A/N Sorry for the long wait. Thanks for being patient and supportive.

Prey for the Wicked

. . . . . .

Driven by restrained desire...

Chapter 21


. . . . . .

Bella stares down at the dirt beneath her hands. The late afternoon sun stings her bare shoulders and bakes the ground dry. You'd never know it rained only a day ago.

She digs deeper, burying her hands wrist deep, wiggling each finger until she finally hits cooler, damper soil. She feels it wedge beneath her nails and knows she'll have little black crescent moons to show for her effort.

She wishes for a breeze, even a warm one, but the air is still, almost stagnant. The chorus chirping of crickets signals the start of an evening that promises to remain hot and stifling.

Dragging her hands from the dirt, Bella sits back on her heels and stares at a wrinkled cucumber on its half-dead vine.

Her thoughts flit to the hours just past. To the bank and the way she felt as she stood at the desk clutching a check for a crazy amount a money from a dead man's father, trying to act like it was just an ordinary day. Pointless, since she might as well have been invisible. The teller didn't even blink at the number when she deposited the cheque from Mr. Newton. She was too busy ogling Edward, batting her eyelashes and giggling, tugging her already tight suit jacket down over ample boobs. She screwed up the simple transaction at least three times.

Edward didn't seem to notice the woman's blatant attempts to flash her assets. He kept his hand on Bella's back, fingers rubbing a slow, rhythmic pattern on her lower spine, like he sensed she needed the comfort of his touch, contradictory as the affection was.

After the bank, and a futile argument Bella started in favour of Edward removing his financial contribution to her now bulging account, he insisted on—of all things—grocery shopping.

The reactions in the store were the same. Despite being relatively quiet, it seemed as if every aisle they encountered women who couldn't keep themselves from staring. Some of them were obvious, smiling and cocking hips, paying zero attention to the fact Edward wasn't alone. Others waited till they walked by, but Bella could feel their attentive gazes following them. A woman with a sticky toddler in the front of her cart almost pushed her way straight into a pyramid-shaped display of canned tomatoes.

There were other, stranger, reactions, too. Some people avoided them completely, leaving occupied aisles suddenly empty. At one point, a teenage boy stocking shelves abandoned his job in favour of keeping his eyes on Edward. His prominent Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously, his posture tense while he picked at a slightly infected looking lip ring, holding his sticker gun like a weapon—as if a gummy little price tag could protect him.

Remembering this, Bella nearly laughs at the absurdity. Tugging the cucumber free of its vine, she gets up, moving to dump the bucket of overripe vegetables and wilted plants in the composter at the back of the yard. When she turns around, she's not surprised to see Edward there, crouched down, knees in a deep bend. He scoops a handful of soil then lets it run out between his splayed fingers. A waterfall of gray-black earth spills to the ground, showering the tops of his shoes.

The sun is beginning its descent in the sky, and the weakening light hits the coppery swath of highlights in his hair. It's easy to see why all those people felt the need to stare. She's wants to stare herself.

"You enjoy gardening," he says. It's an observation, not a question, yet Bella replies as if asked.

"Yes, sometimes."

"Only sometimes?"

"I hate this part of it," she tells him, surprising herself with her candid answer. "The end of it. Getting everything ready for next year."

"You like the growing, the nurturing, seeing the fruits of your labor."

She nods, though again, he doesn't really ask.

Edward hums a noncommittal sound at her confirmation, giving no insight on what he thinks about it. "It's hard work getting the ground prepared for winter."

"It is, but it's not the work I mind." She feels compelled to explain and doesn't know why. "It's more the commitment I hate." She shrugs, not knowing how to put into words the feeling she gets every time she does something that roots her to this place. Knowing she'll be here next year, planting the same vegetables in the same ground makes her feel defeated. As though she's caught in a time and place that's never felt right, repeating cycles.

When he doesn't press for a deeper explanation, she feels relaxed enough to move closer. Kneeling beside him, she reaches for the now barren cucumber vine, tugging until its roots give way.

Edward continues to watch her silently. Deciding she has the right to ask him questions, Bella sits back on her heels. The dirt is hot against her bare knees.

