." I began. Edward sobered and looked at me, smiling because I understood what he had been asking.

"The other two stick together. No matter what," Edward nodded as he finished his original thought. "I'm counting on you two, to stick together now. Take care of each other while I'm away." "We will," I whispered. Jasper nodded and stared hard at the ground. Edward reached forward then and threw an arm over each of our shoulders, pulling us in to a three-way sort of hug there on the sidewalk between our houses. Jasper ducked his head. I pressed my cheek to the soft tshirt at Edward's side and bit my lip to keep the words that I wanted to say from bubbling out. "Don't go." "Please stay." "I love you." I wanted to say the words, but knew I wasn't brave enough. I also knew they wouldn't make a difference. So I choked on them instead. When I heard Jasper sniff loudly, I reluctantly pulled myself from the warmth of Edward's embrace. I knew that Jasper was losing his ability to remain 'tough.' I also knew that if he broke down, I would too. "Goodbye, Edward," I said quietly. I turned and left the two of them to a private moment alone. Once my sad feet dragged me to my house, I turned and looked at them both through the dirty screen of my front door. Far enough away to no longer hear their conversation, I watched as Jasper raised his glasses and passed his hand over his eyes to rub away the tears I knew he didn't really want anyone to see. Edward kept a hand on his shoulder and ducked his head down to speak to him. Soon, they were joined by their parents. Larry took Edward's maturely offered hand and shook it before pulling him into a bear-hug anyway. Joy practically had to be pulled away from the embrace that she bestowed upon her oldest son. I stood, hidden under the cover of my porch with the darkness of my house serving as a mournful backdrop behind me. As Edward got into his car, I forcefully pressed my palm against the mesh wires in front of me until I felt the sting of their pattern rising on my skin. The tears came freely down my cheeks. The words that I had really wanted to say swirled like the motion of the leaves kicked up by Edward's back tires and drifted silently to rest on the street. I tugged my faded jeans up over my hips and pulled a faded old Forks High School Phys. Ed. tshirt over my head. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to actually dress as though I were giving a business presentation or anything. In a few minutes, I was due to stand in the Whitlock's living room and present my final competition idea to Jasper for his consideration. Once Edward and I showed him our ideas for the 'Epic Adventure' to take place next summer over Memorial Day Weekend, Jasper would decide which of us would be his Best Man in the wedding. I turned and picked up the poster board that leaned against my dresser. I had spent the morning working on my visual aid. It was cute and it made me smile. I hoped Jasper would like it too. Butterflies danced in my stomach as I made my way down the stairs with my art under my arm. I wasn't sure if I was more nervous about actually presenting my last idea in this battle, or about seeing Edward again. I hadn't seen him since the night of Tyler's party. In a few minutes, we would be together in the small and intimate setting of the neighbor's living room. I pulled back my shoulders and put my game face on.

"Heading over already?" My father asked. "It's time," I nodded. Charlie knew about this final part of the competition. He had leaned against my doorframe earlier, watching me put the finishing touches on my drawing. "Take it easy on Jasper," my father warned. "He doesn't want to hurt either of you." "I know," I mumbled. I stepped out into the night air and closed the door softly behind me. Every step took me closer to the end of the competition. I just wanted it to be over with. "Come on in," Joy smiled and held the door open wide while I pulled my poster board through under my arm. "The boys are already in the other room. I was just going out to play cards down at the Stanley's. Did you need anything before I went?" "No. Thanks." "Can I take a peek at your poster before I go?" Joy asked nicely. I shrugged and turned the board to show her my colorful drawing. She smiled widely. "You've always been so creative, Isabella," Joy complimented. "It's adorable." "Thanks," I grinned. "It makes me wonder... do you think you could help me make a sign for Edward's party tomorrow night? It doesn't have to be anything fancy. Just maybe something we could lean outside near the street so that the guests know where to turn in for parking?" "Sure. I could do that," I smiled. "I'll work on it in the morning and bring it by in the afternoon. If that's alright?" "Perfect," Joy smiled. "Have fun, dear!" Jasper's mother closed the door behind her, and I stood in the entry way, taking a deep breath before turning to meet Jasper and Edward in the other room. "Izz?" I heard Jasper call out. "We're getting old in here. Come on in!" I took a deep breath and walked into the well lit room. I could see Edward from the corner of my eye, sitting in the wing-backed chair. I rested my poster against the back of the couch and ignored him. Looking his direction might only make me tense. I wanted to relax and just get this over with. "Hey guys," I greeted them generally. Jasper smiled. "So..." Jasper rubbed his palms together and looked between Edward and me. I took a deep breath and began.

"Do you mind if I just go first?" I asked. I didn't want to see what Edward had come up with before I showed Jasper my idea. I also didn't want to drag this out any longer than necessary. "I don't mind," Jasper shrugged. "Edward?" I finally turned my head to look at him. Edward sat with a leather-bound folder on his lap. His hands were pressed against the smooth black surface and he stared downward. "It's fine," Edward allowed. I blinked and looked away from him quickly. Since I was standing by my poster board already, I just stayed where I was and addressed Jasper from behind the sofa. "My idea might be a little unconventional," I began. "I know that you technically wanted a threeday Bachelor-Party event. But I guessed that by the end of two-days... you'd probably be pretty eager to spend a little time with Alice again! So my plans are actually something that the entire wedding party can enjoy together. I remembered how much you and Alice loved our trip to St. Louis... when we all learned to sky-dive. You kept saying how much you'd like to do it again..." I reached down and grabbed my poster, turning it to show the colorful picture I had created. It was a perfect caricature of Jasper and Alice holding hands while skydiving. Their cartoon images wore goggles and huge, silly smiles. Cherubs and hearts decorated the puffy white clouds that they fell through. Above their heads, I had painted the words 'Fall all over again.' "I found a place just outside of Seattle. Our reservation is pending. The entire wedding party can spend a day at the facility, learning from their trainers. And then we can all sky-dive together!" I smiled as I watched Jasper's reaction. He moved forward with a wide grin on his face, and took the poster from my hands. "Aww... Izzy! This is cute as hell. You have to let me keep it. Alice is gonna go crazy for it!" "It's yours," I nodded and wiped my now empty hands on the front of my jeans. I was proud of my idea. It was different in that it included the rest of the wedding party. And it was sentimental. I knew first hand, how much Alice and Jasper had enjoyed their first experience with the activity. My major strength in the competition was in how well I knew my best friend. Jasper moved to lean the poster against the fireplace mantel. Edward stood from his chair then, taking the cue that it was his turn. His fingers gripped the folder in front of him. Edward still hadn't raised his head to meet my eyes. His entire demeanor was serious and solemn. "I...uh," he cleared his throat. Finally, he glanced up to where I stood. His eyes shifted away so quickly that I wasn't sure if I had imagined it. "I have a friend who graduated last year," Edward stated. "He actually got a job with a firm that represents a lot of different bands... artists." He cleared his throat again and I leaned forward and placed my palms on the back of the couch. He was behaving as if he were nervous. "I don't know if you know them..." Edward frowned. "But he works with a band called 'Kings of Leon.'"

My mouth popped open in surprise. Jasper's expression turned from confusion to excitement as Edward mentioned the name of his favorite band. And Edward knew it was Jazz's favorite band! He knew it because I had been the one to tell him... the night that we had gone to the Lodge for dinner! "It turns out that the band is actually performing at a music festival in Chicago next Memorial Day weekend." Edward remained facing Jasper as he spoke. I knew he must have felt the ice in the glare that I was sending his way. "In this folder you will find airline arrangements... details for the limo that will pick you up at the airport... hotel accommodations... as well as tickets and all-access backstage passes to the music festival, where you and your Bachelor Party will be the personal guests of the Kings of Leon." Jasper was hopping up and down like a kid in line to see the Easter Bunny. I felt my jaw go slack as I listened to the amazing plans that Edward had used his connections to secure. A cold, hard, emptiness squeezed between my ribs and choked out the warmth where my heart should be. Edward used information I had given him and worked it to his ultimate advantage. It was completely under-handed. And I didn't know if I wanted to cry or march across the room and kick him in the balls. Jasper had the folder held open on his upturned palms, and looked positively high as he scanned the documents within. I licked my lips, and tried to get control of my feelings. A couple harsh, ragged breaths tore through my lips, and I blinked angry tears away. Then I looked up, and saw that Edward was watching me. His mouth was pressed in a tight, thin line. His eyes were clouded with guilt. It was an expression I was growing accustomed to seeing on him. "Jazz?" My voice came out as a squeak. Edward heard me, and flinched. But I had to clear my voice and speak louder to get Jasper's attention. "Jazz?" I asked. "Huh? Wha... yeah?" Jazz raised his chin and finally looked over at where I stood. I looked between him and Edward quickly. Edward suddenly looked very nervous again. Was he worried that I would call him out for being a cheat? That I would leap over the sofa and pummel his opportunistic ass? That I would scream and call him names that he probably deserved? "Jazz," I said calmly while looking in Edward's eyes. "I'm out." "What?" Jasper asked, clearly confused. I couldn't believe how calm I sounded. "I'm out," I said, with a small smile and a shrug. "Edward's plans are wonderful. A once in a lifetime sort of event. Absolutely perfect for you," I added. "I don't want you to have to feel bad for letting me down. And frankly, you'd be an idiot for passing up a trip like that." I glanced at the folder in his hands and back up to his face. "Edward is your Best Man. It's the way it should be." "I don't... I..." Jasper stammered. I blinked back a new set of tears and hoped I could get out of there before my righteous anger reared its ugly head. "Bella..." Edward finally spoke to me. I shook my head to stop him.

"I'm okay," I lied. I would be. But I really needed to be alone. Edward wanted to win badly enough to compromise his normally high standards of fair behavior. He could have it. "And I hate to compete and run," I tried to laugh. "But I promised my Dad I'd be home in time to catch the end of the game with him. So... I'll see you guys tomorrow, right? For Edward's party..." I couldn't look at him again. I just turned and made my way to the door with my obvious and pathetic lie hanging in the air behind me. I wasn't even sure if there was a game on television. I hurried home before I could turn and say something I might regret. I promised Jasper that Edward and I would have a talk before I left for Florida. At this point, I couldn't promise that he'd enjoy anything that I wanted to say to him. My door slammed behind me and Charlie called my name from the living room. "Isabella?" "Edward is the Best Man. I didn't make Jazz choose. And no... I don't want to talk about it," I said loudly as I made my way up the stairs. Frankly, my emotions had been in a whirlwind over the last few days. I just needed to left alone to calm down and try to relax. In my room, I tugged my shoes off and threw them across the room. Then, since I was finally alone, I bunched up my fists and jumped up and down while I let out a loud, harsh growl of frustration. Yes. It was an honest-to-goodness temper tantrum. And when I caught the image of myself in my full length-mirror, I had to freeze mid-stomp. A giggle escaped my lips at my own ridiculous behavior. I clamped my palm over my mouth to stifle it, and was rewarded when my rapidly shifting emotions brought tears to my eyes instead. I sniffled and let a few fall. I had been the unwilling passenger on a roller-coaster of emotions lately. I wasn't sure how many more ups and downs I could take before something snapped. I could feel it coming. Like a wave picking up strength and speed as it moved toward the shore, I was afraid that when it hit, I might be left destroyed in its wake. Wiping my face with my fingers, I gave myself a good, hard look in the mirror. I looked stressed. I needed a vacation away from my vacation. That thought alone made me smile once more. It was a sarcastic smile, but it relaxed the severity of my expression for a moment. I decided the closest I could come to escape for the time being, would be in a nice hot shower. Maybe it would help me unwind. With my hair tied up on top of my head, I let the hot water run with enough heat to sting my skin and turn it pink. It felt wonderful, and I let it carry the tension in my shoulders down in soapy rivulets toward the drain. Tomorrow I would go to Edward's graduation party with my father. Two days later, I would be on a flight back to Florida. I could count on the distance to help me put things in proper perspective and act as a bandage for my new scars. Scars add character, right? Still, in a last burst of spiteful thinking, I briefly considered skipping Edward's party. But that would seem petty and make me look like a poor loser. I didn't mind losing the competition. I was just pissed that Edward had sunk so low to win. Thinking of Edward made me feel tense again. And unfortunately, the hot water was waning. I sighed and turned the water off before stepping from the shower and wrapping a large blue towel

around my body. On bare and silent feet, I made my way back into my room. As soon as I entered, I saw the familiar image of a hand on my window pane... a long jeans-clad leg bent over the ledge to find purchase on the floor beneath my window. I barely gave him more than a glance before turning toward my dresser to find my pajamas, and speaking over my shoulder. "Look Jazz," I began. "I swear I'm not upset with you. But you really shouldn't be here right now unless you are prepared to hear me call your brother a complete prick. And I know I promised that I would talk to him... but I just don't..." I turned then and gasped, pulling my hands holding my clothing up to my chest. Jasper hadn't come through my window. Edward had. "Bella, I..." Edward stood just inside my window. His hands were pressed tightly into his front pockets. His hair stood up in messy clumps as if he had been pulling on it in frustration. My mood matched the erratic locks... twisted and untamed. "You!" I snarled and pointed a finger toward the window behind him. "Get out!" "Bella... please." "Get out before I push your ass out my window," I growled. I was completely incensed that Edward had invaded my personal space when I was so upset with his earlier behavior. "Bella. I don't want to fight with you. Shit. I'm so sick of fighting with you!" Edward pulled a hand from his jeans and demonstrated how his hair had gotten in its wild state by pushing his hand through it angrily. "I came over to apologize. Please..." "I don't want to hear it," I snapped. "What in the hell do you think you were doing... coming through my window like that?" "I figured you wouldn't answer your door. Or you'd have Charlie tell me that you were sleeping or something. I've seen Jasper climb your tree about a million times. So... I thought I'd give it a try." "Big difference," I huffed. "Jasper is actually welcome in my room!" Edward's face looked pained for a moment before he dropped his chin and stared at the floor. His shoulders slumped forward and he took in a deep breath. "Okay. I deserved that," Edward said quietly. "And I deserve to be called a prick, too. Or anything else you want to call me. I've treated you deplorably. I honestly just wanted to come over and apologize. I'm sorry, Bella. So sorry." My body rocked back until I was able to lightly lean against my dresser behind me. Angry words were held behind my teeth and started to dissolve on my tongue when I took in Edward's defeated posture. I wanted to hold on to my anger... it was easier to keep Edward at arms'-length while wearing punching gloves. But as it always did, my forgiving nature moved in and started controlling my emotions. I felt the stiff frame of my shoulders slump tiredly.

"What are you sorry for?" I asked quietly. Edward's head jerked up, and he looked surprised that I was willing to allow him time to speak. "Should I make a list?" He asked. The corner of his mouth drew up in a small, apologetic smile. "I can't seem to do anything right by you." Edward shook his head. "But tonight..." "That was pretty low," I muttered. "I mean... it was a great idea. And it's absolutely perfect for Jasper. I just wish I didn't feel so taken advantage of." "That's pretty much the running theme between you and I lately," Edward said darkly and looked down again. "But that's for another time." I tilted my head and wondered at his cryptic statement before he raised his eyes to mine again. "I tried to tell you about my final plans. I know it doesn't make it right. But I did feel bad for not giving you credit for my initial idea." "You're his brother..." I said quietly. "The only thing I had going for me is the fact that I know him so well." "You're his best friend," Edward replied. "And you do know him better than I do, right now. Which is why... I told Jasper that I want you to be the Best Man at his wedding." My mouth fell open in surprise. But when I should have felt happy, or excited, or something... I couldn't. It didn't feel right to win. I didn't want to win. "No," I shook my head. "I meant what I told Jazz earlier. I'm out. The competition was supposed to be fun." "I sucked the fun right out of it," Edward scoffed with a little laugh. "Yeah. You kinda did," I teased in return. "But you are his brother. If I hadn't given him a guilt trip about a promise we made a million years ago... he wouldn't have felt like he needed to decide between us. He should never have to choose between us. He's got us both." Edward looked deeply into my eyes, and I felt nearly scorched by the heat in his stare. Suddenly I was all too aware that I stood there, dressed only in a terry-cloth towel that was tied under my arms. "Can you forgive me?" Edward asked with a husky voice. I bit my lip and thought for a minute, wanting to be sure that my reply would be honest. "Yes," I whispered. Edward let out the breath he had been holding, and his facial features finally relaxed into a soft smile. "Thank you, Bella," Edward finally said. "You have no idea... how horrible I've felt. I can't stand the thought of hurting you. It kills me..."

