An odd note that you will understand later – my brother actually is actually a Shark Morphologist, so it wasn't that far a leap for the "easter egg" humor.

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Next chapter features what some of you have asked me for: a JPOV. Tricky… I hope I get it right.

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Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy.

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Part XIII – Persuasion


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Squirming in her seat, Bella sat up a little more and readjusted her hands on the wheel. She was less than a mile from Billy Black's house and she felt like she was going to jump out of her skin.

What the hell was she going to say?

She was figuring (hoping) that – just like when she'd visited him two months ago to ask about marking – the words would just flow as soon as she sat down with a man she'd known as long as her own father. But right now with half a mile to go, she was suddenly doubting the tactic.

The day had gone so much better than expected so far, that she was wondering if she was't due for a little crash and burn.

Bella had spent the morning lounging on the grimy couch in the garage, working on her laptop while Limp Bizkit metal and good ole' classic rock vibrated the crappy speakers in the back (much more Jakey selections than the angst-ridden post-grunge that had infected the garage just weeks earlier).

When Paul came back from the doctor's, she'd ordered six pizzas and spent lunch being entertained by the rambunctious antics of five wolves - who were obviously still a little tense with the new lay of the land – while their Alpha lounged on the couch beside her, barking a laugh now and then or throwing in a snide comment. Jacob was still keeping his distance but things were so much better, that when she'd finished eating, Bella stretched out and rested her cheek on his thigh while she giggled freely at the free entertainment. Propping his feet up on empty boxes on the coffee table, Jacob had absently stroked his fingers through her hair and graciously ignored the fact that his Pack was not very subtle in their stares.

It was… nice. In fact, it just might have been the second best meal of her life (after the picnic yesterday).

After the lunch break, in silent agreement she'd followed him to the pick-up truck he was working on next and set up shop by his line of tools while he scooted under the vehicle. She'd spent the afternoon surfing the net and alternately reading him snatches of amazingly stupid things or handing him the correct tool thanks to Wikipedia.

But finally as the day crept toward its close, winding up the tension in Bella's stomach, she'd had to decide whether she was going to actually stand up and fight for Jacob and the Pack, or stay lounging on oily cushions in the comfort of nostalgia and apathy.

Just like Jacob had lived for the last eight years, Bella didn't really have a choice. It wasn't just about her anymore.

Suddenly Bella slammed on the breaks, sending the Toyota to a squealing stop.

For several seconds or minutes – she wasn't sure – she sat stock-still in the middle of the road and stared at the little red house 100 feet away. Billy's truck was parked in front – as was Tiffani's car, two other vehicles she didn't recognize…

And her father's police cruiser.

Fate was such an incredible bitch.

Her Toyota idled in the middle of the road while her mind did donuts. Parked right in front of the little clapboard house was the perfect excuse to turn the car around. It was also the perfect opportunity to push forward.

Bella peeled her white-knuckled grip from the wheel and stretched out each finger while she blew out a slow open-mouthed breath. There was obviously some kind of meeting going on that she'd be interrupting… would they be angry? Did it matter?

Shifting in her seat, Bella lifted her foot from the break and the car started rolling forward. She owed to it both herself and Jacob to find out. At least she could schedule a time later this evening to talk to Billy.

And she couldn't avoid her dad forever.

Bella tapped the gas and the Toyota crept down the empty road. In slow motion, she pulled in and parked behind Billy's truck and then turned the car off and yanked up the parking break.

Huffing out another long breath, Bella left her keys in the ignition and then pushed open a door that dinged its displeasure at the provision for a quick getaway. Eyes locked on the porch, she slipped out of the seat and shut the door behind her.

She spent the next sixty seconds standing by her car while her mind tried every trick in the book to psyche herself out.

It was by sheer willpower alone that her feet started moving across the gravel. Gaze locked on the door she forced one foot in front of the other while she rubbed her hands nervously on her jeans. She walked up the ramp instead of the stairs to make it seem longer but still much sooner than she would have liked she was crossing the Black's weathered porch.

The floorboards groaned quietly under foot and a light wind fingered the tinkling wind chime hanging from the eaves. Inside she could just make out the murmur of male voices over the frenetic thrum of blood in her ears. Her heart was going a million miles per hour.

She stopped in front of the screen and nervously straightened her flannel collar over the mark while she considered the closed door behind it. On a pleasant day like this, the Blacks had always left the door open. Did they want privacy?

Well, too bad. Privacy was only a human delusion and it was about time they understood that.

In a whooshing click, fear, uncertainty and adrenaline inverted and transformed into protective indignation.

And Bella rapped brusquely on the screen.

Inside, she could hear activity and voices abruptly halt before a baritone murmured something that prefaced a single set of footsteps toward the door. Bella took a step back and shoved her hands in her pockets to keep them from shaking.

Tiffany pulled open the door with a pat smile in place that instantly disintegrated into undisguised surprise. "Bella…"

"Hi Tiffany," she forced a smile. "Can I talk to Billy for a minute?"

Tiffany was about as good at covering her emotions as her son and she blinked at Bella and then glanced over her shoulder before turning back with a wan smile. "Of course, come in," she pushed the screen open.

"Thank you," Bella mumbled as she shimmied by her into the room. The scents of coffee and something savory in the oven washed over her senses as she stepped into the living room. The overhead light was off and the diffuse light from the windows threw all the memorabilia on the walls into background shadow. Bella slowly turned to the room, doing her best not succumb to the impulse of slumping her shoulders and make herself as small as possible under weight of six sets of surprised eyes staring back at her.

Charlie was just pushing off from his corner of the couch from beside Sue. On her other side hunched old Quil, leaning against the armrest. Billy sat beside him in his wheel chair, Joe Whitehorse lounged in the easy chair across the way and Mrs. Littlesea sat in one of two dining table chairs pulled up to complete the loose circle. Coffee mugs were scattered among them along with forced smiles.

They were all Council.

Except for Charlie.

"Hey Bells," he murmured, concern evident in his voice as he rubbed his palms on his uniform pants (a nervous habit she'd gotten from him). "How 'you doing, baby?"

"Um," Bella licked her lips, shoving her hands deeper into her pockets. "I'm doing great, dad."

"Can I get you some coffee, Bella?" Tiffany asked kindly.

Bella glanced at the woman and shook her head. "No thank you."

Tiffany smiled at her crossed the room toward the empty chair.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Bella hedged out of habit. "I just wanted to talk to-…" She paused and settled her shoulders back, meeting Billy's eyes. "I came to talk to Chief Black."

Billy tipped his head with that unflappable calm while sharp eyes darted over her face, trying to read the subtext behind the formality.

"What can I do for you, Bella?" he murmured finally. That warm cashmere baritone made her want to cross the room and lay her head in his lap and listen to a story.

Bella wasn't a child anymore.

But her adult mouth was dry and her head was spinning. "I… uhm…" she began, her eyes falling between them and suddenly seriously wondering whether she could do this. "You said as-… as the Alpha's i-imprint I could ask for anything I needed from the Council," she stammered to the floor with cringe-worthy timidity. She squeezed her eyes closed and then looked up at Billy's patient gaze.

He nodded once. "And you can, honey."

Bella grimaced uncertainly. "Well should I talk to you, um… later?"

Oh my God, talk about crash and burn! So much for the capable and courageous Alpha's Mate.

"Depends," Billy laced his hands in his lap. "Would you like to talk now or later? All in this room would hear what you have to say."

Bella swallowed thickly, staring at him a moment like a deer in headlights. "Now," she rasped.

She grimaced at herself and smeared her hand down her face, trying to push some sanity in through the confusion. She was going to bat for Jacob and her Pack and so far she'd was doing nothing but swinging strikes.

Clearing her throat she looked at Tiffany who still hadn't sat down. "Can I have a glass of water please?"

"Of course," she murmured, turning to the kitchen.

Joe Whitehorse, pushed his lanky frame out of the lazy boy. "Let me get you a chair," he mumbled as he hastened across the room.

Bella's gaze swept uncertainly back to her father who was staring at her from under a furrowed brow. Sue's hand came up to urge him back down to the couch as Joe brought a chair back from the table and set it up across from Billy, closing the circle.

Chin tucked, Bella trailed toward it avoiding the assessing eyes of the room as Tiffany brought her a glass of water. "Thanks," she murmured, taking it and slamming down a hearty guzzle like it was a shot of Jack Daniels.

At the moment she pretty much wished it was.

Bella sat down in the chair slowly, grasping the glass with both hands. She took another sip and then looked up at Billy.

"What can we do for you, Bella?" he asked with a friendly smile – obviously trying to put her at ease. Like she was a child.

"It's about the Pack," she began quietly.

Billy nodded. "That's what we've been discussin' this afternoon."

It was meant to be reassuring but instead it made a flash of anger detonate in her gut. Bella sat up a little straighter and took another sip of water before resting it on her thigh. "What were you discussing?" she asked neutrally.

