Disclaimer: (Content and legal) All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Rated M for language/lemons.

Beta'd by KarenEC, who wrangles my unruly grammar.

~Every Last Piece~

"It's amazing how someone can break your heart and yet you still love them with every last piece." – Anonymous

Jasper Whitlock was the most intriguing man I had ever met. He'd been coming into the coffee shop I worked at for nearly four months. He checked me out every single time he came in. He smiled, he flirted a little, and he never asked for my number. It drove me crazy.

Every morning, about half an hour before he was due, I began to get antsy to see him. He came in every single day at 11:00 am on the dot for a tall latte with an extra shot of espresso. Every morning we chatted a little and I paid attention to every little detail about him. I knew that he didn't like sweets, and he was always dressed in a suit. He favored suits in shades of grey, tan, or olive. He was a law student interning at a nearby law office. He'd always wanted a motorcycle. He was left-handed.

And, he was married.

It was the last part that was a problem. No matter how attracted to him I was, the thought of sleeping with a married man made me sick. I wasn't going to be that girl. Not that he'd ever actually made a move, but I had a feeling if I'd really truly pushed him, he might have caved. Thus far, I'd managed to stay strong but it has been getting increasingly difficult.

The bell on the door jangled and Jasper walked through it. I sighed as I watched him saunter toward me, looking confident as always. The shop was quiet, with just a few people at the tables, and no one was ahead of him in line.

"Mornin', Mary Alice." His face lit up as he smiled at me.

"Morning, Jasper." I felt my own smile tug at my lips.

It was our standard greeting, but the sweet, soft timbre of his voice never failed to make me swoon. And the trace of a Southern drawl made my heart flutter.

"The usual?" I asked.

"Of course. I'm surprised you don't have it ready and waiting for me. I am a creature of habit."

"Now why would I do that?" I teased. "This way I can make you stick around a little longer."

He grinned at me, the left side of his mouth curling up into a knowing smile. "You have a good point. I certainly wouldn't want to cut our time short."

I deftly made his drink for him as we talked. It was something I could make in my sleep after all this time. I liked making it for him; somehow, it felt like I could pour all of my feelings for him into the coffee. By drinking it, he would know how I felt.

"How's your day going?" I asked as I mixed the steamed milk and espresso together in the cup.

He sighed. "It's all right. I'd just as soon be outside on a day like this." He gestured toward the windows of the shop that showed a clear blue sky, a rarity here in Seattle.

"Me, too," I said wistfully. "Maybe I'll take my books to the park when I get off work."

"What are you studying today?" he asked.

I made a face. "Physics."

The truth was that, I'd never really wanted to go into architecture, but my mother had pushed me, and saying no to Cynthia Brandon wasn't really an option. She said jump, and I said how high. She was a highly sought after architect in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was no convincing her that I didn't share her dreams. She wanted for me to join the firm she'd started. Running away to Seattle had been my only real act of rebellion.

I handed him his coffee and he took it from me, the light glinting off his wedding band. It was a simple circle of white gold, narrow, and without any other adornment. And yet, it represented so much. Our fingers brushed together and he didn't pull back, his hand just hovering there, resting next to mine. His skin was warm and dry and it made my breath catch in my throat.

Jasper sighed after a long moment and pulled his hand away. "Well, my dear, it's time for me to go back to work. See you tomorrow?"

I was frustrated with how fleeting our time together was. I wanted more time with Jasper. Not five stolen minutes over a cup of coffee. "Of course," I smiled tightly and he frowned.

"What put that look on your face?"

I shook my head. "Nothing. It's nothing, Jasper."

He sighed as if he knew I was lying. "Until tomorrow then, Mary Alice."

I nodded and watched him walk away from me as he had every other day.

I wanted him. I wanted him with a fierceness that took me by surprise. I'd never felt anything like this for anyone before. But wanting him didn't change facts. He was out of my reach, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to change it.

~ELP~

I spent the rest of the day fighting between wanting to think about Jasper and trying not to think about Jasper. When my shift ended at 3:00 pm I took off my apron and hung it up in the back, slipping into a ratty old sweater and grabbing my book bag. I had hours of studying ahead of me, and since it was a perfect Indian Summer day, I decided I'd go with my earlier plan of heading to the park. I found a free bench and ensconced myself there with my feet pulled up and my books spread around me. I munched on the granola bar that had been in my bag for god knows how long, and began to work.

Hours later, my belly growled with hunger, there was a kink in my neck and I couldn't stomach the thought of another physics problem. I set my work aside and reached for my architectural history book. It wasn't necessarily fun reading, but anything beat physics. I had been reading for at least an hour before I was interrupted.

"Well, fancy meetin' you here." A soft drawl interrupted my reading and I glanced up to see Jasper smiling down at me.

"Jasper! What are you doing here?" I asked, smiling back.

"I just got off work and thought I'd take a walk since it's such a nice day."

I nodded, wondering if he'd come here on purpose, knowing I might be here. I dismissed the thought as foolish; I had no real reason to think Jasper would go out of his way to see me. He was attracted to me, that wasn't hard to see, but I had doubts that it went anywhere beyond that.

I scrambled to clear a spot on the bench for him and stuffed my feet back into my shoes and sat up straight. With a wince, I wondered how soon he'd have to get home to his wife and then hated myself for even thinking it.

"Do you have a moment?" I asked.

He hesitantly took a seat beside me. "Sure. I don't want to intrude though..."

"It's no intrusion. I really needed a break." I smiled at him.

His thigh brushed mine and I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself from pressing tighter against him. I'd never felt him so close to me. He smelled incredible; his cologne was a rich, warm scent, redolent of tobacco, sandalwood, and spice. My heart beat faster in my chest and I struggled to form a coherent thought.

"What are your plans for the evening, Miss Mary?" he asked.

"More studying," I said ruefully. "Maybe dinner with my roommate, Bella. I don't know."

"Have dinner with me," he said impulsively. I turned and looked at him in surprise.

"But what about... what about your wife?" It was the first time either of us had acknowledged that he was married since he'd mentioned it the first time.

He shook his head. "She's out of town visiting family."

"Are you sure we should?" I asked softly. I wanted to have dinner with him, but I didn't want him to think that it was going to go anywhere beyond dinner.

"I'm not expecting anything, Mary Alice, just dinner with you."

"All right," I agreed. Half of me was disappointed that all he expected was dinner, but I knew it was for the best, even if it didn't feel like it at all. "What did you have in mind?"

"Hmm," he pondered. "I think I have just the place in mind. And it's not too far of a walk."

