Chapter 14

Safe Haven

For Ria - who inspired this chapter.

***WTWAB***

Creak-crick-crack-swish-swash-creak-crick-crack-swish-swash

Disoriented, I wake up to the creaking of the porch swing.

The rhythmic creak-crick-crack is soothing at first, and it almost lulls me back to sleep. But just as I am snuggling back down into the downy, softness of my pillow, I hear the deep tenor of a man and the melodic voice of another, singing quietly. The sound is so faint that at first, I am not sure if it's real; it could be a ghost, or simply a dream. Soon, however, the sound begins to carry through the night air as it lifts and lilts and levers its way into my open window.

I sit up in bed, transfixed.

Stacy's mom has got it goin on

I'm in love with Stacy's mom

So, not a ghost.

Unless of course, it's the spirit of some poor kid from 1997 who had really bad taste in music and a huge crush on his girlfriend's mother.

I chuckle into my pillowcase.

"Do the Jesse song next, Daddy."

"Bip … it's way past ya'll's bedtime …"

"I know-I know … but I love that one so much, and you sing it so good. Please, Daddy; it makes me happy. I promise I'll get my tail to bed as soon as it's over, K?"

"Shit. Why is it I can't ever say no to you, girl?"

"Because I'm your baby-girl and you're my Daddy."

"That's right," he sighs. "Okay – but after this –"

"I know … my tail best be in that bed or you're gonna beat it with a wet noodle."

"Mm-hm. Now climb up here in my lap, and if you should feel inclined to shut your eyes at any point during the song, please be my guest; I promise I will not be in the least offended if you start snoring on me."

I hear high-pitched giggles and deep chuckles.

This time I laugh outright. I look at the clock on the nightstand – 9:45 p.m. So, late … but not as late as I thought; of course, after the day I had it isn't surprising that I fell asleep in Boots' arms as he carried me back from town.

Oh-my-God

I flop back down on the bed in a dramatic heap; flat on my back, hand over my forehead.

What was I thinking?

I don't have the answer for that, so I decide to get up from my Camille—dying-of-consumption-pose and head to the bathroom.

Limp, is more like it; my feet are so sore that I can barely walk.

I splash some water on my face and run the toothbrush over my hair and the hairbrush over my teeth.

Yes, that's how tired I am.

Okay, so maybe I'm just being silly.

Oh-my-God …

I'm turning into Boots.

I laugh at myself for being so ridiculous, and then I laugh a little more when I realize how wonderful it feels to simply be ridiculous. When have I ever allowed myself to just be plain old silly?

Never. You're as serious as a heart attack. For real. You're not all that silly now. Just sayin.

I sigh … even my inner monologue knows I'm a stuffed shirt.

I glance down t see that I'm wearing what looks to be a pair of boxers and an oversized t-shirt.

Wait …

Where am I?

I dash back into the bedroom and glance around. This is not the room I've been sleeping in at Miss Vicks. The bed is bigger and the furniture, although beautiful, aren't the massive and ornately carved pieces that adorn the bedroom chambers at Miss Vicks' home. No – this furniture is handcrafted, with gleaming woods and simple lines. The walls are a combination of roughly cut wooden logs, and plaster – the ceilings high and beamed.

I'm in a log cabin.

Curious, I pad down the hall, barefooted, and look at the walls encasing the long passage. Pictures of family are mounted everywhere. A brass sconce reveals their faces to me:

A younger Boots holding a red-haired baby in his arms

A toddler, with red hair and red bows, smiling on her red tricycle

A little girl standing on the steps of a bright yellow school bus, clutching a Teddy Bear in one hand, and a brand new lunch box, in the other

Alice and Rose sitting at a picnic table, sharing a beer and laughing.

A young teenage boy, muscular, with curly hair and deep dimples, is pushing a blonde haired girl on a swing. Her face is laughing, and her eyes are so blue that the mirror the sky above them. Rosalie.

The blonde haired man whom I met at the gate when I ran out into the street smiles serenely back at me; he looks kind, although the twinkle in his eyes, and what appears to be the slightest of smirks in the corner of his mouth, suggests a sense of humor and unexpected mischief. The woman, whom I saw on the stairs as I darted past – the one with the caramel hair and sweet smile, is next to him- tucked firmly inside the nook of his shoulder.

"That's a woman's haven, Bella. It's as if God himself created that perfect spot for our heads to cradle when we need it most. You'll never feel safer than when you're nestled between a lovers arm and chest."

I sigh, wistfully, much the same as Aunt Margaret did whenever she made that observation. My face flames as I recall how I ducked and tucked it under Boots' arm when the townsfolk were jeering at us as we marched on past this evening.

'Oh no, you don't … if you're brave enough to come marching down the street like a hoochie mama in nothing but a towel …."

I laugh off my embarrassment. Boots is right; I need to get over myself and stop worrying what everyone else thinks. Besides, it worked. I got my man.

