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"You lost it in the woods a minute ago?" Bella asked worriedly. She knew as well as anybody that I never lose my cool. Haven’t for years. I scowled over at Embry for mentioning it, but he didn’t notice. He was too busy whispering to Quil, who looked much happier all of a sudden. Quil loved to be in on a good plot. Fireworks!


1. Fireworks

Rating 5/5   Word Count 5517   Review this Chapter

It wasn’t like me to let the others do all the work, and if I didn’t let go of her hand pretty soon to go help Sam and Embry set up the fireworks, Bella was going to get suspicious. She was watching them, and I felt a little jealous. I’d picked her up from her house, and I’d had to be on my best behavior, so I actually drove over. The last thing we wanted was Charlie asking questions. But the end result was, all my pack brothers were scantily clad except me. And watching Bella watch Embry was troubling, even though I was fairly certain she wasn’t interested in him. Also, I tended to enjoy the way her eyes raked over me when I was half-naked. I tried to think of some excuse to strip just to see them glaze over.

She caught me thinking about it, and probably my eyes were a little glazed, too. I was glad my skin was too dark to show a blush. "You alright, Jake?”

"Sure, sure. I’d better see if they need any help, though," I said quickly, squeezing her hand before I loped over to the other end of the beach.

Sam shot me an annoyed glance as I approached. After so much time hearing his thoughts, I didn’t have to be in wolf form to figure out what he was thinking. About time you showed up. What he actually said was, "We’re about finished here."

Embry was grinning at me, and he tossed me a bottle out of the cooler he’d just pulled his head from. They all knew I didn’t drink the stuff. Sam didn’t either, and no one even tried to offer him one. But I was fair game. Embry and Quil ribbed me all the time about being too uptight. It wasn’t like I had accepted the Alpha’s responsibility yet, so they figured I should just let loose and have some fun.

I looked at the bottle for an instant, an idea forming in my head. It was good my back was to Bella at this point because the grin that spread across my face tipped Embry off that I was up to something in a heartbeat. She’d have recognized it, too. "What’s up, Jacob?" Sam asked warily.

I opened the bottle. "Just having a good time, Sam," I returned with maybe too much smirk. His eyes narrowed. "Aren’t you?" I took the smallest possible sip of it, and swallowed quickly. It was clear that beer was an acquired taste. I’d never acquired it.

"Yeah. Loads. You’re sure Charlie’s not going to show up and bust us all?”

He wasn’t referring to the drinks. All of us were old enough to drink now, except Seth, Brandon and Colin, who hadn’t even arrived yet. He was talking about the fireworks. Last July 4th, someone had burned down a house in town setting off fireworks without a permit. Subsequently, it had become almost impossible to GET a permit. But that wasn’t going to prevent the pack setting them off. It was New Year’s Eve, and there was plenty to celebrate. This year Sam’s second child would be born. Jared and Kim were getting married in the spring. And I was finally going to propose to Bella. This was a year worth celebrating.

"Bella says he’s off tonight. Something about a party in Port Angeles with a lady Bella introduced him to from her college.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. Charlie Swan hadn’t dated for as long as any of them could remember. Oh yes, this was going to be a good year.

I quickly gestured to Embry, who grabbed another beer and followed me into the trees toward the tide pools without question. As soon as we were out of sight of the beach, I poured out my drink.

"Hey!" he said indignantly. "You could have given it to me!" I just laughed.

"I could, but that wouldn’t do me much good, would it?" I asked, winking.

"What are you up to?" This was part of what was great about Embry. And Quil, too, for that matter. They’d been my best friends all my life, and these days they knew me better than they had any right to.

"I'm getting drunk," I declared happily, taking his spare and pouring it out, too. This didn’t make him happy, but he was too interested in the plot to really scold me again. Since he was waiting, I tried to explain. "If Bella thinks I’m drunk –"

"Don’t even finish that sentence," Sam said from behind me. I winced, but Embry broke out laughing. Busted.

"Oh, come on, Sam. It isn’t like I’m trying to get her drunk. I’m just having a little fun. Think of the things she’ll let me get away with."

"That’s exactly what I’m thinking of," he said sourly. "I don’t want you taking advantage of her. She’s fragile enough as it is."

