This story won second place by Judges' Vote in the All Human category of the Truly Anonymous Twilight Contest. It also was contest administrator, Belli 486's, overall #1 pick. You can check out all the contest winners here: ficcontest(dot)info

You can read Belli486's review of TRD here: ficcontest(dot)info/?p=1585

The beautiful banner I won will also be displayed on my blog in just a few moments, as well as a longer note from me on how and why I wrote this story and to whom I owe gratitude for its win. Tgbmccray(dot)wordpress(dot)com

Love and hugs forever to my two beautiful and tough-as-hell betas, TwittahMom and U2Shay. Their red pens bled over this. I would not have won without them.

Truly Anonymous Twilight O/S PP Contest
Pen Name(s): TGBMcCray
Twitter: babiesbrown

Title: The Real Deal
Picture Prompt Number: 8
Pairing: Edward/Bella
Rating: M
Genre: Western, All Human
Word Count (minus A/N and Header): 6,186

Summary (250 characters or less, including spaces and punctuation): Bella McCarty, professional photographer, travels the rodeo circuit with her brother, Emmett, and a cast of cantankerous cowboys and cowgirls. Will the cowboy who ropes her heart live to love her?

Warnings and Disclaimer: Foul language, and violent animals.

Author's Note: I don't own the characters, but Rodeoward and Belleibovitz are all mine. Yee haw, y'all.

The arena smells like horseshit, new dirt, tobacco juice, and men's sweat. Rank with smoke and spilled beer, bodies press close to each other, shifting noisily in their chairs. The hides of humans and animals alike swim in a sheen of glistening perspiration. It's the equivalent of tossing the contents of a honky tonk at closing time into a ranch barn and giving them a good jump with a cattle prod.

There's nowhere else on Earth I'd rather be.

I lift my arms above my head as though reaching toward Mecca, stretch, and twist. My neck feels stiff, but even rolling it won't remove the knots. The cord of my camera cuts into the line of my shoulders. A yoke around my neck, it seems to weigh as much as the cows in the chutes across the arena. It's nothing a good soak in the hotel's tiny bathtub won't cure, though.

"You bout ready to take off, darlin?"

Emmett tweaks my ponytail as he carries his saddle, vest, and protective gear over to one of the competitor's gates and slings it over.

I shake my head.

"Nah, I wanna shoot the teams tonight. You go ahead. I'll be over in a while."

Emmett eyes me, removing his dusty white hat and running his thick hands up the back of his neck.

"You need some rest, Sis," he says at last. "You done shot every event tonight. Ain't that good enough?"

"Alice wants me to get some pictures of Jasper tonight. He's been having trouble with Dolly's cutting. I think they wanna look for problems."

"Jasper and Dolly, huh?"

He's not buying my line.

I wouldn't either.

Emmett blows his breath out in a winded rasp and glances over to where Rosalie Hale is standing beside her cappuccino and cream pinto. Her perfect bust and tiny waist are accentuated in a pink and white-fringed button down and a pair of Cruel Girls so tight that her panty lines should be showing. Her blonde hair spills down her back in a cascade of smooth, gleaming curls. The fact that she didn't leave after she beat Alice for top points in the barrel racing bothers me. I wonder whom she's staying to see, and the thought makes my stomach convulse uncomfortably.

"All right," Emmett relents. "I'll just go"—his gaze flicks to Rosalie again—"do a little visiting while you shoot. I'd rather you didn't walk back over there tonight alone anyway."

He lopes away with another tweak of my hair, and I turn away just as he gooses Rosalie in the ribs.

"Emmett McCarty!" she squeals. "You're meaner than a pack of coyotes in a hen house!"

Resisting the urge to gag, I choose a long-range lens and begin unzipping it from its protective bag. After it's attached, I check that my batteries are fully charged and focus on the gates where the cowboys will come out in a moment. I take a few practice snaps of the pair of cowboys who are about to ride out together, just to make sure I'm ready.

