I know it's been much too long, and many of you have probably have given up on this story. Unfortunately, family, work, and school had to take precedence. As much as I wish I could make this the top priority, I cannot. If you're still here, I appreciate you sticking with me and being patient.

Thank you for all the reviews of chapter 16. The kind words are inspirational.

A big shout out to TwilightMomofTwo. Awesome as always! And huge thanks to bigblueboat and mh from PTB. I really appreciate the help!

Because of the delay, I'll give you a short recap. Concerned about what kind of future they could have, Bella and Edward took their relationship to a physical level. They were both thrilled to find that with some effort and care, they could make things work. However, their happiness didn't last long, as Jacob returned that night.

As always, I own nothing.

"Took you long enough to get here, asshole. Welcome home."

It didn't take Jacob long to regain his footing. Bella's punch had surprised him, but it hadn't done any real damage. His eyes went wide as he cupped his cheek. A few spectators gasped, but the bloodthirsty members of the crowd cheered for more.

Bella took a step back, grimacing and shaking her hand. She was still glaring at Jacob, and I thought she might go after him again.

Turning, I started down the stairs, forcing myself to walk at human speed. I'd seen everything from the balcony in the VIP section, and my need to be near Bella was a visceral thing. Logically, I knew Jacob wouldn't hurt her, but she wasn't standing far from where she'd been shot. My memory of Dave's bullet tearing through her chest was still too fresh.

As I elbowed my way through the crowd, I heard the disappointment in his voice. "Aww, come on, Bella. That's no homecoming! I missed you so much. Come give me a hug."

Reaching the ring of people surrounding them, I stopped. From here, I could step in without attracting too much attention. Bella wouldn't appreciate me interfering, but I would if I had to. This also gave me an opportunity to observe Jacob, and I was reminded of a book I'd received as a gift years before. One of the quotes was, 'Know your enemy, and know yourself.' Jasper would be proud of me for strategizing at time like this.

"Are you kidding me?" Bella yelled. "What the hell were you expecting, a ticker-tape parade?"

"Don't be like that," Jacob said. "You know I never like being gone this long. And I'm here now. That's what counts. I always come back to you." He worked for the right mix of repentant and hopeful. The two of them had been having similar fights for centuries. Jacob was used to taking off when he wanted and then begging for forgiveness later. He'd been back less than five minutes, and I was disgusted with his behavior. I didn't realize I'd growled until the girl next to me edged away, watching me out of the corner of her eye.

Bella shook her head. When she spoke the crowd around me had trouble hearing her. "You don't get it,do you? I've been really fucking patient, Jacob. I told you the last time you took off that I wasn't going to deal with it anymore."

In his mind, the fact that she wasn't yelling anymore was good progress. With a little more effort he could get her talking, and once they were talking, he was practically forgiven. He stepped forward and reached for her.

Bella held out a hand to hold him off, but Jacob just rolled his eyes. Instead of giving her the space she wanted, he took another step closer.

There was no way I was letting him touch her. It didn't matter how long he'd known her—she was mine now. Austin edged through the crowd, stopping next to me. He'd been standing back, hoping that they would work it out on their own. He'd stepped between them before and had never felt right about it. "Not now," he said, leaning in and speaking close my ear. He couldn't know that I'd have heard him even if he'd been inside Bella's office. "You'll only make it worse. Let me." It would have been nice if this caution meant that he was beginning to like me, but his only concern was diffusing the situation.

"Look at what the cat dragged in! Welcome back, you son of a bitch," Austin cried a little too energetically. He inserted himself between the two, facing Jacob and leaving Bella staring at his back. What followed was awkward, and Alice would have called it a "failed man-hug." As the men pulled apart, Austin grabbed Jacob's arm, intending to pull him toward the bar, but Jacob was having none of it. Jacob started walking toward Bella again. He held his hands out in supplication, making sure he sounded like he'd been longing for her. "Come on. You can't stay mad at me. I've really missed you, and I have so much to tell you!"

