The sky was a pale, cloudless blue, and the sun glared down, unguarded. A few gulls wheeled lazily above me, chattering amongst themselves. They'd been scouting me out for an hour, but I only had a beer in hand, which made them tough out of luck if they were hoping to play scavengers after I forfeited my spot in the sand. I glanced up at them occasionally, wondering if they had the capacity to know when it was a good time to give up.

I snorted, wedging my feet into the sand. I didn't have much room to talk there. It'd taken me a long time to realize I'd missed the right time to give up. Maybe I'd deserved the slap in the face of a wedding invitation to bring me to my senses. It had worked either way.

And maybe that wasn't as bad a thing as it had once felt like it had to be.

It had, after all, brought me to the sunny beaches of Panama City Beach, Florida. It'd given me a new life, a place to start over, a house—albeit small—close to the beach, and a steady-paying job as a mechanic. Best of all—miles and miles away from the Cullen's—I'd stopped phasing.

That was right. No more fur or fleas for me. I was normal again.

A heartbroken, twenty-two-year old runaway, but fucking normal.

There was something to say for normalcy when you'd lived half your life in the bizarre world of mythological creatures, and had been one of those creatures yourself. My body temperature no longer escalated into dangerous degrees, I didn't have to involuntarily share my private thoughts with anyone anymore, and I didn't have to be burdened with the task of protecting a reservation. In exchange for that, I hadn't minded aging a bit.

In fact, maybe aging some had been a blessing in disguise.

A few years spent on a beach miles away from La Push had given me space. Space to grow and heal. Space to help me forget Isabella Swan.

I grimaced, taking a pull from my beer. Isabella Cullen now.

Maybe I felt guilty for ditching my friends and family like that, but leaving La Push had been the best idea for me. Otherwise, I would have wound up doing something stupid. Whether that would have been committing the murder of a vampire or simply continuing to play the lovesick fool, I didn't know, but I was glad to have avoided both.

Though I enjoyed the freedom, the guilt of leaving my dad behind had almost made me leave once. I'd stayed in contact by payphone for awhile, and occasionally conversed with my friends during a few, short seconds in wolf form. I didn't allow the possibility of being located in either method of contact.

While the pack had given me my space, my dad's patience hadn't stretched as far. Two years after I had left, he began to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that he needed me to be home.

Despite the fact that I had healed in Florida, that I'd created a life and a partial sort of happiness for myself that I knew would never last in La Push, I would have went back when he asked it of me.

I would have.

Except for the fact that, when I went to phase to carry myself back home on four paws, I hadn't been able to.

At first, I'd been a little stunned. I'd stood outside my house in the middle of the night for at least an hour, just staring at nothing, my face all scrunched up in concentration, but nothing had happened. It had been the strangest feeling I'd ever felt—not being able to phase. It had never been hard to do before, but, suddenly, it was like I couldn't remember how.

I'd waited a few more hours and tried again, thinking maybe I just wasn't focused enough, but I still hadn't been able to.

It was the next night—after having spent all my energy trying to phase—that I realized that my body no longer could. Phasing had been a defense mechanism triggered by the appearance of vampires and the threat of harm to the people my tribe had always been sworn to protect.

In Florida, there were no vampires threatening me, and I was the only person I had to protect. The time of peace had shut down my ability to phase.

I was no longer a wolf. I was just Jacob Black.

Despite my father's wishes, I'd realized then that it was time for me to live my own life, and that La Push was no longer a place I could return to. There was nothing left there for me except the ghosts of what could have been. From my limited conversations with my pack, I'd learned that Bella had married Edward.

That was all I wanted or needed to know. I didn't ask about her again.

She had moved on, and I was determined to do the same. That was why I now spared only one phone call a month—as heartless as that felt—for my dad. He stopped asking for me to come back after I told him about my phasing problem, and turned instead to the idea that maybe I did need some time to grow on my own. He told me in his most theatrically prophetic voice that I would know when it was time to come home.

I didn't have the heart to argue, even though I knew that I was home.

I proved that to myself by buying my first place with the cash I gradually saved up from working as a mechanic—a damn good mechanic.

It was a small place, but it was still mine. I'd painted it the same color of blue as the sky, and I'd become content. It wasn't decorated with photos of family and friends, but I filled the voids of my life with trinkets from the beach or some of the small shops that lined the streets. I ignored what I had none of and made due with what was available to me.

It helped me forget—or at least ignore—memories of Bella.

It worked so well that I actually got to the point where I could see other women. I dated. Not a lot, but enough not to come off looking like a lonely old hermit. The girls I took to the dance clubs and bars, and sometimes just for a stroll on the beach, were all beautiful in their own way, and, after awhile, they stopped looking like Bella to me.

They became Mia and Amy and Kendra, or whoever, and they had their own voices and faces and texture. They were all brief flings, but they all helped me over the gigantic, unpleasant hill in my path that was Bella.

Granted, some days like these—my off days—when I took to sitting on the secluded section of beach a short walk from my house, I lapsed into thoughts of my life in La Push as I watched gulls circle me and tasted the bitterness of beer on my tongue. Occasionally, the gentle crash of waves riding to the beach would stir old memories of a day when I'd pulled Bella from the depths of angrier waves, and I would linger over the what-ifs of my life, but it was all easily brushed aside now, because I could get up, and I could shake myself out of those memories, and I could remember that I was miles and miles away from that girl and that past, and I didn't have to face them anymore.

I was a different man, Bella was married, and I was going to be fine.

Really.

