The "Ho Hey" Contest
Story Title: Own
Pen name: Rochelle Allison
Word Count: 11,556
The sky's more pink than blue now, horizon hazy with wispy clouds. The wind blows restlessly, stirring up dust, causing the oak tree beside the house to shift and sway, spindly branches scratching the roof like fingernails tapping tabletops. Swinging quietly, I sip at my lemonade and wish I had something harder. It's been that kind of day, when not even the prettiness of dusk quiets my heart.
Not bad, just unsettling somehow.
Still, though, it's lemonade, and it's sweet, so I gulp it down pulp and all. Putting the empty glass aside, I hug my arms around myself. In the colder months we keep a blanket out here, but we're nearing the end of August now and the blanket is stuffed away in the closet gathering dust. But, tonight…tonight is one of those that have a bite.
The strangeness of the days settles around me like the nip in the air does, making the quiet of our old house seem like a warning. Jake hates leaving me here alone but I tell him it's the best thing, the only thing. Maybe if we were together-together, I'd be willing to go, but we're not, so there's no need for that level of compromise and sacrifice. We both knew, growing up, that becoming a field service technician would mean a ton of time on the road for him.
Of course, back then there was a part of me liked the thought of tagging along. But things change; people change. I don't know what I want half the time, but it's not that. I try not to think of his hugely sad brown eyes after he kissed me goodbye yesterday.
Yeah, things change, and it doesn't always take physical space to create distance.
Me? I have everything I need in here. My short stint with big city life was four years in Seattle, for college. It was fun and I got my degree, but after that all I wanted to do was return to boring old Mossyrock. Never thought I'd be that girl, a homebody getting excited over marshmallow fondant and pie orders, but it turns out that I am.
Honestly sometimes this place still bores me, but I guess my affection for it makes me indulgent. I wasn't born here, but my father was, and I visited him every summer until the ninth grade when I decided I wanted to stay. I know people; I belong. From the little church my Grandma took me to as a little girl to the bakery in town she left me when she died, this place makes belongs to me as much as I belong to it. For better or for worse.
Somewhere in the distance, the rhythmic tap-tap-tap of something—a hammer, maybe—competes with the other, usual sounds of dusk. Crickets start their nightly chorus, and when the wind shifts, I can just barely hear the bluegrass Mrs. Cope plays every night while making dinner.
Inside, my phone rings. Sighing, I ease out of the hammock and shuffle inside before the call goes to voicemail, knowing how Jake hates it when he can't reach me. He grew up here, too, but always seems to get a little freaked out by all the open space.
Like I thought, his picture's on the screen when I answer. "Hey, Jake."
"Hey, Bells. I'm just checking in."
"I know." I smile, plopping into a chair at the kitchen table. "What's up? How'd it go today?"
"Fine, fine. Bumpy flight, but we survived." He chuckles, raspy and hoarse in the space between us. "Embry had to pop a Xanax. You know he hates that shit."
"Poor guy," I say, frowning. Embry Call's just a kid, a younger cousin who wants to follow in his footsteps. "You guys be nice."
"We are nice," he laughs. "Anyway, we're gonna go grab dinner, but...I wanted to make sure you were okay. You lock up yet?"
"No, but I will."
"Don't wait too long."
"Gross," he says. "How was it at the shop today? You sell any of the minty things?"
"Meringues," I chuckle. "A few. Delivered a couple dozen caramel brownies to the firehouse, too."
"Yeah." I smile, thinking of our friend Emmett, and how excited he'd been to see those brownies.
We chat for another minute or so before hanging up. The voices on his end are getting rowdier, and I know they're probably gearing up for a late dinner or drinks. That's the way it is with them: work hard, play hard. He'd give up that aspect of it for me if I asked, but I never would.
Until he says something, or until he meets someone, I'm fine with leaving things the way they are—no expectations either way. Makes me feel free. Maybe it also makes me a selfish bitch, because Jake and I both know he thinks I hang the moon, but I've been nothing but clear.
Because while things aren't ideal, they're not broken, either.
And you don't fix what's not broken.
Dinner for one: leftover lasagna and a salad. A generous glass of wine I nurse all the way to the couch, where I settle in for an evening of half hearted channel surfing. Eventually I give up on that and grab a book, instead. I don't feel tired, but the wine relaxes me, and eventually I start yawning. Melting in to the pillows, I pull a blanket up.
I wake abruptly, jostled and tossed.
Smoke tickles and burns my nose, my throat, and the air sounds like it feels – hot and crackly. And I'm in someone's arms. We sway for a moment and I think this person must not know which way to go. There are words in my throat but the lack of air has strangled them, too.
...a tinkly little crash as my rescuer knocks over the mostly empty glass of wine by the couch...
...a bigger crash as something farther away in the house gives, and then we're moving, flying through the ash and embers glowing around us like fireflies...
I clutch at a soft shirt, grasping the neckline in my fingers, catching skin by mistake, but the person just holds me closer. We stumble out into the cool, damp night where they fall to the grass and gentles me down. Only in the presence of sweet, clean air do I finally cough, violently. I cough so hard I heave, rolling to my side, feeling safe hands fall away from me altogether.
Voices call out, firemen probably. My rescuer's voice is closer, but no less urgent as I struggle to swat the black spots dancing in front of my eyes. And then my chest closes in on itself and my head starts to swim, blackness trying to swallow me whole, like Jonah and the whale.
But his eyes are green. Even in the dark I can see that. Reflections of flames flicker and dance in them, and for a moment, they're all I see.
"Are you okay?" he asks, his gaze leaving mine so it can trip all over the rest of me, taking inventory I guess.
I nod, wincing when a twig pokes me in the neck. My neck...my throat. That's hurting, a little. I say as much.
"Smoke inhalation," he says, glancing back at the house. I follow his gaze to where several firemen work to put the fire out. It's both bigger and smaller than I'd assumed: only part of the house is damaged, but that it happened at all is overwhelming.
I wipe away tears and force myself to sit up. My rescuer is not in uniform, and when he looks back at me, I shake my head. "How'd you know? Who are you?"
He sits back on his haunches, wiping his brow and leaving a trail of soot. "Edward Masen."
The Masen place. I know it. Know of it, rather – a dilapidated, rickety old farmhouse; a three story monstrosity that looks the way ours might after years of neglect.
"Your neighbor," he adds, almost smiling but not quite.
"I didn't know anybody lived there," I whisper, swallowing against the burn in my throat.
"Been there a month," he says, shrugging. "Working on it."
"You knew I was here?" I say, only half-asking.
He nods. "Saw you once or twice in passing."
I wonder why he didn't just come and introduce himself. Then again, though, maybe I've just been too caught up in my own head to notice anything or anyone.
"Well, thank you. I didn't..." Something wells up, and I stop, closing my eyes. "Thank you, Edward."
He just nods, touching my arm before rising to his feet. One of the firefighters is standing beside me, and he nods at Edward before offering me his hand.