I packed up my books and hiked my bag over my shoulder, glancing ruefully down at my worn jeans and tattered sweater. I had dreamed about Jasper asking me out to dinner and this was a far cry from what I would have picked to wear if I'd had a choice. I wasn't a clothes snob, but I did want to look pretty for him. He leaned in closer and spoke quietly in my ear. "You look beautiful, Mary Alice. I couldn't have asked for a prettier dining companion."

Clearly, I wasn't hard for him to read. "Thank you, Jasper."

He fell into step beside me and we talked as we made our way to a small restaurant just a few blocks over. It was a quiet, unpretentious place, serving homey Italian food and I hadn't eaten all day. The smell of marinara and garlic made my mouth water. When we were seated at a small table in the dim corner of the restaurant, I looked up at Jasper. He was dressed in a pale grey flannel suit with a white shirt. His light brown hair hung in sun-streaked curls that fell just below his ears and his eyes were a soft green-blue. The candle on the table between us threw flickering light up onto his face, softly illuminating his features. He had dimples even when he was barely smiling, and soft looking lips. I licked my own, wanting to know what his would feel like pressed against mine.

He closed his eyes for a moment, the long lashes sweeping down to touch the tops of his cheeks and I wanted to reach out and touch every inch of his face. It was so hard not responding to the instincts his presence pulled from me. So hard not to give in to the intense cravings he created in my body.

He opened his eyes, sighed, and looked down at his menu while I sat back in my seat, wondering what on earth I was doing here. It was stupid to do this when we both knew he was off limits.

We ordered dinner; ravioli with meat sauce for Jasper, fettuccini Alfredo for me, and big salads for both of us. I scarfed down garlic bread, knowing it didn't matter if I had bad breath, and really, really wishing it did. We talked about inconsequential things at first, music and movies, and books. But eventually, as we lingered over post-dinner coffees I found myself confessing that I hated architecture, that what I really wanted to do was drop out of school and study cosmetology.

"I know it seems... trivial. It's not a career like architecture. But there's something almost healing about it, you know? A woman comes in because she's had a bad breakup and she leaves feeling so much stronger about herself, so much more confident. That means something. I don't just want to make people feel pretty for ten minutes, I want to help them feel better about themselves overall. I could work for an organization that does makeovers for homeless people trying to get jobs. Something. Anything like that. It may not be a prestigious career, but I know I'd be good at it."

I sighed. "But no matter how many times I tell my mother that it's what I want to do, she throws a fit. She actually said that it would break her heart if I did. How can I live with myself if I do that?"

Jasper's hand reached out and covered mine. My skin tingled where he touched me and I sucked in a breath sharply.

"I think your ambitions are really wonderful, and if it's what will make you happy, you should pursue it. How can you live your life making someone else happy, Mary Alice? That's not fair to you."

"And you? Are you happy, Jasper?"

He frowned and rubbed his thumb softly across the back of my hand. "No, I'm not," he admitted.

"Why not?"

"I never should have married Maria," he said, a trace of bitterness in his voice all of a sudden.

He'd never said her name before and it hurt to hear it, even though I knew they weren't happy together. "Why is that?" I asked softly.

He sighed and leaned back a little, but he didn't let go of my hand. "We met in high school and started dating when I was fifteen. We had some problems, but just when I was thinking about leaving her, she got pregnant. She was seventeen, and I was eighteen. Even then, I kinda wondered if it was completely accidental, but I didn't have any proof, and there was a baby on the way, so I did the honorable thing. We had a quick courthouse wedding and I graduated, and she got her GED after the baby came. I loved Ellie from the minute she was born. Maria and I fought a lot, but Ellie made it all worthwhile. At least at first. But it kept getting worse.

By the time Ellie was two, we were really struggling. We had no money and Ellie had some health problems. I didn't want to leave Ellie without a father, but I was starting to think she might be better off if Maria and I were separated. I moved out, but just a week later she came to me saying she was pregnant again."

God, kids. He had kids... why hadn't I even considered that? Now I really felt awful about my feelings for him. No kid deserved to have a dad who was out seeing other women. Not that I thought Jasper was a cheater. He didn't seem the type at all. Although, we were out to dinner and he was holding my hand. Hadn't we already crossed a line that should never have been breached? Still, I didn't pull away from his warm touch.

He sighed and I squeezed his hand, wanting him to continue. "It's been shitty ever since. I love Ellie and Sarah, but my marriage to Maria is a disaster. She confessed to me eventually that she did it on purpose. Both times, she got pregnant on purpose just to keep me with her. It made me so angry and betrayed to know that my wife manipulated me like that. We haven't been intimate since.

"I hate her for what she did; I just can't bring myself to leave the girls. I know she'll turn it into a nasty custody fight. She has no money of her own, and although I'd happily pay child support, she'd take every dime from me. I don't need it myself, except for school and taking care of the girls, but I help out my momma. She's widowed and barely making it as is. If I don't have the money for her, I don't know what she'll do..."

"I'm so sorry, Jasper," I said soothingly. "I can't imagine how difficult it's been for you. That's a hard choice to make." Inside, I was angry though. Angry at Maria for manipulating a sweet, caring man like that. He deserved so much better.

He nodded and his thumb softly circled the back of my hand again, spreading warmth through my whole body.

"I have to be honest with you, Mary Alice. I am attracted to you. Very attracted. You're the only woman I've looked twice at since Maria and I started dating. You're a smart, beautiful woman and if I were single..." he chuckled lowly, a deep rumbling sound that made my thighs clench together.

"If I were a single man I'd do everything I could to romance you. You're exactly the kind of woman I'd want to be with."

"Jasper..." I started to protest but he cut me off.

"I mean it, Mary Alice. I would do anything to make you mine. I know you would feel like sin in my arms and in my bed. I know you'd taste sweet on my tongue and that a single night with you would let me die a happy man."

"Jasper..." I moaned softly, my entire body simmering with desire at the images his words conjured. I felt flushed and the spot between my thighs ached for him. My whole body ached to know his touch.

"I know," he said and he lifted his hand to touch my cheek. "I know how hard this is for you. It is for me, too. But I can't be unfaithful. It just goes against everything I believe in. No matter how difficult it is. No matter how much I want to do otherwise."

I lowered my head, letting my face rest against his palm for just a moment, drinking in the feel of him. I might never be able to be with Jasper like I wanted, but this moment with him was more than I had dreamed about. Knowing that he wanted me as badly as I wanted him was small comfort, but it was something. "I know," I whispered.

