This chapter yanks you between the perspectives of two characters who have very different internal voices and who themselves are rapidly changing. I hope the technique is effective. This chapter takes its time and builds. Hang tight.

Prereader: The incomparable Tayjayfan

Let me know if I still have your interest and on all accounts, thanks for reading.

'


'

Sonnet XI

I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

I hunger for your sleek laugh,
your hands the color of a savage harvest,
hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.

I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,

and I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
hunting for you, for your hot heart,
like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.

Pablo Neruda

'


'

Chapter 2: Awakening

'

Bella's feet froze as soon as she stepped over the threshold of a room she'd known all her life.

Somehow it looked different. The walls were still the same faded cream that seemed soak up the dusky sunset purples and blues of the quilt and earthy accents. The posters and pictures were all the same - immortalizing her aesthetics in a timeline from finger paintings to photos to her first actually purchased piece of art. The same fairy lights were strung dim and ready by the rice paper lamp that swayed with the breath of late summer sighing through the house. It was all the same: a hodgepodge, patchwork tapestry of her life to date, somehow more intimate and authentic than the crisp, burnt sienna room in Arizona (and Chicago, Oregon, California and Nevada too). With all the many places she'd trailed along after her mother, Bella realized this had always been her only constant.

Here was her home.

And that was the difference: this time it truly was.

Releasing a long quiet breath, Bella leaned against the doorframe as she let the duffle bag fall off her slumped shoulder to the floor. This time there was no quiet ticking countdown cinching the tightness in her chest, this time there was no steeling her heart to let go before she even had, this time she could truly settle into rote and routine…. this time this room was home.

For as long as she wanted.

Bella was a planner - perhaps it was because so little in her life had been predictable that one foot always seemed to be two steps ahead - but she could see herself graduating and hanging around for awhile. Maybe working for year or two or doing some online classes or community college in Port Ange. As soon as she crossed the threshold of the house she'd been born in, Bella knew she wouldn't be leaving again anytime soon and her entire body relaxed with a visceral sigh of relief.

Charlie's heavy footstep clomping up the stairs snapped her head back in the game from where it had been blissfully sidelined by the sheer bliss of permanence. (Well, as much permanence as a nearly 18 year old girl could really have.)

With a glance over her shoulder, she tugged the bag across the floor and sat heavily on the bed.

Charlie wrestled her two ungainly suitcases into the room with awkward and blundering aplomb and Bella's lips fought with a smile. She knew where she got her grace from. Or more appropriately, her lack thereof.

Charlie straightened, his face red and sweaty, as he rubbed his palms uncomfortably on his thighs. "So… uh," he began eloquently. And then thought better of it and pushed one of the suitcases unnecessarily further into the room.

Bella's smile broke through with affection. "Thanks, Dad," she murmured.

Charlie straightened again, blinking at her like he'd never heard her say a word in his life.

He was nervous, and it was endearing. "I mean, I hope I don't cramp your style or anything by being here," she offered.

"What style," he snorted, his mustache twisting up wryly as he reached up and scratched the back of his neck. "It's great having you home, kid. And I'm hoping you stay a good long while."

Bella bounced on the bed and nodded with a grin. She knew he liked having her around and honestly Bella liked having him around too. He didn't hover or encroach or demand she be sucked into his drama (like someone she knew). Bella had gotten her easygoing independence from Charlie after all.

Charlie's eyes darted around the room, and then he smacked his lips. "Well I'll let yeh…" he waved a flustered hand.

"Kay."

Clearing his throat, he shoved his hands into his pockets and turned abruptly, nearly tripping on a suitcase before fleeing for the door. "Holler if you need anything," he looked over his shoulder, meeting her eyes with an earnestness that belied the flippant words.

Bella nodded reassuringly, answering his silent questions with a smile. Only a quarter of a conversation with Charlie was verbal.

With no other word, he disappeared into the hall as Bella smacked her lips and thought about what to unpack first.

"Oh, and Bells?"

Charlie's face peered back around the doorframe and she looked back up.

"Billy's coming by around lunchtime with a lil' something I bought yeh," he mumbled.

"With Jake?" she pounced in, ignoring the fall of his face. He wanted her to be excited about whatever Billy was bringing, but Bella only wanted one thing. Or person, as it were.

"Maybe," he hedged.

"Dad," Bella stood, her brow furrowed. "What's really going on with him?" she asked plainly. She'd gotten vague answers and evasions every time she'd quizzed him on the phone. And she was worried.

