*This story was originally written for the Control, Possess, Seduce Contest. Entries can be found under the writer name: ControlPossessSeduceContest.
A MUSE'S RANSOM
The irony is not lost on me. At my left elbow, roughly thirty unsold hardcover copies of my latest bestseller, That Which Does Not Kill Us, pout like disheartened leftovers at the orphanage, poking their noses against the window as yet another family drives away without them. Chill, you guys. You know these live appearances are meant to serve "other purposes." The book sales will take care of themselves, or so Angela always reminds me.
In my cramped right hand, the blue felt-tip marker hangs above the title page, awaiting direction from either of the two gushy, popular-girl types at the front of the line. It's anyone's guess whether my writing hand or my fake smile will spasm first.
"How would you like me to dedicate your book?" I sure hope that sounded sweeter to them than it did to my ears. Crap. Angela's latest "resting bitch face" lecture rolls through my head.
The two fans giggle and pass a silent, "You go! No, you go!" back and forth for an agonizing several seconds before the long-haired brunette jams her elbow into the other girl's side.
"Fine! Can you write 'To Merry'—that's M-E-R-R-Y"—the redhead giggles and waves a shaky hand across the page—"and could you sign it 'Love always, Mace'?"
My lips quirk into a genuine smirk. "Sure."
Oh, how I'd love to say, "Why don't you ask him yourself?" Oh, wait—he's not real. But the life-size cardboard cutout to my right is real enough, judging from the line of girls waiting to have their picture taken with him. It. Never mind that he's not my version of Mace. When your agent tells you to do a signing, you do the signing—even if you'd rather talk to people from the other side of a computer screen, or better yet, not at all. And when said agent insists on arranging for a photo op with "the spitting image of Mace," you hold your tongue because the deadline for the first three chapters of your next book passed two months ago—around the same time you decided to use the advance payment to splurge on a new car.
". . . Love always, Mace." I add a whoosh under Mace's signature, crawling into my character's head for the split second it takes me to see how he'd do it.
"Thank you so much!" She clasps the book to her chest with both arms. "Please tell me Elizabeth and Mace get their happy ending in the last book!"
It's a fair question, one I've been asked about fifty times since 7:30 tonight. The truth is, I wouldn't tell her even if I knew the answer. "I guess you're going to have to wait and see."
Just like I am. Assuming this nasty case of writer's block takes a hike at some point.
I never imagined it would happen to me, not with Mace. He popped into my head on Valentine's Day, 2006, as I lay in bed conjuring the perfect man. Since that night, Edward Masen Cullen hadn't shut his trap, and believe me, there were plenty of times I'd wished he had—especially during the angstier patches in books three and four and most definitely during the tortured breakup in book six.
Elizabeth Strong has always been easy; she is my alter ego, the girl who does and says everything I'm too much of a wimp to do and say. It isn't her fault I'm blocked; she can't be expected to hold a conversation alone. She can't tango without a partner.
After six bestsellers in the Strong Like a Girl series, Mace inexplicably went AWOL on us. He could not have picked a worse time. It didn't help that I resented him for it. Yes, I learned that in therapy. If and when Mace Cullen does decide to show his pretty face again, he is going to get a mighty colorful earful from me.
"C'mon, we have to get our picture with Mace!" The dark-haired girl yanks her friend away, leaving me to grind through the next signature.
I sneak a peek at my watch—thank God, it's finally nine—as I pull the next book from the stack, open to the title page, and clench the marker. "How would you like me to dedicate your book?"
"Hmm," says a deep voice that draws my attention across the table. "How about 'To Mace, with love'?"
He drew a tender finger along the edge of her face, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
"What happened?" Elizabeth asked, her eyes fluttering open. "Mace! You came back for me!"
He smiled down at her. "Of course I did." His soft chuckle jostled her head in his lap.
"She's waking up. Bella, can you hear me?" Book store manager—Rose something. Signing. Reality. Not Mace. "Open your eyes. Please, Bella. You're scaring us!"
Mace speaks to me for the first time in eight months, and this chick wants me to open my eyes and risk losing him again, maybe for good? "Gimme a second. Mace came to see me."
"Yeah, we know."
That opens my eyes—but not for long. That couldn't have been . . . nah. I blink, again, three times . . . HOLY SHIT! I would recognize those bushy eyebrows anywhere, the slightly lopsided cat's eyes, the trademark panty-poofer smile, the chin that could cut a diamond.
I close my eyes again, harder this time. This is not a dream. I'm awake. I was signing books . . . two girls . . . this deep voice—Mace's voice . . . and now, I'm horizontal, and my head's in someone's lap—a hard lap. I roll my head experimentally—up, down, right, left—holy crap, did I just plant my face in some guy's fly? I hear laughter—dammit, it's Mace's laughter. I'd know that low "huh-huh-huh" anywhere.
You'd know it in your sleep. If this is a dream, I cannot afford to wake up, not until I hear their last story. Please, don't make me wake up.
"Bella! Wake up!"
"Fine," I mutter, reluctantly opening my eyes, "but it's your fault my sexy main character just . . ." did not disappear. "Mace?" I jolt out of his lap.
A firm hand catches my shoulder and eases me back down. "Whoa there, tiger! You just fainted." Mace gazes down at me, his eyes shimmering with amusement. It would be just like him to enjoy this.
"I don't understand . . . am I awake?" I reach for the back of my head and search for the inevitable lump. "Do I have a concussion or something?"
"No, you didn't hit your head. I caught you before you landed."
"Of course you did." What good book hero wouldn't?
He laughs again. "You're angry at me for catching you?"
"She's disoriented," Rose answers, shoving a cup of water under my nose. "Here, drink."
Mace intercepts the cup. "She'll be okay. Why don't you give us a few minutes alone?"
"Sure," Rose answers him, then turns toward the door. "I'll be right outside."
Yes, leave me alone with the fictitious rogue. That's a grand idea.
The door clicks shut somewhere in the distance. Mace skims his fingers down my cheek again, smiling at the shiver that ripples through me. "Hello, Miss Swan."
"Oh God! It's not enough I'm going to lose my car, now I've lost my mind! Why didn't I stick to early childhood education? I could be having a perfectly peaceful night cutting out paper snowflakes and binge-watching Breaking Bad."
He smiles to the corners of his eyes. So, so beautiful he is. Sigh.
"You haven't lost your mind. I'm exactly who you think I am."
From everything I can see, I'd tend to agree, but Mace has fooled me before. I've lost count of all the times I've fallen under his spell, sure he was real, only to wake to an empty bed and a steaming pile of disappointment. Not this time, bub.
Trembling fingers reach for his chin, jerking away when they meet actual skin. I gasp; he grins.
"Not a fan of the stubble?" He rubs his hand back and forth across his chin. Five elegant, mesmerizing fingers. Just the way I wrote them. "I could shave for you."
No shaving. "Sorry, I had to check."
One of his insanely shaggy eyebrows pops up. "You've already checked. My lap . . . remember?"
I blush like a fiend, but I won't dignify his comment with a response. "Take off your hat." Not even the most highly skilled hairdresser could recreate the mess of wild bronze hair the way I've written it.
Mace smirks, grabs the beanie, and whips it off with a dramatic flair. And there it is. Layers upon layers of thick, luxurious hair, a dozen different shades of copper catching even the fluorescent light in this little room, never mind what the sun can do when given the chance. There's little doubt in my mind, but just to seal the deal, Mace tips his head forward to give me a perfect view, sets his hand at the top of his forehead, and drags his fingers through that perfect head of hair, thumb and pinkie hitched out to the sides like a spider's legs. Just the way I write him.
"Okay," I say quietly. I surrender.
He lifts his eyes, looking oddly disappointed. "You don't want to run your fingers through?"
Hell yes, I do, and it's taking every ounce of my self-restraint to hold back from doing just that. "I'm good."
He fluffs his hair, then sits admirably still while I complete my examination. The gray, long-sleeved waffle tee—my favorite of his shirts—is snug enough to reveal some definition in his chest, especially when he flexes. He gives me a sheepish shrug when I catch him in the act, and I grin. Mace would've definitely flexed. After several long minutes of quiet scrutiny, he breaks his silence.
"Would you like to see the mole on my hip?"
"Yes. No." Fuck it. "Yes."
His cocky grin returns, and I'd like to kiss it right off his face. "Can you promise me you won't pass out again?"
He chuckles. "I need you to sit up," he says, gently lifting my head and shoulders out of his lap and propping me up against the loveseat we're sharing. "Y'okay there?"
"So far," I answer.
He moves in front of me, all seventy-four inches of him. It's one thing to put the hash marks on the storyboard, 6'2" for Mace and 5'8" for Elizabeth, and quite another to experience the height as a living, breathing body. The man is tall.
"Ready?" The killer smile isn't helping any.
"I guess." My mouth has gone bone dry, but I lick my lips out of pure reflex.
Mace flicks open the top button of his jeans. I hold my breath. He tugs down the corner at his right hip and lifts the shirt out of the way. A noise escapes me, but I couldn't name it, other than to say it's extremely embarrassing. Bless his heart, Mace doesn't call attention to it.
