A/N It's been a while, sorry. I attempted to stay in touch via my FF profile page, but for those of you who didn't check in, this chapter is proof Prey for the Wicked isn't abandoned. ;-)

Huge thanks to my beta Saritadreaming for both her support and her grammar/punctuation skills.

A shout out to crmcneil for catching a major flub on my part. I didn't manage to update faster to show my gratitude, but it's still there all the same.

In the past few months, I've re-edited and cleaned up all prior chapters. Changes to the actual storyline are very minimal so re-reading isn't necessary. That being said, this plot is detailed and intricate. If you feel you've forgotten what this story is about, it might be helpful to at least go back and skim to refresh your memory. I've attempted to leave some reminders for you at the beginning of this chapter, but that may not be enough for those of you looking at this update and drawing a blank.

Thank you to all of you who have sent me messages of support, well wishes for my health, and kind inquiries. I've missed you, dear readers. I hope you'll welcome me back and rejoin Preyward and his Isabella on their journey.

Aleea

**Twilight characters belong to Stephanie Meyer. Lyrics below title belong to The Tea Party song, Temptation. The rest is mine. Please don't steal. Preyward won't like it.

. . . . . .


From chapter 20 - Jake is confronted by Billy and other members of the tribal council, demanding he accept what he is and take on the role of protector of his people. Still refusing to believe any of it, Jake remains fixated on finding Mike Newton and unconcerned with who is living in the Cullen house despite the tribal council's insistence "Edward Masen" could actually be a Cullen. During this time, Jake discovers his feelings for Leah are taking a new, possessive turn. With Leah insisting she and Jake need to talk, he finds himself torn between obligations and increasingly restless as his werewolf blood fights to make itself known.

From chapter 21 – Edward and Bella continue the power struggle to define their relationship. Edward grows ever more possessive, and Bella's continued resistance begins to manifest in increasing physical discomfort. Taking over her home, Edward has central air conditioning, new doors, and locks installed. During this, Bella learns Tyler Crowley is Edward's contractor, and that he and other employees working on the Cullen mansion are benefiting from Edward's financial generosity. She begins to wonder if there is a softer side to the vampire.

Important things to remember for this chapter – In 1903, Edward lost the battle against temptation and killed a young teenage girl named Mary Adele. Blaming Carlisle and the lifestyle they lived as the catalyst and consumed with guilt, he turns away from his family. His first victim was Mary Adele's brother, whom Edward learned from reading her mind had been molesting her, thus beginning the alternate lifestyle of hunting and killing evil men.

Also – When Edward returns to the Twilight Tavern the morning after his first night spent with Bella, he finds Mike leaving the club thinking about an underage girl he violated in a stairwell after plying her with drugs and alcohol. He kills Mike, and later, when admitting his crime to Bella, he tells her the girl was only a substitute for who Mike really wanted. Bella.


Prey for the Wicked

Temptation...
It never lets me down...

Chapter 22

Tentation

. . . . . .

Yawning wide, jaw joints popping, Jake finishes filling out the last requisition form for new parts and shuts his computer down. It's going on 8:00 p.m., and the huge amount of work he's accomplished isn't as satisfying as it should be. Ten seconds in the door of the shop this morning, all hell broke loose, derailing his plans for the day. Paul, his lead mechanic, called in sick. Jared was late, again...

Spinning his chair to the side, Jake rakes his fingers over his scalp, the short ends of his hair bristling under his touch. So much for getting to Bella's and looking for that address book or getting a hold of Charlie and finding out if he's learned anything new in his search for Mike Newton. He hasn't heard from Seth, either.

Billy, on the other hand, has called five times. Letting every call go to voice mail hasn't deterred him, telling Jake it's only a matter of time before he's going to have it out with his father—hopefully for the last time.

With a few minutes to spare before he needs to get Leah back home and face whatever mess is coming his way there, he reaches across his desk, careful not to upset the neat towers of stacked paperwork. He snags his cell and quickly flips through his contacts for Quil's latest number—the guy switches out phones faster than anyone else Jake knows. He hits connect and listens to the droning ring, hoping Quil will answer.

Just as he's resigned to getting voice mail again, Quil picks up.

"Jake, what's up?"

Jake instantly notes he sounds off. "Been trying to get a hold of you, Quil."

"Yeah, got your messages. Been busy."

He's curt, and Jake frowns. Normally Quil is laid back and friendly.

