"Once upon a time, in a faraway land, the sun rose and bathed the Earth in light."
When I paused, Jacob stared at me expectantly. "And?"
I frowned. "And what? There's your fairy tale."
My best friend glanced out the window, observing yet another rainy Forks morning, and nodded. "Ah. Good story."
I sighed and poked absently at the eggs scrambling in the pan on the stove. It was a good fairy tale, because it always rained in Washington. I wasn't sure why they bothered to have a weather segment on the news. Paying a meteorologist seemed like a waste of money. Although I supposed they had to have someone to calculate the rainfall totals and to hit "copy/paste" on the forecast models.
Sometimes I really missed Phoenix. Today was turning out to be one of those days, and it was only seven-thirty in the morning.
The microwave beeped, and I reached over to pop open the door. Beside me, Jake turned away from the window to lean back against the counter, crossing his ridiculously long legs at the ankle. I smacked his hand when he tried to snag a piece of bacon from the tray I set on an empty burner. When he opened his mouth to protest, a high-pitched voice reminiscent of pink bubble gum and pigtails screeched, "Isabella Marie Swan!"
Jake and I both cringed, but I added a few choice expletives under my breath when I dropped my spatula in the eggs. As I plucked it back out, Jake glanced toward the dining room. "Well, the leech is awake."
"And demanding her breakfast," I muttered, wiping the spatula's handle on the dishcloth. Yeah, I thought as I cleaned away egg goop, I really missed Phoenix.
And my mom.
But I couldn't go back. My mom wasn't in Phoenix anymore. She was in Florida with her new husband, Phil the Minor Leaguer. And since her wedding a little over a year ago, I'd been living in the anti-Phoenix with Charlie, my father, whom she had divorced when I was a baby and whom I had barely known until I'd moved in with him.
The move to Forks had been my decision. I'd thought it was only fair to live with Charlie during my last two years of high school to allow Mom the freedom she needed to travel with Phil. And despite my aversion to his location, living with my father hadn't been that bad in the beginning. We'd discovered we were a lot alike, both introverted and independent, and we'd settled into a comfortable routine. We'd even grown close in our own way.
Then he'd met and – for some reason unknown even to him, I think – married Victoria at the beginning of my senior year. She was the devil. Her fraternal twins Jessica and Lauren were hell spawn. And Charlie and I were so busy trying to avoid them that we rarely saw each other anymore.
Through it all, I never forgot that it had been and still was my choice to live in Forks. I had the option to move to Florida with my mother at any time, which Victoria would love, but I couldn't do. I couldn't tie my mom down again when she was so happy with Phil. But that didn't mean I didn't regret it sometimes. Like now.
As though he had read my mind, Jake commented, "I don't understand why you stay here. You should go live with your mom and Phil."
I kept my gaze carefully locked on the utensil in my hand. "They're talking about moving again," I told him.
"I thought they were settled."
"The team didn't work out. Phil thinks he may take a coaching job in Sarasota." I shrugged as I scooped eggs onto plates. "Besides, it's only a few more months until graduation. Then I'm out of here."
"And until then you just get treated like Cinderbella?" Jake's voice was a low growl. I didn't look up to see his expression. I'd seen the overprotective fury before. "That's not right, Bells."
"I can handle it."
"I'd love to see what Charlie would say if he ever saw how she treated you."
"That won't happen." I shrugged. "She's too good at evasion. And I'm not telling him. I can't do that to him. And she'd send me to Florida. I'm not—"
I winced as my name shook the house. "I'll be right back."
Before he could respond, I grabbed the three plates of eggs and bacon and hurried out of the kitchen. Victoria and her spawn were sitting at the dining room table when I came in. My stepmother was still in her robe, her wild, artificially flame-colored hair piled on the top of her head in a messy bun. She didn't look up as I slid her plate in front of her. "You're running behind this morning," she accused disinterestedly, flipping the page of her gossip magazine.
"Sorry," I muttered, moving around the table to give my stepsisters their plates.
Jessica sneered. The expression always looked odd under her insanely curly hair, giving her the appearance of a demonic doll. "It's because your little boyfriend's in the kitchen, isn't it."
I shot her a glare but didn't respond. All three of them knew that Jacob was like my brother, but Jessica in particular enjoyed goading me about him, especially since he was sixteen, a whole year younger than my stepsisters and I. Thankfully, Lauren wasn't as entertained. "He's always in the kitchen, Jessica," she said. "You know what happens when you feed stray dogs."
I slammed Lauren's plate down in front of her. She glared at me briefly before looking down at her food. Then she glowered up at me again. "Eggs? Really, Bella?"