Charlie released a capitulating sigh and pushed into the doorway, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned against the frame. "Bells, he's…different."

Bella tossed her head in frustration at a repeat of the same useless answer. "What does that mean?"

Charlie sniffed a harsh breath. "Uh, I' barely seen him," he continued stalling and Bella emphatically widened her eyes, prompting him on. "But he… he g-grew up…." he stammered uncomfortably.

Bella huffed and crossed her own arms over her chest. "Uh… yeah, and?"

She wasn't usually so impatient with Charlie's inarticulateness but this was Jake, and, honestly, she was kind of going out of her mind.

He was the last lingering unknown in this whole change equation, and he was usually the one thing she could depend on. More than her room, this house, Charlie or Forks… Jacob had always been her rock, her anchor, the one thing she always knew she could trust. And over this last year, it was like he'd suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth.

"Look, he's different, kay?" Charlie harrumphed, and as if his own anxiety had finally burst the dam, he continued on with information he'd withheld from her all year. "He never went back to school. 'Dropped out and s'working at a garage on the Rez. From what I hear he runs with a buncha tough boys down on the Rez, but he don't ever come to town anymore. He's different," he expelled that word on a sigh of frustration. "I asked Billy if he's getting worried, but he won't say nothin'. Same with Harry. It's like they don't wanna talk anything 'bout him. We ain't barely been hanging out either…and I don't get it," he shook his head as his eyes paced restlessly over the floor. And for the first time Bella saw it. She heard it in his voice.

Her father was worried too.

Each of his words just hammered nail after nail in the coffin of her worst fears - worries she'd been desperately trying to justify away in Jacob's absence from her life this year. Her father was an observant man - she knew this - but he'd also "seen it all" in his lifelong career and didn't get riled up by much. If he was worried, then there was definitely something wrong. Bella's hands slowly fell to her sides as her mind furiously processed.

Charlie looked up and met her gaze, pushing off the frame and shoving his hand through his hair. "I mean, the few times I've seen him, he's just-…well, he's barely said two words. He looks pissed and …. and big."

She swallowed thickly. "Is h-he drinking?" she stammered quietly. "Or is it d-drugs?"

Her heart felt like it had stalled in her chest. Why wouldn't Jacob reach out to her if he was having problems? He'd had more crap in his life than most boys his age - with his mother gone and his sisters skipping out on him and his wheelchair-bound father - but they'd always leaned on each other all their lives.

Charlie pressed doleful lips together as his eyes softened at his daughters obvious distress. "Baby, I dunno," he murmured.

Bella's gaze fell to the floor as she pulled the corner of her lip into her mouth.

Her father's shuffling step made her look back up. "C'mere," he held out his arms with a furrowed brow.

And that's when she knew just how bad it was.

Bella took the few steps into his arms and leaned her cheek against the rough starch of his uniform as his arms wrapped around her.

"Look, maybe it's not as bad as all that," he murmured into her hairline. "I know how close you two were an'-…" he sighed heavily. "I jus' don't want you disappointed s'all."

Bella nodded mutely into his chest.

He pressed a clumsy kiss to her forehead and then dropped his arms stiffly to his side. Bella took a step back as the weight of her worry again pulled her gaze to the floor.

"I mean, I know this year's gonna be hard…" he rubbed his hands uncomfortably on his hips. "You changing schools an' everything…"

Translation: he didn't want her to decide to go with Renee to Florida instead and it was probably why he'd avoided this conversation all year. But a new school, she could handle - she'd certainly had enough practice by now - but losing Jacob?

Bella shook her head briskly as she continued to worry the hell out of her lip.

"I jus' wish Jake was gonna be able to be there for yeh," he continued, subtly soothed by her silent reassurance. His hand reached out and hovered indecisively for a moment. Finally his warm, calloused palm cupped her cheek in a silent plea for her eyes.

She met his gaze and he smiled sadly.

"But Bells, I don't think he will," he whispered, his eyes unadorned and somber. It was the most direct he'd ever been with her.

Bella's eyes darted between his for a moment before she nodded once - a loose, wobbly movement.

Charlie's hand dropped to his side and Bella bit her lip. "Kay, well… uh.. " he cleared his throat. "Lemme get outta these Blues, huh?"

"Kay."

And with a final glance, he turned and crossed the hall and shut the door quietly behind him.