Ignoring the attitude, Jake gets to the point. "I need some info. I'm still trying to find Newton. I spoke to Jess Stanley the other day, and she tells me Mike was peddling dope." He pauses, and when Quil doesn't answer, he pushes. "Tell me what you know."

"What?"

"I said..."

"No, I heard what you said, man. But what makes you think I know anything? I deal a little weed. That doesn't exactly make me an authority on the criminal activities of others." Quil laughs, but it has a nervous quality to it.

"Bullshit. Don't dick me around, Quil. I know you've branched out. You've got buyers all over Forks and into Port Angeles. There's no way you're not aware of what else is out there and who's pushing it. I need to know specifically about someone Jess mentioned. A guy named James."

Quil is quiet for a long minute, and the back of Jake's neck prickles. Something is off. Quil is his boy. The fact he's reluctant to talk makes Jake anxious.

"Quil, what the hell?"

There's a blast of sound from Quil exhaling hard into the phone, then he pitches his voice low like he's afraid of being overheard. "I don't know a lot of details, okay? But I do know this much—James and his crew are bad fucking news. They run some Coke, Ecstasy, the usual club drugs. But they mainly deal in high-end prescription pain meds: Oxy, Codeine, Morphine, that kinda shit. It's a lucrative business. High demand, high profit."

"And?"

"And that's it. I mean, this James, he's a ghost. No one really knows him. He comes to town every once in a while to check on whoever might be working for him, bring new product, that sort of thing. No schedule, and he never stays long. He's in, he's out, he doesn't mess around, and anyone he meets will tell you the dude is bad news."

"And you had no idea Mike was working for him?"

"Man...I don't know. I guess I heard a few rumors a while back, but nothing concrete. I do know Mike was playing at being a club hotshot, booking bands at the Twilight Tavern and all that. Makes sense he could've been in with someone who could provide the kind of pharmaceuticals that crowd likes. But it's not my business, andI don't stick my nose where it doesn't belong."

The not so subtle warning isn't lost on Jake, but he ignores it, feeling his temperature rising. Quil's dodging.

"What else aren't you telling me?"

Something on the other end of the line bangs, like a door closing.

"Jake, this isn't a good time." The sound of keys jangling is followed by the familiar sound of Quil's Mustang revving to life.

"Quil, what aren't you telling me?" Jake repeats, pissed. "Don't make me hunt you down, because I will. This is important, and you fucking know it. I need to find Newton before he shows back up here looking to get his hands on Bella. You saw those pictures. You know there's no way someone that twisted in the head is going to just let his obsession with her go. If he was involved with this James guy, he could be the key to finding where that sick shit is holing up."

Quil mutters a curse, and it sounds to Jake like he's switching the phone to his other ear. "Look. If Newton so much as steps one foot back in Forks, I'll personally help you rip his nutsack off, or whatever else you want to do to him. But, man, listen to me. No way in hell he'd run to James. Hear me, Jake. That guy is scary as fuck. You do not want to go looking for him. You do not want him to know you exist."

"For someone who claims to be out of the loop, you seem to know a lot about this guy's personality."

"I'm telling you. Leave it alone."

"I'm not leaving it alone, Quil. It's the only lead I've got," Jake warns.

"It's a dead end. All you're gonna do is stir up a hornet's nest..."

"You're holding out on me." Jake cuts Quil off, blood pressure rising. "You know more about this than you're sharing."

"Need to know, man. And trust me, you do not need to know. Feel me?"

The sound of tires hitting and chewing up gravel comes through the line, telling Jake Quil is on the move. "Jesus Christ, Quil. You're up to your neck in some kind of shit, aren't you?"

"Last time I'm telling you. Leave it the fuck alone, Jake." Quil bites the words out. "You want to look out for Bella? Get your head out of your ass and pay attention to what Billy's saying to you. There are worse things than Newton out there."

Jake lets his head fall back and stares at the ceiling, sucking back a slew of bad words as the line goes dead.

He doesn't know what's worse. That his best friend is hiding shit from him and could be involved in far worse than selling a little weed. Or that Quil is yet another name he can add to the growing list of people brainwashed into believing vampires and werewolves are real.

. . . . . . .

Bella refills her glass while Edward walks Tyler to the door. Her hands shake, wine spilling over the edge, creating a puddle of red on the table.

She watches Edward slip folded bills into Tyler's hand, which Tyler tries to refuse. Edward frowns, and Tyler swallows down any further objections with a nervous gulp before offering a weak grin and a genuine thank you. He leaves with a last glance in her direction, and then they're alone again.