"Emmett?" I realize.
He nods, face dark with soot and concern. "You okay, Bella? Damn. What happened?"
"I don't know...I fell asleep and just..."
"You're okay, though?"
"Yeah, I'm all right." I peek at Edward, whose eyes look like they've been on me awhile. "But only because of him."
"I need you to get checked out," Emmett says, nodding toward an ambulance that must've crept up in the meantime. "Please."
It's like he's anticipating my reluctance, because now he just looks determined. Sighing, I turn and make my way to the paramedics. They check me out thoroughly, and I oblige the best I can when really all I want is to collapse back into sleep. Besides minor smoke inhalation, I'm fine, so I refuse additional care. I don't know what I'm going to do now, but I'm not going to the damn hospital.
Reality starts trickling in: calling Jake, my father. I'm already dreading the inevitable panic and upset.
"You can't stay here tonight," Edward says as I wander back. Emmett and the others are packing up their fire truck now, winding the fat hose back into a coil. Behind us sits two thirds of a farmhouse, and the charred, soggy remains of what was once our front room. Jake's flat screen TV is gone for sure, as are a bunch of my books and pictures, but I'm lucky to be alive.
Edward touches my arm, fingers cold.
"No," I agree, belatedly.
"You got friends in town?"
"What's that mean?"
"My dad's on a fishing trip. I –"
"I have friends," I say, frowning.
"It's nearly four in the morning. I have room. Stay with me."
The unexpected offer catches me off guard. I gape for a second, speechless. I really don't know him, and while the fact he just saved my life does work in his favor, I don't make a habit if sleeping in strange men's houses.
"It's no problem. Please, Bella."
"How'd you know my name?" I ask, like it's important.
As if he's listening, Emmett ambles over, hat in his hands. "You guys okay? You need me to take you anywhere, Bella?"
"Uh...no. I – he offered me a place to crash for tonight."
He eyes me. "You cool with that?"
"I..." I'm tired, is what I am. As long as Em knows where I am and who I'm with, I should be okay. "Yeah."
If he's surprised, he doesn't show it. "Good enough. I'll come by in the morning, see where we can start."
"Emmett, no. Isn't this the end of your three day shift?"
"Like I said, I'll be here in the morning." He slaps his hat back on and nods at Edward. "Thanks, man. Really. I don't even know what we'd have done."
I swallow hard, watching him walk away. And then it's just Edward and me, and a thin string of smoke whispering up from the ashes.
"You need anything from in there?" he asks, hands in his pockets.
Because Jacob is on the East Coast and there is nothing he can do, I don't call him until morning.
He's clearly wide awake when he answers, laughter in his voice. "Hey, Bells."
"Hi," I croak.
"What's wrong?" he asks, on instant alert. You don't know someone most your life without learning their voices, their tells.
"There was a fire –"
"What? Bella, where? Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Shit! I never should've left. What happened?"
I explain the best I can. Truth is I don't really know what happened, how it started. I don't smoke, and the fireplace hasn't been used since last winter. I hadn't been using the stove, no candles were burning; nothing. We go back and forth, Jake freaking out more and more. He's relieved I was rescued, but even that's overshadowed by everything else.
"So where are you now? Charlie's?"
"Neighbor took me in."
"Edward. That's who found me in the first place."
"Masen. Lives over in that old farm at the end of the road."
"Masen..." he mutters. "Huh. I think I might know him. Lived on the edge of town but...I haven't seen him in a while. Long while. What's he doing back?"
"I don't know."
"Good thing he found you, Bella. I..." His voice tapers off, and he's quiet a second. "Please give him my thanks. I'm sure I'll see him, but just –"
More quiet crackles across the line. On my side, noises float up from downstairs: the busyness of breakfast, dishes clattering and water running. I think, maybe, I smell coffee, too. My stomach growls. "I'm gonna go."
"Yeah, okay. I'll uh, be home tonight."
"Jake, it's fine. Emmett McCarty's coming by soon to check on some things. We'll –"
"Bella, stop. I have to come home. That's...that's my house. And you're my...Bella. Nothing else matters. Okay? Just...stay put and I'll see you as soon as I can."
I let him have this. He's upset, and I get it. "All right."
The room I stayed in last night is from another time. The bed frame is ancient oak, much like the floorboards, the sturdy wood gleaming with a dull shine that makes me think Edward has been working on it. Tucked beneath the eaves, the ceiling slants sharply, giving the room a cozy dynamic. Cream walls, like paper yellowed with age. An old writing desk beneath a window dressed in light yellow sheers.
Edward gave me one of his sweatshirts last night. It's big and comfy, reaching nearly to my knees, faded lettering stretched across the chest. Letting the sleeves down so they stretch over my hands, I leave the room and venture down the hall, drawn by the prospect of food and of seeing Edward in the daylight.
In the gentle, muted light of late morning, his handsomeness takes my breath away. Things were crazy last night, and even when he brought me back here I was too bleary eyed and exhausted to do much more than shower and sleep. Now, though, I'm noticing details. His skin's creamy and pale, and he's tall. He's got a few freckles I think, and his hair glows gold and reddish brown. Lean, though by the way his shoulders stretch beneath his shirt I suspect he's fit. I felt his strength when he carried me last night, and seeing the way his shoulders angle and stretch beneath his t-shirt, how his arms flex when he picks something up...
I stand in the doorway watching him pour coffee and methodically place the cups on saucers, spoons on the sides. And then the wood floor creaks beneath my socked feet, giving me away.
"How're you feeling?"
"I'm okay. Throat's still a little sore."
He nods. "Should fade soon. You're lucky it wasn't worse. Smoke can do a lot of damage."
"Yeah, I know," I say softly, folding into a chair. I'm still so tired, inside and out.
He puts a plate of eggs and toast down in front of me.
"Do you like jam or jelly or –"
"This is good. Thank you."
He nods, and we eat in an agreeable silence. Eventually, though, he asks what I'm expecting him to. "So you spoke to your boyfriend?"
"He's not my boyfriend. But, yeah – we spoke."
"I don't understand."
I shrug, setting my coffee mug down and looking back at the carafe. There's a little left and, even though it would be cup number three, I need the caffeine. Last night wrung me out, physically as well as emotionally. "No one does." No one but Jake and myself, that is.
"No one," he repeats.
"Nope." I go for the coffee, shivering a little. Overcast outside, any remaining summertime heat has retreated for the time being. The greyness makes me feel a little lonely, and I don't want to go back home just yet.
"Explain it to me," he says from his place at the table. That he wants to know, and asks so candidly, interests me. I'm sensing something from him, something like attraction, perhaps. I sense it from myself, too. It's the only way I can describe my fascination with him, and apparently...his with me.
I turn, leaning against the counter. "He's my best friend. I take care of him and he takes care of me."
Edward's eyes flicker over my face. "Okay..."
"We both grew up without mothers, he because she died having him and me because I chose my father after the divorce."