"Piss off, Jacob." She turned on her heel and strode away. People rushed to move back, creating a gap that closed as soon as she passed. I was tempted to follow her, but I wanted to watch Jacob when he wasn't trying to placate Bella. It was a little like watching a wild animal in its natural environment. Unfortunately, I didn't have long to wait. Within seconds of Bella being swallowed by the crowd, several young ladies started forward with rolling hips and eager smiles. Each of them had previously spent nights with Jacob and were hoping for an encore. After all, he was young, handsome, and obviously wealthy. Their three top criteria.

Jacob greeted them all with overblown smiles. He didn't remember their names, but by the time he was done, each 'honey,' and 'sweetheart' had a promise that he'd see them sometime soon. He endured each sultry laugh and trailing hand, absorbing the attention in the way a politician shakes hands at a rally. Even as their admiration flowed over him, his mind wasn't calm. He continued to think about Bella, looking past these admirers to search for her. She was the closest thing to family he had. It bothered him that she was angry, and he wanted to make it right as soon as possible.

Shaking my head, I followed Bella to the office. This would have been so much easier if I could hate Jacob. Right now, I pitied him. He'd had the perfect opportunity to build a life with Bella, either romantically or platonically. No one would fully understand her struggles and motivations as well as the person who'd lived that extremely long life with her. Instead, he'd chosen to continue his quest for answers from the past. It was no wonder Bella insisted on moving forward. The only person constantly in her life looked backward.

She was sitting down, facing the computer when I walked in. Normally, her scent was concentrated around the desk or the couch, but I could smell her everywhere. She'd done some intense pacing while I watched Jacob.

Settling on the couch, I faced her back. I waited a few minutes to see if she would acknowledge my presence. She didn't. "That was a good punch. We should probably have Carlisle look at your hand."

She didn't turn around. "It's fine." As if to prove her point, she held the appendage up, wiggling each finger.

"Good. I was worried." I leaned back, spreading my arms out and crossing my ankle on my knee. The position portrayed a nonchalance I didn't feel. "I'll just wait here until you're done."

She dropped her head and began to rub her eyes. Just below the gathering of her ponytail, I could see that little divot at the back of her neck. I loved to kiss that spot. "Edward, it's probably best if you leave. I'm not good company right now."

It bothered me that the little cretin was making Bella unhappy and affecting our time together. For someone who talked about missing her, he didn't seem to be in a rush to work things out. At the moment, Jacob was buying rounds of drinks and attempting to flirt with one of the new waitresses. She wasn't interested, and he cranked up the charm, unable to believe she wasn't fawning over him. I decided to sit in the poor girl's section sometime soon. I could leave a tip big enough to pay off her car.

I definitely planned to stick around and see how the rest of the night went. Besides, I wouldn't have left Bella here alone with him. "You're always good company," I said softly. "I'll hang around in case you need me."

Her chair spun, and she had to grab the desk to keep from rotating too far. "I'd really like you to go, but we both know that's not going to happen. Just let me handle this my way, okay?" She sounded more exasperated than angry.

"You handle Jacob any way you like, but I'm certainly not leaving you alone with someone you just punched." I waved her off when she opened her mouth to protest. "I know you are perfectly capable of handling yourself. You may know him well enough to believe that things will be fine, but I just met him. Humor me. Please?"

"Fine," she muttered, shaking her head to show that it was anything but "fine." As she swung the chair back, she muttered, "This should be a blast." Dropping her head again, Bella rubbed her neck.

"Here. Let me," I said, stepping forward. She groaned softly when my cool hands touched her. With delicate movements, I rubbed away the tension gathered there. As the knots began to ease, I worked my way further down, pushing aside the collar of her T-shirt. Bella started making tiny whimpers when I kneaded with a bit more force. The combination of sexy sounds and warm skin was quickly putting me at risk of ripping out another pair of jeans. I needed to control myself. Once again, I concentrated on what was happening in the rest of the bar.

Jacob was trying to get to the office, but Austin kept pulling him in the opposite direction, pointing out renovations made in his absence or introducing more new employees. Austin had watched me leave, and he knew I was holed up with Bella. By stalling Jacob, he was only delaying the inevitable.