Lifting her glass, Bella takes several small sips. She wants to chug, but getting drunk right now won't help. The vent near her feet emits a hissing noise, and she can feel the AC's cool air kissing her ankles, warmer air swirling around her upper body from the still-open windows. She stares at the thermostat, irrationally hating the way it looks on the wall, starkly white, shiny, and modern against the uneven, beige-painted plaster.

Reaching out, she flicks the main switch on the bottom, listening as her old furnace clicks and hums, shutting down the fan that pumps the artificially cooled air. The thermostat's digital screen flashes numbers and symbols she doesn't care to understand, Tyler's instructions on running it already forgotten.

"The cash you just gave Tyler. Is that for the work he did here?" She doesn't turn around, feigning interest in the box that beeps, like she'll understand what it wants.

"Yes."

"And the health plan? Pacific Northwest Trust? That's you, too, right?"

"Yes."

He doesn't act surprised by her bringing up the name, which means she was right to think he was listening in on her conversation with Tyler earlier.

Edward reaches over her shoulder, pressing a few symbols on the screen and silencing the thermostat. She feels him move the wisps of hair off the back of her neck that have escaped her clip, his touch skimming lightly over her nape. It feels ridiculously good.

"How?"

"It's a legitimate company, Isabella. One I established several decades ago as a way to move money around. It can be whatever I want it to be, act in whatever capacity I require."

"And you require an HMO? A loan company?"

"Among other things."

"I don't understand. How does it benefit you to basically pay for all Tyler's wife's medical expenses?"

"I needed a contractor. Tyler Crowley needed incentive to take on the job."

Bella closes her eyes, her head falling forward as Edward's touch lulls her. Dangerously so. She snaps back to attention and turns around, her skin screaming for what she's denied it.

"You could have just found another contractor," she says in challenge, searching his face, his eyes, for what she doesn't know.

"Not with his ability and work ethic. I would have had to hire someone from out-of-town, adding more time and expense to the project."

Bella supposes his explanation is logical, and yet...

"He said you're paying him double what he normally makes. And that he's never done a job this size before."

Edward takes a step closer, and Bella refuses to step back, despite an instinct to do so. He flattens one of his hands on the wall behind her head, wrapping the other around her throat, fingers over her pulse. It would be a threatening pose if his touch wasn't so careful, like he's cradling her neck. She's also learning he likes to connect with her heart beat. As if in proof, his thumb strokes her pulse point. She finds the touch weirdly endearing.

"Are you trying to humanize me, lamb?" he asks with a slow grin, devilish eyes flashing. "Wondering about my capacity to care about the plight of others? Curious if the monster has a heart?"

Bella shakes her head slightly, though the truth is that's exactly what she's doing.

"Liar, liar, pants on fire." Edward tsks, then releases her so suddenly if it wasn't for the closeness of the wall offering her something to lean on, she might have stumbled. That itchy feeling of wanting to be closer to him constantly tilts her body in his direction, no matter her will.

"You could've just offered him more money. You didn't have to go out of your way to create a fake HMO. The pay raise would've been enough to help him with Lauren's medical bills."

"It's not a fake. Pacific Northwest Trust is a thriving enterprise with many divisions and branches, health care being only one of dozens. It employs thousands. It makes me an obscene amount of money. There's nothing altruistic about my actions, Isabella."

She briefly wonders what constitutes an 'obscene amount of money' to someone like him. "You went above and beyond."

Edward arches an eyebrow. "Careful, beauty. You're getting perilously close to breaking your self-made rule against asking why."

"How do you know it's a rule?" The tingling feeling his touch left on her skin makes her want to trace the place his fingers were with her own. She ignores the urge and glares at him.

He moves across the room to the shelf where she keeps all her pictures. He picks up the one of her and her mother, the only professional picture ever taken of them when Bella was in the ninth grade, just a few weeks before she came to live with Charlie permanently. Bella fights a desire to take it away from him.

"I know it's a rule because I'm observant. I've watched you fight not to ask the obvious questions since the moment we met. I cannot read your mind. It doesn't mean I cannot read you." He stares at the picture. "You resemble your mother."

The abrupt topic change disconcerts her. She dislikes talking about Renee on a good day. Bella moves to where he stands and tugs the picture away, replacing it on the shelf carefully. She wonders why he's purposely avoiding telling her about Tyler.

