There was nothing I enjoyed more than working until my limbs were too weary to lift, and my brain was too tired to think. That way, I would have to face nothing in the solitude and quiet in my house except the dull knowledge that I deserved everything I owned, because I'd worked for it.

Which was more than I could say for some people.

An entire day's work had settled onto my skin, creating a thick sheen of sweat and grease to go nicely with the splattering of oil that had stained a dark pattern onto my shirt. It was like heaven to me. Even the paint that had dried into the creases of my fingers, which wasn't likely to come off any time soon. That was how I liked it. This was how I lived.

I didn't have anyone to impress, so I splayed myself on my couch without taking a shower—hell, without even changing clothes. The only thing I was missing was a beer. Too bad I didn't drink. Otherwise I would have formed the perfect picture of a hard-working man, the prime model for the working class of the world. My little façade was complete, and I was thoroughly content with it.

That was until I flicked on the tube and that sleazebag's face filled my screen. I scowled immediately.

Edward Cullen was as polished as politicians come, but he was also a dick, a cheat, and ridiculously unfaithful to his wife on the side. Yeah, that was plenty to tarnish his looks, charm, and intelligence in my mind, if you even wanted to admit that that shit had any of those to begin with. The only thing he had going for him was that he wasn't abusive. Otherwise, Senator Cullen would have met with the angry side of my right hook. Not that I was giving him any brownie points for being only a fraction above completely and unforgivably useless. I knew what he was. There was no deceiving me.

Some other people, however, just didn't know trash when it was right in front of them, wafting its nasty smell right into their face.

The camera angle panned out, and prime example number one ironically appeared in the rectangle of my screen, materializing at Cullen's elbow. My heart gave an uncomfortable lurch. Shit.

Isabella Swan—Bella Cullen now—was still as beautiful as ever. Even with the fatigue under her eyes, and that obviously fake smile on her face. Yeah, I could read her better than anyone. I always had been able to, but that didn't seem to count for much in Bella's eyes. Who cared that we were perfect for one another? So what?

Seemed she was still having a hard time locating paradise with Cullen, but that was really no consolation prize for me. I'd still lost. Bet she wished now that she'd stuck with me any of those last three times she'd ran back to me as a married woman whose husband neglected and cheated on her. I couldn't understand why the hell she always ran back.

She'd show up, spend the weekend sobbing on my shoulder, pulling my heart strings, giving me all kinds of mixed signals, and then she'd leave again. I was her shoulder, her friend, her puppy-dog, Jacob Black. I wasn't the man that warmed her bed. I never would be. Fine. Whatever. It wasn't as if I didn't have enough to worry about, and she knew that better than anyone.

Like her idiot husband, I had plenty of secrets of my own. I was one of those rare breeds in the world that would never quite fit in, though I made a pretty decent attempt at pretending to be completely human. I was the alpha of a pack of werewolves that no one but Bella, her douchebag husband and family, and I knew about. But apparently Bella preferred vampires, which was what my natural enemy, Edward Cullen, so happened to be. Wonder how many votes he'd have gotten if his secret had slipped out?

Probably still all of them.

Bastard.

As a vampire, he got all the women. As a werewolf, I just got fleas.

The doorbell rang, interrupting my fantasy of slugging Cullen in the face. He was lucky he'd left Forks long ago, leaving behind this mediocre town to pursue a career in politics with his infinite supply of wisdom from having been an immortal leech for the past several centuries. Otherwise, I imagine we would have went a couple of rounds in real life.

With a groan, I rolled off the couch. At least I didn't have to look at Cullen's ugly mug anymore.

Hoping whatever this person wanted was brief, I opened the door with my customary scowl and nearly choked on the air I inhaled to discreetly tell the person to buzz off.

"Jake!"

Holy. Shit.

"Bells?"

Mistake number one: referring to Bella with her old nickname. Way too intimate, and it already set us off on the wrong foot. She was here less than two seconds, and I already knew what she wanted: another tiny sliver of my soul to cart off when she was through with me and ready to return to Cullen.

