Sunday, January 17, 2010

Amnesia, Chapter 5 - Encounter

Visuals are nice! Edward looks amazingly like Tyler Roth in this chapter. So weird.


“Bella, what are you doing? Put that down!”

Mike Newton came barreling toward me down the hiking gear aisle like his pants were on fire. I stared at him with a mixture of amusement and irritation as he angrily yanked a nylon backpack out of my hand.

“It’s your first day back at work, are you nuts? You shouldn’t be stocking the floor,” he scowled, putting the backpack on its requisite hook and shoving me gently to the side as he bent down over the packing box and pulled out a couple more bags.

“Geez, Mike. These things weigh nothing. Exactly what AM I supposed to be doing that won’t be too taxing for me?” I asked with exasperation.

“You go ahead and tag them with the price gun. I’ll do the physical labor,” he said with a tinge of smug machismo. I rolled my eyes at him and poised the gun so I could price the backpacks as he drew them one by one out of the box.

“Honestly, Mike, I can handle it. My arms and legs work just fine. In fact, everything works just fine. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, well, I remember how weak you were in the hospital, and that was only a couple of weeks ago. You can just take it easy. Just run the cash register and help the customers. Maybe face the shelves. But none of this lifting and carrying crap, okay?” he declared grumpily. Ugh, men. Always over-reactive and over-protective.

I finished tagging the backpacks and handed over the price gun to him. “Fine, I surrender,” I sighed, then turned and began straightening the displays of camping equipment and hunting knives. Mike reminded me of Charlie, insisting on doing everything for me to the point where I wanted to scream “I’m fine!” even if I wasn’t 100% back to normal yet. I was just so bored of sitting at home on the couch, catching up on missed schoolwork, that an afternoon at Newton’s Sporting Goods Store was a welcome alternative. Mom had left for Florida a couple of days ago, and I’d made it through two days of school before the weekend came. I tired easily, but other than that, I was feeling pretty good. My neck throbbed dully on occasion, but now an over-the-counter pill took care of that. My bandages were reduced to a couple of large Band-Aids over the puckered black gashes that were still healing. I drew my hair over them and they weren’t all that noticeable.

“Hey, Mike!” an excited voice called out. I looked up to see Lauren Mallory from school approaching, tossing her curtain of perfectly straightened, perfectly bleached blonde hair over one shoulder as she sashayed toward us. “Oh, hi, Bella,” she added as a disinterested afterthought.

“Hey Lauren,” I mumbled. For some reason she seemed to have taken an instant dislike to me when I first showed up at Forks High School, maybe because a lot of the boys seemed to have taken an interest in me early on. Jessica had likened the phenomenon to kids getting a shiny new toy for Christmas, and I had to agree. I was a curiosity, nothing more, I was sure. But Lauren seemed to resent me even after it was clear that I was no threat to her popularity.

“What’s up, Lauren?” Mike asked. “You need stuff for that ski trip coming up?” He turned his back to me and began chatting with Lauren about her family’s upcoming vacation to Lake Tahoe. Bored, and determined to make myself useful, I wandered back to the storage area to see what merchandise I could easily carry out to the showroom. I found a large cardboard box of thermal gloves that had just come in for winter, and it wasn’t heavy, though it was unwieldy. I only had to make it halfway through the store and I thought I could handle it. I hoisted the box up and made my way back out into the showroom.

I would have done just fine if I could have seen my feet, but as I walked somewhat blindly, my sneaker caught on the base of a large wooden hat rack. The box began to hurtle from my arms as I fought to keep my balance. Seemingly out of nowhere, another pair of hands shot out to grab the other side of the box, keeping me from dropping it and embarrassing myself completely. I looked up sheepishly to thank the stranger who had helped me, and my face froze in wonder at the sight of him. Standing two feet away from me was quite possibly the handsomest boy I had ever seen.

“You okay?” he said softly, concern evident in his blue-green eyes. He looked almost fearful, as if I might have hurt myself or something. Or maybe he just felt bad for me because I was so clumsy.