I immediately wondered if he wasn't only speaking about the competition now. I took a step toward him. Edward matched my movement, leaving the wall next to my window. Slow steps brought us closer to one another in the center of my small room. Words tumbled around in my head, trying to put themselves in proper order to be spoken. Edward watched me, and seemed to be trying to read my expression. "We... need to talk," I said, finally. "About... us. About..." I licked my lips. "About what happened the other night." "I know," Edward nodded solemnly. "There's so much..." He looked as nervous as I felt. I clutched the soft cotton of my pajamas in my fingers in front of my stomach to keep my hands from trembling and took a deep breath. I was close enough to drown in the swirling depths of Edward's green eyes, and I was held captive under the weight of his stare. The strange pull between us seemed to radiate from the center of his chest and beckon me forward... but I locked my knees and struggled to remain standing. I was afraid... so afraid to let my walls down again. This time, Edward might smash the walls completely and leave me standing in the ruins. But somehow... I knew I would never be able to move on or move forward until I willingly gave him the power and let him decide what to do with it. He could build me up, or he could tear me down. But I had to know, for once and for all. I opened my mouth to speak, but was silenced by a bang and a loud grunt from my window. Edward and I both turned our heads from the sound and saw Jasper climbing through the small space while rubbing the spot on his head that he had just bumped against the window frame. "Hey guys," Jasper interrupted sheepishly. I took a shaky breath in the sudden moment of reprieve and stepped backward. I felt like I had been granted a stay of execution. Edward sighed and turned away from me too. "Can we talk?" Jasper asked. "I... should get dressed," I mumbled. Quickly I turned and fled the room. In the bathroom, my trembling hands went under the cool water stream in the sink and I splashed my face furiously to calm down. I had been so close to telling Edward everything that I felt... everything that had been on my mind. But fate had stepped in. Clearly we were meant to speak at a different time. Delayed nerves were making themselves known. I cupped the cool water in my hands and drank deeply from my palms, trying to soothe my terribly dry throat. Then I patted my face roughly with a towel, dressed in my pajamas, and went back to my room. Edward and Jasper stood together in the center of my room, talking quietly. Both men turned to look at me when I stepped back in to join them and quietly shut the door behind me. "Oh... I see how it is," Jazz teased. "You didn't mind standing there half-naked with my brother in your room. But as soon as I got here... you had to run and cover up all the goodies!" "Shut up," I laughed and slapped at his arm. I felt my cheeks turn pink and refused to meet Edward's eyes to see if he noticed, as well.

"I need to talk to both of you... so sit," Jasper instructed. He grabbed me by the shoulders and swung me around until I stood side-by-side with Edward. Then he placed the fingers from each of his hands high on our chests and pushed us lightly until we stepped back together and sat on the edge of my bed. I tried to ignore the feeling of Edward's thigh pressed into the side of my own. Or the fact that Edward was actually sitting on my bed. Jasper looked very serious, and so I turned my attention to him. "This competition was a shit idea," Jasper announced suddenly. "I honestly thought that with both of your personalities... it would just be a really fun way to spend two weeks together." "It was fun," I insisted. "Until I screwed it up," Edward added. "You didn't," I shook my head and looked at him. "We've already discussed this," Edward started. "But not really Edward... you ..." "See?" Jasper interrupted. "All it did was make you two fight! You're even doing it now!" Edward shook his head. "I was a jerk, Jasper. I told you. I got the whole idea for the last event from Bella. She deserves the credit for it. I'm not fighting anymore." "I'm not fighting either," I promised. "I'm done." "I don't want either of you," Jasper said quietly. None of us spoke. His sudden declaration caused Edward and I stare at him in shock. I looked over at Edward then, and he looked at me. It was clear that he didn't understand how things had just shifted, any more than I did. "I don't want either of you," Jasper continued. "I want both of you." He turned then to pace back and forth across the small strip of floor between my bed and my dresser. Stopping, he turned to us once more. "Edward, you are my brother. And Izz? You're my best friend. I don't want a Best Man. You're my Best Men." Jasper cringed and looked at me. "Well... Alice wants to negotiate a different title for you,Izzy. But you get the idea." "Wait... Alice knows about this?" I asked, pointing back and forth between the three of us. "I called her after Edward left the house," Jasper explained. "I told her what I was thinking. And she agrees. You two are important to me, and I don't want to choose between you. I'm getting married. It's going to be the happiest day of my life. And I really don't care who in the hell plans my bachelor party... or who hands me the ring. I don't care who stands to my immediate left... as long as you are both at my side. " I looked over at Edward again. He was watching me, waiting for my reaction.

"I'm going to be busy with my last year of school," I shrugged with a small smile. He returned it. "I'll be awfully busy studying for the Bar... getting things set up here." "So what do you think?" Jasper asked. "Could you stay in touch this year and plan this stuff together? Do you actually think you could work as a team instead of fighting?" "I'd.... like that," I admitted, still looking at Edward. His eyes glowed warmly. "I'd like that too," he said. "Perfect!" Jasper turned and dropped down to sit beside me on the bed. He threw his arm around me, reaching for Edward's far shoulder. I was thoroughly smashed between the two large and warm bodies on either side of me. "I love you guys. You know that?" "We love you too," I laughed. "I should... uh... let you two get back to whatever it is that you two were... uh... talking about," Jasper said then while dropping his arm and standing quickly. Edward stood too. "That's okay. I'll follow you out. I'm sure Bella would like to get some sleep." I felt a small twinge of disappointment that Edward seemed so eager to leave. But I knew our moment had passed us by; for this evening at least. Jasper kissed me on the cheek and lowered himself to the tree branch outside my window. I stood and watched as Edward threw his leg over the ledge and contorted his body through the small space as well. I was surprised, however, when he pulled his head back through my window a moment later. "Bella?" Edward asked. I cocked my head and looked at him. "Yes?" I asked. "I know tomorrow during the day I'll be busy helping Mom and Dad... picking people up from the airport...getting things ready. But do you think... that maybe you and I could continue our conversation tomorrow night? During the party?" My heart pounded painfully. If I made these plans, I knew I wouldn't be able to back out of it. "Yes," I finally said quietly. "I think we should." "Great!" Edward's wide smile was the first I had seen on his face in days. "Good night, Bella. I'll see you tomorrow." "Good night, Edward," I replied. When my window was dark and empty once more, I moved forward and pulled it closed. Sighing, I turned my light off and flopped face first on my bed. Tomorrow night I would go to Edward's graduation party. And sometime, Edward and I would be having a long, over-due talk.

I wondered, briefly, if worrying about the imminent conversation would provide me with another poor night's sleep. But exhaustion quickly over-took me and I fell easily into a deep and dreamless slumber.

19. Signs and Wines

I bounced lightly around the house the next morning with my ponytail swishing breezily behind me. I felt remarkably refreshed and eager to start the day. Sunlight poured through the downstairs windows, bathing the rooms in cheerful optimism that my attitude was forced to match. Tonight was Edward's graduation party. Tonight... at his request... Edward and I would talk. And for the time being, I couldn't even find it in myself to feel worried about the possible outcome. I knew that one way or the other, things between us would not be the same. I felt more relieved to see an end in sight, than nervous about what that end might entail. "You look cheerful this morning," my father noted as I joined him in the kitchen. "I slept well," I shrugged. I quickly poured and drank a small glass of milk. "I'm heading down to the diner. Got a few boxes of table settings in the back of my truck for Joy. Want to join me?" "I'd love to," I smiled. I rinsed out my cup and followed my father out to his truck. He turned the ignition and grinned over at me. "Should be a pretty fancy shin-dig," Charlie said. "Joy and Larry wanted to rent out a nice place. But you know Edward. He didn't want them wasting a bunch of money. So they've really worked to transform the diner into something special for tonight. You'll love it." "I bet," I smiled. I knew that Joy and Larry would probably try to rent a room at the Sportsman's Club... or even some space at The Lodge. I could imagine Edward stubbornly refusing for them to make such a big deal of things. "Are you bringing a date tonight?" my father asked. He might have been expecting me to bring Tyler, who was currently on his way to LA. "I was kinda thinking of asking the Chief of Police to be my date," I smiled. "I heard he's single... and very handsome!" Charlie tipped his head back and laughed loudly.

"You promise me a beer, and I'll promise you a dance. But don't go expecting me to wear a tie." "It's a deal," I grinned. At the diner, I helped my father carry in one of the boxes that were stowed in the back of his truck. Charlie was right. I hardly recognized the place. Joy came from the back room wiping her hands on a white towel that she had slung over her shoulder. The long front counter had been covered to look like a bar. The booths were missing and small round tables were dressed in pretty linen tablecloths throughout the room. "Wow," I smiled and looked around. Joy nodded. "Come out back," she waved. Charlie and I placed our boxes on the bar and followed her through the kitchen. The back patio area, typically only used for delivery and docking purposes, was cleared and swept clean to provide a small dance area. Paper lanterns and small lights hung from the trees, and I knew the place would look magical after dusk. "You've outdone yourself," Charlie complimented. "Do you think you'll have time to work on that sign for me?" Joy asked. "I just want something to direct the guests toward parking." "It won't be a problem," I shook my head. "I'll throw something together as soon as I get home... and I'll bring it over to your place this afternoon." "Thanks Isabella," Joy smiled. "You've always been so good to me. And Charlie? Didn't you tell Larry you had a couple outdoor extension cords we could borrow?" "Sure did. They're out back in the shed. I'll send them over with Isabella when she brings the sign." "Thanks," Joy grinned, looking tired but happy. I smiled again and waved over my shoulder as Charlie pulled me back out to his truck. "You have a sign to paint, and I have a few hours to get down to the fishing hole before I need to come home to get cleaned up." "Alright, alright," I agreed. My father dropped me off at the curb outside the house, and hurried away to enjoy a few hours of warm sunshine and fishing. I glanced at my watch. It was already almost noon. I made haste to my father's shed out back and retrieved a large piece of plywood. Then, I stapled white poster board to cover the rough brown surface. Joy said that the sign didn't need to be elaborate. But I did want to make it look nice. With the sun warm on my back, I laid the board in the grass in my yard and worked over it. Considering the color scheme I saw inside the diner, I used navy blue paint to create a wide blue border around the edge of the sign. Once that paint was almost dry, I used dark green to make a thinner line against the edge of the blue. As I concentrated on the color, I couldn't help but

compare it to the color of Edward's eyes. My face heated as I happily worked at my task and imagined everything that I wanted to say to him. I rubbed my hand across my cheek and brushed my hair out of my eyes. I had to let the paint dry in between adding new colors so that I wouldn't smudge the borders, and that took longer than I imagined it might. But eventually I was able to add crisp lettering to the center of the sign. It looked great. I left it there to dry in the sun, and I walked into the house to get a drink. I was hot and very thirsty. The lemonade cooled me considerably. The painting had taken up the early part of the afternoon already. I took time to make a quick sandwich and ate it while standing at the counter. By the time I finished, I realized that I still needed to get back out to the shed to look for the extension cords that Charlie had promised Joy. So I cleaned up my lunch mess and headed back out doors. I frowned when I opened the shed once more. The plywood I had retrieved earlier had leaned behind the lawnmower against the side wall, and was easy to locate. I could tell by looking around that the extension cords would not be so easy to find. Sighing, I made my way inward. I shoved around greasy old lawn tools and dust covered boxes and jars filled with various hardware items. I finally located the two long cords in a box pressed behind a giant bag of mulch. Sweaty, dirty, gross, and still paint-smeared, I stumbled out of the shed like a warrior returning from battle. With the extension cords thrown to lay over my shoulder, I wiped my hands on the front of my grimy shorts. It was awkward to pick up the large board and lug it across the yard, but I managed to do so without leaving dirty finger prints on the painted surface. I was proud of myself as I pulled the thing up the Whitlock's front steps and rang the door bell. At first, there was no answer. I knew Edward said he had a busy morning planned. I wondered if Larry might have gone to join Joy down at the diner already. But as I turned to go, I finally heard a shuffling from behind the door. I reached to smooth my hair that had mostly fallen from my ponytail while the door swung open. I was greeted by the image of a beautiful woman in a green satin shirt and white linen pants. Gold sandals showed perfectly pedicured toes and when I raised my eyes, I finally took in her smoothly styled white-blonde hair. She couldn't have been older than thirty, at the most. Gorgeous and sophisticated; I felt incredibly self-conscious about how horrible I looked. "Is Larry here?" I asked. Perhaps she was a relative from out of town? I didn't recognize her from any of our past family gatherings. I scrunched my forehead and tried to recall the list of people that Jasper had mentioned might be coming to town for the party. "He's in town," the princess said with a bored voice. So, I was right. Larry probably had met up with Joy at the diner. "How about Jazz? Or Edward?"'

"Jazz? Oh! Jasper. I think they said that he went to Seattle to bring back his girlfriend? And Edward's in the shower." "Oh," I blinked. "Well... I told Joy I would bring by this sign and these extension cords." I looked down at the dirty offering I pulled from my shoulder and instinctively knew I shouldn't try to hand them over to the woman in front of me. Her pristine appearance couldn't be compromised by shed grime. "I'll just leave these things out on the porch. If you wouldn't mind telling them that I came by?" I leaned the sign against the railing and dropped the cords beside it as I turned to go. "Wait," the girl called out behind me. I turned and saw that she had opened the screen door with a tentative smile in place. She was even prettier without the mesh layer between us. "You're... Isabella. Right?" I was taken aback by her suddenly friendly attitude. Maybe the initial chill I felt at her greeting was because she was unsure about who she was speaking to. Still, it felt odd that she knew me but I didn't know her. "Yes. That's me," I trapped my fingertips under the hard edge of my back pockets and then turned to look at her. The woman looked curious, and maybe even slightly amused. "I'm sorry," I shook my head. "If we've met... I honestly don't remember." "Oh no," the blonde smiled. "We haven't met. I've just heard a lot about you. I'm Patricia... Edward's girlfriend." She put her elegantly polished and manicured hand forward as if to shake mine. I stared at it in horror as her movements came in slow-motion and her words echoed in my head. Edward's girlfriend... Edward's girlfriend... Edward's girl... My own hand had remained stubbornly behind my back as my shock at her words slowed my ability to function. An hour or a heart-beat later I snapped out of it and licked my lips, mortified by my own rudeness and stunned reaction. I held my hand up in a limp apology, showing her the blue and green paint layered beneath black grease and dirt as an explanation for my not taking her hand in mine. "Sorry... I..." "Patricia? Who's at the door?" My head snapped up and my eyes flew beyond Patricia's shoulder as Edward's voice came from the inner recesses of the house. He moved into view then. My chest rose and fell heavily as I tried to control the emotions that felt as though they might over-whelm me at any moment. That snapping point I was worried about? Yeah... this might have been it. "Bella," Edward breathed. He stopped to stand behind the tall blonde, pushing his wet hair away from his face nervously.

"The little girl from next-door, right?" Patricia asked him while grinning over her shoulder. "She's just as you described her. I would have known her anywhere. We were just introducing ourselves." I winced. Had he described me so horribly that my current hellish-appearance would make me recognizable to her? "Oh... um..." Edward looked between us quickly. "Patricia... this is Isabella. Bella? This is... Patricia. She... surprised me by flying in for the party with a couple of my other friends from school." I was staring at the porch under my feet and imagining her actually flying in on a broom as he spoke. My gaze quickly bounced back up to meet his. He had said 'other friends.' Maybe it was his way of letting me know that their relationship wasn't serious? He called her Patricia. Not Pat... not Patty or Trish or Tricia. He hadn't shortened her name as he had mine. Still... she had introduced herself as his girlfriend. "Speaking of," Patricia murmured, "we promised we would meet them for lunch after I got settled in here." Her hand wrapped protectively over his forearm as she spoke. She wanted me to know that while his other friends were staying in town at the local Inn, she was a guest right here in the Whitlock's house. Her message came through loud and clear. "Well," I offered with a shaky voice. "It was very nice to meet you." Liar! My brain screamed. I sort of wanted to jump on top of her and rip her shiny blonde hair out by the roots. I backed up quickly while I spoke, to prevent myself from doing just that. I turned to flee before I had a complete break-down over this new turn of events. From the corner of my eye, I saw the sign I had painted. The words, 'Congratulations Edward' were turned sideways, and the large arrow seemed to be pointing at the beautiful couple behind me while I ran to the safety of my own house. Once in my living room, I turned a slow circle. I was at a complete loss. I didn't know if I wanted to scream... or cry... or laugh... Edward being unavailable made perfect sense. Laughter won the coin toss and I stalked through the lower level of my house chuckling darkly at my own stupidity. In the kitchen, I located my weapon for getting even. A bottle or wine had my name written all over it. Quick work with a corkscrew left the bottle open. I didn't even bother getting a glass. A half a bottle of wine later, I laid upside down on my couch. My feet rested on the wall and my head hung backwards over the seat cushions while I tried to watch an episode of 'Leave it to Beaver' from this new and interesting angle. I also tried my damndest to ignore the knocking at my front door. "Go away!" I finally yelled. I was not in the mood to talk to anyone. But the person assaulting my front door with a barrage of knocks walked in anyway. I moved my eyes from the television and slowly scanned them up the legs in front of me, until I saw the upside-down face of Alice.

She frowned while she looked down at me. Whoever said that a frown is an upside-down smile lied. It was still a frown. She didn't look happy with me. "Get up," she huffed. I rolled until I could sit upright and held my head in my hands while the blood rushed back to the rest of my body. "If you are quite done marinating in merlot, we have work to do," Alice insisted. She held out her hand and I took it, cringing at the way my dirty, paint-smeared fingers looked against her pale skin. "How drunk are you?" "I'm not," I shook my head. "Maybe a little buzzed. Definitely not drunk." "Good. Let's get you some water anyway." I let the little dictator drag me to the kitchen where she got us each a bottle of water from the refrigerator. I wanted to ask her why she seemed so familiar in a house that she had never been in before. But that was just Alice for you. I shrugged and went with it. "Upstairs. You need a shower badly," Alice ordered. She pushed at my back while I led the way up the stairs. "Don't tell me you brought your emergency Barbie kit and you plan to do my hair and make-up for me?" I asked over my shoulder. Alice winced. "Hell no. I am missing a gene for that kind of thing. But I will dig through your closet while you are getting yourself less funky in a shower. And I'll find something that will make you look fantastic at this party tonight." "Thanks," I whispered. I went into the bathroom with no further argument and turned on the water for the shower that I desperately needed. When my eyes caught my own reflection in the mirror, I had to stifle a gasp. My hair was a wild mess. I had blue paint smeared across my jaw and a rather large smudge of engine grease on the side of my nose. I groaned and let my head fall forward. It was great to know that I looked my best when I met Edward's girlfriend. Cursing under my breath, I undressed and stepped under the stinging spray of the shower. Ten minutes later, I trudged back into my bedroom wrapped in a towel, and sat heavily on the edge of my bed. "So, I take it you met Miss Goldilocks," Alice said with the top half of her body buried in my closet. "Yeah," I muttered. Alice emerged holding a black strapless dress with a flouncy skirt and tossed it on the bed beside me. I couldn't even remember having bought the thing. "I don't like her," Alice continued. "She's cold. I don't get a good vibe from her."