Leaving Bella standing alone in her room.

And for the first time, she really felt alone here. When her mother announced yet another move in February, Bella had asked to come here instead. She'd be lying if she didn't say a big part of that decision was … Jacob.

Even though she'd started worrying about him in September of last year. He'd always been better with wrenches than keyboards (she didn't let that stop her from emailing him), but since middle school, but they'd never gone more than a few weeks tops without at least one epic phone conversation. Yet, as of now, she hadn't spoken to her best friend for 14 whole months. Not even when she'd called his voicemail and told him she was coming home this summer for good. She'd left messages.

And texts.

And emails.

She'd never heard word. Charlie said he was different, Billy said he was busy, and Rache n' Rebes just brushed her off like an annoying little kid.

But if Bella was anything she was patient. And stubborn. And worried off her freaking ass.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she spun around on her heel … and painfully banged smack dab into her heavy suitcase. She clapped a hand over her knee and hopped a few times while her gaze drifted over her room. Trying to imagine this room without Jacob was simply impossible - he was inexorably woven into the very fabric of her life. From the ancient Polaroid of them as kids - her four, him three - proudly hawking mud pies… to the hand-carved menagerie of animals on her desk… to the goofy photo-booth strip from the Seattle mall, there was a piece of him in every single memory.

Bella limped on over to her bed and threw herself back spread eagle with a heavy sigh.

She wouldn't give up. Whatever he'd gotten himself into, she was going to help him get back out. He'd been there for her through Renee's occasional bouts of drinking and chronic parade of men, through mean girls and zits and boys.

It had only been a year, it couldn't too late.

Could it?

Pushing her lip through her teeth, Bella's gaze cut over to the dream catcher hanging on the headboard and she reached out her hand. Plucking it from its perch with tender fingers, she sat up slowly as her eyes ran over Jacob's meticulous handiwork. He'd always had the patience of a saint and those agile hands were gentle and strong. Seeing the things he'd created was like getting to peek through those warm dark eyes that found beauty in everything. Even in her.

Pursing her lips sadly, she leaned over and picked up the framed picture on her nightstand. Taken last summer before he'd had to leave, it was a blown-up black and white photo of them both laughing their heads off on Charlie's front steps. His arm slung round her shoulder, his eyes were sparkling with mischief at the camera, his face cracked in half with a ten thousand kilowatt smile. Bella was grinning broadly at him, her hand resting on his knee over the frayed rip in jeans that showed his enviable caramel skin. They always naturally leaned into one another with an intimacy that could easily be misconstrued, but it has been so since they'd been toddlers in diapers. She adored that picture. It showcased everything she loved about their friendship: the laughter, the affection, the ease.

She couldn't imagine this Jacob as the "pissed and different" boy who'd ignored her for an entire year. He was always so generous with his smile, his hands… his heart. He'd grown up and changed over the years, of course - hell, so had she (thank God) - but he'd always been her sunny tropical island in the stormiest of seas. It had been as easy as breathing being best friends with Jacob Black, and Bella had thought maybe - just maybe - they might someday be more.

Until this.

Well, one thing was for sure: she wouldn't abandon him when the proverbial crap hit the fan. He'd stood by her so -damn it - so would she. She was going to find out what demons he was slaying so she could bring a spear to the fight. Or maybe a shotgun.

Or an Uzi.

Bella's lips hitched up in resolve as she hung the dream catcher back in its place.

"I'm coming, Jake," she whispered to the photo as she set it on the nightstand with a determined hand.

One of Bella's more endearing traits was her stubborn naiveté.

'

One of the more useful traits about being a werewolf was the enhanced human senses. Jacob cocked his head as he listened to the faint hitch in the Chevy's timing belt - it just needed a little tweak to be perfect. And it was just the distraction he needed at Charlie's house.

Action, it was all about action these days.

One of the more difficult parts about being a wolf was if he wasn't doing something, he felt like jumping out of his own skin. (Or gnawing off his arm -just for something to do. ) It was like having a continuous drip of Red Bull laced with Meth burning through his veins. It made him an effective killing machine, but a human? Not so much.

Jacob glanced in the rearview mirror at his father riding shotgun in the white Chevy with a delighted smile like he was out for a Sunday drive. In the driver's seat, Embry met his gaze intensely in the mirror with a subtle reassuring lift of his chin. At least his Pack was on his side while his father blithely blundered on.