I stared dumbly up at his beautiful face, trying to find my tongue. An agonizing moment of silence ensued while I gawked at him, my eyes cataloguing his exceptional features. Tall, lanky build… wild reddish-brown hair atop matching overgrown eyebrows… bone structure a model would kill for… smooth ivory complexion… lips so soft and pink, any girl would be jealous. And those eyes, framed by insanely long lashes… the type of orbs that pierced right through to your soul, stripping away all coherent thought and speech in the process. At least that’s what it felt like as I hemmed and hawed painfully, locked in his spellbinding gaze.

“Here, let me help you with this,” he said finally, in a voice that was the aural equivalent of silk. He handily took the box from me and set it gracefully on the floor as if it were filled with feathers. He looked up at me and grinned slightly, the corners of his mouth dimpling adorably. I started when he suddenly ripped the box open with his bare hands and then smiled even more broadly, evidently pleased with himself. It would have taken me five minutes and two bloody slip-ups with a box cutter before I had it open.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, still trying to get my bearings. I searched for something else to add and came up empty, then blushed at my social ineptitude.

“The pleasure was all mine,” he said in that swoon-inducing timbre. His sweetly crooked grin continued to render me helpless. Stop being so charming, I begged him inwardly. He ignored me. “I’m new around here and I need to pick up a few things before winter comes. Do you think you could help me?”

Okay. Direct question requiring a response. A response that makes sense. I literally closed my eyes for a moment to block him out, then finally managed, “You mean like a winter coat and gloves? Boots…?” I trailed off, having hit my verbal limit for that particular moment.

“Yes, exactly,” he smiled. “I don’t think this jacket is going to cut it for very much longer.” He unzipped and removed his navy windbreaker, revealing an ordinary muted green plaid shirt and gray tee underneath. His long, nimble fingers mesmerized me for a moment, as I inanely thought, he’ll need size Large for those hands.

He once again had to interrupt my reverie. “So, can you point me in the direction of the coats?” He looked at me expectantly, eyebrows raised, and I realized he was probably wondering if I was a special-needs person by now. I frowned and bit my lip, letting the pain inflicted by my teeth jolt me back to reality.

“Sure, they’re right over here,” I replied, motioning for him to come with me over to the outerwear section. I felt his eyes on my back as he followed, and I wondered if he was checking me out with even a fraction of the interest that I’d blatantly shown him. God, don’t be ridiculous, I admonished my foolish self. A guy like that could have anyone. A model, a cheerleader, a human Barbie doll.

“Omigod, this is so hot on me, don’t you think?” Lauren Mallory’s squealing voice met my ears as we approached the outerwear. There she was, spinning and posing in front of the three-way mirror in a hot-pink ski jacket, while Mike nodded and grinned appreciatively. Lauren glanced over in our direction, then did a double-take when she saw the Adonis behind me. She gaped openly, her lip-glossed mouth forming a slack “O.” I wondered if I had looked half as ridiculous as she did when my eyes first took in his handsome features.

“It looks great. You should get it,” Mike assured her, then noticed our arrival. He frowned slightly at the boy next to me, who had nodded politely and then turned to look at the array of winter coats on a nearby rack. Mike’s frown deepened when he realized that he had lost Lauren’s attention entirely as she stared at the new Alpha male in the room. The latter’s lovely face was fixed upon the coat rack as he flipped through the down-filled jackets.

“Those are really warm, and they wear like iron. We sell a lot of those to the hunters around here.” I was stunned to find that the confident-sounding assertion had come from my own mouth. Maybe all it took was a little competition to bring me to my wits.

Adonis poured his molten gaze on me and replied, “That’s great. I need something sturdy, since I’m outdoors a lot.” I found that idea a bit odd. His build and coloring suggested musician or poet much more than hunter or hiker. He was quite tall and lean; lithe and sinewy more than rugged.

He pulled one of the black nylon parkas in question over his broad shoulders and looked down to check the fit. It was fine except for the sleeves, the wrists of his long arms poking out from the cuffs.

