Stephenie Meyer is stellar. I know we pick on her sometimes for this flaw or that, but the fact is, she hooked us with these remarkable characters, and here we are, reading and writing fanfiction about them. Stephenie Meyer is stellar, and I appreciate her for creating such a fun sandbox to play in.


"Great. More snow."

Bella pulled the hood of her parka over her head as she stepped out of the department store and hunched down against the icy wind. She muttered to herself about Seattle's unusually heavy snowfall as she carefully picked her way through the parking lot, trying to avoid the large patches of ice and compacted snow while keeping to the pools of light cast by the tall street lamps dotting the lot. A snow plow passed by, and she quickly scurried out of the way to avoid getting splattered by the wake of slush it kicked up.

"I should have gone to school in Florida," she muttered. "Or at least bought some decent boots."

Renee was still trying to convince Bella to transfer from the University of Washington to a school in Jacksonville, and on days like this, Bella was sorely tempted. She had stayed in Washington to be close to Charlie, feeling compelled to try to make up for some of the time they had lost while she was growing up. After living with him for her last year and a half of high school, she had gained a deeper appreciation for him. She had learned to see beyond his gruff inexpressiveness, and she understood much better now how deep his feelings ran. Her father truly loved her, and she went home to visit twice a month to try to show him that she felt the same.

Neither one of them were very good at showing affection, but she had a feeling that he understood her, too.

Bella stepped over a bank of murky, gray slush, but slipped slightly, throwing herself off balance and ending up with one foot in a puddle of ice and slush. She squealed as she righted herself, grumbling over her now-frozen foot, but grateful that she hadn't taken a tumble right into the puddle. She kicked the slush out of her shoe as well as she could, but resigned herself to the fact that she would be driving home with one cold, wet foot.

She pushed on, eager to get out of the snow and into her heated car, but as her eyes scanned the parking lot she groaned. The snow plows had made it before she had, and now a large pile of dirty snow was heaped up behind her back bumper. Just inches in front of her front bumper was a snow-dusted SUV. She was blocked in.

Bella slumped in defeat as she trudged to her car. "Why didn't it occur to me to carry a snow shovel in my trunk?" she asked herself mournfully. She chewed at her lip, looking back toward the store, wondering if they would have one she could borrow. She wished for a moment that she still had her truck—but thoughts of the old, solid vehicle brought with it painful memories of Jacob, and she quickly pushed them aside.

A passing vehicle slowed and stopped behind her, and a familiar voice called out to her.

"Bella Swan?"

She turned and laughed in surprise when she saw the face peering at her through the open window of the large Chevy Suburban. "Mike? Oh my god, hi!"

"Hey!" He pushed open the door and hopped out, leaving the engine running as he moved to her and gave her an enthusiastic hug. "I haven't heard from you in years! How are you? Still at U-dub?"

"Still there," she nodded. "Do you live here in Seattle?"

"I just moved back. I did a Study Abroad program in Moscow."

Bella's mouth fell open. "Are you kidding me? How was it?"

"Amazing, of course."

His grin was still just as bright as ever, and Bella found herself warming quickly to him. Mike had always been so sweet, so constant. During her brief, unsettling time in Forks, she had taken his steadiness for granted.

If I knew then what I know now. . . .

Bella shivered, and though it wasn't entirely from the cold, she saw Mike shoot her a concerned look. "Maybe we should catch up sometime when it's not below freezing. Can I give you a lift to your car?"

Bella gestured helplessly toward the little Honda that was half-hidden behind a mound of snow. "I'm kind of stuck. I don't suppose you have a snow shovel with you?"

"Uh, no, but . . . I might have something we can use." He trotted to the back of his Suburban and opened the hatch, with Bella trailing hopefully behind him. He dug through the messy storage space, tossing tools and sporting equipment out of the way, and came up after a moment looking sheepish. "Novelty football helmet?" he offered, holding it up.

Bella laughed and shook her head. "I don't think that's going to do the job."

He tossed it back inside and closed the hatch. "Listen, why don't I just take you home? The roads are going to be a nightmare if you stick around much longer anyway. We can come back tomorrow with the proper equipment and dig your car out."

"You don't mind?"

"Naw, of course not. We Forks survivors have to stick together." He chucked her on the shoulder and she smiled, but she doubted he knew just how much they had survived. Her time in Forks had shown her that the world wasn't exactly what it appeared to be.

She followed him around to the passenger door and took the hand he offered to help her up into her seat. He didn't try to lift her inside, the way Edward always had, he just let her get in on her own while providing a steadying hand. She found that she liked it very much.

