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Stranger Than Fiction Prologue EPOV To say I'd ordered Alice not to look for her was to put

it charitably. Still, even as I'd pinned my petite little sister to her bedroom wall, threatening her menacingly, I knew she wouldn't be able to resist. The one and only time she'd allowed her thoughts to betray her breach of that promise in my presence, Alice had been so terrified for my life and sanity that she'd abruptly stopped her monthly visits. That was over two years ago. Still, I cursed her to hell for not warning me about this. My existence for the past six years had been characterized by only two sensations: excruciating visceral torture and catatonic numbness. Over time the catatonic periods began to last longer and the sharp bursts of unbearable pain were fewer and farther between. I'd been avoiding Emmett and Jasper, along with the rest of my family, ever since we left Forks. But even more so since the incident with Alice two years ago. Then, six months ago Irina had told Emmett where I was staying. He'd shown up one day and locked my head in a vice grip. Told me that they were taking me hunting willingly or forcibly. But that I was going. Ordinarily I would have fought him, outrun him. But I was weak. It had been six weeks since my last kill. My eyes were blacker than onyx. To my shame, my own self-loathing was no match for my scorching thirst. We were 50 miles outside of Juneau, hunting moose. Nothing in the general vicinity except a small Inuit village. I had just taken down a large buck, allowing myself to enjoy the kill more than usual. I was draining the brute slowly, savoring the brief flash of euphoria in my otherwise wretched existence. I glared into the animal's huge eyes, and felt myself grow hard as I watched them darken, flatten, and finally roll back into its enormous head. I was still suckling at the wound when I heard it. Her name. The thought was crystal clear, yet totally unfamiliar as it floated to me from the mind of a faceless human some distance away. The shock of it forced me backwards into a rock face, where I landed with a thundering crack, my face still dripping with blood. I was on my hands and knees then, crippled by the weight of it. Of her name, in the mind of another. The thoughts were feminine, but a tide of jealousy rolled through my body and I began to convulse. A torrent of blood streamed out of my mouth. As I writhed in agony the girl's thoughts continued to batter me. They were images from her life. Our life. But, yet, they weren't.

The thoughts came in a stream, burning me like acid as they washed over me, through me. The girl, this random, cursed girl, was thinking of that first day. The day I'd nearly ended that sacred life before it had even really begun. But the image was off somehow. It was a classroom, but it wasn't the same classroom. It resembled us, but it wasn't us. I buckled with the memory, distorted as it was. A seemingly endless reserve of blood poured from my throat and out of my mouth, soaking the snow beneath me. The thoughts were unrelenting. The school office. A warped but identifiable rendering of myself asking a grey-haired woman to transfer out of biology lab. What the fuck? I began to wonder if this girl and her thoughts were a punishment of some kind. If the God I'd vainly tried to appease for the past eighty years was finally meting out his judgment. The distorted images continued their assault as I wretched and spilled the remaining contents of my bloated belly. Her room. Her purple bedspread. Her truck. Christ, her truck. I don't know why, but it was this last image that finally broke me. I sank back on my heels and folded into myself. Eyes clamped shut, clawing uselessly at my hair, I unleashed a desperate roar, hoping in vain to drown out the assailing memories. Time lost all meaning as I burned in my hell. At some point-it must have been mere seconds laterJasper and Emmett were on me. I was vaguely aware of the pain dulling marginally, numbness taking its place. Jasper. Then suddenly, the images disappeared. As abruptly as they had begun.

A/N: Thank you for reading! We hope you like this story - our first FF endeavor. The concept of this story was born when two girlfriends from grad school discovered they shared a mutual love for Twilight and Rob and mutual dislike for (a) the New Moon Reunion scene and (b) babies born with teeth. We wanted to give Bella a chance to grow up, get her shit together, and put Edward through the paces. And, trust us, she will. But also trust that there will be some juicy lemons ahead. Please review. We are new at this and would really appreciate knowing that someone out there is reading our story and, if so, what you think! Pretty please?

Chapter 1 BPOV I stood in front of the dressing room mirror, brushing nonexistent lint from my suit for the twentieth time in the past fifteen minutes. I glanced around the well-appointed room with its plush buttercolored couch and artfully-designed fruit tray that I hadn't touched. Bottles of Evian were lined up like soldiers on an antique-looking buffet. What I wouldn't do for a black coffee and a cigarette. I wasn't exactly a smoker, but one little pull would do wonders for my nerves. My throat tightened at the thought. I suppose I could understand not stocking Marlboro Lights in a dressing room, but coffee? This was a morning show for Christ's sake. I turned to the side, examining my profile as I smoothed the front of my fitted Chanel jacket and fluted black skirt. I unnecessarily swiped another coat of berry red lipstain on my full lips before smudging them together, fighting hard to resist the urge to bite my lip - a nervous habit my publicist had been trying to break me of. Appraising myself in the full-length mirror, I had to admit I'd come a long way from the coltish girl who just over a year ago had lived in jeans and hoodies. Still, no matter how many of these interviews I did, part of me felt like a kid playing dress up. Twelve months ago I wouldn't have made it five feet in heels this high before falling flat on my face. The past year had taught me to appreciate the benefits of tailored clothing and expensive shoes. I had grown particularly fond of a delicious pair of Louboutins. My phone buzzed in my purse. I smiled reflexively when I saw the name on the screen. Thomas. Happy Birthday Baby. Can't wait for your Birth-night. Break a leg - I'll be watching. I grimaced. I was hoping he hadn't remembered. I hated birthdays and typically avoided any sort of celebration at all costs. The first year Thomas and I were together, I let the day pass without mentioning its significance. Several days later a belated card arrived from my dad and Thomas had been beside himself when he realized he'd missed it. As penance, I'd promised to be a good sport about my birthday this year on one condition: never, under any circumstances, was he to throw me a party. I was interrupted before I had a chance to reply to Thomas's message. "Ms. Swan," one of the producers called as a light knock rapped on the door. "We're ready for you." Showtime. I tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear and gingerly patted the sleek knot at the nape of my neck before turning the handle and heading down the hall to the studio. ~X~ The interviewer greeted me and we settled into the stylish armchairs as he started in with the predictable accollades on my early succes.

"Isabella Swan. Birthday wishes are in order, I hear! Thank you for sharing your special day with the Today show and its viewers. Now, at 24, you are currently the youngest author to ever spend twelve consecutive weeks on top of the New York Times Bestsellers list. How does that feel?" I felt my face fix into a practiced smile. "A little surreal, still, I must admit. It's an honor to have this recognition at an early age." He gestured to a herd of young women and girls waving wildly outside the window on the Plaza behind us. "This book has fueled quite a phenomenon among young female readers. Newsweek reported last month that, and I quote," he donned a`pair of glasses before reading from his notes, "'Ms. Swan's debut novel has teenagers and twenty-somethings everywhere disavowing their affections for hollywood heartthrobs and professing their love for a fictional character.' Can you explain the frenzy your book has generated?" Of course I had to answer this question graciously but, honestly, it scared the shit out of me knowing that hundreds of thousands of young women were reading my book. Writing for me had been a necessity. A catharsis. When I had finally succumbed to Thomas's not-so-gentle prodding to submit the manuscript to a literary agent, I had been comforted by the knowledge that there was no way in hell it would actually get picked up. When the call came, I had been shocked and more excited than I would have ever predicted. But, now, looking at the crowd of fresh-faced teens outside clutching their hard-covers, I felt a bit dizzy. I smiled towards the window and waved gingerly at the crowd before answering. "Well, of course I never expected my book to resonate so well with readers. I was just writing for myself. I'm just so pleased that the story speaks to others as much as it did to me." The interviewer glanced at his notes again. I guessed him to be early fifties. There was no way in hell he'd read my book. "So let's talk about the story. Your book, Dusk, is the tale of a young girl who falls in love with a vampire who wants to kill her. Where in the world did you come up with such an idea?" I was ready for this question. I got it every time. The lie was effortless by now. "Believe it or not, the story came out of a dream I had when I was seventeen. It made such an impression on me that I immediately wrote it down in my journal. When I got to college, I turned the dream into a story for a creative writing class." "And the rest, as they say, is history." I chuckled lightly. "You could say that, yes." In truth, no human being apart from myself knew the true story behind Dusk. I had been giving the "dream" explanation for so long now that I sometimes believed it myself. With every telling, the little white lie became a little bit easier. And with it, the remaining pinprick in my chest closed just long enough for me to smile and laugh my way through a five-minute interview. ~X~ As I walked out of the elevator at Rockefeller Center, I carefully avoided the newsstand.

No matter how much press I did, I never got used to seeing my face on TV and in print. Vanity Fair had run a small feature on me for their September issue under the heading "Beauty, Meet Brains". The title had embarassed me horribly, as had the photo of me sporting what can only be described as tousled "sex hair", tortoise shell glasses and a black minidress. The get-up had seemed tame at the photoshoot, but the picture had been photoshopped and converted to black and white. The resulting image was plainly calculated to play into every guy's sexy librarian fantasy. I took the publishing company's town car back to the Waldorf, eager to squeeze in a nap before meeting up with Thomas. As soon as I entered the room my breath caught. I looked at the bed and thought for a moment my eyes must be playing tricks on me. But as I drew closer, there was no mistaking it. It was tattered and full of holes, but it was the same green and pink quilt I had dragged around with me like a spare limb for the first five years of my life. My blankie. And it was here. In the Waldorf. I picked it up and buried my face in the threadbare cotton. It still smelled like Renee's house. My old house. My mom, free spirit that she was, had been content to let me drag my security blanket around with me wherever I went. I slept with it on my bed every night when I lived with my mom in Phoenix. I swallowed the building lump in my throat as I thought about her. It had been over a year since I'd visited. She and her new husband, Phil, were living in Nashville now, having relocated three times in the past five years to accommodate Phil's mediocre baseball career. I had to admit, though, their relationship had lasted longer than I'd predicted. Phil and my mother started dating when I was 16. He had been 28 at the time - closer to my age than hers. A year later he got signed by a minor league team in Jacksonville. My mom made a valiant effort to pretend to be happy without him but she couldn't fully contain her excitement when I told her I wanted to spend my last two years of high school reconnecting with my dad, Charlie. In all honesty, the suggestion had been impulsive. But when I saw how happy the idea of moving to Jacksonville had made her, I'd resolved to make the most of the change. Two months later I landed in a small town on the Olympic peninsula - Forks, Washington. I hadn't intended to leave my blankie behind when I moved to Forks, but a few weeks into my new life I had forgotten all about it. Until now. I was so lost in my memories I almost didn't notice the small cream envelope lying on the bed. I instantly recognized Thomas's messy scrawl. For Bella, on her birthday. I opened the card: I know it's been a long couple of weeks. You've been amazing, as always. Thought you might enjoy one of the comforts of home. Happy Birthday, Baby. Love, Thomas. P.S. I coordinated with Renee. Hope you don't mind. I smiled as I slipped out of my designer clothes and slid on a set of silk pajamas. Leave it to Thomas to do something completely unexpected and perfectly thoughtful. I crawled on top of the plush chenille coverlet and pulled the tattered quilt up under my chin, inhaling the scent of my mother. It smelled of

sun and lavender with a tiny hint of patchouli. I reached for my phone on the nightstand and sent a quick text before dozing off. Best birthday present ever. I closed my eyes and willed myself to lose consciousness. I hated lying to Thomas.

Chapter 2 BPOV I was awakened from my nap by the muffled but unmistakable reggae beats of the "Cops" theme song coming from underneath a bedpillow-Charlie's ringtone courtesy of my best friend Jacob briefly kidnapping my cell phone on my most recent trip home. I picked up before the second refrain. "Mmmmhello?" "Bells? Did I wake you?" His familiar gravelly voice was even more comforting than the blankie now flanking my legs. "Mmmmhh...no. Maybe." "Oh, gosh, I'm sorry honey. I thought you were on the East Coast this week. I was just calling to say happy birthday." "No, no, I mean, yes, I am on the East Coast. Just napping. Early interview." "Oh, right. Sorry about that, honey. I meant to tune in. I was fishing with Billy." Charlie never watched anything on TV except sports. I was sure he wouldn't even know which network the Today show was on. "It's okay, Dad. It was nothing new. Thanks for the birthday wishes." "Ok, so, I know you hate gifts so I didn't get you anything. But next time you come home I'm gonna treat you to a birthday dinner out. You're too sophisticated to be cooking fish fry for your old man." "Aw, dad, no, I-" Other than his Thursday night tradition at the diner, Charlie rarely ate out and hated dressing up. "I won't take no for an answer. We'll get dolled up and make a date of it - if we can escape the papareetzee." I laughed, "Uh, paparazzi, dad. And that won't be a problem. I only get recognized in New York or L.A. and very rarely in any case. I'm pretty sure the paparazzi won't be hanging out in Forks waiting for a B-list celebrity." "Yeah, well, one of the deputies at the station was telling me that he recently took his wife to a little Italian place in Port Angeles called La Bella Italia. Maybe we could give it a try. "

My stomach twisted. I dropped the phone onto the pillow. "Bella? You there?" "Yeah, uh, sorry, dad," my voice shook involuntarily. Get a grip, Bella. "Dropped the phone." "Well, relieved to see that fame hasn't made you any more coordinated, grace." "Ha, ha." Ok, almost recovered. There was no reason to panic over this. "So, dinner next time you're in town?" "Sure, dad. Sounds great." I hung up the phone and flopped against the pillow, willing myself back into a fitful sleep. ~X~ I sat on the couch with my legs crossed, my right leg bobbing impatiently over my left. I was all "gussied up and ready to go," as Charlie would say. Hair just brushed, blush and lipstick freshly applied. I had on a navy blue Donna Karan wrap dress that Thomas bought me last year for Christmas and gold ballet flats. It was my birthday, dammit, and I didn't want to wear high heels. What I wanted to do was put on some sweats, order Thai food, and drink enough red wine to drift into a dreamless sleep. My birthday routine, as it were. But I had promised Thomas that I'd play along, and I guess I could handle a birthday celebration every six years or so. I waited for him to arrive so we could leave for dinner. My phone buzzed. A text from Thomas. Stuck on the tarmac at JFK. Meet me at the restaurant? Ugh. I'd rather not. Waiting alone at a fancy restaurant was so not my scene. Come here first, I responded. We can be late. It's out of my way. Had to call in a major favor to get the reservation. You're a big girl. You can do it:) Sigh. OK. You win. I hailed a cab and quickly arrived at the "most romantic date spot" in New York City. Thomas was nothing if not romantic. I found a seat at the bar, ordered a glass of wine, and willed Thomas to arrive. Fidgeting in my seat, I inspected a loose thread on the hem of my dress with the utmost scrutiny. "Heyyyy," said the frat-boy-type a few seats down. "You're that author chick, right?" Indeed. I nodded a shy smile of acknowledgement and scooted my bar stool a few inches in the other direction. I wasn't in the mood. "My girlfriend wants to fuck a vampire because of you." I choked on my merlot.

"Umm . . . I'm sorry?" I mumbled, feeling my face flush. "Nah, it's okay. She wants to fuck me a lot more now, too." God, Thomas. Where the hell are you? I rummaged through my purse and grabbed my phone, making sure I hadn't missed a text from him saying that he wasn't going to be able to make it after all. Silently hoping that I could take one last swig of wine and leave in a huff. No new texts. Damn. "Excuse me, miss, is that seat taken?" Thomas. Finally. I spun around on my stool. God, he was handsome. "Baby," he whispered. "Sorry to have kept you waiting on your birthday." He cradled my face in his hands and kissed me, a soft, easy kiss on the lips. Thomas's signature kiss. He leaned forward then, nudging my knees apart as he sunk into me. He ran one hand under my dress, pinching the soft flesh of my inner thigh. His other hand knotted in my hair, his lips parted, and his tongue teased mine. I tasted spearmint, with a hint of gin and tonic. Aha. He'd been drinking on the plane. PDA wasn't usually his style. "Mmmmmm," I murmured in his ear. "Let's get our table. I'm not going to want to stay here for very long." His sucked in his breath and quickly motioned for the maitre'd. "We have theatre tickets," Thomas told the maitre'd as we headed to our table. "So we're kind of in a hurry." He winked at me. "Can you have the sommelier scrounge up a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, please?" Turning to me, he said, "I know you prefer wine, but we have a lot to celebrate tonight. So humor me." "Gladly," I replied. The sommelier presented the bottle to Thomas, going through the usual formalities-all of which were lost on me. I sipped the champagne, letting the bubbles soak into my tongue. Thomas was right. I did prefer wine. But the champagne was easy to drink, and I liked the cozy feeling that was quickly washing over me. "Bella," Thomas raised his champagne flute and quirked an eyebrow at me the way he did when I'd done something to impress him, "I'd like to propose a toast." I felt my face heat and couldn't resist a sideways glance at neighboring tables. Thankfully everyone seemed engrossed in their own couplings. If Thomas noticed my discomfort, he didn't acknowledge it. He continued talking with the same proud look on his face. "A little more than two years ago, you walked into my classroom and I could tell you didn't want to be there. One of those sulking English lit majors-prettier than the rest, I should addwho just needed the creative writing credit to graduate. You sat in the back of the room, head down, silent, for an entire semester. Papers turned in on time. Solid. Well-written, but nothing exceptional." "Hey, watch it mister-" I started to interrupt but he ignored me. "-And then one day, you stunned me. Your story, about vampires of all things, written with a passion and longing I hadn't seen in all my years of teaching. I owed it to you-and selfishly, to myself as your writing professor-"

"-as my pervy, lecherous writing professor", I corrected. He chuckled. "As your pervy, lecherous writing professor, I owed it to myself to help you get your story published." He turned serious again and his eyes locked onto mine, full of emotion. "I felt so strongly that it had to be told, that people needed to hear it. And when I talked to you about it, the fierce look in your eyes betrayed your otherwise calm demeanor. I knew then that you needed to tell the story. That you had been holding something in that was so intense, so raw." I nodded at him. He was right. More right than he knew. "And as I got to know you, to memorize your smiles, to catalogue your laughs, to discover the startling perfection of every inch of your body, I fell in love with you. I wasn't surprised that it happened, but it's something that I will never get used to. How amazing you are. How lucky I am." I glanced at my napkin. Thomas had been understanding when I admitted I couldn't yet return his "I love you", but I always felt a bit uncomfortable when he shared the sentiment. Smiling sheepishly, I lifted my eyes to return his gaze as he reached for my hand across the table. "Thank you, Thom-" "Hold on, Bella. I'm not finished." He cleared his throat, glancing down at my hand and then up to my eyes again. "I've been waiting my whole life for you, Bella." Wait. I didn't like where this was going. I gave him a wan smile and then bit my lip, tugged nervously at a hangnail. "You are everything to me. Bella, you make me the happiest man in the world, and if I have to work at it the rest of my life, I want to make you the happiest woman in the world." Please don't. Please don't. Please don't. Please don't. "Happy birthday, baby. I'm so proud of you. Cheers." He lifted his glass. I let out an audible whoosh of breath. Thank God. We clinked our glasses. I leaned over to kiss him, and he grabbed my hair, pulling me close. "God, Bella. You look so fucking hot tonight." I felt my cheeks get hot. "I want you. I'd take you on this table if you'd let me." "Keep talking, and I just might," I mumbled, relieved we were back in safe territory. I lazily twirled a lock of his hair with my hand, then pushed the tip of my thumb into his mouth for him to suck. His eyes burned into mine, and then traveled to my breasts, where they lingered. He brushed the hair from my neck and leaned forward, inhaling my scent. "Mmmm. God, Bella. You smell like. . .you." "Ahem." The waiter stood awkwardly a few feet away from the table. "Your entrees, please." We straightened up, not the least bit embarrassed, and he topped off our glasses with the last of the champagne. I apparently love champagne. Champagne is so much more fun than wine. Everything Thomas said was hilarious. Everything about him was sexy. The way his upper lip curled when he said

my name. The way his fingers stroked the champagne flute. The way his cock twitched when I grazed it through his pants. We ate, I think. There was talking. About the morning's interview, about the preview performances of Thomas's play. My attention jumped from the dimple in his chin, to the way he deftly cracked his lobster claw, to the wetness on my thighs. Before I realized what was happening, the waiter cleared our entrees before I had a chance to finish mine. Somehow, I didn't think that the three scallops I ate were going to provide much resistance against all the alcohol. "I know you told me not to make a fuss, Bella. But I hope you don't mind." As Thomas finished speaking, the waiter delivered a tiny cheesecake, topped with a single birthday candle and a blood-red glaze. I froze, trapped in a silent moment of private hysteria. A birthday cake with blood on it? "Bella." Seriously? "Bella." Well, not seriously. It's not blood. Obviously. It's strawberry. . .or raspberry. . .or whatever. "Bella. Make a wish, baby, before the candle goes out." I snapped to attention. Oh, right. I had wasted so many birthdays wishing for the same thing, the same man, the same life-all of which I had very publicly relegated to a figment of my overactive, and now very profitable, imagination. It had been so long since I'd wished for anything else that I didn't know what to wish for anymore. I closed my eyes, blew out the candle. Wasting yet another wish. "Let's take it to go, Thomas. I'm not in the mood for cheesecake right now." ~X~ Thomas and I spilled out of the cab and into the lobby of the Waldorf, gripping each other tightly around the waist. The waiter had been nice enough to put the cheesecake in a small box and had closed it with a rubber band that Thomas was apparently getting great pleasure out of snapping. We barreled across the marble floor and toward the elevator. It was a good thing I wasn't wearing heels. I had enough trouble walking as it was, and Thomas wasn't making it any easier for me. He playfully shoved me into the elevator, his impossibly blue eyes shining wickedly. "You want to fuck in the elevator, baby?" I did. I truly did. All that I wanted at that precise moment was for him to hike up my dress, slide my panties to the side, bite my neck, and shove his hard cock into me. Making me forget all about birthdays, blood, and wasted wishes.

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My responsible nature took over, though, as I didn't feel the need to get kicked out of the Waldorf. "No, Thomas. We're almost to our suite." I fumbled for our key and let us in. He half-tripped, half-jogged toward the bed as I padded down the ridiculously long hallway to the bathroom. "Yo, Bella. There's a split of champagne in the minibar." "Sounds good, babe. I'll be right back." Inspecting myself in the mirror, I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw. Wild, glazed expression, sure. Messy hair and smeared mascara, absolutely. But my cheeks were flushed, lips full. I slipped out of my dress and took another look in the mirror. I still wasn't into lingerie, but I had to admit that I looked pretty fuckable in my hot pink thong and demi cup bra. "Bella. Come on. The champagne is getting warm." I tousled my hair, readjusted my bra, and walked out to find Thomas lounging naked in a chair on the balcony, drinking champagne straight from the bottle. I sidled up next to him, stroking the back of his neck. He raised his hand, motioning to the sky in front of him. "Can't beat this view, can you babe?" "Hmmm. I think you might be wrong," I murmured. I straddled him and brought his face to my chest. "How does this view compare?" "Ahhhhh. You're so right," he replied huskily. I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms around his neck, and began to grind my hips against his. He shifted in the chair so I could feel his cock against my thigh, and he traced my collarbone with his lips. We moved like that for a few seconds, or a few minutes. Long enough for me to feel my chest flush and the core of my body begin to tingle. Not long enough to get what I needed. "Bella," Thomas whispered. "It's your birthday, and I haven't even begun to spoil you yet. Be patient, and I'll be right back." I jutted my lip out and gave him a pouty look. "Why do you have to leave to spoil me? You're a smart, resourcefuland might I add, extraordinarily well-endowedman," I purred, stroking his erection. "I'm sure you can think of ways to spoil me right here and now." "Calm down, birthday girl. Just give me a minute." He gave my ass a playful slap and then lifted me off his lap. "Ok, fine. But hurry," I warned. I took his place in the chair and chugged the champagne. Resting against the headrest, I leaned back and closed my eyes. Thomas was back and standing over me in no time, holding my birthday cake. "You know, it's the funniest thing," he mused. "There's no silverware in this room for us to eat the cake." I shook my head and jumped up, turning to go inside. "Impossible. There has to be. Did you look in the-?" He grabbed my arm. "Bella," he said softly. His eyes bored into mine, his look dark and hungry.

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I understood at once. He trailed his finger through the top layer of cheesecake and brought it to my mouth. I took it all in, my eyes never leaving his gaze. I swirled my tongue around the length of his finger, tasting the creamy cake, the strawberry glaze. Closing my eyes, I began to suck his finger greedily, as if I were cleaning the cum off his cock. I might not be able to say "I love you" but this, this I could do. "God, Bella. Fuuuuck," he moaned. He reached for the cake again, then dropped a dollop on my sternum before drawing a sugary line down my stomach to the waistband of my thong. Falling to his knees, he wrapped one arm around my back to unhook my bra and then grabbed my waist to pull me forward in the chair. Yes. I felt my nipples harden, felt the head of his cock bounce against my leg, felt my wetness soak through my thong. He breathed in my ear, "Are you ready to be devoured?" God, yes. I nodded, panted in agreement. He groaned as I pushed his head to my chest. Thomas lazily stroked my nipples as he polished the dessert off my chest in three. . .long. . .licks. He followed the strawberry trail down my stomach with his tongue, punctuating each lick with a teasing kiss. "How old are you today, Bella?" He hooked his thumb through the waistband of my thong, sliding it down to my feet with one hand and grabbing a heaping handful of cheesecake with the other. "Wha-huh?" "How old are you today?" he repeated. "Twenty-four," I said, confused. Pinching my left nipple between his cake-covered thumb and forefinger, he gave me a devilish smile. "One." I moaned. He painted a thick sugary circle around my right nipple. "Two." My breath became ragged as understanding dawned on me. "Thomas," I gasped. He sucked my right nipple into his mouth, lingering there as held up three fingers. Oh. My. God. Pulling my head down to meet his, he grazed my earlobe with his teeth. "Four," he whispered. Ohmigod. "Do you think you're going to make it to twenty-four, gorgeous?" "God, I hope not," I panted. I whimpered as he smeared all five gooey fingers across my pussy. "Five."

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He kissed my clit. "That's six, baby." Jesus Christ. So this was new. What had gotten into him? With a soft pinch on my inner thigh, he sucked my clit into his mouth before mumbling "seven." Aughhhhhhhhhh. He ran his rough, unshaven face back and forth over the length of my folds. "Eight." "God, Thomas," I moaned. "You're wrecking me." Spreading my legs, he gave me one impossibly long lick, from the bottom of my pussy to my clit and over to my hipbone. "What number was that, Bella?" "Unhhhhh. N-n-nine. I think it was nine." Burying his face between my legs, he dug his fingers into my hips and nibbled my clit softly before grazing it with his teeth. His tongue danced, darting in and out of my entrance. I let my eyes roll back into my head as his hot breath tickled my clit. He shoved one, then two fingers into my pussy, quickly finding my g-spot. He pulsed his fingers and began to lick my clit again. Slow and soft at first, then harder and with more urgency. God. Yes. Fuck, yes. I was getting close. "Thomas, I'm going to come so hard for you." He stopped suddenly and came up for air, his face covered in Bella, cheesecake, and an incredibly sexy grin. "Let's see, then. I think that was. . .ten through twenty. Is that fair?" "What are you doing?" I wailed. "Go back down there and stop talking." "Bella," he teased. "If you're not going to let me talk, then you're going to have to count out loud." "Twenty-one," I groaned as I pushed his head toward my clit. He took it in his mouth before hungrily lapping at my slick skin. "Um. Ahh. Okay. Twenty. . .twenty-two." I felt warmth spreading from my toes, up my legs and thighs, and building from within. I arched my hips to increase the pressure of his tongue. In perfect understanding, he grabbed my ass and lifted my pussy to his mouth, frantically sucking my clit. "Oh, Thomas. God. God, yes. God, Thomas. Oh, I'm going to come. Yeah, baby, here it comes. Fuck yes. " I balled both hands into his hair, bucking my hips as I climaxed. My whole body shuddering with the release, Thomas slowed his nibbles and licks, gradually bringing me out of my orbit. My head was still fizzing in a champagne-induced haze as I rode out the aftershocks of my orgasm. I tugged the hair at the nape of Thomas's neck, willing him to stand but unable to form the verbal request. He stood and looked at me with a cocky grin as he sucked the remaining frosting from his fingers. "Ummm, thank you?" I smiled up at him, barely able to speak. He shook his head slowly and kept sucking.

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Middle finger. Ring finger. Pinky. "I'm not done." Oh, fuck. He pressed his index finger into my breastbone and walked me backwards into the suite. I shuffled gracelessly in reverse until my calves bumped into the long bench at the foot of the bed. He kept moving forward and my knees buckled, landing me flat on my back on the cushion. I realized then that he'd laid one of the huge terry cloth bath towels on the bench. "You thought of everything," I said, looking up at him from under hooded lids. The alcohol was swimming deliciously in my head. If I had been sober, I would have been embarrassed by the needy whimper that escaped my throat. My arms flailed upwards, trying to pull him down on to me, but grasping only air. I was sure I had already soaked a wet spot into the towel. "Mmmm hmmmm" he murmured, bending over me at last and bracing his hands on either side of my head. He leaned down and nuzzled the tip of his nose in my ear, supporting his weight with one hand while his other reached between my thighs and hooked two fingers into my slit. I tried to push against the sensation but had no leverage in this position. I whimpered louder this time, helpless. He pumped his fingers twice, hissed in my ear. "Is this what you want, baby?" I shook my head furiously, pounding uselessly against his chest with balled fists. He crossed another finger over the other two and twisted his wrist. Fuck. "This?" The sensation sent a jolt straight to my belly that subsided instantly, leaving me a quivering pile of need. I arched my back and tried to grip his hips with my fingers but he held himself maddeningly out of reach. He withdrew his fingers and looked at me with mock confusion. "Baby, it's your birthday and I want to give you everything you want, but I can't do that if you don't tell me what that is." I was too fargone to engage in his teasing banter. "Shut up and fuck me, dammit." Thomas straightened up. The teasing glint was gone from his eyes, replaced with a look of pure lust. He grabbed my legs roughly and bent them, pushing them back into my chest. With a single thrust he buried his cock so deep inside of me that I winced in pain. But he quickly withdrew and the sharp pain was immediately eclipsed by the delectable friction I'd been craving.

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His hands curled around my ankles and he set a brisk pace, biting my left calf, thrusting deeply and withdrawing almost completely with each pass. "Fuck, Bella" he groaned as he continued working his hips, "I can feel every inch of your pussy like this." My head rolled at his words and I lifted my hips to match his pace as best I could in this position. "Touch yourself, Bella," he commanded. I hesitated for a moment, lost in the sensation of his cock filing me over and over. He removed his hands from my ankles and stilled his movements, looking at me sternly. He reached down and pried my right hand open, forcibly releasing my grip on the bench. Bringing it to his mouth, he slowly sucked my middle finger, swirling his tongue around it. He removed my finger from his mouth and placed it firmly on my clit. "I said, touch yourself." I obediently began rubbing my slick fingers against my swollen clit. Thomas grunted as his eyes fixed directly on my sex. He kept still and watched me for several more seconds before grabbing my thighs and wrapping my legs around his waist. He resumed his fast pace and his eyes took on a wild look as he fucked me harder than he ever had before. I struggled to keep my fingers working my clit as his hips pounded against me. Finally, I couldn't hold on any longer. I lifted my ass high off of the bench and squeezed my thighs around his waist. "Oh god, Thomas, fuck... I'm going to... unghhhhh" I stilled my hand and threw my head back as I felt my muscles contract around Thomas's cock. "Jesus, Bella, you are so fucking sexy when you come," Thomas let one of my legs fall to the floor and pushed one back up against my chest. He pushed into me again and again, focusing now on his own release. "Fuck, Bella, I'm coming," he groaned into my ear, shoving himself into me one last time before stilling his hips and pulsing his release deep inside of me. He collapsed on top of me and we lay in a sweaty pile. "See, Bella? Birthdays aren't all bad." No, they weren't. Not at all. ~X~ We were nestled in the California King wearing our matching crested bathrobes. My skin smelled of strawberries and was still slightly damp from showering off the last remnants of my birthday cake and our sex. I was curled with my head on Thomas's lap as he read a folded-over copy of The New Yorker. I reached up and pulled his glasses off. "Hey," he protested, "I actually need those." I tried them on for a minute, giving him my best stern look. Thomas's prescription lenses coupled with the alcohol gave me an instant headache. "What," I quizzed, "no hot-for-teacher fantasy?"

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He chuckled lightly, snatching his glasses off of my nose. "I think we've established that my fantasies are more along the order of 'naughty schoolgirl.'" I fisted my wet hair into pig tails and gave him my best school-girl pout. "I'll have to invest in a plaid skirt and knee-highs". "Now that I could definitely get behind. Literally. Don't forget the Mary Janes and hair ribbons,though." He gave me a wicked smile. "And what about you, Bella?" Huh. What about me? "What do you mean?" "Oh, come on. Don't play innocent with me, little Miss Shut-up-and-Fuck-Me. You must have some fantasies of your own." "What, you mean like role-playing?" "Yes. You don't ever fantasize I'm someone else? Some-thing else?", he gave me a pointed look. "What? No. Thomas, of course not. Do you ever imagine I'm someone else?," I asked, slightly irritated. "No, no. Calm down, Bella. That's not what I meant." "Okay, so what did you mean?" "I don't know, I guess I just figured you might- Oh, nevermind. Forget it." "Oh, no. You can't just start something like this and then leave it. You thought I might what?" He gave me a sheepish look. "Well, your book. It's so . . . raw. The emotions and longing are palpable, Bella. I always figured that must have stemmed from a real fantasy of yours." I scoffed. "Wait. What do you mean? Just spit it out, Thomas." I was getting pissed. I knew it was unfair of me, but this was territory I did not want to chart. Especially not with him. "I just figured some part of you must harbor a naughty vampire fantasy." He actually said it out loud. Fuck. I laughed, trying to keep it light, but it came out sounding more like a hacking cough. "It's called fiction, Thomas. 'Not every novel is an autobiography'." I repeated his own words from one of his Creative Writing 101 lectures. "I know that, Bella. But I also know you. I'm not blind to the similarities between you and Claire. There's a lot of you in Dusk. Do you deny that?" "No . . . not exactly. She's my protagonist. I created her. Of course there are a few similarities." "Is one of those similarities a deep-seeded urge to mix danger and sex?", he waggled his eyebrows suggestively, trying to be playful. I was incensed.

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"God, Thomas. I thought you of all people would understand. It's about so much more than, sex, I mean. They don't even have sex in the book!" "Obviously, Bella. I know that. And according to the Times Book Review, it's the lack of sex that drives women wild. The whole forbidden fruit thing is a huge turn-on, right? Admit it!" He thought we were still having fun. "Is that what you think my book is about?" I railed at him. "That Claire just wants to fuck Ed-, er, Luke because she has some kind of sick deathwish?" There was no going back for me now. I glared at him. "Fuck you, Thomas." He looked truly dumbfounded. "I know, Bella, I didn't mean-" "-Claire doesn't love Luke because he's a vampire. She loves him in spite of it. She loves him for who, not what, he is. His vampire nature is an obstacle they miraculously, if barely, overcome." My eyes were stinging in frustration. The pinprick in my chest was throbbing. "They almost don't - but they do. They do." A traitor tear leaked out of my eye and I scrubbed it away with the back of my hand. "Shhhh, Bella, baby, I know. I know. I'm sorry. Shit, look, I didn't mean to trivialize your work." My work. He though I was upset because he had trivialized my work. His face was crumpled in a guilty grimace, and I realized how crazy I must have sounded. "Dammit. No, I'm sorry", I said, shaking my head to clear it. "It's the champagne. I'm emotional. Birthdays are hard for me." "I know, Bella. I'm sorry I even brought it up. I just feel like. . ." "What, Thomas? You feel like what?" I was sobering up, and it wasn't going to be pretty. "I just want to know you, Bella. And you just seem so, so, guarded all the time. I thought that after the dinner, and the champagne, and well, you know, that we could, that you would, let yourself go a little bit and have fun with me." Shit. "But, hey, I'm really sorry. I feel like an ass for ruining your birthday." He stared at his hands, utterly defeated. "Hey. Hey, baby. Look at me, Thomas." I took his hand in mine, kissed it. "It's my fault. I'm sorry. And this was the best birthday I ever had." And for once, I wasn't lying.

Chapter 3 BPOV

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"BURNING THE GROUND, I BREAK FROM THE CROWD I'M ON THE HUNT I'M AFTER YOU." Ohmygodmakeitstop. I kicked off the tangled sheets, leapt out of bed, and frantically searched for my phone. Whoa. I got up too fast. My head fucking hurt. "Jesus Christ," Thomas mumbled. "What the fuck is that?" "I SMELL LIKE I SOUND, I'M LOST AND I'M FOUND." "It's Jake," I explained. "I mean, that's his ringtone. Where the hell is my phone?" "AND I'M HUNGRY LIKE THE WOOOOLF." Found it. "Hello?" "BELLA! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!," he boomed. I reflexively yanked the phone back from my ear. "Shhhh. I mean, hi. Sorry. Can you talk a little quieter, please? I have a headache." "Uh-oh. I tried to call last night, you know. Did the party girl and the old geezer paint the town red or something?" "No. I mean-well, kinda. Whatever. And don't call him that!" "Just call 'em like I see 'em, Bella." "He's thirty-nine, Jacob." "Yeah. Exactly. A regular spring chicken." "Enough, Jake." We'd been over this. Not that I expected Jake to ever like any of the guys I dated, but he actually got along with Thomas. Surprising, really, considering that they had absolutely nothing in common. Nothing except me, I guess. "Sorry, yeah, ok. I'm just razzin' you, Bella. If I don't give you hell, who will? With everybody kissin' your ass all the time now, somebody's gotta remind you where you came from." "I know, Jake. And I so appreciate that." "I taped your interview yesterday, by the way. Haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but Quil saw it. Said you looked hot. And kinda nervous." "Yeah, that sounds about right." "Y'ever comin' home for a visit? I think Charlie misses you." "Charlie misses me, huh?" I loved teasing Jake. "Yeah. He does." Jake paused, then added softly, "We all do, Bella."

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"I know," I sighed. "I miss you guys, too. Listen, the book tour will be over in a month. Thomas wants to take me on a trip to Italy after that, but I should be home for Thanksgiving." "Ok, you better. I wanna take the bikes out. I'm counting on you." "I promise. Thanks for calling, Jake, but I gotta go. I need to drink a gallon of coffee and take thirty Advil before I'll be in any shape to do this book signing I have later today." "Ok, Bella. Love you." "Love you, too. Talk to you soon." I set the phone on the nightstand and crawled back into bed with Thomas. I snuggled up next to him, suddenly feeling terrible about how bitchy I'd been to him at the end of the night. "Good morning, sunshine," I murmured as I stroked his cheek. "Sorry the phone woke you up." "S'okay," he mumbled sleepily. "I need to get ready to leave anyway." He sat up in bed, stifled a yawn, and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Thomas's first play was opening tonight in LA, and his flight was leaving in less than two hours. I was flying out to meet him after my book signing, of course, but I suddenly felt very guilty that we weren't traveling together. "Hey, I can iron your shirt while you shower if you want." I was kissing up to him, and his cocked eyebrow told me that he knew it. "It's the least I can do. I need to thank you for rocking my world last night," I explained. "Bella, only you would thank me for a slew of earth-shattering orgasms by offering to iron my shirt." He rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, then grinned. "But yes. That would be great, thank you. The black one with pinstripes in my suitcase." He retreated to the bathroom, and after plugging in the iron, I busied myself by folding and repacking his dirty clothes from last night, brewing a pot of coffee, and rustling through my suitcase to find an appropriate book-signing outfit. Whistling Duran Duran, Thomas sauntered out of the bathroom, his bottom half wrapped loosely in a towel. "Hey, handsome. I think that I should be the one whistling." Thomas chuckled as he slipped into his boxers and grabbed the freshly ironed shirt out of the closet. "Thanks for packing my suitcase, baby. I wish I wasn't in such a hurry this morning. I'd much rather order room service and stay in bed with you all day." He pulled on his pants and slipped into his loafers. "I know, Thomas. But you have to go. You're going to be late." He cradled my face in his hands, kissed my forehead. "Bye, Bella. See you tonight." ~X~ With Thomas gone, I could focus on getting myself ready for the book signing. I headed to the bathroom-always my favorite part of these ridiculously expensive hotels-and surveyed the selection of luxury toiletries. Face wash, body wash, body butter, body scrub, hand lotion, bubble bath, shampoo, conditioner, q-tips, cotton balls, shoe polish, and something that resembled a very large shoe horn.

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Before my book deal, the last hotel I stayed at offered a bar of soap the size of a matchbook and a tiny bottle of Pert Plus. Old habits die hard. I reached for my strawberry soap and shampoo. I turned on the bathtub faucet, dumped in way too much ultra-luxe Waldorf bubble bath, and stepped carefully into a tub that was clearly made for two. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the side of the rub, feeling the warm sudsy water climb farther up my body. What a night. I still don't know what had gotten into Thomas. He'd always been a competent lover, but Christ. He'd never fucked me like that before. Come to think of it, he'd never really fucked me before. That was the whole problem, really. Or not the whole problem, but part of it. Thomas insisted on making love. Tender kisses, longing gazes, loving phrases. Perfectly appropriate, I guess, but I never felt more exposed than when a naked man told me that he loved me. Never felt so uncomfortable about not being able to return the sentiment. Shaking my head in disgust, I began to recall my relationship failures one-by-one. My rich history of alienating handsome, intelligent, fun-loving men. There was Caleb, the poetry major I met in freshman dorm. Jonathan, the day-trader who actually had the nerve to take me engagement ring shopping. Christopher, a bassist for a punk band. And Thomas. Thomas. Not a failed relationship yet. But give it time. He would eventually tire of trying to break through the protective barriers I'd erected over the years. They all did. I knew at first they perceived it as a challenge - attractive even. Men liked that aloof, enigmatic quality in a woman. I'd never once, in my 24 years, uttered the words "we need to talk." But after a while, inevitably, an unsolvable mystery loses it's appeal. Sometimes I wondered if I was just too damaged to be capable of loving any man. Maybe that part of me had withered and died on the vine, along with the innocent girl who believed in happily ever after. My swim in the bathtub of self-pity was abruptly interrupted. "BURNING THE GROUND, I BREAK FROM THE CROWD I'M ON THE HUNT I'M AFTER YOU. I SMELL LIKE I SOUND, I'M LOST AND I'M FOUND. AND I'M HUNGRY LIKE THE WOOOOLF." Hmmm. Weird. Maybe Jake had pocket-dialed me or something. I let it go to voicemail. I worked my shampoo into a rich lather and began to work the suds through my hair. "BURNING THE GROUND, I BREAK FROM THE CROWD I'M ON THE HUNT I'M AFTER YOU." Exasperated, I debated whether to answer the phone. On the off chance that Jake actually needed something, I wiped the shampoo from the side of my face, dried my hand, and brought the phone to my ear. He didn't wait for me to speak. "Bella." He sounded odd. Hollow.

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"Jake, what's wrong?" "Look, Bella. Where are you right now? Are you by yourself? Are you sitting down?" "Jake, you're scaring me." He was silent. "But yes, I'm by myself. Sitting down. In the bathtub at my hotel. Why? What's going on?" He sucked in his breath. "Charlie's been hurt. In a car accident. He was driving on the one-ten early this morning, and he swerved to miss a deer. His car hit a tree." "Ohmigod. Is he ok?" Charlie hated being laid up. He was the world's worst patient. Worse than me, even, and that was saying a lot. "You need to come home, Bella. There's a flight out of JFK at 1:30. Through Seattle to Port Angeles." I was strangely calm. "Jake. I didn't ask you if I needed to come home. I asked you if he was ok." He paused, fumbling for the right words. "He's in ICU, on life support. You need to come home so they can-" he trailed off. He finished simply. "You need to see him today." The voice that responded was not my own. I heard the words, but didn't remember choosing them. "Ok. I'll book the ticket. And I'll see you in Port Angeles this afternoon." I didn't have to ask him to pick me up at the airport. It was understood. There was no one else to do it. "I'm sorry, Bella." "I know, Jake."

Chapter 4 EPOV After the incident outside of Juneau, Emmett had called the rest of the family. To my utter chagrin, yet lack of surprise, they insisted on immediately coming to stay with me in Yellowknife. Crippled in my defeat, for once I did not put up a fight. I would have been no match for all six of them in any event. Before that day, I had considered suicide a luxury of which I was unworthy. I viewed my wretched existence over the past six years as a sort of penance. An eternity of agony for infecting the purity of her life with the nightmare of my own. But in the wake of the violent confrontation with all I had once had - all I had lost - cowardice won out over nobility. Sitting in the small prop plane wedged between my two brothers, my mind was consumed by a singular thought. I would go the Volturi - the enforcers of the few laws governing our kind. I would ask for death. My plan, coupled with Jasper's numbing waves, calmed me considerably. Mere hours after Jasper, Emmett, and I had returned to my modest cabin in Canada, the rest of the family arrived. Carlisle and Esme - my surrogate parents this side of mortality - knew me well enough

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to give me space. I heard their thoughts as they entered the house. Esme's simple I love you, Edward, and Carlisle's reassuring I'm here, when you're ready. I heard the click of my sister's heels as she crossed the threshhold to join Emmett on the couch. Rosalie had long since given up her attempts to goad me into snapping out of the haze in which I'd existed for the past years. I knew she was intentionally shielding her mind from me by reciting song lyrics in her head. I was sitting alone in my room, facing the window and staring unseeingly onto the endless expanse of white when I heard Alice approach. She was intrepid. It had been a long time. I saw reflected in her mind's eye the image of myself the last time she'd been in my presence. Almost two years ago. I looked then much the same as I did now: spent, withdrawn, hair matted, fists clenched. The one noticeable difference was my eyes. Though they had long since faded to a tawny hue, they burned a frightening crimson in her perfect memory. Alice had good reason to fear warning me of her visions. I turned to face her. My ire evaporated as I took in her tiny form. Alice. My sister. She didn't deserve the pain she had endured at my hands these past six years. I reminded myself that Alice had loved her too. Loved her still. I wanted to go to her, comfort her. I remained fixed in place. Her thoughts spoke to me soundlessly. I'm sorry about today, Edward, but it couldn't be helped. I was afraid of what you might decide to do. She was right. I knew it. "I understand", I said. I did. She stared at me for several long moments, her jaw setting defiantly. I know about your plans with the Volturi. I expected this. It didn't matter. I could read their thoughts, anticipate their attempts to stop me. I would eventually evade my family and succeed with my plans. I nodded, expressionless. I know you are resolved, Edward, but you have to hear me out. You don't have all the facts. I didn't move, but quirked an eyebrow at her. Finally, she spoke. "It's a book, Edward. Bella wrote a book." ~X~

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The moment Alice informed me of the book's existence, my entire world shifted violently like tectonic plates beneath me. I was overwhelmed with the weight of Alice's words. Was it possible that she was the author of the images? That the memories which had burned me from the inside out were hers? I knew in my head it was true. Alice's mind had displayed for me the book itself. The shiny black cover. Pale arms in a "V" formation, holding a red-cheeked apple in silent offering. But it wasn't the cover art that nearly made my dead heart clench. No. It was her name. Written on the cover in bold white over glossy black. Isabella Swan. Bella. Even though I knew it to be true, I couldn't bring myself to accept it. I had to find out for myself. In the few moments following Alice's revelation, a seismic shift had occurred. Mere hours before, I would have gladly faced whatever hell awaited my damned soul rather than endure another minute of the torturous memories. Suddenly, awake with the knowledge that they had blossomed from her beautiful, silent, mind, I needed them. Craved them. My thirst for her words was rivaled only by the thirst for that decadent blood I'd once fought daily to overcome. I flew from the house in search of someone, anyone, who was immersed in Bella's story. Our story. Or, rather, the beginning of our story. I didn't have to search long. Even in our remote hamlet, Dusk was one of the several dozen bestselling novels featured in the corner bookstore. Over the next several weeks, I easily located humans in coffee shops, libraries, and bedrooms reading the story of the only part of my existence that had ever mattered. At first I could only take the images in small doses. The weight of them still pinned me to my knees as I hovered outside of windows and around corners, indulging in the forbidden pleasures of my own past vicariously through the minds of others. The very images that had so tormented me soon became a drug I couldn't live without. It wasn't that the pain subsided. If anything, I felt it more acutely. But like an addict needing a fix of a drug he knows will kill him, I went to the well again and again. I soon began to recognize and seek out my favorite scenes. The first time I touched her smooth jaw. The first night she'd dreamt of me. My lips on hers. My favorite scene was the day we'd spent in the meadow. Of course the depictions I plucked from the unimaginative minds around me never did justice to the event itself. The girls always focused their visions on me, or "Luke", as I'd been recast in the story. Bella's "Claire" was always frustratingly fuzzy, out of focus, as each girl insisted on imagining herself in Claire's place.

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I found a girl named Megan in the nearby township who was fond of rereading this particular scene, and I stole away to her house night after night. At first I would sit outside her window while she read. Then I became more brazen in my need. I began listening to her silent reading from the vacant guest room adjacent to her own. As I merged my own memory of the day with the words I knew had come straight from Bella herself, I felt myself enter a kind of trance. I could almost feel the slow burn of Bella's delicate touch on my sun-kissed skin. I recalled with perfect agony the way my erection had painfully throbbed as she had rubbed soft circles into my forearm with her fingertips. My eyes had been closed as she touched me in the meadow, my mind playing out a fantasy that, were it possible, should have made me blush with shame. As I stood in the guest room in Megan's house, I recalled the details of that fantasy for the first time in six years. Bella's supine form lays among the wildflowers, wearing only a sapphire blue slip. My hands glide along the outside of her legs, pushing the slip up over her hips. Her back arches, pushing her wet sex towards my bare chest. I move up her body, staring into her hungry brown eyes. The image was just as vivid now as it had been for me in the meadow all those years ago. Recalling the scent of Bella's blood, her arousal, as mixed with the fragrance of the wildflowers, my hand slipped into my jeans and under the elastic of my boxers. I lightly ghosted my fingers along the underside of my erection. I had not touched myself while fantasizing about Bella since the day I left Forks. Before then, it had been a near daily occurrence - a necessity that allowed me just enough self control to function around her without taking her innocence and her life in a single swift movement. Now, no longer able to resist the crushing weight of the memory, I gripped the base of my cock tightly, groaning audibly at the sensation. Bella tips her head back and whimpers, "Oh, Edward. Please. I need you inside me." I position myself at her entrance, my swollen head teasing her tight slit. Waiting. Hoping. "Yeah?" I ask, breathless. "You're sure?" Longing for the sound of Bella's voice, wanting me, I pumped my fist from base to tip, twisting my hand as I reached the head. "God, yes, Edward. I'm ready. I've been ready. Don't make me wait anymore." Her eyes are fierce, wild, as she grabs hold of me and digs her nails into my ass. She shoves her hips towards my own, forcing the tip to slip inside of her soaked opening. I worked myself harder now, faster, concentrating my movements on the sensitive head. "Never, baby. You'll never have to wait." My eyes roll back as I push forward and sheath myself fully in her wet warmth. "Oh, God, Bella." "Oh- ughhh-" she stutters, her breath hitching at the sensation of being completely filled by my length. My gaze travels from the dewdrops of perspiration beading on her chest, to her pale pink nipples standing at attention, to her delicate ribcage, rising and falling with each one of my thrusts. I move within her, gentle but quick, feeling every inch of her inner walls mold around my impossibly hard cock.

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Pulsing her hips to urge me deeper, she clasps the nape of my neck and commands, "Look at me, Edward. I want you to see what you do to me. How much I want you." Piercing her eyes with mine, unable to hold back any longer, I manage, "Oh my God, Bella. I'm not- I can't-" "Yes. That's it. Come for me, baby," she breathes. "Come deep inside of me." My jaw clenched and my eyes narrowed as I felt my balls begin to tighten. I stilled my movements suddenly and stifled a groan as I came, my release spilling on my hand. If my eyes could have produced tears, they would have swiftly followed. This was too much, too real. I couldn't, wouldn't allow myself to fantasize this way again. I didn't deserve to feel such pleasure, even at my own hands. That was the last time I visited Megan. ~X~ For the next six months I satisfied myself by rifling through the thoughts of others, reading interviews she'd given, caressing magazine photos that made my throat blaze with envy and my cock twitch with lust. Still, I could not bring myself to read the book. The images conjured in the minds of others were recognizeable but contaminated with each reader's own experiences and ideas. Their own unspoken desires. I did not trust myself to consume the words, undiluted from their source. For six years, I had denied myself the pleasure of my own memories of her. But she had catalogued them for the world to see. And now she was everywhere I looked. I told myself I could stop. That I would stop. All I needed was one more fix. One more day to inhale the essence of her. Of us. Then everything changed. She was scheduled for a live television interview in New York City. I had a date certain. I knew where she would be and when. I knew there was a window onto the plaza where the interview would be held. I could be in her presence safely shielded by a glass barricade. I would be able to see her. She would never know I was there. The next day I found myself on a plane, preparing to do the one thing I'd sworn I never would again. I was going to see Bella. ~X~ I waded through a flock of girls and women who looked to range in age from 13 to 35. Though they paid me no attention, distorted images of me flitted through their minds. My ochre eyes, freshly satiated after a kill. My cold, unyielding form wrapped around them as they slept. My sharp teeth slicing through the delicate flesh of their necks. Fear wasn't an emotion with which I was well acquainted. But as I stood beset on all sides by minds anticipating her arrival on the other side of the glass, I was terror-stricken.