"You know everyone in town who saw us today will be talking."

Titling his head up as though enjoying the sun and vibrant blue sky, Edward smirks. "I suppose," he answers.

Looking down at her dirty hands, Bella frowns, picking soil out from under her nails. "Don't suppose. You were the source of some pretty intense...scrutiny." She nearly says "ogling" which sounds childish even in her head. She's not bothered by the way all those women nearly drooled. She's not. Shoving that thought down, she continues. "Don't you care that you're drawing a lot of attention to yourself?"

Looking over at him, hoping to see something in his expression that might help her understand what he hoped to accomplish, Bella resists the urge to ogle him herself. He's always ridiculously beautiful, even when he's cruel, but drenched in sunlight, relaxed and at ease, not demanding or challenging, he's something spectacular.

Face still tilted upward, eyes closed, he smiles slightly. "I decided as long as I'm going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly."

"What does that even mean?"

He looks at her, expression turning somber. "It means I've lived in the shadows far too long, denying myself the comforts and pleasures of the world. Come what may, I'm embracing the here and now."

The intensity in his words has her quickly looking back down. She thinks of the work yet to be done, anything except what his words might mean for her and her future.

"The people who saw us together today, what were they thinking?" she asks after a long silence, during which he appears complacent to simply stay there beside her.

He makes a soft sound that could be a low laugh. "You'll have to be more specific, lamb."

Sifting the dirt, she removes a few curled, dead leaves and huffs, irritated. "Fine. The teller at the bank with the mile-deep cleavage. What was she thinking about while she shoved her tits up for your benefit?"

A second too late she realizes her question sounds bitchy and jealous, and she busies herself searching for more leaves. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches him copying her actions. His lips turn up in a grin, perhaps at her vulgar use of "tits." He finds a knot of old roots, the thin strands tangling between his fingers before he plucks them free and adds them to her growing pile.

He makes a derisive sound. "She was wondering who I was, and where I came from. Banal, boring, obvious things, before she abandoned all logical thinking and began having a rather inventive fantasy of me... coupling with her on a desk in a back office."

He glances over, and Bella wonders if he's waiting on a reaction. She strives not to give one despite the sick ache that forms in her stomach at the images suddenly in her head. A part of her wants to go back to the bank and rip the teller's blonde hair out by its dark roots. Another part hates that she feels that way—like Edward is hers, and she has some right to jealousy.

Despite keeping her expression from mirroring her thoughts, Edward seems to note her mood. She expects him to look amused. Instead, when she finally finds the nerve to let her eyes meet his, he looks away and frowns.

"It's a ridiculously common reaction, Isabella. My kind appeals to yours in the basest ways. It's all part of the lure." He pulls another web of roots free, this one deeper and firmly entrenched. She feels an echo of that hard pull deep inside, somewhere tender and fragile.

Edward rises out of his crouch, continuing almost angrily. "The feeling is superficial and short lasting. Within a few minutes, instinct kicks in, and good sense generally prevails. Her fantasy would have wilted quickly in favor of healthier pursuits, like the act of distancing herself from my presence."

Bella contemplates this, a growing, gnawing sense of pity floating at the periphery of her seesawing emotions. How would it feel to be utterly alone in the world, no true connection to the masses of people around you? Her thoughts channel to the grocery store and the reactions of those who outwardly avoided them. "The young guy stocking shelves in the store. I take it his instincts kicked in?" she asks, getting up and brushing dirt from her knees, wondering if she could possibly be the first person he's met in his life whose life-preserving impulses were nearly nonexistent.

Edward's upper lip curls slightly. "Yes."

"You did that on purpose," she guesses, watching him closely. "You stood right beside him, reading labels on jam. That was you, purposely...what? Freaking him out?"

For a moment she thinks he's not going to answer, then he surprises her by laughing quietly, whatever tension he was feeling seeming to melt away.

"His thoughts upon seeing you bend over to select an item from a low shelf were inappropriate. I simply let my presence be known." He shrugs, clearly amused. "I'm nothing if not possessive, lamb—perhaps you noticed?"