Billy's eyes darted around the room at his cohorts ending on Charlie before he returned to her gaze. "Well I'm going to be real blunt, Bella," he sat back and rested his elbows on the armrests of his chair. "We're worried about your safety."

Bella's body stiffened under that loaded stare. Heat started to spread through her veins, making her body tingle.

Taking another sip of water, she then slowly leaned forward and set the glass down on the coffee table.

"It's not your job to worry about my safety," she told him crisply, sitting back and meeting his gaze head-on. "That's Jacob's job."

She saw the tick of shock on Billy's stalwart face that was echoed in a ripple around the room… and in her periphery, the stiffening jerk of her father's spine. Maybe she hadn't completely bungled the play after all – she'd obviously caught all of them off guard.

"And actually this is what I wanted to talk to you about," she continued, quiet but firm, building momentum from that little push of confidence at having the upper hand, if only for a moment. "I hope you don't mind if I'm blunt too. I'm not sure the Council understands what their job is."

Billy's brows shot up in a surprise that quickly turned paternalistic. "Now, I think we do, honey," he crooned, a subtle disapproving tension to the words. "We're responsible for the safety of our tribe. For you… Leah, Joey and his imprint," he glanced at his father in the easy chair. "Little Jedi, all the babies," his gaze swept the room and landed squarely in Bella's eyes with a poignant final addition. "Emily."

Bella wasn't going to be sidetracked by the past. Pursing her lips she slowly shook her head. "That's all the Alpha's job."

Billy's eyes narrowed as he tipped his head to the other side with counterfeit calm. She could see his hands fisting on the armrests in a shocking display of emotion from a man who was infamous for being even keel. And suddenly Bella understood that for Jacob's father this went deeper than wayward duty or misguided parenting, this was something personal.

"My son," he bit the words out quietly like he was carefully tempering each one. "Almost killed a man this week, Bella. Twi-…"

Bella lunged to her feet. "Your son is a wolf!" she plowed over him forcefully making the entire room go silent. "An alpha wolf, Billy! Your children are all supernatural wolves," she nearly shrieked, scanning each set of wide eyes. "You don't understand!"

"Bells, you need-…" her father warned, but Sue clamped a hand on his thigh.

Bella turned on him. "Charlie, I'm not your daughter right now," she hissed. "And unless I'm mistaken you're not Chief down here." It was a little too far and bratty at that, but hell, she wasn't anything close to perfect.

Her father clamped his mouth shut as his face turned red, the vein in his forehead pulsing with disapproval, but his eyes wisely slid to his lap.

"It's natural for a wolf to protect his mate," she turned back to Billy, trying to rein in her temper. If she crossed to many lines, she'd shut down communication.

"You can't control or regulate or shame a wolf into submission, he'll rip out your throat," she hissed quietly. "It's naturally what he has to be to protect this tribe from monsters. He has to be able to kill, Billy. Without conscience, without fear."

She paused a moment looking into Billy's intense eyes – in spite of personal turmoil and the emotionality of the situation, he was listening. Just like his son.

"But he didn't kill Josiah… want to know why?" she whispered. It was a rhetorical question that was answered only by a bland flare of Billy's nostrils.

"Because of Jacob… the man," she stressed. "You're so afraid of the monster fate made him into, that you've forgotten he's a man. He needs to be loved like one. He needs your guidance, your support, not your judgment," she spat. Her eyes pointedly swept the room. "They all do. They're all struggling with the same thing – fighting to keep their humanity when they share their souls with a beast. When they have to see things that are too horrible for a man let alone a teen," she returned to Billy's gaze, her eyes pleading for him to understand. "When they have to tear apart a nightmare that looks just like a walking talking ordinary man or woman or child on the outside."

It sounded like the entire room had stopped breathing. Outside the wind tickled the wind chime and in the kitchen a drop of water fell into a pan in the sink.

Bella stood alone in the murky silence staring down the Chief of an entire tribe. She struggled not to fidget while Billy's eyes darted back and forth between hers, unhurried, unreadable.

Finally he licked his lips and settled his shoulders back, uncurling his fists and lacing his hands in his lap. "So Bella," he began evenly, just the edges of his voice roughened by temper. "What do you think the Pack needs from the Council?"

Bella released an inadvertent sigh and collapsed back on the chair, grabbing up her water on the way. She took a sip to try and sooth her raw throat. "Your support," she emphasized, leaning forward and setting the water down. "You all are the only ties they still have to regular human life," her eyes darted around the room, skipping over her father's wooden stare. "They have to live in secret out in the world and you're the only ones who can keep them in it. They need your love, acceptance, guidance…" she returned a pointed gaze to Billy. "And confidence."

Sat back in her chair fisting her hands on her thighs. "Jacob needs your confidence."

Billy held her gaze for a moment and then huffed out a long breath. "Bella, there are secrets to keep, lives at stake, the consequences in this thing are-…"

"Believe me, he knows that," Bella leaned forward intensely. "Jacob has grown into a very smart man. All the stuff he keeps in his head-…" she coughed a laugh with a little shake of her head.

Her gaze then swept the room, meeting each pair of eyes and ignoring the divergent reactions behind them. "All the things and people he takes care of. It would blow your mind," she murmured, awe inflating the words. "That's why his Pack loves him so much even though he's been so lost – he takes good care of them. At the expense of himself."

She turned back to where Billy was considering her with a furrowed brow. "So when he says something like Leah should have a choice about staying, then he's weighed a million different things – half of them you don't understand because you haven't Phased." She turned to Sue with a pointed raise of her brows. "But he's also weighed in what's best for Leah."

Sue had tears welling in her eyes – she was on their side. So just what was going on here?

Old Quil spoke up, pushing her a little closer to her answer. "It was highly unusual that Leah was allowed to leave," he announced in that low shaking voice that instantly made one want to doubt their answers if not their right to question in the first place. "Throughout our history, Spirit Warriors have remained on their ancestors' lands, even after they return to sleep."

"Times change," she whispered and then added. "And I think eventually Leah will come back."

"Her control has been called into question," Quil continued, raising his voice slightly. "Girl, you know what the consequences would be for us all if the wolf awoke in the White man's world."

"Jacob knows the wolf," she bit out emphatically. Her eyes darted over each person in the room trying to understand the dynamic while she talked. Tiffany and Sue looked sympathetic, but Quil, Joe and Mr. Littlesea, had resistance and stubbornness hardening their faces. It hit her like slap – was this all just about paternal power and testosterone (with a little ignorance thrown in)? Her gaze returned to Billy's complex eyes. There was something deeper going on for him.

"If he says it's safe for her to go home, then it is," she told him. "Now that she and Josiah are solidifying their-…"

"Mistakes cannot be made," Billy bit out quietly. "And they've been made in the past."

This was what was driving a man who was usually so reasonable and fair: he was reliving his own mistakes and desperately trying to atone for them. Bella had always thought he blamed himself for his wife's death in a car crash where his hand was at the wheel. Add in shameful indiscretions, lost children, a beautiful sunny son who grew up too fast caring for his father only to be beaten beyond recognition by the fate he'd inherited from him…

"Mistakes will always be made," she corrected him crisply, protective indignation straightening her spine. She felt for him, she really did, but he needed to man up for Jacob right now.

"And they're Jacob's and the Pack's to make," she hissed. "Your generation had their share, now it's our turn and the world may look different because of them, but it also might look better."

Holding his gaze intensely, she scooted to the edge of her chair. "But – even with past mistakes," she enunciated each word carefully. "There's no one I would trust more with the future of this Pack than Jacob. Ephraim. Black."

The proclamation was bold and brash, but also a million percent true and she could see that Billy could find nothing to say to deny it. And just maybe he was losing the desire to try.

Bella turned to her father whose face was stoplight red. She knew what his motivations in this thing were. Just like his best friend he was trying to atone for past mistakes and in the process just making more of them.

"In that vein, I'm not moving," she told him flatly. "I'm staying with Jacob. I love him and he's never hurt me."

"Tiffany told me what you looked like that night," he ground the words through gritted teeth, obviously talking about the marking.

Bella's gaze darted unconsciously across the room to Embry's mother and her eyes dipped between them in chagrin – but there was no malice there, only worry.

Drawing in a breath, Bella stood, scanning faces as she returned her attention to her father. "My sex life isn't your or the Council's business. I asked to be marked," she announced, doing her best to ignore the humiliating blush that rushed to her cheeks. She turned back to Billy's raised brow as she unbuttoned her flannel and then started peeling it off down to the camisole underneath.

"But if you have any questions you can ask them now," she told them pertly, tossing down the flannel shirt on the chair and pulling the strap to the side to reveal the scar. Bella was banking on the hypothesis that behind the varying issues, fear of the unknown was fueling some of this discord.

Their reactions told her instantly that she'd been right.

