Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight.

Thanks to SunflowerFran for betaing this story and luvtwilight4eva for pre-reading.

Thanks to Jonesn and all those who judged/validated the contest and to those readers who read/reviewed/voted.


Everything important in my life I learned from my father.

Carl Cullen taught me many things. He taught me how to hunt, taught me how to fish, taught me how to work with my hands and never to rely on hiring another man to fix or build anything I could fix or build myself. The skills in this life weren't taught by his voice. My father rarely spoke. No, he taught me by doing these things himself and allowing me to watch.

One important thing he taught me was land lines. Before he died, Pa was a well-respected land surveyor in our rural community. From the time I was able to walk, I was following him through the woods, hauling his instruments on my back. My wobbly knees jumped many a creek and waded through hundreds of sloughs back in the day. My knowledge of land lines was what led me to meet Bella Swan one cold, December morning.

Twigs and broken limbs popped and crunched under my heavy, camouflage boots. They were my favorite ones; insulated to protect my feet from creek water and the cold winter chill. I had them just about broken in too, a fact that pleased me. It didn't take much to make me happy, never being a man to want more in life than I deserved.

Well-worn boots made me happy.

The gun strapped to my back made me happy, as well. Long and lean, much like me, it held more power than some folks gave it credit for. Shaking my head, I thought of old Waylon, a friend of my Pa's, who enjoyed getting liquored up before a big hunt. That's before he accidentally shot himself while removing his gun from inside his truck, God rest his soul.

A break in the trees told me my stand was straight ahead. Many a day was spent nailing two-by-fours up the tall oak that held the wooden structure. Excitement brewed in my belly. The thought of a nice-sized spread on a giant buck made my fingers twitch. Taking deep, slow breaths, I tried to talk myself out of the eagerness spreading through my limbs. Twitching fingers on the trigger of a gun never amounted to much of anything good.

Before I could reach the stand, I paused, hearing a voice carried by the wind. Such sounds in the woods weren't an unusual thing, but they rarely ended up being human; birds and other animals mostly, but rarely human. The sound I heard definitely came from a person.

Curiosity set in, and I followed the sound of the feminine voice. A deep baritone joined in, and I knew immediately the woman wasn't alone. My land was ten acres of prime, Louisiana soil, situated next to an abandoned house on the adjoining land, but no one had lived there for years.

Once the voices stopped, I knew whoever was chatting heard my approach. I shifted my gun strap on my shoulder, hoping the Johnson boys weren't sneaking around with their girlfriends and drinking on my land again. I'd found many beer cans and cigarette butts scattered on the corner of my property over the years. A night vision camera I used to photograph deer came in handy in catching the two teenage fuckers. Trespassing charges were filed and their daddy and I ain't been cordial with one another since I threatened to kill his sons if they ever cut my barbed wire fence again.

Two people came into view the closer I walked to the rusted fence separating my property from the one next door. A woman stood near the old oak where my parents' names were once deeply carved. Time and growth of the old tree had mostly caused them to fade away, but they were still there, if I squinted hard enough.

The woman looked to be in her mid-twenties, possibly twenty-four or twenty-five. Her dark hair was partly hidden under a knit toboggan, the same kind my granny used to knit. Its fine rich color spilled out onto a brown, leather coat. Big, wary eyes followed my every step.

The fellow standing quietly by her side observed my approach, as well. The man resembled the girl in a remarkable way: pale skin, dark hues to his hair and eyes, and the pair were short in stature. Both were full of curves, but the woman had them in all the right places, hips, thighs and ass. Succulent was the first word that came to mind. Bitch was the second. Any and all appealing qualities flew out the window the moment she opened her pretty little mouth.

"Who are you, and what are to doing with that gun?

Her northern accent, and the demanding way she spoke caught me off guard. Narrowing my eyes, I closed the distance between us until the rusty, sagging fence was the only thing separating us three.

"I'm Edward Cullen. This here is my property. And I was planning on shooting a hoss of a buck today, but I'm sure your big mouth's done gone and scared all the deer away."

Redness crept up from the little exposed cleavage I could see under her jacket. The color seeped upward, tinting her cheeks in an angry pink. Licking her lips, she took a step forward, closer to the fence line. Towering over her, I stared down into her narrowed eyes.

"Well, I'm Bella Swan," she said. "And 'this here's' my property. So is the three feet of land you're standing on, according to the deed my father's holding."

"I doubt that." I laughed, narrowing my eyes, as well. "My Pa surveyed this land. He was the best surveyor around these parts."

"Maybe your 'Pa' made a mistake." She smirked; seemingly pleased with the garbled Southern accent she mocked me with. "I heard he was an old man when he surveyed this land. I'm sure his eyesight wasn't what it once was."

Fury enveloped me.

No one insulted my father.

No one tainted the reputation he spent his life building.

No one.

"Carl Cullen never made a mistake on a survey." I spit on the ground, more out of habit than anger. My action caused the girl to flinch; her reaction made me laugh.

"What's wrong, darling? Never seen a man spit before?" I asked.

"You're disgusting." She sneered. "I can't live next door to a Neanderthal like you. Spitting and carrying around a gun."

"And I can't live next door to some uptight Yankee who doesn't know when to keep her pretty little mouth shut."

Bella's mouth dropped open, and I gloated.

"See?" I laughed. "Can't keep it closed, can you darling?"

The pinkness of her cheeks cascaded into a flustered crimson. Before she could come up with a quick retort, her father finally spoke.

"Charlie Swan," he said. He offered the hand not holding the stapled, white papers. "Father of the uptight Yankee. I'm sure this is just a simple misunderstanding Mr. Cullen."

I accepted his gesture of kindness, matching his firm shake with one of my own. Dropping it, I easily corrected him. "Misunderstanding on y'all's behalf, I'm sure. Guess our next meeting will be in court, Ms. Swan."


Bella Swan began moving into the house next door, two days later. Sitting on the rocker on my front porch, I watched the moving trucks come and go. Only a dense patch of trees separated my cabin from the brick house next door. The view grew tiresome as night approached with no signs of the brown-eyed girl.

I told myself I watched for her because I was bored with my surroundings in the small, sleepy town in which I lived. I told myself I watched for her because I was waiting for the constable to be serving my papers. I tried to convince myself that I watched that house for a million reasons other than the truth.

And the truth was, Bella Swan was pretty.

She was loud and annoying as hell, she spoke too soon, and about shit she didn't know. Not to mention her attitude got under my skin; made it crawl and itch.

And dammit, she was pretty.

I almost had the elusive Ms. Swan out of my head, until my high school buddy, Tyler Crowley, brought her up a few days later.

"I hear you got a new neighbor," Tyler said with a knowing grin, late one Friday night.

