Mortified, once again Bella was left speechless and standing like a stump in the side yard, watching Peter tug her little wagon along as he sauntered toward her shed.
Besides noticing he was as attractive from behind as he was from the front … and the T-shirt … she was stuck somewhere between flight and flight. Did she run to the clothesline, grab all of her underwear, and go hide in her room, or did she just make a break for it and hide in her room?
As Peter put away her hat, gloves, and tools, he was softly whistling some song as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He hauled the wagon into the shed, still whistling, and gathered up the mulch bags and shoved them all into one.
How did he know she kept the wagon in the shed? Well, it hadn’t been on the porch when he was there the night before.
Plastic bags in hand, he stepped out, swung the door closed, latched it, and turned toward her. “Hey, babe, where do you want—?”
Decision made, she bolted for the porch and the back door that led to the compact laundry room, kicking the wicker laundry basket out of her way.
When she made it through the short hall to her room, she slammed the door shut, shoved the chair under the knob, and stood there panting. Thankful her traitorous leg hadn’t decided to drop her somewhere along the way, she hid her face in her hands.
“Oh, my God. He said he liked my panties! How long was he out there, in the woods, watching me?” Feeling apprehensive, and more than a little confused by her attraction to him, she reached to the top shelf of the wardrobe and pulled down an old Harley Davidson T-shirt that had belonged to her friend Jacob. If she sniffed hard, she could almost smell the woodsy mix of the pine and cedar fragrance it once held.
A pair of jeans, purple striped socks, and plain white bra and pale lilac panties completed the outfit, and she went into her bathroom. A second later she came back out, locked the bedroom door, and disappeared into the bathroom again.
Mindful that the vampire with the super-hearing might be inside the house, she tried to keep her mumbling to herself as quiet as possible. Living alone, she’d picked up the habit of thinking out loud. It was why she played the radio and her music so often when she was home—background noise. It wasn’t needed outside with the birds and bugs singing and chirping. They were company enough.
As she stripped and tossed her clothes into the hamper, and turned on the water, she desperately tried to calm her breathing and heart rate. It didn’t help when she heard the screen door slap against the frame.
He was in the house!
He must have done that on purpose. He could have easily gotten in without making any noise.
She tested the water temperature and stepped into the shower.
It wasn’t like she’d never been flirted with before. It wasn’t even like she was a virgin any longer. Although those couple of half-drunken attempts at sex in college had left her wondering what all the hubbub was about.
She had assumed the guy was a virgin, and hadn’t known what the hell he was doing either. Bella was more than a little relieved when … Jerry Wilson … decided to go to a school closer to his own home.
How terrible of a person was she? It took entirely too long to come up with his name. Shouldn’t she remember the guy who was her first?
Maybe if they hadn’t been drinking, and it hadn’t been so … anticlimactic.
Wasn’t any better the second time.
Under the drenching spray, she scrubbed at her lather-covered head and then worked conditioner through her hair and to the ends.
Jerry had had dark brown hair that was kind of long and had been a nice-looking boy. They’d met in the library and had hit it off. They’d had a few things in common and enjoyed each other’s company. There’d been no butterflies in the stomach, but it had been nice. And that was about the only adjective she could think of—nice.
Nice wasn’t a bad thing, but the relationship had been lacking.
Edward had been so beautiful, and there’d been a definite spark, but had that been because he was other? The first boy to pay that much attention to her? Would she have gone out with Mike, or Tyler, or one of the other students if Edward hadn’t been there? She might have. They hadn’t been so bad really.
Had she been turned into a vampire then, would she still be with Edward? Never daring to admit it at the time, she had begun to chafe under his overbearing protectiveness, and he’d been unwilling to listen to her. It wasn’t that much of a surprise when he threw her aside. She’d expected it all along. Despite being an unchanging being, she was sure she would have gotten fed up with him. More all the time, she was convinced it was Edward who was so parochial and inflexible, and only in particular areas. He’d learned to use telephones and email instead of writing letters long hand with pen and ink, right?
Finished with the shower, she peeked around the shower curtain, confirmed the room was empty, and stepped over the edge of the tub.
Then there was Peter. He’d definitely been flirting and had cranked it up a notch when she hadn’t responded. How could she when she knew she was going to die? Despite that, there was something about him that brought to life the spark that had been out for so long.
He’d called her babe. What had he meant by that? It was probably just another little endearment like sugar or honey.
And why was she thinking about relationships when all he said he wanted was a few stories?
Because he had been flirting with her.
Maybe that was just him.
She couldn’t delay any longer. He was out there somewhere—waiting. God knew he could have gotten into her bedroom if he wanted to.
It had only taken her forty-five minutes to wash up, get dressed, and talk herself into leaving her room. Her bed wasn’t made, but she probably wouldn’t need it anyway. She shoved her feet into her shearling slippers and considered putting her hair in a ponytail, but decided showing too much bare neck wasn’t such a good idea. Hair still damp and hanging free, she took the chair from under the doorknob, unlocked it, and stepped out into the short hall. Feeling a bit warm, she bumped the thermostat down a degree.