"You're friends who –"
"Love each other." People in town know Jake and me, always have. They don't bother asking because I think they think they know. Explaining it, breaking it down this way, is new for me. It makes me feel a little weird - exposed.
"Sounds like a relationship," he says, after a brief pause.
"It is what it is." I pause, adding cream to my coffee. "You know?"
Chuckling quietly, he shakes his head real slow. "Not really, but I guess you do."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You living in this big old house by yourself?" I'm being nosey, and we both know it. But that's all right. I'm just giving a little of what I got.
"Well, I sure don't live with my parents."
I roll my eyes. Yeah, he got me there. "So it's just you, then."
"Are you fixing it up to stay, or what? Flipping it?"
He chuckles, stirring at his coffee. "Flipping what? Mossyrock is the sleepiest place ever. If I don't live here, no one will."
"You make it sound like you have no choice," I tease.
"I had choices," he says, serious. "I chose here. I... love this house. Have a lot of good memories here."
"It's weird. I always thought it'd been abandoned or something."
"Well, no one's lived in it forever. Even when we were kids we'd come to goof off, play hide and go seek and stuff. It wasn't in such bad shape back then, but my grandparents didn't live in it anymore, either."
"What made you come back?"
"Did a stint in the Army, completed some school, decided to come back and hook up with the National Guard out in Olympia. Made sense to live here, seeing as my grandfather left it to me."
"You guys were close?"
"Pretty close." He runs a hand through his hair. "Still surprised everyone when he left it to me, though."
I can relate; I felt the same way when Grandma Marie left me her shop. "I bet. It's huge."
"Yeah, it is. It was a little intimidating at first, but I've managed all right. My sister and her boyfriend come out sometimes to help. She's the one who put that guest room together." He smiles fondly, obviously affectionate, and my heart thumps at how sweet he looks.
"I loved it," I say, thinking of waking up in that room. "She certainly made it feel...I don't know...put together."
"That's Alice," he laughs.
"You guys are close," I guess.
"We are." He nods, taking a bite of the toast left on his plate. A buttery crumb sticks to his lip, and he licks it off before using a napkin. I can't recall the last time I felt like this around a guy, all nervous and jittery. It's not just the way he looks, although that's a fine sight indeed. it's the way he comes across. The way he looks at me, too.
Peeking up, he catches me staring, and for a moment neither of us speak. It's an uncomfortable silence, because we hardly know one another, but my mind has gone blank.
He glances at an old clock ticking faintly across the room. "You want more coffee?"
Exhaling and slightly trembly, I nod, pushing my cup across to him.
Emmett and Jared, another fireman who was here last night, walk around the house muttering and evaluating. The damage from last night's fire is contained to one area, mainly: the TV room and screened porch. It was thorough, though, and we're going to have to make sure the damage didn't weaken other aspects of the house's frame. I glance at my watch, wondering where in transit Jacob is, when the insurance agent will make it out to Mossyrock, and whether I'll be seeing Edward Masen around more. I mean, he saved my life. I feel like that connects us. But beside that, he intrigues me, with his beautiful face and quiet voice, and his direct approach. And despite his history with Mossyrock, he's new here. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to know more.
"Well, it's bad, but nothing that can't be fixed," Emmett says eventually, making his way back over to me. "Trust me, I've seen worse."
"Jake and I go back a long way. We'd be glad to give him a hand."
I realized pretty quick that one of the things I liked best about little towns like Mossyrock was the people, the sense of community. Gossip and lack of nightlife are easy to deal with when replaced by people who are willing to come together and help out. People like Mrs. Cope next door, and Emmett and the guys down at the station.
People like Edward, who rescue female neighbors from fires and then put them up for the night.
"He'll appreciate that, Emmett. Thanks."
He just nods, taking his baseball cap off to wipe his brow before putting it right back on again. "You okay here? Sure you don't want to hang out somewhere 'til he gets back?"
I smile wryly. "This is where I live, Em. I'll be fine."
Jake comes home earlier than I anticipate. It's a relief not to be alone, not to have to deal with this on my own. He's visibly upset by the state of his childhood home, but pulls himself together.
"Maybe it's a good thing," he says, taking a swig of beer. "You know? I can knock this area out, start fresh. Do something cool."
His optimism is definitely one of his finest qualities, and it's contagious, if not a little idealistic. "Okay."
"You don't think so?" he laughs, pulling on me so I come close. It's not unwelcome. We've been physical on and off for years, but if I'm being truthful, his touch has always been more about safety, warmth and comfort than sexual arousal.
"I do. I do think so. We can do whatever you want to it."
I think of Edward's house, of all of the details. Things that are generations older than all of us put together, and then things that he just might have changed himself.
"...and the door. You know?" Jake snickers, squeezing me tight. "I don't think he realizes how weird it looks."
I have no idea what he's talking about, and even though there is no commitment between us, my growing infatuation with the guy next door makes me feel guilty. Everything is so up in the air. I'm not with Jake but I am. I don't know Edward but I want to. I don't know if I should but I don't know if I can stay away.
"You okay, Bella?"
I glance down at him, reddening. "Yeah. Just a little out of it."
He sobers up, nodding. "It's been shitty couple of days. Maybe we should stay in town tonight at Sam's."
"We're not paying for a room when we have a perfectly good place here."
"He'd never make us pay; come on," he scoffs.
"Whatever. I'm good here."
"All right." He shrugs, finishing off his beer before standing. "I'm gonna take a shower then."
I stand up, too. "Dinner'll be ready when you are."
"'kay." He grins, soft and affectionate. "Thanks."
Being friends as long as Jake and I have been means we understand each other's moods, and when we creep into bed later, it's apparent we're both exhausted because there are no attempts at fooling around. Instead, we're asleep in minutes.
By the end of the week Jake and his friends, including the firefighters, are deep into reconstruction. Edward's come by to help a couple of times. I didn't realize until we passed each other one evening, me coming and him going. Jake said he'd come with Emmett and then by himself, working nearly from dawn until dusk. Most of the guys work full time, but they come by after shifts and on days off to get this done. I fall asleep most nights to the sound of mellow music and beer bottles downstairs as the boys wind down from their difficult day.
Down at Miss Marie's, it's business as usual. I spend my days baking, serving, and talking crap with Rose, the girl I hired about a year after taking over and now one of my best friends. She's been in Mossyrock a couple of years, but she still feels kind of new, in the way that anyway who wasn't born and raised around here does.
"How's it coming down there?" she asks, frowning as she wipes my cheek. "Is that flour?"
"Uh, yeah, probably." I wipe my sleeve across my face. "It's coming fine. Hasn't Em been keeping you updated?"
"Well. You know how guys are. No details." She smirks, the way she does when I bring up Emmett, also known as the love of her life.
Shrugging, I pull a tray of rock buns from the oven. "The frame is rebuilt and so is the roofing. I mean, we're just...really lucky. Any longer and the whole structure would've gone up. I think about that every day."
"That all you think about?"
Our eyes meet. Hers say so much. "No."