Twenty minutes later, I'm in the zone. I've shot about eighty frames of two sets of riders. The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association will take some of them. The contestants will probably buy a few, and a couple may be good enough to send to the wire. And Edward hasn't even ridden yet.

Alice Brandon, my best friend, appears during the scoring for this team, holding the straw of her ice water out to me so I can take a deep drink without releasing my camera.

"They're up next, Bella Bird," she says, and I smile. Alice and her nicknames. If she doesn't give a person a nickname, she doesn't like them. She calls me Bella Bee or Bella Bird because I hover. Hovering is part of what makes a photographer good, so I don't complain.

"I know it," I say as I finish clicking through the last few frames I shot. "You think I forgot?"

Her smile starts at her bright blue eyes and finishes at the tips of her red and turquoise boots. She's in a good mood, despite finishing second tonight.

"Nah," she grins, "I suppose you didn't." When I don't respond, she bumps my arm with one thin, red-checkered shoulder. "Gonna try talking to him later? We're supposed to meet up for drinks after the finals tomorrow. You could tell him you're gonna be there."

"I'm always there, Alice. This isn't new information. I'll be there, and he'll look right through me. Same as always."

"Maybe not," she counters. "Maybe this'll be the weekend when everything changes."

I just roll my eyes and lean over the concrete wall, pointing my lens at the gates. The announcer's voice booms over the crying babies and yelling fans as the music cues up again.

"Ladies and gentleman, our top contenders tonight, currently sittin' in first place in the points standings and looking for pay dirt—please, put your hands together and give a big ol' Texas welcome for Jasper Hale and Edward Cullen!"

George Strait's sexy voice is blaring over the loud speakers, and all the women, Alice included, start singing along as Jasper and Edward come into sight at the gates sitting atop Dolly and Jake.

"You know your mail's gonna get to you, come snow, rain, sleet, or hail, cause I'm a top flight, hold you tight, get you there by daylight, do you right, overnight male!"

It's their signature song. Even the fact that Jasper and Alice probably do it to this song doesn't make me enjoy it any less.

Edward Cullen's about to come back into the arena, and instead of that wild-ass bull he was clinging to earlier tonight, he's mounted on Jake, right where he belongs, right where he's usually sitting when he rides into my dreams every night.

Edward rides bulls because the pay out is good, and because he knows he's not as good on a bull as he is on a horse, which irritates him to no end. Edward is the kind of cowboy that can't stand to lose. He can't stand not to be best at something, so he forces himself to ride two events at every rodeo, something not many team ropers do, particularly not the winning ones.

He rides into the arena with Jasper at a disadvantage every time because he's already gone one or two rounds on a bull and he's tired. Truth told, he's probably dragging ass before he ever hauls up into the saddle, but he never shows it. He ropes better than any cowboy around, better than his Daddy did even. He's the real deal, the kind of hand with a rope that every cowboy on the circuit wishes they could be.

Edward isn't anything like the rest of the circuit cowboys, most of whom are more full of swagger and chewing tobacco than real grit. He's not a smart mouth like Jasper or a bull jock like Emmett. He's not a lost soul like his daddy. Carlisle rejoined the circuit family after Edward's momma lost her battle with breast cancer and went home to Jesus a couple of years ago.

He's just Edward, and when he's on the dirt, with his long legs curved around his big bay, Jake, I rarely remember to look at anything else. Alice knows it. Emmett knows it. I have a sinking suspicion that Carlisle knows it. Hell, even Jasper's bitchy sister Rosalie knows it. But if Edward knows, he's never said one word about it.

Then again, neither have I.

The music winds down as the boys enter the oval, and already I'm capturing, documenting, breathing it in, and committing it to frame after frame.

For big competitions like tomorrow night's final, I'll arrive hours before Emmett and set up remote cameras to capture every second of the events at a variety of angles. Some people might think of it as cheating, I suppose, but there's an art to remote camera work that has taken me several years to perfect. It's mathematical and geometric. It's taught me more than I ever thought I'd know about computers and high tech equipment.

