Title: Down Home

Rating: M

Word Count: 9390

Pairing: Bella and Edward

Prompts used: "Want To" by Sugarland and picture #4 (shirtless country boy with the dually)

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns it.

Summary: Sometimes, everything you're looking for ends up being right where you left it.

The days are long in Mississippi in July. The sun glows heavy orange in the sky, causing a sticky heat that seeps into the pores - the kind that makes clothes clingy and stray hairs curl up around my face.

"You'll never guess who I ran into the other day," Tanya says. "You're not the only one home for a visit."

"I'm sure you're going to tell me," I answer. I could name half the town, and she'd let me. I can find out much quicker with silence.

"Edward Cullen."

The name alone doesn't sound like much, but the boy behind it is something else. At least, he was. His momma raised him with manners, even though he's cocky like his daddy. Being a doctor's kid, having a nice GPA, a mischievous side, and knowing how to party made him a god at Quitman High. His good looks only sped his ascent to the top of the high school food chain.

He's that boy; the one (I never really had) that got away, the boy I turned down.

And he has never let me forget it.

"Oh, yeah?" I try to sound casual. "What's he been up to?"

"I don't know, but he asked about you."

"He did not. We haven't spoken in years."

"He sure did, and honey, he is lookin' fine. F-I-N-E fine."

"I'm sure he knows it, too." He's kind, even if he is a little wild, but he knows he's a catch. And he doesn't mind letting all the girls try.

"He's not that bad. He's just an ole country boy sowing his oats."

"That's disgustin'."

"What have you been doing up there in Oxford, little sister?" she grins, signaling and merging into the right lane. The Lauderdale County line is just ahead.

I love coming home to Quitman, hanging out with my sister, waking up in my own bed, and listening to Momma and Daddy argue in the kitchen while she cooks a full breakfast, but I hate living in a dry county. No one should have to drive forty-five minutes to get to the nearest bar.

Maybe I'm just spoiled after spending the last three years in Oxford.

"I'm not sowing anything. I don't think girls have oats. And at least I waited until college to hit the buffet. He's been sampling for years."

"You only waited until college, because you were with Ty all throughout high school."

"He's home, too," I tell her. "I ran into him a couple of days ago, and we had lunch at Sonic."

"I think it's great that y'all can be friends like that. Jake and I tried for a while, but things got ugly every time one of us tried to start dating again. We had to call it quits."

"Ty and I never had a single fight in the two and a half years we were together. There's no reason for us to start now."

"Well, it's a good thing," she says, pulling into the lot at County Line. "Isn't that his Tahoe?"

The large, camouflage Ole Miss decal, the bright red custom paint job, and the multiple Crowley Chevrolet stickers are unmistakable. The truck is as obnoxious now as it was the day his daddy gave it to him for being accepted to his alma mater.

"Yeah, it's his."

"Oh, shit! Jake's here." Her ex is blocking the exit of the bar, making his way out with his buddies. Tanya parks at the very back of the small, gravel parking lot, but it's too late. He's seen us.

"Let's just leave," I tell her. "We can come back next weekend…"

She cuts the engine and pulls down her visor immediately, checking her reflection in the mirror. "How do I look? Is this lipstick okay?"

"You look beautiful." She always does. I prefer her hair the way it was when she was in high school – brown and natural like mine – but she likes to keep it strawberry blonde. She says it's because blondes have more fun.

I know she's lying, because Tanya has always managed to have fun regardless of her hair color. She's a born people person. Coming up behind her has never been easy.

Teachers had always eyed me suspiciously the first few weeks of school, waiting to see if I was going to follow my sister's path of being a smart mouth with mediocre grades. I've heard Ms. Cope tell stories about how she was afraid to pick me up for my first visit to the church nursery. Tanya had raised Cain two years before and left the poor woman scarred.

My sister was born beautiful and full of piss and vinegar. Then, Jake Black happened the summer after her senior year and she's never been able to quit him. Not all the way.

He's just as smitten with her, but the two of them fight like cats and dogs, break up, and make up. The whole town knows they're going to end up married and living over on Clancy Lane raising babies together. We're just waiting for the two of them to figure it out.

She sprays some perfume on her cleavage before opening the car door. Sighing, I open my own door and step out onto the gravel.

Jake meets us halfway across the lot, teetering a little and reeking of alcohol. "Evenin', ladies." He tips his hat quickly, makes eye contact with me to be respectful, and then loses himself in my sister. "Can we talk?"

Tanya catches a lock of her hair, twisting it nervously, and smiling like this is the first time they've ever met.

"I'll see you inside," I tell her.

I need a beer or something else to chase away this feeling of… restlessness that's been suffocating me since I unpacked my suitcase in my old bedroom. Momma hovers constantly when I'm home, always wanting to talk. She asks about school and boys, and I know it's only because she worries but it irritates me.

A small group of men catches my attention when I get closer to the wooden steps at the bar entrance. One of them whistles, and I grin in acknowledgement. Most country boys are harmless, but this is a bar and they have been drinking. So I try to walk a little faster without making eye contact.

That tricky sun disappeared quickly tonight, leaving the parking lot and the woods surrounding us bathed in lavender and shadows, save for the lone floodlight the owner tacked on top of the trailer a couple years back.

Even though Tanya and Jake are only a few feet away, I'm still relieved when I step into the light and my boot makes contact with the bottom stair.

"Here, let me get the door for you." Any other voice, combined with a hand on my arm, would've made me jump a mile high, but I'd recognize his tone and his touch even if I were blindfolded.