"Hmm." Smirking slightly, she nods toward the counter. "I need another batch of those as soon as you can. Principle Miller called. PTO meeting."
"That time already, huh?"
"Mhm. She said she'd swing by to pick them up around lunch."
She disappears, returning to the front while I grab what I need for another batch of buns. I'm maybe halfway done when I sense her hovering. "Rose, come on. I just barely got started..."
"You have a customer."
Frowning, I glance over my shoulder at her, and then beyond to the counter. Edward Masen's there, propped on his elbows and not even pretending to look at anything else.
"Yeah," Rose says quietly, pursing her lips. She's one of the few people that actually understands my situation with Jake; she just doesn't really like it. She's also the only one who knows about my crush on Edward. I don't think she likes that either. It's hard to tell with Rose. "Go on. I'll pop these in."
Straightening up, I wipe my hands on my apron and trade places with her. "Hey, Edward."
He smiles, and it's really something. It might be the first time I've seen him do it. "Hey, Bella."
"Not working on your place today?"
"Taking a break." His eyes flicker to the clock on the wall; mine do, too. Nearly three. The hours fly by when I'm in here. "All the guys talk about this place like it's heaven on earth."
"By guys, do you mean Emmett?" I laugh.
His eyes twinkle. "Emmett and all the rest."
"Anyway, I didn't eat lunch, yet. I was hoping you could recommend something."
"Depends on what you like. You in the mood for sweet or savory?"
"Ham and cheese crepe; we use gouda and honey smoked ham from Crowley's. And then maybe pie for desert."
"Not a pie person."
"I like cake..." He trails off, squinting at the menu board.
"Rock buns?" I point to the fresh batch, sitting warm on top of the counter. "They're sweet, but not too sweet."
He nods quickly. "Perfect."
"Here or to go?" I ask, kind of hoping he says here.
"Can you take a break?"
I glance around. As usual, we've had a pretty steady flow of people all day, and I don't want to short-staff Rose. "I don't think I can."
"Then to go." He gazes intently at me. "You free after work?"
I knew it!
"Pretty much," I say calmly, when inside I'm nearly freaking out.
"Stop by the house, if you want. I'll just be hanging out."
"Yeah, okay," I say, thinking about Jake and what I'll tell him. We have our own friends and our own lives, but things like this are tricky. "Maybe I will."
He nods, smiling. "Good."
I bag his purchases and he pays, all the while making small talk about Mossyrock. Rose corners me when he leaves, eyes dancing in amusement. "So. Looks like he's getting real friendly."
"Looks like it," I agree.
She rolls her eyes. "You better talk to Jake, girl."
"Tell me something I don't know, Rose."
After work, I stop by the supermarket before pulling into Edward's dusty driveway. Was it really just a week ago he brought me here, freshly rescued, mind blown, and totally overwhelmed?
But I take time to notice things now: the overgrown rose bushes and sparse, uneven gravel. It's wild and beautiful. Kind of like him, with that pretty face and crazy hair.
He opens the door before I have time to knock.
"You came." He takes the six pack I'm carrying and stands aside so I can come in.
"Didn't you invite me?" I ask, mostly kidding.
"I did, I did. Come on."
We make our way through the dimly lit hallway to the kitchen. Even with the stuff Edward's added – newer, lighter drapes, personal photographs, a couple of modern light fixtures, walking through this house feels like stepping back into time.
I stop short inside the kitchen, surprised by the couple sitting at the table. A small brunette who looks a lot like Edward, smiles rather saucily at me. The lanky blond to her right rises, extending his hand. "Bella, right? I'm Jasper."
"Hi, Jasper." I smile, accepting his hand.
"And I'm Alice, this kid's sister."
"More like my kid sister," Edward corrects dryly, shaking his head as he pops open a beer.
"Hi, there." We shake hands, too, and then everyone sits. When Edward invited me over earlier, I'd had no idea that his family would be here, and no I feel a little awkward. What do they know of me? That he carried me out of a burning house?
"So I hear you two met at a bar," Jasper jokes, blue eyes sparkling as he looks from me to Edward.
"Is that what it was?" I ask, hiding a smile. I might not know these people, but I feel like perhaps I could. They're easygoing.
"You have to admit, the way y'all met...that's a meeting worth telling the grandkids about," he says, winking.
Predictably, I blush and squirm, wondering what Edward's told them. "I guess, yeah. I mean...it is."
"Ignore them," Edward says, sitting Jasper's fresh beer down in front of him rather loudly.
"Edward's always been a little heroic," Alice explains, sitting back. "You gave him a reason to do something other than shuffle around this old place and watch fireflies."
"Oh yeah? So you make it a habit, saving girls from burning buildings?"
"No, but I did a tour in Afghanistan," he says, shrugging. "And I thought I wanted to do something with medicine, but now...I'm not so sure."
To say I'm surprised would be an understatement. Never would I have seen him in a combat zone, although now, as memories of him carrying me to safety surface, it clicks. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I glance at Alice, and then Jasper. They seem to be sharing a meaningful look, but then again, I don't know them very well.
"Not so sure about medicine in general or just...being over there?" My words stumble over themselves. I don't know how he feels about anything, and I desperately want to. I want to know him.
"I'm not going back. I'm sure about that." His eyes tighten fractionally and then release, returning his face to its default mellow. "But my father's a doctor, so, you know. It's the expected thing. But now..." He shakes his head and shrugs, lifting his bottle to his lips.
I nod, getting it. Jake's dad was a little like that right after college, but he's since come to appreciate his only son's choices. "So now you're here."
"In the middle of nowhere," Alice teases.
"I happen to like living out here," Edward laughs. I watch as he smoothes his fingers slowly over his jeans, over and over. "Watching fireflies." He and Alice glance at each other, share another private look.
"She pretends she hates it, but she romanticizes the shit out of Mossyrock when we're gone," Jasper explains, stretching out in his chair.
"I'm pretty attached, myself," I say. "Which is...kind of surprising."
"But you're from here too, right?" he asks.
"Sort of. My dad is, and I spent summers here until finally I moved from Phoenix when I was a freshman in high school."
"Is there another one?" I ask, smirking.
"Probably, but, wow. That's drastic."
"It is," I agree. "My mom's still out there, actually. I think she's still waiting for me to come back. What about you guys?"
"They're trying to decide if they should come back," Edward says. "Jasper's working on his billionth degree and Alice is just finishing up her first."
"Oh!" I squint at Alice, taking in her stylish, short black hair and green wrap dress "I guess I thought you were about our age..."
"I am. College took me awhile," she says, and for a second she looks bashful. "I like to travel."
"I know the type." I say, thinking of Jake but looking at Edward. He's watching me again. There's nothing bashful about his expression. Again with the directness. I'm not sure if it attracts me or intimidates me. A little of both, perhaps. I wish I knew what he was thinking.
The doorbell rings, and this time Jasper jumps up. "That's probably the food."