He steps closer, knocking his knees against the loveseat, and reaches for my hand. I watch mutely as he pulls our joined fingers to his bare skin and brushes them across the dark, raised circle on his hip. The one I put there. His skin pebbles with goosebumps. He releases me. The tingling in my fingertips is real. This man is not a dream. He's standing here in this room with me.
Despite everything, my head just won't allow me to go there. "You can't be . . . You're not real."
"Tell me I'm not Mace," he says.
He is, though. It makes no sense, but he is. "But I made you up."
"I'll give you that," he says with an agreeable nod. "I took the human form straight out of your imagination. Thanks for the wonky feet, by the way. What's that about? I really like dancing and these feet are . . . well, a challenge." His gaze draws mine down toward the floor. His navy blue Vans are turned slightly inward, endearing as hell.
"You can't be perfect. Nobody would be able to relate. First rule of fiction," I explain, as if it's normal to have actual, real-life discussions about writing techniques with one's characters.
"Fair enough." Mace folds his hands in front of him. If he had a halo, he'd be straightening it right now. Mace Cullen has never worn a halo in his life.
"I'm sorry, can we rewind, please?"
"Sure. How far?"
"How about to the part where you said 'human form'? I'm talking to a . . . what the hell are you, exactly, a robot? Are you some kind of android?"
"Android? Did we levitate to the science fiction section when I wasn't looking?" His smirk is back. So much for the halo.
"I have no idea where we are."
"C'mon, Bella. What do you think?"
"I'm not ready to rule out the possibility that I've lost my mind, but assuming that's not it, I'd say you're a stalker with one hell of a makeup artist." And a damn good personal trainer.
"That's pretty dark. Why would I stalk you?"
"You're auditioning for the movie? I'm flattered as hell, but you're barking up the wrong author, bub. I don't know what you think you've heard, but there's no movie deal here."
"Bub?" His forehead crinkles. "You weren't always so cynical. What's happened to you?"
"Always? How long exactly have you been stalking me?"
"I told you, I haven't been stalk—"
"How long?" Hysteria leaks of my voice. At least it draws an answer.
"You could say I've had you in my sights for a while."
My legs retract into my body; I wrap my arms around my knees. I'm full fetal on the loveseat. "This is getting creepier by the minute."
"Sorry, Bella. I really didn't mean to scare you. There was no delicate way to do this."
"Do what exactly?" Now I'm genuinely scared. Is he about to go Misery on me? My gaze races around the room, locating and recording all available exits. "May I remind you, there are people just outside that door, people who don't want to be sued. I'm a screamer."
"I'm not going to hurt you, Bella. Then, I'd never get what I came for."
"What you . . . ransom?" The word is nothing more than a high-pitched wheezing noise. "My father is the only one who'd pay a dime for me, and that's about nine cents more than he owns." The pension for a small-town cop doesn't accommodate ransom payments.
"Jesus, Bella, I'm not here to kidnap you!"
"Then what do you want from me?" The Mace I know and love-to-be-irritated-by may be a pain in the ass, but he wouldn't go in for violence. I can't be so sure about this doppelganger.
"I don't want to talk about it here. We should go somewhere we can't be interrupted."
"Why on earth would I go anywhere with you?"
"Earth," he repeats quietly with a dark, mysterious chuckle. "Because you need me."
God help me, if there's ever a man I needed, it's Edward Masen Cullen. It's always been Mace.
What would Charlie have to say about that? I was raised to rely on myself, dammit. "I don't need any man."
His angelic folded hands ride up his chest, where they become a pair of exasperated arms folded across his chest. "Your heartrate tells a different story."
"My heart doesn't get a vote."
The bushy eyebrows rise again. I shrug and follow his lascivious gaze to my sweater, where two pointy nubs betray me.
"What about your nipples? That's two votes." He smirks, so proud of himself. He's Mace all over, dammit.
Fuck this. I know how to handle Edward Cullen—give him a dose of Elizabeth Strong, the obstinate, take-no-shit heroine I've spent six novels developing. "I own three vibrators and a case of fresh batteries. What do you have that they don't?"
Mace lets out a guffaw but doesn't miss a beat. He raises his shirt to reveal the requisite six-pack. "For starters, these."
"Sorry, you're gonna have to do better than a few well-placed lumps of muscle."
He chuckles. "Fair enough. How about the fact that I am in sole possession of the only thing you care about right now?"
The romance writer in me can't help another glance at a certain well-placed lump in Mace's lap. After ten long years of living with this man in my head, some habits die hard. "Are you referring to your six-point-three-inch, circumcised penis?"
"Six point six!" he insists, eyes narrowed comically. I have yet to meet a man, fictional or real, who won't defend to the death the size of his penis. "And no, I am not. Cock isn't everything."
Easy for you to say; you have one. "Okay, I'll bite."
My taunt hits its mark. Mace flinches at the imaginary teeth around his dick. "That was not funny."
"Gawd, you are so Mace right now."
"That wasn't a compliment."
His lips turn down into a scowl that is, tragically, completely adorable. "I believe we were about to leave?"
"Not before you tell me what you have that you think I need badly enough to risk my life leaving here with a total stranger."
"Stranger?" He shakes his copper hair like a dog running out of a pond. "Right. You sidetracked me somewhere along the way."
"In your pants."
"You're doing it again."
"Sorry. I wander sometimes. Occupational hazard."
"I know." He uncrosses his arms and drops to one knee. He reaches inside my fetal bubble to move a clump of hair out of my eyes. My Mace regards me so tenderly all of a sudden, I almost forgive the guy for stalking me and turning me on. "Bella, I have the cure for your writer's block."
Writer's block. Hemlock to an author's soul. Once it takes root, it spreads and chokes anything positive that might try to grow. Could he truly possess the antidote?
The man has my attention.
Don't get your hopes up.
"Tell me you're not feeling inspired right now." He's looking awfully proud of himself.
I look away from the perfection of him so I can concentrate for a second. The plot that's eluded me for the better—actually, worse—part of a year settles into my brain like a swan skimming to a graceful landing on the unbroken surface of a clear lake.
"Not particularly." I'm the worst liar ever.
"You're a lousy liar."
"Get out of my head!"
"Oh, Bella. Trust me, that is the last thing you want me to do."
I'm still pissed, but curiosity has the better of me. "How did you do that?"
"I think you know."
I guess on some level, I've always suspected some sort of supernatural element at play, the way words started flying since I started writing the Strong series. But could it really be, or is this guy an incredibly gifted actor with the most talented plastic surgeon on the planet?
Occam's razor. How many times did Charlie drum it into my head while relating the details of his latest super sleuthing? "Where competing explanations exist, the simplest suffices." Simplest? Huh, I don't know about that.
Mace cups my chin, holding my gaze in those luminescent eyes I've described with every synonym in the thesaurus for green. "Say it. Out loud."
Deep breath, Bella. "You're my muse."
His eyes shine back at me, filled with all the pride of a loving parent. "There you go."
Rose could not be more eager to help us out of the store, loading up "my boyfriend" with the box of unsold books. Of course, "Mace's" actual existence would make perfect sense to an outsider. Every author has her inspiration, after all.
It's anything but surprising to find Mace's silver Volvo parked alongside my brand new, Blue Mica Mazda CX-5. "Want me to drive?" he asks.
"Do you have an actual driver's license for the state of Washington?"
"And your foot won't just float right through the pedals?"
"I'm a muse, not a ghost." He smirks, and it's already wearing on my nerves. Did I have to write him as such an ass?
"Oh, excuse me for not knowing the characteristics of a mythological creature sent to earth. So you're actual flesh and blood?"
"Mmhmm, and all the essential parts you've described in such vivid detail."
Don't look, don't look. Fuck. I looked. "You're having way too much fun."
"Oh, c'mon," he says, actually looking a little bit hurt. "Is it really such a hardship hanging out with the man of your dreams?"
"Fine, I'll drive." Charlie would kill me for offering a ride to a stranger, but it would be infinitely more dangerous if we left in Mace's car. "You don't have a switchblade or anything in your pocket, do you?"
Mace raises the box of books he's carrying over his head. "Frisk me."
Gawd. "You wish."
"That sassy mouth of yours is gonna land you in a world of trouble one day, missy."
My jaw drops. "Do not quote my characters," I scold, trying like hell to keep the smile off my face.
"How about unlocking the car? Unless, of course, you want to continue watching my rippling biceps strain against the waffle pattern of my shirt." He pumps the heavy box up and down above his head, a huge grin on his face.
I open the hatch, and he sets down the books inside, then reaches for the cardboard hottie under my arm. He holds the bare-chested cardboard "Mace" in front of him with both hands, conducting his inspection with a comical scowl on his face.
"Are you asking him to dance or putting him in my car?"
"Where'd you find this dipshit?"
"My agent felt a life-size cutout would attract readers to the signing. She found some model who fit your general description and commissioned a photo shoot."
"I'm not a fan." Mace turns the image face-down and shoves him roughly into the trunk. "That guy is nowhere near good-looking enough to pull off Mace."
We finally agree on something, but I'll be damned if I'm letting on. Mace's ego is big enough as it is. "You'd never know it from all the girls fawning over him."