It was fascinating, really – all eyes in the room snapped to her shoulder and pretenses and composure dropped from an awe that had to have some kind of supernatural component. Sam had said it was a powerful mark. All Bella knew is that there was no way a simple string of wine-colored scars would normally be half so riveting.

"Come here, girl," Quil rasped, motioning her over with a knotted hand.

With a glance at Billy, she started toward the old man, skirting the coffee table as Billy wheeled back out of the way. She kneeled down in front of him where he sat at the end of the couch.

Squinting, he leaned forward, raising his hand to her shoulder.

Bella jerked back. "Don't touch it."

Quill nodded and then leaned closer again, examining the neat string of small dots flanked by two larger puncture scars made by lupine canines.

"Why," Billy asked.

She turned and met his gaze. "That's why Jake almost killed Josiah – he touched it. The wolf's very protective of it."

Billy nodded soberly and Bella turned back to where Quil was sitting back wide eyed and thoughtful, like he'd gotten a glimpse of some fabled artifact.

"And it feels horrible - like fingernails on a chalkboard," she added with a grimace as she headed back for her chair and pulled her shirt into her hands.

"Jake said the touch of a Cold One-…" Billy politely left the sentence hanging.

Bella froze. Bowing her head she squeezed her eyes shut on the memory for a moment as an uncontrollable shudder rippled down her body.

"It feels like burning alive," she whispered. "There was so much pain-…" she choked on the words and clenched her eyes tighter while she tried to draw a breath into constricting lungs.

A gentle hand down her arm made her blink back to the present with a sharp inhale. Tiffany was standing at her side, frowning down at her with worry melting kind eyes that looked so much like her son.

"Sorry," Bella mumbled, tucking her head and struggling to make sense of the shirt in her numb fingers.

The woman lingered a moment more before she returned to her chair.

Back still turned to the room, Bella drew in a steeling breath and clumsily pulled her shirt on while she tried to reset, cursing vulnerability and trauma and all the pain that made this all the more difficult for both Jacob and herself.

She turned back to a sober room. Her father's head was bowed, one hand fisted on the armrest, the other tightly gripping Sue's hand on his thigh. Most gazes were averted in laps or coffee cups but that subtle obstinate air had dissipated… at least for now.

Billy was watching her with dark still eyes. "You were very brave, Bella," he whispered.

Bella tucked her chin and sat stiffly back in her chair. Snatching up her glass of water, she took a restorative sip.

"Have you seen a change in the wolf?" Billy asked after a moment.

Bella looked up. "I'm not sure," told him quietly. "But he came to me in Jacob's skin. We've spent a lot of time together," she said carefully. She really didn't want to go into detail… especially in front of her father.

"In Jacob's skin?" Billy frowned, with a glance a Quil.

"It was Jacob, but his eyes were the wolf," she smacked her lips and leaned forward to set the glass on the table. "He didn't understand human words, but he also wasn't an animal. Spirit Warrior?" she tried, sitting back with a crinkle to her nose.

Billy and Quil again exchanged glances.

"I know Jacob remembers what happened," she added, wrapping her arms around herself out of old habit – she'd take the comfort where she could get it right now. "We haven't talked about it yet so I'm not sure how it works," she pressed her lips together for a moment. "But I can let you know when I do."

Billy sat up a little more in his chair. "Will you?"

Bella nodded, reading his face and suddenly it dawned on her: the Council needed to feel a part of the Pack too in order to support it. "In fact, I can be your liaison if you'd like," she suggested. "You can let me know if you have any questions about stuff and I can tell you what's happening on the human side of things."

A slow smile spread over Billy's face – obviously both at her offer and her transparent deconstruction. "That would be real fine, Bella," he nodded then his eyes swept the room before they returned to hers.

He sat back and propped his elbows on the armrests tenting his fingers before him and tapping them together several thoughtful times.

"So you said you didn't think the Council understood its job," he commented dryly and a subtle smirk that reminded her of his son hitched up the corner of his mouth. "What's our job according to the Alpha's mate?"

Clearing her throat, she sat up a bit straighter while her eyes chased thoughts across the ceiling. She actually hadn't really gotten as far as envisioning what "support" would look like… luckily she'd never been short on bullshit ideas.

"Well," she sucked her lip in and then released it as she returned to Billy's patient gaze. "I think Jake should call the meetings, not you," she told him flatly. "That will go a long way toward showing them you're there to support them."

Billy's nostrils flared but he kept his face neutral.

"I'm happy to meet with you whenever you want," she added to sweeten the request. "But right now those meetings are just another layer of stress Jake doesn't need. It actually might be good to call the families together to meet regularly though," she brainstormed. "Support each other and talk about how to support the Pack."

Billy's gaze hopscotched around the room but Bella was too lost in thought to really care. "I think it's all about the relationships," she surmised. "Maybe have a bonfire next week to celebrate Leah and bring everyone together. Get closer with your kids – or grandkids," she glanced at Quil. "Baby sitting," she chuckled. "Have them for dinner… just let them know you're there – then they'll start asking you for what they need. At least that's what I did."

A private smile was starting to blossom on Billy's lips – frankly Bella didn't really want to know what was behind it.

"But really it all comes down to acceptance," she emphasized. "And then trust that Jacob knows what he's doing with his Pack. He's good at listening, Billy, and he learns fast," she told him softly, looking him straight in the eye. "I'm pretty sure he got it from you."

That smile on Billy's face grew roots and then he threw his head back and barked a hearty laugh. Bella blinked, not sure if she should be offended or not.

He tipped his head back down and flashed Bella his own brand of sunny smile that instantly made amends. "Charlie."

Bella's gaze darted over to the couch where her father's shoulders were bowed along with his head. He looked up with a glance at Bella that was still filled with worry and pain… but also, in point of fact, acceptance.

"Did you ever think you'd see your baby girl all grown up," he chuckled. "And down here playin' the ole' Chief like a pro?"

For a split second the switch to paternalism annoyed her, until she realized it was ploy – to draw in her struggling father, to make it all more palatable for more resistant men in the room and to lighten them all up (which was certainly needed). One thing was clear, Jacob and his father had more than a grin in common.

"C'mere, honey," Billy called her with an outstretched hand.

Bella pushed off her chair and skirted the table, bending down and wrapping her arms around him for a solid hug.

"I always knew there'd be hell to pay if you two got on the same team," Billy chuckled in her ear.

Bella pulled back with a wilted smile, suddenly feeling exhausted.

Billy held her close by the shoulders. "You spoke a lot of truth today daughter," he murmured, a twinkle in his eye.

"Now us old folks take a while to change," he released her and she took a step back. "And I can't promise things'll be just like you want 'em, but I'll take all this to this to rest of the Council and I'm sure we'll get a few things right."

Bella nodded loosely.

"Thanks for coming down here, honey," he told her quietly.

"Thanks," she mumbled automatically. Suddenly she couldn't seem to get her brain to work.

Luckily Tiffany stepped in and pulled her into a warm embrace to guide her toward starting her goodbyes. In a daze she stumbled through the hugs she got all around - even from old Quil - until she had to face her father waiting by the door with his mustache crouched over a frown.

Without a word he pulled her into polyester, old spice and an embrace that felt a little desperate. "C'mon," he mumbled, stepping back but keeping a hand on her arm. "I'll walk you to the car."

Bella nodded limply and cast a final farewell over her shoulder as she was guided out the door. On the porch, her father pulled her arm into the crook of his elbow and held it there with his hand as they walked silently side by side across the squeaky boards.

The clouds had thickened and there was a little more of a breeze that was teasing the wind chime into stutters. Bella felt like she'd run a marathon on an empty stomach – suddenly she felt shaky and hollow and like she was about to pass out. She didn't have the strength to even attempt to deconstruct her father, walking so seriously beside her.

As they neared the Toyota he finally broke the silence.

"You did good, Bells," he murmured, squeezing her hand to his arm. "This is real hard 'cause I want so bad to-…" he drew in a deep breath and then released it through his nose as he stopped at the Toyota and pulled her around to face him. "Well, I expect you know."

Bella nodded, looking up at him from under her lashes.

He heaved another sigh. "But I'm proud of you," he gave her a sad smile and then brushed back a windblown strand of hair.

"I love you dad," she whispered, throwing herself forward and into another hug.

Charlie wrapped his arms slowly around her.

"And he's getting a lot better," she whispered into his uniform. "He was hurting so much."

Charlie didn't say anything but just smoothed his hand over the back of her head. After a moment more, he let her go and took a step back, running an absent hand over his hair while he did a circuit of her face.

He sniffed a laugh and met her eyes. "I heard something about ice cream," his mustache tipped wry.

"Our first date," she bit her lip.

Charlie's smile grew broader as he opened the car door and held it for her. "Also hear you're havin' another," he muttered as she slipped into the seat.

Bella froze halfway in the car. "Wha-at?" she frowned humorously.

Charlie lifted his brow mysteriously as he motioned her in with his chin.

Still staring at him with a suspicious smile, she pulled the seat belt over her chest and turned the engine over.