I barely heard him over old Hank crooning from the speakers of my Chevy. Someone had constructed a bonfire, and it was ablaze, the flames licking the night sky. Guys and girls I graduated high school with were crowded around the fire; dumb folks like me who never made it out of town, or did make a life outside of town only to return with their tails tucked between their legs.

Glancing around at the familiar faces, I recognized how different we had all become from the kids we once were in high school. Time and experience had aged our bodies and our faces. Jessica Stanley's tits weren't as perky and round as they once were, and most of her pregnancy weight remained behind, almost five years after the birth of her child. Mike Newton's hair was thinning out, leaving a receding hairline past the lingering expression lines of his forehead. The tale-tell shine of his scalp reflected off the nearby fire, reminding us that none of us were immortal.

But there was one constant, one thing that hadn't changed over the years, and that was Tyler Crowley and his horn-dogging ways.

Tyler cracked open a silver can of beer and took a deep pull. I was glaring at him when he lowered the can. Laughing, he tilted the can in the direction of the house next door.

"Why didn't you tell me about the lovely Ms. Swan?" he asked. "Trying to keep her all to yourself?"

"If you think you can handle that loudmouth, Yankee bitch, be my guest." I huffed and dug around in the cooler situated in the back of my truck.

"Whoa, Edward Cullen just called a lady a bitch. That's not very gentlemanly." Tyler was baiting me, using my normally polite ways to taunt me.

"That ain't no lady," I said, cracking open a beer of my own. "Bella Swan is a first-class bitch."

Chips of ice slid down the cold sides of the can, wetting the scruff on my chin. Using the back of my sleeve, I wiped the ice and condensation away with the thick, cotton flannel of my shirt.

"So you wouldn't mind if I tapped that ass?" he questioned, nodding in a different direction.

Confused, I turned my head to glance down my driveway. The white light of a flashlight bobbed up and down, casting shadows over the deeply embedded rocks I needed to grate with my tractor. Glow from the nearby bonfire set her face alight, bathing her body in soft orange. Once her glare settled on me, I noticed the determination set in her angular jaw and the angry way her eyebrows were drawn together.

Black pajama bottoms dotted with red, green, and white candy-canes hid the silky flesh of her legs, her skin only visible in my dreams. The knit cap was gone. Her hair was pulled into a sloppy ponytail, and her face scrubbed clean, her natural beauty needing none of that shit women put on their face.

The same leather coat she wore the first day we met did little to cover her tits, which bounced beneath the material of a fitted, black shirt. If she was aware of the way her breasts jiggled and nipples strained with the movement of her feet, she didn't show it.

In other words, she was breathtaking.

Climbing the steep drive, her eyes latched onto mine and never let go. Sipping my beer, I relaxed my shoulders, trying to appear nonchalant with her uninvited presence, but it was all a ruse. I was wound up tighter than Dick's hatband, as my Pa would say. And I wanted nothing more than a good argument with her, followed immediately by laying her down in my bed and kissing the frown off her face. Blinking my eyes, I chuckled to myself and finished my beer.

I'd obviously lost my damn mind.

As she closed the distance between us, people turned and stared curiously at the curvy brunette. Rocks scattered around her feet, as her dogged footsteps halted only inches away from me. I crushed the beer can in one hand before carelessly tossing it into the bed of my truck. Aluminum clanked against metal, and she cringed at the sound.

"To what do I owe the honor of your presence, Ms. Swan?" I asked in a sarcastically formal voice, clearly drunk. Hell, I'd been drunk since five-thirty in the afternoon.

It was a Friday, after all.

"Are you aware that it's well after midnight, Mr. Cullen?" she asked, just as formal. Bella tilted her chin up and raised her eyebrows in a condescending manner. The words were funny coming out of her mouth, considering she was wearing candy cane pajamas and fuzzy boots.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Tyler said, removing his cap to reveal a black mop of messed hair. "Ed's lost his manners, so I'll introduce myself. I'm Tyler Crowley."

Tyler pressed the cap to his chest and offered his hand. Bella stared down at it for a few seconds, gazing at it in a way that a fellow might stare at a snake. Shaking her head, she waved his hand away with a careless flick of her wrist.

"Nice to meet you," she said, brusquely. "Mr. Cullen, would you mind terribly if I asked you to turn this horrid music down a bit lower— or completely off? That would be even better. Also, the traffic coming and going in and out of your drive this late at night is absolutely uncalled for. Revving engines … loud music; this isn't high school, you know."

I stared at her dumbly for a minute, flabbergasted that she brushed Tyler off with a wave of her hand while simultaneously insulting me with her forked tongue. Before I could utter another word, she huffed and continued to rant.

"I know things are slower and simpler in the south," she drawled in that same, fake accent she used the first time we met. "So let me break it down for you in a way that's easier for you to understand.





Instead of fuming, spouting off at the lip, or showing any signs of my temper, I grinned.

"No." I smirked, raising an eyebrow.

Bella's eyes widened as I took a step forward. Leaning into her, I casually reached behind her and into the back of the truck to remove another beer, only stepping back once the icy beverage was safely in my hand. The sweet smell of her perfume invaded my nostrils and took residence inside my brain. I was sure to remember the smell well into the night, when I was alone in bed.

Or maybe not alone, if things went my way.

"Turn off the music or I'll call the cops," she said, grounding out the words between gritted teeth.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave my property," I replied, ignoring her comment and cracking open my beer.


"Well, then I'll call the cops. You're trespassing, Ms. Swan. I kindly asked you to leave, and you refused."

Bella muttered a low curse before turning toward my truck. Grabbing the handle on my prized rust bucket, she somehow managed to pry open the door. Tyler and I got a terrific view of her ass once she leaned inside the vehicle. The truck was too large, too jacked-up with the lift kit I installed a few years back for her to easily reach the radio.

I jerked my head to the side, in the direction of the fire. Tyler took my non-verbal cue and shot me a wink, slinking off to the group of onlookers near the bonfire, leaving me alone with my infuriating neighbor.

Finishing my beer, my eyes never left the curves and contours of her ass as she continued to reach for the knobs on my old radio. I tossed the beer can in the bed of the truck and wedged myself between her and my truck door.

"Ms. Swan, I'm asking you again to please leave my property," I said in my most dignified voice, of course.

"What, are you slow or something? I said I'm not leaving until you turn off this damn radio." Bella sneered.

"You've already indicated that I'm 'slow' Ms. Swan, and you're correct in your assessment. I talk slow, drive slow," I placed my hand on the small of her back, rendering her still. Leaning in, I whispered into her ear. "I even fuck slow—nice and slow. I take my time. I'd bend you over my bed. Make you feel every inch."