"She’s not fragile. She hasn’t been for a long time," Embry argued reasonably. I knew that wasn’t entirely true. Even after all these years, there were still moments when she stared off into space, and I didn’t know what she was thinking. I could guess. But for the most part, Embry was right. She was fine. Happy, even, most of the time. And I was hoping to make her happier.

Sam was staring at us both with disapproval written all over his face. "It’s your life to ruin," he said darkly, turning away. I grinned over at Embry. That, for the uninitiated, was called ‘permission.’

"Drink up," I instructed. Embry and I came out of the woods ten minutes later. I’d left my shirt high in a tree to retrieve tomorrow. I might as well get some mileage out of this from the beginning.

It was too soon for me to be walking unsteadily, but Embry had been drinking half the afternoon. I think he THOUGHT he was affecting a wobble. On top of the wobble he was actually suffering from, his affectation was funnier than anything I’d seen in a while. I let myself laugh at him, too loud, and pushed him into the sand, tossing the two empty bottles I’d carried with me out of the woods towards the trash. I didn’t try to miss. Even drunk, no one would believe I might miss, least of all Bella.

We were conspicuous. When Embry’s bottle followed mine, clinking loudly, he faked a lunge at me and then raced back toward the cooler and got us new ones.

I made my way back to where Bella was huddled at the fire. Her accusing glare reminded me that she didn’t hold up to the cold quite like the rest of us. "Sorry," I said quickly, putting my arms around her. I closed my eyes for a second – I didn’t mean to. I was just still so grateful that things had worked out this way. That I could hold her whenever I wanted to, and she never objected.

Tonight there was certainly no objection. In fact, she all but crawled into my lap, and her fingers were so cold that it made me shiver when she wrapped her arms around me. "Serves you right," was her only grumbled comment. I laughed loudly at that, too, though her lips were against my neck, and still moving after she’d finished her complaint.

I pretended to take a drink, and then poured out a little under the log before propping the bottle in the sand. "Warming up?" She mumbled something that I don’t think was supposed to be coherent, and then kissed my neck again. I grinned. "Because I sure am," I whispered.

An annoyed voice broke into our bubble, and Bella sat up a little. "Claire and her parents will be here any minute. Do you think the two of you could contain yourselves?" Quil asked archly from the other side of the fire. I tried not to sigh. Quil was in a bad position. Claire was six. He had a long wait ahead of him, before there could be any romance in his life. As a result, he was less tolerant than usual of the rest of us. Particularly me. It wasn’t like I was compelled to love Bella, the way Sam and Jared were. I just did. Of course, that was his view. It felt compelling enough, to me.

Bella obligingly removed herself from my lap and I shot Quil a glare, but he just smirked back at me, vindicated. Fortunately, it was too cold for her to go far. "What happened to your shirt?" she asked, pressing herself against my side. I didn’t really have an answer for this. Embry came to my rescue. He sat down heavily in the sand near Quil.

"Tore it again. He’s lucky I had extra shorts," he said, laughing. But Bella wasn’t laughing.

"You lost it in the woods a minute ago?" she asked worriedly. She knew as well as anybody that I never lose my cool. Haven’t for years. I scowled over at Embry, but he didn’t notice. He was too busy whispering to Quil, who looked much happier all of a sudden. Quil loved to be in on a good plot.

"Nah, we were just screwing around." I got a raised eyebrow for that, but she didn’t comment. I reached around her and grabbed the drink again, pretending to swallow some.

It wasn’t dark yet, but Quil stood up. "Since we shirked on helping with the fireworks, we should at least gather driftwood for the fire," he said, grinning at me knowingly and gesturing at the rather pathetic fire that we’d only started for Bella’s sake. Predictably, her arms tightened around me. I hated to leave her alone at the meager fire to get cold. Just as I was about to give up this perfect opportunity to pretend like I was drinking much more than I actually would, Leah sauntered out of the trees. Where she'd been, I didn't know, but it was clear from her wicked smirk that she was in on it. How in the world had Embry had time to tell so many people? I'd only seen him talking with Quil.

