"Thanks for giving me another chance, Bella. I know I don't deserve it, but…"
"Yeah, okay. Now how about you let me go?" I giggled, trying to squirm out of his arms.
He held me tighter. "Nope, I don't think so." His voice was light and happy.
"Ja-ake," I whined, nearly leaning onto my elbows as I tried to keep my balance in his enthusiastic embrace.
I was about to tickle him in an attempt to free myself when his body weight was suddenly gone. Jake, who had been kneeling in front of me, was now falling sideways onto the ground.
I looked up to see Edward grinning at me.
"Need a hand, Bella?"
"What the hell, Cullen?" Jake yelled, leaping to his feet.
"Just helping Bella get up. Sorry if you were in front of her. I guess you can't help yourself today," Edward said, shrugging.
Jake took a threatening step closer. "I apologized. What more do you want?" he hissed. "It probably didn't matter, anyway; that judge has seen us both before. Why don't you just admit that you're pissed off you didn't win and aren't number one…as usual? So sorry to mess up your otherwise perfect life."
Edward grimaced and shook his head. "Jake…"
"You know I'm right. You've always had to have it all: the best grades, the best horse…the best girl…"
Edward glanced at me with an odd expression, and I felt a flutter in my stomach. "What are we talking about here? If you're still going to blame me for something that wasn't my fault—"
"I know what I saw!"
"I didn't kiss her!" Edward exploded. "When will you get it through your thick fucking skull that she started it!"
"Bullshit! But…for a moment, let's say I believe you…why didn't you end it, then?"
"Well, I…she…" he drew a hand through his disheveled hair and frowned. He looked at me again, and I stared back, trying to figure out what he wasn't saying.
"Exactly," Jake sneered, bringing my attention back to him. "Tanya told me how you—"
"Tanya's a lying bitch!" Edward interrupted angrily. "She would say anything to come away looking good. That's all she cares about at the end of the day."
"Well, then maybe you two would have been perfect together, after all. You're both attention whores."
"Me?" Edward gasped, incredulous. "You're the one who talked shit about me to the entire school and played the 'Edward Cullen is a backstabbing asshole' card to get in with Mike and Tyler. You always wanted to be one of the popular kids." He rolled his eyes.
"Maybe that's because I was sick of being your pathetic sidekick when you couldn't see past your own ego. You were…are…too wrapped up in yourself."
The two of them formed mirror images—only a few feet away from each other, leaning in, hands clenched into fists, muscles twitching in readiness for a fight.
I had been wildly curious to hear their views of the Tanya incident but didn't want to see them come to blows. I glanced around us and noticed a few nervous onlookers.
"Um, guys? Maybe you should go back to your horses and get ready for the next class?" I suggested tentatively. "It's probably not a good idea to get into a fight here…or at all, actually…"
"I'm not so sure about that," Edward muttered. He did, however, take a step back.
Jake looked as if he agreed with Edward but also moved away and relaxed his rigid posture. My own tension eased when they were finally outside of striking distance. After staring them both in the eyes to make sure the threat of violence was gone, I turned to walk away. I really needed a few moments to myself before rejoining their families in the stands.
"Bella, can I talk to you for a few more minutes?" It was Jake, and he spoke in a soft, pleading voice. "At my trailer?"
I paused reluctantly and looked over my shoulder at him. The expression on his face was one I'd seen before—a mixture of hope and fear.
Edward stood frozen, waiting for my answer. I cast him an apologetic look and then faced Jake.
"As long as it's only a few minutes," I told him. "We do need to have a longer talk, but now isn't the time."
His eyes studied me for a long moment, and then his body seemed to collapse in on itself. "Yeah…I know." He sounded defeated, and I winced.
With a final, resigned glance at Edward, Jake turned and walked toward a row of horse trailers, not even looking to see if I was following. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them again, Edward was standing in front of me.
As usual, my body reacted in all sorts of embarrassing ways. I was so preoccupied with trying to keep my outward appearance calm that I missed the hesitancy in his features until I heard it in his voice.
"Don't make a choice you might regret," Edward murmured. "He's not entirely wrong about me."
Of course he departed without saying anything further. I was beginning to realize that, among his many other talents, Edward was skilled at being frustratingly cryptic.
Refusing to get lost in this latest riddle, I hurried off in the direction Jake had gone. His truck and trailer were parked at the very end of the row, and by the time I got to him, he had already unclipped Alpha from where the horse was secured to the outside of the trailer.
"You…wanted to talk to me?" I finally said after several minutes watching him silently prepare for his final class.
"You like him a lot, don't you." He wasn't asking a question.