Bella straightened up and turned, staring at me with wide, bewildered eyes. My hand slid from her lower back, but I looped a finger in the waistband of her pajama pants, capturing her in my own way.

"You're not … seriously hitting on me right now, are you?" she sputtered.

"I don't know. Am I?" I asked, tugging the elastic band. Dropping my voice, I whispered, "Do you want me to?"

Bella gaped at me for a second, and then burst into laughter. Tears streamed down her face as she giggled. Each time her watery eyes landed on mine, a new round of hysterics would begin. I glanced nervously at my friends who openly stared at us until my eyes landed on them. Then they turned back to the fire, dipping their heads together and pretending there wasn't a girl laughing like a damn hyena behind them.

"Thanks for that, Cullen." Bella wiped the tears from her eyes and turned back to the radio. "I needed the laughter tonight."

Annoyed, I watched as she grabbed the 'oh-shit' handle and pulled herself into the truck. Bella turned the dials on the ancient radio, and Hank's voice lowered significantly. Unmoving, I stood my ground while she slid from the ripped seat of my truck. I automatically placed my hands on her waist, lowering her to the ground as a gentleman should. The generous curves of her breasts brushed against my chest. My hands remained on her waist long after her feet were safely on the ground. My thumbs skimmed against the tender flesh near her hipbones. We stood still, staring at one another for the longest time, until some foreign emotion flashed in Bella's eyes. She batted my hands away, instantly breaking the spell she had over me.

"Please let the noise level remain as it is now," she said, gesturing around my yard. "At a dull roar … we're trying to sleep, you know. And it's difficult when all we hear is some dumbass singing about living in Dixie."

The word 'we're' resonated above all else. Glancing down at her left hand, I noticed a ring on a very significant finger. Funny, I hadn't looked for it before. Something strange settled in my chest, something akin to jealousy and disappointment. Bella turned and stomped away, the anger still evident in her pace. She didn't falter in her steps once, not even when I cranked the radio up twice as loud.


I spent the next day nursing a hangover and enjoying the view of the lake on a crisp, Saturday morning. Cool air nipped at my nose. White puffs of breath escaped my mouth. The lake was quiet, and I soaked it in. My fishing boat bobbed gently on the surface of the glassy water. The reflection of the trees and the sun was a mirror against the murky surface. The picturesque scene was only broken once I received a tug on the end of my line. By dinner, my headache was gone, and I returned home happy, with a cooler full of bass.

I had my fish-cleaning workstation just about set up when I noticed a little boy on a red bike climbing the steep incline of my driveway. At six or seven years old, the boy had knobby knees and a shaggy mess of brown hair that was in dire need of a trim. Running my fingers through my own shaggy mess, I quietly chuckled at myself for assessing the kid's appearance. The boy noticed me standing near the bed of my truck where I had a long piece of plywood resting on the tailgate.

My Blue Healer, Babe, was yapping away on the porch. Babe's tail wagged back and forth, and her body practically vibrated in excitement. The mangy dog loved kids, especially my niece, Kegan.

"Sir, can I play with your dog?" the boy asked.

Instead of replying, I called out a simple command to Babe. Tiny toenails clacked against the wooden porch as she descended the steps. Babe tore across the yard, sending the kid into a fit of familiar sounding giggles.

The kid has a laugh just like Bella's. Must be her kid … Bella and her husband's kid.

A knot worked its way into my throat. I cleared it away with a few short coughs. I couldn't believe I'd drunkenly hit on a married woman, my neighbor at that, making the situation even more uncomfortable. Focusing on my fish, I pretended to ignore the little boy riding circles around my yard.

But he refused to let me ignore him.

"Whatcha doing?" he asked, abandoning his bike in the grass to stand by my side.

"Cleanin' fish," I responded. "You, uh, you wanna help?"

"May I?" The kid's eyes shined with eagerness. They were a deep, rich brown surrounded by long lashes, much like his mother's.

"Your folks won't mind? Does your mama know you're over here? Or your Pa?" I glanced over my shoulder worriedly. I'd hate to have to fight a man in front of his own damn kid.

Openly ignoring my question, he asked, "Hey, what kind of knives are those?" Definitely Bella's kid; like mother like son.

"This is a scaler," I said, picking up the smallest of the knives. "We'll use it to remove the scales from the fish. And this is a filet knife."

The boy watched in rapt fascination as I proceeded to explain how each knife would be used. Leaning his elbows on the truck, he quietly watched as I began to cut and clean the fish.

"What's your name?" he finally asked, breaking the silence.

"Edward. What's yours?"

"Oscar," he replied, and I laughed, thinking he was joking. The hurt expression on his face caused my laughter to die away. Guilt twisted in my gut.

I cleared my throat. "That's a fine name son. A fine name."

Oscar grinned at me, the pain absent from his face. I smiled in response, mostly because of the missing teeth in his mouth, and the freckles dusted across his nose.

"It was my daddy's name," he replied, looking thoughtful. "Do you have a daddy?"

"Everyone has a daddy." I laughed and passed Oscar a fish filet. He gazed at it with trepidation before gingerly accepting it between two fingers. Holding it away from his body, he deposited the filet in a large bowl resting on the plywood.

"I don't," he responded, sadly. "Not anymore."

"I'm sorry about that, kid," I said, silently wondering where his father could be.

"That's okay, Mr. Edward. My daddy's in heaven with my Nana now," Oscar replied, a wistful smile on his round, little face. "Mom says if I'm good, one day I'll see them both again."

Fuck, I wanted to cry.

Never in my twenty-eight years on God's green earth had anything made me want to break down and cry, other than my own father's death. The enduring innocence on the kid's face and the dreamy-like way he spoke of seeing his father and grandmother again tore my heart in two. Before I knew it, I was biting my lip, focusing on the pain there, instead of the one inside my chest.

"My, uh, my daddy's in heaven too, Oscar," I said, my cheeks burning with the admission. I loved my father, lived my life by his words, but rarely spoke of his death. It was too painful, still too fresh.

"I bet my daddy and your daddy are friends now." Oscar's face lit up with his words. "Maybe your daddy is showing my daddy how to clean fish. You think there are fish in heaven, Edward?"

"I don't know, Oscar," I said, choking up again. "Uh, you wanna help me cook these fish tonight? We can toss the Frisbee to Babe. She's a good dog. Always brings it back."

"Can my mom come too?" he asked, his voice etched with excitement. "She's a girl, but she's not like a regular girl. She's fun."

"Sure," I replied, wondering how and when Bella was ever fun and hoping like hell that one day she'd let her guard down, even if it were just enough to become friends.