No way. Not this time. I wasn't going to be the shoulder anymore. I'd promised myself that last time, when she'd left my place leaving only a note of thanks behind.

Thanks? Thanks?! That was what she thought I wanted? Give me a break.

"I've missed you, Jake."

An overly-eager smile had filtered its way across her face, attempting to push a bit of light into her sad brown eyes, but failing miserably. She was already trying to kiss my ass and win me over before I had a chance to fight back.

"Bella, what are you doing here?"

I figured whatever the reason was, it was something painful. She never came back unless she'd reached a breaking point. I didn't want to sound mean because I knew this. Lucky for me, I didn't. I sounded pathetic. There was almost a whining tone to my voice that even I had detected. Great! Swell! Lead yourself to slaughter again, Jacob Black. Way to go!

If only she wasn't so damn beautiful even when I knew she was playing me like a card. That smile wasn't really for me. That slim, black dress she was poured into wasn't for me either, though I knew pretty well that she'd thought of me when she'd slid herself into it. I could practically see her rummaging through her expansive closet in Cullen's mansion wondering what to wear that would effectively make me putty in her hands. Well, bulls-eye. She'd found the perfect way to really show off her hips and give me a good idea as to how perfect her breasts were by the provocative dip the front of her dress took.

As if I wasn't already completely aware.

But no harm in reminding me, huh, Bella?

"I—."

I could see Bella trying to work up the excuse that I wouldn't be able to get around—the excuse that would force me to allow her to seek sanctuary in my house and to use me like a Kleenex.

"I just missed you, Jake," she finished lamely.

What kind of pot shot was that? Did she really take me for that big of a fool? Apparently so. I felt a slow simmering anger spark to life.

"Cut the crap, Bella."

She flinched, and I almost regretted being so harsh with her. Almost. It wasn't just her emotions hanging in limbo here. It was mine as well, and I was usually the one that took one for the team.

"Her name is Tanya," Bella admitted, finally, her eyes falling downcast. "Edward's been keeping her at our house even."

So, once again, Prince Charming wasn't all that he was cracked up to be. Imagine that. How many times had I tried to explain this to Bella? How many times had she failed to listen?

I had every right to be pissed. I shouldn't have had to have cleaned up after Cullen each time he decided to prove what a prick he was. But I couldn't stay angry with Bella. Hell, I didn't know if I'd actually ever lasted more than a day holding out against the woman.

Love sucked.

"What am I supposed to do, Bella?"

I folded my arms and leaned against the door frame. I wasn't enjoying the fact that the love of my life was standing on my doorstep on the verge of tears, but I refused to gather her close and whisper comforting bullshit that wasn't true. I had to break myself of the habit.

It was going to be awfully damn hard. Especially seeing her bring her own arms up around herself, cupping her elbows in an attempt to embrace herself. Especially when I saw the beginning of tears glistening in her eyes.

Especially when she used that…voice against me, and those chocolate brown eyes that could unravel me in no time flat.

"I can't go back there, Jake. I can't share the house with the woman he's having an affair with," she told me. "Please. Please, can I just stay here? Just for a little while? I promise I won't ask anything of you this time, Jake."

I had every right to slam the door in her face and go back to my blissful lounge on the couch in my sweaty, greasy clothes. I had every right to fall asleep on that couch tonight without having to think of the woman sleeping in my bedroom. It was beyond justified for me to continue on with my life without allowing Bella's problems to seep into it, becoming my problems in the act.

"All right. A few days, Bella."

I was just too damn weak.

"Thank you, Jacob."

I could tell she was on the verge of coming in for a hug, but, though she might have seen that as harmless, it was hitting below the belt for me. Premeditating the act, I purposely stepped aside, out of her path, and held the door open, gesturing for her to come in with a none-too-pleased jerk of my hand. That smile on her face fell immediately. She knew what I was thinking.

Well, good. It was best that things were made clear from the start.

I was not about to offer my heart up for sacrifice again.