"We're out of crème brulee," I told her stiffly.
For a moment she considered retaliating. Then she decided to dismiss me with a flip of her long corn silk hair. "Jess," she began, turning to her sister. Because of their five-inch height difference, she had to slouch a little to avoid the attack of the killer curls and actually look Jessica in the eye. "Did you see that email from Bree?"
"About…" Jessica's expression turned reverent, and I knew where this was going before she even whispered the words. "Edward Cullen?"
I bit back a groan and headed for the kitchen. Behind me, I heard Lauren sighing, "Yes," and it took all I had not to sigh myself – in annoyance.
Our school didn't have the requisite really hot guy all the girls fawned over, so we had to borrow one from another town. Edward Cullen was the lucky chosen one. He was a senior from a private school in Port Angeles whose father "happened" to be an extremely successful doctor. Like almost every girl in our corner of Washington, my stepsisters were obsessed with him. I heard more about him and his "dreamy bronze hair" and "gorgeous green eyes" than I could stand. Every day there was some new report about him riding around in his stupid silver Volvo or playing baseball at the park. He had more followers than Robert Pattinson. It was sickening. And I had to hear all about it unless I managed to escape the room fast enough.
Sometimes it was all I could do not to run screaming at the sound of his name.
In the kitchen, a much calmer Jacob was waiting for me, a piece of bacon in his hand and an amused look on his face. "I heard the name Edward Cullen and figured you'd be back pretty quick."
"They got another Bree-mail," I muttered.
"Ah." Jake shuddered and took another bite of bacon. Even though he was Quileuete and lived and went to school on the reservation in La Push, fifteen minutes from Forks, he didn't need an explanation. Jessica and Lauren's friend Bree was infamous throughout a fifty-mile radius for her stalker-quality emails about everything Edward Cullen. "What did he do this time? Finally comb his hair?"
I snickered. "I think that would upset them more than anything. They love his 'tousled Adonis' look." I grabbed two glasses of juice and a mug of coffee. "I'll let you know in a second."
When I took the drinks into the dining room, Victoria had joined the conversation. "—single father," she was saying. "Men can't raise teenagers by themselves." She watched me place the coffee in front of her. "Just look at how Bella was before I married her father."
Grinding my teeth, I put the juice on the table and turned to leave. "You're so right, Mom," Lauren replied pointedly. "You gave dear Bella a purpose."
I was frowning darkly when I entered the kitchen again. Jacob grinned at me from the breakfast he'd gathered for himself. "You make the most amazing food," he commented, shoveling a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
My frown melted a little. "You are such a guy," I teased. I grabbed a piece of bacon from his plate and nibbled on it. "You know, Victoria would have married Dr. Cullen if she'd had the chance."
"Edward's dad? Of course she would have. Half of Washington would." Jacob shrugged. "He's rich."
"That's why all the girls love Edward."
Jacob fluttered his eyelashes. "That, and he's so hot," he mimicked.
I laughed and shoved him. "Really, though. The only reason she married my dad is that he was convenient." Victoria's house had been foreclosed, leaving her essentially a nomad. My father, the chief of police, was the first single man she met when he dealt with some of her legal issues. She was conniving, and he felt bad for her – and wanted a mom for me. It hadn't taken her long to move in with us.
Jacob was silent a moment. "When did your dad leave this morning?"
"I don't think he came home last night." I toyed with the bracelet on my left wrist, fingering the single charm that dangled from the silver links. Jacob had carved the small wolf – a symbol of his tribe – out of reddish brown wood and given me the bracelet for my last birthday. I wore it every day; the charm was as soothing to me as Jake's presence. "He says he's working some case, but I think he just sleeps at the station," I added quietly, still fiddling with the charm.
Jacob noticed my nervous motions, but he didn't comment. "Can't say I blame him," he said instead, shooting a wrinkled-nose look toward the dining room.
I tried to smile, but it faltered. "I miss him."
Jake looked sympathetic as he slung an arm around my shoulders. We ate breakfast in a companionable silence, standing at the counter and sharing a plate. When we finished, I cleaned up the kitchen and dining room and waited until Jessica and Lauren had sauntered out in their short skirts and tight sweaters, huffing and swearing about the rain messing up their hair. Then I grabbed my jacket and followed Jake out the front door.
My faded red '53 Chevy pickup was parked along the curb. Charlie had bought it for me when I'd first moved to Forks. I adored it. My stepsisters despised it.
The best thing about my stepsisters was that they were too snobby to be seen riding in my truck. So they left it alone, and it was all mine, just as their used BMW was all theirs.