The spell was broken when the waiter came to clear our empty coffee cups. I didn't protest when Jasper paid for dinner. I somehow knew he'd be hurt if I offered to pay. After he had signed for the check, we moved slowly, gathering up our things, delaying the inevitable. Still, there was only so slow we could go, and it wasn't terribly long before we were standing on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Certainly not long enough.

"Where do you live?" Jasper asked. I told him and he nodded. "I'll walk you over there."

We walked slowly in silence, his fingers brushing mine every so often as we walked awkwardly close together. These unspoken rules we had both imposed on ourselves were rigid and unyielding. It didn't mean we didn't try to take advantage of the few loopholes we could find, though. We couldn't hold hands, but if our pinkies brushed, well, that was allowed. However arbitrary the rules were, they were what kept us balanced on the razor's edge. They were what kept us from tipping over the edge into something we'd both regret.

On the sidewalk in front of my building he stopped. "Good night, Mary Alice."

"Good night, Jasper."

He leaned forward and for one wild minute, I thought his lips were aiming for mine, but instead they brushed softly over my forehead. Soft and slow, warm and tender. They were everything I wanted them to be, just not where I wanted them. My heart ached. His hand tenderly cradled the back of my head and I felt the firm lines of his body lightly pressed against me. His lips lingered and I closed my eyes, drinking in every last sensation of him touching me. I knew it was all I would probably every get. And why was it that his simple touch made me feel so much more than any previous man's heated caresses?

With a low, drawn out sigh he released me and turned away without another word. There was nothing more to say. I went inside, feeling melancholy and yet surprisingly peaceful. My heart hurt at the thought of never having more with Jasper, but at least now, I knew he wanted it too.

Bella was in the apartment when I got inside, hunched over an anatomy textbook, furiously highlighting and scribbling notes in the margin. She waved distractedly at me and muttered, "There's pizza on the counter. Sorry I didn't wait for you, I was starving."

"It's okay," I said softly. "I picked up something on the way."

She nodded and immersed herself in her work, tuning me out immediately. She was a couple of years older than I, and already in medical school, while I was not yet finished with my undergrad degree. Bella spent more time studying than she did sleeping or anything else for that matter. She was a good roommate though, and I was glad she'd answered the classified ad and moved in when my former roommate had gone to live with her boyfriend.

Bella and I were friends, and sometimes I even thought of her as a big sister. Under normal circumstances, I might have told her about what had happened with Jasper. But there was something about the situation, something about him, that made me want to keep it quiet. I trusted her, and she wouldn't judge, but I liked the idea of keeping it all to myself.

I stashed my leftovers from dinner in the fridge and went into my room, curling up in my bed, closing my eyes, and letting the memories of tonight wash over me. I fell asleep with the feel Jasper's lips on my forehead.

~ELP~

When I saw Jasper the next morning, things were the same as always, although his eyes were more intent on mine, and sadder looking. We contented ourselves with five minutes of conversation and the brush of our fingers together.

Day after day, the same routine. I dated a little, and found it all incredibly unsatisfying. I'd stopped even wanting to kiss another guy, now that I'd felt Jasper's lips on my skin. Although I knew it would never go anywhere, the simmering tension between us lingered, and I couldn't move on with anyone else. I ached with a need that only Jasper would satisfy.

Nothing changed until one day, maybe six months later, when he didn't come in for his usual 11:00 A.M. coffee. I worried about him all day, and I was shocked when I saw him waiting outside the coffee shop when I left that afternoon.

He looked worn and haggard, and for the first time I saw him dressed casually. He wasn't in his usual suit, but torn jeans and a rumpled flannel with a faded T-shirt underneath.

"Mary Alice," he said hoarsely. "Do you think?" -He cleared his throat- "Do you think we could talk?"

"Of course," I gasped.

"Somewhere private," he begged.

I nodded and he pushed off the brick building where he'd been leaning against it and I took his arm, gently wrapping my fingers around his bicep. He didn't look strong enough to stand without assistance. I was dimly aware of how his body felt under my hands and then hated myself for even noticing when the man I cared about was in agony. His eyes were lost and haunted looking, the pain in them palpable.

I ushered him toward my apartment and he followed me inside blankly. Bella wasn't home, and probably wouldn't be until much later that evening. She had a late evening anatomy lab and she never skipped.

Still, I wanted to make sure we had privacy to talk so I took him into my room and he sat down on the bed. It didn't seem like he was even registering his surroundings. I knelt on the floor in front of him and gently placed my hands on his thighs.

"Jasper," I said softly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

He nodded and pursed his lips for a moment before he began. "She's been cheating on me. For years."

My heart ached at the hurt and betrayal on his face and I let him continue. "I don't love her anymore, but how could she do that to me? I've done everything for her and the girls. I've sacrificed so much. And she just threw it away like it meant nothing to her. I can't believe she'd do that to me. To our family."

I gently rubbed his thigh and he sighed heavily. "I just don't know what to do now."

I had no answer for him. I wanted him to say he'd divorce her. But I wanted it for selfish reasons, and I couldn't be the kind of woman who broke up a family.

"The worst part is..." he sighed and didn't continue. His head fell forward and I stood up and crawled on the bed behind him, gently rubbing his back. His shoulders heaved and I heard a strangled sob leave him. "The worst part is I'm afraid Ellie and Sarah might not be mine."

He broke down in tears and I hugged him, wrapping my arms around his shoulders, and burying my face against his neck. I finally understood why he was so upset. For a man who loved his children so much, it had to be agonizing to wonder if they were even his. Once we'd discussed them over dinner, he talked about them a lot. Telling me about their small accomplishments, the love in his voice for them clear and strong. I felt like I knew them even though I'd only seen pictures.

He cried quietly for a long time. It wasn't until his tears turned into shuddering sobs that I was able to gently coax him to lie down. He lay there with his forearm over his eyes as they finally slowed. I curled up next to him, rubbing his chest gently in slow, soothing circles.

"I'm sorry, Jasper," I said finally. There was nothing I could say to make the situation better. He nodded and his arm moved away from his face and he turned to look at me. His eyes were red and the expression was so lost. So haunted and broken. Not being able to comfort him hurt me.

"I love them so much. What do I do if they were never mine?" he asked.

"You continue to love them," I answered. "As far as they're concerned it doesn't matter if you aren't biologically their father.

"You can be angry with her," I couldn't even find it in myself to say her name. I wanted to hurt her for hurting him. "But the girls love you, no matter what choices their mother made."

"I know," he said. "I do, and I'd never take it out on them. I just don't know what to do next."

"Do you want to find out?" I asked.

He turned onto his side to face me, resting his temple against his upper arm. His hair was tangled and dark looking against my pale blue sheets. "I don't know. I feel like once I know, everything will change, and that scares me. I want it to change with Maria. It has to change between us. But I am afraid of what will happen with the girls."

