Thank you all for the recent reviews and adds; thanks to my freaking amazing beta, Stratan, for going over this and making sure it's pretty. I miss you like crazy already. That took all of what; four days? Ha.
Thanks to my prereaders stephk0525, twilover76, claireoth, Nikita2009, and Andrea. For without them, this would likely suck.
"Can I ask you something?"
I glanced across the table, my eyes shooting back to the silverware in my hand nervously when Angela met my gaze.
"Sure, Bella. What's up?"
"Well..." I finished rolling the silverware in my hands before finally blurting my question out. "What's the acceptable time frame to start calling the guy you're sleeping with some kind of term of endearment? Directly after the first time you have sex? When you've screwed around for a few months? Or is it neither and just when you decide to be exclusive?"
She held a fork in mid-air and gaped at me.
I wanted to slink under the table and hide. My cheeks went warm with an embarrassed blush, and I tried to will it away, tried to pretend everything was normal and that I had not just asked a person I barely knew a question like that.
Pretty sure I failed miserably.
"Wow, Bella," she said, clearing her throat. "Sorry, but I um... I really don't know."
"No, I'm sorry. I'm-" I shook my head. "Never mind."
Cue awkward silence.
"Okay, how 'bout you lettin' me ask ya somethin' now," she eventually returned.
After that, she was entitled to ask me almost anything she wanted.
"Why are ya questionin' it? I've seen y'all together. You're cute."
And there was that god-awful blush of mine again.
"Thanks. It's just that it's new, and I don't... I've never really dated anyone before."
"Come on," she scoffed. "You've never dated anyone?"
I shook my head once. I couldn't elaborate further.
"Huh. I'd have never guessed. So is Edward your first boyfriend?"
Again with the shake of my head.
She looked so lost, so curious...
I should've just kept quiet.
"I don't know what I'm doing, or what's expected," I said, hoping to get back to the original topic. "He calls me all kinds of things, I just call him 'Edward'. Makes me feel like an ass, really."
"You need to quit worryin'," she laughed. "Whatever it is you're doin', Edward likes."
Except Edward didn't know everything yet. Sure, he knew the majority of what made me... well, for lack of a better description, me now that I'd let him see some of the things I'd kept over the months following the fire. But he didn't know all the ugliness yet. The depression, the panic attacks from the thought of me being completely alone.
How at one time I wanted to join my parents, Jake, in whatever afterlife awaited us as humans. That the pain of trying to figure out the why's, the way to move on and live without them, was so debilitating I could hardly crawl out of bed.
I had to admit that thinking back on that made me see how much progress I'd made.
But still... Once he saw how defective I really was now... How I'd spent almost a full year on auto-pilot…
"You think?" I asked, ignoring how that specific thought caused an entirely new sensation, a new wound in my chest.
"Absolutely. He's not paid any other girl in this town any mind since he met ya," she replied. "And Lord knows how much they're tryin' to get his attention."
I pursed my lips unhappily with that. I knew this was the case. But to be reminded of it just plain sucked.
It made her laugh again.
"Just watch him the next time y'all are out about in town. You'll see what I mean."
"My daddy did," she continued smugly.
"At church last weekend."
I nearly smacked my forehead with how stupid I felt. I was so self-absorbed these days I didn't even put the two together. And I should have. Same last name, same light brown hair and blue eyes...
I smiled sheepishly at her. "Right. Your dad's the pastor at Grace. I keep forgetting how small this town really is."
She grinned back at me. "Yep. Said it was good to see Edward so happy with everything goin' on."
"Ah..." I glanced around the room, having no idea what to think about that, much less say to it. "Yeah. I guess it would be."
The door chimed, and Angela looked to our left to see who it was walking in.
She groaned in annoyance.
"Here come the Hawthorne brothers," she muttered.
I followed her gaze and watched Bree lead two men to one of the smaller booths lined up along the front windows in my section. Their hair was ratty, clothes tattered, and they were sweaty, like they'd been outside working all day. One wore his blond hair back in a ponytail, and the other's was black and stringy around his face.