“Oh, that’s hot,” Lauren piped up, giving him a flirty look and flipping her hair back. Adonis gave her a perfunctory smile, while Mike’s lip raised in a slight sneer.

“That looks good, but you’ll need a Tall,” I told Mr. Beautiful, turning to the rack of Talls and searching for the same coat in Large. He moved next to me and the hairs on my arm prickled at the nearness. “Here, I think these are all the same style. It comes in five different colors.”

“The black looked great on you,” Lauren interrupted none too subtly. Adonis again flashed her a short, cool smile, then turned the full weight of his stare on me. “What color do you like?” he asked me.

Wow. For real? He looked as if my preference was of great importance. Or maybe I just really, really wanted to believe that.

“They’re all nice,” I began lamely, until I envisioned him in the deep, vibrant blue. I pulled it out of the rack and handed it to him, my eyes leaving his only long enough to grab the right color. He smiled and took it from me, putting it on and zipping it up, then checking the sleeves. It fit perfectly. He looked ridiculously gorgeous, the intense royal navy bringing out the blue in his eyes.

“I’ll take it,” he said simply, shrugging it off and handing it out toward Mike. “Can you keep this up at the counter for me?” Adonis asked him politely. Mike gaped in mild outrage, then jerked the jacket out of the boy’s hand, grumbling under his breath as he disappeared to the back of the store.

Mr. Beautiful gave me a conspiratorial grin. “Okay, maybe now you can help me find some gloves.”

The next hour passed in a euphoric blur, with the handsome boy asking my opinion about every article of apparel he tried on: gloves, hats, shirts, shoes, even jeans. Every time he came out of the dressing room in a different pair of denims, demanding to know whether he should get the dark or light rinse, the zippers or button-flies, I nearly came out of my skin. He looked so good in everything that I was hard-pressed to choose what he should buy. I wouldn’t have believed that his interest in my opinion was personal if it weren’t for his clear dismissal of Lauren, who gave up trying to ply him with compliments and resorted to sulky stares behind his back instead. She would dislike me even more than before after this incident, I thought. And I didn’t care one bit. I could barely tear my attention from the glorious guy in front of me long enough to acknowledge that anyone else existed.

Finally, after picking up a few camping items to add to all the new clothes, Adonis pulled out his wallet and announced, “I think you’ve about bled me dry here.” Suddenly a look of alarm crossed his face, his eyes searching mine for something I couldn’t name. Then he relaxed and gave a wry laugh, waving the wallet and adding, “I think I’ve done enough damage for one day.”

“I’m sorry I took all your money,” I apologized with a grin as we made our way to the cash register. “Hopefully it was all stuff you needed though. Didn’t you say you just moved here?” I asked, trying to prolong the conversation.

“Yeah. I was vacationing here with my family awhile back and I liked it here, so I decided to hang around for awhile. I didn’t bring a lot with me… I kind of wanted to start fresh,” he explained.

“I can relate to that,” I empathized. “I just moved here myself a couple of months ago, to live with my dad for awhile. It’s been… an adjustment,” I said with short laugh.

“Really?” he said, watching me as I rang up all his new clothes and gear. “Are you glad you came here?”

I regarded his inhuman beauty for a moment and said emphatically, “Yes.”

He looked at me carefully and said, “I just wondered because…well, I couldn’t help but notice the bandages on your neck. It looks like something bad happened to you recently.”

I blushed self-consciously and put my hand over the Band-Aids. “Well, it was my own stupidity, really,” I began. I told him the story of my unfortunate and unremembered run-in with a wild animal, which happened because I had ignored my father’s warnings about traveling through the woods at night. His forehead tensed with concern as he listened. Good thing I didn’t tell him about the crazy comment I overheard Alice tell my doctor, or he would have really looked worried. I still couldn’t figure out if I’d actually heard her say she was sure my wounds weren’t inflicted by an animal, or if the morphine had made me delirious. Because what else could have done that kind of damage?