I understand," I said softly and reached over to him. He threaded his fingers through mine and closed his eyes, looking completely and utterly exhausted. I closed mine as well, intending to rest them for just a moment, but without even realizing it, I fell asleep.

I awoke a while later. Jasper was awake, but from the dazed look in his eyes, I guessed he had probably fallen asleep as well and had just woken up. We were facing each other, his arms wrapped tightly around me and my drawn up knees were trapped snugly between his thighs. It was innocent enough; we were touching, but not intimately. But there was no denying the desire that flared between us. It was the closest we had ever been. It felt so good to be wrapped up in his arms and I wanted the rest of the world to disappear. I wanted to stay cocooned in his embrace, and not have to worry that I'd be making a mistake if I leaned forward just a little and pressed my lips to his. They were just inches apart and I could feel his warm breath against my lips.

He gently pushed my hair behind my ear and his thumb lingered there, tracing the shell of my ear, so lightly I could barely feel it. Neither of us spoke, no doubt afraid to break our quiet, safe bubble. Instead, we just stared at each other. His green-blue eyes were soft and sad looking, but as he touched me, they darkened, growing more and more intense. I swallowed hard and reached up to stroke his jaw. I'd never seen him anything but clean-shaven until now but tonight he had light stubble dotting his jaw line. His lips were so soft looking and I wanted to run my fingertips across them. I sighed and he slid his hand to cup the back of my neck, drawing my head forward until our lips were just barely touching. Not enough to be called a kiss. But every time one of us inhaled, they brushed together, soft as the wings on a moth.

"Mary Alice," he said, his voice breaking partway through. It was raw and rough sounding, desperate. All it would take was one of us closing the distance and I'd be flat on my back with Jasper's firm body on top of mine. I could feel my nipples harden in anticipation, imagine the taste his tongue against mine, feel the way his body would stretch mine open as he pushed into me. My eyes fluttered closed, my heart hammering with anticipation, waiting, yearning for him to kiss me. I wouldn't push him; I couldn't, not when he was in this vulnerable of a state; bewildered and confused by all that had happened. But I wouldn't stop him either.

Small shivers raced across my body and I held my breath, hanging right there on the edge of anticipation until a slamming door shocked us both. He pulled back and I sighed, knowing, hating that the spell had been broken and that there was no going back now that the moment had been lost.

"Mary Alice?" I heard Bella call out. I sat up, cleared my throat, and answered.

"Yeah, I'm in my room."

"Okay, just wanted to let you know I'm headed over to Jake's tonight, all right?"

"All right. Have fun." Jake was her boyfriend and although I was less than enthusiastic about him, he didn't seem to be a bad guy. He treated her well enough from what I saw. He just seemed young, and a little immature.

"Thanks, see you tomorrow!"

"Bye, Bella!"

I lay back down, resting my head on Jasper's chest and his arm curled up so his fingers could play with my hair. We both sighed, almost in unison and I spoke quietly. "I know it was probably best that she interrupted us, but I really want to kill her right now."

He chuckled, and that warm sound made me flush with pleasure. It was good to hear him sounding happy rather than defeated and lost. "Me too, darlin', me too."

We lay there for a long time, doing nothing more than cuddling on my bed. It was painful, having him so close and knowing that every inch of my body ached to be joined with his. But now was not the right time. I began to feel a glimmer of hope though, that maybe once he had figured out where to go from here, maybe he'd be free to be with me. I'd never thought of myself as being a stepmother to two girls, but I would, if he asked me to be. There was nothing I wouldn't do for Jasper. I sighed, knowing I was getting way ahead of myself.

I heard Bella gather up her things and leave the apartment. Jasper sighed too and I knew our time was drawing to a close.

"I should leave," he said reluctantly.

"I know. I'll be there for you, if you need me, Jasper. You can always find me at the coffee shop." I briefly thought about giving him my number but I was afraid of what I'd do if I had his. No matter how vile his wife was, and no matter how terrible their relationship was, I wasn't a home-wrecker. I'd seen what philandering men did to their wives; my parents were a prime example. I'd hated the seemingly endless parade of blonde bimbos my father ensconced in high-rise condos in Atlanta and then discarded without a care. No matter how intense and desperate my desire for Jasper was, I wouldn't sleep with a married man. Her infidelity wouldn't make his right. He was better than that.

He left a short while later, giving me another sweet kiss to the forehead. But this time he wrapped his arms around me tightly and held me close for a long minute. We drank in the feel of each other, before we slowly separated. His fingers lingered on mine and if it hadn't been for the cold metal of his ring beneath my fingers, I might have pulled him back inside.

After he left, I locked the door and trudged to my room. I felt shaky and bewildered. I was so sad for Jasper, but at the same time, I couldn't get the feeling of his body against mine out of my head. I felt guilty as I lay down on the bed and softly touched myself, imaging it was him. My pillows smelled like him and I screamed his name into them as my fingers plunged deeply inside my body. I was his, even if he could never truly have me the way we both wanted.

~ELP~

It was a lost man who came in to get his coffee the following day, and for weeks afterward. I'd ask him how he was doing and he'd just shake his head. "Not good, Mary Alice, not good."

I didn't push him to tell me more, and he never offered it either. The choices he made now were all up to him, and I didn't have the right to tell him what he should do. I wanted to tell him to divorce the bitch and find out if the girls were his, but it wasn't my place. And as much as I wanted him to be free to be with me, the thought of pushing him to make a decision when he wasn't ready wasn't really something I could contemplate.

One afternoon when I left the coffee shop to head to class I was surprised to see Jasper waiting outside for me. I paused mid-stride and without a word, he took my hand. I followed him blindly, with no idea where we were going, or what he wanted. I just knew that anything Jasper offered me, I'd take. We walked silently, hand in hand, and I contented myself with the feel of his warm palm pressed against mine. We ended up in the park, in a secluded little corner by a lily pad filled pond. There was a wisteria covered trellis and a small bench underneath.

I set my book bag aside and took a seat next to Jasper, just staring at him for a long minute, our hands still clasped together. He was dressed in his usual work attire, but his tie was loosened and it looked like his hair was disarrayed from him running his fingers through it. He seemed agitated and I waited for him to speak.

"Mary Alice," he finally said. "I want to tell you that you have no idea what a comfort you've been to me, through all of this."

For one wild minute, I wondered if he was going to tell me that he couldn't see me anymore and I wondered how I'd survive without him. My breath stuck in my throat, choking me, but as he continued, my panic eased.

