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The Road Less Traveled

Summary:
Bella's worry over Jacob's disappearance drives Edward away. Years later, when she's had time to come to terms with herself and grow up, she and Jacob meet again. He, too, has matured. Can they build a life together? And what about Edward? TRLT Prequel to The Road Not Taken by Daintress of tm_switzerland .


Notes:


8. Chapter 8

Rating 4.5/5   Word Count 3960   Review this Chapter

When Bella arrived at the shop the next morning, Jacob was sitting behind the counter. The stool was much too high, and he looked even taller than usual, so she was grinning. “I think I’ll have to get you a different chair,” she commented.

Jake didn’t answer. He was already out from around the counter and pulling her into a hug. He reminded himself not to squish her. He got to hold her a lot longer, that way. But he didn’t have much time for hugs today. He held her by her shoulders at arms length after only a moment, and then took her hand. “Come on. I want to show you.” He pulled her toward the door. He’d been excited and nervous about showing her the bookstore and apartment ever since he’d finished them.

Bella saw the intense look in his eyes and tried not to laugh. She’d seen the bookstore during every break, so she wasn’t sure why this was suddenly so important, but she let him drag her over there. She hadn’t been dressed for hanging out at the shop anyway. She’d only stopped by to visit for an hour before she made her trip to Port Angeles to talk to a wholesaler about inventory, so she was dressed up for once. She remembered very clearly from her Marketing class that you couldn’t start a business in jeans and expect anyone to take you seriously. She wasn’t going to enjoy that aspect of being a businesswoman.

He dropped her hand to unlock the door, and held it open so she could walk in ahead of him. She didn’t even try to stifle her gasp. She walked forward a few steps with her mouth open while he stepped to the side, watching.

Where before there had been a vast, empty, linoleum floored room, there was now a bookstore. The walls were painted a muted olive – a color she’d only mentioned once in passing. But most impressively, rows of bookshelves, waiting expectantly for their inventory, stood on a new hardwood floor. There was an open area toward the back that she knew would be perfect for the squishy armchairs and coffee shop she’d been planning on, but every other area was filled with the beautiful shelves.

“Jake,” she said finally, “did you BUILD these?” She knew he had. She could still smell the varnish. She turned around to find him grinning.

“If you like them, I built them,” he joked, relieved that she looked so pleased. “If you hate them, it was mostly Jared’s dad.”

“They’re amazing. You’re amazing.” She took a few quick steps back toward him and took both his hands. “Thank you.”

There it was, the look in her eyes he’d been hoping for. Like the first time they’d run together through the woods. He stared at her for a long time before she tilted her head sideways, and her expression changed. “Alright, Jake?”

He shook it off. “Yeah. I’m just glad you like it.” He ran a hand through his hair and smiled again, but not for long. She was narrowing her eyes at him. “What?” he asked self-consciously.

“Jacob Black. Are you nervous?” she demanded, sounding amused. She’d only ever seen him nervous on two occasions, in all the time they’d known one another. He ducked his head.

“Want to see the upstairs?” he mumbled.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to fill all of these shelves, much less a whole ‘nother floor! You must have been working on this forever!” But she let him pull her through the door in the back, anyway.

He led her up the narrow stairs, gripping her hand tightly. Yes, he was nervous, but he wasn’t going to admit it. He kept his eyes forward, and hoped for the best.

Bella had to trot up the stairs to keep up as he took them two at a time. The hardwood floor continued to the top, and raced away down a hallway to the right. On the left was an open, carpeted room, and on the other side of it, she could see a kitchen. Everything was so clean it shone, but the rooms were empty. Still, this was clearly not part of the store.

He pulled her into what must be a living room, and her sensible heels sank into the carpeting. She kicked them off. She glanced up at Jacob, confused, to find he looked more nervous than he had downstairs. “Is this an apartment?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

Jacob recognized her tone of voice, and felt his stomach drop. But he shot her a quick smile anyway, and then let his eyes look around the place. He’d hoped she would be excited, but she was biting her lip worriedly. “Yeah,” he admitted quietly, looking away. “I was thinking I might move in here. Closer to the shop, you know? And –“

He stopped abruptly, realizing that he really WAS a glutton for punishment. He could tell by the look on her face and the tone of her voice that she wasn’t interested. He focused his eyes on the ceiling fan, knowing he was going to ask her anyway.

“And what?” Bella prompted, confused. She was relieved he wasn’t planning on renting it out to anyone. Her first thought had been that she didn’t want some stranger living above her store. But she didn’t mind Jacob being here. In fact, it seemed like a great idea, to her. He was looking away, so she faced him and held his hand in both of hers. He looked down at them.

“And I was hoping maybe you’d move in here, too.” Only then did he risk a glance at her face. She looked more surprised than he’d expected. Surely she’d known where he was going with this.