Tonight, though, it's just my trusty Nikon and me. The lovely thing about quality digital cameras, other than the crispness of the images and the ability for immediate review, is the speed with which you can shoot. For a rodeo photographer, speed is everything. My fingers work without me consciously noticing it, moving the lens as my body twists, moving left, then right, then over the side of the concrete wall and pulling back. The camera clicks rapid fire, a tiny machine gun of motion, following my mind and body through moments of grace in the arena.

Jasper sits like a blond god atop Dolly, whose solid roan body flexes before he moves, anticipating what her master wants from countless moments just like this one.

He studies their positioning then nods at the attendant who releases a steer that has no chance to run before the rope in Jasper's hands is flying smoothly above his black hat and landing with perfect precision around both its horns.

He tugs and Dolly backs up, her flanks tightening in the dust, her timing as perfect as she pulls the steer into position for Edward and Jake.

As heeler, Edward's job is tougher than Jasper's. He and Jake surge forward as one, moving left of the steer. His hat tilts as he leans down and to the left, positioning his rope low and tight, and as simply as tying a lace, the steer steps into the trap and the rope catches. Edward's muscular shoulders roll as he tugs the rope while Jake works backward, pulling with his master, tightening the steer in a curling bow of quivering horse flesh and rippling cowboy muscle.

Edward's grin says it all. They were fast and he knows it. His smile reveals his straight white teeth and shows off his dimple. In profile, his straight nose and high cheekbones are more Ralph Lauren model than pro rodeo man. He and Jasper loosen their holds and release the steer, and I capture Edward removing his hat and wiping sweat from the back of his neck with a wrinkled blue bandana. His hair, the copper brown of new hay at sunset, remains a little too long on top. It falls into his eyes, but he's still grinning. That smile goes right to my belly. It's as though his rope has snared me. The coil is pulling tightly through my pelvis, deep into my most womanly places.

I zoom in. He's wearing a dark green corduroy shirt that holds the focus of my frame against the brown and beige of the arena. His eyes, the new green of winter wheat, crinkle at the corners as he smiles. The announcer calls out their time: 4.2 seconds. I want to take the bandana from his fingers and dab the sweat at the collar of that pearl-buttoned shirt before I lick the stubble on his neck.

Instead, I lick my lips and check the Nikon. Thirty-two frames. Not bad.

Noticing that I've stopped shooting, Alice stops clapping and hollering. She swings her cowboy boots toward me on the concrete ledge and motions for the camera. "Get everythin' you wanted?"

I sigh, cue up the image of Edward, bandana to his glistening neck, and unwind the strap from my hair. She takes the camera with both hands and whistles when she looks at the display.

"Hot damn. I reckon you did, Bella Bee."

My eye roll little affects her as she studies the images, clicking back to see what I got of Jasper.

"Uhm. Uhm hmm. That's a good 'un, too." She fixes me with a serious stare, her shoulder length black hair a little wild around her face this late in the evening. "All right, darlin. Time to woman up and go talk to Clit Curlin' Cullen."

"Oh my God, Alice!" My face has to be as crimson as the checks on her shirt. "Shut up! You are such a foul mouthed hooker!"

She giggles. "Yep. And I'm a good time, too."

"Oh my God!" I breathe again, and before I can manage to recover at all, Jasper is walking Dolly around the loop beside us on his way to the muddy lot out back.

"What's this I hear bout a good time?" he whisper yells. And as Edward brings Jake to a stop next to him, I wait for the dirt-covered concrete beneath our feet to open up and swallow me.

"Oh, you know," Alice winks at him, "just me and Bella Bee McCarty, having a good time. Bella Bee is always a good time."

I yank the camera out of her hands as she waltzes over to Jasper and leans up on her tiptoes for a kiss.

