TLS ANGST CONTEST ENTRY

They said he'd be home by Christmas. They lied.

Iraq had been hell. Boring, miserable hell. The dust was bad. The heat, even worse. Working inside the wire left Edward Masen with nothing to do except wait. It brought one of the worst things war could offer: boredom. The days dragged on in twelve-hour shifts. Excitement came only in the form of Girl Scout cookies and the occasional misguided mortar landing within earshot. There was no alcohol, no porn.

No sex.

To Edward it didn't matter either way. Home wasn't home. Seattle had nothing on Chicago. Perhaps it would've been different if there were someone waiting for him. Most of the guys had families. People sent them letters and care packages, and sometimes they'd share. Edward never got letters. No one missed him. It didn't matter where he spent his Christmas—his dorm, Iraq, the airport—because one variable would remain constant. He'd be alone.

The team did their pre-deployment training in Nevada, not knowing what to expect. Most of them had never seen action before, but their mission was simple enough. It was exactly what they had been doing back at Lewis-McChord. Every airman dreamed of doing something. Some wanted to make a difference. Others were thirsty for action.

None of them wanted to be assigned to gate security.

They were positioned at one of the many access points on the base, checking identification and conducting random vehicle searches. Every day Airman Masen watched convoys come and go. Most returned. Some didn't. Still, he dreamed of being a part of one someday. If only he'd joined the Army. Or the Marines. He might've actually done something. He wouldn't have been playing Modern Warfare in the morale room to pass the time, counting down the days until December.

The delays started as soon as they left Balad. Two days in Qatar turned into five, and aircraft maintenance in Ireland kept them overnight. Snow blanketed the United States, closing airports and keeping holiday travelers from wherever their final destination happened to be. After six months of blazing heat, Edward suddenly found himself in an icy nightmare.

The team spent a night at the terminal in Baltimore, the next in Denver. It was Christmas Eve, and every airport in the United States was packed with overeager travelers trying to make their way home. None were as jetlagged and desperate as the men from the 627th.

"I can't get us into Sea-Tac." The news delivered by Master Sergeant Carlisle Cullen wasn't surprising. Sea-Tac closed as soon as the snow started. "But there's a flight to Port Angeles leaving at five. It looks promising."

McCarty is the first to ask the question on everyone's mind. "Where the fuck is Port Angeles?"

"It's only a few hours away. We'll rent a van," Carlisle replied. "Or take a bus. Walk. Fuck, at this point, I really don't give a fuck."

Sergeant Cullen, their team leader, was all about getting shit done. He was also one of the only married members on the squad. His wife, Esme, was waiting, and their kids weren't opening presents without Daddy.

There was only one thing that motivated a man more than seeing his kids' smiling faces as they tore through multiple layers of brightly colored wrapping paper. A single incentive made men move mountains. After seven long months, Carlisle was finally within arm's reach of making love to his wife, and nothing—not a warzone, a flight delay, or a fucking blizzard—was going to stop him.

He faced opposition initially. McCarty showed defiance, as usual, while Whitlock worried what would become of their gear. Losing baggage was bad enough, but the idea of seven military grade assault rifles ending up at the wrong airport and in the wrong hands could cost someone their career. It would be the final nail in Sergeant Cullen's coffin, but he didn't seem to mind.

"We're either spending the night here or there, so what difference does it make?"

"At least if we fly to Port Angeles, we're done with fucking airports."

Carlisle's words were final. He didn't linger for another argument, and it was unlikely any of the other airmen would've opposed him anyway. Most knew better. Not only was he their superior, Sergeant Cullen could be downright intimidating when he felt it necessary.

Within a few minutes everything was settled. The base agreed to charter a bus for the team as soon as the roads cleared. Their tickets were switched at the gate, Jasper Whitlock was assured and reassured there would be no snafus with the weapons, and the men were on their way.

"There's no way they're sending all of our bags on this plane," Edward muttered to Whitlock as they squeezed down the aisle of an already crammed MD-80 aircraft. The plane was tiny, and almost every seat held an occupant. Their gear wasn't going to fit. Edward was certain of it.