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The interviewer was already seated in his chair. I knew the precise moment he saw her, as I was instantly assaulted by his inward groans of arousal. Every fiber of my being longed to crash through the bulletproof glass and drain him dry on national television. My macabre plan was interrupted as she - as Bella - stepped into view. I choked on a sob as the mob around me errupted in clamorous squeals. I wanted to run. I wanted to die. I wanted to take her in my arms and bury myself deep inside her. The noises and thoughts of the crowd around me faded to a barely audible hum as I drank in the sight of her. I was crippled, paralyzed, fixed in place, unable to look anywhere except at her. She was utterly transformed. She was exactly the same. My gut tightened in relief when I saw her cheeks still colored with her telltale flush. Venom pooled in my mouth as I imagined the scent of her blood blooming just beneath the skin's surface. Her fawn eyes appeared impossibly huge beneath her minky lashes. Her lips. God, her lips. They were pouty and plump, stained the color of a full-bodied red wine. Her tongue darted out to lightly wet her bottom lip. She seemed to be fighting an urge to bite it. She wore a straight black skirt that fanned out at the back of her knees, and a belted jacket that highlighted the narrowness of her tiny waist. The woman I watched was not the waifish girl of my past with the slightly pigeon-toed gait and arms akimbo. She was lithe. Elegance in motion. Her once boyish frame had blossomed into curves that would have made Aphrodite weep. Although she was still petite, she appeared taller, statuesque. My eyes raked over her body and slid down her legs. I swallowed thickly, realizing I'd only seen her legs a handful of times. Then, they had been thin and pale, clad in standard-issue grey gym shorts. Now, they were taut and strong. Her calf muscles flexed as she stepped forward in a pair of blood-red patent-leather heels. I glutted myself on the sight of her, grateful that her scent did not permeate the three inches of glass separating us. In that moment, I loathed myself more than I ever had. For indulging in such undeserved pleasure. For the venom swimming in my mouth. For the hardness straining against my jeans. She was still mid-stride in the step that had put her in my line of vision. I screwed my eyes shut and sprinted away. ~X~ I was a fool to think I could leave the city after having seen her. I paced, winding my way around the interior track at the Museum of Modern Art - my first inexplicable stop after fleeing the plaza. I darted in and out of the galleries, hoping in vain to replace the blinding image of Bella etched into my retinas. I stared vacantly at the brightly colored Francis, the geometrical Wright, the minimalist Reinhardt. But no master painter's hand could create a vision as breathtaking as the one I had just viewed.

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I was about to turn around and leave the museum when I saw it. In a small corner gallery off the beaten tourist path, it hung, unassuming, on the stark white wall. The Edvard Munch lithograph was dated 1902 - the year after my own human birth. The rendering depicted a man, head bowed and encircled in the white arms of a woman. Her long hair cascaded around his clothed shoulders and her own nude ones. At first glance, the white-armed woman appeared to be comforting the man. Only the title revealed that the mouth at his neck was not imparting a kiss. Vampyr. I stood, transfixed by the image. It was . . . beautiful. I recalled with a pang how willingly Bella had offered her mortality to me. Like the man in the picture before me, she had seen it as an act of love. She had loved me enough to offer herself, and I had deserted her. My thoughts raced as I ran out of the museum and called Alice. She was, of course, expecting me. "She's staying at the Waldorf, Edward. She has dinner reservations at Lutece at 8 o'clock." "Thanks, Alice." "But, Edward-" "No, Alice. I don't want to know. I need to do this. I need to see for myself." "Edward," she warned. "She's-this will be difficult for you. Excruciating, even. Not impossible, but-" she trailed off. "Are you telling me not to go, Alice?" "No. Of course not. This will happen." I took solace in her certainty. But I still didn't understand. "Then what's the fucking problem?" She sighed. "It's her birthday, Edward. And she's not going to celebrate it alone. So don't do anything stupid." I was angry now. "Jesus Christ, Alice. Instead of telling me what not to do, why don't you just tell me if I do it or not?" "You'll be fine," she said definitively. "You can do this. You will do this. But you need to understand it won't be easy." We hung up and I ran to Grand Central Station. As I paced hurriedly down the city blocks, weaving around pedestrians, I tried to remember how I had ended up here. My mind flashed back to my conversation with Alice. Her birthday.

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Was it possible that this was the anniversary of the fateful day when everything had spun out of control? When the only thing that had made sense in my century of existence had slipped out of my grasp? I recalled the party my family had hosted. Bella had protested, always hating to be the center of attention. But we had insisted. Alice had ordered a 3-tiered cake that no one but Bella would eat. Emmett had installed a new stereo in that old jalopy she loved so much. Esme and Carlisle were so excited to see Bella open their gift - plane tickets for both of us to visit Renee. Even Rosalie had made an effort. Then, the most seemingly inconsequential of events had changed our story forever. A fucking papercut. In the presence of a normal human boyfriend and his normal human family, it would have been a nonevent. Instead, I had very nearly watched that precious life snuffed out before my eyes. I had been so certain that leaving was the only way to repair the damage I'd done. Every minute that I allowed Bella's life to intersect with my . . . life - if that's what it was - I risked killing her body or damning her soul. I had been so convinced that it was the only right decision. She would move on, she would forget, even if I never could. She was so very young. She had barely even begun to live. Except she hadn't forgotten. She had written our story. She had wanted to remember. I realized then that as much as I had thought I could mitigate the impact I had on Bella's life, like it or not, I had altered its course forever. I had promised her it would be as if I'd never existed. That promise was broken the moment it was made. For the first time in six years I wondered - what if I was wrong? What if she wasn't better off? What if our real life story could have ended like her fictional one - happily ever after? What if, like the Munch lithograph, what we had . . . had been . . . beautiful? I didn't know. I still couldn't allow myself to believe I could be good for her. But the seed of doubt was planted. And the mere possibility was too much to resist. I took the train outside of the city limits and sped on foot to a nearby state park. Although I had hunted before boarding the plane, I needed to take every precaution if I planned to allow myself to be close enough to inhale her scent. As I gorged myself again and again on the tasteless blood of deer, rational thought finally returned. What was my plan? Accost her in her hotel room? Beg for her forgiveness? Would she be afraid? Would she scream? Run? No, I couldn't be alone with her. As much as I hated to admit it, it had been too long since I'd inhaled her exquisite scent. And I couldn't risk the possibility that she would feel trapped. Scared, even. Shit, she might actually be scared of me.

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I needed to see her somewhere public. I would wait for her at the restaurant. I could handle the public rejection. I expected it. Deserved it. Longed for it. The vision of her, eyes blazing, cheeks flushing, telling me to go to hell, to fuck off, even, thrilled me more than any hunt, satisfied me more than any kill. Because it would mean that I was in her presence. That she saw me. That she spoke to me. Yes. She needed to hear it. I needed to say it. For all the self-denial, the twisted, masochistic, behavior that I inflicted upon myself to in the last six years, I wasn't willing to deny myself this. The need to convey the magnitude of my grief for what I had done to her-to us-was more fundamental than any newborn thirst. A matter of survival. Of selfpreservation. No matter what the consequences, she needed to know. To know that I loved her, would love her, and her alone, until I ceased to exist.

Chapter 5 EPOV I could not see the entrance to Lutece from my perch in the alley adjacent to the restaurant. Still, I knew the moment she stepped out of the cab. Her scent scorched my throat like a firebrand. Venom flooded into my mouth. I locked my jaw, swallowing in rapid succession to keep the poison from spilling down my chin. My fingers dug into the brick wall at my sides and came away with crumbled mortar in my fists. I held my breath and turned my head to the side, but the large dumpster of garbage three feet away did nothing to dampen the potency of her aroma. I was grateful for the self-denial of the past six years. I had hunted only enough to maintain a level of functionality a few tiers above consciousness. At my worst, I had gone nearly three months without feeding. It was as if the years of self-deprivation had prepared me for this precise moment. So that I could act like a man seeking redemption rather than a beast stalking his prey. Though I was nearing the limits of my self-control, I knew Alice would have moved heaven and earth to stop me if my decision to come here had resulted in my harming her. Emboldened by this realization, I stepped into the vestibule and spied her sitting at the bar. She was alone. Though the sight of her sitting by herself nearly warmed my cold heart, I suddenly wondered what exactly I had expected to see. Did I really think she would be alone? Available? Waiting for me? I had read countless articles about her rise to prominence as a novice author and had never seen a love interest mentioned. Still, that didn't mean anything. Look at her, for Christ's sake. She was transcendent.

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Her cream and roses skin was swathed in the midnight blue hue that had done me in all those years ago. Her breasts were full and round, and her tantalizing cleavage peeked out of the V-neckline of her dress. More so than even her physical appearance, her entire bearing exuded confident sexuality. She was alone at a bar surrounded by men who drank her in. Whose lust for her was obvious. And, yet, she seemed completely at ease. Like she didn't even notice. I slid into a booth near the bar outside of her line of vision. I would wait here while she finished her drink, met up with her party. I'd use the time to acclimate to her scent, her very presence. I flinched visibly as the thoughts of the men around me invaded my revelry. Unpure thoughts. Profane thoughts. The sick fantasy of one bastard stood out amongst the rest. Because he was about to put thoughts into action. Hey, that's the Vampire author! God, she's fucking HOT. She's alone. I wonder if she's looking for some fun . . . As he turned toward her, I very nearly blew my cover to snap his twig-like neck. To my great relief, she rebuffed him easily and without apology. That's my girl. I was still smiling at her adorable chutzpa when I heard him. His thoughts came first: My love. My Bella. She's exquisite tonight. His Bella? What the-? Then his voice: "Excuse me, miss, is that seat taken?" I heard, without seeing, her turn to face him. "Baby," he whispered. "Sorry to have kept you waiting on your birthday." I sucked in a ragged breath. Of course. Alice's words suddenly fell into place. How had I ever thought she could possibly be alone? Meeting college friends in the City? Dinner with her agent? I laughed bitterly at my own delusional folly. The seconds that followed his entrance in the bar seemed to stretch out like years. First, I registered his lips touching hers. The soft suctioning sound as he released her. I swallowed a whimper as my stomach clenched in a wave of excrutiating jealousy. Next, his thoughts flashed in my mind's eye. A vivid depiction of his plans for the evening rendered from a patchwork of his real memories. Bella, blushing and naked beneath him. Moaning in pleasure as he pressed into her heat.

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It was through this stranger's mind that I saw for the first time the pink nipples I'd never caressed with my own cold tongue. The creamy thighs I'd never spread with my own firm hands. I felt my chest crack wide open. It was too much to bear. I needed to escape. But Bella had turned to face the back of my booth. Any movement would risk drawing her attention. So I sat, doubled over in pain. I pressed my forehead into the tabletop and squeezed my eyelids shut. Then I registered the only scent more intoxicating to me than Bella's blood. Her arousal. It was a familiar, heady aroma. Except this time, it wasn't for me. I bit my fist to keep from crying out in pain. Mercifully, the maitre'd arrived then, escorting Bella and her date away from the bar. I retreated from the restaurant, plans forgotten, and slipped alone and unseen onto the city streets. ~X~ I walked for hours, circling the city at a maddeningly slow human pace. There was no better city for a vampire to wander unnoticed at hours normally considered ungodly by humans. My envy was blinding. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to hate him. But I had seen his thoughts. He loved her. I had never felt more helplesss by my inability to see into her quiet mind. Did she love him? I knew there was no way he could deserve her. But there in was the rub. Undeserving as he may be, no one was less worthy than I. I doubted if her Thomas had ever wanted to kill her. Had ever felt his cock harden as he imagined sucking the life from her body. Thomas could touch her without fearing he'd break her. Could satisfy the wet ache in her center without pushing her away. Without seeing her face fall in defeat again and again. Thomas had not thrown her away. The sky was beginning to lighten as my phone rang, interrupting the plaguing thoughts. "Alice, I-, I-" I stammered, unable to form the words to convey the pain she knew I was in. "I know, Edward, I know. And I'm sorry. But that's not why I'm calling." "What? Then why-"

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"It's Charlie. Edward, I don't know what happened. There was an accident. He must have been with one of the Quileutes because when I saw him he was already in the hospital." She sounded defeated, bleak. Bella. "So, he's alive then?" "For now. But, Edward, he's going to die. Tonight."

A/N: Ahem. ::taps microphone:: Hello there. Wow, it feels very different writing an A/N that you know people will actually read. Different in a beautiful way, of course. So, gosh, all we can say is thank you thank you thank you for reading and for all of your supportive and enthusiastic reviews. We weren't kidding when we said that we were brand new to this. (Just ask our super amazingly wonderful new beta, annanabanana, who actually had to field the question, "What does a beta do?"). Knowing you are reading and enjoying the concept is just more rewarding than we can express in this tiny space. And, of course, there are not words to adequately express our gratitude to LolaShoes for taking a chance on us and reading/recommending this story. Without her, this fic would undoubtedly be floating in cyberspace unseen. So, inadequate though it may be, "Thanks, Lola." And thanks to all of you for taking a chance on an older, more sophisticated Bella who's evolved from the Sandra Dee of her youth. Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. Chapter 6 BPOV As the plane pulled into the gate in Port Angeles, the last several hours replayed in my mind. I had asked my agent and publicist to cancel my appearances for the next week and instructed them to keep the reason for the cancellations private. The last thing I needed was to have a news camera follow me around Forks as I planned my father's funeral. I had spent the day communicating entirely by text message, not willing to give the sobs lodged in my throat any chance to escape. Jake, knowing what to do without asking, had called Thomas. Thomas had offered to meet me in Forks, to take the red-eye after the performance was over, but I insisted he stay in LA. The opening had been scheduled for over a year and represented the culmination of his life's work to date. There were cast parties to attend, family and friends to entertain, reviews to await. If I were honest, though, I just couldn't imagine seeing anyone but Jake. I wasn't ashamed of my past, but returning to Forks always brought out pieces of me that were dormant in my everyday life. Pieces I wasn't ready to share with Thomas. Not yet. Not like this. I had huddled into a ball in my first class seat, willing myself to disappear into the cushions. I attempted to curl my lips into a faint imitation of a smile when recognized by the flight attendant. Pretended to sleep to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions that comes when people realize who I am. I wheeled my suitcase down the jetway and searched for Jake. There he was. My Jacob. He wasn't easy to miss. Towering over the crowd, he tapped his foot impatiently. He looked at his watch once,

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then twice, the stress of the day evident from the way he clenched and unclenched his jaw. Squinting as he scanned the crowd, our eyes met and he lumbered toward me. I put my hand up. "No hugs," I whispered. "Please." He nodded in silent understanding, grabbed my suitcase, reached for my hand, and pulled me through the crowd. ~X~ We rode to the hospital in silence. Jake pulled into a parking space, turned off the ignition, and turned to face me. "You need to prepare yourself," he said quietly. "I saw him already. It's not-he's not-well, it's not Charlie in there. Just remember that." "I know." "You ready?" he asked and winced, immediately regretting his choice of words. He pulled me through the hospital halls, knowing where he was going. "Sorry about that, by the way," he grumbled as he waved his hand toward the double doors. Intensive Care Unit. Made possible by a generous donation from Esme Cullen. God was punishing me. I was certain of that. Jake led me to the doorway of Charlie's room and then turned toward the waiting room. Panicked, I grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, silently pleading with him. I needed him to go in with me. We walked in together hand in hand, and I was struck by the sheer quantity of equipment. How loud it was. The periodic beeps, the persistent hum. I surveyed in painstaking detail the monitors, the IV bag, the breathing machine. I avoided looking at Charlie until Jake gave me a gentle nudge. Oh, Charlie. Dad. I dropped Jake's hand and approached the bed, taking it all in. The tape. The tubes. The wires. But no blood? No cuts? No bandages? As if sensing my confusion, Jake cleared his throat and spoke. "The injuries were mostly internal. Everything happened real fast. The doctors say he's not in any pain." "Good," I choked. "That's good." I was afraid to touch him, frightened that touching him would make it more real somehow.

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Charlie was never one for displays of affection. I laughed inwardly at my sick joke. I gingerly reached toward his pale cheek and hesitated. Deep breath. I settled for a small squeeze of his shoulder. Turning to Jake, I mumbled, "Ok. What do we need to do?" As if on command, the doctor walked toward us with a clipboard in her hand. She described Charlie's injury and the meaning of "brain death." Explained the ins and outs of ending my father's life. I halflistened, watching Jake out of the corner of my eye so I could nod at the appropriate times. I thanked the doctor, took the clipboard, and signed my name five, ten, fifteen times. "Take as much time as you need," the doctor said as she headed for the door. For a fleeting moment, I considered the idea of a long goodbye. Pictured myself scooting the vinyl armchair over to his bed, clutching his hand, saying my piece. Holding onto something-someone-long gone. Not this time. "Oh. I'm ready now, actually," I called after the doctor. "Do it now." "Are you sure, Bella?" Jake was obviously every bit as uncomfortable in this hospital room as I was, but he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't in a hurry. "I'm sure." The doctor nodded once and left, and a nurse returned in her place. She bustled about Charlie's bedside, flipping switches and pushing buttons. Suddenly, the beeping and buzzing stopped. And all that was left was the sound of three people breathing. "What do we do?" I whispered to Jake as the nurse left the room. "Are we supposed to stay in here? Until he?" I couldn't say it out loud. "I dunno, Bella. I've never done this before. What do you want to do?" "I guess we should stay." Silently, he hooked his arm around my waist and brought my head to his chest. I buried my face in the soft cotton of his t-shirt, clinging to the only man I'd ever loved who hadn't left me behind. ~X~ We stood in the doorway of Charlie's house. My house. "Bella, let me stay. I'll sleep on the couch. You shouldn't be by yourself." "No, Jake. Thank you. I really appreciate it. I do. But I need this." My voice cracked, and I leaned my head back to keep the tears from spilling onto my cheeks. "I need to be a basketcase tonight, so I can keep it together tomorrow. And I need to do it on my own."

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"Ok, Bella." He relented, and I could tell that he wasn't sure if he was making the right decision. "I'll go. But pleaseplease promise you'll call me if you change your mind. Or if you want to talk. Or whatever. And I'll call you in the morning." "Thanks, Jake. Talk to you tomorrow." He squeezed my hand and left, leaving me alone in my old house. I took a deep breath and sat in Charlie's chair, absentmindedly grabbing the remote and flipping on the TV. Sportscenter. Of course. I shook my head and turned it off. I gazed around the room, feeling it close in on me. Ok. Inhale. This is ok. Exhale. I am ok. Inhale. I will be ok. Exhale. I felt the tightness build in my chest, the lump grow in my throat. Dammit, Bella. I needed something to calm my nerves. Surely, at some point, I thought, Charlie had had a houseguest who brought him a bottle of wine. I plodded into the kitchen and flung open the cabinets, standing on my tiptoes to peek behind the canned goods. Thank God. There was a dusty bottle of merlot in the back corner of the pantry. I grabbed a plastic cup from above the sinkFraternal Order of Police, no lessand prepared to pour. Shit. Crestfallen, I realized that the chances of Charlie having a corkscrew were slim to none. I rummaged through the drawers and found some mismatched silverware, a can opener, a few odd serving spoons, and a wire whisk. Armed with a steak knife, I plunged the tip of the blade into the cork and tried to push the cork into the bottle. Come on. When that didn't work, I held the bottle between my knees and pulled on the top with all my might. Sonofabitch. I tapped the edge of the bottle against the countertop, willing the cork to loosen just enough for me to be able to get a good grip on it. No luck. "OPEN, MOTHERFUCKER! COME ON, YOU COCKSUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!" The sobs overtook me then as I slid slowly to the floor, resting the back of my head against the refrigerator. My whole body shook, and I couldn't catch my breath. I closed my eyes, and I saw him, heard his voice. Charlie pushing me on my Big Wheel. Charlie holding my hand as we waded in the tide pools at La Push. Charlie grinning from ear to ear, patting the hood of my truck when he showed it to me for the first time. "Goddammit, Charlie." The fifty bucks that still showed up in my bank account every week. The new can of pepper spray I received each year for Christmas. The red truck that sat in his driveway, always with a full tank of gas and a fresh coat of wax, just in case I came home on a whim. Ok. I was starting to catch my breath. I looked up in a daze, letting my blurry eyes wander around the room, taking in the lucky horseshoe over the door frame, the fishing pole propped in the corner, the issue of Vanity Fair on the table, opened to my picture. Damn.

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The sobs came again, building from the pit of my stomach and racing out of my throat. I tried to remember the last time I had told him I loved him. Shit, I tried to remember any time I had told him I loved him. I came up short. It had happened at some point. I was sure of it. It had to have. But I couldn't remember offhand, and the inability to recall what should have been an easy memory was threatening to do me in once and for all. I balled my fists, squeezed my eyes shut, and willed myself to remember. And I kept coming back to the same conversation. The one when I left Forks because of him. The one where I broke Charlie's heart. Because I had to, because my life was in danger. I had come back to Forks, of course, and had apologized to Charlie for leaving. But I never apologized for what I said to him that night. I hated myself for that. Hated myself, too, for the countless ways I had taken him for granted. After a decade of long-distance phone calls, birthday cards, and summer vacations-that I wasn't even willing to spend in Forks, spoiled brat that I was-I had waltzed into his house, his life, without so much as a thank you. He had to practically beg me to call him Dad, for Christ's sake. I recalled now how my father's gleaming eyes, a warmer reflection of mine, had betrayed his otherwise gruff demeanor when he'd picked me up from the airport that first day. How heartbroken he'd been when Sam Uley returned me from my "walk in the woods," a shell of the daughter Charlie had left in the kitchen that morning. How pained he looked when, defeated, he'd told me he was sending me back to Renee for my own good. How relieved he'd been when Jake lifted me out of the darkness which had hovered over our home. I had taken him for granted in too many ways to count. He loved me in spite of it all. Loved me enough to ground me so I wouldn't fall in further with the "wrong crowd." Loved me enough to bite his tongue when it became clear to him just how hard I had fallen. Loved me enough to be patient in the four months it took me to claw my way back to the surface after hitting rock bottom. And that wasn't even the worst of it. I remembered how ready I was to give Charlie up. To leave him behind. All for the promise of "eternal love." Tears streaming uncontrollably down my face, I laughed bitterly at the thought. Laughed at the angsty, lovelorn, pathetic teenager I had been. It was fucking hysterical, if you really thought about it. My laughs became maniacal, my shoulders shook, and I suddenly felt too exhausted to bawl. Silently weeping, I curled into a ball on the linoleum floor.

A/N: This chapter was a toughie for Bella, no? And we sense even more intense emotions coming her way very soon. Next chapter: return of EPOV. We plan to update again on Saturday, 1/9. Please review, it means more than we ever realized as readers. Oh! And we're on Twitter now! "masenvixen." Come play with us there. xoxo ~MV.

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Chapter 7 EPOV There was no choice to be made upon hearing the news about Charlie. Alice knew, of course, that my mind was instantly made up. Though we did not discuss it further, I was certain she was also on her way to Forks. And while I knew with absolute certainty that I had to be with Bella, or at the very least, be near her, I wasn't sure why. What had suddenly changed? I had just witnessed her having a romantic birthday dinner with a man who loved her. A man whom she likely loved in return. What could I possibly have to offer her? What had I ever given her but heartbreak and mortal endangerment? I pushed the thoughts out of my mind. My actions were automatic, instinctual, as I called the airline and made my way to the airport. There was no telling how this would end for me, but I had taken the first steps toward reentering her life. There was no turning back for me now. ~X~ I'd booked the first available flight out of New York and was surprised - relieved - to find Alice was already waiting for me at the terminal in Port Angeles. She pulled me into a brief hug, letting me know that Jasper was on his way too. They'd traveled separately so he could pick up his car in Vancouver, where they had been living before coming to babysit me in Yellowknife. We took a cab to Forks and sat in relative, but comfortable, silence for most of the drive. Though we had never talked about it, I knew Carlisle still owned the old house. The yard was overgrown but the property, otherwise, looked much the same. The lockbox still hung on the door, and, after punching in the familiar family code, Alice breezed inside and set to work opening the heavy metal window shades and unsheeting the furniture. I trailed behind her, purposefully averting my gaze from the enormous covered instrument in the living room. Entering the house brought back a flood of memories I was unprepared to handle. I was immediately reminded of the last time we had all been together in the airy living room - pink roses spilling out of crystal vases, layers of sugary pink fondant smeared on the walls, shattered china strewn about the floor, the delectable scent of Bella's crimson blood as it soaked into the snow white rug... I swallowed thickly before striding out the back door to the yard overlooking the river. I paced for what felt like hours, trying to decide what to do, when to find her. There was no way to observe her in the hospital without being seen. Even six years later, the medical staff would recognize me, and the ICU was well-guarded with sealed windows. I would have to wait until she went home. I raked my hands through my hair, moving at inhuman speed back and forth along the riverbank until Alice finally popped her head out of the back door. "For God's sake Edward, just go." ~X~

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I sat perched in the tree outside her window and tried to muster the courage to climb inside. Although I knew she was still at the hospital - with the dog-boy, no less - inviting myself inside her house, her father's house, seemed to me - for once - like a monumental invasion of her privacy. Guilt aside, crawling through her window tonight, at this moment, was a necessity. An unavoidable evil if I hoped to acclimate to her scent before I was bold enough, shameless enough, to show my face in her presence. It wouldn't be long now. My self-restraint was abating. My masochistic tendencies subsiding. My bloodless heart pumped now for one purpose. A single need. To be with her. It had to be done. I stretched to the window and stopped short, simultaneously hopeful and fearful that it would be nailed shut. It opened with ease. Bracing for the euphoria, the anguish, that traveled hand-in-hand with her scent, I climbed into her old bedroom. But there was barely a hint of her in the stale air. She had not been here in a long time. Even so, after the six wretched years I spent avoiding her memory, denying my obsession, depriving my lust, each new reminder of her hit me like a swift kick to the gut. I staggered backward, bracing myself on the corner of her old desk as I scanned the room. Reliving the defining moments of my existence - of our existence - that were embodied within these walls. It had begun in the rocking chair, where I sat unmoving, unbreathing, as I guarded her sleep. Before she invited me to share her bed. Her life. It blossomed under the purple bedspread which I had nestled against her chin and wrapped around her shoulders when the chill from my body left her shivering. And it ended there. Under the floorboards. I clutched my stomach and dropped to my knees, crippled by the guilt and despair that serrated my marble skin like the dull blade of a knife. On all fours now, I crawled to the loose plank of wood and caressed it with my fingertips. I gingerly set it aside, then hesitated. Please tell me she had looked. But she hadn't. Of course she hadn't. Everything was still there. The plane tickets to Jacksonville, long yellowed, from Carlisle and Esme. The single photograph taken of me in her presence. The CD of my compositions, nearly pristine in its case. Collectively, they were the only remnants of physical evidence that my life once had meaning. And they were here, in her room. It was fitting. I'd begged her to forget me - to pretend I'd never existed - when all along, the sum of my existence had remained right here in her bedroom. With her. Waiting for her to breathe life into it again. I was so captivated by the atrocity of my mistakes that I was startled by the low rumble of a car pulling into Charlie's driveway. Fuck. I had miscalculated. They were home now and walking toward the porch. I couldn't jump out the window for fear that they would see me. I'd be lucky if the wolf didn't already smell me. I was trapped.

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It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Spoiled by the luxury of time, immortality had made me a patient man, prone to taking precautions. I needed to calm my swirling thoughts. I needed to hunt. I needed to jerk off. I needed more time. The mutt's pleas snapped me out of my trance. He was practically begging her to let him sleep over. Sonofabitch. The thought of him, on her couch, or worse - in her bed - made me want to break his fucking neck. I was about to blow my cover, precautions be damned, when I heard the silent intent behind his verbal appeals. She doesn't look good. She's gonna lose it soon. And big-time. I'm worried about her. Jesus Christ, Edward. I really did need more time. If I was going to trust myself in her presence, with her life, I needed to accept that in my absence she had come to rely on others to support her. To protect her. I had left her with no other choice. Calming myself now, I heard her politely refuse his request to stay. Good girl. After I heard the deadbolt latch, I turned toward the window, relieved that the wolf was gone so I could leave without being noticed. I tugged at my throat, aware now that my thirst resembled a slow burn rather than a raging inferno. Alice had left me no doubt that this would be safe, but I was shocked that it was almost . . . comfortable. Familiar, even. This, I had not expected, and the realization left me emboldened. I could probably stay for a few minutes, just until she started upstairs. Or hide in the closet until she drifted to sleep. Or leave before sunrise, at least. God, I was a greedy prick. I would have no excuse for my behavior if she caught me. No hope of pleading my case. But she wouldn't catch me. I knew that. I had spent countless hours in this house, in this room, undetected. And so it was settled. I leaned against the windowsill. Closed my eyes. Listened. She plopped in a chair and turned on Sportscenter, then sucked in a deep breath before turning it off. I heard the waves of her chestnut hair rustle against her sweater as she shook her head. Her breaths became deeper, then. Deliberate. Shaky. The weight of the day was taking hold. It's okay, Bella. You'll be okay. As if she heard my silent reassurances, she leapt off Charlie's armchair and bounded to the kitchen. Rummaging through the cabinets, she was looking for something to eat, maybe. No - something to drink.

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She rifled through the drawers then, before becoming quiet. Exhaling in disgust. Please, just say something. Out loud. What is it you need? Though I knew my efforts were futile, I focused intently on hearing her thoughts. I stood perfectly still, eyes clamped shut, fists balled tight, longing to hear her. I had gone nearly six years without her, but the loneliness I felt in this moment, as she stood silent in her father's kitchen, was profound. Let me hear you, Bella. Just then, she tapped something on the countertop. Twice. Then three times more. What the-? "OPEN, MOTHERFUCKER! COME ON, YOU COCKSUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!" Oh, God. Oh no, Bella. The dog was right. She was losing it. Big time. I heard the slump of her body and the smack of her palms as she collapsed, sobbing and heaving, on to the kitchen floor. My urge to go to her, to comfort her, was primal in nature. She needed someone, and for a split second, my cold heart seized on the notion that she might even be distraught enough to need me. As if Bella would be comforted by me. As if seeing me would make her feel better. Even if the idea wasn't preposterous, I wasn't ready. As Bella lay on the kitchen floor, mourning her dead father, I was immobilized. Grieving a loss of my own making. Recalling with horror the last time I heard her cry. Six years ago. In the woods. The day my existence lost its meaning and the day her life could finally begin. I was right. I wasn't ready for this. She wasn't ready for this. We needed more time. So I left her weeping. Broken. Again. I leapt out of her window, misjudging the distance to the ground. I stumbled, arms flailing, before tumbling face-first into the driveway. I laid there, writhing, with my hands covering my ears so as to block the sound of her sobs. Her wails. Her hiccups. It was no use. Sprawled on her driveway, I could hear her as clearly now as I had six years ago during my sprint from the woods. There was only one option. I picked up my phone and dialed. "Alice, it's Edward. Tell Jasper to meet me at Bella's. And tell him to hurry."

Chapter 8

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BPOV The day after my father's death was a rare sunny day in Forks. I laughed darkly at the timing. It figures the sun would shine on one of the gloomiest days of my life. My head was groggy due to lack of sleep. I slept hard, dreamless, but not nearly long enough. I glanced at my phone on the pillow next to me and saw I had already missed four calls: two from Thomas and two from Jake. Thank God I'd turned the ringer off. I sat up and realized with a start that I was in Charlie's bed. I flashed back to last night's episode in the kitchen. As I had lain sobbing and convulsing, battered with memories of Charlie, and of him, it had occurred to me I might never be able to peel myself from the linoleum floor. Then suddenly, by the grace of God, or due to sheer exhaustion, perhaps, the weight of the agony pinning me to the ground had lifted, and a numbing sort of calm had taken residence in my body. I remembered rising to my feet and heading upstairs, but I didn't remember choosing Charlie's bed over my own. I scrubbed the sleep out of my eyes with the back of my hand and flopped back face-first against his pillow. It smelled like Old Spice. He was gone. I knew in my head it had happened. Knew that I had been the one to authorize the nurse to end his life. But as I had stared at him, bone white and unnaturally relaxed, his chest rising and falling with mechanical precision, I had felt oddly detached. Jake had been right. Charlie was long gone before I even entered the room. I smashed my face deeper into the pillow and sucked in a muffled breath through my nose, pulling the familiar scent of him into my lungs. This, this was Charlie. My throat began to swell, and gasping, I rolled onto my back to escape his scent. I laid on the lumpy mattress, arms open, palms up, and stared at the pebbled ceiling through blurry eyes. My head throbbed and my limbs ached; I recognized both as the once familiar physical symptoms of grief. All that was missing was the gaping hole in my chest. That pain, it seemed, was reserved for a different kind of heartbreak. "Fuck this," I muttered. Shaking my head, I bounced off the mattress before the lodged sob could break free. Though every synapse in my brain and muscle in my body cried out for me to spend the day in bed, there were arrangements to be made. Mercifully, the Forks Police Department was handling most of the funeral details. As chief of police, Charlie was the closest thing Forks had to a "public figure." There was only one place in this little town big enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to pay their respects: the Forks High School Gymnasium. Apparently God had a sick sense of humor. After showering, I threw on some old jeans and a sweater and pulled my hair up into a loose ponytail before settling into Charlie's recliner to make the obligatory phone calls. Though I had been dreading

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the call to Renee, she had thankfully understood that flying up to Forks would only make things more difficult for me. I could barely hold it together myself, much less take care of my flighty mother. Thomas had been harder to convince. Arguing that there was no reason for him to stay in Los Angeles once the play had opened, he'd all but booked his plane ticket to Port Angeles by the time I returned his call. He insisted that I not go through this alone, and he was none too pleased when I gently reminded him I had Jake here with me. I could almost hear the unspoken but familiar plea for me to "let him in" through the phone. He seemed to think I had a choice in the matter. Or that it was something he could fix. I sighed, rubbing my temples as I hung up the phone. If only it was that easy. But it wasn't, of course. My relationships had never been anything resembling easy, and my feelings about Thomas were no exception. Thomas was everything I should want in a man and more than I deserved. And yet he wasn't enough -would never be enough. If I were honest with myself, the realization had been lingering in the pit of my stomach for months. Now, in the wake of my father's death, it bubbled unbidden to the surface. It had begun the moment Jake called. I could literally feel myself closing up, shutting down. Consumed by the effort of holding it together, of simply existing, I didn't even have the energy to tell Thomas what had happened. Of course he would have reacted lovingly, appropriately. No question he would have wanted to be the one to console me as my father lay dying. But that's not what I wanted. Not at the time and not now. I thought back to walking into the hospital room that I couldn't even enter without Jake's hand in mine. To my father, whom I couldn't even look at until Jake had given me a nudge. To the goodbye I couldn't even bring myself to say. I was broken beyond repair. And so, faced with, and accepting of, that reality, I did the only thing I knew to do in times of crisis; I called Jake. "Bells! How are you holding up?" he tried for upbeat but sounded drained. I doubted he'd gotten much more sleep than me. "Hey Jake. I'm, um, I'm okay. Well, you know. Whatever." I knew he'd get it. "Yeah, I hear ya." He paused for a beat before continuing. "Listen, Bells, I was thinking I would take off work today to come with you to, uh, help, you know, set everything up." God bless him, his voice faltered a bit as he spoke. "Hey, thanks. I appreciate it - a lot - I really do. But don't miss work on account of me." Part of me considered changing my mind, begging him to hold my hand through it all. But I knew money was tight for him and I had already burdened him enough. I couldn't expect Jake to carry my weight forever. "I think I need to handle this myself anyway, you know? Maybe we can hang out later." "Ok, sure, sure. I get it. Wanna come around to Emily's for dinner with the guys? I know they'd all love to see you." His voice softened a bit, "and you know how much they all loved Charlie." I was secretly hoping he would offer to come stay with me after he got off work. The urge to stay holed up in the house was almost irresistible, but I felt obligated to accept the invitation. Sam Uley had been in the car with Charlie at the time of the accident. Though his minor injuries had healed within hours of the wreck, I still wanted to pay him a visit. I owed him - owed all of them - so much. Owed Sam for lifting me from the forest floor. Owed Jake for rescuing me from my own despair. Owed them all for saving my life that day in the meadow. "That sounds great, actually."

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"Great, I'll pick you up at six?" "Perfect. And Jake?" "Yeah?" "Thanks." After hanging up with Jake I poured myself a travel mug of coffee and grabbed my old truck keys off the hook by the front door. I had to shield my eyes with my hand as I stepped into the brightness. Digging around in my purse, I finally located my oversized sunglasses - an accessory rarely needed in Forks. My truck was pristine as always, despite nearly a year of disuse. I bit my lip, momentarily stung by the image of Charlie and Billy drinking beer, talking baseball in our driveway while Charlie applied a second coat of wax on the off chance I'd make an unexpected visit. I never had. Not until now. I was seized by a combination of guilt and grief as I climbed in the cab. Shaking my head, I pressed my eyes shut, denying the waiting tears their release. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and breathed in the familiar scent of the worn vinyl. Bathed in the comforting aroma, I recalled my first Christmas home after leaving Forks my freshman year of college. Jake and Charlie had surprised me by picking me up from the airport in my truck. I'd sat, squeezed like a sardine between them, for the duration of the trip. Charlie, oblivious, had remarked that it was a shame the old truck didn't have a radio, because he would have liked to listen to the Seahawks game during the drive. Feeling my body grow rigid, Jake had immediately started in on a tone-deaf, and slightly obscene, version of "Jingle Bells," which Charlie had enthusiastically joined. Lost in the memory, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was just one of many times that those two men, Charlie on one side, Jake on the other, had held me upright and kept me from crumbling. Not allowing myself to dwell on how I was going to survive with one of them gone, I started the engine and leaned my head back, soaking up the reassuring rumble. I still had an hour before my meeting at the school, and I was in desperate need of a corkscrew. ~X~ As I pulled into the A&P, I said a silent prayer. I'd gotten used to a certain loss of privacy over the past six months, but I wasn't in the mood for a fan encounter today. I considered leaving my sunglasses on before deciding that was more likely to attract attention. I made a bee-line for the wine section, not even bothering to look at the labels once I'd located the merlot. I dropped four bottles in my cart. I was just heading to the "kitchen gadgets" aisle in search of a corkscrew when I heard it. "Bella!" Shit. I recognized the voice before I turned.

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"Jessica. It's good to see you." I sounded enthusiastic. Thank God my publicist had helped me learn to fake a smile without wincing. "You look, wow, you look, just amazing." I laughed, "Thanks, you too." True to form, Jessica looked like she'd just stepped out of the pages of the JCrew catalogue. "Listen, I heard about your dad. I'm so sorry, Bella." Bad news travels fast in small towns. I knew that all too well. "Thanks, that's so nice of you to say." I really hoped she wouldn't push it. The last thing I needed was to lose it in the middle of the grocery store. Attention shoppers, woman having a breakdown in the liquor aisle. Clean-up on aisle three ... Thankfully, Jessica wasn't one to dwell on uncomfortable topics. "Hey, I saw you in Vanity Fair! It was a really good article. I keep meaning to pick up your book. I've heard good things." "Thanks, I'll send you a free copy if you want. I have boxes of them in my garage at home." I smiled weakly, eager to change the subject. It seemed all I did was talk about myself these days. "What have you been up to?" Jessica leaned in conspiratorily as if she were going to tell me about a secret crush who'd asked her to the school dance. "I'm Jessica Crowley now. I married Tyler last year. I figured you would have heard." "Oh, I'm sorry, of course, I did hear that," I lied. "Congratulations, Jess. I always had a feeling about you two." "Thanks," she flexed her hand, admiring her ring. "Married life is fabulous," she squealed. "It's, like, I was born to be Mrs. Tyler Crowley." "That's great, just great," I said, bobbing my head up and down mechanically. "So," she raised her eyebrows and asked in a stage whisper, "are you seeing anyone?" "Um, yeah, actually," I replied, hoping to skirt the topic. After callously disinviting Thomas to join me in Forks, I was trying to avoid thinking about him, much less talking about him. Plus, I knew how Jess was. If I divulged any details about my love life, she would blab to the whole town that I was either betrothed or involved in some creepy May-September romance. "But listen, enough about me," I dismissed, "what I really want to know is what's been going on here? How are you?" I knew that Jess could never pass up an opportunity to gossip. Or to brag. "I'm a realtor now, can you believe that?" She sounded as if she had just informed me she'd cured cancer. "Wow, that's amazing. Good for you. What have you sold around here?" This was good. Let her talk about herself for a couple of minutes, then make a clean exit. "Oh, I'm still new at it. I've sold a few small homes on the other side of town. The real money is in commercial real estate, though. I'm dying to get a hold of a few properties over where the logging

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companies have their regional offices. Or, you know what I'd really love to get my hands on-" She stopped short with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Oh, well, never mind." I was worried she thought I was disinterested. Did I look bored? "Oh come on, Jess. Tell me. What are you just dying to sell?" I asked teasingly. "Well," she suddenly looked sheepish. "I'd really love to convince the Cullens to sell." Oh. Wait. What? I gaped at her. A few seconds passed. I shook my head as if to clear it. "Sorry, what?" She winced apologetically. "Gosh, sorry, Bella. I didn't realize that would still bother you-" "It doesn't," I interrupted in a tone too sharp to be convincing. "I'm just surprised. Are you saying the Cull-, that they still own that house?" Her eyes widened - a reflex I recognized from high school. The thrill of sharing a juicy tidbit of gossip lit up her face. "Yeah, can you believe that? It's just sitting there," she gushed. "They apparently had these metal window shades installed to cover the windows so you can't even see inside. But according to tax records, Dr. Cullen is still the legal owner. They still pay property taxes every year. Every realtor in town is just dying to get their hands on it. Can you imagine the commission?" They still owned the house. They still paid the fucking taxes. Jessica raised an eyebrow and turned to look over her shoulder. "Are you okay?" Suddenly the walls of liquor on either side of me seemed to be moving closer together. "Um, yeah. I'm sorry. Gosh, Jess, this was great seeing you and all. I have to run, though. Lots of arrangements to deal with." I managed an appropriate cringe of dismay. "Oh of course! I shouldn't be rambling on about work. I'll be at the memorial." She reached out for a hug. "That's great, Jess. Thanks." I patted her back lightly before retreating from the store, leaving my cart behind. ~X~ I pulled into the parking lot of Forks High and, unthinkingly, found myself parked in my "usual" spot. I glanced at my watch. 11:30. Damn. I hadn't realized how early I was. I wasn't meeting Deputy Ryerson until noon. I tried the main entrance and was surprised to find it unlocked despite the weekend. Padding down the halls, the familiar scent of chalk dust and Lysol hit me in a wave of something resembling nostalgia. As I passed my old locker, lightly fingering the chipped teal paint, a host of indistinguishable flashbacks flitted quickly through my mind. I resisted the urge to focus on a single image, closed my eyes, and sucked in a deliberate breath through my nose.

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I should have expected this. The school was a hotbed of memories - some pleasant, most toxic, none healthy. I resolved that I could get through this - would get through this - without dissolving into a pile of mush. I wasn't the same girl I had been back then. For better or worse, I had grown up. As I approached the gymnasium, and my senior English classroom, I was surprised to recall a few good memories. Remembered old friends. Angela gushing over her first date with Eric. Ditching class with Mike to go see a movie. Sneaking a cigarette behind the quad with Jessica. I had spent nearly two years of my life in this building, so it really shouldn't have snuck up on me. Nevertheless, I froze in my tracks when I realized I was standing outside of Room 214. Biology Lab. Shit. I wanted to look away, wanted to leave. But I couldn't. I was like a passerby witnessing a gruesome car accident. Interesting choice of analogies, Bella. The room looked the same as always. The lab tables were arranged in two lines with a path down the middle. On top of each table was a small box of microscope slides. I gingerly stepped over the threshold and entered the room, flicking the lightswitch on. The buzzing fluorescent light made the reality of what I was doing feel harsh and cruel. Still, I couldn't help myself. I crossed the room to my old table. Our table. I glanced at the label on the box of slides. Onion Root Tip Cells. Figures. I wondered briefly whether the lab tables had been replaced or rearranged over the years. Then I noticed it. Under the lip of slate tabletop, there was a gash in the wood about the size of a man's fist. I curled my palm around the crescent-shaped notch which had worn smooth over time. My mind flashed to an image of him, his stool perched a normal distance from my own but his torso craning as far away from me as possible - his white-knuckled hand gripping the edge of the lab table. That was before I knew him, before he'd let me in. Before my whole life had spun wildly off the predictable, safe, and unremarkable course I had previously been on. He had left Forks then, not trusting himself to be around me. But he'd come back. For what? To prove he could conquer his thirst? He'd come back and reached into my life, ruining me forever. Ruining me as a lover. Ruining me as a daughter. And then he'd left me just as quickly - a casualty of his failed experiment. I hated him. I sat down on his stool and pressed my forehead on the cool slate. I pondered for the millionth time since the day he'd left me destroyed and heaving on the forest floor whether Tennyson was right. Was it truly better to have loved and lost? I willed myself to answer differently this time. "No, no, no, no, no."

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But it was no use. No matter how many times I considered the question, my traitor heart always answered the same way. Yes. Oh God, yes. I felt my eyes sting and squeezed them shut to keep the tears from leaking onto my cheeks. My chest started to ache. Damn it. I would not let myself cry over him again. I would not cry over him when my own father lay dead in a morgue across town. Cursing my weakness, I stood and lifted the small box of slides from the table. I raised it high over my head with both hands. With as much force as I could muster, I smashed the slides down on the hard slate. The brittle glass shattered into a million little pieces and skittered across the floor. I felt a fleeting moment's peace. Then, as I watched the shards sparkle in the sunlight streaming through the far window, I knew I would never be free.

Chapter 9 EPOV I wanted nothing more than to spend the morning watching Bella perform the little rituals I'd so dearly missed in my years away. Wiping her mouth indelicately with the back of her hand after brushing her teeth. Tipping the back of the cereal box as she read it absently while eating. Cursing quietly under her breath when she realized she was running late. I sighed, exasperated. I would have to wait to see if those endearing habits had changed. I needed to hunt. Alice and Jasper met me in the woods on the outskirts of Forks. I was grateful for their quiet company as we worked together to take down a small family of deer. I had not hunted in the area surrounding Forks since our departure six years earlier. The distinct taste of the deer's blood and the smell of its flesh as I burrowed my nose deep in its neck brought back a torrent of memories of my time in Forks: gorging myself before returning to school after nearly taking her life, vainly trying to concentrate on the hunt with Emmett while Bella joined her friends at First Beach, playfully chasing Alice through the trees as she teased me about my nightly visits to Bella's window. Once I had flooded my system to an uncomfortable degree, I needed to be near her again. The sun was blazing, nearly at the mid-point in the sky. Tracking Bella in the middle of a cloudless day was risky to the point of foolishness. I didn't care. I merely looked at Alice and, of course she knew. Go on, Edward. She's at the school.

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Charlie's memorial service was scheduled for tomorrow. I saw in Alice's mind that Bella was alone at the school, finalizing the arrangements. Selfishly, I was delighted at the prospect of watching her without the unwelcome mental chatter and crippling jealousy that assaulted me in another human's presence. And yet I wondered: what kind of man could Thomas be to leave her alone in her grief? What kind of friend could the wolf-boy be to her if he wasn't here for her now? The answers were simple enough. A better man than me. A better friend than me. No matter how much I yearned to hate them, Thomas and Jacob had cared for Bella when I had abandoned her. What right did I have to be grateful that she was alone? Knowing her, she had insisted on handling things by herself. So brave. So stubborn. The searing brightness meant I was relegated to the shadows as I ran from the woods to Forks High. Being forced to slink in the darkness, I felt every bit the monster I was. Still, I told myself, I was only making sure she was okay. Right. I entered the high school through the gymnasium entrance. Her scent hit me in a powerful gust as I pulled open the steel door. I crossed the lacquered floor to the doorway leading to the main hall, stopping dead in my tracks. It was the place I had first touched her face. I recalled with perfect clarity the way my fingers had skimmed her silky cheekbone. Her eyes had shimmered in surprise as her face turned the most beautiful shade of scarlet. Shit. What the fuck was I doing here? I had convinced myself that by coming back, I could somehow help her. That somehow, after all this time, she needed me. I was a fool. I'd had my opportunity for pure happiness right here, within my grasp. I had squandered it. What made me think I had any right to be in her presence, to even breathe the same air? I hadn't come here for her. I had come here for me. And if I had any honor I would leave now. Leave her to share her life with the people who loved her who deserved her love in return. But I had crossed a line when I sought her out in New York. My need to be near her won out over any illusions of honor I had once held. I followed her delectable scent and found her seconds later. She was standing in the doorway of room 214. Biology Lab.

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Oh, God. Hiding behind a row of lockers, I watched her intently. She leaned gently against the doorframe, her head tipped in thought. I couldn't see her face from this angle; I wished to God I could see her expression. It was very nearly unbearable for me to be denied access to her thoughts in this moment. The frustration her quiet mind had caused me years ago was, by comparison, a paltry nuisance. I dug my nails deep into the heels of my palms as I struggled to stay still, my mind straining in vain to hear hers. Was she thinking about us? Was she sad? Disgusted? Apathetic? A moment later she entered the room. I flitted to the side of the doorway and kept my eyes trained on her. This was dangerous. There was nowhere to hide. I wouldn't be able to hear her if she decided to turn her head suddenly. Still, I couldn't bring myself to leave. Though uncomfortably full from the hunt, my traitorous throat ached at her proximity. I pressed my eyes shut for a beat, willing the monster into submission as I watched her. She sat down at the lab table we once shared. I could only see the back of her head. Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail, exposing the graceful column of her neck, her mahogany locks cascading down to her shoulder blades. She was sitting at our table. In my seat. She was thinking of us. Of me. The world around me faded to black as I reeled with the possibility. Bella was thinking of me? At my peril, I allowed myself to hope. I saw her lightly finger the edge of the desk. She seemed to be captivated by something she felt there. I gazed, transfixed. She leaned forward, pressing her head into the tabletop. I thought for a moment she was resting, weary from the weight of the day. I wanted to go to her. To wrap my arms around her shoulders and nuzzle my chin into the hollow of her neck. To feel her relax into me as the tension melted out of her body. Before I could put thoughts into action, Bella's neck snapped up. Had she heard me? Would she turn and see me? The thought was both thrilling and terrifying. But she didn't turn. In a slow and deliberate movement, she reached across the table and took hold of a box of glass microscope slides perched on the table's edge. Standing, she raised the box over her head. I could hear the faint tinkling of the slides rattling as her arms trembled slightly. The sunlight streaming in the far window silhouetted her elegant form. She looked strong. Powerful. A goddess.

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I registered a quickening of her pulse. She moved the box behind her head slightly before slamming her hands down on the table with as much force as she could muster. A small grunt escaped her throat. The box landed on the hard slate with a muted crunch, sending the fragile contents shattering across the floor. I fled from the school before she could turn around, exiling myself again to the shadows. ~X~ I kept a safe distance from Bella the rest of the afternoon, watching her from afar. I didn't know what to make of her episode in the biology lab. While my heart flew at the knowledge that she had been thinking of me, her reaction confirmed that they were memories she longed to forget. Afraid I'd be unable to keep from going to her, I refused to allow myself to get as close as I had in the school. I was a selfish bastard, but I didn't want to add to her pain by forcing her to face the lingering demon from her past. I sat parked in Jasper's car a safe distance from her house as she prepared to go out for the evening. My Volvo still sat in the garage - undriven since the day I'd taken Bella for a "walk" in the woods. After an hour or so, I heard the mutt's excuse for a car rattle into Bella's driveway. As she emerged from the house, she gave him a genuine smile that made her eyes crinkle in the corners. God, I'd missed her smile. Bella was not the only one who had changed over the years. Jacob Black was no longer a scrawny teenager with a schoolboy crush. I knew the wolves' human forms developed quickly once they approached phasing age, but the sight was still a shock. He was much taller than me - a near giant. A hulk. I was grateful that even the wolf's keen senses would be unable to permeate the sealed confines of Jasper's G Class. Bella was dressed casually in jeans and a soft grey sweater that hugged her curves. The dog noticed. Wow, her boobs look amazing. Shit, no. She's just a friend. I'm an ass. His thoughts flailed for several more moments before finally settling into genuine concern. She walked to the passenger side of his car and climbed in. Damn mutt didn't open her door for her. God. After all that I'd done, I faulted him for not opening her door? I stepped out of the SUV and followed their car on foot, hidden by the dense trees lining the road. I realized about 100 yards from the boundary where they were headed. La Push. Fuck. Damn the Quileutes and their treaty. Seconds later we reached the line I could not cross. The car sped easily by as I stared dumbly ahead at the ever expanding distance between us. I watched with perfect vision as I let Jacob Black carry Bella away from me. Again.