The blond was taller, lankier, than his supposed brother.
"Yeah, well... Their daddy didn't exactly do his best to keep it in his pants, if ya know what I mean."
I opened my mouth, and then promptly shut it again. I had nothing to say back to that, either, it seemed.
"They've got no manners and think it's okay to hit on anythin' with girl parts. I'm sorry you got 'em, Bella."
"I'm kind of surprised I haven't seen them around yet, actually," I murmured thoughtfully.
"Exactly why they think it's okay to hit on any girl they see," she retorted. "They live a few miles outta town and don't come around often. When they do, though..."
She shuddered delicately, causing me to snort out a laugh.
She was really so sheltered. They didn't seem any worse than some of the guys I'd had the displeasure of running into when I lived in Seattle.
Minus the cowboy boots and camouflage hats in their hands, that is.
"It's fine. I can handle it."
"Okay. But you remember that Sam's just in back if ya need him."
I put all the silverware I'd rolled up in the bin, and then got out of the booth and made my way over to their table. They were already messing around with everything when I got there, but I plastered on a fake, friendly smile, and greeted them anyway.
The blond leered at me for a moment, letting his eyes rake up and down my body unabashedly.
"Can I get you something?" I asked impatiently. "Or are you just going to stare at me all day?"
"Stare," he replied.
His brother snorted.
"I don't think I know ya," he said, and casually draped his arms over the back of the booth.
"No, you don't."
He grinned. His teeth were straight, but yellow. Like he'd inhaled a little too much nicotine and used a little less whitening toothpaste than he should have.
Blue eyes found my name tag.
"Bella. That's nice."
"I like it all right," I said flatly.
"Good to know."
"This here's my brother, Laurence."
"Nice to meet you. Drinks?"
I jotted it down.
"Same, sweet thing."
I barely managed to keep my expression neutral.
"Be right back."
I hurried over to the bar and got their beers from the bartender on duty, and then made my way back to their table.
I put the beers down in front of them and pulled out my notepad. "Know what you guys want?"
"Yeah... I know exactly what I want," James said. He drew his lower lip between his teeth and looked me over again.
Not in this lifetime.
"Well, how about we stick to what you can have?" I retorted. "Food."
The other brother whistled and laughed.
James sneered at him.
Eventually, I managed to get them to talk lunch instead of hitting on me. With their orders placed, the lunch rush began, and I was too busy running around the restaurant to notice they'd practically destroyed their table while they ate. Ketchup, mustard, pepper - even pickle juice - was smeared all over the table when they were through.
I pulled out the check and held it up, my eyes scanning over the table to find a clean spot to set it down on. Seeing none, I decided to put it on the corner and started to walk away.
"Hold on there, now," Laurence called after me.
"Did you change your mind on the dessert?" I asked.
"Nah." He grinned. "How long ya been here?"
It was deja vu.
Only without the amazingly good-looking contractor on the other end.
"Almost five months now."
"Haven't seen ya around, though," James commented. "Why is that?"
I shrugged. "You haven't been into Sam's to eat, I guess."
"I ain't been to eat, no. But I been here to drink a few times."
"Oh. Well, I'm not much into bars," I answered, and then looked for a way to change the subject. "You sure I can't get either of you a piece of pie? We've got a lemon meringue that's to die for."
"We know what's on the menu," Laurence said, a sly smirk twisting at his lips. "How 'bout ya tell us what we can do to get what's not listed there?"
"Back to this again?"
His fingers grazed over the hem of my apron, dancing under it to run along my thigh. "Always back to it."
I jerked back, eyes narrowed.
"I'll give you a few minutes to settle the bill."
I spun around and slammed straight into someone hard.
My hand shot up to smother my shriek of surprise. Green eyes bore into mine then darted past me, the beginnings of a snarl contorting the face I loved so much.
"Jesus, Edward, you scared the crap out of me," I scolded. "What are you doing here?"
"Gettin' Nana and me somethin' to eat before we head home." His eyes stayed zeroed in on the men sitting behind me. "How's your shift?"
That brow arched, but his eyes never moved. "Fine?"
