Disclaimer: The great Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight. I'm just using her amazing characters to tell you a story.

A huge thank you goes out to CherylSab, AgoodWITCH, and kmah88 not only for reading this story and making it all pretty for you, but for keeping me from jumping off the cliff this story forces me to stand on. I'd be a mess without you girls. I love you all so much.

We're still hanging out in the past with Edward. Enjoy. See you at the bottom.


Chapter 36 – Forward and Back Again

February 16, 2009

Monday morning was a bit awkward for Edward and me. Without meaning to, we had crossed a line that should have never been crossed.

Our resolution to remain strictly friends was still in place but sometime during our movie the night before, I had fallen asleep and woken up in Edward's arms as he stroked my hair and hummed the sweetest song under his breath.

He'd said it was a song Esme used to sing to him when he was a kid and had horrible nightmares about his parents. I knew then that I must have been dreaming about James. According to Ben, on the few nights he'd slept at my apartment, those nightmares tended to cause violent reactions as I slept. Unfortunately, Edward had to witness it and had been trying to soothe me.

I shuddered to think of my actions or what he might have heard while I slept and, without thinking, I curled against his chest for comfort, asking for him to sing the song to me. His words were the barest of whispers as he sang, running his fingers through my hair again, soothing me back to sleep.

I had woken up this morning in bed, fully clothed, and under a heavy fleece blanket. When I had finally rolled over to check the time, my eyes landed on a piece of paper neatly folded on my nightstand. I paused a second before opening it to see Edward's neat handwriting.

Jess,

I wish I could be the man to chase your demons away but until you trust in me, I'm glad you have Ben. After tonight, I believe you truly need him. I'll pray you have sweeter dreams.

Goodnight,

Edward

His note haunted me all morning as we worked around each other, barely speaking. I had to know what happened last night. What I did or what he heard to make him feel as if he needed to walk on egg shells around me. And, unfortunately, I wasn't the only one to notice.

"Hey, Jess?" Jared called my name as he knocked on the door frame.

"Yeah." I turned to see the somber look on his face.

"I need to talk to you." His fingers wrapped around the doorknob and he gave it the slightest push. "Do you mind?"

Hesitantly, I nodded my head and he closed the door. Turning back to me, he leaned against the door with his arms folded across his chest.

"Look, I don't know what went on between the two of you after we left here on Saturday, but whatever it is, it's got Edward pretty messed up. And since you haven't so much as glanced away from that computer in the past three hours, I think it's safe to say that you're not doing any better."

"Jared, nothing..."

He raised a hand to stop me. "I'm not asking for explanations or details. I just think the two of you need to talk." He pushed away from the door. "Quil and I are going out for lunch. We'll bring back a couple of cheeseburgers for you guys. Just, please, talk to him."

Without asking, he'd given me the one thing I had been wanting all morning. A chance to clear the air.

"Thanks, Jared." I smiled and he opened the door.

"See you in an hour," he said before he disappeared.

With a heavy breath, I stood on shaky legs and left my office to find Edward. He was standing at the edge of the mats, scrubbing down the dummies with disinfectant, getting them ready for the next class.

Taking a small step back behind the wall, I took a second to simply watch him, truly admiring him for the first time since I'd walked through the door a month ago. He really was beautiful. The strands of copper hair falling over his forehead as he worked. The tight fit of his muscle shirt showing off his toned upper body, leaving nothing to the imagination as his muscles flexed and strained with his actions. He truly was a sight to behold.

"Are you just going to stand there all day, or do you plan on helping?" His gruff voice startled me out of my hiding place.

"I'm sorry. I didn't realize you saw me. I mean..."

He cut me off. "I see everything, Jess. It's what I was trained for."

"Sorry."

When I didn't move, he spoke again. "Are you going to help or not?"

The angry tone in his voice snapped me into action. "Sorry," I apologized again as I dipped behind the wall and grabbed my own cleaning supplies from the cabinet.

I joined him on the mats and got right to work without saying a word. We worked in silence for several minutes as I tried to gather the courage to ask the question that had been burning in me all morning. I went back and forth in my head, testing different phrases, trying to find the best way to ask, but nothing sounded right.

"So, I'm guessing you got the same little lecture I got."

Edward's voice startled me again, causing me to drop my towel. As I bent down to pick it up, I answered, "Seems like it."

The silence returned for another few seconds before I just blurted out the words.

"I'm sorry about last night. Whatever I said or did to make you uncomfortable, I wish I could take it back, but I can't. Not unless you tell me what it is."

He didn't speak as he moved to the next dummy and continued cleaning. Unable to deal with his silence, I threw my towel at him, hitting him in the shoulder. He didn't even flinch.

"Damn it, Edward! Don't shut me out!" I screamed.

"Did you know you cry in your sleep?" he asked without looking at me, his voice barely above a whisper.

"What?" I spoke as if all the air had been knocked out of me.

"Last night, I didn't realize you'd fallen asleep until you twitched really hard and surprised me." He continued wiping down the dummy, though his hand hardly moved. "I moved closer and shook you, hoping you'd wake up but you didn't. You started whimpering and mumbling quietly. It was only a word or two at first before I saw the tears. Then the whispering started."

My blood ran cold wondering what he heard.

"'Sorry' and 'please don't' over and over again and you said the name Jake...a lot."

He stopped cleaning and his hand curled into a hard fist, causing the veins to pop out on his arm. His breathing turned ragged and his eyes clenched shut.

"Did he hurt you?"

On the verge of hyperventilating, I couldn't speak, couldn't think, and before I registered his movement, Edward was in front of me.

"Tell me, please."

Edward's hand was hot against my cheek, tilting my head up, capturing my eyes with his. An immense sadness filled his eyes as he searched mine for an answer.

Placing a hand over his, I shook my head. "Jake's my brother."

With a look of relief, his eyes closed and he crushed me against his chest. My heart pounded so hard I was sure he felt it and when he kissed the top of my head, my arms circled his waist and I held on tight.

I lost track of time, not knowing how long we stood locked in our embrace before he finally took a step back.

"Come sit with me," he said expectantly.

I nodded and he grabbed my hand, leading me into his office. There were a couple of chairs in front of his desk and he guided me to sit in one as he took the other. Leaning forward, he hung his head just as he had the night before.