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I nearly laughed at the black irony as I sank to my knees in desperation. For all my supernatural gifts, I was rendered impotent by this arbitrary boundary separating us from them. I spat on the ground in my fury. It was agony knowing she would be spending hours outside of my reach. With him. I let out a low growl in frustration before registering the sensation of a tiny hand on my shoulder. Alice. Come on, Edward. Come home for a while. ~X~ Alice had thought of everything. While I had been keeping tabs on Bella, she had been busy setting up the house - hooking up utilities, stocking the place with fresh linens, even adding cut flowers to the vases. She had filled my closet with a complete wardrobe, including two impeccably tailored designer suits. Although I wasn't planning on seeing anyone at today's memorial service, I was glad to be able to dress appropriately for the occasion. "You always could tie a beautiful windsor knot." Alice poked her head in my room as I finished getting ready. "You always could pick out the perfect tie." I gave her a playful smirk, adjusting my cufflinks. Over the past 48 hours we had settled into something resembling the close sibling relationship we had previously shared. It reminded me of those first days after Bella had come to Forks. Even when the future had been uncertain - the limits of my self-control unreliable - Alice had always had faith in me. She came around behind me and dusted my shoulders with her hands, meeting my eyes in the mirror. "I know this isn't about me, Edward." She paused, glancing away before meeting my eyes once more. "But I've missed you. Missed this." God, I was such an ass. I owed Alice an apology. No, I owed her much, much more than that. I grabbed her hand, still resting on my shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. "I've missed you too, Alice. And no matter what happens here, I promise I'm going to make up for my behavior the past six years." She smiled, her signature mischevious grin. "Yes. Yes, you definitely are." She playfully ruffled my hair before skipping out of the room. Jasper was waiting for me in the living room as I descended the stairs. Alice had dressed him in a crisp dark suit. I nodded at him in appreciation. It's going to be fine, Edward. "Thanks for coming, Jas." I clapped a hand on his shoulder. Alice could not see the memorial, so we knew that many of the Quileutes would be attending the service. While there was no way to avoid their detection, we were hopeful that under the circumstances, and with Jasper's influence, they would not be provoked to action. And although we were certain the Quileutes would not be pleased at our presence, we trusted they would respect the treaty Carlisle had forged decades ago. We waited in the back of the parking lot while the mourners filed into the school building. Practically the whole town had turned up to pay their respects. With the exception of a carload of officers from a neighboring precinct, I recognized nearly every face. The waitress from the diner. Faculty of Forks High. Nurses who had worked with Carlisle at the hospital.

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Several minutes after the last person entered, we sprinted lightly through the far back entrance and climbed up to the catwalk above the gym's built-in stage. From our position in the shadows, we had a bird's eye view of the ceremony. I scanned the room. The Quileutes sat together in the far right corner of the gymnasium. I noticed a few furtive glances among them as our scent registered. I quirked an eyebrow at Jasper. His forehead was creased in concentration but he allowed me a reassuring look indicating he had things under control. A handful of Bella's high school friends were sitting together near the front of the room. Jessica Stanley and Tyler Crowley sat holding hands. She was toggling her ring finger beneath the bright overhead lights. I smiled slightly seeing Angela Weber in the row behind them - one of Bella's true friends. She dabbed lightly at her eyes with a tissue as she leaned against her mother's arm. I realized then that I was far too comfortable. Bella had not yet arrived. Two minutes later my throat caught fire. I saw her then, walking behind a simple pine casket flanked by six uniformed pall-bearers. She was dressed in the same black suit she had worn on The Today Show just two days earlier. Her hair was down, hanging loose in graceful waves to the middle of her back. Her gaze was fixed on the box containing her father's remains as she walked to her seat in the front row. There was no hint of red in her eyes. No tear-stains on her cheeks. The crowd instantly hushed as the procession came into view. Though there was no noise but the quiet clicking of shoes, my thoughts were interrupted by an onslaught of images featuring Bella that wafted up through the rafters. It hit me then that most of these people had not seen Bella since high school. They were shocked at her transformation, remembering Bella as they'd last seen her, before she'd moved to California, grown into a woman, made a name and a substantial fortune for herself. They were marveling at how different she appeared now - mentally comparing the two incongruous images of the Bella that had left and the Bella that had returned. But something was off. The depictions of the teenage Bella that called up at me from the crowd were not pictures of the Bella I had known. No, the Bella they had last seen was another person entirely. Their Bella was ... broken. Needing to isolate a single train of thought to fully concentrate on it, I focused on Mr. Berty, the Forks High senior English teacher. He was staring at Bella intently. His thoughts were not unkind as he admired how far she had come over the years. In his memory, I saw her staring absently out the window as she sat in the back row of his class. Her hair was stringy, lifeless. Dark circles hung below her eyes. Her face was gaunt, shoulders hunched forward. She seemed to be hugging her chest tightly in some kind of protective posture. Even through her sweatshirt I could detect the sharp angles of her shoulderblades. She was easily fifteen pounds lighter than she'd been when I'd left. When I'd left her. Oh my God. What had I done to her? Mr. Berty's thoughts were suddenly drowned out by the louder and more aggressive mind of Jessica Stanley.

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She thinks she's such hot shit now. She's lucky I even invited her to my graduation party. It was a total pity invite... Her thoughts gave way to vivid images of Bella standing in the corner of the Stanleys' kitchen. She was wearing a green tank top and a pair of blue jeans that hung loose on bony hips. She held a red plastic cup in one hand. Her other frail arm was wrapped around her chest in the same defensive manner recalled in Mr. Berty's memory. She looked bored as she stared with flat eyes at a mildly attractive college-age guy. My cousin came in all the way from U Dub. The least she could have done was let him get to second base ... A low growl began building in the pit of my stomach. My fists clenched around the rail of the catwalk, causing the metal to groan in protest. Jasper shot me a warning look. Still, a flurry of images kept swirling around me. I grabbed at them willingly in spite of myself. I needed to know. Needed to see what I'd done. Sam Uley carrying Bella's limp body in from the woods. Chief Swan asking the school counselor to recommend a psychiatrist. Bella screaming through a nightmare at the senior girls' camping trip. The weight of what my leaving had done to her hit me like a punch in the gut. God, forgive me. Jasper caught my eye again. Keep it together, man. I have enough on my plate right now. Shit. I needed to get a hold of myself. I tried to avoid the onslaught of images and focus my attention on Bella herself. She was so graceful in her grief. So strong. Even as I reeled with the visual proof of how I'd broken her, my heart swelled with pride at the woman she'd become in spite of me. She took her seat at the front of the room. The dog sat to her left. Reverend Weber began the invocation. Father in Heaven, the untimely death of one so young reminds us all how fragile human life is . . . My stomach clenched as I watched Bella reach for the wolf's hand. The movement seemed unthinking, instinctive. He squeezed her tiny hand in his huge palm, and I could hear her pulse instantly slow. I began to listen in on his thoughts - hoping fruitlessly for some untoward flicker, something that would undermine this visual proof that he was the better man. It's just not fair. She's been through so much. She doesn't deserve this. Hasn't deserved any of it. The images in his mind drifted from Bella's beautiful face, pale and glassy-eyed, as she stepped off a plane in the Port Angeles airport, to Bella squeezing her father's shoulder as he lay dying, to a younger Bella, soaked and shivering, violently spewing water from her blue lips.

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I honestly don't know how she's keeping it together right now. If that were my dad. . .or. . .her in that casket. . . His thoughts went blank for a moment, as he struggled to maintain his composure, before a vision of the meadow-of our meadow-flitted through his mind. Thank God we were there that day. And that we made it on time. Just thank God for that. And with that, I could no longer listen, crippled as I was by my own regret. My shame. He had been there for her then, when I had left her to face Laurent alone. And he was here for her now, as she mourned the loss of her father. I had abandoned her. He had saved her. And for that, in spite of myself, I could be nothing but grateful. Jasper reached for me then. His hand anchored firmly on my back, I kneeled down to rest my forehead on the metal railing of the catwalk. Finally strong enough to drive all external thoughts from my mind, I watched Jacob Black prepare Bella to bury her father. ~X~ BPOV I leaned against the bathroom countertop, supporting my weight with one hand as I brushed my teeth with the other. Without thinking, I glanced in the mirror, wincing at my reflection. The face that stared back at me was one I hadn't seen in six years. Flat eyes. Chapped lips. Dull skin. Christ, I was tired. Though I was used to greeting crowds of people on my publicity tour, that was nowhere near as exhausting as gracefully accepting the condolences of the better part of a small town. The service had been a blur. I vaguely recalled Angela's father giving a homily about the ephemeral nature of life. Deputy Ryerson gave the eulogy, recalling various humorous and heroic anecdotes from Charlie's days on the force. Jake had sat next to me, grounding me with the comforting warmth of his paw-like hands. Thank God for Jake. He hadn't left my side since the ceremony, standing by me protectively as I received the long line of mourners, accompanying me to the gravesite afterwards with Billy and the handful of close friends who had made the drive. Still, while I was grateful for his constant presence, I couldn't help the twinge of guilt I felt. Jake's grief over Charlie's death was evident. He'd been visibly shaken throughout the entire memorial service, alternating between squeezing his eyes shut and darting them around the room as if looking for an escape. At the gravesite, his face was drawn, his eyes red-rimmed. I, on the other hand, hadn't been able to muster a single tear all day. I felt numb, hollow. And fucking spent. I tried to remember the last time I had really slept. Last night after Jake dropped me off, I had fallen reluctantly into a superficial, cold-medicine-induced slumber, foolishly hoping that it might help me appear somewhat human for Charlie's funeral. The night before that, I had collapsed in a pathetic heap in Charlie's bed. The night before that well we weren't exactly sleeping. And the night before that, I thrashed under the Egyptian cotton sheets, restlessly anticipating my interview on The Today Show.

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I didn't think I'd have any problems tonight. The exhaustion that consumed me was radiating from the inside out. I plodded to my old bedroom, sent Thomas a quick good-night text and crawled under the purple bedspread. And I waited. And waited. But the more I longed for sleep, the more it evaded me. I flipped my pillow from one side to the other, and then back again. I wrangled with the sheets, kicking them off, then tugging them to my chin. I counted the cracks in the ceiling and scripted conversations for the shadows which danced with each other on the walls. Still my mind returned to the booming silence. The tiny house felt cavernous without the low rumble of Charlie's steady snore. Before grief could swallow me, I willed my mind to recall in vivid detail the night of my birthday just three nights, yet a lifetime, ago. Thomas' fervent kiss upon arrival. Thomas teasingly asking to fuck me on the table in the restaurant, in the elevator. The champagne. The cheesecake. The cheesecake. Oh, God. Yes, this was what I needed. I needed to shut off my thoughts. I needed to just feel. My skin pebbled into gooseflesh as I slid my hand up the front of my pajamas, unhooking two of the buttons. With one finger, I traced the countours of my stomach, barely touching the skin. The sensation teetered on the edge of a tickle, a caress, as I palmed the curve of my breast. I rolled my nipple between my thumb and forefinger. My familiar wetness pooled down below as I recalled the vision of Thomas on his knees. My nipple in his mouth. Three fingers in the air. I let my mind and fingers wander, with Thomas's husky voice serving as my tour guide. Five. Seven. Eight. Oh, God. Especially eight. I felt myself soak through the crotch of my panties, the silk of my pajama bottoms. Aroused by my own wetness, I gasped as I dabbed one finger on my clit, teasing myself, throwing my head back, offering the hollow at my throat for some invisible lover to kiss. Committing to the act, then, I clumsily kicked off my pajamas and slid my panties to the side. I reveled in the memory of Thomas's teeth grazing my clit. The look in his eyes as he commanded me to touch myself. The tang of his lips, his tongue, on mine, a sumptuous combination of champagne, cheesecake and my taste. I grouped three fingers together and worked tiny circles around my clit, panting, moaning, writhing in my childhood bed. Bringing myself closer to the release I so desperately craved. With each pass of my hand I felt the sharp pangs of grief retreat a little further into the recesses of my mind.

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As I breathlessly shoved two fingers inside myself, nearing the brink, images, scents, sensations of lovers both won and lost floated through my head. Thomas sucking the cheesecake off his middle finger. Ring finger. Pinky. Hot breath on my clit. Cool breath on my neck. Thomas's eyes locked onto my sex. Ochre eyes trained on my lips. Frantic now, I rhythmically stroked the inside of my slit, hard, rough. Feeling my muscles tense, and then shudder, I pinched my nipple as I cried out, biting my lip while moaning his name. "Edward."

Chapter 10 EPOV It would have made more sense for Jasper to keep watch over her tonight. I knew that. While he could give her something, could help her, I could do nothing but watch. Listen. This tree was only big enough for one of us, though, and I wasn't willing to leave her behind for one second. Jasper was on call if she needed him. If I needed him. I heard the water running in the bathroom before she padded to bed. She crawled under the covers, and I waited for the once-familiar sound of Bella sleeping. And I waited. And waited. Poor thing. She thrashed from side to side. Flipped her pillow over. Again. Kicked off the sheets. Retrieved them. And then, finally, she was silent. But she wasn't sleeping. Her breaths were too quick. Too irregular. I leaned forward from my perch, straining to hear, cursing once again that her mind was a mystery. But though her thoughts evaded me, her scent did not. Soon after her agitated movements stilled, the fragrant aroma of Bella's arousal wafted toward me. I clasped the tree branches in a vain attempt to maintain my composure, and then, closing my eyes, I drank her in. The warmth of her sex entered through my mouth, burned my lungs and lingered in my gut. It was a familiar feeling, a blissful, yet painful, reminder that she had once been mine to caress. To kiss. To love. The ache that churned in my belly was one of pure want - of need. I needed to be with her. I needed to get a hold of myself.

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She had just buried her father. And even though I knew she had others in her life to lean on, I couldn't stand being away from her. I was too weak to stomach knowing she was in pain and yet not being there. Just in case. Just in case? Just in case what? Just in case she realized in a moment of grief that she wanted me back? God, I was delusional. It had started with the ill-fated hunt outside of Juneau. Her book. The knowledge that she'd memorialized our past, a past I'd convinced myself my leaving could erase. It had reignited the primal need to be near her I'd fought for six years to suppress. Then, once I had fed my need, I'd allowed a century-old painting at the Museum of Modern Art to turn my compulsion into doubt. Doubt that I'd made the right decision all those years ago. Doubt that she was better off without me. Doubt that it was impossible for us to be right together. I was so desperate in my need to hope, my need to be around her, that I was here, ignoring everything I now knew: That she had made something of herself, in spite of me. That she was strong, successful. That she had a man who loved her and a friend who carried her through her despair. And now I knew, too, what my leaving had done to her. As I'd listened to the thoughts of the mourners recalling the Bella they had once known, I had never felt more like a monster. Not when I'd abandoned Carlisle all those years ago. Not when I'd fled from Alice to take matters into my own hands. And yet, here I was. Powerless to leave. But terrified of what it would mean for her - for me - if I stayed. Though it had all but killed me, I had made the choice to leave her once. Once, it turned out, was my limit. If I left her again, it would be her choice. Not mine. My introspection was interrupted by the faint whisper of two soft snaps. She was unbuttoning her pajama top. Oh, God. Her arousal was intoxicating, hypnotic. More potent than any drug - than any brand of blood. Instinctively, I rested my hand on the shameful bulge which, despite the circumstances, strained at my jeans. I didn't want to do this. Didn't want to want this. But though I'd somehow managed to summon the self-control to avoid taking her life every minute I was in her presence, I didn't have the power to resist this temptation. In spite of myself, I began to rock back and forth, slowly, rhythmically. Purposefully. Ashamed but defeated by my traitorous lust, I called to mind the familiar fantasies. I imagined tickling the soft flesh of her stomach, palming the underside of her breast, before swirling my cool tongue around her peaked nipple. Sucking it hard enough to leave my mark. Yes.

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As I indulged in thoughts of fondling, kissing, licking her, I heard the frenzied rustle of silk. She was kicking off her pajama bottoms. She was touching herself. Fuck. The smell of her sex hung thick in the air as I retreated into a familiar, but hurried, rhythm. I imagined the arch of her neck as she offered her throat for my lips. The swell of her clit under my fingers as I whispered in her ear. The hitch in her breath as I entered her for the first time. Eyes squeezed shut, stroking my length, I pictured Bella laying naked beneath me. Her creamy skin glistening as she grunted with each of my thrusts. Although I could not have believed it possible, the image in my mind at this moment was even more beautiful, more vivid, than the vision of Bella which had tantalized me six years ago and had haunted me ever since. I loosened my grip and slowed my movements as I pondered the reason for the difference. Maybe it was because this Bella, the woman she had become, was even more alluring than I could have imagined. Maybe it was because my proximity to her at this moment heightened my senses. Or maybeMy gut clenched as understanding set in. It was because the image arose not from my own fantasy, but from his memory. His thoughts. Her Thomas. Oh, God. Was she thinking about . . . him? She was. Of course she was. She was laying in her bed, fantasizing about her boyfriend, and I was sitting in a tree outside her window stroking my dick. God. I was a sick, sick bastard. I held my breath and began softly humming to myself in an attempt to block this episode from my consciousness. I was disgusted. Embarrassed. I willed my perfect senses to submit. To ignore the soft suctioning sound of her fingers thrusting into her drenched entrance. To disregard the groans, the whimpers, that escaped from her lips. To neglect the pulsing erection that strained against my thigh. But it was useless. I was too far gone. The limits of my self-control had been breached. Besides, I had no pride to speak of anymore. Resigned, I unbuttoned my jeans and growled in a mixture of disgust and elation when my hand reached under my boxers to wrap around the head of my cock. I yanked it from base to tip, focusing intently on her scent. Her breaths. Her feminine sounds. I was instantly close. I could be patient, though, not knowing when I would again hear, if ever, the glorious sound of Bella pleasuring herself.

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I felt a surge of warmth in my groin, inadvertently so consumed by my own lust that I almost didn't realize how close she was. Pumping hard now, I held my breath, holding off, knowing that this may be the only chance I would ever have to come with her - to come together. I imagined her strong, slim legs locked around my waist, my eyes burning into hers as her silky folds enveloped my length. I heard her thrumming heart race, smelled the pungent fragrance of the wetness between her thighs as she neared her climax. "Unnhh," I whispered into the darkness. "God, Bella. Yes." "Edward." ~X~ I lay sprawled on the wet grass, having just fallen from the goddamn tree. Fuck. She said my name. My. Name. My thoughts were a jumbled mess. Incomprehensible. A swirling mixture of images, noises, smells. The savory tang of Bella's arousal. The delectable sweet scent of her blood. Her brown eyes widened in her pleasure. Her graceful neck arched in release. Cheeks flushed. Fingers splayed. Full red lips, open. Moaning. Edward. It was inconceivable. That she could have been fantasizing of me, while I was thinking of her, was too much to comprehend. I couldn't process it. I rose to my knees and braced myself on the ground with my hands, shaking my head furiously. But in my mind's ear I heard her again and again. As clearly as I'd heard her the night I'd fallen in love with her. The night my name had tumbled from her lips as she slept, unwittingly, in my presence. It was now, as it was then, my utter undoing. But what did it mean? That she loved me? Lusted for me? Was it even possible? Surely not. But she'd said my name. Though it was dangerous to hope, to believe it could mean some part of her still wanted me, I needed to know.

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And there was only one way to find out. "Hello, Edward." Alice was expecting me, as usual. "Alice," I croaked. "Alice - she - Bella said my name. Out loud. I heard her. When she was-" "I know, Edward. I don't need the recap." I could tell from her tone she was irritated. With what, or whom, I couldn't be sure. "So did you - did she -" She scoffed, cutting me off. "Did she what, Edward?" "Jesus, Alice," I groused. "What is wrong with you? I mean, do you not realize - do you not think this is monumental?" Clearly exasperated, she asked, "And why do you think this is monumental, Edward?" She was patronizing me. "Because she might want me, Alice. In that way. I thought - I just wanted to see if you had seen something." "What would I have seen, Edward?" she snapped. God. This was like pulling teeth. What had gotten into her? I fumbled for the words. "Well. . . does she choose me?" "What do you mean, does she choose you? How in the hell would I know that?" "Umm, well, I don't know, I just thought that -" "Where are you right now, Edward?" She didn't let me answer. "I'll tell you where you are. You're sprawled on the ground, underneath a fucking tree outside of Bella's window. Am I right?" "Yes," I replied quietly, the exhiliration of the moment long gone. "You knew I was coming here, Alice." "Ok, then. And why were you sitting in a tree outside of Bella's window?" "Christ, Alice. What is your problem?" Now I was getting mad. "I'll tell you what my problem is, Edward. You were sitting in a tree, like some sort of sick peeping Tom, because you're too much of a pussy to knock on the door and actually talk to her." Well, that was certainly uncalled for. I would have expected Alice, of all people, to understand how agonizing this was for me. Defeated, I mumbled, "Ok, fine. Whatever. I get it. This isn't easy for me, you know. I mean, I fucked it up so royally last time. And I don't know if I can . . . I just thought maybe you had seen something. That she had made up her mind, or whatever. So I could work up the nerve to approach her." She paused for a moment, and when she began again, her voice was softer. Kinder. "That's not the way it works, Edward. You know better than that. Bella doesn't even know that you're here. Last she heard, she wasn't even supposed to think that you existed. So how could she possibly have made up her mind?""

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Oh. Right. Damn. "Listen, Edward. I love you. I want you to be happy. You know that." "Yeah, I know," I admitted. I did know. "And I've been patient with you for six years. I shut Bella out of my life, out of my mind, for you." "Yeah, I know." "You've been a miserable person to be around. A terrible brother. And I've looked past it, been willing to forgive you, because I know you've been hurting. That you're still hurting." "Yeah, I know. And I appreciate it. I know what a bastard I've been." I did. "But listen to me, Edward. I've had enough. We've had enough." I wasn't surprised. If anything, I was surprised that it had taken them this long to snap. "You've come this far, Edward. To Forks, for God's sake. Don't give up now. You owe it to yourself. To Bella. To us. You need to figure this out. So go to her. Talk to her. Give her the chance to make the choice, Edward. She deserves that," she paused. "And, Edward?" "Yes?" "So do you." ~X~ Knowing that Alice was right didn't make this any easier. I paced outside Bella's window, contemplating what to say. How to say it. I envisioned myself knocking on her door, as Alice suggested. It seemed so . . . trite. Hello, Bella, my human ex-girlfriend. Do you suppose there's any room in your heart for a century-old vampire who abandoned you and begged you to pretend he never existed? It was absurd. Laughable. I had no chance in hell. Folding my legs, I sat on the grass and rested my head in my hands, weighing my options. Remaining silent, letting Bella live her life without the knowledge that I yearned to be in it was no longer one of them. The only decision to be made was whether I confronted her here, in Forks, while she was grieving for her dead father, or at her home, in Los Angeles, where she was living a new life. With him. Both options were completely repellent. True to form, I selfishly chose the one that favored myself, her bereaved state be damned. I was going to see her. And this time, she was going to see me. Distracted only by the occasional mumble or sigh from Bella's slumber, I planned my course of action. As soon as she awoke, I would knock on her door. I would lead with something easy. Straightforward. Bella, I heard about Charlie, and I'm so sorry.

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I would make no attempt to approach her, cognizant that she would be frightened. Provided she didn't slam the door in my face, I would simply start at the beginning. My end. Bella, when I left you that day in the woods, I foolishly thought that it was best for us. I didn't see how we could ever be together. How my . . . existence could coincide with your human life. I realize now that my love The rehearsal of my confession was interrupted by the sound of Bella's cries floating through the window. "Please. No. No! Don't leave me!" I winced, pained at her obvious despair over Charlie. Damn. Maybe she was too fragile after all. Maybe I should wait awhile. Let her heal. After six years of agony, I could survive a few more weeks. I would do anything for her, even if it meant temporarily depriving myself of the singular purpose of my existence. Sighing like a human, I reached for my phone to call Alice. She would be disappointed, I knew. Again, my plans were interrupted. "Edward," Bella mumbled. What the - ? "Edward, don't go. Stay with me. Please." Her tone was calm, but insistent. My eyes flashed toward the window, panicked at the notion that Bella had heard or seen me. The window was vacant. She was talking in her sleep. And she needed me. Wanted me. Fuck waiting. Fuck knocking on the door. I was going in. This was going to happen the way it began. With me. With her. In her bedroom. I leapt to my feet and sprung to the window before I lost my nerve. Hitching open the window, I realized with a start that this was the first time in six years I'd really seen her. Up close. God, what a sight to behold. Her chestnut locks were splayed about her pillow, a few strands clinging to her damp forehead. Her eyelids were closed, relaxed, but her lashes fluttered gently above her cheeks, tinted pink by the unseasonably warm night. Her silk pajama top rode up slightly on her torso, displaying a delicious, inviting slice of milky flesh. Her womanly hips and supple legs, though hidden from my view by her familiar purple bedspread, swam gracefully through her dreams. Though I had planned to practice my confession while Bella slept, it was clear that my mind would be otherwise occupied. The adoration with which I had viewed the sleeping girl six years ago was a pittance in comparison to the fascination I had with this woman sleeping before me. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Minutes passed, then hours. The impatience, the self-doubt, the panic, I had feared would creep in to plague me never arrived. I was calm. Captivated by her. Spellbound by the realization that she could

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awake at any moment to banish me from her house, her life, forever. That my marvelous time in her presence was limited. So I waited. Waited for her to say my name in her sleep again. Waited for her to wake up. Waited for absolution. For rejection. She slept peacefully and quietly until mid-morning, at which point she began to writhe in her bed. She clasped a fistful of the fabric of her silk pajama top, then released it. Flailed her legs about madly before kicking the covers to the foot of the bed. Sweet Jesus. She wasn't wearing any pants. Instinctively, I sprung to my feet, any illusion of calm I had held utterly shattered by the half-clothed goddess laying directly in my eyeline. I was mortified. I wanted to cover her. I wanted to flee. But God. What I really wanted to do was stare. To be sure, I'd seen countless images of human women, many of them admittedly beautiful, in various states of undress during my century of reading minds. But to be in the presence of Bella - well, I There were no words. Although it went against every natural instinct, human and otherwise, I started by looking at her feet. Cherishing this opportunity, I told myself I would be able to more effectively control my raging lust if I avoided looking there until my shock dissipated somewhat. I was a fool. Even her dainty toes, polished a pale pink, were worthy of a starring role in my most erotic fantasies. Shaking my head, both in wonderment of her and disgust with myself, my eyes ogled her toned calves and adorably knobby knees. The same knees that had featured so prominently in the more crass daydreams in which I had occasionally allowed myself to indulge. Caving now to the futility of my honorable intentions, I let my gaze travel higher. The waistband of her white lace panties dipped into an enticing shallow v-shape in the front, framed by the deeper v of her delicate hips. Christ, her hips. What I wouldn't give to trace one hipbone with my index finger. To sweep it along her soft flesh, just once, much in the way I had first caressed her cheekbone outside the gymnasium at Forks High. Although I was several feet from her bed, I closed my eyes and held out my finger, allowing myself to imagine the spark I'd feel if I were lucky enough, or bold enough, to graze her warm skin with my cool fingertip. I suddenly snapped my eyes open, irritated that I'd been so daft as to shut them when such beauty lay in my presence. Focusing now, I searched upward from the waistband of her panties until I found her navel. It was both angelic and provocative, inviting me at once to tickle it playfully and tongue it seductively. The imagined taste of Bella's soap, sweat, skin on my lips made my shaft twitch with lust, with need, and I finally let those urges guide my eyes where my attempt at manners and virtue had not allowed them to go.

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I studied her panties intently, eternally grateful for the needle-lace pattern that teased me with beguiling hints of skin and did nothing to mask the evidence of her earlier arousal. I was in the midst of a desperate wish, a silent plea, for her to spread those lovely thighs so I could get a better look, a better smell, of what lie between them, when I realized that she had a dark mark to the inside of her left hipbone, just inches above her tender flesh. It was small, no bigger than a quarter, or a half-dollar, perhaps, and the lace largely obscured it from my view. But there was something there. I honed in on the mark, willing her to shift positions, or for the sunlight to illuminate it, so that I could inspect it with more precision. What was it? It threatened to drive me berserk. It's not as if I knew Bella's body so well that this was the morning's only surprise. Indeed, there had been many revelations about her magnificent body in the last few hours. The appendix scar that showed the work of a careless surgeon unfit to touch her perfect abdomen. The pink starburst of a birthmark that hung mid-thigh. The notch of her navel, an innie. Had I been a normal teenager, I could have viewed these delightful imperfections on a summer day six years ago at the neighborhood pool. Or, my eyes darkening at the thought, in a hotel room after the Forks High Prom. As it were, I was hovering near her bedside at sunrise trying to deduce what in God's name she had on her left hip. It was so titilating, so arousing. So forbidden. I needed to know. I could not imagine a world, an existence, that could be so unjust as to leave this mark forever a mystery. I stood there, concentrating, transfixed, almost too distracted by my engorged length to recognize that the pace of her pulse, and her breath, was changing. She was waking up. Fuck. Lust replaced by anxiety, my erection hung limp as I began to pace.

Chapter 11 A whisper in the dark Is that you or just my thoughts? Wide awake & reaching out -Pearl Jam, Speed of Sound BPOV The sun's glare assaulted me as it cut through my bedroom window. Shielding my eyes with the crook of my elbow, I lay there for a moment, unmoving, unfeeling, unaware of the diamond-like sunbursts that danced on my bedroom wall. I felt remarkably well-rested. Refreshed. Euphoric, even. Not exhausted. Not despondent. Not forlorn. Nothing remotely resembling the chest-crushing anguish that I had come to expect in mornings such as these. Mornings after dreaming of him. Some years ago, we had made a deal, me and my long-lost vampire boyfriend - the crazy girl and the hallucination. He had left me in the woods with an empty promise that "time heals all wounds." A pledge that he would never return. Stubborn as always, I'd willed him to come back to me the only

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way I knew how, pushing the limits of recklessness for imaginary encounters that were fleeting, unsatisfying. At the peak of my desperation, I had bullied Jake into diving off the high cliffs of First Beach. He had pleaded with me to wait until the storm had passed and the waves had calmed. When I wouldn't take no for an answer, we jumped together, breaking the surface hand-in-hand before being torn apart by the angry surf. My survival instinct was no match for the sense of peace that enveloped me when the love I'd clung to so desperately met me underwater. Despite his urging that I fight, that I leave him behind, I chose to sink, content to drown in memories of him. Jake had pulled me to safety, but not before my selfish insistence nearly cost us both our lives. As I had lain sprawled out on the rocks, shivering from the biting wind, choking on the freezing water, I finally realized the high cost of Edward's phantom presence. So I made him an offer. A last-ditch olive branch to save my sanity. He could visit me in the darkness all he wanted so long as he stayed out of my daylight. It was the only way I knew to move on. And a guarantee I would never let go. Thus had begun my twisted split existence. I went off to college - sunny California of all places - made friends, got good grades. Dated. There was no trace of the delusional lovelorn girl of my youth in the light of day. But every night before bed, glutton for punishment, I touched the crescent-shaped scar on my wrist. And I allowed myself to remember. The memories took hold in my dreams. Sometimes he would come to me in our meadow as I lay waiting for him among the Queen Anne's Lace. Other times we'd meet on the bench of his grand piano while his long fingers danced over the keys, playing the lullaby he'd written just for me. Occasionally we were folded together under the covers of the twin bed in my old room. This room. What began as bliss, as unbridled elation, always ended with the same heartbreak. Me crumpled, alone, on the dank forest floor. Then, last year, I had flagrantly bucked our little agreement and lured him out of my dreams and into the sunlight for the world to see. As I had put pen to paper, the hole in my chest had begun to shrink. The more I forced my conscious self to remember his face, his voice, his scent, the less he appeared in my dreams. It had been months since I'd admired the vision of him in my sleep, heard his velvet voice, inhaled his delicious scent, only to wake up bruised and battered by the crippling reality of desolation. But last night, as I lay nestled in the very spot where he had first visited my sleep, he had come again. I didn't remember the details of the dream, but last night's vision of Edward was crystal clear. I had watched as he climbed through my window at a human pace, treading softly on the hardwood floor as if trying not to wake me. He didn't speak, but his eyes pierced mine with the same fervor of dreams past and smoldered a blazing gold. Unlike in my usual dreams, he did not crawl under the covers and wrap his arms around mine. Instead, he simply stood over my bed, arms folded across his chest. Guarding me. Protecting me. It was so real. So Edward.

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Lying in bed with my eyes still closed, I could swear that I actually smelled him. Part of me wanted nothing more than to sink back into the familiar warmth of the mattress and escape back into my subconscious. Instead, I fluttered my lids open slowly, stifling a yawn as I prepared to face the weight of another day. I rolled over then, and froze, mouth agape. Wiped my eyes. Blinked them. Again. Willed them to refocus. Surely not. It was him. He was here. In my bedroom. "Bella," he said softly. The same way he'd always said it. As if he'd said it yesterday. I lay there, paralyzed, hugging my pillow. Taking it all in. Taking him in. Before this moment, I thought I had remembered his face, his body - him. But as I stared at him now, for the first time in six years, it was clear that the precise image of his magnificent form had long since run away from my memory. My version of Edward, the "Luke" I created for my book - now the object of countless lustful teenage obsessions - was dull, unremarkable, in comparison to the creature standing before me. This Edward looked exactly the same as he had in my eighteen-year old mind. Pure sex clothed in a vneck sweater. His copper-colored hair was wild, unkempt, raked and clawed by the long, cold fingers of a man clearly in distress. His muscled forearms caught the sunlight and sent prisms bouncing on the wall as he clenched and unclenched his marble fists. He didn't breathe, yet he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, fidgeting like a human. His eyes were black with need, rimmed in violet, seemingly pleading with me to say something. Anything. Realization dawned on me. He was nervous. He anxiously scanned my face. The panic evident in the twitch of his jaw, the flicker in his eyes, reminded me with a jolt that it had probably been six years since he'd been face-to-face with someone whose thoughts were unknown to him. "Bella, please." The desperation was plain on his glorious face. He was waiting for me to react. He was waiting to hear my voice. I had waited for this moment for six years. Six years ago he had left me without a trace, broken beyond recognition. For reasons unknown he had shown up today. Unannounced.

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Uninvited. The love of my life - a fucking vampire, no less - was standing in my bedroom. I stared at him, dumbfounded, grappling with the sheer absurdity of it. The crushing weight of it. Trying to name the singular emotion that captured me in this moment. I couldn't. In all the times I had allowed myself to imagine every detail of this reunion, my fantasies wavered between burying my face into his chest or unleashing a string of colorful profanities. But I thought for sure, in the unthinkable event that I actually saw him again, my reaction would be simple, reflexive I'd either love him too much for coming back or hate him too much for leaving. And now, here I was. Here we were. And I was speechless. Dumbstruck. Crippled by the swarm of emotions that buzzed in my mind and clamped down on my heart. Rage. Lust. Hate. Love. As I stared at his beautiful face, eventually, from amid the tumult of feelings assaulting me from the inside out, there emerged one unmoving constant. One emotion that sprung from the expanding hole in my chest and fanned out to envelop my entire body. I was . . . relieved. Relieved that he was standing in front of me. Relieved that he was alive. That he existed. Relieved that I had enough self-confidence, enough self-respect, not to crumple at his feet. Relieved that he had found me in Forks, briefly tucked into my old life, rather than in LA where I was living my new one. He was waiting for me to say something, and I supposed that I at least owed him that. Owed myself that. I racked my brain, but couldn't find the thoughts and couldn't have formed the words even if I had. So I stared at him, like an idiot, wanting to get it just right. I had one chance at this moment, and I was terrified that I would say or do something I'd regret. He ran one hand through his hair as he gazed at me, pleading with his liquid eyes. His perfect lips turned slightly upward, forming their signature lopsided smile. And then, in an instant, my mind was made up. No matter what I said, or didn't say, I knew I could live an eternity without regretting this. I leapt out of bed and lunged at him, frenzied. As I clumsily pitched forward, he scooped me up with his cool hand and steadied me by resting it against the small of my back. I clapped both palms on his muscled chest and shoved him, hard against my closet door. Umoving, unbreathing, he let me hold him hostage there as my eyes frantically scanned every inch of his face, his body. My hands began to move of their own volition - possessed by the muscle memory of touching him. Feeling him. I threaded my fingers through his hair, stroked his strong jaw, caressed the smooth skin at the nape of his neck.

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Not daring to close my eyes, I gripped his face with both hands and locked my gaze on his gorgeous red mouth before smashing my lips against his. Grunting softly, I sunk into the familiar, blissful feeling of warm flesh mingling with cold marble. And still, he didn't move. Didn't breathe. My tongue traveled to his jawline, and then up to his ear, where I inhaled his evergreen scent before sucking his earlobe into my mouth. Oh, God. He smelled exactly the same. Tasted as I had always imagined. And was as cold and detached as ever. I released his earlobe from my lips and moved my mouth to the crevice of his ear. "Breathe, goddammit," I hissed. When he hesitated, I threw my head back and guided his mouth to the hollow of my throat. "Now, Edward." With a lone ragged breath, he obediently drank me in. I felt him tighten underneath me. Felt him harden against my hipbone. Yes. I was entering uncharted territory, tempting fate. But I didn't care. Maybe I had a death wish. Maybe I wanted him to push me away. Or maybe, more than anything, I needed to see where this was going. To see if this Edward - the one pinned against my closet door, with his obvious erection pressed against my leg - was the same man who'd always been content to hold me at arm's length. The man with ironclad control who'd spurned every advance, fostering insecurities that would haunt me for years. I didn't know if he'd changed. But one thing was certain. I wasn't that girl anymore. Finding his balled fists hanging at his sides, I pried them open and clasped his fingers in mine. Guiding his hands down the sides of my breasts, I let them linger at my hips, before planting them on my ass - daring him to shove me away. I felt his whole body tense, then shudder, before melting into me. We were clamped together in an airtight embrace, and his cool hands were cupped around my nearnaked ass. It didn't make sense. This couldn't be real. Edward was in my bedroom? Inwardly, I began to panic. What if this was just another hallucination? What if, in the wake of Charlie's death, I had finally lost it?

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He rested his forehead on my shoulder and drew featherlight circles on my skin, right where the curve of my bottom met the flesh of my thighs. "God, Bella," he murmured, his icy breath branding me like an iron. "You are . . . God, you're exquisite," he whispered. It sounded like Edward. I brought my hand to his chest, caressing the marble perfection hidden beneath the soft cashmere of his sweater. I traced his breastbone with my index finger and fondled the smooth peaks and valleys of his abdomen. It felt like Edward. There was only one way to be sure. As delicious as this life-like specter was, I needed confirmation that it was really him. I needed to know, so that I could fortify myself for the waves of agony ready to crash down on me in the instant I realized this apparition was too good to be true. So I asked for something I knew Edward couldn't give me. Wouldn't give me. I needed his tongue in my mouth. I tugged on his hair and brought his nose to mine. "Edward," I panted. His eyes were wild, confused. "I need you to taste me." I felt the thundering vibration that emanated from his center and escaped from his lips as a low growl. I started to lean in, my lips searching for his, my mind bracing itself for the inevitable rejection. I stopped short when he made no move to meet my lips. Instead, he covered the hand I had placed on his chest with his own. Lacing his cool fingers around mine, he glided them slowly down the silky top of my pajamas to the waistband of my panties. He stilled us there for a moment, tracing the edge of the lace lightly with the smooth pad of his index finger before burrowing our entwined fingers under the elastic. Oh God, yes. A whimper escaped my lips as his wintry fingers connected with my tender flesh for the first time. His eyes locked onto mine as he pushed us both inside me with a single, firm stroke. Then, he pulled our fingers out slowly and brought them to his lips. Oh. My. Fucking. God. He apparently misunderstood. Or I misspoke. My whole body was alight with an energy that buzzed and hummed in my ears. His eyes smoldering with lust, he sweetly kissed the tips of my fingers. I stared at him, slackjawed, as he sucked each one dry. And then I knew. It was him. For as certain as I'd been that Edward would never have allowed himself to touch me this way, to want me this way, I was equally certain that no one but him could make me feel like this. "You're real," I rasped.

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"Yes." "You've changed." "Yes." It was all the confirmation I needed. Though my mind and heart reeled, unable to process what was happening, my body knew exactly what it craved. His hands. His mouth. On me. Everywhere. "More," I barked. Groaning, he grabbed my ass and lifted my legs up to straddle his waist. He spun me around in a flash, so that I was the one backed against the door. At his mercy. He leaned into me then, unbuttoning my pajama top before tracing the contour of my collarbone with his cool tongue. A surge of heat flashed through me, warming every inch of my body. The ecstasy was overwhelming. The shock was overpowering. And it was all too fucking much. I gasped. Cried out. Choked back a sob and felt the tears stream hotly down my face. Fuck. As if not at all surprised, Edward lowered my feet to the ground and cradled my face in his cool hands. He closed my eyes with a gentle touch of his thumbs, before following the trail of my tears with his lips. "God, Bella. I'm so sorry. So sorry. So sorry. So sorry." He mumbled the words over and over again. No. I didn't want to hear this. I had longed for an apology for six years. Yet now, as those seemingly suitable words tumbled repeatedly from his undeniably perfect lips, I was disinterested. Disenchanted by the passage of time and distracted by the impossible reality of seeing him, hearing him, touching him again. I gritted my teeth and attempted to focus, willing myself to listen to, or at least feign interest in, what he had said - what he kept saying. But he conveyed no reason for his return, no explanation for his absence, and no excuse for his leaving. He simply blathered on with the chorus of "so sorry," the words losing their shape, and their meaning, with each repetition. No. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I could feel my chest tighten as my awareness of the inadequacy of his words became ever more acute. I needed him to stop. Before I knew what I was doing, my hands were covering my ears and I was screaming. "SHUT UP!" I didn't recognize my own voice as the words scraped out of my throat and bounced off the walls. But it worked. Mercifully, the steady stream of "sorry" stopped. I took a deep breath through my nose before dropping my hands to my sides. "Stop it, Edward. Please. Just stop." Although I tried to convey an air of indifference, of exasperation, even, my words came out in a whimper. I needed to calm the fuck down.

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He sighed, clearly defeated. Stepping back from me, he placed one hand on my heart. "Bella." The words spilled incoherently out of my mouth. "I'm sorry, it's too much - you're here - but you were gone - and six years - and you left - and why - and I don't know - and Charlie - I'm sorry, but -" He put one cold finger to my lips to stop me from babbling. "Jesus, Bella. Don't apologize. Don't you ever apologize to me. Just tell me what you need from me in this moment." "I don't know what I need from you in this moment!" My voice was an octave too high. Several decibels too loud. And shaky with the hint of an impending sob. So much for calming down. Fuck. I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked down, pulling at a loose thread in the cuff of my pajamas. "I just - I can't - I just can't do this right now. I can't." "Tell me what you mean, Bella. What you need." He nudged my chin with his forefinger, bringing my dewy eyes to his searching ones. "I can't read your mind, Bella. Remember?" A smile played at his lips as he recalled our once-familiar joke. I was not amused. Did he think this was funny? I had nearly died after he'd left me and now he was here. In my bedroom. Making a fucking joke? How dare he? "What do you want me to say to you right now, Edward?" I seethed. "You don't have to say any-" "That I'm happy to see you?" "Bell-" "That I hate you for coming here?" He winced, then sighed in resignation. "That I'm relieved that you're alive? Or that I would have been better off if you had never existed?" He flinched, bending slightly at the waist as if he were trying not to double over in pain. His words. Not mine. Calming down now, I took steady, even breaths in the hope that my heart would stop thundering viciously in my chest. I needed him to look at me, to see me, without the distraction of my racing pulse. Needed him to hear this. "It's all true. All of it." He nodded silently, as if he understood my reaction better than I did. Like he expected it.

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"So pretty please, Edward," I spat his name unintentionally, unable to reign in my venomous tone. "Piece it together for me. You always did know everything, right? So why don't you tell me what it means? Because I sure as hell don't know." He didn't speak, but stood there completely motionless. He squeezed his eyes shut for a split second, as if bracing himself for the blunt impact of what was next, then penetrated my eyes with his gaze. Pleading. Hoping. Loving? I closed my eyes, refusing the distraction of his full red lips, his angular jaw, his expressive gaze. And then I took a deep breath and steeled my nerves as I prepared to do what would have previously been unthinkable. To stand over that pitiful girl on the forest floor and kick her while she was down.

Chapter 12 It was there And it was good in the beginning - Pete Yorn, Crystal Village EPOV I stood in the corner of her bedroom, watching her slowly emerge from her slumber. She stirred, shielding her eyes from the sunlight that streamed through her window. Though her face was hidden from view, I could discern from her posture that she was relaxed. Content, perhaps. She lay there for a time, until the slight hitch in her breath alerted me that she was about to roll over. To see me. Had I been human, I would have taken a deep breath to prepare for the enormity of the moment. As it was, I'd not dared to breathe since I climbed into her bedroom. Thanks to Alice, I had no doubt that I would not harm her, but I could not risk inhaling her sweet scent. My mea culpa promised to be more persuasive without venom dribbling down my chin. She sat up, saw me and rubbed her eyes violently. She blinked them several times in rapid succession. Not believing I was here. Hoping I would go away. And then she stared like she had seen a ghost. Or a monster. "Bella," I said simply, praying that my greeting, inadequate as it was, would entice her to respond with one of her own. And she stared. The time that she sat on her bed, silent before me, was excruciating. I knew I wouldn't able to read her mind, of course, but Jesus. Years - Christ, decades - of my existence had passed more quickly than this.

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I hadn't prepared myself for silence. I had prepared myself for a deluge of obscenities. Screams of panic. Or a flood of tears. I had prepared myself for the possibility - the probability - that she would detest me. That she would be repulsed by me and by who I was. By what I was. That the innocence, the navet, of her youth, would have been replaced by the hardened cynicism that comes with time, or with heartbreak. I had expected too much, it seemed. If only her expression would betray her state of mind. If she was willing to give me any window to her emotions - fiery eyes, scarlet cheeks, creased brow - her quietude, her apparent dispassion, would have been an easier cross to bear. "Bella, please." God, I was a selfish bastard. I'd left her for six years, been in her wakeful presence for less than five minutes, and I was already pleading with her to give me something so I could exist more comfortably at this moment. The oncewilling promise to sacrifice her humanity wasn't enough for me, apparently. I wouldn't be satisfied until she acknowledged me. Until she fucking blushed. But God, she was lovely when she blushed. I momentarily lost myself in memories of Bella's cheeks flaming scarlet with embarrassment, or surprise, or desire, and despite the solemnity of this moment, I smiled. Just then, breaking what had been a stoic, everlasting gaze, her eyes suddenly narrowed. I bit the inside of my lip, hard, steeling myself for what was to come. The tirade. The tongue-lashing. That's when she pounced. Yet another reaction I had not anticipated. She nearly tripped forward in her haste. Reflexively, I braced my hand on the soft swath of flesh above the waistband of her panties. God. It had been six years since I'd felt her fiery skin touch my own. The shock of it sent a current through my body that settled in my groin. I clenched my teeth, desperate to stay in control. The burn in my throat was forgotten in that moment, as I fought to overcome the unrelenting surge of lust pressing painfully into my thigh. She pushed her tiny hands into my chest. The sensation registered as a gentle nudge, but I could tell what she wanted by the way her eyes shone and the tendons in her neck flexed. I landed us hard against the closet door and surrendered. Her hands were everywhere, burning into my flesh. Her eyes were wild and searching as she clawed at my hair and palmed my face, my neck, my chest. She worked me over with her hands as if she were trying to memorize every inch of my form. Suddenly, her lips were on mine. I tensed instinctively, hastily swallowing the lake of venom in my mouth. For a brief moment, I considered pushing her away. It shouldn't be like this. Not like this. But this wasn't about me. I'd given up the right to call the shots, set the pace. If this was what she needed, this is what I would give her.

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Her lips slipped between my own, and I lost myself in the familiar taste of her wet mouth. My senses blurred and my mind raced as I vainly attempted to process what she was doing. God, what she was doing. I felt the spongy surface of her sweet pink tongue along my jawbone as she licked her way to my earlobe. Jesus. Her breath was hot and humid in my ear. I could hear the frantic thrumming of her heartbeat beneath the silk of her pajamas. She pressed her nose into the side of my neck and sucked in a shaky breath. Oh God. She was inhaling me. Fuck. She pulled my earlobe into her scalding mouth, grazing the shell with her teeth. Releasing her bite, she unleashed an angry hiss. "Breathe, goddammit." God, help me. She knew. Of course she knew. I hadn't taken a breath since entering her room. She was goading me, daring me. She wanted to see how far I would go. At my hesitation, she fisted her hands in my hair and arched her neck, drawing my mouth to her throat. I could feel her jugular pulsing beneath my lips. "Now, Edward." Her tone was commanding and unapologetic. It was an ultimatum. I could not read her mind, but I knew, with certainty, there would be no place for me in her life if I could not do this. If I could not show her I was no longer bound by the fear which had led me to leave her. I pressed my nose to the silky skin of her neck and emptied my lungs in a sharp gust. Clenching my fists at my sides, I flared my nostrils and sucked in a long pull of pure Bella. The intensity of it shook me to the core. My whole body shuddered in response. My erection throbbed at the warring sensations of unbridled thirst and insatiable lust. After a long moment, I regained my awareness. The thirst was agonizing but manageable. The lust was not. I opened my clamped eyes to find Bella staring intently into them. She looked . . . smug? Grabbing my hands, she uncurled my fingers, flattened my palms alongside her breasts and began slowly sliding them down her torso. I swallowed a moan as my hands felt the rounded curves of her now womanly figure. She kept a firm grip on my hands and guided them to her backside, planting them on the firm swell of her ass.

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She was taking charge. Taking what she needed. Taking by force what I'd always refused to give. My body shook again with the overpowering sensation of really touching Bella. Her body was perfection. Her taut muscles and soft curves cried out to me wordlessly. I yielded to her need, my need, and relaxed into her touch. "God, Bella," I managed. "You are . . . God, you're exquisite." I don't know if it was my words or something else - something entirely unrelated to me. But in the moments that followed, Bella's eyes changed. They were no longer wild with frenzied need. They were dark and calculating. Sly. She threaded her fingers in my hair and twisted my face so that our eyes were locked together. Her breaths were slow but labored. "Edward," she breathed. "I need you to taste me." FUCK. Her words crashed into me like a tidal wave, landing deep in the pit of my stomach. I growled instinctively, feeling the tightening coil in my belly and the pulsing need in my pants. She wanted my tongue in her mouth. She wanted to push me, needed to see how far I was willing to go. How much I needed her. The scent of her arousal was pungent in the air as I processed Bella's plaintive request. She wanted to know I needed her. I would show her what I needed. Never breaking eye contact, I gathered her small hand in my own. Intertwining our fingers, I wedged them beneath the delicate lace of her panties and pressed them slowly toward her entrance. Reveling in the sensation of feeling her velvety folds for the first time, I shoved her fingers, my fingers, deep into her pulsing sex. Oh God, she was so wet. I watched her eyes roll, felt her breath catch, heard her pulse race at the sensation of being filled. Stroked. Fuck. She was so beautiful. Ensuring our fingers were drenched, I pulled our interlocked hands to my mouth. Eyes trained on hers, I kissed. Sucked. Swallowed. Nothing in my century of existence could have prepared me for the taste of Bella's sex on my tongue. In my mouth. Down my throat. I struggled, determined to maintain eye contact, but it was too much. My eyes rolled back in my head. My mind raced, flashing to the only time I had tasted Bella's blood. I felt the beginning of a familiar animalistic frenzy build in the pit of my stomach as I greedily sucked her juices from her fingers one by one. It wasn't enough. More.

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My eyes were wild with need, dark with lust. I needed more. I needed to consume her. I felt like a monster. And yet, for the first time in a century, I felt completely human. "You're real," her voice was husky, hoarse. "Yes," I answered, and it felt like an apology. "You've changed." It wasn't a question. "Yes." As if she could read my mind, she forced my frantic, darting eyes to meet her gaze again. "More," she commanded. Oh fuck. I was undone. I didn't deserve her. But she was offering more, and I didn't have the will to refuse. I grabbed her ass harder than I intended and clamped her thighs tightly around me, shuddering with the delicious friction of her damp center rubbing against my straining hard-on. I couldn't slow my thoughts, my movements. I was desperate to have her. To take what she was giving. More. In my haste I turned and flattened her fragile form against the door. I grabbed her slender wrists and pinned them above her head with one hand. My other hand made quick work of the buttons on her silk top, exposing her delicate clavicle. More. I kept her arms secured above her head before bending my neck and dragging my tongue along the perfect ridge of her collarbone. I stifled a groan in my ecstasy. My erection pulsed painfully beneath Bella's barely-clad ass. Beneath my lips I felt Bella's throat quake with the effort of swallowing a wracking sob. And there it was. The tears streamed down her flushed cheeks before pooling in the hollow beneath her jawbone. Her eyes, finally expressive, conveyed the anguish I had expected but for which I couldn't have possibly been prepared. The sorrow they inflicted was too much for me to endure. I thumbed her eyes closed before kissing the tears from her face. They were brackish, tinged with the same salt as the blood that coursed through her veins. My gut tightened once again, but from a distinctly human apprehension rather than otherwordly instinct. I needed to say it. She needed to hear it.

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There was both too much to say and no way to articulate it. My rehearsed confession was no match for seeing her in the flesh, holding her in my arms, tasting her in my mouth. I was overwhelmed. "God, Bella. I'm so sorry. So sorry. So sorry. So sorry." I babbled, losing count of how many times I repeated the refrain. As many times as I had practiced my apology, I had never imagined it would go this way. I never thought that my throbbing erection would undermine my clear head. Or that the last vestige of venom that swirled in my mouth would be mixed with the tang of Bella's arousal and the brine of her tears. My concerns about my groveling speech were cut short. "SHUT UP!" She shrieked, and it was an animalistic noise, shrill and guttural all at once. Clamping her hands over her ears, she squeezed her eyes shut. I stilled, stunned by the volume and ire of her voice. Her shoulders heaved with the effort of a calming breath before she removed her hands from her ears. She opened her eyes, and when she spoke again, her tone was pleading. "Stop it, Edward. Please. Just stop." I was losing her all over again. I laid one hand against her heart, desperately wishing that its scorching heat could somehow blister my hand. "Bella," I whispered. It was a plea. A repentance. "I'm sorry, it's too much - you're here - but you were gone - and six years - and you left - and why and I don't know - and Charlie - I'm sorry, but -" No. After all I'd put her through, after barging into her room, her life, without warning, she was apologizing to me? It was completely ridiculous. Infuriating. Unacceptable. "Jesus, Bella. Don't apologize. Don't you ever apologize to me. Just tell me what you need from me in this moment." "I don't know what I need from you in this moment!" I again braced for the string of profanities, welcoming the vitriol. But she stopped, seemingly flustered. And then she wouldn't look at me anymore. She studied the sleeve of her pajama top intently, unraveling a loose thread. I desperately missed her gaze, and I blanched, remembering I had purposefully closed her eyelids just moments ago. Quietly, head down, she mumbled, "I just - I can't - I just can't do this right now. I can't." "Tell me what you mean, Bella. What you need." Look at me, Bella. Talk to me. Please. "I can't read your mind, Bella. Remember?" Keeping it light. Craving her smile. Her pulse quickened and her fawn eyes flickered. She was angry. "What do you want me to say to you right now, Edward?"