Jasper crammed his oversized camouflaged backpack into the bin above their aisle, the door barely shutting over it. His train of thought closely matched Edward's. "It's out of our hands, man."

"Thank fuck for that," Edward said. Being the low man on the totem pole had its advantages.

"At least our asses won't be on the line with the Commander."

"Whatever, you know Sergeant Cullen can talk his way out of anything."

"I'm sure he's counting on it."

"This is such a bad idea."

The team had flown nonstop for days on end. They crossed deserts and oceans, continents and time zones, but the longest flight was the one from Denver to Washington. Perhaps it was the time they spent delayed on the tarmac, or the turbulence they encountered from start to finish. Regardless of why or how time seemed to drag, when they arrived in the small logging village of Port Angeles, Washington, the boys were beyond exhausted. They were lonely and homesick.

And eager to get completely wasted.

It was at that point the boys encountered their first stroke of good luck since departing Las Vegas six months ago. In a desolate town of loggers and snowplows, on the eve of a holiday no one wanted to spend alone, only a single place remained open for business: the bar. They dropped their bags off at a low-budget hotel, changed clothes, and headed straight there.

The crowd was minimal. While most people in Port Angeles spent their evening fulfilling Christmas Eve traditions, Whitlock, McCarty, Masen, and a few others did shots. They drank beer with lonely fisherman and loggers, exchanging war stories and letting their guard down for the first time in months. The only factor missing from the equation was the opposite sex, and when a small group of friends arrived later in the night, the boys encountered their second stroke of good luck.

There were three women, each in their lower twenties. Bella had just escaped from an awkward family get together with her father, their first Christmas Eve together in years. It didn't go well. Then again, for Bella, nothing ever did. Charlie didn't understand what his daughter was going through, despite having one time been in a similar situation himself. He didn't accept it, and he didn't support her—emotionally or financially. She was alone, at least for one night, and Alice and Rosalie were desperate to cheer up their friend. It was with that in mind that they slid up to the counter, ordering drinks and paying the rowdy airmen no mind.

The opposite could not be said. After six months of seeing women only in bulky, long-sleeved fatigues, McCarty's, Whitlock's, and Masen's eyes were becoming reacquainted with something they'd all missed. Skin. Curves. Long hair.

Sex appeal.

Bella in particular caught Edward's eye. Each of the men snuck glances at the thin brunette, their blood running red hot with the need for action. Edward didn't bother making his move. He was too shy to strike up a conversation, too intimidated to buy her a drink. As far as he assumed, he didn't stand a chance. The others were more aggressive. They were charming. And, unlike Edward, they did this sort of thing all the time.

"We'll get their tab."

McCarty had a fiancée back in Seattle. It was never meant to be anything serious, but a one night stand before he left led to an unwanted pregnancy, and Emmett tried to do the right thing. He just didn't try hard enough.

"No, you won't."

Rosalie didn't have time to play games. She wasn't at the bar to hook up or meet someone new. Her only concern was her friend, but when Emmett spoke again, he said the one thing that could break her resolve.

She was always a sucker for a man in uniform.

"C'mon, babe. I'm on my way home from Iraq. Humor me."

In a matter of no time, the conversation was struck. Stories were exaggerated. Six months in Iraq became twelve. No longer were they glorified security guards, but a team appointed to carry out special operations outside the wire. They talked out their asses, and the girls, especially Rosalie and Alice, hung on every word. Only Edward and Bella remained quiet and unengaged.

"And that old mutt, bless its heart," McCarty rambled, making the story up as he went along. "He didn't know what he was doing. What he was about to do. When we unstrapped that IED from his side, it did more than save our lives. It gave us a new perspective on this war we're fighting—not the one in Iraq, but the one for animal rights."

Edward's eyes met Bella's for a split second. He looked for any indication that she knew they were being played, but saw none. Instead Bella smiled, and Edward's heart began to race. He flashed her his usual cheeky grin before bringing a bottle of Coors to his lips and downing almost the entire thing.

"We were lucky in that we succeeded in every single mission, but girls, there's still one final victory to be had. One more thing we must do."

As Bella, Alice, and Rosalie waited eagerly for an explanation, Edward wondered where McCarty could possibly be going with his absurd storyline.

