A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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A/N: This is my one-shot contest entry for the Commander In Chief Contest. It was selected as a favorite by judge la_geologia. I want to thank the entire TFMU crew for hosting a great contest. Thanks to all the readers and reviewers for their continued support of our fandom, but especially for all the writers who continue to share their words and creativity freely within our community.

A special shoutout to purplec305 and Midnight Cougar for their help with polishing my words. xx

ooOOOoo

Story Title: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Summary: Edward Cullen will do anything to be the man everyone remembers. But with the passing of time, the tables have turned, and Bella Swan isn’t the young, naïve girl he once knew. Is he prepared to accept the woman he wants now?

Twilight – Rated: M – English – Romance/Mystery – Chapters: 1 – Words: 15,298 – Published: Jun 29, 2019 – Bella, Edward – Complete

Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong solely to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended.

ooOOOoo

Reunited

and it feels so GOOD!

’04 Spartans

Please join us for our 5-year

Forks High School reunion

Saturday, June 27th

5:30 p.m.

The Lodge

500 N. Forks Avenue

RSVP to Mike Newton

(360) 374-8423 or mnewt04 at gmail dot com

ooOOOoo

I read the words carefully before crumbling the navy blue and gold invitation in my hand, tossing it into the nearby trash can. I stare back at the man in the mirror and know there’s no way I can ever show my face in Forks again.

It’s been five years since I spent my last summer in Forks before going off to college. Why would anyone want to go back and reunite after only five years? We haven’t had a chance to do anything—change the world and establish our presence as we promised.

I know I’m making excuses and grasping at straws, but the man staring back at me is a far cry from the president of the student body and captain of the baseball team. Girls wanted to be with me and guys wanted to be me. I was friends with all the cliques: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the stoners, the nerds, and even the troublemakers. I had the world by the balls, then I moved across the country and settled into my new home in Hanover, New Hampshire at Dartmouth College.

I majored in political science with a hope of leading the charge among my peers on the issues that mattered most. But somewhere along the way, I lost my fight for justice and became obsessed with a new battle, which convinced me to change my major to business.

I’m not sure the exact cause, maybe it was stress or genetics, but my appearance changed. Or more specifically, my full, thick head of hair I wore proudly like a badge of honor in high school thinned.

It was a gradual progression, but I noticed I was losing more hair than normal for my age and looked for solutions to stop what was happening.

My roommate, Jasper Whitlock, majored in biology and is now working on his master’s degree. He loves research and has a knack for growing things—hair being his latest challenge.

There’s a knock, then his voice filters through the solid, wooden barrier. “Hey, man. How much longer are you going to be? I need to shower for my date.”

I look in the mirror one more time then slide my hat back on my head, opening the door. “I’m done.”

“Cool. Anything?” He looks at the hat perched on my head.

I shake my head. “Not yet.”

“New growth can be thin and light. You may not see it yet. Why not shave off what’s left while we wait? Chicks dig a guy with a shaved head—which would be a choice. Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are beyond badass.”

“They’re old. I’m twenty-three. This isn’t supposed to be happening yet or ever.”

“Edward, from what you said of your life in high school, you’re a trendsetter, and here’s an opportunity be the hot, young bald guy—the new Jason Statham or Tyrese Gibson.”

“Those guys are built. I can’t measure up to them.” My tall, lean stature is no match against guys who work out daily, building muscle.

“Not overnight. Why don’t you join a gym or get a tattoo? Create a new image rather than focusing on what’s missing. Bald is beautiful.”

I sigh in exasperation. “Says the guy with the full head of hair.”

“You need to work on your confidence. You’ve lost your swagger.”

“But my hair is who I am. It defines me. I was the poster boy for ‘sex hair’ and now I have none. I hate this new me—no sex and little hair left. None of the solutions we’ve tried are working.”

“When was the last time you got laid?”

I shrug, not wanting to discuss “the incident” from two years ago when I went against my better judgment and decided to hook up with a study partner from my economics class. We had messed around, but never gone farther than kissing and touching. I had always worn a hat around her, but she was playful one evening when we were studying and stole my hat. She revealed my obvious lack of hair, and I could immediately see how shocked then repulsed she was as she gathered her books, making an excuse to leave, never speaking to me again.

A buddy of mine told me later he overheard her warn another girl about me, stating if I wasn’t forthcoming about my hair, then what else was I hiding? Probably a small penis. According to her, she wasn’t interested in dating someone on the “dad bod” fast track, and that it was just a matter of time before my abs were buried below layers of fast food. I had never felt so embarrassed or humiliated in my life to have women talking about me in such a negative way. I knew then that no matter what ideas Jasper came up with to regrow my hair, I would invest everything I had into building our company and funding the research to find a cure.

“I can set you up,” he offers. “I know a girl—”

My phone vibrates with an incoming call, and I glance down to check the screen, knowing I need to take it or she will keep calling. “Maybe some other time. It’s my mom.”

“Let me know.” Jasper nods, starting the water.

With my phone to my ear, I leave the bathroom, heading for my room. “Hey, Mom.”

“Edward, dear. How are you?”

I let out a sigh and try to put a little extra into my response so she won’t notice how insecure and low I’m feeling. “Good.”

She catches the waver my voice. “Why don’t I believe you? What’s wrong?”

“Everything’s fine—really it is. What’s up?” I deflect.

“Okay… if you’re sure.” She doesn’t believe me, but pushes forward with her reason for the call. “I ran into Charlie Swan the other night and he had the best news.”

Oh, God. I know what she’s going to say—my mother the matchmaker is on the job.

“Bella is coming home for your five-year reunion. Isn’t that exciting? I mean, I know she wasn’t exactly your type in high school, but she was such a lovely girl and a good friend to you.”

Bella and I grew up together, but when we hit middle school, my popularity skyrocketed, while she faded into the background of daily life. High school was no different, and while we would have the occasional class together, we lived in opposite social circles and I wasn’t into wallflowers.

“How is Bella doing?” I ask.

“From what Charlie said, she loves Iceland. He wondered if you were coming back for the reunion and I told him you wouldn’t miss it.”

Shit.

Mom prattles on with questions about flight times and where I will stay, but my mind goes back to a time five years ago when I laughed and scoffed at the naïve library nerd when she asked me to prom.

I thought Bella was joking at first, but realized she was serious a little too late. I didn’t mean to crush her hopes, but I had already planned to ask Lauren because I knew she would be a sure thing and I wasn’t interested in a virgin on prom night.

Bella never went to prom and didn’t stick around for the summer after we graduated, which left things awkward between us. Her friend, Alice, gave me the stink-eye all summer, glaring at me everywhere I went.

There were rumors that Alice was a witch or something, and I often wonder if she created a voodoo doll of me and ripped out its hair slowly as payback for how I treated her friend.

“So, when can we expect you?” Mom questions.

“Uh, I’m not going to make it.”

“Really? Why not? Is this about your hair again? No one will care. You were so popular, Edward. They will all love you no matter how you look.”

“I’m sorry, but I already have a trip for work scheduled and I can’t change it.” I lie.

“That’s such a shame.”

“I know. Maybe I’ll catch the next one.” I’ll take any opportunity I can to avoid my former classmates and shattering their high visual expectations I can no longer meet.

ooOOOoo

10-year Reunion

Forks High School

Class of 2004

Please join us for dinner and drinks at

The Lodge

500 N. Forks Avenue

Saturday, June 28th

5:30 p.m.

RSVP to Mike Newton

(360) 374-8423 or mnewt04 at gmail dot com

ooOOOoo

“My man! Edward, you’re looking good!” Emmett smiles, rushing to greet me from the bar with a hearty handshake.

“Hey, thanks!” I pat his arm.

“Time to see who lost their hair and which girls got fat.”

“They look pregnant, Em—not fat.”

“Whatever! Some are a little chubby, but I’m good with that too. You don’t look a day over eighteen, and that hair! It looks better than high school.” He moves to touch it, but I lean away, hoping the glue holds everything in place.

I plaster on a grin. “You know it. You look good too. If we aren’t careful, people will think we’re vampires—never aging.”

“Amen to that.”

“Am I late or early?” My eyes scan the crowd.

“Late, but better late than never. Lauren’s here, but man, she had her boobs done. I heard she used a coupon for a plastic surgeon in Port Angeles and her nipples don’t point in the same direction, but I guess you’ll have time to check them out later.” Emmett elbows my side.

“Yeah, later,” I answer, knowing I won’t be able to avoid her forever. It’s not that I don’t like Lauren, but a little of her goes a long way. We were friends with benefits in high school, a status I had with a couple of other girls, which was easy and convenient. But I would like to make a clean break and not leave here with any unrealistic expectations on her part for a relationship.

“I’ve got my eye on Rose. She’s got those curves in all the right places, if you know what I mean.” Emmett grins, glancing in my direction. “What are you doing now? Your mom said you started a company back east.”

“Yeah, it’s a specialty pharmaceutical company with a buddy of mine from college. We’re research-based, finding new drugs. Experimental stuff—you know that kind of thing.”