"She seemed pleasant enough," I argued lightly. I could hardly fault her taste in men. "She's stuck up," Alice said while digging through my top dresser drawer. "You should see her over there. It's sickening. 'Mrs. Whitlock' this... and 'Mr. Whitlock' that... 'Gee Jasper, your girlfriend is a living doll!' She's trying way too hard. She's like Eddie Haskell with tits!" I laughed at her rant, only because I had just been watching that character on the television right before Alice showed up. Alice held up a black strapless bra in front of her chest and frowned while looking down. "Though nowhere near as nice as yours," she added with a wry smile. I stood to grab the undergarment from her hands. "And you should see Edward," Alice offered. "You could cut the tension with a knife over there!" "How... does he act around her?" I asked quietly. "Really freaking weird, that's how," Alice said conspiratorially. "Like... right after Jasper and I got here and she introduced herself, Edward looked pissed. And they went upstairs for a really long time." "Ew," I cringed. "I do not want to hear about it." I definitely didn't want to imagine Edward and her together that way. "But that's just it," Alice said excitedly. "It's not like they were up there doing the nasty! She's sleeping in Jasper's room!" "What?" I asked. That bit of news certainly did surprise me. Alice nodded. "Jasper is actually driving me back home tonight. I have to work tomorrow anyway. Patricia has her things in his room!" "Hmm..." What did that mean? It seemed odd that a grown man would have his girlfriend sleeping down the hall. Unless... they weren't as close as she would have had me believe? Alice saw the small spark of hope in my eyes the second I felt it in my heart. I hated the idea of setting myself up for another round of heartache. But if Edward wasn't totally sure about this woman... then maybe he wasn't as 'unavailable' as I thought. "Good girl," Alice encouraged me when she saw my devious smile. "You get yourself dressed. You'll feel better when you even the playing field." I set out to dry and curl my hair, determined. Patricia might be here. But Edward had kissed me. He wanted to talk to me, about us at his party. And I was going to try my hardest to make sure that could still happen. I just wanted to look my best to help me summon the confidence and the courage that I would need. If he wanted Patricia... he could have her. But I had already bowed out of one competition this week. I wasn't going to give up so easily this time. The stakes were too high.

Sometime after I finished my hair and started applying careful make-up, Alice excused herself to go next door to get dressed. I told her I'd see her at the diner, and then stepped into my own party dress. The zipper up the side cinched my curves in nicely. The strapless bra Alice had chosen gave me ample cleavage above the straight-cut line of the top of my dress. I pulled a lacy pair of black thong underwear under my flirty skirt and smiled as I decided against wearing anything else beneath it. With strappy heels and simple jewelry, I felt ready to take on anything the night had to offer. I went downstairs and received a low wolf-whistle from my father. I laughed and spun a quick circle to let my skirt twist around my knees. "You look beautiful, honey," he grinned. I smiled and straightened his collar before the two of us went out to his truck. "So... you only have to deal with me for a couple more days," I said as drove to the diner. Charlie frowned. "You know I wish it was longer, kiddo," he sighed. "Any thoughts about where you might end up after you graduate next year?" "Nothing definite," I said. I turned my face to look at the darkened tree line at the side of the road. "Lately... I've been thinking about how nice it might be to come back home." Charlie didn't say a word, but I felt his hand when he warmly laid it on top of my own between us on the seat. The squeeze of his fingers probably told me more comfortably than his words could, how much he liked that idea too. The quiet buzz of conversation, quiet music, and sporadic bursts of laughter greeted us as we followed the arrow on the sign I painted to park at the side of the diner. Charlie opened my truck door for me, and I walked under his arm to meet family and friends that had come together to help congratulate Edward on his graduation from law school. Try as I might, I couldn't keep my eyes from scanning the crowd for the guest of honor. He didn't seem to be in the diner when we arrived. The room was transformed completely. The table-settings that my father had brought over this morning (recycled from the last Policeman's Ball fundraiser, I assumed) graced the pretty tables nicely. Small candles flickered and provided soft light. I let Charlie lead me to the bar and ordered a glass of red wine, remaining true with my earlier choice of drink. We were standing next to the bar chatting with the old high school coach when I finally caught a glimpse of Edward. He was walking in from the back patio door, and his eyes caught mine immediately. A crooked smile pulled at his lips as his eyes traveled down my body slowly, and back up to my face. He tilted his head and raised his eye brows in a complimenting gesture, and I blushed and raised my glass slightly in reply. I couldn't help the warmth that flooded me under his appreciative gaze. I wasn't in the mood to hide my reaction to him. Tonight would be about truths.

The smile dropped from my features however, when I saw Patricia walk up behind Edward; clearly following him indoors. That pointy-tipped claw of hers was on his arm again and I took a deep swallow of wine to steel myself. They made a stunning pair. She wore a light blue pants suit and her hair was pulled tightly back into a very straight and severe ponytail. She looked like an ice princess, and exactly like the type of a woman who would be held at the arm of a successful lawyer. Professional and perfect. And she looked gorgeous standing beside Edward, who wore dark pants and a white button-up dress shirt with a black tie. Except his tie and his shirt were loosened, which made me smile. She might be immaculately pressed. But he looked comfortable and happy. Maybe they weren't so perfectly matched after all. I straightened my shoulders where I stood, and sized up the woman with the territorial grip on Edward. She was tall and very thin. Angular and bony- like a model. I was shorter, and had an athletic build. I was toned, but curvy. I tossed my curled hair over my shoulder and used those curves to my advantage when I threw a sway to my hips and crossed the room to meet Jasper and Alice who had just walked through the door. I smirked when I saw that Edward definitely noticed. I could feel his eyes on my back when I stood in front of his brother. "Izzy? You look dangerous," Jasper complimented me and raised a hand to pull one of my springy curls. "Blame your fiance. She encouraged me." "Only one of the many reasons that I love her," Jasper grinned and wrapped his arms around Alice who giggled. "Don't look now, frost-bite warning," Alice muttered then. I tensed when I heard the voices behind me. Edward had brought a small group of people with him. "Jasper? Alice... Bella?" I turned to face Edward and the three people that stood beside him. Patricia nearly glared at me, which made me smile. It was easy to ignore her for the other two. The man beside Edward was built like a football player. And the blonde that held his hand might have graced a swimsuit calendar. What was with all of the blonde's lately? "This is my old roommate, Emmett. And his new wife... Rosalie." "Nice to meet you." I reached forward to shake hands with Edward's friends. Rosalie was even more attractive with the ready smile she sent forth. Her husband had dimples to die for. They made a very friendly contrast to the cold-looking woman who clung to Edward's arm. Jasper and Alice apparently agreed with my assessment and greeted the couple nicely as well. I pressed my lips together and tried my best to not get freezer-burn from standing too close to Patricia. "Um... if you'll excuse me," I said sweetly. "I am going to go check in with my date." As I moved to step around Patricia, a warm hand clamped over my shoulder and I stopped in my tracks. I could tell by the tingling sensation on my skin who the hand belonged to, without even looking.

"I didn't know you brought a date," Edward said in a rough, low voice near my ear. I turned and raised my eyebrows before shooting a glance at Patricia who was watching us with avid interest. "I came with Charlie," I shrugged. "Turns out the term 'date' can be pretty subjective." Edward laughed lightly at my comment and stepped back. "I hope he doesn't mind me stealing a dance later?" Edward asked. I prayed my blush wouldn't betray me and I shrugged nonchalantly. "You'll have to check with him. You know he's the jealous type." I stepped around the group that had convened by the doorway and winked over at Alice, then moved farther into the diner to rejoin my father. Charlie actually made for a wonderful dinner date. We enjoyed our meal and smiled and laughed. It was time we needed to share before another school year would separate us. And I was mostly able to ignore the table at the head of the room where I knew Edward was sitting with his parents, Jasper and Alice. And Patricia. Perfect Patricia. Perfect Princess Patricia. I stabbed my dessert a bit roughly and Charlie calmed me with fingers on my wrist. "She's all wrong for him, you know," he said around a mouthful of pie. He didn't even glance up. I smiled. My father was more observant than I ever gave him credit for. I placed my fork at the side of my plate when Alice came up behind me and threw her arms around my shoulders in a hug. I raised my hands to rest on her crossed wrists below my chin. "News from enemy camp," Alice whispered. "Edward keeps looking over here and I'm not the only one who has noticed!" Her voice was sing-song and it made me smile. "Why are you so good to me?" I laughed while turning my face up and to the side to look at her. "Because I love you. You're gonna be my sister someday!" She kissed me playfully on the end of the nose and we both laughed. Jasper came over to us join us then and spoke to my father. "What do you think, Chief? Shall we go cut a rug with these beautiful ladies?" "Nah... you kids have fun. I'll be at the bar!" My father waved us off, and I ran, giggling, out the back door with Jasper and Alice.

20. Spies Like Us

Twilight. The sun had sunk beyond the horizon and the darkening skies were the perfect backdrop for the bright colored lanterns and small lights that flickered and shone above the designated dance area. Jasper hurried to stand next to the hired DJ, and rapidly tore through his music collection deeming what music was and was not worthy of being played. Alice and I moved to join him, laughing and tossing dance songs into the mix that made Jasper grumble and complain. But even he had to admit that sometimes song integrity had to be ignored when people wanted to shake their ass on a dance floor. And shake it, we did. Most of the younger crowd made their way outdoors after dinner, and soon the patio was hopping. Alice had apparently taken an immediate liking to Rosalie, who brought Emmett to dance in our circle of friends. They were very easy to laugh and get along with. I could understand why Emmett and Edward had become such good friends and roommates. The one I couldn't understand, however, was Patricia. Every now and then I allowed myself to search for Edward in the crowd. He dutifully traveled between guests, bowing his head, accepting congratulations, and making small talk. Patricia smiled proudly at his side like a politician's wife. She seemed so rigid compared to his other friends. She somehow reminded me of an ice sculpture; cold and hard. I snorted and turned my head away when I had a ridiculous image of the little kid from 'The Christmas Story' getting his tongue stuck to a frozen pole. While I waited for spring thaw, I danced and had a great time with my friends. The evening was growing late, and I started to worry that I might not ever get my chance to speak with Edward. But when Patricia clicked up on angry heels and asked Rosalie if they could talk, I got the opportunity. Rosalie excused herself and rolled her eyes a little as Patricia drug her off the dance floor. Emmett shrugged and moved forward to dance with me instead. I grinned an acceptance and laughed at his eighties-dance-moves until a slow song filtered from the speakers. "Step aside," a familiar voice spoke over my shoulder. Edward moved from behind me and nudged Emmett playfully with his elbow. "Bella promised me a dance." His eyes burned into mine, and I stood there smiling like a fool. "You're lucky I'm married," Emmett grumbled teasingly at Edward then winked at me before he exited the dance floor too. Edward quirked an eyebrow in my direction and held out his arms. "Shall we?" he asked. I nodded and moved forward, though I felt jittery even considering the concept. However, as soon as Edward touched me, the nerves were gone and I was home. I could have sworn Edward sighed with me at the initial contact. I slid my hand to Edward's shoulder and felt him relax as our free hands came together. And then we were moving. "The party is awesome," I said quietly.

"I can't believe everyone came together like this." Edward sounded slightly awed. "Everyone here loves you, Edward," I said, looking up at him. Realizing what I let slip, I took a deep breath and blinked before moving my eyes back down to his jacket. "Family... friends... we're all proud of you. You deserve this party." "Thank you," he whispered. I didn't look up at him, but felt as he pulled me closer into his chest. I inhaled deeply, taking in the warm, spicy cologne he wore. Our bodies moved together instinctually. I actually felt graceful in his arms. "I know you've been occupied all night," I said. "I had hoped we would get a chance to talk..." "I'd still like that, Bella," Edward said. "There are so many guests that I needed to speak with. And I felt obligated..." "I understand," I shook my head and tilted my chin to look up at him. Edward stared down into my soul. Then he looked up quickly and I felt his entire frame stiffen. "Edward?" The voice behind me made me groan internally. My feet stilled when his did. I sighed. There was a definite chill in the air behind me. "Patricia?" he responded. I pulled my hand from his warm grip and stepped away reluctantly. "I'll let you get back to your date," I murmured, trying to remain gracious. I only backed away three steps when strong hands on my waist stopped my movements. I turned to see my father smiling warmly. "Edward's loss," Charlie grinned at me, but his words were clearly loud enough for Patricia and Edward to hear. He spun me in front of him while I laughed. I danced with my father and refused to look at the handsome couple swaying near us. My father excused himself when the music picked up. Jasper, Alice, Emmett and Rosalie jumped back into the fray. And Edward wasn't allowed to escape. Emmett threw his arm over Edward's shoulder and forced him to join our loud group while we danced to the upbeat music. I stifled a giggle when I saw Patricia try her best to loosen up and be a part of the group. She looked like a store mannequin stuck on spin cycle. Still, I felt bad for laughing at her. At least she was trying. Edward stomped around and jumped, laughing and making up crazy dance-moves with his brother and his ex-roommate. His tie was pulled askew and his hair was damp on his forehead. My heart felt light and happy, watching him have so much fun. And my best friend? He was having the time of his life. Jasper kicked out his arms and legs, and turned around to shake his ass at us. Alice and Rosalie clapped their hands and bounced to the music, and I put my hands up over my head, laughing and dancing and loving life. It was one of those times when everything slowed down so that your mind could take a hundred photographs in an effort to remember this exact moment. It was almost perfect.

Finally, Patricia grabbed Edward's arm again and pleaded to find a quiet place to sit. "Please, Edward? These shoes are killing me," she whined. He looked mildly annoyed, and shot us all an apologetic glance before letting her lead him from the dance floor. Some of the magic seemed to leave with him, and we all stood in a loose group. "It's a wonder she can walk at all, with that pole up her ass," Alice hissed with a pout. My mouth popped open in surprise that Alice would criticize her while standing right next to Patricia's friends. But Rosalie let her glorious mane fall behind her while she tipped her chin up and laughed. Then she snorted. Yes. The beautiful, blonde, swim-suit model snorted. We all laughed then while she covered her mouth and tried to hide another burst of loud laughter. "Isabella?" I turned at the sound of my father's voice. He looked a little annoyed himself. "What's up?" I asked. "I'm sorry honey. Some punk kids broke into one of the stores uptown. The guys are a little short-handed tonight, so they just called me in to help them out." "Oh!" I turned to look at the people I stood with. "I rode here with my Dad. I guess I'm going to have to leave early too." "Don't worry about it," Alice hugged me. "Jasper and I are going to take off too. It's a long drive back to Seattle." We all turned to say good night to Emmett and Rosalie, and I truly hoped I would have a chance to see them again in the future. They were both a lot of fun, and seemed like genuinely good people. I glanced over toward Edward, and saw that he and Patricia were sharing some intense looking conversation while sitting at a secluded table. I decided not to interrupt. Jasper had no such qualms, however. "Yo! Eddie!" Jasper yelled across the dance floor. Edward's head shot up and he looked over at us. "I'm leaving. You remember what we talked about... yeah?" Edward's eyes darted over to mine quickly, and then back to his brother before he smiled slightly and nodded. "That's my brother... the lawyer! Woo-hoo!" Jasper yelled and threw his fists up over his head proudly pumping the air while he walked through the crowd. Edward grinned and shook his head before turning his attention back to Patricia. I stopped at Jasper's car before meeting my Dad at his truck. I wrapped Alice in a quick hug. "I really do love you," I told her.