“That’s horrible,” he finally said softly. His expression was so serious that it seemed as if he somehow felt personally responsible for my foolishness. “I’m so sorry. That never should have happened to you, Bella.”

My heart began racing at the sound of my name escaping his lips. “How did you know my name?” I demanded breathlessly.

His eyes widened, and then he grinned and gestured to the area directly above my left breast. “Your name tag,” he admitted.

My face colored and I let out a self-conscious laugh.

“I’m Edward, by the way,” he said, giving me the heart-piercing look he was so good at. He reached into his wallet and handed me a large wad of cash to pay for his purchases. The cool skin of his hand brushed mine briefly, and a shockwave went through my whole body.

“Nice to meet you, Edward,” I replied in vast understatement, handing him his change.

“The feeling’s mutual.” The quiet, velvety sound of his voice was beginning to feel like a drug to me, and I didn’t want it, or him, to go away. Our eyes were locked in another strange dance, neither of us wanting to be the first to end it.

Mike Newton ended it for us.

“Bella, are you about done here? I need your help getting some of those skis off the top shelf for Lauren to look at,” he said, approaching the cash register. I was surprised Lauren was still in the store. I hadn’t even noticed. If any other customers had walked in, Mike must have taken care of them because I didn’t hear or see them. It was like I had tunnel vision with Edward Whoever-he-was in the room.

“I’ll get them,” Edward told Mike before I had a chance to reply. “It sounds like Bella shouldn’t be doing anything too strenuous for awhile.” Holy crow, he was as bad as Charlie and Mike. But for some reason, I liked it when he seemed protective of me. I began to sense that this new boy might have a detrimental effect on my innate feminism. I could get used to someone like him watching out for me. Too used to it.

“Don’t be silly, I can do it,” I told Edward, perhaps a little too defiantly. His eyebrows shot up, but a grin twisted his lips. “I mean, that’s what I get paid for,” I amended.

I followed an annoyed-looking Mike over to the ski equipment, and I could feel Edward right on my heels. Mike got up on the ladder and shuffled through the boxes of skis on the top shelf, looking for the right weight and size. He handed one of the boxes down to me, but Edward easily reached over my head and intercepted it. I began to protest feebly as Mike dug for a second style of skis, when suddenly I heard a commotion overhead. Somehow Mike had triggered a mini-avalanche as he pulled out the second box, sending at least a half-dozen pairs of skis tumbling down right over our heads. I heard Edward emit a short expletive as his hands shot up, lightning quick, and somehow caught every box before they hit me or the carpeted floor below. I stared at him in disbelief. By the laws of physics and probability, the boxes should have been scattered all around us, but instead, he had managed to capture them all and tuck them neatly under one arm in the time it took me to blink twice in amazement.

“How did you….” I began to ask, while Edward looked at me with a mixture of chagrin and anxiety.

“Shit, Bella, I’m so sorry, are you okay?” Mike interjected, hurrying down the ladder and grabbing my shoulder worriedly. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you do anything physical here at work today,” he castigated himself.

“God, what happened?” Lauren exclaimed, running over to us from where she’d been preening in the mirror, a price-tagged knit hat still perched on her head.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” I assured her, though I was certain her apparent concern was merely for Edward’s benefit. “Mike dropped some boxes, but Edward caught them before they hit us.” I again shot him a questioning look, which he deflected by turning and propping the ski boxes against the wall.

“Nice save, man, thanks,” Mike said, nodding to Edward. Edward gave a quick nod in return. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to Bella,” he asserted, flashing me a brief but intense glance.

“Wow. Glad you’re okay,” Lauren said rather disingenuously. Then her face brightened at the picture on one of the boxes. “Cool, Mike, look at these! I’ve got to try them on. Dad said no rentals for me anymore, so I want a really good pair.”

I was glad that Mike’s attention was diverted, and I turned to Edward. “Would you care to explain how you did that? Were you a circus juggler in a past life or something?”

He quirked one eyebrow. “Possibly,” he grinned slyly, then shrugged. “I just have a good eye. I saw them coming before you did, is all. I’m taller, you know.”