I turn on the step, hoping to find out exactly what F-I-N-E looks like these days. "Hey, Edward."

He takes his hat off with his right hand and tries to fix his hair with his left. "Bella. You're lookin' good this evenin'." His eyes are raking over me, checking out my summer dress and boots, lingering in places they shouldn't. "It's been a while."

"Thanks." Tanya is right. He is looking good in his Wranglers and worn Dan Posts, but I'll never admit it to him.

"How long have you been home?"

"Few days. You?"

"Since the end of the spring semester."

He puts his hat back on, and I can't help but notice it's the same chocolate brown Stetson he's had since we were in school. Time has taken a toll on it, but brown is definitely his color.

"Been goofin' off all summer?"

Edward and his friends had spent most of their free time fishing and their weekend nights had been spent on Eric Yorkie's pontoon boat, getting drunker than Cooter Brown.

"Actually–"

"Are you gonna open the door for the lady or what, Edward?" Jake says from a few feet away. His arm is wrapped around Tanya's waist, and for tonight at least, it looks like they're back on.

Instead of answering, Edward lets his hand settle on the small of my back and guides me up the few planks before holding the door open with a smile. Music and laughter spill out into the night, and for a moment, we're frozen.

Lord, why can't this man be ugly?

"Thank you." I give him a smile and one last glance before stepping over the threshold.

"I'll catch up with you later," he says.

"Sure you will," I mumble to myself when I know I'm out of earshot.

I'll be long forgotten before happy hour is over.

Tanya catches up to me at the bar before I've chosen a seat.

"Jake and I are gonna get a table. You wanna join us?" She spots Tyler walking toward us the same time I do. "Nevermind," she giggles, giving me a knowing look.

"It's not like that with us," I tell her quietly, sliding onto a stool next to Jamie Beck and giving his wife, Tori, a little wave.

"Sure, it's not." Tanya winks and disappears.

"Hey, Bell," Tyler says, taking the empty stool on the other side of me.

"Hey, stranger." I lean over for a quick hug before tapping the bar. "Can I buy you a drink?"

"No, but I'll buy you one."

When the bartender comes over, Ty orders two boilermakers. "Something wrong?" I ask.

"Not really. Something's right."

I watch as two glasses of beer and two whiskey shots hit the hardwood in front of us.

Before I can answer or ask what's going on, I feel a weight against my left side. "Two Red Stripes," Edward says, leaning forward and trying to catch the bartender's attention. I glance up and immediately wish I hadn't, because he's staring down at me. "Sorry." He faces forward, repeating his order and tossing a ten on the counter when the bottles are in front of him.

Any hint of the friendly man that greeted me at the door is gone. He's distant, and I don't know why I'm surprised. We'd spent the last two years of high school like this; hot and cold, friends then nothing. This is par for the course with Edward Cullen.

"Are you even listenin' to me?" Ty asks with a laugh.

"Uh, yeah," I answer, keeping an eye on Edward as he maneuvers away through the crowd.

"I said I want you to meet someone. My girlfriend drove down this morning to meet the family."

That gets my attention. "Meet the family?" I echo, turning to face him.

He nods, smiling at something behind me. A glance over my shoulder reveals it's more of a someone than a something; a beautiful, leggy blonde in a short denim skirt, to be exact.

"Bell, this is Lauren. Lauren, this is Bella Swan."

Her smile falters for a moment until I reach over to lightly touch her arm. "It's really nice to meet you," I tell her.

"You, too," she says with a forced cheerfulness.

"How do you like Quitman so far?" I ask.

"Ty! You have to throw one game, man," Jasper Hale yells from across the room, pulling darts from the old worn-out board on the wall.

Tyler glances at Lauren for approval before joining Jasper and his friends.

"It seems like a nice town," she answers.

It's hard to pretend to be excited about Quitman. I understand that. She looks like a city girl with her shiny boots and manicured nails.

"Where are you from?"

"Atlanta."

"This must be a shock." I nod at the crowd surrounding us. "A double-wide trailer turned honky tonk…" We laugh together, and I continue. "You should smell this place during huntin' season."

"I have four brothers back home. I can imagine."

"Drink?" I hold my shot glass above my mug, waiting to see if she'll accept.

"Thanks."

She picks up the shot glass Ty abandoned and positions it over her beer. "On the count of three." She nods in agreement. "One… two… three!"

We drop the shots and chug. Neither of us can finish in one pull, but we don't do so badly for a couple of girls.

Tyler checks in with us a few times, but we're busy talking about school. Lauren is enrolled in the professional program at the School of Pharmacy. "I didn't want to limit myself," she says. "I can be a pharmacist anywhere."

"That's good since it looks like you might end up in Mississippi." If she's meeting Tyler's parents, this must be serious. His daddy owns the biggest Chevy dealership in the area. College and a business degree have been Tyler Crowley's destiny since the moment he was conceived. That dealership is part of the package. Tyler isn't going anywhere.

"I just might," she says, smiling widely.

"Red Stripe." Edward's voice is heavy in my ear, and I can feel how close he is before I turn to look.

It hasn't escaped my attention that the other end of the makeshift bar isn't as crowded. He could have easily ordered his drinks over there instead of planting himself between me and Jamie, one of Quitman High's biggest ex-linebackers.

"Who's your friend, Bella?" he asks, leaning in and letting his breath tickle my ear.

"She's Ty's girl."