"We have similar hair and eye color. Otherwise, I'm nothing like her." She refrains from mentioning her recent worries about sharing a genetic predisposition toward mental illness. She left that worry behind once she accepted the vampire in front of her is real and not a delusion.

Edward picks up the picture of her and Charlie next, taken last summer at a dinner she put on in celebration of his birthday. "More like your father, perhaps? Certainly you have his stubborn mind frame, his self-assured individuality."

"You don't know my parents." She doesn't tell him he's right. She is more like Charlie, and that's almost as bad.

Bella moves back to her wine and the search for an artificial calm in the storm that is Edward. The taste isn't improving with the amount she's drinking, but the warmth that blooms in her throat and stomach when she drinks is increasingly comforting. Her hands are steadier at least.

"I'm still confused about Tyler," she reminds him, wanting to move the conversation away from her parents. She hears Edward put the picture back. With her back turned to him, she isn't sure if he picks up another.

"Don't be," he replies, his tone dry. "It suits me to keep him close. He's competent, biddable; his mind is not a cesspool. It's currently more conducive to line his pockets than it is to use...other means of persuasion at my disposal. His financial need is convenient and insures his loyalty and swift compliance with my whims, nothing more."

Making her way to the sofa, Bella curls up in the corner facing him. He stays standing in front of the shelves, but his hands are in his pockets. Something about his posture sticks out as contradictory to what he's saying.

"You pay him hourly?"

"Yes."

"Yet you gave him extra cash just now. On top of what you'll pay him for the time he puts in?"

She catches his jaw clench. A tiny reflex out of place with his otherwise effortless stillness.

"What do you want to hear, Isabella? Something that gives you a glimpse I have some small capacity for empathy?"

Bella swirls the wine, watching it slosh thickly against the sides of the glass, her mouth suddenly dry. She knows better, doesn't she? Empathy is a human emotion. She shouldn't expect or hope to see it in someone like him. "I don't know what I want to hear."

"Ah. A fully honest answer at last, lamb."

Scowling, she takes a deeper sip of her wine. This time the heat blooms in her head, and the edges of the room soften slightly. She presses the side of her warm cheek against the back of the sofa, feeling the slight nub of the old fabric.

"You make it sound like I'm deceitful."

"Deceitful? No, I wouldn't call you that. Secretive would be a more apt description."

She barely refrains from snorting wine out her nose. "That's rich coming from you, Edward Masen, or Edward Cullen, or whoever you are."

He hums a sound that's not quite a laugh, lips turning up slightly at the edges. He runs fingers down the glass that covers a picture taken the day she graduated Forks High. She hates the picture and what it represents, the end of one era and the beginning of nothing.

He's quiet for a long time, just staring at the photograph, studying all the faces. Bella remembers Mike Newton is in that shot, standing in the back row. She closes her eyes, sleepy from the wine and the heat.

When he finally speaks, it's quiet and doesn't startle her, soothing almost.

"I was born Edward Masen."

She opens her eyes to find him still staring at the picture.

"Later, after my change, I took on my maker's name, Cullen. I was a devoted son, for a time."

He adjusts the photograph, moving it back and to the right so it lines up with the others. "When I lived with the coven, we all took on the name. It was easier to blend into society if we were seen as a family. We often pretended to be students of some kind, learning to pass ourselves off as younger. We already looked the part, and it allowed us to stay in one place longer than we would have otherwise dared. Still, it was a torturous way to spend time."

"I can imagine." Her time in school wasn't the worst experience ever, but it was nothing she'd want to repeat.

He smiles slightly, turning to look at her. "I have several useless college degrees from a bygone day and era. All told, I doubt I was ever any happier to graduate than you appear here."

Bella isn't sure what to say in response. What he's revealed only confuses her more. She sips her wine, and Edward returns his attention to her pictures. The silence stretches out between them, full of unasked questions.

. . . . .

Muscles stiff from sitting and the residual tension from his conversation with Quil, Jake gets up and goes to the window built into his office wall as a lookout to the main area of his garage. Everyone's left for the day with the exception of Leah. He watches her tape a work order to the windshield of a recently brought in Ford Taurus, and he taps the glass to get her attention. She looks up and nods when he points to his watch, swirling his finger in a wrap-it-up motion.

Returning to his desk, he grabs his cell again and dials Charlie's number at the station. Martha from the front desk answers and tells him Charlie's busy, but she'll take a message if he wants.