I rolled my eyes slightly. I was about to grill him further when my peripheral vision caught a customer waving from the shoe section. A middle-aged man stood holding a couple of boots, calling me “miss” and asking if he could try them on.

“Sure, I’ll be right with you,” I replied. I turned back to Edward. “Saved by the bell.”

He gave me that charming crooked grin, his eyes crinkling up into amused slits. “Some other time?” he suggested. Please ask for my phone number, please ask for my phone number, was all I could think. But he simply scooped up his bags of merchandise and said, “Maybe I’ll see you around, Bella.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” I quickly replied, then bit my lip at my eagerness.

“It’s a small town,” Edward said with a smile, and what I perceived to be a meaningful look. And then, to my disappointment, he turned and left the store, my eyes following his long legs until he had disappeared from sight.

The afternoon passed quickly as I replayed the time with Edward over in my mind in between helping customers, and daydreamed about seeing him again as I stocked shelves. He was like no other boy I had ever met before. It wasn’t just his good looks. There was something surreal about him; otherworldly, almost. There was no rational explanation I could think of for the effortless way he prevented all of those boxes from falling on me. And his singular interest in me was something no boy had ever shown before, unless he was trying to feel me up in a darkened movie theater or car. I could still scarcely believe Edward was real. Coming to live with Charlie was beginning to feel like the best decision I’d ever made.

I hurried home after work to cook up the cod Dad had brought back from his fishing trip that morning. He’d been worried about my first day back at work, but I assured him I got along just fine. I didn’t tell him about meeting Edward, though. For one thing, I wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again, though I certainly hoped I would. For another, I really couldn’t conceive of having a discussion with Charlie about boys. He’d be as uncomfortable hearing about Edward as I would be talking about him. Besides, I was saving up to bend Alice’s ear about Edward that night, since she had asked me to come to the Cullen house for my Halloween party costume fitting.

I was anxious to see where the Cullens lived, because I’d heard their spacious two-story house in the country was quite a spectacle. I found the dwelling at the end of a long, winding drive through a densely wooded area just north of town. Though night had already fallen by the time I got there, I could see that its classic style would be quite impressive in the daylight.

I was a bit apprehensive as I approached the side door near the drive, because I was afraid of what Alice was going to sic on me in the way of a Halloween costume. When I’d pressed her about it at school, she’d simply laughed excitedly and said, “Don’t worry, you‘ll love it! It’s going to be perfect for you.” Then she’d clapped her hands and grinned devilishly. I was definitely worried.

Alice answered the door, grabbing me in a hug and exclaiming, “I’m so glad you’re here! Come in, everyone’s dying to meet you.” She pulled me inside, and Dr. Cullen approached, asking how I was doing and taking my coat. I had just seen him for a check-up the other day, but he insisted on taking a peek at my wounds under the bandages.

“Those are healing nicely,” he said with a satisfied smile. “I’m so glad that we got to you when we did that night. A few minutes more and we might have lost you.”

“Thanks, Dr. Cullen. I’m really grateful you came to work at our hospital. I don’t think I would have made it if you hadn’t been there to do the emergency surgery.” Or at least, that’s what I’d been told by Charlie, Renee and the nurses. “I owe you my life.”

“You owe me nothing other than a speedy recovery,” he said. “And it looks like you’re well on your way.” He turned then and introduced the pretty auburn-haired woman next to him as his wife, Esme. She smiled warmly and said she was glad to meet me because she’d heard so much about me. She and Dr. Cullen were so attractive and young-looking, it was hard to believe they had grown children like Alice and her older brother Emmett.

“Emmett and Jasper are trying on their costumes,” Alice explained before I could ask about her brother. “I don’t know why, because they’ve worn them before. I know they still fit. But you, on the other hand…” she trailed off, grabbing my arm and pulling me upstairs. “Come with me!”