I was surprised by his directness and gaped at the back of his head as he spritzed fly spray over Alpha's dark coat. "Jake, I don't think that—"
I was going to tell him that it wasn't the time or place for such a discussion, but he talked over my protest.
"It's nothing I haven't gone through before, Bella," he stated matter-of-factly, even though I could hear an undertone of pain. "I'm getting good at reading the signs. But this time, I won't let it go as far; I'm taking my hat out of the ring before it gets stomped on."
Jake put his foot into the left stirrup and swung into the saddle. His eyes flitted to my face for just a moment, and he chuckled grimly to himself. "As if I ever had a shot in the first place."
I stood there, staring at him and Alpha as they jogged toward the arena, until they were small figures intermingled among the others. So many warring emotions were assaulting my body, but the overarching feeling was sadness for Jake. I did like him as a friend, and despite the morning's misjudgment, I thought he was a good guy. What he was trying to do for his dad was wonderful, and I couldn't imagine the pressure he was under. I felt ashamed for being absorbed in my own petty concerns when his were so real.
I wanted Jake to be happy, and a tiny part of me wished that I could return his apparent affection. But he was right: during those occasions when Edward wasn't acting like a jerk, there was no competition. No one else stood a chance.
"Class number 54, Youth Western Equitation Walk/Jog/Lope, Group A, please enter the arena."
Every step I took toward the arena was slower than the one before. I was very tempted to start walking in the direction of home and have Mom pick me up on the road. Now, the thought of watching Jake and Edward compete filled me with nausea. My heart wanted Edward to win, but my head understood that Jake would benefit more from the blue ribbon and resulting championship. Either way, one of the two people I was beginning to care a lot about would be hurt, and I didn't look forward to it.
My misery had plenty of company, and I was sure the Cullens and Mr. Black felt it much more acutely than I did. As I took my seat in the stands beside Mrs. Cullen, I noticed she was gripping her husband's hand so hard that he looked uncomfortable. Mr. Black drummed his fingers on leg, and I began to alternate between biting my lip and chewing on the tip of my thumb.
There was a moment of reprieve when "little" Paul Meraz again won first place on the horse Mr. Black had sold to him. The announcer further named him the show's Youth, Group A, division Grand Champion for collecting the most points during the three Youth A classes of the day. We all stood up and made a commotion as he received his class blue ribbon and the much larger, more ornate Grand Champion Ribbon. It was mounted on a blue, red, and yellow sash designed to be placed around his horse's neck.
And then Paul and his horse were leaving the arena, and then the participants in the next class began filing in, and then Mrs. Cullen's other hand was clutching one of mine.
"Es, you realize the odds are against him. This judge likes Alpha over Emmett as a Pleasure horse."
I tried not to grimace as Mrs. Cullen's fingers tightened even further.
"I know, I know…I just hate the suspense. I'd rather be in there showing versus sitting out here watching and waiting."
"That would require you to actually sit on a horse," Mr. Black laughed.
"You don't ride?" I asked, a little surprised. She seemed so knowledgeable that I assumed she was also a horseperson.
Dr. Cullen snorted. "My dear wife is actually afraid of the beasts."
"I am not!" she protested, releasing my hand to pinch him on the leg. "I simply prefer animals that are not so large and dangerous. Something that can't break my foot if it accidentally steps on it."
"What about you, Dr. Cullen?"
"He's not much better!" Mr. Black chimed in with a devious glint in his eye. "It took me years to convince him to try it, and he whined the whole five minutes he was in the saddle."
"Sorry if I prefer my horses under a hood," the doctor grumbled. "It's a lot more comfortable that way."
"Shh! The class is starting." Mrs. Cullen's face was ashen, and I saw her husband wince. I hoped he didn't need his hand for any surgeries in the near future.
There were seven horses in the arena, and I already felt sorry for a yet-to-be-identified seventh place finisher—ribbons were only awarded to sixth place. Thankfully, I was sure that neither Edward nor Jake would be the rider left in the arena after everyone else had collected their prize and departed.
This time, Alpha and Emmett were on opposite sides of the ring. There would be no interaction between the two, but the distance made it more difficult to compare them. As far as I could tell, both horses moved at about the same speed—fairly slow—and were quietly obedient. Their bodies were relaxed, yet not lazy, and their strides flowed smoothly. Emmett, with his more prominent muscles and stout frame, looked as if he would never tire. Alpha, on the other hand, was lean and leggy, and his fluid movement suggested no wasted energy.
My head turned back and forth as I compared the two, and I noticed that the judge's gaze frequently made the same journey. She scribbled something on her clipboard every once in a while as she studied all the horse and rider teams.