Jacob readjusted his hands on the wheel as he blew a long slow breath out from his cheeks.

Distraction, he needed a distraction.

His eyes darted around the cabin for about the fiftieth time. Quill had done a good job cleaning the thing up, surprisingly enough. The antique was as pristine as it had been the day it had been rolled off the assembly line by Fred fucking Flintstone. And Bella was going to love it.

For anyone else, a rusty red 1963 Chevy Step-side would be a gift given wrapped in an apologetic grimace. But of all the cars in the junk lots that Charlie could afford (with Jacob's meager savings secretly thrown in for parts) this was the one that screamed her name: unpretentious, adaptable, quirky (and she just might survive if she wrapped it around a tree).

The Swan residence was just around the bend and Jacob shifted in his seat while his left foot sprinted into frenetic tapping. He drew in a long cooling breath through his nose and wished it did something other than fan the raging fire in his gut.

This was it.

His breath sprinted in shallow puffs of air over his upper lip as his heart lunged into a race with this restless foot. A low metallic groan had him readjust his fierce grip - Bella probably wouldn't appreciate an imprint of his fingers in the steering wheel.

"Keep it together, moron," he growled out loud to the empty cab. He was the fucking Alpha, for crissakes - he couldn't fall apart now.

Never show weakness. Especially to himself.

Within minutes the truck's tires were crunching up on the gravel driveway of Chief Swan's modest home. A home that used to be as familiar to him as his own but now was looming before him like some portentous gauntlet.

With a quick twist of his wrist, he cut the engine - leaving the keys in the steering column - and jerked up the parking brake. It complained as he yanked up into the dangerous quick and Jacob grimaced; it was a never-ending struggle to temper his strength on the best of days and today was anything but.

Like he was leaping from a burning vehicle, Jacob threw open the door and jumped out of the cab. Immediately he was snatching up his tools from the bed and striding around the front. One hand found the release and pushed up the hood while Embry pulled in behind him. While his friend dragged out the wheelchair from the white pickup and helped his father into it, Jacob propped open the hood and tried to lose himself in the maze of metal and tubing. He knew engines like the back of his hand - both foreign and domestic but especially this one - but at the moment, honestly, he couldn't tell the radiator from the oil well.

From behind him the front screen clattered open.

"Bells! They're here!" Charlie bellowed, making Jacob's sensitive ears tingle and his every muscle twitch and burn.

This was it.

"I 'preciate this Billy," he was saying, as his clumsy step tromped down from the porch.

"No problem at all, Chief," Billy returned with that annoying knowing calm for which he was infamous. No problem for him, no siree.

"Jake," Charlie grunted as he passed by him with a stiff spine.

Jacob's eyes cut over with a gruff jerk of his chin. The shuttered warning in the man's eyes spoke louder than if he'd yelled it.

Jacob knew Charlie saw in him another boy lost to the Rez's dark side of adolescence, discontent and addiction that clung to oppressed cultures like a plague. And it was just as well.

But he wondered what Bella would see.

At Charlie's yell, Bella scrambled off the bed in the middle of the neat stacks of folded clothes, snagged her foot on the bedspread and tripped to the window. She caught herself against the wall and peered out over the front lawn at the two trucks parked in the driveway.

And her stomach tanked in disappointment. Jacob hadn't come.

Charlie had his hands on his hips, talking to Billy who was smiling up at him from his chair. He'd brought two huge men from the Rez along with him apparently - one was standing behind him, the other bent over the engine of an old red truck. Frowning, Bella leaned out the open window, craning around to see somehow she'd just missed him.

The one standing behind Billy had silky messy hair that brushed his ears and fell into his eyes, softening the hard features of his face and highlighting a broad smile. Closer to the house was the man peering down at the engine, his hands braced on either side of the truck. Head bowed, his inky hair was cropped closer and a black tee shirt was painted over ridiculously broad shoulders and the ripple of straining muscles in his back.

Holy crap. The guy was ripped.

Her gaze lingered a little bit longer over the lithe, smooth musculature that ran like railway tracks down to narrow cut-off clad hips. Bare feet - bare! - shifted on the ground making thick sinewy legs ripple in concert under smooth bronze skin. His form was powerful and defined yet somehow graceful like an elite martial artist rather than a guy who pumped iron.

And he was … well, to put it delicately… freaking hotter than hell.