My man …

I think of Boots' face when he and I were being intimate at the spring, and a flood of feelings and desire sweeps through me, and I hold on to the wall for support. A picture wobbles under my hand, and I straighten it carefully, looking at a freckled face boy, dressed in a pair of Umbro shorts, a Ninja Turtle T-shirt bearing the name Donatello, and a grin so wide that I can see the loss of one tooth and the beginning of a new one. His legs are long, his knees are knobby, and his feet are trapped inside a pair of over-sized cowboy boots.

Boots.

He can't be more than seven years old in the picture. I shake my head, smiling; he is adorable.

I limp down the hall looking for the stairs. Finding them, I creep down and follow the soft sound of the music coming from the porch. The door from the kitchen is ajar, and I pop my head out to see Boots sitting in the swing, guitar in one arm, and Elizabeth, all curled up and nestled against his chest, in the other. I can't help but smile; it's quite a tender sight.

His eyes look up and meet mine. He stops strumming the guitar and holds a finger out for me to keep still. I do. Quietly, he sets the guitar down on the swing and stands with Elizabeth in his arms.

I step back, and he passes by, but not before he gives me a quick peck on my surprised lips.

"I'll be right back, he whispers. "Go sit on the swing and stick your feet in the bucket. The water is getting cool but it'll still help your feet feel better. I'm just gonna …" he looks down at Elizabeth's head, which is tucked firmly under his heart, and I nod.

I limp my way over to the swing and sit carefully next to his guitar. He has a large basin in front of the swing, and I put my aching feet inside, immediately relishing the cool water as it swishes between my toes and eases the ache in my heels.

The sky is dark and moonless. Too many clouds I suppose. I hated nights like this as a child; I missed the stars that illuminated the sky. They made me feel safe somehow; God's night lights.

The creak of the door alerts me to his return, and I look up, my heart beating just a little bit faster in anticipation.

Holding out two bottles of something cold, he cracks a grin at me, asking – "Do you want a beer? I don't have any wine. Shit – I guess I should have gone to the store first … You don't seem like a beer drinker to me."

I chuckle in the darkness; is he nervous?

"I love beer."

I hate beer.

He smiles in relief. I know this because I see the flash of teeth in the dark and hear the whoosh of air as he sighs out his relief.

He hands me the cold bottle, and I bring it to my lips, hesitantly. The only times I've drunk beer willing have been with Jasper, and he knows me well enough to get me "Those damn girlie beers that taste like a frick'in apple or a strawberry or some shit like that."

I take a sip and grin; it tastes like oranges and lemons.

"It's a shandy."

"What?"

"A shandy … it's one of those damn girlie beers that taste like a frick'in fruit. Allie and Ro insist on polluting my fridge with them just in case they ever come round."

"It's good," I say, trying not to laugh outright.

"I'll buy some more tomorrow then."

I giggle into the neck of the bottle. He clears his throat.

We're both nervous.

"So … Stacy's Mom?"

He laughs and takes a long pull on his beer.

"Okay … so Bip likes crap music from the 90s – must've got that from her mama I guess, cuz Lord knows it sure didn't come from me."

"Uh-huh."

He laughs.

"Nah, she likes all music, but tonight she wanted music that had girls' names in the title. We have a little repertoire of songs that I sing to lull her to sleep. Sometimes it actually works. Like tonight."

"So … this is your house …?"

"Yup."

"Um – why?"

"Why is it my house? Well, I guess it has to do with the fact that I built and paid for it out of my own pocket."

"No, I mean … why did you bring me here instead of Miss Vicks?"

He shrugs.

I take my foot out of the basin and run my toes over his, tapping them lightly.

"Well, I figured after all that damn drama back in town we could all use a little break is all. You were sleeping, and Bip was all wound up, so I figured rather than just depositing you on the bed and leaving you to face the inquisition on your own come morning, I'd bring you back here to get a good night's sleep."

"And Berty?"

Mama and Daddy took him back to the farm with them tonight. He had his shots and all that grooming so we figured it might be best if we wait to bring him back here until this afternoon."

"Oh."

"Listen, if you're not comfortable staying here I can carry you back there now; it's just over the hill a ways."

"No, that's okay. It's just –"

"What?"

"Well, won't Elizabeth mind?"

"Mind?" He laughs. "Are you kidding? Hell, she's tickled pink – thinks having a sleepover with you is like having Christmas coming twice, and that's a fact. She must've looked in on you ten times before I finally got her tail out here on the porch."

He sets his guitar down carefully on the floor and stretches his arms wide. I want to run my hands over his muscles, so I sit on them before they do exactly that.

"Pass me them salts, will you?"

I do as he asks, and smile to myself; we're quite the pair, Boots and I.

"What?"

"Hmm?"

"You – You're grinning like a fool about; must be something that tickled you to put a smile that wide on your face."

Like an artist lifting the canvas of his masterpiece, the clouds shift, revealing a brilliant night sky. The moon is large and radiant in the dark night, and I see his Boots' face, earnest and happy, grinning back at me.

I chuckle lightly; when it comes to this man, I have no filter or mask. And while that might be slightly disturbing to me with anyone else, it feels absolutely wonderful with Boots. I have no idea why; we still barely know each other, but it feels natural and right.