Jake doesn't want. He's tired and ready for this day to be over. He's also antsy, not knowing for sure if Charlie would call him if he heard from Bella. Normally he wouldn't question it, but none of this is normal, and Jake knows Charlie's not happy about the way he gave Bella the truck and let her take off.

He hears Leah come into the office and ends his call. He doesn't want to piss her off at the start of their night by flaunting anything to do with Bella in her face but doesn't see a way out of it.

Turning, he takes in how tired she looks and curses internally at the fact he originally wanted to make this a short day for her benefit. So much for good intentions.

"Long day. You gotta be beat."

She shrugs. "You finished?'

"Yeah. I ordered some dinner from that Thai place you like down the street. The one that's open late. We can pick it up on the way home. Sound good?"

"Sure. I'm starved."

"Let's get out of here."

He leads her out, locking up behind him. The night air is stifling, thick with the smell of hot rubber coming off the old tires stacked in the corner of the parking lot. Jake makes a move to put his hand on the small of Leah's back, opening the car door for her, but she sidesteps and gets in without help, avoiding him.

Not a great sign she's going to take what he has to say well.

Cranking on the AC once he gets the Rabbit running, Jake hesitates before making a right turn out of the lot.

"Thai place is the other way, Jake."

"Order won't be ready for another fifteen. I need to make a quick stop, check in with Charlie at the station."

Jake can practically hear Leah grind her teeth. She turns her head to stare out the window, saying nothing.

"Five minutes, okay?"

She doesn't answer.

"We can stop after and grab a six pack of Corona from that place across the street." Jake hates the watery beer, but he knows she likes it, and it's the least he can do.

"I don't want beer."

Jake nods, her tone telling him it'd be better not to argue, even if he thinks it's strange.

"I'm out of condoms, though." She says this dead pan, and Jake can't read her. They've been hit or miss as of late with the condoms, and tonight he sure as hell wasn't expecting action, so what she's trying to pull, he isn't sure.

He parks to the left of the station's back entrance. She's still not looking at him. "Hey." Jake puts a hand on her knee to get her attention, grateful when she doesn't pull away. After a reluctant second, she faces him, expression cold, not that he expected different. "I'm going to run in, talk to Charlie. Then you and I are going to do what we planned—go back to your place, kick our feet up, eat, relax, and talk. Like you wanted, okay? I'm not expecting more, if that's what that condom comment is about."

Leah shifts her purse off her lap to the floor at her feet, frowning a little. Jake tries to lighten the mood.

"I'm beat, so other than talking our shit out, the only thing I'm looking to do is hold you while we both crash for at least a good, solid eight hours. Now, if you, on the other hand, want more than that, we'll stop by the drug store, and I'll do my best to accommodate." He grins to let her know he's playing, and after a pause, she rolls her eyes but smiles, too.

"Go take care of what you need to, Jake."

He starts to get out of the car then changes his mind, suddenly not comfortable with her sitting out here on her own, especially seeing as how they're at the back of the station where the lights aren't bright like out front.

"Come in with me." The second he says it, he knows he did the right thing by the way the forced smile she was wearing turns genuine. He doesn't know why it was the right thing, given his only intent was to make sure she's safe, but he's never pretended to understand women. He's just glad she's not storming off, telling him to go screw himself.

Now, he just hopes Charlie doesn't take one look at him walking in with Leah and punch him in the mouth.

. . . . . .

Bella pulls the lasagna out of the oven and sets it on the stove top to cool. She has no idea why she's bothering to make Charlie's dinner for tomorrow. One look at her walking in the door with Edward in tow will ruin her father's appetite, she's sure. She's simply going through the motions.

The weak buzz from the wine has worn off. Now her stomach is queasy. She wipes sweat off her forehead. Heat from the oven has only made it hotter in the house. Edward hasn't turned the central air back on. Out of pure stubbornness, neither does she.

He's in the living room, settled on her couch with his sock feet on her coffee table and both his new laptops running. The TV's on, and a news anchor drones on about fluctuations in the stock market.

He looks comfortable and at home. It's too weird. She can't assimilate having him here in her little house, doing something so normal.

At the same time it comforts her.

She stares at the new laptop he bought her, thinking it looks out of place on her kitchen table. She doesn't even try to pronounce the name etched across the top. It's shiny and sleek, ultra thin, probably weighs next to nothing. Out of curiosity she opens it, and it comes to life instantly. She slides her fingertips across the lit keyboard, trying not to be impressed. It's too elaborate. She probably won't even be able to figure out how to use it.