"I know I don't have any right to ask anything of you, and I'm doing this all wrong, but I need something else from you."

"Anything you need, Jasper," I assured him. "Anything."

He smiled sadly and reached up to touch my cheek. "Oh darlin', how I wish I'd met you years ago, before this whole mess ever started."

"What do you need, Jasper? Just tell me," I pleaded with him.

"I know it's not fair, I'm still married, and I shouldn't even be dreamin' about it, much less beggin' you for it. I want to be free to woo you right, and it'll be a damn long time before I can get there. I'm a lost and broken man and I have nothing to give you. But, please, I just need to feel your lips on mine, just once before my whole life crumbles around me."

I felt a tear slip down my cheek and I sniffed and nodded, reaching up to touch his face. I had wanted this for so long, but to hear him begging me for just a kiss nearly broke my heart.

I leaned forward slowly and pressed my lips to his. Neither of us moved for a moment and it was closed-mouthed and chaste, almost reverent. I could feel his lips trembling against mine and then with a sigh, his lips parted ever so slightly and he cupped the back of my head in his large hand. More tears followed, because it was so perfect and right feeling and I'd been waiting so long.

His lips were soft and gentle. It wasn't the hurried, frenzied desperation I'd expected, but it was no less arousing because of it. My whole body felt warm and flushed, open and ready for him. The desire we'd felt for each other had slowly built in the months we'd known each other and my body craved more. His fingers softly wound their way through my hair as he deepened the kiss. It was a slow slide of his tongue between my parted lips and he sighed when our tongues met. I scooted closer to him, our upper bodies still inches apart, but needing to feel just a little more of him. I wanted him to lay me back on the bench and cover my body with his. I wanted his touch on every inch of my body, drawing me to what I knew would be an earth-shattering climax. I wanted him to claim me as his with his body, because in my mind I already belonged to him.

Instead, we continued to kiss. Not chastely now, but deep and slow, learning the way our lips fit together, how we had to angle our heads to kiss deeper. I was clinging to him, my hands wrapped around the base of his neck, afraid that if our lips parted I wouldn't get the chance to kiss him again.

But after a while, when we were both panting, he slowed the kiss and pulled away. He didn't pull away far, and he left his hand in my hair. I wanted to giggle at the expression on his face and the wet, slightly swollen lips that were right in front of me.

"I've dreamed of this since the moment I walked in that coffee shop," he said hoarsely. "This slight girl was staring up at me, her wide eyes so, so blue. I wanted her like I've never wanted anyone or anything before."

"Oh, Jasper," I sighed. "I wish..."

My words trailed off, there was nothing more to say, and I couldn't finish my thought. What did I wish? I wished he were single, I wished we were home in my bed. I wished I could spend the rest of my life falling in love with him. Because I had already begun and there was no stopping me now.

He sighed too, and leaned forward so his lips were pressed to my forehead. After a moment, he pulled back again. "I know. I wish it too."

He sat back, and laced our fingers together, resting them against my knee. "I want you to know that I've talked to a lawyer. It's going to take a while, and I have a bad feeling that it's going to be a hell of a fight, but I am getting a divorce. I can't stay married to a woman like that, no matter how much I want to do the right thing for the girls."

My heart beat faster in my chest and I knew the smile on my face was broad, but I sobered when I thought about what he was dealing with right now.

I asked him a question I'd been wondering for a while now. "Jasper, how did you find out she was being unfaithful?"

"The wife of the man she was sleeping with contacted me."

"Oh, wow."

"Yeah, it made for a very uncomfortable situation."

"I'm sorry, Jasper."

"You have nothing to be sorry for."

"I just wish there was more I could do to help you."

"Just knowing that you exist, and that I get to see your beautiful face every morning is enough for me. Although, after what happened last night, I definitely needed a bit more. It's hard to content myself with just a kiss, but it'll have to do for now."

"What happened last night?" I asked.

"I told her that I wanted a divorce."

"What did she say?"

"Lots of nasty, hurtful things. She is used to being the one in control and sadly, I've let it happen. It wasn't a partnership at all. She did what she wanted and I just went along with it."

"I hate to hear how unhappy you've been."

"I'm much happier now that I've made the choice to move on. I've been so focused on what I thought was best for the girls that I didn't really think about the big picture. It doesn't really do them any good to see their parents miserable together. And I can't condone cheating, that's even worse for them to see."

I nodded, really not sure what else there was to say. We had a long, difficult road ahead of us but hope was blossoming in me, new and tentative, but growing stronger by the day.

"Can you wait?" he asked, brushing his lips across mine. "I don't even have the right to ask. I'm a broken man with very little to offer you. My life is a mess, I have two girls, and I'm a flat broke law student. I'm not the man I want to be for you. But I have to know, when I get this mess sorted, will you be mine?"

I burst into tears and nodded, realizing how long I'd wanted to hear those words. "Yes, Jasper," I sobbed. "I'm yours, I have been all along."

We kissed wetly, my tears trickling down my cheeks to my lips, sealing the promise of a future with a kiss. We laughed and he wiped away my tears when our lips parted and I curled up next to him, my head on his shoulder, his arm around me as we talked quietly. Hours passed as we spoke, learning more about each other. The light dimmed and eventually he sighed and stirred, kissing me on the top of my head.

"I have to go," he said reluctantly.

I nodded and disentangled myself from him. "I know." I swallowed hard, knowing how painful it would be to go back to our usual routine.

"I'll miss you," he whispered.

"I'll miss you, too." We walked hand in hand to the edge of the park and then he leaned down and kissed me goodbye. It was just as heady as the earlier kisses, but more powerful. It meant more. And it was harder to stop.

Eventually we finally did pull apart and with a whispered, "until tomorrow, Mary Alice," he left me.

I went home slowly, replaying the day as I walked. I had missed class, but that seemed so inconsequential in the scheme of things. Everything had changed. I hugged myself tightly, scarcely daring to believe that Jasper could be mine. We were still a long way from a relationship, but I was hopeful now that we could make it there. I was envisioning us moving into a cute little apartment together when I walked in the door to my apartment building to find Bella sobbing on the couch.

My happy bubble burst and I hurried over to her. "What is it, Bella? What's wrong?"

"My grandma died," she sobbed. "My dad just called. He sounded totally in shock. It was a sudden heart-attack, the neighbors found her."

She wrapped her arms around my neck and cried as I patted her back. I knew it had to be devastating for her. She and her Grandma Marie were very close and she was a wonderful old lady. She'd invited Bella and me over for dinner a number of times and she was a great cook. Funny too, as evidenced by all of her stories. She was forgetful sometimes, rambling and telling the same stories again, but they were hilarious every time. My heart hurt for Bella and the remembrance of when I'd lost my own grandmother a few years back.