"Hey, Bella, can I sit with you?" Leah asked as I extracted myself from Bella's arms reluctantly. Leah hardly ever took my side in anything. I was thankful for the help and flashed her a smile. Probably she just wanted to see my drunk wolf act, so she could use it to make fun of me later, but just now I didn't care. She grinned back at me from behind Bella, who had narrowed her eyes in my direction again.

"I'll be right back," I promised. I reached around her and got the bottle. Someone had emptied it for me at some point. I didn't even know which of them had done it - they were all so fast. And sneaky. If I hadn't noticed, it was a good bet Bella hadn't either. I frowned at the bottle and chucked it into the barrel, which was quite a ways away at this point. As I launched it, a full one came flying back at me. I caught it easily, grinning. In the distance, I could see Jared laughing. He's lucky the two hadn't collided in midair and spattered glass shards all over the beach. I was pretending to be drunk, not stupid. I forced myself to keep smiling anyway, making a note to talk to him about it later. Then Quil and Embry and I were headed into the woods to look for something to burn. A LOT of something to burn. It was, after all, New Year's Eve. Tonight's bonfire needed to be spectacular.

I kept pretending to drink, on the off chance someone was watching, and every time we returned to the beach, I ditched an empty and left with a new bottle. I even forced myself to stumble a couple of times. Embry was matching me drink for (unconsumed) drink, so it was easy to just let my motor skills appear to deteriorate at the same rate as his. By the time the fire was big enough that we had to drag our makeshift benches back because of the heat, I was behaving as though utterly toasted. No pun intended.

Bella laughed along with us as the sun set, even though a lot of Embry's kidding wasn't that funny. I caught her grinning at Leah once or twice, and that was a little alarming. I wonder what they talked about while I was otherwise occupied.

I decided it didn't matter, and pulled Bella back into my lap, where she curled up as though I was a favorite armchair.

All that really mattered tonight was the ring. It was in my back pocket, still. It had been there all of December. I could face down a bunch of bloodthirsty vampires, no problem. Ask the girl I love to marry me? Well, I'll get to that. Really, I will.

That had been my cowardly outlook ever since I'd bought the ring. I'd already asked Charlie for his blessing - a month ago. He was starting to think I'd changed my mind. He was always looking at me expectantly when I brought Bella back from ... anywhere. I'd taken her to Seattle to go book shopping after Christmas, and he'd looked at me funny after THAT. Who proposes while book shopping?

The pack was having a great deal of fun, at my expense, over the whole thing. But this last week, they'd calmed down a bit. See, what they didn't understand at first was how HARD this is. All of them were absolutely certain the girl they wanted wanted THEM. They'd imprinted. Even Quil could be reasonably sure that sweet little Claire would be thrilled the day he finally popped the question. But me? Not so much.

We hadn't ever talked about it, but I'd always had the impression that Bella was scared stiff that I might imprint, too, and leave her. There really wasn't any reassurance I could offer her on the subject, either, so I'd waited and waited. Now, after three years together, she was finishing up college this spring. If it hadn't happened yet, I figured it was reasonably safe. That, and I’d wanted some reassurance, too. Can you really blame me?

The pack was raucous around the fire, except for Bella and me, and Quil and Claire. Claire watched us all with wide eyes, asking Quil to explain first one horrible joke and then another. Even Sam, stone sober as he was, laughed loudly at the ones that made sense, so I didn't feel so bad laughing along.

Bella got tired not long before midnight. "Are you falling asleep?" I asked, surprised by how tired my own voice sounded. She hummed some sort of response. Her cheek was resting against my chest and she seemed remarkably content, considering all the noise. Jared and Paul, well and truly drunk now, had broken into an awful song about wolves. They must have written it themselves. Nothing else could account for the ridiculousness.

"Hey, stay awake, would ya, we worked really hard on the fireworks!" I said indignantly, jostling her a little. I regretted THAT right away, as her weight shifted and I realized just how tightly she was pressed against me.

"You didn't work on the fireworks at all," she whispered, laughingly. "You were supposed to be keeping me warm, remember?"

"I'm always glad to be keeping you warm."

My act seemed to have deserted me, and my tone was pretty serious. She noticed. She noticed everything. She put a hand up to my cheek and it was all I could do not to lean down and kiss her right there. But Claire was with us tonight, and the others weren't likely to appreciate it either. Leah would be complaining about lesbian dreams again for sure.