"Be careful, Bells," he grew serious again. "Anything… anytime…" he reminded her.

"I know," she smiled sadly at the worry creasing his brow.

Charlie closed the door quietly and then took a step back from the car.

Hands shoved into his pockets and his face sober and looking older than his years, he stood watching her as she backed out. With a short beep, she turned out onto the road.

And nearly collapsed.

Bella's head flopped back against the seat as she released a long slow exhale like she'd been holding her breath throughout the entire meeting. Adrenaline crash and relief conspired to make her feel like she was made of jelly. She was completely burned out.

Good thing she knew the roads around Jacob's house like the back of her hand. As she drove like a robot back to the garage her insecurities recovered first.

And second-guesses started chasing their tails.

Fueled by the trauma, exhaustion and the non-stop drama of the week, they quickly broke the speed of sound. By the time she was turning onto the shop road, she was holding the steering wheel in a death grip to keep herself from shaking apart.

Biting her lip, she pulled into the driveway and jerked the car to a stop, trying to turn off the engine before it had even been put in park. With a muttered curse, she yanked the gear shift into place and then killed the engine at the same time she was opening the door.

Eyes that felt glued open snapped up to the garage and one of the Brothers popped up from under a hood with a grin.

Bella didn't even close the door behind her. Wrapping her arms around her middle she strode briskly across the lot, her stride feeling jerky and awkward like she'd lost her knees. She must have looked as harried as she felt, because Nebi's mouth turned under in a frown as he stepped around the car.

But Bella was only interested in one person.

And that person was just pushing himself out from under a huge pickup truck, intense eyes already locked on her.

Bella started running.

Brow furrowing, Jacob stalked toward her and she collided with his body full-force just inside the garage. Wrapping her arms around his waist she squeezed him with all her might while she buried her face in his chest, gasping and hiccupping and trying not to cry.

With a palm at the back of her head, he held her close for a moment.

"Shh," he soothed. That deep croon spilled like liquid velvet over her hair making her muscles magically slacken like every last tendon had been snipped at the same time.

She went limp against him as Jacob stooped and then pulled her up his body with an arm under butt. Her legs naturally wrapped around his waist as her face rooted into his neck and she sucked down that incomparable scent like the shameless addict she was.

Supporting her in one arm, the other smoothed down her back as they started moving with a fluid stride that was as lulling as his voice.

"You okay?" he breathed in her ear as she was set down on something slick and hard.

Bella nodded, but squeezed his neck tighter. She didn't want to face reality just yet.

"Lemme see," he whispered, leaving an arm wrapped around her hip, but coaxing her out of hiding with a gentle hand.

It was with dry cheeks that Bella lifted her head and squinted at him apologetically. Seated on the hood of the truck he'd been working on, she was almost his height.

His eyes flitted over her face like he was inventorying every pore while an absent hand smoothed back over her hair. "See, she's fine," he whispered.

And Bella blinked in confusion.

"You're all done for the day," he continued in that quiet voice while he tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'll close up."

Finally she understood and her gaze darted past him to the five tense wolves standing near the lounge – all of them with worried eyes trained on her like their lives depended on it.

She forced a smile for them. "Sorry, it was just… nerve-wracking," she whispered, embarrassed by her display.

Jacob whipped around abruptly, flashing savage canines. "Go," he growled.

Bella's eyes dipped down and away from the sight of five men snapping into obedient action. It wasn't until she heard cars start up outside along with Jacob's heavy sigh that her eyes ventured back up.

"Sorry," she wrinkled her nose.

He sniffed, his gaze dropping to his thumb that ghosted over her chin. "Don't be stupid," he murmured under his breath.

A reflexive smile jumped on her lips and dark eyes lifted up to peer at her from under long straight lashes. They were complex, unreadable.

Bella heaved a sigh and her head tipped to the side with a grimace. "I hope I didn't screw things up, Jake," she fretted with a flail of her hands. "I don't know if I said the right thing or I-…"

"He already called," Jacob interrupted her quietly.

Bella pressed her lips together and waited for more.

He searched her eyes for a moment and then his gaze slipped down her face while he licked his lips. His hand found hers on her thigh. " 'Said you tore the Council a new one," he sniffed humorlessly while his fingers fiddled with hers.

Bella laced their hands together, tension building in her spine.

"Told 'em they weren't doing their job," the ghost of a gratified smirk hopped at the corner of his mouth. It quickly dissipated as his eyes watched his thumb brush back and forth over her knuckle for a moment.

"And that the Pack couldn't be in better hands," he breathed.

"It's true, Jake," she whispered, her brow furrowing earnestly as her other hand slipped over his. "It's so, so true."

His thumb froze and he exhaled a breath through his nose with no comment. Then he tipped his chin up with a palpable switch of gears. "Anyway, he said he's got a lot to talk over with the Council," his voice solidified along with the gaze he lifted to hers. "But he can promise me that other than scheduled updates, the Pack calls the meetings and the shots here on out."

Bella stared back into that stoic gaze for a moment while her brain checked and rechecked what her ears had delivered.

Then her face and broke into a grin and she threw her arms around his neck. "Yay," she breathed into his shoulder.

"So I'm pretty sure you said the right thing," he murmured as his arms wrapped around her.

Bella sniffed a laugh into his shirt and then rested her cheek on his shoulder. Jacob moved his hands to her waist and shoulder blades and squeezed gently, then rearranged them and squeezed her again, his magical hugs effortlessly putting her back together.

"Thank you," he whispered, wrapping both arms over each other and giving her a final squeeze. "That had to have sucked."

Bella picked her head up and he pulled back just enough that their eyes could meet. "Wasn't so bad," she murmured around a smile.

Jacob's eyes washed over her face as his lips curved softly. "Yeah?" he breathed.

"Yeah," she whispered, as her arms entwined around his neck.

Watching his eyes lazily survey her face, so close his eyes listed endearingly, she twisted her fingers in his hair at the nape of his neck. He was so incredibly beautiful.

His gaze stopped abruptly on her lips and she licked them reflexively. She could hear his slow inhale as his gaze rose, darting back and forth between her eyes for a moment.

He silently mouthed the words, "can I kiss you?"

Bella's smile spread and she blinked slowly with pleasure. "You have to ask?"

"I do." He kept his eyes buried in hers.

Combing her fingers absently through his hair, she stared back at him for several beats of her heart, just feeling the moment and all that it meant to him.

All that it meant to them both.

Her hands stilled in his hair and she looked deep into those yawning eyes. "Yes," she whispered.

His eyelids fluttered closed as his hands skated slowly up her back like he was memorizing each inch along the way. They crept around to ride her pulse until his palms cradled her jaw. Heavy, silent eyes opened again, dilated so fully they were bottomless.

Bella's breath had grown shallow, skating over lips that had naturally parted in anticipation. She watched the little ticks of emotion hop between his brows as he did an unhurried circuit of her face, private thoughts locked in midnight.

His gaze finally relented to gravity and fell to linger on her mouth. Slowly - achingly slowly - he leaned in, his breath warm and intimate as it bathed her face. Bella closed her eyes as her hands slipped from his shoulders down over a bulky chest whose muscles were tense and quivering in flagrant contrast to the languor of his movements.

And then he kissed her.

His inhale drew cool air over her mouth that made the brush of matte silk sizzle all the more. Jacob's full lips pressed gently against hers in a whisper that bruised her soul it was so intimate and then he pulled back just until their skin parted with the softest smack. He hovered there for a moment, panting quietly against her while his hands held her jaw with just enough pressure to keep her from crashing back in for more.

She heard his soft swallow before he closed the centimeter's distance and again covered her lips with his own. Slow, sultry, searching he massaged her mouth, tipping his head to the side to siphon off a little more of her. She would have given all that he asked for willingly, but he didn't plunder. His mouth was lush, tender as he tipped his head the other way and sampled another angle. The kiss was erotically delicious in its simplicity – no tongue, restrained hunger, intensely patient. It reined her in to relish the moment when hormones would have galloped into oblivion.

She'd never felt anything like it.

But then he was pulling away. A whimper escaped over lips that tried to follow. His mouth reassured her with a smacking kiss before he leaned his forehead against hers. His breath was rapid and uneven as it poured into the space between him.

On his lips she'd tasted shadows and sweetness, pain and yearning and so much love that her heart ached still as it pounded against her breast in a feckless attempt to cross the distance between them.

Bella's eyes opened, trying to blink him into focus only inches away and was surprised to feel a drop of wetness roll down each cheek. Jacob's dark lashes fluttered as his eyes rose to meet hers and his thumbs left her jaw to sweep each cheek.

"Love you," she whispered, her eyes crossing as she tried to focus.

His swallow crinkled in the back of his throat as his hands smoothed firmly over either side of her head down to mold to her shoulders. Sucking in a breath through his teeth, he pulled his forehead from hers and straightened.

She wished she knew what was going on behind the somber eyes that washed over her face.