Oscar eventually left, his long legs frantically working the pedals on his bike. I laughed as Babe darted behind him, barking and wagging her tail. The rest of my evening was spent frying fish and hush puppies, and making a large batch of coleslaw. Night crept in, bringing the moon along with it. The food grew as cold as I did, sitting on the porch waiting for Oscar and Bella. Babe ate well that night and fell asleep on the rug near my fireplace with her belly full of fish.

Sleep didn't come as easily for me.


Oscar continued to ride his bike to my house every day, and I had the feeling that he was sneaking away when his mother wasn't paying attention. I grew close to Oscar, teaching him the things my father taught me. Simple things, such as how to air up a tire, and check the air pressure, as well as how to change the oil in a truck, and which tools did what job on a vehicle.

Oscar only stayed a few minutes each day, soaking in everything I had to offer in a short period of time. Day by day, I couldn't help but wonder how things would change once he got settled in at his new school. Was he on Christmas vacation, or had he not enrolled in classes yet? I tried to remember if my niece, Kegan, had mentioned when Christmas break began and ended, but I came up blank.

The Monday before Christmas, I pulled out of my driveway, eyes set straight ahead. I was determined to put in a good day at my actual job, the one I rarely worked. There were benefits to owning my own business, and hiring other folks to do my job was one of them. I'd been slacking and not showing up to check things out, depending on my sister, Angie, far too much. She berated me once I stepped into the store, glaring at me as I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of weed killer and corn.

"What are you doing here this week?" Angie asked.

Shrugging my shoulders, I grabbed a green, work apron and tied it on, choosing to keep to myself the fact that I was terrified of the father-like bond I'd made with six-year-old Oscar.

"Bored, I guess."

"I've told you over and over, you pay me well enough to run things around here. Sit at home and reap the benefits of your sister's labor." Angie grinned, cracking her gum.

"Where's Kegan?" I asked. "I miss the little shit."

"In the break room, shoving a yellow dump truck across the concrete." Angie rolled her eyes. "She shoulda been a boy, by the way she acts."

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. You were the same way when we were kids, Ang. Always covered in mud, chasing the boys around." I laugh at the memory.

"Exactly my point," Angie said, biting the bottom corner of her lip. "Why do you think I was covered in mud, playing with dump trucks?"

Dump truck noises and metal grating against metal filled the air the closer I got to the break room. My niece squealed in surprise, laughing as I scooped her up from behind. The toy truck clambered to the ground, falling from her fingers. Giggles and faux screams filled the air as I swung her around in my arms.

"Kegan, you're getting taller and taller every time I see you. You'll be an old person like me before you know it."

Kegan giggled and wrapped her arms around my neck. Propping her skinny ass on one hip, I carried her to the front of the store. With her waist-length hair and wide, green eyes, she was the spitting image of my sister, thank God. Angie's ex-husband, Ben, was an ugly son of a bitch, inside and out.

"Angie, you care if I take this little monkey back home with me after work?" I called out to my sister as I tickled Kegan's ribs. Kegan squirmed and threw her head back in laughter. "There's a cooler full of fish guts in the back of my truck, and I know the perfect girl to help me clean out the-"

My voice faded away with the sight before me. Bella stood on the far side of the counter, past the cash register, with Oscar by her side. The pair stared at me with shock evident on their faces, but Oscar's morphed into instant happiness.

"Hey, Edward," he said, but he suddenly only had eyes for my niece. "Is Edward your daddy?"

Kegan rested her head on my shoulder and stuck her thumb in her mouth, a nasty habit that began after her father split on her and Angie last summer. Since then, my charismatic niece became more introverted and shy. Gravely, I reminded myself that this was just one of many reasons I'd loved to have kicked her father's ass before he left town, along with the fact that he slept with Angie's best friend and got her knocked up.

"Oscar, that's none of your business," Bella said her voice quiet and surprisingly soft. Raising my eyebrows, I noticed how pink her cheeks were, how her eyes darted between my sister and me, narrowing accusingly on me with each glance.

"Kegan here is my niece," I replied, sitting her on the counter and unwinding her arms from my neck. "And she loves playing with dump trucks. Oscar, do you like dump trucks?"

Oscar shrugged, suddenly the shy one with cheeks matching his mother's. I wondered where Bella had moved to Louisiana from. Had Oscar been exposed to a childhood full of dirt piles, toy tractors, and dump trucks, or did they leave a concrete jungle far behind? Kegan's voice pulled me out of my internal reverie.

"You wanna see my dump truck?"

Oscar glanced at his mother who gave him an encouraging nod. As he walked around the counter and passed me, I playfully ruffled his hair. A wide smile beamed up at me before the two, long-legged kids disappeared into the back of the store. Turning, I caught Bella carefully watching me, her eyes softer than I'd ever seen them before.

I leaned forward, elbows on the counter. "What brings you to my feed store, Ms. Swan?"

"This is yours?" she asked, gesturing around with her arms. The dim lights hanging from the rafters reflected off the expensive ring weighing down her finger.

"I'm sure it doesn't meet your standards, but yes, it's mine, and I'm damn proud of it."

Bella shot me a bewildered stare. "Why wouldn't you be proud of it? You're a business owner. Anyone would be proud to hold that title."

Standing in a baffled daze, I struggled to fabricate a halfway decent response, but came up short.

"I'm Angie." My sister spoke brightly, offering her hand. Bella took it without a second's worth of hesitation. "Edward's sister. Can I help you find something?"

"Nice to meet you," Bella said, her voice kind. "Oscar and I were looking for a couple of bird feeders and a bag of birdseed."

"Okay, I'll be right back."

Angie disappeared, but not before shooting me a knowing smirk. Bella caught my eye, and I remembered how I'd come onto her at the party. Running my fingers through my hair, I cleared my throat a couple of times, a nervous apology on the tip of my tongue. Luckily, two waist-high rug-rats interrupted me before I could stumble over an apology.

"Uncle Eddie, Uncle Eddie, can Oscar come over to your house and play with me today. Please?" Kegan's bottom lip protruded and she gave me those big fucking eyes, like that damn cat in those Shrek movies she forces me to watch over and over again.

"How can I resist those big eyes? You know what those eyes do to me." Kegan grinned at me, just as snaggle-toothed as her new sidekick did. Ruffling Oscar's hair, I turned back to his mother. "It's all right with me if it's all right with you."

"Please, Mom? I've been going to Edward's house every day anyway, when you think I'm riding my bike." Oscar shrugged, and Bella's body went rigid.

"What did you say, Samuel Oscar Swan?" she questioned, the struggle to control her anger obvious in her voice. "You've been sneaking to a stranger's house without telling me?"

"He teaches me things," Oscar whispered, eyes trained on the ground. "Dad things."