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I despise you. I reject you. I love you. I forgive you. "You don't have to say any-" "That I'm happy to see you?" "Bell-" "That I hate you for coming here?" Yes. Please. I deserve that. "That I'm relieved that you're alive? Or that I would have been better off if you had never existed?" Of all the insults she could have hurled, it was her recitation of my words that burned me to my core. They served as a blatant reminder that, in her innocence, her goodness, she could never be as cruel as I had once been. She glared at me now, as her heartbeat slowed and the fuschia drained from her cheeks. "It's all true. All of it." I nodded. "So pretty please, Edward, piece it together for me." Her hostile tone was unrecognizeable. My own name sounded foreign to my ears, laced in an icy edge I had never heard fall from her lips. "You always did know everything, right? So why don't you tell me what it means. Because I sure as hell don't know." It means that I was a horrible boyfriend. It means that I'm a monster. It means that, even though you know each of those things to be true, there's a part of you, perhaps insignificant, that might still be capable of loving me. And it meant, even if she ultimately said no, moved on with her human life, that glimmer of acknowledgment would provide me the motivation to continue my existence. I couldn't read her mind, but I knew what was coming. It's as if she felt it so deeply, so completely, that the sentiment oozed out of her pores and slapped me in the face. As if, combined with the blood and sex, I could smell her disgust in the air. The resulting aroma was so satisfying, so divine, that I closed my eyes for a brief moment to drink it in, before opening them and holding her gaze. Pleading. Hoping. Loving. She screwed her eyes closed, shutting me out, before inhaling deeply. When she reopened them, her stare was cold. "But I'll tell you one thing, Edward." Anything. Tell me anything. "You need to get the fuck out of my house."

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Chapter 13 BPOV Any hope of keeping my cool shattered the instant he jumped from my window. I began to shake, and then to convulse, as I sunk into my bed. I clutched my chest and gasped for air, feeling as if the wind had just been knocked out of me. What the fuck just happened here? The experience had been so surreal my brain was still struggling to process it. After six years without him, I could barely fathom him living in my world, much less standing in my bedroom. And what had transpired between us - God, what he had done - well, I don't know if I'd ever be able to digest it. I started to replay the morning's events and immediately felt sick to my stomach. I had been so quick to kick him out of the house that I hadn't asked him a single thing, and now six years' worth of questions were gnawing at my gut. And three of them - the big ones - were threatening to eat me alive from the inside out. Why was he here? Where had he been? What did it mean? Lightheaded, I leaned forward and rested my head between my knees. I closed my eyes and began to breathe sharply in and out, counting to ten with each breath, in an attempt to keep myself from passing out, or hyperventilating. Or unleashing primal screams. With every breath, I inhaled more of the distinctive scent that clung to the collar of my pajamas. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Hugging myself, I rocked back and forth on the foot of my bed, watching the glowing red numbers on my clock radio change shape over and over again. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty. But no matter how much I tried to wrap my mind around the encounter, nothing made sense. Edward's sudden reemergence in my life was as inexplicable and unexpected as his departure had been six years ago. Six fucking years. I had spent six years of my life wondering where he was, why he'd left. I had blamed my deficiencies as a friend and as a daughter, my inadequacies as a girlfriend and as a lover, on his absence. I had

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tolerated - hell, cherished - the cavernous hole in my chest because it was an ache that linked me to him. And this morning, he'd appeared out of nowhere and what had I done? I'd attacked him like an oversexed teenager before shutting him down and pushing him away. Oh my God. The realization struck me with blunt force. I had pushed him away. I froze for an instant as panic set in, replacing the butterflies which had swirled in my stomach with a solid block of ice. Suffocated by his scent, I clawed at my pajama top and heaved it to the floor, the buttons scattering on the hard wood. I clamped my eyes shut and shook my head slowly, mechanically. No. No. No. God, what had I done? I needed to pull it together. I needed to think. I leapt to my feet and began to pace aimlessly, analyzing each word, each look, each touch of our exchange. Edward had been here, in my bedroom. He had come while I was asleep - watched me sleep. Only now did it occur to me that I had flung the bedspread off in the night. I was uncovered when I awoke, wearing nothing but my pajama top and a thin pair of lace panties. And when I'd opened my eyes, he had been staring. How long had he been watching? The Edward of my past wouldn't have allowed himself to stare. No, that Edward would have fled the room, or covered me up while averting his gaze. This Edward had allowed himself to stare, to touch, to taste. I felt a warm rush between my legs as I recalled his cool fingers stroking my slick entrance, thrusting inside of me, and disappearing in his mouth. God, it was really him. He had let me push his old limits. He had displayed his desire, untainted by fear, or self-loathing. He had trusted himself. And he was sorry. I closed my eyes and inhaled a shuddered breath, hearing, and listening this time, to the timbre of his voice as he mumbled the words I had waited so long to hear. He was sorry. "So sorry." Sorry for what, I couldn't be sure. For leaving me? For Charlie? For something else entirely? I had no idea. Because I had told him to shut up. Because I had kicked him out. He was gone, this time at my doing, and I had no clue how to find him. Or if he would want to be found.

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I should have talked to him. Listened to him. I should have controlled myself. The army of "should haves" marched through my mind, and for a moment, I felt myself withdraw, retreating into a once-familiar existence governed by second-guesses and regret. "No." I insisted aloud, surprised by the strength and conviction conveyed in my voice. Not this time. I had wasted years after he left beating myself up, wondering what I could have done differently: I should have been a little less pushy about him changing me ... I should have stopped insisting he kiss me ... I should have been less clingy ... I had spent too much time blaming myself for things beyond my control. I refused to blame myself now. What the fuck did he expect? What was done was done. He had been here. He had left. And he was gone. He might come back. He might not. And there was nothing I could do about it. He held all the cards. Again. Still. I snorted, catching my reflection in the mirror, naked save for the lace panties he'd found so captivating an hour ago. Well, maybe not all the cards. The realization that I couldn't have - wouldn't have - done anything differently calmed me, taking the panicky edge off of my thoughts, but it left me no less confused as to what had just happened and what it all meant. I retrieved my laptop from my carry-on bag and powered it up on my old wooden desk. I needed to collect myself - corral my disorganized thoughts. I opened a blank document and prepared to do what had once come naturally when I was plagued by thoughts of Edward. I hadn't written about him - at least in the non-fiction sense - in over a year, yet I had no doubt that the words would tumble freely this morning. I stared at the blinking cursor, my hands poised over the home keys. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, preparing to let my fingers fly. To let the words flow - just get it all out. I waited. And waited. But nothing came. I was too flustered, too distracted by the physical senses that were clouding my mind. I could still smell him in the air. Taste him on my tongue. I still heard his shimmering voice echoing in my ears, saw his lust-darkened eyes behind my own closed lids. I could still feel the cold burn of his hands on my wrists, my hips, my sex. After several long minutes, I closed the screen of my laptop with a sigh, resting my forehead on top.

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I needed to get out of the house. Out of this room. I flung open my suitcase and dug around for my tennis shoes. Whenever writing failed to clear my head, running helped. I would never have believed I had it in me to jog without falling on my face. But I'd picked it up in college, and now it was an essential part of my sanity-saving routine. As I rifled through the hastily-packed contents, looking for my Nikes, my fingers touched upon the worn cotton of my blankie. Shit. Thomas. I had not thought about him once since waking up. I had not thought about anything except Edward. Edward's body. Edward's touch. Edward's mouth. My stomach churned as I stood and kicked the suitcase. Fuck exercise. What I needed was a drink. I reached for my phone, ignoring the "missed calls" notification, and dialed Jake. He picked up on the first ring. "Hey, what's up Bella? How ya doin' this mornin'?" "You working today, Jake?" "Yeah," he replied, confused. "Why, is something wrong?" Damn. "No, no. It's fine. I just, well, I was hoping for a drinking buddy." "Now?" He was incredulous. When I didn't answer, he rushed, "Sure, why not? That's what vacation time's for, ya know." Thank God. "Really?" I nearly squealed with excitement. "Yeah, definitely. Look, I have to finish up on this alignment, but I can meet you at The Hangout in, like, forty-five minutes. An hour, tops." "God, Jake, you're awesome. See you soon." ~X~ The Hangout was one of Forks' two bars. It had an old jukebox with classic rock and country tunes, a few stuffed deer heads hanging above the bar, and a handful of regulars that kept it in business. I'd been there a few times, always on holiday breaks from college, and had always run into a lot of former classmates from Forks High. It being a random Monday afternoon in September, I doubted I'd see anyone I knew today. And that was just fine with me. I walked in and found Jake perched on a bar stool, taking a swig from his beer. Upon spotting him, I immediately felt a wave of calm.

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Aiming for nonchalant, I chucked him on the shoulder playfully and took a seat on the stool next to his. "Hey." "Hey!" His eyes twinkled as he flashed me his usual grin. Looking me up and down, he whistled. "Damn, Bella, you could have told me this was a dress-up occasion. I'm a little under-dressed," he teased, motioning to his grease-stained mechanic's shirt. All I had brought to Forks with me was the bag I'd taken to New York for The Today Show and book signing, and I'd worn nearly everything in it twice, three times even. This morning, I had decided on a slate-colored pencil skirt, turquoise silk blouse and a pair of knee-high suede boots. Now I wished I'd fished my old jeans out of the laundry. "Yeah, well, I'm running out of clothes. So can it." "Ok, ok. You look a little dazed, Bella . . . what's going on?" It was such a simple question, I almost laughed. Instead, I swallowed, stalling, and bit my lip. "Just a few hard days, you know? And today . . . well, I just wanted a distraction." Understatement of the fucking century. "Ok, then. Enough said. So, what's your poison? I'm buying." Somehow I didn't think The Hangout was the place for merlot. "Umm, vodka tonic?" "Ok, fair enough," he nodded. "And what're you chasin'?" "Huh?" He rolled his eyes and shook his head in mock disgust. "Shots, Bella. I'm buying us a round of shots." You have got to be kidding me. "No, Jake. I mean, it's, like, barely noon. And I don't even do shots." "Ok, well, I tried. So you get what you get." He turned his back to me and motioned for the bartender. "One vodka tonic and two Cuervo shots, please." Good God. The bartender slid the vodka tonic and shot glasses of tequila toward us, and Jake raised his glass. "Wait, where's the salt and lime?" I asked, slightly panicked. If I was going to do a tequila shot at noon on a Monday, completely sober no less, I would need a little help. "Come on, Bella. Don't be such a wet blanket. Do you want to drink, or do you want to drink?" Definitely want to drink. "Ok, ok." I grabbed the glass and tossed my head back, instantly gasping at the fire that burned my throat, my nose. I gulped half my vodka tonic trying to rid my mouth of the tequila taste. Tears sprung to my eyes, and my head immediately felt lighter. Better. Jake guffawed and slapped my back. "Attagirl, Bella. You said you wanted to drink today. This is how I drink," he grinned devilishly. We downed another shot, then another.

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The conversation was easy, the laughs plentiful. He told colorful stories about pack politics and difficult customers. I entertained him with anecdotes about the ridiculous excesses of New York, and of LA. It was vintage Bella and Jake, enhanced by a copious amount of tequila. It was exactly what I needed. After the morning's unexpected visitor, the hole in my chest had resumed its once familiar throbbing. The combination of Jake and alcohol muted the pain to a bearable ache. At some point, aware that our booming voices and childish snickers were disruptive to the regular customers, we stumbled to a booth in the back of the bar and moved on to more serious conversation. I was delightfully buzzed, no longer straining to force the smile that played on my lips as we spoke. "So, Jake," I slurred. "How's your love life?" "Ahh, it's good, actually." His russet skin took on a slightly reddish hue. "What?" I was stunned. Jake rarely dated, and this was the first I'd heard of any love interest. "Spill it, mister." "Well, uh, her name's Corrinne. Corrie. She's the kid sister of Ryan, this guy I know from the shop." "And? Keep going." "I'd seen her around for awhile, you know, at the shop and around town. She's beautiful, but really quiet. Shy. I always figured that she must have a boyfriend who was away at college or something. But anyway, I was here after work with Ryan one night, and Corrie met us for a drink. We hit it off. That was just a few weeks ago, and I already feel like I've known her forever. I meant to tell you, but you've been so busy . . . " I felt a slight pang of guilt that abated the moment I took in Jake's easy smile. "God, Jake, that's really great. So . . . ." There was no easy way to ask this. "Did you imprint, or was it just - " He glanced down, then into my eyes to give me a half smile. "No, Bella, I didn't imprint," he said softly. "But you know, it had been six years and it hadn't happened yet, so . . . and I like her. I really like her. A lot. And it's nice, you know? To have something in my life that's completely human. Normal." "Well, I'm really happy for you," I said, blinking back tears. When he'd failed to imprint after joining the pack, Jake had hidden his disappointment by adopting the bravado of "not wanting to be tied down." But he'd never pulled any punches with me, and I knew how lonely he'd been. "Thanks, Bella. I can't wait for you to meet her. She really wants to meet you, but we were just waiting for the right time, you know, with everything." "I'd love to meet her, Jake. Anytime." "Cool," he agreed as he shifted slightly in his seat. "So, my turn. How's your love life?" Apparently the tequila shots were interfering with my ability to think clearly, because I hadn't seen this question coming. "It's . . ." I paused, fumbling for the right description. Fucked up? ". . . fine," I finished.

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He snorted. "Yeah, sounds like it," he said sarcastically. "So, what's the deal? You and Thomas must be getting serious by now, right?" My stomach twisted at the mention of Thomas' name. On some level, I'd known for months that I would never be serious about Thomas. With stubborn resolve, I'd convinced myself it had nothing to do with Edward. Now, as the image of Thomas in my mind began to blur and fade, his suntanned cheeks and sandy hair drifting out of focus as Edward's alabaster face and tousled shock of copper came into view, I realized the magnitude of my denial. "Well . . . " I trailed off. "I think he's getting serious." Jake rolled his eyes, all too familiar with my relationship woes. "Ok, Bella. What is it this time?" "Nothing, really." I shook my head as I chewed on my lip and began to shred the paper napkin. "It's just . . . complicated." Jake tore the napkin from my hand and wrapped my hand in his. His voice was stern but his eyes were kind. "Look, Bella, it's not that complicated. You either want the guy or you don't. You love him or you don't." "Yeah, I guess so." I replied blankly, feeling the uneasiness from the morning return to the pit of my belly. Jake, of course, had no idea how complicated it really was. I'd spent years coming to terms with the realization that the life I wanted - the man I wanted - was a lost cause. And with Jake's help, I'd pulled myself up, dusted myself off, and built a new life - an alternate ending. It might not be the fairy-tale my fictional characters enjoyed, but it wouldn't be a tragedy either. I had a life. A career. Fame, even. I had more money at twenty-four than most people amassed in a lifetime. A good man loved me deeply. Just a few short days ago, I had been . . . not happy perhaps, but content. Settled. And now, in the span of three days, I had buried my father and Edward had come back. My whole world had turned upside down. No longer sure-footed and secure, I was adrift. Confused. And totally alone. As I sat wrapped up in my thoughts, Jake squeezed my hand, reminding me that I'd never really be alone. That I'd always be loved, and love in return, in one way if not the other. I smiled in spite of myself. Jake always knew what to say, what to do, to make me feel better. He was the only one in my life who knew the whole story of me and Edward. The only person from whom I kept no secrets. I suddenly wished desperately I could tell him what had happened. But I couldn't. It was out of the question. He would be livid. He would be, wouldn't he? I mean, I guess it was possible that he'd understand. Not likely, but possible. Jake was my friend. My best friend. Maybe he'd put his personal prejudice aside for me in this moment. Maybe he'd get it. The temptation was too great to resist. Before I could talk myself out of it, I leaned forward and said in a hushed voice, "So, Jake, listen. I need to tell you something."

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The drunken confession was about to begin. "Ok, go for it." Even as I began to open my mouth, I knew it was a bad idea. Jake's hatred for Edward rivaled his love for me. But the weight of the secret was too much to bear alone, and my inhibitions had dissolved into a sea of tequila. "Something happened this morning. Something crazy." I hesitated, second-guessing myself for a splitsecond, then let the words spill out in a rush. "Please promise you won't be mad, but I saw - " I didn't get any further. His eyes narrowed as he slammed his first on the table, splashing the tequila from two waiting shots onto his shirt. "That bloodsucking sonofabitch. I'm gonna kick his - " "You knew?" I sputtered, rising from my seat on shaky legs. The alcohol that swirled through my veins was now mixed with shock, and with rage, and I felt all the blood rush to my face. "You knew, and you didn't tell me!" My voice was loud, shrill. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed several heads turn toward our table. "Jesus, Bella, calm down," he glanced around furtively, motioning for me to sit. I obliged in spite of myself, my legs refusing to hold me steady. "I, I mean, we thought we smelled the Cullens yesterday at the funeral, but we couldn't be sure it was him. I ordered Seth to check it out during the ceremony, but it turned out they were just watching. Not causing any trouble. Besides, I didn't think he'd be arrogant enough - stupid enough - to actually find you. And I didn't want to upset you on top of everything else you've been dealing with. I was going to tell you eventually, but not until -" Jake continued his explanation as I sat with my mouth hanging open, but my mind was still stuck on something he'd said earlier. "Wait, the Cullens? They?" I interrupted. "Plural? As in, not just Edward?" "No, not just Edward. He was with the blond one. The weird one. We're pretty sure he was using his freaky voodoo powers to keep the peace." Jasper. My God. It was too much to take in, especially when my capacity for logical thought was so impaired. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples as if to stimulate brain function. Edward was at the funeral. With Jasper. Holy shit. If Jasper was here, maybe Alice was here. Maybe they were all here. It didn't seem possible. Then again, a lot of things had happened this morning that had never seemed possible. As I turned it over in my mind, whether due to too much booze or to hopeless delusion, it started to make sense. Edward was here, in Forks. He could have found out about Charlie from Alice. And now they could be here, together. "Umm, earth to Bella. You ok?" I snapped out of my trance. "Right, sorry. Jesus, Jake. I just don't know what to say. I mean, seriously, a heads up would have been nice. But thank you, I guess, for not starting World War III at Charlie's funeral." My grudge with Jake disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. As Charlie would say, I had bigger fish to fry.

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"S'okay, Bella. The pack was pretty upset at first - fucking pissed, actually - but I told them not to do anything. You know, the treaty and all. Plus, they seemed to calm down pretty quickly. Kind of surprising, actually." He cleared his throat, preparing to say something further. His eyes lost their compassionate twinkle and turned hard as he spoke again. "I need you to be totally honest with me, Bella. What happened with him? Do you need me to get the pack on alert -" "God, no, Jake," I interjected. "He wasn't going to hurt me." Jake gave me a pointed look, and I knew he was recalling my Senior year of high school. I ignored him, deciding instead to give him an edited version of events. I certainly wasn't going to tell Jake what really happened. That was far too embarrassing. "Well, we didn't talk - I mean, he didn't say - " I trailed off. Recovering, I mumbled, "I didn't let him get very far. But I think he's sorry." It was totally true. Not a lie. "Good for you, Bells. You tell that leech to go to hell. And if I see him around here, I'll break his goddamn neck." "Wait, Jake. Don't do anything stupid, now. It's really not a big deal." Wow, what a poor choice of words on my part. Edward coming back was a lot of things, but "not a big deal" was certainly not one of them. "Not a big deal? Not a big deal, Bella?" His face was tomato-red as he raised his voice. "The bloodsucker destroys your life, throws you away like a piece of trash, and you tell me that him coming back is not a big deal?" I suddenly regretted telling Jake, realizing that this conversation would have been much easier, more subdued, without a dozen tequila shots between us. He was white-knuckled, clutching the rim of the table with so much force I was worried it would splinter. "Shhh, Jake. Keep your voice down." "I will not keep my voice down!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Jake, please," I pleaded. Talking out loud about Edward's visit had made it all seem somehow more real. And I suddenly found myself desperate, aching, to see him again. A deep and primal part of me needed to hear him. See him. Touch him. Before I knew what I was doing, I was begging Jake to understand. To condone the urge that had taken root in my belly and grew stronger with each passing moment. "Jake, look at me." I grabbed his chin and brought his eyes to mine, willing him to calm down. "I get why you're mad, I really do. But listen to me. I think I might need to see it through. I just need to see what he wants, ok? I feel like I owe it to myself in some way. Maybe I need it for closure, you know?" There, that sounded good. Closure. He released his grip on the table and looked at me with a blank expression. "You need it for closure," he repeated. I nodded.

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"Ok, well, whatever, Bella. You're a big girl. You don't need me to tell you what a bad idea I think this is." I opened my mouth to object but he stopped me before I could start. "Save it. I know better than to try to argue with the stubbornest woman in the world when she's got her mind made up. But, please, Bella, don't do anything stupid. He's dangerous, remember?" I started to object again, but stopped short. Jake was just trying to look out for me. I knew that. While he had been angry at Edward for leaving, his fury after the incident with Laurent in the meadow had been unlike anything I'd ever seen. The pack had killed Laurent and soon after had caught up with Victoria. Though the threat had long been extinguished, Jake's bitterness toward Edward for leaving me exposed to such danger had never thawed. "Ok, I promise," I agreed. "Nothing stupid." Grinning, I teasingly batted my eyelashes at him and crossed my heart in a mocking gesture. He let out a sharp gust of air and relaxed, shaking his head. "Fine. But I'm telling you now. I'll be watching. We'll all be watching. And if he so much as makes you cry -" I held a hand up, nodding solemnly, not wanting to let on to Jake that he was too late for that. He rolled his eyes, exasperated. "On that note, it's time for another round." Three shots later, we were . . . hammered. Jake had dumped a roll of quarters in the jukebox, and we were belting out an Aerosmith tune. I was fine, distracted, until the stadium-rock lyrics were interrupted by a piano solo, at which point my mind floated back to Edward. "Hey, Bella," Jake interrupted my thoughts, reading a text message from his phone. "I know that you're - we're - a little drunk, but Corrie and her brother wanted to meet us here, if that's ok." "Umm, yeah," I laughed. "Whatever. Just tell them I'm in rare form, so not to judge me based on this meeting." Two more Aerosmith songs and another tequila shot later, Corrie and Ryan arrived. Jake was right; Corrie was beautiful, to say the least. Her auburn hair hung in loose curls past her shoulders, and her eyes sparkled a brilliant green. She seemed reserved, but friendly. She slid in the booth next to Jake as Ryan, her older brother, ordered a couple of beers from the bar. "So, Bella, this is Corrie," Jake introduced, his pride, his affection for her evident in the way he clasped his arm around her shoulder to hug her to him, the way his eyes shone with an intensity I had never seen. "Corrie, hi. I'm so happy to meet you, and so thrilled that Jake's found someone that he's absolutely crazy about," I gushed. Ryan came back to the table, and after exchanging pleasantries, he and Jake started talking shop. I shifted toward Corrie. "So, Corrie, what do you do?" "Oh, I just finished college in the spring. I'm an accountant for a real estate agency. Actually, you know, I work with a girl who says she knows you. Jessica Crowley?" I froze, recalling my recent run-in with Jess. Oh my God. How could I have forgotten?

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The Cullens still own the house. And if they own the house Focus, Bella. Have a pleasant conversation with your best friend's girlfriend. "Oh, yeah, I do know her," I managed. "We were in the same graduating class. I actually ran into her the other day." Maybe they had been at the house. Maybe they were still at the house. "Cool," Corrie replied. "She seems . . . nice?" I chuckled. I liked Corrie already. "Well, she's at least entertaining." Though my mind was running in circles, I forced myself to focus on Corrie. It was plain why Jake was so taken with her. And, for her part, she was obviously smitten. It was clear in the way she said his name. The way she tousled his hair. The way she traced circles on his forearm with her fingertips. I realized I was staring, and snapped my head up before she could notice. Though the conversation and drunken haze was sufficient to distract me for a few minutes at a time, my mind was clearly somewhere else. The Cullens were at their house. Edward was at his house. Impatient now, I excused myself and scooted out of the booth. "Does anyone want a cup of coffee?" I asked. "Coffee?" Jake asked. "Is the party over or something?" "Yeah, Jake, I think so. It's been a long few days. I need to sober up. Get home." "Ok, that's cool, Bella. But listen. It would take a lot of coffee to sober you up right now. To sober either of us up. Why don't you let Ryan drive you home, and I'll catch a ride with Corrie? We can get our cars in the morning." Damn. Jake was right, of course, but still. Home was not my destination of choice. I hedged. "Umm, I don't know." "Nonsense, Bella," Ryan interjected. "You're coming with me. It's no problem." This was a lost cause, apparently. "Ok, thanks. I really appreciate it," I lied. "I'll just pay the tab, and we can go." "Hey, Bella, I told you it was on me," Jake protested. "Next time, Jake." I turned toward the bar, and Ryan followed me. "Hey," I chided him. "This is my treat." "Oh, ok, thanks. I just have to pick up my credit card. So, uh, where do you live, anyway?"

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Aha. God, it was too good to be true. Of all the friends Jake could have asked to drive me home, he picked the one guy in Forks who didn't know where the police chief's daughter lived. I heard myself say it, but couldn't believe it. It was so stupid. So risky. Jake would strangle me if he found out. When he found out. "Umm, quite a ways outside of town, past the Calawah River bridge. It's hard to explain, so I'll just tell you when we're in the car."

Chapter 14 BPOV "This is your house?" Ryan sounded skeptical. "Umm, yep," I lied, fumbling for the door handle. "Family money." I tripped out of the raised cabin of the small truck. "Thank you soooo much for the ride, Ryan," I gushed, slamming the door behind me before he could question me further. I spun around to face the porch and stood wobbling in place as the truck crunched away down the long gravel drive. She was looking straight at me. The delicate bones of her ivory face were framed by her signature boyish cut. Her expression was cautious, her posture guarded. But her lilting voice was even sweeter than I'd remembered. "Bella," she called. "Al- Alisss?" I slurred, my head still floating in a haze of tequila. "Oh, Bella." She was at my side in an instant. I hadn't seen her move. I stared at her for a long moment, willing my eyes to focus. "So, it's true, then. I'm not crazy. You'reyou're back," I stammered. "No, you're not crazy, Bella. We're here," she answered, then added in a barely audible whisper, "for you." For me? "HAH!" The bitter guffaw flew out of my throat. Surprised by my outburst, I clamped my hand over my mouth and swallowed purposefully. Alice, for her part, did not look surprised. Of course not. Her arm twitched, seemingly fighting an urge to hug me. Here. For me.

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The words lolled around in my brain as I stood there teetering dumbly with my hand still covering my mouth. The pain I'd felt when Edward left me - and for the months, years, afterward - was indescribable. My mind and body had so rebelled against the unbearable loss that they had conjured up hallucinations to keep me from suffering the full weight of the withdrawal. But even my nightmares of Edward, cold and cruel, leaving me over and over on an endless loop, were preferable to the empty nothingness that filled my waking hours. The simultaneous loss of Alice - my closest and best female friend - was its own brand of torture. She had left me without a word. Without warning. Without ever looking back. And now here she was. And she had the nerve to say she was here for me? As if she was doing me some kind of favor? "You're here for me?" I managed, incredulous, feeling my blood race in my veins. She didn't speak but merely nodded, sheepish. "You left me. You were my friend. My best friend. And you never even -" "-Shhhh, Bella," she interrupted. I realized then that my voice had taken on a screechy maniacal tone. She touched me, wrapping her strong thin arms around me as, in spite of myself, I stiffly leaned into her. "Come inside. I'll explain what I can." She linked her arm in mine and led me into the enormous and once familiar house. Once we crossed through the foyer, I froze. The living room looked nearly the same as it had when I last saw it, minus the scattered party decorations, broken glass, and puddle of blood. Fresh flowers stood in vases and lit candles flickered above the mantle, giving the room a cozy, lived-in feeling. Edward's piano stood in the corner, draped in a drab canvas which obscured its graceful lines. The instrument's mournful appearance was the only discernible evidence this room had not seen life, or celebration, in a long time. Not in six years, to be exact. Not since my eighteenth birthday. I was grateful then for my drunken state. I don't think my sober brain could have processed being back at the scene. Eighteen. It should have been a milestone. A sign of independence. But I had learned on my eighteenth birthday that I was anything but independent. Understanding where my mind had gone upon entering the room, Alice whisked me into the pristine gourmet kitchen. After easily lifting me onto a bar stool and sliding me up to the sleek granite countertop, she set about brewing a cup of coffee in a gleaming chrome machine that had probably never been used. "Sooo . . . host any good parties lately?" I half-joked, unable to think of anything appropriate to break the awkward silence. Alice gave me a look of disapproval or concern - maybe both - as she slid a steaming double-shot of espresso in front of me. She pulled out the stool next to mine and sat down.

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I was startled by her beauty as she sat facing me in the lit kitchen. How anyone could believe she was human was unfathomable to me now. Her skin was luminescent, and her gold eyes glittered beneath the halogen pendant lights. "Bella," she said soothingly, interrupting my train of thought. "I can't tell you how sorry I am about Charlie." I stared at her blankly, not knowing how to respond. "I know this must be confusing to you," she acknowledged. "Believe it or not, the past six years have been just as confusing for me." Right. "Is he here?" I demanded, ignoring her attempt to compare our respective suffering. "No," she said simply, and my heart sank in my chest. He was gone. I was too late. "No, I mean, he's with Jasper," Alice said. "He'll be back soon." I let out a silent exhale at her words. "If I had seen you coming earlier, I would have told him to stay, but I can't see you when you're with the wolves." She scrunched her nose as she said the last word, as if she were describing a piece of rancid meat. "Plus, I wanted a little time alone to talk with you." Wait. How did she know"Yes, Bella," she began, anticipating my question, "I know about the Quileutes." She drummed her tiny fingers on the countertop as I gaped at her. Her eyes trained on mine, her brow furrowed, she seemed to be considering what to say next. "Care to elaborate?" My tone belied my exasperation. "It's complicated, Bella, and -" "I think I can keep up," I snapped. "Right. I'm sorry. Of course you can," she said, covering my hand with her own tiny palm. "When we first left Forks, I frequently went looking for you. Not looking for you in the traditional sense, of course, but . . . I was worried about you. I wanted to see what you were up to. How you were holding up." I drew my hand away from her grasp as I swallowed the lump in my throat. I had considered that Alice might have seen visions of me after she left. But now, having confirmation that she had seen me at my lowest and had left me to suffer alone, my hurt and anger were augmented by a stinging embarrassment. I looked past her to the wall of cabinets as she continued. "I desperately wanted to find you, to talk to you, but . . ." she trailed off, and several seconds of silence elapsed before she resumed speaking. "He's my brother, Bella. I wanted to honor his wishes." "Sure, sure," I mumbled. "You did what you had to do."

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"Every now and then," she explained, "my visions of you would be lost to darkness. Blindness. At first when I couldn't see you, I panicked. But my vision returned soon after. Eventually, I realized that the blackouts usually happened when you were in La Push. So I put two and two together." "But - but - I'm missing something," I thought out loud. "How did you know they were wolves? I mean, it could have been anything, right?" "Ah, well, I had heard about the Quileute wolves from my family's encounters with them years ago," she said. "We didn't know the phasing still happened. But the lapses in my vision were so consistent. So tied to your - your - friend. And after hearing how Laurent was killed . . . I knew." I coughed, choking on my coffee. She knew about Laurent? "Yes Bella," she started again, serious now. "I know what happened in the meadow." The meadow. Our meadow. Or at least it had been our meadow. Now it was ruined, forever marred. After Edward had left, I was desperate to find the place where he had first shown himself to me in the sunlight. I had foolishly thought it would bring me closer to him somehow. I searched for weeks and could hardly believe my eyes when I'd stumbled upon it, seemingly out of nowhere. The grass was brown and overgrown. No sunlight streamed through the barren tree branches. No flowers bloomed. What had once flourished was dead. It was fitting. It was all gone. A man, a life, vanished like the rich autumn leaves and replaced by the harsh reality of winter. But although he was gone, I wasn't alone. The wolves saved me from Laurent that day, and from Victoria soon after. I understood then, perhaps really for the first time, that Edward didn't love me anymore. He hadn't loved me enough to stay. He didn't love me enough to return. And he was never coming back. "Bella? You ok?" I nodded at her through watery eyes, overwhelmed by the memory of that day, the reality of this one. "Go on, Alice," I urged. I wanted to know it all, no matter how much pain it caused. And so far, the pieces didn't fit. If Alice couldn't see the wolves, how did she know about Laurent? "I should have been looking for them for Victoria and Laurent," Alice said, clearly frustrated with herself. "But I honestly never imagined Victoria held such a serious grudge against you. None of us did," she said quietly. "But as I said, I still looked for you frequently then. So I saw Laurent confront you in the meadow, I heard him tell you about Victoria's plans. Then everything went dark." "I was so distraught when I couldn't see you anymore," she continued. "I was worried he'd - " she broke off, looking at me with a grimace.

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I stiffened on my stool. "Yeah, well, you shouldn't have bothered to worry. The wolves saved my life," I sneered the word, as she had. "I know," she responded. "And we're forever indebted to them for it." We're? "So Edward knows?" I asked, trying to sound casual. "Yes." I wasn't sure how to respond to this piece of information. So he knew. So what? It didn't change anything. Edward may have killed James, but he left me defenseless - as far as he knew anyway against Laurent and Victoria. "Yeah, well . . . " I could feel the effects of the alcohol subsiding slightly as I took another sip of the black coffee. "No one needs to protect me now. Victoria is dead. The pack found her about fifty miles outside of Forks soon after the incident with Laurent." I waved my hand in a dismissive gesture. "So, you know, I'm safe. That all ended long ago. Thanks to them." "No, Bella," Alice shook her head once as her eyes pierced mine with a serious, knowing gaze. "What do you mean, 'no'?" I asked, confused. "The wolves didn't kill Victoria." She didn't blink as she stared at me. "Yes, they did." I insisted. "Jake told me so himself. If she were alive, I sure as hell wouldn't be." "I didn't say she was alive." Alice continued, "I said the wolves didn't kill her." Her eyes still held mine, seemingly willing me to understand some deeper meaning to her words. "What do you mean, Alice?" My voice was ice. She dropped her gaze finally, shifting her eyes to her hands. "Alice!" I hissed at her. "What the fuck do you mean?" Again, she remained silent. "You tell me!" I screamed. "You tell me now goddammit! You owe me that!" I brought my balled fist down hard on the cold granite. "Oh, Bella," she choked, looking up with pleading eyes. "It was awful. When Edward found out about Laurent he - well he -" she shook her head, unable to form the words to describe whatever had transpired. "We almost didn't tell him." She resumed. "After I told them about Victoria's scheme, Emmett and Jasper planned to dispose of her themselves. But Carlisle insisted that Edward had a right to know, and we deferred to his judgment." She seemed to be talking to herself now more than me. No. It couldn't be. It wasn't possible. "He was too fast," she continued. "We tried to follow him. We wanted to help him. But he wouldn't wait. He wouldn't let anyone help. He said he wanted her all to himself . . ." She trailed off. I sat for a moment, stunned. It didn't make any sense. Jake had killed Victoria. He told me so. Yet now, as I looked at Alice's pained face and lost eyes, I knew. She was telling the truth.

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Jake had lied. But for what? As I struggled to make sense of her words, I realized Alice's eyes had become glazed, her stare focused on a point several feet behind me. I waved my hand in front of her face. "Alice?" She blinked rapidly, shaking her head. "I'm sorry." She cleared her throat before resuming. "He found her quickly. About fifty miles away from here . . . and Bella, she deserved to die, needed to die. But -" "But what, Alice?" I begged, needing her to finish. "Bella, he didn't just kill her," she winced, "he tortured her." She shook her head again, looking away from me. I gasped. "And believe me, Bella, I'm glad that she's dead. But -" She faltered, seeming to be fumbling for the right choice of words. " . . . the members of my family have fought for decades - or, in Carlisle's case, centuries - to overcome our nature, to prove to ourselves that we aren't monsters. That we still retain the core of our humanity - our capacity for compassion, selflessness, mercy." She looked at me again, and I nodded, understanding. "I always saw all of those qualities in each of you," I murmured. "I know you did." She smiled at me meekly. "But, Bella, when Edward found out about Victoria hunting you, his need to punish her eclipsed everything else. If I hadn't seen it myself, I would never have believed my brother was capable of such cruelty, even to someone as sadistic as Victoria." Overwhelmed, I rested my head in my hands. I could never forget the day Jake had told me about Victoria's death. He'd picked me up and twirled me around, laughing as I cried tears of relief. He had lied. It was Edward. All along. It was Edward. I felt as if the foundation under my feet was crumbling away. As if everything I had firmly believed about the past six years of my life was fluctuating, shifting. Alice continued, interrupting my train of thought. "Once he found her, once he saw what her plans were for you, well, he - he lost himself. Let vengeance get the best of him." I sat up. "She would have tortured me, Alice," I whispered. "Laurent told me so." My mind drifted back to that day, to Laurent's sickeningly soothing tone. "You won't feel a thing, I promise. . . . if you knew what she had planned for you, Bella, I swear you'd be thanking me for this." "I know, Bella. And Edward knew." Alice nodded, her eyes wide. "He doesn't regret what he did to Victoria or to -" She paused, flustered. "He's not a killer, Bella, but when it comes to you, well - he just - he doesn't -" There seemed to be more she was struggling to say. I reached forward to grasp her hand, letting her know it was okay to stop. I didn't want or need any further detail about how Edward had killed

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Victoria, and it was clearly upsetting Alice to discuss it. Her face relaxed visibly at my first voluntary touch. She returned the squeeze of my hand a bit too hard, but I didn't care. My eyes welled with tears as we sat there staring at each other. "Oh, Bella" she started, "if you only knew how sorry I am. I missed you so much." I wrapped my arms around her tiny shoulders, hugging her tightly as the tears streamed silently down my face. Tiny as she was, before now, I had never seen Alice appear vulnerable. "Me too. So, so much," I whispered into her hair. We sat like that for several minutes before moving into the living room and settling into the large white sofa. I tucked my legs underneath me and hugged a throw pillow to my chest. Alice curled up next to me, and I leaned my head on her shoulder. "You're okay? Being in here?" she asked, stroking my hair. "Ahhh," I started, the words trapped by the lump in my throat. Tears sprung to my eyes, and I smeared them away with my trembling hands before they leaked onto her silk shirt. "It's just . . . kind of overwhelming, you know?" "I know, sweetie," she soothed. "It's a lot to process." I sighed in affirmation and then stewed in silence, willing myself not to break down. "So, where are -" "The rest of the family is still in Yellowknife," Alice cut me off. I had forgotten how annoying conversations with her could be. "Edward had been living there alone . . . before. They check in with me, but are keeping a distance for now." Sighing, she added, "Edward's relationship with the family has been . . . delicate ever since we left Forks." I knew vaguely where Yellowknife was. Somewhere in the northern territory of Canada. Remote. A crop of questions sprang to my mind: Why had Edward been living alone? Why had his family gone to stay with him? And why was he here now? "Hey," Alice said, patting my knee and sitting up. "Not that seeing you almost cry isn't so much fun and all, but why don't we go somewhere you can relax?" "Like where?" I questioned, warily cocking an eyebrow at her. She jumped to her feet and clapped her hands together as if an idea had just occurred to her. Not likely. "I'm going to draw you a bath!" she cried, her eyes shining. "A bath? No, Alice, just . . . no," I protested. "That's weird. Like really weird." She grabbed me by the wrist and led me down the hall. "Oh, Bella, lighten up! It is not weird. It makes total sense! The kitchen's totally uncomfortable, and the living room's obviously out of the question. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm assuming you don't want to hang out in one of the bedrooms - " she stopped long enough to look at me as I rolled my eyes. "Plus," she started again before poking me playfully in the ribs, "it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if you wanted to wash off that dog smell." "What?" I asked, taken aback. "It's the wolves," she whispered, crinkling her nose. "We can smell them."

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"You can smell them?" I repeated, meeting her gaze again. "Yep." And with that, she grabbed my sleeve and held it to her nose. "See? You smell like wet dog. One that bathed in tequila and rolled in an ashtray, maybe, but a dog nonetheless." I jerked my arm away from her. "Whatever," I scoffed, rolling my eyes. I buried my nose in the crook of my elbow and sucked in a deep breath. Marlboro Lights, yes. Jose Cuervo, yes. But dog? "It's true," she shrugged. Ugh. God. I'd forgotten how hard it was to tell Alice no, and in any event, she clearly wasn't waiting for me to answer. I shuffled down the hall, inconspicuously twirling my hair around my index finger and bringing it to my nose. It still didn't smell like dog. Or at least I didn't think it did. But the tiny vampire and her perfect senses had planted in me a seed of self-doubt. "Fine, Alice. You win," I muttered. She led me into the gleaming bathroom and set about filling the tub. When the bubbles crested and the mirrors were fogged, she turned her back so I could disrobe and climb in. I let out an involuntary sigh as the warm water enveloped my skin and the scent of the bubbles filled my lungs. Alice was right. This was relaxing. "This is nice," I admitted, closing my eyes as I leaned my head back against the cool tile. "You've had a rough few days, Bella. And I'm sorry that Ed- that we've - made it tougher for you." Alice sat cross-legged on the floor next to the tub, her head barely peeking over the edge. "It's not that. I just don't get it. Not that I'm not glad to see you. But why are you here? Why now? If it's because of Charlie, well, you know Jake's my best friend, and he's been really supportive-" I stopped short, seeing Alice wince visibly at my calling Jake "my best friend." "You were gone a long time," I mumbled. "I know," she said simply. "Believe me, I know." Her eyes were intense, sad. I suddenly got the distinct feeling that I wasn't the only one who had suffered the past six years. "Then why-" "-Bella, I promise you will learn everything in time. Trust me. But your questions aren't ones that I can answer. Partly because I don't really understand the answers myself. I never did." I was certain that the look on my face betrayed my dissatisfaction with her response. "One thing I can tell you," she leaned in closer to me. "Even before the accident, he was going to come back to you. It was only a matter of time. The car wreck may have sped up the date -" I scoffed. "So I can thank a wayward deer for Edward showing up before I reached senility?" "No, Bella," she shook her head firmly, "he wasn't going to last much longer. Once he found out about the book - " My eyes flew wide.

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The book. He knew about the book? Shit. Of course he did. Alice looked amused. "What did you expect Bella? You're everywhere. And, I might add, your book and your, er, characters, are on a lot of people's minds." Of course I'd wondered if he would find out about Dusk. If I was completely honest with myself, it was the main reason for the thrill that had torpedoed through my body when I'd found out it was being published. At the time, I had wondered what his reaction would be. Anger? Remorse? Indifference? I had settled on the latter as the most likely response in the unlikely event that Edward Cullen should ever happen upon a dusty copy of my humble novel in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. The widespread popularity of the book had taken me completely by surprise, however. And with it, the possibility of Edward learning of its existence had grown from remote to distinct. Still, I had not allowed myself to fully consider what that would mean. "For what it's worth, I appreciated the tenderness with which you portrayed 'Celia' in spite of everything that happened. And, um, clever anagram." She winked at me. My cheeks flamed as I sunk deeper into the sea of bubbles. I suddenly felt utterly exposed. "You read it?" I buried my face in my hands. "Of course I read it! It's not every day that I'm featured in a best-selling novel," she teased. "Has he read it?" I peeked at her from between my fingers. "No." Her smile dissipated. Oh. "He has his reasons. Though I can't pretend to understand what they are. But, you know, he may as well have." Ah, yes. I had spent at least a dozen flights angling my body toward the window in an attempt to avoid detection by the inevitable three passengers clutching a copy of Dusk. I understood how ubiquitous it was. Hell, even the New York Times had dubbed it a "phenomenon." My stomach turned. Oh, God. It must have been a nuisance for him. To be constantly reminded of the girl he had once taken a passing interest in. Who obviously couldn't let him go, even after all these years. I imagined him trying to go about his new life, moving on with his "distractions" as he'd called them, only to be interrupted with constant images of our high school love affair flitting through the minds of hormonal teenage girls.

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I should have been embarrassed - mortified, even. But for some reason, the image of Edward, serious and brooding, assaulted by the fantasies of gaggles of simpering girls, struck me as hilarious. Throwing my head back against the porcelain tub, I dissolved into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. I looked at Alice, trying to compose myself, but I couldn't catch my breath. My eyes brimming with tears, I snorted, and the crude sound bouncing off the tile triggered a fresh round of giggles. Alice gave me a wary look as I indulged in my private joke. After another long minute of hysterics, I finally regained my composure. "Um, sorry," I cleared my throat. "Gosh. Well, wow, that must have been awful for him." My tone was mocking as I wiped at my eyes with the back of my hand. I smiled at Alice, waiting for her to tease me for my outburst. She wasn't smiling. "It was, Bella," her voice was a whisper. She looked down again, studying her delicate fingers. "But not in the way you seem to be thinking." I've missed a step. "What does that mean?" I was growing tired of her cryptic answers. She sighed, and I wasn't sure if her exasperation was directed at me, Edward, or both. "You need to ask him that question. He'll be home in a while and you can do just that. So finish your bath, and I'll find you something to wear." "No, I -" I started to protest, feeling the drunken confidence that had led me here begin to erode. She held a hand up. "This is not up for discussion. You are still in no shape to drive and you don't have a car here anyway. Your eyelids are drooping, sweetie, why don't you sleep it off while you wait for him to get back?" And with that, she was gone, leaving no room for debate. I could always refuse, suggest that Alice drive me home herself. But after the hot bath, the proposal of sleep was too inviting to resist. My limbs suddenly felt as if they were made of lead. And even though my tequila-induced bravery had started to wane, the aching need that had drawn me here had not. I had come here to see him; See him I would. After lathering and rinsing my hair and skin, stepped out of the tub, and wrapped myself in an oversized terry-cloth towel. Alice rapped on the door before walking in and tossing me a men's dress shirt and a pair of panties with the tags still on. "Put those on and come with me," she instructed. She started to leave and hesitated, lingering in the doorway. "And Bella," she said, giving me an apologetic look. "There's only one bed in the house."

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A/N: Thanks to annanabanana for her loving comments and perfect edits. Thanks and snuggles to WindyCityWonder, ilsuocantante, and LolaShoes for prereading. This chapter, in particular, is exponentially better for their feedback. Thanks to NinjaShoes for letting us borrow her momma for a few. And, finally, thanks as always to our readers. XOXO -MV Chapter 15 EPOV I leapt from the window and landed, for once, gracefully on my feet. I took one lingering glance toward her bedroom before sprinting home through the dense woods. Alice was waiting in the living room as I entered. She didn't wait for me to speak, not even bothering to look up from her magazine as she wordlessly answered my pending questions. Jasper's waiting for you in the garage. Take your phone. No decisions have been made. I exhaled sharply at this last piece of information, moving to where she sat curled up in the corner of the couch. I knelt in front of her, waiting until she finally looked down at me, giving me a gentle smirk. I kissed her lightly on the cheek, patting her hand before heading to find Jasper. He approached me cautiously at first, hands shoved in pockets, jaw set, eyes narrowed. But as he closed the distance between us, his posture relaxed and his lips turned upward into a curious smile. Ho-lee hell, Edward. His gaze shifted lower, and I realized he was staring at the fist curled at my side. Shit. Of course he could smell her. Hell, I was still half-delirious from the scent clinging to my fingers. I shoved my hand in my pocket. "It wasn't like that-" I started, defensive. "I know, I know," he interrupted. "Alice gave me the gist. Do you want to talk about it?" "I was too overwhelmed. I couldn't even explain myself," I blurted. "And she kicked me out." Jasper cocked an eyebrow. Go on. "I've never seen her so angry, Jas. And of course she's confused. She cried. Screamed. Told me to shut up. To get the fuck out." He smiled. She said "fuck"? I laughed without humor. "Yeah, well, she's not seventeen anymore." So I've noticed. Jasper's mind drifted to the black and white Vanity Fair photo of Bella, zooming in on individual segments of the photo one at a time: Pouty lips. Tangled curls. Tantalizing cleavage. Horn-rimmed glasses...

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I shot him a baleful look. Sorry. He shrugged. "So, she was pissed. She kicked you out." I nodded. "But that wasn't all." He stated this simply, seeking explanation rather than confirmation. "No, that wasn't all," I admitted. I paused, recalling with vivid clarity the intensity, the passion, the connection I'd felt when I had kissed her, felt her, tasted her. "She kissed me." I felt my lips curve involuntarily upward as I spoke. "God, Jas, I - I really touched her." I raked my hands through my hair, shaking my head lightly. "And? How are you feeling about all this?" he asked. "I don't know," I said honestly. "I should be cursing myself. After all I've done, all I put her through, I couldn't even plead for forgiveness properly. And yet for some reason . . . I feel . . . " I trailed off, fumbling for the words to describe the thoughts swirling in my mind, the sensations coursing through my body. They were almost entirely foreign to me, yet tinged with an aching familiarity. I squeezed my eyes shut, reliving the morning's events and trying in vain to identify exactly how I felt. Jasper pulled a baseball from the cabinet along the back wall and fired it at me. I caught it a millimeter from my ear. "You're happy, Edward." ~X~ We took off together, heading north out of the city limits. I couldn't remember the last time I had run just for the thrill of it - for the feeling of the wind cutting sharply against my face and the dopplar effect in my ears as I threaded my way through the spindly pines. I was happy. Of course Jasper knew my own emotions better than I did. But even though I trusted he was right, the feeling was so new, so unfamiliar, I was still struggling to accept it. I had no right to be happy. She was hurt. Confused. Furious. Even so, there was no denying it. It was still there. I'd felt it the moment I'd crawled through her window. As I stood in her bedroom, mere feet from her sleeping body, the same electric pulse which had drawn us together that first day she entered my life still hummed and crackled between us. When she'd awoken, the tug had amplified exponentially. It was as undeniable a presence as another person in the room. The moment her blazing hands connected with my body, I knew. Despite her anger, her rage, her tears, she felt it too. She had touched me.

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My feet barely registered the ground beneath them as I flew faster and faster through the outskirts of Forks and halfway to the Canadian border. She had kissed me. I pressed forward, increasing my speed as we ascended a steep incline in the foothills of the Cascades. I had touched her. Tasted her. At this last thought my body seemed to lose its orientation on the earth. My hamstrings stretched and burned through the effort that was, even for me, supernatural. The speed was too much even for my own keen senses. The rushing landscape faded to a blur of green and brown. I ran for over an hour. When the flying colors changed from mud and moss to a crisp blue and white, I slowed. Though I had long since abandoned Jasper in my wake, he knew where I was headed. Reaching my destination, I sat down in the middle of the snowy basin. The sun beat down from a clear cobalt sky, and though my skin glistened like the white blanket beneath me, the hue looked nearly human in comparison. Captivated, I clenched and unclenched my fist as I watched it glitter in the sun. In over eighty years, Bella was the only human I ever had the inclination to really touch, embrace, kiss. I had never given much consideration to my hands before she entered my life. But soon thereafter, I had grown to loathe, to fear them. In her proximity, they were not merely hands, but weapons capable of crushing her wrists or snapping her neck with a single false move. But this morning, they had held her gently, caressed her lovingly . . . filled her completely. No, not completely. I felt myself harden, recalling the euphoria of touching Bella - there - for the first time. Enhancing the already pristine memory, her scent still radiated off my fingers as if it had permanently soaked into my skin. I closed my eyes. Covering my nose and mouth with my palm, I inhaled deeply. Bella. As a human, I had never experienced the intoxicating high of a drug. But as I breathed Bella's potent arousal - as it rushed through my mouth and down my throat - I entered a state of sublime halfconsciousness. The feeling was comparable only to the overpowering nirvana of tasting her delectable blood. It was as if every part of her - her blood, her body, her mind, her soul, even the scent of her arousal - had been designed specifically for me. My epiphany was interrupted by Jasper's advance. His eyes were wide with shock as he ran toward me. Edward, what the fuck was that? I mean, we all know footspeed is one of your gifts but Jesus. Even for you Realizing I was preoccupied, his thoughts stilled. "Talk to me, Edward. What is it?" he asked. "She was made for me." He squatted down next to me, his eyes willing me to continue.