Mike had been right about the roads. They were awful, and traffic crawled. The Suburban handled the weather better than many of the other cars, but it still skidded uncomfortably each time Mike had to brake, and Bella could see the stress that it put on him to navigate the precarious conditions. After a car not far in front of them spun out and collided with a semi truck, he headed for the nearest exit—still several miles short of the one she had told him to take—and shot her an apologetic look.

"My apartment is just a few blocks away," he explained. "Would you be willing to crash at my place tonight, in the interest of keeping us both alive?"

Bella nodded in relief, glad to be off of the icy freeway. "That sounds like a very good idea."

Mike flashed her a smile and focused on the road again, making his way through the frozen streets to a nondescript apartment complex surrounded by more nondescript apartment complexes. He took her shopping bag from her and gave her a hand down out of the truck, keeping a firm grip on her elbow as he guided her through the snow to the main doors.

He apparently hasn't forgotten that I'm an accident waiting to happen.

They took the stairs to the second floor, their wet shoes squeaking loudly on the tile, and Mike led her to his apartment and let them inside.

Bella glanced around, taking it all in. It wasn't anything impressive, one bedroom, a woefully inadequate kitchen, and a cheap futon sofa facing a fifty-five inch flat screen television. She stifled a giggle and set her shopping bag down on the breakfast bar.

"You're laughing at me, aren't you?" he asked, following her gaze. "Tell me you don't have any indulgences, huh?" He peeked into her shopping bag at the pile of new novels and smirked.

"Shut up," she giggled. "My indulgence is much cheaper than yours."

"Oh really? How many of these do you have?"

Bella laughed again as Mike took her coat from her and hung it on a coat tree near the door. He turned up the thermostat and then guided her into the living room.

"Your feet are soaked," he said, sounding concerned. "Kick those shoes off and get comfortable, I'll grab you a blanket to help you warm up."

Bella sat down on the futon, removing her shoes and peeling her socks from her frozen feet. She tossed them aside as Mike reappeared with a thick patchwork quilt and settled it around her.

"Come under here with me," she said, lifting one side and pulling him down next to her.

"It's okay, I'm warm enough."

"I know you are, that's why I want you under here. I want to steal your body heat."

Mike matched her grin and draped the blanket over himself, slipping an arm around her and rubbing her shoulder briskly to warm her up. "So what do you hear from the old crowd? Anybody pregnant? In prison?"

"Um . . . Angela and Ben finally got married," Bella told him. "Not exactly the scandal you were looking for, maybe."

"I hear Tyler eloped with some rich girl from California."

Bella's eyes widened. "Are you kidding me?"

He shrugged. "His mom told my mom. Her family was not pleased, apparently."

"Oh, I've got one for you." Bella shifted around to face him, crossing her legs in front of her. "Lauren was in Playboy."

"No way." A wide grin split his face. "Seriously? She really was?"

She laughed and nodded. "They did this 'small-town co-eds' feature. It wasn't a big spread, but there were a couple of good shots of her."

"Please, oh please tell me that you have the issue?"

She smiled smugly. "I might have a copy somewhere. It's possible that I'll even let you have it in exchange for a cup of coffee."

"Deal!" He jumped up and moved to the kitchen, quickly measuring grounds into the coffee maker. "So what about the Cullens?" he asked. "Or that guy from the Reservation you used to hang out with. You ever hear from any of them?"

Bella hid her wince. "I've seen Jacob a couple of times. His dad and my dad are good friends, so that's kind of unavoidable. I haven't heard from the Cullens since they moved away from Forks, though."

He shook his head, coming back to sit beside her while the coffee brewed. "I don't know how you put up with Edward. He was just weird."

"He was a little weird," she conceded. "And moody. But I loved him."

"Yeah, well . . . that was obvious." He winked at her and squeezed her knee. "Otherwise how could you have passed me up?"

Bella laughed at his teasing, surprised by how his easy smile made it all feel like water under the bridge. "You're different," she mused aloud.

"Yeah? Sexier than I used to be?" He lifted his chin and turned his head to show off his profile.

"Sexier, definitely. And fun."

"I was always fun. You just couldn't tell because I got all tongue-tied whenever I was around you."

"But you don't anymore? Does that mean that I got less sexy?"

"Are you kidding?" He gave her an appraising look. "Any minute now I'm going to get over the initial shock of seeing you and turn into a blathering idiot."

"Whatever." Bella giggled, nudging his knee playfully with her foot.