Her hands rose to brush the long tendrils of hair back from his cheeks, tucking them tenderly behind one ear and then the other. "You okay?" she asked him quietly.

He blinked and his gaze met hers, pausing for a moment as if trying to decide. Then the corner of his mouth oozed into a crooked smile that looked so drunk and adorable that a giggle pounced over Bella's lips.

"More than okay," he murmured, humor igniting a sparkle in his eye.

He was going with one of the more superficial moods swirling on the surface of those still waters, but she didn't mind. There was a lot going on for both of them and sometimes trying to dwell in the deep just pulled you under.

"Let's get going," he heaved a resetting sigh and then leaned in for a kiss to her forehead before picking her up and lifting her off the truck.

He set her on her feet and froze for a moment, his gaze falling to his hands wrapped around her waist, fingers touching at the small of her back and thumbs nearly joined over her navel. Releasing her he straightened, leaving his eyes where his hands had been. Slowly they rose to hers with a million thoughts swirling behind them.

"Let me close up," he murmured, forcing a smile.

Bella nodded and he turned and strode toward the office. She watched him disappear through the door and turned to the lounge to pack up her own things. She knew he needed some time to process that kiss.

Holy shit, she did too.

She'd always known Jacob was a sensitive man, but never had she really understood the extent of it. Boy, had he ever shown her… in a mere sixty-second play of his lips.

In human skin the spirit of his wolf had blown her body away with his ardor and sensuality, but never in her life had she felt such soulful passion. It made her realize exactly what she was getting into in loving Jacob Black – a no-holds barred, full-contact brawl of naked heart and soul. She could feel the restraint in his touch but at the same time he held nothing back. It was frightening to be the recipient of such intensity and trust.

And probably part of the reason she'd run the first time.

As a selfish little girl she'd taken the neat sanitized package that Edward had offered because it had been easy. It required nothing but compliance and submission in exchange for security. But this… this was something completely different.

Zipping up her backpack she glanced over her shoulder at Jacob, now replacing tools on hooks on the wall while her reeling brain tried to process. But just the sight of the muscles in his arms and shoulders incidentally swimming as he worked, slammed the breaks on of her mental freefall.

God, he was a gorgeous man.

Black hair hanging just past his jaw, his physique and musculature hit that magic balance somewhere between brawn and beauty and she loved to see it in motion. Jacob had always been intensely physical as a boy, and the man he'd grown into moved with a masculine confidence that was sweetened perfectly by liquid grace.

With a smile, she fell back to the couch and leaned her head against the wall while she watched him in his element. His paperwork might be a mess but his garage would put Bella's OCD kitchen to shame.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she used it to pull her out of her Jake-induced trance. She fished it out and looked over a text from Emily that effectively brought her back.

Don't need help 2morrow. C U Sun AM.

She was supposed to go over to Emily's tomorrow to spend long overdue time with the kids so they could get caught up on conversation and she, her cleaning. They'd also been talking about a celebratory dinner for Leah and Josiah who were due back tomorrow afternoon.

Bella frowned and quickly tapped back: Sure? What about din?

Seconds later came the uncharacteristically terse reply: Cancelled. Gotta go. 3

"Ready?"

Bella looked up with a scowl still in place.

A private smile curved Jacob's lips as he offered her a hand that made her body boomerang back into overdrive as he pulled her up. On the way he sneakily grabbed her bag.

Bella tried her best to rein in her mutinous body and eyed the bag being slung over his shoulder with an impugning squint.

"What's wrong?" he sniffed a laugh as he turned toward the door.

"You don't need to carry my stuff," she fell into step with him.

"I know," he grinned.

"Dork," she snorted, popping him in a steel bicep. Shaking out her sore fist, she stopped just outside the garage door. He set her backpack on the ground with a warning glance.

She was just about to steal it back anyway when she was awe-struck by his jaw-dropping leap that effortlessly caught the bottom of the 15 foot high roll-up door. It trundled down along with his big body as he landed lightly on his feet and then eased it down the rest of the way.

Bella was still staring wide-eyed as he turned and scooped up her backpack, slinging it over his shoulder with a smug smirk. Actually the accessory made him look pretty hot in combination with his kick-ass country cool. But hell, he looked hot no matter what he was wearing.

Especially if it was nothing at all…

"So…" Jacob pressed as they turned and made their way to her car.

Bella's eyes darted up to him feeling caught, a blush just the icing on the incriminating cake. She had to get herself together – he could probably scent just how close she was to losing it.

But if he noticed he did a phenomenal job of pretending he didn't, shoving casual hands in his pockets as he started for the car with that loose and easy gait. It was disconcerting that he didn't seem the least bit affected after that kiss – at least on the outside. She supposed he'd perfected the art of suppression with eight years of practice under his belt.

Bella trailed along after him, putting everything she had into switching tracks.

"Oh just Em. I was going to go help with the kids tomorrow and she cancelled," she shrugged. "But Lee and Jo are supposed to be back tomorrow and we were also talking about dinner. Guess that's off too."

Jacob pursed his lips as his eyes drifted out to the car. "Doesn't seem like a big deal, Bells."

"It isn't," she agreed, slipping around the passenger door as he opened it for her. She just hadn't heard anything yet from Leah other than a single text this morning that simply said "done." Getting a text from Josiah seconds later ("she's officially mine") had made her laugh at the mental picture of them pulling out their phones on the front steps of the chapel.

Bella climbed into her seat and he handed her the backpack before quietly closing the door and pacing around the front.

He slid into the driver's seat seconds later.

As she took off her shoes to prop her feet on the dash, Bella watched him in her periphery as he settled and started the car, pointedly keeping his eyes to himself. It felt like there was a different kind of tension between them now and she didn't know what to do with it.

Jacob snagged a covert glance of her as he turned over his shoulder and backed the car out. Maybe he was feeling it too.

Bella set the backpack in the foot well, feeling unsettled. Her body was humming, begging for her to reach out and touch him, but frankly she was a little afraid of what would happen if she did. She might just have to force him to pull over so she could feel those lush russet lips on hers again and his mind was obviously somewhere else entirely.

Rolling her eyes at herself, she opted for safety and a quick text to Leah asking how things were going. Hitting send, she then stared at the screen for a moment before clicking it off with a sigh. She flipped the cell over in her hands a few times then balanced it between her shins. Part of it was probably the adrenaline of the day, but she felt like so edgy.

"You okay?" Jacob murmured.

She turned to find him staring stoically out the windshield. When she didn't answer, he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Yeah," she huffed, letting her head flop back against the seat. "I'm just… antsy," she wrinkled her nose.

Jacob didn't say anything but just drove down the road – arm propped on the door, hand at the bottom of the wheel, body slouched all devil-may-care.

Closing her eyes she tipped her head up to the ceiling and blew out a long breath. She needed to be honest with him. That innocent little kiss had crossed a line into a completely different realm where things were going to be much more complicated (and quickly if her body had anything to say about it) and she couldn't afford any missteps along the way. Especially considering their past…

She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling for a moment. "Okay," she whispered. "That kiss totally blew me away."

She was answered with silence.

When several seconds of it had passed, she picked her head up and looked at him. Elbow propped on the door, he was absently running his chin back and forth along a finger while a soft smile played on his lips.

Bella couldn't help but echo it as she pulled her feet from the dash and turned toward him, resting her cheek on the seat.

Letting his hand fall back to the door he turned and met her eyes. "Me too."

For a moment they just stared at each other, letting their eyes fill in the rest. Jacob seamlessly switched hands on the wheel as he reached out to hers. Their fingers slipped fluently into place, as he turned back to the road.

For a silent mile he drove her home while they both got lost in private thoughts. Bella was brought back to the present when he pulled his hand from hers as he made a left onto a road heading out of town.

"Y'know," he whispered as he straightened the wheel. "I haven't been with anyone since I was with you."

The confession blind-sided her and for a moment she could only blink at his profile. Rampaging hormones had brainwashed her into forgetting just how complicated this next step was.

Jacob obviously hadn't.

Sucking in a breath, she turned back to the front of the car, pulling her feet under her. She leaned her head back and watched the road over her cheeks.

"You mean, that time right after you'd gotten a blow job from Dee Mason?" she sniffed a laugh that was about as far from humor as you could get.

"Yeah," he breathed.

No hedging, no excuses, no lies. Bella turned her head on the seat. He had both hands on the wheel and was staring out the window like he was facing a firing squad.

Fuck, he was brave.

Bella probably would have just let these things fester in the sewer of regrets and moved forward. She reached out and pushed her hand between the seat and his thigh.

"I'm fucked up, Bells," he glanced at her, a furrow between his brows. "You know that, right?"

"I'm pretty sure we were both there," she muttered wryly, trying some humor to help pull him through.

He sniffed a laugh with a shake of his head. "You were drunk."

Bella picked her head up off the seat. "Yeah, and you were angry," she shrugged a shoulder. "So in other words, business as usual for both of us back then."