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"She's my singer, Jasper. For so long I've viewed that as a tragedy." I looked down at my balled fist, shaking my head. "But it's just the opposite. She was made for me. She belongs with me. We belong together." Jasper clapped a hand on my shoulder, his eyes kind and searching as he stared at me. "I know, Edward. We've always known." I lowered my eyes, reminded of the suffering I had inflicted on my family in my stubborn refusal to listen to their pleas over the years. I knew Jasper had borne a special kind of pain. "I've been such a fool, Jasper. None of this was your fault. This was all me." Although I had said this before, the conviction in my voice this time was sharper, clearer. He didn't speak but gave me a sympathetic look. I know Edward. And now I know you mean it. I knew, with Jasper, there was no need for an apology. He rose and, grinning, clasped my hand as he pulled me to my feet. Just wait till I knock your pansy-ass to Alaska on the first pitch. ~X~ At first it felt strange - wrong, even pitching, hitting, dishing back Jasper's trash-talk. But as the game wore on, I found myself letting go, having fun for the first time in years. Though Jasper had a more powerful swing, my speed ensured he never made a full trip around the makeshift diamond. On the few occasions I'd spent time with my family after leaving Forks, they had carefully avoided mentioning Bella, knowing the consequences for them - for others - could be grave if the topic were broached. But my time with Bella this morning had changed the dynamic, and Jasper was suddenly comfortable talking with me, teasing me, again. When it was his turn to pitch, his thoughts were deliberately taunting. See this ball? It's Jacob Black. Comin' atcha. A low growl rumbled in my chest as I twisted into my swing. Crushing the ball with the bat, it sailed far beyond the mountainside encasing us. Jasper doubled over in laughter. "Well, I guess that sucker's a goner." I spat on the ground, not amused. Ok, ok. Sorry. He reached into the canvas bag at his feet and pulled out another ball. Winding up, his thoughts again preceded the pitch. Special Delivery for Edward Cullen: one playwright boyfriend. The sound that emanated from my body was no low rumble. The angry snarl started deep in the pit of my stomach before erupting from my throat as a savage roar. The violent noise reverberated off of the surrounding peaks for several seconds as I stood there, stunned. Though I knew I had taken a swing, I had lost track of the trajectory of the ball.

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"Did I miss? Where's the ball?" I asked, disoriented. Jasper's eyes were saucers as he gestured to a sprinkling of brown debris littering the pristine snow that lay between us. "There is no more ball." After the game, we hunted, enjoying the chase and kill of the mountain lion that inhabited the northern region. I felt more alive than I had in years. Once sated, we moved at a slower pace on the trek back to Forks, laughing and reminiscing about games past. I suddenly found myself missing the rest of my family. Though things were far from perfect, I felt more like myself than I had in years. I found myself wanting to wrestle with Emmett and spar with Rosalie, to play for Esme, to talk with Carlisle. We were only a short distance into the trip when my phone rang. I slowed to a walk as I glanced at the time. I didn't need to look at the screen to know who it was. "Carlisle," I answered. Jasper slowed his pace, putting a respectful distance between us as I took the call. "Son." Carlisle's voice was steady, but I could hear the relief in his tone. He had called me at the same time every day since I left for New York. Though I had never answered, he always left a message. They were all the same slight variations of the words he had spoken to me after the Juneau incident: I'm here, when you're ready. "Carlisle I'm" I stammered, unsure how to begin, though I knew Alice had filled him in on the highlights. "Son, it's alright. Just talk to me." "She's angry," I started. "Yes, of course." "I was so wrong, Carlisle," I continued, my voice barely a whisper. "About me. About her. About everything." "Yes," he agreed, his tone gentle. "It may be too late. I may have hurt her too much. If you could have seen the thoughts ..." I trailed off, remembering the countless images of Bella that had drifted through the minds of the mourners at Charlie's memorial. "It may be too late," I repeated. "Perhaps," Carlisle said. "But you can't control the past, Edward." I knew his words were carefully chosen. Carlisle understood how difficult it was for me to accept when things were beyond my control. "She hasn't decided against forgiveness," I said, recalling Alice's assurance that no decisions had been made. "At least not yet. It may not be much to go on, but it's all that I have." "It's enough, Edward." "God, I've wasted so much time." I sighed, and for several long moments, the line was quiet. Wasting time.

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It was a simple phrase. Humans used it every day. My family never did. The words hung heavy in the air between us. I had wasted years. Years of Bella's fleeting life that could have been spent together. Years that I could have, should have, been loving her, worshipping her. "Yes, Edward. But you can't dwell on what's passed. It's time to stop punishing yourself, son. The important thing is you're there now. Now, you have a decision to make. What are you going to do?" he prodded. "There is no more decision, Carlisle. I have to fight for her." My phone buzzed then, signaling an incoming text message. Knowing who it was from, my gut tightened and my hands started to tremble. "Carlisle, I - Alice just - " I croaked, unable to finish. Phone in hand, I dropped my arm to my side. I squeezed my eyes shut and locked my knees in place. Even from a distance, I heard Jasper's thoughts as he ran to me, sensing my anticipation. My dread. Hesitantly, I tipped the phone slightly and opened one eye to peer at Alice's message. Bella's here. Asleep in your bed. My breath hitched. Bella was at the house. Asleep in my bed. Wait. My bed? BPOV My heart caught in my throat when I realized we were standing in the doorway of Edward's room. It looked the same as it had the last time I had seen it. Dozens of leatherbound journals were stacked neatly in the corner. Centuries-old original art hung unassumingly on the walls. Scores of CDs lined sleek modern shelves. But there was one major difference. There was a bed in it. I stared slackjawed at Alice. "It's new," she admitted. "Just delivered." I kept staring at her. At it. At her. "Don't be mad, Bella. He doesn't even know about it yet. I can't help it. It's just in my nature to be prepared." "God, Alice - " I stopped short, too tired to protest or even fully analyze the implications and presumptions inherent in the gesture.

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Resigned, I rolled my eyes at her before crawling onto the luxurious mattress. I had to admit that the cool silk of the sheets felt refreshing as it skimmed over my bare legs. The men's shirt Alice had given me barely covered the pair of black lace panties she had thrust on me after the bath. I wondered now whether she hadn't bought the panties - and the bed - in anticipation of this very night. But although the bed and the panties were new, I knew as soon as I slipped on the shirt that it was Edward's. Tucking my chin, I inhaled his scent on the collar. My eyes closed as the flavor of him filled my head. "I love you, Bella," Alice whispered. "And I'm so sorry. For him. For me. For all of it." She bent down to stroke my hair, then pulled the down comforter to my chin. "I love you too, Alice. And I know." My heart swelling with love, and my head swimming in tequila, I snuggled up in Edward's bed. As I lay there surrounded by his things, cloaked in his scent, I knew that I would dream of him. And for the first time in years, as I drifted off to sleep, I realized he might just be there to wake me. ~X~ As I stood on the cliffs at La Push, I was at the height of my anguish. The peak of my lunacy. It had been too long since I'd seen his face, heard his voice, inhaled his scent. I peeled off my hooded sweatshirt and inched toward the edge of the rocks. I took a long breath. Counted to ten. And nothing. I clamped my eyes shut, straining my ears to hear him. Silence. Perhaps my subconscious was not so easily fooled. Perhaps the danger of merely standing on the precipice was not enough. So I went for it. My last toe had sprung from the slick stone, and my body was hurtling through the cold, damp air, when I finally heard a desperate scream begging me to change my course. "No, Bells! God, no!" Charlie? As I plummeted toward the angry surf, the echo of Charlie's wails bounced inside my skull and threatened to split it open. I was so thrown, so utterly baffled, that I forgot to brace myself for the impact. I struck the stinging water with a smack before plunging into darkness. Panicked, I flailed my arms and legs wildly before my instincts took over, ruling me to conserve my breath and energy so that I could push off once I reached the bottom. Calmer now, I let myself sink to the sandy floor. That's when I saw him. Charlie. "Swim, Bells. Swim, sweet baby girl," he pleaded.

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But I couldn't. I couldn't do anything except stare. Shocked, grief-stricken, a bevy of sobs escaped from the pit of my gut as I sucked in a mouthful of saltwater. And then I was drowning. "Come on, Bells. You can do it," he yelled. The icy water flooded my throat, scorched my lungs. My arms and legs were numb and sluggish, hanging impotently in the abyss. As the current whipped at me from all sides, I considered that dying here, with my father, would be a good way to go. "Don't give up, sweetie. Swim. Kick your legs, Bells," he begged. Listening to Charlie for once, I thrashed my limbs clumsily about the freezing water. "Attagirl." Without warning, I hit a rock and realized in vain that I couldn't push anymore. I became vaguely aware that the pitch blackness of the water was slowly turning a navy blue midnight. I was, somehow, approaching the surface. I was being pulled. Hands as cold as the water itself dragged me from its icy depths, lifting me out of despair. Edward. Choking, sobbing, I groped his neck, his face, in disbelief. He guided his fingers down the front of my chest and clasped them over my heart. ~X~ "Breathe, Bella. Shhhhh. Just breathe." Spooning me, he brushed the hair from my damp forehead before swaddling my legs in his and bringing his lips to my ear. "Shhhhh, it's ok. You were dreaming. You're ok," he soothed as he rocked me gently back and forth. I opened my eyes, groggy, fuzzy. I closed them again, hoping as usual that this simple gesture would return me to my dream. To him. "I'm here. I'm here for you, Bella." Where was here, exactly? My eyes darted frantically around the dark room and made out the inky outline of my boots lined up neatly next to a pair of men's shoes. Oh my God. I was in his room. With him.

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I had dreamed of him. And he was still here. He stayed with me - rescued me. It all came back to me then. Charlie was gone. Edward was . . . here. And now, we lay entwined, his cold, hard legs wrapped around my soft, warm ones. I moved my ankle to rub along his shin as if for confirmation. He shifted lightly, and his nose skimmed the back of my neck. It was a small movement, but one I had felt many times before - many years ago. Oh, God. Edward. My head swam with a hundred unasked questions; I had come here to find the answers. And now, as desperate as I was to know, to understand, I was equally afraid of what knowing would mean. Alice had seemed to be holding so much back, yet her revelation about Victoria had caused me to question the very foundation of all I believed about the past six years - that Edward didnt love me; that I could trust Jake completely. As I lay encased in Edward's strong, familiar arms, I knew that the things yet unsaid between us could only further tilt my world on its already skewed axis. I would have my answers in the morning. I just wanted one night. One night to bathe in blissful ignorance before being faced with the weighty decisions that would follow full disclosure. One night in his bed, exploring him the way my teenage hands never had. One night to pretend that whatever explanation he would offer tomorrow could satisfy me - could warrant the forgiveness he was seeking. One night to let passion lead where, tomorrow, reason might not. Yes. I deserved one night. Coiling his legs around mine, he pulled me closer. Close enough to feel his soft hair on my cheek, the growing bulge in his jeans. Even after all this time, we fit neatly together, folded in the same familiar embrace of years past. But although Edward had spent countless nights in my bed when I was still a high school girl, I had never felt his erection pressed firmly against my lower back. Or if I had, I was then too naive to realize what it was. Not anymore. I reached my hand behind me to tug at the nape of his neck. He nuzzled my ear before planting soft, feathery kisses on my hair, my throat, my shoulder. All I wanted in this moment was to feel him. To have his hands on me, touching me, needing me. Just the thought of his hands on my body caused my arousal to pool between my thighs. I rubbed them together, moaning softly at the slight friction the movement created. Edward inhaled sharply, stiffening his grip on my body.

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Yes. I would guide him through this. Make it easy for him. I shifted my hips and felt his stiffness twitch against me. "Mmmhh," he moaned in my ear, barely a whisper. He sighed and pulled me closer, tightening his grip around my waist. I felt the icy burn of his touch through the soft cotton of my shirt - his shirt - and I nodded in affirmation before leaning my head back to rest in the crook of his shoulder. Taking my cue, he dragged his index finger up my breastbone and stationed it at the top button, stilling it there. I understood his reluctance, remembering my outburst this morning in my bedroom - how I had fallen apart, then lashed out, as we were in the midst of a passionate embrace. He needed some encouragement. I reached for his hand and gave it a soft squeeze before guiding it to my left breast. He exhaled into the crook of my neck as I moved his hand teasingly around my nipple before flattening his palm firmly against me. We groaned in unison, and his body grew rigid behind me. His hand still planted on my breast, he shifted slightly in the bed, creating space between us. He stilled completely, his chest no longer rising and falling in its heavy rhythm. He had stopped breathing. My face flushed with impending embarassment. My chest clenched at the familiar sense of rejection. And then he pinched my nipple, hard, before pressing himself flush against my back. Yes. I felt the growl rumble in his belly as his hands abandoned their tender caresses, traveling wildly, frantically, over my hips, my ribs, my breasts. My nerves tingled with the overwhelming sensation of his fingers gripping me, rubbing me, everywhere. I arched my spine, pushing myself deeper into his touch. Fisting my shirt in his hands, he breathed heavily in my ear before rolling me onto my back. My eyes raked over his face, studying his smooth lips, his sharp jaw, before locking on his. We lay like that for a long moment. Panting. Staring. Needing more, I reached for his shock of copper hair, twining it in my fingers, and gave it a gentle tug downward. I ached to kiss him, to feel him against me, hard for me, before the heat of the moment escaped us. "Bella," he said softly, wrenching his head from my grasp. "I need to - " "Shhhh," I murmured, bringing my index fingers to his lips. As in my bedroom, when we were pressed tightly against my closet door, I sensed that he wanted to explain himself. But explaining would mean pulling me out of this moment - a moment I had craved for so long, and didn't know if I would ever see again. "But - " "Please don't, Edward. It's okay." Seeming to understand, he kissed the fingertip at his mouth and brought my palm to his cheek. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply before brushing the side of my hand with his cool lips.

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"God, Bella," he mumbled. He kissed my chin, my cheek, my ear. "God, I've missed you." He dabbed my neck, my collarbone with kisses, before hooking his thumb through a gap between the buttons of my shirt to tease my navel. I flinched, giggling. "You're ticklish," he laughed, his eyes twinkling. "Why didn't I know that?" "Because you never tickled me," I whispered. "You never let yourself find out." My words triggered something in him. A flicker of pain flashed in his eyes before they narrowed and grew dark with lust. Emboldened, he hitched his leg over mine. Straddling my hips, he leaned into me, licking my neck before bringing his lips to my ear. "I'm ready to learn." He murmured. He opened his mouth against my ear before sliding his parted lips across my cheek. Our lips quickly found each other and settled into the familiar rhythm of years past. The kiss started out tender, familiar, but soon changed course. Groaning, he gripped the back of my scalp as he pressed me firmly into his mouth. His tongue, which had never featured in the chaste, respectful kisses of our past, slid slowly, deliberately past my lips. My whole body heaved in response as he moved inside my mouth. His tongue was softer and wetter than I'd imagined and the delicious taste of him soaked into mine as his breaths came cool and shallow. A small grunt lodged in his throat as our tongues touched, licked, explored each other for the first time. Much too soon he was pulling away. He looked down at me before planting two sweet kisses on my lips. I was briefly afraid he was going to stop - that he wanted to talk. But then, he bent to me again and dragged his wintry tongue down my neck, my chest. Oh. Reaching the fastened button that rested just above my cleavage, his tongue stilled as he looked up at me. Take it off, Edward. Please. Instead, he swept his parted lips over the fabric, lingering above my breast. His long fingers played at the lower hem of my shirt and then slipped underneath, flattening against my heated skin. His other hand skimmed along the outside of my thigh, slowly creeping up my body. I closed my eyes, wanting to get lost in his touch and yet, wanting to commit every one of his movements to memory: the kneading of my waist, the tickling of my ribcage, the palming of my breast. God, yes. Cupping the swell in his hand, he claimed the nipple with his mouth, sucking it fervently through the fabric of my shirt. "Oh," I gasped. He snapped his head up, startled. "More," I whispered, knotting my fingers in his hair. He refocused his attention, moving his lips over the shirt while his hands caressed my flesh beneath it. He started out tentative but soon grew playful, seductive. He drew tantalizing circles around each

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breast with his finger, and flicked each nipple with his thumb. He buried his face in my cleavage and moved his forehead back and forth against me, his hair sweeping lightly below my clavicle. I clasped his shoulder blades as a half-moan, half-laugh fell from my lips. He looked up to give me a lopsided grin. I traced my finger along his bowed lips, along his jawbone, and down the taut tendons of his neck, before hooking it under his collar. Understanding, he hunched his shoulders and pulled his sweater over his head. I gasped at the sight; his sculpted torso was more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Leaning forward, he pressed his naked chest against me, and I wrapped my arms around him. As I felt his bare back for the first time, my roving fingers discerned that it was carved in every bit as much detail as his chest. I glanced to my side and saw his fist gripping the sheet. His muscles tensed and relaxed with the obvious effort of his restraint. I was reminded then of how difficult this must be for him - how much he must be working in this moment to be with me like this. He gritted his teeth and swallowed audibly before slowly rocking forward to brush my lips with his. As he shifted position I felt his rigid length through his pants, nestling into the tender crevice between my thighs. "Oh, God," I moaned, lifting my hips toward him. "I know," he groaned as he pressed himself into me. "I know." His tongue darted out to wet his already glistening lips, and he gave a slight shake of his head. "Fuck." I had heard Edward swear only once before - the day he had saved me from being crushed by Tyler's van. But now, the words coated in his honeyed voice caused an involuntary whimper to escape my throat. "I can't - God, you're just -" He faltered as he dropped his forehead to my breastbone. I felt his grip on the sheets tighten as the cool fabric beneath me pulled tight. He murmured into my chest, the words muffled but discernable as his cool breath puffed against my skin. "Thank you." He tilted his head to the side, his lips barely grazing the swell of my breast. "God, I love you so much." And with that, my heart simultaneously swelled and broke to pieces. He loved me. Now. Still. Yet all this time I stopped my train of thought in its tracks. It was too much. My mind was incapable of reconciling his words with his actions - with all he had done. He looked up at me and waited for me to speak. I simply gazed into his eyes, silently begging him to hold me, to be with me, to leave the rest for the morning.

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I placed my hand on top of his and nodded, giving him permission to continue without apology or regret. He understood. Trembling, his hand glided over to knead my shoulder. His eyes followed his hand as it began its descent down my underarm, alongside my breast, and around the curve of my waist. He hitched my shirt up to my ribs and paused, his eyes locked onto the waistband of my panties. Kneeling forward, he placed a prayerful kiss on my stomach. "Oh," he breathed. "This skin is softer than the rest." With his fingertips, and with his lips, he explored the several inches of flesh between the top of my panties and the bottom of my shirt, bunched as it was just below my breasts. He paid great care to my belly button, poking it playfully with the tip of his index finger before teasing it with his tongue. My abs tensed, and then shuddered, beneath him, the sensation so overwhelming that I finally had to push his head away. "Sorry," he said with an impish grin. "I've just always wanted to do that." His crinkled eyes grew dark, and serious again, as they left my face and darted over my body. Curling his hand into a half-fist, he skimmed his knuckles back and forth along the valley between my hips. He stopped, and then cleared his throat. "Bella -" he trailed off. "May I -?" He gestured downward and then rested his fingertips at the borderline where flesh met lace. "Please," I panted, nodding eagerly. He placed his palm over the soaked lace and dug the heel of his hand against my sex. "You're so wet," he breathed. "For me," he added in awe. He nuzzled my navel again before sweeping his nose downward until it rested firmly against my lacecovered clit. Oh, God. A current buzzed in my belly and shot through my spine. I threw my head back, giving in to his brazen touch, and lifted my hips in response, unconsciously pressing myself closer to his face. He drew in a deep breath, and then growled and shuddered before collapsing, falling limp against me. I tensed, confused. Panicked. Did I push him too far? I lifted my head. "Edward, is every-" Before I could finish, he opened his mouth and covered the wet crotch of my panties completely with his parted lips. "Unnh," I whimpered, helpless. His mouth surrounding me right where I ached for him, he exhaled. Hard. Fast. Cold.

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Oh God, yes. His icy breath singed my clit and pulsed through my entire body. Whimpering, I clamped my thighs around his head, asking, begging, for more. He inhaled sharply again, before I felt his body quiver, then freeze, before finally letting the air out in a blustery gust against me. "Yes," I moaned. "Oh." He hummed against me in response. I had never felt anything that remotely resembled the euphoria of Edward's cool breath on me. I was instantly seconds, breaths away from what I was certain would be the most intense orgasm of my life. As if reading my mind, he dug his thumbs into my hips and began panting heavily on top of me. His mouth wide open, he moved it back and forth across my crotch, his marble lips cold enough to shock my aching clit through the thin layer of lace. I was so close. "God, Edward. Don't stop," I pleaded. I could feel it build from my curled toes, rush up my thighs, and linger in the pit of my stomach. He sped his movements then, simultaneously gnashing his lips against my clit while directing his cool breeze through the lace of my panties. I felt my eyes roll back into my head, and saw crimson, just as he reached up to gently squeeze my nipple. "Oh God, Edward," I cried, "I'm coming." Screaming, writhing, I dug my heels into his back and knotted his hair in my hands, my body rocked, wrecked, with the intensity of my climax. I lay there panting quietly for a long moment before I propped myself on my elbows to look at him. His chin now rested on the waistband of my panties, as he stared up at me with the sweetest, proudest, and most erotic look I had ever seen. Over the past six years, no lover had been able to compete with the ecstasy I imagined at Edward's phantom touch. The reality blew away every one of my fantasies. It was everything I dreamed and impossibly more. It was him. My chest heaved as I stared at him, mouth agape. My limbs felt limp, my head lighter than the air around us. "Wow," I whispered. I bent my knees inward toward him, nudging him to come to me. He slid up my body and rested his weight on his elbow, leaning on his side. He ghosted his fingers over my abdomen before stroking my cheek with his thumb. "You are so beautiful." He murmured. "Kiss me." I said. His expression changed from pride and wonder to greed and lust. The kiss was hungry, rough. Needy moans filled our mouths as we moved our lips and tongues together. "Bella," he chanted my name between kisses. "Bella. Bella. Oh, Bella." He broke away to look at me then, his eyes dark and searching. His hands raked through my tangled hair as his length throbbed against my bare thigh.

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I knew what he wanted. And I wanted to give it to him. He stopped breathing as I fumbled with the button on his jeans, but he didn't push me away. When his pants were off, I shifted to my side to face him before hooking my leg around his waist and pushing him to his back. He tensed underneath me, clawing at the sheet. His jaw was set, eyes clamped shut. Straddling him, I let him have a moment, as I focused on the feel of him beneath me, our flesh separated only by thin layers of lace and cotton. He relaxed his grip and opened his eyes to meet mine, and I leaned forward to caress the soft trail of hair that started at his navel and disappeared under the waistband of his boxers. I let my fingers explore the firm perfection of his pectoral muscles, his sides, his stomach, as I relished in the groans, the whimpers that escaped his beautiful lips. When I snaked my tongue out to flick his nipple, he growled and thrust his hips toward mine, slamming his hard cock into my damp center. "Unhh, Edward," I moaned, grinding myself into him. "Bella," he pleaded, his voice strained. He slid his hands under my hips, palms down. "I can't - it's-" In a flash, I was underneath him, my head flopped against the pillow, his hips against mine. His hands pressed flat above my shoulders, he lowered himself onto me, burying his face into the bend at my neck. "I just - I need to be in control, Bella," he explained quietly. Understanding, I tugged on his neck and nudged his chin so his eyes would meet mine. The lust he harbored in his jet-black eyes was tinged with a glint of shame, of embarrassment. "Okay, then." I said huskily, dropping my arms to my sides. "Go ahead." My command seemed to push him nearer to the edge. He clenched his jaw as his hips twitched, causing his cock to rub against my clit. "Bella," he struggled to speak through labored breaths, "I- I don't deserve this." My eyes narrowed as I looked at his gorgeous body straining above me. The supple valley of his perfectly carved obliques. The sinewy tendons of his forearms. The masculine set of his jaw. "Maybe not," I said, glaring at him hotly, "but I do." Stifling a growl, he hungrily scanned my body and let his gaze linger for a moment at the place his hips met mine. Inching forward, he clamped his eyes shut, his expression a mixture of pleasure and pain as he deliberately rubbed himself against me. The head of his cock teased my navel as he stilled after his first pass. He opened his eyes, his look one of shock, wonder, and lust, before relaxing into me. Eyes trained on mine now, he tilted his hips back, choking out a strangled moan as he moved forward again in a long firm stroke. His arms stayed pinned beside my head trembling slightly with the effort to control his movements. He rocked his hips back and forth slowly, rhythmically, purposefully. I tilted my head back, arching my neck and moaning at the sight, the feeling of Edward using my body to pleasure himself.

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He hissed at the sound of my whimpering, suddenly thrusting forward with more intensity. My clit throbbing, needing more, I lifted my hips to push deeper into the sensation. Unthinking, I instinctively gripped his ass with my hands, urging him forward. He immediately stilled his movements, looking at me sternly. "No." He sat back on his knees and grabbed my wrists, shackling them with his hands and pressing them firmly into the mattress on either side of my head. "I'm sorry, Edward, I-" Fuck. Don't stop. Please, don't stop. "-shhhh," he interrupted, shaking his head. He paused for a beat and then released my wrists, lacing his fingers with mine. He pressed our intertwined hands into the bed, immobilizing me in the tenderest way possible. Wordlessly, he moved his pelvis back into position and resumed working himself against me in quick firm strokes. Without even touching my flesh, he was bringing me to a brink of ecstasy I didn't know was possible. But it was the sight of what this was doing to him that pushed me over the edge. He struggled to maintain eye contact while thrusting against me, his breaths coming more quickly with each stroke. Finally, his eyes rolled back before he clenched them tightly shut. His grunts were more primal, more feral, than any human sound. I came quietly, reverently, as I watched him. Biting my lip, I gazed intently into his closed eyes, willing him to lose control for me. Needing him to take everything I had always been willing to give. As if hearing my thoughts, he snapped his eyes open, gripping my hands tightly, painfully, as his stare locked on mine. "Oh God, Bella," he said in a hoarse whisper. His hips stilled and head dropped. "I'm coming." The world seemed to stop as I watched Edward coming above me. If it were possible, his beauty was even more striking as the bliss washed over his face and coursed through his neck, his shoulders, his arms, his fists. After what seemed like minutes, he relaxed. His head dropped briefly forward to his chest before he rolled to his side and pulled me to rest on him. I nuzzled his chest as his fingertips drifted lightly up and down my back. My body was limp, relaxed as I came down from the high of Edward's touch, and my lids were heavy as I rested my cheek against the firm slopes of his abdomen. Somewhere, in the far recesses of my mind, I knew that this moment would soon be a memory. We would talk about this, about us, tomorrow, and I wasn't sure if the words, thoughts, and feelings that morning would bring would ever lead me back to his bed, his arms, him. But as we lay entwined in the stillness of the moonlit bedroom, his strong body seemed to absorb every plaguing question and nagging fear. I yielded to the familiar sensation and allowed Edward to pull me into a dreamless sleep.

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A/N: Thank you all so much for the love you showed for the last Chapter. Your reviews are so rewarding. I wish we could tacklehug you all but since we cant, I figure we'll just keep writin'. Thanks to annanabanana, our beautiful red-lipstick-wearin' minx of a beta who goes so far beyond correcting grammar it isn't even funny. Thank you for everything, bb. Thanks to our prereaders, LolaShoes, WindyCitywonder, ilsuocantante and, our special guest previewer for this chappie, bday girl BrookeLockart. These ladies give us gentle, loving, hilarious and, most-importantly, honest feedback and it is a true gift to have them donate their time and eyeballs and rainbow brite twinks to this story. We lubs you guys. *sniff* Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight and a novella about Bree. Chapter 16 EPOV She was so soft. Her hair was splayed in glossy ribbons across my chest. Her face was relaxed, a small grin playing on her lips. Only her hands belied her tension. The pads of her fingers were pressed firmly between my ribs, her knuckles white with the effort of her grip. Though she slept, the room was alive with her. Every molecule of the air was permeated with her scent. Her blood. Her sweat. Her lust. My eyes had not left her body from the moment she fell asleep. They traveled in a slow but unchanging circuit from the delicate skin of her closed eyelids, to her flushed cheeks and silky throat, and then over her breasts, their perfection evident even when obscured by the boxy cut of my shirt. I studied the lean length of her thigh, curled as it was around mine before scanning her toned calf, and settling on her dainty toes. When I'd burst into the house, Alice had greeted me with a knowing smile before focusing her thoughts for my benefit. In her mind, I first saw Bella soaking nude in a clawfoot tub, and then crawling unceremoniously into a king-sized bed. I hadn't stopped to glean details of their conversation or question Alice's motives. I ran straight to my room. The vision of Bella in my bed was nearly too much to handle. I lingered in the doorway, my chest tight with anticipation, and with relief. The love that I felt for her in that moment, before even a word left those lush lips, was more overwhelming than the night I had climbed into her bedroom. Because this time, she had found me. As I tiptoed toward her, I realized that, although she was asleep, she wasn't at rest. Her body flailed through her nightmare, her arms thrashing wildly. Her pulse raced, and her mouth opened but she made no sound. I slipped into the bed behind her, assuming a once-familiar role. She clawed at me, reaching across her body to grip my biceps with her nails. The feel of her grasping at me, needing me, was so enticing, I hesitated a moment before waking her up, luring her from her bad dream. She was awake less than a full minute when it hit me. The smell of her sex came in a rush, crashing through me, before settling in the back of my throat. The scent nearly paralyzed me - momentarily overpowering my body and mind. The delectable aroma of her blood was but a tiny distraction in comparison.

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And then she moaned. The sound rattled in my ears and shot straight to my groin. My erection stiffened painfully against my jeans. God, she felt so good. So soft and warm and so . . . Bella. But when she calmly reached for my hand and pressed it deliberately against her breast, it was too much. I stopped breathing, and for once, it was not for fear of my thirst. Her proximity, her smell, her brazen acknowledgment of her need, all combined to push me to the edge of my restraint. I wanted to hold her, to caress her, to love her. I feared my cock had less tender plans. I stilled a moment and put distance between us. In that small space of time, I sensed her blush blooming beneath the silken skin of her cheeks. She was embarrassed. I would suffer the pain of the venom that changed me a thousand times over before I would ever again let her feel ashamed of her desire for me. I made up my mind then that I would let go. I would trust myself. Trust us. "It's okay, Edward," she had promised, urging me on. And with that, though I knew there was still so much to be said, she told me everything I needed to know. It was okay. We would be okay. I worshipped her with my hands, my mouth, through her clothes. Though I was tempted to rip them from her body, to see the naked breasts that I was cradling in my hands, my senses were flooded to capacity as it was. I needed - I wanted - to take it slow. In the frenzy of our first encounter in her bedroom, I had felt her, slick and ready for me, for the first time. But this was different. This was us - Bella and Edward - the way we were always meant to be. I explored her. Teased her. Tickled her. I loved her. The words fell from my mouth as naturally as breathing. She didn't speak but nodded her assent. My body cried out wordlessly for hers, needing her in ways I had suppressed for too long. We both watched as my hand cupped the lace between her thighs. And, God, she was wet. So wet. The aroma in the air was a thousand times more potent than the agonizing scent I'd encountered when I'd spied her in New York. . . with him.

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And this time, this was for me. Her arousal, while thick in the air, was even more powerful on my tongue. Spread wide against her covered sex, my mouth filled with her exquisite taste. My senses were obscured, blinded, and overwhelmed with the force of it, and I found myself focusing on every one of her movements to keep me grounded. I concentrated on the feeling of her abdomen contracting beneath me. Her downy thighs brushing against my jaw. Her soft heels pressing against my shoulderblades. As I watched and felt Bella respond to my touch, to my lips, to my breaths, I knew. She wanted me. Needed me. And intoxicated with her lust, I made her come. Her blood rushed in a thundering pulse beneath the flesh at the juncture of her thighs. Her stomach muscles tightened as she arched towards me, pushing herself deeper into my hungry mouth. I memorized the twist of her fingers, the crease of her brow, the shape of her lips as they screamed her release. I had imagined Bella climax on more occasions than I could count - even years ago when I'd had the luxury of calling her 'mine', the fantasies seemed a permanent substitute for what I was incapable of giving her. Watching her, feeling her dissolve in pleasure around me, I was overcome with the weight of my crushing love. And with pride. Bella in orgasm was, without question, the most beautiful vision I had ever witnessed. When she'd reached for me, her intentions were clear. I hesitated. It seemed selfish - wrong after all I had already taken from her. But when she's told me that she deserved it, I was powerless to resist her. She wanted to feel me, hard for her. She wanted to make me come. As I pressed myself gingerly against her fragile body, she'd given me the control I needed - submitting to my weakness. She writhed under me as I moved, unabashed in her need for my touch. My climax with my Bella beneath me was like nothing I had ever experienced. Her eyes wide with wonder, she watched intently as I stilled and then shuddered against her. We came down together and the slight weight of her body as she rested on my chest was its own gentler brand of bliss. As she lay clutching me in her sleep, it felt like absolution. ~X~ When the dull light of morning shone dimly in the window, she began to stir. My hands glided down her arms in reassuring strokes. She rolled onto her back, eyes still closed. The shirt had gathered around her ribs, exposing the sexy lace panties which had taunted me all night long. I was desperate for her to wake up. Leaning over her, I caressed her belly slightly with my lips, traveling down to the waistband of her panties. My eyes were met then with the top of a small graphite-colored mark in the dip below her hipbone. It was the same mark that had tormented me two nights ago in her bedroom. Inspecting it closer now, I discerned that it was clearly a tattoo. I could only see the top of the mark - a bit of delicate filigree peeking out from under the swath of lace.

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Her hands moved to my hair as I rested my cheek on her abdomen. She was awake, if barely. I smirked, imagining Bella walking into a tattoo parlor. I had fallen in love with a girl; she had grown into a woman. Every beautiful part of her had been preserved, but enhanced with a confident sexuality. I longed to know it all at once - to understand every way in which she had grown, evolved over the years. My eyes were pinned on the detailed ink on her hipbone. My brain relentlessly circled around it. There was a time when Bella's every move, every word, was as predictable to me as the sunrise. Her actions had once been second-nature to me. Now, as I stared at the confounding mark, I was baffled as I tried to guess what this new, enigmatic Bella would have chosen to have permanently etched on her skin. Her astrological sign? A name? A Chinese character? Somehow, none of these seemed likely candidates. I was suddenly desperate to know - to see this smallest of glimpses into the life she had led in my absence. My face still flush against her stomach, I splayed my fingers alongside her waist and inched the black lace down ever so slowly as she continued weaving her hands through my hair. She arched her hips slightly. And then I saw it. My stomach churned. I pulled my face back a bit to get a better view. Yes, there was no denying it. Her hands stopped abruptly as she realized what I was doing. What I was seeing. It was a crucifix. Just inches from the most intimate place on her body, she had tattooed a crucifix. My jaw clenched; I squeezed my eyes shut in a vain attempt to maintain my composure. Bella yanked the sheet up to meet her chin and scooted backwards until her back rested against the headboard. The room was silent save for the frantic thrumming of her heartbeat and the soft crunch of my hair now trapped within my clenching fists. What could it mean? Who was I kidding. I knew what it meant. "Bella," I said softly, my eyes trained on the silk comforter. She was silent. "Bella," I pleaded, my voice tinged with a desperation which stung my ears and lingered in the room. I looked up at her then, only to find her head tilted toward the ceiling, her eyes blinking in rapid succession. "Look at me. Please." Her head sunk to her chest as she released a shaky breath. She lifted her head slowly, and when her eyes met mine, they expressed worry for an instant before settling into a blank gaze.

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And just like that, my delusions of absolution were shattered. "What is that?" I asked, looking at her hip. "You know what it is," she replied, her voice flat. The dread slithered through my insides and coiled in my gut. She was closing up. I stared at her, unblinking, willing her to explain. She didn't. "Okay, you're right. I know what it is. Why do you have a tattoo of a crucifix?" I asked in a whisper. She looked down at her hip, her eyes considering the offending mark. Finally she looked up at me with a steely gaze and shrugged. "What makes you think it has anything to do with you?" I felt the wall which had crumbled between us resurrecting itself. I flinched, but would not let her retreat from me so easily. We both knew damn well what the tattoo meant. And I needed her to at least acknowledge it. We needed to start talking if we were ever going to move past the pain I had caused. "You aren't religious," I countered. She laughed, but it wasn't a happy sound. "How would you know? Maybe I am. Maybe you convinced me to pay more attention to my soul." She spat the word. My heart was aching for her, for the years of pain I had inflicted on her. Whatever the explanation, I knew I was to blame. I had driven her to the edge - to this. "I don't believe you," I said flatly. She remained quiet. Her silence was maddening. We had just shared the most intimate experience of my life, and yet I couldn't get her to talk to me. I stood from the bed and started to pace, clenching my fists in attempt to channel my frustration. After several minutes, I couldn't take the silence anymore. "A crucifix? A fucking crucifix?" I asked, incredulous. My frustration was getting the better of me and my words came out harsher than I'd intended. I was pushing her and I knew it. But I didn't care. She could scream at me, curse at me, but I needed to hear her. Surprised by the volume and edge in my voice, I took a step away from her. My mouth inexplicably flooded with venom, and it sobered me enough to keep her at a distance. "The damsel in distress wards off the evil vampire with a crucifix? Are you kidding me? It's a myth, Bella. A ridiculous one at that." "I know," she answered, sneering. "Obviously. You're still here, aren't you?" I ignored her sarcasm, weary of her deflection. "Just talk to me," I begged. "You obviously had your reasons for permanently marking the most intimate part of your body with that particular symbol. I just want to understand. I just want to know why." She leapt off the bed, her face suddenly painted the magenta hue of her rage.

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"WHY? You want to know why, Edward?" she screamed, walking toward me at an incongruously slow pace. "I'll tell you why. Because you said it would be as if you never existed. But it wasn't. You haunted me. You ruined me. And I was desperate to do something anything to get rid of you." Though I had braced myself for her explanation, her words still ripped through me. And she wasn't finished. "So when Jake suggested - " "Jake?" I snarled in spite of myself. "Did the dog make you do this?" "No," she said coldly, stopping in her tracks. Her eyes narrowed as she appraised me a moment before speaking. "Jake didn't make me do anything. No one makes me do anything. It was my decision. My choice." Her nostrils flared as she looked at me with contempt. "But yes, Jake went with me to get it done. In fact, he held my hand through the whole thing. Through all of the pain." It was clear she was no longer talking about her tattoo. "You left me," she continued, her hand gesturing vaguely in the direction of her house. "In the woods. For dead. And God knows, I came close. But I survived, no thanks to you. For a long time that was all I did. So thisthis?" she spat, hooking her thumb through her panties to show me that godforsaken tattoo, "is none of your goddamn business." I recoiled, recalling for the millionth time since I'd arrived in Forks the dreaded images conjured in the minds of the funeral-goers. My stomach twisted, remembering it was Jake who had saved her from Laurent. Saved her from death she nearly suffered in the meadow. Our meadow. I shook my head, forcing myself to fight against the tempting notion that I wasn't good for her. I had hurt her, no doubt. The evidence of the damage I had done was now permanently etched into her skin. But what we had shared last night had been so true so undeniably real. I walked to her, grabbed her hands, and chased down her elusive gaze. "Bella, I realize I have my work cut out for me here. I'm willing to do whatever it takes, to spend an eternity making up for all I've done." Her hands flinched slightly but I kept my grip firm. "But I need you to let me in. I don't know how we're going to move forward together -" "Move forward together?" she interrupted, jerking her hands from mine. "What exactly do you mean by that?" Was that a serious question? What else could I mean? "Bella," I implored, confused. "Last night, when I tried to apologize - to explain - you stopped me. You said it was okay. That we were okay." The look on her face was sheer disbelief. "You thought that we were okay?" She laughed bitterly. "How - how could you possibly think that?" I dragged my fingernails through my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and pinched the bridge of my nose, toeing the line between irritation and full-blown panic. How was this happening? How could she not remember?

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I recalled an image from Alice's mind which I had dismissed in my haste the night before. Bella, wobbling in the doorway to the house, eyes glazed over. Of course. She had been drinking. Fuck. The realization hit me like a swift kick to the ribs. Or a knee to the groin. I shuffled backward and sunk into the leather couch, resting my head in my hands. I stared at the grain of the wood floor. She had crawled into bed to sleep off a bender. I woke her up mere hours later, my erection grinding into her backside. I then pinned her to my bed like an animal, rubbing myself against her until I ejaculated into my shorts. I sat there squeezing my temples, searching for a delicate way to tell her I had basically molested her while she was too drunk to consent - when the second paralyzing realization took hold. While the first one had hit me in the gut, and the crotch, this one struck me square in the chest. Where my heart would have been. She hadn't meant it. It wasn't okay. Nothing was okay. Oh, God. I was unhinged. "Bella," I started, gritting my teeth. I stood up and jammed my hands in my pockets, pinching my thighs hard through the fabric. "I owe you an apology. I owe you so much more than that." She leered at me but didn't speak. "Last night . . . I didn't realize that you weren't completely . . . sober," I explained. I opened my mouth to say I was sorry but closed it, not entirely certain that I was. Placing her hands on her hips, she closed her eyes and muttered, "What does that have to do with anything?" "Before I before we" I gestured to the bed. "I tried to apologize to you. But you said it was okay. I told you I loved you. And you - you nodded." It sounded foolish now, even in my own ears. But at the time, the implications had seemed crystal clear. Yes, we had things to resolve, but she had reassured me that it would be okay. That she loved me, too. But no; she had just been fucking drunk. "Ed-" she tried to interrupt. "No, Bella, let me finish. For once," I hissed. "I realize now that you don't remember." The words came out in a rush, as I suddenly wanted nothing more than for this conversation to end. Quickly. "I took advantage of you." She scoffed. "My God, Edward. I knew you were prone to arrogance, but Jesus. Don't give yourself so much credit. I might have been a little buzzed, but I was certainly not drunk. I knew what I was doing."

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What? I gaped at her. "I remember what I said. What I did. I just didn't mean what you thought I meant." I pressed my hands together and held them under my chin, gnawing the inside of my lip with my teeth to keep from saying something I would regret. I took a breath and counted to five before meeting her eyes and asking quietly, "Okay, then, what did you mean?" She held my gaze, eyes blazing, and retorted, "I meant that I didn't fucking care, at that moment, what you had to say. It didn't fucking matter. For once, I wanted you to shut the hell up and just touch me. I wanted-" she looked away for a brief moment before staring me down yet again and speaking a slow, deliberate voice. "I wanted you to make me come." The blunt impact of her words sent me staggering backward until I landed against my closet door with a thud. I closed my eyes, unable to look at her. Christ. Never in an eternity would I have imagined being unable, unwilling to look at my beautiful Bella. But this was not my Bella. No, the woman standing before me was someone else entirely. She was detached. Manipulative. Cold. I was willing to beg. I was willing to grovel. But I was not willing to be her . . . fuckbuddy. I spat a wad of venom on to the hardwood floor. A look of shock flashed in her eyes, and her cheeks and chest flushed a brilliant shade of scarlet. My cock stiffened reflexively at her blush, and I had half a mind to lunge at her, tear her clothes off, and fuck her senseless on this floor. Give her what she wanted. Because God knows I wanted it, too. Wanted to take her bare breasts in my mouth and suck on those delicious pink nipples. Wanted to tease her slick entrance with the head of my cock until she begged me for more. Wanted to bury my length deep inside her, feeling every inch of her tight, wet warmth. But even when my emotions were at their most raw, my lust at its most savage, I wouldn't do it. Because I fucking loved her. And I was beside myself at the notion that she didn't understand that. I felt sick. Used. But the worst agony was, I had no one to blame but myself. I had done this. I had driven her to this. "Are you saying that what happened between us last night was just about me . . . getting you off?" I choked out the words. "Are you saying it meant nothing to you?" I asked, terrified that she was about to relegate the single most significant night of my life to a temporary lapse in judgment. I could have sworn a flicker of hurt flashed in her eyes before she braced her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I'm not saying that," she replied slowly. "I'm saying I don't know what it means." I was silent as I stared at her, my chest heaving as I tried vainly to calm myself down.

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She sat back down on the bed, her fingers playing at the piping on the pillowcase. When she began again, her voice was eerily calm. "You stand there and you accuse me. You try to make me feel guilty for indulging in a silly myth. For being able to separate sex and . . ." She looked away and swallowed once before finishing, "and love." She paused and tilted her head slightly as she spoke, "But before you judge me, you might consider asking yourself whose fault that really is." BPOV This wasn't going at all like I had planned. I was supposed to start this conversation. I was supposed to ask my questions and get my answers. Calmly. Rationally. Instead, I found myself instantly on the defensive, grappling to explain the embarrassing truth about the impulsive teenage decision to get a tattoo. And then he had accused me of being fucking drunk. So much for calm and rational. When I spat at him that he had only himself to blame, he seemed to soften, my words clearly hitting their mark. He approached me and took my hand in his. I tucked my legs beneath me as he kneeled on the floor in front of the bed. I stared at my hands, tugging my lip with my teeth. "Anything, Bella," he started, his hands on my knees. "Ask me anything." The unanswered questions bounced around my head, clamoring for release. I attempted to concentrate, to focus on one that I needed answered the most. It was useless. After several seconds of silence, I gave up and let the words spill out in a garbled rush. "Why did you leave? Where have you been? Why are you here? Why now? What do you want from me?" Unfazed by my outburst, he took a deep breath before speaking in an uncharacteristically shaky voice. "I have lived for over a century, Bella. For the vast majority of that time, I've had the misfortune of possessing a gift that allows that forces - me to see into the minds of everyone around me." He chuckled once, nervously. "Well, almost everyone." I stared at his lips as he spoke. They were a beautiful deep shade of red. "I know I've told you about my struggles to control myself at times when the thoughts are especially vile." I thought back to the night in Port Angeles before I knew the truth about him. His whole body had shaken with the effort of resisting the urge to kill the men who had accosted me. "But not all minds are evil," he continued. "Before I met you, I often found great respite in the minds of those who are genuinely good, kind, loving souls. Bella, I've been privy to the most intimate thoughts of the most passionate lovers. I can instantly recognize the thoughts of a man truly in love. My father, Jasper, and Emmett are three of the lucky few who have found their soul mates on this earth. For so long, I envied what they had found. Their love is so true, so pure. It defines everything about them." I nodded, believing him. It was clear to anyone who encountered them that the couples in Edward's family were fated to be together. He lifted a finger to tip my chin, looking into my eyes.

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"But what they have - what they feel for each other it doesn't compare to the feelings I have for you." He exhaled through his nose, his hands gripping my knees. "Do you understand me? It doesn't even come close." A tiny gasp slipped past my lips. My brow scrunched together in time with his. "I know I have failed you miserably. In more ways than I can count. But my feelings for you have never changed. And no matter what happens here, no matter what you decide, Bella, you need to understand that they never will. I will say I love you because there is no other way to say it. But the truth is the word 'love' is nowhere near big enough to hold the magnitude of my devotion." I felt a tear crest in my eye and spill onto my cheek. It traveled down my face, dripping onto his hand with a soft splat. He looked down quickly before cupping my face and thumbing the wet trail away. "Then why-?" I started, but couldn't finish. It should have made me happy. He was saying the words I had always dreamed he would say. But my mind was spinning, reliving in short snippets the agony I had suffered after Edward left. The pain I'd inflicted on the people who loved me. I had hurt them all so much. For what? It was such a tragic waste. "So you lied." I said flatly. "You said I wasn't good for you. You said you didn't want me. You were lying." His eyes widened at my verbatim recall of our six-year-old conversation. Of course, he couldn't have known that those words had played in an endless loop in my brain every night for years. He sank back on his heels before climbing onto the bed next to me. "Yes, Bella. I lied. I thought it was the only way you'd let yourself move on. I knew it was too late for me I could never stop loving you. But I wanted you to have a chance at a happy life without me. To stay human. Stay safe. To have . . . normal human experiences." "That's not good enough," I said, shaking my head. "I need more than that. You say that you love me. But you left me. You didn't even give me a choice. You didn't even stop to think about what I wanted. If you had, you would have realized that I didn't want a normal life, Edward. I wanted you." He nodded. "I know that now, Bel-" I cut him off. "And so now you're back, and you're telling me that you love me again. Or still. Or whatever. The point is that I hear the words that you're saying, but I can't reconcile them with what you did to me. How you could love me and just . . . abandon me like that?" His thumb moved to my wrist, tracing the crescent-shaped scar that resided there. "I thought, by leaving, I was doing what was best for you. I thought I was protecting you." I yanked my wrist from his grasp. He looked up, startled. "You left to protect me," I repeated. "Yes." "Protect me?" I asked again, skeptical, a bitter intonation creeping into my voice.

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He nodded again. My pulse began to quicken and his eyes darted to my neck. It was laughable. Unbelievable. I stood then and looked down at him. My eyes pricked with angry tears. "You left to protect me?" I screamed, half sobbing now. "Who the fuck do you think you are, Edward?" "Bell-" "Shut the fuck up!" I cried. "Do you think my life has been better since you left? Easier? Safer?" "No," he muttered. "That was my hope, but " "Let me tell you," I stepped closer to the bed and stood hovering over him, my hands on my hips. The words spilled from my lips quickly now, as if they had been teetering on the edge of my tongue, waiting for permission to be released. "After you abandoned me in the woods, I chased you. Did you know that? I fucking chased you. For hours." I flattened my hand against my chest. "I ran through the woods for hours after a fucking vampire. Why would I do that? You want to know why?" He looked at me, his eyes pained but expectant. "Because the moment you left me, I lost my goddamn mind." He winced and I felt a tinge of perverse satisfaction; the tinge propelled me on. "Even after Sam Uley delivered me, unconscious, back to Charlie, I stopped eating, stopped talking, stopped leaving the fucking house. You know all those fun things you're supposed to do when you're a senior in high school? Parties? College tours? Prom? I didn't do any of them. So much for normal human experiences," I sneered. "And what's worse is -" I paused and looked up at the ceiling, feeling the familiar sting in my eyes. "I hated Forks after you left. Everything here reminded me of you. I couldn't wait to get the hell out of town and never come back. "I've been home four times in six years, Edward. And Charlie -" I choked, shaking my head. "And now he's gone." Despite my attempt at composure, a meek whimper escaped my lips. Edward's brow was furrowed, his face creased in pain. But still he sat, listening. Hearing. "Do you know what I was doing when Laurent found me?" He cleared his throat slightly before speaking. "Looking for our meadow." "Do you know why I was looking for our meadow?" My lip quivered with the effort of staving off my tears. "To remember. To feel close to me." I snorted. "You could say that. You could also say that I was wandering alone in supposedly bearinfested woods in the hopes that my damaged mind would conjure up another hallucination. Of you." His eyes flashed to mine then, a puzzled look on his face. "What?"

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"I used to . . . imagine you," I said. "I would hear you. But only when I was in danger. So I started to . . ." " . . . You started to seek out danger?" he asked, bewildered. "Yes." I recalled how addicted I'd become to the sound - the feeling - of Edward's voice. "I figured it out one night in Port Angeles. I saw a group of guys that reminded me of -" His nostrils flared as he gripped the bedsheet. I waved my hand dismissively. "It wasn't them. But I heard you. Telling me to back away. After that, I grew bolder, needing more danger each time before you would come to me." His jaw twitched but his gaze was otherwise flat. "I started small. Riding motorcycles with Jake." A small growl rumbled in his throat. I ignored it. "It wasn't until I nearly drowned after jumping off the First Beach cliffs that I finally realized it wasn't fair to Jake, wasn't fair to Charlie to continue risking my life for a few fleeting seconds of peace." He shoved his fists in his eye sockets as if to blot out an image that offended him. Standing, he turned his back to me and paced to the other side of the room. He braced his forearms on the closet door, resting his forehead for a long moment. When he turned to face me, his body shook slightly as he spoke through gritted teeth. "Bella, it was the only thing I asked. The one thing I needed." His voice faltered and he sucked in a breath before continuing. "You promised me you wouldn't do anything reckless." His fists were balled tight at his sides. My whole face flamed hot as I registered his accusal. "And you promised me it would be as if you never existed!" I cried, incensed. "But if you had never existed, I would never have known what I was missing, damn you! I would never have known! If you had never existed, I could have embraced a normal life. I could have had a normal relationship without hurting good men who tried to love me. I could have enjoyed sex without wondering - without constantly, obsessively wondering - what it would have felt like if it had been your hands touching me, your mouth kissing me . . . your cock filling me-" I broke off, overcome by my emotions. Edward came to me, clasped his hands on either side of my face and brought his lips to my eyes. Murmuring my name, he kissed my matted lashes as I sniffled and shook. He swept his lips down my tear-stained cheeks, sponging away the trails of tears before claiming my mouth with his own. My wracking sobs morphed into needy moans as I fisted my hands in his hair and pressed against him. I wanted so badly to lose myself again in his touch; I wanted to push him backward to the bed and let him show me everything I had been missing. Instead, I balled my fists and pushed hard on his chest. He pulled away instantly, his eyes deep and searching. "Oh God, Bella," he croaked. "Words will never be enough. I would do anything - give anything - to undo what I've done. I foolishly believed that, by leaving, I was doing the most selfless thing. The right thing. I realize now I was so horribly wrong. If I live a thousand years I will never forgive myself for driving you to risk your life to simply hear my voice."