Leaving that alone, because it's a topic they've already discussed to death, Bella pushes the conversation back on track, unwilling to admit or discuss the contradictory way his claiming affects her.

"It's a small town. People will talk," she reminds him.

Edward stands and moves to her small storage shed to pick up the shovel leaning against the door. A blur of movement begins and ends, leaving Edward standing at the far end of her small garden patch, the soil in front of him perfectly cleared and turned. He drives the spaded head into the ground and rests a forearm on top of the handle, surveying the finished work that would have taken Bella hours to complete.

"Let them talk, Isabella. I told you. I'm through hiding." He jerks the shovel free, letting it sail upwards out of his hand before catching it easily and carrying it back to her shed. He dusts off his hands and makes his way to her, finger finding her chin and tilting her face up. "So are you, lamb."

. . . . . .

Edward is taking over everything. Bella finishes washing her dinner dishes, fighting temper and fatigue.

She turns around, drying the last handful of silverware.

"Did you seriously just order groceries delivered to your house?"

Edward stretches his long legs out, looking ridiculously strong and lethal sitting at her small kitchen table. He puts a cell phone she doesn't remember seeing before into his jeans pocket. She tries not to stare at the action that draws attention to the way the denim hugs lean yet powerful thighs, amongst other things.

Her skin prickles and tightens, and those sharp little darts of pain that she's figured out accompany any longing for him she denies, twist themselves deeper.

He doesn't say anything, interpreting the question as rhetorical since she just listened to him do the very thing she's asked.

"The order, it was the exact same stuff we just bought?" She gestures to the fridge and cupboards now nearly over-stocked thanks to his crazy brand of forced generosity.

He does answer this time. "Yes."

Bella waits for him to elaborate, crossing her arms over her chest like she's annoyed—which she is—and not trying to ease the ache in her chest, which she also is.

He notices and arches an eyebrow. She senses he's recognizing a pattern and quickly drops the posture, dumping the towel and dry silverware on the counter. She fumbles slightly and the edge of the knife she used to cut vegetables grazes her pinkie finger. Hissing at the bite of pain, she sticks the finger in her mouth and glares at Edward like it's his fault.

He's in front of her instantly, using a speed that makes her dizzy.

"Stop doing that," she snaps. He reaches for her hand, but she pulls it away, attempting to turn to the sink to run water over the tiny yet deep slice, betting she's going to need stitches. Edward catches her before she can, his hand clamping down firmly against her palm. He flips her hand over so he can inspect the wound. Blood wells and trickles down to the crease at the base.

Bella tries futilely to pull her hand back, and she's rewarded with more sharp darts in her chest. His hand is cool and strong, and it feels nice. The kitchen is hot. The willpower it's taking to keep fighting what her traitorous body wants exhausts her. She trembles slightly, exhaling in a rush.

His attention instantly snaps to her face.

"It hurts," she tells him, not lying, though really the truth is the cut hardly stings at all. It's him and fighting this ridiculous pull that hurts. The fact his eyes have turned the inhuman colour of tar from the smell of her blood, doesn't change the way she wants to move closer.

Holding her gaze, he draws her pinkie to his mouth and gently sucks the wounded flesh. The tiny sting fades away, but the miniature knives under her skin poke a little harder as she fights not to sag into him. The graze of his tongue flicking over her flesh creates an echo of sensation that spreads over her entire body. It's all she can do not to pant.

He releases her hand, sliding his hand down to her wrist. "Better?" he asks.

It's a struggle to look away from those eyes, but she manages. The cut is completely sealed. All that remains is a small pink line that seems to fade as she stares.

Bella lets her arm relax, her elbow dropping against her side. He doesn't release her wrist, and she stops trying to make him. Once more the pain in her middle fades the second she quits resisting. A different ache remains. The need to get closer, to feel his touch and revel in the way he makes her skin...hungry for contact.

"You've never explained how you do that," she reminds him, trying to deflect attention from her reactions, or at least hoping he'll think she's simply bothered by the blood.

Edward gently spins her around, placing her hand under a sudden onslaught of cool water from the tap, washing away remaining red smears. Bella wonders at the effort it must cost him to deny himself what he so clearly wants and probably needs.