This information throws off his game, whatever it is. He studies Lauren for a long moment, then glances at Tyler. "I see."

He throws a five on the counter and walks away with his beer before I can ask him what he sees. When I look at Tyler, I see a white dress shirt tucked into a pair of dark wash jeans and pointed, perfect boots. Even his cowboy hat is sharp and crisp.

He's nothing like the boys I've been running with these past couple of years. In fact, he's not my type at all.

"Is that your boyfriend?" Lauren asks. It takes a moment for me to figure out she's talking about Edward and checking out his behind.

"What? No." Before I can turn back to the bar, Edward reaches his table and glances over his shoulder at me before sitting with his buddies. "Tonight's the first time I've seen him in…" Has it really been since graduation? "…three years."

"Huh."

Tyler throws a few games, and after a while, Lauren excuses herself to go and stand with him. Tanya and Jake are still lost in conversation in their corner of the bar. He's got a beer in hand and she's smiling, so things must be going alright.

I'm so caught up in spying on my sister that I miss Edward's approach and don't see him until he's sidling up next to me.

"Can I buy you a beer?" he asks, taking the stool next to mine.

"Why not?" This should be fun. "Only I don't drink Red Stripe."

"Fair enough."

He orders a Red Stripe, and I switch to Sam Adams Summer Ale. I ask about his parents since I haven't had a chance to see them, yet. His face lights up when talks about his momma, and I feel my own lips tugging into a small smile.

It doesn't escape my attention that he doesn't ask about mine. Instead, he wants to know how long I'm in town.

Tanya interrupts my answer. "Come on. We're giving Jake a ride home. I can't let him drive like that. He could kill somebody," she says.

"Well, it was nice seein' you, Edward," I tell him. "Thanks for the beer."

"Stay." He stands, blocking my exit. "Let me buy you another one. I'll get you home before daylight. I promise."

Before daylight. What a cocky son of a bitch.

Tanya's lips curl into an evil grin. "I'll cover for you. Stay. Hang out. Have fun."

"I–"

"Just one more," he says, holding up three fingers and tucking his pinkie under his thumb. "Scout's honor."

"Alright." I nod, holding up a finger of my own. "One more."

Tanya leans in to give me a quick goodbye hug. "Oh, my god," she whispers. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"I'm gonna kill you for this," I whisper back.

"Or thank me."

She meets up with Jake at the door, and he wraps his arm around her seconds before they disappear into the night.

"You and Ty really are through?" Edward asks after we've turned back to the bar.

"For a long time. Where've you been?"

"I'd heard it a couple of years or so ago but I wasn't sure, seeing you here with him tonight. Made me wonder if…"

"If I'm like Tanya?" I shake my head. "It's not genetic. Ty and I are just friends."

"That's good to know." He smiles before tipping his bottle and finishing the last of his beer. "You want to get out of here instead of having that beer? It's noisy… crowded…" He turns in his seat, and I can feel the pressure of his knees against my leg. As he scans the room, watching girls flirt and guys swagger, I steal a glance at him.

He's every bit as handsome as I remember.

I've been having my share of fun testing the waters with my freedom for the last couple of years with boys at school, but I've known Edward Cullen my entire life. I'm not sure I'm interested in becoming just another number for him.

"Okay, but I have to be up early. I need to be home long before daylight."

"Don't worry. I was teasin' you before. I need to be up early, too."

He settles our tab and keeps a hand on my waist as we move together through the crowd to the exit. Instead of the normal buzz of nature, the sound of retching greets us after the door closes behind us.

Edward takes my hand and pulls me in the opposite direction until we arrive at his truck. "I can't believe you still have this beast," I say, pointing at his dually. He opens the door for me and waits until I'm seated and buckled in to answer.

"I love this beast." He's a hair's breath away with lips so inviting that I have to remind myself it'd be rude to kiss them.

"I know." I remember how excited he'd been when his granddaddy gave it to him for his sixteenth. I also remember how mad and moody he'd been when a deer ran out in front of it and caused his first wreck the very next week.

I don't know what to talk about when he joins me in the truck, and we're on the highway heading back to Quitman before I speak again. "How do you like Mississippi State?" Asking about school is only one step up from asking about the weather.

"I like it," he says. "Starkville is a great town. How 'bout you? Ole Miss treating you good?"

"Never a dull moment."

"So I've heard."

I don't even want to think of all the things he's probably heard. Jessica Stanley has a big mouth.

"Jessica?"

"What's your major?" he deflects.

My social life must be interesting pillow talk.

"Biology."

"Really? Are you going to teach?"

"Not exactly. I'm hoping to get a job in the deer program with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. Most of the job is data collection, checking the health of the local herds each year, making habitat modification recommendations, and working with locals to keep our land healthy."

I'm pretty sure I'm destined to melt my way through life in the great state of Mississippi, because I can't imagine ever leaving it.

"That's…"

Probably ridiculous compared to whatever he has planned.

"Tell me, Edward. What did Mr. Most Likely to Succeed major in? Business? You were Class President, the President of Quitman High's FFA, and Valedictorian. Or maybe law? You were always good at arguing your way out of trouble. How many times did my daddy arrest you?"

"He only took me to jail once."

Edward Cullen's social life is excellent kitchen table talk.

"Trespassin'?" He looks like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. His jaw locks, and he nods once. "I heard you tried to run, and Newton tackled you."

"Son of a bitch is fast."

"He did play college football. What were you thinkin'?"