I refrain from telling him our primary mission is to cure baldness of which I’m experimental subject number one. We’ve been testing new formulas, but none have produced hair as thick as what I’m sporting tonight. So, I’m wearing a wig this evening, because there’s no chance in hell I was showing up here bald.

“Edward!” Mike walks over, handing me a beer. “Glad you could make it.”

“Yeah. Sorry, I missed the last one, but you know how work can be.” I reiterate my usual excuses.

“Oh yeah, of course. If you’re ever interested in relocating back home, be sure to look me up. I’m the top realtor for the Olympic Peninsula,” Mike boasts.

“Congratulations.”

We clink beer bottles.

“Thanks.”

“Is everyone here who said they would make it?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

I glance over the crowd of faces not seeing her among them. “Is Bella here?”

“Bella Swan?” Mike looks puzzled at my inquiry, then realization dawns on his face. “That’s right. You had a thing for her. Oh wait—no. She had a thing for you.”

“We were merely friends.” I shrug, trying to play off my interest.

“Well, you missed out at the five-year. She’s smoking hot now—gorgeous. Everyone was shocked with how she had changed and filled out while away at college.”

“So, is she here this year?” I repeat, hoping he will get to the point.

“No. She’s on some trip to the Arctic Circle.”

My shoulders sag in disappointment. “It would have been nice to see her again.”

“I hear you loud and clear, man.” He grins, wiggling his eyebrows.

“I thought you were married?”

“I am, but there’s no harm in looking, right? She stays with her dad between trips, but I keep begging her to consider buying a place here. I have a feeling one day she’ll cave.”

“I guess she isn’t married?”

“No. She dated one of those guys out at La Push for a while, but I don’t think it worked out.”

“What’s she doing up there, anyway?”

“I don’t know, some type of Arctic wolf project.”

“Eddie!”

Oh, no.

Tension fills my shoulders at her approach. My good luck has run out.

“Lauren. Long time no see.”

“I can see you now and you are looking better than ever. Are you here alone?”

I’m hesitant in my reply. “Y-Yes.”

She lights up at my answer and wraps her hand around my bicep, giving it a squeeze. “Let’s sit together at dinner. It will be like old times.”

“I can’t wait.”

Between Lauren and Jessica, who is Mike’s wife, I haven’t had a moment alone this evening. According to Jessica, who has had more than a few cocktails, she’s allowed a free pass and I’ve always been her first choice.

As tempting as that offer may be, I’ve escaped the reunion for some fresh air. I stare up at the stars on this unusually clear night, feeling as fake as Lauren’s tits. I have no idea why I’m here or ever agreed to attend. Maybe I thought I had something to prove—that I wasn’t one of those people who peaked in high school. I haven’t told a soul I’m president of my own company and only shared the basics with Emmett.

Or maybe I wanted the opportunity to apologize to Bella for my careless actions years ago. It doesn’t sound as though she’s pining away for me any longer, but traveling the world and making a difference, as we all said we would. Something in my gut tells me I underestimated her.

ooOOOoo

“How was the reunion?” Jasper asks, setting up the camera.

“Exactly how you would think—too much booze, a lot of overcompensating, and plenty of bad plastic surgery. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

He points. “Take a seat. Were you still the golden boy everyone loved?”

I move to the stool and wait for him to take the before photos. “Everyone was cool and happy to see me.”

“But…” He pauses his prep, waiting for me to continue.

“But what? That’s it.” I shrug.

“No, it sounds like there’s more to the story. Was there an old girlfriend? Because I was surprised when you said you were going. Look this way.”

I follow his direction, listening as the repetitive whir of the camera shutter captures my current “follicly challenged” status. “There were plenty of options, if that’s what you’re asking, but I took no one up on their offers. I was hoping to see someone.”

Jasper smiles. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“But she didn’t show up. She was at the five-year, but missed this one for work.”

“Ah, the one that got away.”

“I wouldn’t say that. I liked her, but we weren’t ever together or anything. She had a crush on high school me.”

“You like the excitement of the chase.”

“I’m not chasing after her, but it would have been nice to see her again.”

“What’s her name?”

“Bella Swan. Isabella, actually.”

“I think these photos are fine.” He looks at the screen of the camera then shuts down a light. “Isabella Swan. That name sounds familiar. What does she do?”

“I don’t know—travels the world for some wolf project. I’m unsure if she’s a conservationist or photographer, but I would guess it’s something like that.”

“I bet that’s it. I read an article recently about three wolves that were thought to be extinct, but were found on the coast of Iceland.”

“You’re reading about wolves?”

“I read a lot of things, and in the science community that’s big news—animals brought back from extinction.” A sly grin spreads across his face. “I have a new interest in wolves. You may too. We’ll see.”

“What’s the status of the new formula? If we’re taking photos again, then you must be ready for another trial.”

“The initial testing looks promising. I think this one could be the winner. Are you ready?”

“I’m at a point where it can’t get much worse. All the regrowth from the last formula fell out and there’s nothing left of my original hair.”

“We think we have the answer for encoding a functional, therapeutic gene to replace your mutated Lhx2 gene.” Worry settles across his face. “It’s gene therapy, which is risky and may not work. I should warn you, the major concern with this one is too much hair.”

“Jasper, I can’t have too much at this point.” I run my hand over my head out of habit as disappointment courses through me when I feel only slick, smooth skin, then quickly replace my stocking cap.

“Okay. Remember you said that over the next few weeks. Head to the lab and Angela will get you started. She wants to take new measurements—height, weight, blood pressure, and body samples—the normal stuff. We need the baseline again before we begin. Unlike the various topical mixtures we’ve tried, gene therapy is internal.”

“How many treatments?” I wonder.

“One, if it works.”

“It’s permanent?”

“I hope so, but Edward, if you change your mind, I don’t know how to reverse it. You should know that before we begin.”

I smile with anticipation that he’s finally found the solution. “Jasper, you’re a genius. I trust you, and I’m ready for anything.”

ooOOOoo

A month later, and I have a solid half-inch of hair growth all over my head. I’m thrilled with the results, but nervous as we’ve found hair growing in other areas that didn’t have hair before, like my back.

“Back hair is common, Edward.”

“Damn it, Jasper! You’re going to turn me into a bear!”

“Or a wolf.” He snickers.

“What are you talking about?”

“The gene we used came from a red wolf, which is an ancient genetic blend between the gray wolf and coyote.”

“A wolf?” I yell.

“Would you have tried it if I told you?”

“I have no idea. Probably not. No.” I rub my hands over my face in frustration before resignation settles in. “Fuck—maybe.”

“Edward, you can’t argue with the results. It’s working, isn’t it?”

He had a point. “What am I going to do about the extra hair, or I guess, fur?”

“You could shave,” he suggests.

I glare at him. “I don’t have time to shave my entire body every day.”

“Some athletes do—swimmers, bikers, tri-athletes—it reduces friction. And it wouldn’t necessarily be every day.”

“Jasper.” My annoyance builds.

“We could try waxing, but if that doesn’t work, then maybe laser hair removal in the unwanted areas.” His gloved hands inspect the rest of my body. “Oh, it looks like it’s growing beyond your chest hair here along your sides too.”

“Fuck.”

“Remember, I told you the only problem with this one was too much hair.”

“I get it now. Am I going to howl at the moon, have a penchant for red meat, or only want it doggy-style?”

Jasper laughs. “You tell me.”

“Oh, God. What else should I know about wolves?”

“I doubt much will transfer to you, but hear me out, as anything is possible, and I’m sure you’re most curious about mating.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “Or at least you should be with your new hair growth. It’s probably thicker and better than your high school hair.”

I shake my head, wondering what he’s gotten me into this time.

“You will most likely be attracted to women with similar alpha characteristics like you, and when you find your one, that will be it. You’re done.”

“This is ridiculous.” I shake my head in disbelief. “And what do you mean I’m done? Like praying mantis dead where she rips off my head during sex then devours my body afterward?”

“Not into sexual cannibalism?”

“Jasper.”

“Relax. You’ll mate for life, but with wolves, it’s called pair bonding—finding her will be key. You may also be more aggressive than normal when acting on your baser instincts.”

“Fuck! You’ve turned me into some crossed-over freak.”

“I always thought Wolverine was cool,” he mumbles, then pauses his examination, meeting my frustrated gaze. “But at least you aren’t bald, right?”

I sigh in resignation because I asked for this. I’m the one who was always pushing for a cure and Jasper delivered. “Will the hair always be brownish red?”

“Yeah, and as you age, it will fade to a more muted tone.”

“I won’t go gray?”

“Not completely. We didn’t use gray wolf genes, but that’s something to consider.”

“How are we going to afford to market something like this? Aren’t red wolves endangered?”

“I’ll inquire about more samples, then we’ll have to look at the numbers. For now, we’re going to focus on you and keeping track of any changes.”

“What about—do you think I’ll be able to have kids?”