Finally, the horses were asked to line up in the center of the arena. My thumbs were sore from the anxious gnawing I had done, so I switched to my index fingers. But when the judge pointed at both Jake and Edward and then to the rail, my mouth hung open.
"What's going on? What does that mean?"
"Looks like she isn't sure how she's going to place these two," Mr. Black replied in tense voice. "She'll probably ask to see some extra stuff to help her choose."
Sure enough, the announcer called for an extended jog. Both horses smoothly transitioned into the lengthened gait, their strides covering more ground as they traveled. A minute later, they were instructed to halt. Alpha stopped so quickly that Jake's hat tipped forward, while Emmett's halt took a beat longer but was executed more smoothly. The announced asked them to back up, and again, Alpha sped backward as if trying to win a race, while Emmett moved more slowly but in a more flowing fashion. They halted, and the judge signaled for them to return to the lineup.
"They both were perfect. It all comes down to what the judge likes most," Mr. Black said, almost apologetically.
"So subjective," I murmured sadly.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Mrs. Cullen nodding her head. "Yes, but that's how it goes. The only thing you can do is figure out what each judge likes, and then try to adapt."
"But that can backfire if your horse gets confused or isn't comfortable with the changes you're making." Mr. Black said. "It's a risk that some shouldn't take."
"Or won't," I mumbled to myself, thinking of Edward's strict adherence to the guidelines. It was admirable in some respects, but also just plain stubborn.
I was grateful for the adults' gentle forewarning. When there were only three left in the ring—Alpha, Emmett, and a small chestnut-colored horse—we all seemed to breathe a little easier. It was practically anticlimactic when Edward was called as the second place winner.
We clapped and hollered, Mr. Black loudest of all. Edward received his ribbon graciously and dipped his head toward the stands to acknowledge our cheers. Still, I could see his mouth was drawn in a thin line as he accepted the red Reserve Champion sash and jogged out of the arena.
I had the urge to run to him but stayed seated along with everyone else so that we could yell for Jake's class and Grand Champion wins. He smiled and tipped his hat at us, but his whole demeanor was reserved. I wondered if he was feeling guilty about his earlier unsportsmanlike actions or if he was trying not to gloat in front of the Cullens.
We followed Jake and Alpha back to their trailer to congratulate him in person. Mrs. Cullen whispered to me that Edward preferred to have a little time to himself after "losses." He wasn't satisfied with anything less than first place.
"Great job, Son!" Mr. Black boomed as Jake began untacking Alpha. He removed the saddle and used a sponge to wipe the sweat marks from the horse's coat.
"You rode really well today, Jake," Mrs. Cullen added, stopping him for a quick kiss on the cheek. "You and Alpha make quite the team."
"Thanks, everyone," Jake replied. He looked at Cullens, his expression slightly embarrassed. "Edward did, too. Rode well, I mean."
"I'm sure you'll tell him that, right?" Mr. Black said sternly.
Jake's eyes dropped to the ground. "Of course, Dad."
The Cullens hung around for a little longer, making small talk with father and son. When they addressed a question to Mr. Black, I edged closer to Jake.
"Congrats, Jake," I told him quietly. "Alpha looked great out there."
"Thanks," he said tersely.
I sighed. "You're mad at me, aren't you?"
"No." He was facing Alpha and didn't look at me. "But I hope you're not expecting me to be happy about…this." To his side, his finger made a motion back and forth between me and the direction of Edward's trailer.
I kicked at the ground with my foot. I didn't think there was a "this" with Edward and me yet, but I really wanted it to happen. Today's short interactions had given me more hope.
"So…now what? Is it going to weird between us for the rest of the school year?"
"I dunno, Bella. But it's not like me and Cullen are going to hang out, so if you two start dating or whatever, I doubt you'll have any time for me."
"I don't even know if…" I trailed off. It wasn't like I could discuss with Jake my confusion over how Edward felt about me.
"Look, I'm pretty tired and want to get Alpha home. We'll figure it out later." He untied the lead rope from the trailer and turned. "Just let me know by the end of the week if you still want to go to Homecoming…with me," he said, his gaze averted to the ground.
"Okay," I replied softly and stepped aside as he led Alpha to ramp of the trailer.
When I looked toward the Cullens, I noticed that they were waiting for me. I said goodbye to Mr. Black and walked toward them.
"We're going to check in with Edward," Dr. Cullen said. "You're more than welcome to come along, but unfortunately, I doubt he'll good company right now."
I hesitated before answering. I did want to see him, but in addition to general cowardice, I had an aversion to conflict. If Edward was pissy, I'd rather stay away.