He runs his teeth over his bottom lip and then smiles. "I was thinkin' about Momma tannin' my hide."

"Did she?"

"Naw. She made me get a job. Said I obviously had too much time on my hands. My allowance stopped that day."

"For shame. So, what is it?"

"Pre-med."

"I thought you were afraid of blood?" I laugh. "You passed out on the church playground when Jessica had a bloody nose."

"We were nine when that happened."

"I'm just teasin'. That's great. It suits you, and it makes sense with your daddy being a doctor and all."

"I'm going to come back here and work with him when it's time to settle down."

"Really? You've always been such a genius. You could probably work in some fancy, big city hospital and make a boatload of money."

"If I lived in a big city, I couldn't do this," he says, jerking the wheel and taking us off the road and into the mud.

I reach for the window control, but I'm not fast enough. Mud splatters across my right arm and into my hair. It's even on my dress.

"You son of a –"

"Don't finish that sentence. It isn't very ladylike."

"Don't do stupid things. You can't take this beast boggin'. If you want to go muddin', I'll take you in my Jeep."

"Oh, you want to take me muddin'? Me?" He catches the service road and steers back onto the highway. "Do you know who I am?"

I don't know anything. The Edward Cullen I remember was full of himself, larger than life, and so… untouchable. I don't think any of those things hold true anymore.

Well, he's still full of himself.

Archusa Lake comes into view, and a few miles down the road, he signals before turning onto his parents' drive. When he drives past the house and continues down to park near their dock, I panic a little. I've heard many stories about the things that go on when Edward Cullen takes a girl parking.

"Um…"

He opens his truck door and gets out before I can decide what to say. I sit frozen when he opens my door.

"Are you comin'?" he asks, nodding to the small fishing boat floating a few feet away.

Oh. He brings other girls down here to make out. He wants to take me fishing. Instead of feeling relieved, I feel insulted.

I get out anyway, close the door behind me, and walk quickly to catch up with him. Our boots are loud on the wooden planks, but I can still hear every cricket chirp, every splash below us, and an occasional bullfrog in the distance.

He gets in first and turns, holding his arms up to me. His grip on my waist is sure and strong when he helps me into the boat.

I let him take the seat near the engine. I haven't steered a fishing boat in years. He steers us north for a few miles before banking us on the opposite shore.

"What are you –"

He's pulling his boots off, and his socks follow. He steps out onto the mud, and then I see it – a line tucked under a huge boulder on the shore.

"Momma is hostin' a fish fry Wednesday night after choir practice."

"Does she know you're runnin' an illegal trot line to supply the fish?" I ask.

Instead of answering, he moves the huge rock to retrieve the line. We work in silence, removing dozens of fish and tossing them into a bucket.

"It isn't exactly illegal. But no, she doesn't know. It is catfish season, and I've made a solemn vow not to fish at all for the rest of this year since I'm cashin' in my yearly haul this week." He restarts the boat and steers north until we're well past the bridge. The only light is coming from the moon and the stars above, but I can see enough of him to know I don't stand a chance. We're surrounded by water for miles when he cuts the engine and tosses the anchor.

The last time I was alone with Edward, we were sixteen years old and he asked me to go to a party with him. I said no, and he walked away before I had a chance to explain that Tyler had already asked me the week before.

But Tyler is ancient history now, and Edward is sitting two feet away.

I promised myself a taste of the world, and he's part of it. Nothing is off limits. He won't be my first bad boy, but he's definitely the most dangerous.

This one has a sweet side I know and remember well. This one could break my heart.

Before I can chicken out, I reach up and begin to unbutton my dress.

"What are you doin'?" he asks.

"I've got mud all over me. I'm goin' for a swim."

I pull my boots off, stand, and turn my back to him before I let the dress drop and pool at my feet.

"Shit."

"You've seen me in a bikini before."

"I'm goin' to jail," he mutters behind me.

This is it. Sink or swim. I jump. Head first. Whatever happens, happens. This is my chance to scratch this itch and make it go away once and for all.

The water is cool, and the first thing I see when I break the surface is Edward lowering his jeans while balancing in the boat a few feet away. His shirt is long gone.

Have mercy.

In an attempt to cool off, I duck my head beneath the water and swim a few feet in the opposite direction. I can feel it and hear it in the water around me when he joins me. We surface a dozen feet away from each other, treading water.

We stare for a few long seconds until the distant buzz of another boat engine catches our attention. Then we move.

He beats me to the boat, and when I get to him, he lifts me by my butt and pushes. I scramble over the side and then lean over to help him climb in. We turn our backs to each other and only after we've rushed to dress and nearly tipped over twice do we realize the sound of the engine has almost died out now. The boat must've been headed south.

Regardless, Edward busies himself pulling the weight so we can leave. When he leans over to start the engine, I notice his soaked boxers near his feet.

This man is temptation incarnate.

We're silent on the trip back to his parents' dock. His manners have survived, even if our ability to speak to each other hasn't, and he helps me out of the boat. Bare feet and slippery docks are a dangerous combination for me. My cheek makes contact with his shoulder the same moment his arm slips around my waist in an effort to keep me upright.

"You're shiverin'," he says quietly, pulling me closer and staring at my lips. I lean in, hoping to speed things along, and he releases me. "You need dry clothes."

He pulls his t-shirt over his head, insisting I put it on over my dress. Then he carries our boots over to the truck, motioning for me to follow.

As soon as I'm buckled in, he turns on the heater. It bothers me that he also goes to the trouble of turning the vents in my direction.