"We'll talk soon and pick out a dress for the wedding," Alice smiled. "I'm thinking something black to match the tuxedos. And strapless... because baby, you look hot tonight!" I laughed while she got into the car and moved around to speak to Jasper. "Only two days left," I sighed. He threw his arm over my shoulder and held me comfortably next to his side. "I'll be back early tomorrow," Jasper said. "Don't think I forgot that you promised me a sleepover. Tomorrow night; you, me... a couple of sleeping bags...a stack of comics...some grape soda and a bag of Cheetos. We'll sleep up in the tree-house before you have to go back to Florida." "That sounds really perfect," I smiled. He hugged me close and kissed the top of my head before I turned away and walked over to my father's truck. "You aren't upset that we're leaving early, are you Isabella?" Charlie asked. "No! Of course not," I shook my head and smiled. "I had a really great time tonight. Thanks Dad." "No problem, sweetie," he grinned. My father dropped me off at the curb and waited until I was safely inside our house before he drove away to work. I turned on the downstairs lights as I walked through the empty house, and brightened the area to match my mood. Over-all, I counted the night as a huge success. Edward might have been at his party with Patricia... but I still managed to have a great time. And though our 'talk' had been postponed, I knew that he did want to spend time with me before I left for Florida. I would be able to keep my promise to Jasper and return to school with less baggage. I was scared. But it would feel good to get everything off my chest. I grabbed a bottle of water and took a long drink as I walked upstairs. Once in my room, I placed my drink on my dresser and moved to hold onto my bed post while I bent to remove my heels. My left foot felt wonderful pressed flat against the cool hardwood floor. My arch rejoiced in the change of position and I quickly removed my other shoe, flinching when I kicked it a little too hard and it slid under my bed. I flexed my feet for a moment, stretching and relaxing the muscles there before I dropped to my knees to retrieve the wayward shoe. With my hand wrapped around the soft leather, my eyes landed on a prize tucked away under my bed as well. I tossed my shoe to the side and smiled while I grabbed the long sweater box that rested near the wall at the far side of my bed. This box didn't store sweaters. I hadn't opened it in years, and suddenly couldn't wait to re-visit the contents. As I slid it out from beneath my bed, I turned and sat on the floor beside it. With one finger, I drew a long line in the dust on the top of the paisley print box. And then I slowly opened it. Memories from my childhood and young adolescence laid undisturbed in the box in front of me. A sketch pad and a few colored pencils...a guitar pick... the invitation to my senior prom. I gently touched the dried baby's breath that I always kept in a little heart-shaped glass case that Charlie

gave me for my birthday. Unused county fair ride tickets... a program from my first real art show... a clay ashtray that Jasper made for me in eighth-grade art class. I smiled as I lifted the rusty tin can that was tucked into the corner of the box. The red broken string still dangled from one end. Its matching piece could be found still wrapped tightly around the nail in my window sill. Under it all, were several comic books. Spiderman was my favorite. I carefully lifted the thin magazines from under my other treasures and laid them to the side. Jasper and I would need those for our sleep-over in the tree house. The worn covers made me giggle when they offered up a funny memory of one of my and Jasper's comic book capers. Jasper and I laid on our backs in the tree house, arguing once again over the supreme awesomeness of Batman versus Spiderman in our favorite comics. "Spiderman actually produces the web that allows him to fly!" I argued. "Batman just uses that stuff in his belt. He can't make anything." "Whatever," Jasper huffed and closed his magazine before rolling over to his stomach. "This stuff is boring. We need something new." "I don't get my allowance until Friday," I offered, rolling to mimic his position on the floor. "Are you up for an adventure?" Jasper turned his head and grinned with mischief twinkling in his eyes. "I suggest we plan a reconnaissance mission. We should infiltrate Edward's bedroom and get some of his comics!" "I don't know..." I hedged. Edward had already warned us to stay out of his room. I didn't like making him mad at us. "Come on," Jasper whined. "Chicken? We'll be in and out and he'll never know we were in there!" "Fine," I shook my head and sat up. On stealthy feet we ran through the yard. Jasper hummed some music from a spy movie while we listened for his mother in the kitchen before running upstairs as quietly as we could. The coast was clear, and I followed him into Edward's bedroom. "You take the bookshelf, I'll search his dresser. Go go go!" Jasper whispered. I giggled with my hand over my mouth and moved over near Edward's desk. My eyes scanned the books on his shelf and I cautiously moved papers and books around on the surface of his desk. "There's nothing here," I whispered. "Search the drawers!" Jasper suggested. He closed Edward's dresser drawer and moved across the room while I tentatively peeked under pencils and notebooks. "Well, well, well... what have we here?" Jasper called out with a muffled voice. I turned to see only his legs sticking out from beneath Edward's bed. He was wiggling his hips and trying to back out.

"Did you find comics?" I asked. "I found something better!" Jasper turned when he could, and sat with his back against his brother's bed. I moved to sit beside him, wanting to see what he held that captured his interest. A bare-chested girl grinned from the cover of a dirty magazine. And my best friend was holding it in his hands like he had found the Holy Grail. "Oh. My. God!" I whispered. I was nearly mortified but unable to look away. "Yeah... boobs..." Jasper shifted his glasses with one hand and continued to look on, clearly amazed. "What is Edward doing with that kind of magazine?" I asked. "You know... guy stuff..." Jasper whispered. His cheeks were pink and I decided not to ask for more information regarding this particular mystery. Jasper started flipping through the pages, and we both looked with wide eyes at the various images inside. Occasionally he had to turn the book sideways so that we could see the entire picture presented. We were completely engrossed in the glossy pages covered with nude girls. "Think you'll ever get boobs like that?" Jasper asked with wonder. "No way," I whispered. "If you do... will you let me see them?" I reached over and hit him hard in the arm. Jasper dropped the magazine and cursed. That was when the door of the bedroom opened. Edward stood with one hand on his doorknob, staring down at us in confusion. His mouth popped open when he saw the open magazine on the floor in front of us. His cheeks reddened immediately and he started yelling. "How many times have I told you to stay out of my room?" He swung his backpack toward his desk angrily, and Jasper ducked and jumped up on the bed, trying to avoid Edward's angrily reaching arms. "Abort mission! Abort mission!" Jasper yelled. I ducked and crawled to the door, standing as soon as I got to the hall and running as fast as I could to get home. I could hear Jasper yelling for his mom as he and Edward wrestled behind me. I snickered when I thought of that dirty magazine. At least now I could understand the mystery of the 'guy stuff'. I placed the lid back on the box and slid it back into its place under my bed before standing with the comics in hand. A thought occurred to me, and I smiled. The weather was perfect. No rain was in the forecast for once. I could surprise Jasper by getting all of our sleep-over items in the tree house before he returned from Seattle. If I did it tonight, he would

see my efforts when he returned in the morning, and know how much I was looking forward to our last adventure of the summer. With a grin, I turned for my bedroom door. I didn't bother changing out of my dress. But there was no way in hell I was going to put my feet back in my shoes. I moved around the house, collecting nostalgic items to place with the necessary things like flashlights and sleeping bags in our tree house. The comic books and Battleship joined the pile. By some strange miracle, Charlie actually had grape soda and Cheetos in the kitchen. I piled everything up and then made three separate trips across the darkened yard and up into the tree house to carry everything and stash it away for Jasper to find later. It was on my final trip to the tree house that I was stopped by the sound of a door shutting loudly. The Whitlock's back porch light suddenly illuminated the small room I occupied through the cutout window in the side of the tree-house. I was rolling the sleeping bags out across the wood floor when the unexpected noise and light caused me to jump. I spun and raised my head above the edge of the window to check out what caused the commotion. Edward stood on the back porch, pushing his fingers through his hair. I opened my mouth to call out to him, and alert of him of my presence, but stopped when the door behind him opened and Patricia moved outside to join him on the porch. I clamped my lips together then, and groaned silently. It was like a replay of me watching Edward making out with Mary Beth Stratford on his back porch all of those years ago. I swear that if I had to watch him grope Patricia, I would probably puke. "Edward? What are you doing out here?" she asked. "I... was looking for a little peace and quiet," Edward replied. "The house is empty," she pointed out. "It doesn't get much more quiet than that." "The fresh air..." Edward added. I felt like a sick voyeur, listening in on their conversation, but I couldn't bring myself to look away. I cringed as Patricia moved closer and wrapped her arms around Edward's waist from behind. She pressed her cheek to his back and his head slumped forward slightly. "The party was lovely," she murmured. I watched as Edward stiffened and moved his hands to her wrists, loosening her hold before turning in front of her. "It wasn't exactly your typical kind of party," Edward said cooly. "I can't imagine you'd be impressed with our small-town restaurant when you are used to dining in more elegant surroundings for events as simple as Sunday brunch." "It was... fine," Patricia hesitated. Edward laughed lightly and turned his back to lean against the wall. "You shouldn't have come."

My heart started beating rapidly and I wondered if I heard his words right. Patricia moved to stand in front of Edward and reached her hands forward again, gripping his hips. He didn't raise his head to look at her. "You know why I did," she said softly. "I want you back." "Is that why you introduced yourself to everyone as my girlfriend?" Edward asked, finally raising his chin. "We've been broken up for over three months. The title isn't yours to throw around." "Why didn't you correct me?" Patricia asked then. "You could have refuted me at any time." "I didn't want to embarrass you," Edward replied quickly. "I meant what we said Patricia. I would like to remain friends. It was nice of you to join Emmett and Rosalie. But if I had known you were coming..." "I was hurt that you didn't invite me," she said quietly. I saw Edward's shoulders slump and cursed in my mind. I knew he wouldn't be able to resist being a gentleman if she appeared upset. I was right. He raised a hand to her shoulder in a comforting gesture. "I didn't think you'd be comfortable... so soon after we had broken up," Edward stated. "I wanted to see where you lived. I wanted to see what was so important about this place that you would give up everything that we wanted..." Her voice was bitter sounding and Edward lowered his hand. "I didn't give up what we wanted," he argued. "I gave up what you wanted. I never wanted to work for your father's firm in New York. My life is here." "I can change what I want," Patricia rushed with her words. "I can make it work. I can learn to love it here... if this is really where you want to be!" "I don't want you to learnto love anything," Edward shook his head. "It doesn't work that way Patricia." Like a sick masochist, I watched as she moved closer to him. Her hands slid up his chest and cupped his chin. Edward turned his face to the side slightly, and closed his eyes with a loud exhale. I held my own breath when Patricia touched his throat with her mouth. "You don't know what you're saying," Patricia said quietly. Her voice, though quiet, cut through the still of the night. It was low... throaty... seductive. "Don't you remember how good we were? We could have that again. Do you remember the last time we made love?" Faster than I could blink, Edward caught her hands and turned his head toward her. He deliberately pushed her back and held her at arm's length.

"I remember exactly the last time we were together," he said harshly. His tone even made me flinch in his abruptness. "It was New Year's Eve. And I remember it so well because I practically had to schedule an appointment with you any time I wanted to have sex!" "That's not true!" Patricia's voice rose sharply to match his. "It's sadly true," Edward insisted. "Everything about us was so planned... and organized. So... scheduled. Everything was dictated by you. You can't tell me that you were happy like that! I sure as hell wasn't. You controlled everything about us. I couldn't breathe!" "What do you want?" Patricia asked. "I don't know what you want." "I don't know, either!" Edward tugged his hair and moved around her with angry strides, pacing back and forth before stopping. "Something spontaneous maybe? Something ... fun. Something unexpected! Don't you want passion in your life?" "I don't understand where all of this is coming from," Patricia whined. Then with a hard edge to her voice, she spoke again. "It's that girl. Isn't it? That girl from next door. Isabella!" "Bella?" Edward asked. "Yes, Bella," Patricia sneered my name. "This is about her. You want her!" "Don't be ridiculous," Edward scoffed. My heart clenched tightly in my chest. "Bella has always been like a sister to me." "Maybe in the past..." Patricia said pointedly. "You don't know what you're talking about," Edward insisted. "You didn't look at her like a sister when you could hardly tear your eyes away from her all night!" Patricia's accusing tone caused Edward to snort loudly. Unfortunately, I snorted out loud at her last comment too. The conversation went silent and I turned and hurriedly dropped to sit on my bottom with my head hidden under the window-ledge. My back was pressed to the wall and I was breathing heavily, afraid of being caught listening in. "Regardless of what I want now..." Edward began again after a moment. "I know I don't want this. I don't want us. And I think if you are honest with yourself, you will find that you don't want me either." "I think... I'm ready to go to bed," Patricia said, instead of answering him. "Good idea," he said quietly. I listened to their retreating footsteps on the porch, and blinked in the darkness when the light was extinguished. My heart was still beating rapidly in my chest. I counted in my head, slowly,

trying to determine if enough time had passed for me to escape. After a few minutes, I slowly crept to the tree house door and turned to lower myself down the steps. "As much as I'm enjoying the view... you might as well go right back up," I heard the deep voice speaking from below me on the tree. I froze with my foot on the step and grabbed the hem of my dress to pull it more closely against my body. I could see Edward then, standing on the first step to come up. Knowing I had been caught, I sighed and made my way back up into the tree house.

21. Everything Changes

This wasn't exactly the time or the place where I imagined that Edward and I would have this conversation. I wasn't prepared at all. And as I turned a circle in the small confines of the tree house, I was suddenly very aware that my knees felt weak. I took several deep, calming breaths and turned to sit on one of the rolled-out sleeping bags. With my heels on the floor, I pulled my skirt down to cover my knees and wrapped my arms around my legs in an effort to control my shaking limbs. Now that the moment had come, I was nervous as hell. Edward climbed into the tree house, and the already small space seemed impossibly smaller. He looked around for a moment, and then lowered himself to sit beside me. His legs were drawn up too, and he rested his elbows across his bent knees. "Should I turn on the lights?" I asked quietly. "I'd rather not announce where I can be found," Edward answered. "In case anyone decides to look for me." I nodded in understanding and we sat in silence for a moment. "So... you were spying on me again?" Edward asked. "No! I wasn't!" I quickly shook my head and looked at him in fear that he had misunderstood my motives, but stopped when I saw the small smile on his mouth. He looked amused, so I relaxed. "Jasper and I are going to spend the night up here tomorrow night, before I have to leave. So I thought I would surprise him by bringing everything up. I... sort of got stuck up here when you came outside. I didn't want to interrupt." "You heard our entire conversation..." It wasn't a question. "Yes," I answered, lowering my chin to my arms. "I'm sorry. I really should have let you both know I was here." "You didn't hear anything I would keep as a secret," Edward shrugged. "It's no big deal." "I... thought... you know. That you and Patricia..."

"Were still in a relationship?" Edward asked. He turned his cheek to look at me. "Well? She did tell me that she was your girlfriend," I defended my assumption. "She was hoping she could be again," Edward muttered. "But you already heard that part." "I'm sorry," I whispered again. "Is it... something that you would like to talk about?" I really didn't expect that he would take me up on the offer. But Edward shifted his legs and then started speaking again. "Patricia and I met when I started at Harvard. We dated... pretty seriously. Things started falling apart for us last winter. We finally broke it off this spring. We... just didn't want the same things. She always expected that I would graduate and then move back to New York to work in corporate law at her father's firm. I didn't want anything like that." "She... sounded like she was willing to make that adjustment for you..." I offered. "A person might be able to change where they live... but they can't just adjust their whole personality," Edward argued. "She's a city girl. She's spoiled and she's used to a certain lifestyle that does not interest me. And my God... her schedules! I haven't been able to move... or think... or just relax in ages. Between my relationship with Patricia, and working my ass off to finish school with honors... everything has been so planned out. I feel like a spring. I'm so tightly coiled... I'm afraid I'm just going to break." "Jasper knew that you needed this vacation," I said and nodded with certainty. "I really did," Edward agreed with a sigh. He pulled his hand up over his face and pushed his hair back in a tired gesture. "I don't remember when I've had so much fun. Spending time with my friends; going out... drinking, dancing, laughing...I actually felt alive again. And not like some programmed robot." "I'm so glad," I grinned. "A lot of that... has had to do with you," Edward said quietly. He dropped his chin and watched his hands as he played with the tips of his fingers between his knees. My breath caught and I swallowed hard. "I've had a great time with you too," I replied. "Sure. When I'm not acting like an asshole," Edward laughed bitterly. "I'm so sorry Bella. I can't tell you how sorry I am for... treating you as I have." "The competition is behind us," I waved off his apology.

"I was talking about Tyler's party," Edward said then. He turned and looked into my eyes. An urgency was written on his features that made me pause. "I acted... inexcusably. And I'm sorry if I offended you. I just hope you can forgive me." I tore my eyes from his and looked down at the floor. My heart started to pound painfully in my chest again and I bit my lip. The turn in conversation could only take me in one direction. So I turned my face and looked at him again. "I can't forgive you," I said quietly. I watched as pain pulled across his features and clouded his eyes. "I can't forgive you unless I know exactly what it is that you are apologizing for." "What do you mean?" Edward asked. "I was horrible to you. You... slapped me." "I'm sorry for that," I nodded. "I really am. I shouldn't have slapped you. But what you said... hurt me." "What I said?" Edward looked confused. "I took advantage of you Bella. I kissed you. I deserved to be slapped!" "I wasn't upset that you kissed me, Edward," I insisted while I shook my head. "God...I wanted you to kiss me! I've wanted you to kiss me... practically my whole life! I was upset because when I finally got my wish, you told me it was wrong!" Edward stared at me, taking in my confession with a confused look on his face. "You... weren't upset that I kissed you?" "I kissed you back," I pointed out. My cheeks were hot, and I knew I was blushing. But I needed to let him know how I felt. "And it didn't feel wrong to me Edward. Not at all." "I thought I creeped you out," Edward admitted quietly. "We're practically family. And then... I basically molested you." "I hate to break it to you Edward," nervous tension caused me to giggle a little, "but I've never thought of you as a brother." "Really?" he asked. He looked up at me again, trying to read my face. I kept my eyes on his so he could see the truth in my words. "I've cared about you for as long as I can remember," I finally told him. "Not like I care about Jasper. It was always different with you. But I was always too young for you to see me in any way other than as the little girl next door. Still, I always hoped... someday..." The intensity of his gaze made me feel self-conscious and I twisted the hem of my dress in my fingers and looked away.