"Damn, your toes are like little ice cubes!" He caught her foot and wrapped it up in the blanket to help warm it up.

Bella's thoughts flitted briefly to a time when icy skin hadn't seemed so bad, when she had planned to change her body into a permanently chilled state. She ducked her head almost out of habit, letting her hair fall in front of her face. "Poor circulation, I guess," she said, calling on the Cullens' frequent excuse.

Mike tucked her hair behind her ear and nudged her chin up with the tip of his finger. "Same old Bella," he said affectionately. "In some ways, anyway . . . but you've changed too."

"Have I?"

"You laugh more," he said. "It looks good on you."

She smiled to herself, remembering her high school years. They had been intense, but there hadn't been much fun. Since she had left the world of vampires and werewolves behind . . . or rather, had been left behind by them, a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She was free to live her life now, and Mike was right . . . these days it was easier to laugh.

"Must be the company," she told him.

The coffee maker sputtered and Mike stood up again, moving back into the kitchen. "Cream or sugar?"

"One sugar."

He prepared her coffee and brought it to her, then straightened the blanket around her and settled down beside her.

"Have you heard from Jessica since you got back?" Bella asked.

Mike nodded sheepishly. "We may have run into each other over Christmas."

"Oh yeah? Did sparks fly? Are we seeing a reconciliation in the future?"

"Sparks? Yes. Reconciliation?" He shook his head.

"Why not?"

"Mutual disinterest?" He laughed sheepishly. "We went out for nostalgia's sake, messed around a little. But I don't think either of us is interested in trying to dig up the past."

Bella nodded. She understood that. There wasn't much that would convince her to open herself up to the kind of pain she had experienced when Edward had left her. And her break-up with Jacob, though not entirely unexpected, was possibly even harder. He had never meant to hurt her, she knew, but she didn't stand much chance against an imprint. He was just so happy to move forward with the new object of his affection and forget all about Bella. She could at least see how their split had been hard for Edward, but for Jacob it had been one of the best things that ever happened to him.

"Neither are you, it looks like," Mike said gently.

Bella shook off the frown that darkened her face. "You're right. So let's look forward. What's next for you?"

"Finish my bachelor's," he said. "And probably a master's."

"What are you studying?"

"Business. I'm thinking about expanding my parents' store, putting up some specialty satellites in higher traffic areas."

"Like where?"

"Like on Ranier, we could put up a shop that focuses on hiking and rock climbing. Or on the coast, we could have one for surfers and boaters."

"A whole chain of Newton's Olympic Outfitters? I like it."

"Yeah, only if we're opening them outside of Forks I think we'll drop the family name. Just go with Olympic Outfitters."

"Big plans," Bella smiled.

"What about you? What are you working on?"

"Getting my teaching certificate, and then I guess I'll go wherever I can get hired."

"Are you going to stay in Washington?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. It would be nice to move somewhere sunnier, but I haven't made any solid decisions yet."

"Don't go too far away," he said, "or I won't be able to take you out boating with me on the weekends."

Bella rolled her eyes. "Boating. Yeah. Knowing me, I'd probably fall out and drown."

"This from the girl who used to ride dirt bikes and go cliff diving with the guys from La Push?"

"How did you know about that?" she asked him curiously.

He shrugged. "Small town. Word gets around."

"Did word get around that I did drown? The first time I went cliff diving. Jacob had to do CPR to revive me."

"No kidding?" Mike laughed. "I'll have to be sure to keep my certification current."

"Yeah," she muttered, setting her coffee down on the DVD rack that served as an end table. "That's good advice for anyone who spends much time with me."

"I can't believe you had the nerve to jump."

She wrapped the blanket closer around her. "Yeah, well . . . hanging out with a crowd of people who were all larger than life . . . trying to keep up. . . ."

"Uh-huh, we regular, boring people weren't enough for you."

"Study abroad in Moscow is hardly boring," Bella said, changing the subject. "What was that like?"

He grinned. "You know, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the language before I went to Russia." He shook his head, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "I was wrong. I couldn't understand a word anybody said to me."

"Did you ever get the hang of it?"

"After about a month," he said. "But it took me several weeks after that to stop feeling completely lost in my classes."

"And now you're fluent in Russian. That's really cool."

He shrugged dismissively. "It's not the kind of language you use to whisper sweet nothings in a girl's ear. Maybe I should have gone to France."

"Nah, everybody wants to go to Europe," Bella said. "That's too common. Russia is . . . edgy."

"Edgy?" He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Is that what makes me sexier than I was in high school?"