I paused beside the cab of the truck to squint through the rain at Jacob. He was about to climb into the old VW Rabbit he had rebuilt last summer. Its faded red paint was newer than my truck's, but it gave my siblings a similar snob attack. And of course, I loved it and was incredibly proud of his work. So I smiled when I looked over at his car, and part of me wished I was going with him. I wouldn't see him again until the next day. At least tomorrow was Saturday. "Have fun at school," I called as he opened his door.
He smiled back at me. "You, too."
"You still driving me to work tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I'll be here." He smiled a little wider. "Pancakes tomorrow?"
I nodded. "Sure. Bye, Jake."
"Bye, Bells." He waved as he climbed into his car. I watched him drive off, then I sighed and eased my truck away from the curb, heading for another boring day at Forks High.
"You're going to Forks?" Emmett McCarty stared at me in disbelief. "For what? There's nothing there. It's like a black hole, man. Sucks the life out of everything."
I rolled my eyes at my best friend. "It's getting me out of class for a day. That's all I really care about." I shrugged and took a gulp of my orange juice. "Carlisle's going there for some training thing for the nurses at the high school. I said I'd help him out with it."
Emmett stuffed half a waffle in his mouth and proceeded to talk around it. "I hope you come back alive, Edward. That place is boring as hell. Rose made me go there once to visit her cousin. I thought I would die."
He looked absurdly earnest. Six-foot-five and huge, his cheeks puffed out with waffle, he resembled an overgrown little boy horrified by the thought of his friend having to face the monster under the bed. "Your girlfriend dragging you to visit some random family member is traumatic for you, isn't it," I commented.
"Just wait," he told me, forcing the other half of the waffle in around his words. "You'll see. Nothing there. Boring as hell." He nodded decisively and chugged orange juice.
I shrugged again. I really didn't see what was so exciting about Port Angeles, either, but I didn't mention that in front of Emmett and his competitive streak. He would start comparing the two and trying to make our town look better. And even though I didn't find it to be any more thrilling than the next town, I didn't need to hear him expound upon its virtues. I was content here; I liked my routine well enough. Going to school, hanging out with Emmett, tolerating his girlfriend Rosalie, spending my evenings with books or music… It was simple and easy, and I liked it that way. Even if it was boring, it was good enough for now. And that was all I could ask for.
"And," Emmett added, "I bet it's raining there already."
That probably was true. I glanced out the window at the overcast sky. It wasn't raining here yet, but it always rained in Forks. I suppressed a sigh at the thought. Even though this training session with Carlisle was getting me out of school, I knew that it wouldn't be an exciting change of pace. I hadn't had reason to go to Forks in the two years since Carlisle Cullen had adopted me, but I had heard about it from more than just Emmett. Everyone thought the town was boring. And if the people here thought that, then I had no hope for the place.
Maybe I should just go to school after all.
Before I could decide, a smooth voice floated in from a distance. "Edward? Are you ready to go?"
I sighed and glanced toward the stairs. "Yeah, Carlisle. I'm ready."
A moment later my adoptive father walked into the kitchen. His blond hair was perfectly combed, his white dress shirt tucked neatly into his black slacks. He was the exact opposite of Emmett, who had syrup on his chin and another waffle in his hand. "Oh, good morning, Emmett," he greeted the slob graciously, seeming not to notice the disgusting display.
"'Sup, Doctor C." Emmett raised his waffle in greeting before taking another massive bite.
Carlisle didn't flinch. "I'll be in the garage, Edward. I'm going to pack a few things. When you come out, bring my bag and the papers beside it from the table?"
"Have a good day, Emmett." Carlisle smiled at my friend briefly before starting out of the room. He always was ridiculously polite.
"You too, Doctor," Emmett managed as he gulped down a bite that made me gag a little.
Carlisle wandered out. A second later I heard the door to the garage close quietly. "Em, you're sick," I informed him, shoving the last remaining waffle back into the freezer before he could pop it in the toaster.
"You a doctor now, too?" he demanded, finishing off his juice.
"And you're an idiot," I concluded.
"Dude," Emmett exclaimed. He had completely ignored me, his eyes lit with some sudden revelation. "I bet they know you're coming."
I cringed. I knew exactly what he meant. Ever since Carlisle had adopted me, I had become a celebrity of sorts. The girls in the area seemed to know my every move. I knew that it was because I now was the son of a rich doctor. But I didn't care about his money. I liked the Volvo he'd bought me, but beyond that, his wealth meant next to nothing to me. He allowed me my independence as much as possible, and that was all I needed. I didn't want anything else from him. If all those girls knew that, knew how I refused his money as much I could, maybe they would leave me alone.