"Your past is your own, Jess, and I won't pry into that. But I know now that your pain runs far deeper than I..."

"Jake was in an accident," I blurted the truth, wanting to stop him from going any farther. "It was my fault and now he'll never walk again."

"You've never mention him before," he said, looking up at me.

My eyes dropped to the floor, avoiding his gaze. "It's a part of my life I don't like to talk about."

"Does Ben know?"

I nodded, sighed and lifted my head. "I told him once and I'm sure he said the same thing you're about to say."

"And that is?"

"That it's not my fault. That it was an accident. Something I couldn't stop or control."

"I wasn't going to say anything like that."

He reached into the mini-fridge beside him and handed me a bottle of water. I watched as he drained half the bottle.

"Are you planning on keeping me in suspense all day?"

He set the half-empty bottle on his desk and relaxed a little into his chair.

"Honestly, I'm not the best at giving advice. But I think if you truly believe something is your fault, maybe in some small way, it is." He held up a hand to stop me from interrupting. "I'm not accusing you in any way. It's just that we can't always control the things that happen to us, but we are responsible for our actions that bring about the situations we find ourselves in."

"So it is my fault," I agreed sadly. "All of it."

"I didn't say that."

"Not directly."

"Not at all," he argued.

"Maybe not," I conceded. "But what you did say actually makes a lot of sense. If I had done some things differently, made smarter decisions, Jake may have never gotten hurt."

I sat quietly for a moment, lost in the past and thinking about what ifs. It didn't take long, however, for another question to form in my head.

"If that was all you heard last night, why have you been so bothered today?" I looked pointedly at him.

"You may find this hard to believe, but I'm like you in a lot of ways. I don't let people into my life easily either."

"You're right," I said, smirking. "I don't believe it."

"Jess," his lips turned up in a small smile, "I have exactly three friends, who are more my brothers than anything, and I have Esme. Not quite the social butterfly you seem to be picturing."

I laughed. "Social butterfly? Really?"

He shrugged unapologetically and then continued. "Now there's you. I don't see you as family the way I do Ben, Jared or Quil. I care about you and just the thought of someone hurting you..." He trailed off.

"Edward..."

He went on as if I hadn't said a word. "Esme holding me and singing to me helped me through a lot of nightmares when I was a kid. Last night, I wanted to do the same for you. But when you curled up in my lap, clutching at my shirt as you drifted back to sleep, I was surprised by how much your pain hurt me and I was overwhelmed with this intense need to protect you from anything that could ever hurt you again.

"Then, when I carried you to bed and saw how peaceful you finally looked, I knew this friend thing was going to be impossible. My only shot was to avoid you at all costs. So that's what I've been doing. Keeping my distance."

By the time he was done, he was looking everywhere but at me. As I stared at him, all I could focus on was how much him 'keeping his distance' had hurt me in return.

"Don't." The word slipped out before I could stop it.

His eyes snapped to mine. "Don't what?"

"I can't offer you anything more than friendship, Edward. But I don't want you to keep your distance either," I admitted.

I swallowed hard, afraid of how my words sounded. I was sure my indecision would hurt him somehow, but I couldn't stop myself.

"Being around you..." I trailed off, nervous about telling him what I was feeling. "You make me happy...and sad. I feel safe and scared all at the same time. And I'm terrified to get close to you, but the thought of you staying away hurts more."

Edward reached out and took my hand. "What are you saying?"

"I don't know." I squeezed his fingers, drawing strength from him. "I don't know how to do more than this."

"Neither do I." He dropped to one knee in front of me and lifted his hand, brushing his fingertips across my cheek. "But we can figure it out."

Words failing me, all I could do was nod as a few tears fell and rolled down my cheeks. Edward wiped them away, leaving his hands in place and stroking my heated skin.

I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to be strong enough to just lean forward an inch and touch my lips to his, but I couldn't. It was too soon for any of that. If only the desire wasn't there. In his eyes and possibly in mine. If only the intensity between us didn't draw us together until I could feel his breath on my lips. If only...

"Hey, Ed! We got your cheeseburgers."

The moment was broken and Edward's eyes closed as his forehead rested against mine. He was breathing heavily as if what just passed between us stole every ounce of his strength.

"Thanks, J," he called to Jared then pulled back, fixing his eyes on me. "You okay?"

"Yeah," I answered breathlessly.

With his hands still in place, he drew me to him and pressed a lingering kiss to my forehead before standing. A hand touched my cheek, guiding my eyes to his.

"We'll talk later," he whispered and walked out to meet Jared.

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

The afternoon passed as the morning had, only now, instead of awkward silences and angry or uncomfortable glares, there were shy glances and faint touches every time we were in the same room. Whispered words and private conversations replaced harsh and clipped words as we stole a few moments to talk.

As five o'clock neared, Edward stepped into my office to say goodbye.

"So, I'll see you back here at nine?" he asked, fidgeting a little.

I smiled. Nervous Edward was simply adorable. I shut down my computer and turned to him.

"I've been here every day for the past month, Masen. Tonight's no different."

He flashed a bright smile. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not very good at this either, huh."

"Nothing changes, Edward. You're still my boss, my trainer, my landlord. The only difference would be us getting to know each other outside of here. It's what we agreed on, right."

"Yeah. I just... I don't know." He blew out a gust of air. "Never mind. You go home, eat and get some rest. I'll see you back here soon."

With another smile, Edward disappeared out the door. In a few quick steps, I had a hold of his wrist and he turned.

"Jared has the eight o'clock class tonight, right." I rushed the words out before I lost my nerve.

Edward nodded. "Yeah. He takes Monday night so I can finish up the weekend paperwork."

"I'll have dinner ready by eight-fifteen. Come by if you can."

He glanced over his shoulder to make sure we were alone, but I could hear Jared and Quil still wrapping up their class. He turned back to me, took a step closer and leaned down to kiss my cheek.

"I'll call if I can't make it."

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

Knowing I had a hard night of training ahead of me, I tried to keep dinner light. Tonight's menu consisted of a simple spinach salad, lemon-pepper grilled chicken and half of a baked potato. Nothing too fancy tonight since we didn't have much time before we had to be back at the gym. Well, nothing fancy for dinner anyway. I did make him a special dessert that he could take with him for later.