He bumps my knee with his.

"Oh, nothing really … just thinking how we're a pair; the way we're both sitting on the porch swing, soaking our feet, and nursing our wounds."

"Well, if you hadn't run off like that from me back at the springs, mine wouldn't be on fire right now," he reminds me, settling his feet in the water next to mine.

"I told you I was sorry about that …"

"I know, I'm just pointing out why mine are killin me, is all." He shrugs.

"Besides, even if I had stayed, your clothes and shoes would still have been missing," I point out.

"Yeah, but I could have used your mad skills to help me get the damn car started, so neither of us would have had to run our feet ragged," he says, tweaking my toes with his.

"Ow. My skills – what are you talking about?" I step on his foot, hard.

"Damn … that hurts!"

I giggle in the moonlight.

"You started it."

"Well, now I'm gonna finish it," he says, tickling my sides. Our feet battle each other for dominance in the small tub, and water splashes, drenching our legs.

"Stop it, Boots! You-you're making me all wet," I laugh. The basin tips on its side and water gushes out on the wooden deck.

"Making you all wet, huh?"

I roll my eyes at his double entendre.

"What skills?" I ask, suddenly remembering his remark.

"Oh, you know … skills – the ones you got from the side-effects."

"Side-effects?"

"Yeah, the ones from that Mechanic's Disease you caught from me. I reckon it left you with all sorts of new skills and knowledge about engines, radiators, timing belts ... Hell, it might of given you the ability to bring a dead battery back to life, for all I know."

"I thought you told me you were going to forget about that? You- you said you let things get too far –"

"No Ma'am, I sure didn't."

"Yes, you did. You said, "Forget about it, Yank."

"That's right – I done told you to forget about it," He chuckles. "I never said I was gonna forget about it, though. Matter of fact, I think it's safe to say that I will be bringing this particular subject up regularly. In fact, I believe as soon as I wake up tomorrow, I'll give Daddy a call and see if he knows anything about this disease and if he doesn't, then maybe he can run some special tests on you and publish the results in the New England Journal of Medicine. I'm sure your people would just LOVE to know all about that dirty Mechanic's Disease you caught back in the Carolinas." He sits back into the porch swing, folds his arms over his chest, and shuts his eyes.

I look at him to see if he is teasing (I think he is) but I can't be sure. The clouds return, covering the moon once again, shrouding us in darkness. I nudge him with my knee.

"What now?"

"Are you teasing me?"

"Nope."

I still think he is, but I get up anyway.

He grabs me by the waist and brings me to his lap just as I hoped he would.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I'm going back to bed."

"Without giving me some sugar?"

"Sugar?"

He opens his eyes and grins.

"I guess we still have a lot to learn about if you don't know when I'm pulling your chain, or what sugar is, Yank."

"Well, I guess that's true. I don't understand half of what comes out of your mouth," I confess. "I think I'm going to need a teacher."

He nods his head.

"Well, I didn't wanna say nuth'in back there at the spring, but …"

"What?"

"Lord."

"What?"

"It's something terrible."

My heart starts pounding.

"What is … what's terrible?"

He lets out a big, dramatic sigh, closes his eyes, and puts his hand over his forehead.

"I think you done gave me a dirty Teacher's Disease."

I burst out laughing.

"I did?"

"Hell – yeah … I'm now a tenured college professor with benefits."

"Benefits?"

"Yes, ma'am – benefits, lesson plans, syllabus, curriculum … you name it, I got it all going on …. It's just running through my system, and I doubt they'll ever find a cure. Why I'm working on a plan right now."

He's laughing, and I'm giggling and God, it feels so good!

"You wanna sign up for one of my classes?"

"Absolutely!" I finally manage to choke out.

"Well, all right then. Be prepared to take notes. We'll start with Physical Education," he says in his best teachers' voice. I curl my toes in anticipation.

"That's my favorite subject."

"Lucky me," he says, leaning in for a kiss.

The second our lips touch, I know I'm going to be the teacher's pet or kill myself trying.

I also know as soon as his kisses begin to trail down my neck and his hands begin to remove my t-shirt that we're going to be on a fast track course to trouble if I don't put the brakes on soon.

"Boots."

"Hmm?"

"Boots."

"What, honey?" He says kissing behind my ear.

I moan.

"Edward"

"Yes, baby?"

"Fuck."

He freezes.

I blush.

"Did you just say fuck?"

"No."

"Yes, you did."

"No, I didn't. You – okay, maybe I did," I say, sitting back in the swing. I'm flustered and embarrassed. I can't believe I said the F word out loud.

"It's okay, Yank," he says, giving me a little wink. "I guess it's a good thing you said it otherwise we'd of ended up doing it, Lord knows. Not that I'd of minded that, but it's been one-helluva long day and even I have my limits, just say'in."

Discombobulated, I rearrange my shirt and reach for the beer. I put the opening to my mouth and guzzle the contents down in one fell swoop.