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I looked down, studying the faint pinstripe in my shirt. "I don't dream," he continued, "but Laurent's face haunts my waking nightmares. My shame that I wasn't the one who tore him limb-from-limb is eclipsed only by my regret for leaving you." "But you did kill Victoria," I said simply, tugging at the cuff of my sleeve. A look of surprise flitted through his eyes before he nodded once. "Jacob told you." I raised my eyebrows. "No . . . Alice told me. Jake knows it was you?" He was quiet. "Edward. How does Jake know it was you?" He swallowed once and the tendons in his neck flexed. "Because he saw me." "He saw you?" "Yes, Bella. He saw me," he sighed. "After I saw Victoria's plans for you in Alice's mind, I had to kill her. I was too late to catch Laurent, but the wolves, as you know, took care of him. I caught up with her about fifty miles from here. After I -" his teeth snapped shut and his jaw muscles clenched briefly, "finished her off . . . Jacob showed up. As a wolf." I shuffled backward, bracing myself against the wall. "He knew," I muttered to myself. "All along. He knew." Edward nodded. "He couldn't speak of course, but I could read his thoughts. We came to an understanding." "An understanding?" I seethed. He inhaled before continuing in a resigned tone. "Yes. That he would take credit for the kill. That he wouldn't tell you about me. I told him I didn't want you to know." His lips curled into a sneer. "He was only too happy to oblige." I clapped a hand over my mouth as my eyes flew wide. My mind was reeling, equal parts enraged and anguished. "You came to an understanding? That you would lie to me? You conspired with my best friend to keep me in the dark about the most important thing in my life? And you claim that you love me?" I paced around the room, clawing at my scalp. "How could you possibly love me? How could you possibly love someone you obviously don't respect?" "No, Bella, it's not that" "I'm not a goddamn child!" I raged at him. "I had a right to know! I deserved to know! And now you've- you've ruined the one good relationship in my life. The one friend I thought would never lie to me. You made him. You - you don't love me. You don't know what love is." Spent from the effort of my outrage, I crumpled to the floor, heaving and shaking. He knelt down next to me, placing his hands on my knees. "It was a mistake, Bella. A horrible, tragic mistake." His voice broke as his hands kneaded my knees. "One I will never let myself forgive. And it is incredibly hypocritical of me to ask you to do what I cannot, but I'm begging. Please. Please. Forgive me. I can't undo what I've done. But I want to spend the rest of our lives making it right. Making you . . . making you happy."

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I was hearing but not listening. His words lolled around in my head but couldn't seem to find purchase in my brain, or my heart. I sat in a ball on his floor and cried for several minutes before I felt his arms slip beneath me. As my body left the floor, my mind moved to a simpler time - recalling Edward's strong arms lifting me from the dank concrete outside of Forks High, carrying me to the school nurse. I would have given anything to go back to that time - to start over. He murmured into my hair as he carried me to the bathroom. "I'm sorry, Bella. So sorry." He set me on the edge of the tub as he wet a washcloth and moved to wipe my face. I snatched it from his hands, scrubbing my cheeks and eyes as I straightened up. I grabbed my clothes from the corner. Understanding, he left me alone, closing the door behind him with a click. He was waiting for me on the edge of the bed when I emerged. "Take me home," I said. "I want to go home." ~X~ We rode to my house in silence. I leaned my head against the window and watched the green whiz by. When his scent filled the car, I rolled the window down. We pulled into the driveway and he flitted to open my door before I could protest. "Bella, I-" He was interrupted by the creak of the front door swinging open. A familiar figure sprinted toward the car. "Bella?" Thomas' voice was panicked. Oh, God. This couldn't be happening. Thomas ran to me and lifted me off of the ground in a tight hug. "I was so worried about you, baby. Jake figured you'd gone out for a run . . ." "What- what are you doing here?" I asked, confused. "I was so worried when I didn't hear from you, I just booked my ticket yesterday. I tried calling you to tell you I was coming but you didn't answer. Jake picked me up from the airport - gave me a key." I realized then that my cell phone was still sitting on my desk, the battery no doubt long dead. As Thomas set me back on my feet, he seemed to be noticing Edward for the first time. "Who's, ah . . . who's this?" he asked, politely, forcing a tight smile as he circled my waist in a possessive embrace. "Oh, um, Sweetie, this is Edward Cullen," I stammered. "He's a classmate from high school. He was my . . . lab partner."

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Chapter 17 EPOV Her lab partner? Her fucking lab partner? If it hadn't been so absurd, I may have laughed. Christ, I would have rather her introduced me as a vampire who sparkled in the sunlight than as her lab partner. At least then, her description would have implied that she really knew me. That we had a relationship that extended beyond the cinderblock walls of a biology classroom. But no. She made no attempt to elaborate or clarify. I was, for purposes of this conversation, a casual acquaintance. Shocked and shameless, I gaped at her. For once not desperate to read her mind, I would have given anything for her to have been able to read mine. No matter where we were headed, how dare she deny what we had been. "Ahem." He cleared his throat. I reluctantly lifted my eyes from Bella and studied my rival. She could do better, obviously. But even I had to admit that, for a human, he was a formidable specimen: Tall. Handsome. Fit. He was the type of man that women fawned over and fantasized about at the expense of their lovers, their boyfriends, their husbands. The type of man who occupied the minds of the women around him. Unless, of course, I was there. He was older than I had realized at the restaurant in New York, when I was too intoxicated by Bella's presence and too distracted by my jealousy to pay him any real mind. Now, as I looked him over, scrutinizing every detail, I decided with satisfaction that he had the faint look of a man on the cusp of a mid-life crisis. Hanging onto his youth by a frayed thread, the fibers of which were comprised of his scuffed sneakers, his five o'clock shadow, and the beautiful woman at his side. As he met my gaze, his thoughts teetered between confusion and suspicion. He wasn't intimidated. Not yet. I would change that. Resolved to be cordial, he held his hand out for me to shake. "I'm Thomas. Bella's lesser half," he joked. I didn't laugh. Instead, I met his handshake and felt him flinch the moment he registered the temperature of my fingers. Tightening my grip, I narrowed my eyes and set my jaw. It was my attempt at civilized behavior - an understated warning that, if he knew what was good for him, he wouldn't fuck with me. He understood. "Lab partners, eh?" He forced a tight smile, doing his best to disguise the anxiety in his voice. Hoping that he wouldn't have to ask Bella why a strange man had driven her home in the middle of the morning. Why her hair hung in a tangled mess and the cuff of what appeared to be a men's dress shirt peeked out of her oversized purse. "Biology," she said, her voice flat. She fidgeted in his embrace as he glanced from me to her, and then to me again. He pulled her closer and nudged the back of her knee with his, politely demanding more of an explanation.

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She was quiet. The unease, the worry, that had heated his belly from the moment he flung open the front door was now beginning to simmer. He flipped through the catalogue of thoughts he'd stored about Bella's past in an attempt to discern whether she'd ever mentioned me. The stories she'd shared of Forks were filled with Charlie, and of Jacob. He was certain she'd never mentioned an Edward. He mulled over her omission and tried to convince himself it was of no consequence: I'm sure he's a nobody who's just trying to cash in on her fame. She's always been too nice for her own good. She probably just felt bad for him and agreed to go out for coffee or something. But he knew better. Discomfort scratched at his skin, and mistrust gnawed at his gut. She was evading him. He sensed the dishonesty in her avoidance of his eyes. In the cringe of her flesh as he palmed the small of her back. Brow furrowed, he looked at me, purposefully hardening his gaze. He sized me up: Unkempt hair. Pale skin. Lanky build. Expensive clothes. He noted vaguely that I looked a bit young for twenty-four, before reminding himself that he had the same thought about all of Bella's friends. Though Bella had never mentioned me, my appearance was vaguely familiar. Definitely threatening. "So, what brought on this little lab partner reunion?" he asked, his voice strained. Bella looked directly at me as she answered him. "Jake saw Edward at Charlie's memorial service. Edward and his brother were there, but we didn't have a chance to speak," she explained, cocking her eyebrow at me in an unspoken challenge. So the dog had told her we were at the memorial. Not that I was surprised. "So Edward offered to pick me up for breakfast this morning," she continued, looking down at her feet. "He, ah, he had eggs. I had waffles. And, well, anyway, we were just catching up. About biology." Now Thomas and I were both staring slackjawed at her. Jesus, she was a godawful liar. Needless to say her attempts to smooth things over weren't working. If anything, he was becoming more anxious. More hostile. "I'm glad you two had the chance to catch up," he said. Ever the gentleman, his words remained cordial while his thoughts screamed his insecurities and insults. You're nothing to her, you conceited prick. She's never even so much as said your name. I burned to correct him, to let him know that I was once her everything. To reveal that my name invaded her thoughts as she touched herself, her fingers slick with memories of me. That my name filled her mind, constantly, obsessively, as she lay with him. And that my name had erupted from her screaming lips just hours ago, her legs spread wide as I took her into my mouth. "Yes, it was wonderful. You're a very lucky man," I added. He seethed. That's right, you sonofabitch. She's mine. And don't you forget it, or I'll rip you limb from limb. I suppressed a laugh at the absurdity of this image and caught Bella's icy glare out of the corner of my eye. I suppose he had every right to be angry. After all, she was his girlfriend . . . for now. This realization, vile as it was, bolstered my self-control as ridiculous fantasies of causing me physical harm flooded his ignorant mind. My body trembled and twitched, literally itching to crouch in a defensive posture.

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"Oh, believe me. I know," he finally agreed, slowly nodding his head. "Bella's made me very happy," he smirked. In his attempt at self-assurance, his mind scanned through images of Bella in various states of undress, in various positions each one more lewd than the rest. Bella dripping wet, his clumsy fingers untying the straps of her blue bikini. I pinched the bridge of my nose and squeezed my eyes shut for a beat, attempting in vain to block the image of his hands on her. Bella laying on a cluttered desk, her skirt hiked up to reveal white cotton panties. A low growl rose from my gut and mixed with the venom flooding my mouth. The pathetic result was something between a moan and a whimper that I attempted to cover by coughing. Bella naked on her knees, her full lips wrapped around "Me too," I blurted, unable to take any more of his vulgar thoughts. Any hope I'd had of treating him with civility had dissipated. I wanted to slap that smug grin off his face. I wanted to fucking kill him. I'd have to settle for watching him squirm. I didn't need to read Bella's mind to know that she was silently, desperately pleading for me to shut the hell up. I saw her pupils dilate until they nearly eclipsed the soft brown of her eyes. Smelled the sweat bead at the nape of her neck. Heard her heart pump faster and faster until its deafening roar filled my ears. He was similarly stunned, his expression and mind both blank as he struggled to process the implication of my words. I shoved my hands in my pockets and rocked back and forth on my heels, unwilling to elaborate until he felt the twinge of panic, the nag of betrayal. I saw the color drain from his face as understanding set in. I heard the accusations and insults he couldn't muster the courage to spew. "You too?" he repeated dumbly. "Absolutely," I nodded, feeling my lips turn slightly upward. Who's the smug one now, you son of a bitch? He silently sputtered and stammered, dumbfounded that his noble attempt to console his grieving girlfriend had spiraled into such a catastrophe. He couldn't believe that, rather than welcoming him with open arms, she stood there silent and watched him flounder. His discomfort was so complete that I almost felt sorry for the poor bastard. Almost. "I guess I'm not sure what you mean," he finally confessed, his curiosity compelling him to inquire. "Well, it was obviously a long time ago for you," I said pointedly, "but I always considered high school to be the worst form of torture. Purgatory, really. It was just so monotonous. So mindless. So mundane." "Uh-huh," he nodded, his eyes expectant. Get to the point, asshole. "And then, well, Bella came along, and with her, a breath of fresh air. She was smart. Beautiful. Different. She made me realize that high school wasn't a complete waste of my time. That there's something to be said for living in the moment. That watching the ticking clock is no way to live. She made me feel . . . alive."

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Bella scoffed. "Ignore him, Thomas," she muttered, waving her hand. "Edward's always had a flare for the dramatic." "So, what are you doing now, Edward? Still hanging around Forks?" he asked, intending the words every bit as condescending as they sounded. His smooth veneer was wearing thin. "Medical school. Dartmouth," I answered easily. "Shouldn't you be there now?" he blurted. Fuck. Keep your cool, man. "My sister told me about Chief Swan's passing, and I flew in to pay my respects," I answered. "I owe him a lot." Flew in? Owes him a lot? Who is this fucking kid? He coiled his arm tight around her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Well, as you can imagine," he said, brushing his lips over her hair, "I feel the same way." "Oh, yes, I can imagine," I agreed. "I'm surprised you didn't make it for the funeral." "Thomas was - he was working," Bella interrupted, defensive. "It was opening night of his play." The three of us stood in the driveway, with our hands shoved in our respective pockets. Thomas made no sound, preoccupied with the snapshots that plagued his mind. They were not images of her, or me, but rather words on a page. Copper hair. Ochre eyes. Pale skin. Biology lab. He might not know what I was, but he was beginning to suspect who I was. The inspiration for Bella's love story. The Luke to her Claire. Mission accomplished. "Well, Thomas, it was nice to meet you," I lied. I reached to shake his hand, and he squeezed my knuckles with what I assume was all his might. "And Bella," I sighed. Her eyes finally left the crack in the driveway to meet mine. I held my arms out and tilted my head, offering a smile than went unreturned. She approached me reluctantly, and I pulled her in for a tight embrace. His thoughts screamed for me to let her go, for her to let me go, but I didn't care. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, pulling in her essence and relishing the tickle of her silky hair on my cheek. She was rigid in my arms, yet her pulse quickened in surprise when I brushed my lips against her ear. I lingered for a moment, waiting for the flavor of her involuntary desire to float reassuringly into the air. There. "I love you," I whispered, softly enough so that only she could hear. "And I'm not going anywhere." ~X~ Somehow, mercifully, I had managed to keep my cool for the five tortuous minutes in which I was forced to be cordial to her boyfriend. But once out of their sight, a jealous rage began to burn slowly, excrutiatingly through my body. It began in my feet and creeped upward, singeing every inch of my legs, my torso, my arms, my fists.

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By the time I reached the car, I had to wipe away the venom leaking from my mouth with the back of my hand. I peeled out of the driveway and gripped the steering wheel of Jasper's G-Class so tightly that the stitching on the leather seams began to pull apart. I spared a glance in the rearview mirror and spotted him shepherding her back into the house, his hand playing at her neck. The familiar gesture served to further my rage, and I cranked up the radio full blast. You had your chance you blew it Out of sight, out of mind The grating voice of some shrill pop-star sent me over the edge. I drove my fist into the console, intending to silence the radio but smashing a gaping hole into the display. "Fuck" I yelled to no one but myself and punched it again, reducing the radio to an ugly gash. Alice was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs when I entered the house. Jasper was standing in front of her, angled in a slightly protective stance. Calm down, man, he thought. "Oh what, you think I'm going to hurt her?" I sneered, and Alice touched his arm lightly, signaling for him to step away. When he'd moved, I stood towering over her, my hands itching to grip the lapels of her jacket and bring her forcibly to my eye level. "I don't think we have to worry about me hurting you, do we?" She eyed me defiantly. "It's not my job to spare your feelings." "Oh, that's right. You're so noble with your gift, right? You couldn't have at least told me? So I could have been fucking prepared?" I railed at her and felt my temper start to cool involuntarily. "Knock it off, J," I ordered, shooting him a sideways glance. "It's alright baby," Alice chimed, "I can handle this." Jasper shot me a warning look as he headed upstairs. "This isn't a bad development," she said matter-of-factly, giving me her infuriating know-it-all look. "The hell it isn't, Alice," I seethed. "You're lucky I didn't tear his fucking arms off right in front of her. Because I can tell you it wouldn't be plaguing my conscience." "Stop being so melodramatic," she dismissed. "You didn't hurt him. And you wouldn't have." I cocked an eyebrow at her. That was different, she glared back. "Was it?" I asked, "You couldn't have known what I would decide to do when I saw him. When I saw what he was thinking..." "Yes, but I know you. You're different when you have-" "-when I have Bella? Because I don't fucking have Bella! Thomas," I spat, "has Bella. Thomas just pawed all over her right in front of me. Of course you already know all about that, don't you? And for all I know, he's in bed with her as we speak."

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"He's not. Edward, look at me. He's not." Her words were like a soothing balm, instantly calming. "And I was going to say hope. You're different when you have hope." I puffed out a breath between gritted teeth, not sure how to respond. "Did you or did you not make a decision when you were talking to Carlisle on your way back from the Cascades yesterday?" she prodded. "Did you or did you not decide to fight for her?" I didn't answer her rhetorical question. "Well then," she said, resuming her matter-of-fact tone. "I decided not to tell you." "You didn't think I at least deserved the courtesy of a warning?" "Why should you? Did Thomas have any warning of your presence? And shouldn't he be just as threatened, if not more?" "Fuck, yes, he should feel threatened!" I yelled. "I'm the one she spent the night in bed with for Christ's sake!" Alice's mouth settled into a self-satisfied grin. "Well, it wouldn't be a fight without a little competition, would it? Look, if I had told you Thomas was coming - that he would be at Bella's house - would you have gone?" "Of course not," I scoffed. "I would have asked you to take her home. I don't typically seek out homicidal scenarios." "Exactly. And if you hadn't taken her home, he wouldn't have seen you. You know, Edward, every once in a while I do think of your best interest." I started to protest again, but there was no use arguing with her. Our fight, as usual, flamed and fizzled as I realized the futility of the exercise. I knew her well enough to understand she firmly believed the ends justified the means. If she thought Thomas knowing about me was in my best interest, well, then, I would just have to trust her. I dismissed myself with a headshake and an exasperated sigh and retreated to my room to place a call. Carlisle picked up on the first ring. "Son," he answered, and his standard greeting immediately grounded me. I told him everything: finding Bella in the bed. Our night together. The crucifix. The fight. Thomas. He listened attentively, asking questions where he wanted more detail, but not prying when I was intentionally vague about private moments. When I had finished, thoroughly exhausted and emotionally spent from recapping all that had transpired, he spoke. "She still loves you." "What? Carlisle, have you been listening? She has a tattoo of a crucifix! She all but admitted using me for nothing more than sexual gratification. She told her boyfriend I was her lab partner." "I'm sure from your vantage point those things all seem to undermine the notion that Bella still loves you. But you're not the only one of us who knows her, Edward." "Well, whatever," I muttered. "You didn't see her this morning. You didn't hear her. Of course she had every right to treat me the way she did. I left her. No warning. No explanation. And with that - on top

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of everything else - I just . . ." I stopped mid-sentence, my stomach too shredded to state the obvious. "Everything else," Carlisle quietly repeated, the disappointment so evident in his tone that I could almost see him hanging his head. "You know what I mean. We don't need to rehash this," I muttered. He'd let me off the hook on this subject recently. Tonight he decided to push back. "Edward, you already know I disagree with your view of us - of yourself. The only one who ever had a problem with what - with who you are - is you. Bella welcomed you, and all of us, for that matter, into her life without an ounce of fear or reservation." Carlisle's tone was as stern as it ever got. "Yet you've always filtered everything - even the best things in your life - through a skewed lens. You've never believed yourself to be deserving. But you, Edward, are good. And you deserve to be happy." I let him finish but sighed in silent exasperation. I truly did not want to have this conversation yet again. After one particularly bad spell, Carlisle had pleaded with me to devote some time to seeking out these answers for myself. At his insistence, I had spent countless hours over the past several years poring over religious texts, historical books, mythological anthologies, in search of some glimmer of hope. Some sign that there was more to this existence than an eternity as an undead parasite. I found none. After a long pause, during which he was apparently waiting for me to speak, Carlisle resumed. "Look, son, I know you remain convinced that you have lost your soul. I also know that, in spite of this, you've come to realize you and Bella belong together. I'm not trying to debate the former point with you again. I'm just asking you to try for once to see yourself the way Bella sees you. To look at her actions not through your own skewed self-perception, but through her eyes." I shook my head though he couldn't see. "You know she's the one person I can't read, Carlisle. How do you expect me to do that exactly?" "But you can read her," he countered. "Hundreds of thousands of people in the world already have. In thirteen languages. They've read her version of your story and yet you- you have not." Oh. "Edward. What exactly are you waiting for?" ~X~ The town of Forks had three bookstores. One was dedicated solely to travel guides of the Pacific Northwest and another was the Christian Science Reading Room. This left only one modest-sized purveyor of commercial fiction. I pulled into the parking lot and sat for a moment, concentrating on the flickers of ideas and sensory input traveling to me from the direction of the storefront. Satisfied I hadn't made the acquaintance of anyone inside, I strode to the front door and pushed it open. My entrance was announced by a chime, and each of the five people in the store immediately turned toward the sound. Holy sex on legs. Who is that? Ohmigod look at that fine piece of ass. Oh shit I think he just saw me look at his crotch. Shit. Shit. Shit.

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I smirked, for once enjoying the vulgar places the female mind went when I walked in a room. I loved Bella for her kindness, her warmth, for her deep and generous mind. But, though she was all those things, she was still human. She was still a woman. A passionate, sensual, sexual woman. Why should my effect on her be any different? But of course there were a hundred reasons why. And she had spat every one of them in my face this morning. It was impossible to miss the sizable display dedicated to promoting Bella's novel as I walked toward the Fiction section. Two of the store's three patrons were a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman thumbing through the pages and surreptitiously eyeing me as I approached. I sensed the racing of the blood in their veins as I drew near, the catch in their breathing as they attempted to feign nonchalance. O.M.G. he is coming over here! Thank God I put on lip gloss before leaving the house. Oh God, don't look at his crotch again. Pretend to read. Is he looking at me? I think he's looking at me. Is he laughing? I was still shaking my head slightly at their involuntary reactions when I was confronted with a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Bella herself. The figure stood beneath a banner reading "Forks' Own Isabella Swan". Even in two-dimensions, Bella was captivating. The figure was standing, ankles crossed and wrapped in strappy red shoes. One hand was poised on her hip, the other holding up a glossy red apple. Her eyes were trained on the fruit, and she wore a coy smile as if laughing inwardly at a private joke. I pondered the significance of her smirk for a moment before allowing my greedy eyes to scan the blood-red dress that clung wickedly to her every curve. My cock stiffened as I recalled skimming my fingers across her hot skin and feeling it fan into gooseflesh. I couldn't see into that vault of her mind, but I damn well knew that no man had ever made her fly the way she had last night. It wasn't surprise or shock on her face as she came down from her climax and gazed into my eyes. No, it was a look I had seen before. It was the same look she'd given me the night I'd confessed to her - the night she learned what I was. It was wonder. I snorted in smug satisfaction as I imagined Thomas walking in on us. I knew his jealousy could never rival the seething pulse of the venom secreted from my glands at the mere thought of him. Still, I took a perverse juvenile pride in imagining his stricken face, reading his mind as he wondered what the fuck I could have done to produce such a look. And I hadn't even taken off her panties. I may have had supernatural senses, but her panties had been so drenched with her lust that I was certain a human would have easily picked up on the scent. I sincerely hoped Thomas got a nice whiff. Downright giddy at that thought, I absently reached for a copy of Bella's novel, my eyes never leaving her cardboard form. My erection ached against the seam of my jeans as I imagined wiping that cheeky smirk from her face and smothering her lips with my mouth. In what was becoming a maddeningly common betrayal by my reflexes, I dropped the hardcover on the lacquer floor where it landed with a thwack. The now six pairs of eyes in the small bookshop all turned to me at once.

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I snatched the book from the floor and walked briskly to the cashier. ~X~ I tucked the book under my arm as I made my way inside the house. I ran straight to my bedroom and locked the door behind me, knowing Alice would see and respect the gesture. Pulling off my jacket, I retrieved the book and sat down on the bed. I stayed like this for a moment, rubbing my fingers along the contours of her name printed on the glossy black cover, tracing the outline of the creamy forearms and fingers which cradled the sinful fruit. My stomach fluttered in anticipation as I prepared to do what I had put off for so long. How many times had I desperately wished to know what she was thinking. And now, with the opportunity literally in the palm of my hands, I was terrified of what I would find. The bedsheets were still saturated with her. I stretched out, propping my legs up on the headboard, resting my head where the most potent of her scents lingered. I took in a deep breath, absorbing the echo of the delicious euphoria of her taste, and opened the book. On the first numbered page, just above the words: "Chapter One" was a quotation, set in elegant script: "A book is the only immortality." -Rufus Choate Edward Young I stared at the words until my eyes lost their focus and the ink blurred and swirled. Bella had referenced immortality hundreds of times before I left, and each time, I stubbornly refused to listen. Yet now, with the words plain on the page, I had no idea what she meant. I ached to ask her, promised to myself and the walls around me that I'd never discount her thoughts again, before I realized with a pang that I might not have such an opportunity. Resigned to that fact, I did the only thing I could do. I kept reading. The book opened with Bella's - or Claire's - move to Forks. I soaked up the words, seeing, for the first time, the world through her eyes. Her painful good-bye with her mother, her awkward reunion with her father, her discomfort at being the center of attention at a new school. She told of unwanted attention from the boys, unearned animosity from the girls. I rolled my eyes at her description of the lunchroom conversations, which captured the tedium of high school in perfect detail, and I felt my gut turn to ice upon realizing that her Claire was most likely headed to Biology class after lunch. Ignoring the burst of anxiety that bubbled within me, I plunged headfirst into our story.

The seat next to Luke Warden was the only one available. But as I approached the empty seat, his long, lean frame was craned as far away from me as possible. I sat down, and noticed that his hands were balled into punishing fists. Curiosity got the better of me and I lifted my head toward his. I gasped as his eyes met mine. They were black as pitch and filled with undeserved hostility. He registered my shock and his gaze seemed to soften ever so slightly before hardening once more. He looked away then, and we sat in uncomfortable silence, the air between us buzzing with an energy I tried in vain to ignore. Fifty minutes later, the bell rang. Luke Warden was out the door before I finished my final penstroke.

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My fists clenched again, and I felt sick as I remembered the nearly irresistible urge to lose control to give in, to just let myself have her. Her words on the page reminded me of the glimmer of shock that had registered on her face when she'd met my eyes. She'd never known it, but that small look had been her salvation. I knew in that moment that she feared the monster I had fought for decades to overcome. The monster Carlisle had constantly assured me I wasn't. With that, I had determined to abort my bloody plans to spare her life and the twenty others around us. And she had seen it. She had noticed the softening of my gaze as she shamed me with her hurt eyes. Even then as I was plotting to end her very life she had seen through the monster. Seen something else. A thought was running circles around my mind, but no matter how hard I chased it, it kept eluding me. I felt certain if I kept reading it would become clear. As if all of the answers I had ever needed were contained in this volume. I tore on through the pages, my mind shutting out each and every external stimulus. The tenderness with which Bella wrote Luke - wrote me - was striking. I grimaced, recalling through her pages the hot and cold way I had treated her during our first encounters. But even as I'd pushed her away, time and again warning her that I was not good for her, she was persistent in her refusal to believe. When I reached the scene of our first "date" - just before my dark confession - I stopped breathing as I took in her words:

At his insistence, I speared a forkful of ravioli and shoved it in my mouth. I chewed, untasting, trying to make sense of it all. The preternatural beauty. The mind reading. The impossible rescues. There was only one explanation. The Quileute legend was true. Luke was a vampire. I acknowledged it to myself as a fact and moved on before I swallowed the first bite. It's not that I wasn't curious. I was painfully curious about the silliest of things: sunlight, coffins, crucifixes. But the answers didn't matter. None of it mattered. I didn't care what he was. I just wanted him to be mine.

She had known. For all my mind-reading abilities, it was she who had read me all along. She was the first human in eighty years who had uncovered my secret. She may have had help from Jacob Black, but even that admission was born from her own cunning persistence to discover what she had always known I was hiding. And even though I had come to learn that Bella had accepted my nature, it was so much more than that. She wasn't merely resigned to it. She embraced it. My mind began its rampant circling again as I tried to understand why. Why had she so doggedly worked to get to the bottom of my inexcusable mood swings, my foul temper, my erratic behavior? Why had she been so drawn to me when others instinctively knew to keep a safe distance? Why of all people did Bella - the one human whose blood nearly caused me to give up more than seventy years of control for mere seconds of blinding euphoria - come to love me? I read on, greedily drinking in her words, clinging to the hope that they would provide me with the answers that had been evading me since the moment she entered my life.

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When I arrived at Chapter Thirteen - the day I had shown her the meadow - I drew in a deliberate breath through my nose, allowing the slight buzz of her lingering scent to fill my head as I dove into her mind yet again:

As I lay with him in the cool grass, I traced haphazard circles on his forearm, chasing the bursts of light that danced across his skin. His cool skin warmed beneath my fingertips, and he let out a soft sigh before leaning his head back and closing his eyes. I stared unabashedly then, drowning in the nectar that was Luke Warden. I wanted to climb into his lap and lay my cheek against his chest. I longed to caress the nape of his neck and feel the soft tickle of his hair as I massaged his scalp. I literally ached to let my hands roam over his flesh, to feel him in ways that made my stomach flip, my heart race, and my face flush. He opened his eyes and cocked an eyebrow at me, his lips curved into an adorable smirk. Embarrassed, I let my hair fall into my face. He sat up and reached for me, his fingers grazing my temple as he tucked my hair behind my ear. "Don't hide your face from me, Claire. Not ever," he whispered, his cool breath tickling my cheek and flooding my senses. I leaned toward him, feeling the icy burn of skin against skin for a fraction of a second before he propelled himself backward and landed against a tree with a deafening crack. My heart sank, and I squeezed my eyes shut to ward off any renegade tears. When I opened my eyes, he was sitting next to me again, the shame and heartbreak evident on his glorious face. "My fault," I insisted quietly. Wrapping my hand around his, I guided them both to my heart and felt my racing pulse instantly calm. I knew he would never believe my words, but I desperately hoped he would understand the meaning behind my gesture. I loved him. All of him.

I read the words over and over and over again: All of him. I closed my eyes and dropped my chin to my chest, reeling from the memory as seen through her eyes. I'd replayed our day in the meadow countless times. Yet even though the magnificence of that day outshone every other minute and hour of my long existence, my precise recollection now seemed incomplete. Each time I'd recounted it in the years since, I'd tried in vain to focus on her eyes and her fingers as they seared my marble skin, and the scent of her desire as it mixed with the wildflowers and wafted through the air. And each time, like a speck of dust on a camera lens marring an otherwise perfect picture, my mind flashed to the instant when I'd run away from her. I'd considered it one of the innumerable times I'd failed her, and failed myself. But when I'd laid myself bare for her, had fled her tender caress for fear of killing her, she loved me just the same. Chapter Fifteen began with the day I brought her to my house:

He led me by the arm away from his family and upstairs to his room. I hadn't been afraid of meeting the Wardens, certainly, but I hadn't expected to feel so welcomed, so relaxed, so settled. It felt like I'd known them for all their decades and centuries on this earth. It felt like home.

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As I lay on the couch in Luke's bedroom, my head resting in his lap, he told me the story of how his family came to be - piece by perfect piece. How Carlton's empathy for Grace led him to change her, and how they were so matched in empathy, in compassion, and in spirit. He described how Lily found Elliot, and how even at first glance, her love burned so bright that she pleaded with Carlton to save him. And how Celia searched desperately for Jackson, certain long before she found him that they were meant to be together. Luke didn't use the word, but I had no doubt. Each of the Wardens had found their soulmates. Carlton and Grace. Lily and Elliot. Celia and Jackson. Luke and me.

My concept of love had always been inextricably tied to the couples in my family. And once I found Bella, my notion of family became completely entwined with her. When I'd left her, I had no choice but to leave them. I wanted her back. I wanted them all back. And though our real life story had been fated to move beyond the happily ever after that seemed possible as I danced with her in the high school gym, her fictional account left us there, in the bliss of our ignorance:

I couldn't walk in high heels, much less dance in them. The satin sheath Celia had dressed me in kept falling off my right shoulder and clinging to the rise of my breast, and my cheeks flamed hot as I realized that everyone was staring at me. I hugged his chest tight to mine and buried my face in the crook of his neck. "Claire, love," he whispered into my ear. "What's wrong?" "Everyone is looking at me," I grumbled. "Of course they are," he agreed, his lips grazing the shell of my ear. "You're exquisite." "Well, thank you," I mumbled, "but I'm really nervous. This isn't my scene. I don't belong here." He pulled back and nudged my chin with his finger. "Look at me, darling." His eyes blazed a fiery gold, each fleck a spark of kindness, of love, and of desire. "I am here. And wherever I am is where you belong. Always. Forever." Forever.

It was the ending we should have had, but didn't. All the things I should have said, but wouldn't. I turned the last page and stared at the blank flap of the inside cover. I was stunned, my mind waterlogged with the weight of the memories, of her voice in my ears, and of a deeper truth I was still grasping to reach. Though I had lived it the first time, Bella's version of our life together was even more compelling than I remembered.

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I had always believed her incapable of matching the vast depth of my feelings. I realized now how horribly - how tragically - I had underestimated her. And that my apprehension, my insecurities, of sharing my ill-fated life with hers were mine and mine alone. I closed my eyes, reading the words again, seeing the printed text stamped against the insides of my lids. In the span of mere seconds, I experienced it all over again. It was like watching our love story play out on a reel, projected in my mind's eye. But though I knew the story - every line - by heart, I struggled to recognize the character she had cast me to play. I knew in my head that it was me. I knew I had said the words in her script. I remembered vividly every look, every touch ascribed to me. No, it wasn't the words or the events that were different. It was the perspective. Seeing myself through her eyes, I found no trace of the monster. I saw myself only as she saw me. As she had always seen me. I saw a man warring with a sinister, yet overwhelming thirst and coming out on the side of mercy, humanity. I saw a man sacrificing his own desire to connect physically with the woman he loved in order to ensure her safety. I saw a man capable of a pure, unconditional love for his mate, and worthy of the love she returned in equal measure. I saw a son, a brother, with a meaningful place in a kind and compassionate family. For the first time in eighty years, I saw me. And I saw us. I saw the happy ending we'd never realized. I saw the way things should have been, could have been. I saw that I had been capable of making her happy, if I had only ignored my own self-doubt and listened to her instead. If I had only seen myself then as I saw myself in this moment. I opened my eyes and gazed at the shiny book cover. The arms. The apple. As I strained to pinpoint the nagging subtext I knew I was only just missing, an image from this afternoon inexplicably arrived at the forefront of the memories swirling in my head. It was the figure of Bella from the bookstore, her teasing eyes trained on the same jewel-red apple that adorned the cover of the book in my hands. The symbolism was obvious. The apple was me - the forbidden fruit. To eat was to risk damnation. But her eyes, her words, said something else entirely. Her eyes mocked my insistence that I was bad for her. Her words told the unvarnished, unmitigated truth: I was good for her. I was good. I stumbled to the leather couch and sat down as the realization took hold. I rested my head in my hands, a wave of indescribable peace settling deep into my limbs. In the span of a few short hours, reading the story of our love, watching myself through the prism of her benevolent mind, I understood what no ancient text or spiritual guide had ever been able to teach me. I had finally discovered what Bella had always known. I had found what I had been searching for, for more than eighty years. My soul.

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Chapter 18 BPOV Thomas's hand rested on the back of my neck, his hot, sweaty fingers weaving through my hair as Edward's tires screeched out of the driveway. He guided me into the house and stopped abruptly when I threw my purse on the entryway table, the sleeve of Edward's shirt spilling over the side. Shit. "Look, Thomas, I -" "Not now, Bella," he interrupted, his tone curt. His hands found my shoulders and began to massage them, kneading the knots that had long inhabited their space. "I'm here because you lost your father," he said softly. "And I'm worried about you." "I know, but I - " "Shhhh," he soothed. He pressed his thumbs hard into my back, and I sank into him, my tightly coiled muscles responding to his expert touch. "You can explain later," he whispered, his breath hot in my ear. "Just relax." I nodded and tucked my chin to my chest, letting his fingers roam upward to my neck and scalp. After a few minutes, he led me wordlessly to the kitchen, where I flopped down on a chair and rested my head on the table. He stood behind me, his strong hands traveling up and down the length of my spine, lulling me into a state of peaceful relaxation I wouldn't have thought possible given the last few days. The grief, the confusion, the anxiety that had commandeered my body evaporated, and for a few moments, I forgot it all. The loss of Charlie. The return of Edward. The arrival of Thomas. I was completely, fantastically, numb. And then he ruined it by talking, his otherwise harmless observation bursting the bubble of my momentary bliss. "You're tense, baby," he said. I jumped from my chair and spun around to face him, my cheeks blazing with embarrassment and misplaced rage. "I just lost my father, Thomas. Of course I'm tense," I snapped. He winced as if I'd slapped him in the face and then wrapped me in a tight embrace. "I'm sorry, Bella," he mumbled. "That wasn't meant to be insensitive. I just - I want to help you feel better." God, I was such a bitch. "No, it's my fault," I croaked. "I'm sorry. Life's just hard right now, you know?" "I know, baby. I know." We settled into Charlie's modest living room, and I curled up in the recliner. I was certain both of us were thinking about the painfully uncomfortable encounter in the driveway, but thankfully Thomas seemed to sense that I needed some space. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, letting the din of the television fill the silence between us. As soon as my lids closed, Edward filled my mind. In all the time I had known him, he had been the picture of dispassion, of perfect self-control. But I couldn't deny the thrill that had shot through me at Edward's obvious inability to hide his jealousy. In the mere twenty-four hours since his abrupt re-

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emergence in my life, Edward had shown a side of himself I never knew existed. A side I had never been able to see from my vantage point beneath the pedestal I'd placed him on. Still, jealousy was one thing. Love was quite another. I peeked my eyes open and sighed as I looked at Thomas, dozing on Charlie's tattered couch. Part of me was furious with him for showing up unannounced, but a bigger part of me was feeling guilty for all of the ways I had failed him. I knew he loved me, in spite of my inability to return the sentiment. I knew he was waiting, trusting that I just needed time. But now I was certain time would never be enough. For Edward's return had confirmed my deepest fears. I was still capable of love. Of earth-shattering, bone-crushing, all-consuming love. And I would never love anyone else. ~X~ An hour or so later, Thomas asked if I was hungry. I realized then that, despite my lie about waffles, I hadn't eaten anything since last night at the bar. Charlie's fridge was practically bare, thanks to my fruitless trip to the A&P. And my truck was still at the bar. "Dammit, Thomas, I went out with Jake last night and got a ride home. We're kind of stranded here right now." "Bella, Jake picked me up in your truck. Didn't you see it in the driveway?" My ire with Jake escalated as I learned more about his complicity in orchestrating this surprise reunion. "Oh, no, I guess I wasn't paying attention." I definitely hadn't been paying any attention to the driveway. "Yeah, he said something about wanting to jog home. How far is it to the reservation, anyway?" "Oh, gosh, I don't know. But Jake's a really good runner," I rushed. I didn't want to talk about Jake God knows I wasn't ready to face him after learning of his lies - but I knew Thomas would find it strange if I didn't suggest we all hang out during his visit. "Really?" he exclaimed. "I'd love for him to show us some good trails." "Actually . . . sweetie?" I asked, suddenly sheepish. "Hmm?" "I've been spending a lot of time with Jake since coming home and he's been a huge help, but I think I need a little break, you know?" Thomas's look was concerned but not questioning. "Okay, baby, of course. Whatever you need, we'll do, okay? If you want to hole up and watch chick flicks every night, we'll do it." I smiled gratefully at his easy acceptance, the now-familiar pang of guilt for my expanding web of lies ringing in my chest. As we headed off to the grocery store to stock the house, conversation resumed its surface-level cadence. It wasn't until later that evening when we were standing side-by-side chopping vegetables for dinner that Thomas brought up the subject of Edward.

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"Bella." I knew by the tone of his voice what was coming. "Yeah?" I kept my eyes trained on the carrot I was vigorously slicing. "Edward was more than your lab partner, wasn't he?" I sighed. Thomas wasn't stupid. I dropped the knife and turned to face him. "Yes." "Is he an old boyfriend?" I opened my mouth, but before I could form an answer, Thomas continued. "It's okay if he is. I don't care that you went to breakfast with him, baby. But I know you are a peoplepleaser, and I just think you need to know that boy is obviously in love with you." I swallowed hard in an attempt to stifle the whimper that formed in my gut. "Um, yeah. I mean, no. I mean, he used to be." I shook my head as I spoke. "I think he wishes we could rekindle our high school romance, but he doesn't love me." Thomas came around behind me and surrounded me with his warm arms. Pressing my stomach lightly against the counter, he swept my hair away from my neck and kissed his way up to my ear. "Whatever you say, baby. But he was looking at me like he wanted to kill me." Thomas chuckled lightly. "Not that I can blame him. I mean, look at you. He must be kicking himself every day for letting you get away." I felt his erection pressing against my backside. "Shit!" I cried, instinctively sucking on my ring finger. "I cut myself." Thomas grabbed my hand and put pressure on the wound, taking care to keep the blood out of my line of sight. He busied himself with finding first aid supplies, and as suddenly as it had begun, our talk of Edward was forgotten. As he worked, dressing my cut, I was reminded of that night on my eighteenth birthday, talking to Carlisle as he gracefully threaded the stitches through my arm. We'd talked of Edward's fears for me for my soul. My eyes stung in anger as I again considered his stubborn arrogance and all it had cost us. If I had cut myself in Edward's presence, would he run away again, believing he knew what was best for me? Would he be able to stop himself? I knew Thomas would never be able to give me the fairytale, but he wouldn't destroy me either. "You alright, Bella? You look a little pale." Thomas's voice brought me back to the present. "Oh, yeah, I'm fine now." I smiled, holding up my bandaged finger. "I just hate blood." ~X~ I was exhausted from the events of last night and today and utterly unprepared to deal with issues like sleeping arrangements. Charlie's bed was not an option, and though Edward had spent countless nights curled around me in my twin bed, the thought of sharing the same bed with Thomas made my insides turn. In the end, Thomas agreed he'd be more comfortable on the floor. Luckily, Charlie had an old air mattress and some blankets stashed in the hall closet, waiting for guests who had never come. I told Thomas I'd forgotten my birth control pills, a lie that seemed insignificant compared to all the others. But he'd offered to help me relax in other ways, sliding his hand between my legs as he'd bent down to kiss me goodnight. He didn't act hurt or angry when I'd admitted I wasn't in the mood, seeming to attribute my need for space to grief. He didn't even question me, merely raising a confused eyebrow when I'd insisted we sleep with the window open, despite the early fall chill.

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Long after Thomas had fallen asleep I lay awake, listening to the low moan of the wind moving through the trees. Suddenly I was seventeen again, wondering whether Edward was out there in the shadows, listening. After nearly an hour of trying in vain to distract myself with thoughts of the latest book I'd read or movie I'd seen - anything other than Edward - I stopped resisting. Leaning quietly over the side of the mattress, I tugged on the sleeve of the dress shirt I had stashed under the bed. Closing my eyes, I buried my face in the soft cotton. Moving one hand lower, I replayed every moment of last night in my mind. Edward's hands beneath my shirt. Edward hard and rubbing against me. Edward's mouth between my legs. I finished quietly, careful not to rustle the covers as Thomas slept. Minutes later I fell asleep. ~X~ The next morning I was up with the sun - or what little of it made its way through the ever-present cloud-cover blanketing Forks. The steady rhythm of Thomas's even breathing told me without looking that he was still asleep. My eyes flickered to the window, the yellow curtains billowing in the slight breeze. I tiptoed to the sill and poked my head outside, scanning the green. I don't know what I expected to see, but the yard looked exactly the same. The same as it looked every day of the September six years ago when I'd sat staring uselessly after him. When I turned back to face the room, I saw it. Sitting on my dresser was a single red apple. ~X~ The next two days passed in relatively comfortable companionship. Thomas was a saint, as usual helping me sort through Charlie's insurance information and legal documents, disposing of the wilted and depressing collection of flowers which had accumulated on the dining table, and fielding calls from my friends and business contacts in L.A. I ignored Jake's calls, surprised yet relieved that he hadn't taken it upon himself to show up at the house. I didn't know when I would be ready to face him again, but I sure as hell didn't want to do it with Thomas here. When I finally got around to returning my agent's messages, her annoyance with me was thinly veiled. Although I'd been avoiding her for nearly a week, it felt surprisingly good to fall back into the safety and predictability of work. We discussed resumption of the interrupted book tour and negotiations with several studios vying for the rights to turn "Dusk" into a feature film, topics about which everyone but me seemed to have strong opinions. The distractions of work and wrapping up Charlie's affairs were a welcome reprieve from the bigger and more daunting conversations and decisions I knew lay ahead. Thomas was only in town for three days, and I was at once anxious for him to leave and desperate for him to stay. His presence was easy and comfortable, a shield protecting me from dealing with my past. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore what I had always known. I was no good for him. I couldn't give him what he wanted - what he deserved. Each night, I lay awake until Thomas's breathing steadied, and then I crept to the window and placed my hands on the sill. I gazed at the lawn, the trees, the driveway, until exhaustion lured me back into bed. And each morning I awoke to a token, sitting where Edward knew I would find it. The day after the apple, he left a plastic bottlecap, the top worn beyond recognition as if worried for hours on end. Though I wracked my brain, I couldn't place the significance of the items. I wondered if the apple was

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a reference to my book. Perhaps he'd finally read it. The thought simultaneously thrilled me and made my insides turn. The bottlecap, however, stumped me thoroughly. But more than the tokens themselves, it was the knowledge that Edward had slipped into the room as we slept that made my belly flutter. I knew it was useless to attempt catching him in the act, but my eyes darted to the dresser first thing each morning upon waking. The morning of Thomas's last day in Forks, I tiptoed to my dresser as I'd done every day before. This time, I found a heavy linen envelope on which was written in Edward's unmistakable elegant script, simply, "Bella". My heart began to pound in my chest. I grabbed the envelope and padded downstairs to the kitchen. My leg bounced involuntarily under the table as I flipped the envelope over and over in my hands. The seam was sealed with red wax embossed with the Cullen family crest. I took a deep breath and broke the seal: Dearest Bella, It took me far too long. But I've read our story, and I see it now. When it comes to you, I am guilty of a hundred unforgivable crimes. But the greatest, I fear, was underestimating your love. In turn, I underestimated you. I underestimated us. I see it now. This life has made me a patient man, but the past three days have been the longest of my existence. Although I have long given up any right I may once have had to feel possessive of you, seeing you with him incites in me a nearly murderous rage. I'm not proud of my envy, but neither am I ashamed. I'm done hiding. I'm done shielding you from the parts of me that are dark, scary, perverse. Over the past few days, I have salvaged my sanity only by remembering our night in my bed. With every blink of my eyes, I see you, your back arching in pleasure at the feel of my mouth loving you. I have not hunted since that night because I can still taste you on my tongue, and I can't bear the thought of sullying the flavor. I can still feel you, your body hot and trembling beneath me. Bella, I had never felt so alive until that moment. Should you reject me, you must know that I never will again. I admit that I am shamelessly trying to steal you away from a man whose only crime was being smart enough to love you. I confess that I sit outside your room every night, needing to know - to see - that he isn't sharing your bed. I'm sorry for more than I could express in this simple letter, more than I could explain had I ten thousand pages to fill. I will do whatever it takes to prove to you that you are wrong - I do know what love is. It has just taken me awhile to accept that it is something I deserve. Leaving you was the worst mistake of my existence. But no matter what happens between us, I cannot bear for you to believe my misguided attempt at keeping you safe was an indication I didn't love you enough to stay. If anything, I loved you too much. I needed you too desperately. I was afraid. Pride is a luxury of less desperate men than I. Thus, I am not embarrassed to tell you I have coerced Alice into reassuring me that you have not yet made your choice. For now, it is enough to keep me going. Please, Bella. Choose me.

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I am never far. I love you. Edward. I read the letter again. And again. When Thomas's footsteps registered on the stairs, I folded the paper with a shaking hand and shoved it into a kitchen drawer. "Mornin' babe," he yawned, reaching for a coffee mug, oblivious to my stricken expression, my heaving chest. "Hi," I answered numbly, desperate to feign nonchalance. "So, listen, Bella. I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of making us dinner reservations in Port Angeles before my flight leaves tonight." My neck snapped up. "What?" He reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "Yeah, well, remember how you told me last weekend about Charlie wanting to take you out to that Italian place?" I thought for a moment. It was the last conversation I'd had with Charlie. I vaguely recalled joking with Thomas as we'd dined on lobster at Lutece about Charlie's plans to take me someplace fancy. It seemed a million years ago now. "Um, yes, right," I managed. "Well, it turns out there aren't very many fancy Italian restaurants in Port Angeles. But I hope I got the right one." My stomach dropped in my gut. "La Bella Italia?" I asked in a whisper. "Yeah, that's the one. I thought it would be a fitting way to honor Charlie's memory." "Right," I whispered, my tongue thick in my mouth. I rose from my chair and attempted to steady my shaking limbs by clutching the table. "That's really thoughtful," I managed. My eyes darted from the stairway to the doorway, seeking an escape. ~X~ I didn't know where I was going. But I knew that I wanted to run. I took a familiar route, keeping my eyes forward in an attempt to ignore the landmarks that littered the landscape. But it was no use. Though the sights weren't discernible from the constant blur of grey and green in my peripheral vision, the betrayal by my other senses forced me to recognize them all. The police station and the persistent rumble of idling cruisers. The diner and its unmistakable aroma of fried fish. The high school and the muted blare of the lunch bell. I sped my steps and lengthened my stride, my legs, heart, and adrenaline pumping in an all-out sprint as I tore through town. I didn't slow down when I reached the city limit sign, or when my shoe came untied, or when the rain began to fall. As if on auto-pilot, I pushed on, my rubber soles slapping on wet pavement and then crunching on gravel. I didn't stop until I reached the wrought iron gate,

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where, temples throbbing and side aching, I rested my hands on my knees. I gasped and choked on lungfuls of cool air until the bitter taste of bile rose in my throat. I swallowed a few times and used my shirtsleeve to wipe the sweat from my forehead and the tears from my eyes. Staring at the crooked wooden sign, its faded letters cracked and peeling, I wondered for a moment how I got here. And then I realized I had nowhere else to go. "Fuck," I sighed. I'd never been to a cemetery before Charlie's burial. I'd never had a reason to. Even now, as I plodded down the narrow walkway, part of me wondered what the hell I hoped to accomplish. I was about to turn back when I spotted his grave, distinguishable from the others by the freshly upturned earth that blanketed its plot. Bracing myself, I walked to it and sunk to my knees. I tentatively reached for the carved stone and traced with my finger each letter that made up his name. Holding my breath, I thought that, if I really concentrated, I might be able to feel him here. I waited for my skin to tingle, for the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up, for anything and everything my desperate mind could somehow interpret as a signal that he was watching, listening. But there were none. No birds chirping, no tree limbs swaying in the breeze. It was just me, the muddy grass, and a slab of granite. Here goes nothing. "Hey," I said softly. "So this is kind of stupid. I mean, who knows if you can hear me. Or if you're . . . or if you're even here. Because for God's sake, I wouldn't expect you to be hanging around Forks still. You should be, like on an island, or fishing the Great Barrier Reef. Or something." Silence. Of course. "I, um, don't really know how to do this, so I guess I'll just start talking. It's totally weird, because I never would have talked to you about this stuff, you know, before." Ugh. This was impossible. Closing my eyes, I imagined us sitting together in the kitchen. I saw the crease in his brow as he leaned toward me and felt the unmistakable vibration of the table as he nervously bounced his leg underneath it. "But God, Charlie, there's no one else I can talk to." Ok, this wasn't so bad. I didn't feel as crazy as I probably looked. "Edward's back," I said, wincing at Charlie's imagined reaction. "He says he, ah, made a mistake by leaving Forks. Leaving me." I'd foolishly thought I'd at least come to terms with the fact of Edward's return, though I was utterly confused about what it meant. But as I spoke the words out loud, my stomach twisted, and I batted at my chest as if to make sure it hadn't caved in. "He wants me back," I whispered. "And I don't know what to do." The verbal acknowledgement of my confusion and despair coaxed the tears from my eyes. They hurried down my cheeks, washing away the skepticism, the awkwardness, I felt in being here. I spoke freely now, unloading my doubts and insecurities and craving the fatherly advice that would never come.

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"I still love him, Charlie. God, I love him. So much." I shook my head. "Too much." The verbal admission was somehow liberating. "But how am I supposed to believe him when he says that he loves me now? How could he abandon me - lie to me - if he really loved me? I just don't think I could survive if he broke me again. "I know that you never forgave him for what he did. Hell, I still don't know if I can forgive him. But at least now I know the real reason why he left." I picked at a blade of grass as I continued with my monologue. "He left to protect me." I laughed humorlessly. "He thought he was doing what was best for me." I sighed and shifted position, the heels of my hands sinking into the damp earth. Memories of Charlie suddenly started to flicker like home movies through my mind. I chuckled lightly recalling his persistence that I keep pepper spray with me at all times. In Forks. How angry he'd been when he'd found out about my motorcycling adventures with Jake. How insistent he'd been that I stay out of the woods. When I'd moved to L.A. he'd been beside himself with worry, phoning every other day, pretending to pocket-dial at odd-hours just to make sure I was safe. When I'd told him about a particularly creepy guy in my sociology class, Charlie had run a criminal background check and overnighted me a rape whistle and two DVDs on self-defense. The recent memories gave way to older ones - summer visits to Forks and Charlie insisting I wear water wings and a life-jacket in the ocean long after I'd learned to swim. I recalled his dogmatic refusal to let me ride my ten-speed to the end of the road without my helmet, despite my protests that I looked silly and Renee never made me wear one. I rubbed my hands briskly along my arms to warm them from the slight chill in the air. It was true that Charlie had never forgiven Edward in life. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as much as it pained me to admit it, he, of all people, would have understood Edward's reasons for leaving. Charlie would have done anything to keep me safe. They were so similar, really. To Charlie I was forever a little girl; to Edward I was forever a fragile human. I lifted my eyes to the white sky, knowing, wherever he was, Charlie would have forgiven Edward. The question remained, could I? As I stood to leave, a stiff breeze caused my skin to pebble in gooseflesh. But as I surveyed the trees surrounding the small plot of graves, the leaves hung perfectly still. ~X~ "Ok, Bella, remember we need to leave in thirty minutes. We have an early reservation," Thomas reminded me, pulling a folded shirt out of his bag. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to it," I lied, channeling the calm facade I'd cultivated over the past year. I grabbed my toiletry bag from the top of my dresser. I don't know why I still insisted on toting it to and from the lone bathroom now that I was the only one using it, but my habit from my high school days lingered on. Thomas came to me, kneading the back of my neck. I lifted the bag and twisted out of his grasp, "I just need a human moment." The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I glanced at Thomas, but if he thought the choice of words was strange he didn't let on. As I padded to the bathroom it took all my restraint not to slam the door behind me.