Bella stared at him for a second, then her eyes darted around the room. She felt her breathing speeding up, and controlled it. “I’m not sure what to say, Jake.”

“I’m hoping you’ll say ‘yes’,” he replied, taking a step closer to her. She stepped away, dropping his hand.

“I want to be sure I understand what you’re asking, first.”

Recognition flashed in Jacob’s eyes, and when she looked over at him, she could tell he understood. They were together on borrowed time. Neither of them could promise forever. And anyway, she didn’t want to get married. She’d only agreed to it with Edward because he’d seemed to want it so badly, and even then it had felt like selling out.

Jacob stepped forward again, this time putting a hand to her cheek to prevent her from moving away. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the heat of it. “Bella, you know I understand that it was important for you to finish school. But, knowing we only have so much time, every second you were away felt like a waste to me. I don’t want to miss any more time with you. I’m not asking for any promises,” he finished in a husky whisper, more so his voice wouldn’t break than for any other reason. He WANTED to be asking for promises, but since he couldn’t make any in return, he knew better.

Still, it seemed he’d said the right thing, because she reached for him, and her lips found his. After a moment, he lifted her off her feet, sure that this was capitulation, and more than a little pleased.

They broke apart after several long moments, chuckling, and he set her back on the floor. She looked away and rearranged her dress.

She watched him run a hand through his hair again, and put her arms around him, smiling.

“You know, we should get started moving your things over here. That truck with our bed in it will be here in a few days."

Jacob looked down at her for a long moment. Then without warning, he picked her up and spun them both around, setting her down again in the middle of the room, and kissing her soundly.

The talk with Charlie about moving out didn’t go nearly as well as other recent attempts to assert herself as an adult. Bella was careful to approach him about it after a good meal and, in hindsight, that might have been the worst time to say she was leaving. After all, the food sucked at Charlie’s house when she was gone.

Charlie took his dishes to the sink sooner than Bella expected. He could usually be counted on to eat three helpings of his mother’s stroganoff, but he HAD mentioned he’d been snacking throughout a dull workday.

“Dad, can I talk to you for a minute?” she asked, pushing her own plate aside. She’d only taken a few bites. He sat back down instead of heading for the TV as he normally would.

“What’s up?”

Bella had learned from experience that, like with the motorcycles and Jacob staying over at her apartment in New Hampshire, the best way to begin these sorts of conversations was with exactly what she wanted least to say.

“Jacob and I have decided to move into the apartment above the bookstore,” she replied, swallowing hard. She looked up at him, and her hopeful expression fell. He was turning bright red. As usual.

But as she watched, he seemed to get it under control. He took a deep breath through his mouth and locked his jaw. She was surprised, and very hopeful again. Maybe this wouldn’t be as horrific as the motorcycle argument.

But the next words out of his mouth caught her off guard. “So, when’s the wedding?” he asked resignedly.

“Dad, we aren’t getting married. We’re going to share the apartment.”

He seemed shocked. “Why not?”

Bella looked at him helplessly. She couldn’t exactly explain to him that he and Renee had set the perfect example for ‘why not,’ nor was she at liberty to mention that at any moment, Jacob might become magically bound to another woman. And she absolutely had no intention of telling him that it was partly because she was still in love with –

“This is about Edward Cullen, isn’t it?” Charlie spat, standing abruptly. His face had bypassed red entirely and was headed for a deep purple.

Bella stood as well, but she didn’t yell, in spite of the ridiculous pain that had taken up residence suddenly in her chest. “I’d love to know why Edward is the first thing on everyone’s mind except mine, though it’s true that being engaged didn’t exactly work out for me last time,” she said coldly.

Her composure seemed to bring Charlie’s fury to a sudden halt, reminding him that she wasn’t the impetuous adolescent he’d dealt with when she first arrived in Forks. “Furthermore,” she added, before he had time to respond, “Jacob didn’t ask me to marry him. He asked me to move in, which I agreed to do. If you need me, I’ll be upstairs packing my things.”

Bella left the room quietly, not even slamming her door when she closed it behind her. She leaned against it for a long time and the tears, which had started in her eyes at the sound of Edward’s name, poured silently over her cheeks. Yes, it was about him, and the faceless woman Jacob would some day love. But it was also about HER – who she was, and what she wanted. That is what Charlie needed to understand.

She’d only just pushed away from the door and fished her suitcase out of the closet when Charlie knocked. She wiped her face on her sleeve and opened the door. He was standing there looking sheepish. He looked away when she met his eyes. “Thought you might want some help,” he mumbled, embarrassed.

“Thanks, Dad. But I’m not moving furniture or anything. I’m just putting together some clothes.”