Alice jogs after him, wallet in hand. I turn to Edward. "Sneaky."
"Why?" He smiles like he already knows what I'm talking about.
"Springing your family on me."
"Just those two." He shrugs. "I wasn't sure if they were coming, but I mentioned you and they wanted to meet you."
"Wanted to meet the girl you pulled from a fire?"
He doesn't confirm nor does he deny, not that I need him to do either. And the pause that follows should be awkward, but it isn't. For all of the fluttery feelings Edward gives me, he puts me at ease, too. Like we're fast friends, old friends. Like I belong here.
"So...you tell her yet?" Alice asks, as she and Jasper reappear with identical paper bags bearing the logo of Mossyrock's only Chinese food restaurant.
"Tell me what?"
The tips of Edward's ears turn pink, and he clears his throat. "You've got to stop doing that," he says, giving Alice a look. "Just...let me. Okay?"
She blinks, her side bangs getting caught in her lashes, and nods.
I look on expectantly, waiting for something, anything.
He pauses, then scoots closer, leaning toward me. "So you've been coming here since you were a kid, right?"
"Right." I nod, accepting a plate from Alice. They're old, almost antique looking, with fine gold filigree and tiny pink flowers circling the border.
"Okay. There's this lake...Lake Mayfield?"
Sticky summertime memories of boating and fishing with Charlie spring to mind. I always went home slightly sunburned and with way more freckles than I'd come with. "Yeah. I use to go camping with my Dad around there."
"So did we. Anyway, I almost drowned out there when I was eight."
I sit back, a little stunned, not so much because of what he's telling me but because of the memory it dredges up, murkier than the lake during a storm. And part of me knows that while I'm floundering on the edges of remembering, it's plain as day for Edward. I'm beginning to feel like I'm always a step behind with him. Jasper and Alice seem to have disappeared again, and the subsequent silence is loud. Frowning, I stare at the table, and then back up at him. His gaze doesn't waver. I think he might be both the most confident and the most vulnerable man I've ever met.
"I pulled you up," I say quietly. "I saw you fall in. Off the marina."
"It was slick, and I fell," he says, nodding.
"We were so little..."
"You were so little. I was two years older. No one could believe you'd been able to pull me up."
Somehow, over the years, this has been pushed from my mind. I don't know why; it's pretty major, and now that we're talking about it details becoming clearer, darkroom photos developing beneath the light. "I just...I yelled. Until someone saw us. Some old guy actually got us to shore."
"But you kept me from going under. I...I used to hate the water. Alice could swim, but I just couldn't. I always panicked. My mom had me in swim class by the next day."
"Why didn't you say anything before?"
He looks away and takes a long breath. "I wasn't sure it was even you. I mean, that was a long time ago. Anyway, I think you left Mossyrock pretty soon after that? I don't know. I always expected to see you around, but I never did. I guess we didn't have the same friends or something, because even though everyone knew when Chief Swan's daughter came to visit, I never actually saw you."
Chewing my lip, I nod. That makes sense; most of my summers were spent fishing with my father or exploring the brush with Jake and his friends. "But how come I didn't see you when I moved here for high school?"
"By that point we'd moved. My Dad got a good offer in Seattle, so we moved closer to there, to the suburbs."
"This place was...it's my Dad's hometown, you know? And it was mine for awhile. It still feels like mine." He looks around, like he's remembering things. "Anyway, the night of the fire, Emmett said your name and something just clicked. I remembered you."
"I didn't remember you," I say. Being connected to Edward in this way has caught me off guard. I feel like I'm being swept down a river, with little hope of keeping up. I mean, I saved his life. And he saved mine. There's something intimate about that, and I don't know how I feel about it.
We're quiet a long time, and eventually Alice edges back in, green eyes darting between myself and her brother. "So, I'm starving."
"Me too," I say, picking up an egg roll.
"But you're okay, right?" she asks, tilting her head. "I don't know - I think it's kind of amazing. Serendipitous."
Edward snorts and I laugh, because her words echo my thoughts but with a way sweeter strain.
"It is, I guess." I steal a glance at Edward. For once he's not looking at me, and I allow myself to see him with this new knowledge. He's a man now, handsome and able, with a sharp, angled jaw and a scruffy chin, creases at the corners of his eyes. It's hard to believe he ever needed saving.
He catches me and smirks. "Consider the favor returned."
We empty the takeout boxes and tuck into our food. It's a pleasant sort of chaos, several conversations going on at once, lots of sharing and reaching across for extra packets of duck sauce or fried wontons. I haven't known Edward very long, but he's got this heaviness about him. Jasper and Alice lend levity, and I'm finally getting to see him smile and laugh.
And at the end, when there's nothing left, I reach for a fortune cookie. Alice beats me to it, cracking hers open first and shoving the bits into her mouth while she squints at her fortune. "When you look down, all you see is dirt. So look up." She shrugs, nodding. "In bed. Yeah."
"In bed?" I echo.
"In bed. After every fortune. Makes them better." She roots through the paper bag on the table, no doubt looking for another cookie.
Jasper grins, waving his around. "This is the best one ever."
"What's it say?"
"Use the force."
"In bed," adds Alice, smirking. "That is the best."
The snickering dies down. Edward shakes his head as he reads his. He tosses it aside, but Alice promptly scoops it up and reads it aloud. "You always know the right times to be assertive or to simply wait."
His ears turn pink. It triggers something in me, and then I feel a little funny, especially when Alice whisper-giggles, "in bed."
He rolls his eyes, and then they're all looking at me. I glance down at the scrap of paper in my lap.
My cheeks burn, but I smile. "Love thy neighbor, just don't get caught."
The silence is so loaded I can barely stand it.
Alice clears her throat. "In bed."
Sunday is a day of rest. Jake spends the day inside, begging me to make snickerdoodles because they're his favorite. I give in eventually, and we eat them with popcorn while watching a movie in bed. He knows things have shifted, but he doesn't know why. I think he thinks it's because of the fire, when really it's what's come after.
We fall asleep early, and I wake up before he does to head into the town. Edward's already up and riding around the thick, coarse grass in one of those riding mowers. He doesn't see me, but I see him, and if it were any day but Monday I'd take the opportunity to stalk him from the bushes or something. Some men were born to look good doing manual labor and Edward Masen is one of them.
Rose arrives minutes after I do, and we throw ourselves into our work. Lots of things to do today, including a couple of special orders.
It's mid-afternoon before we finally have a moment to catch our breath. The lunch rush has been over a while, stragglers and all, and we're coasting toward closing. A dull rumble in the distance reverberates across the sky, reminding me that while summer is technically coming to a close, there's still a little bit of weather to contend with. I just hope it doesn't start pouring before I get home.
"I'm starved. You want anything?" Rose asks, taking off her apron.
"Where're you going?"
"Don't know yet. What do you want, deli or Chinese?"
I almost say deli, because I could really use a turkey and cheese sub with those homegrown tomatoes Mr. Crowley stacks on, but instead I say Chinese, memories of eating with Edward flitting through my mind with sweetness and familiarity.