"I can make your blood flow freely, prevent it from clotting, or I can seal the wound closed. I can speed the healing of any injury, provided it's on the surface of the skin."

"Useful," she mutters, thinking of all the bites and all the times she should've been too sore to walk after marathon sessions of sex where he was hardly gentle and instead she was fine and scar free.

His lips turn up a tiny bit at the corners, like he might know the connections she's made. "It's a helpful vampire asset."

"You have a lot of those."

"More than some, less than others," he answers cryptically. Before she can ask him to explain exactly how an asset like that works, Edward turns off the water and dries her hand with a clean towel. "As for the groceries, since I know you will not deign to ask me why, I duplicated your purchases earlier and stocked my kitchen identical to yours. Even though I agreed for the time being we would reside here, I know there will be times my presence will be required to oversee work at the mansion. I like to prepare for any eventuality, regardless."

He suddenly cocks his head, listening to something she can't hear. "Speaking of preparing for eventualities..." He turns toward the living room and heads for the front door.

"Someone's here?" Bella trails him, jumping a little when the doorbell rings on the tail end of her question. "Wait. Shouldn't I get that while you...I don't know, hide in the closet or something?"

Edward shoots her a cynical look over his shoulder. "I do not hide in closets, Isabella." He opens the door before she can think of another way to protest. Tyler Crowley stands there, holding several boxes, and Bella stops in her tracks.

She's known Tyler since high school, but she realizes the second he nods at Edward, Tyler didn't come here looking for her.

"Mr. Masen, I brought the packages you asked for." He looks over his shoulder as a truck pulls up behind his, loaded with several large crates. "And I've got the doors, lock systems, and AC unit you wanted installed. We can get started now if you want? I'm sure we can get it all up and running before it gets too dark."

Tyler tugs the slightly grubby baseball hat he's wearing a little farther down on his head, the action resembling a nervous tic as he shuffles his feet. He sees Bella and smiles.

"Oh, hi, Bella. How are you?" His greeting is polite, a little hesitant, like the smile that doesn't reach his eyes. The Tyler Bella is used to would've grabbed her in a bear hug and swung her around by now.

"Tyler...uh, hi." She feels her voice crack a little as Edward does the now familiar action of cocking his head, signalling he's intently contemplating or listening.

Taking the boxes from Tyler's arms and placing them on the reclining chair to the right of the door, Edward looks from her to him.

"I take it you two know each other?"he asks, his tone falsely calm and quiet.

"We went to school together," Bella answers quickly, suddenly even more nervous than she was a minute ago. Edward interacting with someone she knows is terrifying. She has no idea how to navigate this. The fact it's only an old friend from high school and not Charlie—or worse, Jake—does little to alleviate her fear.

Edward studies Tyler closely as if seeing him for the first time, something Bella realizes wouldn't be true. The pieces slide together quickly in her head. Tyler works as a contractor for the only construction company in town large enough to handle the kind of renovation work being done on Edward's house. It's a testament to how unsettled Edward makes her feel that she's missed out on connecting certain dots. Apparently, even before today, Edward hasn't exactly been hiding in the shadows.

For what seems a long, awkward moment, no one speaks. The tension in Edward fades away, and he steps out on the porch just as two men Bella doesn't recognize get out of the second truck and move around to lower the tailgate.

"Edward, what is all this?" Bella asks as Tyler quickly runs down the steps to help, looking relieved to have an excuse to leave the porch.

"A new door and locks. Did you forget I told you I'd be replacing yours?"

She did, but she doesn't say so. Considering he broke them...

"And a central air conditioning unit."

For a minute all thought escapes her as she struggles to digest why on earth he'd bring something like that here. "You're putting central air in my house?"

Edward runs his hand across the back of her neck where perspiration dots her skin and fine tendrils of hair cling. "The heat is making you uncomfortable," he points out, sounding as though he's stating logic when really it's absurd.

"This is Forks!" Bella tells him, trying not to gape. "This weather is a fluke. All this sun. I mean, it gets warm in the summer, but not usually this hot...it's not...it won't last. It's nearly September."