“You’re going tonight?” he asked, alarmed.

“Well, it didn’t sound like it would be a good idea to stay,” she replied, a hint of coldness returning to her voice. She knew Charlie was here to make peace, but she hadn’t appreciated being reminded of Edward while her thoughts were with Jake. It was a difficult enough situation without that. On the other hand, her furniture wasn’t arriving until tomorrow, and sleeping on the floor wasn’t her idea of fun. She’d be wiser to let him off the hook.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said quickly. “I was surprised. You know I like Jacob. He’s like family already.”

Bella smiled and looked up at him. “Thanks.”

“Why don’t you hold off until the weekend, and I’ll help,” he suggested, relieved.

“That sounds good.”

Charlie stood in her room for a few more uncomfortable seconds, then went back to whatever sporting event was on television. She closed her door behind him and lay down on her bed, staring at the ceiling. There were a lot of memories in this room that she didn’t want to think about, but there wasn’t any escaping them tonight. She let the tears leak from the corners of her closed eyes until they stopped on their own, and then she got up and changed into her pajamas. For all that she managed not to think of Edward most of the time, and for all that she had found happiness with Jacob, it was still impossibly painful when she was unexpectedly confronted with the absence of him in her life.

At school, she’d expected it. She’d handled Eli’s ribbing from time to time without tears because she was ready for it. Today she’d been completely unprepared. Nevertheless, she fell asleep soon after, and her mind conjured dreams of warm arms rather than cold.



Charlie and Bella stood aside as Jacob, Quil and Embry made short work of carrying the furniture from the truck to the upstairs apartment. He’d turned a bit green when the mattress went passed, but seemed determined to hold his tongue. Bella appreciated that. When Jake and Quil came to stand beside them as Embry took the nightstand up alone, however, he glanced into the truck bemusedly. He’d been to her apartment at the beginning of her freshman year, so he could see plainly that things were missing. “That’s it?” he asked, glancing at the driver as though he suspected him of stealing the other furniture he’d been expecting.

“That’s everything,” Bella confirmed. She glanced at Jake, who was looking at her thoughtfully. Clearly he, too, had been expecting the rest. “That other stuff wasn’t mine. I left it. Alice says his piano is still there, so I suppose he’ll find it if he ever goes back for that.” Charlie was looking at her worriedly, remembering her obvious distress when he’d brought up Edward the night before. But she looked fine. She was smiling at Jake, who looked vaguely pleased with this news.

“Besides, Jacob should get to pick out some furniture, too. Maybe we’ll go shopping this afternoon.”

This seemed to be Charlie’s cue to get going, and he was soon gone. Quil and Embry hung around for lunch, as Bella had picked up sandwiches and drinks, which were waiting for them in the fridge. They stood around the kitchen, leaning against the counters since there was no table.

Bella was thrilled to have them there. It reminded her so much of warm evenings at Sam and Emily’s – most of the pack squeezed around their table. She listened contentedly while they talked about the shop, and gave Jake a hard time about the size of the bed. The three of them filled the little kitchen, and she was already starting to think that she’d better get a really BIG dining room table – maybe use the living room as the dining room instead of vice versa – if she wanted them all to fit. Which she did.

She recognized this feeling. Years ago, when Jacob had kissed her in the middle of the woods, she’d felt this way for just an instant. It was the future she’d envisioned with Jake. It was contentment and safety and family. She grinned at their banter and ate her sandwich in silence. Eventually, though, Quil had to head back down to the shop. Embry said goodbye as well, with many hints about what they might get up to if left alone. They both told him to shut up and lock the bookstore door behind him. Jake shoved him down the stairs, but Embry was much too sure footed to even stumble. They were still laughing when the door closed behind him.

“So, how busy is the shop? We could go to Port Angeles and pick out furniture, if you’ve got time,” Bella offered, still grinning. Jacob’s face fell.

“I’ve got to get back down there to help Quil, actually. We had a few last minute appointments this morning. You should go, though,” he said, not wanting to make her wait. But Bella shook her head.

“No, I don’t want it to go without you. What if you hated everything I picked out?” She flashed him a smile. “It’s your place, too. I’d rather choose things together.”

“Me, too,” he admitted, but not because he really cared if he got a say in the furniture.



By the end of the summer, they had the place furnished. Renee flew up for a rare sunny weekend to see it, perversely pleased with her daughter’s maturity, and glad she wasn’t coming for a wedding. There would be time enough for that, in her mind.

Bella and Jacob settled into a comfortable routine with occasional meals at Charlie’s and Billy’s houses. Bella went by Billy’s when Sue called to say he was visiting her, and took care of the dishes and anything else she could get done before he came home.