Mace's grimace edges up into a knowing grin, and I realize my teasing has backfired horribly. I should've known; the man can read my thoughts any time he wants, it seems. "You're jealous of your dipshit faux-Mace."
I open my mouth to let out a clever retort, but I've got nothing. I rush around to the driver's seat, hop in, and start the car. I could just drive away and forget any of this happened. Forget the cocky son-of-a-bitch with the mole on his hip. Forget my muse and his supposed cure for what ails me. Forget the man of my dreams, who's opening the passenger door and climbing in. Sigh.
"Put your seatbelt on," I warn.
"Aww, that's sweet. You do care." He bats his eyelashes at me and clicks the belt across his lap.
"I don't want to be responsible for maiming my muse. Talk about bad karma!"
"Oh, we don't deal in karma; we have the Fates for matters of destiny."
"Of course you do." Note to self: dig out Greek mythology book from high school English class.
"I see the gears moving in that head of yours, Bella. Stop working so hard. I'm going to explain everything. I promise."
"Fine. How about starting with where we're going."
"Are you hungry?"
Actually, I'm starved. I left my house at 4:30 to set up for the 7:30 signing, and it's well after 10:00. "I could eat. You? Do you even eat? Food?" As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want them back.
"Yes, Bella. Just like a real boy. Is there a place nearby to grab a burger? You know how I love my burgers."
"As rare as they'll cook it, with bacon, cheddar and—"
"Extra relish." He finishes for me and shoots me a huge Mace-like grin. I melt, despite everything.
"Sure, I know a place."
I drive us through the twisty back roads of Forks. He leaves me to my thoughts, which, I remember a few fantasies too late, he is most likely monitoring.
"So, how does this work? When you're out here in the world with me, are you still in my head? Or are you only in my head when I think about you?" I shoot him a cautious look, and I see that he's smirking at me.
"Are you not thinking about me right now?"
"That's not fair."
"I know. I'm sorry. There's not really anything I can do about it."
"Would you do something if you could?"
"I doubt it." He gives me that boyish grin I love so much.
My poor heart is going to need a whiplash brace. Sexy . . . cocky. Innocent . . . conniving. Endearing . . . frustrating. Before I can pick out the emotion of the moment, he shocks me yet again.
"You do have quite the imagination. That's one of the reasons I chose you."
"You chose me?" Well now. Chosen by a muse. "How does that work?"
He twists sideways in his seat as much as the belt allows. "As I'm sure you know, there are only nine muses in the cosmos, and only seven of us support writers. That's a pretty tough ratio, especially since self-publishing took off."
The freaky juxtaposition of ancient and modern makes me laugh. Muses actually exist—nine entities born into this universe to inspire creativity—and one of them is sitting in the front seat of my car talking to me about the current state of the internet-driven publishing industry. "Yeah, you guys must be quite busy."
"Oh, um, don't tell your friends or anything, but we don't service every writer. As I said, we pick and choose."
A chill zigzags down my spine. "Do you mind if I ask . . . exactly how many writers have you 'chosen'?"
"You mean, over time?"
My head is spinning. I've barely gotten used to the idea that this beautiful, young, gorgeous man is immortal, and now I have to layer on top of that the fact that not only will he live forever, but he already has. "No, now. How many writers are you taking care of right now, as we speak?"
"At the moment, just you."
"If I pass out, forget about catching me. Just take the wheel."
"You're okay." He smiles, and it's all I need. I am okay.
"Not to fish for compliments or anything, but why me?"
"I've learned a few lessons since the cosmos began, places I tend to hang out to find the best of the best. Over the last century or so, I've followed a certain university, and more recently, a certain professor."
"Oh my god. Banner?"
"He's one of the most brilliant judges of talent I've seen in the last three hundred years."
"I can't . . . three hundred years?" All my scrambled brain can handle is giggling like a loon.
Mace gives me a kind smile, the same smile one might grant a mental patient, before continuing. "I follow his top five students each year, among others, for as long as it takes to decide whether they've got what it takes. Sometimes that takes two years, sometimes it takes ten. In your case, it took, oh . . . five minutes."
"Oh god." I'm blushing again, praying the dark night conceals my embarrassment. A compliment from an honest-to-god . . . er, Zeus . . . muse. "Wait, and others? You must have been following hundreds—no, thousands!"
"I watch. I wait. I drop some, and I offer inspiration to the remaining. Sometimes it takes; sometimes it doesn't. There are times I'm servicing thousands of writers, popping in on them with everything from a simple plot bunny to the story arc for a seven-book series."
I don't know if he's referring to me or a certain author of a young wizard. The idea I may be sharing a muse with J.K. Rowling might be the most humbling realization yet.
"I lurk," he continues, "visiting in daydreams and night dreams. Occasionally, I'll jigger something in the author's life to get things moving."
"Sure. I might make sure an author sees something or comes across a certain photo on her newsfeed."
"You're on Facebook?"
He shrugs. "Social media extends my reach. I work behind the scenes. Who do you think inspires all those 'likes' and 'shares'? God bless fitness models. They do most of the heavy lifting these days—no pun intended."
"Ugh, fitness models. The ever-popular bathroom selfie coupled with a message of deep spiritual import."
"Aren't we being a wee bit hypocritical?"
Of course. The man probably has my browsing history memorized. "Fine. I like looking, but I really hate the whole idea of cover models. I find it insulting to readers to jam an image down their throat. It robs them of the joy of using their own imagination."
"Oh, so you're saying you let your readers decide what your hero looks like? 'His irises were starbursts shaken from a kaleidoscope with fifteen separate shades of green and four variations on gold,'" he quotes from Strength Training.
"I never said I wouldn't give them a hint or two."
"I think the real problem is that reality could never hold up against your ideal. Case in point, that monstrosity in your trunk."
His distaste for the "dipshit" makes me smile again. I'd be hard-pressed to say which of us hates that thing more. "To be fair, it's not as if the living, breathing Mace was an option—up to this point, that is."
"Which is why you're putting me on your series finale cover."
"What? No!" Long ingrained instinct produces the immediate outcry, but the more I think about those cover shoot videos: the fluffing, the riffling of fingers through thick waves of hair, the oiling of firm chests . . . Don't cave now, Bella. "It would be inconsistent with the rest of the covers."
"Psshh, oh, pardon me for interrupting your theme of vaguely suggestive inanimate objects."
"Is this why you came here? This is your big ask? You want to be my cover model?" I take his non-answer as a yes. "Not for nothing, Mace, but thanks to me, you could do a lot better than some two-bit romance writer's last cover. Assuming you're entirely faithful to my description," I add with a smirk, "you might even do well as an underwear model. You never know, that little mole might just catapult you to superstardom!"
He folds his arms across his chest and has the nerve to be serious. "Are you done?"
"I guess." When you put it like that.
"You don't know a damn thing about cover models, Bella."
Angela brought a few images my way before book one was published. She was very much of the six-pack-on-the-cover school of thought, but since I won her over with my leave-it-to-the-reader approach, she's only pushed the issue for live events, hence today's cutout. "What's there to know?"
He chuffs, and a bit of the earlier wickedness darkens his smile. "You're damn lucky you never agreed to put a man on your cover before you understood the full implications. To put it bluntly, your cover model owns you."
"Owns me? I know you think you're modern and all, but I really don't think you understand how intellectual property law works. The author buys the rights to the image from the photog—"
"Oh, Bella. Bella, Bella, Bella."
"What, what, what, what?"
"What I'm talking about has nothing to do with property law."
Huh. "Color me confused."
"If you agree to put me on the cover, I would own you. Bella, keep your eyes on the road, please!"
"I'm trying!" Seriously? He expects me to operate heavy machinery in the midst of this conversation? "You would own what exactly? Royalties? Right of first refusal on the sequel? Licensing?"
He holds his tongue while I reel through every last legal term I can think of, stalling while I attempt to process what I know in my gut—Mace is referring to something far more personal and profound than copyright issues. My list peters out, and I take a deep breath while Mace shakes his head.
"No. You get to keep all of those things. I'm talking about owning you." I can't find a trace of irony in his voice. The man, or whatever he is, is dead serious.
How often have I claimed—and heard from readers—"Mace owns me"? Why, then, if he's merely confirming my confession, does the idea send shivers up and down my spine? "Me?"
He nods, patient as ever.
"Whenever I please, I will take over your mind, your body"—he rakes me with his eyes, from the steel-toed tips of my black leather boots to the sliver of thigh exposed at the hem of my skirt, to the tight clasp of my seat belt across my lap and between my breasts—"your heart," he adds, softening his lust-filled stare with what he seems to think will assuage me.
"Oh, is that all?" My answer is infused with every ounce of sarcasm at my disposal, a vain attempt to mask my dread.
"No, actually. You interrupted me before I finished."
"Oh wait, don't tell me." I hold up my hand like a cop directing traffic. "Of course, what does the devil always demand? My soul."
Mace looks over, a hopeful raise of his eyebrows telling me I'm right, and he's not prepared to take no for an answer.
He's not the least bit deterred by my snarky, "Why in the hell"—I pause while the imagery of Mace Cullen surrounded by the fiery flames of hell blossoms in my head—"would I take this deal, especially considering I don't want you on the cover in the first place?"
He shrugs. "I assumed you wanted to finish your series."