She gave him a long look, chewing thoughtfully at her lip. "You know, I think you were probably already sexy. I just didn't look closely enough."

Mike met her gaze, his blue eyes steadily holding her brown ones. "I thought about you a lot while I was in Moscow," he admitted.

"Me? Why?"

"You would have appreciated it," he said. "The other people we used to hang out with, Jessica, Lauren, Eric . . . they only ever saw what was on the surface. But you would have looked past the gilding to the reality beneath it. You would have seen the turmoil, the way the Russian people have been struggling to build a stable future on a shattered foundation."

Bella cocked her head curiously. "What makes you think I would see it when other people wouldn't?"

"You always did. You think differently than most of us do."

She ducked her head again. "Yeah. Edward used to tell me the same thing."

"He's a good example," Mike said. "None of the rest of us really bothered to get to know the Cullens, but you did. You saw what we didn't."

Bella blushed and, once again, changed the subject. "Well. One of these days I'll have to make it a point to go to Moscow and try to see what you saw."

"Maybe I'll tag along. I'd love to show you Crystal Island."

"Yeah? What was it like living there?"

Mike started telling her about the university he had attended and about the dichotomous experience of being simultaneously disdained and admired for his American citizenship. And he had plenty of stories about the night life, dancing in discotheques and having his pick of girls to take home with him.

"Sounds like you kept yourself busy," Bella said, scooting closer to him to share his body heat.

"Nights in Moscow are cold," he said with a grin. "We had to hook up just to keep from freezing to death."

She snuggled a little closer. "No wonder you were so popular. You're very warm."

"I am," he confirmed. "Abnormally so. It's the result of an old brain injury."

"What?" She sat up and looked at him in alarm.

"It's true. When I was in high school, some girl hit me in the head with a tennis racket."

Bella gave a squeak of indignation and shoved at his chest. "You're so mean!"

"I'm mean? You were the one with the penchant for swinging sporting equipment at my head. I'm surprised I survived working at the store with you, what with all the available weaponry."

Bella pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her head in them. "I'm so not speaking to you," she moaned.

"It's all right," he soothed. "I made it out alive, with only a few shattered bones and the occasional epileptic fit."

Bella pulled the blanket over her head, hiding from him. "I don't know why you kept teaming up with me in Gym."

He laughed and squeezed her shoulders affectionately. "Because it was worth it. So I ended up with a couple of bruises . . . it was still fun spending time with you."

She peeked at him from under the blanket. "No, you just thought it was because you had a concussion and couldn't tell the difference."

His eyes shone with mirth as he pulled the blanket away from her head. "I had fun. Dodging your wild swings just added a little extra challenge to the games."

"I can't believe you're making fun of me. I thought you were my friend."

"I am your friend," he laughed. "But you're brilliant, beautiful, generous, empathetic . . . if I don't focus on the one thing you're bad at, I'll be too intimidated to talk to you."

"Whatever." Bella threw the blanket over his head and grabbed her coffee mug, draining it as she carried it to the kitchen.

Mike tugged the blanket down, smiling at her with a relaxed confidence she couldn't remember seeing on him before.

"So are your international travels over?" Bella asked, making her way back to the couch.

"Not a chance. Moscow only whetted my appetite." He pulled a pamphlet off of the end table and showed it to her as she settled next to him again.

She looked it over curiously. "Thailand?"

"Looks fun, doesn't it?"

Bella gave him a perplexed look. "What makes you want to go to Thailand?"

"I don't know a single person who's ever been there. Do you?"

She shook her head. "Were you always this adventurous?"

He shrugged. "Maybe I'm trying to be like a certain brown-eyed motorcycle-riding, cliff-jumping girl I know."

Bella looked away self-consciously. "I never did anything like this."

"Maybe you should." He caught her hand and guided her eyes back to him. "I knew as soon as I met you that you were bigger than Forks, Bella. You were meant to experience things most people can only imagine."

Been there, done that.

"Like Thailand?"

"Why not?" he laughed. "Don't you ever just want to try something new? Something drastically different than anything you've experienced before?"

"Actually . . ." She nodded. "Yeah. That sounds tempting. Maybe someday I will."

"Don't wait too long. You never know when your number's going to be up and that's it. You don't want too many things left on your Someday list."

She laughed. "That's a cheerful way to look at things."

"I'm optimistic like that." He tossed the pamphlet back down on the table. "You want to watch a movie or something?"

Bella nodded toward the television. "With a system like that, it's practically a sin not to. What have you got?"