Bella moaned softly, straining my will power yet again.

As Jacob and Austin got closer to the office, I thought about my options. I could sit on the couch observing and let Jacob control this interaction or I could maneuver a bit and make sure he understood how things were between Bella and me. It was easy to imagine myself with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. It took an entire second for me to decide. Carlisle would be disappointed that I didn't take the high road, and Bella was going to be pissed, but I was willing to take that chance. Jacob was too sure of his place in her life, and he needed some shaking up.

Bella whimpered as I pulled my hands away. Reaching down, I spun the chair back until she faced me. This was the most relaxed I'd seen her since we left bed that morning. The tiny eye muscle that jumped when she was stressed was still, and the pink was back in her cheeks. She was so lovely. Taking her hand, I pulled Bella to her feet and almost let out a cheer when she relaxed against me. Wrapping an arm around her waist, I brought the other up to continue the massage. With a gentle pull, I tucked her closer to my chest. Her face settled in the crook of my neck. Leaning down, I inhaled deeply, my mouth just inches from the pulse point in her neck. For an instant, the devil was back on my shoulder, but I quickly squashed him. When it came to Bella's safety, I'd never be tempted.

Austin was speaking even as the door opened. "Bella, I was just showing Jacob the new …" His voice trailed off as he stopped short, and Jacob almost ran into him.

They both saw exactly what I wanted them to see—a couple that couldn't keep their hands off each other. Emotions rolled through Jacob, one after the other: disbelief and shock followed by anger and possessiveness. He'd never seen Bella with anyone and had ceased to think of her as a sexual being. She was his caretaker, his confidante, and his trusted back-up, but she was always more of a little sister than a romantic interest. He could go off and do what he wanted. Bella would either wait patiently where she was, or she'd make a place for him in any new life she created.

Bella went stiff in my arms. Jacob schooled his emotions back into the fun-loving playboy mask just as she glanced over her shoulder. Turning back to me, she narrowed her eyes. "You heard them coming. Jesus, Edward! What is this, marking your territory? Are you going to lift your leg on me next?" She stepped back and twisted, trying to throw off my hold. I didn't want to hurt her, so I loosened my grip, but I didn't let her go.

"I wanted to make sure Jacob understood that things have changed in his absence. This way there's no confusion." I tried to sound logical, but it didn't matter if she bought it or not. I wasn't letting her go just because this fool had decided to check in on the life he should have been cherishing, not squandering.

"What the hell is going on? Who is this guy?" Jacob sputtered, taking a step forward.

Austin grabbed him by the arm, holding Jacob back. He'd rather apologize for manhandling his boss than deal with an altercation in the office.

Bella tilted her head up and said, "Shut up, Jake. I'll get to you next." Pursing her lips, she just stared at me for a moment. "Just so we're clear, you will never again manipulate me just so you can make a point. Got it? And the only reason I'm not taking your head off is because I'm more pissed at him." She poked me in the chest before pointing over her shoulder.

She had every right to be angry, but that didn't change why I did it. I'd do it again if I could. "Are you going to punch me too?"

The corner of her mouth tilted up a bit. "I'm so tempted. You really deserve it. Unfortunately, I don't think my hand could take it, and I'd rather not see Carlisle anytime soon."

"You need to get over that. He likes you," I said, reaching up to tuck a stray hair behind her ear.

"Yeah. That's what I'm afraid of," she said, looking up at me. She was stalling. It was easier to spar with me than to deal with Jacob and all the chaos that came with him.

"Bella, is that who I think it is?" Jacob asked, obviously processing our conversation. "Have you lost your mind?"

Sighing, I let her go. I'd expected Bella to back away from me, but she didn't. "Go get 'em," I whispered low enough for her to hear but knowing it wouldn't carry. When she finally turned to face Jacob, she leaned back, pressing against me. I let my hands rest on her hips, fully aware that I was still marking my territory. I could see us through the eyes of the men standing across the room. Lovely, capable Bella with me right behind, supporting and protecting her.