"You're blackmailing me?"
Not for the first time since Mace's unusual appearance, my skin prickles with a fight-or-flight reaction that makes me evaluate my escape routes—moving vehicle or not.
"Of course not." Was that really indignation in his voice?
"That's funny; it felt a lot like blackmail."
"Let me try this a different way," he says.
I watch my character behave exactly as he did in Stronghold, when he tried to convince Elizabeth to kiss him. The slow, deliberate movements. The dulcet, pacifying tone of his voice. The hands raised in apparent surrender to Elizabeth and now me—which, I am beginning to understand, is an illusion. Mace, the muse, holds all the power here.
"I have what you need, and I want—more than anything—to share it with you. In return, I want the cover, which will only help you sell more books. Is that more palatable?"
"Call me silly, but I'm still a wee bit stuck on the ownership issue. What am I, chattel? It's really archaic. And barbaric. It's . . . just 'ick'!"
"I believe the word you're searching for is ro-mant-ic!"
"Here's a little insight into twenty-first-century earth relationships: possessive assholes are not romantic; they're dangerous."
"I'm not an asshole," he grumbles.
"You were a huge asshole in book six."
"As I recall, we were building conflict in preparation for the climax in the series finale."
"Ah, yes, the series finale you're holding hostage unless I agree to your blackmail scheme."
"I'm not an asshole in the finale." He smiles as angelically as possible, which isn't all that much.
"You are if I make you one," I answer. My attempt to be an asshole is about as successful as his attempt to not be one.
"Why would Elizabeth want me if I'm an asshole?"
We're at a stalemate, each staring at the other, trying like hell to figure out how we feel and where to go from here. One thing I now know, courtesy of my loose-lipped muse, is where book seven is headed. That alone would be enough to count this day a huge success, and possibly, it's enough to send Mr. Cullen packing to Mount Olympus.
"Tell me again why I need you to write my last book?"
"You think you see it," he states, appearing not the least bit unsure of himself.
"I do see it."
"How are you so sure?"
"Bella . . . aw, shit." Mace gives me a heavy sigh that reminds me way too much of Charlie's this-is-gonna-hurt-me-a-lot-more-than-it'll-hurt-you face. "Because you can't see what you haven't yet been shown."
He flinches at my wrath, but he doesn't look surprised. Looks like we're both in for a rocky ride tonight.
"Do you know how detailed my outline was for book one? Four sentences. That's ninety-five thousand words I created out of about forty. Me. Alone. I was the one pressing the little black keys. So, whatever you have that you think I need, bub, you can stick it up your immortal ass!"
Mace's cheeks close in tight around his mouth. Cheek-chewing—Mace's version of tongue-biting. His silent accusation comes through loud and clear—You couldn't have done it without me—and it makes me go ballistic all over again.
"What is it with you? You need to take credit for everything I've ever written?"
He looks genuinely sad as he attempts to explain himself. "Bella, this isn't about taking credit. Or taking anything away from you. Or even expecting gratitude—although that would be—"
"Never mind. Look, I just need to explain this so you can make an informed decision."
"You're saying I can't write the last book without you. I call bullshit. You said it yourself—there aren't enough muses to go around. There must be a shit-ton of authors who actually write their own stories all by their sorry lonesome selves."
"Well, there you go."
"They suck." Mace is chillingly unequivocal. "Uninspired drivel you wouldn't use to housebreak your puppy if you had one. It seemed to me you aspired to something higher, or have I misread the situation?"
"Not if I can't do it by myself." Okay, that sounded petulant, but he's bringing out the worst in me. How is that muse-like behavior?
"That would be Elizabeth talking."
"What's wrong with Elizabeth? I like Elizabeth."
"Hey, I love Elizabeth. She's a great character and I respect the hell out of her, but if you'll notice, she hasn't gotten her happily ever after yet."
"Maybe she doesn't need a man to actualize."
"Elizabeth would chop off your balls if she heard you talking like this."
"That's because she hasn't evolved yet to a place where she can find true love."
"Oh, please enlighten me, oh wise one."
He scowls, but he answers. "Elizabeth needs to understand that Mace is on her side. Only when she lets down her guard and begins to trust him can the seed of love take root."
"Elizabeth should trust Mace? When he's never once been genuine about his feelings for her?"
"He's had his reasons." He says this as if I don't know, as if I didn't invent those reasons myself—or did I?
I'm starting to detest both Maces now. "Another dishonest asshole. You know what? I think she can do better." I admit it, that was a low blow. It was always my intention to resolve the Elizabeth-Mace tension in book seven. They're perfect for each other in every way despite her apprehension and his caginess.
My arrow has hit its target. Mace looks wounded, whether on behalf of his fictional counterpart or himself, I can't exactly be sure. I feel gratified and awful at the same time.
"Maybe Mace just needs another chance to prove he's worthy," he says.
I'm not ready to retire my boxing gloves quite yet. "That might be a rough sell, bub."
"We're back to 'bub' again?" Mace shakes his head. "Personally, I think Mace can win Elizabeth over."
I know so. Maybe that's exactly what I'm afraid of. "Careful, your plot points are showing again."
"Oh, don't worry, love. Whatever I accidentally share can be stripped away." Seems Mace has his own sharp scalpel, and he's not afraid to use it. Awesome.
"You're going to erase my memory?"
"Just the parts you stole from me." Things are getting heated on both sides. Mace caves first. "Dammit, Bella, what's so awful about collaborating?"
"Well, there is that trust issue. You've basically just admitted lying to me for the past ten years."
"I did no such thing. We were partners all along. I never lied to you."
The distance between us is a death knell. Mace would have wrapped his arms around Elizabeth by now, soothed away her insecurities, reassured her of his intentions. We have no such intimacy, or do we? Ten years of living with the guy inside my head should count for something, right?
"Dammit, Mace, why are you telling me all this? Why reveal yourself now?" Whoever said ignorance is bliss must have been well-acquainted with muses.
Mace answers with a heavy sigh. "Our standard method of communication was sufficient up to this point. Meeting you in your dreams, passing ideas and inspirations between our worlds was working."
"So what's changed?"
Mace pauses, rakes his fingers through that glorious hair, and bites his cheeks. The man is measuring me to see if I can withstand the truth. Honestly, I don't know if I can, but something compels me to try.
"Please," I say, beseeching him as well as I can while keeping an eye on the road ahead, "no lies, not now."
"This last book demands something more—of both of us. You are going to need to write an epic . . . love scene—"
"You mean sex scene!" And here comes the blush again.
"I was trying to be a gentleman," he says. "Yes, sex. Everything from sweet and tender to gritty and raw. You don't have anything even close to that kind of repertoire. Hence, me. In the flesh."
Is he saying . . .? He and I are going to . . .? Well, holy shit!
The Bella Swan in me is as thrilled as she is mortified; fortunately, Elizabeth Strong picks up the baton with an appropriately indignant response. "What the hell is wrong with my repertoire?"
"A lot, if you believe a few squeeze-and-squirts with that prick James qualify you to write Elizabeth and Mace!"
"Oh my GOD! Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I'm the friend who tells you when you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe, and baby, you are about to drag the whole damn roll out of the bathroom with you."
It's not worth trying to argue that I've experienced what I need to write. Still, they call it fiction for a reason. "There's this thing we writers like to call 'research.' It involves investigating events we haven't experienced personally and using our own imagination, and I hear it can sometimes lead to excellent writing."
He raises an amused set of eyebrows. "Are you planning to watch porn?"
"What if I do?"
"More power to you! You might even get the part-a-into-slot-b situation down if you take good notes, but you're still not going to know how it feels when two people with the torrid history and passion of Mace Cullen and Elizabeth Strong come crashing together. Don't you want every reader to taste his tongue as he probes her mouth? To hear the dirty grunts and slosh of body parts slapping together when they finally fuck? To smell that rich, earthy aroma of two bodies spraying the room with pheromones? To feel Mace's throbbing erection deep inside her woman cave?"
"You did not just say 'woman cave.'"
"I think I did."
Despite his cheesy composition, I find myself getting steamy under the hood, and I'm not the least bit happy about it. "I'm pretty sure I can do better than that load of crap without a lick of research. After all, I've managed to write the two of them well enough up to this point."
"Of course you have. You're Isabella Swan, queen of the chase. Nobody writes unresolved sexual tension like you. If you wanted to write another ten books of I-want-you-so-fucking-bad and here-take-just-enough-to-keep-you-twisting, I'd say go for it. The thing is, it's time to wrap this up and bring these two together for their Happily Ever After. You know it. I know it. Your agent and publisher know it. Every reader out there knows it. I'd be willing to wager even Cardboard Boy in your trunk knows it. You need me here, in this body, to make that happen, and by the look on your face, I'm guessing maybe you're finally starting to accept that. If you're honest with yourself, you might even admit you've been dreaming about it for a decade."
"You are such an asshole!" And it helps not at all that he's right.
I turn my furious blush as far away from him as possible; he doesn't need more ammunition. It's true, then. Everything. The enormity of his plan dawns on me, a bright sun bursting through the pitch black darkness of the horizon, shedding light on terrain I'm only now seeing clearly for the first time.