He smirked and jumped up, digging through the DVD rack beside the futon. "We have to watch my favorite movie of all time," he said, handing Bella his selection.

She looked at it and arched an eyebrow. "Face Punch is your favorite movie?"

"Fond memories." He grinned and took it back from her, loading it into the DVD player.

"Uh-huh. I seem to recall that night ending pretty badly, myself."

"Yeah, but it started well." He took a seat next to her and started the movie. "I had big plans for that night, you know."

"Did you?"

"Yep." Mike draped his arm over her shoulders and toed off his shoes. "I was going to declare myself that night. It was going to be very romantic, and you would have been swept off your feet."

A barrage of machine gun fire opened the movie, and blood and gore splattered across the television screen.

Bella winced. "Yeah, this is really romantic."

"Hey, as I recall, you picked the movie."

"Guilty."

He sighed dramatically. "The best laid plans of Mikes and men. It wasn't meant to be. I was thwarted by the stomach flu and Jacob Black."

"Yeah, well . . ." Bella focused on the car that was exploding on the TV screen. "Maybe that's for the best. I wasn't exactly in a stable place back then."

"Nevertheless, that remains the greatest regret of my high school career. I never got the chance to kiss—and subsequently get slapped by—Bella Swan."

"Oh, whatever, that's not your greatest regret."

"You're right," he admitted. "My greatest regret was that day I opted for hamburger over pizza in the school cafeteria and ended up with food poisoning. But you come right after that."

Bella gave him a speculative look, trying to figure out if there was any truth in his teasing. She hadn't given him much of a chance in high school—and when surrounded by vampires and werewolves, who could blame her? She had given him just enough attention to learn that he was nice, if maybe not as interesting as some of the other figures in her life at the time. Loyal, she had called him, and had compared him to a golden retriever.

Back then she had seriously underestimated how valuable loyalty could be.

Mike cocked his head, showing his curiosity about her steady gaze, and Bella made up her mind. She knew all too well that the moment may have passed her by years ago, but there was only one way to find out.

"I guess you'd better kiss me now, then."

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What?"

"There's not much I can do about the hamburger," Bella said, trying not to show her nerves, "but it seems to me that you should try to minimize the regrets in your life. Keep that Someday list as short as possible. . . ."

Mike swallowed hard, and for the first time that night Bella saw traces of the eager, unsure boy who used to follow her around in high school. "So . . . you're giving me a do-over?"

She gestured toward the television. "Maybe I got caught up in the romantic ambience."

He shifted so he was facing her, his elbow resting on the back of the futon. "Are you going to slap me afterward?"

"Maybe. If you're really bad at it."

He laughed, shaking his head. "You sure know how to put the pressure on."

"Will you just relax and kiss me already?"

"No, 'cause now I have performance anxiety."

"Oh, lord." Bella started to turn away, but Mike caught her chin with one hand and gazed intently into her eyes.

"There's no way in hell I'm missing my chance again," he said, and then leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. For a moment he made no move to take more, contenting himself with soft, exploratory grazes. But then his tongue swept over her bottom lip and he pulled it into his mouth, nibbling gently before releasing it and deepening the kiss. His mouth closed over hers and his tongue dipped inside, tangling with hers, sending a thoroughly surprising burst of desire coursing through her. She let out a soft moan as his hand moved from her chin to her hair and his other arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer.

By the time he released her, Bella was seeing spots. Her shoulders heaved and she stared in shock at Mike's chest as she struggled to gain her breath. She wasn't sure what kind of reaction she had expected to have, but she certainly hadn't been prepared for the intensity of her response.

"Holy shit," she whispered. She raised her bewildered eyes to Mikes face, catching the smile that pulled at one corner of his mouth.

He tugged lightly at a lock of her hair. "You know how it is when you build something up so much in your mind that reality has no chance of living up to your expectations?"

Bella's jaw dropped and she turned away from him to hide the flaming blush that rose to her cheeks.

Mike laughed and dragged her back to him, pressing his lips to her neck. "I think that's the first time a kiss has ever lived up to my expectations," he murmured against her throat.

"Now I don't believe you," she pouted.

"Then let me convince you." He kissed her again, hard and searing, his arms trapping her against his chest. It took a little urging to convince Bella of his sincerity, but eventually she melted into his embrace. The cheesy, overblown special effects of the movie were forgotten as the two of them got lost in one another.

Need flared in Bella's body, and she ached for more contact. She gripped the lapels of Mike's shirt and shifted back on the futon, puling him down on top of her, letting his weight push her back into the cheap padding.