Edward turned my face back toward his with a finger under my chin. My eyes widened and he sat there, studying me in the dark. "How could I not have known?" His voice was low, and quiet. "I didn't mean to hurt you." "I'll forgive you for screwing up a perfectly wonderful moment," I joked and pulled my face from his hand. "But if you are trying to apologize for kissing me... you can forget about it. I don't want to be a regret to you." "You're not." Edward said softly. I looked up into his eyes again. "I don't regret kissing you. I... just don't want to disrespect you." I laughed then. I couldn't help it. I threw back my head and laughed. Edward looked on, trying to figure out the humor of the situation. Finally I took a deep breath and became quiet again. The smile didn't leave my face. "Edward? How could I ever feel disrespected by you? You are one of the people who taught me to respect myself! You always encouraged me to be strong, and to know my own mind. I am the woman I am today... partly because of you!" I shook my head at the seemingly obvious answer to my amusement. Edward frowned thoughtfully and turned his head to stare straight ahead. His eyebrows rose when he read in the words that I had painted on the back of the door. "Oh... I get it now," Edward said softly. "Jasper told me today to 'live for the next adventure.' I wasn't sure what he meant... he told me I'd figure it out." "And have you?" I asked, with hope in my heart. "Have you figured out what your next adventure will be?" "No," he shook his head. "Have you?" "You can't plan the adventure, silly," I said lightly. "You just have to be willing to grab it and go for it when you see it. Before the opportunity passes you by! That's the key." "How can you be so brave?" Edward asked with wonder in his voice. "I'm not brave. I'm just not afraid to take chances," I said. "Life is too short." "Is that what all of this is about, then?" Edward nearly whispered, pointing back and forth between the two of us with a small motion of his hand near his knee. "Yes," I whispered back. "I decided it was time to take a chance." My breathing sped up at the truth of my words. "I... don't know what you want, Bella." He was looking at me again. And before I could lose the bravery he claimed I had, I leaned forward and brushed my lips against his. When he didn't

respond immediately, I felt a crushing disappointment fill my body. I opened my eyes and sat back down, hard. "Bella... I..." "Don't," I shook my head. In his hesitation, I had the answers I sought. "I don't want you to misunderstand," Edward pled. "It's not that I don't find you attractive. God help me. I tried not to. And I felt really bad about it. But you aren't that little girl in my mind anymore." "Then... what is it?" I asked, looking up at him. "I said I felt like a spring, right?" Edward asked. He was begging me to understand with his eyes. "I'm so afraid... I'm going to break loose. I don't want to hurt you Bella. You are leaving to go back to Florida in two days. I might know you well enough to treat you with familiarity. But I refuse to treat you casually. You deserve better than that." I bit my bottom lip while I looked at his face. Concern and sincerity were there, mixed with selfdoubt. He was terribly easy to read, once he decided to let me in. I placed my hand on his cheek and smiled. "There's nothing casual about this. It's not like we just met." I reminded him. "You just need to learn how to let go and take chances. And I'm so sorry that you'll probably wait until I'm gone before you figure that out." I said all that I needed to say to Edward. Slowly, I lowered my hand from his face and turned to leave the tree house. I made my way carefully down the steps and then walked on silent feet through the wet grass that covered our joined yards. I didn't feel sad at the way our conversation ended. I felt... relieved. At least I had told Edward how I felt. It was a shame that he couldn't let go of whatever it was that was holding him back. But I could have a clear mind, knowing that I did all that I could. The 'what-ifs' were officially out there. I could move on. I opened the door to my kitchen and stepped inside. Every light in the house was still on. Every window was open. It took only a second to realize that I didn't hear the screen door slam behind me. I whirled to see Edward standing in my doorway, holding the door open. "What are you...?" He stormed me then. Edward took two fast steps and reached for me. I wasn't sure if he pulled, or if my feet propelled me forward of their own accord. But somehow our bodies connected. His hands dug blindly into my hair, and our mouths met in a frenzied kiss. This is what I was waiting for. This was the reaction I had hoped to get when I pressed my lips against his in the tree house. Edward had followed me because he wanted this too. And as before when he kissed me at Tyler's party, when we came together this way, I was instantly on fire. It was as if every cell of my body

urged me forward to him. I dared Edward to take a chance. It was very evident in the way that his mouth took from mine, what he wanted... at least for now... was me. He spun us then, and I found myself pinned against the wall next to the door. I desperately tugged Edward's hips until he granted my wish and pressed his body fully against mine. I marveled then, at how the hard planes of his chest and abdomen matched so flawlessly to the soften swells of my own. My body fit against his perfectly, and I rubbed myself against him, enjoying the feel of it. "Damn it, Bella. You make me want you," Edward groaned against my lips. "Then take me," I gasped. His entire frame stiffened for a moment as my permission registered in his mind. I brought down the walls that held him back. It was okay to want me. It was okay to touch me. I wanted this just as much as he did. And he kissed me with a new determination. I tasted it on his lips and I felt it in his hands. His fingers burned down my arms to my hips, where he held me tightly against him. Encouraged by the reaction he seemed to have to my words, I prompted him. "More," I whispered. We both groaned when his hands moved up my torso and he palmed my breasts through the thin fabric of my dress. My back arched away from the wall, pressing my flesh into his eager hands. "I think... I think..." Edward was trying to say something. But I wouldn't have it. "Don't think," I muttered harshly. I pushed my hands into his hair and tugged his head down until I could kiss him again. I was delirious with need. His hands were perfect against me. Not hesitant. Not harsh. It was as if he was made to hold me. I needed his hands everywhere. And I needed to touch him as well. My fingers flew to the buttons of his shirt while Edward lowered his head to kiss and suck at the skin on my neck and shoulders. With the last button undone, I thrust my hands into the open front of his shirt and drug my fingernails lightly from his shoulders to his waist. "Fuck," Edward hissed. My breath caught at the sound of the harsh word on his lips. He pulled his head back, and looked at me. His eyes were wild. I never wanted to forget the way he looked in that moment. He might have been trying to judge my reaction. So I smirked and slowly pulled my fingernails down his chest with a little more pressure. "Say it again," I ordered. He didn't. Edward attacked my mouth and I moaned against the new onslaught of his kisses. My knees almost buckled beneath me when I felt his fingers on the skin just above my knees. Curled like claws, Edward pulled his fingers up my legs, lifting the material of my dress as he went. "God, yes," I moaned. I lowered my mouth to his chest and started kissing and biting every bit of skin I could reach in front of me. His diabolical fingers moved closer and I threw my head back.

I couldn't find it in myself to be embarrassed or feel awkward. This was Edward, doing these things to me. And it was better than I could have ever imagined. "Do you want this?" Edward asked roughly against my shoulder. I could feel his fingers near the lace edge of my panties and I couldn't recall wanting anything more in my life. But I knew what he was doing. He was giving me one last chance to stop him. To stop what we had begun. I reached my hands to grasp both sides of his face urgently, and I tilted his face to meet my eyes. "I want you," I emphasized. He swallowed hard and pressed his lips to mine while his hand moved to touch me exactly where I needed him to. I moaned and rocked myself into his hand. The answering sound from the back of his throat made me feel anxious to hear more. While Edward kissed me and stroked me beneath my dress, I lowered my own hands to start tearing at the button and zipper of his pants. And when I could, I pushed my hand down the skin of his abdomen until I could touch him like he was touching me. Hot, and smooth, and silky in my hand, I touched him as much as the restricted space would allow. I was rewarded with more of those delicious and guttural noises from the back of his throat. He bit at my lips with fervor and moved his hands to twist into the waistband of my panties, pulling them down my legs. I stepped out of them eagerly and kicked them across the floor while I mimicked his movements and tugged to get his pants down. Still there, next to the door, I gripped Edward's shoulders with my hands when he reached below to lift me against him. My legs locked around his waist, and my shoulders were pressed into the wall behind me. "I can't wait..." Edward groaned. I swallowed his apology under another kiss and tilted my hips to accommodate him. "We should... protection..." he was still trying to be responsible while we hovered at the point of no return. I wrapped my arms around his head and kissed his ear. "I'm protected. Please Edward... please..." And with my final plea, he pulled my hips hard against him and thrust up into me. I threw my head back at the shock of the initial intrusion. It had been a very long time since I had been with anyone like this. But any immediate discomfort was soon overshadowed by the amazing feelings that Edward provided while moving in and against me. I moaned and locked my legs around him tightly. "Fuck, Bella. Fuck," he groaned again. I smiled against the side of his damp hair. I loved hearing him lose control. I held on tight with my legs and pushed my arms against the wall behind me... searching for some kind of leverage or something to grasp on to. My efforts sent a plaque of one of Charlie's stuffed fish flying off the wall to crash loudly against the floor next to us. Edward and I both stilled for a moment. "Bass," I whispered. Then Edward's lips pulled up in the silliest, most devastating smile I had ever seen.

"Bass," he smiled. We both laughed then. But the laughter reminded us of the position we were still in, and I gripped Edward by the collar of his shirt and tugged his face close to mine. "If you stop, I will fucking kill you," I threatened against his mouth. He didn't stop. Instead, he kissed me and his fingers dug almost painfully into the back of my thighs when he spun us away from the wall. I held on tight while he carried me a few steps across the kitchen. My eyes were closed, but I heard the loud crash of more items hitting the floor. Edward lowered me to the cool, hard surface of the kitchen table, and had used his arms to sweep aside the items that usually rested there. I laid back with my legs still locked around his waist, and pulled him down to kiss me. Edward complied for a moment, but then pulled his mouth away from mine. His lips lingered on my shoulders and the top of my chest before he rose to fully stand before me. His fingers retraced the path his mouth created, and he drifted his hands from my face, down my chest, and to my hips. He looked at me, almost reverently. "So beautiful," he whispered with a ragged voice. I held on tight to the edge of the table then, when his fingers dug into my hips and he began to pull me against him. Seeing Edward this way was almost more than I could bear. I could see his sweat dampened chest through the parting of his shirt. The lines of his strong neck tensed and strained as he tilted his head back. His eyes were closed, and his jaw was taut. And the sounds... God... the sounds that he made were enough to send me into a full-out frenzy. I couldn't help the wild sounds that escaped me in response. His movements were strong and they shifted the table underneath me as I cried out and thrashed my head from side to side. It was too much. Too, too much. When his fingers moved to touch me where our bodies joined, I felt every muscle in my body contract in preparation for the explosion to come. "Edward...Edward..." He knew. He could feel me contracting around him. And while my own orgasm completely washed over me, he reached down and pulled my arms up toward him. I threw my arms around his shoulders while he groaned and thrust hard against me. With one last, loud groan I could feel him find his own release. We stayed there like that. Our arms were wrapped around each other. Our pounding hearts and hard breaths filled the silence in the room. My arms were shaking badly. And I wasn't sure if it was from what we had just done, or from what I knew we were about to do. "Bella, I..." "Shh..." I lowered my head and my hair fell in front of me. Edward stepped away, and pulled my dress down to cover my legs. I stared the vacant space in front of me, and listened as Edward adjusted his own clothing. I was suffering from a riot of emotions and I couldn't begin to sort through it all so soon.

"We need to talk about this." Edward said quietly and still a bit breathlessly. He moved to rest back on the edge of the table beside me. Our arms touched, but I couldn't look at him. "Tomorrow," I said quietly with my head down. "Bella? Please. Won't you look at me?" "I can't." I shook my head. "Why?" his voice sounded pained. "Because," I swallowed hard. "If I see that same regret in your eyes... I swear some part of me will hate you for it," I whispered. "I don't want to hate you, Edward." He kissed the side of my head and stood without another word before walking to my kitchen door. "I don't regret it Bella," Edward said quietly. I heard my door open and I finally looked up. He stood in my doorway again, watching me intently. "I won't ever regret it." The sincerity in his eyes eased the sting of the worry that had threatened to drown me. I licked my lips. "Tomorrow," I promised. I felt hope rise in my chest as he gave me a small smile. I needed time to figure out how I felt. With the promise and understanding that we would talk about everything the following day, Edward closed the door silently and disappeared into the inky darkness beyond my back porch. I surveyed the damage around me, and lowered myself from the table-top to pick up the items that had been left out of place in our wake. I pulled the table to its original space on the floor, and returned the flowers, napkin holder, and salt and pepper shakers to their central location. I might have blushed, imagining that my father enjoys having breakfast at this table, if I hadn't felt so confused and numb by the evening's events. The bass on the floor wouldn't be replaced so easily. The hanging fixture on the back was twisted and would need to be repaired. I quickly bent to retrieve my panties from the floor. Other than that small scrap of lace I held in my hand, I remained fully dressed. I wondered if I should feel that the magnitude of what Edward and I had done was any less because of the way we had come together. It had been desperation that led us to having sex where we had, and in the manner in which we did. But the connection between us was every bit as powerful, to me. We had both simply been holding back too much... for too long. Slowly, as if in a trance, I made my way up the stairs. Somehow I managed to put on my comfortable t-shirt and boxer shorts. I twisted my hair into a knot on my head, and laid down beneath my cool, familiar sheets. I was confused. I was worried. I was scared. But I was certain, more than anything,that I was in love with Edward. I was in love with Edward, and I was going back to Florida in two days.

And we would talk tomorrow. I was groggy as I was pulled from sleep by the warm hand that shook my shoulder. "Isabella? Isabella..." I rubbed my eyes and pushed my hair away from my face. Charlie moved from where he sat beside me on my bed, and went to sit in the chair in the corner of my room. In the dim light from the moon coming through my window, I watched as he clasped his hands between his knees and avoided my eyes. "Dad?" I asked sleepily. My eyes went to my bedside clock and back to where he sat. Something must have been awfully important for him to wake me up just barely after one in the morning. Then a suspicion came to mind when memories from earlier in the evening flashed behind my eyes. Edward and I. In the kitchen. The back door had been open. The curtains were not drawn. The bass I knocked off the wall... had someone seen something? Heard something? Was Charlie in my room because he somehow found out what had occurred between Edward and me? I sat up in bed and pulled my blankets protectively around my chest. Granted, we hadn't given much thought to our privacy at the time, but I might have to remind my father that what I did, and with whom, was my personal business. "Dad, I..." My words cut off when I realized that he was already speaking. In my consternation, I missed the beginning of what he was trying to say. "We were first on the scene... the semi crossed the middle lane. There was nowhere for those kids to go. No one survived..." "Wait... wait..." I shook my sleep-clouded head. "What?" Charlie wasn't talking about Edward. He was talking about work. An accident. "I'm sorry Bella. So sorry. There was nothing we could do." "Charlie?" An icy cold dread started wrapping itself through my chest... squeezing my heart until I felt I couldn't breathe. "There was an accident? Who... who...?" "Jasper and Alice honey. They're gone. They're gone..." Charlie's face was in his hands, muffling his last words. I threw back my covers and ran for the door. My head screamed that I hadn't heard him correctly. My legs flew beneath me, carrying me down the stairs and out the door into the night. The grass was slick and cold beneath my feet and breath tore painfully from between my lips. My eyes latched onto the darkened window pane at the side of the house beside mine. Jasper was asleep in his room. I needed to see him. I needed to get to him to prove that it was all a nightmare. A horrible, horrible nightmare.

I crashed into something hard, and solid. I gasped but struggled to push my body forward. The steel bands around me were unrelenting as I clawed the air and screamed toward the darkened window. "JAZZ!" My scream tore from my throat feeling bloody and raw. "JAZZ!" I screamed again. "Bella... I'm here." I heard a gravelly voice near my ear. But it wasn't the one I hoped to hear. I turned and saw Edward's face close to mine. He held me tightly to his chest while I momentarily stopped kicking and struggling. "Where is he?" I whispered. Edward shook his head and a tear burned from his bright green eye down his face. "WHERE IS HE?" I screamed. Edward opened his mouth but no sound came out, and I knew. Jazz was gone. The arms around me tightened as I fell into blackness.

22. Memories

"Izzy? Pick up the can! Jazz calling Izzy... Hey! Can you hear me? Pick up the can!" The tin can tied to the string at my window rattled loudly against the wall as my best friend tugged the other side to wake me. My blankets were pulled up over my head, and I groaned while I rolled to reach for our home-made phone. With my eyes nearly closed, I crawled on instinct to the foot of my bed and reached for the string to answer his call. "Izzy? Are you there?" "I'm here," I groaned. My throat burned. My eyes felt swollen and wouldn't open enough for me to see clearly. I reached blindly for the can. My fingers spread, feeling along the wall beneath my window ledge. The longer I searched, the more frantic my movements became. "I'm here..." I repeated. "I'm here... I'm here..." But as I felt along the wall, my fingers consistently came up empty. I forced my eyes further open and froze when I saw the twisted and broken piece of red yarn tied to the nail in front of me. The connecting string was long since destroyed by time and elements. And the voice... the voice had been one from my imagination. I sat back on my legs and let my eyes move beyond my window. The bedroom facing me in the house next door remained dark. The curtains were drawn. Nothing moved in the world beyond the glass. Grey pressed in from the sky but didn't even offer rain to distract from the stillness outdoors. My heart picked up pace, and my breathing became shallow. With a rapid movement, my hand shot out. My finger twisted, wrapping the broken string tightly around my first knuckle. Suddenly furious at the sight of the broken string, I tugged and pulled at what was left of it. The tip of my finger turned purple as circulation was cut off. Still I sawed the

aged fibers back and forth, trying to force it to release its enduring grip on the old nail that pierced the wood and held tight. I barely noticed the burning sting that came from the cut I inflicted on my finger. I grunted and pulled the yarn, determined to destroy the reminder it provided. The string was torn...broken... and my hand was left bloody and damaged. Giving up, but no less angry, I slid the string off my finger and slapped my hand loudly on the glass in front of me. It shook under the hit, but held true. With a strangled cry finally escaping my throat, I slapped at the window again, and again, smearing small streaks of red on the glass with each blow. The blood was a vivid hue against its grey backdrop. Crimson. Jasper tossed me his large crimson sweatshirt. My clothes were soaked through. I had sat on my own porch, in the rain, trying to get the courage to go talk to the one person that I knew could make me feel better. I needed to apologize. Jasper had been right, all along. "Th-thank you," I said through chattering teeth. Jasper spun his desk chair backwards and straddled it while I pulled his warm cotton sweatshirt over my head. It hung past my fingers, and I clenched my hands into the material of the sleeves, searching for additional comfort. "What's going on?" Jasper asked quietly. He folded his arms over the back of his chair and frowned. I scooted my body back on his bed and rested my back against the wall. With my knees pulled up to my chest, I sniffed and tried to blink back the tears. It was pointless. "You were right," I whispered. "He was all wrong for me. He... only wanted one thing. Tonight... I waited to see him after practice. And... I saw him kissing Angela Weber by the locker rooms." "Son of a bitch," Jasper hissed through his teeth. "I was so sure..." I cried and pressed my face into my knees. I felt the mattress give beside me. Then my best friend, the one I hadn't spoken to in two weeks, put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into his side. "You were too good for him," Jasper said softly. I nodded and wiped my eyes with the cuffs of his shirt. "Did you... you know? After prom?" I groaned and put my face back on my knees. Jasper lowered his hand and started to rub soothing circles on my back. "It's okay Izzy. I'll make it better. You can count on me." And I knew in my heart, that he meant what he said. I could count on him. Even when I was stubborn and stupid... even when we fought; Jasper would always be around to make things better. "Isabella? Open up honey." I laid with my cheek on my pillow, my eyes dry and wide-open. I heard my father's words, but couldn't muster the strength to move.