She opens the browser, wishing it didn't comply so fast it makes her old laptop look like an antique. Her fingers tap out Pacific Northwest Trust in the Google search box. A flicker and the results are displayed, no waiting like her old machine, no freezing.

The list is long. She skims it. There are multitudes of results that don't interest her—dry business details she doesn't have time to dissect—but as her gaze moves down, more interesting results reveal themselves.

Pacific Northwest Trust doles out scholarships.

There are links to colleges and universities, élite private schools.

There's links to HMOs and banks and real estate companies.

Dozens of charitable organizations.

Over and over again she spots references to the initials M.A.

The M.A shelter for runaway girls.

The M.A shelter for homeless women.

The M.A centre for victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Bella looks in the direction of the living room. Edward is in the same place. She can hear him working the keyboard, the click of typing ridiculously fast. The news anchor has switched to spouting a litany of depressing news from the Middle East.

She adds Edward Masen to her search.

Nothing.

She adds Edward Cullen.

Nothing.

Google spits out its usual reams of inaccurate crap, none of which connect Pacific Northwest Trust with the Edward currently sitting on her couch.

Her fingers hover over the keys. She tries to think...

"You won't find my name linked with PNT."

Bella nearly jumps out of her skin. His silent way of moving and the speed he uses is eerie. She should've known better than to do this with him so close. Feeling guilty, she belatedly snaps the laptop closed.

"I was just..."

"Being a curious lamb?"

She turns to find him right there, so close there's barely room for air between them.

"I'm very careful," he says, reaching out to run his fingers down her cheek. His touch trails to his favourite spot, resting against her rapidly ticking pulse. "It wouldn't do to have my name popping up all over the place. I value my anonymity and privacy."

He suddenly spins, and Bella finds herself sitting on his lap on one of her kitchen chairs. Dizzy, she gasps and grabs his shirt for balance, though his arm around her waist provides more than enough support.

"So tell me, little beauty. Did you find what you were looking for?"

. . . . . .

The inside of the station is quiet. Jake spots Embry standing by a bank of beat-up vending machines, talking to a woman and a teenage girl. The woman looks pissed off, the girl's eyes watery and red like she's been crying. She's got her arms crossed over her chest. Add in the brown hair and eyes, and she reminds Jake a lot of Bella at that age. She could practically pass as a younger sister.

"I want something done about this." The woman clutches a Styrofoam cup, directing her attitude at Embry, who's got his cop face on—all helpful attitude and placating demeanour.

"I promise you, ma'am. Chief Swan and I are on this."

Jake notices Charlie's office door is closed at the same exact time it swings open. Charlie starts out then spots Jake. His gaze skates over him and lands on Leah, a deep V forming between his eyes before he quickly schools his expression into a blank canvas.

"Jake. What can I do for you?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Jake sees Embry usher the woman and girl out the side doors before he looks at Leah. "Take a seat over there. I'll just be a minute," he says, knowing he needs a closed door between her and Charlie. The Chief might be keeping his feelings from showing on his face, but his hand is currently curled around the top of his empty holster, tapping a distinct rhythm into the aged leather. A sure sign Charlie isn't pleased.

"Charlie. You got a minute?" He asks, but he's already passing Charlie and entering his office before he can say no or turn him away.

Charlie closes the door behind him a little harder than necessary, and Jake spins to face him. The bland expression is gone, and he was right—Charlie is pissed.

"Jesus Christ, Jake. What the hell are you doing here with her?"

"I'm giving her a ride home."

"That doesn't answer my damn question."

"Didn't hear from you today. I figured the best way to catch you would be to stop in. I didn't want Leah sitting outside by herself."

Charlie huffs out a hard breath and moves to his desk, flipping a folder shut. Jake catches Mike Newton's name and the words possible sexual assault before the cover closes. His spine tightens, and his skin flushes hot.

"What is that?"

Charlie closes his eyes briefly, and Jake notices he looks beat, complexion on the gray side. When he turns and leans against the desk, he crosses his arms over his chest before looking at Jake like he's trying to figure out what to say.

"I saw Newton's name, Charlie."

Charlie runs a hand over his moustache, his gaze direct. "You're not a cop, Jake. I can't talk to you about this."

"If this has anything to do with Bella..."

Charlie pushes off the desk. "I need coffee. You want one?"

"What? No."

"All right. I'll be back in a minute." Charlie wraps his knuckles against the folder once, leaves it on the desk, and walks out.