"The worst part is I was supposed to see her last week," Bella sobbed. "But I had to cancel because I was too busy studying. I called her to tell her that I had to cancel and she was so nice about it. She told me to focus on school and that she'd always been there waiting for me when I could get the time. She didn't lecture me or make me feel bad about it." She broke into a fresh bout of tears and I rubbed her back for her while she hiccupped.

"She said she'd always be there but now she's gone," she wailed and I hugged her tight. I knew how guilty she must feel for having cancelled and missed the one last opportunity to see her.

Bella spent a long time crying on my shoulder and we spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about Grandma Marie in between sniffles. Bella and I slept together in her bed that night, and by morning, she was a bit better. Her father, Charlie, called early to let her know when the funeral and visitation would be. After she filled me in, I made her promise to call me if she needed to talk.

Bella's loss left me melancholy feeling and I spent the entire morning waiting impatiently for Jasper to arrive.

My mood must have shown on my face because his happy grin faltered when he saw me. "Hey, what's wrong? Where's my smile? You aren't regretting yesterday, are you?" he asked quietly.

I shook my head. "My roommate's grandma died. I wasn't super close to her grandma, but it's still hard, and my roommate's having a really hard time coping."

"I'm so sorry," Jasper said sincerely. "Is there anything I can do?"

I shook my head and began making his drink. "No, not really. But thank you. I'll probably be gone for a couple of days to help her with the funeral and everything."

"Of course. I'll miss seeing you, but I completely understand." I handed him his drink once it was finished and as always our fingers lingered against each other.

"And Jasper, I don't at all regret what happened yesterday."

His smile was brilliant as he walked out the door and I felt my heart beat faster at the sight. Just seeing him today had helped dispel the somber mood.

I took the rest of the week off work and spent it helping Bella. Although I missed seeing Jasper those mornings, she really needed me. By Monday, I was impatient to see him again though and he looked equally happy to see me. He slid me an envelope across the counter to him and I glanced at it questioningly.

"Read it later," he said quietly.

I nodded and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans. "How is your roommate doing?" he asked.

I shrugged. "She's hanging in there, but it's hard. How are you?"

"Better now that you're back."

I swallowed hard, touched by his honesty. "I missed you too," I admitted.

I saw my co-worker Carmen eyeing us and I sighed, hating that we couldn't even has a private conversation. I made his drink without speaking and he eyed me curiously when I handed it to him. I shook my head minutely and we continued on with small talk for a few more minutes. He lingered, but a group of people came in and eventually he left with a last longing look back at me.

When he was gone and the customers had been helped, Carmen grabbed my arm and yanked me into the back room. "What the hell are you doing, Mary Alice? He's a married man."

"I know," I said defensively. "We're just friends."

She gave me a scathing look as if she could see through my lie. "You'd better be. I would never have pictured you being that kind of person."

"I'm not," I protested. "And neither is he. Yes, we're attracted to each other, but we haven't acted on it. He's getting a divorce and I swear to you, nothing will happen until it's final."

She rolled her eyes. "That's what they all tell you. And then there's delay after delay and he never quite manages to get around for filing for divorce. Men are assholes, Mary Alice. Grow up and realize it."

I didn't want to believe that she could be right, but clearly, there was some man out there who had wronged her. Her words were too venomous for her to be speaking generally. I knew Jasper better than that though, I reassured myself. He was being honest with me; I had to believe that.

Still, I couldn't put her warning from my mind. Carmen's words left me shaken and unsure, and I didn't dare open the letter while I was at work or right after. I had missed a couple of classes the previous week because of Grandma Marie's funeral and I couldn't miss any more. Frustratingly, I didn't have time to read the letter before class but the moment it was over, I dashed into the small, single-stall restroom next to the lecture hall. I locked the door behind me and slid it from where I'd safely secured it in my bag. With shaking fingers, I tore open the envelope to find a handwritten letter.

My Dearest Mary-Alice,

I've missed you so much the last few days. I'm glad your friend has someone like you to help her when she's going through such a difficult time, but I'm a selfish man. I miss seeing your beautiful smiling face. Your eyes are so blue, so pure. Sometimes, when I see a sliver of blue through the rain-soaked grey clouds of the Settle sky I imagine it's you looking down at me. Reminding me what is at stake.

I have so many regrets now. There are so many different choices I could have made, and the thought that those choices are what keep you from me now hurts me deeply.

You are my constant reminder to strive to be a better man. To find my own happiness. I hope with every fiber of my being that you will someday be a part of my life and my happiness. You have already done so much for me.

Your sweet kisses and soft touch make me ache for you. Do you know how I struggle every day not to take you in my arms and make you mine? I forget all of the reasons I can't. For a moment the other night, I wondered if it would be worth the torment to take you to bed and make love to you, and yet, with all of my many mistakes, this is the one line I cannot cross. No matter how tempting you are. I hope you know how deeply I desire you, how beautiful your delicate body is, how graceful and sure you are when you walk. Your soft brown hair is so pretty against your pale skin and I want to wind my hands in it and kiss every inch of your skin.

I need to know if you would tremble when I touched you. If you would cry out my name, or whisper it softly. I need to know how you smell and how you feel and how you taste. I feel mad with a need to discover you.

But please don't mistake my passion as something purely physical. I want to know you as a person. I want to know everything about you. Do you even like coffee or is it just a way to pay the bills? Do you sleep with socks on? What scares you more than anything else in the world? Is it possible that you dream of me, the way I dream of you?

I could probably write for hours, but I don't want to overwhelm you. I only want to find a way to be closer to you. Mentally, emotionally, every way but physically. For now.

I swear to you, I am doing everything I can to move this forward as quickly as possible. Just trust me a little longer my darling, and we will be together. Because in every way I can be right now, I am yours.

Jasper

I finished the letter before I realized that tears were sliding down my cheeks at the poetic and heartfelt words he had written. Pressed against the door in a dingy university bathroom I felt like I had been swept off my feet and deposited into a real life fairy tale. He was everything I had ever wanted in a man. I wiped away the tears and tucked the letter carefully into my bag again. I splashed some water on my face and patted it dry with the rough brown paper towel in the dispenser. I stared at myself in the mirror for a long minute, seeing my wide eyes and neat shoulder length light brown hair. I was still me. Still thin and short, still just your average college student. Pretty, but not extraordinary. I wondered what my mother would think of the fact that I wore no makeup, hadn't had a haircut in at least three months, and wore ripped jeans and old sweaters most days.