But they didn't know that, and they kept stalking me – ruthless gold diggers who had no idea there was no gold to dig. At least the girls in my school had learned that I wasn't interested in dating any of them. But at a different school… And with Carlisle the Rich Bachelor, who drew attention of his own from the all the older females…
"Damn," I muttered. I reached out and snatched the baseball cap off Emmett's head and jammed it on my own, covering my unruly, unusually shaded bronze hair. Maybe if I could just keep them from noticing me…
Emmett snickered. "You're like the long lost Jonas." He perked up suddenly. "You play the piano. You really are like the long lost Jonas."
"Emmett…" I trailed off, at a loss for words. I couldn't even correct him and say that I used to play the piano. Two years ago. Thoughts of that time left me cold. I shoved that away, focusing on how Emmett's new choice in music made me nauseous. I managed, "Jonas? Really, man?"
He shrugged. "Their music is catchy."
"Jesus." I turned away from him and grabbed Carlisle's bag and papers. "Get out of my house."
"If they eat you, man, I get your music collection."
"You wouldn't even know what to do with it," I muttered. "Jonas. Christ." I headed for the door. "Leave."
Emmett shrugged and waved over his shoulder as he wandered lazily toward the front door. "Good luck, Edward. And think positively. Maybe the girls will kill you before boredom does."
I shook my head and stepped out into the garage. As long as I kept the hat on, no girl would notice me enough to try to kill me. But I did expect to be bored. What interesting person could possibly exist in Forks?
I laughed as a tiny figure lunged at me the second I walked through the doors of the high school. "Hey, Alice," I greeted the pixie. "What are you doing? Lying in wait for me?"
She waved that off dismissively. "I could hear your truck clear down the road. But I definitely wasn't waiting for you outside." She stepped back to survey me critically. "You're soaked."
"It's raining," I pointed out, moving past her to get to my locker. She trailed behind, bouncing entirely too energetically for this early in the morning.
Alice Brandon had been my best friend from my first day at Forks High last year. It still amazed me that she had grown so attached to me. She was a fashion guru, loving all things new and trendy. Right now I was sure she was wrinkling her nose at my damp jeans and T-shirt, wondering when she would be able to get me into something more stylish – something like the terrifyingly frilly skirt and blouse she currently was wearing. Her inky black hair was cropped short and spiked crazily in all directions, and didn't have a single drop of rain in it anywhere. My long brown hair was dripping onto my jacket and already curling damply about my face. It had to be driving her insane.
I noticed a tall, lanky guy standing a few feet behind her. He was holding an umbrella and smiling at us. Jasper Hale, Alice's boyfriend and personal fashion protector. His golden hair was a little damp from his getting out of the car first, but he seemed a lot drier than I was. "Hey, Jasper," I said, letting my backpack drop to the floor at my locker with a wet splat.
"Hello, Bella," he replied. He emanated a calm that was unperturbed by his girlfriend's energy. "I wouldn't open my locker if I were you."
I frowned. "Why?"
"Did you hear about the latest Bree-mail?" Alice demanded.
I groaned loudly. "Alice, not you, too!"
"No, Bella, really. Edward Cullen is coming to our school today." Alice looked grave. "He'll be here any minute."
"Oh, God." I glanced around, noticing for the first time all the cleavage and leg that was visible around me. Almost every girl in the hall was wearing as little as she could and checking her makeup in her compact. I shuddered, remembering the outfits Jessica and Lauren had been wearing, and imagined the stampede that was imminent. "Why is he coming here?"
"No idea. But we have about five minutes at the most if we want to get out of here alive." Alice looked urgent. "Leaving?"
I cringed and resisted the urge to pull the hood of my jacket up over my head. "Shit," I muttered, leaning my forehead miserably against my locker. "Why can't he leave me alone?"
Mike Newton was weaving his way toward me, his carefully gelled blond hair bobbing in and out of groups of students. Even after almost a year and a half of rejection, starting with my first day at Forks High, he still thought he had a shot with me. Somehow even the scantily clad girls he passed didn't deter him. His eyes never left me, his gaze making me feel as though I were wearing a skimpy tank top and barely-there shorts just like the girl with the locker next to mine. I shuddered and swallowed bile at the thought of dressing that way, and at the thought of him seeing me dressed that way.
A small hand gripped my elbow with surprising force. "Let's go, Bella," Alice urged, pulling me away from my locker.