Then I let out a loud, endless, belch.

Oh, my dear God.

"Well, hot-damn! I didn't know you had it in you, Yank! Lord … that was a good one, I swany; I ain't heard a belch like that since Emmett left town ten years ago, and that's a fact."

I want to die.

Oh, come on, Bella … lighten up; it's one fuck and a burp - nobody caught you sitting on the privy wiping your tail."

Caught me on the privy wiping my tail?

Suddenly, I start questioning everything about this man. He's so – so

Crass.

He leans forward and kisses me on my forehead, then tucks a piece of hair behind my ear and kisses that too.

And so-so, sweet.

"Come here," he whispers, pointing to the nook between his shoulder and his arm.

Safe Haven

I cuddle in next to him, and he settles us in good and tight before he starts to rock the swing, ever so gently. He's humming a tune that sounds achingly familiar, but I can't remember the name.

It's a lullaby.

"That's pretty," I mumble next to his heart.

"Is it? I just made it up; it's your song," he whispers back.

My song.

My heart thuds and pounds

No one has ever done anything like that for me before. Tears spring to my eyes, but I wink them back; I don't want to spoil this moment.

"Bella?"

"Mm?"

"Will you sleep in my bed with me tonight?"

I sit up and look at him. He's not smiling, but he's not in the throes of passion, either. He looks as he is; calm, sleepy, and waiting for my answer.

"But – what about Elizabeth? I don't think it would be a good idea for us to be caught in the same bed so early on …"

"I know. Trust me … I do know. But she sleeps like the dead. Besides, I'll set the alarm and sneak you back in your room before she wakes up. I promise."

"I don't know, Boots. I'm awfully tired, and so are you. And you and I both know where this will lead if we … you know."

"Nah … I swear I'll be a perfect gentlemen. Besides, I don't have any …" He nods his head.

"What?"

"Protection."

"Protection? But I told you I'm on the shot."

"Yeah … about that …"

"What?"

"Well, aside from the fact that I might have knocked you up this afternoon, nothing, I reckon."

"Knocked me up? I already assured you that I have it –"

"Covered. Yeah, I know … you take the shot. But the thing is Yank, lots of gals take the shot around here, and they still get pregnant. It's one of those things that no one has been able to figure out, though there are lots of theories, including the spring."

"The spring."

"Yes, Ma'am, the very same one we took a dip and a tango in this afternoon."

"That's ridiculous."

"Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, but it still don't change the fact that for whatever reason, gals in these parts have to double on their methods if they don't want to be putting Pampers and Pull-Ups in their buggies down at the Piggly Wiggly every nine months."

I laugh out right. "I'm sorry, but this is absurd! The next thing you'll be telling me is that aliens came down and tampered with the water source."

He arches a brow in my direction.

"Seriously?"

"Hey, you brought it up … I was gonna stick to the Cherokee curse."

I shake my head in disbelief.

He takes my hand in his. I can't help but notice that it's just a tiny bit shaky.

"What's wrong?"

"Listen – uh …"

"What?"

He removes his hand from mine, scratches the back of his ear and then pulls his hair at the roots, dragging his tresses roughly through his fingers.

"Boots?"

"I mean, I know we haven't known each other long but if you should wind up being … you know … well, I just want you to know that I would do the right thing is all."

He mutters his words, but his eyes are shining and sincere. I feel a lump grow in my throat and I try to swallow it, but it just won't move.

"Look ... I don't want to scare you none … I just don't want you to think that if something like that should happen that I would be the kind of fellow to turn tail and run, okay?"

I nod my head quickly, chasing back the tears that are threatening to fall from my eyes. Luckily, the clouds are shifting again, and we're plunged back into near darkness.

"Well, I guess there's no need to trouble, trouble, till trouble, troubles you, right?"

"Now Yank, coming from you, I'd say that's quite a turnaround."

I sit back in the swing, considering. He's right … I guess maybe a few days in his company has begun to rub off on me; I feel lighter – more optimistic than I have in months, possibly even years. Maybe ever.

"Is that what happened with you and Tanya?"

"What – me knocking her up with Elizabeth?"

I nod my head.

"Nah … I never did take Tanya anywhere near the spring."

"You didn't?"

"Nope." He leans down and picks up his guitar and absently strums a few notes. "We got drunk as shit on corn whiskey one night and the next thing you know, Ole Bip was crowning at Masenville Memorial."

"How old were you at the time?" I ask, suddenly aware that I have no idea of his age. He could be all of the twenty-one or two for all I know.

Please don't be younger than me.

"Thirteen."

"THIRTEEN!"

"Sh!" he laughs, putting his hand over my mouth. "You'll wake up the dead, the neighbors and Elizabeth. I'm just messing with you. Don't think I don't know how women are … If you want to know how old I am; well, then just ask me."

"Okay, so … how old are you?" I ask, biting my lip.

'I'm thirty-one – you?"

"Relieved."

He laughs.

"So you were …"

"Twenty-four when Elizabeth was born. I wasn't exactly a kid, Bella. Fact is, I had just come back to Masenville."