We ascended the open, modern staircase with its gorgeous pieces of art adorning the wall, and ended up in a long hallway that split off into several bedrooms. Alice pulled me down two doors into hers, a beautifully decorated room that was understatedly feminine in its shades of pale gray, lavender and yellow. In contrast, a bright red, sparkling piece of clingy fabric hung on a satin hanger from the open closet door. I gawped at it in horror. “Please tell me that’s not mine,” I said in a strained voice.

Alice looked at me sternly. “Keep an open mind,” she told me. “You don’t know what it will look like until you try it on.”

“Alice, come on. You know me. You know I can’t pull off something like that,” I protested. I tried to imagine Mike or Tyler or Eric getting a load of me in a
skimpy red costume. My stomach lurched in response.

“Oh, you SO can. You don’t realize what a cute figure you have. Models starve for a body like yours. Everything looks good on you, I’m sure of it.” I groaned in submission as she started tugging at my pullover sweatshirt.

“Stop, Alice. Just give me the dress, I’ll put it on.” I started to disrobe, and Alice turned away, though she’d seen me in my underwear a dozen times before in the girls’ locker room at school. She handed me the dress over her shoulder, ordering, “Tell me when you’ve got it on.”

I pulled the offending piece of fabric over my head, and was surprised at the easy manner in which it fell and settled over my slight curves. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared. It was short, but not embarrassingly so; somewhat low-cut, but not revealing. The skirt and sleeves were cut in flame-like strips and decorated in varying shades of red sparkling beads and sequins. As I looked at it, I realized that they were, indeed, supposed to be flames. I looked up to see Alice, smiling raptly, holding out a ridiculous pair of flashing red horns and a black pitchfork.

“Oh my God, Alice, are you serious?” I moaned. “A she-devil?”

“No, silly!” she laughed. “THE Devil! Beelzebub, Lucifer, the Dark Lord of the Underworld!”

I shook my head and let out a rueful laugh. “Nobody will believe me as the devil,” I said. I had always been plain, ordinary. Blending in with the scenery was where I was comfortable. I simply couldn’t imagine vamping it up in some racy red outfit, wearing an absurd battery-pack headband with glowing plastic horns atop my head.

“That’s exactly the point, Bella!” Alice insisted. “My favorite thing to do on Halloween is to dress up against type. The fact that you are so sweet and unassuming is exactly why you should turn the tables and do something crazy for Halloween. It’s liberating, Bella, trust me. Just try it this once, for me, pretty please?” She batted her huge doe eyes at me and pursed her dainty lips in supplication.

I sighed in defeat and turned to look in the full-length mirror. I was surprised to see that the dress was actually sort of…becoming. I couldn’t quite bring myself to call it “sexy,” but it did make me look and feel a way that I’d never felt before. Suddenly I wondered what Edward would think if he saw me in this dress. He would probably laugh his ass off, especially over the horns. But it might be kind of fun to poke him with my pitchfork in retaliation.

I blushed deeply at my crazy imagination, and astute Alice quickly picked up on my change in attitude. “You’re thinking about it, right? You look hot! You have to see that. And when I get done with your hair and make-up, watch out! Every boy at the party will be dying to go to hell for you.”

I laughed at her words, and then admitted, “Well, there’s really only one boy I’m interested in.”

Alice’s eyes bugged wide. “Who? Dish, immediately! It’s not Mike, is it? I mean, he’s crushing on you so hard, but I just can’t see you with him. You need someone more…mysterious.” Her brows knitted in thought. “I really can’t see you with any of the guys at school. They’re such knuckle-draggers, most of them.”

“Damn Alice, talking about me behind my back again?” a voice demanded from the hall. A handsome brunet head was peering around the doorway. “You girls decent?”

“Yes, which is more than I can say for you,” Alice teased. “Bella, meet my brother Emmett. Emmett, this is Bella.” A big bear of a guy, Emmett filled the doorway as he came through it. He wore a stiff white dress shirt with black slacks, and a black cape flowed out behind him as he barreled into the room. He whipped out a pair of plastic fanged teeth, stuck them in his mouth, and dramatically mimicked, “I vant to drink your blood!” as he dove for my neck.