"Who is he?" Jacob asked, although he'd already put everything together. He just didn't want to believe it.

"Well, if introductions are so important, I'd better do it right." Bella cleared her throat and began speaking in a sickly sweet tone. "Mr. Jacob Black, mostly-world-traveler and rarely-bar-owner, may I introduce you to Mr. Edward Cullen, thorough pain-in-the-ass? Edward, please meet Jacob who has finally decided to grace us with his presence."

Jacob didn't hear anything after my name. His flare of fury tempted me to push Bella behind me. Instead, I stepped alongside and held my hand out. He looked down at my offering with a slight sneer. Austin saw that I was trying to remain civil, and I rose in his esteem. He couldn't know that I was envisioning crushing Jacob's hand into a bloody pulp and making him beg Bella's forgiveness. I decided to use Austin's good impression to persuade him to leave. Sooner or later, someone was going to say something he shouldn't hear. Actually, we'd probably crossed that line a few minutes ago.

"Austin, I think we've all calmed down enough to have a rational discussion. Why don't you head back to the floor?" I suggested. "Bella can call you if she needs anything."

It took a moment for him to decide that we weren't going to kill each other. He looked from me, to Jacob, to Bella before deciding it was probably safe to leave us alone. I almost laughed out loud when he mentally decided that Bella could take Jacob in a fair fight.

"Just give me a call if you need me. I'll be close by. Okay, boss?" He looked directly at Bella as he gave these instructions. Even knowing she could take care of herself, he was going to watch out for her whether she liked it or not.

When the door clicked shut behind Austin, Jacob took a step toward Bella. "What the hell happened? I just talked to you a few days ago! You told me the Cullens were in the bar, and you were worried about them being so close. I get home and this bloodsucker is all over you!"

"It wasn't just a few days ago, you asshole! It's been like a lifetime since you called. Don't forget, you told me you'd be here "as soon as you could." Well, your "soon" kind of sucks. I'm sorry if things changed more than you liked this time, but you need to get used to it. Edward is welcome as long as he wants to be here."

"You couldn't blast me away with dynamite," I said, grinning widely.

Something flashed across Bella's face, but it was too fast for me to ask her about it before she was talking to me again. "No one likes an ungracious winner. It makes you sound obnoxious." She turned back to Jacob. "And I wasn't kidding about him. You're going to have to deal with it."

"There is no way this is happening! You've hated Carlisle Cullen from the time Aro started telling you about him. How can you cuddle up with a member of his coven? If you're not careful, you're going to end up as an experiment."

Bella opened her mouth, but I was faster. "I'd never let anything like that happen. Bella is completely safe with me." I wanted to protest that Carlisle would never experiment on her, but that didn't exactly feel like the truth. He'd already stated that he needed more information to help explain Bella's situation. Although Carlisle would never see that as experimentation, Bella probably would. I'd need to monitor the situation carefully.

"Why don't you let her speak for herself?" Jacob asked, finally addressing me directly. "I'm starting to think you've got her brainwashed or something. The Bella I knew would take my balls off if I dared to speak for her. Is that what this is? Some sort of mind-control? I know some of you have powers, and I wouldn't put it past you to manipulate her."

Bella made a snorting sound. With an amused smile, she dropped into the chair behind her desk. Putting her elbows up, she rested her chin on her hands. It looked like she was settling in to watch a good movie. She made a motion I interpreted as, "well, you might as well tell him."

As I pondered the options, I didn't see a reason not to inform Jacob of the truth. He already knew much more than he should. I was just adding to his understanding. "Actually, Jacob, I can't control anyone. I can only hear what they're thinking."

He went utterly still. "Come again?"

"I can hear thoughts. For most people, I hear the commentary running through their heads. Some people are more visual, and I see the images as they process information. Either way, I know what's going on upstairs." I couldn't resist tapping the side of my head with my index finger.