"Ok. I could go for that. General Tso's, right?"
"Be right back." She grabs her purse and hurries out, leaving me alone behind the counter. Well, almost alone. Pastor Webber and his wife Sharon come in for coffee and pie most every day around this time, so they're at their booth in the corner. Changing the music to something soft and jazzy, I wipe down the countertops and fiddle with the flower arrangement at one end. It's beginning to look a little wilted, and I run my fingers over the buttons on my phone, contemplating whether or not I should text Rose and ask her to stop by the flower shop.
The little bell on our door jingles lightly as the door sweeps open, bringing with it a gust of wind that ruffles my hair.
"Bella," says Alice, smiling as she approaches. In a little, light blue sweater dress, she looks like sugar and spice and everything nice, but I know now she probably rivals Rose when it comes to feistiness. "Edward said you'd be here."
"Alice, hey." I say. My heart squeezes at the thought of Edward thinking about me, and it's not a bad feeling. Not at all. "What's up?"
"Looking for something sweet."
"You came to the right place," I say.
"Word around town is you guys make the best cupcakes."
"I'd totally peg you for a cupcake girl."
"Yeah," I laugh, nodding.
She snorts indelicately and walks down the counter until she reaches our cupcakes, a mix of the usual favorites and today's specials. I wonder if Edward likes cupcakes.
"So, what are you guys up to later on?" I ask, wondering if it's going to be another night of take out and good times.
"Oh, Jasper and I are leaving, actually. Heading back to Seattle," she says, tucking her hair behind her ear. "He's filling the gas tank, making sure we're set."
"That's cool." I'm disappointed, though. For one thing, I've enjoyed the time I've spent with Alice and Jasper, brief as it's been. But Edward seems to like having them around, too. Their parents live out of state now, and that makes me wonder if he gets lonely out there in that drafty, old house.
"I'll take three Sea-salt Caramel, two Vanilla Buttercream and two Chocolate Afterlifes. To go, please. And, oh no way...is that...? Okay, and also three Strawberry Shortcakes."
"Wow, okay." I grab a box and quickly begin assembling the cupcakes being careful not to mess up the frosting.
She pays, deposits the change in the tip jar Rose has so subtly written karma on, and picks up the pale blue box. It matches her outfit, and for a second I'm tempted to take her picture.
"Can I get your number?" I blurt out instead, suddenly anxious we might not ever speak to each other again.
"Definitely. I was going to give it to Edward for you, anyway."
We exchange numbers, and then tentative over-the-counter hugs, before she finally skips out the front door, nearly knocking into Rose, who's on her way back.
Rain drizzles down steadily, washing down my windshield and obscuring Edward's house.
Heat on low, I sit in the cab of my truck, feeling silly now that I'm here. It seemed like a good idea at the time, grabbing several cupcakes I thought he'd like, but...he might not even like cupcakes. Maybe I'm misreading him, mistaking his chivalry with something more. Maybe he really does just want a friend in town.
At the same time, though, I don't think that's it. I see how he looks at me, both when he thinks I'm not paying attention and then especially when he knows I am. He's intense and confident, but respectful, keeping his distance.
And then there was today's fortune, otherwise known as the cosmic slap.
"The life you save belongs to you."
I'd stared at it for nearly ten minutes before finally deciding to just...go for it. Do this. Accept that there's this string of fate between Edward and me, and it's existed since we were children. Rose's words about talking to Jake echo through my mind, and although he and I always said we were free to do whatever, this still feels clandestine.
My phone rings. Startled, I pick it up and answer without looking.
"Bella? Is that you?"
I cringe, seeing another light go on inside the house. "Uh, yeah. I...sorry I didn't call before coming. I wanted to stop by, bring you something."
"No worries; come on in."
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"Okay; I'll be right in."
I don't even bother with an umbrella. I just jump out with the little box and make a mad dash to where Edward stands just inside his entryway, an amused smile sweetening his mouth. Abruptly nervous and a bit chilly, I thrust the box at him. "Cupcakes. I don't know if you like them, but I chose a couple..."
"Who doesn't like cupcakes?" he asks, his delight apparent.
"You'd be surprised."
"Craziness." He peeks inside, grinning. "Can't wait to try them."
"Cool. I know you normally go for the rock buns..."
He starts walking to the kitchen, nodding for me to follow. "Yeah, I've definitely got a thing for those."
I pause in the doorway, watching him continue on to the counter. He pulls a plate from the cabinet and chooses a cupcake, going straight for the chocolate. "You want one?" he asks, licking frosting from his finger.
"I'm okay, thanks," I say, trying to tamp down the crazy hormonal urges tingling through my body at sight of him with that frosting. Seriously, what is this? Another adolescence? "I have them all the time."
He pops the whole thing into his mouth and I smack my hands over my mouth, shocked and amused into laughter.
Closing his eyes, he chews and swallows and nods, humming. "Damn, girl."
Damn indeed. I know I'm blushing now. "Well, I should get home. Jake's probably waiting." And then I cringe, because that just sounds weird - even to me.
"You really just came to give me cupcakes?"
Why does everything he says sound like innuendo lately? I give myself a mental shake and clear my throat. "Yeah. I wanted you to try them."
"That's sweet," he says, his expression anything but. Hands now clean and in his pockets, he comes toward me, and stops just short of touching. Leans down, kisses my cheek. "Thank you, Bella."
"You're welcome," I breathe, allowing myself to touch his hand.
Fog rolls in overnight, lingering thickly into the morning. The sun rises and tries valiantly to shine anyway, casting the land in this odd, but dreamy, peachfuzz. I'm double checking my grocery list at my truck, half way in and halfway out, when another car pulls up.
Edward jumps out, running both hands anxiously though his hair. "Bella. Glad I caught you."
"Is...what's wrong?" I ask, freaked out by his intensity.
"It's my Dad. He had a heart attack early this morning –"
"He's okay. I mean, he's stable. Alice and my Mom are there at the hospital...they called me a little while ago. I have to go. To Seattle. I should've..." He stops rambling abruptly, shaking his head. "I just wanted to see you before I left."
In all of the conversations I have had with Edward Masen, this is the most direct he's ever been about his intentions. His words, the way he just said them, how his green-grey eyes bore into mine – he's saying so much more. It's been hard enough tempering my wanting and wondering, but when confronted with his bluntness? I don't think I ever stood a chance. I grab his hand and squeeze, hard. "I'll be here when you get back."
Swallowing, I let go of his hand. "I promise."
"You don't have to promise." He's right in front of me now. "I believe you."
The wind picks up, blowing my hair across my face. I lift my hand to brush it away at the same time he does, and we touch. He tangles his fingers with mine briefly before stepping away altogether.
I want to ask how long he'll be gone, but I have a feeling he doesn't even know. I just have to trust that whatever put us in each other's lives in the first place will continue keeping us connected now.