Jake has the report in his hand before Charlie closes the door. His blood gets a whole hell of a lot hotter as he reads.

. . . . . .

Bella tries not to sag into Edward. It's hard. "I don't know what I was looking for," she tells him. "But can you blame me for being curious? You're a walking, talking contradiction, and I'm just trying to understand you...this...us."

"So, you admit there is an us?" Edward smiles, and though it has that mocking edge to it, there's something more there, too.

"I admit you make me feel things I don't understand," Bella answers. The wine, the heat, her fatigue, they conspire against her and loosen her tongue. "And you seem like you want me to think the worst of you. You admit what you are. You say you're a monster, and you confess that you kill. You say you have no soul. Then you tell me you only...feed...off men who are evil. It doesn't fit. With the exception of Mike, who was a threat, you haven't hurt anyone else the entire time you've been here, as far as I know."

He doesn't answer.

"You haven't." It's easy to say. She isn't sure why she knows so definitively, but she does.

He inclines his head—a slight nod, nothing more.

She suddenly wants him to engage, to give her answers she can understand. She exhales slowly and then rushes her words together, afraid she'll lose her nerve and choke them back down.

"You take over my life and order me around, telling me I'm yours like you own me. Then you spend hours making me feel...so good it's crazy." She ignores the flush of added heat in her face, continuing as if what she said didn't embarrass her. "I run away, and you let me come home, make sure my former boss does right by me, take me shopping. You fuss over whether I have food and whether I'm comfortable. You buy me crazy expensive stuff I don't want. You touch me like you're afraid I'll break or disappear, like I'm something precious, even when you're trying to control everything I do. One minute you're a total vampire, and the next, you're acting like a...decent guy. You confuse the hell out of me."

She's panting slightly by the time she's done. His arms are cool around her but not tight. She reaches out and drags the laptop on the table closer, opening it. The list Google compiled for her instantly blinks back into existence. Bella runs her finger over the mouse pad and clicks on the link for the M.A. shelter for runaway girls. The site opens, and she points at it.

"This doesn't fit the image of a cold-hearted monster, Edward."

. . . . . .

Edward barely glances at the website for the foundation that now runs hundreds of varied shelters across the country. He designed it himself, after all. He resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose, a human habit from centuries past that haunts him like the ghost it is. Frustration is a rare feeling for him, at least it was, before her.

He strokes a hand down Isabella's spine, noting the way the fabric clings damply to her skin, wondering why discomfort is preferable to using the gift he's given.

She looks at him, one lovely eyebrow arched high in question and challenge. He's torn between the urge to laugh or shake her. His lamb is trying so hard to connect dots that will allow her to humanize him. He understands why she feels the need to do so and struggles with the fact he must once more disabuse her of her false notions. She cannot know the significance of the initials M.A. or understand the inadequate measures he undertakes to atone for the innocent life he stole.

He's not willing to explain it to her, either. There's an odd clenching deep in his gut at the thought, a swelling that rises into his throat, a distant memory of the sensation of nausea.

Edward closes the laptop, leaning back against the chair. Keeping one arm around her waist, he raises the other so he can place one hand over her heart. She showered and changed earlier today after finishing her gardening. The blouse she wears is sleeveless, the buttons down the front undone by several in deference to the heat, allowing him an expanse of bared skin to touch. Her little red heart beats hard against his palm. Nerves, excitement, life. He slides his hand lower and deftly undoes another button, then another.

"You continue to try and resist what you feel. Search endlessly for reasons to either fight what you want or justify it. What you perceive as contradiction in my nature is simply one and the same."

She reaches up as though to still his hand, but her weak grip on his wrist is as conflicted as the rest of her. The material of her blouse gaps open, revealing the scalloped edges of lace on her bra. He glides his fingers across the skin, flirting with the lace, then dips lower, opening the last few buttons, pushing fabric to the side. His arm around her waist lowers as he allows himself to touch her thigh, skate his fingers along the edge of cut-off jeans so short they've been testing his sanity from the moment she donned them. The fringe tickles her skin, making the muscle beneath jump slightly in reaction. He slides his fingers under, stopping just a hairsbreadth away from her secret heat.

Isabella shivers all over and turns to press her forehead to his, lips close enough to kiss—an offering, though she doesn't close the gap.