"Has she... come out at all?" It was a woman's voice that I didn't recognize. "No," my father said with a rough sounding voice. "Maybe to use the bathroom? Hell... I don't know." He groaned. "It's been two days. She needs to eat something..." Food. I sprawled out on my stomach across the picnic blanket, popping grapes into my mouth and watching Jasper over the edge of my book. "Come get a sandwich," I called him over. "Your mom packed us all this food. She'll be mad if you don't eat." "I will in a minute," Jasper said. He had pulled his wiry body up into the boughs of Old Man Smith's apple tree and was dropping juicy red fruit down from the highest branches. "And she won't be mad when I bring all of these apples home to make a pie!" "Mr. Smith will kick your butt though," I amended. "You better not let him see you up there again." "Yeah, yeah." Jasper dropped out of the tree and shoved his stolen fruit into our discarded picnic bag. He grabbed a sandwich with one hand, unwrapped it, and shoved half of it into his mouth while he plopped down to sit beside me. "Ew... gross," I muttered. "You love me," Jasper smiled widely and showed the half-masticated sandwich that was shoved into his cheeks. "Sometimes I wonder why," I rolled my eyes. But I smiled at his back when he stood again and loped off to the tree. "Jasper Whitlock!" I cautioned when I saw what he was doing. Jasper pulled his pocket-knife from his jeans and smiled wickedly over his shoulder before pressed the small blade into the trunk of the tree in front of him. "Oooh... you are asking for trouble," I shook my head. Jasper muttered something under his breath, but kept concentrating on his task. I turned my eyes back to my book and tried to read for a while. Soon, the curiosity got the best of me, and I tossed my paperback aside with a sigh. I stood then, and walked over to see what project was occupying his attention. Jasper squatted down in front of the tree. Using his knife, he had carved our initials. J.W. & I.S. "Nothing like leaving evidence at the scene of the crime," I teased. Jasper grinned up at me and pushed his glasses up his nose. Then his flipped his knife closed and sat back on his rear in the dirt. I kicked aside a few browned apples and sat beside him.

"Someday, everything will be different," Jasper said quietly. "None of this will look the same. But maybe... maybe even after we're long gone... someone will come by this tree and see our initials. And they will know that we were here." I contemplated his idea for a moment, smiling at the sentimentality. "But I thought only boyfriends and girlfriends did stuff like this," I commented. "We're best friends..." Jasper said. "That's even better." The mysterious voice from the hall came with a familiar face. Clarie from the church smiled kindly at me, when my father unlocked my bedroom door. I blinked and looked up at him. I wanted to apologize for the worry I saw etched on his forehead, but I knew if I opened my mouth, I wouldn't be able to stop the sobs that were clenched and locked away in my chest. "Come on sweetheart. Let's get you a shower." Clarie's gentle hands urged me to sit up in bed, and my father stepped aside when I shuffled beside her to the bathroom. I showered because I knew I should. Then I wrapped myself in the large terry-cloth bathrobe that she had placed on the back of the door for me. When I returned to my room, I sat wearily on the edge of my bed. Charlie stood at my window, frowning at the drops of blood that marred the chipped white paint of my window sill. Clarie pushed a bowl of warm broth in my hands. "Eat, Isabella," she encouraged. So I swallowed the tasteless liquid. My father moved to sit beside me then. He didn't say a word, but I closed my eyes when I felt him tentatively pulling a brush through my wet hair. My spoon rested heavy in my bowl, and I breathed deeply, trying not to cry over his tender gesture. "Enough," I said through cracked lips. The whispered word held no strength. But both stopped their ministrations. "I'll just take this to the kitchen," Clarie said, while she took the half-empty bowl from my lap. Charlie stood and placed my brush on the top of my dresser. "I'll be downstairs if you need anything honey." I nodded, too weak to summon my voice again. When he moved to shut the door behind him, I sunk down to my pillow once more. "I won't be far..." he added quietly. "Florida isn't that far," Jasper insisted. Despite Charlie's offer to drive me to the airport, he knew that I wanted to spend time alone with Jazz before I left for school. He and I stood on the yellow painted line at the curb beside his car. It was supposed to be a place to drop-off airline passengers. He would be ticketed if he didn't move his car soon. Still he risked the citation as well as the ire of other drivers when he parked the car illegally and moved to stand beside me. "We've never been so far apart, for so long," I sniffed. I was being emotional, and I knew it. But I couldn't help it. Jasper and I had only been separated for small periods of time before now, during school breaks when I visited my mother in Phoenix. Now I was moving all the way to

Florida to go to college. "I can change my plans," I said quickly. "It's not too late for me to register for classes at the community college!" "And you'd be missing out on the adventure of a lifetime," Jasper shook his head with a small smile. "I'd never forgive myself for letting you pass up this opportunity." "What am I going to do without you?" I moaned and wrapped my arms tightly around my best friend. My cheek pressed against the soft flannel shirt he wore, and his hand brushed through the back of my hair. "We'll talk on the phone... all the time. And we can send email... text messages..." "It won't be the same," I argued. "You'll be too far away." "We'll see each other, every school break," he promised. Jasper put his finger under my chin and raised my face to look at him. "We're best friends... forever," he smiled. "It doesn't matter how many miles are between us. No distance is too far. You're in here, Izzy." He put reached to put my hand over his heart, indicating the space that he claimed I occupied. "As long as you remember that... I'll never be too far away..." I stood beneath the large black umbrella that my father held over our heads. Water drops chased each other in a line across the edge of the nylon material before they combined and fell tumbling to the ground by our feet. My low heels sank into the mud on the ground and my head felt too heavy to lift. I stood there, unable to move... unable to cry... and listened as the Pastor of the church said inspirational words while standing at the front of two open graves. Alice's family had graciously agreed to let their daughter be buried beside Jasper. Combined guests shared their grief in quiet sobs and broken breaths while we said earthly goodbyes to two people who were stolen, much too early, from the lives of those gathered nearby. I raised my head when the Pastor became silent. I couldn't remember the words he spoke, but I was sure they must have been appropriate. I also knew that no matter how long he had known Jasper... the words wouldn't have been enough. So I closed my ears to them, and I closed my heart. I stood there, gripping my father's hand. One by one, somber guests moved forward to place single roses on the tops of the closed caskets. My eyes moved up, and I looked upon Jasper's family. Edward stood strong and tall, holding his Mother's arm. Larry stood at her other side, holding an umbrella over her head. Both men obviously lent her strength while shouldering their own pain. Edward's hair was wet, and the rain water mingled with the tears on his face while he kept his head bowed low. I swallowed hard, sensing the weight of his grief from where I stood. And as if he felt my gaze, he looked up then. Tortured green eyes met mine. The tenuous grip I had on my emotions wavered. I felt my body begin to shake with the exerted force of my efforts to hold on and not break down. The pain we shared spiraled across the space between us and met and tangled. I gasped and the peach-colored

rose I held in my numb fingers fell to the ground below me. A rivulet of muddy water swirled around the delicate petals and stained their edges. "Let's go." My father's hushed whisper caused me to break away from Edward's agonized stare. I turned and leaned heavily into his side as I let him lead me away. The blades of the windshield wipers worked noisily to slap away the rain while my father drove us home in his truck. I stared stonily out the window. "I called your mother," Charlie said after clearing his throat. "I didn't want her to worry. You... uh... missed your flight." "I'll reschedule," I whispered. "Thank you." "Listen... Isabella," Charlie said. "I know you are probably in a hurry to leave. Especially now. But I want you to know that... you don't have to rush off. You always have a place with me. You can stay... as long as you'd like." "Thanks, Dad." My throat tightened harshly, and I bit my lip. He was right though. I would leave as soon as I was able to get a return flight scheduled. Besides my father, there was nothing for me here. The weight of that realization slammed into me hard, and I dropped my face into my hands. The swish-swish-swish of the windshield wipers chased away the rain outside while the tears, finally, ran unhindered down my cheeks. I sat on my front porch steps, crying into my upturned palms. My father had carried all of my things upstairs to my newly decorated bedroom. Purple. Everything was purple. He thought it would be perfect for a five-year old girl. But I missed my mother. She got married. And she was traveling. And she loved me... but that was no kind of life for a little girl- or so she had said. "Why are you crying?" A boisterous voice called out to me, and I raised my head. Wiping my eyes, I looked at the little boy who stood at the bottom of my steps with a basket in his hands. He had disheveled blonde hair, patches on the knees of his pants, and large, dark-framed glasses perched on his freckly nose. "Who are you?" I asked, sniffing. "I'm Jasper," he grinned. "I live next door. My mother told me to bring these cookies over. She said the Chief's kid was moving in. I guess that's you." "Yeah, that's me," I said miserably. I frowned and scooted my body to the side when he bounded up the steps and sat beside me. "What are the cookies for?" I asked.

"For you, I guess," the boy shrugged. "You should try one. Cookies make people feel better when they're sad." "Nothing could make me feel better," I argued and shook my pigtails from side to side. "You haven't tried my mom's cookies," he argued back. With dirty fingers, he lifted the edge of the cloth that covered his basket, teasing me with the scent of the chocolate chip cookies beneath. I looked at him and didn't move to accept his offering. "So you don't like cookies?" he asked. "What do you like then? Comics? Video games? Do you like adventures?" "I guess," I shrugged. "How old are you?" he asked quickly. His bright voice and light attitude seemed to be slowly thinning the clouds above my head. "I'm five," I answered. "Great. Me too," he grinned. He looked at me for a second, as if sizing me up. Then he nodded and stood, leaving the basket sitting beside me on the porch. "Yeah, I guess you'll do," he grinned. I watched as he skipped back down to the yard. "I'll do... as what?" I called down. "As a friend," he smiled back up. "Even though you're a girl." He scratched a hand through his untidy hair and turned to walk away. "What's your name?" he yelled as he reached his front porch. "Isabella," I yelled over. "See ya later, Isabella," he replied. With a happy wave, he slipped inside his house. I sat on my porch, and quietly took a cookie from the basket he left. I nibbled the edge, and sighed as the still-warm chocolate melted against my lips. He was right. I felt much better already.

23. Healing

The next two days went by in slow-motion. I was, much to the relief of my father, able to get out of bed and at least pretend to function somewhat normally. I ate. I showered. I rescheduled my

flight home. And while I forced small smiles to comfort my father, each lift of my lips was a lie. My entire body was weighted down, and it seemed that things as automatic as breathing took real effort. I walked silently in a void of confusion. Constants no longer matched their definition. Beliefs I once held as true, whispered away like vapor through my fingers. I struggled to come to terms with the new reality that I had to face; a reality in which my best friend was gone. I sat on my knees, looking over the back of Charlie's recliner out my front window. Cars came and left... people paid their respects to the family next door. I hadn't gone to them. As horrible as it was, I needed to deal with my own grief first. Yes. I was selfish. And yes... I was weak. I hated myself for not being able to go over and offer my comfort. The truth was... I just didn't have it in me. The closest I had come was baking chocolate chip cookies. I left them covered, in a basket by their front door. I had a feeling that Joy would understand the message. With a sigh, I stood and walked back upstairs to my room. "Move over," I said, as I looked at the tall man lying across my bed. He slid aside with a grin, and tucked his hands under his head. I laid beside him, and rested my head on his shoulder. Together, we looked at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. The fading light through my window made their muted green surfaces more noticeable against the white paint. "Make a wish," he whispered. "I wish you were still here..." It helped to imagine Jasper with me. A light knock on my door brought me out of my fantasy, and I turned my head to the side when my father entered my bedroom. "Isabella? Can I have a word?" "Sure, Dad," I said tiredly. I sat up, and Charlie walked over to sit in the chair near the window. "You know... the Whitlock's are getting everyone together. They think that Jasper would have... you know... liked family and friends to get together one last time. A memorial of sorts. Down at First Beach." He spoke quietly as though he were afraid that his words might break me. I nodded and bit my lip. "They're right," I said. "He would like that." "I know that you haven't felt up to being around people in a few days," Charlie began. "Can I go with you?"

A clear wave of relief washed over my father, and he exhaled loudly before offering me a sad smile. "I was really hoping you would," he admitted. I took a deep breath and set my shoulders. Enough was enough. I had imagined Jasper by my side enough in the past few days to hear his voice clearly in my head. "Get out of this bed, before I kick your butt," he would have said. He always loved going to the beach. It was fitting that everyone would gather there for him. My father gave me an encouraging smile before he moved to exit the room. "Can you be ready within the hour?" "Sure," I promised. Evening was fast approaching. I pulled a blue cable-knit sweater over my t-shirt. I knew the ocean wind would be chilly. My comfortable jeans and high-top sneakers finished my ensemble. I brushed my hair quickly, and tucked the side behind my ear before going down the stairs to meet my father. "You ready?" he asked. Charlie was dressed in a flannel shirt and his favorite fleece-lined vest. I was glad to see that he had dressed informally as well. "Yes," I nodded. And I knew it was the truth. My father parked along the side of the road, behind an already long line of cars. As we walked down the shadowed beach, pieces of conversation and quiet laughter were carried to us on the ocean breeze. I curled my fingers into the cuffs of my sweater, pulling the sleeves down over my palms, and folded my arms across my chest while we walked. Charlie matched my pace, offering silent support. "Isabella!" Larry was the first to see us approach. He stepped forward with a grin too much like Jasper's, and drew me to his chest in a warm embrace. "I'm glad you came." "Where else would I be?" I asked lightly. Larry held my shoulders while he stepped away, and silently looked at my face for a moment before nodding in affirmation. "Joy?" he called. His wife raised her head from a conversation she was having. When her eyes met mine, she stood, excused herself, and walked over. My heart beat painfully when I looked at the woman who had actually lost more than I did. She had aged in a few days... and appeared tired and worn. Yet, there was an unmistakable light of determination behind her blue eyes. Faced with the show of her strength, I had no idea what I would say to her. "No," she shook her head when I opened my mouth and she heard me begin to stammer. "No tears tonight." She took a deep breath and smiled at me. "You knew Jasper better than anyone. He wouldn't have wanted us sitting around tonight, crying. We're going to honor him... the way he would have liked us to."

I nodded and moved to put my arm around her small shoulders. "Thanks for the cookies," she whispered near my cheek before she kissed me. I heard the tremor in her voice, and understood the real effort she was putting forth. "I love you," I said quietly. In so many ways, Joy had been like a mother to me. She squeezed my hip with her hand, and with our arms thrown around each other, we walked side by side to the bon fire. The large fire on the beach provided warmth and plenty of light. I looked around at everyone that had joined. Family members I knew from holidays and vacations... friends from high school I recognized and new people I'd yet to meet. No one looked at me with the pity I feared to see. I had been dreading a night of awkward 'I'm sorrys' and polite condolences. Instead, a warm hand passed me a cold beer. I looked up to see Mike Newton, tipping his can in my direction in a silent toast. I smiled and popped the top, drinking with him in acknowledgment of his gift. People milled around the beach, and placed fold-up chairs in the circumference around the fire. My father dutifully sat beside me. He probably knew that my grip on my emotions was sketchy, at best. It was exhausting, to talk and smile and sit among the living after I had spent the last few days curled up with the dead. But as I took in the far-off look in his eyes, while he watched the fire, I was suddenly struck with an uncomfortable truth. Charlie had been among the first on the scene of the accident. He saw, first hand, the damage that semi had done. I cringed when I considered it. The closed caskets at the funeral home were a pretty good indication that Charlie had been privy to nightmarish images that I didn't even want to imagine. He had known Joy and Larry before Jasper was even born. He had known Jasper, all of his young life. Yet, he sat stoically sipping his beer and staring into the fire, masking his own emotions to provide strength for others. He shouldered my pain, and offered whatever comfort he could to his friends... all while battling the images of the accident that likely would haunt him. I could barely fathom how much he had been hurt. And I had been so blinded by my own pain, that I couldn't see it. "I love you Daddy," I whispered to him. His head turned toward me when he heard the endearment I hadn't used since I was a child. And then, like that young girl, I stood and sat across his legs, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. Charlie's warm arms encircled me then. He squeezed me tightly to his chest, and his breath caught a little. "Thank you. For everything," I told him. "I love you, Isabella," my father said gruffly against my shoulder. I smiled honestly when I pulled away from him, and it was the first time I'd been able to do that in days. He quickly brushed his hand under his eyes to clear away the tell-tale moisture there. And when he had composed himself again, I stood and went back to my chair. "So... where's Edward?" Charlie asked, as he took another drink of his beer. I frowned down at my own can. I hadn't seen him since we had arrived.