"Yes," I said slowly, confused. "How'd your grandmother's appointment go?"
Now, he was staring back at me.
"It was all right. We had that girl... Um..." He laughed at his inability to remember names for a moment. "Bree sit us in your section."
I glanced around and found his grandmother sitting a few tables away, fidgeting with the blue scarf on her head.
"Oh. Good. I'll be right over."
He nodded and pivoted on the ball of his foot like he was going to join his grandmother, only to stop.
"Hey, listen, Iz, before I forget, I was wonderin' if you wanted me to pick ya up after your shift? We could use some help in the garden, and I figured you might want a lesson on that cannin' we were talkin' about when I took ya home the other night. Should be a few bushels of beans ready. Might be enough strawberries to do somethin' with, too."
"With Rose... Ella and me."
His eyes skirted past me again.
I exhaled sharply.
"Yeah, that sounds nice. Let me check my other tables, and then I'll be right over."
He flashed a lopsided smile at me. "Take your time, sug."
I pushed an errant lock of hair out of my eyes and shoved my annoyance down. No need ruining my tips because Edward was being an idiot.
"Masen, huh?" James asked.
He sulked a little, but got out his wallet and threw down a few bills. "Thanks for lunch, Bella."
"Thanks for coming in," I answered politely.
After they were gone, I bustled around the room to make sure everyone had what they needed, and in no time, was standing over Edward and his grandmother and tapping my foot against the tile floor impatiently.
He smiled up at me from behind his menu, that damned dimple of his flashing with the upturn of his lips, and greeted me with a nonchalant, completely innocent, "Hey."
"I'd like to excuse myself in advance, Mrs. Masen," I said quickly, and then let my aggravation out on Edward. "So if you're finished pissing all over me, would you like to do what you originally came in here for and eat something?"
"I wasn't pissin' all over you, Iz," he responded calmly.
"That was a pissing contest if I ever saw one," I argued.
"I didn't even touch ya."
"You don't have to touch me to get your point across."
"No, I don't," he agreed.
And then he grinned again.
I glowered at him.
"I don't like either of them," he explained. "Never have. And I especially didn't like Laurence touchin' ya."
"That makes two of us. So ordering," I said, still fuming. "You want to?"
"You act like you're not happy to see me," he said, and then gave me that damned smirk of his, the one that made me forget what exactly it was I was saying or doing.
"Stop it. You're not winning this."
"I think you're real happy to see me, Iz. You just won't admit it."
"Come on, sweetheart, admit it," he wheedled, that suggestive tone of his out in full force. "Or do I need to convince ya further?"
I would not react to that. Would not.
So I turned back to his grandmother. "Would you like anything, Mrs. Masen?"
She shook her head. "I'm actually enjoyin' the show. Never seen my grandson actually have to work at gettin' a girl to fawn all over him."
"That is... not surprising at all," I deadpanned.
"Nana, you should eat somethin'," Edward said lowly.
"Don't feel much like it now, hon," she said, and waved him off.
She should've known that Edward wouldn't back down so easily.
"Nana," he said sharply. "How 'bout some soup?"
She shook her head. Now that I wasn't preoccupied with Edward and his blatant attempt to stake claim on me, I could see how much yellower her complexion was, how tired she seemed to be. She shifted in her seat and winced, and I suddenly wondered if the library had any good books on cancer and chemo and radiation. Cancer for Dummies, like me - anything with tips to ease the symptoms, really.
I hesitantly sat down beside her, waiting for her to look over at me before saying, "I can ask the cook to make something up. Something with ginger in it for your stomach?"
Her face softened, and she reached out and took my hand. "You're sweet for offerin', Bella, but I'm all right."
"You're not," Edward said in a huff. "You need to take more pain meds, and to do that, you need somethin' on your stomach."
"I'm fine," she said hotly.
The Masens had to be the most stubborn group of people I'd ever met.
"I'm ordering you a shake because I refuse to let you sit here and suffer for no reason," I interjected. "And from the anxiety attack Edward seems to be on the verge of, you are... So you can either pick it out yourself, or I can pick it for you; I don't care. But you're getting something in your stomach."