He pointed in Edward's direction. "Our buddy Masen is still a virgin."

It was true. At twenty-one, Masen was the youngest airman in the group. He was also the only one never to have gone all the way, mostly thanks to an overly prudish long distance ex-girlfriend who strung him along for months before finally pulling the plug on their relationship. She left him for someone else. He didn't take it well. Hell, he still wasn't over it, and the idea of a girl having sex with him out of pity was enough to send the poor bastard running straight for the door.

"Fuck off," he said firmly. "Forget it, McCarty. I'm going back to the hotel."

Edward took a final swig and slammed the empty bottle against the bar, his eyes locking on Bella's one final time. It was only then that he noticed the sadness behind them. What was her story? Was something wrong? She looked exhausted. Or, he thought, maybe she was feeling sympathetic. After all, it made perfect sense. As a twenty-something-year-old virgin, who wouldn't feel sorry for him?

Groans convinced Masen to stay. McCarty apologized and bought him another drink. Whitlock promised it wouldn't happen again. They were just giving him a rough time, they said, or rather, that they hoped one of these girls would by the end of the night.

It was doubtful.

The crowd dispersed soon after, and conversations continued in more intimate cliques. Emmett pursued the blonde, Rosalie, while Jasper and a few others spent their time wooing Bella and Alice. Edward remained alone and unattached. He drank his beer and played games on his phone, looking up to acknowledge the others only when something they said caught his attention.

Bella zeroed in on Edward from across the bar, desperate to escape the monotonous conversations that trapped her. She wanted to know more about him. Why was he so quiet? Did he think he was too good for them?

It was clear what the others wanted. She could've gone home with anyone in the room, but there was no fun in that. Most guys were all the same. They were boring, one-track minded, and she didn't have time for their stupid games.

Bella never got to go out. She never did anything she wanted to do, and the idea of wasting her night with some mediocre meathead didn't sound appealing at all. She sought intelligent conversation. She wanted brains to go along with the brawn. And something told her the shy, attractive airman in the corner might have exactly what she was looking for, if only she could bring him out of his shell.

He never saw her coming.

"Happy to be home?"

Bella sat down in the empty seat next to Edward without invitation, relieved to have finally escaped the persistence of the others. Alice left with Whitlock, ditching the friend she so adamantly insisted on cheering up. Rosalie remained occupied by McCarty, and it seemed as if they might be on their way out as well. Once again Bella was alone, which was not the way she wanted to spend her Christmas Eve.

Edward shrugged, trying his best to remain calm, cool, and collected. "I might be, once I actually get there. At least I'll be away from these assholes."

"Surely they aren't that bad." Bella glanced around the room and made various observations about Edward's brothers-in-arms. They were loud, obnoxious, and completely shitfaced. It was clear he didn't exactly fit in. She chuckled under her breath. "Okay, so maybe that's a lie."

"They have their moments," Edward backtracked.

"Do you want to buy me a drink?"

She sensed Edward's discomfort. He wasn't sure how to react. Did he want to buy her a drink? More than anything. But Edward wasn't accustomed to girls being so bold. And with practically every man in the room vying for her attention, he wondered why she even approached him to begin with.

He swallowed. "Sure."

For a split second, Bella let her own nerves show. "Or maybe I should buy you a drink. I mean, it's the least I can do after everything you've done for us."

Edward glanced at Bella, torn for a moment between going along with the lie and coming clean. Ultimately he chose to tell the truth. Integrity. Service. Excellence. Those were the core values of every airman, but clearly some had higher standards than others. It was just one more thing that set Masen apart from the rest.

"Look, those stories… They were lying."

"What do you mean?"

"We were only in Iraq for six months," he confessed.

"So?" she asked.

"We really didn't do much."

She feigned sarcasm, gasping. "You mean you didn't teach Iraqi school children to read?"

He shook his head.

"And you didn't liberate that Jihadist puppy mill?"

He laughed. "I don't even like dogs."

"So everything was a lie, then."

"Well," he hesitated, his face turning slightly red. "Not everything."

"You're still a virgin."

"Unfortunately."