Heat rushed to Bella's cheeks and she immediately dropped her gaze in chagrin. Like a high school girl, here she was shamelessly ogling the bod of the definite enemy. Both of these strangers oozed a conspicuous power, purpose and danger. Trouble, more likely. They had a certain cocky confidence about them and Bella was pretty damn sure they had something to do with corrupting her best friend.

She certainly wasn't going to stand by and watch them do it with weak knees. No matter how good they looked.

Her shoulders squared with determination and she turned from the window. Perhaps all wasn't lost, even if Jacob hadn't come. This was her first chance at espionage - to find out what the hell had dragged her Jacob down. Getting a glimpse of what she was up against might be a little intimidating (or a lot), but it also just made her want to fight for him more (plus Charlie kept his rifle right inside the entryway).

Pursing her lips in a stubborn frown, Bella stomped down the stairs with purpose. She slipped into her flip flops at the front door and flapped out onto the porch, her duck-like slaps robbing much of her bravado. But she held her head high anyway as her tart gaze lanced into the back of the man hovering over the truck as she descended the stairs.

Predictably - with all the hard glaring - she tripped on the last one and stumbled several steps in the grass. Pursing her lips against the rush of chagrin to her cheeks, she soldiered on. But down at ground level she suddenly appreciated just how big that guy was. Holy crap he wasn't just big, he was huge like some kinda kooky Goliath! At her respectable 5'2" and a half (thank you very much) if he straightened to his full height, she'd barely come up to his shoulder. The freak.

With a snort of disdain, she stomped past him, ignoring him the same as he did her.

"Bella, it's good to see you," Billy greeted with his usual serene smile as he patted the arms of his chair. How could he smile like that when Jake was in trouble? It made her blood pressure shoot even higher.

"Hey Billy," she returned curtly, letting her loyalty bleed as much ice in her tone as she could. She glanced up at her father who'd turned around - his amused smile making his mustache asymmetrical. But it seemed he approved of her tactics.

"So Billy here brought down this surprise, Bells," Charlie announced with a wink as he patted the tailgate of the red truck with a hollow plonk.

For a second Bella just blinked at him.

"I thought you'd need something that wasn't a cop car to get around this year," he continued over a chuckle at her face.

And for a moment Bella's indignation melted in surprise as she realized just what her father was saying. "For me?" she gasped, her eyes raking from bumper to bumper and then returning to Charlie's eyes with undisguised pleasure.

"Uh-huh," he grinned, shoving his hands in his pockets, obviously pleased by her reaction.

"Holy-…" Open-mouthed, Bella scanned the truck again. It looked like something from that old show Beverly Hillbillies that Jake and she used to watch on Nick at Night: kitchy, cool and unconventional…and certainly welcomed freedom at that. Freaking perfect!

Biting her lip wildly, she turned back to her father, barely containing her elation. She hopped once, her flip-flops slapping ecstatically on her heels.

"We thought you'd like it," Billy chuckled.

And then she remembered.

Slamming down her giddiness with an abruptness that probably looked psychotic, she turned back to Billy Black. "It's awesome," she bit out in a cool monotone that was at odds with her choice of words.

Charlie tried to swallow his laughter with an ungracious snort and Bella looked up and gave him a warning glare.

"Who's we?" she turned back to Billy with narrowed eyes.

"Hey Bella," a deep velvet voice pulled her eyes to the man leaning against Billy's truck a few paces back.

And she did a double take.

As they swept up and down his towering frame, her eyes incrementally widened until they ran out of room in her skull. That face…. she knew that face. It was now hard and athletic and looked like it had been photoshopped to add at least a decade - maybe more - but his eyes were the same.

"E-Embry?" the word came out in a whimper.

The troubled shadows evaporated in his signature cashmere smile. "Yeah," he whispered, pushing off the truck.

Bella blinked furiously as she gulped like she was struggling to swallow a golf ball …or maybe it was her heart… who knew.

This was impossible.

Forget about drugs, maybe the government was experimenting on Quileute boys in nefarious secret experiments involving alien DNA. Embry had to be six foot-… well, six foot something-well-over-six-feet and every last inch was packed with muscle. Lithe, smooth muscle - the kind that took years of protein and steroids and personal trainers.

And he was seven-freaking-teen!

"Did you have a good flight?" the boy-man was saying.

She saw his lips move.

She saw Billy slap her dad and then book it out to the road in a playful race.

She saw Embry take a worried step forward, reaching out a steadying hand.