Bella's face paled, her eyes lined with worry and sorrow. She glanced at me, her expression transforming into something more menacing. Red splotched the paleness of her skin, blotting the smooth flesh into the colors of a checkered picnic blanket. The waves of anger radiating from her body weren't nearly as pleasant as a picnic though. An uncomfortable shift hung heavy in the air, stifling and rendering me speechless.

"We have two different styles of birdhouses." Angie appeared by my side, plopping two wooden birdhouses and a bag of seed on the counter. "The feed is on the house, no charge … Edward's policy with new customers and all."

When Angie was greeted with nothing but silence, she glanced up. Biting her lip, she took in the scene that was taking place in front of her; Kegan's brow was bunched in confusion, Oscar was staring pleadingly at his mother, and Bella, was full on glaring at me, rage evident in her lethal stare.

"Uh, kids, why don't we go to the break room and let your parents talk," Angie said, forcing a smile.

"No." Bella turned to my sister, shaking her head. "Oscar's not going anywhere with you people."

Angie's smile slipped from her face; darkness taking over her features. Nostrils flaring, fists clenching, my sister stared Bella in the eye, her gaze unwavering. "You people?"

"Yeah, you people," Bella, replied, turning back to face me. "Is this how you normally chase women? First you drunkenly proposition me, and when that doesn't work, you use an innocent child to get to me? Color me unimpressed, Cullen. You're not the first man who's tried to pull the wool over my eyes."

Oscar sniffed beside me, drawing my attention. Tears slid down his lightly freckled cheeks. Wiping the tears away with the sleeve of his winter coat, he avoided my concerned gaze. I wasn't sure how much of the conversation he actually understood. The relationships between adults always seemed so odd to me as a child, but he was an astute kid, possibly picking up on the anger radiating from his mother's body, or from her harshly spoken words.

A calming hand touched my shoulder from behind before slowly slipping away. Angie rang up the birdhouses, shooting Bella a snooty smirk once she finished. "Believe me, honey, it's your loss."


Christmas arrived a few days later, bringing with it, a torrid downpour of rain. Like piss pouring out of a boot, it slapped against the tin roof of my home, unrelenting well into the night. I woke up that morning feeling sluggish and unusually tired. Not one to be idle, it was a strange, unsettling feeling, lounging around my house, catnapping all day.

Babe seemed to be aware of my fatigued state. She wandered from the living room and to my bedroom throughout the day, standing in the doorway staring at me. Letting her out to relieve herself was a task. Feeble, and with a lack of energy, I had opened the door several times that day, lowly cursing my small friend. Babe stared at the blankets of rain, falling so hard that it was nothing but a white haze. Each time I tried to let her out, she retreated to the small rug near the fireplace, curled up and gave me a lazy wag of her nubby tail.

I shook my finger at her. "If you piss inside this house …"

Unconcerned with my threat, Babe crossed her front legs and rested her head on top. Ten minutes later she was snoring, her light rumbles only snuffed out by the occasional boom of thunder in the distance.

I lay on the couch nearby, drifting in and out of sleep. During the fleeting bouts of consciousness, my mind wandered, somehow always returning to Bella. My thoughts of her were a torrent of mixed emotions. While I was undoubtedly attracted to her, she never once gave me the impression she felt the same way. Sure, I'd probably gone about things the wrong way, hitting on her while intoxicated, egging her on with the radio, but I was being me.

Obviously, she didn't like me.

I hadn't seen hide nor hair of her and Oscar since that day at the feed store. After Angie told her off in her own, simple Southern way, Bella had quietly gathered her purchases and guided Oscar from the building. Oscar's forlorn stare still pricked the corners of my memory, causing my chest to tighten. I hadn't realized the depth of my attachment to him. Not until he was absent from my day-to-day life. Hanging out with him, teaching him the same skills my father had taught me growing up helped unearth a part of me I'd kept buried deep inside for so many years. Once he walked out of the feed store door, hand in hand with his mama, the feeling drifted away, leaving me empty, like a deep, cold well, void of water.

Bella held people at arm's length, at least, she held me at arm's length. As far as friendships or relationships with others in town, I knew of none. Did she treat others in her life the same way she treated me? Had she built a wall around herself with a foundation so thick there was no chance of it ever crumbling?

For years, I'd never understood how my sister could have ever loved a man like Ben, with his womanizing ways, constant cheating, and his struggle to maintain the bad boy image he worked so hard to create in his younger years. Angie allowed him back inside her home for the better part of the first three years of their marriage, even though she'd caught him cheating again and again. Not until I met Bella Swan did I understand why my sister had put up with Ben for so long.

Angie felt as though she could change Ben. She'd fallen in love with him, a standoffish man who was less than emotionally affectionate. She believed she could fix him. He was a challenge to her, just as Bella was to me. Angie never 'fixed' Ben. A person has to want to change, just as a person has to want to open those closed gates guarding them against the outside world.

I forged a firm resolution; a pebble of a decision that somehow felt more like a boulder that was lodged in the deepest pit of my belly.

I was done chasing the girl next door.

Chills wracked my body, the shivers cutting me down to the bone, and replacing my thoughts of Bella. Flames flickered lowly in the fireplace, but I was too weak to stand and throw on any more logs, too tired to turn on the central heat I so rarely used. Instead, I pulled my granny's blanket from where it rested on the back of the couch and tucked it tightly around me.

My plans to visit Ma in the old folks' home flew out the door. Angie was out of state, hanging out in Florida with Kegan and Ben's family, sans Ben. The bastard never paid a lick of child support and never showed any interest in ever setting his beady eyes on his child again. All my other friends and family were fully engaged in their own lives, celebrating Christmas the way folks should be.


Exhaustion crept in again, sleep finally tugging me down a steep path of lonely darkness. One day faded into the next, the hours filled with nothing but chills wracking my body. A nice shower sounded like heaven, but I lacked the energy to bathe. Just letting Babe's whining ass out to piss exhausted me as it was. The battery on my cell was dead, not that it mattered. Angie wouldn't be back for another week, and she rarely spoke to me during her trips to Florida, too irate with my angry attitude when it came to Ben's family.

My energy began to return slowly, after a few days of funneling cold and flu medicine like it was a keg stand. I dragged my ass to the shower, savoring the feel of the warm water cascading over my sore muscles. After finishing my shower and tossing on a pair of boxers, I climbed back into bed. I fell asleep musing over how luxurious the soft flannel sheets felt under my worn back.

A timid knock rapped against the front door, waking me from my sleep. Babe went balls to the wall, transforming from a Blue Healer into a bloodthirsty lion. Barking and growling from the living room, he only simmered down once he heard Oscar's muffled voice from the other side of the door.

I heard the creak of the door opening, and I smiled, as a memory of Angie yammering away about how I never lock the damn door reeled inside the back of my mind.