She sighed, but her lips twitched with the same smirk that frequented her grandson's mouth. "At least I know Edward won't be runnin' ya around after I'm gone."
"Nana," Edward groaned.
It sounded like he was frustrated, but the look on his face told me otherwise.
"You'll do him some good," she said softly, closing her eyes for a moment.
I needed to get up. I needed to walk out that door and never look back. The opposite, getting attached to this family and watching Annabeth Masen's death tear it apart, hit too close to home. It was too much, too soon. I wanted to suck in a deep breath, try to eliminate this feeling in my chest, but to do so would be to break down in the middle of Sam's, add fuel to the fire burning through me.
But for some reason, when I met Edward's eyes, I stayed.
Because he got it.
All of it. Without the words ever being said.
"Peach," she finally said.
I cleared my throat and moved to stand, but Edward's hand found my knee, squeezed.
I reached under the table and gripped it back.
This was so, so hard.
"Want something?" I asked him quietly.
One side of his lips pulled up, and he mouthed, "You."
My eyes popped open with shock, and then darted over to his grandmother sitting beside me.
He snickered under his breath.
I twisted his hand in mine and pinched it.
"Ow," he muttered, and yanked it back. "I'll have a buffalo chicken sandwich, all right? Chips, not fries."
"Thank you," I replied, and got up. "I'm still mad at you, by the way. Don't think you're off the hook because of some sweet words and a smile."
"I'll make it up to ya, Iz. I promise."
"Yeah. You will."
His grandmother's thick, throaty laughter echoed throughout the room when I walked away.
"Why do you guys have a garden this big again?" I asked Edward and bent over to move the leaves of the zucchini plant aside.
"Why does your ass look so good when you're all bent over like that?" Edward returned, and immediately, I stood straight up.
"Quit it. I'm still annoyed with you about earlier."
"Your right eye twitches when ya lie."
"It does not," I objected. "You have more zucchini, squash, and cucumbers. God, Edward, what are you going to do with all of it?"
"Thought about brinin' the cucumbers for pickles," he said with a shrug. "The rest... You can take it to work with ya and see if you can get rid of most of it for me, I guess."
"Which brings me back to my original question: why a garden this big for three people?"
"It's tradition, Iz. I don't know. We just do it, okay?"
"When was the last time you did it?"
"Yesterday in your bed," he shot back.
"I'm making an effort to get to know you better, and you can't even be serious about it," I huffed.
He grinned. "Ya know you love it."
I simply stared back at him.
"It was probably about five years ago. My trip home for a couple weeks was timed just right. Nana had me on the tractor before I could open my mouth to argue."
"Who's done it since then?"
"Rosie's capable, but Nana usually hired some high school kid to break the ground and do the tillin' from time to time."
"Who weeded it?" I questioned, and realized I was doing just that.
I straightened up again.
"Oh, yeah. Nana did a lot of stuff until recently." He suddenly grew quiet, so I snuck a glance over at him.
He was tearing apart something leafy in his hand.
Another jerk of his shoulder, and he tossed the remainder of the green in a wooden basket at his feet. "So we've got greens and lettuce, the cucumbers, squash, and zucchini you loathe so much, a few tomatoes-"
"I love it when you say that," I giggled.
"Tomato. It doesn't end with an 'o' when you say it. More like an 'uh' sound."
He rolled his eyes, but fidgeted under my scrutiny.
Something about his behavior sparked a little more confidence in me, made me move through the rows to get closer to him.
"Your accent's hot," I admitted softly.
He stared down at me, his hand slowly coming up to rest at my hip. "Yeah?"
I swallowed hard. My heart was flying in my chest, but I was going to do this. I was going to let him know that despite how hard I tried not to, I wanted him from the very moment I saw him.
"It was one of the first things that attracted me to you."
"So I rendered you speechless," he teased. "And here I was thinkin' you were just all bashful."
"Well," I replied, "it definitely didn't help. But I used to dream about you. About what you could do to me."
His expression darkened, fingers flexed into my jeans. "Shit, Iz."