My voice quakes with anger. Betrayed by my own character, the man I've nurtured and shaped, treated with patience and respect. An illusion, all of it.
"You planned this whole thing—the seven-book story arc, every detail leading up to this point. . . You strung me along." My voice sounds hysterical again, but I'm picking my way through ten years of rubble. I think I'm justified in some hysteria.
Mace stares forward, his smug smile speaking volumes though he doesn't say a word.
"You waited for my $50,000 advance."
"Actually, I waited for you to spend most of it," he offers, immediately looking sheepish after his smug admission.
Jesus. "You're kind of horrible." Is this how Jeffrey Dahmer's parents felt when they started finding body parts in their refrigerator? "Isn't there some kind of code of ethics you muses have to abide by?"
"Generally, yes, but there are"—Mace clears his throat—"certain extenuating circumstances."
Is that a blush at the base of his beanie? Yes, the tips of his ears are bright pink. What the hell? "What kind of extenuating circumstances?"
"That's none of your concern. It's muse business."
Muse business. Seriously? My imagination sometimes gets the best of me, I'll admit it, but even I have my limits. "You're full of shit."
"Oh, am I?"
"Yes. I should know. I made you that way."
Mace lifts his long, perfect fingers to conceal his mouth. The fucker is smiling.
"Nothing," he says.
"Just say it." I shoot him an eye roll he can surely feel even if he can't see it. "Out loud."
My anger seems to erase Mace's hesitation to speak his mind. I can't tell if this is a good thing or a terrible thing. Every layer of truth exposed brings with it a new level of excruciating agony. "Fine. You didn't make me this way."
"What are you talking about? You're my character. I sat down with a blank character bio sheet and filled in the spaces. Hair color, mother's name, favorite subject in school. Hates cauliflower, loves carrots. I pulled you out of thin air. I wrote every word you've ever spoken!"
"As if you were ever in charge."
"Excuse me?" This is exactly how people get ulcers.
"You honestly need me to tell you how Mace materialized in your head one lonely Valentine's Day?"
A white-hot pain stabs through my chest. I feel as if Mace is holding a giant Pink Pearl eraser, working his way up my body, erasing me inch by inch from my own stories. "You're breaking my heart, Edward Cullen."
"I'm sorry, Bella. I never wanted to hurt you; you have to believe me. I was really hoping not to have to tell you all this, but you're being so . . . uncooperative."
"Imagine that! Some guy who walks and talks and looks and . . . smells like my imaginary perfect man barges into my signing—"
"I waited in line! In fact, I moved to the end three separate times whenever someone got behind me!"
"—tells me I didn't invent my own characters or write my own stories. Oh, and I have to put him on the cover, which means he'll own my soul and my body and my thoughts—"
"And your heart," he adds somewhat sorrowfully. The nerve of him, acting as if he actually cares if he hurts me.
"—or he'll hold the whole series hostage! And I'm not cooperating? I mean, IMAGINE THAT!" My boot forces the gas pedal lower; the needle ticks higher . . . 35, 40, 45 miles per hour on the dark, snaking backroads. My breaths are coming fast and furious. I'm a fire-breathing dragon-lady.
"Hey, take it easy." He's using his mental-patient-coddling voice again.
"What's the matter? Isn't there anything in the muse handbook about dealing with an irate author?"
"Actually, there are four separate chapters on the subject—"
"Shut up! That was rhetorical!" My chest heaves with the effort of staying in my seat. Elizabeth would've jumped out of the car long ago, but I've always been a pussy compared to my heroine.
"Bella, slow down, please."
My momentary insanity breaks. I ease off the gas and slow the car to the speed limit. No need to total the car I can't afford.
"So? What's your answer?"
I knew my answer the second I woke up in Mace's lap. That doesn't mean I have to like it.
Mace orders a bacon double cheeseburger, rare, with extra relish. I order three shots of tequila.
While we wait for our sustenance, I proceed to pepper Mace with a million questions regarding the fine print of this contract. I'd love Angela to review it, but something tells me I'm on my own here. I learn of his plans to move into my apartment, stick to me like glue, and provide whatever kind of inspiration I need—this bit of information is relayed with a lusty grin—until our work is complete. The book will be written as fast as I can type, and he promises it will shoot to the top of the bestseller list and stay there for a satisfying run.
His mouthwatering burger arrives, and I rethink the wisdom of my choice.
"Here, have some," he says, offering me the first bite.
Oh, what the hell. I don't have to worry about not getting laid for the foreseeable future. I lean in and sink my teeth into decadence on a bun. Mace's eyes gleam with the pure animal satisfaction of providing sustenance for his girl. He goes in for the next bite, and a thrill skitters across my belly as Mace's tongue hits the meat my lips just exposed.
It's kind of normal, in a weirdly erotic, caveman sort of way. But then, I remind myself, this is anything but normal. In fact, one of us isn't even human.
"Tell me more about this ownership deal. How does that work? What are you gonna make me do?"
He cocks his head and chuckles. "Nothing. I'll own you, not control you."
"There's a difference?"
"Yes. It's like the right of first refusal you mentioned earlier."
"Ah, so you do know a thing or two about intellectual property?"
"Writing is my field of expertise, and I've been at it quite a while. Of course I know. I wouldn't take anything from you that you aren't prepared to give. That includes your body, by the way," he says, casually gnawing on a french fry.
Hmm, now he's not taking my body? I'm not sure how I feel about that. You're a hot mess, Bella Swan.
"However . . ." Oh, here it comes. "That doesn't mean you can go around gallivanting with other men."
"So if you can't have me, nobody else can either?"
"Not without my say-so."
"Could you envision a scenario where you'd say so?"
I snort. He shrugs and takes a big-ass bite of his burger, drawing the dangling bacon into his mouth with a sexy swipe of his tongue. Motherfucker. Classic book two Mace.
"I'm being honest. Isn't that what you wanted?"
"Yes," I tell him, "this would be a tragically bad time to lie."
"Don't worry, Bella. If you're sitting there worrying you're not going to want me, and you'll end up a dried-up, sexless spinster, I can pretty much guarantee that's not going to happen."
Of course he can. He's watching my thoughts as they cross my brain, one deliciously graphic picture after the next. It's a Mace-fest in this head of mine—a hair pulling, lip devouring, ab licking, oh-god-don't-go-lower . . . I down my second tequila shot.
"All right." The shot glass hits the table a little bit harder than I intended, earning an amused rise from the eyebrows next to me. "So, we write this book together, and there's"—I wave my hand between us in the vaguest possible way—"whatever happens between us, and then what? You fly back up to the party in the sky?"
He pauses mid-chew and smiles like the kid who wished for a puppy for Christmas and ended up with the whole litter. "What's wrong, Bella? Are you missing me already?"
I roll my eyes and grimace, but I sense he's not buying it. "It's a fair question. What is the length of this contract?"
"How long you live." He draws his mouth into the widest closed-mouth smile possible, picks up my last shot glass, and hands it to me. "Cheers!"
The glass quakes between my fingers. "What? This is . . . it? The rest of my life?"
"Well, I suppose I could be the one to die first, but biologically speaking, my clock just started ticking, and yours has some mileage on it—and tequila." He steadies my glass with his index finger underneath.
"Don't judge me, Muse Man." I tip back my last shot, setting this glass down without making a sound. "So if you die before I do, you'll actually be dead?"
"Yeah, that's generally how it works."
"But that's horrible and wrong and unfair!" And now that he's here with me, I can't imagine losing him permanently. "You're supposed to be immortal . . . eternal. You can't die! How did this happen to you? Did you piss someone off up there? I can totally see you doing that."
Mace chuckles again. "It's not a punishment, Bella."
The server magically appears, clears away my mini-binge, and offers me a second round as if I make it a habit to drink half a bottle of tequila in five minutes. "Maybe just a glass of water . . . and a brownie fudge sundae?"
"Another Oreo shake for you?" she asks Mace.
"I'm good," Mace says.
Now that the table in front of me is empty, I lean forward on my folded arms. "You were saying?"
"Eat." Mace pops a french fry in my mouth and holds the end while I chew. "I said it's not a punishment. I put in a request for an exclusive, and my request was approved."
Exclusive. "You mean, I'm the only one who can use your image? But I never—"
"No, Bella. I don't mean I can't be someone else's cover model. I mean if you agree to my offer, I can't be anyone else's muse . . . while you're still alive." He looks up, a pained expression written across his face. "One author, one muse. It's the only way to acquire a human body."
"Holy shit! You gave up immortality and muse . . . -hood just so you could come down to earth and fuck me?"
Mace cracks a smile and shakes his head. "That is definitely not how I would've phrased it." After glancing furtively around our table, he adds, "Or how loudly I would've said it."
Whatever. "Oh yeah? How would you have phrased it?"
"I did this for us so we could finish our story."
Us. Our story. So, my muse has made his own deal with the devil—or would that be Hades? My obligation to Mace seems a small price to pay in the face of his sacrifice—eternal life. Maybe the tequila is clouding my judgment. Maybe I don't know what the hell to think anymore.
"When did this happen?"
"I popped into the book store at 8:45 pm. About fifteen minutes before you passed out in my arms."
"They gave you good reflexes."