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Dammit. Edward was invading my every thought, my every move. I needed to get a hold of myself if I was going to make it through this dinner. Thank God Thomas was leaving tonight. I stepped into the shower and turned the water to the highest temperature I could comfortably stand. The heat of the spray was nearly painful on my skin. I relished the pins and needles feeling for several minutes before realizing the water heater in this old house might soon run out of juice. Piling my hair atop my head, I was working the shampoo into a rich lather when I heard it. Certain I was hearing things, I brushed the suds away from my ear. But the action only made the sound clearer, stronger. I steadied myself on the tiled wall before tripping out of the shower. Clutching a towel to my chest, I sprinted down the hall, desperate to find the source of the sound. Desperate to make it stop. Desperate to make it last. My feet squished and slipped down the wooden hallway to my bedroom. My body trembled as I stood in the doorway, frozen in place, unable to bring my feet to cross the threshold. Some part of my brain noted that Thomas was perched on the edge of my bed, holding a piece of paper in his hands, but my focus was on the CD player on my nightstand and the incessant sound coming from it. My lullaby. The melody was pristine, so unlike the fuzzy indistinct version that haunted my memories. I had only heard this particular version perhaps ten or eleven times in the three days between my birthday and the day he'd left, but I still recognized the exact length of the pause after the first coda, the barely audible creak of the piano bench after my favorite run of notes. I closed my eyes for a moment, imagining him perched on the edge of the wooden bench: the ebb and flow of his body as his hands moved expertly, unconsciously over the keys, the crease of his brow as he lost himself in the music, always seeming to go someplace far away in his mind. "Bella, are you alright?" Thomas's voice sounded miles away. "Bella? Baby, what's the matter?" I felt his arms around me, lifting me to my feet. I didn't remember sliding to the floor. "What - where did you-" I pointed to the CD player with a shaky finger. "The music?" he asked, glancing at the radio and then back at me. "Is that what's bothering you?" I nodded vigorously in response. Thomas's expression conveyed confusion and worry as he scanned my face before guiding me to the rocking chair. He sat me down gingerly before kneeling by his make-shift bed and pushing the air mattress a few feet to the left. The movement exposed a patch of the old wooden floor, but one plank was missing, giving way to a dark hole. "Was this some kind of hiding place of yours?" he asked, looking at me puzzled. "I'm sorry, Bella, I didn't mean to pry, but my blanket snagged on the floor board, and I realized it was loose." I didn't know what he was talking about, but I would have agreed to anything in that moment to get him to leave. It's okay," I whispered between shallow breaths. "I just haven't heard that music in a long time." His eyes softened sympathetically. "I think I need . . . I mean . . . can I just have a few minutes?" I was vaguely aware of Thomas nodding and leaving the room.

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Stumbling over Thomas's bedding, I sank to my knees. I peered into the darkness, my soapy hair dripping in soft splats on the wood floor. My head was light as Thomas's words echoed in my ears. Was this a hiding place of mine? I briefly considered the possibility - the potential that I had been so out of my mind in the days following Edward's departure that I could have buried his treasured CD. No. I shook my head, whipping water and suds. I may have been delusional, but I hadn't done this. I had spent hours searching my bedroom for the CD of Edward's compositions after he left me. I had emptied out my desk and dresser drawers, littering the room with papers and clothes that remained piled on the floor for weeks. I had accused Charlie of taking it, even though no part of me believed it was true. No, I had known. The moment I saw the forged note to Charlie telling him of my "walk in the woods," I had known. He had planned it. Orchestrated his departure down to the last detail. The air had been sucked from my lungs when I had pressed the eject button to find the CD player empty. As if the crushing blow of his leaving me weren't enough to bear, he'd taken my lullaby too. The CD of his music - of my song - was the only possession I cared anything about. And it was gone. Except it wasn't. All this time . . . it had been right under my feet. The music still flowed from the decade-old boom box on my nightstand. I sat numbly staring at the black hole in the floor, hearing the familiar melody arrive at its melancholy resolution. I gripped the lip of the gap in the floor with my nails, scratching and clawing at the wood on the off chance there were any other loose planks - any other hidden secrets. Before I could finish testing the seams of all the panels, my eyes caught a flash of something sitting atop my purple comforter. The papers Thomas had been holding. I pulled the towel around my chest, aware for the first time that I was still naked and cold from my abandoned shower. Hoisting myself up on the bed, my mouth dropped at the sight of the wasted plane tickets to Jacksonville lying on my pillow sham. I picked them up, my fingers rubbing along something glossy and smooth. Pulling a photograph from underneath the tickets, I felt my stomach ball into a tight knot as I flipped it over. I pressed my fingers against my lips, my eyes wide as I surveyed the photograph he had so cruelly stolen from my album. Or, rather, half of it. What had once been a photo of me and Edward together was now simply a picture of him. It had been neatly torn in a perfect line along the very crease where I'd folded the photograph before fastening it into the scrapbook. The only evidence of my presence was my fingers peeking from behind his back, clutching his waist tightly. I leaned my head back against the headboard, the tickets resting limply in one hand, the photo in another. My eyes were plastered to the ceiling as I fought to keep my breaths measured. He'd left them here. In my room. Under my feet, for God's sake. Why? Esme's song was now filling the air. It was serene and lovely, but it wasn't what I needed to hear. I restarted my song from the beginning, closing my eyes. And I listened. Though I had heard the lullaby countless times before, I felt as if I was hearing it now for the first time.

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It started out soft, haunting - dreamlike. My mind conjured an image of Edward in my room, watching over me as I slept. The ethereal tinkling of notes then began to swell, steadily building in a complicated and breathtaking crescendo as the minor key shifted to a major. I felt my own chest expand as I literally heard the sound of Edward falling in love. With me. I considered the words in his letter: I loved you too much. Needed you too desperately. I was afraid. The rich score reveled in its major key only briefly before beautiful, yet despondent chords began interloping. As plainly as if they had been lyrics to the haunting tune, I felt the love, the desperation, the fear rippling through the notes of my song. Where it had once been a pretty piece of music, special to me because it had been written by him, it was now a story. Much like my own, only written in the language Edward knew best. As the song concluded, the resolving chord no longer seemed calm and peaceful as it had years ago. It was simply, undeniably, sad. It shocked me now that I had never realized it before. That I had never really understood the tumult of emotions Edward had been feeling beneath his controlled exterior. I stopped the CD before it could transition again to Esme's song and sat in stunned silence on my bed. It was to have been as if he'd never existed. That's what he'd wanted - what he'd promised. And yet he'd buried himself under my bedroom floor. Was he hoping I'd find this? Or had he done it for himself? I gasped upon realizing both might be true. Despite the years and distance between us, I felt as if I only now was beginning to understand Edward. After all this time, he was finally starting to let me in. He hadn't wanted to move on. By preserving the evidence of the love he later tried to deny, was he telling me he never would? It was the same reason I cherished the scar on my wrist and reveled in the searing pain that tore through my chest when I thought of him. The same reason I couldn't rest until I'd immortalized our love story in written word. I'd traveled thousands of miles, cried oceans of tears, and shared the company of many good men in the hopes of finally moving on. But I could never let him go. I realized now I never wanted to. The possibility that Edward really did still love me, in spite of all he had done, paralyzed me with a mixture of hope and fear. I sat and stared vacantly at the hole in the floor, processing it all. He had hurt me so completely, devastated me so thoroughly. I didn't know if I would ever be able to move past it. I didn't know if it were even possible to recapture all we had lost. But one thing I finally understood for certain; I owed it to myself to find out. A quiet resolve washed through me as I replaced the items in their home under the floor and stood on steady legs. Before making my way down the hall to finish getting ready, I opened my closet and selected my favorite blue dress.

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Chapter 19 BPOV As the hostess led us to our table, Thomas grazed the small of my back out of habit before shoving his hands in his pockets. I'd pondered for the first half of our drive to Port Angeles how I should break up with him, but his curt responses to my attempt at small talk and his inability to look me in the eye gave me the distinct impression that I'd be the one getting dumped tonight. It was for the best. I felt guilty enough as it was. We sat silent after the waitress took our drink orders, and silent some more as Thomas clicked away on his BlackBerry. I opened my mouth to chastise him, table typing being a well-known pet peeve of mine, but thought better of it and let my eyes travel around the restaurant. When Charlie had mentioned La Bella Italia last week, and Thomas had raised it just yesterday, I worried my chest would collapse under the weight of the memories here. Now, though, the pain in my chest was completely eclipsed by the nerves that sizzled and snapped as I wobbled between naked dread and raw anticipation. For as much as I hated hurting Thomas, I knew it was the first step toward maybe, just maybe, finding my way back to a love I'd given up on a long time ago. The waitress set our drinks down, and I sipped on my merlot. Thomas chugged half of his scotch and set it roughly on the table, the ice cubes clinking noisily in the glass. "So, what's good here?" he sighed, his voice laced with fatigue and defeat. "Well, ah, I've only been here once," I said. "I had the mushroom ravioli. It was good." "Did you come here with Edward?" he asked pointedly. And here we go. "Yes," I answered, sliding my shaking hands to my lap. I swallowed hard. I held his gaze, waiting for him to continue until finally I caved to the awkward silence. "Umm, why do you ask?" "It's a romantic place," he shrugged. "Plus," he said, shaking his head and giving me a wry smile, "I've come to realize that no matter what I do, he's been there first." I blinked a few times and brought the wine glass to my lips, tilting it upward to cover my face. After taking a slow sip, I set the glass on the table and reached for his hand. "That's not true, you know," I soothed, squeezing his fingers. "Don't," he choked, snatching his hand away. "I've never asked you for much, Bella. But don't lie to me. You're not very good at it." "Ok," I whispered, clasping my hands under my chin. The waiter came and took our orders granting a momentary reprieve from the uncomfortable mood. We were both ready for our second round of drinks. But as soon as the waiter left, Thomas started in again. "Do you know that you talk in your sleep, Bella?" Shit. This conversation was going from bad to worse. "Um, yeah I guess? I mean I know I did when I was younger," I fumbled.

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"No, you still do. You used talk every night when we first met, although it tapered off a few months into our relationship." He shook his head. "Do you know what you would say?" I simply looked at him. The question was rhetorical. "You said, 'stay with me'." He leaned in across the table as if sharing a deep secret, his voice wistful. "Over and over, you'd say it. 'Stay with me, stay with me'." My eyes dropped to the napkin in my lap as my fingers played with my hoop earring. I recalled the dreams. They'd been on the wane by the time Thomas and I began dating and stopped altogether soon after I'd completed the manuscript of Dusk. I didn't realize I had spoken aloud during them, but it wasn't altogether surprising. "I'd pull you closer to me and I thought it helped," he continued, shrugging. "After a while it stopped," he paused, and my eyes lifted, meeting his meaningful look. "Until three nights ago." "What?" "Nearly a year without a word, Bella. Then three nights ago, I woke up at a noise outside your room and you were at it again." "What did I say?" I asked, because it was the question he expected. I wasn't sure I wanted to know. "You said, 'stay with me . . . Edward'." The air left my lungs. "I guess I knew you might not ever love me," he continued, chuckling ruefully. "That no matter how many years passed or how much we shared, I'd always be chasing you." He took another drink of scotch. "And I was fine with that. Because I was stupid, I guess, and because I wanted you a little too much." "I'm sorry, Thomas," I said. I was sorry. He deserved to be happy with someone who could give him everything. But I knew now that my heart had never been mine to give. I sucked my bottom lip into my mouth and nodded. There was no easy way to do this. I took a drink of my wine, closing my eyes for a long moment as I replaced it on the table. "Edward is Luke," I said simply. His mouth scrunched into a wince as he threaded a hand through his hair and scrubbed his face. When his eyes finally met mine, they were wet. He nodded. "I know." "You know? How did-" "Bella, let's just cut the shit, okay?" He gave me a withering look. I nodded, a strange sense of relief washing over me. "I found the photograph under your floor. I saw your face drain whiter than a bedsheet when that music played. I may not know the whole story here, but I know enough. And when he dropped you off the other morning-" He shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. "Nevermind the daggers he was shooting in my direction, you should have seen your face - your eyes." I felt my brow furrow and opened my mouth to interject but stopped. I had clearly underestimated Thomas.

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"I've never seen you look that way at anyone, Bella, least of all me." He smirked. "I don't know what's worse - wondering if you were capable of that kind of love, or knowing that you are." I grabbed his hand across the table, my face crumpling at his words. "I'm so sorry, Thomas," I repeated, suddenly helpless. I wanted to spare him this pain. But I couldn't. It was all true. He squeezed my knuckles once before pulling his hand away. "Don't be sorry. I'm not. I don't regret a single day with you." He lifted my chin with his index finger. "But let's not either of us waste any more days." He stood then, reaching for his wallet and dropping three twenties on the table. "I saw a hotel with a taxi stand a block or so up the street. I'm gonna go ahead." I looked up at him. "Okay," I whispered. He bent down and squeezed my shoulder lightly, pressing his lips into my hair. "I wish it could have been me." ~X~ I sat still, staring at the checkered tablecloth. I knew I should be feeling guilt, shame, but the door of the tiny restaurant had not yet clicked shut before my heart began to race. The waiter delivered two platefuls of pasta which sat untouched as I reached for my phone, futilely scrolling through my contacts as if his number would magically appear. Charlie ... Darcy ... Dentist ... Edward. "Holy shit," I breathed upon seeing his name on the screen. Then I felt my lips curve into a smile as I remembered the tokens he'd left me over the past three days and all the times he'd snuck into my room undetected when I was a teenager. I punched out a short text with trembling fingers and hit send as a surge of anticipation rolled through my belly. Oblivious to the chirp-chirp of a nearby cell phone, I polished off the rest of my merlot and rose from the table. As I turned toward the door, my eyes locked onto his. He stood before me in the same jeans and button-down, the fabric crumpled and stained from three days' wear. His eyes were black and needy, the circles underneath them stamped purple with deprivation. I recalled from his letter that he hadn't hunted. I felt a rush of lust straight to my middle as I recalled the reason why. The moment I saw him, the tearful conversation of the last hour and the now-failed relationship of the past year seemed a distant memory. Even as I stared straight ahead, I could see my own chest rising and falling in my peripheral vision. His eyes were trained steadily on my face, but his hands were stretched out unnaturally at his sides, flexing and unflexing as if fighting an impulse to reach for me. I wanted to lunge at him, wrap my arms around his neck, my legs around his waist. I wanted to smother him with every inch of my body, feel his hands on me everywhere. I wanted to taste myself where he said my flavor lingered. "Hey," I said softly.

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"Hey," he responded. We stood there and gazed at each other, neither of us apparently believing that we were back here, in the very place where it all began. Tears welled in my eyes, and I stared through the blur, unwilling even to blink. "Alice," I said, understanding. "Yes," he answered, continuing his smoldering stare, the clenching, unclenching of his hands. "Bella," he whispered finally, motioning to Thomas's empty chair. "May I?" I nodded in response, the movement shaking the tears from my eyes. We took our seats and I cleared my throat, preparing, for the first time in years, to really talk to Edward. Since his return, I had cried, shouted, moaned his name. But now, back in the place where we had begun the conversation that changed my life forever, I was finally ready to talk to him again. "What did she say?" I asked. He shook his head. "Just to come here. That you'd made up your mind." His face bore a look of fragile hope, and his shoulders were drawn up and tense. "You've been here the whole time then, I guess." He nodded, not the least bit embarrassed. He clearly knew I had decided to end things with Thomas. But of course Alice could not yet tell him, nor could I, what that meant for us. "Then you know already it's over with Thomas." He nodded again, slower, the faint hint of a smile briefly tugging at his lips. "I didn't love him," I explained, shaking my head. "I should have ended it a long time ago." He raised his eyebrows and leaned forward in his seat, urging me to continue. I held his gaze but couldn't speak, overwhelmed by the flurry of feelings swirling within me and the task of describing them. "So does that mean-" he cut himself off and dropped his head to his chest. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "Take your time." "I'm not sure what it means yet, to be honest. I can't deny my feelings for you, Edward. But even with all you've said and done the past few days, there's still so much I don't get. Before I can give you an answer - before we can talk about us - I need you to help me understand why you did some of the things you did." "Of course, Bella," his voice was earnest. "Ask me anything." "I found your CD. My other birthday gifts." His eyes flickered in surprise. "Why?" I asked. "Why did you do that? How could you do that?" Taking a deep breath, he began. "That day," he stopped, his voice faltering on the word day. After a long moment, he leaned forward in his chair. His hands encircled my wrists, his long fingers stroking my pulse points and tracing the raised outline of my scar. I stared at his fingers and shifted in my seat, momentarily distracted by the memory of the last time I felt his touch. He noticed my gaze and lightly squeezed my hands. "Is this okay?" he asked. "I'm sorry, I just - I need to touch you right now." "Yeah. It's okay." I smiled weakly. "Go on."

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He blew out a breath and began again. "Not that I deserve to forget what I did that day-" He looked down for a moment before meeting my eyes to continue. "But of all my crystalline memories in life, Bella, that day is different. The memory of that day is more vivid, more real, than any other. I remember every single agonizing detail and have relived it more times than I could count." He released one of my wrists, raking a hand through his hair. I knew he wasn't looking for my pity and where this subject was concerned, I couldn't offer him that. But the knowledge that his actions had tormented him ignited a sense of solidarity that moved me to grasp the wrist of the hand holding mine. We sat, clutching each other as if one of us were keeping the other from falling. The gesture sparked a tiny hint of a smile to flicker in his lips, though his eyes were still pained. He nodded lightly, signaling he knew he was to continue. "You were wearing a dab of perfume that smelled of Gardenia and Lilac and you had a small bruise on your left elbow. You had on your favorite pair of worn jeans and a violet cotton henley printed with darker purple flowers. Your hair was loose and tousled from a fitful night's sleep. Your house smelled like gun polish and garlic . . ." he trailed off, his eyes focused on a distant point, as if seeing something not present in the room. "Edward?" I prodded, and his eyes flickered back to the present. "I made my decision the night of your birthday party. I spent the next three days trying to drive some distance between us, hoping it might soften the blow. But, Jesus, it was useless." He shook his head, resuming the agitated clawing of his hair with his free hand. "Bella, the two nights I spent away from you were excruciating. The first night, I made it a single hour, pacing around your yard after you'd fallen asleep, before I was in your room, kneeling at the foot of your bed with my head resting on your covered feet. The next night I lasted a mere twenty minutes." I released my grip on his wrist and, understanding, he let me go too. I wiped at my face with my palms as yet another memory from my past life was rewritten. "I knew then my departure needed to be abrupt - not for your benefit, but for mine. I knew I wouldn't last another day. One more day would have broken my resolve." My limbs grew rigid, defensive, as my mind took a rare, purposeful trip back to the memory of the day Edward had abandoned me. "Go on," I prodded. "I went to your house that afternoon with the intention of destroying any evidence of my existence. But when I got to the threshold of your room, I couldn't bring myself to take the gifts with me. It seemed fitting to leave them under your floor." He sighed. "Physically, of course, I died long ago. But that day felt like the end of any meaning my existence may have held. . . . A burial seemed appropriate." My eyes were hot, but I didn't even try to stem the tide of waiting tears. They rolled silently, steadily down my cheeks as he continued to speak. With every word that fell from his lips, the brick of ice encasing my heart began to creak and thaw. "How could you have been so blind?" I asked, shaking my head. "I know now that I was wrong about your feelings for me, Bella. But at the time, I had convinced myself that you would easily move on - that you were too young to truly understand what you felt for me." He paused briefly and I recalled with a bitter smirk his cruel, blasphemous words the day he'd left: Don't worry. You're human - your memory is no more than a sieve. . .

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"On so many occasions when we were together, I felt on the verge of overwhelming you with the weight of my need for you. At night, as you slept, I would confess it all, worried that if you really knew the extent of it, you would run for the hills." He smiled at me then, lifting an eyebrow as his fingers gripped and twisted the cloth napkin. "Tell me," I demanded quietly, wiping at my eyes, regaining my composure. "What?" he asked, confused. "What did you say to me? What did you think I couldn't handle?" I tilted my head slightly as he paused. "Or are you still afraid I might run screaming?" His smile evaporated and his eyes pierced my own, blazing with a fiery resolve. "I told you, Bella, that my life had held no meaning until you entered it. I told you that you were the most perfect creature I had encountered in a century of aimlessly existing. I told you that I wanted to peel back the covers, lift up your nightshirt, and feel you everywhere. I told you that I could tell when you were dreaming of me because you would say my name as your scent would flood the air. I told you that I wanted to make love to you, make you feel things your little body couldn't fathom it was capable of." The tiniest gasp of a sob locked in my windpipe. He wasn't finished, but his eyes softened somewhat as he continued. "I told you that I wanted to marry you. That I was sorry I could never give you children. That I hoped I could be enough for you, somehow." I slumped in my seat and rested my tear-streaked face in my hands as the weight of the tragic past set in. He had been afraid to confide in me the secrets that I would most have wanted to hear. And in his stubborn, misguided failure to share them with me, he'd never realized that his hopes and desires were mirror images of my own. "You should have told me," I accused. "You were more than 'enough,' for me Edward. You were everything." He nodded, swallowing. "I'll never forgive myself for not saying those things, then, when I should have. But I'll always be grateful that I said them to you tonight. Because even if they came too late for you, even if you don't want to be with me, I had to - I just needed you to know." "Thank you," I whispered. "I love you," he said, his eyes intense and searching. "I know," I replied. And finally, I did know. He'd convinced me of what I'd previously thought impossible. He loved me. Needed me. "I'm so sorry, Bella. And I - " "Edward, stop," I interrupted. "Please." I let out a stilted breath, trying to push the words past the lump that was swelling in my throat. "There are things I need to say." I gripped my hands together tightly and continued. "I spent the past six years trying desperately to learn to live without you. I invited hallucinations of you, suffered through nightmares of you. Every memory of us - even the good ones, hell, especially the good ones - haunted me, tortured me." I paused a moment to collect myself, my chest throbbing with the effort of recalling my darkest days.

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I looked up to find him clutching his stomach with one hand and resting his head in the other. His eyes were squeezed tight, his features drawn into a look of undeniable misery. I started to reach for him, literally aching to stroke his hair, to kiss his face, to whisper that we would be okay. But I pushed on. "Over time, I learned to manage the pain. Learned to avoid allowing my mind to wander into that treacherous territory. Writing my book made that easier in many ways." I shrugged, smiling ruefully. "Sometimes I almost believed that they weren't memories, just stories belonging to other characters. I had no choice - I learned to cope without you." I wiped at my face with the back of my hands, blotting the tears that spilled from my eyes. He caressed my elbow with his thumb and forefinger as I sat quietly, overwhelmed yet again that he was here. With me. "And, after you left me, I never had any delusions I would go on to live out a great love story. But I was surviving, at least." I shook my head, fighting for the words to help him see what I was scared of. "Bella," he urged. "It's okay. Tell me." "I'm afraid," I choked. "Afraid of what? Tell me, love." "I'm afraid because even when I was at my most angry, my most resentful, I wished nothing more than for you to come back. And if you leave again, it will be so much worse. I want to trust you, I do." I said, my voice cracking. "Don't prove me wrong. Please," I begged. In an instant he was kneeling at my side. "Oh, Bella," he sighed, resting his forehead on my thigh for a moment before meeting my eyes. "I won't," he insisted, lifting a hand to cup my cheek. "I can't." I looked at him seriously then. "I wouldn't survive it." He matched my look, the hand at my face shaking slightly. "Neither would I." Though the words made no logical sense uttered from his immortal lips, their meaning was perfectly clear. Closing my eyes, I leaned into his hand, inhaling him before brushing my lips over his pinky. When I opened my eyes again, his were closed. I stared unabashedly, then, admiring the copper hair that stood perpetually on end, the slight twitch in his jaw, the smooth red lips that hung partly open. I leaned forward instinctively and grazed my lips against his. His eyes flew wide and for a split second we stared at each other as the world around us came to a grinding halt. His grip on my thighs tightened as he pulled back slightly. "I need you to tell me," he said, his eyes pleading. "I need to hear it." I didn't hesitate. "I want you." He exhaled and the tension drained from his face. Finally, he looked at ease. Happy. I wanted to see him happy all the time. He smiled up at me then and tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. Cradling my face in his hands, he pulled me toward him and kissed me softly. I closed my eyes, sighing into his mouth as I sucked on his bottom lip. One of his hands drifted down my neck as the kiss began to grow from slow and sweet to hungry and yearning.

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I let my my head fall back as I tugged on his hair, inviting him to move his lips to my jaw, my throat, my chest. But just then, the waiter approached our table, check in hand. Edward returned to his chair, and I sat up straight, smoothing my dress. I felt the blush begin to flood my cheeks as I became vaguely aware of sideways glances and quiet mumbling from the restaurant's other patrons. "Well, then," I sighed, my heart pounding, my blood racing. "We were, apparently, making a scene," he smirked. I smiled, nudging his foot under the table with mine. "I guess we should probably go now." I shifted in my seat and swept my palms across my face in an attempt to cool the blush that had formed there. Instead, I smudged mascara all over my hand. "God," I scoffed. "I'm a mess." "You're beautiful," he corrected, gliding his thumb over my cheekbone. "Thank you," I whispered. "I'm going to splash some cold water on my face, ok? And then we can go." He nodded and rose to his feet as I stood to leave the table. I turned toward the ladies room, but stopped suddenly when he grabbed my wrist. "Bella," he said softly, his eyes darting from my lips, to my collarbone, to my breasts. "Hurry." ~X~ The cool water felt good as I splashed away the tear streaks and splotches of redness. I was toweling off my face when I heard the creak of the door hinge and the click of the lock. I looked up and saw Edward in the reflection of the mirror. His eyes were noticeably blacker than they'd been mere minutes ago at the table, his mouth set in a determined line. He crossed the short distance between the door and the sink in the small single restroom. "I'm sorry, I couldn't wait," he said. "You might have knocked," I chuckled, meeting his eyes in the mirror. "What if I had been indisposed?" He didn't return my smile. "I've wasted so much time already. I can't be away from you right now." He stepped forward, his chest lightly pressing against my back. Sweeping my hair to the side, he brought his lips to my ear. "I was so wrong, Bella," he murmured. "But I know now - I am good for you." As his lips brushed against my ear, my whole body ached for him, every part of him. I needed to feel that this was real. I needed to feel him, his hands, his mouth. "Convince me," I said, raising an eyebrow as I met his reflected eyes. The energy between us had been undeniable when I'd first laid eyes on him - a low hum that sang between us even as I cried and ached at his painful confession. When I'd kissed him, chosen him aloud, it had crackled, a sizzling wire connecting us in a new, yet still familiar way. And now, finally alone, away from the prying eyes of strangers, the pull between us was thick with a dark intensity fueled by exquisite relief. He swallowed thickly as my words, my eyes, drew him in. "I need you," he insisted, softly kissing my neck between words. "All that I want, for all of my days, is to love you, to worship you with my body.

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My soul." He leaned on this last word. My eyes lifted again to meet his in the mirror. He stared at me knowingly as he continued to kiss and suck at my skin. "I am good for you," he repeated, sucking an earlobe into his mouth. "So good," he breathed, his cool breath skating across my cheek. "Yes," I whispered, finally grasping what he was trying to make me see. He had changed. He finally understood what I had always known. "I nearly went mad these past three days with you so close to me, knowing you weren't mine." He tightened his grip on my arms. "Seeing you with someone else." I swallowed the reemerging lump in my throat. "I belong with you, Bella. We belong together." He nuzzled my hair with his cheek, closing his eyes as his hands stroked my arms. "I know, Edward." I said. "I've always known." "I was such a fool to try to deny us - to deny this." I moaned at the sound of the desperate edge in his voice. He spun me around suddenly, steadying me as I teetered in my heels. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you look in this dress?" His tone wasn't teasing. He wanted an answer. Six years ago "no" would have been my honest response. "Yes," I answered, looking him straight in the eyes. "Who bought it for you?" he asked, his voice dark. "Him." "Who did you wear it for?" "You." He grabbed the sash holding the simple wrap dress together. "Do you know what seeing that color on you does to me?" I thought back to the last time we had been in this place together - the way his eyes had lingered at the neckline where the midnight blue met the cream of my skin. "Yes," I whispered. He shook his head slowly. "I don't think you do." He moved a step closer and pushed his body against me, pressing his erection deliberately into my hip bone. I moaned at the hard shape of him, the chill I could feel through my dress. Panting, I tilted my head as his lips found the crook of my neck and began nipping their way to my ear. He tugged on the sash and the dress slackened. He slid his hands inside and my abs tensed as his cold skin made contact with the tender flesh of my belly. Slowly, he moved his palms around to my lower back and up to my shoulders. He then pulled the dress smoothly off of my arms and it pooled in a puddle around my feet.

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He stepped back slightly as his eyes raked over my body, clad only in a navy satin bra and panties. "Jesus," he muttered. Bending down between my breasts, I registered a slight snapping sound as he sliced the small strip of satin holding the garment together with his teeth. Lowering the straps from my shoulders, he sucked my nipple into his mouth. His eyes closed and his jaw flexed as he sucked, moaning softly. I pushed my chest forward deeper into his mouth and gripped his soft hair in my hands. His tongue was spongy, cool, and just slightly rough. He circled my nipple, alternately licking and sucking in a rhythm I imagined would be my utter undoing if his efforts had been concentrated lower. "God, you're so beautiful," he murmured before licking his way up my sternum, kissing my throat, my jaw, and the hollow behind my ear. He dragged a teasing finger up the inside of my thigh. As his fingertip reached the elastic edge of the satin he stilled. My hips shifted toward him, wanting more. "Oh, God." I whimpered as he teased, me, smirking lightly with the pause of his touch. I needed to feel him. I needed him to stroke the maddening ache that was threatening to swallow me whole. "How do my fingers feel, Bella?" His smirk dissipated as he spoke in a strained voice. "So good," I rasped, pressing myself up toward him again. "Tell me how they feel on your skin." "Hard," I panted. "Like you." He pressed his mouth to my ear. "I'm going to make you forget anyone else has ever touched you." I cried out at his words, fisting my hands into his hair and clawing my nails down the back of his neck. "Only ever you, Bella." His voice was firm as he cradled my head in his hands, forcing me to meet my gaze. "For me, there will only ever be you." I knew what he was telling me. He had never made love with anyone else. I needed him to understand, neither had I. "They were always yours," I murmured softly. "Every hand that ever touched me was yours." He kissed me then, groaning into my mouth as his tongue swept along mine. "I love you," his voice was an urgent whisper. The simple words spoken in this moment when I finally, truly believed them, bridged the chasm of the years of heartache and pain that had separated us. "I know," I rasped. "I love you." I clung to him desperately. "You're everything." His brow creased as he exhaled through his nose. "Say it again," he demanded. "I love you," I said, as he pushed me back against the counter. He buried his face in the hollow where my neck met my shoulders, ghosting his open lips along my skin. "Again," he murmured into my flesh, skimming his hands down my arms. "I love you," I breathed, scratching harder. "Oh God, Edward. I need you." I trailed one hand down his back, gripping his hip and pushing his pelvis so that his hardness pressed firmly between my legs.

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Groaning, he gripped my waist and hoisted me onto the counter top. The fiery look in his eyes contrasted starkly with the calm movements of his hands as they settled on my knees and pushed them slowly, deliberately apart. He kept a hand on one knee, rubbing soothingly, while the fingertips of the other drifted up my thigh. I leaned my head back in anticipation of fingers bringing sweet relief between my legs. I hissed as his cold finger finally, mercifully, slipped under the fabric and glided along the slippery flesh in long, smooth strokes. He teased me, adding a second finger and pushing in up to his knuckles, but not deep enough to calm the rolling waves in my belly. He groaned at my reaction, his eyes dropping to where his fingers disappeared inside me. "So beautiful," he whispered so low I barely heard him. I shifted position in an attempt to draw him deeper. He hooked his hand around my knee and pulled me toward him, complying with my nonverbal request. The tendons of his forearm tensed and relaxed with each subtle stroke, his mouth shaped in a silent moan. The wet sounds of Edward's fingers were overwhelmed suddenly by the loud groan of a pipe in the wall. I grunted lightly in protest as he pulled his hand away. The mood in the room shifted as Edward seemed to be noticing our surroundings for the first time: the puddles of water on the uneven countertop, the commode mere feet away, the speckled grout lining the tiled floor. He pressed his forehead gently into my breastbone. "Bella," he breathed into my chest. "Hmm?" He skimmed his nose lightly across my throat before lifting his questioning gaze to meet my eyes. "I'm sorry - this isn't how I imagined-" "Shhhh," I soothed, pressing my fingers against his mouth. "It's just as it should be. Where it began. I want you now, here." I was breathless. My voice was tinged with an edge of panic. "I can't wait, Edward. Please don't make me wait." These last words seemed to reignite his resolve. His black eyes were trained on mine as he dragged his tongue along the fingers at his lips. He sucked my middle finger into his mouth, swirling his tongue around it. As he sucked, he replaced his hands between my legs and gently slid two fingers inside, stroking me subtly. I closed my eyes, absorbing the contrasting sensations of my warm fingers in his mouth and his cold ones between my legs. He slid his fingers out slowly, and a hot ache immediately replaced the soothing coolness. "Bella, my Bella," he murmured as his lips grazed the shell of my ear. "Never again. You'll never have to wait again." He traced my lips with his glistening finger before cupping my face in his hands and kissing me, softly at first and then needy, groaning. He dragged his open mouth across my cheekbone, nuzzling my hair with his nose as he spoke softly into my ear. "I want to take you slow and sweet. I want to savor every inch of your exquisite body. I want to make up for all the time I've cost us." His fingers traveled down my spine, leaving a trail of electric sparks in their wake. "And love, I promise I will." His voice was low, barely above a whisper, as his hands skirted so lightly across my skin that I felt close to madness. "But right now, Bella, I need -" he trailed off, his brow creasing slightly as he swallowed.

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I knew what he needed, because I needed it too. I needed him to grab my hips and push into me as deep as he could go. I needed to be so full of him that I forgot the emptiness of six long years. "Tell me, Edward," I begged, breathless. "Say it." His gaze was piercing as he met my pleading eyes. "Right now I need to fuck you." "Yes," I rasped. "Please." He gripped the base of my skull with one hand as his fingers slipped into me again, stroking me only once. "Fuck," he groaned, grabbing the crotch of the satin panties and twisting them until they snapped off in his hand. "You're ready for me." I found his belt, but in my nervousness, I fumbled with the buckle. Covering my shaky hand with his steady one, Edward guided me as we unlatched the metal clasp together. He then placed my hand on his zipper and resumed cupping my face, kissing my deeply. I unzipped him as we sucked and hummed into each other's mouths. I pushed his pants and boxers down his hips and reached for him. I gasped as I registered the weight of his length in my hands. He was so big. Sensing my hesitation, Edward stilled his lips and pulled back to look into my eyes. "It's okay, love," he breathed, moving his mouth to my ear. "Just tell me if I go too deep." I nodded, grabbing him tighter, and he swallowed back a groan as my hands moved roughly along him. Edward quickly removed his shirt and gracefully kicked off the clothes that had pooled around his ankles and circled his arm around my waist. Pulling me firmly to the edge of the countertop, he wasted no time positioning himself between my thighs. Our eyes locked then, and a silent understanding passed between us. The years of longing, of unfulfilled need, of regret, were about to be overcome by this one act. I felt the twin hollows in my chest and between my legs throb with anticipation of being finally, completely, whole. He pushed inside me then, gripping one hand on my hip and the other behind my neck. I choked out a half-scream as he entered me, stretching me wide though he was barely inside. "Fuck, Bella" he hissed, placing his hands on my knees and pushing them gently apart. "Open up for me, baby. Just a bit more." The slight movement caused him to sink deeper into me, and my head fell back as I absorbed the current of pleasure that ripped through my body. I could feel every cold inch of his circumference as my body stretched to accommodate him. "Sweet Jesus," he ground out between gritted teeth. "Are you okay?" My mouth opened but no word would form. There was no adjective to capture what I felt in this moment, with his body finally owning mine. The feeling was unparallelled pleasure laced with a sweet tinge of pain. Never in my most indulgent fantasies had I fathomed that such a sensation could exist. It was love, lust, remorse and envy. It was at once the most natural and supernatural experience of my life.

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I nodded briskly, as he held himself still inside me. He was trembling lightly with the effort of restraining the urge to thrust. Unable to contain the overwhelming contradiction of feeling wholly satisfied and yet desperate with need, a single tear leaked onto my cheek. For a fleeting moment I feared Edward would misinterpret it, that he would withdraw and retreat the way I'd always worried he would. But he bent to me, tracing the tear's path with his tongue. "I know," he whispered. I rested my forehead on his shoulder and stared down at my legs spread around the only man I'd ever wanted. He remained completely still, save for the labored breaths he took as he buried his face in my hair. I could think of nothing but the feeling of his body connected to my own as my eyes traced the contours of his strong stomach, the V of his hips, the trail of hair that led from his navel to where he disappeared inside me. Reaching a hand behind his neck, I dragged my tongue up his throat, over his adam's apple, and bit his chin lightly before pulling his ear to my mouth. "Show me you're good for me, Edward," I whispered. "Show me you aren't afraid." Shifting on the countertop, I leaned back on my hands and lifted my hips, coaxing him to go deeper. Needing him to move inside me. He pulled back momentarily, rubbing my sensitive flesh with his shaft before thrusting his hips forward. "Oh God," I gasped, and an untapped reserve of need opened up and spilled within me. He thrust again, harder, and deeper. His jaw was tight, every tendon in his neck flexed as he conquered his baser instincts and crippling fears with every pass. I knew, had always known, that he could never hurt me. But as I watched him, trusting himself to give us what what we both finally needed, my love for him swelled up around me, and I felt close to drowning in its depths. Low growls rumbled in his chest as he shifted lightly. He grabbed the countertop for leverage as he pushed into me again and again. "God, Bella, you're just -" he broke off, his eyes drifting from my face, to my breasts, and finally to where his cock was moving. "Fuck," he groaned, watching himself, seemingly overwhelmed at the sight. "I know," I gasped, my hands gripping his biceps as he worked himself inside of me. "Oh, God." His eyes lifted to mine then, their shiny black blazing with love and relief. He hooked one arm under mine and pulled me close, me moaning, him growling louder at the sound, the feel, of his body sliding against my wet skin. Bending at the knees, he pressed himself upward, hitting a new spot. Blackness painted my vision for a moment as my body struggled to process the blinding pleasure. "Yes," I gasped. "There. More." He hit his stride with a steady rhythm that matched the pulse of my racing heart. My thighs gripped his waist, my heels pressing into the small of his back as he secured us firmly together. "Yeah?" he asked, breathing heavily. "This is where you need me?" He rolled his hips and pushed deeper, each stroke gaining in intensity as I curled my limbs around him. "God, yes, Edward," I panted. "What I've needed for six years."

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"Six years?" he growled. He lifted me from the counter, turning and carrying me a few steps until my back landed roughly against the door. The action sent him deeper still, and a cry erupted from my throat. "I've waited a hundred years for you." His eyes were fierce as he pulled back and claimed me again and again. I could see us in the mirror, my ankles locked around his rippling back, my nails clutching at his broad shoulders. I watched as his muscles flexed as he drove me against the door. Undone by the sight, the feeling, my head fell back and slid up and down along the wood paneling with every surge of his hips. "Bella," he choked, his eyes wide and pleading with mine. "Can you come with me, love? Please?" "Yes," I rasped, tightening my legs around his waist as he continued rocking into me with quick firm strokes. I closed my eyes as I climbed higher and higher, letting him take us to the edge together. "Oh God," he groaned as his rhythm changed from a steady pulse to urgent, choppy thrusts. "Oh, Bella." A gritty whimpering sound escaped my throat as he buried his face in my neck and released a strangled moan into my flesh. "Yes," I breathed, as he carried me with him into oblivion. "Fuck," he hissed, stilling inside me, gripping my shoulders and pressing his open mouth over my throat. I screamed his name as the fullness, the completion, broke apart within me. I was spinning, flying, grounded to the earth only in the place where his body merged with mine. He shuddered and pulsed as I slowly came back together around him. My body still wrapped tightly around his we slid, silently, to the floor. For a long moment we sat there, our bodies rising and falling in unison. When he finally spoke, his voice was calm and smooth, no trace of the tension of days past. "Are you okay, Bella?" His look was pure love, as his hands tenderly stroked around my collarbones. "No," I answered with a shaky laugh, my face pressing into his cool neck. "I'm not sure I'll ever be 'okay' again." He smiled down at me. "I know. Me neither."

Chapter 20 EPOV There was a silence between us as we rumbled along at a snail's pace in Bella's old truck. The cab was thick with the scent of her: her sweat still a sheen on her body, her blood still close to the surface of her flushed skin, her lust still slick between her legs.

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She was curled up against me, a benefit afforded by the bench seat of the old vehicle. I'd hated to whisk her so abruptly from the restaurant, but our lovemaking had not been quiet. Every mind in the place was focused on the noises coming from behind the closed door to the women's restroom. She'd barely had a chance to catch her breath before I draped her dress around her shoulders, hastily threw on my clothes, and carried her briskly out the rear entrance. For a brief moment in the parking lot, she refused to hand over the keys. The ensuing exchange was so familiar, so nostalgic, that we were both smiling broadly when she finally conceded she'd had two glasses of wine in a short span of time. "But," she warned, "don't get used to this." That simple phrase and all it implied caused my whole body to wash in relief. There would be more car-rides, more time together, more things with which to grow accustomed. She was tired, exhausted really, and her head lay heavy in the crook of my arm as we rode along the 101 back to Forks. I forced myself to resist the selfish urge to keep her conscious and present with me, instead letting my mind wander over the course of the day as my palm stroked up and down her arm. The piano had proven to be the only way to restrain myself from spending every minute of the past three days stalking Bella's movements with Thomas. I had been playing the piano this afternoon as Alice sat listening on the stairs. From the corner of my eyes I saw a subtle movement Alice's head tipping slightly to the side. I looked up and noted her expression had shifted to the far-away look I recognized instantly as a precognition. I flew to her, kneeling in front of her and grabbing her wrists. In Alice's mind, I saw Bella, crouched on her floor, staring bewilderingly at the contents I had hidden under her floorboards. I scoured the image but Bella's thoughts were just as mute in Alice's visions as they were in my presence. I stared up at my sister, desperate to know what she knew, and terrified of what she would say. After a tortuously long pause, she'd refocused on my face. "She's made a decision." "And?" was all I could manage. She shook her head. "Not that kind of decision. Things aren't black and white for her at the moment. But she's decided she wants to see you. And she's heading to La Bella Italia for dinner tonight." "With him," I said. She nodded. "But, Edward, she wants to see you." The cryptic conversation had left me excited, panicked, and confused, but resolved. If she wanted me, she had me however, wherever she needed. Even if it meant I had to endure watching her with him in the very place where Bella and I had shared one of my most cherished memories. But the moment they'd walked through the door, I knew things between them had changed. Thomas's thoughts were circling around a singular image: my face. And not just any image of my face. He was thinking of the very photograph I'd left buried under Bella's floorboards. I reached into my wallet and pulled out the corresponding half of the photo. No one would ever guess now that they were taken at the same time. The half with my image had been preserved neatly, still crisp around the edges. The half in my hand the half with the image of her was worn as thin as

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cloth, despite my considerable efforts to avoid damaging it. In the wasted years away from Bella, I would go weeks without allowing myself the indulgence of looking at it, which was equal parts heaven and hell. But inevitably, as my thirst grew to a slow scald, before the hallucinations set in, I would cave. As I sat with my back to their table, it was the dismal tone of his thoughts and the worn photo in my hands that kept me in my chair. I couldn't read her thoughts, but I could hear her plainly. With every word, my hope surged, Thomas's mind reeled in agony, and my cock hardened. The word jealousy wasn't big enough to capture the envious rage that coursed through my body even as I heard her breaking him. I fed off of it, craved it. His memories of Bella beneath him, moaning, sweating, were branded in my mind's eye. Deserving or not, I relished his suffering; I considered it payback. The pain Bella inflicted on him now was but a tiny fraction of the torture I had endured as his vile thoughts had invaded my mind. By the time he left, I was a mess of nerves. Their conversation had given me a dangerous hope. She had acknowledged my place in her past but had said nothing about a future. Alice's words echoed in my ears: She wants to see you. It could mean anything. The last time she'd seen me, she had made her feelings known in no uncertain terms: You don't love me. You don't know what love is. But as I'd walked to where she stood smoothing her dress as she rose from the table, it was no longer about me. I had left her world a mess of confusion a web of lies. And I owed it to her to untangle them. Confessing my crimes in leaving her felt like shedding a heavy burden. If my words brought her some peace, I could endure the eternity of agony that awaited if she rejected me. But when she'd said she could not survive without me and kissed me, her lips barely grazing mine, that terrifying hope surged again. When she'd told me aloud that she'd chosen me, I was undone. The simple words had pried open the tenuous grip on my self-control. My body had flooded with a powerful surge of relief. As her tongue had pushed boldly inside my mouth, I nearly sobbed at the feeling and all it implied. She wanted me. I didn't have a set agenda when I followed her into the restroom. But watching her walk away from me had stirred up a familiar pain I found I could no longer endure. Not if I didn't have to. And I didn't have to. Not anymore. Finally alone with her, away from the prying eyes of nameless strangers, all the years of warring against myself, of fighting against the insatiable pull that drew us together, came crashing down on me. The limitations of my restraint were breached. I had imagined making love to Bella on countless occasions in our short time together before I left Forks. My fantasies ranged from peeling her clothes off in the warmth of our sunlit meadow to her kneeling before me as I moved in her mouth. But I had always imagined our first time together would be slow and deliberate, marked by gentle caresses, loving gazes.

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And in that split second, when rational thought had reentered my consciousness and caused me to hesitate, she'd said the very words she uttered in my fantasy that day I'd shown myself to her in the meadow: Don't make me wait... When I finally pushed inside her body, the anticipated feeling was obliterated by the euphoria of reality. I took her hungrily, releasing the pent-up need of decades of waiting, years of longing, days of coveting. Bella had always been the epitome of beauty in my eyes. But when she came with me inside her, my previous notion of beauty was obliterated. It was like seeing a color not found in the rainbow spectrum something my mind was incapable of imagining until it was in front of me. As I pulled the truck into the gravel driveway of her house, I was hard again. She had fallen asleep. I jostled her shoulder. "We're ho here." She blinked her eyes open, disoriented for a moment as the dome light illuminated the cabin's interior. I was at the passenger door in an instant. Her smile was shy, nearly embarrassed, as I lifted her from the truck and carried her to the front door. Her high heels dangled from her fingers as she gripped my neck. I relished the feeling, taking the path leading to her doorstep in an unnecessarily slow pace to prolong it. I set her on her feet as she dug around her bag for the door keys, suddenly unsure what was going to happen next. Did she want me to come in? Did she want some space? Some time to be alone? She left the door open as she stepped inside the house, and I trailed behind her into the small entryway. She turned abruptly to face me, and our bodies collided awkwardly, her hands flying instinctively to my chest. We laughed nervously at the clumsy encounter, neither of us knowing what came next. I broke the silence. "It's kind of a lot, isn't it?" I covered her hands with my own, pressing them against my body. She exhaled, her eyes leaving my face to scan the small space around us, lingering for a long moment on Charlie's gunbelt where it still hung by the door. "Yeah, it is. You. Here. It's there are a lot of memories." I pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her and pressing her head against my chest. The words did not want to come out of my throat, but I forced them. "I can give you some time if you need it. I understand if you need some room to process all of this." She pulled back immediately and flashed her eyes at me. "No, no, I don't want you to leave, Edward. I'll be fine, I'm just a little overwhelmed by everything." She gestured between us, around us. I nodded. "I'm going to take a shower," she said, throwing a thumb over her shoulder. "I" she looked down for a moment and then back to my eyes. "I'd like it if you stayed." A brief slice of pain cut through me as a memory registered in the recesses of my mind. We were standing in this very spot the day after her birthday.

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She'd asked me, tentatively, the faintest bit of hope in her voice: Will you stay? I'd rejected her with forced indifference, offering no explanation: Not tonight. I pushed out a breath, a release of gratitude that I should have the opportunity to answer such an entreaty again. "Yes," I said simply. "Yes." ~X~ I sat on her bed, waiting for her. She had taken her toiletry bag and a handful of clothes from her dresser. The gesture was modest and endearingly reminiscent of the Bella I had known in years past. I flipped through her worn copy of Romeo & Juliet as I waited. We'd been reading it in English class at the time I had left Forks. I noted the highlighting, tiny notes in the margin scribbled in her messy handwriting which stopped abruptly approximately two thirds of the way through the book. She appeared in the doorway, her skin still damp and smelling of the familiar strawberry fragrance which mingled with the smell of her blood flowing beneath it. She was wearing a pair of polka-dot boxer shorts and a Pixies concert T-Shirt I recognized as Renee's. She'd worn this same outfit to bed countless times when we were together years ago. The T-shirt had been loose then, but it now clung beautifully to her round, full breasts. She gave me a shy smile. "I'm running low on clothes and have been dipping into my old stash." She laughed nervously. I swallowed audibly as I took her in. I had been ignoring the erection that reappeared the moment she nestled into my side in the truck. But as I stared at her, a woman now, but so much still the girl I'd known, ignoring the ache in my pants was no longer possible. It was dj vu as she strode over to the bed and sat down beside me, except back then she'd been innocently unaware of her effect on me adorably ignorant of the way her casual movements had made my cock twitch. So many nights I had lain pressed against her, arching my lower body awkwardly to avoid shocking or scaring her with the urgent throbbing of my dick against her innocent form. My eyes scanned from her toes up her body before meeting her eyes. They were full of emotion, but heavy. I cradled her head in my hands, brushing my thumbs lightly beneath her tired eyes. "You need to sleep." She nodded, giving me a small smile. "Yeah, I've been a bit restless at night." "I know," I said, stroking her damp hair. "Yeah, I guess you do." Her smile turned into a smirk as her head tilted in the direction of her desk. On it were two items that would appear innocuous and meaningless to a casual observer: an apple and an old bottlecap. "The apple was because you read my book, right?" she asked. I nodded. "The cap ... I'm sorry, I don't remember it." Her face scrunched. "Tell me?"

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I gasped mockingly, feigning insult at her words. Why would she remember a piece of litter to which I'd developed an unhealthy attachment? I hadn't expected her to remember the bottlecap when I'd placed it on her dresser. I just needed her to know that I'd been there, that I was waiting for her. But now, for the first time since my return, I felt like playing with her. "Bella, frankly I'm astonished that you don't remember the plastic bottlecap that figured so prominently in our relationship." She laughed lightly, and I basked in the sound. "Yeah, well, we don't all have photographic vampire memories," she retorted. "I think you should take some time to really think about this," I said, grinning and standing from the bed. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to shower too. I, ah ... I don't know if there's something I can wear..." I felt silly bringing up such banalities, but I hadn't changed clothes in three days. I didn't want to crawl into bed with her wearing dirty clothes and certainly didn't trust myself to let her sleep if I wore nothing. She brought a hand to her forehead. "Oh God, of course, I'm sorry." She stood up and went to her closet, squatting down and rustling around on the floor until she pulled out a small backpack. She reached in and pulled out a hideous mustard yellow shirt and navy shorts. She tossed them to me, grinning. My face registered shock as I held up the shirt; glossy black iron-on letters spelled out "E. CULLEN". "My gym uniform?" I'd spent so many nights at Bella's that it had become a habit to wash the gym clothes at her house. I hadn't thought of them until this moment. "It's clean." She shrugged. "I know because I nearly lost it on Charlie when I found out he'd put the load through." My chest tightened, and I looked up at her, apologetic. "I'm sorry." She waved a hand, looking up at the ceiling as she took a composing breath. "Stop apologizing, Edward. It's the past. We're going to need to face it, but we can't change it." I rose and went to her. Cupping her face, I leaned down to kiss her softly. She sighed into my mouth as our lips relaxed around each other, sucking, tasting. The delicate gesture was almost shy in its sweetness and contrasted starkly with the frenzied way our bodies had connected less than two hours ago. When I emerged from the shower and entered her room, she was asleep. She lay atop her purple comforter, propped up against the pillows as if she had dozed off waiting for me. I lifted her lightly and slid her beneath the covers, tucking her in before laying down on top of the comforter as had been my custom in years past. I wrapped an arm around her covered body and buried my nose in her hair. She sighed contentedly before murmuring in a drowsy voice. "Under. Want you under the covers." ~X~

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My need for her did not abate throughout the long night of her silence that ensued. She didn't speak, didn't say my name or toss and turn as she slept. She simply rested, peaceful and perfectly still against my aching body. The muted daylight had been flooding the room for hours when she finally stirred. My arms tightened around her as I felt her body tense and then relax into mine. "You were spinning it," she said, abruptly. "What?" "The day you asked me to sit with you at lunch. The day of the blood typing." She rolled over to face me. "I remember you were spinning something - I always thought it was a quarter - but it was a bottlecap, wasn't it? It was that bottlecap." I swallowed, amazed that she had been able to piece it together. "You've kept it all this time?" "It was significant to me," I said. "It was the day after I fell in love with you." Her lips parted as she took in a small suck of air. "You know the exact day?" I shook my head. "I know the precise moment. You were lying here, just as you are now, except you were asleep. I was standing next to you." Her face pinked. "You said my name in your sleep. You asked me to stay." She closed her eyes, sucking her lip into her mouth before speaking in a whisper. "Thomas told me ... I did that last night." I nodded. "You did." "Were you watching us the whole time?" "No," I answered. "I only watched you at night." Seeing her with Thomas the morning I'd dropped her off had ignited an anguishing fire in the pit of my belly that only grew stronger as I observed them together. At Alice's insistence, I'd avoided the Swan residence during the daylight hours in an attempt to give Bella some privacy, and to spare myself the torment of watching their casual interactions. "During the daytime, I played," I said. "The piano," she surmised. "Yes." It had been years since I had played six years to be precise. Reading Bella's book had inspired me to try again. At first, I had banished Alice and Jasper from the house as I reacquainted myself with the instrument with the feeling of my hands on the keys, the notes wafting around me, through me.