“Yes. Will they be bald? No. Edward, this is a cure. Gene therapy is amazing, and we are on the cutting edge of new breakthroughs. We have modified your genetic makeup and repaired your defective gene.”

“Holy shit.” My mind considers the possibilities of helping the hundreds of millions of people, wishing for a solution. “Do you think other people will buy it?”

“Would you?”

“Jasper, I can’t believe this.” A huge grin breaks out across my face. “I’m not going to be bald anymore and we’re going to be fucking rich!”

ooOOOoo

FHS Class of 2004

15-year Reunion

Saturday, June 29th

Go Spartans!

Visit your old stompin’ grounds

With guided tours of FHS

Alumni Family Lunch at

The New, Harold Greene Athletic Complex

11:00 a.m.

Join us (Adults only) for dinner & drinks at

The Lodge

500 N. Forks Avenue

5:30 p.m.

RSVP to Mike Newton

(360) 374-8423 or mnewt04 at gmail dot com

ooOOOoo

I’m trying not to be obvious as my eyes follow her reflection in the glass of a nearby trophy case. I watch Bella greet everyone, moving through the buffet line set up in the lobby of the new indoor sports facility. Her kind smile is never-ending, kneeling down to say “hello” to the younger kids of our former classmates and hugging old friends.

Bella’s no longer the tomboy with glasses and a book in her hand. She isn’t the young girl who wore a constant uniform of hoodies, jeans, and converse shoes or avoided eye contact while staying tucked away between the shelves of the library. No, the woman I see now is nothing like the Bella I knew.

This woman is a head-turner with wavy, long brown hair and large, brown eyes. She’s a natural beauty with a fit body and confident smile. Occasionally, I hear her laugh, and notice my smile reflecting at me. Bella is lively when she speaks, using her hands, and drawing a constant crowd.

Over the past few years, I’ve been following her career. It wasn’t difficult to find her on social media, and I can be counted as one of her tens of thousands of followers. I worked up the courage to direct message her once, but I was disappointed to receive a response that came from an assistant who was managing her accounts while she was exploring other parts of the world.

I’ve fantasized about meeting over the months leading up to the reunion, and I can tell she’s even better in person than I imagined.

A voice startles me from my thoughts. “State champions. You were the MVP that year too. Those were the days, huh?”

“Yeah. It seems like yesterday.” I turn, recognizing her immediately.

“It’s good to see you again, Edward. The years have been kind to you.”

“Thanks, Alice.”

“I’m shocked to find your harem missing,” she teases. “Shouldn’t someone be feeding you grapes about now? It is lunch.”

I roll my eyes at the thought. “I believe most are married with kids.”

“I doubt that would stop them. You always had such a strong pull over our female classmates.”

“But never you.”

“Never me,” she confirms.

“I wonder why that is. How are you able to resist?” I smirk.

“I’m not really into cocky assholes, like some people.” She raises a questioning eyebrow, silently challenging me to dispute her statement and continues. “Rich ones, either. I’m surprised it isn’t your name on the outside of this building instead of Principal Greene’s, but I guess you’re more into anonymous donations.”

My eyes find Bella instantly, wondering if she knows I’ve been pouring money into the causes she cares for most. Could Alice still be friends with Bella and somehow know it’s me?

“Tell me about what you do, Edward. I heard you started your own company years ago. Are you still involved or have you moved on to something new?”

I maintain a neutral expression and confirm my role. “With a partner, yeah. It’s a research-based pharmaceutical company—Whitlen Pharmaceuticals. You may have heard of it.”

“Hmmmm, so you would be the president?”

“I am.”

“Head guinea pig?” She quirks a smile, turns to leave, but stops. “Aren’t you the company that claims to have cured baldness? I heard the price tag is steep at one million dollars with no guarantees it will work.”

Clearly, she knows more than she should. “What is it you do, Alice?”

“I’m a personal assistant—a bit of everything when it’s necessary. Now, if you’ll excuse me; I need to get back to my boss.” She winks and walks away, choosing to sit next to Bella at one of the tables.

Oh, shit.

We never revealed my before and after pictures when we started marketing our product to cure baldness, choosing to share only photos of clients who experienced the same success I did.

I spent years hiding under hats, being careful to avoid photos taken by others. How in the world would she know? If she does, then she will force my hand to come clean about how my involvement with the company is more than simply managing the business side.

While I need to speak with Jasper, I will not miss today’s opportunity to touch base with Bella after all these years and see if opening a new line of communication between us is possible.

ooOOOoo

“Hello, Bella.”

“Edward. It’s good to see you again.”

“And you.”

“I was just about to join one of the tour groups. Are you going on a tour of the school?”

“Uh, yes. Do you mind if I tag along with you?”

“Not at all. Let’s catch up to the others.”

We fall in line side-by-side as we head for the renovated science labs. “You look great—more beautiful than I remember.”

“Thanks. It looks like you are one of those people who never ages. It must be nice.”

I’m eager to steer clear of my vanity issues and focus on her. “My mother has been keeping me updated on your travels.” It’s not exactly the truth, because I’m doing a fine job of that myself without Mom’s help. But I don’t want to come on too strong and scare her away with my interest.

“She has?”

“Yes, I guess she sees your father occasionally, and he shares the details with her.”

“Your mother was always one of the sweetest people. How is she?”

Unlike me who was the opposite of sweet to you in school, I think, but I’m determined to change that now. “She’s good.”

“And your dad?”

“The same. Are you living nearby?” I question.

“Yes, a few years ago, Mike convinced me to buy my own place and stop staying with my father. His new girlfriend moved in and I think I was cramping his style.”

“Mike can be persistent.”

“True. Where do you call home?”

“Upstate New York. I own a company there with a home in the area.”

“Impressive. Are you here with your wife then?”

“I’m not married—unless my job counts. No kids either.”

“Same. Dad says my wanderlust is incurable.”

“There are worse things to have.” Like an early onset of baldness.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Where are you going next?”

“Alaska.”

“Sounds cold.”

“That’s part of the adventure.”

I stop and pull her gently to the side, letting the group move ahead without us. “Bella, I know I’m about fifteen years late, but I want to apologize for how we left things after the whole prom proposal.”

“Edward, it’s fine. No one ever thinks about those things once you grow up and move on in life.”

“Well, I do—I think about that time and I’m sorry I was so harsh. You didn’t deserve my careless words or the humiliation in front of my friends. If I ever have the chance for a do-over, I would happily agree to accompany you anywhere.”

“Well, it isn’t prom, but are you planning to attend the drinks and dinner this evening?”

“I am.”

“What if we went together? As friends, of course.”

“That would be great. I’m staying with my parents for the weekend, but how about I pick you up?”

“Sure, let me get your phone number and I’ll text you my address.”

I’m a little stunned with how easy this went, but if I didn’t know better, I would think getting my phone number was Bella’s plan all along. Maybe her high school crush on me is still lingering after all these years, and who am I to refuse her forgiving nature.

ooOOOoo

“Bella!” Alice peeks her head out the door and waves her inside. “Come watch Rose shoot.”

“We’ll be right there.” Bella nods, finishing her drink, turning to face me. “You’re coming too, right?”

“Absolutely.”

She lights up with my confirmation and we walk out into the viewing area of the indoor shooting range.

Mike sees us enter. “Isn’t this great? The new owners of The Lodge are avid hunters who built the range onto the restaurant, offering the opportunity to try out various guns and weapons they keep,” he explains.

Emmett looks on as his wife steps up, loading a hunting rifle, then focuses on the target at the opposite end of the room.

He whispers loudly, “I’m getting a hard-on just watching her.”

“Emmett.” She pauses, looking back over her shoulder. “I can hear you. Shut up.”

“We may not make it to dinner.” He grins as we watch her first shots hit the target.

“Edward, do you hunt?” Alice asks.

“Not really. I have a friend and colleague who is into big game hunting, and he’s constantly after me to tag along on one of his trips to Africa. I think he always has his next trip planned. You may know him, Aro Volturi?”

“The name is familiar. You’ve never gone?”

“I haven’t had the chance and rarely take vacation time.”

“Where does he usually go?”

“All over. He was in Zimbabwe hunting elephant on his last trip, but this time he’s going to South Africa, hoping to bag a lion or hippo.”

I don’t miss the look Alice and Bella share.

“South Africa?” Bella questions.

“Yes.”

“Alice will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe I’m speaking at a conference there in a month. Are you joining him on his next trip? Maybe there’s a chance we could see each other again.” She looks hopeful.

“I hadn’t thought about it, but I think the trip is scheduled for around the twentieth of next month. He emailed me the other day.” I smile and realize I don’t want to miss the opportunity to see Bella beyond this reunion, and if I have to put up with a week or two of Aro’s bragging, I would make the sacrifice. “Now, I’m thinking I should call him and have him add me to the group.”

Bella grins. “That sounds like a great plan.”

Rosalie rejoins our conversation. “Bella, you should shoot next. Everyone else has gone except for you and Edward.”