His lips cracked in a grin and he turned and met her smile. "You're funny."

"You're the only one who thinks so," she snorted.

They both turned back to the road with smiles painted over heavy thoughts.

After another mile, Bella pulled her knees up on the seat as she turned to him and settled her cheek against the seat. "Thanks for telling me," she whispered, reaching for his hand. It was rigamortis stiff as she tugged it from the wheel.

Jacob pressed his lips together and nodded curtly.

Settling their hands on his thighs, Bella rubbed her thumb over his knuckle soothingly while she watched him blink a mechanical Morse code over memories.

He licked his lips and they parted for a moment before he spoke. "It scared-… it scares the fucking shit out of me to want you like I do," he rasped, keeping his eyes carefully trained on the road. "To need you."

Brows furrowing, Bella slowly lifted her head.

He blinked soundly once. Twice.

He turned, eyes darting almost manically over her face while he bit the hell out of his lip.

Bella dropped her phone in the cup holder and covered their entwined hands with her palm.

He swallowed thickly and then silently mouthed the words he'd yelled last night, "I can't lose you again."

"I'm not leaving," she whispered, squeezing his hand. "I made a promise to both you and your wolf – I'm never leaving again. I don't want to leave."

Jacob pressed his lips together over a bitter smile as his eyes returned to the road.

Then jammed on the breaks.

Bella shrieked, her eyes darting out to the empty road.

"Are you sure this is what you want?"

Jacob's terse bass pulled her head back around. He shimmied his hand free and turned to her, propping his forearm on the steering wheel.

Bella pulled her hands into her lap and frowned at him, her defensive temper getting the jump on her. "Haven't you been listening, Jacob?!"

Jacob barked a laugh of disbelief as his eyes darted off to the side for a moment. "Why!" he accused whipping back around. "Other than the fact that some gods put a curse on you and then you fed yourself to my wolf… why?"

Bella could hardly keep up with his light-speed pendulum emotions. But she knew she was starting to get a glimpse of the turbulence that lived in that damaged heart… and he was slowly peeling back the layers of scars for her to see.

She blew a long breath from her cheeks, trying to tame her own emotional reaction. She needed to keep her head because one wrong move and that sharp, desperate, scared-shitless man would use it against them both.

She popped her seatbelt and sat on her knees on the seat facing him. "Because I love you, Jacob," she pronounced.

He scowled and his lips were just parting when she beat him to the punch.

"Why?" she gave him a saccharine grin. "Because you're kick-ass smart, funny – when you're not being a fucking macho ass – and you understand me like no one else," she arched a brow. "You give everything you do your best and you're awesome at fixing things and people. Most importantly you've got the biggest heart I've ever seen and you care," she widened her eyes. "Do you know how fucking rare that is?"

He sat back a little, fixing a wooden frown on his face.

A little smirk kicked up the side of her mouth. "Oh, and you're sorta beautiful too," she flicked a flippant hand his way. "Just had to throw that in there," she mimicked him.

Oh, he tried so hard not to smile. His hand even came up to rub suspiciously over his face.

Bella patted her hands on her thighs, with a glance out the back window at the empty road. "Anything else?"

Jacob expelled a long breath, as he turned back to the wheel.

Figuring that was her answer, Bella turned around too and slipped her feet into her sneakers, giving him an assessing sideways glance.

"Seatbelt," he grumbled.

"We're almost home," she complained, still automatically sitting back and reaching over her shoulder.

"Doesn't matter," he snapped.

He started down the road again as soon as it clicked.

Propping his elbow on the window ledge, he huffed out a breath. "But Bells, I'm stuck here – and you will be too. With a guy who used to be okay a long time ago, but's now all fucked up," he sniffed and rested his lips against his knuckle.

"Jake-…" she whispered.

"And I'm fucking never gonna be rich," he barked a laugh, picking his head up again. "I'll never be able to give you the stuff that the fucking leech-… or shark boy…"

"Miguel?" she whipped around in shock. He was the marine biologist - who did indeed specialize in sharks - whose marriage proposal she had tried to politely decline (it had, of course, been a disaster).

Jacob's bratty little smirk was just enough of a confirmation.

"How did you know about him!" she demanded, running with his change of mood.

"Facebook," he snorted a laugh and then amped up that infuriating grin. "His friends were kinda pissed, huh?" He looked just a little too pleased about that understatement. Truthfully, she hadn't really been on Facebook since.

Bella clapped her hand over her eyes as she fell back. "I totally fucked that up," she groaned. "I shoulda never let it go on that long," she slapped her hand back down on her thigh and then turned on him with a mock scowl. "It's all because he sorta looked like you!"

Jacob smothered a gratified grin. "Not the real thing though," he turned with a sultry jump of brow that instantly liquefied her insides.

"Ugh," she landed a slap on his arm while he chuckled at her expense.

With a huff, her hand returned to rest on his shoulder - the touch of his skin was addictive. She absently traced the subtle raise of his tattoo and then shimmied her fingers under his shirt while she watched him turn into the driveway.

These fleeting moments between them felt so incredibly good – when they'd slip back into their old groove with the perfect blend of humor, intimacy and friendship.

The problem was, they passed too fast.

Bringing the car to a halt, Jacob cut the engine and pulled the key out of the ignition. Eyes, cast downward, his hand lifted to cover hers briefly before he pushed out of the car. Her hand stayed frozen where his shoulder had been while she watched him congeal out of the car and then close the door without a backward glance.

With a frustrated sigh, Bella sat back and clicked off her seatbelt and collected her phone. She was just pulling her backpack out of the foot well, when her door was opened. Running her tongue over the seam of her lips, Bella climbed out of the car feeling like the world had suddenly ground to a halt.

Outside their little bubble, the world trundled blithely on: the dusk was starting to creep up on the day and the crickets chirping in the woods over a few remnant birds. She hauled her backpack over her shoulder as she turned and watched Jacob close the door behind her.

Eyes lowered pensively, Jacob's hand brushed her shoulder in a subtle coax toward the house. That simple touch was comforting and, shoving her hands in her pockets, she started down the walkway with him.

Together they walked silently up to the house. Chin tucked, Bella didn't list into his side like she usually did - the air between them felt heavy and loaded with static like the feeling before a coming storm.

Bella slowly climbed the stairs while he bounded up them in two strides. She looked up as he pulled open the screen and plucked off an envelope that had been taped to the door.

"What's that?" she asked as she stepped onto the porch.

"Nothin'," he sniffed, tapping it absently against the heel of his hand for a moment as he pushed the screen all the way open and held it with his shoulder.

Bella paused a moment as she tried to read behind the stoic lines until Jacob looked up from under his lashes with a prompting tip of his chin toward the door.

Hunching her shoulders up to her ears, she strode to the door passing so close she could feel his heat and the prickle of their bond as she pushed into the dark house. It suddenly felt so incredibly intimate to be here with him that it was suffocating.

She didn't know what to do with… all these emotions.

Stepping just inside the door, she drew in a shaking breath as she lowered her backpack to the floor beside the little side table. Her body was humming, her mind was spinning and she was back to feeling like she wanted to jump out of her skin.

Or maybe just jump into his and forget everything else.

Jacob flipped the light switch on as he came in behind her and the room was flooded with the soft yellow light of the single lamp. As she turned around, her eyes dragged over a living room that had passed "lived in" several miles back with last night's comforters on the floor, pillows and wrappers strewn all over the place.

Jacob closed the door and she turned just in time for her eyes to follow the envelope he tossed on the table. She stared it a moment and then her gaze slowly swept up to the man towering over her only a few feet away. He was watching her over his cheeks with eyes that were smoldering coals.

For several seconds neither of them spoke, caught in a scorching stare that was quickly burning off the oxygen in the room. Everything withered around her – thought, fear, confusion, uncertainty.

She didn't know who moved first.

Suddenly Bella's hands were yanking him down and he was lifting her up by a strong hands on her hips. They crashed into each other, teeth clicking with the force before lips recovered and fused together in a molten kiss.

Bella's body seized in shock at the searing passion in the brand of his mouth. Her arms wrapped around his neck, hands anchoring in his hair with a contrastingly feeble whimper as her lips parted submissively under the demand of his tongue. Her legs snapped around him and he staggered back, shoulders crashing into the door as a hand at the back of her head held her under his gorging mouth.

This kiss was savage and voracious, there was nothing sweet or gentle about it this time: their mouths waged war as their heads tipped back and forth in a kata that was choreographed with white-hot want. She was practically guzzling Jacob down - it was like her body and soul was a vacuum whose valve he'd popped off with his lips and she couldn't get enough of him.

But oh mother of God, she needed more.

"Fuck," Jacob spat against her teeth as his body rolled them along the door until she was pressed into the wall. The pressure of his body against hers just stoked the inferno higher.