Dinner was almost done when my phone rang at seven fifty-five. I knew it was Edward before I even looked at the screen. Disappointment filled me and I did my best to hide it as I answered.

"Hello." The cheerfulness I was trying for sounded a little flat.

"Hey, Jess." A tiny ache settled into my chest as I heard the same disappointment in his voice. "I really did try, but I'm not going to make it for dinner. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," I mumbled. "Work comes first, right?"

"Unfortunately." Silence fell between us for a fraction of a second before his voice came through again with a little more excitement. "Hey, let me make it up to you. Tomorrow night. I've got Diaz coming in at five-thirty to work on some new techniques for his next fight, but we'll be done by seven. I'll pick up some take-out and we'll have dinner before we have to be back here at nine. What do you say?"

"Aren't you supposed to be there for the class at seven?"

"Quil can handle it," he said dismissively.

"Really?" His answer was so surprising I couldn't help but tease him. "Mr. 'I never leave the gym' is gonna give his class away to Quil? What is this world coming to?"

"What? I owe you dinner."

His words put a huge smile on my face, erasing my earlier disappointment completely.

"Well, if that's the reason," I teased, "I'll let you off the hook this time. But don't make a habit of this, Masen. I don't want you getting lazy on me."

"Lazy? I'll show you lazy." Hearing me groan, he laughed. "See you soon, Little Girl."

The phone went silent and I knew by the threatening tone in his voice that I was in for one hell of a night.

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

Training was brutal. Not even my frozen chocolate raspberry dessert was enough of a peace offering for Edward to take it easy on me. By the end of the night, I was lying prone in the middle of the ring, out of breath and sore from all the torture.

"You're all...sadists," I panted.

Three distinct laughs made their way to my ears and, if I was in any shape to move, I would have taken great pleasure in kicking their teeth out. Unfortunately, the fact that I seemed to be the one lying flat on my back every night showed the obvious flaw in my plan. I would just have to get back at them when they least expected it.

"Aww, come on, Jess," Jared said around a mouthful of Edward's chocolate dessert, "look at the bright side. You took Edward down twice. How many people can say that?"

"Fuck you...and...your silver...linings."

The three of them erupted into laughter and it took all the strength I had to lift my hand and flip them off. All that did was make them laugh harder while I started plotting my revenge in my head.

When they finally sobered, I felt the vibrations in the mat as someone walked toward me. I peeled one eye open and saw Edward towering over me.

"Need some help?" He held out his hand to me. With a groan, I reached up but before I could grab it, I saw his smirk. "Can't leave you down there all day, now can I? You might get lazy on me."

Instead of taking his offer, I slapped his hand away. "Oh, fuck you, too."

He chuckled again just before Quil pushed his way between us.

"Come on, Little Bit. Time to get up."

He was on one knee, offering his leg to brace myself on as I struggled to stand. When I finally had my feet under me, Jared was next to me, draping an arm over my shoulder.

"You're one hell of a fighter, Jess. To take some of those hits…damn," he shook his head. "I'd hate to meet the person stupid enough to come after you."

Jared laughed, I froze and Edward went rigid. His eyes narrowed again and his mind was, no doubt, processing Jared's words, adding them to the list of everything else he'd observed and learned about me over the past month. While I watched him, a hand firmly smacked my ass, bringing me out of my panicked thoughts.

"Jared," Edward warned.

"What?" He shrugged then turned his eyes back to me. "I'm just sayin' you'd kick their ass, Kid. I'm proud of you."

Tired and sore as I was, I stood a little taller in the face of Jared's compliment. He didn't hand them out often. In fact, when it came to training, he was as serious as they came. There was no playing around or joking. His approach was the same as Edward's – you lose focus, you get hurt. So, unless your technique and follow through were absolutely perfect, there wasn't a nice word to be said.

"Thanks, J."

"Now can we get outta here or what 'cause this girl needs to get home and make some more of this stuff." Jared changed back to his playful self as he pointed toward his empty bowl.

"Not even happening." I hip-checked him to push him away. "You're just lucky Edward shared, otherwise you wouldn't get shit."

Jared's face crumpled and his hand went over his heart in mock pain. "Ugh, Jess, that's just so mean. I thought we were friends. Quil, can you believe this?" he asked, though, before anyone could get a word out, he smirked and a devious gleam filled his eyes. "I guess Edward's the only one good enough to taste your dessert." He wagged his eyebrows at me.

"You assho-"

I launched myself at him but a strong arm wrapped around my waist, stopping me as a hand covered my mouth, cutting off my tirade.

"Don't," Edward whispered into my ear before raising his voice again. "I can't help it if the girl's got taste, J." His hand moved from my mouth to close around my shoulders, pulling me tight against his chest. "Maybe next time, we'll keep dessert just between us."

His voice held a hint of indecency as the double meaning of his words rang clear. Good-hearted bantering was one thing, but this seriously pissed me off.

Using Edward's arms as leverage, I landed a hard kick to Jared's chest, sending him flying backwards into the ropes. Just as he hit, I planted my feet and flipped Edward over my back. The second his back crashed into the mat, I kicked him hard in the ribs.

Jumping back out of Edward's reach, I was in a ready position again, waiting for their retaliation. When it didn't come, Quil turned with a huge grin on his face and held up his hand for a high five.

"Nice moves, Little Bit." I smacked his hand and relaxed, knowing he'd have my back against the two of them. "Come on; let's leave these two to their wounded egos."

He laughed and opened up the ropes for me to step through. Before I jumped down to the floor, I leveled a glare at Jared and Edward who were staring up at me from their places on the mat.

"Next time you two want to take shots at each other, leave me out of it."

Without another word, Quil and I left.

The next day, after a round of apologies from both Edward and Jared, things were back to normal again. My anger over their ridiculous comments had faded and we went through the day as if nothing happened.

When I thought about it rationally, nothing really did happen. It was Jared being Jared, making rude comments and jokes that no one but him thought were funny. But with Edward and me trying to figure out this thing between us now, those comments hit a little too close to home. No matter how nice the idea sounded, I didn't want anyone thinking Edward and I were a couple because we weren't. And we never could be.