“Uh… I don’t know if I should—”

“Come on, Bella, and give it a try. I’m sure Chief Swan taught you how to hold and shoot a gun, years ago. It’s like riding a bike,” Mike goads.

“Try this one, Bella,” Rosalie suggests, handing her the rifle she finished using.

“Okay. Thanks.”

Her smile is uncertain, but I give her an encouraging nod and lean against a wall, looking on as Rosalie explains to Bella how to load the bolt-action rifle and adjust into the proper stance.

My eyes follow her hands when they move to Bella’s hips. I don’t miss the nudging of her legs wider, which pushes a bare, smooth leg through the high slit of her silky dress. I lick my lips at the view, wishing I were the one making the adjustments so I would have another reason to touch her.

I’ve been doing my best to remain a gentleman ever since I picked her up this evening. She’s wearing a long, black dress, which clings to her delicate curves. The front of the dress is open to above her navel with two thin, horizontal straps, preventing the material from falling away from her body. One strap is just below her collarbone while the other is at the midpoint of her chest, revealing enough of the slight curve of her breasts to drive me crazy.

My attraction to Bella increases with every moment we’re together. It isn’t simply the physical connection building, but a natural curiosity about every aspect of her life. This leaves me wanting to continue our easy conversation we shared while catching up over drinks.

I watch Rosalie explain how to sight the target when Mike joins me and leans over, lowering his voice.

“You and Bella, huh?”

I shrug my indifference, but I like the idea of the two of us together, even if for only one night. I’m not sure how Bella would feel about that, but if I’m reading the signs correctly, she’s enjoying my company this evening and I can only hope for more.

“I’m impressed. You move fast, Cullen. Just like old times. Must be the hair—your secret weapon.”

“I simply gave her a ride tonight, and it was her idea we attend together.”

“But you haven’t left her side and I see how you’ve been watching her.”

Bella fires the rifle and everyone squeals with excitement as she hits the target on her first attempt. Rosalie directs her on pulling back the bolt to eject the spent shell, pushing forward to chamber a new cartridge.

“And how is that?”

“A mix of awe and admiration like the rest of us, but there’s something else there—a hunger.”

Bella fires the rifle again, hitting the target once more.

I smile. “I am hungry and hope we are eating soon.”

“Not that kind of hunger. You know what they say—”

I shake my head, waiting for him to continue.

“A gentleman is only a patient wolf.” He grins knowingly. “Bella did her thesis on wolves. She’s an expert and can spot a hungry wolf a mile away.”

“Thesis?”

“Yeah. She’s actually, Dr. Isabella Swan, and has been researching wolves for years, but also has an interest in the conservation of other animals too.”

Bella fires her last shot, handing off the rifle to an employee while Rosalie brings her target up for everyone to view.

The door opens, and I recognize the hostess from earlier who leans inside the room.

“Mr. Newton?”

“Yes?”

“We’re ready for your group in the large dining room.”

“Great. We will head that way. Jess, can you help guide everyone in the right direction?”

“Sure.”

The crowd around Bella disperses for dinner, and I step behind her, looking over her shoulder, staring in amazement when I realize all three shots were dead center of the target.

“Can you believe this, Edward? Talk about lucky!” Her smile is contagious.

“Perhaps, you’re a natural. You seem to be great at everything you do.” My hand moves to her lower back, but my eyes drift to her chest where her dress fails to conceal the aroused state of her nipples. My eyes meet hers as she returns a knowing grin.

“You’re such a smooth talker, Edward.”

I smirk at being caught, guiding her from the room. “Let’s go have dinner.”

“Great. I’m starving.” That makes two of us.

The servers take our orders and mill about our private dining area, bringing drinks as we select from the preset menu, which is one heavy with wild game. While I’m excited to try the elk and order it medium-rare, Bella is one of the few people who bypass the red meat, opting for fish.

“No bison or antelope for you?” I prompt, wrapping my arm around the back of her chair.

“I’ll pass,” she says with a polite smile.

I lean closer. “Did you want another drink from the bar?”

“No, thanks. One is enough for me. I have an early morning flight.”

“Bella, what will you be doing in Alaska?” Rosalie asks.

“I’m meeting with a former colleague about the current status of the gray wolf populations there.”

“Are they having a problem? I thought wolves were one of those keystone species, which are good for an area.”

“You’re right. They are an important part of an area’s ecosystem. The gray wolf population in Alaska is the largest one in the United States. We are examining the numbers again to see the effect of ending the wolf control program. It was initially in place to help increase the caribou populations, but we found wolves were not the limiting factor and the real problem was insufficient nutrition. And now, the caribou numbers are near the carrying capacity and we need the wolves to thin the herd. Our goal for this trip is to collar a dozen wolves to track their movements. We lost many during the state kill order, which was in place for years—some packs we tracked for over twenty years are now gone with no chance to continue collecting data.”

“Who kills a wolf?” Emmett clarifies. “I mean in the animal food chain. Do they have predators?”

Bella answers. “A wolf is an apex predator, which puts it at the top. Sometimes tigers, also an apex predator, and humans can be an issue for wolves.”

“So, a human is the ultimate apex predator,” Mike concludes.

“The term everyone likes to use is ‘super predator,’ as they aren’t at the top of the food chain without the use of weaponry. In some areas, hunters play a huge role in the extinction of a species, which is why conservations’ efforts are important.”

“Do you remember about five years ago, I think it was in northern Canada, when there was a polar bear that killed three hunters?” Mike asks.

“I remember that story. It was a female polar bear protecting her cub. With the help of a local guide, the hunters were luring polar bears to the area where they were hunting,” Rosalie recalls. “Bella, weren’t you there at the time?”

“Yes, I was originally working on an Arctic wolf project, but agreed to help with collecting ice cores. The story was shocking, but I’m not surprised. Interactions between polar bears and humans will continue to rise as the sea ice habitat dwindles each year.”

Mike adds, “I didn’t know hunting polar bears was legal.”

“They are a threatened species and hunting them is allowed by natives. But unfortunately, natives also serve as guides for trophy hunters who use high-powered rifles and snowmobiles to track them down, eliminating the chase and going for the easy kill.”

“You’re saying hunting is bad?” Emmett questions.

“Not at all. Most local hunters want to maintain current wildlife levels, which includes keeping natural habitats intact, unpolluted, and undisturbed. Billions of dollars in taxes from hunting activities are used to maintain our parks and wildlife refuges, but hunters aren’t the only ones who benefit at having areas to hunt. Ecologists, bird-watchers, and hikers also prefer thriving natural environments.”

“I love hiking. The Olympic Peninsula has always been one of my favorite places,” Jessica shares.

“The Yosemite Grand Traverse is amazing. What about you, Bella? What’s your favorite hike?” Rosalie asks.

“Laugavegurinn Trail in Iceland. I really enjoyed the ice caves and the contrasting black volcanic deserts. The waterfalls are incredible, but a close second is the Arctic Circle Trail. We caught fresh trout for dinner and could photograph fox and reindeer easily.”

“You seem to like the cold,” I tease.

Bella smiles then shrugs. “I like hot weather hikes too, but for me, a great hike depends on what animals I may see along the way. I’m a biologist at heart, but the conservationist in me will never surrender wanting to protect wildlife from the danger humans pose.”

Dinner is served, and while most are busy eating and talking to others, I continue a more private conversation with Bella.

“What is your agenda for your trip to South Africa? You said you were speaking at a conference?”

“Yes, we’re trying to build support for more private wildlife reserves instead of hunting or breeding farms. It takes a huge effort of manpower and money, using rangers, spotters, and anti-poachers to maintain the security of the land and inhabitants. The private reserves will never make as much money, but I’m hopeful they will make a difference. The white rhino is estimated to be fifteen years from extinction. Our goal is for hospitality and conservation to work hand in hand to preserve the diverse wildlife found in South Africa for future generations.”

“You’re changing the world.”

“So are you. Alice mentioned you were a successful businessman; starting your own company isn’t an easy task, Edward.”

I temper my response, not wanting to reveal too much about my initial motives with the company. “Some days I wonder if we did it for the right reasons.”

“It doesn’t matter the reasons. Are you making a difference? Changing lives?”

I shrug. “I suppose.”

“Passion is an amazing thing that drives us beyond who we think we are. It pushes our personal limits and those society places upon us. Without passion, we would accomplish nothing other than the mundane tasks of life. At one time or another, we’re all vulnerable. Remember, it isn’t about how many times we are knocked down in life, but what we do when we get back up to face the challenges still ahead.”

“How did you get so smart?” I ask, chuckling at how passionate Bella is talking about passion. But from looking at Bella’s shocked expression, I may have misspoke and offended her inadvertently by questioning her intelligence.

A frown mars her beautiful features, and she tilts her head, raising her chin. “Actually, it is my love for learning and reading, but life encouraged me to get out of the library and write chapters of my own. ‘Naïve little library nerd,’ wasn’t that what you called me?”

My stomach drops at my own words being thrown back in my face from years ago. “Bella, I didn’t mean for you to hear—”

“But I did, and trust me, Edward, I’m not naïve now. I should probably thank you. It was the kick-start I needed. So, thanks.” She stands suddenly, ending our conversation.