Still, greedy hands pulled his hair, nails dug wildly into his shoulder, trying get more of him. Bella's lungs burned - she felt like she was drowning, held under a lake of fire that she gulped into her lungs like she was dying of thirst instead of suffocating.

Jacob tore his mouth away then and they both sucked in wheezing gasps. She caught a searing glimpse of the hunger burning in his eyes before he dove back for more, placing fiery open-mouthed kisses along her jaw.

Panting raggedly, Bella tipped her head to the side, begging him to mark her neck while her hands awoke to steely shoulders, tugging petulantly at the cotton that dared defile the silken expanse of flesh.

"Skin, skin, skin," she chanted breathlessly.

As his mouth suckled its way down her pulse, he pushed her harder against the wall with this hips, pinning her there and making her cry out as that hard ridge of flesh pushed deliciously into the weeping ache between her legs. His hand gave a final knead to her ass and joined the other in helpfully ripping his shirt away in three brusque yanks. Her cry of bliss turned into a throaty moan as he drew the side of her neck into his mouth and sucked.

Having finished its job, his hand returned to dig into her ass as he pumped his hips against her. The delicious friction made her throw her head painfully back into the wall with a shameless groan.

"Careful," he gasped, releasing her to lave her neck with a hot twisting tongue.

Bella's hands had found their way to the unobstructed plains of his chest and were madly inventorying the peaks and valleys while she tipped her head and pushed her neck harder into the kisses and nips that were hemming her pulse.

She needed to feel his skin on hers.

Tearing her hands away, she tried to wriggle out of her flannel with little frustrated grunts even while she ground her hips against his sultry thrusts. Jacob ripped his mouth from her skin and smothered her whimpers with his lips as he pulled them both back from the wall.

The loss of the pressure between her legs made her lose her mind. He swallowed her delirious cry down, sucking her tongue into his mouth and caressing it with his own while his hand came up to the back of her shirt and tugged.

Finally understanding, Bella's hands left his shoulders to cooperate and he yanked the flannel down her arms and threw it down roughly as he moved them across the floor. Held up by the hand under her butt, she took advantage of the position to pull her camisole up.

Popping the kiss with a gasp, Jacob's hand yanked it back down. "No."

Bella's hands obediently returned to his neck as she pulled back just enough to see his hooded eyes.

"I'll lose it," he mumbled before his hand rose up to the back of her head and pushed her again into his wanting mouth, effectively smothering any questions.

But she wanted him to lose it – hell, she'd lost it back at that first touch of his lips in the garage.

But all thoughts disappeared as he abruptly he plummeted. Bella pulled her mouth free with a surprised squeak as his knees hit the floor with a heavy thump.

Unconcerned, Jacob rooted under her jaw until she tipped her head to give him access. While he sucked his way down her neck, a bulky arm wrapped around her, a big palm settling at the back of her head. Then he fell forward, catching himself on one hand while the other cradled her closely to his torso and his mouth continued feasting uninterrupted.

The first brush of his lips over the edge of her mark had her arching into him with a throaty cry. It felt like heaven and sin all rolled into one and sent such an erotic jolt through her body that she nearly came on the spot.

"Mm," he hummed, dragging his nose up her neck and pushing behind her ear, inhaling deeply. Slowly he lowered her down to the floor. "So fucking good," he groaned by her ear.

Laid down on the comforters, Bella's eyes popped open while his hand wiggled from under her. Jacob was hovering over her with eyes that were eating her alive. They flickered subtly like a bad florescent bulb from behind strands of ebony hair.

"Jake," she whispered, raising a hand to that intensity and brushing his hanging hair behind an ear to better see.

He blinked soundly and his eyes were again swallowed in black as her fingers ghosted down that thick neck to his shoulders. Smiling up at him, both hands smoothed over his chest, finally taking advantage of the heavenly expanse of skin.

Eyes locked with hers, Jacob slowly lowered himself over her until his weight was pressing her down into the floor. She gasped softly at the heady sensation, her heels tightening around him and eyes rolling under her lids with the wash of heat that left her boneless and burning with want.

Hot lips branded her jaw and Bella sighed, tipping her head as he dragged his lax lips down the side of her neck. A hand ventured under her shirt and up her side in a covetous caress while he nipped along the collar bone of her unmarked shoulder, and Bella hummed in rapture.

His body temperature felt like it had jumped 10 degrees and she could feel how hard he was in the press of his hips. She squeezed his shoulders as she squirmed under him, begging him to move. A soft growl tumbled in his chest as he stopped her short with a domineering hand on her hip and nip to the shoulder.

It surprised her into instant submission.

That rumble deepened in pleasure as he lapped and nipped across her chest. While that hand held her firmly under him he rolled his hips against her and then pumped several times making her groan. He answered her with a gravelly growl and then pounced on his mark, ripping a cry from her throat as his mouth smothered her shoulder and sent every nerve skyrocketing.

The g-force of the ascent was shocking, dashing her into a brutal peak of pleasure. The plummet back to earth was even more so. Jacob's grounding weight pressing her down was the only thing that kept her from blowing apart.

Bella's eyes shot open in shock.

As her blackened vision cleared along with the thrum of blood in her ears, she found Jacob pressed into her neck, his guttural growl vibrating her body. No, he was shaking.

She blinked, her eyes darting to her hands on his trembling shoulders. Her fingers were dug in fiercely and she quickly released him finding smudges of blood where her even her short nails had broken skin.

She gasped in horror at the same time he rolled off of her onto his back.

"Oh God, Jake," she turned on her side. "I'm sorry."

Eyes clenched closed, Jacob was gasping desperately like a fish on dry land.

"Jake?" she whispered, smoothing her hand over his heaving chest.

He arched subtly into her touch, hashing a sound through his teeth that was a cross between a growl and a groan. It ripped through the sensual hangover and Bella scrambled to her knees, worried eyes washing over his stiff body, slithering muscles and clenched fists.

Scooting across the floor, she leaned over him and brushed fingertips over his straining cheek. "Jacob," she breathed.

Eyes popped open that were consumed by yellow flame. With an inadvertent gasp she snatched her hand back... but then froze at the aching whine, her gaze snapping to those eyes pinned to her with distress. The pupils were expanding out and then contracting in a dizzying kaleidoscope of fire.

And suddenly she understood.

"Shh," she soothed, hand slipping back to caress his cheek as she leaned closer. "Jacob," she tried to breathe calm into those wild eyes. "Come back."

They snapped shut and then squeezed tighter while tremors continued to wrack his body. Brow furrowed in concern, she climbed on top of him, her knees falling to either side of his torso as she took his head in both hands.

"Jake," she whispered again. "Jacob." A frantic thumb brushed over his cheek as she held his burning jaw in her palms.

Slowly but slowly, while she continued to stroke his face and murmur nonsense, the tremors started to dwindle under her.

Finally russet lips parted and a hitching breath skated over them as his hands rubbed shakily up her thighs to her hips. He swallowed thickly and then his eyes slowly opened. They were human's iris but flashing with gold like a lightning storm.

"Are you there?" she asked quietly, smoothing his hair back from his sweaty temple.

He licked his lips. "The wolf is close," he rasped, those eerie eyes locked with hers. "He wants you."

Bella's brow knit as she continued to caress his cheeks.

He closed his eyes again and Bella's thumb smoothed over where he was biting his lip, pulling it free from his teeth. "I want you more," he mouthed the words under her fingers.

"I'm here, Jacob," she whispered, doing her best to comfort him. She had no idea what he needed.

He squeezed his eyes tighter. "I'm so-…" his voice broke and he licked his lips quickly. "I'm so fucking sick of having to fight for you," he choked hoarsely. "You're mine." His eyes popped open, tormented and suffering and back to bottomless human black.

Bella nodded, ignoring the tears that were filling her eyes as her hands slipped down to grip his shoulders. "I came back for you, Jacob," she hissed passionately. "Not your wolf."

His eyes darted back and forth between hers and she decided to take the opportunity to say what she'd wanted to in the car. "And I don't need money or things – I know because I've had them," she smiled softly, trying to cheer him up. "I don't need anything but you. I came back for my best friend."

Heaving a breath through his nose, he closed his eyes again while his hands smoothed absently over her hips. "God," he sighed. "I'm so fucked up, Bells."

He paused, pressing his lips together, and then his eyes opened and found hers – raw and so very tired. "And I don't know if I'm ever gonna get better," he whispered.

A tear escaped out of the corner of her eye and she collapsed against his shoulder, shimmying her body down his so she could lay over the warm satin of his chest. She smoothed her hand over his heart with a little sniffle.

"I said the same thing," she whispered and then picked her head up enough that she could meet his eyes. "Remember? All those years ago?"

Jacob nodded imperceptibly and she laid her cheek back down. She traced a finger along his collar bone while she rode his breaths and reveled in the hum of skin-to-skin. "But honey we can get better together," she breathed, tracing her finger back the other way. "I'm never going to stop fighting for you…" Her palm settled over his heart as his arms wrapped around her, swaddling her against his chest. "Not until my heart stops beating," she breathed.