She shifted slightly closer to him. "My name is Bella, by the way."

"Edward," he said.

Bella furrowed her brows in confusion. The others had spoken his name over and over. They called him Masen. Not Edward.

"Masen's my last name," Edward explained.

"Oh." She bit her lip. It should've been obvious given his profession. "Right."

"Bella is a really pretty name," he said, feeling bold. "It suits you."

Bella smiled. She was used to getting compliments from the opposite sex. But most of the men Bella encountered weren't shy about their affection. The twenty-four-year-old used to have a reputation, but things were different now. It was only on very rare occasions that she went out, and it had been years since she went home with someone. She almost felt guilty stealing a moment to herself. This wasn't part of her life anymore.

But Bella knew Edward was different. He was entirely too good for her. And if she was going to revert to her old ways, she wanted to steal a night with him.

She tested the waters with a kiss, unsure of how the handsome airman might respond. And, truthfully, it terrified him. His heart began to race as soon as she leaned forward. Soft lips touched his, and he fought against the urge to tense every muscle in his body. He didn't know what to do—where to put his hands, how to take the lead, or when to pull away—but somehow, everything worked out. He'd kissed girls before. Edward wasn't totally inexperienced when it came to the opposite sex. But he wasn't used to swapping spit with a girl as attractive as Bella. And while he had not been around the block, it was clear she had.

He tried not to think about it.

"Do you want to get out of here?" she asked as he finally pulled away.

He did. But Edward also questioned her motives. He wasn't a pity fuck. "You know, you don't have to do this if you don't want to."

"Don't you?" she asked.

"I do," he insisted. "But I'm not some charity case."

Neither was she. "I never thought you were."

She kissed him again, her lips lingering for longer than they had before. He was nervous. She figured that much. Hands drifted, and she did her best to soothe his anxiety through actions. There were no words, only soft touches: against his side, his stomach, and lower.

In trying to soothe his anxiety, she only managed to rile him up more.

"Come on," Bella said, pulling away. "Let's go."

Outside, Edward shivered. His t-shirt did little to shield him from the falling snow. Bare arms went rigid, and hands dug deep into empty pockets. The hotel wasn't far. They could walk. And considering neither of them had a car, it wasn't as if they had an alternative.

"Jesus, Edward." Bella's teeth chattered. "It's freezing! Where's your coat?"

"When I left, I didn't need one."

It was the truth. There were a lot of things Edward didn't think about when he left in May, his coat being at the top of the list. The cold wasn't something he thought he needed to worry about. Neither was shrinkage. He only prayed his dick would unshrivel itself before Bella got the bright idea to take his clothes off.

The hotel room was no bigger than his dorm. It barely housed enough space for a bed and desk, and the smell of mold and cigarette smoke overpowered the air. To make conditions worse, five oversized military grade duffle bags occupied every square inch of floor space. His gun case leaned against the far wall. The sheets were a musky off-white, and even after being in the desert for six months, it was hardly a place Edward felt comfortable spending the night.

He couldn't believe he had a girl in his room.

"I would give you the grand tour, but this is pretty much it."

Her eyes caught sight of the camouflage uniform hanging from the back of the desk chair. It was hard for her to reconcile the shy, quiet man at the bar as someone capable of combat, assertion, and intimidation. She studied the three stripes on his sleeve, the spelling of his last name, and the sewn police badge under another that proclaimed him as part of the United States Air Force.

"What do the lines mean?" she asked.

"Senior Airman."

"Is that your rank?"

He smiled. "For now."

"Do you like your job?"

"It's alright."

"What made you enlist?"

"I aged out of foster care."

Bella sat down on the edge of the bed as sad silence filled the room. She had a million more questions, but not enough gall to ask any of them. In comparison, her problems seemed minor. At least it seemed that they had something in common: Loneliness. Isolation.

If she had any doubts, they were gone as she looked into his eyes. Her buzz had begun to taper off. She wasn't close to being drunk enough to justify this type of reckless behavior, yet she had no intentions of turning back. He needed this as much as she did.

She grabbed a hold of his waistband and pulled him toward the bed, leaving her eye level and inches away from a certain part of his body.