But Bella's mind was somewhere else entirely: under the hood of a kitchy, cool, and unconventional truck, to be exact. No wonder it was so perfect.

"Jake?" she sucked his name in on a whoosh of breath as she spun around on her heel.

His name on those lips sent a rush of chill bumps over Jacob's skin, consuming it like a sheet of paper doused in gasoline and touched to a flame.

Shoop. Gone.

It razed the last line of defense between Bella and the incendiary inferno that had swallowed him whole.

That scent.

Strawberries and sea-breezes had somehow metastasized into wild amber honeycomb, succulent appetent ginger, lush fertile cream. A million times more potent than leech, it burned through his brain, viscous and scorching and clinging like Napalm. It awoke a demon deep in his being and like a serpent, shiny obsidian and slick, it rose up from the depths of his gut with fang and filament tongue to taste. It slithered - ruthless, relentless - winding around his body, his heart, his soul to squeeze out the last respiration of comfort and affection, suffocating him with want.

Need.

Craving.

Holy Goddamn, motherfucking, cock-sucking shit.

Jacob's fingers bit into the metal of the engine bed, leaving dents like it was nothing but memory foam.

"Jacob?" she called again. Her voice was duskier now, the pastel tones of womanhood, and it slammed him hard like a sucker punch… or a taser right to the crotch.

He pulled his lower lip into his mouth and felt the gratifying pop of teeth rending flesh. Copper flooded his mouth, injecting just enough sensory substance to allow him to wrestle his fists around viper coiling in his gut. He swallowed greedily, desperately sucking more of that mitigating taste from the gaping hole in his mouth like a vampire feeding on itself.

But he healed too fast.

"Hey! Don't you dare ignore me, Jacob Black!" Realization and it's corresponding shock had evaporated from Bella's anxiety now. She took several shaking steps toward the hulking man who hadn't moved a muscle. But each stride oddly felt like trying to do so under water, or like she was fighting an incendiary backdraft.

She stopped.

She really couldn't do anything but, her feet simply grew roots in the ground. That stranger's body slowly straightened, inch by inch, muscles and sinew twitching with tension like a bungee cord pulled far too tight. Those massive shoulders pulled back, lifting smooth sweeping pecs along with them and making the musculature ripple down his chest and abdomen in a coordinated shudder like dominos.

Bella's swallow made a strange squeaking sound in her throat. Vaguely she was aware of Embry towering behind her, and shamefully she was glad.

This, was Jacob now. And he was a little bit frightening.

He kept his eyes on the ground as his arms settled back like bows taut and cocked. His slinking step forward was tense and measured, more like mercury congeals across glass.

Bella tipped her head back. All the way back. "Jake," his name caught in the roof of her mouth in a hollow whisper and she saw the muscles clench in his jaw.

Different was a grotesque understatement if there ever was one.

She blinked, once. Twice. Hell, three times.

As if a vacuum inside her had imploded, suddenly scalding heat rushed in to take its place like the coursing rapids being pumped by her frenetic heart were gasoline in her veins.

And Jacob had struck a match.

For it was him, but holy crap, it was also nothing like him: his features were carved in a chiseled and intense caricature of the boy he had been. His jaw-line was pronounced and strong, sweeping up to athletic high cheekbones and his brows darted fiercely across the scowl of a severe brow. His glorious long hair had been shorn to messy ebony spikes, but she could no longer imagine the former length in context with that face: stern, feral, proud. The sheer masculinity of his features would have singed his locks short on principle alone.

She'd always thought - and even told him so on several occasions - that he'd been a sorta beautiful boy, but those words were nothing but an effete and ineffectual husk now. He was a handsome and magnificent specimen of a man that literally dripped with incontrovertible virility and strength - sticky and bitter and sweet like blackstrap molasses.

And it awakened something recondite and yearning that changed the rhythm of her heart. He was still several feet away, but she could feel his heat radiating over cheeks and she felt like a wax mannequin left out in the sun - her insides deliquescing further to pool heavy and hot at the apex of her thighs.

Holy freaking mother of crap.

Bella sucked in a harsh breath through her teeth, painfully frozen between the driving impulse to take a step forward into that musky heat… or turn with a scream and flee. Never had she felt this… this wanting. And it scared her as much as his dark and intimidating new self. Her brain felt swollen and sluggish - she simply couldn't fathom how in 14 short months he could change so radically. Yet, more frightening - more terrifying even - was the knowledge that she obviously had as well.