I'm worth his concern, and I make a good fishing buddy. It's good to know where things stand. If the lines got blurred for a moment… Well, they're perfectly clear now.

We're silent on the drive to my house, and when he parks out front, I throw open my door and get out before things get any worse.

"Bella, wait –"

"I've got to be up early. Thanks for the ride." I slam the truck door and run up the porch steps to get away from him.

I'm only slightly relieved when I'm inside with a closed and locked door between us. I can't wrap my mind around how badly I've just embarrassed myself.

"Good night?" Momma asks, turning on the light in the corner next to her chair.

I'm standing barefoot in a damp dress and a man's t-shirt and clutching my boots against my chest at one o'clock in the morning. I know how this looks.

"I'm sorry. I know it's late, but…" But what? I spent the night chasing my own tail. Well, chasing Edward Cullen's tail but he wasn't interested.

"Old habits die hard. Tanya came in about a half hour ago. I was just making sure you got home alright. You're a grown woman now, capable of making your own decisions." She walks over to me and leans in to kiss me on the cheek before leaving me at the bottom of the stairs feeling like a lost little girl with a crush instead of the woman she thinks I am. "I'll let you skip Sunday School, but you'll be at church."

"What about Daddy?"

She waits to answer until she's at the top of the stairs. "I'll handle your daddy. You just make sure you're in the choir loft in time for the Prelude."

"Yes, ma'am."

-DH-

I barely make it on time, and I look a little worse for the wear when I do show up in my royal blue choir robe Sunday morning.

Edward's momma, Esme, gives me an extra copy of this morning's bulletin so I can keep up during the service. We don't have a chance to chat, but she does give my shoulder a light squeeze before we file into the sanctuary.

When we finally take our places facing the congregation, I nearly drop my binder and hymnal.

Instead of sitting on the last row with Garrett and Brady, Edward is standing in the third row of pews next to his daddy, holding a hymnal and singing. The most surprising part is seeing him awake during a church service.

I'm thankful when the song ends and Reverend McCarty tells us to be seated. I can't see Edward as well from a sitting position.

We confess our sins. We pray. Then, our good minister reads the Gospel and warns us of evil. I'm not sure if it's the talk of sin or Edward Cullen's eyes that have me squirming in my seat and fanning myself with the flimsy bulletin.

It's been a while since my last communion – Christmas, if I'm not mistaken – and I'm ashamed laying out my transgressions.

Please forgive me for Paul Johnston, Mark McCann, and… and for lusting after the green-eyed devil you decided to throw in my path again. Amen. Sorry. Amen.

After the service, I find my parents and Tanya and stand with them while they chat and catch up with other members. Edward stands twenty feet away doing the same thing with his parents. Esme catches me looking and elbows him in the side.

I try to escape to the ladies' room, but he's quick and standing in front of my father before I can get away.

"Chief Swan," he says, extending his hand. They shake, and Daddy claps Edward's shoulder.

"Edward."

"I was wonderin' if I could give Bella a ride home today."

He was wondering…what?

"Well–"

"Now, wait just a minute!" I'm not sure who I'm madder at, Edward for asking my dad or my dad for thinking he can answer for me. "Yes. You can give me a ride home," I tell Edward. "I think we need to have a little talk."

My father smiles, obviously pleased with my irritation.

Some of the older couples grin at Edward and me as we walk down the hall toward the exit. Jessica Stanley gives me the evil eye, and I almost want to tell her not to waste her time.

"How 'bout a snow cone from Banner's shack?" he asks, unlocking the truck door.

I shrug and decline his assistance, pulling myself into the cab using the "oh, shit" handle. It's better than letting him touch me again.

"You look nice today," he tries again after starting the truck. Instead of answering, I give him a dirty look. Maybe that's my problem; I'm just nice.

Old Man Banner owns a gas station down the road, and in the summer months, he brings out an over-sized wooden shack to sell snow cones to passersby. Since Mississippi feels hotter than Hell itself some days, he makes a killing.

Edward parks the dually and I get out on my own again, wanting to stay as far from him as possible. He's making it difficult.

"Hey, Edward," Amber Weaver says, grinning while leaning out the window of the shack.

"Two," he says. He looks down at me and places his hand on the small of my back, guiding me forward. "What flavor?"

"Cotton candy," I say. "And blue raspberry."

"Sweet and sour. My kind of girl." He turns to face Amber. "You heard the lady, and I'll have green apple."

She pouts, stomping across the wooden floor. We wait while she shaves the ice into two cups and adds the syrup. I walk away once I have mine in hand, letting Edward treat since he's the one that asked me on this little excursion.

He joins me at the old, wooden picnic table Banner keeps in the corner of the lot when the shack is in season. I do my best to ignore him, looking every direction but his as I scoop bite after bite of my ice.

"Come out on the lake with me this afternoon."

The thought of spending a cool and lazy afternoon in Archusa is a welcome one. We've only been out of church for twenty minutes, and I'm already sweating.

"Are we going fishin' again?" I ask petulantly. If all he needs is someone to help him work his trot line, he can kiss my behind.

"No. I'd like to take you out, maybe have supper on the boat and go for a swim. In bathing suits this time."

"I don't know," I tell him, standing to throw away my empty cup. He follows me over to the trashcan. "You're hot, then cold. One minute, you look like you're going to attack me, and the next, it's like I'm not even there." I step forward, toe-to-toe, lean my head back, and look him in the eye. "You wanted to kiss me last night. I know you did. When we were on the dock, it wasn't just the way you looked at me. I could feel it."