"He had to go back to the house for something," Larry offered, having over-heard Charlie's question. "I remember the first time we brought Jasper here, to the beach," Joy said. Her voice was soft, but rang through the night air and successfully halted the conversations of those near the fire. We all turned our attention to Jasper's mother as she smiled and twisted her hands between her knees. "He was almost two. And he wanted to chase the waves so badly." Larry pulled her jacket up to drape over her shoulders and then dropped his arm supportively around her waist. He smiled as he recalled the memory she spoke of. "We stripped him down to his diaper... and he ran after the waves. Then, he turned and ran back, laughing and giggling just as hard as he could... trying not to get wet when the waves chased him back!" "He kept falling in the water anyway," Larry shook his head. "His diaper was so full of sand and salt water that it must have weighed five pounds! He couldn't even run, it was so heavy." "So he took it off and ran around for the rest of the day... naked," Joy laughed at the conclusion of her story. "Wasn't the last time Whitlock ran around naked on this beach!" A loud voice called out from beyond the immediate light of the fire, and everyone joined in laughter. From that point on, everyone took turns sharing fond memories. I knew when Edward joined the group, even before I saw him. There was a distinct change in the air around me, and I looked up to see his familiar form sunk to one knee in the sand while he quietly spoke with his father. His shock of messy hair borrowed colors from the fire, and I bit my lip and looked away. When I glanced up again, I saw that he had turned to look in my direction. Our eyes met, and Edward stared a moment before pulling the side of his mouth up in a slow and small smile. I took a deep breath and returned the gesture. "Jasper played piano at my sister's wedding," a voice said from somewhere behind me. "Jasper used to help me study calculus." "He always came by to shovel my driveway after my husband passed away." "I was Alice's roommate," a quiet voice added to the tribute. My eyes turned toward the petite red-head sitting beside the fire. "She loved him so much. So... so much." Voices called out around the blaze... offering their own examples of how knowing Jasper had made their lives a little bit better. "Jasper introduced me to one of the nicest girls I've ever known," a husky voice spoke out. We all watched the shadowy form approach from further up the beach, until he was close enough for

the light to reflect on his shiny raven hair. Tyler strode up in a black leather jacket, with his hands pushed into his pockets. He smiled at me over the fire. "I'm sorry. I got here as soon as I could." I nodded lightly to accept his apology and softly smiled to show my appreciation. I watched then, as Edward walked over to speak quietly with Tyler. The two men turned and walked a short distance away, together. Soon, Tyler returned and stood to join Mike and Eric where they sat. I didn't see Edward. "What about you, Isabella?" Eric called over. I turned wide eyes in his direction. It was one thing, to listen to other people list the small ways that Jasper had enriched their lives. But I was wholly unprepared to try to explain what he had meant to me. "I... can't... there's too much," I muttered. I put my head down. "Pick a memory," someone suggested. "You two spent a lot of time on this beach... tell us one of your stories..." My cheeks flamed and I dug my fingers sharply into my jeans. I didn't want to be put on the spot. Anxiety flooded through me. "I might have one," a velvet voice answered for me. I pulled my head up quickly, and looked over. Edward had returned and sat on the sand, a few feet to my left. He cradled Jasper's old guitar across his legs. "I have one for you, Bella," Edward said, looking over his shoulder at me. I swallowed hard. Edward was rescuing me again. He plucked at the strings on the guitar while we all quietly watched. He cleared his throat and laughed shakily. "Jasper was the musical one in our family," Edward said softly. "But he and Bella and I came down here one day when we were kids. And Jasper taught himself to play this song. He tried to teach me later... I'm not very good..." Edward's fingers roughly began finding the chords to the old Green Day song that Jasper had loved so much when we were young. I remembered the day Edward was sharing with everyone. "Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road..." Edward's voice was hushed as he began singing the words to the familiar tune. Though made deeper and fuller with age, I remembered the warm tones he sang with when he was barely sixteen years old. Jasper played his guitar, and Edward sang along. And I listened, feeling like the luckiest girl on earth for being allowed to sit next to them. Edward strummed the guitar and sang the simple lyrics to us all. But after the first chorus, I heard his voice crack. My heart lurched. I knew that it was difficult for him to share this

moment, and that he was essentially doing it for me. So I took a deep breath and started the second verse for him. "So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind," I offered with barely-louder than a whispered voice. I was a lousy singer, and I knew it. Edward's head came up, and he looked at me with surprise when he heard me lending him strength with my tuneless voice. He smiled and joined back in. Then slowly, beautifully... imperfectly and improvised... everyone around the fire joined us. Those who knew the words sang them. Those who didn't... simply hummed along. It was a musical tribute for the man who, much like music, had woven himself into each of our souls and brought beauty to our world. "I hope you had the time of your life..." The moment was so sentimental, that I felt I might be crushed beneath the weight of it. I patted my father's hand so he wouldn't worry, and I stood to silently make my way toward the water. The surf was loud in my ears and drowned out the noises from the crowd further up the beach. I shivered and wrapped my arms around my chest. The crashing waves hid his footfall from me. But suddenly, like before, I knew he was there. I could feel that Edward had joined me on this darkened strip of beach. "Thank you," I said quietly, while staring out at the water. He didn't say a word. I felt him move behind me, so close that his chest touched my back. And then his arms wrapped around mine. His fingers held tight to the sweater at my wrists, and he pulled me back against him. I sunk into his warmth and tipped by head back when I felt him lower his face. He rested his cheek against the side of my head, and breathed heavily into my hair. I'm not sure how long we stood there like that. I held my eyes closed and relished the feeling of his chest rising and falling behind me. We didn't speak. We just took silent comfort from each other. My bones became heavy and my body sagged. But I locked my knees until they shook and let him lean into me. I wasn't sure then, which of us was holding the other up. "I'm tired," I finally said. "I want to go home." "I'll take you," Edward whispered. I nodded and shivered when he pulled his arms away. But he reached down and took my hand in his. I held tight as he avoided the fire and lead us up a darkened path to his car. "I should let my Dad know that I'm leaving..." I said. "He'll know," Edward argued. I didn't have the strength left in my legs to stand any longer. So I let myself sink into the comfortable leather seat of Edward's car. In a minute he was beside me. He turned onto the main road and his long fingers flipped the switch on the console to force heat from the vents. I had begun to shiver strongly. A combination of the cold, my fatigue, and the reality of the situation shook my body in near tremors.

"I'm s-s-sorry," I apologized through my chattering teeth. I was sorry for a lot of things. But mostly because I hadn't gone to him after I found out about Jasper. He was hurting too. And I hadn't been there to help him. "I... c-c-couldn't..." I shook my head and curled in on myself. My hands were pressed tightly between my clenched thighs as I tried to get warm. "I needed time, too," Edward insisted. He looked at me then, with concern on his face. "We need to get you warmed up." Maybe I was going in to shock. The car ride home seemed to only take a minute. And then Edward took my house key from beneath the eave on the porch and opened the door for me. I struggled to follow. My breath hiccupped painfully between my trembling lips and my muscles were tight and aching from my hunched position. Edward led me upstairs. I didn't even stop to question him when he hurried to open the bathroom door and twisted the knobs on the shower to turn on hot water. I gripped the edge of the sink to help me stand, and Edward frowned at me for a minute. "I'll be right back," he said. I held on to the cold white basin, shaking, until he returned. Edward had my robe and a couple large fluffy towels in his arms. He placed the items on the sink and then took my shoulders in his hands tenderly. I let him shift my body back toward him and turn me. And then his hands were at the waist of my sweater. Without argument, I raised my arms. Edward pulled the soft blue material up and over my head. He repeated the process with my t-shirt. I closed my eyes when he lowered himself to the floor. One at a time, he removed my tennis shoes. My stomach pulled in tightly when I felt his fingers on the button on my pants. "Shhh..." he whispered across my midsection. I relaxed on instinct, and let him pull my jeans from my body. My tremors had lessened, but I still felt cold; especially since I was now standing in front of Edward in no more than my underwear. His warm hands found my shoulders as he stood again. He slowly ran his fingers across my shoulders, down my arms, and across my collar bones. His touch was meant to soothe and reassure. I relaxed and melted in front of him. In the next second, my trembling hands reached forward and rested at his waist. I opened my eyes and saw the questioning look on Edward's face. It was replaced with understanding as soon as my fingers began pulling at the bottom of the sweatshirt he wore. My hands were shaking too badly to be effective. So Edward helped me. Together, we undressed him until he too, was standing in front of me in the barest of clothing. With my eyes trained on his, I reached one hand behind me and unclasped my bra. I shifted my shoulders forward and let the lacy material slide down my arms. Edward took a deep breath through his nose, but did not remove his deep green gaze from my stare. Together, we reached and slid our underwear down our legs.

I felt no trace of embarrassment when Edward turned and opened the shower door for me to enter ahead of him. It felt natural to be with him this way. I stepped under the hot water, and immediately sighed when it stung and heated my skin. Edward stepped into the small space and closed the door behind us. I turned when he moved forward, and shared the water with him. Chest to chest, we wrapped our arms around each other and stood under the warming spray. I pressed myself tightly against Edward with my cheek against his heart, and concentrated on holding him together as he was holding me. His head was bent low, and I felt him kiss the skin of my shoulder tenderly. His arms and chest begin to shake then too. I held him tighter so he could let go. And I let the shower hide the tears that I knew we both allowed to escape. In a few minutes, Edward straightened in my grasp. He tilted his face up under the shower head, to let the water cleanse his face and push his hair back. At the urge of his hands, I released my grip from around his waist. He smiled sweetly at me then, and turned me under his hands to face away from him. It only took a few seconds before I realized what he was doing. I gave in to the relaxing ministrations of his fingers as he began shampooing my hair. And when he was finished, I tilted my head back under the water and let the fragrant suds travel down my body to the drain near my feet. No sooner had I finished, I felt the unmistakable cooling of the water temperature. My shivers had all but subsided entirely, and I wasn't anxious to let the cold water inspire their return. I turned off the water quickly, and moved out of the enclosed space to wrap one of the towels around my body. Edward imitated my movements, and followed me to my room with a towel slung low around his hips. I turned in the center of my room and looked at him then. My cheeks felt warm, and I inwardly chided myself. It seemed a little silly to feel self-conscious after all that we had been through together. "I... um..." Edward looked nervous and pulled his hand up through his wet hair. "I..." "I don't want to be alone," I shook my head. Edward's shoulders fell as he exhaled in obvious relief. And then he stepped forward to stand directly in front of me. "I don't want to be alone either," he breathed. Edward's hands carefully cupped my face, and tipped my head back. I watched as he came closer to me, his eyes burning and smoldering... swirling gold and green.... desire and pain... urgency and exhaustion. He searched my eyes also. And when our mouths finally met, our eyes were wide open. "Edward," I sighed his name against his soft lips. He groaned and his lashes dropped heavily before he pulled me fully against him. Our mouths met and opened for each other. His tongue pressed warm and teasingly against my own. He was careful. But there was desperation and a hunger in the way he held me. Our breathing became heavy. I gripped the towel around his waist with tight fists, and started pulling him with me as I walked backward to my bed.

Edward followed when I led. His hands made short work of my towel, and flung it wetly across the room. His own covering fell away after a few insistent tugs of my frantic fingers. And then I felt the mattress behind my legs and fell back into it. My fingers in his hair brought him with me. Edward put his hands on my hips and moved us both quickly to a satisfying location in the center of my small bed. And at that exact moment things noticeably changed. As soon as my head hit my pillow, Edward paused. With his weight supported on one arm beside me, he pulled his mouth from mine and looked down into my eyes. My breath was literally stolen by the beauty of the man beside me. And he was looking at me... like he felt the same. I struggled to control my body and lay still when he raised one long finger and traced the edge of my lips. He touched the center of my chin next, and drew a straight line down my throat to my chest. My lips parted on a sigh when his eyes followed his finger. That one... soft...mesmerizing finger stroked the skin between my breasts before tracing up and over my soft curves to circle one of my nipples. Edward's eyes flashed up to mine again then. His hand stilled, but he moved over me, tracing the exact path he had just drawn with the tip of his tongue. Around the edges of my mouth... soft kisses and touches of his tongue on my chin and down my neck. He pressed his mouth hotly against the skin on the center of my chest before dragging his mouth sideways to capture my nipple between his teeth. With a little tug and pull from his lips, I felt my control slip and moaned with pleasure. He skimmed his nose across my chest while he blazed a path of kisses to my other breast. My hands tangled in the back of his hair while he administered the same attention with his mouth. "Perfect," he whispered against me. "Edward... please," I breathed. But he wasn't nearly finished. "I want to know you this way," he explained. And I understood. The last time we came together we had acted on urgency and were completely driven by lust. This time was different. This time was about comfort... and sharing... and getting to know each other in a way we never had before. Every part of my body that he touched, he followed with his lips. My finger tips... the back of my knees... his hands explored and his lips followed. Warmth began to build in my chest and radiated outward. Edward pulled the pain from me with every pass of his lips. Tears slid from beneath my lashes and burned paths toward my ears as his touch acted as brush strokes... painting over the lonely shades that consumed me with bright and beautiful reds and golds. I pulled him up to me then, and kissed his lips in appreciation that words could never express. And I let my hands slide down his skin, wanting to share the healing warmth that he had created. Over his wide shoulders and under his arms, I trailed my fingers down his sides and pressed them into the firm skin at his waist. I repeated the process he had begun, comforting him with my touch and my tongue. I kissed down the center of his chest. But when my nose pressed into the

taut skin of his stomach, and my tongue teased at the ridge of his bellybutton, Edward pulled me almost forcefully back up to his mouth. He kissed me deeply and passionately. And with no more preamble, he rolled above me and settled his body between my thighs. I threw my head back in pleasure as the weight of his chest pressed me into my mattress and he attacked my throat with his mouth. Our hearts beat heavily between us, and our raspy breaths heated the air between us. Edward's fingers pressed into my cheeks and brought my face down to look at him then. And like when we first kissed, our eyes met and held each other's when he shifted his hips and brought our bodies together. I bit my lip, but did not look away. A million unspoken words were shared between us then. When I lifted my hips against him and pressed my feet into the back of his legs, he opened his mouth. I watched his bottom lip tremble before he finally tore his eyes from mine and lowered his head to press small, open mouthed kisses along my jaw line. Slowly and fluidly he began to move against me. Deeply and powerfully he connected us beyond our physical position. I dug my fingers into his back and closed my eyes, hoping that he could feel how much he meant to me... how important this moment was. Edward reached to grab my hands, and twisted our fingers together. Palm to palm, he placed our hands beside my head and thrust his hips against mine. I tightened my fingers in his grip and matched his movements with my own. Of their own volition, our bodies began to move with more urgency, coming together faster, pushing and pulling... rhythmically searching for the soulconnecting release we both needed. We shared each other's pain. We shared each other's pleasure. Edward breathed heavily into my mouth and pulled my bottom lip with his teeth. I felt the pressure building inside me as we moved together. One more grind of his hips caused me to gasp and arch against him. My muscles contracted strongly and he released my hands to wrap his fingers around my waist. Edward held me tight while he threw himself into me. Once...twice before he tensed and came undone. Shaking slightly, Edward slumped on top of me. I welcomed his full weight as we struggled to catch our breath. He turned his cheek to rest on my thundering chest, and I pulled my fingers through his damp hair. We didn't speak. We held each other. And sometime after, I fell asleep still holding him tightly.

24. Faith

I woke the next morning and stretched my arms lazily up from under the covers and over my head. Twisting, I felt my muscles loosen and my bones settle in to proper alignment with a series of small pops in my knuckles and joints. I sat up with my sheet tucked around my chest. My

naked skin and the two towels on my bedroom floor were proof that my time with Edward last night had not been some random and beautiful dream. The faint smell of breakfast food cooking alerted me that Charlie was home and awake. I quickly jumped from the bed and picked up the discarded towels on my way to the bathroom. After a fast shower, I got dressed and combed my hair. A few minutes later, I hurried down the stairs to greet my father and have breakfast. My feet skidded to a stop beneath me when I turned the corner to enter the kitchen. My father sat at the table, with a newspaper held in his hands. He took a sip from a mug of coffee while he read. Edward stood in front of the stove, flipping pancakes while wearing the same clothing he had worn the night before. Both men looked up at me at the same time. "Isabella," my father greeted me. His eyes darted right back to his paper. "Good morning, Bella," Edward offered quietly. "Good morning Dad. Edward..." I stammered. I did not expect to see both men standing in my kitchen. I certainly didn't expect to see Edward making breakfast. Charlie's plate was pushed aside, evidence that he had already eaten. I picked it up and moved to put it in the sink. I shot Edward a questioning glance as soon as my father was behind me. "These are ready, if you're hungry." Edward tipped his head toward a stack of pancakes on a plate by the stove. He seemed perfectly comfortable with his domestic duty, and ignored my relative awkwardness. With a smile, he took two pancakes from the top and placed them on a new plate that he handed to me. I took the breakfast with a confused frown and turned to sit at the table. Edward moved the pan from the burner he used, turned the dial on the stove, and brought the rest of the pancakes to the table while he sat beside me. Without a word, I poured syrup over the lightly-browned circles on my plate. Edward took the bottle from my fingers and repeated the process. He cut into the warm food and brought a large sticky bite to his lips while I still sat, mostly stunned. I watched him take a few more bites, licking the sticky sweet syrup from his lips before I turned my eyes away. My cheeks were pink as I cut a small piece from my own plate and brought it to my mouth. "Last night turned out to be a really nice evening," Charlie finally spoke from behind his paper. I choked and Edward hurried to pour me a glass of milk from the pitcher on the table. "Nice of Edward to give you a ride home," my father finished. I drank my milk, feeling thankful when it pushed the offending piece of pancake on its way. "Yes," I nodded. "I was just telling Edward that I might see if his Dad wanted to go down to the river for a few hours this morning." "I'm sure he'd like that," Edward said.