“I’m—”

“Excuse me; I need to find the restroom.”

At Bella’s abrupt departure, I’m at a loss for how our conversation spiraled so quickly, and my eyes find Alice’s accusing glare from across the table. She nods her head toward the bathrooms.

I stand, dropping my napkin in my chair, then follow Bella, waiting outside the ladies room for her to finish.

I’m relieved when she exits the door and ready to apologize when she stops me.

“Edward, please don’t apologize again. I get defensive of my high school self and occasionally insecurities resurface.”

“We all have insecurities.”

“Says the guy who physically never changes while amassing money and success at every turn.”

“Bella, college wasn’t an easy time for me. I had my own issues.”

“Let me guess. Your roommate used all the hot water or your phone charger wouldn’t reach your bed?”

“Funny—no.” I let out a deep sigh. “Maybe we can discuss this another time when we’re alone.”

“Sure, let’s finish dinner.”

ooOOOoo

Our evening concludes with promises to keep in touch with those who we’ve re-established friendships with over this weekend, but Bella and I don’t commit to attending the goodbye brunch in the morning for different reasons. I know she has an early morning flight, but I have other more selfish plans like spending all the time I can with her in whatever capacity she’s willing for that to be.

After a final round of hugs and handshakes, I offer my jacket to keep her warm and escort her to my car. The drive to Bella’s home isn’t long, and we’re soon in the middle of the woods, sitting in her driveway. While she’s quiet and possibly planning her escape, I want to avoid revisiting my insecurities and push my explanation off for another time.

“I had a great time this evening,” I start.

“I did too.”

“Look, Bella. I’m just going to come right out and say it. I like you and I’m hoping there’s a chance for us to be friends, maybe more than friends.”

“Edward—”

“I understand you’re busy and a relationship between us probably isn’t something you would consider, but I’ve been following you.”

“What? You’re following me?” She sits up in alarm, reaching for the handle of the door. “I think this is where we say good night, Edward.”

I stop her before she can get the door open. “Bella, wait. I’m not some crazy stalker. Let me explain. What I mean is, I’ve been following your career.”

“My career,” she repeats, leaning back slightly against the seat.

“Yes, I’m fascinated with how you are making a difference in the world and doing what we all said we were meant to do. The more I follow your posts and view your photographs, the more I realize how much I never knew about you. And, well, I’ve developed a crush of my own.”

“A crush?” She chuckles. “Edward Cullen has a crush on me.”

“I’m serious, Bella. I know I was an idiot in high school, callously breaking your heart.”

“Oh, Edward. My heart wasn’t broken; a little crushed, but I’ve survived,” she says with a smirk I take as an encouraging sign. She stares out the window at her home, and we sit in silence until she makes a suggestion. “Would you like to come inside? I can fix us some coffee.”

“Um…” The invitation I’ve been working on all evening is finally out there and I shift in my seat, considering my next move. I don’t want to seem overanxious and decide to appear as if I’m thinking it over.

“Edward? Coffee?” she asks with a tilt of her head.

“Okay. Wait there and I’ll get your door.”

I try not to sprint as I walk around the car, helping her out, with my eyes never far from her revealing dress, which is concealed partially by my jacket.

Now we’re alone in the dark, it’s as if a switch flips deep inside me—the wolf finally making his presence known with an electricity surging through my body. This entire evening has built to this point and I feel an undeniable need to touch her, but it’s more than that. It’s a stronger desire to claim her as mine.

My breathing increases as I wait while she locates her key, then unlocks and opens the front door. I know I’m standing too close when her scent overwhelms my senses, and take a few steps backward.

A glance over her shoulder and a welcoming smile has me following behind until I’ve shut the door, leaning against it, trying to slow my breathing and control my emotions.

When I close my eyes, visions of sliding my hands across her naked body fill my every thought, but I jam my hands into the pockets of my pants and take a few deep breaths before I make a fool of myself.

“Edward, are you okay?” Confusion mars her beautiful face.

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” I mumble, loosening my necktie and unbuttoning the top button of my dress shirt.

“Here’s your jacket. Thanks.” She slips it from her arms and hands it to me, bringing my attention back to that damn dress. Or I should say the missing parts of the dress. I doubt it would take much for the thin straps to rip apart. I could easily—

“Edward?”

My eyes find hers. “Right. My jacket. You’re welcome.”

“How about I go change and I’ll be right back to start the coffee? Make yourself comfortable.” She waves toward the couch.

I set my jacket over the back of the couch and move around to the other side, selecting the middle section, hoping Bella will take a spot on either side instead of the chair across from where I’m sitting.

I wonder what exactly my end game is with Bella. I’m shocked I’ve made it this far, but I’m not about to give up on other possibilities. If she’s giving, I’m definitely taking.

She returns, walking through the living room, wearing a sleeveless hoodie dress that clings to her body in all the right places with her long, bare legs on display.

Even in the low light of her cozy home, my eyes don’t miss her hardened nipples barely concealed by the thin fabric.

My mouth waters with the thought of burying my head between her legs and watching her lose control as her body contorts while screaming my name.

“The coffee won’t take long, unless I can interest you in something else.”

Something else—fuck.

Yes, I want something else, but does she?

I clear my throat, intending to make my desires known, grab her hand and lace our fingers together. “What are my choices?”

She looks toward the kitchen. “I may have a few bottles of beer in the fridge.”

My free hand glides along her leg, moving upward and over her cloth-covered ass, not feeling any panty lines. “What if I want you?”

“Me?” She gasps when I give her a squeeze.

“Yes, you.” I tug on our laced hands, pulling her willingly toward the couch, and guide her to straddle my lap, causing the hem of her dress to move higher on her legs.

My hands slide over her exposed thighs, pushing the material higher around her hips until I’m squeezing her bare ass, holding her tightly so she can feel my growing need for her.

“Edward.” Her dark brown eyes stare into mine as she braces her hands on my shoulders.

My hands slide up her back, pressing her closer until our chests are touching. One arm wraps around her waist, holding her hips to mine while my other hand threads through the hair at the back of her head, guiding her until our lips are almost touching.

“I want you,” I repeat, hoping Bella will see the truth and sincerity radiating from my eyes.

With little hesitation, she smashes her lips with mine, demanding and insistent for more as her hands grab onto my hair, tugging and twisting my head to her will.

Our kisses are a carnal frenzy of raw, unadulterated lust. Her moans accompany mine in a chorus of unleashed desire as our hips grind in synchrony until she pulls away, gasping for breath.

My lips move along her jaw, nipping down her neck until she jerks my head backward, capturing my lips once more with a fiery passion.

Her intentions are as clear as mine when her hands move to my tie, loosening and unraveling the knot. She yanks it from my collar and tosses it on the floor behind her. Her fingers skillfully work the buttons of my shirt; forcing it open, her fingers dance along the smooth skin of my abs, moving lower and easily unbuckling my belt.

She sits back, looking between us where her hands move to unhook the opening of my dress pants and lower the zipper.

I push the fabric of her dress upward until she raises her arms overhead, allowing me to pull it from her body, leaving her nude as her long hair dances along her shoulders.

I drop the material to the side and my hands move to her chest, squeezing her breasts as my mouth latches onto a nipple, sucking the peak then moving to the other.

Her breathing is ragged and her chest heaves as I feel her fingers slide under the waistband of my boxers. Her other hand slips inside, wrapping around my cock.

I pull away from her breasts and groan. “Bella.” My eyes close and my head falls backward against the couch while she squeezes and strokes my hardened cock.

I’m lost in the pleasure of her touch until she shifts on my lap, rubbing my cock through the wetness between her legs, wasting no time and sinking down until I’m buried deep inside her.

“Fuck. Don’t move. I need a moment.” Relief courses through my body at the feeling of being joined together. My arms wrap around her, holding onto her shoulders and preventing any movements of her hips. My face is smashed against in her soft breasts deeply inhaling her inviting scent. “You smell so fucking good.”

Bella chuckles and the vibrations in her chest bring a smile to my lips while her fingers lovingly comb through my hair. “I need to move,” she insists.

“If I were a cat, I would purr right now.” I loosen my grip just enough to allow her hips the space to tilt, pulling her body from mine.

My hands explore every part of her body from the soft, wild tangles of her hair to the smooth arch of her back. Gently clutching her hips, my hands encourage her movements as she pushes and pulls her body from my cock, while my lips kiss every inch of skin they can reach.

“Oh, Edward. I’m going to—”

Her pace quickens as her lips demand mine once again. Her kisses are bruising until they move along my jaw and I feel her teeth against my neck as she pulses around me.

“Fuck, yes.” I growl instinctively, loving her uninhibited nature. “Harder.”

She sucks on my neck, no doubt marking the skin, while her hips push me to the edge until I can no longer hold back. I grab her hips roughly, preventing their escape until my body bursts inside her, finally freeing my inner wolf with a thundering cry of relief.