"Come back?"

He sets down his guitar. "Yup, I spent some time in the cooler."

"The cooler?"

He looks at me, considering, and then lets out a small sigh of resignation.

"Prison."

I sit up straight in my seat, fully alert. My mouth opens and closes like a fish whose dead but doesn't know it yet.

"What-what happened?"

"I beat the tar out of that piece of human waste, Royce King -the one who got Rose pregnant - is what happened. I ran into him at a bar - he started talkin shit - and the next thing you know, he was on the ground. Hell… Daddy was there too, he tried to stop me, and I ended up breaking his arm and that fucker's nose. Course, Daddy, didn't press charges, but that asshole did, and since his daddy is a hotshot lawyer from Charlotte, well … I got two years. Only served ten months though, on account of good behavior," he winks.

"Oh –my-well-huh." I finally squeak out. Eloquent, I am not.

The clouds shift again, and I see him clearly in the moonlight. I watch his eyes narrow and drop. He picks the guitar strings, but makes no sound; he's pinching the strings together tightly with his other fingers.

"Look, I know on paper I am not the best catch," he says, setting his guitar back down on the deck.

"I'm an orphan who wound up in the system and in prison. I barely made it through high school. I was a runaway. I knocked a girl up who I didn't love. I'm a single father. Shit … If I were a woman who was even entertaining the idea of dating a man like me, I would turn tail and run like hell. I wouldn't blame you a bit if you wanted to neither, believe me.

"But I sure hope you don't," he says, quietly. For the first time since I've known him, he looks sad and uncertain.

I put my arms around him and hug him tight.

"Boots, I'm not going anywhere," I whisper, kissing his hair.

"You're not?"

"No." His head drops to my shoulder, and I feel him relax. I rub circles around his back, just like my aunt did to soothe me as a child. He seems to like it though, because he nuzzles his face deeper into my neck. I run my fingers through his hair at the base of his neck.

"Mmm."

"You like that?"

"Mm-hmm. More."

I smile to myself and scratch his head lightly.

Arms around each other, we sit and rock quietly in the swing. The creak, creak crick, creak is soothing, and soon my eyes are dropping.

"Let's go to bed," he says, finally, with a yawn.

"Okay," I yawn back.

He picks up his guitar and heads for the door. I grab the empty bottles and follow him inside.

"I'm so sleepy," I admit with a yawn.

Just then, my stomach gives a large rumble.

"Well, shit; I plumb forgot you didn't get a bite to eat. Mama would have my head on a platter if she thought I didn't offer you some of her chicken and dumplings. There a dish of it in the fridge and a piece of Miss Shelly's Chocolate Meringue pie. I'll heat up the dumplings, and you can eat in bed, okay?"

"Chicken and dumplings in bed?"

"Hell-yeah … and why not? I'd say after the day we had it sounds like heaven."

"Oh, you didn't eat either?"

He stares at me for a fraction of a second and then flashes me a wide grin.

"I guess you don't know much about boys, huh?"

"No, that's not true; I actually taught at an all men's college," I confess, wiping the beads of perspiration off my brow. It's so humid here.

"Is that a fact? Huh."

"Mm-hm."

"Well, then you ought to know that a fellow can have his supper at six o 'clock and be ready for a little man's plate by 8 o'clock, Then, if he's feel'in peckish he might be ready for another round come midnight. That's how we know man invented the midnight snack."

I bat my eyes at him.

"A little man's plate?"

"Yes ma'am, the very same," he says, opening the refrigerator door wide.

I chuckle at his description and peer inside; sure enough, there are casseroles and covered dishes of all shapes and sizes, neatly stacked and marked as to what they contain. The pie, which stands alone in the center, looks fabulous. My mouth waters.

"I'll just have a small piece of the pie and a little glass of milk,"

"Suit yourself. I'm having a little man's plate and a piece of pie. Why don't you head back to bed; I'll be there in a minute."

"Okay. Um – which one is …?"

"Oh. Mine's down here. Just head down that little hall there, and it's on the right."

His home is beautiful; gleaming wood, copper accents, green plaids and buttery leather. It's masculine yet sophisticated too; hardly the home of some country bumpkin. A large, mounted deer stares back at me from the massive stone fireplace. I chuckle; it's definitely a man's home. My dad had a similar mounting over his own hearth.

I turn down the little hall and find his bedroom. There a small lamp on the nightstand that sheds just enough light to illuminate the enormous, four-poster bed that dominates the center of the room. It's covered with a soft gold comforter and surrounded with pillows of every shape and size. A pair of leather slippers – so worn that I can see the treads from the insole, sits beneath the foot of the bed. His night stand is littered with books. I go over and glance at the titles. I'm being nosey and maybe a little too personal – books are rather a private glimpse into one's soul.

I squint, trying to read the titles; my glasses, unfortunately, have gone by the wayside since they were in my stolen purse.

I swallow the bile that threatens to rise and push back the fission of fear that threatens to dominate my core. I know that Boots and I will have to address all of that sooner rather than later, but I'm so very tired. I just need … I need …

I need Boots.