That night, Edward was true to his word and brought Chinese takeout for us to enjoy while we talked. Hesitantly, he asked about my relationship with Ben, wondering if there was more to our story than either of us were sharing. Ben had told him once about his feelings for me but I was quick to assure him there was nothing romantic going on between us. Sure, I loved Ben, just not the way he wanted. He was my best friend and that was all he'd ever be.

The night went smoothly after we'd gotten that detail out of the way and before we knew it, it was time to get back to the gym. We were working on several new offensive moves which always resulted in me lying on my back more often than I stayed standing. But I guessed that came with the territory when I was forced to attack the three men who knew every defensive move known to man.

I couldn't complain though because I was learning and I was getting better and stronger every day. If we kept it up, there would come a day when I wouldn't need Edward, Jared or Quil to protect me. I would be my own force to be reckoned with and I could finally stop running and stand on my own again. I could face James again without fear and tell him once and for all that we were over. I could tell him that I had the power to hurt him for once and, if it came down to it, I could prove it. Then I could finally go home. Back to Sam, Emily and Leah. Back to my brother. The thought of home brought tears to my eyes and, for once, they weren't happy ones.

From the second I left, I had dreamed of the day I could go home to my family again, only to have my heart broken time and time again because I knew it was impossible. Now that I was here, learning everything I needed to do just that, my heart broke all over again because going home meant leaving behind this new family I'd been brought into. It meant leaving Edward behind.

I shook the thoughts from my head as I crawled into bed. It did me no good to think that way. No matter what I wanted or what I was starting to feel for him, I would leave him. I had to leave him. There was no other choice.

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

Wednesday morning passed in a blur and before I knew it, Edward was in my office telling me it was time for lunch.

"Edward, you know I can't. I have to get these entries into the system by the end of the day."

It was my standard objection, but as he walked over and sifted through the paperwork on my desk, the frown on his face told me I wasn't getting away with it this time.

"Come on, Jess, I know it's not going to take you four hours to add eleven entries into the system." He turned my chair, forcing me to face him. "You've blown us off for weeks now, but not today. Let's go."

I stared at the hand he held out to me and shook my head. His hand dropped and he sighed.

"Jess, this is what we do and you're just as much a part of this place now as we are."

"Edward, I can't." I didn't have any other words to offer a better argument. He was just going to have to accept it.

"You told me the other day that nothing changes, right." I nodded, not knowing where he was going with this. "Then as your boss I'm telling you we're having a meeting and everyone needs to be there."

"You're going to pull rank on me?"

"If I have to," he said harshly before deflating a little. "Look, you know I'd never really do that, but there are a few things we need to discuss, and it'll be easier to do if we're all there."

"You've never needed me before."

He rolled his eyes. "Jess, please just save what you're doing so we can go." He moved back to the door. "You have two minutes before I send Jared in here to carry you out."

His smirk had my hand itching to slap him but knowing he'd make good on his threat, I saved the entry I was working on, grabbed my purse and met them at the back door.

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

The three of them laughed as I moaned shamelessly around the first bite of the best burger I'd ever tasted. Eyes closed, I chewed slowly, savoring the taste before swallowing.

"Told you they were good."

I heard the smile in Edward's voice and opened my eyes to see his grin running from ear to ear. I wanted to glare at him for not forcing me to come out with them before now but I was too involved in my heavenly experience to be angry. So, I simply moaned my response and took my next bite.

"Too bad, Ed," Jared shrugged as a wicked smirk settled on his face, "sounds like she finally found something good to put in her mouth. Ow, fuckers," he growled when Edward and I both kicked his shins under the table. "Can't you take a fucking joke?"

"Jokes like that are what put that bruise on your chest," I said, reminding him of the kick I gave him a couple nights earlier.

"She's got you there, J," Quil jumped in, laughing. "Maybe you should stop before she kicks your ass."

"Please," he huffed. "As if she could."

"Do I need to prove it to you?"

"I dare you."

"You dare me?" I said through clenched teeth as my back stiffened at his challenge. "Fine. Tonight, your ass is-"

"Alright, Killer." Edward's hand came down on my thigh and he squeezed, instantly cutting off all my words. "No need to hurt the help."

Quil laughed at Edward's joke and Jared returned his kick under the table. I couldn't do anything. Nothing. Not while his hand wrapped itself around my leg. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't care. Edward had his hands on me all the time while we were training, but this was different. This was casual – with no real purpose – and as he leaned back against the booth, he didn't seem to have any intentions of removing it.

My pounding heart was beating a mile a minute and I was sure if they stopped talking for more than five seconds, they would have heard it. I tried to calm down but it was impossible because every few seconds, Edward's fingers would tighten or his thumb would brush back and forth across my thigh.

It was unsettling. Not because of the warmth of his hand resting on my leg, or the dig of his fingers when he laughed too hard, or the soft caress as he sat with a quiet smile on his face. It was the heat that sent tingles through my entire body, the strength of his grip that made my heart race and the gentle stroke of his fingers that launched a million butterflies in my stomach.

It wasn't the shouting in my head telling him to stop or the rational part of me that said we weren't a couple and casual touches like that shouldn't be allowed. It was the overpowering desire in my heart that begged him to never let go. It was the careless side of me that knew his touch felt too good to not want it forever. And it was that same careless side that forced my own hand to reach under the table, turn his and link our fingers together.

He gave a little jolt and stumbled over his words before a smile settled on his face and his fingers tightened around mine.

"I know what you're doing under that table, Ed," Jared interrupted our moment, "and you can stop anytime."

Edward turned to me and his smile grew impossibly wider. The sparkle in his eyes caused my heart to race even faster and I couldn't hold back my own smile.

"Nah, I'm good." He winked at me.

A flush spread across my cheeks. "Yeah, we're good," I mumbled then turned back to Jared. "So shut the fuck up."

"Watch your mouth, Young Lady." He gave me a stern look, but I could see the humor in his eyes.

"Kiss my ass, J."

"Bend over, baby." Jared lost the hold on his laughter. "Mother fuckers," he yelled after Edward and I kicked him again.

"So," Quil spoke up, "are you two like…a thing now?"

"Um…" I hesitated, not knowing exactly what to say. "We... It's…"

"New." Edward finished for me and squeezed my hand again. "And a little…" It was his turn to hesitate, "I don't know…"

"I think it's great," Quil cut him off, smiling as his eyes shifted back and forth between us.