My eyes are heavy and my body fatigued when I hear the tenderness in her voice as she speaks over the soft pattering of rain falling against the roof. “Edward,” she whispers.

“Mmmmm.” I tighten my arms, not wanting her to leave them.

“You still have your clothes on,” she points out.

I tilt back my head, seeking her lips in a dance of slow and soft, lingering kisses.

“And the power is out.”

I pull back, looking around her living room, noticing the darkened lamp in the corner.

“Let’s go to bed,” she suggests.

“When do you have to leave?”

“Not for a few hours.”

“We have more time?”

She wraps her arms around my shoulders. “Yes.”

I stand, never breaking our connection, knowing now that I’ve got her I will do everything in my power never to let go. “Let’s go to bed, darling.”

ooOOOoo

When I wake, Bella’s side of the bed is cold and I’m alone. I don’t hear her in the bathroom and guess she has left for the airport. I get dressed and plan to drive back to my parents where I’ll shower before leaving, but I look around and wonder if Bella left a key for me to lock up her home.

For the first time in a long time, I feel happy, content, and at peace. Bella is the perfect match for me in so many ways. I admire everything about her; not only is she beautiful and intelligent, but also confident and ambitious. And I can’t wait for the next time we can see each other. I will replay last night and this morning in my head until then.

With everything except my tie and jacket, I leave the bedroom, remembering I left my jacket on the couch. When I turn the corner, I’m startled to find Alice sitting on the chair in the living room.

“Alice.” I nod.

“Edward.” She closes her tablet computer, storing it in her purse. “Glad to see you’re finally awake. I trust you had a satisfying night?”

I ignore her odd question, picking up my tie from the floor and slipping it inside the side pocket of my jacket. “Is Bella headed to the airport?”

“Yes.” She waves toward the bedroom. “I told her she didn’t need to go this far as we had everything we needed. But I think somewhere in her head, she wanted a trophy of her own.”

My stomach drops at her cruel insinuation. “A trophy?”

“Oh, Edward. Are you really that dense? I’m sorry, you like the word, ‘naïve,’ right?” she continues without waiting for my response. “I told her the dress was over-the-top for a simple high school reunion, but I knew it would be the perfect hook. You liked it, didn’t you?

“I’ll never understand it. You wouldn’t give her the time of day in high school, but now because she looks different on the outside, you can’t keep your hands to yourself. She always defended you too, no matter how badly you treated her in front of your friends or laughed at her behind her back. How does it feel being on the receiving end?”

Her biting comments hit their intended target as my heart takes one hit after another. My earlier thoughts about our time together instantly evaporate with every word Alice hurls. I realize, too late, that the two of them are playing a revengeful, manipulative game.

“It’s better this way—really, it is. Bella doesn’t need someone as superficial and deceitful as you following her around like a lost little puppy dog… or would you prefer wolf?” She chuckles, leaning down to remove a thumb drive from her bag and hands it to me. “I have something for you. Feel free to look it over at your earliest convenience, but I also want to be clear; if you don’t stay away from her, I will be forced to share the information and photos on there with not only Bella but also the highest bidder. Trust me; there are a lot of people wanting the dirt on Edward Cullen, President of Whitlen Pharmaceuticals.”

I grip the tiny drive in my hand, suspecting its contents are the last things I want exposed.

“Until I had the chance to do a little digging, I had no idea you had so many enemies, Edward.” She grins. “Do we understand each other?”

“We do.”

“Good.”

I storm from the living room, slamming the front door closed behind me. I hear Alice’s cackling from beyond the door when I step off the porch and race down the steps ready to escape.

I don’t bother returning to my parents’ home, and instead, drive straight to the airport in Port Angeles, calling my pilot to let him know I’m ready to return home. I’ll call my parents later and make an excuse that something came up with work. I only brought clothing with me, which can stay in my old room until my next trip, and left my briefcase on the plane, wanting to focus all of my attention on my reunion with Bella.

Fuck.

I slam my hand against the steering wheel, reach over to grab my phone, and select her number, waiting for it to connect. When it does, I hear a recording that the number is disconnected and no longer in service, which has me seeing red.

I know this is Alice’s doing, and I’m furious she’s keeping Bella from me. I have no idea what she’s told Bella, but I can only imagine the depth of the lies she’s spread. We connected on another level last night, and I have to believe that Bella felt it too.

I’m eager to get back to the plane and home where I can figure out a way to get in touch with Bella. If I get a chance, I’ll explain everything, and hopefully, she’ll listen and believe my intentions were good although self-serving.

Before we take off, I check Bella’s social media accounts, looking for anything new. But what I find makes me wish I never looked. It isn’t her post but several photographs she’s been tagged in, taken with a group of people at the airport.

There’s one in particular that catches my eye of an excited couple, lovingly wrapped around each other. If the photograph isn’t enough of a dagger to my heart, then the post by her colleague finishes the job. “Fieldwork has never looked so good. I can’t wait to share a sleeping bag in the wilds of Alaska for the next month with this beauty. There’s nothing hotter than a passionate woman. No campfires needed. 😉 #drisabellaswan #jointhecause #savethewolves #alaskaandbeyond.”

I stare at the photograph of her sitting on his lap with her arms draped around his shoulders while her lips kiss his cheek. I can tell she’s happy and smiling, while his wide grin would reflect my own—if I were in his position with an arm around her waist and his other hand intimately wedged between her knees.

As much as it pains me to do so, I follow Dr. E. Denali’s account and hope that my heart will withstand any additional posts he may share over the next month.

ooOOOoo

I’m filled with regret for ever keeping any secrets or allowing anyone to have the power to use them against me. Because what I’m experiencing is torture.

The news reports of a grizzly bear attack out of Anchorage, killing two hunters leaves me unfocused all afternoon. I’m constantly looking for updates with new information, hoping for the reassurance of Bella’s safety.

I should be in Alaska right now. If I were, then I would have the answers I need. I’m positive Dr. Eleazar Denali has answers, and I’m beyond jealous of him and his proximity to Bella.

He’s constantly at her side, whether they’re watching the sunset from a remote spring or sharing beers around a roaring campfire with their field team. I’m sinking pathetically to new lows while waiting for his every post, hoping for the next glimpse of her on this trip.

I can’t count the number of times I wish I had been awake when she left that morning weeks ago and never let Alice get the upper hand. The thumb drive she handed me is filled with copies of my medical records and lab reports, detailing every attempt we’ve ever made at regrowing my hair. Every photograph of my failures and the final success is on the drive too. There are company and personal financial statements of donations I made on Bella’s behalf with millions of dollars allocated in such a way that without explanation looks like I was trying to buy a spot in her life or at least a friendship. I was surprised to find a mix of photos I’ve taken with various acquaintances at charity events over the past few years since I grew back my hair, but most of them are friends or family of Aro.

The opportunity to explain and make things right slipped through my fingertips that morning, and now, this is my current reality—watching another man woo her from right under my nose.

Jasper may be right about wolves and their mating habits, since my fixation on Bella is reaching new heights. I only wish everything wasn’t so one-sided and she had verbalized her hope at wanting more than a one-night stand.

It’s been almost a week with no new posts, but I stare at a picture of her making coffee for the group and remember vividly the night when I held her in my arms before it all evaporated like a puff of smoke in the wind. It’s painful, and my hope of an “us” ever existing is fleeting with every day that passes.

I think back over our conversations at the reunion and how passionate Bella was at vowing to protect all creatures from the dangers humans pose. I recall our discussion about the polar bear in northern Canada, protecting her cub, and see if I can find the original article with my limited knowledge.

When I do finally find articles referring to the events and how they transpired, the facts aren’t exactly as were shared over dinner. While one stated three hunters were killed, my search finds that actually only two hunters were killed and… one researcher, a conservation biologist from the University of Washington.

A quick search for Dr. Bob Banner, the researcher named in the article, brings up the obituary of a beloved husband and professor who died in an unfortunate accident while collecting ice core samples in the Arctic Circle. I continue looking through the articles then move onto his research, crediting a variety of students including I. M. Swan, a graduate student and research assistant.

My mind races with possibilities, and I wonder if none of the articles has the events that transpired in northern Canada correct. I return to what is known about the hunters killed in this grizzly bear attack in Alaska, locating their names, and begin my search, which I hope won’t confirm my suspicions.

My stomach sinks when I find social media posts, detailing the big game hunting trips of Laurent Bouchard and James Odin. The posts and comments brag of how they paid as little as hundreds of dollars and sometimes thousands for the opportunity to kill these animals. There are photos of dead African lions, elephants, hippos, and a highly prized white rhino, which immediately gets my attention.

I remember Bella’s words stating that white rhinos would be extinct in the next fifteen years if something wasn’t done to stop hunters. A nauseous feeling passes over me as I consider those three perfect shots Bella made at the shooting range of The Lodge. What if—

Pushing away from my desk, I stand and stare out the windows of my office. My mind reasons through the possibilities of coincidence in these events, hoping I’m wrong, but my gut knows I’m right.