"What time do I need to get back, to take you out to the airport?" Charlie lowered his paper to look at me, and Edward dropped his fork noisily against the side of his plate. I turned my head to look at him. Edward stared down at his food with a frown pulling at his lips. "Sorry," he mumbled, picking up the errant utensil. "Um... my flight leaves at three forty-five," I answered my father. "I guess we should leave around two?" "Hmm. I better get going then. It doesn't give me much time." "I can take her," Edward said quickly. "That is... if you don't mind." Edward looked over at my father and pushed his plate away. "I can drive Bella to the airport. Then you and my father don't have to hurry home." "That sounds real nice," Charlie smiled. "You don't mind. Do you, Isabella?" "No," I mumbled. My own breakfast sat before me, virtually untouched. I stared at it miserably. "I should go," Edward said then. He stood and made motion to remove my plate along with his. I nodded to indicate that I was finished eating, and he took both of our plates to scrape the uneaten food in the garbage before placing the dishes in the sink. "I have a few things I need to take care of. But I'll be ready by two." "Okay," I whispered. It hadn't escaped my attention that Edward had not looked at me since my father mentioned my return trip to Florida. Maybe he was shocked by news of my immediate departure. But he already knew that I had originally planned to leave days earlier. And it wasn't like we had taken the time to sit down and talk about anything in the last several days. Even last night, as perfect as it was, had been wrapped in protective silence. I flinched as the screen door hit its frame loudly, signaling Edward's exit. My shoulders dropped and I sighed unhappily. "Dad... I..." "You're a grown-up, Isabella," my father commented softly. "And I love Edward like he's my own son. We don't really have to discuss this." "Thanks," I breathed. "I'll probably head on out pretty early," Charlie changed the subject. "You know how I feel. It's never easy seeing you go. But...it's not like we won't get to see each other again." A severe frown pulled his lips below his moustache. "You take care of yourself. Keep yourself safe. And promise you'll come back and see me... just as soon as you can."

"I promise," I nodded. I stood quickly and gave my father a hard hug. He pulled himself away, brushing off the urge we both had to hold on too tightly, for too long. "You keep thinking of what you want to do when school is done," Charlie said with a wink while he pulled his fishing hat down on his head by the door. "You know that this place is your home. You are always welcome here." "I will. Thanks, Dad." Charlie turned with a sad smile, and shut the door behind him. I watched out the window as he strolled across the lawn to the house next door. After a few minutes, Larry emerged with him and they both jumped into my father's truck and pulled away. I ran water into the sink and made a quick chore of cleaning the dishes. And then I wiped my hands on a dishtowel and frowned toward the white house beyond my window. Before I knew it, my feet had carried me to the Whitlock's back porch. I knocked on the faded door frame. Joy came to the door immediately, with a warm smile on her face. "Isabella? Edward isn't here. I think he went down to the beach for a run..." "I came to see you," I said quietly. "Do you have a minute?" "Of course, honey," Joy opened the door and stood aside for me to enter. I took the steps that carried me to the center of the kitchen, but then stopped and let my eyes travel around the room. I saw Jasper at the kitchen table, eating a popsicle. He stood near the sink, while his mother washed his face. He sat on the edge of the counter and twirled the long ivory phone cord in his fingers while he talked to a friend. I closed my eyes and sucked in a harsh breath. "I feel terrible for not coming to see you sooner," I admitted with a rush. When I opened my eyes, I saw that Joy had lowered herself into a kitchen chair. I pulled out the chair opposite her, and sat too. "Isabella, there is no reason for you to feel badly." "But I do," I hurried. "You've always been so wonderful to me. But... I shut down. I wasn't here for you. I'm so very sorry." "You're here for me, now," Joy smiled. She reached forward and put her hands on top of mine. "I knew that you were hurting too. Everyone grieves in their own way." "I wish I had your strength," I admitted. "I don't understand where it comes from."

Joy leaned back and brushed a piece of hair away from her forehead with the flat of her hand. And then she smiled tiredly. "Faith," Joy said. "It comes from faith." I stared at her blankly and she continued. "My son... was a wonderful, strong, and loving man. I have faith that I'll see him again someday. And between now and then, I can't imagine a better angel to have on my side." My breath caught in my throat at the conviction stamped on her face and laced through her voice. A spark of hope flared inside me again, as I wrapped my heart around her words. "Thank you," I whispered. "I'll miss him every day," Joy added. "We all will. But Jasper didn't waste his time on this planet being sad. And he wouldn't want us to do that either. I think the best thing any of us can do to honor his memory... is to truly live. Live as he would have. Love... and laugh...." Joy's voice cracked. I knew that it was harder for her than she wanted to admit. But it would take time. "What were you doing before I came over?" I asked quickly. She blinked in surprise at the sudden turn in conversation. "I... I was just getting ready to peel apples and bake a pie. Mr. Smith brought over a whole bag of apples..." "Want some help?" I asked. Joy sighed and smiled widely. "Why don't we peel enough to bake two? I can take one over for your father, later." The scent of warm apples, baked sugar, and cinnamon floated heavy in the air through the Whitlock's open kitchen window when I finally said my goodbye to Joy at the back door. "I'll be home for Thanksgiving," I promised. "You better. I'll need your help cooking for all of these men!" With a kiss and a hug, I turned to go. But on a last minute whim, I walked deeper into the yard toward the tree house. Hand over hand, step by step, I climbed up into the small wooden room suspended in the tree. The objects that I had carried up on the evening of Edward's party were gone and the tree house was empty. I wrinkled my forehead, and wondered who might have removed the simple sleepover items. With a sigh, I laid back against the hard, rough wood floor. Jasper and I never did get to have one-last sleep over as we had planned. But I remembered another time we had slept together under this roof. Jazz munched on Cheetos and wiped the orange dust from his fingers onto his sleeping bag. I yawned loudly and shifted my back against the hard floor of the tree house. I was tired. It had

taken longer than usual for us to get settled in for the night. We had stayed up late on the Whitlock's floor, watching a comedy on the television with Jasper's parents before making our way outdoors for our sleep-over. "Do you think you'll ever get married?" I asked Jasper. I was still thinking of the movie we had watched, and the silliness of all of the wedding plans. "Probably," Jasper shrugged and threw the bag of snack-food into the corner away from him. "Most people do when they get old." "It looks like fun," I admitted. "After you get married, you can stay up as late as you want and you can go to work and stuff instead of going to school." "You just want a big white dress," Jasper teased. I scrunched up my face and stuck my tongue out. "You can be in my wedding," I told him. "You can wear a tuxedo... and you can be my Best Man." "The Best Man can only be on the men's side," Jasper scoffed at my lack of ceremonial knowledge. "The men stand on the men's side. The women stand on the women's side. That's the rule." "So?" I asked. "We can break the rules if we want. I say that you could be my Best Man!" "Well then... you can be my Best Man, too," Jasper grinned. "Since we're gonna break the rules anyway." "Okay," I grinned. "Pinky-swear?" Jasper stuck his hand out, and I quickly wrapped my pinky around his. We shook our hands up and down and solemnly vowed that someday, we would break the rules together. Then we laid back and nestled into our sleeping bags. The sound of the crickets outside acted as a lullaby, and I comfortably relaxed toward sleep. "Izzy?" Jasper whispered. I barely heard him. "Hmmm?" I mumbled. "I was just thinking..." "About what?" I asked. I just wanted to go to sleep. I was so close... "If you want me to be your Best Man at your wedding... you might have to talk with Edward about that. I mean... what if he wants me to be on the men's side?"

I didn't even have time to contemplate what he meant. I was already drifting to dream. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my bent knees. Rocking back and forth on my bottom, I grinned at the memory that had just come to me and stared at the painted letters on the back of the tree house door. Live for the Next Adventure. "Okay, Jazz," I whispered to the empty room. "I promise... I will." I grinned and made my way out of the tree house. I only had about an hour to get ready to leave. I prepared Charlie an easy dinner to eat when he returned from fishing, and wrapped it before placing it in the refrigerator. A quick note written and left on the table gave him microwave instructions for his meal, as well as a promise to talk soon. My clothing was already packed, and so I bustled around upstairs tidying my room and making sure that my bathroom essentials were stored away in my suitcase. And then it was time to go. I jumped back when I opened the door and was surprised by Edward standing with one upraised hand, ready to knock. He stood wearing a white v-neck t-shirt and a pair of jeans. His black sunglasses hid his eyes from me, but the crooked grin on his mouth caused me to smile in return. "Ready to go?" he asked. "Ready as I'll ever be," I replied. Edward nodded and bent to pick up my large suitcase. I slung my carry-on strap over my shoulder and followed him, closing the door softly behind me. I threw my bag into the back seat while Edward stowed my suitcase in his trunk. And then we both got into the car and began the drive to the airport. "Nice day for flying," Edward finally said, breaking the silence between us with a polite conversation-starter. I nodded and looked at the bright sunshine that filtered through the trees we drove past. "Are you looking forward to being back in Florida?" "Not really," I offered. "I mean... I'm kind of looking forward to some time away. To collect my bearings and figure out how to feel like myself again. But... if I hadn't promised Renee that I would be back, I would be happy to finish the summer in Forks. I love Washington. And I love...everyone here." Edward tapped his fingers on the top of the steering wheel and frowned while he nodded and stared straight ahead. "It will be good for you... to get away," Edward agreed softly. "It was nice of you to offer to bring me to the airport," I said. "I thought... it would be a good chance for us to have a little more time alone. To talk..."

I bit my lip and watched him. But though he claimed he wanted time to speak with me, he remained oddly quiet. He navigated through the traffic near the airfield while remaining pensive and silent. I sighed when he pulled up to the faded yellow curb in front of the passenger drop-off area. Ironically, it was the same location that Jasper had left the car to idle when I traveled away to school for the first time. Edward couldn't have known that. I glanced over at him, waiting for him to say something to indicate what was on his mind. Instead, he seemed hesitant while he pulled his sunglasses away from his face and concentrated on bending the arms over each other before dropping them to rest between us. Confused at his lack of voice, I opened my car door and got out. Edward moved quickly then, getting my suitcase from the trunk of the car while I got my bag from the back seat. It seemed that he wasn't going to say anything. And while other cars pulled up at the curb behind him, I knew we were running out of time. "Well... this is it," I said with false brightness. I kicked my toe against the yellow paint on the sidewalk and stuck my thumb underneath the strap on my shoulder. "I guess I'll see you at Thanksgiving... if you are around." Edward frowned and stared down at the sidewalk. His refusal to speak was making this harder for me than I wanted. I hated the thought of turning away from him... leaving so many things trapped inside my heart that I wanted to say. I closed my eyes and considered promises made. Then I moved forward and stood on tiptoes to press my lips to Edward's cheek while my hand rested on his arm. "I'll miss you. I love you," I whispered near his ear before I turned. The parting words were the same that I would have shared with Jasper, if given the chance to speak with him just one last time. And I refused to let the words remain unsaid now, when the opportunity presented itself for me to finally tell Edward about the place reserved for only him in my heart. My hand trailed down his arm as I moved to leave. But before my fingers dropped away, I was stopped by a strong grip that held me in place. I turned when I felt Edward wrap his hand around my wrist. The expression on his face was torn and conflicted. But he tugged me to him then, and pushed his free hand into the back of my hair before tipping my face up and pressing his lips to mine. I moaned quietly against him and squeezed my eyes to keep the tears at bay. If I had to say goodbye to Edward, I wanted it to be this way. I let Edward know that I loved him. And I knew he cared for me too. I could take the feeling of this moment away with me, and cherish it always. A loud car horn broke us apart, and Edward pressed his forehead to mine, breathing hard. "I've got to go," I whispered. "Don't," Edward finally spoke in a hushed voice. "Don't leave me."

My heart clenched harshly when I heard his pained plea. A car horn made me flinch and Edward cursed under his breath. "You need to move your car," I warned. "I don't care about the car," Edward bit out. "I need to tell you..." "What?" I asked, hearing the hope in my voice. "What do you need to tell me?" "HEY! No parking!" Someone shouted. "Give us a minute!" Edward growled back. I bit my lip and tried to get him to meet my eyes. "Edward?" I encouraged him. "When one of us gets separated from the group... the other two stick together. No matter what," Edward whispered. Pain lashed through me at the memory. "This isn't the county fair," I choked out. "You aren't obligated..." "I can't say goodbye to you both," he interrupted with a sudden exhale. "Please... Bella... Don't. Don't make me say goodbye to you both. I can't. I can't..." Edward dropped his head and his shoulders hunched forward. I understood his pain and anxiety then. With a sigh, I reached and pushed my fingers through the back of his hair. "We don't have to say goodbye," I told him. "I'll be home for the holidays. And... we can stay in touch. But, Edward?" He looked up and I saw the uncertainty in his eyes. "I'm sorry. If you are looking for a way to hang on to your brother...I... can't keep him here for you. I'm sorry... I just can't." I dropped my hand heavily and moved toward the airport doors, ready to leave. "Keep you here for me," Edward said strongly. My feet stopped beneath me, and I turned to face him. He ignored the building traffic behind him and moved closer to where I stood. "Keep you here for me," Edward repeated. "I love you Bella. I always have. I've just learned recently... that I'm doing it differently now." A sob caught in my throat and my carry-on landed loudly on the ground by my feet when I ran the few steps necessary to bridge the gap between us. Edward threw his arms around my waist, and lifted me against his chest, spinning us both and kissing me soundly. Tears ran unchecked down my cheeks, and his thumbs brushed them away when he finally placed me back on my feet. "Come with me, back to the car," he smiled. I grinned, silly and breathless and overflowing with the re-found faith that had somehow been lost along the way. But my feet hesitated while he pulled me back toward the curb.

"I can't..." I shook my head then. My head was spinning with the new revelation that Edward actually loved me and wanted me with him. "I promised Renee. She postponed her vacation... I need to get back." "Just come with me so I can park the car," Edward insisted. "I'm going with you." "What?" I literally felt dizzy from the rapid turn of events. Edward chuckled and pulled my hand. My feet followed this time, and I let him lead me until I was sitting in his car once more. Edward checked behind us, and pulled away from the curb with a grin on his face. I watched, surprised, as he pulled into a parking garage across the street designated for travelers. "I'm going with you," Edward shrugged. I got out of the car and watched as Edward pulled another suitcase from his trunk. He turned then and grabbed my hand, before he started walking quickly back toward the doors where I had left my own luggage. "You... packed?" I asked breathlessly. Edward chuckled. "I got a ticket on your flight earlier. And yes... I already packed." "But... how did you know?" I stubbornly stopped and turned to look at him. We stood near the yellow curb once more. Thankfully, my forgotten luggage sat a few feet away, waiting for me. "I didn't," Edward confessed. "But a very smart person I know once told me that the key to living for the next adventure is not letting opportunities pass you by. I wasn't sure you loved me Bella. I hoped... but I wasn't sure. I just knew I would follow you if I had to. I would follow you anywhere, until I convinced you that we should be together." I reached up a hand to him then, and touched his cheek. "I love you," I said simply. It felt good to finally be able to say it out loud. Edward smiled widely and pressed his lips to mine for another quick kiss. I wasn't sure where the future might lead us. We needed time to grieve. And we needed time to grow. I had another year of college to look forward to in Florida, and Edward would be studying for the Bar exam in Washington state. You can't plan the next adventure. You just have to be willing to grab it and go for it when you see it. At least now I had faith that Edward and I would be doing that together.

25. Epilogue

The salty sea air and crashing surf relaxed me as it always did. I wished it was a little warmer, so we could stay longer. The sinking sun indicated that the best part of the afternoon warmth was already behind us. Still I sat, reluctant to stop the quiet strum of the guitar beside me. My eyes looked fondly at the faded initials 'J.W' that were burnt into the neck of the guitar. Jasper's thin fingers brushed up and down the strings, finding the chords he sought for the song he was teaching himself to play. He had always been very musical. When his hands hesitated, I looked up. His gaze was fixed on Edward's tall figure, closer to the water. Edward stood and drew lines in the wet sand with a stick. His pants were rolled up to his calves while the icy water brushed his heels. The wind pulled at his hair, and I inwardly considered how beautiful he was. "You can go with him, if you want to," Jasper told me. "I won't be mad." I grinned and shook my head. "I'd rather listen to you play," I said. He nodded and smiled before tipping his chin down and resuming his quiet strumming. Soon enough, Edward tossed his stick into the ocean and trudged up the beach to join us. He sat heavily on the blanket at Jasper's opposite side. I smiled when Edward picked up the tune Jasper was playing, and sang along with his accompaniment. "We should go soon," Edward said when the song finished. "It's getting late." I bit my lip and nodded. It was always hard to see the end of such a great day. "Do I have time for one more, Dad?" Jasper turned his green eyes up to look at his father. Edward looked over to where I sat. "Ask your Mom," Edward said. He already knew what my answer would be. "One more?" Jasper asked. I reached to ruffle his wayward hair. "Yeah. One more," I sighed. "But then we really do need to go. Our new neighbors moved in today, and I want to stop by with some cookies." "I wonder if they have any kids?" Jasper asked. I glanced once more at Edward who sat with a wide smile on his face. "You should be so lucky," Edward smiled. His hand inched towards mine, and we twisted our fingers together on the blanket behind Jasper while he played one more song.

~*~

The End