"Of course I wanted to kiss you."

"I–" The tirade I'd prepared in my head dies on my lips. "You did?"

He nods, stepping closer. "I don't really want our first kiss to be associated with pickin' you up in a bar. I'm tryin' to ask you on a date first, Bella. Is that so awful?"

"Oh. Um..." His sweet side is going to be the death of me. "We've known each other our entire lives. It's not like we met in that bar."

"Say yes."

"The next time you want to ask me out, ask me, not my father."

"Okay. Will you have supper with me on the lake tonight and then go for a moonlight swim?" He's an impatient man. I'm trying to gather my wits when he leans in and repeats himself. "Say yes."

"Yes."

He smiles and opens the passenger door for me, and this time, I let him help me.

"I've got something to take care of this afternoon, but I could pick you up around five," he says, starting the truck.

"Actually, I have plans, too. My cousin, Angie, had a baby a couple of months ago and I haven't seen him, yet. I need to take this gift to her before he outgrows it, so I'll be in Enterprise most of the day. Why don't you let me worry about supper, and I'll just meet you at your house around five."

"But I invited you–"

"My momma's fried chicken is involved."

"Okay. You take care of supper." He nods in agreement. There isn't a man within a hundred miles that would turn down my momma's chicken.

He leaves his truck running in the drive and walks me to the door when we get back to my house. "Can I…" He looks at his boots, blows out a breath, and then squares his shoulders. "Can I have your number? In case I need to get in touch with you?"

If I didn't know better, I'd swear he's nervous.

There's a pen in my purse but no paper. "Give me your hand." He offers it immediately, and I scribble my phone number across his palm. Then I back away until I reach the front door. "I'll see you 'round five."

"Five," he says.

My family is already gathered at the kitchen table, eating and talking like any other Sunday, while chicken sizzles a few feet away. I take my customary spot next to Tanya and across from Momma.

"I have a date with Edward Cullen," I announce, spooning a large helping of macaroni onto my plate. None of them say a word, but my parents do share a quick look. "Can you pass the pea salad?"

Dad picks up the bowl and hands it to me. "Where are you going?"

"Out on the lake. We're gonna picnic on the boat." I can already see Momma examining the food and planning what to pack for me. Her greatest joy in life is feeding people.

She sends two frozen casseroles with me when I leave for Enterprise. Angie and I have a nice visit. Her husband, Ben, takes the baby with him to watch sports and bond. It gives us some time to catch up. She's happy despite her obvious exhaustion. When she starts yawning and the baby gets fussy, I hug her neck and tell her goodbye.

It's early when I get back to Quitman, too early to drive over to the Cullen place. Tanya's car is gone when I get home, but she left a note on my pillow with a condom tucked beneath it. Edward's green t-shirt is also on my bed, cleaned, neatly folded, and resting a few feet away from my sister's gift. I sure do hope Momma was in here first.

"Heifer," I mumble, unfolding the small scrap of paper.

Be safe. ; )

She means well, I guess, but her encouraging this isn't helping. I've been thinking about the six pack, the one above his belt buckle, since last night.

It's time to fight fire with fire. He wants us to wear bathing suits this time? Fine by me. I have a white string bikini that leaves nothing to the imagination, and I'm not afraid to use it. I pack a change of clothes, a beach towel, and Edward's shirt in my backpack and throw in the condom. Just in case.

Momma has a small, white Igloo cooler packed tight with enough to feed us easily. Daddy eyes me from his spot at the kitchen table. These shorts are a little short, but it is hotter than Hades outside and I have a bathing suit on underneath anyway.

"Have fun," he says. "Call if you're going to be… late."

"I… Okay. Yes, sir." I grab the cooler and make a beeline for the back door. Momma must've given him an earful for him to be so nice about this.

At five minutes after five, I turn onto the Cullens' driveway. Edward is leaning against the tailgate of the beast, fiddling with his phone. Shirtless. He's traded the Stetson for a ball cap, but he's wearing the Dan Posts again.

There's sawdust on his jeans and belt buckle.

Ohmygoodness.

I cut the engine and take my sweet time gathering my backpack and the cooler from the back seat, stealing a few deep breaths.

He's just a man, dammit.

"Here. Let me," he says, reaching around me to grab the handle of the cooler. The warmth of his chest against my back is like a switch. I lean back slowly, holding my breath until his other hand settles on my hip.

"Thanks." He smells like freshly cut timber and lingering cologne, and he's half-naked.

He carries the cooler over to the back porch, and I follow. "I was runnin' late," he says, placing it on the ground. "Will you take a walk with me?"

"Are you gonna put a shirt on?" He's going to have to if I'm expected to converse during this walk. "Oh. Here." I rummage through the backpack until I get my hand on his shirt. "It's clean," I tell him when he takes it from me and holds it up to his face. "Momma washed it this afternoon."

"It smells like you."

Instead of putting it on, he takes it to his truck and dons a dusty red t-shirt.

"Why are you covered in sawdust?" I ask, following him down the driveway, away from the house. When we reach the end, we look both ways and dart across the highway.

"I was workin'." He leads me through the trees and down a muddy gravel drive.

"Doin' what?"

"Runnin' cornice for Uncle Alec."

"When did you learn construction?"

"When I couldn't outrun Officer Newton."

The road ends at the edge of the woods, and we step out into one of the most beautiful clearings I've ever seen. It's the size of four football fields, surrounded by woods on three sides.