I jumped back instinctively, a jolt of terror seizing my body. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, a glimmer of lightning shot through a dark, rainy sky as I felt something pierce my neck. Just as I realized that it must be a memory of my attack, it was gone.

“Damn it, Emmett, what are you thinking?” Alice yelled, punching him on the arm and giving him a threatening look. An expression of surprised guilt crossed his face as the meaning sunk in. “I’m so sorry, Bella. I wasn’t thinking.” He gestured toward my bandages. “I didn’t mean to remind you. I was just getting into character and I got carried away.”

Alice scowled and pushed him aside. “It wouldn’t be the first time.” She worked the marquee-style flashing headband into my hair and thrust the pitchfork into my hand. “Doesn’t she look great?” she asked her brother, beaming at me as if I were a Thanksgiving turkey she’d just prepared.

“Yeah, she does,” Emmett agreed. “The guys will be all over you. Don’t worry though, I’ll protect you,” he winked, flexing a bicep. With guns like that, I was sure he could.

“Hey Alice,” he continued, “the hem is coming out on this side of the cape. Do you think you can fix it? I gotta get going to work. I’m gonna see if I can switch the schedule around next week so Edward can come to the party. Billy has some nephews he can call in for reinforcements at the bar.”

I felt a thrill race down my spine at the mention of “Edward.” Could it be the same one I’d met this afternoon? How many guys had an old-fashioned name like Edward, anyway? Especially in a town the size of Forks.

“Good, I want to meet him,” Alice said, a peculiar tone in her voice.

“Who’s Edward?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Edward Masen, a new guy in town who just started working at Jake’s with me a couple of weeks ago,” Emmett explained. “I figure he could stand to meet more people his own age. I’m sure he’s tired of all the middle-aged women hitting on him at the bar,” he added with a laugh. “Those pretty boys have all the luck.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know…I think you’re a pretty lucky guy yourself,” a new voice purred from the hallway. A stunning blonde in designer jeans and a fitted cashmere sweater entered the room and snaked her arm through Emmett’s, giving him a sexy grin.

“The luckiest, my beautiful Rose,” he agreed, giving her a lingering kiss. I tried not to stare, but they looked like catalog models together, perfectly pale and gorgeous.

Alice interrupted their moment. “Geez, go to Emmett’s room if you’re going to start that,” she groused. “Bella, meet Rosalie Hale, Emmett’s significant other. She’s also Jasper’s sister. Rosalie, Bella Swan.”

Rosalie finally tore her lips away from Emmett’s and regarded me coolly with her clear blue eyes. “Nice to meet you, Bella. How are you doing? Alice told me about your unfortunate incident in the woods.” She smiled, but her eyes remained indifferent.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I mumbled. Rosalie was the type who always intimidated me. Beautiful, poised, graceful… my polar opposite. Charlie always kidded me that I’d trip over the flowers in the rug.

“My costume looks pretty good on you,” Rosalie mused, eyeing me up and down. “A little big, maybe. A padded bra ought to take care of that.” She grinned a bit smugly, clearly noting the difference between her luscious curves and my own slender build. I felt my face turn as scarlet as the dress.

“Oh, stop. She looks fantastic,” Alice insisted, waving her hand toward Rosalie in dismissal. Then she whispered loudly to me, “She’s just jealous of your killer legs.” I smiled weakly, still feeling vastly inferior in what I now knew to be Rosalie’s second-hand costume.

Alice turned back to Rosalie. “Did you decide what you’re wearing? If you want something new, I need to know right now. I only have tomorrow free to do any sewing.”

“Well, if Emmett’s going as Dracula, then I’m going to be his Lucy, of course,” she grinned, reaching up and giving Emmett a kiss on the cheek. “I already tried on that old-fashioned dress of Esme’s. It fits perfectly, no need for alterations.”

“Hey babe, I gotta get going. Walk me out, will you?” Emmett asked her, raising an eyebrow. I could tell by their expressions that that was probably code for making out for a few minutes outside Emmett’s car before he left. “See you at the party Saturday, Bella,” Emmett smiled before leaving hand-in-hand with Rosalie.