"Let's go for a walk," I suggested quickly. As we stood, she kicked over another bottle, but I hurried her away before she noticed it was still full.

"Jake, it's ten degrees colder than it was earlier," she complained as we headed into the woods. And it had been cold enough for her earlier. But I had a plan in mind. There was a tree, half a mile or so away, and if we climbed it we'd have the absolute best seats in the house for the fireworks display. Well, I would climb it. She would ride up on my back. With her legs around my waist. ... And I hadn't even had anything to drink. This was going to be a long night.

We didn't get as far as the tree. She was shivering, and I scooped her up to carry her without bothering to ask permission. "Thanks," she whispered. Normally, when I carried her anywhere, she'd sort of melt against me, and tuck her head into my neck. I love that. This time she didn't. Her beautiful eyes were fixed on mine, and her lips were slightly parted. I stopped walking and kissed her. I didn't even stop to think about it.

Her lips were cold, but that didn't last long. Her arms tightened around my neck and I set her on the ground, where she took two awkward steps backward and ran into a tree. My perfect klutz. But that was alright. I had no objections to pressing her against a tree and -

"Jake!" she whispered as I kissed my way down her neck. I didn't notice, the first time, that it sounded more admonishing than passionate. She quickly tried again. "JACOB!"

I pulled away and took stock of the situation. Her hair was very pleasantly mussed, and my hands had found their way under her sweater just high enough to feel the soft skin at her waist - I wasn't being awful. She'd allowed me that much before. I did notice I'd managed to get one of my legs between hers. Maybe that's what had called the halt? But damn it felt good.

"We can't do this tonight!" she exclaimed breathlessly, as if this should be obvious to me. It wasn't.

"Why not?" I whispered, knowing how hoarse my voice would be if I tried to talk. I had an instant's worry that she might have found out about the ring, and was maybe expecting that was the purpose of the walk. Was she disappointed to be doing this instead? Was I?

"Because you're drunk, that's why!"

I probably blinked at her in shocked silence for a moment too long. I'd forgotten all about pretending to be drunk. What a stupid idea that had been. What had it gained me anyway? "I'm not drunk," I returned, wincing at how ridiculous that sounded. She just looked at me. She knew as well as I did that if I WERE drunk, the first thing I'd do was deny it.

"Jake, I'm not going to take advantage of you when you've been drinking," she said firmly. I thought that was remarkably diplomatic (she hadn't used the word ‘drunk’ again) as well as fantastically stupid. As if this might be something I didn’t want.

The first of the fireworks shrieked into the air, then, and she looked up, distracted. I took the opportunity to kiss her again, but she pushed me away. That kinda hurt. I hung my head. "You aren't taking advantage of me," I tried to say, but she cut me off.

"Do you remember what happened last time?"

I grinned at the memory. "Charlie came home early from work to start a fishing trip?" I suggested wickedly.

"And do you remember what you said after I let you back out of the closet?" Bella was grinning now, too, but I suddenly DID remember what I'd said. I felt my face fall, but didn't offer to repeat it. I'd only been trying to make her feel better about the broken mood.

"You said it was probably all for the best anyway, or we'd have gone too far," she reminded me unnecessarily. "And then you went home -"

"To take a cold shower, yeah, I remember what I told you. Bella, that's NOT what I did, when I got home."

I think, for just a second, that she wanted to laugh at me. She mastered herself, though, and shook her head. "Yeah, I didn't either. But that's beside the point. The point is that when you were sober, you wanted to wait. So, I'm not going to take advantage of you."

This was clearly the final word on the subject. There was a slight difference between the tone that said she was teasing me, and the one I just couldn't argue with, and this didn't sound like teasing. Defeat hunched my shoulders as I stepped away. I tried to take a deep breath.

I offered her my hand, and she took it. We walked back towards the beach, and she barely looked up at the fireworks. I didn't, at all. I felt remarkably depressed. If it hadn't been for my stupid idea to pretend to be drunk, we might be engaged by now. If she'd have said yes. The thought popped into my head, and I scowled at my feet and tried to suppress a sigh.