It isn't as if Edward and I spent loads of time together when he was here, but his absence is an acute ache all the same. I pass by his house sometimes. From the outside it looks the way it used to: quiet, empty. Not quite abandoned, because he's done too much work to it now, but lifeless.
The week passes quickly, snatching the very last of our Indian summer. The dew that comes overnight sometimes looks more like frost, and the mornings are so cold that I sleep in thick socks and thermals. Living on the edge of town means we've got a lot of open space around, and the wild wind runs over and through it.
Thankfully, Jake's finished the new rooms right in time for fall. We throw a party on Saturday to celebrate, and nearly everyone comes out: Jake's Dad and all of his friends; Rose, Emmett and the firefighters who aren't on shift; Pastor and Mrs. Webber; Charlie and his girlfriend Sue; and a ton of other people. The only one missing is the one I miss the most, and though he texts me sometimes with increasingly positive updates of his father's condition, we haven't actually spoken.
At Marie's, Rose and I trade lemonade for hot chocolate and lattes, keeping ourselves warm during the day with generous amounts of both. Emmett's asked her to marry him sometime next year, so she's always smiling now, cheeks pink with more than just the wind.
Another week passes, then two. With everything back to normal – the house fixed and our routines re-established – Edward and my rescue feel a little like a crazy dream. If it wasn't for technology, I'd wonder if I'd made him up.
I'm reading at home one night when Jake plops down beside me, clapping my thigh with his palm.
"Go ahead," I murmur, turning the page.
"Go ahead and what?" he asks, amused.
"You want the last cookie, right?" I ask, distracted and vaguely irritated Jake's bugging me when all I want to do is know what happens next in this book.
"Pfft, ate that."
With an exaggerated sigh, I put the book face down on my lap and turn my attention to my oldest, and probably best, friend. "What's up?"
He grins, but it fades almost as quickly as it popped up. "I'm releasing you."
"From what?" I ask, but I know. "From...this?"
My stomach feels like it's full of bricks.
He nods, averting his eyes. "Yeah. I mean, you know. I love you, and I know you love me but...you're not in love with me and it's just not fair to either of us to continue the charade."
Stricken, and wondering how long he's been thinking these things, I push my book to the floor with a thud and turn fully toward Jake. "I didn't...I thought we were on the same page."
"I don't think anyone's ever fully on the same page. There's always going to be someone who cares more, and I just...I'm practically married to my job anyway. I feel like we're stuck. Don't you feel stuck?"
Shrugging, I pick at a thread on the couch. "Sometimes, maybe."
"I can't sleep with you knowing it's just a fuck, Bella."
"It's not!" I cry, offended and defensive because he's sort of right. Even if we are close friends, being together that way has consequences every time it happens. It was okay at one point, but we've let it go too long, and now it just feels wrong.
"Hey." He rubs my leg. "It is. Not that we've hooked up in like the past year."
I roll my eyes. "A couple months."
"Have you been with anybody else?" I ask, poking him in the chest. "You can tell me, you know. We always said no secrets."
"Not really." He frowns. "Well, okay, this one girl in Biloxi when we went down that one time."
"I knew it," I said, shaking my head. "You acted so guilty."
"I know! I felt guilty." He makes a face. "This is why this shit doesn't work."
And he's right; it doesn't. Not when you're old enough to know better.
"Have you?" he asks.
"Have I what?"
"Been with anybody?"
"Um, no Jake. I don't travel around like you do. And this is Mossyrock, not South Beach. Nothing to do, no new fish in this sea."
"Funny you should say that," he says, smirking. "Were you ever going to tell me?"
We both know what's talking about. It blindsides me, and I blush so hard my ears burn.
"Do you like him, Bella?"
I nod, closing my eyes. "We haven't... I mean, no one's said anything. It's just, I don't know."
"Then just...go for it. You do your thing, I do mine. I'm tired of feeling guilty for being gone all the time, and I'm tired of feeling like I'm keeping you from a real relationship."
"You haven't been," I whisper.
"Has anybody asked you out since you moved in?"
"No, but –"
"Like I said, time to let go."
"You kicking me out?"
"Never," he scoffs. "But I am breaking up with you officially."
"You're officially breaking off our unofficial arrangement." I smile wryly.
Sighing, I pat his hand. "Fine."
My phone rings with an unknown number and my heart leaps. I scramble to answer it, and Jake gets up ruffling my hair as he leaves.
"Hello?" I say breathlessly.
"Bella, it's me. Alice."
"One hundred cupcakes?" Rose repeats, eyebrow arched.
"That's what she said. Be happy it wasn't a big wedding."
"By next Saturday."
"Yeah. So we have five days."
"Girl's crazy. Don't people usually plan their weddings over, like, months? A year, at least?"
"Not Alice, apparently." I grab a serving plate and arrange the fresh rock buns on top of it, mouth watering with the smell. I woke up late on account of forgetting to set my alarm, so breakfast was a casualty of the crazed rush to get to work.
Squashing the urge to just pop a couple of the new buns into my mouth, I deposit them into the glass case and opt for a banana instead. "I'm thinking of having Rachel Black come in to help with the order," I tell Rose around a mouthful of mushy sweetness. "She's about old enough now."
"You trust her? She won't mess things up?"
I shrug. "We'll give her easy jobs."
"All right." She nods, tightening her ponytail. "And maybe Angela. She's been hinting at a job."
"Angela Webber? Really? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well, damn – we're not that busy all the time," she says, gesturing vaguely.
"But we're busier, especially with this wedding thing."
"Calling her right now," Rose says, slipping in to the back.
A couple of regulars come in. I'm ringing up Mrs. Cope when the door opens again, bringing in a burst of cool air and sunshine. Silhouetted in the doorway is Edward. Our eyes meet, and he makes his way over, looking better in just a jacket and jeans than anyone else does.
"Thanks, Mrs. Cope," I say, handing over her change.
She eyes me knowingly and then turns to Edward, who veritably towers over her. "Hello, young man. How is your father?"
"Hi, Mrs. Cope –"
"Er – Shelley. My dad's doing fine. Still resting at home, but okay. Thanks for asking."
"Oh, psh. You just tell him Shelley was asking about him. Give your Mama my regards."
"Will do." He smiles kindly down at her, but she winks in return, patting his chest.
"Be good now."
"Um...I always am," he stammers, eyes darting to me.
I push down the belly laugh brewing as Mrs. Cope leaves, turning one last time to wave at us.
"Wow. I've never seen her so...animated," I admit, grinning.
"Me neither." He shakes his head, disturbed. "Let's never talk about that. Ever."
He laughs quietly, prompting a giggle from me.
"So, your father's really all right?"
Exhaling heavily, he nods. "Yeah. He's on bed rest right now; my Mom's taking good care of him."
"She took it hard. They're really close. I mean, we all are, but she's daddy's girl I guess."
I grab a little plate, hoping he'll stay. "Do you want something? A rock bun?"
"A Mossyrock bun?" he asks, sitting at the counter.