She can tell he's listening, but his expression tells her nothing she's saying registers as a valid argument.

"Edward." She tries again, swallowing against a strange type of rising hysteria that tightens her throat. "This is an old house. Jake and I used to throw a window unit in during a heat wave. It's probably still in the basement..."

She can see he isn't getting any better about hearing her mention Jake in the way his jaw tightens, but she doesn't care.

"I don't even mind the heat," she tells him, sounding a little desperate. "This is...ridiculous."

"Ridiculous?" Edward scowls and turns his back to the activity happening in the driveway, fully facing her. "Isabella, there is nothing ridiculous about providing you with things you need to be safe and comfortable."

"Does it matter at all to you if I want those things or not?" she cries, frustrated, not caring if her voice is loud and might carry to Tyler or anyone else listening.

Edward steps closer, and she can't bring herself to step back, not even when he cups the side of her face and skims her cheek with his thumb. The caress ignites a riot of need and want, and with it more sharp bites of pain when she forces her body to stay in place, mentally rejecting the comfort.

"It might matter," he answers, his voice quiet and controlled in contrast to hers, "if there were no necessity and it was only indulgence. More importantly, if I didn't recognize the lengths you will go in resisting the things you need so you can defy me and what you feel."

Bella blinks, fighting with all her might, hating that he's seeing through her, fearing that he might know more than she wants him to. His other hand rises to push a strand of hair away from her temple, cool fingers staying to trail around the place that betrays her racing pulse.

He lowers his head and skims her lips with his, the softest, sweetest kiss, his cool breath so delicious it makes her stomach swirl and dip. So much need...

"Don't mistake my patience for unawareness or lack of understanding, lamb," he murmurs against her lips as she draws in his air like it's life itself. "I told you, I take care of what is mine. I won't allow you to be uncomfortable, even if I have to protect you from your own stubborn pride."

Abruptly, Edward releases her and steps back. He regards her like he's waiting for her to respond. When she gives him nothing, too intent on fighting the screaming hollow ache the loss of contact with him brings, he shakes his head.

"You're so intent on making this a war of wills, Isabella. You won't even consider how sweet surrender can be."

He leaves her there on the porch, hurting, angry, freaked out, and joins Tyler and the two men. He jumps into the truck bed with easy grace and hefts one of the large boxes out by himself, either oblivious or not caring that the three men all stare with wide eyes.

Bella turns on her heel and goes back inside, slamming the door hard for good measure. Even with it closed, she swears she can still hear the stupid, melodic sound of Edward laughing at her.

. . . . . .

Sitting on the crumbling concrete of her small back steps, Bella listens to the cicada beetles' cyclical buzzing in the trees at the back of her lot.

The heat feels more oppressive now. With the last of the light fading from the day everything feels heavy and still. Shadows grow at the edges of her yard, creeping in slowly.

She bats at a mosquito heading for her ankle.

If only all bloodsuckers could be swatted away so easily.

She's still fuming over Edward's relentless takeover. New doors with a steel core and locks that look like they belong on a vault in a bank have been installed both front and back, and for the life of her, Bella can't figure out why.

The only one breaking in has been him. She might think he's trying to keep her prisoner if it wasn't for the fact he gave her keys. Not before pocketing a set for himself first, though.

She picks up the glass of wine at her side and takes a deep swallow, draining almost a quarter of the contents. She rarely drinks. The bottle she found at the back of the fridge is one Jess brought over a few weeks ago. It's stale and a little vinegary but still sweet. Good enough to hopefully dull some of the sharper edges of the ache that seems like it's getting worse instead of better.

Edward's inside, sitting at her kitchen table, again, setting up not one but three laptops. Two are his; the third, he informed her, is for her personal use.

She pointed out she owned a perfectly good computer, but like the money, doors, locks, AC, and everything else, her logic fell on deaf ears. Apparently her four year old Hewlett Packard laptop was outdated, inefficient and subpar.

Taking another mouthful of wine, Bella embraces the slight glow she feels from the alcohol, wondering if there's enough left in the bottle to get her good and drunk.