"I'll just see him in school tomorrow. Could you give him my congratulations, though?"
Dr. Cullen nodded. "Of course, Bella. And thanks for cheering with us today. I'm so glad I finally got to meet you."
I returned his warm smile. "Same here."
"Is Renee on her way to pick you up?" Mrs. Cullen asked.
"I'm going to text her to come get me."
"That's silly!" she exclaimed. "Carlisle and I can take you home. There's no reason for her to make the trip."
"Well…if you're sure…"
"I insist. Why don't you have a seat on the bleachers? It'll only take us a few minutes to say goodbye to Edward, then we'll get the car and bring it over."
Hand-in-hand, they strolled off to see their son. I smiled at the image they made. Edward had been right: he was lucky to have such wonderful parents.
Once my message letting Mom know about my ride home had been sent, I settled on one of the wooden benches and watched as people loaded their horses and packed up their belongings. The sounds of neighs, snorts, and hooves on ramps filled the air, and I had to admit that it was all starting to feel comfortably familiar. I didn't consider myself a horseperson, but the equestrian world was growing on me.
Mr. Black drove his rig by and honked as he passed. Sitting in the passenger seat, Jake was slumped against his door and seemed to be asleep. I knew how tiring it was just to prepare for a show, and by the time you got home after a day of classes, rest was the only thing on your mind. But the horses came first, and they had to be tended to before your day was truly over.
I was looking for one of the Cullens' sedans, so when a silver truck pulled close to the bleachers, I paid no attention. But then the driver-side window opened.
"Would you like to ride back with me?"
I stared at Edward as I tried to find the voice that had suddenly departed my throat.
A Mercedes Benz drove up beside the truck. "It was all his idea," Dr. Cullen called out his window. "Apparently, he's not as cranky as we feared."
"Carlisle!" I heard Mrs. Cullen admonish. "Hush! It's embarrassing to him when you say things like that."
Edward just rolled his eyes at his parents and gave me a small grin. "They wouldn't let me ask you unless I promised to be on my very best behavior."
I tried to respond, but nothing came out of my mouth. He must have assumed I was trying to decline because the corners of his mouth turned down. "It's probably better if you ride with them, though. I'm covered in dirt and smell like a horse."
I couldn't stand knowing I caused that unhappy look on his face.
"But I like when you're dirty, remember?" I blurted out. "I'll take a ride from you!"
I heard a snort from Dr. Cullen and another shush from his wife. "We'll see you at home, Edward," he called out as the car started forward. "Bye, Bella!"
I was getting so used to making an ass of myself in front of Edward that I barely blushed after the latest offense. I hung my head and shook it slowly as I walked around to the passenger side of the Ford F-150. A blast of air conditioning welcomed me into the cabin and masked the sound of my sigh. At least this vehicle had an automatic transmission so I didn't have to worry about making any accidental stick references.
Our familiar friend, Awkward Silence, was present again as Edward pulled out onto Route 66. I toyed with the strap of my messenger bag and tried to think of something safe to talk about.
"You know," Edward began, "I don't have a perfect memory, but I'm pretty sure you said that you didn't mind getting dirty. You never mentioned that you liked me that way."
So much for a safe topic.
I groaned. In the grand scheme of things, that blunder hardly registered as a 1.0 on the Bella Scale of personal mortification. His mentioning it only served to irritate me.
"Yeah, well, now you know," I muttered.
"You must like me a lot right now, given how filthy I am."
I was looking out my window, but I could just imagine that an eyebrow waggle was accompanying his suggestive tone. Earlier in the day, I might have stuttered some unintentionally inappropriate response or turned a crimson red, but all the stress and drama had numbed me.
"Yeah, you're disgusting, and I love it." My sarcasm was so dry that my voice sounded more robotic than human. "An absolute pig."
From the corner of my eye, I saw Edward turn his head toward me.
"Um, Bella? You know I'm just joking with you, right?"
"Yeah, I get it. Let's make fun of the girl with explosive diarrhea of the mouth. Ha ha."
"Okay, that was a pretty gross mental image." I heard him sigh. "Sorry, it's just that…well, it's cute when you get all flustered and tongue-tied."
"Cute?" I scoffed. "Yeah, right."
"Seriously! I think it's really…adorable."
"Great, cute and adorable. I sound like a freaking Disney woodland creature." I was in an especially raw mood.
Edward burst out laughing. "The snappy side of you isn't quite as cute, but it's funny as hell."
"You can go to hell." Wow. I just bitched at my boy crush—maybe I was the one PMSing now. I'd have to check my Pill pack when I got home to see if I should expect cramps. Going on birth control had helped my symptoms, but I still felt achy from time to time.