There's a single trailer to the left of us and a concrete foundation a few yards away from it.

"What is this?" I ask.

"Mine," he answers. There's so much pride in his voice and a sparkle in his eye I've never seen before.

"The trailer?"

"All of it. Well, ten acres."

"Really? Your daddy gave you ten acres?"

"No. He sold it to me."

"Did he at least give you the family discount?" I tease.

"No. I insisted on paying fair market value."

"You insisted?"

"He tried to give it to me," he says. "But I wanted to buy it." He looks at me and back at his trailer. "I won't ever have to wonder if I earned it." He disappears inside long enough to change into swim trunks, a clean white t-shirt, and Reefs.

I spend some time inspecting the foundation. It's huge and there are pipes coming up out of the concrete. I wonder if he's doing this with Alec, building his own home, his own future.

When he's ready, we walk back over to his parents' place and pack the boat. Daylight is starting to fade by the time we make it past the bridge to the center of Archusa. He kills the engine, drops the weight, and moves to sit beside me.

Thanks to Momma, the chicken is still warm and crispy. It doesn't escape my notice that he makes a plate for me first before he fixes his own. While he's busy doing that, I pull out the thermos tucked in the corner of the cooler and pour drinks.

"I hope you like half and half," I tell him, handing over his cup.

"I already told you I like sweet and sour, and nothin's better than sweet tea and lemonade." He stretches his long legs out in front of us and tears into a breast, moaning as he chews.

We demolish the chicken, pea salad, and potato salad, washing it all down with the half and half. He licks his fingers after he polishes off a piece of Tanya's Sock-It-To-Me cake.

"What happened with you and Ty?" he asks after the food is packed away.

"Ah," I stall, pulling my knees up to my chest and wrapping my arms around them. "There's no way to say this and come out lookin' pretty. He was the only boy I'd ever dated, and we chose one of the top five party schools in the country. Suddenly, we both had all of these options. What do you think happened?"

"I can imagine about a dozen different scenarios, but I'd rather hear it from you," he says.

"We figured out that we didn't really have much in common outside of high school, outside of Quitman."

"I could've saved you a lot of trouble and told you that back in tenth if you'd gone with me to Becky Black's birthday party instead of him," he says, catching my gaze.

I laugh, swatting his arm with my hand. "Still holdin' a grudge, Edward? If I remember correctly, you ended up givin' the birthday girl a hickey that night."

"Two hickeys."

"You're disgustin'."

"She liked it."

"I know. The whole school knew."

"Why, Miss Swan, is that a hint of jealousy I detect?" His elbow digs playfully into my ribs.

"Oh, please. If I had a dollar for every girl you've hickeyed, I could treat you to dinner at the Red Lobster in Meridian."

We both laugh, and he shakes his head in denial. "That's not true, you know. I gave her those hickeys on accident. I was sixteen. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I'm not a serial neck-sucker."

"Any girls in Starkville catch your eye?"

"There was one. Katie. She's from Chicago."

"Was she your girlfriend?"

"For a while. She was really nice and sweet when we were at school. But Katie was Katherine in Chicago."

"You went home with her?"

"Her best friend was gettin' married, and she was a bridesmaid. We'd been together for about a year then."

"What happened?"

"I'd just bought the land," he says, laughing quietly. "I'd also bought a ring."

Oh. He'd wanted to marry her. "That's…" How could she have said no?

"We flew up a few days before the wedding so she could show me the town. The original plan was to pop the question the first night at the Signature Room, but her parents ended up joinin' us for dinner. And it just didn't feel right. I mentioned the land to her father, and she gave me a funny look. The next night, I came really close to askin' on the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier."

"But you didn't."

"No," he shakes his head. "I didn't. Before I had a chance, she asked me why I'd bought ten acres of land in Podunk, Mississippi."

Oh. OH.

"I hope you told her to kiss your ass." I cross my arms indignantly on his behalf. What a snooty, mean thing to say. I'm not much better, given my own assumptions, but I can tell after spending a few hours with him how much he loves home. She'd had him for a year. She should've known.

"No." He grins wryly. "I told her to have a nice time at the wedding, kissed her on the cheek, and caught the next flight back to Mississippi."

I feel bad for him. Really, I do, but I can't keep from asking. "What did you do with the ring?"

"Tossed it into this lake, actually."

"You did not."

"I did."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry for me." He laughs. "If she'd been the right one, it would've happened. It says a lot that I loved this land more than I loved her. I'd rather share it with someone who loves it like I do." He leans closer. "Why'd you stop comin' home, Bella?"

"I come home."

"For a day or two at Christmas."

"I've been takin' summer classes and doin' internships with the MDWFP in Jackson. I'm makin' contacts, gettin' experience, and tryin' to get my foot in the door."

"Jackson is even closer than Oxford."

"I don't know. It's hard stayin' away sometimes, but I'm not the same girl that grew up here. And when I come back, I don't know how to be who I am. Stayin' with my parents has been makin' me crazy. I expected my momma to yell at me last night for comin' in after midnight. I'm twenty-one years old, but it doesn't feel like it when I come home."

"You don't look like the same girl." He dips his head, pulling my chin up gently with the side of his pointer finger until our lips are almost touching.

"I don't?"

"You're even more temptin' now." His lips touch mine for a moment, sweet and gentle. Then he pulls away, toying with the straps of my tank top and bathing suit. "You still wanna swim?"