"I think you'll be good for each other," Jared surprisingly echoed Quil's thoughts.

I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with the sudden silence settling between us. Edward noticed and immediately spoke up.

"Okay, let's get down to business."

"What's up, Boss?" Jared asked seriously.

"I've been thinking and I've decided to change Jessica's job description."

"What?" His words caught me by surprise.

"You're good, Jess. Really good. And I'm sure they'll agree," he nodded to Jared and Quil, "that it's time to change your title from simply office assistant to office assistant slash trainer. Monday morning, I want you to take over the beginning kickboxing class."

"Hell yeah," Jared bellowed. "That class has your name written all over it."

"No, Edward, I can't."

"Yes!" Quil jumped in, completely ignoring my protest. "That would be perfect for you."

"No." I shook my head

"Come on," Quil continued. "You sailed through that class faster than anyone I've ever worked with. Same with intermediate. In fact, you picked it all up so fast, we could have easily started you off with advance and you would have been fine."

"But I can't teach. I…" I tried to argue but Jared cut me off.

"Bullshit. You're a damn good fighter and you're just as qualified as the rest of us to teach that class."

"No," I said again. "I can't get up in front of all those people like I know what I'm doing. I can't teach what I don't know."

"Jess, you can do this," Edward finally said. "We all have confidence in you and I wouldn't have offered if I didn't think you could do it."

I panicked. There was no way I could stand in front of that many people. Taking the class was one thing; I could hide in the back or behind the dummies and not be seen. Teaching was different. Everyone would be staring at me. They'd all know who I was. No, I couldn't do it. I couldn't stay anonymous that way.

I shook my head, ready to protest again but Edward's hand on my cheek stopped me. A turn of my head had me staring into his vibrant green eyes.

"I believe in you, Jess. I know you can do this, but I want you to be ready for it. Take some time to think about it and if you're willing, we'll make it happen."

Sincerity was clearly written across his face and I wanted, more than anything, to give him what he was asking for. But I couldn't.

With a sigh and a forced smile, I gave him the answer he wanted to hear. "Okay. I'll think about it."

"Great."

His smile made me feel horrible. I hated myself for lying to him but no matter what either of us said, my answer would always be no.

"Now hurry up and eat so we can get back." He winked at me again, causing me to smile as I dug back into my burger.

By twelve-forty, the check was paid and we were ready to head back to the gym. I slid out of the booth, pulled my sunglasses down and lifted my hood to cover myself up again. Edward slid out next to me and pulled on his own coat just before he reached down to grab my hand. My head snapped in his direction and he just shrugged.

"What?" he whispered. "They know we're…"

"We're what, Edward? We're not…" I looked around us to make sure no one was listening. "We're not together like that."

"Not yet." He grinned.

"I told you, I can't."

I pulled my hand from his and turned toward the door. He caught me by the wrist before I could take a step.

"But you just said…"

"God, why are you pushing this?" I choked out. "Why can't you just accept that I…?"

"That you what? That you're giving up before you even give us a chance," he growled then lowered his voice to a whisper, remembering where we were. "You said we would try. Saying no every time something gets uncomfortable isn't trying, Jess."

"That's not… I'm not…" Again, I had no words to explain.

"You say you want this and then say you don't. You say we'll work it out and then you tell me you can't. Just tell me what to do," he pleaded with me. "Tell me the rules you want us to live by because I can't keep guessing. I don't want to get it wrong."

My heart broke. I knew I'd been throwing mixed signals at him. I didn't blame him for being confused. I hated myself for treating him that way, but I was just as confused as he was and I didn't know how to handle it.

"I'm sorry, Edward. I can't do this with you right now."

I pulled my arm from his grasp and rushed to the door. Before I could push it open, my blood turned to ice and my entire body froze as I saw the black SUV pull into the parking lot. Tears burned my eyes, my hands began to shake and I couldn't breathe.

James was here. He finally found me.

"Not now."

My body jerked.

"Please, not now."

I felt a hard jolt and my head snapped back as two heavy hands gripped my arms.

"Don't touch me!" I yelled and fought to get free.

"Jess!" Edward's voice pushed past the pounding in my head. "Jess, what's wrong?"

Focusing through the tears, I looked up to see Edward's worried eyes.

"I have to go." I struggled again.

"No. What's wrong?" I wrenched one arm free. "Talk to me."

"Oh God, I have to go."

My head shook and, without thinking, I swept his feet out from under him. The second he let go of my arm, I ran.

Not knowing anything about the place, I headed for the kitchen. I'd worked in restaurants before and the kitchen always had an exit. I could get away and he'd never know I was here.

It was a small place so the kitchen wasn't very big and I found the door right away. As quick as I could, I made my way through the grills and shelves and hit the door running. I was halfway across the back parking lot when I heard the door crash into the wall behind me.

"Bella, stop!" Edward yelled a half a second before a tug to the back of my shirt yanked me back into his hard chest. His arms clamped around my shoulders and chest immediately and he held on tight. "Don't," he choked out. "Please don't run."

The worry and sorrow in his voice tore through me. I reached up, gripping his arms, holding him as tight as he held me.

"I just…" Terror filled me and I could barely speak.

"Please talk to me," he begged in a whisper. "Let me help. Whatever it is, please, let me help."

My arms tightened on his, savoring the last few minutes I was going to have with him.

"Anxiety…attack," I panted, still trying to catch my breath.

"Don't do that." He let go and spun me to face him. "Don't lie to me."

I shook my head in disagreement. "It happens…sometimes."

"You're shaking. That's not anxiety. That's fear." His hands held my face. "Tell me what you're afraid of."

"I'm not afraid," I lied, praying desperately for him to believe me. Taking in a deep breath, I continued. "The attacks hit me. They have since… since my parents died."

My eyes clenched shut for a second before I focused back on him again. Reaching up, I pulled his hands from my face.

"I don't know why," I took another breath, "or how to stop them. I just need air. I just need to breathe."

"I don't…"

"I'm fine," I said, cutting him off. "I promise you. I'm fine."

"You're not…"

"Edward, don't." I cut him off again. "I said I'm fine. If you can't believe me then I don't…"

"I believe you. You just scared me, Jess. I mean, one minute you were fine and the next you were shaking so hard I could see it, you were hyperventilating and you'd gone completely pale." He shook his head. "It was almost like you saw a ghost."