Her breath was rapid and shallow, echoing in her ears with a grounding rasp, as she flailed against the turbulent maelstrom raging through her body and mind. She had to find some way to get her head above water. This was Jake. Her childhood playmate, her oldest confidant, her very best friend.

And he needed her (didn't he?).

She snatched at the lifering of her concern for him and clung to it for dear life.

C'mon, Bella. Get a freaking grip.

She licked her lips and Jacob flinched like he'd been pinched - just a subtle jerk of one shoulder.

Brow furrowing, her lips parted…and finally she forced words out in nothing but a gossamer breath: "Jake, look at me."

Jacob could do nothing but comply with his own soul's mandate when requested by that quiet voice. It spoke deep in the hollow of his ear and bewitched.

But he fought it… he did. Every last inch of the way.

Tearing his eyes from the pebbles of her toenails he'd been memorizing - she'd painted them pink like little candy chicklets - his gaze dragged up slender shins, cataloging every little scar and shadow. He could easily read the roadmap of her skin, his mind neurotically classifying each blemish with a memory. He'd been there for nearly all of them.

Except the current blushing bruise on her knee. When did she get that? How!

Renewed adrenaline charged into the already potent cocktail flooding his veins as senseless protective rage rose up from deep inside him.

"Jake?"

That voice helped him swallow it back down and he continued his visual survey, slipping up long creamy thighs and tracing the hem of her shorts before hugging the feminine swell of her hips. A two centimeter swath of her stomach taunted him, but was trumped by the need to traverse narrow waist to ripened breasts. Petite, but full enough for his palm.

Jacob's nails popped into the heel of his hand, burning, distracting.

The blue baby doll tee shirt was scooped low enough to show delicate collarbones and her breath - rapid and light - nestled in the hollow of her throat like a frightened animal. His gaze snapped up to her mouth where its echo quivered on her lips.

Fuck… those lips. Like candied champagne apples, a slick and sticky confection. Jacob wanted to lick. Lap and lick and suckle until he'd swallowed every last drop before devouring the moist crisp hollow of her mouth.

Bella felt his gaze rake up her body, viscerally shucking off her clothes like a tight glove and raising chill bumps over her skin like a sudden racing summer shower. It was no more than a second, but somehow time stopped as she watched, fascinated and horrified as his attention unfurled over her like a firm and covetous caress. His gaze got stuck on her mouth like a magnet and her own attention innately mimicked it by snapping to his lips.

His mouth was perhaps the only thing about him that hadn't changed - still full and well formed, it was shockingly sensual for the hard lines of his face. A slight under-bite pushed the lower lip out like an prompt or a promise and made her sway on her feet from the pull.

The dainty teardrop over her lip pulled Jacob's hungry gaze up to her nose where he could count the faint freckles like stardust. Even the sun couldn't resist kissing that skin. Smooth peaches and cream with soft blushing cheekbones, a shading fringe of lash fluttering like a whisper…

His nostrils quivered like a spent racehorse with a soft rasp that tugged and pushed breath from his lungs and made Bella want to hoard it in a jar. Her gaze flitted up to the miniscule twitch in his right jaw, but got caught in the flawless caramel of his skin. She wanted to taste it, sweet and slick collecting the tiny beads of perspiration under charcoal straight lashes…

The air between them was rent in half by their synchronous gasp.

Those eyes.

.

.

.

Those eyes, shining like black diamonds sliced clear down to Bella's soul, yanking it out in one fell blink. She could see the pain that had hardened under unendurable pressure into pure adamantine rage.

Those eyes.

.

.

.

Those eyes were like peat, a soft and loamy brown. Jacob could curl up and fall asleep in those eyes and never dream another nightmare again. While he watched, her pupils yawned, stretching open and inviting him to drown in the clear, redemptive midnight of her soul. Oh, he'd do so happily.

Closer… if he could just crawl into that darkness, press himself deep and long into that forgiving warmth…

"Jay," Embry's voice was taut, tense, urgent.

Jacob blinked.

And blinked again.

He was looming over Bella, mere inches away - shoulders squared, pecs tense, dick throbbing - and far too close to taking what he wanted.

And she….

She was shrinking away from the sheer force of his igneous energy - trembling - her sloe-eyes round as saucers.

Afraid.