"You're just tryin' to get me out of my britches," I tell him, trying to catch my breath.

"Guilty."

We strip down to our suits, and he places his sunglasses in his upturned ball cap with his watch. I let him jump first and I follow, surfacing a couple of feet away from him.

"How often do you come home?" I ask.

"Every chance I get, especially during huntin' season. When Alec has work, he calls and I come down on the weekends."

"What about med school?"

"Like I said, Jackson is closer to Quitman."

He disappears beneath the surface, and I can't tell which direction he's swimming. It feels like it's been too long so I glance around, hoping to see him above water. His hand wraps around my ankle, and I have just enough time to take a deep breath before he pulls me under.

We come up together with our limbs tangled. A small silver cross dangles from a black leather cord around his neck, and my thumb catches it when I try to bury my fingers in his hair.

His chest is heaving the same way mine is, and when our lips touch, it's anything but gentle. His chest and abs are hard against me, but his lips and hands are soft and searching.

"You're gonna have to come home more often," he says.

We splash and play in the water, dunking each other, and occasionally kissing. He stays close, teasing me with his smile, glimpses of his body, and brief touches.

When we start to wrinkle, he helps me into the boat and we head back to shore.

It's still early, and I'm nowhere near ready for the night to end. "Want a ride back to your place?" I ask, watching him pack the cooler behind the seat in my Jeep.

"That'd be nice."

He pats my butt when he passes me on the way to the passenger side, causing a stirring in my belly I can't explain. It's nerves and excitement and some kind of raw desire I've never felt before.

The makeshift driveway is a bumpy ride and I manage to fishtail once or twice, kicking up a little mud just to show him I can.

He invites me inside to change out of my wet bathing suit. It's a nice excuse to get me into his trailer and I take the offer, hoping there's more to it than the words on the surface.

The first thing I notice is a framed drawing of a house hanging on the wall next to the door. It's more of a cabin, with a wrap-around porch, dormers for the upstairs windows, and a green tin roof. It's Edward's house. I can tell. It feels like him.

"Have you ever fallen asleep to the sound of rain on a tin roof?" he asks from behind me.

"No."

"There's nothin' like it."

"That good?" I ask, turning to face him.

"Or you can let it keep you up for hours…"

My towel falls from my waist onto the floor at our feet when he runs his hands over my hips. I don't shy away when his tongue brushes my bottom lip. He kisses me, untying the strings of my bikini and guiding me down the hall to his room.

His bed is neatly made and takes up most of the space, which is fine by me. There are a couple of t-shirts on the floor. He's obviously not a perfectionist but he's not a slob, either. He's just a man, not the perfect, beautiful boy who's crossed my mind on occasional lonely nights back in Oxford. He's a man with calloused, tender hands, a fierce sense of pride, and a dream.

My hands tug on his trunks, pushing and untying. He one-ups me by lifting and tossing me onto the bed. I stop breathing for a moment when he peels away his wet shorts.

"You have sexy knees," he says, turning his face to kiss the skin of my bent leg. "And freckles." He moves over me, and his lips find the freckles on my chest before nibbling a path to my neck. At the same time, his hand slides from my knee - down, down, down - until he's right there, touching and sliding a finger inside. "Jesus, Bella." He adds another, moving them faster and circling high with his thumb. "I want you."

His eyes and his voice convince me he does.

"God, yes," I agree. "I have something… in my… bag. Oh! In my bag." Instead of answering, his fingers disappear and he leans away from me, digging through the drawer of his nightstand. He fumbles with an unopened box of condoms, tearing the box. "Let me." I rip one away from the strip and toss the extras on the bed next to us. Just in case.

I take my time rolling it on, gripping his cock firmly and reveling in his moans.

He kisses me sweetly, lowering his body, and I guide him inside. We move together, slowly at first, learning each other. "You don't know how many times…" he starts but trails off when my hands settle on the small of his back pulling him closer, harder.

"I thought about you," I say, panting and meeting every thrust. "I wondered how this would feel."

"Soft. You're so soft." His fingers move from my cheek to my nipple. "Perfect," he whispers against my lips. "Like honeysuckle on a vine; ripe and sweet." He teases with his thumb and follows with his mouth, never losing the rhythm between us for a moment.

His teeth press into the flesh enough to make me gasp and pull him closer. "There." He moves harder and faster, shifting to kiss my lips. He swallows my mumbles and the small cries that escape when I come. Then he follows, eyes clenched with my name on his lips.

When it's over, his forehead rests against mine as we try to catch our breath. "This changes things," he says quietly.

"It does," I agree.

He moves away to take care of the remnants and such. While he's in the bathroom, I tuck myself beneath his covers, making myself comfortable in his bed.

His naked silhouette is the last thing I see before he cuts the light and moves across the room to join me.

"I can't stay."

"I know," he says. "But you can for a little while."

I lie in his arms, naked as a jaybird, until the clock ticks over past midnight.

We dress hesitantly, talking even less, and I wonder if we're back to square one until he walks me out to my Jeep.

"Can I see you again tomorrow night?" he asks. I nod. "The night after?" Another nod. "Come to Momma's fish fry Wednesday?"

"Yes," I tell him. "Yes."

"Be my girl."

"I–"

"Say yes."

"Yes."

"Here," he says, unscrewing the catch on his necklace. He pulls a key ring from his pocket and threads the leather cord through. There's a lone silver key hanging next to his cross.

"What's this?" I ask as he fastens the necklace around my neck.

"I wanna be the reason you come home."