Truth was I never felt the need to lock my doors, as I was sure many people living in the safety of our close-knit community felt the same way. Other than an occasional public disturbance or driving under the influence charge announced in the local paper, our tiny town was virtually crime-free.

"Oscar, you can't just let yourself inside someone's home."

I heard Bella's scolding, muffled voice drifting from the living room, shortly followed by a soft gasp sounded from somewhere nearby. Bella stood in the doorway, her hand cupped over her mouth, eyes wide. We locked gazes, saying nothing, staring and drinking each other in. Oscar stood beside his mother, a tail-wagging Babe by his side. Oscar's startled facial expression matched his mother's. An extended moment seemed to pass before Bella spoke.

"Go home, Oscar." Bella stooped down, eye level with her son. Although her voice was soft, I heard every word. "Go home and tell Grandpa Charlie that Edward is sick and Mom's taking care of him today. Okay?"

Taking care of me?

Say what?

I wanted to scream "Like hell," but I didn't want to scare the poor kid. He already looked spooked enough by my appearance.

"Okay." Oscar nodded, cutting his eyes back at me. "Bye, Edward."

"Bye, big guy."

Oscar took a few steps back before turning away. The darkness of his hair faded away in the dimness of the living room. I heard the familiar creak of the front door again, followed by a low click of the door shutting behind him.

Bella drew her coat tighter around her body, gaze unwavering. Crossing her arms, a frown grew upon her face, quirking more on the left side of her mouth than the right. I noticed she smiled the same way, during the rare occasion she allowed herself to grin, her lips finding preference on one side of her face.

Bella licked her lips and glanced behind her toward the living room. "It's freezing in here. No wonder you're sick. Where's the thermostat? Don't you have central heat?"

"No, I'm a Neanderthal, remember? We Neanderthals only require the bare necessities in life."

Bella said nothing, but her glare could cut stone.

"Hallway," I mumbled. "I'm not as cold as I was a few days ago … I've been sweating the fever off for the past couple of days."

Bella pursed her lips and left the room. I heard the outside unit kick on, and it wasn't long before warmth began to flow through the vents in the ceiling, immediately warming my skin.

Bella returned to the doorway. "You have a nice home, Edward."

"Thanks. I built it myself."

Bella snickered, and I raised a questioning eyebrow. The smile melted away, and she cleared her throat. Awkwardness ensued as Bella shifted from foot to foot and glanced around my bedroom.

"You built this house?"

"Yeah, this one and a few others in town. For a while, I thought about becoming a contractor. Construction came easy to me, and I enjoy working with my hands."

Bella nodded. She spotted a deeply cushioned chair in the corner of my bedroom and eased into the well-worn recliner. Navy blue and ugly as hell, full of frayed holes my dog had created with her sharp nails, I shoulda thrown it out a long time ago. But it was comfortable, like an old friend I hadn't seen in ten years, yet was still able to fall into easy conversation with, as though we'd spoken yesterday.

"So what happened? Why didn't you pursue your dream?"

Pain stung at my eyes. "Life happened. My uncle passed away, leaving the feed store to my dad. Six months later, we were burying Pa beside Uncle John in the family plot. Ma never recovered from Pa's death. A few months after he died she had a light stroke. My sister and I placed her in a nursing and rehab facility, thinking that a couple of months of therapy would get her back on her feet. Only, two months turned into four and four became six. Instead of improving, her health got worse. Between running the store and running back and forth to the nursing home … I guess my plans got tossed to the side."

"You could have sold the business and went forward with your plans."

Sighing, I rubbed my hand over my face. Bristle scuffed against my open palm. Days had passed since I'd last shaved. Showering took more energy than I'd used in a week.

"Bella, why are you here?"

"Oscar has been asking about you," Bella said, her voice hesitant. "We haven't seen you outside in a few days. He misses you."

"Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual," I grumbled.

Heat continued to stir around the room, growing in intensity and warming my bones. Bella stood and shrugged the thick, winter coat from her body. Instead of sitting back down on the recliner, she closed the distance between us. She sat down on the edge of my bed, one leg tucked beneath her, the other dangling from the mattress.

"I believe you," she said, her voice soft. "I believe you missed him. You're all he's talked about; you and Babe. Well, mostly Babe." She grinned at me, a mischievous, teasing glint in her eyes.

"Yeah, well, she's the most popular of us two, but she can be a real bitch."

Bella laughed, and it was musical. The one and only time I'd heard that sound coming from her was the Friday night I blasted my radio too loud and made a fool of myself.

I felt like an ass for the way I treated her that night, especially with her sitting beside me now, concerned about my health. "Hey, I'm, uh, I'm sorry if I offended you. Ya know, the night I wouldn't turn the radio down. If I'd known you had a kid at home …"

Bella glanced down at her hands resting in her lap. The diamonds on her wedding band gleamed on her finger. She quickly hid the small smile that had crept onto her face.

"Yeah, well, I guess you got your wish, right?"

Quirking an eyebrow, I said, "What do you mean?"

Bella picked at a fraying seam on her jeans, never looking up. "I'm in your bed …"

Heat stirred inside my belly. Her timid glance lifted from the worn fabric of her jeans. Wanting nothing more than to wipe the uncertainty from her body, I reached for her, lightly stroking the back of her hand with the pad of my thumb. Her fingers stilled from picking at the seam. More than my hand dropped as she stood and wiped her palms on her thighs.

"You should eat to get your strength back." Clearing her throat and turning her back, she left the room.

Too tired to argue, I closed my eyes, falling asleep to the sound of pots and pans banging around in the kitchen. I awoke hours later to something cool and wet washing over my bare torso. Squinting through blurry eyes, pecan brown came into view.

Bella sat perched on the side of my bed, her hip flush with mine, dragging a damp washcloth over my flesh. Focused on the movement of the fabric, she hadn't noticed I had awoken. I took advantage of the situation, closing my eyes and selfishly allowing a beautiful woman to care for me … comfort me. The washcloth dipped lower, skimming my abdomen. The brush of her fingers near the waistband of my boxers caused the muscles in my belly to flinch. Pausing in her movement, the only sound was her breaths.

"You were running a fever," she murmured. "I thought this would help cool you off."

"I don't feel like I'm running a fever." My body felt fine, hell, more than fine, actually. Especially now.

"Trust me … you're hot." She smiled for a second, and then bit her bottom lip. "It's been a long time since I've touched a man."

Keeping my eyes closed, I couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, I'm not gonna stop you."

A sarcastic response.

A slamming door.