Oh Edward, if you only knew.

"I don't believe in ghosts," I told him, knowing there were far worse things in this world to be afraid of. Taking a step back, I looked at my watch. "It's almost one. You guys have to get back."

"You guys?" he questioned. "I hope you don't think I'm leaving you here."

"Please, Edward. I just need to clear my head."

He closed the space between us, his hands instantly on my waist. "I'm worried about you."

His fingers clenched as he drew me into his warm embrace and my arms slid up and around his neck. I knew I shouldn't. It wasn't right to give him hope, but I couldn't stop myself. If this was going to be our last day together, I wanted to hold him one time as if we never had to let go.

"Don't be," I whispered as my fingers caressed the back of his neck. "I'm fine." Pulling back slightly, I let a hand slide to his cheek as I gazed into his eyes. "I'll meet you back at the gym."

His eyes narrowed again as they always did when he sensed I wasn't telling the whole truth. His hand mirrored mine, resting on my cheek.

"You'll be okay?"

"I promise."

Before I could stop myself, I leaned in and kissed him, soft at first but it wasn't enough. Edward obviously felt the same and deepened our kiss just as his hand moved to my back and pulled me flush against his body. My fingers tightened in his hair but before we could go any further, the shouting started, breaking us apart.

"They're back here," Quil's voice echoed through our space.

"Fucking figures." They snickered before Jared yelled, "Come on, lovebirds, we're gonna be late."

Edward pulled away, resting his forehead against mine. I giggled a little as he growled before answering.

"Jared, go wait by the fucking car."

Jared and Quil laughed like five year olds as they took off running, making me laugh with them. Edward pulled back to look at me.

"I'm sorry," he said as his thumb stroked my cheek.

"There's nothing to be sorry for."

His brow furrowed. "I don't want to leave you here."

"It's not that far," I assured him. "The walk will be good for me."

"You sure?"

"Yes." I pushed onto my toes and brushed my lips against his one more time. "I'll see you soon," I whispered, trying to keep the pain of my breaking heart out of my voice.

With another small kiss of his own, Edward turned and disappeared around the corner of the building. The second he was out of sight, I ran.

I ran for my life, determined to get as far away from the people I'd come to care about before they realized the trouble I'd brought into their lives. No one was safe around me and if James was here, I couldn't be.

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting behind the wheel of my car – the one I kept hidden – in tears. I didn't want to go. I didn't want to be alone again. Not when I'd finally found a family. Not when I'd finally found someone I really cared about, someone who really meant something to me. But as it always was, the instant I had found some semblance of a life again, James' evil swooped in to steal it all away from me.

After allowing several minutes to feel sorry for myself, I grabbed a tissue from my purse and wiped my tears. Tilting the rearview mirror, my eyes narrowed at the girl looking back at me.

"Stop crying," I scolded the reflection. "You chose this, now live with it."

Righting the mirror again, I reached down to put the car in reverse and jumped when my phone rang.

"Fuck," I screamed, realizing I'd forgotten to get rid of the damn thing.

Pulling it from my purse, I saw Edward's number on the screen and tears spilled down my cheeks again. The ringing stopped and my screen flashed an alert for the ten text messages I'd missed – all from Edward. He was worried. He had every right to be. The walk should have taken fifteen minutes at most; I should have been back by now.

The second call came in a minute after the first and my fingers tightened around the phone, holding it to my chest. I couldn't talk to him. I couldn't let him hope for something that wasn't going to happen. I had to cut all ties and let him go.

My hands shook as I reached for the button to roll down the window. Throwing the phone out here was as good a place as any, but it rang again before I could. Startled, the phone slipped from my hand and fell to the floor. Picking it up, I could hear his frantic voice calling my name. His desperation broke me all over again and I covered my mouth, praying he couldn't hear me cry.

"I'm sorry, Edward," I whispered and threw the phone out the window.

I didn't even wait to see where it landed before I pulled out of my parking spot and drove away. Tears blurred my vision and the vice grip around my heart tightened the longer I drove. Running was what I did and not once since walking out of Jake's hospital room did it hurt so much.

I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave them behind. I didn't want to leave him behind. As much as I tried to fight it, Edward worked his way into my heart and, for the first time, running felt wrong.

A sharp pain punched me in the chest and I couldn't breathe. Tears fell so heavily I could barely see and I had to pull over before I caused an accident. Thankfully parked on a one-way street with the curb on my side, I opened the door and fell from the car, lying down in the patch of grass next to it. Both hands fisted my hair as I gasped for air, hyperventilating and sobbing uncontrollably.

Don't go. A small voice whispered over and over in the back of my mind.

"Hey."

I jumped at the sound of the voice and scrambled backwards as fast as I could to get away. My back hit the car and I couldn't move. Through my tears, I saw a teenager crouching in front of me.

"You okay, Lady?"

I shrunk back from the hand he tried to place on my shoulder and he pulled back like I'd burned him. His eyebrows scrunched together and I could see the concern on his face.

"I'm calling 911." He pulled a phone from his pocket.

"No!" I forced the word out. "I'm fine. Panic attack."

I gave him the same excuse I'd given Edward. The shake of his head told me he didn't believe it any more than Edward did.

"Didn't look like no panic attack I ever seen."

Even in my sorrow, his poor excuse for grammar skills made me smile. "Seen a lot of them, have you?"

He shrugged. "No, but still…" His sentence trail off. "You gonna be okay?"

I nodded, wiped my tears on my sleeve and tried to get up. He stood and held out a hand to me. I flinched but reached out to accept his help.

"Thanks."

He nodded and held out his hands as if to steady me before I fell back against the car.

"Hey, you don't look so good."

Wrapping my arms around my aching chest, I repeated my answer. "I'm fine."

"You sure? The cops are right around the corner."

"What?" I asked in disbelief.

"They'd be here in like…a second," he continued, not noticing my shock.

I looked around and sure enough, I was only three blocks from my townhome. Three blocks from home also meant I was a block and a half away from the gym. How did I get here? I was sure I was on my way out of town.

"Hey." The kid nudged my arm, getting my attention again.

"I'm sorry." I shook my head to clear it. "I was just on my way home, but I think I should walk from here."

"Good idea," he agreed. "I'll take you. You know, to make sure you make it."