"Can I—"

He didn't let her finish. "Yes."

Very slowly, Bella unbuckled his belt and undid his fly. If she was nervous, it didn't show. Her hands moved cautiously but with confidence, grazing over his denim jeans and lingering in the area that left Edward's entire body rigid. She looked up and met his eyes before proceeding.

Most guys weren't like Edward. They didn't have the patience, didn't care for a girl who took her time. If she had gone home with any other asshole from the bar, she would have already had a dick in her mouth and hands on the back of her head. Edward was in no hurry. He was eager to make the first part of the evening last, knowing he probably wouldn't be so lucky for the second.

"Take off your shirt."

He did what he was told, lifting the black t-shirt over his head and discarding it onto the ground. Bella liked what she saw. Normally Edward wasn't so toned, but spending a good majority of the past six months in the gym paid off. It wasn't like he had anything better to do. Being confined to base had its advantages, but Edward never imagined he was bettering himself for a situation like this.

As soon as skin touched skin, it took everything in his power not to come.

Slender fingers wrapped around his dick. "Fuck, you're big."

"Thanks." Edward didn't know what else to say.

She laughed. "You're cute, too."

"So are you."

Bella teased him with her tongue, trailing it from the base of his shaft to its head before pulling away again. "If I give you head first, you'll last longer."

Edward hated to admit that it was probably true, but she was right. He only nodded in response.

She eased him into her mouth, pulling her head back and thrusting forward farther with each passing movement. Edward groaned with every stroke. His knees grew weak, his vision blurry. It wasn't his first blow job. He wasn't completely inept. But the way Bella gagged every time she accidently took him too deep, too fast, made him feel as if he might lose his mind. At the very least, he was about to lose his load.

Bella knew he wouldn't last long. She expected it to be short and sweet, and when he began to thrust, it was over. She allowed him to finish in her mouth before rushing over and spitting into the sink. Bella wasn't much of a swallower, but Edward didn't seem to mind. She rinsed her mouth and stole some of his toothpaste before heading back to the bed.

Edward had already tucked himself back into his boxers by the time she returned. The comforter was turned down, and he lay on his back, his eyes closed, fighting a minor panic attack. He could go to a warzone with no reservations. It didn't scare him. But spending the night with a girl, especially one as attractive as Bella, was downright terrifying.

She joined him, planting kisses on his chest. Bella knew just how to calm Edward down, and at the same time, work him up. It wouldn't be long before he was ready for round two. In the meantime, he wasn't sure what to say or do.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Twenty-four," she replied. "You?"

"Twenty-one."

She thought of what her life was like at twenty-one. It seemed like so long ago. "So I'm an older woman," she teased with a hint of insecurity in her voice. "That's kind of hot, right?"

"Very." He added, "You're so sexy, Bella."

"Thanks." She smiled. "You're not so bad yourself."

Edward rolled onto his side, pulling Bella close for a kiss. And another. Before long things began to get heated again. Hands began to wander. Her dress came off, and the strapless bra she wore underneath was soon to follow. It was only when she tugged at his boxers that Edward remembered one very important detail.

"Shit," he hissed. "Condom?"

Bella realized he didn't have one. Nor did she. "It's fine," she insisted, even though it wasn't.

"I can go get one," he offered, but by this time the snow had picked up again. It was freezing cold outside, and the closest gas station was a far walk. It was doubtful they were open anyway.

"Do you think you'll be able to pull out?" she asked.

He nodded. He didn't want to, but he would. "I'm clean," he told her.

She rolled her eyes. "I know you are. But if that's your subtle way of asking me if I am too, the answer is yes."

"Sorry," he said.

She slid out of her panties, knowing very well that it was a legitimate question. "Don't be."

He captured her lips, hoping it would relieve some of the awkwardness. It didn't. His heart continued to race. His entire body was soaked with sweat. He tried to remember what he was supposed to do next, but everything came up blank. He was ready. He wanted this. And for some strange reason, so did she.

Instinct kicked in. He lined up his dick and began to push.

Without the condom, he felt everything. She was warm, and wet, and so much better than he could have ever imagined. His thrusts in and out were slow and unsteady, but Bella didn't seem to mind. He was new at this. She understood.