The meetings with wholesalers continued until Bella found one to do business with, and then the books started arriving. She shelved them all carefully – by genre and then author’s last name. It seemed to her that it took a very long time. The computer software she’d purchased helped, though. She scanned each and entered the quantity she had, and it built an inventory record for her. She said a silent thanks to Eli for helping with her research on that during their last semester at school.

Shortly after Bella began placing flyers in the preschools to advertise, careful to always provide something to display them, so they didn’t get tossed the way Mrs. Newton had once thrown away the wolf flyers, people began to come. The most welcome customer showed up after only a week. Bella was thrilled to see Angela come through the door. She hadn’t heard from her much in the last three years. After Edward had left, there’d been some time when she stopped answering e-mails and returning phone calls. They’d lost track of one another then, and never got back in touch.

Still, Bella hurried out from around the register and hugged her. They sat in the squishy armchairs Bella had chosen just a few weeks before, and told tales of college. Ben and Angela had broken up around the time that she and Edward had. Ben had moved away right after graduation.

When Bella admitted she and Jacob had decided to see each other, Angela had been thrilled. “He’s a great guy,” she said quietly. “I think you’ll be really happy.”

“Thanks.”

Eventually, though, Angela had to go. She picked out some children’s books for the twins’ upcoming birthday, and they said goodbye.

Life was busy. Reestablishing contact with Angela meant evenings hanging out with a girlfriend once in a while, other than Alice, who she tried to visit every month or so. Alice came by the store only once, and Bella got the distinct impression that she was memorizing everything about it for someone else’s benefit, but neither of them broached the subject. Alice was the only person to whom she did not brag about Jacob’s contribution to the store, however. It seemed too cruel.

Years passed while Jacob and Bella established their businesses. As soon as she was turning a profit, she insisted he let her pay a third of the rent, and he gave in. Old high school friends dropped by with a fair bit of regularity. She went out of her way each summer to find out what the nearest schools were assigning, and make sure she had enough of each book in stock. She became very popular with her one-time teachers. Even Carlisle came by, and asked her to special order a few things for him, which she’d done, though she’d been careful to call him at the hospital to pick them up, rather than the home number he’d given.

In those first two years after Bella’s graduation, only one member of the pack imprinted, and it was thankfully not Jacob. Bella had been present for it, as it had occurred at Jake and Quil’s shop, of all places.

It wasn’t unusual for members of the pack to come by the shop. Quil kept a refrigerator full of soda out there, and anyone who was in the neighborhood generally felt comfortable stopping by to have a drink and gab about whatever was going on. What WAS unusual was for Leah to be among them. Leah rarely left the reservation, and even more rarely did she socialize with the pack outside her normal patrols. She knew she’d been malicious to them from the beginning, and it was difficult for her, even now that she was trying to be nicer, to spend time with them. She knew, after all, what they all thought about her. But she’d begun putting forth an effort, and she knew their opinions on that, as well.

It was Paul who’d dragged her out to the shop that day. He and Jacob were standing aside talking while Quil worked and Leah watched, when a car pulled up. The front bay doors were open, and Jacob waved the driver around to pull in from the back. He was expecting him, but not really looking forward to the appointment. Mike Newton had never been his favorite person. On the rare occasions they’d run into each other in the last few years, they’d politely ignored one another’s existence. Naturally he’d been astonished to see the guy’s name in the appointment book, and in Bella’s handwriting, no less.

However, he greeted him kindly and shook his hand carefully anyway. Mike explained what was wrong, and Jake drove the car into the first bay. It was a fairly easy fix, as far as he could tell. Mike agreed to wait. Quil called to him to help himself to a drink, and Leah looked up for the first time.

Bella was coming through the office, about to open the door to say hello to Mike, when she noticed the expression on Leah’s face. Her usual scowl had vanished like it never existed. In its place was longing, and a certain hopelessness that would break anyone’s heart. And Bella KNEW. She opened the door.

She greeted Mike easily, and even let him hug her. “Mike, I don’t know if you know everyone here,” she said quickly, as soon as he released her. She walked over toward where Leah was still standing beside Quil. She didn’t even bother to introduce Quil. “This is Leah Clearwater. Leah, this is Mike Newton. He was in my graduating class,” she said quickly.

Leah had looked at her in shock for just a moment, and Bella knew why. She was sure the girl had hated her even more than usual during the few seconds Mike had spent hugging her. She hadn’t expected Bella to lead him to HER. Bella grinned at her, but Leah was already focused again on Mike. Bella glanced over her shoulder. “Oh! Someone’s pulled in next door. I’ve got to go. Good to see you both.” And then she was gone.

Of course, it was only another year before they all attended Leah and Mike’s wedding. Leah very shyly asked Bella to be a bridesmaid, and that was the end of her bitterness towards Bella and Jacob.