While they play kissy face, Edward's eyes meet mine and the rope in my gut is now on fire, singeing my innards to dust. His gaze slides away. He seems to be paying close attention to the length of rope in his fingers.

Alice comes up for air, pawing at Jasper's blue gray shirt and smiling at me like the cat that swallowed the whole goddamn canary. "Y'all still on for drinks tomorrow night?" She's heavy on her Is, making them do all the work in her words. It's an occupational hazard of growing up around rodeos in West Texas. Her consonants are sorely underused.

"You know it, baby," Jasper's gloved hand is tracing its way across her collarbone. Jesus H. Christ. Do they have to touch each other like that in front of me—and Edward?

Alice rolls her shoulders and bats her eyes, never missing a beat. "You, too, Edward?"

Rosalie's voice cuts through my studious inspection of the lines of his hands as she appears with Emmett in tow, asking, "Are you coming, Edward, darlin?" in a sultry voice with a little too much emphasis on the word coming. Speaking of hookers.

At this, I reach down for my camera bag and begin capping my lens and pulling the flash apart. I have no desire to watch him react to her or to see my brother trailing after her like a dog on a leash.

"I reckon," he says, and then they're all moving away toward the ramps outside while I fiddle with my camera and close up my bag. I take a few more seconds to stow everything carefully before I zip it up and turn to follow them outside.

I nearly walk right into Jake, who rolls his head and paws the ground in annoyance. Looking up, I'm met with green eyes and an up close look at that stubble I just shot six tight frames of a few minutes ago.

"Hey, Bella," Edwards says, and I gulp, suddenly realizing that in my shock my hands have come to rest on his chap-covered thigh. Stepping back immediately, mortified, the color rushes to my face despite my silent prayers to stop it.

"Oh! Um, Edward. Hey, Edward." Oh, God. I'm a stuttering idiot. "Um. Nice roping tonight. You did, uh, a real fine job out there."

He smiles, and I swear to God the room gets lighter. It's like he's made of sunshine. He smells divine—leather and sweat and musky, luscious man.

"Thanks. It was a good time. Better than earlier tonight."

My mind stutters to keep up with the conversation. "Oh, the bull? You did all right there, too. I mean, top five's still in the money."

He shrugs. "I s'pose." He nods toward my camera bag. "Was it a good night for you? You get any of that demon throwing me down?"

My fingers automatically tighten on my bag. "Um. I don't know. Don't think so? But I got some good stuff, anyway."

All of my good stuff is for you, Edward. All of it.

He nods, studying me and running his fingers through Jake's mane, rubbing down his velvety neck. It's quiet suddenly. We seem to have exhausted our small store of things to talk about.

"So I'll see ya tomorrow?" He pats Jake's neck. "I mean, afterward, with everybody else?"

"Sure. I mean, yeah, of course."

Anything you want, Edward.

His head jerks up and that smile I have memorized is back. "Of course. Right. Well, g'night."

Jake snorts, and they are off, wandering on over to the outdoor ramps in a lumbering, rolling walk. Edward's wide shoulders and straight back rock back and forth as he sits astride Jake. I look at him for just a few seconds more, wondering if he always rides that straight, and if he looks that firm and set when he's riding other things.

Before my mind can drop completely into the gutter, I shake my head and start after him. I'm ready for my hotel, a hot bath, and a dark room, away from the inquisitive eyes of the cowboys and cowgirls around me.

-TRD-

Edward's riding the perimeter of a circular meadow when I see him next. He's practicing roping as a header. His loop is a wide, flat oval above his head that snakes out long and clean before tightening against the grass as he twists his wrist. His forearm rarely moves. The majority of roping comes from the wrist, something Edward manipulates all too well. Watching him rope is beauty in motion, smooth and simple and clean.

Heavy pines and river birch trees edge the meadow. The forest seems intent on driving us together us as he catches the corners of a rotten log in the center of the wildflowers and grass.