"No, I'll be okay." I smiled again at his kindness but then raised an eyebrow in challenge. "You should get back, though. Your teachers are probably wondering where you are," the teacher in me chided him.

"Nah, I'm…" his hand covered his stomach, "sick."

"Uh huh." I smirked then pointed a finger at him. "You better hurry home then."

"Alright, I'm out." The kid grinned and took off down the sidewalk towards my house.

When he disappeared around the corner, I slid down the side of the car and hugged my knees to my chest. The whole scene – the car, the tears, the pain I could still feel in my chest and the fact that I ended up here, a block from Edward's gym – was disconcerting. But dealing with that kid gave me a minute to clear my head and think.

To really think. And it hit me.

There was no way that could have been James at the restaurant. If he had tracked me here, he would have known everything there was to know about Edward by now. And Jared. And Quil.

He would have seen the two of them outside. He would have seen them come looking for us and he would have definitely followed me once I ran off on my own. He would have never given me the chance to get to a car, let alone drive away. James would have picked me up in the middle of the road, kicking and screaming, before he ever let me get away. He wasn't really there. He couldn't have been.

But when I saw that truck…

And now Edward knows…

And… And I kissed him.

Oh God, I kissed him. And he kissed me. And it felt good to be in his arms. To pretend for one minute that it was possible. That we could be together and have a future.

"No, Bella. You can't do that to him." I pushed myself up from the ground and started pacing.

Edward wanted to be there for me. He'd said so many times that he wanted to help me. But what if James didcome back? What then? Edward could take care of himself, right? Edward could fight. Edward was deadly. James couldn't stand against him. No one could. Edward could protect me. He could keep me safe. He could love me. We could have a future.

"No, this is wrong. I can't stay."

My pacing stopped and I leaned against the car with my head in my hands. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt. I knew what I had to do, but I didn't want to do it. I wanted to stay with Edward. I wanted to be with him and try, for once, to be happy.

And as wrong as I knew it was, I knew where I needed to go from here. Locking up the car, I stepped to the trunk, pulled a bottle of water from the stocked cooler and took a drink before spilling some into my hand to splash on my face. Feeling a little better, I closed everything up, pressed the button to set the alarm and began the walk back to the gym.

~..~..~..~..~..~..~

Edward was in hysterics when I had walked through the door, locking us in his office for over an hour, drilling me for answers about where I'd been. But mostly he just held me in his arms, comforting us both and thanking God and everyone else that I was safe and back with him again.

I never did tell him the truth and by the narrowed eyes, he knew every word out of my mouth was a lie, but he never called me on it. He chose to stay ignorant of the fact that I almost left him, though in some way, I was sure he knew. And he must have said something to Jared and Quil because the three of them watched me like a hawk for the rest of the day.

When five o'clock came around and I had said my goodbyes, Edward told me that Esme had called him about having dinner with her. He wasn't going to be able to make it, but he told me I should go so she wasn't forced to eat alone. It was a weak lie, at best, and I saw right through him immediately.

I wanted to yell at him and remind him that if Esme wanted me to have dinner with her then she would have called me, but then I remembered my phone was probably in pieces on the side of the road. Irritated, I growled a little and pushed past him to get to my car, which was, thankfully, still parked in back of the building.

As always, dinner had been amazing and though she asked several times, I refused to tell her what had happened that afternoon. I knew Edward would have called her while he was searching for me, but I figured, knowing as much as she did, she would have understood and I wouldn't need to explain. I had a sinking feeling that Edward put her up to it so he could get his answers, but I never dreamed he would ever stoop so low to have his mother do his dirty work for him.

Frustrated beyond belief and dead tired, I walked back into the gym to start my training session for the night. Jared was on me in a second, nipping at my heels like a puppy all the way back to the ring.

"So, how was dinner? Edward said you were…"

"Who gives a shit about dinner? Let's just get this over with."

I kicked off my shoes and climbed in the ring and Jared followed.

"What the fuck crawled up your ass?"

"Arms up, J, before I take your fucking head off."

He gave me a wicked grin. "Bring it, Little Girl," he said just as he threw the first punch.

Two hours later, Jared and Quil were heading out the back door while I was left picking myself up off the mat again. We worked hard today and I was sore as hell but it was inevitable. Pain came with the territory and if I wanted to take on James, I needed every bit of training I could get.

"Do you ever plan on telling me the truth?" The anger in Edward's voice cut through me.

With my back to him, I steadied myself on the ropes before I answered, "What do you want to know?" I fought hard to keep all emotion out of my voice.

"Drop the innocent act," he growled. "What was that today?"

"I already told you, I had…"

"A panic attack…right," he said, finishing my sentence for me. "Only we both know that's total bullshit." I flinched as he spit out the last word. "I know the difference between panic and fear, Jess, and there was pure terror in your eyes." Edward grabbed my arm and turned me to face him. "What are you so afraid of?"

"Nothing." I pushed him back and ducked to step through the ropes.

"I don't believe you."

"What else is new?"

I jumped to the floor and he quickly followed after me.

"Jess, stop."

"What?" I rounded on him. "What more do you want? I told you, I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of anything. You either believe me or you don't, it's your choice."

"It's not that easy and you know it." He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Do you have any idea how hard this is? For me? To want to help you and protect you when I have no idea what I would be protecting you from?"

"I don't need your help, Edward, or your protection."

"I would believe you if I didn't stand here day after day and watch you kill yourself in this ring. I mean, look at your eye for Christ's sake. Do you think anyone would put themselves through the kind of punishment you have if there wasn't a good reason?

"The woman I see in front of me now is not the same one you tell me about when you share your past with me. I don't know what you've been through, but you're different." He blew out a heavy breath. "When you talk about yourself and your friends, you have a kindness in you that you don't have now."

"You're saying I'm not a nice person?" His comment hurt me.

"No!" he said defensively. "You are, Jess. It's just sometimes, when you're training, it's like there's a whole other person in front of me. Something else takes over and you're not you anymore and I've seen enough to know this is more than self-defense. You're using me and this place to run from something but if you just let me in, you wouldn't have to run anymore."

"You think I'm using you!"

Edward's head snapped to the side and my hand stung from slapping him.

"Fuck you!" I screamed and turned toward the door.