She hears a muffled thump from around the side of the house where Tyler is still finishing up with the AC. A minute later, he comes around the corner, head down, carrying a toolbox.

"All finished?" she asks hopefully. As much as she likes Tyler, she wants him gone. Away from Edward and this weird situation she finds herself in. Too late, she realizes she probably shouldn't be out here alone, where Tyler might ask questions she can't answer.

Startled, obviously not expecting her to be there, Tyler looks up. "Oh, hey, Bella." He puts the toolbox down and rubs a grubby grease-stained towel up and down his right arm, his gaze darting around the yard. Anywhere except at her. "Didn't see you there. Damn, it's hot, right? I was hoping it'd get cooler when the sun went down." He uses the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face flashing toned abs she might have once admired, before she learned the true definition of chiseled.

"No such luck, I guess," he rambles on. "That AC system will be great for you tonight, that's for sure. I just need to turn it on and show you how to run the thermostat. It's kind of complicated. I had to read the instructions for it twice myself." He forces a laugh. "This system is fresh off the market. High tech. Probably way too big for a house this size...but...Mr. Masen insisted on only the best."

"Of course he did," Bella replies when Tyler falls quiet. The acerbic bite of her tone isn't missed, and Tyler finally looks at her. His attention flicks to the house momentarily before he moves to sit beside her on the narrow stoop.

Bella's mind races as she shifts over, like she's trying to give him more room when what she really wants is to bolt back inside the house. She expects the door behind her to open and Edward to come out. Maybe he can't hear them? But, no, the windows are open, and she suspects he'd hear just fine anyway. Is he too involved in his computers? Is this some kind of test?

Another gulp of wine nearly finishes off the glass, and the burn of it makes her cough.

"I didn't know you were friends with Mr. Masen," Tyler says once he's settled, using the towel to try and wipe deeply embedded black lines out of his knuckles. He puts emphasis on friends, silently insinuating.

"No, I guess you wouldn't." Bella settles on pointing out the obvious, not knowing what else to say.

Tyler nods, dropping the towel at his side in favour of picking broken blades of grass off the knees of his jeans. He turns his head to look at her, but she keeps her gaze toward the back of the yard, watching the shadows creep in.

Lowering his voice, Tyler asks the question she somehow knew was inevitable. The one she's dreaded. "Everything okay, Bella?"

"Yeah," she says quickly, too quickly maybe. "Everything's good." She has to guard against the urge to say more. There's too much at stake. One slip and she could put him in danger. She can't risk him becoming concerned about her or the nature of her relationship with Edward.

Tyler keeps staring at her profile. A lump comes up in her throat, remembering what a good friend he used to be, once upon a time when her life made some kind of sense. Back when it seemed like it might be possible for her to be...normal. Have friends and a boyfriend and a future of some kind. Before it all fell apart, and she couldn't keep denying the emptiness that ate away at her wasn't going to sabotage everything good that came her way.

Her fingers tremble on the stem of her glass as she finishes the last of the wine, remembering how certain she was there was no cure for whatever was wrong with her. How she felt it was only a matter of time before she slipped down into some mental abyss or illness like Renee. She used to pray that wouldn't happen, that she'd find something that would numb her misery.

Now she wonders at the irony and cosmic humour that sent her a vampire as a cure. A self-professed, cold-blooded murderer with little conscience and no capability to love who thinks he owns her, body and soul.

"You seemed upset earlier, about the AC and stuff," Tyler says, lowering the volume of his voice even more, bumping her with his shoulder gently when she doesn't immediately answer. "Are you sure everything's okay?"

Bella stares at her empty glass, her mind scrambling for what to say. "Edward is...overly generous. I just didn't want him spending so much money on me." It's the truth, in a way.

Tyler's posture seems to relax. He rests his arms on his legs, calloused strong looking hands dangling between his knees. Surprisingly he huffs out a short laugh, like she's said something he relates to.

"Yeah, he is that for sure. He's paying me double what I normally make for a job ten times the size of anything I've done before." Tyler cracks his knuckles and shifts a bit on the step.