"Okay, Jake?" Bella asked worriedly. I nodded, but apparently that wasn't very convincing. She stopped, and since I didn't want to let go of her hand, I stopped, too. I was more than a little surprised when she threw her weight against me and pushed me backwards - surprised enough to let her, at least. I think I gasped a little when my back hit a tree. And then she was kissing me again. I wrapped my arms around her gratefully, thinking maybe the evening could be salvaged. They hadn't set off the finale, yet.

But just at that thought, the booms started to come faster. I held her tighter, but it didn't stop her from pulling away. "I want to, Jake, you know that, right?" she whispered. Without my super wolf ears, I wouldn't have heard her over the whine of the rockets. I tried to kiss her again, but she turned her head. I couldn't help it. I growled against her cheek, even as I pressed my lips there anyway. And she laughed at me, which I suppose I deserved.

"I do," she insisted. "Just not this way. When you're not - you know - we'll try again."

I resisted the urge to swear profusely as she took my hand again and led me back toward the beach. But I followed. Even if she was tormenting me, I wanted to be where she was. And she WAS tormenting me, whether she realized it or not. We came out of the trees and looked up to see the fading remains of the final explosion. We'd missed the whole fireworks display, and for nothing. The ring seemed heavy in my pocket and I kept my head down.

Fortunately, the others seemed to pick up on my unhappiness. At least no one tried to congratulate us. THAT would have been embarrassing. It was embarrassing enough when she asked Sam to give her a ride home, and oh, could he "drop Jacob off, too," because she didn't think I should be driving. I bit the inside of my cheek all the way to my place, knowing that Sam thought the whole thing to be poetic justice. His unspoken, "I told you so," was flying around the interior of the car like a trapped moth.

Leah had come along for the ride, her house not being far from mine, and on the way. It was more of a pain for her to run everywhere, since she ended up in a sundress with no underwear, everywhere she went. Not quite as socially acceptable as a bunch of guys in cutoff jeans. Socially acceptable or not, she was clearly pleased that all my best plans for the night had fallen through. It's a wonder I ever spoke to her, honestly. If I didn't know her so well, I suppose I wouldn't, but she isn't always as ridiculously insensitive as she was being tonight. Sometimes, she was worse.

Bella got out of Sam's car and walked me to the door, which was nice. At least I got to kiss her goodnight. I kissed her for as long as I could get away with, which wasn't long, with Sam and Leah waiting alone in the car. That had to be uncomfortable. They'd never quite managed to get passed the love they'd once shared.

"I love you," I whispered, the instant her lips left mine. Maybe thinking of Sam and Leah was subverting my brain. I couldn't help feeling like I should say it every chance I got, in case something happened - it case I imprinted or something and never got to tell her again. She smiled up at me.

"I love you, too." She stared up at me for a moment, one chilly hand coming up to graze my cheek.

I watched her climb into the back seat of Sam's car again, and was about to go inside when I noticed them all laughing. All three of them. Laughing together in Sam's car as they drove away. And then it clicked. Leah had told her I was faking the drunkenness, and this had been my punishment. Sam was in on it. He’d probably been the one to tell Leah. As soon as the car was out of sight, I was out of my jeans and into the trees.

I paced the woods behind Bella's house, waiting for her to show up. Sam drove slowly. He thought we all should, to avoid confrontation when we inevitably got pulled over for the speeding. Sam had all sorts of ways to avoid confrontation. Like dropping Leah off while Bella was still in the car, apparently. What was TAKING so long?

When they finally pulled up, I waited within hearing distance. "Thanks, Sam. I know it wasn't necessary, but I appreciate you playing along," Bella said.

"Maybe it'll teach him to listen to me when I try to give him good advice," Sam returned, laughing. Bella laughed as well.

"I wouldn't get your hopes up."

"Suppose not."

They said goodnight and she closed the car door. I waited impatiently until she was inside, and Sam had pulled slowly away. He had to know I was here. He was probably taking his time on purpose.

I knocked just as Bella turned out the downstairs light. It came back on and I smirked. When she opened the door with a matching expression, I thought I'd pay her back a little. Two could play this game, after all, as long as we both knew that we were playing. I had the door closed behind me and her pressed against it so quickly that I might have startled her. She was good at not showing her surprise, however, so it was hard to know for sure.