Nostrils flaring, he took a step back. His gaze had yet to break free from bewitching steel trap of her pupils, though her lashes were blinking like hummingbird's wings. He drew on what miniscule scrabbling sanity was left him, and his lips hitched up on one side as he cocked his head; a wry and predatory smile.

" 'Sup, Bells," he smirked.

Her slack-jawed fear quickly hardened in righteous indignation and those eyes narrowed pushing her brows together in a scowl. "You never called," she complained with hard, hurt edges to the words.

She was disappointed and angry and sad. And it cut like a razor - minute little fissures sliced over and over in his heart. He wished it was possible for him to bleed out.

But his face betrayed nothing and it bothered her, he could tell. He swallowed quietly and worked his jaw back and forth as his eyes paced between her worry. Taking what he could get.

She drew her little body up as those candied lips pursed. "I thought you'd lost these in an accident or something -…" It shocked the hell out of him when she reached for his hand.

Her attempts at biting sarcasm shattered as he wrenched his wrist from the cool of her fingers that set every nerve crackling with a sparks.

Oh, bad idea, Bells. Bad idea. Just the brush of her satin skin nearly undid him, and he frantically battened down the popped and fraying restraints. He needed to get the fuck out of here.

Now.

"Jeezis, Jake…" she whispered, looking up at him with summer sky eyes that were suddenly concerned and cloudless. "You're burning up."

He sniffed a dark laugh. She had no idea.

"I didn't call 'cause I don't have anything to say," he bit out, stale and bitter like coffee grinds. "To you anyways."

The hurt that clouded her eyes immediately condensed with tears and the last little piece of Jacob's heart shattered like crystal.

"I gotta go," he rasped as he spun around and stalked down the drive. It was the hardest, most painful thing he'd ever done.

And that was saying a lot.

But like every last tortuous duty of the past 14 months, he did it. But unlike every other duty, he did it because he wanted to.

The man.

Like he'd swallowed a handful of broken glass, his wolf went ballistic, tearing his insides to ribbons as it savagely flailed in protest. Each step he took away from her and toward that white Chevy pickup a million miles away, cinched the noose tighter around his neck. His vision was blackened around the edges in his myopic and desperate flight and he nearly ripped the door off as he threw himself into the passenger's side, the vehicle pitching and swaying on its tires.

Embry slid into the driver's seat. "What about Bill-…"

"MOTHERFUCKIN' DRIVE!" he bellowed, as his eyes ripped into Embry's expression of shock.

The engine turned over and Jacob's heated gaze snapped back to where Charlie was glaring daggers from the driveway with a sobbing Bella wrapped in his arms. He had no fucking idea what a favor he was doing her.

With the screech of tires, the truck tore backward and spun around, throwing a denting scrabble of gravel before peeling out.

And then they were driving.

Careening down the road as wildly as Jacob's thoughts like bats out of hell returning to roost at the Rez.

"Jared's got the Pack till I get back," Jacob ground the words like hamburger meat through clenched teeth.

And then he threw himself from the truck.

His clipped and controlled tumble clawed the clothes and skin from his back, and he was back on his feet.

Running.

Sprinting.

Crashing through branches and underbrush and leaping over logs until his feet simply lost their will along with everything else.

Jacob crashed to his knees. His body was vibrating with each beat of his jackhammer heart, his breath shredding viciously through clenched teeth as he doubled over and slammed both fists into his eyes.

This, even this was twisted into something animalstic. Bella was the last thing he had left. She used to be strawberries and daisies, warm sodas and sun.

But now! His love for her was now scorched by prurient lust - imperious, voracious, insatiable.

He wanted nothing but to wrap her sweet tiny frame in his iron clad grip and greedily ram himself home. Over and over, deep and hard, into the ripe sleek silk of her body - devouring the nectar of tender lips and consuming her twilight groans.

Disgusted, Jacob fell forward on his hands and knees and he vomited.

For several minutes his body was wracked with violent convulsions in a futile attempt to expel his fermented heart and cursed soul. Finally, choking and wheezing, he shakily sat up and braced his hands on his thighs as he tipped his head to the sky in utter desolation.

How… WHY?

He'd imprinted. On Bella Swan. On his Bella.

And he didn't understand why he'd ever wasted a millisecond wondering what he'd do. It wasn't even a question. Because he loved her too much. Too fucking much.

For this.

To shackle her to this yearning… this need… the monster he'd become.

But oh, how he craved.

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