"I thought you were going to be all snuggled in bed, sleeping, Yank; not standing there by the nightstand checking out my reading material. You sure are a noseycurious little thing," he laughs.

"I … what? No," I say. I drop the book back on the stand. I feel like a thief.

"Jesus – I'm just kidding. You can look at my books later – hell, you can borrow any of the ones you want to read."

"Um, no … I can't right now," I say.

He looks at me puzzled, and I squint, pointing to my eyes.

"Ah. Top drawer."

I raise an eyebrow at him, and he nods. I open the drawer and gasp when I look inside; there has to be at least a dozen pair of assorted pairs inside!

"Yup … I can't read for shit without readers, and I lose a pair every other day, so I buy them in bulk at the Dollar Tree just to be on the safe side. Help yourself." He sets a tray laden with assorted goodies on the foot of the bed.

"Paula Dean?"

"Man's gotta eat."

"Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care?

"Got a kid to raise."

"Popular Mechanics?"

"Duh."

"North and South?"

"Picked it up at the library the day after we met; figured there might be a tip or two in there to clue me in about the inner workings of a Yankee's mind."

I roll my eyes.

"Blueberries for Sal?"

"That's Bips. She loves that one; must have read that a hundred times already and she knows it by heart. I swear if I skip over one word she calls me out on it, too."

"It was one of my favorites as a child," I admit.

"Takes place in Maine, don't it?"

"Yes."

"Ever been there?"

I set the books back on the dresser and glance at him; he is sitting cross legged, in the middle of the bed, arranging plates and napkins. He pats the mattress gently.

"Hop up."

I climb on the bed and crawl carefully over to the center, and he hands me a small plate of chicken and dumplings.

"I know you said you didn't want none, but I also saw you eyeballing it, and I know how you women are; it's always, "No … I'm stuffed as full as a tick." And then you stare at us while we're chowing down on whatever with those big, puppy dog eyes, just begging for one little bite."

I laugh, as I take the plate from him, and he hands me a fork, with a grin.

I dig in and almost swoon; it's creamy, warm, wonderfully flavorful, and exactly what I needed. It's comfort food at its very best. No pretense, no presentation, just simple, hearty fare that makes my mouth and heart happy.

"Uh-huh … see … don't ever tell me I don't know women," he teases, as he hands me a small glass of milk.

"Thank you," I mumble with a mouth full of chicken.

He laughs

I blush

I have lost all sense of decorum around this man. What's next on the agenda – gas? I swear if that happens, I will leap out of this bed, track James Hunter down, and beg him to kill me.

Whoa … where did that thought come from? I gulp and then giggle. This entire experience has been nothing short of a farce. I am no longer in charge of anything; not my bodily functions or my intellect.

"What is it?"

"Nothing – I – nothing."

"You're crazy, gal … you know that, right?"

"Yes, that thought has occurred to me," I admit, forking up the last of the dumplings and wondering if it would be rude to lick the plate.

He cracks a grin and hands me his plate.

"Go ahead and finish mine. My buckets full anyway, and you look like you're about to eat the dish."

I take it from him gratefully and dig in.

"So, you never did answer me. Have you ever been to Maine?"

"Oh, er – yes, yes I have. My aunt had a summer cottage in Wells. We often spent the month of July there," I tell him. "Why?"

"Oh Bips got it in her head that she wants to live there; says she can smell the salt water and see the rocky cliffs or some shit like that. You know how kids are."

"Mm," I agree, although, in truth, I don't know all that much about young children.

"Your ant must have been well-off, huh?"

"Umm … I suppose she was comfortable," I say, non-committed. The truth is, I'm not comfortable talking about wealth, and after my recent encounter with James, I admit that it's a tender subject.

"What was she like?" he asks.

"She was … she was wonderful. She was smart, accomplished, stoic … and wise. She took me in, no questions asked, in the twilight of her life. She was a single woman, never married, never had children of her own; a teacher who became a headmistress of an exclusive, all girl's private school. But she was more than that … she was more than my aunt or even my mother. She was my best friend."

"Was?" he asks, gently.

"She died when I was in graduate school." I swallow the lump in my throat that always appears when I think of my aunt's passing.

"I'm sorry, Bella."

"Thank you."

His simple words are so much better than long diatribes and platitudes about loss and promises of meeting each other again.

"She probably would have hated me, though, right?" He says with a grin. But there's a glimmer of uncertainty in his eyes that I don't want to see.

"No, not at all; Aunt Margaret wasn't one to judge people on anything but their character. She – she would have adored you, Boots."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," I say, "Absolutely." Because I know she would.

"Okay, good."

The silence between us isn't awkward,exactly, but it seems to have left us with a lack of words. I pick a loose thread on the comforter, and wrap it around my knuckle, like a tourniquet, until it turns blue.

Chuckling, he removes the thread from my finger and gives it a small kiss.

"Pie?"

I laugh. "Yes, please."