"How do I make this good for you?" he whispered.

"Truthfully?" Bella asked.

He nodded.

She pushed against his chest. "Roll onto your back."

Edward groaned as Bella moved to straddle him. There was no doubt she knew exactly what she was doing. A part of him thought it was emasculating to let Bella take the lead, but as soon as she began to move back and forth, he lost the ability to care. It felt good—too good. And apparently, not just to him. The sounds that came from Bella's mouth reflected in the way he felt her entire body constrict. He knew it would all be over soon.

Bella moaned as she came. She didn't say his name. He tried not to let something so minor bother him, and it was an easy detail to forget as she changed the way she moved, sinking onto him again and again. In seconds he was done for. She was tight to begin with, and after her orgasm, impossibly so. He came loud, hard, and deep.

Because despite all of his warnings, Bella didn't bother to pull back.

She smiled after he finished, seemingly unphased by it all. "Now you can tell all of your buddies you made a girl come on your first try."

"Bella…" He trailed off. There were so many things he wanted to say. He didn't even know where to begin.

"Don't worry about it, Edward," she told him. "I know my cycle. We'll be fine."

She revealed too much. Hoping he wouldn't notice, she captured his lips and successfully diverted his attention.

"You're fucking amazing," he said. He meant it, too.

She smiled. "It was good, then?"

"Do you even have to ask?" He wondered, "Was it good for you?"

"Very." She was being honest. "I think, maybe with some practice, you could be the best I've ever had."

Edward's eyebrows perked. His dick twitched. "Practice?"

"Why not?" Bella smirked. "We have all night, right?"

That night Edward couldn't sleep—not even when he tried. When Bella passed out in the early dawn, he remained wide awake. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, with a stranger he'd just met, he was having the best Christmas ever.

He didn't want it to end.

At sunrise he rolled out of bed to pack his bags. Jetlagged and restless, Edward found himself in a surprisingly good mood. He felt confident, reassured. The man had just lost his virginity, after all, and though the event was long overdue, it seemed to have been worth the wait.

Edward liked Bella. He liked her a lot. And it seemed as if she liked him, too.

She lay with her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. While Edward's mood soared, Bella felt sick to her stomach. She didn't know what to do. It was Christmas morning, and the last place she wanted to be was some sleazy motel room with a guy she'd only met the night before. It didn't matter if she liked him or not. If he knew the truth, he wouldn't want her. No one did.

Bella was damaged goods. It was why, for one night, she allowed herself to live within a lie by omission. Nothing would come of their time together. And even if it did, their relationship would never work. Distance made a relationship difficult enough. And with her baggage, it would be damn near impossible.

After getting everything situated, Edward threw on last night's clothes and slipped quietly out of the room. He headed to the hotel lobby for their continental breakfast, hoping to go undetected by the rest of his team. Luck was on his side. Most of the guys were still passed out in their rooms, recovering from the late night. Sergeant Cullen, blissfully unaware of what had transpired, was the only one who stayed in.

"That extra cup of orange juice better be for Whitlock," he muttered.

"Uh, no, sir," Edward said. "Just thirsty this morning… That's all."

Cullen sighed. He knew better. "Mhmm. Who is she?"

Edward fought hard to keep the smile from his face. "Her name is Bella."

"Use protection?"

He hesitated. "No, sir."

Sergeant Cullen rubbed his face. "Jesus, kid. Didn't you learn anything from McCarty?"

"You don't have to worry about me, sir," Edward insisted. "I'm prepared to take responsibility for my mistakes."

She wasn't.

When Edward re-entered his room, it was as if a switch had been flipped. Bella had given up the charade. She was wide awake and ready to leave, and if she thought she could have escaped undetected, she would've.

It was easier this way.

There was a reason she didn't go out anymore. And while it might have felt good at the time, the morning after only served as a reminder of how numb she felt inside. It had been so long. She wasn't even sure how to react. What they did was stupid. It was irresponsible, and she should've known better.

She was better than this. They both were.

"Merry Christmas." Him saying so only reminded her that it wasn't. "Thought you might like breakfast."