"Is that what you've done to Bella? Somehow, you know what she's thinking so you manipulate your relationship to—what? Give her things? That doesn't make sense. Bella isn't that kind of girl." His volume rose. "It also doesn't change the fact that she can't stand vampires. She's spent hundreds of years hiding." He turned to her. "What the hell are you even doing with them? How do you know they won't bring Aro here? They might turn you over just to stay in his good graces."

"Guess what, Jake? Here's something else you'd known if you'd been here. The Cullens are in just as much danger from Aro as I am. He sees their family as a threat."

"Family? Are you kidding me?" He waved in my general direction with a sneer. "These things don't have family. They're killers who are made—not born. Ripping out throats together makes them a family? That's a pretty fucked up way of looking at things."

"No," she said softly. "They take care for each other. They support each other. They're there when someone needs them, not off gallivanting in some quest that's not going to make anything any better!"

Jake gave no outward reaction to her dig. Bella might as well have not spoken. Long ago he'd made a strange sort of peace with Bella's objections to his trips. He believed they were necessary, and she simply wasn't looking at the big picture. When she didn't say anything else, he decided to try a new approach. He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye.

"Okay. I understand that I've probably left you alone too much. I'm home now. You can tell me all the things that happened when I was gone. It'll be just like old times. Just send this … " Jacob gave me a once-over with an expression of disgust. "Just send it home."

I froze. Here it was—the moment of truth. I wished I wasn't so insecure about my place with her, but our entire relationship was too new. We had made so much progress in the last few days. What if Jacob's homecoming changed things? I was frustrated that I doubted what would come out of her mouth. Bella started walking, and the closer she got, the better I felt. When she turned just in front of me and leaned herself against my front, I wanted to crow in triumph. It was the same position we'd been in earlier, and my girl was making a statement.

"I told you, Jacob. Edward is here as long as he likes. If we do any 'catching up,' he'll be right there with us."

Even seeing the physical manifestation of her choice, Jacob still didn't believe her. "Come on, Bella. You're smarter than this. I want to see you away from him to make sure he isn't controlling you somehow." He made a shushing sound when she opened her mouth to protest. "Let me finish, okay?"

She pursed her lips but nodded.

"What if he's just making you believe that you want him around?" He paused to emphasize the point, before going on. "I don't trust this guy, and I want to hear the whole story from you, without him interfering or manipulating, or whatever the hell he does. I want to figure out what he's getting out of this."

"What are you getting at? That he can't want to be near me just because he likes me? That's a pretty shitty thing to say, Jake. Just because we never clicked doesn't make me some sort of troll."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. Don't put words in my mouth. I just want to figure out what he thinks he's going to get out of this."

"Damn. When did you get so cynical? If you follow that logic, people only get to know each other because they can get something out of it."

"Do you hear yourself? You said 'people.' But that's just it, Bells. He's not a person!" Jacob continued with a sneer. "When it comes to them, there's a hidden motivation. It's not like he's a regular Joe just looking for a steady girlfriend." Jacob narrowed his eyes as a suspicion entered his thoughts. "Besides, it's not like you can have a real relationship, so the physical stuff can't be a draw for him."

Bella inhaled sharply, freezing under my grip. Using the hands on her hips, I eased her to the side, not wanting to scare her. When I was clear, I surged forward, stopping an inch from Jacob's nose.

"You are out of line," I said through clenched teeth. "Apologize to the lady."

Up to this point, I'd restrained myself. In the same way I'd expect Bella to let me handle my family, I let her deal with Jacob. Unfortunately, he just had to push it too far. I didn't care what the prejudiced little toad thought. He had no business interfering in what was the best experience of my long life, and I certainly wasn't going to let him plant doubts in Bella's mind.

Jacob's reaction surprised me. In spite of my attempt to intimidate, he wasn't afraid of me physically, but he was more afraid of the change I would bring. If Bella was telling the truth, she was moving on without him—again. She grew and changed, making the best of her situation, and he just couldn't move on. If we could build a solid adult relationship, he would be alone with nothing but his obsession on the past. I knew the moment the truth occurred to him. He looked over my shoulder, horrified.