"Yeah. Anyway, I still haven't really talked to anyone around here."
"Now why did ya go and say somethin' like that, only to change the subject?"
"Don't know. Figured I'd change the subject before I freaked out?"
"Good point. You're doin' that ten seconds to pukin' thing again."
"So what were we talkin' about?"
"The fact that I don't really talk to people."
"Oh, yeah… you've talked to plenty."
I shook my head. "I can still list everyone off on one hand. I want to... I don't know, branch out or whatever, but I seem to freeze up every time."
It was inexplicable, really. I'd think of something light to say, something to break the ice, but the words wouldn't form. I'd just stand there and blush. Maybe stammer.
"You did fine when it came to James and Laurence."
"That's not the same thing."
I chewed on my lip and tried to think of why, exactly, it wasn't. Before Edward, I might've just walked away. But between telling Jessica off a couple weeks ago and not putting up with any of the Hawthorne brother's crap, I realized it was more.
I was finding my backbone again.
"Me?" He laughed. "I don't think so, sweetheart."
"No, it's true. I would've just let them say whatever they wanted a month ago."
"I don't think that has anythin' to do with me," he said confidently. "I think it's got more to do with you finally lettin' yourself be you again. Lettin' yourself live life again."
"Maybe," I conceded.
I wasn't so sure, though. I'd always have this hole in my heart, this missing piece that disappeared when I lost my family and Jacob. I could evolve some, learn to live with it - ignore it, even - but it was never going to truly go away. I was never going to recover from losing so much at once.
I'd always be different.
He glanced around the garden, and then focused on me with a wicked gleam in his eyes. "So back to those dreams about me... Any one of them involve a quick fuck in the garden? Cause no one but Nana's home, and those sunflowers in the back give pretty good cover."
I shook my head and grinned. "They're not that tall yet."
"Tall enough," he murmured.
"They're not, and you know it."
"We could always just make out here."
"See," he chuckled, sneaking his hands up under my t-shirt, "I knew there was a reason why I liked ya. You think like me, whether you wanna admit it or not."
"Oh, do I now?"
He dipped down and skimmed his lips over my jaw, placing a kiss at the hollow of my ear. His hands pulled me against him tightly, and I could hear the rush of breath come out of him just before he said, "Yeah. You and me, Iz... I think we're more alike than we know yet."
"I think we're complete opposites," I breathed, and put my hands on his shoulders.
"Nah. We've been through things a lot of people can't understand. We're different now."
My breath halted at his words. It was exactly what I'd just been thinking.
"You don't look a thing like that girl in your pictures," he continued, and I gripped at him harder, willed my tears away with the way he always seemed to inherently know. He knew how to pick at my scars, force me to open myself up to him even more. "And I like that. I like this girl, the one standin' with me in the middle of my garden. She's real. She's smart. She puts me in my place and her beauty takes my breath away. I just wish she'd see all I do, too."
I fisted his shirt in my hands, and squeezed my eyes closed.
A tear slipped down my cheek.
"Why do you do that?"
"Do what, exactly?"
"Say things that practically... break me in two."
"It's how I feel," he replied easily. "Oughta know by now that I don't hold much back."
"You shouldn't. Feel like that, I mean."
"Ah, now, Bella," he rumbled. "We don't get to decide the way we feel. If we did, life wouldn't suck so bad sometimes."
I sniffled into his shoulder.
"I wish ya'd stop torturin' yourself."
"So do I."
"Given any more thought to talkin' with someone?"
I shook my head. "You're distracting," I muttered.
He laughed and moved so that he could bring his hands to frame my face. "But in the good, I-can-make-your-toes-curl-when-I-fuck-ya way."
"It's not cocky; it's true. I've seen 'em."
I giggled and slapped at his shoulder.
He kissed the tip of my nose, and my stomach flip-flopped. "So to continue our previous conversation, we've got beans and peas, too. Which would you rather do?"
"Beans it is." He released me and headed over to the first row of green beans. "Know how to judge whether they're ready or not?"
"What do you think?"
He grinned. "All right, I'll show ya, then."