Hadn't I used to be the fashionable party girl who dated constantly and always had a hoard of admirers? Meeting Jasper had changed all that, although not consciously. It had been a gradual transition. The girl I'd been before seemed so shallow now, and I couldn't imagine going back to that. I compared it to what he had been dealing with, how fast he'd been forced to grow up and be a responsible parent to two small girls. To support a wife and a family. And yet, his wife had betrayed him and his daughters might not even be his. I couldn't imagine the agony he felt.

My heart broke for him all over again. It was a reminder to focus on what was important. Bella losing her Grandma Marie was another reminder. Maybe it was time for me to grow up too and decide what mattered to me. Being a good friend to Bella was one thing that mattered, but not difficult to do. Caring about Jasper and working toward a life with him was another. There was little I could do there except be patient and give him the time he needed to get things in order.

What I could work on was my own life.

It was time to be honest with myself and admit that I had never wanted this architecture degree. It meant nothing to me, and I would never be happy. If I hadn't grown to love it in three years, I never would. I'd never move back to Atlanta to take over my mother's firm, as much as she wanted me to. I had to stop living to make her happy.

I brushed away the last of the tears from my cheeks and straightened my shoulders. It wasn't going to be a fun conversation, but it was time I was honest with my mother about what I really wanted from life. It was time I grew up and went after what I wanted.

~ELP~

I had never cried as much in my life as I had in the last few weeks. Cynthia Brandon did not take kindly to my rejection of her life. Or that's how she viewed it. But she did listen when I explained everything and although there were heated words and a lot of tears, we made it through the conversation without angrily hanging up on each other mid-conversation.

She was still pissed and I was still frustrated when I finally ended the conversation, but we managed a civil goodbye and I was hopeful that in time, we'd work it out. No more living to make someone else happy. It was my new motto.

So even though my stomach erupted with nervous butterflies, I made a call to the college of admissions and dropped out of the architecture program. And I made some calls to cosmetology schools before scheduling a tour of a couple of them. It was a start. And I was simultaneously nervous and excited to start a new path in my life.

I told Bella that night and she gave me a big hug, telling me how glad she was that I'd finally made the decision. "I could tell you weren't happy in school," she said. "I think you're going to be amazing at whatever you do."

With her support, I went to bed happy that night and I spent the next few days on cloud nine. Jasper was in a good mood as well, and he beamed when I quietly thanked him for the letter.

"It meant everything to me, Jasper," I said. "I loved it."

I squeezed his fingers as I handed him his coffee and wondered how much longer I could keep from saying, "I love you," to him instead.

~ELP~

Everything came crashing down on us a few days later. Jasper burst in the door on Friday morning, his eyes red-rimmed, and his face anguished.

"I have to go, Carmen," I said hoarsely. I untied my apron, threw it on the counter, and grabbed my purse. I hurried over to Jasper, not caring about the customers waiting in line.

"You may not have a job left when you come back," Carmen called out and I waved her warning away. I could find another job, but there was no way I was leaving Jasper like this.

I got him out the door and in a quiet alley before he broke down completely.

"They're not mine," he said hoarsely. "The girls aren't mine. Either of them."

I felt my heart shatter into a thousand pieces at the sight of his face. I had never seen anyone hurt more deeply. "They were my babies. I watched them grow in her stomach, I was there when they were being born, I kissed every scraped knee and taught them to ride bikes. And the whole time she lied to me."

He slammed his fist against the concrete block wall and I winced, glad that he'd had the sense to use the side of his fist instead of his knuckles. It would have broken his hand otherwise. I grabbed it and soothed him, kissing the tender skin.

"I'm sorry, Jasper," I whispered and he sank to his knees, burying his head against my belly, sobbing. "I'm so sorry."

I smoothed his hair and whispered to him, sweet sounding nonsense that seemed wholly inadequate against the grief he was suffering. It took a long time for him to stop crying but I didn't stop, just continued to do what little I could to soothe him.

When his shoulders finally stopped shaking, he stood up, the knees of his pants covered in dirt that he futilely tried to brush away. He stepped closer to me, his breath warm against my cheek.

"Come with me, Mary Alice," he whispered. "I need you."

I nodded, my throat dry and tight feeling. The rules we'd imposed on ourselves seemed miles away and so dim I could barely remember them. There was no right, no wrong, just a desperate, hurting man that I longed to comfort in any way possible.

"Where?" I asked.

"I've been staying in a hotel," he offered, but I shook my head. A hotel would make me feel like we were having an affair. At least in my apartment I could push that thought aside. Pretend as if it wasn't true.

"My place. My roommate is spending a few days with her family."

He nodded and gripped my hand tightly, pulling me with him so fast that I could hardly keep up. He stopped in front of an old beat up bike, and I smiled. He had finally bought his motorcycle. There was a single helmet perched on the seat and he handed it to me without a word. I nodded and took it, knowing he would never listen to my arguments that he should be the one to wear it. I buckled it on and he leaned in and kissed me once before snapping the visor shut. I climbed on behind him, wrapping my arms around his waist and he started it with a roar. We flew back to my place at a jaw clenching speed and I was high on adrenaline, the vibrations of the bike, and my lust for Jasper.

I saw an entirely new side of Jasper when we were back in my apartment. He was raw and rough, desperate. Pleading with me between kisses, frantic and out of control. We made it to my room before he began, but barely.

"Please, Mary Alice," he whispered against my throat as he kissed down the column of my neck, sandwiching my body between his and my door.

"I need you. Please," he begged against the soft skin of my stomach as he lifted my shirt. "I want you."

His fingers were warm against my bare skin as he pushed my clothes away, desperate between my inner thighs as he begged me to let him touch me. "Please, I love you," he whispered against my hip.

"I love you, too," I cried brokenly as he pushed his fingers into me, my jeans pooled around my ankles and my bra half off. We stumbled to the bed and I realized my purse was still in my hand. I dropped it on the bed and scrambled out of my clothes, watching him as he did the same.

My mouth went dry at the sight of him. He was all long, lean lines and carved muscles. Not built, but wiry and strong. His torso was long and his skin was smooth. I reached up, needing to touch him. He settled onto the bed between my legs and he leaned down and kissed my knee. It was sweet, and almost chaste, but I felt a shiver race through my body at the feel of his lips on my bare skin.

This was what I had been waiting for. He kissed his way up my thigh, murmuring something I couldn't quite hear. "May I?" he asked when he was just inches from my pussy.

"Yes, Jasper," I breathed. "Please."