Rolling my eyes at myself, I unearthed a shell from the sand beside me. I rolled it between my fingers for a second before tossing it toward the water. One gull dove for it automatically, anxious for any sliver of leftover he could get from me, still not aware that I wasn't carrying anything edible. He gave a squawk and arced back into the sky as soon as he realized he'd been duped.

Dumb bird.

I wedged my beer bottle into the sand beside me, leaving it half-full. I really wasn't a big drinker, but I occasionally pulled a bottle from the fridge to accompany me for my lonely beach-sitting time. Maybe I just couldn't survive without having something to do with my hands. Even now, my left was tapping my leg restlessly while my right scooped up sand just to feel it drain through the gaps between my fingers. I smirked at myself.

Even as my werewolf genes grew dormant, I was still as restless as ever. I decided to ebb my surplus of energy by going for a swim. Might as well enjoy the beach before a few stragglers found their way to my end, only to be disappointed—as it was usually couples—that this end of the beach still wasn't completely empty. No necking for them.

I pushed to my feet, took hold of the bottom of my t-shirt, and pulled it over my head. It took less than a second to do, which was why I was a bit startled to find that a straggler already had made their way to this end. Surprised, I dropped my t-shirt into the sand and squinted at the small figure in the distance.

They'd stopped walking a bit too far away to make them out clearly, and I thought they must be angled away from me anyway, staring at the ocean. It wasn't that it wasn't typical to see a few people wander over this way, but it struck me as odd that this person was alone this far from the public beach. Especially since I was pretty certain they were female. The shapely outline of their body was too pronounced to think otherwise, though the bronze curls might have given them away regardless. I could see the ringlets waving gently in the warm breeze.

I strained to see her, and struggled with wondering if it would be rude to walk in her direction just for a better look. I had no idea why I was suddenly so curious about this one person, but something… something…

What?

Making a noise of annoyance at myself, I shook my head and pulled my thoughts back in. Hadn't I got past thinking that every girl I saw was Bella by now? She was way back in Forks with Edward, and, besides, this girl had curly bronze hair and skin that was a bit too much like alabaster to be Bella Sw—Cullen.

It was just some random chick on the beach, probably thinking the whole solitary stroll thing was romantic. She wasn't any of my concern unless I decided I felt the need to warn her to wear sunscreen with skin like that. Which I didn't.

To prove this, I aimed myself in my original direction, trotted down the beach, and waded into the ocean. The waves caressed my ankles and knees before I waded far enough out to envelope my entire body. Sinking momentarily beneath the surf, I washed away the sweat and sand and allowed myself to be carried by one wave before I resurfaced. Now that I was no longer a wolf, I actually had the ability to cool myself off with a dip into the ocean, and I regularly enjoyed it. It was nice not being a space heater.

Slicking my hair back and rubbing salt water from my eyes, I glanced in the girl's direction again before I was totally aware that I had planned to do just that. I didn't know whether to be grateful or disappointed by what I saw.

She was gone.

Well, wasn't that just as well? I had given in to enjoying the occasional fling, but there was something about that girl that had unsettled me. I didn't want a fling with her. Not that one had been offered to me, but for some reason, some little survival instinct was telling me to beware. Maybe it was because I had looked at her and had seen Bella—something I hadn't done with anyone in awhile.

A wave hit me in the back, and I no longer felt like swimming. I scowled. If nothing else, the girl had definitely ruined my mood. I started back for the shore, weaving a little as the tide sucked at my ankles. There was something seriously wrong with my brain.

Maybe I should go to a doctor and ask them to surgically remove Bella from the folds.

If only things were that easy.

I released a small growl as my feet reached the warm, sun-baked sand. It was just a momentarily lapse. I would be fine once I retrieved my beer, finished it off, and retreated into my house to lose myself tinkering with my sink.

Fixing the leak was something I had been meaning to do anyway. Maybe I would have the motivation to do it now. Losing myself in mindless work would surely get my thoughts away from Forks.

Too bad it would be put off once again as, instead of steering myself back in the direction of my house, I veered to my left toward the place where the girl had stood. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but something in me needed to prove that I hadn't just imagined the bronze-haired girl standing there.

Though I couldn't explain to myself why I needed to know whether or not she was a figment of my imagination. The fact that I was curious at all should have been my first clue to run in the other direction. Curiosity never got me anywhere pleasant. Especially when it started with a female.

I pulled up short as I closed in on the place where she had been. There were, indeed, tracks in the sand, and only one pair. They were the size and shape that could easily indicate a delicate female foot. I stopped to stare at them, but lingered over them even after I had them to confirm that a girl really had been standing here.

I didn't know what it was—I could have been imagining it—but something about the air tasted different here. My senses had dulled back to those standard for normal human beings over the years, but it was like a tiny part of them had flickered briefly back to life just long enough to tell me that something was amiss.

Stupid.

As if it would help, I waved a hand in front of my face, churning the air in hopes of dispersing the scent or taste or whatever it was. As I did so, the air shifted, and I could have sworn—if only for a second—that I smelled strawberries.

It scared the hell out of me, as ridiculous as that sounded, because there was only one person I associated with strawberries.

"No," I hissed. "No way."

I turned on my heels and booked it back up the beach, barely resisting the urge to full out run back to my place. I must have been out in the sun too long. I was hallucinating. No way was I imagining Bella on my beach. Bella and her familiar scent of strawberries. To hell with the mysterious bronze haired girl. If anything previously had given me a hint that she was not someone I wanted to deal with, this little kicker had definitely been the neon light flashing in my face telling me to back off.

I didn't need to be told twice.