Edward breathes out and feels her breathe in. "Let go of all your silly, human expectations of how you think I should be. Accept what I am. I'll never fit your mold. I doubt you'd find me anywhere near as compelling if I did, Isabella. It's not what you crave, what you need. Deep down you know this as well as I do. Normal bores you. Decent doesn't make your blood race through your veins. Predictable doesn't make you cry out until you're hoarse, and limp, and utterly...sated."

He sweeps his fingers in to touch her fully, the snug fabric covering her no impediment. She's not wearing underclothes. There's nothing between his fingers and her already damp, hot flesh. All day she's been denying herself, holding back from him. He's noticed her growing discomfort, the darts of pain that make her breathing hitch. He isn't sure if it's the mating bond between them punishing her for her refusal to capitulate and accept him, but he's felt it, too—hunger and want and unresolved aching. He suffers with her.

His touch moves from her heart to her throat, gripping firm, finding that sweet spot where her pulse grounds him. He growls as she shifts against his touch, his unmoving fingers between her legs frustrating her, making her moan the sweetest little sound, all desire and plea.

Her eyes are still closed. "Look at me, Isabella."

Lashes flutter; her lips part on a stuttering exhale, but she obeys.

"You fight so hard, but I touch you and you melt. All day you've needed this, needed me. You're strung so tight if I move my fingers even the slightest bit, you'll come."

She whimpers and he smiles, brushing his lips against the corner of her mouth. "Do you think you're the only one who suffers for your stubbornness? Do you think I don't feel pain, my beautiful little torturer?"

She tries to shake her head, but his grip on her throat stops her. "For every second of this day that you kept yourself from me, I've burned. Watching you walk through this house wearing nearly nothing, all this beautiful skin bared to me, smelling like sin and sex and fucking sustenance. You deny me every time you deny yourself. Worse, you make me watch you suffer, knowing all the while exactly what you need and being helpless to give it because you insist on playing this damn game."

Muscles held too tense all day begin to shake as she whimpers again, back trying to arch, so beautiful in her frustrated agony. "It's not a game," she says, brow furrowing, breathing quick, a study in contradiction herself.

Edward laughs low in his throat. "Isn't it? I think you've made it a game of wills, but you're playing it all wrong, Isabella. The only way you win is if you concede defeat."

She bites her lip, still trembling, and he groans, wanting to do the same, to taste her heightened essence as she lets go against his hand. "Give in to me, little beauty." His fingers move, just the slightest fraction of an inch. She shudders, panting softly and biting harder on that lip.

Still she fights, but he won't give up. He wants inside her in every depraved way imaginable. He'll gladly play dirty if he has to.

"You want me to ease you? Then ask me for it. If you won't give me what I want, beg me for what you need."

Her pulse is wild under his thumb, and she's gotten so slick under his stationary touch, he knows she must hurt.

"Beg, Isabella," he breathes.

"Please," she says, so quiet yet so intense.

It's enough, for now. His fingers pulse, just once, and she shatters completely, shuddering beautifully again and again as he lets her work herself against his fingers. Watching her come is delicious, igniting a thousand desires all of which pale in comparison to the simple pleasure of giving her a moment of bliss.

When she's done, he nips at her bottom lip, letting her blood gloss over perfect pink with luscious crimson before he licks it away slowly.

"Bend to me, lamb, and I'll bend to you. I'll be the man you want."

She gasps as his tongue flicks lightly over the tiny puncture. Drawing back, he slips his hand from around her throat, noting with pleasure the slight redness of her skin in the shape of his hand that will quickly fade away. He moves his touch to the back of her neck and up into the messy knot she bound it in, taking a handful of hair and pulling gently, forcing her neck to arch with the pressure. All the better to watch her pulse, wild from her release, slowly ebbing now.

"The man?" She whispers her question, pink tongue darting out to touch the place tingling from his bite, sarcastic and perhaps even gloating. She did win this round, after all.

Edward smiles, leaning close, running his nose over her throat. "You're so determined to find good in me. When it comes to you, perhaps there is. Call it a contradiction if you like. Just know this. The man and the vampire are one and the same, Isabella. I'll gladly move mountains to please you, but I'll just as happily commit atrocities to keep you. Never doubt it."

He nips lightly, not breaking skin, then lets go of her hair, watching her blink and struggle to absorb. Then he rises with her in his arms, carrying her to the living room and her old yet surprisingly comfortable sofa.

His gorgeous lamb needs to be held. She's exhausted herself. And since he intends to make this the last round she wins, atrocities will have to wait.

. . . . . .