"I don't know if you heard, but...Lauren's really sick."

Bella turns her head to look at him, not bothering to hide her surprise or concern. In the growing dark it's hard to make out his expression, and he's looking away now, giving her only his profile to study. "I didn't know, Tyler. I'm sorry." More proof, if she needed it, how out of touch she's been with everything since her and Jake split. Bella was never close to Lauren, though they were in several classes together her junior and senior year. Lauren could be a bitch at times, and Bella never understood what Tyler saw in her. But there must have been some redeeming quality, because he married her straight out of high school.

"It's okay. We haven't been spreading around a lot of information about it. Lauren...doesn't want a ton of people knowing right now, and we just got the diagnosis a month ago. Just close friends and family are aware. She has thyroid cancer."

"I'm sorry," Bella repeats, hating the way the useless platitude sounds.

"Anyway," Tyler continues, waving off her sympathy and blinking rapidly over a sudden sheen to his eyes, "medical bills have been a bitch, but I wasn't sure, even needing the money, if I could take on a job that requires the kind of hours Mr. Masen expects. I didn't want to leave Lauren on her own so much. The treatments are making her sick as a dog." He rubs a hand over his face and heaves out a breath. "Our health coverage was shit, and, well, point is, Mr. Masen found out, and he told me not to worry, said he'd take care of things so I could take the job. Next thing I know, my boss is telling me Mr. Masen pulled strings and suddenly we've got a new health care package. It has all these amazing benefits, including full coverage for a full time nurse to be with Lauren, better doctors and new drugs our old plan wouldn't cover, that kind of thing."

Tyler makes a sound that comes out like a strangled sob coupled with a humorless laugh. "I've talked to a lot of people. This HMO, it's through a company called Pacific Northwest Trust. No one's even heard of it. I guess it's elite or something... Well, it's crazy anyway, the kind of stuff they cover for us." He scrubs at his jaw, fingers rasping over the scruff on his chin, and drags in a deep breath before getting up suddenly. Bella has to tilt her head up to see him. He's looking down at her with a strange look on his face.

"The guys working for me all think Masen is a scary dude. I think they're right. I don't think he's someone you'd want to get on the wrong side of. But I'm not the only one who's suddenly hit a windfall. Everyone's making double wages. And more than a few of the guys down on their luck managed to get loans thanks to Masen and some unheard of finance company. Wanna take a guess at the name?"

"Pacific Northwest Trust," Bella offers over a tight sensation in her chest.

Tyler nods. "Mortgages refinanced, car loans with crazy low interest rates, that kind of thing." He shrugs. "I could go on, but you get the point."

Not sure she does get the point, head swimming with the wine and all this information, Bella gets to her feet. Tyler reaches out and gives her hand a gentle squeeze. "I guess I'm telling you all this because I get the feeling you and Masen might be more than just...friends."

Bella opens her mouth, not sure what she means to say, but Tyler holds up his other hand and squeezes hers again. "Not my business, I know. I just have to say...I understand a lot of people in this town think you and Jake should iron out your differences and get back together." He shakes his head. "I'm not one of those people."

She stares at him, surprised. He smiles.

"I like Jake, but I was friends with you first, and I know you're not into drama and games so the only reason you'd break up with him is if your heart wasn't in it. Just cause you guys were friends and it was easy, doesn't mean it was right. So, if there is more going on with you and Masen, you might get some flak, so I wanted you to know. Despite what some might say, you could do way worse than someone like Masen."

Bella stares at Tyler, swamped in confusion and slightly dizzy. "Did he pay you to say that?" she blurts, blushing slightly when Tyler laughs and shakes his head.

"No, and I'd appreciate it if you don't tell him about this little talk. Like I said, he's not the kind of man I'd ever want to piss off." He covers up a nervous glance at the house with a quick wink before dropping her hand. "Come on. I'll show you how to run the thermostat system. Thing has a crazy amount of settings. It might take a while."

He gestures to the door, letting her ahead of him, and Bella has no choice except go in and face Mr. Masen, who she suspects, contrary to what Tyler wants, has heard every word.

. . . . . .