"I had reason to anticipate some sort of dramatic response on your part."
"Me? You're lucky none of your 'Mace's Minions' caught a glimpse of you first! They might have ripped you to shreds!"
"I had the beanie pulled down pretty low."
"Right, because a little tiny hat is going to cover up all your hotness." Poor Mace. I'm not sure he has any idea what his human form is going to be forced to endure.
"I don't know. We might have to hire you a bodyguard."
"I suppose I could see if Hercules wants to make a few bucks on the side."
"THE Hercules?" It's going to be an adjustment getting used to my fuck buddy's pals. I'd be more than satisfied with the Kellan Lutz version, but the real Hercules? Hold me!
Mace grabs a fry, drags it through the puddle of ketchup on his plate, and delivers it to his waiting tongue. "Sure, why wouldn't he?" He winks, then he laughs and laughs and laughs. "Hercules! My bodyguard. Love it!"
"You are such an asshole." I need to wipe that smile off his face again. "What if I don't take your deal? Then what happens to you?"
It works. Mace gulps down his fry and stops eating for a second. "Hmm, I don't know."
"You didn't ask? That seems like a rather key point."
"I guess it never occurred to me you'd say no."
"Good god, you are a cocky sonofabitch."
"Hey, sis, that's not the muse in me; that's the Mace in me."
"I love how I'm somehow responsible for all the bad parts."
"I'm just teasing you. It's not your fault I'm like this. You've tried to fix me several times, but like every decent author, you know you can't overwrite your characters every time we misbehave. You have to let me be myself."
"Yes, I have noticed that." I feel shitty for forcing the issue, but now I need to know. "What do you think might happen to you if I turn you down?"
"I guess I'll get recycled."
"That sounds gruesome."
"I'd prefer not to think about it." Apparently, it doesn't spoil his appetite. "I'm afraid it could be even worse for you. You won't get assigned a new muse."
"So, it would be like the last eight months, when you left me."
Mace sets down the last quarter of his burger and pushes the plate away. "You think that was easy for me? I picked up every help call that crossed my desk—the lamer, the better. I was desperate to be needed. I occupied my mind 24/7."
"I needed you. I tried to conjure you every day. You were just . . . gone."
"I heard you," he confesses. "I couldn't answer."
"You mean you wouldn't answer." Tears sting my eyes. Be Elizabeth. Stay strong. Remember how Mace left you all alone. "You were waiting for me to hit rock bottom so you could come here and take advantage of me."
"Ouch." The pain dampens his bright spirit like a storm cloud passing across the sun. "Did you ever think maybe I stayed away because you weren't ready to hear our story?"
My brownie sundae appears at the worst possible moment, and the server sets it down with one spoon pointing toward each of us. "Bon appétit!" she says brightly before scuttling away.
I slink back into my chair, dragging my arms along the table until they fall listlessly into my lap. The experience of breaking Mace's heart in person is unbearable. I'd give anything to get Cocky Mace back.
"It's a good thing you hit rock bottom when you did," he says. "I don't know how much longer I could've stayed away from you and Elizabeth."
"Dammit, Mace. Stop being so sweet every time I want to be mad at you."
He gazes sadly at me across the abyss that feels like miles between us. "Why are you working so damn hard to stay mad at me?"
It might be the most important question anyone's ever asked me. "I don't know."
"Your ice cream is melting."
His beautiful face is blurred by my tears and possibly his own.
"Take me home, Mace. We have a story to write."
"Here we are, home, sweet home." I spin around to catch Mace's reaction, but he's already halfway to the kitchen.
"You need to drink more water, young lady." He finds the cabinet with the glasses on the first try, pulls open the fridge as if he's lived here a month, and pours me a tall glass from the filtered pitcher. "Bottoms up."
"Make yourself at home," I tell him as he hands me the water. It's oddly natural having him here. The phrase "old married couple" pops into my head.
"Oh, sorry. Was that too familiar? You'll have to tell me when I'm being inappropriate."
"No, it was sweet. I just forgot for a second that you've been here before."
He yanks off his beanie. "Yeah, you could say that . . . though it has been a while since my last visit."
"Everything is pretty much the same as it was at the end of book six." Stagnant.
"Right, when Elizabeth gave Mace the boot . . . 'for good this time!'" Mace's version of Elizabeth's voice sounds scarily close to the way I hear her in my head.
Taking my invitation at face value, Mace wanders through my dining room and into the family room. He studies the contents of the bookshelves, picking up several picture frames for a closer look as he moves toward my favorite sofa. Mace sinks heavily into the thick cushion with an elongated "Ahhh," stretching his arms wide along the back of the couch. "This sofa is even more comfy than it looked."
The way he surveys the room reminds me of visits home during my college breaks, each time viewing the familiar space through new eyes. I would fully expect Mace to experience the world differently without my brain filtering his reality.
He spies my desk on the opposite side of the room. "Well, looky there. If it isn't Command Central."
I set my knee onto the cushion beside him, tucking my foot underneath me as I sit. "So, how does this work? Do you plan to sit here and watch me?"
"Are you ready to write? Now?"
Over the last eight infuriating months, I've come to view my writer's block as a brick wall dividing my brain in half. On one side are the ideas I can access; on the other, the final chunk of Elizabeth and Mace's story. After exhausting every trick in my arsenal, I'd nearly given up hope of ever breaking through. With Mace's sudden appearance tonight, the wall began to erode; shadows flickered from the other side, elusive glimpses I couldn't quite hold onto. The moment I agreed to his terms, the rest of the wall blew up like a homemade volcano sprinkled with baking soda and doused with vinegar. I wouldn't be surprised if Mace could see smoke spewing from my ears.
The hour is late, and the tequila is having its way with me, but the story wants out. Damn, I love this feeling! "Yeah, I actually think I am."
Mace jumps up and claps his hands together. "Excellent! Let's do it! Here, sit"—he races to my desk and pulls out the chair for me—"and I'll go grab your slippers." Before I can thank him, Mace is gone.
I open a brand spanking new Word doc, perform a quick "Save As," typing in the working title from my original series outline: Stronger Together. Mace comes skidding along the wood Risky Business style and drops my shearling slippers near my feet. I could definitely get used to this gorgeous man waiting on me, literally hand and foot. If I smoked a pipe, I have no doubt he'd already have the thing between my lips and lit.
Chuckling to myself, I reach down to unzip my boots when a flying object catches my eye. Was that a . . . sock? I twist around to find Mace peeling off his second sock and tossing it toward its mate in the corner. Oh boy. He knows how his bare feet get to me.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"The whole point of being here is to make this body useful," he answers as if logic has any place here.
My mouth goes dry as Edward Masen Cullen—my longest-running crush, my shmexiest character-come-to-life, my sweetest torture—reaches over his head, grabs a hunk of waffle shirt, and yanks it toward his neck. The material skims its way up his torso like a curtain rising on a breathtaking stage—I ride the happy trail in reverse, tick off abs six, four, and two, hold my breath as the nipples pop out to greet me, and whimper as the shoulders reveal themselves. Who could help it? He is sheer perfection, and that's not just an author bragging about her writing; that is fact.
The collar clears his T-square of a chin, the brilliant smile I could never do justice with mere words, the stately nose, the deep, hazel eyes that challenge me to look away. I lose that contest every damn time, and I don't even care.
I realize a beat too late that my mouth is hanging open. My gaze bounces like two superballs between his nipples and the "V" disappearing into his jeans, and the only comment I can come up with isn't any more appropriate than the rest of my behavior. "Is that it?"
His smile stretches to the edges of his cheeks. "You're writing. I think it'd be wise for me to keep my pants on, don't you?"
Half grateful, half weeping inside that he's stopped undressing, I can only nod and turn back to my blank screen. He moves behind me and places a hand on my right shoulder. My eyes drift closed. What are you doing to me, Mace? His other hand closes over my left shoulder. Breathe, Bella.
Mace shuffles forward until his bare chest meets my back. Thank God and dammit to hell I'm wearing a blouse. Those graceful fingers I invented press into my weary muscles. A long sigh leaves my body, taking with it the last of the volcanic ash.
Dear Lord, he feels so good. With my eyes closed, I can focus on his smell, but it's confusing. Not soap and deodorant. He hasn't had his first human shower yet, I remind myself. Dr. Banner would flunk me for my lack of descriptive detail, but Mace just smells like man.
Mace's lips are at my ear, leaving a trail of warm breath. "Doesn't this work better if you keep your eyes open?"
My fingers find their place on the keyboard, and I let go of everything that has been bottled up inside me since Mace's disappearance. I watch the story play out behind my closed eyes; the words gush out in a mighty river I couldn't stop if I tried. There's no censoring, just recording what I see and hear. The other niceties can happen later; I'm not worried. Editing is the easy part.
Mace keeps pace with me, my highly adept masseur, my silent writing partner, speaking only through his character in my head. I ride the glorious creative rapids, spilling every snippet into the document, wasting nothing. My head lolls back against his chest. He's inside me; he's around me. I am unstoppable.
Until I am not.
My hands slide off the keys, a pianist who has played the last note, at least of this maniacal movement.
"What's wrong?" he asks. "Why'd you stop?"