“So, um….” I began when Alice and I were alone, “what do you know about this Edward Masen guy?”

She looked at me curiously. “Not much. Just what Emmett said, that he’s new around here and is bartending at Jake’s Place. Why do you ask?”

“I think I met him this afternoon.” Something in my eyes or voice must have given away my interest, because Alice’s eyes widened in understanding.

“Bella…is that the guy you were talking about? The guy you like? Seriously?”

“Yeah. Why do you sound so shocked?” I wondered.

“I’m not. I mean, well, it’s kind of a weird coincidence, isn’t it? That he works with my brother, and he might be coming to our Halloween party?” She looked a little apprehensive, though I couldn’t figure out why. She put on a bright smile and continued, “This is a good thing though, right? I mean, he must be a nice guy if you like him. So how did you meet, anyway? Did he come to the store or something?”

I nodded and told her about my afternoon. She listened intently while I described how different he was from the guys I was used to, and how he seemed so unusually interested in me instead of Lauren. She interjected that Lauren was as plastic as they come, and that Edward must be a smart guy to see through her fakeness and recognize a “real woman” (me, evidently) when he saw one. Her eyebrows shot up when I told her about Edward’s baffling heroics concerning the falling ski boxes, but she said nothing.

“Well,” Alice concluded, “I, for one, cannot wait to meet this extremely interesting-sounding guy. And I really want to see his face when you come out wearing these.” She picked up a pair of frightening red stiletto platform shoes from the closet and waved them under my nose. I snorted at the sight of them. “I’d like to see that, too, but it’s never going to happen. I’ll fall right on my face in those things.”

Alice made a dismissive noise and said, “You’ll be fine. All women can wear heels. It’s in our DNA.”

Apparently Alice didn’t know a thing about the Swan klutz gene. If I wore those, I’d end up taking a classic “Swan” dive into the punch bowl. I made a mental note to bring my red Converse sneakers to the party and hide them in my truck.

I was just about to unzip the devil costume when Jasper Hale came striding into the room wearing a Civil War get-up that was so authentic, it looked like he’d just walked out of a page in my American History book at school. He brandished a lethal-looking bayonet and declared, “Look, Alice, it still fits me like the day it was made!”

I stared at him, puzzled, and he jumped when he saw me. His eyes were black as they met mine, and for a second, they looked almost wild. Alice grabbed his arm in a protective stance and glanced worriedly back at me.

Jasper shook his blond curls a bit, then clarified, “I meant, since you did the alterations the last time I wore this costume.” He smiled adoringly at Alice, who returned his grin. “Hi Bella,” he said, turning back to me. “Like the uniform? It was my great-great grandfather’s. He was a major in the Confederate army. Fought in Galveston, Texas in 1861. I think he would have moved up further in the ranks, had he lived.” He smiled a bit wistfully.

“That’s amazing,” I told him. “That uniform is so well-preserved. You look great.”

“Well, it’s been well-taken care of over the years. Family heirloom,” he said.

“Won’t I look cute as his Scarlett O’Hara?” Alice grinned, batting her lashes at her boyfriend. “I can’t wait--this party is going to be epic, I can feel it!”

I looked at my image in the mirror once again, trying to be objective about sultry Rosalie’s cast-off costume draped over my slight frame. Maybe it would give me confidence. Maybe her sexiness would somehow rub off on me by osmosis. Maybe it was time for a new side of Bella Swan to emerge from the old ugly duckling.

Seeming to read my mind, Alice put her arm around my shoulders, met my reflection in the mirror with a wicked smile and whispered, “Trust me, Bella. When I’m done with you, I have the feeling we’re going to get this Edward Masen guy exactly where we want him.”

In the mirror, I saw Jasper give Alice a strange, almost foreboding look from under his eyebrows. She returned his gaze, and a shiver went through me. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was sure as hell going to find out.

I took a deep breath and said dryly, “Let’s party.”

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