Cautiously, she looked out toward the living area of the house and there he was, sitting at her table in the same seat as before, smiling as if he hadn’t seen her in years.
“It’s about your dinner time, right?” he asked. “Why don’t ya fix yourself somethin’ to eat.”
“Y-you remember about humans needing to eat?” The slippers scuffed softly across the floor as she made her way to the refrigerator.
“Of course,” he scoffed. He leaned back in the chair and draped his arm over the back like he’d done before. “You humans are always eatin’, thinkin’ about what to eat, buyin’ food to eat, fixin’ food to eat. It’s a wonder ya get anything else done at all.”
He had a point, and she was hungry. It had been hours since she had a couple hard boiled eggs for breakfast.
“It’s just that those other vampires had to remind each other that I needed to.” Poking around in the refrigerator, a turkey, swiss, and cucumber slice sandwich would hit the spot. It would make a good last meal.
Did she just …?
Before she could chastise herself for making a lame joke, even if it was only in her own head, Peter’s slightly rough voice broke through.
“Then they were morons.” Peter wrinkled his nose. “Or they were tryin’ to be cute. No need for that. The boy pretended to go to school and never noticed the kids eatin’ breakfast and lunch? Every damn day?”
Peter was right. Vampires were supposed to have photographic memories and they couldn’t remember she had needed to eat regularly? Especially vampires who prided themselves on fitting in so well with the humans?
After piling on the cucumber, she took a bite while still standing at the island. She felt a little better keeping it between them for the time being. If she recalled correctly, it had always been Edward and Alice that made a show of telling her how they remembered it was meal time.
It really wasn’t cute.
“So, uh, you know human habits and …?” Bella asked after she cleared her mouthful.
“Successful predators study their prey—know their behaviors and such,” he answered with a flat tone.
Wide eyed, Bella tore into her sandwich. If she hadn’t wanted to know the truth, she shouldn’t have asked, and that sounded like the absolute truth to her.
She noticed Peter didn’t make any disgusted faces while she was eating. Maybe it was time to change the subject. “You know, they always used to say how revolting food smelled. Is it bothering you?”
“No, sugar.” Peter just raised one eyebrow and sighed. “Rotten or dead things smell revoltin’. They were exaggeratin’ for drama’s sake. Did they ever compare your scent to any kind of food?”
Halting mid-chew, Bella just blinked at him. Edward had said she smelled like strawberries and she smelled good. Strawberries were food. That brought a scowl to her face.
She wondered what she smelled like to Peter.
Avoiding looking directly at him while she resumed stuffing her face—she must look like a cow chewing its cud and she didn’t care—she spotted her phone on the low, rustic coffee table in the living room, right where she’d left it the day before. She should have called her parents instead of spending most of the day outside—at least Charlie. But he would have asked her what was wrong since she didn’t usually call him on Saturdays. That was when he went fishing.
If she was going to disappear, it was better it just happen. There was no sense in upsetting her mom and dad with an out-of-the-blue phone call. There wasn’t any way she could let them know what was going on. She couldn’t tell them goodbye. There were too many notes and documents in her house listing Charlie and Renee as her parents. There was her address book, the old-fashioned paper kind, with her school contacts and friends back in Forks. Peter wouldn’t have any trouble looking any of them up if he wanted to.
The first sandwich was gone before she knew it. Starving, she needed more. While putting together and devouring another, she struggled to push the anxieties out of her mind. She hadn’t told anyone about the Cullens—besides the wolves on the Reservation. Her parents and old friends would be fine. The people of Newport, Tennessee would be all right.
She’d lived an interesting life, even though it had been a short one, and, overall, it had been pretty good. She had faced down a vampire that wanted her dead, she could do it again. Though there wasn’t a coven of others coming to save her.
Chewing the last bit of turkey and cucumber, she squared her shoulders and chose to meet her end as bravely as possible.
Trying to find some sort of silver lining, having the stunningly handsome vampire, in the almost too tight T-shirt, and sitting at her kitchen table, as the last thing she saw before the end wasn’t such a bad way to go.
Full at last, Bella put everything away, washed her plate and knife, and wiped the counter. She reached for the refrigerator to get a glass of iced tea and paused before grabbing the handle. The photo of Charlie sitting on her porch with a cup of coffee caught her attention. She’d taken the picture the summer before when he had been there. Her throat closed up on her and the sting of tears behind her eyes burned.
She’d tried to make light of it all, but she couldn’t any more. She’d never hear another accounting of her mother’s bizarre adventures. No more the-one-that-got-away stories or La Push gossip from her father. No more boxes of Conversation Hearts from Jacob on Valentine’s Day. He’d sent her one every year. She still had them all.
At the school, she was just a librarian—certainly replaceable—but would any of the kids miss her? Would they even remember her? She hoped a few would.
When she was gone, her parents would meet one last time to settle her estate—dispose of her belongings—and that would be the end of Bella Swan.