I look at the two slices of pie, one small and one not so small that he is holding in his hands. He rolls his eyes at my hopeful face and hands me the big slice.

I dive in mumbling thanks through a massive mouthful of chocolate and meringue. The filling oozes out of the corner of my mouth and Boots leans over with a snowy white napkin and wipes it clean.

"Lord, you're worse than Elizabeth, I declare. Good thing I brought the big boy napkins."

I roll my eyes back in my head. I know I should be mortified, and come morning I know I will be, but right now? No. This pie is so good that if Jasper suddenly appeared at the doorway, I'd hold up two fingers and make him wait for me to finish before I hugged him.

There is something seriously wrong with me.

But nothing that another bite of pie won't fix. I shovel the last bite in my mouth and swipe my finger along the edge of the plate, then pop it in my mouth and suck off the last of the luscious cream and crumbs.

Boots is staring at me with his mouth agape.

"Wha_"

His mouth is on mine before I finish the word let alone the question.

He moves so fast that the big-boy napkin bounces upwards and then drops down and lands on his head like a bridal veil. He knocks it aside, lets out a bark, and covers me with his body. The plates, forks, and cups rattle on the bed like a lion in a cage.

"Damn … you're so fucking sexy," he growls, nipping at my ear.

Desire shoots through me like liquid fire, and I let out a long, moan.

"Shh … he whispers. "Just let me … yeah … right there. Oh – that's good," he gasps, as he positions himself right in my center; cotton to cotton and chest to chest. My hand runs down the length of his back and caresses his buttocks, one cheek at a time. He doesn't have much, but what he does have is muscular and well defined. He grinds himself into me, mumbling, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." I snake my hand beneath the band of his boxers and push him into me a little deeper.

"Shit … he says, grabbing my leg and wrapping it around his waist.

"Ungh …"

"Yeah … he grunts." "Just let me … he pleads, lifting up my tee shirt to reveal my breasts.

"There they are …" he says, kissing each nipple hello as if they were old friends whom he hasn't seen in years.

He runs his tongue over them, and I clench the bed sheets hard in my hands, moaning.

"I love your tits," he purrs, as he sucks on my nipples and bites them lightly. I normally hate the word "tits" but I must admit it's very sexy coming out of his mouth.

Ahhh!

Oh God! I grab his shirt in my fist and drag it up, over his head. His hair is wild and so is his face. But it's not fear I feel; it's excitement. Yes, he's dangerous, but I'm not in danger; I'm right there with him. We're partners in this crime.

His shirt drops soundlessly to the floor. I run my fingers through his hair, down his neck, and grab his shoulders. His hands slide down my boxers at the same time as my toes are dragging down his. He lifts his behind just enough to help me in my task, and then I feel him, hard and ready as he grinds himself impatiently on my hip.

I'm wet, I think to myself. I don't think I have ever been so wet for a man before in my life.

"Yeah baby, you are … you're so wet …" he pants in my ear. "I could feel you soaking my boxers. That's it. Mm." He grabs his erection and moves it over to my center, circling it around my clitoris. As soon as his tip touches me, I come hard with a long, drawn-out moan.

He lets out a roar and plunges inside me while I am still contracting. Oh, God … it's so big and so solid, and it's just so good.

So good

"Fuck," he says, Fuck ... fuck …" His pelvis is flush with mine. He grabs my leg, throws it over his shoulder, and begins to pound inside me, hard, fast, and furiously.

Oh, Jesus. He's … he's … fucking me.

"Yeah, I'm fucking you, baby."

His words, dark and dirty, are all it takes to set me off and I come again, so hard that my mouth flies open, but he covers my shout of "Edward!" with his mouth, stifling me. I gasp as I contract, and my hands claw at his back. He swallows my sounds greedily. I feel him growing longer, harder as his hips continue to swivel and pound. He's so rigid that I can feel every part of him, and even though I've already climaxed twice, I can feel another forming.

"Again?" he gasps, losing his momentum and stilling his hips. "Come all over my cock …" he groans, exploding inside of me.

A third orgasm shoots through me as he rides out his with pants and praise and thanks to Jesus. We fall back on the pillows, a heaving, sweaty mess of tangled limbs and snarled hair.

"Shit," he gasps. "Fuck!"

Fuck, indeed. A small giggle escapes from me, followed by another. I'm too over-whelmed to check myself; I've never experienced anything like this before. My body and my mind are completely spent.

Tears, hot, wet and unexpected, leak from the corners of my eyes. They run down my face and bleed into my hair. A small sob pines out of me before I can control it, followed by another. I turn my face into the pillow, horrified at my reaction. What is wrong with me?

He curls into my side, kisses my shoulder, and turns me to face him.

"I'm sorry, Bella. I know I said I wouldn't, and that we shouldn't. I know I promised you I could control myself. And I thought I could, I really did. I'm so sorry. Please don't, cry," he begs me, helplessly. His face is a picture of conflict; both sated and stricken.

"No … it's not that … I told you, I'm protected. It's just …"

"What? What is it then?" he pleads,confused.