Before I could take two steps, his hand clamped around my wrist and spun me toward him.

"I didn't mean it like that."

"Really." I yanked my arm away from him. "Please, Edward, tell me how I could possibly misinterpret the words 'you're using me'?"

"This doesn't feel permanent, Jess." His answer confused me. "You came to me to train and I get that, but I think that's all there is. One day you're going to walk out of here thinking you've learned enough and you'll be gone. When that day comes, I know I'll never see you again and I don't want that." He stepped toward me and I took step back, keeping distance between us. "I'm selfish enough to admit that I'd rather have you here…with me, where I can keep an eye on you. In a place I can keep you safe."

"There's nothing to keep me safe from," I argued weakly.

"Stop lying to me." His voice cracked a little. "I see the panic in your eyes sometimes. I've heard you try to cover your slips when you realize you've said something you shouldn't. Why can't you just tell me the truth and let me help you? We could face whatever this is together."

"There's nothing to face," I told him again in desperation, hoping he'd listen and let me go.

"Then why are you fighting so hard?"

"Because I have to," I yelled.

Turning my back on him, I rushed as fast as my hurt body would carry me to the corner where I had thrown my purse. When I spun toward the door, Edward was there blocking my escape.

"Why damn it? What are you not telling me?" he asked bluntly.

"Nothing." I tried to get past him and failed.

"How can you say that? Do you think I haven't been watching? You've been here a month, Jess, and you never leave your office except to take your classes or drive home. You never leave your apartment except to have dinner with Esme or come here to train."

"How do you know what I do when I'm not here?" I shouted.

My mind flashed back to James and the lengths he'd gone through to watch every move I ever made.

"Do you have someone watching me? No, you're probably spying on me yourself?" With both hands, I pushed hard against his chest. "Are there cameras hidden in my apartment, Edward?" I pushed again. "Do you follow me around town?" Another push. "Or did you somehow stoop low enough to put trace on my phone so you could sit back and let your computer do all the work?"

"How c-"

His sentence died the instant his back hit the floor, forcing the air from his body. I didn't hesitate to land a series of punches to his head and chest. Before he could recover, I ran from the building, jumped into my car and sped away.

In seconds, I slammed on the brakes and jumped out, throwing open the trunk of my other car to grab the emergency bag that held my spare cell phone. There was a call I needed to make and since I had tossed my old phone, I needed this one.

Another minute later, I parked my car and ran inside. The apartment I'd found a modicum of safety in held none of that for me anymore. I didn't care how, Edward knew too much. He saw too much. I had to go.

After grabbing my new phone, my purse and the bag hit the floor and I ran up the stairs. I tripped once and banged my knee as I sent Ben a text.

Getting outta here. No questions. Call you when I get settled. Love you - Bella

Once that was sent, I climbed the last few steps and rushed into my room.

My bags were full in a matter of minutes but as I got to the top of the stairs, the banging on the door stopped me dead in my tracks.

"Jess!" More banging. "Jess! Let me in!"

Edward was screaming outside the door, banging and turning the knob frantically as he called for me.

"I know you're here. Please let me in."

My knees buckled and I fell, barely catching myself before I rolled down the stairs.

"Jess, I'm sorry. I didn't do any of those things you said. Please you have to believe me. I would never do that to anyone and especially not to you." He pounded again. "Jess!"

From my place at the top of the stairs, I heard his phone ring and the pounding stopped.

"What?" I heard him say. "I don't know. She was fine one minute and the next she was yelling at me." He paused. "No. What did she tell you?"

It could only be Ben. I had ignored the ringing on my phone while I packed so, of course, he'd called Edward. It was the way those two worked.

"She said I was spying. You know me, Ben, I'd never… Damn it… Jess!"

There was more pounding on my door as my phone rang again. Before I could silence it, Edward heard it and pounded harder and faster.

"Jess, open…"

"Edward Anthony Masen!" Esme's voice silenced his. "What on earth is going on out here?"

"I have to talk to her." His voice was frantic, desperate.

"What the hell did you do?" she admonished him.

"I…"

"Save it!" She cut him off. "Whatever you did or didn't do, you're probably scaring that poor girl beating on her door that way. Go home-"

"Not until she talks to me."

"Edward, she obviously doesn't want to see you right now. Go home and calm down. I'll have a talk with her and I'll call you in the morning."

He tried to argue again but she hushed him and sent him on his way. Several silent seconds passed before Esme shouted again.

"Edward, go! Now!"

More silence passed before Esme's comforting voice called through my door. "Bella? Honey?"

I was sitting at the top of the stairs, hugging my knees to my chest as tears soaked through my pants.

"Edward's gone, Sweetheart, please let me in."

I refused to answer and wondered how long she would endure my silence before she actually gave up and went back inside.

"Bella." She knocked again. "Honey, I don't know what Edward said or did to upset you but please, don't shut us out. We're all here for you, Sweetheart. Whatever it is, I'm sure we can work it out."

Silence filled the air for a few seconds before another soft knock broke through.

"Bella."

The silence lasted a little longer before I got my wish.

"Alright, Sweetheart, I understand you don't want to talk. Please, just know Edward cares about you and he would never intentionally hurt you. Give him a chance to prove it. Now, get some sleep, honey. The two of you can work things out in the morning." Esme paused a second before adding, "Goodnight, Bella."

With my head resting on my knees, I whispered, "Goodbye, Esme."

I let ten minutes pass before tiptoeing down the stairs. I wrote a quick note apologizing to Edward before peeking out the window to make sure it was clear. Seeing no one, I slung the straps of my bags over my shoulder, grabbed my purse and emergency bag and walked out.

I ran the three blocks to the car I'd abandoned earlier, threw my bags in the trunk and slid into the driver's seat. Grabbing my phone, I pressed and held the number two on my speed dial. The phone connected after two rings and I spoke before he uttered a word.

"It's Bella. Does your offer for a place to stay still stand?"

"Always," he answered.

"Then I'll be there by morning."


Damn it, Bella. Don't you know by now that running isn't the answer? Especially when you're running from someone who truly cares about you.

As always, big hugs and kisses to each and every one of you still on this ride with me. This isn't the easiest story to read but your support continues to mean the world to me. Thanks so much for reading and don't forget to let me know what you think. Until next time…much love to you – D