"Oh, God, Bells. What the hell did you do?" His damning words echoed through the room.

"Fuck you! You don't know a damn thing. And you know why? Because you weren't here. You're never here when I need you." There was a tremulous undertone to her words; it told me just how affected she was by Jacob's accusation. "Don't you dare think you have any say in how I live my life or who I chose to spend time with."

As much as I wanted to rip him apart for making Bella unhappy, she needed me. I turned my back on Jacob and moved to my girl, pulling her against me. Part of me worried that she'd fight, but I should have had more faith. Her warm arms wrapped around me, seeming to take in my strength before she straightened. Twisting, she stood tall and kept Jacob in her sights.

Through his eyes, I saw her. Standing at my side, it was obvious where her loyalty resided. Disbelief rolled through him. He opened and closed his mouth twice before making an aggravated sound and storming out the office door.

Bella watched him go. As the door crashed shut behind him she rolled her eyes. "Drama queen."

"Are you okay?" I rubbed my hands up and down her arms. She'd seemed to hold her own, but I needed to hear her say she was fine.

"Yeah. I just wish … " She sighed deeply and dropped onto the couch. "Whatever. He's not going to change. It's been too long. I'll be happier when I accept that."

Some perverse instinct had me defending Jacob. In spite of all his limitations, he didn't intend to hurt her. If the two of them could work out a relationship, no matter how limited, Bella would be much happier. "I don't know that I'd give up on him. You change when you need to. Maybe he can learn to do it, too."

She didn't answer right away. Eventually, she said, "Exactly how long am I supposed to—" but she was cut off by a sharp rap on the door, followed by one of the bouncers yelling.

"Hey boss, we need you. Two guys started shoving on the dance floor and knocked a chick down. She twisted her knee bad. I called the cops and an ambulance."

"On our way," she called, before cursing low. I held the door open as she grabbed her phone and a first aid kit. By the time we got to the dance floor the poor girl was curled on her side, and I could smell her tears. The dark-haired bartender held a bag of ice against her knee. He pulled the bag back long enough for Bella to inspect the damage. The victim's knee had already begun to swell, and it looked as though she had two kneecaps. There was no way she could get up with that kind of damage.

Bella checked with Austin, making sure security had detained the two 'gentlemen' in question. Once she was sure everything had been covered, she knelt beside the girl. While we waited, Bella stroked her hair and talked low, letting her know help was on the way.

The crowd edged closer, mostly curious about the problem. One idiot pulled out his cell phone, but when I started toward him, he put it away. I wasn't letting anyone take pictures of this girl's pain. As I walked back, Bella's head snapped to the left, and she started scanning the crowd in the front, near the doors.

I leaned low and whispered in her ear. "What is it?"

"I don't know. I thought I saw someone …. Never mind. It's stupid."

Before she could elaborate, the EMTs arrived. While she gave them an overview of what happened, I took it upon myself to pass through the crowd, looking for anyone unusual. I waded into the stream of sweaty, young human bodies. There didn't seem to be anything unusual in the crowd. I tried to just let the thoughts of sex roll over me without being affected. Now that I had personal knowledge of the act, I understood why it drove so much behavior.

During my informal patrol, people continued to leave and enter the bar. I didn't find a vampire scent. Not that I'd expected to find any, but something about this situation felt off, and I wanted to cover all the bases.

It took several minutes to get the injured girl loaded onto the ambulance. By the time we'd contended with the police statement and had everything covered, it was practically closing time. Bella looked exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than to take her home. I was thrilled when it only took a bit of persuading to get her to leave. I offered to carry her, reminding her that it would be easy for me. She just rolled her eyes and took my hand. The walk seemed shorter than before, and when we reached the apartment, she gave me a sleepy smile and motioned me inside.

"It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle." Sun Tzu. "The Art of War." I can imagine Jasper sitting around discussing this with the rest of the family.

Classes are over, and my graduation tassel is tucked away in my keepsake box. I appreciate your patience, and thanks for reading!