I expected these things in retaliation for my comment. What I didn't expect was the tug of the quilt dragging down my lower body. Hairs on my legs prickled with the sensation of cooler air and anticipation. My eyes popped open with the movement, fixated on the sight of Bella dragging the washcloth across my thighs and calves. Swallowing, I wanted to be embarrassed by the uncontrollable swelling inside my boxers from the innocent act, but I didn't feel an ounce of shame. Bella paused, leaving the washcloth abandoned on my leg. Her gaze shifted from the swelling in my boxers to her hands now resting in her lap.

"I made soup," she whispered. "You should try to eat."


"I have to go." She shook her head, the color draining from her face. "I need to go. Oscar needs me. I've been gone too long. Charlie may be worried."

Not waiting for a response, she grabbed her coat from the back of the nearby chair and darted from the room. The front door of my house slammed harshly behind her. Left alone, wretched in my solitude, I spent the rest of the night wondering what the fuck just happened.


Winter transformed into Spring. White, pristine honeysuckle climbed the small hills between Bella's house and mine. Weeks passed since she took care of me while I was sick. My strength returned, remedied by her leftover, homemade, chicken noodle soup and time.

I couldn't help but wonder what had happened in the time spanning Bella's life that made her the enigma she was. Obviously, an attraction existed between us, although she was more willing to fight against it. Still, I made my presence known and remained a constant in Oscar's life.

I knocked on the door, grinning at her less than welcoming face once the door swung open. Bella sighed, leaning on the door frame and narrowing her eyes.

"What now, Edward?"

"Oscar said you've got a leaky pipe." I shrugged, adjusting the tool belt hanging from my hips.

Annoyance slipped away from her face. She bit her lip, her eyes suddenly transfixed on the belt before she averted her gaze. She pushed away from the door and sarcastically gestured inside the house with sweeping arms. Oscar sat in front of the television inside their small living room, his knees perched on a faded, floral rug. Once he spotted me, he jumped up with a hoot and crossed the distance between us, throwing his arms around my waist.

Bella quietly scolded him from the entrance of the kitchen. "Oscar, your fingers are filthy from eating Cheetos. You're getting Edward's shirt dirty."

"I don't care," I responded, smiling as Oscar drew away and stared at my tool belt. "I need an assistant today. You wanna help me fix your mom's sink?"

"Yes, sir." Oscar beamed up at me, his exuberant smile contagious.

Repairing the kitchen sink was the first of many projects. Broken shutters, leaning cabinet doors … they all were fixed by my steady hands and constant companion. I now knew every inch of the house, unintentionally learning inconsequential things about the woman next door, from the way she hummed while cleaning, to the softness in her eyes as she watched her diligent son by my side. But the tenderness died away once she noticed my stare. She replaced it with the familiar stoic expression I'd come to loathe.

Eventually, there was nothing to fix inside the Swan home, aside from the chilly reception I received from Bella, a woman who had yet to mention that cold, winter's night not so long ago. But some things in life couldn't be fixed. And, although I continued to spend time with Oscar when he'd show up unexpectedly on my doorstep, I altogether stopped visiting his house, unable to formulate a feasible excuse to drop by.

Jace Jenks, the surveyor I hired to survey my land lines, arrived at my house one hot afternoon. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I cut the engine on my lawn mower and climbed off. We greeted each other amongst the tufts of green, clipped grass. Shaking his hand, I couldn't help but notice the regretful frown on his face.

"You wanna come in for a drink?" I asked, prolonging the disappointment I already felt inside me. "It's a scorcher today."

"Naw, son, but thanks for the invitation. The wife's expecting me home soon, but I had to stop by and have a chat with you first." Jace shifted from foot to foot and took a deep breath. "Edward, I hate to be the bearer of bad news …"

"Pa was wrong, wasn't he?" I said. "The three feet … it belongs to her, doesn't it? The land isn't mine?"

"It isn't yours, son." Jace sighed. "I'm sorry, Edward. It's the damnedest thing. I've never known Carl to make a mistake on a survey. The man was perfect, one of the reasons why he was my mentor."

"No one's perfect." I took a deep breath, felt my heart slip inside my chest. "Time was against him, but he kept fighting it. Even going blind, he kept working, wanting to maintain his independence as long as he could, still wanting to work as long as his body was able."

After a few idle words, Jace left, the wheels of his truck spitting up dust behind. I stood in the yard long after he departed, the pain and confusion slowly transforming into numbness. Glancing at the sky, I squinted against the sun. Still enough time to get started on what needed to be done.

I grabbed my old work gloves and a wire cutter. Shade replaced the blistering sun as I trudged into the woods between Bella's house and mine. In the distance, I could make out the brick from her house, a place I hadn't visited in weeks.

Three drooping strands of rusty, barbed wire separated her house from mine. All I wanted was to tear those lines down for good.

Rusty wire snapped in the air with each clip of the wire cutters. Sweat gathered on my forehead and chest. I tugged my shirt over my shoulders and used it to wipe my brow before tossing the shirt over a branch. My mind remained numb, absorbed in the task at hand.




"Edward, what are you doing?"

Wetness dripped from my forehead, burning my eyes. She stood about ten feet away from me. Wearing a pair of sinfully short shorts and a tight shirt, she resembled a twenty-year-old instead of a woman a few years shy of thirty.

"Giving you what you want, Bella."

Numbness ebbed away, replaced by bitterness.

"You were right. My father made a mistake on the survey. Isn't that what you've wanted to hear? You want your three feet, well you have it. You want me to leave you alone? You've got it. Is there anything else I can do to make you happy? Oh, wait. Never mind. You're never happy."

Shock and hurt twisted on her lips. A pang of guilt clawed at my chest, but I pushed the feeling aside and went back to work.




A strand of barbed wire coiled too tightly and sprang back as I cut into it. Slapping my arm, the wire left a line of open flesh and dripping blood. Cursing, I grabbed my dirty shirt from the limb and wiped the blood away before tossing the shirt aside once more. The wound was superficial, hurting worse than it looked, but nothing like the pain I felt inside my chest.

"You're an asshole. How dare you talk to me that way," Bella muttered.

"And you're a bitch." I straightened up, glaring. "How dare you show up at my house, pretend you're worried about me, and then act like I'm not fucking good enough for you."

"You think I don't believe you're good enough for me?" The sadness in her voice betrayed the anger in her eyes.

"I don't think. I know." I snatched the shirt from the branch, tossed it over my sweaty shoulder. "I'll finish tearing down the old fence later. I'll put up a new fence to separate our land if that's what you want. Either way, you've got your three feet."

I whipped around and trekked out of the woods, my throat tightening at the sound of twigs snapping behind me.

"Where are you going? I'm not finished talking to you," she said, breathless from her attempt to keep up with my pace.

"Arguing with you is like arguing with a fence post. I'm done talking to you, unless it concerns Oscar."

"Edward, if you … if you keep walking away from me you can forget about seeing my son again."