He's wearing a brilliant blue pearl button shirt with his Wranglers. His protective vest and chaps are missing, but I can't say I mind. Every frame is awash in blue motion. I can't capture enough images to pay tribute to the fluid grace with which he and Jake move through the foggy dawn.

In one frame, they're backlit by the rising sun, rope swirling above their black outlines in the dewy, golden fog.

"Like what ya see, McCarty?" he hollers, and I laugh, clicking away. His rope is between his fingers again as he walks Jake toward me, demanding, "Drop that camera. I need a moving target."

"You wouldn't dare, Edward Cullen!" I shriek, placing the camera at my feet and stepping slowly background, my boots carrying me toward the safety of the trees.

A moment later, it becomes clear that he would. I hear the whistle of the rope before I see it, and he's snared me, pinning my arms at my sides.

"Ain't this a spot?" he chuckles, wrapping his end of the rope around the horn of his saddle and smoothly dismounting, all long legs and tight ass and muscular forearms.

"Jake!" I entreat. "Jakey, come here, boy!" But like any good roping horse, Jake stands still, holding the rope taut, listening to no one but his master.

Edward stalks forward as I wriggle against the roughened edge of the rope. He's laughing.

"I'm not kidding, Edward. Get this damn rope offa me. This ain't funny! Get it off or I'll—"

"You'll what?" He stops in front of me, and leans down to push my hair away from one of my shoulders with long fingers. He leans forward, inhaling at my neck, his nose smoothing against my collarbone and his hat catching my ear. "What'cha gonna do, Bella Bird?"

I can't think, can't breathe without smelling leather and musk and grass. I'm going to die right here, tied up in a damn rope. How unfair can life be?

Not all that unfair, as it turns out, because the next moment he takes hold of my shoulders with his rough hands and licks his way up my neck.

I am dead. I have to be. There's no other explanation for this Heaven.

I manage to croak out a response as his warm, wet tongue teases my earlobe, but it takes every bit of concentration I have left.

"Wh-what're you gonna do, Eh- Edward?"

The heat of his breath against my neck sends tingles down to my toes. His fingers thread around my forearms, thumbs brushing over the prickly rope.

"I…am gonna…enjoy…this…" He punctuates each pause with a kiss.

After that several things happen at once. My legs start to give out, Jake backs up to hold me still, and Edward's thighs come around me like vise grips. He's kind enough to gently remove the rope and then we're both drifting down.

His arms cradle me on the way to the grass, where he lays me out beneath him, my hair snarling around my face and the bluebonnets.

My fingers tangle in the hair at the nape of his neck, soft and thick, feeling the warmth of his browned skin beneath. Our lips meet and slide, learning each other's jaws, our cheeks, and the smooth skin of our eyelids.

I don't expect him to pull away but an odd buzzing noise has distracted both of us. I don't know what it is, but it needs to stop. I just want more time with him, more kisses and closeness, but I can't concentrate. The incessant sound won't stop.

I open my eyes to search for the source of the noise and am greeted by the beige walls and generic watercolor paintings of my motel room.

6:30 a.m.

Fuck.

I really, really hate motel alarm clocks.

-TRD-

Later that morning, I'm hanging out on the catwalk above the arena, snapping photo after photo. The timers on the third remote cam are giving me fits. Huffing in frustration, I look down and see him walk into the arena.

I know I'm blushing, and I'm thankful to God that I'm all the way up here where Edward really can't see me. Talk about dirty thoughts. Most of what I can see is the top of his hat, but I can tell it's him by his relaxed gait. He walks over to Carlisle and they talk for a moment before his dad points up toward me.

Oh, God. His dad is pointing out the woman who was dreaming about him this morning. This is worse than mortifying. I think I might have a panic attack if I weren't handling such expensive equipment. As it is, I nearly stumble in my own rigging, my fingers snatching the cool iron of the breezeway bars as he looks up. He tips his hat and waves.

Hoping my face is still obscured in shadows and light rigs, I wave back.