Alice’s words echo in my memory, “I told her she didn’t need to go this far as we had everything we needed. But I think somewhere in her head, she wanted a trophy of her own.”

During our time at the shooting range, I handed them what they wanted on a silver platter—the date and location for the next hunt of one of the world’s most renowned big game hunters: Aro Volturi.

I shake my head as the bitter truth seeps into my heart and consider my next steps. No matter how mad I may be over the fact she used me for my connections, I need to consider what I’m willing to do, if I confirm she is in fact hunting the hunters.

ooOOOoo

Our private airplane lands in Johannesburg, then we are whisked away to a luxury home on the edge of a hill overlooking Pretoria. The home seems completely out of place to the area, as it is an oversized Tuscan villa, easily accommodating our entire hunting party of eight with every amenity imaginable.

Our bags are carried to our rooms, but I keep an eye out for Bella or Alice, since I’m expecting to see them in some capacity on this trip. My scrutiny over every female employee I encounter leaves me on edge, wondering if there’s a possibility I won’t recognize either of them.

Bella’s scheduled to speak at a local conference in a week, but I suspect she will arrive early to carry out whatever plans she may have for Aro. If I know her like I think I do, I believe she will try to stop him before he kills any animals on this trip, and my hunch is that his death will be made to look like a hunting accident or animal attack.

While I was relieved to know she was safe in Alaska after viewing new photos posted from Dr. Denali, I’m eager to reunite with her here in South Africa and unsure if my presence will be welcome or a shock when we finally set eyes on one another.

Our hunting party is an exclusive group of industry leaders who are all tied to Aro. His brothers Marcus and Cas are here. The three of them run the Volturi Group, a leading global financial services firm and one of the largest banking institutions in the United States. The Volturi Group has financed many successful companies, including Felix’s company, Vinum, which produces about three percent of all the wine in the world. It doesn’t seem like much, but it works out to be around thirty-five billion bottles of wine annually. Dem’s company, Cibus, is a multinational oil and gas corporation in Texas. Aro’s personal lawyer, Alec, is here too, as is his son-in-law, Afton, who runs the well-known computer company, Imperium.

It’s an interesting group, but I’m finding myself struggling to make small talk and stay focused as everyone shares stories over whiskey and cigars while watching the sunset on the terrace of Aro’s suite.

“Edward, are you excited for tomorrow?” Marcus asks, watching me carefully.

“Of course he is, Marcus. There’s nothing like your first hunt. It’s a primal desire found in all of us—buried deep inside our genetic coding,” Cas explains.

Afton speaks up. “Listen to him. He’s still gloating over that lion he bagged earlier this year.”

Cas laughs. “You’re jealous. Maybe you can show us how it’s done tomorrow.”

“Afton, you would be lucky to bag a sloth. How many times did you try to take down that giraffe?” Alec taunts. “You missed it, and come on, who misses a giraffe?”

Cas gets my attention again. “Edward, that lion—it was quite the kill—you should have been there. I’m standing with the guide and we spot him from about one hundred yards away. The guide asks me how good of a shot I am. And of course, I laugh because like I would miss. Then he says once the lion charges us, I’ll have four seconds to kill him with one shot. There won’t be time for a second if I miss.”

“And did you?” I stub out my cigar, exhausted and ready to have some time alone.

“I’m here to tell the story, aren’t I?” Cas grins.

I stand, planning to leave for my room. “Gentlemen, I’m calling it a night. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Bright and early, Edward. We’ll meet around five,” Aro reminds me.

“All right. Good night, everyone.”

I head to my room, shrug off my clothes, and collapse on the bed, knowing our morning hunt will be here long before I’m ready.

ooOOOoo

Each day of the trip is like the first as we hunt in a variety of areas with our guides and recount the day’s adventure over gourmet meals prepared by the in-house chef before retiring to Aro’s terrace every evening for another round of cigars and whiskey. While Aro is gleefully victorious over the two lions he kills during our trip, I’m careful to miss the shots I take at a buffalo that crosses my path on our last day.

“So close, Edward. I hate you’re leaving empty-handed.”

“It has been an interesting experience, Aro. Thanks again for the invitation.”

“My pleasure. We’re heading to the airport soon. Pack your bags. I’ll have them get the jet ready.”

After a solid week with this group, I can’t wait to get home. I’m disappointed and somewhat relieved I never saw Bella or Alice the entire trip. While everyone has been focused on the animals, I’ve been vigilant for anything out of the ordinary, ready to protect the group from an unknown predator they would never expect is hunting them.

With no threats or signs from either one, I conclude I may have this all wrong and my suspicions about Bella are way off. I’m ashamed that I thought she must be guilty because of the coincidences I found and never gave her the benefit of the doubt.

I’m lost in thought the entire drive to the airport, wondering about my next steps for contacting her when I make it home to New York, but as our group is walking through the terminal, I’m surprised when I spy a familiar face, arriving from an inbound flight.

She doesn’t see me, and I excuse myself from our group. “I’ll catch up in a minute. I recognize someone.”

Aro smiles. “Sure thing, Edward.”

I weave through the passengers, heading in her direction, and shout her name when I’m close. “Bella!”

Her eyes move toward my voice, and the moment they lock with mine, a huge smile breaks out across her face and she changes her path, walking toward me.

“Edward, what a small world.” She laughs, opening her arms for a hug, which I gladly give.

It feels perfect holding her again, and my body sags in relief at her simple touch. “Bella, it’s great to see you again.”

“How are you? You look a little more tanned than the last time I saw you.”

“I’m good.” I lean in, kissing her lips with a quick peck that brings a smile to her face.

“Are you arriving too?”

“No, I’ve been here for the past week and I’m headed home.”

Her smile falls slightly. “Oh, any chance you would consider delaying your departure and join me for dinner?”

I’m thrilled at the invitation and accept without hesitation. “Dinner would be perfect. I can take another flight tomorrow.”

“Or in a few days? You could join me at the conference,” she suggests.

“I could do that. I’ll need to call Jasper and let him know not to expect me. Let me touch base with Aro, then we can go.”

“All right. How about I meet you at baggage claim?”

“Sounds perfect.”

I catch up to Aro, letting him know that my plans have changed and I will be staying in Johannesburg for a few extra days. I bid everyone goodbye and make a beeline for baggage claim, excited over the possibility of spending more time with Bella and resolving to come clean with her over dinner this evening.

I’m eager to eliminate Alice’s hold over me because during this trip I’ve decided that Bella’s opinion is the only one that matters. If I have her understanding, then Alice can do whatever she wants with her underhanded information. I couldn’t care less.

I spot Bella, pulling a bag from the carousel.

“Here, let me help you.”

“Thanks. I was thinking we could store our bags in my room then have dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. Sound good?”

“Sure. Do you have a ride?”

“Yes, he should be waiting over by the exit doors.”

We find Bella’s driver and make our way to the hotel. I haven’t stopped grinning the entire time, but I have a few questions of my own I would like answered before we proceed. I hope the information I’m about to reveal doesn’t send her running in the opposite direction.

ooOOOoo

“This is lovely.” Bella looks around the restaurant while our server fetches our drinks from the bar.

“It is, but I have to admit you are a sight for sore eyes. I tried to call you, but your phone number was no longer working.”

She smiles. “I lost my phone. I have a hard time keeping up with anything that isn’t my camera, which is far more valuable. I work in such remote areas that a phone is pointless, as service never exists there. It drives Alice crazy.”

“Is she with you for this trip?”

“No. She’s in Seattle.”

“I don’t think she’s my biggest fan,” I reveal.

Bella waves off my comment. “That’s Alice’s problem. She’s protective of me.”

I nod, wanting to understand her relationship with Dr. Denali. “I saw photos of you during your time in Alaska.”

Her face lights up. “It was really a great trip. Eleazar always puts together the best field teams, and I was happy to help.”

“The two of you seem close.” Too close.

“We are. He is such a wonderful friend and colleague. I love him.”

My heart sinks at her words, but she continues.

“I must introduce you to his husband one day. We’re all great friends. Riley’s a businessman like you.”

At her explanation, my jealousy dwindles instantly, and I’m thrilled to be included with her future plans. “Sounds like a great idea.”

The server returns with our drinks and we order our meals, but I’m eager to get back to my questions, knowing I need answers before I dive into anything about me.

“I’m sure you saw the news about the two hunters in Alaska while you were there.”

“I heard about it when we returned to the wildlife center. My understanding is they were hunting illegally without a guide.”

“I was worried when you were out of contact and hoped you weren’t in any danger.” I watch her carefully, knowing better than to underestimate her, but her face remains neutral.

“That’s sweet of you, but I was fine.” She shakes off my concern, and I know I won’t get any more from her on the subject, so I try a different approach.

“I wanted to ask you about something else that was mentioned at the reunion.”

“Sure.”

“It was the story in northern Canada involving the polar bear and her cub.”

“Yes?” There’s a flicker of something in her eyes, maybe pain, before she takes a deep breath, locking down whatever is threatening to bubble to the surface.