I turned and stared at her, fury pulsing through my veins. Face pale, her mouth slightly agape, she immediately apologized.

"I'm sorry." Tears spilled over her cheeks, but I felt no sympathy for the broken woman before me. "I would never keep him from you. I don't know why I said something like that."

I sneered at her. "Fuck you."

Climbing the steps, I left her standing in the yard, crying. I shoved open the front door, barely registering the way it hit the wall. A framed, school picture of Kegan fell, the glass smashing against the hardwood floors. I stepped inside the bathroom, eager to wash the filth away, and desperate to wash away the anger encasing my body. Steam filled the room. Water slapped against the tub.

An enraged voice hissed at me from behind. I turned away from the shower and frowned at the woman entering my bathroom.

"No, you know what? Fuck you, Edward." She poked me in the chest, tears still staining her face. "Fuck you for making me laugh, for making me cry, for making me question every promise I ever made to myself."

"Get out of here, Bella." I slipped out of my boots, used my toes to peel my socks off. "Get out of my house."

"No." Bella crossed her arms over her chest, narrowing her eyes.

Steam from the shower rolled around us, coating the mirror behind her. I stepped forward, my muscles tense. Her arms fell to the wayside, her pert ass backing into the vanity. Leaning into the crook of her neck, I placed my hands on the moist mirror, felt the wetness drip down my palms. Frozen, her body went rigid against mine.

"I thought I saw something inside you the last time you were here." I said, the memory of her caring for me still fresh on my mind. "But I was mistaken. Now, leave me alone. Go home to your son."

"Oscar's not home," she said, her voice a weak whisper. "He's spending time with his grandfather before my dad returns home. And you're wrong. I haven't gotten what I want. Not yet."

"What do you want, Bella?" My nose raked across her ear.

I hated her.

I hated myself for falling for her.

I cupped my hand firmly between her legs, punishing the heat nestled there. Gasping and trembling, she rocked against my hand, her nipples tightening under her shirt. I cupped my free hand on the back of her head, fisted her hair between my fingers, and brought her mouth to mine. The taste of her tongue was sweet, much sweeter than the bitter words she frequently spoke. I dragged my teeth against her bottom lip, releasing the swollen flesh.

"You want me to fuck you? Is that what you want?" I asked, unbuttoning her shorts and slipping my hand inside.

Bella sucked in a breath as my middle finger skimmed the wet flesh of her slit. "God, yes. Please, fuck me."

I added a second finger, shoved them both in deep. Wetness seeped around my knuckles. Bella shuddered against me. "If I fuck you, will you go home?"

Instead of replying, she kissed me again. She kicked off her shoes and shimmied out of her shorts and underwear. Our teeth clashed together as I lifted her onto the vanity, never breaking our kiss until she sat in front of me. Spreading her legs, she yanked at my jeans and boxers, stripping them down over my thighs. She licked her palm and wrapped her hand around my cock, each tug of her hand encasing my shaft guiding me closer to her hot center.

I pushed her hand away and teased her slit with the head of my cock. I dragged it lazily from her clit to her entrance before jutting my hips forward in one swift jerk. She screamed, her face falling against my chest, her teeth marking my skin. I fucked her roughly, pushing my way inside, the same way she'd pushed herself inside my heart: selfishly, without a second thought.

Forcing me closer, she clasped her thighs tightly around me, her fingernails digging into the curve of my ass. The jerk of my hips bounced her up and down on my dick until she was no longer on the vanity. Clinging to me, she rode me as desperately as I rode her, screaming out after I slammed her back against the bathroom wall. My movements slowed, the stroke of my cock inside her tight walls transforming into an agonizingly, languid pace. She spilled around me, the constriction of her slick walls sucking me hard. Her eyes met mine, something other than an orgasm crashing behind the brown depths.

Undulated hips continued to meet me with each thrust of my pelvis until my body was shuddering and spent, filling her with my need. I rested my forehead against hers, the slickness of her sweaty thighs sliding down the sides of mine.

Swallowing, I turned my back to her and stepped into the cold shower. I'd touched her, done things to her that I'd only ever imagined, but the longing remained. Water beat down on me and I closed my eyes, opening them to the ruffling sound of the shower curtain.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Taking a shower, what does it look like?" Avoiding my eyes, she grabbed a bar of soap and snatched my washcloth from my hand. "Soap my back. Hurry, it's freezing in here."

Wordlessly, I washed her, caressing her the way she caressed me when I was sick, the way she deserved to be touched. Once the suds were washed away, we stepped out of the tub, shivering. I draped a towel around her trembling body, rubbing my hands over the surface of the towel to help warm her.

"My husband died when Oscar was three," she whispered, her eyes lifting to mine. "It wasn't an accident. He took his own life."

"Jesus, Bella." I wrapped the towel tightly around her slumped shoulders and wondered how it would feel to lose someone in such a way. "You don't have to talk about this if you don't want to."

"You deserve an explanation for why I've been such a bitch, as you so eloquently put it." She smiled weakly, her feeble attempt at a teasing grin. "I've been so angry since his death. When he died, I felt betrayed, constantly asking myself how he could have been so selfish. I took back my maiden name and tried to separate myself from the hurt he caused, to protect my heart against all odds. It took me years to realize he was sick. The Sam I married wouldn't have ever left us behind. Still, I promised myself I wouldn't allow myself to fall in love again. You made that easy for me, at first."

Bella nudged my chest, uncertainty written on her reddened cheeks. The weight of her words swirled all around me.

"At first?" I asked, taking her hands in mine. Her fingers were trembling but surprisingly not cold.

"At first," she repeated, licking her lips. "But things changed. You forced me to fall in love with you, when you began loving my son first."

"Loving both of you comes naturally to me." I shrugged my shoulders, tightened my grip on her hands. Her eyes widened, presumably drinking in my own words. The bare skin of her fingers against my open palm pricked a memory, a memory of a gleaming ring.

"You're not wearing your wedding ring anymore," I said, turning her hand over in mine.

"No," she murmured. "No, I'm not. Edward?"

"Yeah?" I squeezed her hand.

"Can we forget about the lines?" Bella glanced up from our joined hands, her face tentative.

Smiling, I pulled her nearly bare body flush against my chest. Dropping a kiss on top of her head, only one word came to my mind.


I enjoyed writing this for the Ruggeddom contest. Thanks to everyone who worked tirelessly on this contest and all the others. You continue to fuel our love for the fandom and I'm always grateful for that.

I also wrote a crack fic collab with my girl, Rum. Our account name is PrescriptionNotStreet. Check it out if you like a good laugh.


2nd Place Judge's Vote

2nd Place Public Vote

Most Rugged Edward

Judge's Pick - Darknnerdy