"I just … I never … well, that's never happened to me before."

"What? You mean you never came before? But … I thought this afternoon that you –"

"No - I did. I just never had sex like that … Like what you called it …"

"What – you mean, fucking?"

I blush into his shoulder, my cheeks hot and red. I know he's about to make fun of me and I gird my loins in preparation. I feel like such an inexperienced fool.

But as always, Boots continues to surprise me.

He gives me a soft kiss on my forehead.

"I'll be right back," he says, gathering up the remains of our midnight snack.

I turn my face into his pillow, breathing him in. I'm almost asleep when he returns with a warm facecloth and dry towel.

"I figured you'd sleep better if you …" he hands me the towels with a nod. I take them from him gratefully. To his credit, he turns to the night stand while I clean myself and flicks the lamp off with his thumb. He fluffs his pillows and pulls the covers down.

"Better?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"Come here," he whispers, reaching for me.

I settle into my sweet haven, and he kisses the side of my face.

"I'm crazy about you," he whispers in the dark.

My heart does this sort of weird little happy dance inside my chest. I tell it to stop, afraid that Boots' idea of being crazy for me doesn't mean anything more than, I'm crazy about having sex with you.

"Close your eyes, Sugar, and go to sleep. I'll tell you a little story to help you get there, okay?"

"A story?" I mumble into his chest.

"Mm-hmm. It's a good one. It's about this twelve-year-old boy who went to the spring with his buddies one fine summer night, long-long ago. It was hot and sultry. The clouds were covering the moon, just like tonight. The boys lit a bonfire, and the smoke and the mist filled the air and hung over them like a cloud.

There was a girl in the group, and she had the gift to see into the future. The boy, well … He never believed in any of that hoo-doo, but that night he fell under her powers and was lost in a trance."

"A trance?" I yawn, curling myself deeper into his side. He rubs his hands up and down my bottom and squeezes it gently.

"Are you cold?" he whispers.

"No."

"Good. I love the way your skin feels next to mine."

"Mmm … More story."

He chuckles, quietly. "Yes, Ma'am."

I kiss him over his heart.

"Bella?"

"Huh?"

"I never felt that way, either."

"Hmm?"

"You know, when we were …"

"Fucking?" I yawn, no longer caring if I sound like a hoochie mama. I'm so very tired.

He snorts, and I feel him shake his head as he gathers me closer to his chest.

"Naw. I mean … all of it … this afternoon on the tablecloth, in the spring, just now … all of it. You make me … feel, I dunno - Like maybe, there's something more out there for me than Boots' Tow-N-Go and pull'in the occasional shift at the Burger. I – I it's just, well … you make me feel things I didn't know I could feel, is what I'm trying to say."

His words are sweet and special and I know I should respond but sleep is dragging me under and I can't stop it. So I commit them, word by beautiful word, faithfully, to my memory banks. I know that I will take them out and repeat them to myself a million times in the years to come, so I settle them in safely, and snuggle into Boots with a snore. He's talking again, and his words wrap around me like a soft blanket.

"That night, the boy saw a vision of a woman in the spring. She was floating on her back, nude. Her skin was milky white and so beautiful that I felt tears in my eyes … I mean, he felt tears in his eyes, at the sight of her in the moonlight. She was a vision of loveliness. But she wasn't alone. I saw a man. The boy … he saw him … tall, strong, and familiar. The man reached for her … he loved her … they loved each other. Their love filled the spring, the sky, and the moon."

His voice, no more than a whisper, lulls me into a deeper sleep.

The last words I hear are -

"You were so beautiful that night. I knew then you were the woman I would always lo…"

***WTWAB***

A/N: So .. yeah. It's been awhile, huh? I won't bore you with the details of my life, but I will say that it's been a busy and crazy summer. I certainly didn't mean to take another long break, but it happens. In any case, I didn't plan on this particular chapter at all; it just evolved organically after I wrote a little outtake for a reader-friend to cheer her up when she was ill. I hope ya'll enjoyed it; that Boots never does what he's told (as was evidenced by that sneaky mini-chapter he wrote earlier this summer.)

B/N: This here is Boots. I am interrupting this foolishness because I know Miss Jayne is gonna catch hell from ya'll about my behavior in this particular chapter. Now before ya'll go off on her, understand that there isn't nuthin ya'll could say that I haven't already said to myself. I know I shouldn't have brought Bella back to my place so soon, given the way we can't keep our hands of each other. Yeah, ...I know I should have stuck to my promise to keep those hands to myself, too. Got no excuse, cept Bella's gorgeous and I'm a man. And yes, I know that ain't no excuse either. But as they like to say in this crazier than bat-shit fandom - "Shrugs." Besides, I have it on pretty good authority that ya'll enjoy a "lemon." (Don't think I don't know that's just code for fucking. Esme didn't raise no dummies.)

Ya'll stay smart now,

Boots

Thanks so much for reading. The next chapter is mostly written so It'll be posted soon.

A BIG shout-out and thanks to Fran for her mad editing skills!

xo Jayne