Mike groaned and settled between her thighs, his lips traveling down her neck to the collar of her blouse. "God, you're so beautiful," he mumbled, then drew a sharp breath through his teeth when Bella shifted her hips and ground against him. "Keep that up and we're not going to be able to finish the movie."

"Fuck the movie. It sucks."

"It's my favorite."

"It might be mine too, if you'll shut up and take my shirt off."

Mike obliged willingly, pulling it over her head and arms and dropping it on the floor. Bella tugged his off as well, and then he was kissing her again, his bare chest pressed against her as he worked his hand beneath her to the clasp of her bra.

"My bed is a lot more comfortable than the futon," Mike said between kisses as her bra joined their shirts on the floor.

"Yeah, but the futon is right here." She sucked his earlobe into her mouth and bit gently.

Mike moaned and thrust against her. "You make a compelling point." His lips sucked firmly at her throat, and Bella had little doubt she would have a visible reminder of his attentions in the morning. She raked her nails down his back, leaving her own mark and eliciting another cry of pleasure.

He stood abruptly, leaving Bella cold and disoriented for a moment before he lifted her up and wrapped her legs around his waist. "You deserve better than the futon."

Bella didn't argue, choosing instead to employ her mouth in the much more interesting task of exploring Mike's muscled shoulders. He carried her into the bedroom and lowered her down on the unmade bed.

"You're right, much more comfortable." Bella took advantage of the space between them and pulled open the button on his jeans, pushing them down off his hips along with his boxers.

"Yeah, um, sorry about the mess," he said as he kicked his clothes aside, his voice devoid of any remorse. "I'd have cleaned up if I had known I'd be fucking you in here tonight."

"It's the thought that counts." She lifted her hips to let him drag her own jeans off, but put a hand on his chest to stop him as he started to crawl over her. "You're going to leave your socks on?"

"What difference does it make?"

"It makes a difference. Take them off."

"Fine." He stood up and hopped around awkwardly as he yanked them off, drawing a giggle from Bella.

"Are you laughing at me?" he demanded. "Seriously? You're not supposed to laugh at a man when he's naked."

His indignation only made her laugh harder. "Says who?"

"I don't know—Emily fucking Post." He dropped down on top of her and kissed her soundly, turning her giggles into moans of longing.

"Fuck!" Bella gasped, pulling away. "Condom."

"Condom. Right." He reached under the bed and fished around blindly, but came up empty-handed. "Damn it," he muttered, sliding to his knees on the floor and shoving dirty clothes and empty Gatorade bottles to the side as he searched.

Bella laughed again, and Mike glared at her.

"Will you stop that? You're giving me a complex."

"I'll stop when you find the condoms. Hurry up."

"Sure, you make me wait four years, but you can't even wait thirty seconds?" He found the box and dumped a foil packet into his hand, jumping back into the bed with a triumphant smile.

Bella pulled him down for a kiss and then pushed him onto his back, rolling on top of him. She moved to kiss him again, but Mike pushed her upright, letting his eyes roam over her stomach and breasts.

"So fucking sexy," he breathed.

Bella scraped her nails down his chest, and he growled a low oath, answering her with a sharp pinch to her nipple.

"God, that feels good!"

Mike slid the condom on and then rolled them over again, reclaiming the dominant position. He kissed Bella deeply, one hand massaging her breast, and then slid slowly into her. She moaned and arched against him, her fingers digging into his back.

"Fuck!" he hissed. He jerked his hips, pushing deeper inside of her and setting up a steady rhythm.

Bella met his thrusts and moaned in pleasure as she writhed beneath him. She let her head fall back and savored the sensation of his hands moving all over her body, his mouth tasting her skin, his cock drilling into her again and again. She was too worked up to take long, and his hard, steady thrusts pushed her quickly to the brink. As the orgasm crashed over her she cried out Mike's name, clinging to his warm, solid body.

Mike buried his face in her neck, his teeth closing on her shoulder in a sharp bite as his body shuddered above her. He released inside of her with a loud groan, his fingers digging into her back as he clutched her tightly against him.

It was unlike anything Bella had experienced before. Edward and Jacob had always had to be so careful with her, so restrained. Their strength would have killed her if they had let themselves go the way Mike had. She liked that he didn't have to hold back, that he could give himself over to his passions. She liked that the two of them were matched evenly enough that neither of them had to worry too much about hurting the other. Bella had never realized how satisfying it could be to watch her partner lose control.

Mike grunted softly and rolled off of her, panting as he came down from his high.