After that, it's back to work for both of us. He ropes for a while, practicing heeler on a hay bale, while I keep busy with control panels that don't want to cooperate.

I'm hoping to get some great shots tonight. If I can get enough of what I'm looking for, I might be able to sell an entire rodeo package to American Horseman magazine. They seem interested, and I'm ready, provided they'll pay me what the images are worth.

It's sort of a dog dance we've got going. Every few weeks they call me up or I email them, and we keep sniffing around, waiting on the right spot to seal a deal.

When I climb down a few hours later, finally satisfied that everything above and around the perimeter of the arena will fire when necessary, I lean back against the rails and watch him.

He must notice me out of the corner of his eye, because he whistles and grins. "C'mere," he motions with one arm. "Come give it a shot."

"Me? No. I can't rope. Riding's one thing, but I'm no rodeo gal."

"Who says? Betcha'd pick it up right quick."

He walks over to me and I can't help but smile. I could get used to this, being this close to that roan scruff and those winter wheat eyes.

I duck my head, embarrassed and needing to break eye contact. "Nah. I'm just a monkey with a camera."

"Hey." His stern tone draws my eyes back to his.

"Hmm?"

"Don't do that," he says and swallows hard. "Don't put yourself down. I've seen your pictures, Bella. They're good. I sure couldn't do it. I don't know how ya keep up when everything's movin' that fast."

I roll my eyes. "It's just something I do."

"Well, you're damn quick."

I nod toward the rope in his hand. "So'er you."

"Well." The smile that breaks out on his face nearly blinds me. I blink, and he grins wider. "Well. That's something we got in common, ain't it, Bella Bird?"

He lopes off toward his hay bale again. When I turn around, Carlisle is looking up from the block of wood he's whittling on with his Case pocketknife, a shit-eating grin plastered on his beautiful face. Alice, lounging against the chutes, is wearing a smile so wide it's fit to split her face.

"Shut up," I hiss as I stomp past her.

"What?" She drawls, feigning innocence. "What? I didn't say a goddamn thang!"

-TRD-

The arena is so full of people by 6 p.m. that even the contestants and photogs are feeling crowded. Alice is so keyed up, she's practically vibrating. Stomping around in her purple boots and a matching purple shirt with cream fringe, she looks like she's ready for her close up in "Annie, Get Your Gun!" Trying to make her laugh, I snap her photo as she brings Pandora closer to the gates and begins checking her saddle and bridle, cinching everything tight.

"Here's one of our barrel racing champions, Miss Alice Brandon!" I use my mock-loud speaker voice.

"You best take my good side. I want me and Pandora to look perfect at the top of the points table when they post tomorrow."

"You feeling it?"

"Feeling it? I'm gonna wipe the ground with Rosalie's ass tonight, girl. Lay money on it."

Watching Rose stretching out her lithe legs in her skin tight Cruel Girls ten feet away, I smirk.

"I'd sure like to, Alice."

An hour later, Carlisle starts lamenting that he didn't bet on Alice.

"I ain't seen a girl ride like that since the Johnson administration. You ever seen anything like her? If you'd a blinked, you'd a missed her."

I pause from taking crowd shots of little kids with giant spools of pink cotton candy to roll my eyes. "She was faster'n you are old, that's for sure. What are you now, Carlisle? Thirty?"

"He's gone past forty-eight, last March, and apparently I can't trust him at all. I leave for a few minutes, and he's done got you hitting on him."

Edward's wearing his black safety vest. His hands are white with rosin and powder. My heart gives a little skip. I despise seeing him on bulls, and tonight he drew the worst one. Emmett is pissed. He wanted Code 9, because he says the bull is rated so highly that sticking for eight would mean a near lock down on winning the weekend and the points standings. Fitting, I reckon, for a bull named after the Texas police code for a fatal accident.