I reached down to grab one strap of my backpack and yank it up off the floor. As I turned, I slung the backpack up to throw it over my shoulder – and connected with someone walking behind me.
The person let out a gruff "Oof" and stumbled back. I fell sideways, slamming my elbow into the row of lockers and seeing stars. Something scattered all over the floor. It was nothing of mine – my backpack was still closed and hanging loosely from my shoulder. I looked back to see that I'd knocked a pile of paperwork and a black satchel out of the person's hands.
"Oh, God, I'm so sorry," I exclaimed, kneeling to help pick everything up. Large hands already were scooping up the papers, so I collected what was closest to me. When all the papers were together, one of the large hands wrapped around the handle of the satchel and picked it up as its owner stood, losing the baseball cap off his head in the process.
And then all hell broke loose.
"EDWARD CULLEN!" someone beside me shrieked. I jumped and nearly dropped the papers in my hands. The guy in front of me spat a sharp expletive and took a step back. I flung the papers in his direction and took off down the hall just as every female in the entire school descended on the poor guy, sharks drawn to fresh blood.
Alice and Jasper were waiting for me at the door of the school. Alice waved frantically as Jasper casually stepped outside and opened his umbrella. I darted out behind Alice and drew in a deep breath of the cool, damp air.
When we reached my truck, I let out a chuckle. "I never thought I'd say this, Alice," I said, amused, "but Edward Cullen just saved me from Mike Newton."
She giggled. "Let's just hope he survives saving you. Jasper and I will meet you at my house."
I nodded and climbed into my truck, still grinning. Maybe this day wasn't so bad after all.
The girl tried to kill me. And then she ran off – in the opposite direction.
I was walking down the surprisingly crowded halls of Forks High, heading for the front office with Carlisle's papers and his satchel and trying not to stare at the impressive amount of skin the Forks females were baring, when a soaking wet backpack suddenly slammed into my stomach. It punched the air out of me with a manly "Oof" and knocked Carlisle's bag and papers to the floor. I stumbled back with the blow. My hat slid back on my head as I heard the book bag's owner fall into the lockers with a painful-sounding bang.
I didn't bother to look up or to fix my hat. I had to collect Carlisle's things before anyone looked too closely at the tumult – and me. Quickly, I knelt and started gathering his papers, crumpling a few of them in my rush.
Suddenly delicate, pale white hands began helping me collect the pages. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry," a gentle, oddly soothing voice apologized.
A girl – a girl with a great voice, but a girl – had almost knocked me off my feet. I took a moment to feel slightly embarrassed by that, another when I shot a brief glance at her and noticed how small she was. Standing, she would be almost a foot shorter than I, and she was slender in her jeans and T-shirt and jacket. But she packed a mean swing, I thought, feeling the dull ache in my abdomen where her backpack had hit me.
As I reached for a paper near her, it registered with me that she was as soaked as her backpack. Her jeans were dark with rainwater and her jacket dripped a little on the floor. And she was covered. She wasn't flaunting herself like the rest of the girls in the hall. Her clothes were modest – and extremely damp – but nice. She looked… good. And she smelled amazing, I realized as she moved again. Freesia and strawberries, all enhanced by the rain.
I dared a fast glance up at her face, but she had turned away from me to scoop up the papers to her right. Her thick, dark hair fell over her shoulder and concealed her face. Before she could turn back and meet my gaze – and recognize me – I grabbed the last paper and reached for the satchel. When I stood, she stood with me.
And my hat fell off.
I didn't even get to see her face before someone shrieked my name in a maddening pitch. The girl flung the papers into my chest and bolted. Away from me.
She knew who I was and she ran away.
I stared after her, watching her long brown hair stream behind her as she raced down the hall. Her lethal backpack bounced crazily. I was right; she was about a foot shorter than I was. And she was little. Nowhere near as tiny as the girl with the spiky black hair waiting for her at the door, but still small.
I lost sight of her as the girls in the hall converged on me. But I did notice a blond guy shoving his way through the crowd and staring after the girl who had disappeared outside.
And I wasn't sure why, but I didn't like the expression on his face.
I jammed my hat back on and ducked my head to push my way through the crowd with Carlisle's work clutched to my chest. I hated him passionately at that moment, but I knew that it wasn't his fault. Even so, when I made it to the office and slammed the door behind me, I glared at him. "I hate you."
He simply motioned for me to put his bag on the counter. "Thank you."
I shook my head and did as he asked, then sat in a chair against the wall to wait for his instructions. And wondered why, exactly, I couldn't get the smell of freesia and rain-kissed strawberries out of my head.