His mouth devoured me and I cried out, dizzy with pleasure as he licked and sucked at my flesh. He was a starving man, greedy in his need for me, and I came over and over. His fingers slid deeply into me after he was sure I was ready for them. I clenched around them and he twisted them in a way that made me see stars, drawing my climax out. I felt him sigh against my skin when I finally stopped shuddering with spasms. He crawled up my body, every inch of me still lightly shivering with pleasure. He looked down at me, a worried frown etching deep lines in his forehead. I reached for a condom in my purse where I'd thrown it on the bed and the frown eased as he rolled it on without hesitation.

But he stopped before he went any further as if hesitant to continue. I traced my fingers across his soft skin, following the dip of his collarbones and the width of his shoulders. I kissed the spot right over his heart before I gently pushed him back and crawled atop him. I sank down over him, crying out when he filled me. His face was a mask of pleasured agony as I rode him, the guilt in his eyes lingering, even as he touched my body with a reverent sweetness that made my throat ache.

I was just beginning to reach the peak of my pleasure when he sat up and put his arms around me, flipping us over without us coming apart. He wound his fingers through mine, meshing them together as he lifted them over my head and drove into me. I cried out and it echoed in the room, his name reverberating in my mind long after the space had gone silent. He kissed me fiercely, deeply, claimed me with his tongue and his cock.

When he came, it was the most agonized groan of pleasure I had ever heard. Almost unwillingly, but so gratefully.

He pulled out and sobbed against my stomach, his tears wetting the skin there and I held him, ran my fingers through his hair, and let him work through his conflicting emotions. When he lifted his head, he slid up my body and kissed my mouth, his lips softer, a little gentler. He cradled my head in his hands and he looked into my eyes. "I mean it. I love you."

I touched his face and drew him down to me. "I know. I love you, too."

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," he admitted as he pulled me closer. "I was supposed to be free. I was supposed to take you out to dinner and then make love to you. I was supposed to be a better man for you."

"You, exactly as you are, are the only man I want," I promised him.

~ELP~

I awoke in the morning, sore and exhausted and bursting with happiness. We had made love all night, and for all of his protests about how our first time together should have happened, it was perfect. It hadn't been what either of us had planned and yet, it didn't matter because we were together. We'd hardly slept at all, mostly quick naps between fevered touches. He'd made love to me with his fingers and lips and tongue and cock. Over, and over until I'd begged him to let me do the same for him.

I knew what he tasted like now, and how the muscles on his thighs corded when he fought back an orgasm. I knew how to coax him to climax and the way he sounded when my teeth scraped across his sensitive nipples. I learned that he was strong enough to hold me up and make love to me in the shower, how beautiful his eyes were with his face wet and his hair slicked back as the water poured down around us.

His back was raked with nail marks and my neck was covered in blue-black bites as we claimed each other. It was late when we'd finally fallen asleep, too exhausted to continue although the ache had not yet been satisfied.

I smiled and reached out to touch him, but the bed beside me was empty and the first pang of fear shot through me. "Jasper?" I called out and the silence mocked me.

I got up and threw on an oversized t-shirt, noticing that his clothes were gone. A search of the apartment brought me nothing but empty stillness and I felt sick. The bottles still lay on the floor of the shower where we'd knocked them down and the deadbolt on the front door was unlocked.

I searched frantically for a note, for any clue as to why he had left, but there were only two answers that came to mind, and neither brought me peace.

Either he had regretted what we did so deeply that he had left without saying goodbye, or he had used me. Lied to me. It seemed impossible. The tears, the anguish, no one was that good of an actor. But the hollow loneliness of my apartment mocked me.

I tore my bed apart in my search for a note from him and saw a small flash of light on the floor. I stooped down to pick it up and realized it was a button from the shirt he'd been wearing. It had come loose when he'd stripped out of his clothes. I broke down in tears and sank to the floor clutching it.

An immeasurable amount of time later I finally got up and trudged to the bathroom to shower. It hurt to wash his scent from my skin and as I cleaned up, I realized I could still feel the ache between my thighs from where he'd been.

Bella was gone all weekend and I spent it in a stupor, desperately hoping that there had been some mistake and that he would come back. But he never appeared.

Saturday afternoon I got a call from the owner of the coffee shop telling me not to come in anymore and instead of being pissed at Jasper for costing me a job I took it as a sign that I needed to move forward. The soft, warm feeling that I'd held in my heart for him withered and died and I felt bitterness begin to creep in.

When Bella came home on Sunday I plastered a smile on my face and pretended like nothing had happened. She was already depressed enough and I couldn't bear to make her feel worse.

The next sign that I needed to move forward came when Bella told me she had inherited her grandma's house, and that she and Jake would be moving in there together. I helped Bella with the monumental task of sorting through her grandmother's things. Grandma Marie had kept her house clean and tidy, but it was stuffed to the rafters with things. We made endless trips to the thrift store and after the first few days, we just decided to sleep there for a couple of weeks while we cleaned.

The lease on our apartment was up at the end of the month and I decided to start looking for place of my own. I found a tiny, quirky apartment that was cheap as hell, and signed a lease. I found a job at a bookstore to tide me over and waited to hear back from the cosmetology schools where I had applied.

The first night in my new place, I pulled out the box of black dye I'd bought the day before and solemnly covered every inch of my hair in inky coloring. I let it sit on my hair for the required time, and washed it out. It took rinse after rinse until the water ran clean and the warm water started to run short. In an old t-shirt, I stood in front of the sink, meticulously setting out everything I needed.

I looked up and saw myself in the mirror, and shrank back in horror. My skin was bleached white and my eyes were cold and lifeless looking. The circles under them so dark they were almost bruised looking in this light. I combed through my newly dyed hair, noticing how stark the black seemed against my face. I lifted a pair of scissors and heard the quiet snick as the first lock of hair fell to the counter top. And then another. And another. Until it was cropped short, strange and alien looking. I dried it and took another look in the mirror. My face looked gaunt and frail. I looked fragile. Almost ethereal. I didn't recognize myself and I was viciously pleased.

Mary Alice was gone and nothing could bring her back.

She was just Alice now, a woman who had never heard the name of Jasper Whitlock.

Author's Note: Although this is the end of this particular story, it is actually a spin-off of another story I have yet to finish writing and post. The other story is a B/E fic, but Alice and Jasper were very insistent that their story be told. If you enjoyed the angsty ending, stop here.

If you're hoping for a HEA for Alice and Jasper, they will get it in the B/E story I'll post eventually. Although, it won't be an easy road for them to get there.

The good news is, chapters for my upcoming fic "Lose the One You Love" are being checked over by a fabulous team of betas, and I should begin posting the story by the end of July at the very latest! I am so excited for you guys to read it!