I'm not sure why seeing Edward ready to climb down the chute onto a bull freaks me out so much more than seeing Emmett do it. Maybe it's because I've been watching Emmett on them since he was fourteen and I was eleven. Maybe it's because Emmett easily has eighty pounds on Edward. Bulls are in my brother's blood the way horses are in Edward's. Emmett's had his share of scrapes and broken bones, but no serious injuries. He's as crazy as they are, which seems to work to his advantage. Edward's trouble is that he always seems to hope he can outthink them.

That's his mistake. Bulls aren't horses. They don't think about anything except destruction.

"What'cha thinking bout, darlin?" He peers down at me from beneath that black hat. For one desperate moment, I consider begging him to sit out this round, but I don't.

"Not a thing. Have a great ride, okay, Edward?"

"I better. If'n I don't, you'll have a permanent record of it from about a hundred angles."

"That's true. Could be pretty embarrassing."

"Downright sad, but don't cha worry, Bella Bird. I got this."

He tips his hat and sets off to the chutes, long legs carrying him away from me. With a shiver, I realize what runs through my mind.

Famous last words.

Emmett rides Tarnation, a hulking gray bull with a fetish for dragging cowboys down the walls. Despite the best efforts of the clowns, I can still see Emmett's limp when he surfaces after finally letting go. He made the buzzer, though, and his score rewards how well he stuck.

A few other cowboys ride. One drops after six seconds, while the other barely makes seven. Emmett's the only one to make the limit, and he's sitting in first place, waiting over by the chutes, when Edward drops into the box with Code 9.

The first few images I capture blur the cowboys around the chute and focus on Edward, tightening his hand in the rope as he struggles to get his legs around the bull beneath him.

Code 9, a snarling black beast with horns as sharp as vampire teeth, seems to be doing his best to shatter Edward's legs before they ever leave the chute. I lean out as far over the concrete wall as I can, shooting eight frames a second. At last, through my lens, I see Edward's left hand go up and his head go down. A half second later, he and Code 9 explode into the arena in a whirl of dust and color.

The clowns stick to the perimeters, trying to keep him off he walls, but it's unnecessary since the horrifyingly magnificent animal below him is more interested in bucking and rolling until Edward's brains must be as liquid as the Diet Coke Alice has forgotten on the rail beside her.

"Holy hell," someone breathes, but I can't be sure if it's her or me. The bull seems to leap into the air as weightless as a feather and land with the force of a detonating bomb three or four times per second. Shaking, snorting and shuddering, it skids right, then left, then right, kicking with all its might.

Edward's hat flew off three seconds in. His back is ramrod straight, his left hand reaching for Heaven as he hangs on as tightly as he can. I see him choke up on his rope and suddenly he's letting go, tucking his head and rolling away in the dirt.

It's over.

Relieved, I keep shooting as the clowns herd Code 9 back to the gates. Edward leans over to pick up his hat, and it's in that moment that my worst nightmares become reality.

Code 9 breaks away from the rodeo clowns, who cannot run the length of the arena as quickly as an out-of-control bull. Those horns hook into Edward's back near the bottom of his vest and then he's airborne.

Before I can think about what's happening, I'm swinging my legs over the side of the wall and landing sideways in the dirt, camera forgotten.

There are screams, possibly mine, as the bull makes right back for where Edward is lying still. Waving and shouting, I brandish my camera like a sword, and strangely enough, it seems to work. The noise of the shutter, combined with my banshee shrieks, draw the crazed bull away from Edward. Two cowboys swoop in to haul him out of the arena, and thank the Good Lord, the clowns descend on me faster than the bull, which gets distracted again by their ridiculous barrels and strange clothes.

Cold cement presses against my back, and I lean into the arena wall, breathing heavy and trying to plot how best to get the hell out of the situation I've landed myself in. Moments later, the problem is solved for me, when Emmett reaches down, grips my shoulders, and hauls me out all on his own.

"What in the bully hell did ya think you were doing?" he screams, and I flinch away, scanning the gates for Edward. I don't see him. Where is he? Is he okay?