"Jesus, Bella," he whispered.

"Another disappointment?"

"Hell no." He laughed and pushed himself up on his elbow again, giving her a quick kiss before rolling off of the bed and moving unsteadily out the door to the bathroom down the hall.

Bella smiled to herself. She had never made a man unsteady on his feet before.

Mike returned after a minute and collapsed on the bed beside her. "Here you go," he said, snatching up a pillow and pushing it at her. "The futon's all yours."

She grabbed the pillow and smacked him with it. "I don't think so."

"Fine, you can sleep with me. As long as you don't hog the covers."

Bella grabbed the bunched and rumpled blankets and wrapped herself up in them. "I'll just take my fair share."

He laughed and wormed his way inside her cocoon, pulling her close to him. His body was pleasantly warm, a comfortable contrast to Edward's chill and Jacob's intense heat. He tugged a pillow beneath his head and settled sleepily down beside her, letting his eyes slip closed.

"Did you give up on the movie?" Bella asked.

He didn't even bother to open his eyes. "Who cares? That movie sucks."

"I was just starting to like it."

"Maybe we'll watch it again tomorrow," he said with a small smile.

She snuggled closer to him. "That sounds like a pretty good idea."

Bella woke up sprawled out on her stomach with Mike's arm lying heavily across her back. He was on his stomach as well, with his face smashed against his pillow.

Her stomach clenched at the sight of him lying next to her, and she was suddenly assailed with a storm of misgivings. Was this a mistake? Last night, caught up in the moment, sleeping with Mike had seemed like a pretty great idea, but in the harsh light of morning she wasn't so sure.

She eased herself out from under Mike's arm, careful not to wake him, and slipped out of bed. She grabbed her pants and underwear and then tip-toed to the living room, collecting the rest of her clothes from the floor and pulling them on. She reached for her shoes and socks, but paused, wondering if putting them on would make it look like she was in a hurry to leave.

Was she in a hurry to leave?

Twelve hours previous, she never would have imagined she would end up in bed with Mike Newton. In fact, she had hardly spared a thought for him since she had graduated from Forks High a few years ago. Now he was back on her radar again, and she was surprised to find how comfortable it felt. Being with Mike was just easier than chasing after supernatural beings.

She left her shoes where they were and headed for the bathroom instead, taking a few minutes to clean up and rub some toothpaste over her teeth with her finger. It wasn't great, but at least it helped with the morning breath. She ran her fingers through her hair and emerged from the bathroom slightly less disheveled than she had been when she went in. Figuring Mike wouldn't mind, she headed into the kitchen and started hunting for coffee and filters. She had just set a pot on to brew when she heard the creak of the bedroom door and the soft padding of feet on the carpeted floor.

She still wasn't sure how she felt about everything, and she fixed her eyes on the coffee pot, pressing her palms flat against the counter top. She waited for Mike to speak, to indicate whether he believed their night together had been a meaningless fling or something more substantial. She wasn't sure which option she would prefer.

He didn't speak, though, and she peeked at him surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye. He was standing in the kitchen doorway, dressed only in a pair of blue boxer shorts, looking rumpled and completely kissable. Bella quickly refocused her attention on the coffee pot.

Mike moved up behind her, sliding his arms around her waist and pressing soft kisses to her neck. She held herself stiff, unsure of how to respond. If she returned his affections, would she be implying that she wanted more?

Nice going, Bella. This is really the kind of thing you ought to decide before you start taking someone's clothes off.

Mike noticed her rigid posture and released his grip on her, but he didn't move away. Instead he braced his hands on the counter on either side of her and rested his chin on her shoulder.

"I don't know where your head's at," he said, "so I'm just going to lay it all on the table. And it scares the hell out of me, because I'm not crazy about rejection, but what scares me even more is the possibility of missing my shot with you."

He drew back and slid his hands to her hips, turning her to face him. Bella met his earnest gaze, her teeth burying themselves in her lip.

"I want to be with you," he said. "That hasn't changed. Everything I've done, everywhere I've gone . . . I've always wanted you with me."

She swallowed hard, her eyes shifting away from his. His words were gratifying, but in spite of the warmth they spread in her chest, she was anxious. "That's . . . a lot of pressure."

"I know. I'm sorry. Maybe I shouldn't be so blunt, but I've never really been good at playing the game."

It was comforting, in a way, this un-evasive manner of his. His expectations were high, but at least Bella knew what they were. After years of secrecy with Jacob and Edward, it was nice to be able to be straightforward about things for once.