Pressing her hands against the cool metal, she forced herself to take a deep breath and gain control of the storm of emotions that were suddenly swirling within. She had known the day was coming. She’d always envisioned the wild red-head finding her and ripping her throat out. Or maybe she had naively hoped it would be over that quickly. She didn’t want to think beyond that or about what Victoria could do to make her suffer. Her breath caught and she tried to swallow the thick lump in her throat
Peter’s low voice, coming from right by her elbow, startled her and she gasped. The Cullens had all had such musical voices, it was odd how Peter’s had such a rough edge—even when he was speaking so softly.
He was on one knee, looking up at her, searching her face. His eyebrows were drawn together with worry. The deep red of his eyes, that should have struck fear in her heart, were shining with venom as if he was holding back tears of his own. She waited for the sight of them to freeze her very soul as James’ had done. They didn’t.
Peter reached for her right hand and held it between both of his. “Why are you cryin’?”
She hadn’t realized tears had escaped and trailed down her cheeks. She quickly brushed them away with her free hand, and blinked rapidly to dispel any more. After another deep breath, she looked squarely into the warm garnet of Peter’s eyes.
“I-I’m going to tell you about the scar and then … and then you’re going to kill me.” She swallowed again. “I was thinking about my parents and how they would have to … dispose of all my stuff. I’ll be gone and all that will be left is a bunch of books and music and— and it’s probably a good thing I never got around to getting a pet because what would happen to him?” Covering her eyes with her hand, she lowered her head. “I-I knew this day would come. The supernatural would catch up with me. I know there are rules about humans knowing the secret. I thought I was prepared.” She sank to the floor, her hand still in Peter’s, and sagged against the refrigerator. She tilted her head back and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m not,” she admitted. Her gaze lowered to his and she was struck again by how soulful and compassionate the crimson eyes of a killer could be. Or was that just another vampire trick?
“With some help from my parents, everything here is my little piece of the world.” Bella glanced at their joined hands and then up to his handsome face. She pulled her hand away and gestured vaguely around the room. “It isn’t much, but I worked for it and paid for it. Except for the house and the truck—still making payments on those.”
Hands dropping to her lap, she sat up straight and looked defiantly into his handsome face. So much of her life had been ruled by vampires or the threat of them. Hadn’t she declined friendly, simple invitations from her fellow teachers so she wouldn’t be seen getting close to anyone, just in case? How many other little pleasures of life had she missed out on because of the threat hanging over her? There was always a chance her father could be collateral damage when he came to visit her, but she was selfish and had needed to see him. She had stayed away from Forks so she wouldn’t draw attention to him there.
A tiny flame of resentment and ire ignited deep within her. So what if she made Peter angry? With dying, she lost everything anyway. What else did she have to lose? “It’s not much of a life, but it’s mine. I built it myself, bucko, and I …” The tears she’d been holding back fell and doused that meager flicker. Words jammed in her throat and she gulped, trying to ease the ache that over took her. “Is that so hard for you to understand, Peter?” Her voice was a strained whimper.
“No, it isn’t. Please don’t cry.” Peter sat down on the floor in front of her and reached for her hands. “May I?” At the barely perceptible nod, he took both of hers in his. “I’ll speak plainly since my feeble attempts at flirtin’ have failed miserably.”
Inhaling deeply, he inched a little closer. “From the first moment I caught your scent, Bella, I wanted to meet ya. I had to. Honestly, wantin’ to drain you was just a passin’ thought.” He shrugged apologetically. “I knew I was goin’ to change ya. I didn’t care who you were or what you looked like. I knew you’d be special to me.”
Bella listened with only half an ear, her head bowed, eyes closed, and face turned away. She’d heard similar declarations before—wasn’t that what vampires did? Promise the moon and stars and then rip it all away? He’d offered her the courtesy of not interrupting, unlike some others. She would do the same for him.
“Then I got a look at ya. You sure were a pretty thing—moonlight shinin’ in your hair and glistenin’ off the pistol you had pointed at me. The holster and gun belt sealed the deal. Almost bit ya right then and there in that field with the trains goin’ by.”
Was he trying to make jokes? At a time like that? She peeked at him from the corner of her eye. His worried frown had deepened and it almost looked as if he was anxious or afraid.
What did he possibly have to be afraid of?
The seconds ticked by. Bella watched wordlessly as Peter grew more uncomfortable the longer the silence stretched out.
He started running the pads of his thumbs over the backs of her fingers.
Why was he dragging it out? What was he waiting for? Was it part of his game? She ran through what he had said. He’d said he had almost bitten her in the field.
Was he waiting for her to ask him why? She couldn’t help wondering what his excuse would be.
Cynically, she narrowed her eyes at him. “Why didn’t you bite me then?”
Astonishingly, Peter’s tense features smoothed out in what Bella could only describe as relief. Like he was so glad she finally asked.
He let out a nervous little cough. “I really do like watchin’ the trains. It’s calmin’ and peaceful. It’s nice to have somebody to watch ‘em with.” He lowered his head and peered up at her. “You screamin’ and yellin’ woulda ruined the mood.”