"He's fine, you damn fool!" Emmett's booming voice interrupts me. I didn't realize I was talking out loud. "Shut the hell up about Edward. You wanna tell me just what in God's name that trick was you just pulled? You damn near got yourself killed, Bells!"

Edward's sitting in a far corner of the contestants' area with his dad and Jasper, getting checked out by the paramedics. I duck under Emmett and take off running, flinging myself at Harris, one of the EMTs who volunteers here for big events. "Is he okay?" I yell. "Is he gonna be okay? Did it hurt his back? It was going right for his back!"

Harris, who's taking off a stethoscope, fixes me with a gray-eyed glare. "I think he's gone be fine, but you need your head examined, Bella. What the hell?"

"What?" I push around him and reach out for Edward, unable to resist the need to hold him in my arms and know that he's okay. He's breathing hard, but when I crash into him, he only huffs a bit and leans his head against my shoulder. "Why's everybody looking at me? Check him out! It was goin' for his back! He could be paralyzed!"

"I ain't paralyzed, Bella," Edward's shaky voice does little to instill confidence in me. "Ain't nothin' busted but my pride."

"Bullshit. You need an X-ray or something." My hands find his hair and weave into it, feeling his skull for blood or possible cracks. "You can't just get tossed around by a bull and shake it off. Goddamn. Why'd you gotta get on those fool-headed bulls for anyway, Edward?"

Emmett takes advantage of my tirade to join in on the name-calling. "She's right. You're a damn fool, Cullen! That's my sister you bout got killed, you sonofabitch!"

"Emmett," Edwards says, talking around his bleeding lower lip, which is swelling more by the minute. "Can ya shut up? The girl I've been wanting to take out for near on a year just saved my goddamn life. Your flapping gums are ruining it."

I look up from the ice bag Harris is handing me for Edward's lip and shake my head.

"What'd you just say? How hard did you hit your head?"

Emmett scowls.

"You ain't no damn good on a bull and you ain't no damn good fer nothin'! Keep your ass on your horse and away from my sister!"

Edward takes the ice from my hands, spits a stream of pink fluid into the dirt between his legs, and sighs. "Emmett's right."

"What? No, he's not. He's not. Shut up, Emmett! I can take care of myself!"

"Really? You call jumping in arenas with wild animals taking care of yourself, huh? Couldn't prove it by me."

"You do it every day almost!"

"I'm a man!"

"What's that got to do with the price of eggs in in China? I'll do whatever I wanna do. He was gonna get gored!"

"Are y'all done?"

Emmett and I snap out of our shouting match long enough to focus back in on Edward. He sniffs and licks his busted lip.

"Emmett is right. I need to stick with horses. And you been right all along. Right fer me. And I'm gonna stick with you, Bella Bee. If you'll have me, that is?"

For once, I forget to care about Rosalie, who came over to watch the sideshow and now appears to be trying to drag my brother back a few steps. Forgetting Alice and Emmett, Carlisle and Harris, I launch myself at Edward.

"Still sore here," he mutters, as I practically straddle him. His arms come around me and his bleeding knuckles leave smears on my cheeks as he cradles my face in his busted up hands.

"Good God, you scared me," I confess, my eyes swimming with tears. His lips find mine, and then his tongue is tracing the edges of my lips. It tastes like salt and copper, and I don't even care that it should be gross.

"You scared me," he says. "Don't cha ever do that again, darlin. I damn near had a heart attack."

His hands tangle in my hair, and he's tilting my head back to get a better angle as I try to attack his mouth without further damaging his lip.

"I'm fine. Just kiss me. Please kiss me," he says, and I can't even register than somebody is clapping in front of us. It's all just white noise. This is all I know and all I'll ever need. Right here, with Edward's mouth on mine.

This kiss—this kiss is sweeter than anything I could have dreamed, even with the blood and dirt, because it's real—so gloriously real.