"I can't see how Mace gets Elizabeth to let down her defenses."
"Huh." He continues massaging me while he ponders the issue. "Why is she always so guarded around him?"
I open my eyes and tip my chin up. Gawd, Mace's face is equally spectacular upside-down, if I do say so myself.
"She's afraid," I answer.
"Of everything." It's not hard for me to relate Elizabeth's fears, a fact I'm sure is not lost on Mace. "She's afraid of being made a fool of. Being rejected. Getting hurt. Not being good enough for Mace. Ending up alone."
"I can see that. She's punishing Mace for all the cheating lowlifes she was with before. By the end of book six, he can't even offer to take her out to dinner without being accused of not liking her cooking. He's in a no-win situation."
This is a conversation I'd prefer to conduct right-side-up. I've written my last word for the night, and I'm more than okay with that. This is more than I've written in a year; the last four months of TWDNKU were spent finessing. That's not the same as the torrent of words that just left me.
I save the file once more, close the lid on my laptop, place my hands over Mace's and still their tender caresses. "Thank you for that massage. It was lovely."
"My pleasure," he answers. "It was amazing to watch you just now. Are you aware you just wrote 4500 words?"
I stand up and shove the chair out from between us. "Hopefully some of them were good."
"I'm sure at least a thousand were fine." He gives me the famous crooked smile he knows I can't resist.
I take his hands in mine. "Very funny."
"Are we done writing for the night . . . er, morning?"
"Yes. We've now entered the marination phase."
He fidgets with our joined hands, twisting our wrists this way and that, pulling me closer. His eyes narrow into two sexy swooshes. "Mmm, that sounds . . . weirdly erotic."
Mace is a man-shaped magnet drawing me forward. Soon, there will be no resisting his pull.
"I have to leave it alone for a while and let the problem roll around in my head. This is the part when you usually show up and whisper in my ear."
He spreads our arms wide to the sides, leaving me defenseless while he presses his lips to my ear and whispers, "What would you like me to say?"
I don't allow my thoughts to wander into the realm of what I really want him to say, especially after his breathy question shoots directly from the shell of my ear to a very sensitive spot between my legs.
"It would be extremely helpful if you could help me figure out how to break down Elizabeth's walls."
Mace smiles at me. "That's easy, Bella. I already know that." He cups my chin and brushes his thumb across my lips. Edward Cullen is about to kiss me.
Despite my weak-kneed response, that's not the right answer. "He's already kissed her. Remember, book five?"
"Of course I remember, and I wasn't about to kiss you." He's far too amused for his own good—and mine.
"Fine," I grumble, but only because "Fuck you" wouldn't be helpful right now.
Mace's eyes twinkle merrily at my obvious struggle. "You said it yourself earlier, Bella. If Mace wants Elizabeth to let down her guard, he needs to be genuine about his feelings. She can't trust someone who's not being entirely honest. In fact, she shouldn't."
Well, holy shit! After ten long years and all the crap I've put my two characters through, I can't help getting all aflutter. Is Elizabeth about to get the highly coveted "I love you" from Mace? I draw in and release a deep breath. "Okay, she's ready."
He cocks his head and smirks. "Are you sure?"
Before I can answer, Mace sweeps my feet right out from under me, cradling me in the gold standard of romantic holds—the bridal. I'm up close and personal with the bulging vein in his bicep. Dear God.
"Mace, what are you doing?"
"There's something else Bella and I need to do first, something I've been marinating . . . for a while now." Without asking for permission or directions, Mace carries me straight to my bedroom and throws me down on my bed. He climbs right up as if he owns the place—and me—and a flutter deep in my belly reminds me: he does!
Staying calm isn't easy when Mace straddles his knees across my hips and drops forward onto his palms on either side of my head. "May I make a request?" he asks.
Whatever it is, I'm quite sure my answer is yes. "Am I about to learn Mace's favorite position? Or wait . . . oh my god, is it something kinky?"
"No, my little wildcat, nothing kinky—at least not for our first time." He grins as if he's imagining all our "next times."
"You're killing me, Mace."
He leans down and plants a playful kiss on my nose. "Can you shut down your mental keyboard and just be here in this moment with me?"
Can I be here with Mace? There isn't anything I've ever wanted more.
"I can try, but when you . . . when we . . . I might be subconsciously recording everything. Occupational hazard."
"If you're worried about forgetting the details, I'll be happy to refresh your memory later. Multiple times." There's that cocky grin I know and love.
"Always so helpful."
He lowers his face until I can feel his breath on my chin. "Was that a yes?"
"You should kiss me now."
"Perhaps I should."
Edward Masen Cullen moves his lips closer to mine. Cue the heroine's heaving bosom. I'm a prisoner inside those translucent eyes. Closer, closer. We're about to have our first kiss!
"Bella," he whispers.
"Shhhh . . ." My protest is swallowed up in our kiss.
Oh. God. Starbursts explode behind my eyes. I can't breathe. He tastes like . . .
Mace grips me tighter. His tongue glides across mine. I want that again.
Remember this feeling.
Soft pulses. Drawing back and joining together again, sweeter each time.
Can't think . . .
Mace breaks our kiss with one last gentle press of his tongue against mine, a tender endnote.
Each unhurried unbuttoning of my blouse seems to bring Mace a new surge of wonder and awe. I have never, ever been this appreciated by any lover. It's wildly arousing.
He unfastens the bottom button, spreads the two halves of my blouse to the sides as if flinging open a pair of balcony doors, and gazes hungrily at my not-very-sexy bra. Had I known I'd be entertaining company tonight, I would have chosen something lacy.
Mace only seems to care about my bra to the extent that it's blocking his view. He slips his fingers under the stiff wires and pushes the cups out of the way. He's barely touched me, but his gasp alone is enough to coax my nipples into two tight peaks.
"Wow. You do not spend nearly enough time in front of your full-length mirror, young lady."
Gah, he's seen me naked from the inside out.
Before I even have a chance to work up a decent blush, Mace's lips are on my skin, tracing a wet line from my belly button up, through the twin crests vying for his attention. He surprises me with a long, slow kiss on the lips. Whatever else I can say about Mace, he is patient. I'm not sure that's helpful right now, when I need him so very badly.
He lowers his chest ever so slowly, skimming his hard body against my skin. My urgent groan breaks our kiss. I need oxygen.
Mace leans onto one side, drawing his palm in a circle over the curve of my breast, teasing my nipple between the length of his fingers. His voice is a reverent whisper. "You're so much softer than I imagined."
He plays with my breasts, kneading and pinching and caressing, leaving me breathless and eager. His hand trails down, over the length of my skirt, making a sharp U-turn and slipping under the hem.
"Wait . . . please." I catch his wrist as his fingertips graze my thigh.
"I'm just . . . feeling a bit exposed here."
"Ahh." If he's discouraged, he sure doesn't show it. Mace rises to his knees and pops open the buttons of his fly with supernatural dexterity, revealing a pair of crisp white briefs. "Better?"
"Getting there." Our eyes catch. I feel the blush come over my cheeks.
Mace starts to push down his jeans when he pauses to dig something out of his pocket.
You have got to be shitting me. "You've been carrying a condom around in your pocket all night?"
"It came with the pants . . . and a sermon from Apollo." He rolls his eyes, and I'm afraid he's about to dump the contents of their talk onto my bed.
"Never mind. Let's not 'take the reader out of her moment.'"
"Agreed." He flops down next to me, shoves the jeans and briefs past his knees and kicks them off with an unceremonious wriggle. Despite the casual reveal, Mace knows full well I'm ogling.
He puts on this breathy, overly dramatic version of his Elizabeth voice. "And there it was—big and thick and hard as steel."
I roll onto my side to face him and soak in the glorious view. Jesus. I have to admit, I am one hell of a writer. This is the most perfect cock I have ever seen. I'm not a slut or anything, but I've seen a few.
My gaze glides upward reluctantly— yes, I'll cop to it—from between Mace's legs, meeting his I'm-ready-for-my-close-up-Mister-DeMille expression.
"You're welcome," I tell him.
He snorts. "So are you." The man has a point. "Go ahead, Bella. You know you want to touch it."
Hell yeah, I do. He supervises with amused detachment as I reach for his erection, but once my palm meets flesh, Mace is anything but detached. I wrap my hand around his shaft and stroke, enjoying the hell out of the way his eyes roll back in his head.
For the first time tonight, I have a smidgen of power over Mace, and it feels magnificent. Of course, it lasts all of about ten seconds before Mace's hand travels up my skirt again. This time, he doesn't let me sidetrack him, no matter how much he's enjoying this handjob—and from the hip-thrusts rocking the bed, he seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit.
His fingertips make first contact with my cotton bikinis, and I squeal, for lack of a better word to describe the mortifying sound that escapes me. I've imagined Mace's touch a thousand times—a million, maybe—but I've never come close to the wave of pleasure that washes over my body.
"Does that feel good?" he asks, drawing my gaze to his narrowed eyes. Wow, his dilated pupils really do crowd out the green. And he wants an answer.
"Yes," I whisper, noting how saying just that one word makes me so much hornier.
His sexy grin makes everything worse and better. "Your panties are soaked." He illustrates the point by dragging his nails through the valley, hitting all my favorite spots.