I glanced to my left, where Edward was fighting a fit of hysterics. I wondered if he should pull over to let it pass, but there no shoulder on this part of the winding country "highway," regardless.
"I'm surprised your parents let you drive the trailer by yourself," I commented in hopes of distracting him from his amusement.
It worked. He straightened in his seat and pushed a hand through his hair. "I've got a lot of experience. We have a lawn tractor that I've been using since I was 11, and I've driven a truck on our property for years. In middle school, I was big into racing go-karts but gave it up to focus on academics. Dad's taken me with him to attend sessions at a Skip Barber Racing School since I was 15. So yeah, they trust me behind the wheel."
"That explains the car magazines," I mumbled to myself. "I'm surprised you compete in the slowest of the riding classes instead of the speed events."
"Actually, Pleasure classes have bored me for years. I wouldn't even enter if it weren't for—" He abruptly broke off and switched tracks. "The Trail and Reining classes are much more interesting, and Emmett prefers them, too. I didn't enter today because they don't count toward division points, and I wanted to focus on Youth B." He scowled. "Which we lost, of course."
I bit back a standard consolatory reply. I was positive he didn't want to hear it. Neither of us said anything for a few minutes as we neared our two houses.
"Do you mind if I get Emmett home and settled before dropping you off? After a show, I hate keeping him in the trailer any longer than necessary."
I didn't think that the five minutes it took to swing around to my house—though our properties touched, we were on different streets—would make that much of a difference, but I agreed to wait. Despite myself, his playful teasing had caused those tingles of desire to spark and grow. I could stand hanging around him for a little longer.
As Edward unloaded Emmett and prepared him for turnout, I situated myself under the same tree I'd chosen the first time I was here. Although the seasons had officially changed a week ago, summer didn't want to let go. The shade was a welcome break from the late afternoon heat, and I felt all my muscles relax as I slumped against the tree trunk.
Through heavily-lidded eyes, I saw Emmett, wet from a hose-down, gallop to a patch of bare dirt and lower himself to the ground. AJ, the black pony, scampered to his side and also folded his little legs beneath him. Both animals rolled onto their backs and kicked their hooves to the sky.
I smiled as they rubbed their backs along the ground and whickered in obvious pleasure. The blissful sight was made even better when Edward walked out of the barn in his white undershirt, which was damp and clinging to his skin. From my inconspicuous nest in the grass, I watched as he set to work cleaning out the back of the trailer. He kept pulling the soggy shirt away from his body, and I could only think one thing.
Take it off, take it off, take it off.
The chant droned in my mind like a lullaby, and I slipped in and out of several contented catnaps. After one particularly pleasant stretch of semi-consciousness, I opened my eyes to find green ones staring from only a short distance away beside me. My brain, dense and fuzzy from sleep, was thrilled to find out that its wish of shirtlessness had been granted. It commanded my hands to reach out explore the naked chest that begged to be touched, and they happily complied.
Those beautiful emerald eyes blinked rapidly in surprise.
"Uh, Bella? What are you doing?"
When the fog finally rolled out of my head, I realized that my hands were now moving down from his chest to his abdomen. In the span of a second, horror, mortification, excitement, and lust ripped through me in turns. Edward must have seen it all on my face because a smirk appeared on his perfect lips.
I decided to settle on resigned determination as my fingers grazed over the subtle ridges of his stomach. Might as well make the most of the situation.
"I'm pretty sure I'm doing something stupid, as usual," I sighed, pulling my reluctant hands away from the smooth, tanned skin. "Is it asking too much to hope that you thought it was cute?"
"Cute? Definitely not cute." His voice was low and husky, and the gravelly sound made me suck in a shaky breath of air.
At first, I thought it was imagination when the green seemed to be getting darker and closer. I wetted my lips nervously.
"No?" I all but squeaked.
A hand moved above my body and touched down in the grass on the other side of me. Now that delicious chest was hovering inches above mine. I suddenly wished I had worn one of my new camis or something else that exposed a lot more skin.
"No," he stated firmly. By now, his mouth was nearly touching mine. "Do you mind if I do something stupid...to even the score?"
For a moment, I was terrified that my voice wouldn't work again, and I'd lose my chance forever.
The word came out in a strangled whisper. At least I answered, even though I sounded like the desperately horny, completely infatuated teenager that I was. I had another surge of empathy for my poor horse. Maybe Emmett was the horse equivalent of an Edward.
When our lips finally met, all thoughts—including those of my cock-blocked mare—flew out of my mind.
Edward Cullen was giving me my First Kiss, and there was no way in hell I was going to miss a moment of it.