"Ha, very clever." I plate two of the buns and slide them over. "That's actually kind of perfect."
"I know," he says, cocking his head. "I thought about it last night."
"You were thinking about rock buns last night?"
"Among other things."
The way he says this sends a flutter though me and the back of my neck heats up as I wonder what other things, exactly. He watches me as he takes his first bite, and I'm unable to look away, once again totally captivated by the crumbs on his perfect mouth.
Startled, I spin around and nearly hit Rose. "Hey."
Her eyes flicker from me to Edward and back. She smirks, tucking a pencil behind her ear. "Angela can start tomorrow."
"Hey, Edward," Rose says, giving a small wave.
She bumps my hip with hers. "I'll just...stay in the back."
Biting my lip, I look down, wondering if my expression is as transparent to Edward as it is to Rose. I grab a blueberry muffin and start to pick at it.
"Alice is getting married at the house," Edward blurts.
"She is?" I don't know where I thought she and Jasper would be tying the knot, but it wasn't there.
"Yeah. Said she liked the traditional feel. She's going for this whole 'country chic' theme," he says, curving his fingers into air quotes.
Admittedly, that does sound like something she'd say.
"I know you're going to be delivering the cupcakes, but will you attend, as well?"
"Alice invited me," I say, warmed that he wants me there. I can feel the attraction between us, and the desire for more, but I'm still not that close to him or his family. I think, though, that with time I could be.
But he pushes his plate aside. "I know she did. What I meant is will you accompany me?"
"Like, be your date?"
"Like be my date."
It's a habit to think of Jake first, but this time things are different. I think of the conversation we just had, setting each other free. And anyway, he's gone again, this time down to southern California for a week.
"Unless you'd prefer not to," Edward says slowly, features schooled back into neutral.
"No, I...I'd love to. I just have to be early. To deliver the cupcakes. Rose and I will be there around three."
"Then I'll meet you out back at five, right before."
When Alice said that she and a couple of girlfriends were decorating for the wedding themselves, I had no idea that they'd do it in such a skilled manner. I envisioned something more homey, but this...is spectacular.
"Whoa," Rose says, gaping beside me. "I need her to do my wedding."
"Gladly," Alice says, appearing from behind us. "Come on, I'll show you where the cake table is."
For the next half hour, Rose and I work feverishly to arrange the fancy, little white cupcakes. Around us, Alice and her friends finish up and then disappear upstairs to get ready.
"All right, so you've got this, right?" Rose asks, sipping her water bottle now that we've finished.
"Yeah. I'm going to run home and change."
"Have fun," she says. "Relax."
We carry the leftover supplies out to her car, and then she heads home to Emmett while I go up the road to my house for a lightning quick shower and change of clothes. Back at the Masen's, rows of vehicles sit parked in the field beside the house. I find a spot and clamber out, glad for once that it's chilly so I'm not sweaty from all of the running around.
Edward meets me at the door wearing grey slacks and a white dress shirt with french cuffs. My heart trips over itself. His eyes wander the length of me, over my pale lavender dress, cream cardigan, and the sandals it's getting too cold for.
"You look beautiful."
"Thanks. You look good, too."
"Thanks. Come on; they're about to start."
It's a simple ceremony, held in the garden out back. Since returning to Mossyrock, Edward has transformed this old house and its overgrown grounds into something really special. His devotion to it touches my heart, and I can see why Alice and Jasper chose it as their venue.
Along the fence and sides of the house are strung fairy lights and flowers in every shape and shade of white. Mason jars housing tea lights and upside down lightbulbs transformed into delicately hanging vases decorate low hanging branches and tabletops.
Everything is glowing.
The guest list is modest, and the ceremony itself is simple and brief. Watching the intimacy Alice and Jasper share as they exchange vows and then kiss is almost difficult, and it's not until Edward's hand finds mine that I relax.
And then get nervous anyway, because he's holding my hand.
Afterward, I stand aside while the family snaps pictures. There are a couple of familiar faces, people who have known the Masens for years like Mrs. Cope and Pastor Webber. I chat with them until Edward finds me, requesting I come meet his parents.
I'm anxious, but they're warm and friendly –just like their children –and when Esme makes the connection that I'm that Bella Swan she hugs me like I'm family, whispering that I have no idea what an angel I am.
Food's eaten, toasts are made and the cupcakes are polished off. It's great advertising, because when people realize that they came from Marie's, I'm inundated with tipsy promises of future orders and visits.
"Come on, Bella," Angela Webber says, yanking on my arm. "They're doing the bouquet toss."
"No," I groan, resisting. "You go."
"Don't be a spoilsport."
I look down at Edward for support, but he just shrugs and smiles, gesturing for me to go. And despite the craziness that goes down once those flowers fly, no one seems surprised when they land, literally, in my barely outstretched hands. Likewise, no one's surprised when Edward catches the garter, and we end up in the spotlight amidst catcalls and whistles and Jimi Hendrix singing Foxy Lady.
My stomach's in knots and my hands are shaky, but I try to relax as he kneels down in front of me and eases the garter over my foot, up my leg and over my knee. He pauses, his eyes glued to mine, and I shrug a little, so he moves it further up, skirting my inner thigh.
"Yeah, get it Edward!" someone yells, and he laughs, pulling his hand away and smoothing the material of my dress. There's applause and then I stand up and help him to his feet.
"I'm gonna run inside real quick, use the restroom," I say, nodding toward the other end of house.
Still holding my hand, he leads me upstairs to where it's quiet. I slip into the bathroom, freshening up when I'm done. I'm a little flushed in the face, and my hair has looked better, but I'm happy. Excited.
Edward is leaning against the wall waiting for me when I emerge. He takes my hand again, and I delight in his touch. Assuming we're going right back to the reception, I start to walk down the hall, but he stays still, pulling me back.
He pulls me close, standing me between his legs. His hand releases mine and rests instead on my waist.
"I want to know you, Bella."
I'm so nervous. I want this, though. My heart pounds, my stomach drops in to my feet, and I feel like my very skin is crying out to be touched. In any other circumstances these emotions might feel crazy, but right now they're a drug, the highest high.
"Then know me." I let myself rest against him, warm bodies and soft cotton.
"I feel like it's always been you, even when you were just an idea," he says quietly, his eyes bright even in the dimness.
"That's a lot to live up to," I whisper, touching his cheek.
"I don't say it to scare you."
I think about how we met as kids, and how we met again as adults. Catapulted violently into one another's lives not once, but twice. I think about the messages in the fortune cookies, about the sense of fate we seem to abide by. "It doesn't scare me."
"It..." He glances briefly at my mouth, his fingers gripping gently my hips. "Feels like you own me. That's kind of crazy, huh?"
"Maybe," I breathe. Then, "no."
"No?" His eyes search mine, back and forth, and he's asking something else, something he knows the answer to.
My eyes flutter shut. "Yes."
When he kisses me, I feel like he owns me, too.