She counted each beat of his heart while he held her close and the room grew darker, the crickets hurrying the dusk along.

When finally they had slowed back to a slow sultry rhythm, she picked up her head. Jacob's eyes were closed softly like he was meditating.

"You okay?" she breathed.

He nodded once as his hands rubbed slowly up her back.

She rearranged herself on his chest. "What's it like?" she whispered. She wanted to understand what was happening so she could help him.

Bleary eyes opened in confusion.

"With the wolf," she clarified. "Do you remember what happened when he used to come to me?"

Jacob sniffled brusquely as he pulled a hand from her back and propped it behind his head. "I remember everything, but it's like a dream," he told her quietly. "Like a dream that becomes a memory." His eyes darted off to the side, following thoughts and Bella propped her chin on her fist.

"It's like I'm watching a movie and I can't control it," he murmured under his breath and then rolled his lips for a moment.

"He needs you." His eyes returned to hers. "You calm him. Make him feel not so alone," he whispered his hand skating up her back. "I think he's been alone for a long time."

Bella's brow furrowed sadly and Jacob's thumb smoothed the lines from her forehead.

"He needs you Bells," he told her, eyes begging her to understand. "But I need you more."

It hit her then that she'd done it again – made him feel that she'd chosen someone else over him. She squeezed her eyes shut in anguish – even trying her hardest, she never seemed to get it right. "I'm sorry," she breathed.

"What?" Jacob's thumb gently tapped her cheek and she opened her eyes to his frown.

"I totally screwed up again," she whispered. "With the whole marking thing and-…" she heaved a resigned sigh.

Jacob sniffed a laugh that made the corner of his mouth jump. "No you didn't," he raked his hand slowly back through her hair. "It calmed him down a lot. I don't think either of us would have survived this thing otherwise – I couldn't deal with his shit and my own at the same time."

At Bella's suspicious squint, he chuckled. "C'mere," he murmured, dipping up to catch her lips in a kiss before he rolled them over on their sides. He grabbed a cushion for his own head and pulled her close, laying his arm out over the floor. She pillowed her cheek against his bicep and he pulled a strand of hair from her lips.

"I'm the one who's sorry," he smiled softly, smoothing it back from her face. "I lost it and got carried away."

Bella blinked with a disbelieving smile. "What?"

A delicious spark of mischief lit those eyes. "I was thinking we'd just play around a little at second base."

Barking an incredulous laugh, Bella picked her head up. "Second base?"

A full-on grin broke out. "Okay, maybe dip a little into third," he bit his lip with a sly jump of his brow.

"Jake!" she giggled, pushing at his shoulder. He didn't budge of course. Technically they had stayed at second – only he'd also blown her brains out with the most intense orgasm she'd ever had.

"What?" he kept that edible grin in place. "You wanted me to slide into home?" he crooned in a suggestive bass.

"AH!" she squawked, flopping onto her back and dropping her head on his arm while she stared at the ceiling and tried to ignore the fact her cheeks were burning.

"Mm," he hummed, rooting under her ear. "You did, didn't you?"

Bella tried to act indignant but ended up giggling as she tried to shrug him away. Unfortunately he'd always been able to read her like a book.

"Well," he continued in a mumble as he nuzzled her temple. "Contrary to popular belief, I do unequivocally know how to treat a woman."

Bella turned her head abruptly to find humor sparkling in his eyes – but below that was something stone cold sober. What Josiah had said that day had bothered him… deeply.

"You do, Jake," she murmured, turning more on her side and smoothing her palm reassuringly over his shoulder. "When you're not fighting a war, you really do."

Jacob sniffed a noncommittally as he lay his temple back on the cushion. His hand skated over her side and rested at her waist.

"So would you've slept with me after the first date?" he asked with a wry hitch of his lips. The question was light and teasing on the surface, but underneath there was much more.

Bella coughed a laugh. "But we-…"

"We're starting over, remember?" he arched a brow.

Blinking she tried to get her head into the game – she'd told herself on many occasions that they needed to tread carefully and take things slow, but in the moment it was much harder than it seemed in theory. Yet Jacob hadn't forgotten – it was a testimony to just how much he wanted to do this right.

Drawing in a breath, she huffed it thoughtfully through her nose. "Well," she began slowly. "I think – even though I have in my own fucked up past - I'd certainly want to, but I wouldn't."

Jacob's eyes narrowed with interest. "Why?"

Bella flicked her lip out through her teeth while she tried to find the words. "Because I think I'd have seen you as someone I could build a future with," she cocked her head on his arm as she considered him, trying to imagine if they'd done this thing right the first time around. "So I wouldn't want to make things cheap like that."

His lips spread in a smile that was all sunshine even in the falling dusk. "Exactly," he leaned in and kissed her nose. "Plus," he murmured in a voice of heated honey as he settled back on his cushion. "When I do get you in my bed I'm gonna keep you there all night," his lips spread into a roguish grin that quickened the beat of her heart.

But suddenly it dawned on her what he was saying. "We don't have all night?"

Abruptly glancing at the door, he turned back to her, pursing regretful lips. "I have to run with the Pack."

Bella frowned, her stomach instantly dropping to her toes. She'd been looking forward to at least spending time with him, if nothing else.

Smiling at her expression, his hand ghosted up her side to smooth a thumb between her brows. "I have to shore them up because I'm not gonna be around tomorrow."

Bella's eyes only grew more stricken.

He barked a laugh. "And neither are you," he wiggled mysterious brows.

"What?" Bella sat up abruptly.

Licking his lips, Jacob pushed up off the floor, watching her carefully. "We're going to Seattle tomorrow," he told her quietly. "For your birthday."

Just the mention of the hated day had her bolting to her feet with unexamined anxiety. Jacob had always honored her request for low-key before!

"That's not 'til next week!" she complained.

The look on his face told her he'd expected this reaction. Keeping his eyes locked with hers, he poured up to this feet with that feline grace. "Leah and Josiah couldn't get a refund on their hotel," he murmured. "So they got us a room too. We're meeting them there to stay the night."

That stopped her runaway emotions dead in their tracks. "We're meeting Lee and Josi in Seattle?"

Jacob could see he had her interest now - he tried to smother his smile of triumph. It didn't really work. "Mm hmm," he took a step toward her. "You wanted to go to Seattle, remember?"

Bella blinked up at him dumbly while he lifted a hand to her cheek – she had… to get away from him. But just the brush of his skin had her leaning into his palm and wondering how in the hell she'd ever thought she could spend a day away from him.

Jacob slowly drew her into his chest, wrapping her in his arms and his warmth. She sighed, melting into him as she clasped her hands behind his back.

"You were right, honey," he murmured over her hair. "We need some time to just be together without the rest of this bullshit. Leah wanted to break you out and she even called your friend Angela – it's the perfect chance."

Bella nodded against his chest.

Jacob's hand slipped up behind her head and held her close to his heart as he leaned down. "And I need some time, Bells," he breathed into her ear. "I need some time to try to be a just man again for you."

Bella squeezed her eyes closed as she nestled into him.

It was all true and thoughtful and perfect – no big groups, just friends and a chance to get away from the past if only for a little while. She realized then why she'd freaked out in the first place: Edward used to surprise her with things she'd never wanted – and forced her to become someone she wasn't - no matter how much she'd told him to stop. But not all surprises were so bad - Jacob had only ever given her things that she needed.

And they both needed this.

"It sounds awesome," she sighed into his chest. Placing a kiss over his heart she pulled back with apologetic eyes. "Thank you."

His smile was a beautiful thing.

"God, we gotta throw together some dinner before you go," she gasped with a glance outside, realizing it was already dark.

"Nope. Getting take-out," he smirked. "Actually it's already here."

Bella's eyes darted to the door.

"Sitting on the porch along with your escort for the evening."

Her eyes snapped back to his smile just fading into something a little more serious. "Jedi misses you," he whispered, pressing a kiss to her hairline. "And I figured you didn't want to be alone."

Bella squeezed him hard – he'd always taken such good care of her. He took care of them all.

"You guys can watch a movie or some shit," he sniffed releasing her as he stepped back.

Bella nodded happily as she immediately stooped to pick up some of last night's trash. God, the place was a pigsty.

"He doesn't care," Jacob scoffed cannily as he headed toward the door.

"I do," she snapped.

With an annoyed groan, Jacob turned back and grabbed up the blankets and comforters, balling them all up in a huge jumble and then retreating down the hall, probably just to throw them into his room like the slob he'd always been.

Bella rolled her eyes as she gathered all the trash and put it in a wayward plastic grocery bag and then replaced the cushions on the couch. A pillow was tossed into place in the corner with perfect aim and she looked up to Jacob watching her with a devilish smile that was all whipped cream and sin.

"So, um," he smacked his lips. "How 'bout after the second date?"

A grin cracked her face in half as she turned around. "Oh, most definitely."

'


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