I get even with him by cupping his balls and rolling them around in my hand. He retaliates, sliding his thumb inside my . . . panties. Gawd. He's lived inside my head; he knows I abhor that word. But fuck, if it doesn't make me feel even dirtier.
And holy hell, that thumb! Did I implant this knowledge in his brain—the exact pressure I need and when to back off? Touch, touch, tease. Duck, duck, orgasm.
"You're writing." Mace shakes his head, shoots me his devilish grin, and slips a finger inside me.
My eyelids drift closed. Mace. He always meets me here, inside my head, before I—
"Open your eyes. I want you looking at me while you come all over my fingers."
Mace. My real Mace. My intoxicating muse. My sexy lover.
One last stroke, a shuddering breath, excruciating pleasure.
He caresses me through my high until I clench my thighs together and dissolve into giggles.
I reach my arm around Mace's shoulders and pull his lips to mine. "Mmm, thank you."
His eyes shimmer with the reflection of my pleasure. "Welcome." If feeding me made Mace happy, getting me off must send him to the moon and stars. And yet, Mace's unsatisfied need is a force to be reckoned with.
"Where'd that condom get to?"
His grin widens as he blindly pats the bed beside him until his fingers land on the packet. He tears it open, sets the condom onto his tip, and rolls it down over his shaft like a seasoned pro. "Now that I'm dressed, let's get you naked." He waggles his eyebrows and tugs at my skirt.
"Okay, okay." I peel off my panties—ugh—and toss them at Mace's head. He laughs out loud, but he also takes a good, hard sniff before he chucks them off the bed. Gross, but also holy shit!
I lift my hips and unzip the skirt, watching Mace track the fabric as it slides away, revealing the rest of my secrets. He touches me again, lifting onto his side to feast his eyes while he tickles through the few days of growth. Had I only known, I would've made sure I was perfect for him.
"Dammit, Bella, I want . . . so much," he says, his voice suddenly serious and dark. "I am going to have you every which way."
Mace takes his sweet, damn time considering all the options before rising onto his knees and moving between my thighs. "We're going old-school tonight." That works.
He scoops up my right leg, dropping a gentle kiss inside my knee as he settles my ankle on his shoulder. He shuffles forward and opens me gently with his hand. "Ready?"
"I've been ready for you forever, Mace."
He smiles as his tip meets my entrance. "You need to remember that line."
Except for the gentle rise and fall of Mace's chest under my hand, he's perfectly still.
"How many times have you done this?" I ask.
Mace peeks out from under the arm covering his eyes. "Done what?"
"What do you think?"
He meets my gaze, then dives under his arm again. Huh.
"I know it must be a huge number, considering how long you've been alive, but surely, Aristotle or someone taught you how to add one to all the big numbers?"
"Answer the question, bub."
He slides his arm away and looks at me crossly. "I detest that nickname."
"You're stalling. How many times?"
"Counting this time?"
Several seconds pass, and I rethink the wisdom of asking. Can I really handle hearing this number?
"Hey, I'm working as fast as I can here, but I've only been human for twenty-four hours"—he pauses briefly to let me absorb what he's saying—"but if you're ready to go again, we could double my record."
"Wait, you've never been human before?"
I pop up onto one elbow. "You're a virgin?"
Mace laughs so hard the bed shakes. "Not anymore."
I can't decide if I'm more surprised, awed, or annoyed. "You sold me this whole 'I need to show you' routine when you've never done it before?"
"Yeah . . . there's this thing called 'research.'" The smug smile has returned.
"Was that a porn move you just did on me?"
Mace rolls his eyes. "Bella, I live in people's heads. Some people are quite proficient at sex, and I happen to have an excellent memory. Also, it doesn't hurt that I'm intimately familiar with every sexual fantasy you've had for the last fourteen years."
"Ugh!" I flop away from him onto my back and pull the pillow over my face.
Mace climbs on top of me, straddling my waist. The pillow is lifted and flung away. "I'm ready to whisper in your ear now."
I glance down to the penis resting on my belly, not hard yet, but I don't doubt his potential. "Already?"
Mace tweaks my nipples.
"Do you want Elizabeth to let down her guard or not?"
"Oh! Yes!" Head out of the gutter, Bella. This is a big moment for Elizabeth and Mace. I close my eyes for the beat it takes me to switch into character. "Okay, I'm ready."
"All right. So . . . I haven't been one hundred percent truthful with you." Was that a quake in his voice? Damn, he's good.
"Oh?" Elizabeth answers with my mouth.
"Not that I lied. I didn't lie . . . I just, maybe, omitted a little detail."
The author in me nods encouragingly. Yes, this is good. This sounds like Mace. Elizabeth answers again. "What little detail might that be?"
"So . . . the gods don't exactly grant exclusives to muses just so an author can finish a story. Even if it is a bestselling series."
Mace bites his lip and studies a spot on the ceiling before turning back. "Bella."
Gulp. He's not my character talking to my other character. He's Mace, talking to me.
"What are you saying, Mace? Why did they let you come here?"
"Because . . . I'm in love with you."
I'm not sure I have the tools to process this. We've just crossed lines and worlds and Mace loves me! "But you're . . . and I'm . . . can this happen?"
He shrugs. "It happened."
"Has this ever happened before?"
"Not to me," he answers with a rueful smile. Poor Mace; I've never seen him so insecure. Oh wait, I have. Book five. Right before Elizabeth shuts him out, and Mace turns into a giant dick.
"Why didn't you tell me this at the book store? Or in the car? Or at the restaurant? Or before we . . . did that!"
"That would've been a dick move. I needed you to accept my offer because it was the best move for your career. And I definitely needed you to have sex with me for the right reasons."
"Love isn't a good reason to have sex?
"I couldn't let you base your decision on my feelings."
"So you blackmailed me instead?"
"It killed me to have to do that to you." His mouth twists into a terrible scowl. "For the record, I didn't make up the part about the cover. That is how it works."
"I guess if Apollo made it too easy, all the muses would've defected by now."
I can't begin to separate all the pieces right now. My heart's in a freefall, and my head is in no position to catch it. "I'm sorry, I have no idea what I'm supposed to say."
"I don't know, Bella. You're the writer." A dark chuckle leaves him, and I understand I've already hurt him. "I am, however, starting to understand why Mace hasn't opened up to Elizabeth."
Crap. "I'm really sorry I suck at this."
He frowns at me because now we're both sad. He does that sweet gesture he knows I love, tucking my hair behind my ear. "Bella, there's nothing to be good at. Just say what's in your heart. It doesn't have to be Pulitzer-worthy." He blinks too fast, staving off tears. "Just tell me you love me back—if you do, that is."
"Oh, Mace. Of course I love you."
The storm brewing behind his eyes clears out as quickly as it arrived, and a bright smile takes its place. Yes, Mace owns me, but I own him right back. I may not have created Mace Cullen without divine inspiration, but if the price is loving and being loved by the man of my dreams till death do us part, that is a deal I will take any day of the week.
THE END...for now *wink*
A/N: The original inspiration for this story came during a chat with Shad Masen. We were discussing how our plots sometimes get highjacked, and I was lamenting about a particular runaway character I was attempting to nail down. Shad made the seemingly innocuous comment, "As if you were ever in charge." Well, that baby stuck with me, all right! I got to thinking, and my love for mythology kicked in, and voila, 15k later and a contest description that fit the bill, and there you have it, folks: Mace, the muse was born. Thank you, Shad, for the idea, although you had no clue what followed until maybe RIGHT THIS SECOND. Many thanks to Jayme TyZane for helping me shape the characters and plot in your own special way. To Shell, for her always-sage advice, especially about darkening the character to fit the contest theme, and her very sweet ability to empathize with me when word counts are imposed. As you can see, I bumped right up against that 15k max. As in, I had about 4 words to spare. I was counting ellipses, people! To my sweet, wonderful, amazing Chayasara, for always starting with yes, but never shying away from the red pencil.
I also want to thank the readers and reviewers over at the CPS contest for giving this story some love, even though it was a bit outside the norm. There are some lovely reviews over there, all the more special because you didn't know it was me! I plan to answer each one. I want to particularly thank the organizers of the contest, Nic and Carrie, for hosting a contest that inspired my story along with so many other high quality entries. Deadlines were adhered to, secrets were kept, identities were secret, and voting- bless your hearts- was one and done. The banners are gorgeous (and thank you Jada D'Lee, aka Rose Arcadia, for the gorgeous blinkie!) And of course, my total gratitude to the JUDGES who were so very kind to this story. You girls rocked my world with your love for this quirky story. Thank you so very much. So much love all around for the warm, gooey feeling your beautiful awards have left in my heart.
Will I continue Mace and Bella's story? Sure, if I hear more. Right now, I'm sprucing up KEA over at my blog (I don't remember why I started, but now I'm BOUND to finish). After that, I'm writing a one-shot for the Fandom for Mental Health Awareness- it's going to be a very delicious Edward/Bella story, and I'll tell you more over at Facebook once I decide to reveal the name! And oh yeah, there's this novel I'm trying to get published. Thanks for being here. Your feedback, support, and encouragement mean the world to me. Twilight fandom, still going strong!