He placed an oversized assortment of breakfast items on the nightstand.

"Thanks." It was a nice gesture, but it also aggravated her. He was too nice. "But I think there's enough here to feed an army."

Edward picked up one of the grapes from her plate and popped it into his mouth. He had yet to pick up on her mood. "No, those fat fucks in the Army eat much more than this."

As they ate, Edward remained cheerful. Bella wasn't. Every attempt to make conversation was shot down with short answers and smart remarks. She wanted to be nice. It killed her to be so cold, but it was the only way. She didn't expect him to understand.

After breakfast she hopped in the shower, eager to clear her head. She didn't invite Edward to join, and he respected her privacy. The bathroom lights were too bright. Bella didn't want to be viewed under a microscope, and she didn't want Edward to see her naked in anything other than dim lighting. She was too self-conscious. There were aspects of her life she wasn't willing to share.

She left her cell phone on the bed.

The first time it rang, Edward didn't want to pry. He let it go to voicemail. But when it rang again, he checked the screen. It might've been important, or so he told himself. Bella had over ten missed calls from Rosalie and Alice.

And three from some guy named Jake.

He didn't dare answer. Edward wondered who Jake could possibly be. Part of him didn't want to know. Was he the reason for her sour mood? Was he a brother? Her father? The name sounded young, but maybe he was a friend. Just a friend.

Jacob wasn't any of those things.

"Jake called." He didn't mean to be so confrontational.

Her heart stopped. "Did you answer?"

He shook his head.

"Good," Bella replied, anger bubbling below the surface.

"Who is he?" Edward asked. He felt he had the right to know.

"We're not together." It was all she would say. It wasn't his business.

Edward stepped closer. He tried to touch her, but she turned away. "Is he the reason you've been acting off all morning?"

She fought back tears. It was getting harder and harder to save face. "Not for the reason you think."

"What are you not telling me?"

"Trust me, Edward. You don't want to know."

McCarty's loud pounding at the door interrupted their cold stares. His questions weren't getting answered. Edward was getting pissed. He couldn't make Bella cooperate, and time was against him. The bus had arrived. He had no choice but to leave.

Bella was thankful for the interruption. She couldn't handle any more of Edward's prying. Frustrated and hurt, he grabbed the first of his bags and stormed out of the room. Left alone with McCarty, Bella was faced with inquisitions that were much easier to deal with.

"How was it?"

Bella grabbed a few of Edward's lighter bags and headed down to the charter. McCarty followed with the rest. She refused to answer his immature questions. It wasn't for him to know. As impossible as it seemed, Bella was determined to escape the hotel with whatever amount of dignity she had left.

She should've ducked out when she had the chance.

"Ask your friend Rose what it's like to be with a real man," McCarty bragged once outside.

Bella rolled her eyes. She should have expected no less.

"Fuck off, Emmett," Edward spat. The weather wasn't any warmer than it had been the night before. He shivered as he loaded his bags onto the bus, his conversation with Bella halted but not forgotten.

She waited in the cold to say goodbye.

"So, Bella." Edward cleared his throat. He stalled for as long as possible, but every piece of gear had been loaded. Every member of his team was already on the bus and waiting. He had no choice but to make his move. His nerves were everywhere. "I was hoping, maybe, after I in-process at the base, I could come visit you."

"Edward..." she began.

"It's just, I have all this leave to use. And nowhere to go, really."

"Listen." Her eyes stung. It wasn't easy to say no, but it had to be done. "I know you're new at this... but no. I'm sorry, I can't."

His heart twisted in his chest. "Why not?"

"There isn't room in my life for a relationship."

"What's that supposed to mean?" The vague answer infuriated him.

"I don't expect you to understand."

"So this is it, then." He swallowed. His face was stern.

"It is what it is," she kept up a facade. Alone, she could break down, but in front of him, she had to be strong.

"Do I even get to know your last name?"

"It's Black." She wished it wasn't. "Bella Black."

Bella watched the bus drive away with tears in her eyes. He stared out the window, replaying the events from the night before over and over again in his head. In less than twenty four hours, everything about his life had changed. He felt totally different, yet still the same.

Alone.