“You were there.”

“I was,” she agrees.

I clarify. “Not just in northern Canada, working with wolves or collecting ice core samples, but there during the attack.”

Her expression never changes. “That’s correct.”

“You were close with Dr. Banner,” I state, hoping to chip away at her hardened exterior by mentioning his name.

Bella’s shoulders dip slightly, then she gives a brief smile. “He was a wonderful mentor and loved by everyone who knew him. His death is a great loss.”

I suspect Bella took the loss harder than most. Perhaps it was the point when she declared war on big game hunters. “Did—”

“They shot him, Edward—in cold blood,” she interrupts my next question as her chest heaves. “Th-They didn’t care. They were cruel and joked about having him stuffed alongside the mother and cub.”

“The hunters didn’t see you there,” I guess.

She shakes her head. “Dr. Banner told me to stay put. We… we keep a rifle with us for protection, even though we know it’s a last resort.”

And on that day, she used it to defend herself, her mentor, and the threatened polar bears.

“I understand.” While I’m still not certain if she was involved with the deaths of the grizzly bear hunters in Alaska, I’m going to let it go and not push for more when I see I’ve upset her, recalling the events leading to Dr. Banner’s death.

Relief passes over her features. “Thank you.”

We’re both quiet and lost in thought as we finish our meals. When the server checks on us again, we agree that we are finished and pass on dessert. I know I need to focus on what I originally wanted to tell her and decide it’s now or never.

“Bella, there’s something else I’ve wanted to talk with you about.”

“Sure. What is it?”

“When we were at the reunion, we touched on insecurities and my time in college.”

“I remember.”

“I want to explain why I started my company—the driving force behind it. Uh…” My hand runs nervously through my hair.

“Just say it. It can’t be that bad.”

I nod. “At the time, it was the end of the world. I…I lost my hair. All of it.”

Bella snorts. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s true.”

“Mr. Sex Hair—you, lost all of your hair?”

I smirk at the former nickname, but it fades, recalling how my sex life went down the drain as well. “Yeah, I was devastated.”

“Oh my goodness, Edward. Were you sick? Is that what caused it?”

“No. It was an early onset of baldness. It thinned, then became non-existent.”

“I see.”

“I became obsessed with keeping it, and tried every method out there to stop its loss, but none of them worked. And the side effects were troubling.” I think back to those darker days of depression at losing vital pieces of myself. “My roommate, at the time, watched as I became another person and lost my identity. He’s a brilliant research doctor, but he was a medical school student ready to experiment with new possibilities.

“We tried everything imaginable until he finally found a solution that worked using gene therapy. There were risks, but I was desperate and willing to do anything possible to get back who I was. So, I agreed.”

She waves toward my head. “Clearly, it worked.”

“It did.” I smile. “He found the cure for baldness.”

“Congratulations, Edward. That must have been an amazing day when you both realized its success.” Her smile brightens.

“It was, but there were issues as he used the genes from wolves to repair my defective one that controlled hair growth.”

“Wolves? Now you have my attention.”

“Yes. We permanently removed the extra hair or fur that grew on my entire body.”

“Well, I’ve seen every inch, and if I recall correctly, you look amazing, but Edward, you didn’t need to become some experimental lab rat. People always loved you growing up, and that wouldn’t change if you were bald. I know it would make no difference to me.”

“You see that’s why you are such a better person than me. Of course, you wouldn’t care. But I did, and I’ve always felt ashamed to focus on my own vanity because then, obviously, I’ve never grown up and I’m still the same selfish, superficial jerk from high school.”

“You know that’s not true, but why are you telling me now? I would have never known if you hadn’t said something.”

“When we marketed the product, we never revealed my initial involvement in testing or the fact I’ve been the one pushing for a solution all along. But we took pictures and there’s plenty of medical data, which can be accessed with the right connections.”

“Okay?”

“Alice knows, and she’s been threatening to share the information publicly, exposing me as being superficial and deceitful.”

“Threatening you?”

“Yes. She warned she would expose me if I didn’t stay away from you.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why would she do such a thing?”

“She thinks I’m wrong for you and that I’m only interested because of how you look now.”

Bella shakes her head. “I can talk with her and smooth things over.”

I stop her. “That’s not all.”

“What else?”

“I’ve been following your career, as you know, but it’s a little more than that.”

“How much more?”

“I’ve been donating to the charities, programs, and universities you’ve been involved with for years.”

Her brow furrows. “Years?”

“Yes. You’re out there making a difference and doing the right thing. I wanted to support you without being intrusive.”

“Edward, that’s—”

“But Alice has collected documentation that makes it look like I’m trying to buy a spot in your life rather than help an old friend.”

Bella shakes her head in disbelief. “We haven’t exactly been close friends for a long time. How much are we talking?”

“A lot.”

“A lot?”

“Millions.”

Her eyes widen at the truth. “Millions? Edward that must be close to a hundred charities and organizations.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Holy shit. Edward, that—”

I backpedal immediately, trying to minimize my impact. “I understand you’re upset and hoped you wouldn’t take it the wrong way.”

“Edward, that’s incredible and I’m extremely flattered you would do such a thing for me.”

My shocked eyes meet hers. “You are?”

“Yes, and I’m doing everything I can not to make a scene and jump over this table to thank you properly.”

I search her eyes as they twinkle with new possibilities. “I think I may like you making a scene.”

“Maybe we should go up to my room and make a scene there,” she suggests with a grin.

My smile widens, knowing that with everything out on the table we’ll be able to move on, hopefully together. “I like how you think.”

ooOOOoo

I wake to the darkened room with my phone glowing and vibrating on the nightstand. When I see it’s Jasper, I realize I forgot to call him and let him know of my change of plans. Grabbing the phone and my boxers from the floor, I slide them over my hips and slip out to the balcony to take his call.

“Jasper?”

“Edward! Oh, thank God I got a hold of you.”

“Hey, I’m sorry I forgot to call. I ran into Bella at the airport and I’m going to stay with her for a few days for her conference, then we’re going to return to New York. She can’t wait to meet you.”

“Dr. Swan?”

“Yes. What’s going on? Is something wrong back home?” I wonder if Alice knows I’m here with Bella and has sold her information as she’s threatened. I can only imagine the tailspin that would be waiting my return, which isn’t something Jasper could handle on his own.

“Edward, Aro’s plane is missing. They lost contact off the West Coast of Africa.”

“What?”

“Aro’s plane. They’ve found a path of debris in the water and think it’s his plane.”

“Aro’s missing?” I turn around, looking inside our room, and I can barely make out Bella sleeping on the bed.

“Yes, thank God you weren’t on that plane. Fuck, man. Dr. Swan saved your life.”

My mind works rapidly, putting together the pieces of what he’s saying. I can’t stop the immediate thought that she sabotaged the plane, and not only took out one world-renowned, big game hunter, but seven without firing a shot. “She did, didn’t she?”

And Bella made sure I wasn’t on that plane.

“I don’t care if this was some coincidence or a greater hand at work. You’re safe and I’m so relieved, Edward. I’ll call your folks and let them know. They’re worried sick.”

That word gets my attention—coincidence. Was it a coincidence?

While I’m shocked at the news and will mourn the loss with the families, I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I can’t. This is a slippery slope, and I promised myself I would stop second-guessing her if I got her back because I know there’s no way I’ll ever let her go—a killer or not.

“Thanks, Jasper. Keep me updated, but I’m sure it will be all over the news later today.”

“All right, man. Glad you’re safe.”

“Thanks, Jasper. Bye.”

I ease back inside, set my phone on the table, then move toward Bella’s naked form, which is barely concealed below the silky sheet.

Gently, I pull it from her body and trail a path of kisses up her smooth leg, around the curve of her hip, across her back and to her shoulder, pushing aside her long, wild hair.

“Mmmm, what a wonderful way to wake up.” She turns onto her back, wrapping her legs around my hips and shoving my boxers lower as I hover above her.

Her hands move from my abs to my chest until she rubs the scruff along my jaw. “So sexy.”

When I don’t respond, she caresses my cheek. “Edward, what’s wrong?”

My suspicious eyes lock with her questioning ones. “I need a distraction.”

A devious grin forms over beautiful features as her hand wraps around my cock. Lining it up at her opening, her legs urge me forward. “I can distract you in the best of ways.”

I thrust inside without a second thought, groaning at the insatiable hunger she ignites, and I know I’ll never get enough. “I need to keep a closer eye on you,” I promise.

Jasper’s right. I love the chase, and there’s nothing like this woman who always seems to be three steps ahead of me. My heart soars, knowing she’s always wanted me unconditionally and it’s time for me to claim her as my own, because for this alpha, the hunt is over.

She moans at my intrusion. “That sounds like fun.” Her hands tug on my hair until our lips are nearly touching. “Now, fuck me, Edward, and don’t hold anything back this time.”

My inner wolf howls with delight, ready for any challenge. “Bella Swan, if I’m not more careful, you’ll be the death of me.”


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