"I'm scared," she said, embracing his spirit of honesty. "What if it doesn't work out?"

"Then it doesn't work out," he laughed. "At least we will have tried. We've got no chance if we never even try."

She pressed her forehead against his chest, hiding her face from him. "It hurts less if we don't try."

"Don't tell me that Bella Swan, the heartbreaker of Forks High, is giving up on love?"

A bitter laugh escaped her throat. "I haven't had the best luck when it comes to love."

"That's because you haven't had me." He crooked a finger under her chin, raising her eyes to his. "You're worth the risk, Bella. I think I've proven by now that I'd make a complete fool of myself, again and again, for the chance to be with you." He smiled confidently. "And it's going to work out this time. You and I were meant to be together."

"How can you be so sure?"

He laughed. "I'm not! But being with you feels right, and that's good enough for me."

Bella chewed at her lip as she waffled in indecision. She had enjoyed herself the night before, and things had felt completely natural between them—at least until she had started overanalyzing everything.

"I'll be good to you, Bella. I can't promise that things will always be great, because they won't be. We're bound to argue sometimes. But I promise I'll be there for you on the other side, loving you just as much as I always have."

A shiver ran down Bella's spine. "Loving me," she whispered.

"I'm not asking for a declaration," he said gently. "I'll wait for you. I'm nothing if not patient."

"What if I never get there?"

He shrugged. "That would suck for me. But like I said, I think it's worth the risk. You have to decide if it's worth it for you." He gave her chin a little tweak and stepped back from her. "Take your time. I'm going to get dressed, and then we can go dig your car out, okay?"

Bella nodded and watched him walk away, her mind full of questions. She mulled over Mike's expectations from life and relationships as she put on her shoes, and as they drove back to the department store she thought about how drastically different those expectations were from her own. But it wasn't until she was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him, digging at the pile of slush and ice behind her car, that everything clicked into place.

Her only experiences with love had been rooted in the world of the supernatural—a world where love hit you all at once and lasted forever, regardless of the effort put into it. It was a nice thought, but it wasn't real. Not for her. She was still human, after all, and humans had to work to make love last. They had to make time to appreciate each other between work and laundry and digging cars out of the snow. Love—real, adult love between human beings—looked a lot like . . . this.

Bella glanced up at Mike as she tossed a shovel full of ice aside, and he smiled at her, his expression sweet and genuine. She returned his smile, finally confident in her decision, and shoveled up another scoop of snow.

When they had finally managed to clear a path for Bella's car, they tossed their shovels into the back of Mike's Suburban, and Bella turned to face him.

"Thank you," she said. "I really appreciate all your help."

He nodded, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Happy to do it."

Of course he was. Patient, steady, loyal Mike. He was the kind of guy who could always be counted on to help someone out of a tight spot.

"Listen, um . . ." Bella suddenly felt nervous. "I was thinking of trying this new quiche recipe. It might totally suck, but . . . if you're feeling brave, maybe you could come have breakfast with me?"

Mike smiled, his eyes shining. "You're not sick of me yet?"

"Not yet, but if you leave as big of a mess in my bedroom as you did in your own, that'll change in a hurry."

"Noted." He reached into his car and pulled out the purse and shopping bag that Bella had left on the passenger seat. "I'll follow you home?"

She nodded, slinging the bags over her arm as he turned away. "Hey, Mike?" She grabbed his hand and pulled him back before he could get into his Suburban, stretching up on her toes to plant a firm kiss on his lips. "In case I wasn't clear," she said, forcing herself to be as bold as he had been, "that was me telling you that I think you're worth the risk."

He stared at her for a moment, and then a brilliant smile broke over his face and he wrapped her up in his arms. He lifted her off her feet and spun her around, then kissed her again, warm and enthusiastic. When he finally set her down again, her eyes were sparkling, reflecting Mike's excitement.

"So, I'll follow you," he said again, still beaming.

She nodded and backed away a few steps, then turned and made her way across the ice to her car. She looked back once, smiling happily, before sliding behind the wheel and backing out of the parking space.

She didn't see the blissful, triumphant smile on Mike's face as he climbed into his car. She didn't catch the way he ran his hand through his hair in disbelief or hear his incredulous laugh. Somehow, she never did see these things.

For Bella, this was the beginning of a new chapter in her life. But for Mike it was the realization of a dream he had clung to for years, one he had never quite been able to convince himself to give up. And how that he had a chance to turn his fantasy into a reality, he vowed he wold do whatever it took to make Bella happy. Now that he finally had her, he was never going to let her go.