"When did you figure it out?" I demanded before kissing her to prevent her answering. There wasn't any sense in her denying it, so she didn't try. Instead, her freezing fingers danced across my back before she pulled me closer. Then they trailed lower, and I groaned. "When?" But she didn't let my lips go free long enough to answer, though I might have let her that time.

"Charlie's staying the night in Port Angeles," she said instead, between gasping breaths. I had her sweater off before she'd finished the sentence, and she grinned at me, pushing me away and darting over to where I'd thrown it. After she picked it up, she turned back to look at me, still smiling in a way I hadn't seen in weeks. And then she ran away up the stairs without a word.

They say you shouldn't run from predatory animals. They're bound to chase you. I took for granted her knowledge of this bit of conventional wisdom and was outside her bedroom door as she crossed the threshold. We fell onto the bed in a bit of a heap, and she squeaked. I tried to move my elbow without causing her any further damage, but she only laughed and pulled me closer again. God I love her.

Her skin was so soft. I tried to touch every part of her that was available, and she rewarded me by removing her bra. This effectively kept my hands from wandering anywhere else, though I don't know if that was her intent. Her own hands were everywhere, and they were finally warming up, thankfully. "I knew the first time you kissed me after the fire was built," she whispered haltingly. I grinned, knowing I was distracting her enough to make it hard for her to talk. And we both still had pants.

"But Leah confirmed it," I challenged. Bella didn't reply, but she didn't have to. Leah was going to pay for that.

Making Bella moan had become something of a pastime for me since the beginning of last summer. Drove the pack nuts, of course, but I often tried to plan new ways. I insinuated a leg between hers again, and that earned one. I pressed against her a little harder at the sound, which only made her louder. And then she was trying to pull my lips up to hers. Trying hard. I'd never denied her anything. I wasn't about to start now.

While I kissed her, I couldn't seem to force myself to stop moving against her, and she didn't seem to mind. Far from it. The sounds she made were so incredibly hot. I wanted more. She must have, too. Her tiny hands were flat against my back, pulling me against her harder. And then they were lower. At first that was great. And then her whole body tensed, and her right hand darted into my pocket. I stopped. Everything stopped. I think the whole world stopped for a moment. I felt her grasp the ring I'd purchased a month before, and then she was holding it between our noses, still breathing heavily, but maybe not for the same reason I was, anymore.

"Jake?" she asked in a whisper. She sounded...afraid. I had no idea what to say.

"You weren't supposed to find that yet," I whispered back. But that wasn't exactly true. I hadn't wanted her to FIND it at all. I'd wanted to give it to her, along with all of my love and every moment of my life from tonight on out. How do you tell someone that? How could she not already know?

Feeling stupid, I tried to roll away, but her left hand came up to grasp my arm. Her will, rather than her strength, prevented me from moving. "Was this what you were up to tonight?" she asked quickly.

I nodded, ducking my head. This was a bad idea, considering my current position. Her breasts were within kissing distance. I resisted the urge, in case she was angry with me. Instead, I turned my head and pressed my cheek to her collarbone.

"I love you, Bells. I don't even want to imagine living without you. I want -" I stopped. That sounded demanding. "I need you," I admitted instead. I could hear her heart speeding up, and thought maybe that was cheating, though it didn't really tell me what her answer would be. I held myself over her again and pressed my lips to her ear. "Marry me, Bella," I whispered desperately.

It was embarrassing that I couldn't force a stronger voice. For several long moments, she didn't answer. Her arms were around me again, moving, and then she shifted, and put her hands to my face. I could feel the metal of the ring on her left hand, where it belonged, and my breath caught. "Vegas," she said, in a warning tone of voice. As if I'd try to dictate to her the terms of the wedding.

I didn't particularly care if she wanted to get married by a Buddhist monk at the top of some mountain in Asia. We could get married in outer space, for all I cared or under water, so long as she was mine. I pressed my lips to hers gently, and when I pulled back again, I couldn't help but agree, "Anywhere you like," and I would never tease her for her breathlessness again, because I sounded far more flustered than she ever had. She was mine.

She grinned and raised her head so that our lips met again, and I was lost. My Bella. Wearing my ring. Unbuttoning my jeans. Oh God. Fireworks.