Bella's fingers curved around the belt loops on Clark's jeans as the Harley dipped down a low hill. She loved the speed of her bike. The rush of air into her lungs and onto her face made her feel like a bird, flying and without restraint. After her mother's death, her dad allowed a few indulgences to ease the hollowness of grief. Of everything he'd given her, the Harley-Davidson was her favorite. On the bike, she was in control. Speed made her untouchable and empowered, both heady sensations she enjoyed to the fullest and only relinquished on rare occasions. Like now.
With the direction of the bike in Clark's capable hands, her mind ventured to the past. Every year until she was twelve, her dad let her spend the summer in Smallville. Being an only child, she loved spending time with her cousins. The older ones took turns bossing her around and spoiling her rotten. But her relationship with Pete was much different. Because they were the same age, their bond was on a deeper level. They played and fought like siblings, yet when the chips were down, they were as thick as thieves. Her close relationship with Pete extended to his best friend, Clark Kent.
As much a tomboy as a little princess, she brought her favorite doll whenever the boys allowed her to tag along. Fishing or chasing frogs through the wet ground, Bella relished every moment with the boys. Anytime she slipped or tripped, Clark Kent with his gorgeous bluish-green eyes and unwavering thoughtfulness caught her. He was the first boy to hold her hand and the only one she consistently dreamed about.
After a five-year absence, she hoped the reality would pale in comparison to the myth of her youth. Just minutes in his presence, she realized reality far exceeded fantasy. Clark had grown into a drop-dead gorgeous guy and still exuded the sweet innocence that drew her to him all those years ago.
Clark's strong fingers brushed hers. Scorching heat dulled her thoughts to silence. Time stood still. Then in a rush, everything came to her at once. The realization that they were still and the Harley's engine had died. The chirping of crickets in the otherwise quiet night. The sweet smell of fresh cut grass. And the hard length of Clark's thighs between hers, pressing and full.
"Bella?" He coughed once.
Her fingers uncurled on their own volition. She appreciated the dark helmet which hid her no doubt dumbfounded expression. She slid from the bike in one graceful move and away from his all-consuming heat and masculinity.
Pretending the moment was no different than any other, she looked around. As she removed the helmet and hugged it close, her eyes narrowed on the lush landscape. "Are we where I think we are?"
"The pond's half a mile through those woods." Clark rose from the bike and stood just inches from her. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "It's weird being here and knowing that Pete won't be. Every year when my dad drove us back home, I begged my parents to move to Smallville. It's strange that my dad and I are finally doing that, but it won't be what I dreamed."
"I'm sorry." He stepped close enough that his body heat enveloped her. "Pete told me about your mom. I sent a card. I know that wasn't good enough, but..."
"It was nice." She turned to face him. "I'm sorry I never wrote back. I meant to, but I didn't handle her death well. I learned I'm not good at saying goodbye. Maybe that's why Pete ran out before we arrived. He didn't want to deal with the hysterics."
"That's not it. He probably lost track of time."
"Maybe." A warm breeze rustled the tree leaves. A memory of the three of them running through the pond as they chased a family of frogs brought a wistful smile to her lips. She brushed a stray curl from her cheek and forced herself not to analyze the way Clark's eyes bored into hers. Jutting her chin toward a cluster of bushes, she said, "Do you think he's at the pond?"
"It's possible. Pete has a lot of hiding places. We can start here."
He looked down at her stylish leather boots and smirked. "You won't get too far in those things without feeling the ground on your bottom." He extended his hand. "You'd better hang on to me."
She smiled and took his hand. "That sounds like a deal with fringe benefits. I accept."
Pete tossed the loaded duffel bag into the rear seat of his convertible. Without looking back, he slid behind the wheel and roared out of the school parking lot. On automatic, he guided the car home. As he stopped at the last intersection, anxiety gripped him. He wasn't ready to go home, yet. Not that it was home anymore. His dad had moved out and wouldn't return until after Pete and his mom were in Wichita. His brothers and sister were already gone, living their own lives. He had no one to turn to at home which was why he spent several nights at the Torch office.
Of course one thought of the Torch brought a feisty blonde to mind. Chloe. She was rude, bossy and sanctimonious but he loved every inch of her. Damn, he really should have kept that a secret.
He made a u-turn and headed back toward the town square. With so much on his mind, the last thing he needed was to deal with his mother's close scrutiny. Since his few nights of rebellion, she watched his every move and questioned his mood swings. Maybe his ride down the fast lane during his street racing days had something to do with her going on protective-mama overload. The bruises and cuts left by the shady FBI agent hadn't helped either. Nah, he thought, as he parked in front of the old Talon Theater, facing his mom right now wasn't in either of their best interest.
"Pete?" Lana Lang stepped from the sidewalk to stand beside his car. "You're just sitting there. Are you okay?"
"Sure. I'm just taking a break." He reached over and opened the passenger door. "Get in."
Indecision flickered across her face for a split second. Then, she slid in beside him. "Where are we going?"
"I'm going to Wichita. You're going to Paris," he said. "There are no pit stops in between."
In a nervous gesture, she smoothed her long dark hair behind her ears. "No, there doesn't seem to be."
"At least with me, I'll have my mom. You'll be all alone in France." He frowned. "I can't imagine it."
"Well, I've been alone for a long time..."
He gave her a long, hard look. "That's not true. Chloe and her dad gave you a home. You have people who care about you. You always have."
She became quiet and Pete worried that he'd offended her. He hadn't said anything that wasn't true. But he knew from experience that the truth was often a bitter pill to swallow.
Her hand closed around the door handle, but she didn't leave. "You seem to know a lot about my life."
"Clark cares about you," he said quietly, "and he's my best friend."
"Clark. I hoped he wouldn't magically appear in this conversation."
"He's always there. Whether he wants to be or not. Tell me, Lana. Is he why you're leaving? Because things didn't work out for you two?"
"You're not pulling any punches tonight," she commented. "And here I thought you were the happy-go-lucky type."
"That's just a myth," he said with a small trace of humor.
"Well, I guess it's a shame I was so late in discovering the mystery of Pete Ross."
"How about this? I'll tell if you tell."
"Tell what?" he asked.
"Why you're leaving. We share the same circle of friends, but this was the first I heard of it."
"Chloe didn't know until tonight and since you're not exactly on speaking terms with Clark..." He sighed. "I'm leaving because it's the best thing for me right now. I won't lie and say it's because my mom needs me, which she does. I'm doing this because I need it."
"Me, too." She shifted on the seat to look at him. "Maybe I'm being a coward by running away, but I need this. I need to go. To move on. To see if I can make it on my own. Because like you said, I've never been lonely for companionship."
"Some people have it like that," he commented dryly.
"Believe me, it's not what it's cracked up to be." She hesitated before she spoke again. "I know this is a little late and may seem kinda strange, but would you like to keep in touch with me?"
He thought he'd seen and heard it all. But this topped everything. "You wanna be pen pals?"
"Sure." She shrugged. " Am I asking for too much? What do you think?"
"I think I can do that." He glanced at his watch. It was late and he didn't see her Jeep Liberty. "Where's your car? Can I give you a ride somewhere?"
"I walked. I planned to take a final foot tour of Smallville before I go. Wanna take a walk with me?"
"Yeah, we can say goodbye together." He released a short self-deprecating laugh. "Man, that sounded corny, didn't it?"
"Just a little." Her laughter was soft and warm. "But I like it."