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Eventually I allowed them to stay, to listen. The hours had stretched on like years as I sat on the wooden bench, lost in the music, yet taking comfort in the caring thoughts of my siblings. Alice sat curled on the couch, her eyes closed in wistful remembrance of the last time that music had filled the house. Jasper, ever the practical one, studied my eyes which grew darker by the minute and attempted to entice me to hunt, but I refused. My tongue still remembered her taste, and my head still lightened with the thought of it. I couldn't risk losing her there. "You still play, then," she spoke, interrupting my train of thought. I shook my head. "Not still. I only just started again." She looked at me as if considering this, pausing momentarily before nodding, understanding. "Bella?" "Hmm?" she hummed, eyeing me sleepily. "Are you sore?" She rolled to her back, pushing the covers down, smoothing her hands over her body as if taking inventory. "Yeah, a little," she said. "I like it." "What?" I asked. She shrugged, looking up at me as I leaned over her protectively. "When I woke up, I felt the ache, and I knew last night really happened." She caressed my jaw. "I knew it was real." My erection pulsed. "Last night was..." I trailed off, at a loss for an adjective. "Everything," she finished. I exhaled. I hadn't realized I was desperate to hear her confirm this out loud. "Yes," I said, unable to form a coherent thought to describe the experience of being inside of her body for the first time. "Was it difficult for you?" she asked, her eyes intense. "It was, at first." I nodded, swallowing. "But it turns out, I have a special knack for reading your body." I raised an eyebrow, my mouth curving into the half smile I knew she loved. She looked puzzled for a moment and then her features relaxed in understanding. "My blood." I nodded again, bending to her neck to suck at her vein. The irony was not lost on me. It was her blood the very substance that had once nearly driven me to kill her that showed me exactly how to coax the highest pleasure from her body. The flush of her skin, the race of her pulse, the rush of her delectable blood to her clitoris, showed me exactly where to touch her, how to stroke her, when to drive harder, and when to retreat. I had always feared that, in making love to her, I would wound her, perhaps beyond repair. But though my need for her had been too great to love her gently, I knew as she surrounded me that I could not hurt her. And even though I had never touched another woman the way I had touched Bella, I also knew no human was capable of reading her body with such precision.

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She draped an arm across my chest as she snuggled into my side, her head resting on my bicep as I stroked her hair. After several minutes of quiet breathing, she spoke. "Edward, where were you? What were you doing?" I stiffened. I knew this conversation was coming eventually, but I was nonetheless dreading it. I swallowed, bracing myself to replay the agony of the wasted years, not knowing where to begin. We had spent too much time living separate lives, if you could call what I had been doing living. My hand traveled up and down her arm, her body grounding me to the present as I let my mind slip into the pain of the past. "I spent the first two years in isolation." She propped herself up on an elbow, looking at me quizzically. "You mean you weren't with your family? I always assumed you were all together someplace." "No. I couldn't bear to be with them after I left you. Being alone in a houseful of couples didn't bother me so much before I met you. But after..." I trailed off, recalling my anger, my cruel words, at every stolen glance. "I understand. Please, go on." Her palm rubbed reassuringly across my chest. "I kept my movements random, never making a decision about where to go next until the last minute." "To avoid Alice?" Bella said. "Yes." "Wow I just I guess I always assumed you had each other. That you were together, making new memories without me." My body tensed at the presumption. "I would forget every minute I was away from you if I could." "I'm sorry, Edward. I know how much she means to you. How much they all mean to you." Though it pained me to hear her say the words, I knew what she meant. She wasn't to blame, but she was sorry that things had come to this. Our grip on each other tightened as I continued. "Even though I tried to evade her, still, she came. They all came at one time or another." I paused, looking at the ceiling. "I would go long periods of time without feeding." She sat up then, tucking her legs beneath her. "You stopped feeding?" She asked, her eyebrows scrunched. I scooted up and leaned back against the headboard, meeting her concerned gaze. "Not entirely, of course. But I rarely hunted. I spent the first two months in South America ... different places: Brazil, Peru, Ecuador. I moved around." I shrugged. It could have been more, and probably was. I hadn't cared where I was going and paid little attention to my surroundings when I arrived. "Under normal circumstances, two weeks is about the longest we can comfortably go between hunts. Before leaving you, I had never gone longer than three weeks without blood." I stared at my hands,

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recalling with painful clarity those early days before the numbness had allowed me any relief. "When I first left, I didn't feed for over six weeks." She gasped. I pressed on, not to prove anything to her, not wanting her pity, but needing to color in the blankness of the years that separated us. "Around week four, I discovered that the thirst would ... play with my mind," I paused, recalling with a faint shudder the onset of the visions. "I would see you." I shook my head. "No, more than that, I would hear you. Fuck, I could almost feel you." The last words were a choked sob. She exhaled, her expression stricken. "You hallucinated, too." I nodded, remembering her admission that she'd sought out danger to hear my voice. "But, Bella, though I saw you, heard you, felt you," I clawed at my hair at the remembered agony, "I could never, ever smell you." She looked down, tugging at the hem of her T-shirt. "You starved yourself to see me," she whispered. "I began to crave the first scratches of thirst in my throat. Because I knew you'd come soon." A muted sob caught in her throat. I tipped her chin up with a finger as two lines of tears streamed down her cheeks. She scrubbed her face with the heels of her hands, shaking her head, wanting me to continue despite her tears. "But Bella, still, in some lucid recess of my brain, I knew it wasn't real. I knew because your scent didn't torture me as you circled around me, taunted me, talked to me. It didn't matter, though. I needed you, even if you were a figment." She nodded, dropping her hands as she looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. "I understand that." "Yes," I said, stroking her cheek with my index finger. "You do." "How how did you survive?" She asked tentatively. "Can vampires ... starve?" She winced as she whispered the last word. I shook my head. "We just grow weaker and weaker. The thirst is excruciating, but death requires ... more." I looked away, not wanting to go into further detail about what precisely was required to kill our kind. "My family would eventually find me through Alice. I would come to with my teeth buried in the neck of an animal. Two or more of my family would make the kill and then force me to drink. Once my mouth found the source, I was powerless to resist the blood. When I finished, I would curse them all for taking you from me and outrun them again, always finding someplace new to hide." I chanced a look up at her then. Her expression was unreadable. "That pattern lasted for two years," I continued on, my gut tightening as I struggled to keep my voice even. "The last time I saw you was after a three-month binge of starvation." "Oh my God," she whispered. "Why couldn't Alice stop you?" "It was difficult for Alice to pinpoint my location because my movements were erratic and not tied to rational decisions. At my worst, I had managed to evade her vision for so long that the entire family had shown up in Northern Siberia when she'd finally broken through. I was so starved when they'd found me that I could hardly swallow. They managed to force blood down my throat, but it took several days before my mind returned. When it finally did, the first thing I saw was Esme's face."

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I stopped, resting my head in my hands. I would never forget the look on Esme's face when my eyes had finally come to rest there. She was ageless as ever, but her eyes reflected the pain of one who had buried a child. And so she had as a human. I could not bear to be the cause of her suffering such agony twice. "I promised them then that I would hunt of my own volition," I continued. "I took up a somewhat permanent residence in the Northern Territory of Canada, and though my family visited on occasion, we were not close again in the way you remember. "Soon after that, Carlisle came to me, desperate. He felt my actions were all tied to my belief that I had lost my soul. He convinced me, for Esme's sake, to see if I could change my mind. I studied, read, visited monasteries, temples, shrines. I meditated, prayed, chanted." I looked at her then, and if my own eyes had been capable of forming tears, they would have flown freely. When I spoke again, my voice was earnest. "I felt nothing, no hope, no spark. Nothing." Bella's forehead was creased in a deep furrow as she moved to take my face in her hands. She searched my eyes, looking for something. I prepared myself to keep going, to tell her about the human, to spell out the agonizing circumstances which precipitated my relapse, Emmett and Jasper forcing me to hunt the day I'd heard the girl reading her book. But she pressed me no further about my past, instead stroking my hair, her nails threading deliciously against my scalp. "It was my book, wasn't it?" she asked. I stared into her eyes, breathing heavily through my nose. "Your letter makes more sense to me now. You saw yourself; you see what I see." I nodded. "Yes, Bella. I finally see." Her hands moved from my head to my face, and she wiped her thumbs across my cheekbones as if wiping away tears. "You suffered so much," she whispered. I couldn't deny this. So I spoke another, more important truth. "I've never been happier than I am in this moment." Tears spilled onto her cheeks as she pulled my face to hers and took my bottom lip between her soft wet ones. I groaned into the kiss, hard for her already as she sighed and moaned, gripping the back of my neck with her small hands. Never breaking our kiss, I pushed her back on the bed, my hands skimming along her arms as she continued fondling my neck and the shell of my ear with deft fingers. We kissed for several long minutes, a slow, soothing suction and release of tongues and lips. We were unhurried, lazy in our giving and taking of each other's mouths. I sighed in awe at the complexity of her body. Last night her need had crashed through me in a cracking wave. Now, the scent of her arousal wafted around us, slowly building in intensity and flavor. I sat back on my heels, straddling her thighs as I looked down at her in the same T-shirt and boxers I'd fantasized about stripping from her body so many times before. I ran a finger along the crew neck, encircling her neck with one hand as I leaned over her and found the hem with the other. She arched her back to me as I peeled the shirt up and over her head.

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I had seen her bare breasts in our frantic haste at the restaurant, but I'd been nearly blind with my need for her, incapable of truly appreciating their perfection. Now, I let my eyes linger over them as I stared at her unabashedly, drinking in the sight of her. Her nipples were a shade darker than the bright berry pink of her lips. Her breasts were round and supple, sloping slightly in an enticing curve as she lay before me. I licked my lips, desperate to suck on her but also wanting to live up to my promise to savor her to take this slow. I feared that plan would be a lost cause once I had any part of her in my mouth. She shifted her legs beneath me, and I slid lower, gripping the waistband of her shorts as I nuzzled her bellybutton softly with my nose. She giggled and I looked up at her, smiling, remembering her ticklish response from three nights earlier. "Something funny?" "Yeah," she laughed, her eyes sparkling. "You, in your Forks High gym uniform." She sat up then and tugged at the bottom of the hideous shirt. "I always wondered what it would be like to strip this uniform off of you." She smirked. "Really?" I quirked an eyebrow at her. "Really." "Well, looks like this is your lucky day." She jerked the fabric upward and I helped her pull the shirt from my shoulders. She was kneeling on the bed in front of me then, her palms pressed flat into my chest, her arms bent, covering her breasts from my view. I pushed on her sternum, supporting the back of her neck with my hand. "I can't see you, Bella." Her head fell softly against the pillow as I hooked my fingers beneath the elastic of her boxers and panties, sliding them off of her in a single smooth movement. The sight of her nearly sent me backward. "God, you are so beautiful," I breathed. Her face colored in a gorgeous pink flush as I gaped. She squirmed under my gaze, crossing her arms over her chest, pulling a knee up. "No, please. Let me look," I said, nudging her leg down as I stood at the foot of the bed, staring. She uncrossed her arms and moved them to her sides. "Over your head," I said softly. She lifted her arms over her head, her legs stretched out, her breasts rising and falling with each intake of breath. As my eyes swept over every flawless inch of her, she lost her nervous edge and I smelled her lust growing more potent in the air. She rubbed her legs together lightly and I could see the faint sheen of the slickness between her thighs. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her, all strawberries and sugar and need. Lifting her left foot, I placed my lips over her ankle, circling the knobby bone with my tongue before sucking on the skin there. Hooking my hands behind her knees, I pulled her hips to the edge of the bed and knelt between her open legs. My hands curved around her calves, skimming over her knees and moving rapidly upward. When my thumb swept lightly against her wet flesh, she tensed and moaned before sinking into the bed. I straightened and hurriedly shed my shorts, my cock hard and ready, though I wanted to take this slow. She scooted backward as I crawled up onto the bed and leaned over her, bracing my weight on my forearms. I kissed her beneath her jaw, sucking lightly as my lips swept down her neck to the soft flesh of her breasts. I sucked her into my mouth, supporting her back as she pushed up into me. She

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protested adorably when I released her, shoving my shoulder. I lifted my eyes to look at her as I slid lower and nibbled at her hip. "I meant what I said, Bella. Every. Inch." She swallowed a groan and I smiled into her flesh. I circled my thumb around the delicate design of the crucifix tattoo. Pressing my lips to the mark, I kissed it reverently before tracing the contour with my tongue. "You think this will keep me away?" I asked, kissing her lightly once more. At this she cried out, clawing at my hair. I dragged my tongue along the crease where hip met thigh, following the seam to the soft skin of her inner thigh. Her blood buzzed against my lips as it rushed to where she was wet for me. She shifted in anticipation, her legs pressing reflexively inward. She whimpered when I forced them apart again. The smell of her arousal hit me then in a consuming cloud, hot, and heady and God, finally, mine. I growled instinctively, an involuntary possessive reaction to breathing her in so deeply. The familiar crippling aroma was more intoxicating at this proximity than it had ever been before. "Bella," I said, my voice strained. "I I want to lick you." "Oh, God," she panted, fisting her hands in my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut as she arched her back, the slight movement bringing my nose, my mouth, closer to her sex. "I need to go slow," I apologized, brushing my lips against her inner thigh in silent penance. "But I'll make it good for you, I promise." She moaned in response, opening her legs further for me. I drank in the sight of her, open for me. "Beautiful," I murmured, my chest aching as I circled one, then two, fingers at her entrance, stroking her lightly before pushing them inside. I explored her with my fingertips, her inner walls contracting around me when I reached the round, rough spot several inches in. She was so tight around my fingers, my cock throbbed at the thought of her enveloping my length in her warmth. I moved my fingers back and forth and then dared to place my nose and lips along the slick flesh of her upper thighs. Breathing deep, I inhaled her and curled in on myself as the light-headedness took hold. I fought to keep my eyes open, to keep myself grounded in her. I kissed the insides of both knees before lifting them to rest on my shoulders. My measured breaths grew deeper and more painful with every inhale. I kneaded her naked hipbones, digging my thumbs into her soft skin, until the hitch in her breath made me realize I was pressing too hard. "I'm sorry," I whispered, laying my hands flat on the mattress. "Don't be," she answered, propping herself up on her elbows and looking down at me. "Take your time." I nodded and swallowed, breathing her in once again. Dropping my chin to my chest, I leaned toward her. I barely flicked my tongue against her when I felt every muscle, every molecule in my body seize with the taste, the feel, the reality of having her in my mouth. She tasted hot and wet, salty and sweet. She tasted like Bella.

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My hands clawed at the mattress as I struggled to focus on the movements of my mouth, wanting to establish a rhythm that would bring her to climax, but being altogether swept away by the high that enveloped me as I inhaled her, sucked her, swallowed her. I swam in and out of consciousness, my body and mind floating in a haze of the euphoria I had only glimpsed in our previous encounters. I was vaguely aware of a faint tickle on my scalp, a light stroke on my jaw, a hum in my ears. They were mere whispers of feelings, flickers of sensations. The tiny distractions drove me further, my tongue plunging deeper inside her to taste where she was sweeter, more potent. I squeezed her ass and lifted her hips, needing to take more of her in my mouth. Her moans were echoes, urging me on as I found her clit and sucked, my hands fixing her hips in place as she rolled and arched. She came over and over, her cries building and receding in time with the thrumming rush of her blood where I tasted her. Her voice grew fainter and I began to float, delirious. And then she was gone. Startled, I snapped my head up as she repositioned herself on the bed and cradled my face in her hands. "Edward," she pleaded. "Edward, look at me." For a moment I panicked, my eyes raking over her flushed cheeks, her heaving chest, before finally settling on her concerned gaze. "Stop," she insisted. "Come back to me." She pressed her forehead against mine and wrapped her arms around my neck as I licked my lips over and over again, desperate to consume every drop of her that remained on my mouth. She kneeled in front of me, rocking gently as she whispered in my ear, soothing me, grounding me, reminding me that she was here, that we were together, that she loved me. I closed my eyes and nodded, the image of her milky thighs, her pink flesh, her clit, burned inside my eyelids. She stroked my hair, and I slowly came back to her room, her bed, her. "I'm sorry, I lost myself" I started, but she cut me off with the most beautiful laugh as she pulled back to look me in the eyes. "Sorry?" She asked, incredulous. "I just came three times. I don't know what on earth you could possibly be apologizing for." My breathing returned to normal as my mind cleared. The surging high from her taste had been brief but intense. I laughed inwardly as I considered the fact that her body was literally intoxicating to me. "Incredible..." I murmured. My eyes took a quick inventory of her body. Noting she was fine - no, much more than fine - I became aware once again that my cock was begging for release. I smiled down at her. "Three times?" I asked. She nodded, grinning, as I held her against me. "Maybe I'm sorry it wasn't four. I think I need to make amends." She giggled as I pushed her back on the bed, crawling up her body and pressing my cock against her taut stomach. I leaned in to kiss her lips, my erection moving in response as she reached her tongue into my mouth, tasting herself there. "Mmm, nice isn't it?" I murmured against her mouth. Her only response was to moan and grasp at my hips, attempting to position me between her legs. I pulled back and cupped her face between my hands, leaning over her on my elbows. My tip was poised to enter her, but I needed to see her face first.

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She was beaming. I pressed forward, the head of my cock just pressing against her wet lips. Her breathing accelerated, her pulse raced as she lifted her hips slightly. "Edward," she said. "Hmm?" "I never stopped." The sound that erupted from my throat was something between a feral growl and a boyish whimper. I pushed into her, feeling her flesh conform to my shape as I sank farther and farther into her warmth. I forced myself to stay focused on her face though my eyes wanted to roll backward. Her eyes grew wide with every inch, her mouth open, soundless, waiting to breathe. I kept a focus on her pulse as I slid inside, ensuring the racing beat of pleasure didn't slip into the frantic pace of fear. When I was fully inside, I stilled, encircling my arms around her, pressing myself against her warm breasts, absorbing the heat from her body, enjoying the sensation of her skin against my bare chest. We lay together, our bodies rising and falling in tandem as we breathed, savoring the feeling of connection. My cock grew even harder as we lay still together, and her body responded with tightening echoes. I buried my face in the curve of her neck, breathing her in, sucking erratically at her skin. After what felt like minutes, she stroked a hand up my spine. "Move in me." I loved her slowly, moving my hips back only slightly as I rolled and circled inside her. She didn't pant or cry out, but the shape of her mouth reflected her pleasure at each new sensation. She tickled my back with lazy fingers as we pushed together and pulled apart. Her hands moved to my biceps, curling around them and pushing me back. "I want to be on top," she said coyly, smiling up at me. In a flash I was under her. She straightened up on her knees and leaned forward so that I slipped out of her warmth. Grabbing me with one hand, she guided me back inside as she eased herself down on my length. "Fuck, Bella," I ground out as she took all of me and then pressed herself firmly down onto my hips. She took control then, bracing her arms on either side of my head as she found an easy but steady rhythm. Her breasts swayed near my face as she rocked back and forth. I caught a nipple in my mouth and flattened a hand against her back as she moved over my body, sucking and moaning around her breast as I felt my climax build. Her rhythm shifted from easy rocking to purposeful riding. The sight of her body, flushed and supple above me, brought me closer and closer to release. She came first, her body tensing and relaxing around my cock as she gripped my jaw with both hands, her eyes wide, her mouth calling out a small gasp as she climaxed. I grabbed her hips as she throbbed around me, rocking her subtly forward and back until I could hold back no more. I spilled inside her, my mouth open and panting against her cheek as I breathed her name against her skin. She collapsed against me, breathing heavily and humming contented murmurs in my ear, winding her fingers lazily through my hair. I stroked a hand up her back as we lay together, still connected, neither of us willing to move. "Loving you," she said, after a long time. "I never stopped loving you."

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Chapter 21 EPOV In our time apart, I'd somehow forgotten the quiet luxury of her presence. As we lay in her bed, her body on top of mine, there were no distractions save the pumping of her heart and the whisper of breaths in my ear. I rested my hands on her head, massaging her scalp and relishing the feel of the silky strands under my fingertips. She sighed contentedly and shifted position, the slight movement causing my cock to grow hard inside her once again. "Mmmm," she smiled, her lips tickling the skin just behind my ear. "Yeah? You like?" "What's not to love about the vampire stamina?" she teased, punctuating the sentence with a roll of her hips. Oh, Jesus. How I'd managed to be relaxed while enveloped within her for the past few minutes now seemed incomprehensible to me. Where she was once comfortably warm I felt her flesh turn to fire as I dragged my hands down her back to plant them firmly on her ass. I bent my knees and began to thrust, slowly re-acclimating myself to the sensation of sliding in and out as she wrapped herself more tightly around me. Her breaths, her moans, were hot in my ear and laced with a desperation that matched my own sense of urgency. It was as if our union mere minutes before was now forgotten, as if we were feeling each other for the first time again. We rocked together, clinging to each other, murmuring, whimpering, as we raced to the brink. I just need to see her. Make sure she's okay. That the bloodsucker hasn't hurt her, or worse. I tensed underneath her and felt her flinch in response to the growl that rumbled in my chest. "What's wrong?" she asked, her voice laced with uncertainty and apprehension. "Your friend's here," I said through gritted teeth. "The it's Jacob. Jacob Black." "Shit," she mumbled, scrambling off of me and throwing back the covers in search of her clothes. I hissed as my cock registered the abrupt absence of her delicious warmth. Sighing dramatically, I clasped my hands over my forehead. I suppose I owed him for taking care of Bella while I was gone. But as I watched her pull a T-shirt over her beautiful breasts, I'd never hated him more. She shimmied into her boxers just as he banged loudly on the front door. "Stay here, ok?" she asked. "Fine," I said, somewhat petulant. As much as I longed to go with her, I'd learned that Bella was not only stubborn, but had grown into a fiercely independent woman. I knew that Jacob was a friend and confidantof hers, and so I unhappily accepted the realization that she would, at times, wish to be alone with him. "But he'll know that I'm here," I warned. "And I suspect he'll be angry. God help me, Bella, if he"

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"Just relax, Edward," she soothed, reaching over to stroke my jaw. "This was going to happen sooner or later. I can handle him." As she walked down the stairs, I pulled on my gym shorts and focused my attention on Jacob's mind in an attempt to decipher whether I needed to be on the defensive, or whether I needed to strike first. His thoughts were a jumbled mess, the worry, confusion, frustration, and dread stacked so high that he struggled with himself to keep them from toppling over, from presenting themselves in tears, or growls, or worse. I heard the click of the lock as she opened the door and saw the relief flood his mind and overtake his body when he realized she was intact. "Oh, thank God," he croaked, wrapping his arms tightly around her to lift her off her feet. He held her there, his senses momentarily crippled by the gratitude he felt at her well being, before leaning down to kiss the top of her head. And that's when he knew. The scent of my breath in her hair caused him to recoil in disgust, his body stiffening around her as he lowered her gently to her feet. He staggered backward, shaking his head, until his body collided roughly with the door. Though he made no attempt to speak, his other senses were on overdrive. He examined her carefully, cataloguing the tangled hair, the swollen lips, the marks on her neck left by my mouth. His nose and lungs, at first filled with my scent, now expanded further to collect the smell of Bella, the aroma of lust he'd had the occasion to notice only a few times before, years ago when she was young and lonely, yet never desperate enough to share it with him. Her pulse raced, and I heard her take ten deep breaths, no doubt attempting to calm herself as he fumed before her. I stealthily moved toward the hall and lingered in the doorway to her bedroom, ready to fly downstairs should his thoughts become violent. "He's here," he spat. "Yes," she whispered. "But Jake" "Don't 'but Jake' me, Bella. Are you okay? Did he hurt you?" "No. No, it's not like that," she said. "Then why don't you tell me what the hell is going on here? Why that fucking leech, who nearly destroyed you, is in your house? Is that why you won't answer my calls? And don't you have a boyfriend? Does Thomas know about this?" Through his mind, I saw her eyes harden and her jaw set in a defiant line. "Don't you dare raise your voice to me, Jacob Black. What I do with my life, and who I invite into my house, is none of your goddamn business. Edward's here because I want him here. And that's all you need to know." "That'd all be fine and good, Bella, if it wasn't complete and utter bullshit. It is my business," he hissed. "He's a vampire, for God's sake. Who left you for dead. And like that's not enough, now that he's back, you won't speak to me. So yeah. I think I have every right to be a little pissed." "Fine," she said in a sharp voice. "You're pissed. Whatever. But look, Jake, I haven't been avoiding you because of Edward. I've been avoiding you because you're a liar." "Huh?" He had no idea to what she was referring. Confused by her ire, he studied her, taking in her steely gaze, creased brow, hands on hips, before he began to revisit each word they'd shared since she arrived in Forks several days ago. Finding no lies there, he shook his head and looked at her imploringly. "Bella, I don't know what" "I know about Victoria."

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The rage pumped through his veins, thundered in his ears, clouded his vision until he, quite literally, saw nothing but red. Coherent thought eluded him for an instant, his mind hobbled by anger, by agony, until he was at once rational enough to direct all his effort into keeping himself in human form. "I want to talk to Edward," he said calmly. "Jake, I don't think that's" "I wasn't asking your permission, Bella," he snapped. "I know he's here. I can smell him all over you. So you either ask him to come downstairs, or I'll go get him myself." "No," she insisted. "Not now. Not like this. You can talk to him later if you want, after you've calmed down." "Not later," he hissed, gritting his teeth. "Now." I heard her pulse speed, her breaths grow raspy, and I smelled the salt of the single tear that collected in the corner of her eye. In a flash, I was downstairs, my bare torso resting against her back, my arms wrapped protectively around her as I stood face-to-face with the man who'd tried so desperately to take my place. "Jacob." I nodded. His mind spun at the sight of me, his body too consumed by hatred to acknowledge outwardly my presence. Though it'd been nearly six years since we'd crossed paths, his contempt for me had not faded with time. If anything, his disdain had festered, his hostility fueled by each year that passed with Bella unhappy and unfulfilled. Now, separated only by the woman we both loved, it was all he could manage to remain human. Sweat beaded on his forehead as his blood began to simmer, and his fingers twitched as he pictured himself, in wolf form, knocking me to the ground and tearing the limbs from my body. "I understand you're upset," I said evenly. "And I don't blame you. But you need to calm down." "Don't you tell me to calm down, you fucking corpse." His whole body was vibrating now, his teeth rattling as he fought the nearly irresistible instinct to phase. "We both know what could happen if you do this here, Jacob. I don't want to hurt you in front of Bella, but if you can't control yourself, I won't hesitate." His vision was coated in a red film, but the face of a woman flashed in his mind at my words. She was beautiful, or had been, her face now scarred by a trail of four claw marks, tracking from her forehead to her jaw. Jacob turned around and stormed out the door, pacing to the far end of the yard before propping his arms against a tree and sucking in deep, labored breaths. Bella started to follow him, and I grabbed her arm. "No way, Bella. Not by yourself. It's too dangerous." She whirled around and squirmed out of my grasp, her body radiating heat and anger as she looked me square in the eye. "Jake would never hurt me." I winced, gut-punched by the unintentional implication of her words. He had never hurt her. Not like I had. I raked a hand through my hair as I searched in vain for the proper response. "Bella," I said quietly. "He's not in control of himself right now."

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Her features softened, and she ran the pad of her thumb along the waistband of my shorts. "Look, Edward," she sighed. "I know how to handle him. You'll only make him madder." I nodded and laced my fingers through hers, deliberately holding her there until Jacob's breathing had evened, until his thoughts were colored in cool tones. Keep it together, man. She's confused and grieving Charlie. She'll come to her senses. I just need to get the leech outta here. Reluctantly, I let go of her hand and tilted my head in his direction. She gave me a wan smile and jogged toward him as he composed himself. When his mind was no longer dominated by fantasies of my destruction, I felt my own tension abate, albeit marginally. But when I heard her soft, familiar greeting and saw her hand drape tenderly over his neck, my body grew rigid once more. BPOV "Hey," I said, my voice softer than I anticipated. In the time it had taken Edward to come around, my anger toward Jake had subsided. It's not that I wasn't upset with him for lying about Victoria. God knows I was. But when I really thought about it, it just didn't seem fair to forgive Edward for all his lies and still begrudge Jake for his especially considering how much he and I'd been through together. Plus, it was all too evident that, in this moment, I owed Jake more of an explanation than he owed me. Hesitantly, I reached for him, resting my hand at the nape of his neck and feeling his shoulders relax slightly at my touch. He cocked his head toward me. "So he told you about the redhead, huh?" "Yeah." "Well did he tell you it was his idea to lie?" His eyes hardened and his lips curled into an ugly sneer as he motioned in Edward's direction. I nodded. "Look Jake" "Did he tell you it was him who showed up out of nowhere, all crazy black eyes and matted hair?" With each question, his voice grew louder, more intense. Now he was on a tirade, shouting and gesturing wildly as he paced around the driveway. I thought about following him, or shushing him, but instead I just looked at him. There was no point in interrupting until he'd gotten this out of his system. "And not that I care what he does to his own kind, Bella, but we could hear that vampire woman squealing for hours. She was in a lot of fucking pain." Jake turned and burned his eyes into Edward's. "And he has the nerve to call me dangerous and out of control! At least I would have killed the bitch quick!" I glanced at Edward as he stiffened in the doorway. Jake turned to face me then, his body relaxing as he gripped my hands in his warm palms. "You wanna know why I did it? Why I lied?" I started to tell him that it didn't matter, that I would forgive him no matter how callous the reason, but he didn't let me get a word in. "We had just started having fun again, Bells," he said softly, giving me a wistful smile. "You were starting to eat more, come around more often. You'd even started listening to music again. I just didn't want to bring it up, you know, give you, like, some sort of false hope or something." He sighed, releasing one of my hands as he clawed a hand through his close-cropped hair. "Aw, shit, Bella. And if I'm honest, well I guess I thought that I should be the one protecting you. That you were gonna end up with me."

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He dropped my hand, shoving his fists in his pockets as he faced the street. I came up behind him, hooking my arms over his shoulders as I hugged him awkwardly on my tiptoes. "It's okay, Jake. I understand." And I did. I wasn't the only one who had wasted years in the wake of Edward's departure. I was distraught and depressed, but I wasn't blind. I knew Jake wanted more than friendship with me, even before he'd confessed himself that awful night after graduation. And I'd led him on, knowingly. I had let him think he stood a chance because I needed him. Jake reached behind his shoulder and grabbed my hand. I snuck a glance behind me and saw Edward leaning against the doorjamb, facing the opposite side of the doorway his averted gaze his meager attempt at pretending to give us privacy. "I'm sorry," Jake and I spoke the words in unison, and he smiled briefly as he turned to face me again. Sadness, and then determination flashed in his eyes as he stepped closer to me, his face now just inches from mine. "Don't do this to yourself, Bella. Please." His words made my stomach drop. Jake could forgive me for hurting him. He couldn't accept me doing something he thought would hurt myself. "Look, Jake, I know it seems crazy . . . how this must look. But you have to trust that I know what I'm doing. It feels right," I explained. "I can't do it again," he choked, his eyes beginning to water. "I can't take care of you when I just can't." "I'm not asking you to," I insisted. I reached for his hands, but he pulled back and shoved them in his pockets. "It will be worse this time," he warned. "God, Bella," he muttered, dropping his head. "It will be so much worse. Don't you realize that?" "Jake, it won't" "Yes it will!" he cried. "He fucking broke you last time. And I've been picking up the pieces ever since. So don't you stand here and tell me that it won't be worse." "I wasn't going to say that," I said quietly. "I was going to say that it won't happen. That he won't leave." I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked him in the eye, forcing the next words out of my mouth in as even a tone as possible. "But yes, Jake, you're absolutely right. I do realize that if Edward leaves me again, it will be worse. And I'm willing to take that chance." Aside from the narrowing of his eyes, he had no visible reaction. His breaths were slow and measured. It seemed like an eternity before he finally spoke, and when he did, his voice was hollow. Detached. And cold as ice. "Well, Bella, if that's how you feel" he stopped short. "What, Jake?" "Never mind," he muttered. "Just forget it." He turned and stormed toward his bike. I ran after him and grabbed his shirt sleeve, spinning him around to face me. "Look, Jake, if you have something to say, just say it." "Fine, then." He clenched his jaw and took in a deep breath through his nose. "I think you're being stupid, short-sighted, and just downright . . . pathetic," he spat. Dropping his chin to his chest, he

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sighed and tugged at the back of his neck. When his shoulders began to tremble, he placed both hands over his face and rubbed vigorously before looking up at me again. "What if he doesn't leave?" he asked, his voice monotone, his eyes flat. "What?" "What happens if he doesn't leave, Bella?" he repeated. "What will you do then?" Oh. "You're twenty-four, he's, what? Seventeen? How long before that starts looking kinky?" "I well God, Jake, I hadn't gotten that far, yet. I'm still trying to sort through" "Well let me make it real fucking simple for you, Bella. I'm pretty sure the heartless stiff over there has no plans to let you celebrate your twenty-fifth birthday." "Enough, Jacob!" I snapped. "You wouldn't seriously consider" "Shut up!" I yelled at him. "I don't know, I mean we haven't talked about God, I hadn't even thought about that, but it's none of your business anyway." I was babbling now, but I hadn't had time to absorb the events over the past several days, much less map out a plan for my future. The truth was, when Jake presented the idea now, a gruesome chill ran through my body. I couldn't pinpoint the reaction, but it was nothing like the desperate thrill that accompanied my youthful fantasies of immortality. "None of my business, huh?" "No," I said, more interested in getting him to stop talking than analyzing the truth of his words. "Look, Jake that isn't what this is about." "The hell it isn't, Bella!" he screamed. "Do you think I like being this way? Do you think I'm happy about being a freak of nature a monster?" "You're not" "And you know whose fault that is?" He kept his steely eyes on my face but his finger lifted to point at Edward. "His." He shook his head, his voice higher now, panicked and pleading. "Even if I could forgive everything he did to you which I can't I could never forgive him for this." He gestured to himself, his nostrils flaring as his face crumpled. "And if you choose him, Bella" I set my jaw, steeling myself for what was coming next. "If you choose him, I can never forgive you." I gasped, stricken. I don't know what I had been expecting from Jake. But not this. Oh God, not this. "Jake, you don't mean that," I whispered. I stared at him, furious, heartbroken, my eyes welling with tears. His expression softened slightly as he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. "It's him or me, Bella. I can't there's no other way," he said, his voice cracking.

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"Please, Jake," I begged. I placed both my hands on his chest and looked up at him as the tears began to spill silently down my face. My chest throbbed and my throat swelled as I rambled, anxious and desperate, fisting his shirt into my hands in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto him. "It doesn't have to be like this. I know you're upset now, but just give it some time. Edward's changed a lot and" At the mention of Edward's name, Jake tensed and grabbed my hands, balling my own fists in his before guiding them down to my sides. "No," he said sharply, his voice ringing with a sense of finality that sliced me to the bone. He gave my hands one last squeeze and then climbed on his bike. Avoiding my gaze, he stopped to shoot an icy glare in Edward's direction before gunning the engine and peeling out of the driveway. Strong arms encircled my waist as Edward's chin came to rest on my shoulder. "You okay?" I shook my head, clamping down on my lip in an attempt to stave off the flood of tears. "He'll come around, Bella." I scoffed. "I seriously doubt that." Edward pulled me flush against him. "Well, even if he doesn't" "No!" I barked. "I can't think about that. I can't . . ." "Okay. I'm sorry," he said softly. I buried my face in my hands and wiped my eyes as his hands came up to massage my shoulders. "It's not your fault," I sighed. "It's just I knew this was going to be a big deal for him, and I should have talked to him about it. I owed him that, you know? But instead I avoided him and he came here at the worst possible time and now it's a complete fucking disaster that I can't even begin to wrap my brain around at the moment." "Do you want to talk about it?" I shook my head and turned to face him. "I think . . . I think I need some time to process it all." "You should eat," he advised. "And you must be freezing," he added, rubbing his palms briskly over my bare forearms. "Thank you," I whispered, wrapping my arms tightly around him, letting my fingers travel over his smooth shoulderblades. "For what?" he asked, his voice tinged with surprise. "For everything," I murmured, the words muffled against his chest. I looked up at him, needing him to understand that the morning's encounter didn't leave me second-guessing. "For loving me. For understanding." He swallowed thickly and then bent down to kiss me, his lips brushing over my forehead, my cheek, my lips. "Come on," he said, grabbing my hand. "Let's go inside." ~X~

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After a hot shower and a change of clothes, I poured myself a bowl of cereal. We sat at the kitchen table, the silence interrupted only by the clinking of the spoon as I listlessly stirred my cornflakes. After a few soggy bites, I exhaled sharply and pushed the bowl away. "Do you want to go somewhere for awhile?" Edward asked. "Yeah," I said. "I don't care where." He grinned and rose to his feet, holding out his hand to lead me to the front door. "Close your eyes," he reminded, pulling me swiftly on to his back like old times. "I remember," I smiled, gripping him tightly as his momentum built to a sprint and the cool wind began to burn against my cheeks. We hadn't been moving more than ten minutes when he slowed. I opened my eyes to find us scaling a tall spindly pine. My grip tightened around his waist, and I quickly clamped my eyes shut again. He climbed so fast that I had no idea how high he'd carried me by the time his shoulders stopped their movements. He hoisted me on to a platform of sorts and set me to my feet. "You can open your eyes now." I gasped at the sight. We were in a tree house at least 100 feet in the air. It wasn't a child's fort, but a simple square wooden plank with a railing about three feet high on all sides. It was stunning, high enough in the treetops that only a few spiry trunks interrupted a panorama that took my breath from my body. From here the entire town of Forks was visible, as well as the ocean in the distance and the Sol Duc river. The air was crisp and clean, smelling of pine, salt and Edward. "What is this?" "It's a tree house." His smile was bright and beautiful. I laughed, stilling myself toward the middle of the wooden platform. "I see that. Did did you build this?" "No." He shook his head. "Tree-sitters." "Ah," I said. We had learned about the protestors in civics class. Environmentalists built the houses and lived in them for weeks or even months in an attempt to dissuade loggers from deforesting. "So I guess they won, huh?" I said, judging by the fact that the tree and the house were still intact. "Yes," he smiled, watching me as I braved a walk to the edge and leaned onto the rail to take in the expansive view. "Wow. It's . . . incredible." "I always planned to bring you here, but I never got the chance." His voice was wistful as he came up behind me, wrapping his arms around my chest. "I often came here at night before I met you. Before I had better things to do at night." "It's hard to imagine anything being better than this." The peaks of the cascades rose hazy and dreamlike in the distance, the firs around us a carpet of mossy green, the ocean a steely grey streaked with crests of white. "I used to think so, too." He spoke the words into my neck and kissed me there, softly sucking my skin as his hair tickled my cheek.

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I wanted to get lost in his touch, but my mind was preoccupied with the morning's events. "Edward?" "Hmm?" he murmured into my shoulder. "I'm sorry you had to hear all that from Jake," I said. "There are good reasons he's angry with me that are my own fault." I stared out at the river in the distance, squinting at the glare from the early afternoon light. "It's alright." Edward straightened up, tightening his arms around me. "I was only worried about him losing control, but he held it together. It was pretty impressive actually." He sighed, shrugging. "Anyway, I might not agree with the way he characterized things, but I also can't exactly dispute that most of it was true." I leaned my head back against his firm chest, contemplating what that meant. "What do you mean?" "I know Alice told you, Bella. I'm not proud of it, but I did prolong Victoria's suffering on purpose. After I saw what she had planned for you, I God, I just lost it." I felt him shake his head behind me before adding, "Not that I was in control of myself back then anyway." I flinched in his arms, not fazed by what he'd done to Victoria, but realizing according to what he'd told me yesterday, his family must have told him about her during one of their unwelcome "visits" to force him to feed. "And he's right, I am responsible for him being a monster, as he calls it. Well, my kind anyway. According to the mythology, the shape-shifting gene only activates in response to an imminent, proximate threat from their natural enemy." We stood still for several minutes, my chest expanding and contracting twice for every breath Edward took. He brushed my hair to the side and kissed me softly on the curve of my ear before whispering, "Tell me what you're thinking." I exhaled and realized as I did that my breath was shaky. "That's not all Jake was angry about." Edward froze, and I could tell by the stillness of his chest that he'd stopped breathing. "You wonder if I want to make you immortal." "Yeah." I felt myself blush and was thankful we weren't face-to-face. "The answer is yes." I gasped. He took a deep breath before placing his hands on my arms and turning me so I was facing him. When his eyes met mine, they were fierce. "But Bella, you need to understand that this is nothing new. From the moment I realized I loved you, I was desperate to change you, to make you mine forever." "You . . . you wanted that?" He laughed darkly. "Of course I wanted it. I obsessed over it, fantasized about it." He stepped away and paced around the small platform, gesturing dramatically as he spoke, a display of emphatic emotion unusual for him.

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I just stared at him, open mouthed, until he returned and cupped my face with his cool hands. "But, do you see? At the time, I viewed it as the epitome of my selfishness. Further proof I wasn't good enough for you." He looked down before murmuring, "It was another reason I left. I didn't trust myself to be able to deny you." I closed my eyes and swallowed the stab of pain at the mere mention of his leaving. "And now?" "Now, I could never deny you anything." I nodded, speechless, my mind racing. I had begged him so often to change me, to make me like him. It made sense that he would naturally assume it was what I still wanted. Was it? "I told you, Bella. I'm done hiding my true feelings from you. I would be lying if I said I didn't want it. I've been without you for so long. I can't fathom losing you twice." A creeping chill began making its way up my limbs and my heart began to speed up, not a pleasant sort of excitement, but a frightening inward panic. I pressed my palm to my chest, willing the pounding to stop. "Bella?" My pulse slowed then, as if obeying the sound of his voice. "It's nothing." He shook his head, giving me an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, we don't have to talk about this now." He brushed a piece of hair from my face, tucking it gently behind my ear. "There's time." I turned in his arms and we once again faced outward, my eyes scanning the silhouette of the treetops where they met the white sky. I imagined Charlie living on somewhere out there, looking down on this scene. I'd never given much thought to an afterlife, never having experienced the loss of someone I loved so much. But as I'd sat at Charlie's grave, I'd been gifted with the faintest assurance of his presence a small breeze on my neck as I realized his forgiveness was not something that perished with his body. And now I realized, that although I'd pleaded for Edward to change me years ago, I had never really stopped to consider what it would mean for me. As my eyes swept over the clouds blanketing the sky, thinking of my father, I tried to imagine never dying. Never following in his footsteps, going wherever he had gone. I couldn't. Edward hugged me tighter, resting his chin on the top of my head. "I know I sound like a broken record but please, tell me what you're thinking. Your silence in this moment is maddening." "I was thinking about Charlie." I didn't mention the other doubts that were nagging at me. It seemed that every word Edward uttered rewrote another chapter of my past. I hadn't even had time to acclimate to having him back in my life; I wasn't prepared to respond to his latest revelation. Though I had been eager and cavalier about it in my youth, age and experience and this morning's visit from Jake made it abundantly clear that this choice did not come without a cost. Jake. His crumpled face filled my mind's eye, and I felt my own eyes sting with tears. His face should never look like that. His face should only ever look happy sporting the toothy grin he tried to cheer me up with in those early dark days.

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"Oh baby, I'm so sorry." Edward interrupted my thoughts of Jake, and I realized he was talking about Charlie. A long silence ensued before Edward spoke again. "He never forgave me." "No," I said, unable to lie. "I hurt him too," he said. "I wish I'd been able to plead forgiveness from him before" "I know, Edward," I interrupted. And I did. "But that's really not what matters. If he had known why you left, he would have. I don't know where he is now, but somehow I believe he knows. I believe he's already forgiven you." Edward didn't respond but I thought I felt him nod slightly behind me. "Tell me about him. About after I left." Edward's voice was barely a whisper. "I want to know. I want to understand what it was like for him, for you." I exhaled, recalling how Charlie's face had lit with relief when I'd regained consciousness that night, and then slowly, over the course of days, his brow had fallen into a permanent crease as he realized the extent of the damage. "He was really concerned for a while. Tried to convince me to see a counselor but I refused." I laughed softly. "I mean, I would have been committed." He skimmed his nose along my neck, listening. Though I knew this was hard for him, I also knew we had to discuss the past if we were ever going to be able to move forward. His leaving had had consequences for me, for Charlie, for Jacob. "He was so relieved when Jake started coming around." Edward squeezed my arms briefly before relaxing. "I was so thin, then. Charlie used to barter with me like a child I could spend an extra hour with Jake if I finished my pasta, that sort of thing." Edward exhaled and I registered the bobbing of his Adam's apple against my hair as the smallest whimper was muffled in his throat. "It was never romantic between us. At least . . . not for me. But you should know that I tried." I shook my head with the memory of Jake, his eyes brimming with tears as he fought in vain not to cry in front of me: I know you still love him; I can live with that. But I'm here and he's not. Don't you think you could love me too? I sighed. "I still hate myself for hurting him. Leading him on was just as selfish as his lie about Victoria. Probably more. I know you two will never get along, being mortal enemies and all, but he's been there for me for the past six years. It hurts me to say this to you, but" I fidgeted with my hands, struggling to finish this sentence, but grateful I wasn't looking Edward in the eyes. "But what, Bella? Tell me. I can handle it. I need to handle it." "I know Jake better than I know you." My voice was barely audible but I knew he'd heard me perfectly. Edward released my arms and turned, pacing to the opposite railing in the small platform. He placed his hands on his hips as he scanned the scenery. I hated that my words hurt him, but they were true nonetheless. I didn't know whether I would have survived that first year without Jake. He'd sacrificed so much for me. I smiled ruefully, recalling the way he'd shrugged off gaggles of girls who'd clamored to date him in high school, opting instead to spend every spare minute with me. He knew instinctively to stay away from topics that would upset me, and he was shamelessly protective. One night he'd nearly gotten in a fistfight when one of his buddies had casually mentioned studying Claude Debussy in music class. And most recently, he'd held me together as we suffered through Charlie's last breath.

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My chest started to tighten, and it suddenly felt as if I was being crushed from the front and back at once. I didn't know how I could possibly live with myself if I hurt Jake, or how I could possibly live without him. When I looked at Edward again, his back was still to me, his hair standing on end and his shirt collar dissheveled. His shoulders were tense as he gripped the railing so hard that it splintered. "Fuck," he murmured under his breath, releasing the railing and fisting his hands at his sides. I crossed the short distance between us and tugged at his belt loops, turning him around to face me. "Don't be upset with me," I said softly. "It's just the way it is. You were gone a long time." "Yes," he sighed. "I know." He paused and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm not upset with you, Bella. This was my doing. I know you care about him, and although it sickens me to admit, I know I owe him for protecting you when I didn't." "It's more than that," I interrupted. "He didn't just protect me, Edward. He he carried me." I shook my head again, frustrated by my inability to express what Jake meant to me. "It's I " I trailed off, fumbling for words big enough to describe our friendship. Edward simply looked at me, patiently waiting for me to continue. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that he didn't just save my life. He made me believe I had a life worth living." He winced, and then nodded, pulling me close to him and stroking my hair. "I need him," I whispered, clutching him tight around the waist. "I can't lose him, too." Edward pulled me tight against his body and I leaned into him, my cheek pressed against his chest, my eyes relaxing and blurring the tableau surrounding us. His steady chest was quiet, no heartbeat but my own pulsing in my ears. His hands moved to my hair, caressing me and pressing me protectively to him. After a few minutes, he took my face in his hands and leaned to me, brushing his lips softly against mine. His eyes closed as he deepened the kiss, sucking my top lip between his soft cool ones, sliding his tongue into my mouth. The kiss was slow and deliberate, and I could tell he was concentrating on every movement, savoring each sensation as his tongue swept along my tongue, my lips. His breathing sped as he exhaled hungrily through his nose, but then calmed as his tongue retreated and he focused once again on the gentle sucking of my lips. It was the kind of kiss I'd always wished we had been able to share years ago full of passion, but also familiar and soothing. I smiled against his mouth as I felt his rigid length press against my stomach. As our tongues tasted and teased, I felt the ache of the morning's events start to lessen. Our kiss was interrupted by the buzzing of my cell phone in my pocket. I reluctantly pulled away from him as I pulled out my phone. I looked at the screen and saw my agent's name. It seemed years since I had spoken to her or thought about my job, my life outside of my past. The thought made me uneasy. "I need to answer this, I've been putting her off for days." Edward nodded. Janine was breathless, as usual, but masked the frustration I knew she was feeling at my failure to communicate with her. I'd forgotten we'd agreed to a fan event at a conference in Seattle for the following day when we'd last spoken, I'd told her it would be no problem to resume my media tour by then. Some of the hopeful actors seeking roles in the Dusk screenplay were attending the

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conference, so the casting director had asked me to sit in on a few read-throughs. I squeezed my temples as the reality of my life outside of Forks began to once again take shape around me. "Yes, of course, I'll be there," I said, assuming my professional voice. "I'll need a North-facing room. And please arrange a car with tinted windows." "No problem, Bella. I'll have Becky take care of it. The driver will pick you up at your father's house at 7 a.m. sharp." "No, wait," I stopped her and gave her the Cullen's address. "Have him pick me up there instead. I'll be bringing a guest."

Chapter 22 EPOV We spent hours sitting in the treehouse, just kissing and touching, neither of us willing to break the physical connection. She was anxious about Jacob, and about something else that I couldn't quite pinpoint. But I could tell that my touch relaxed her and drove the worries to the background, and I was content with that for now. I know Jake better than I know you. The words had sliced through me like no human weapon ever could. But they were true, and it was a reality I had brought upon myself. I had left her with no one. At the time, I told myself I wanted Bella to move on, to have a normal human life. God certainly had a sick sense of humor providing her with a werewolf to lean on for support. But though one part of me hated Jacob for giving Bella an ultimatum that clearly distressed her, another part of me hoped to hell he kept his word. Because Bella had already made her choice. And Jacob Black knew it. I'd resisted the urge to smirk in his direction as his thoughts had betrayed this knowledge before he'd sped off in that collection of refurbished scrap metal: I can't believe she's doing this to me. I can't oh, fuck, who am I kidding? Of course it's him. It's always been him... Buoyed by the memory of those last words, I'd been replaying them in my mind all afternoon. It's always been him. They echoed in my consciousness on a continuous loop as I kissed her, fisting my hands in her hair and tasting her neck, her jaw, sucking her skin slowly, savoring the salt of her flesh as it dissolved on my tongue. When we pulled apart, she was relaxed and smiling, but behind her eyes, I could nearly see the wheels of her brain still turning, rolling some private thought around. "I can't be without this again," she said, her eyes shining and reflecting the line of the treetops. "Not ever."

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"You won't," I promised, growling into her mouth once more. Alice texted me to say she and Jasper were going for a hunt in a region several hours away. I knew it was her way of giving us some privacy, and with tomorrow's public events looming large, I could not have been more grateful to have Bella to myself. "Are you feeling better?" I asked as Bella speared a forkful of linguini. She was sitting at the counter in my kitchen, having just finished preparing a meticulous meal from the items Alice had thoughtfully stocked in the pantry. She'd debriefed me on tomorrow's schedule as she cooked and we'd carefully avoided the subject of Jake until now. She tipped her head in thought as she chewed. "You're here," she said after swallowing. She shook her head and looked down at her hands for a moment as if trying to formulate her thoughts. "Jake is my best friend. I hated hurting Thomas, but I always knew deep down it would end. I know he'll move on and be happy. With Jake, I just . . . I don't know if he'll ever accept this." I came up behind her and rubbed her shoulders softly as she sat, picking at the remainder of her food. "I wish for your sake Alice could tell you the outcome." She leaned her head back to rest on my stomach. "Me too," she sighed. "I mean, I know it may be a lost cause, but I just really want him to understand, you know?" I leaned over to wrap my arms around her and realized as I did that she was crying. I held her for several minutes as she wept before finally nuzzling her face into the shoulder of my t-shirt. "I'm sorry, Bella," I whispered. I was. For her pain. And, for her sake, for Jacob's. She tugged me around to stand in front of her. Her eyes were red but crinkled in the corners from the breadth of her smile. "No more sorrys. Of course I'm sad about Jake. But at the same time, having you back in my life makes me happier than I can express. And when you touch me when I let go and really allow myself to accept that you're back there's no room for any other emotion." I swept her from the stool and carried her swiftly to my bedroom. Though there were questions and fears still hanging between us, when I finally pushed inside her, I was consumed by a blissful peace. ~X~ The next morning she showered as we waited for the driver to arrive. She hummed lightly to herself while lavender scented steam puffed out from under the bathroom door. After she rinsed the suds from her hair, I heard the razor skim up her calves, over her thighs, and reach almost to the curve of her hipbone before the sound was drowned out by the growl vibrating deep in my belly. I instinctively reached for the doorknob but hesitated when my hand grazed the smooth brass. In just a few days' time, I'd grown spoiled by the ability to touch, to taste, to love her whenever I felt the need. Yet now, I thought it best to keep a slight distance, to prepare myself for the arduous task of watching her from afar as she fulfilled her professional obligations in Seattle. I recalled with a pang the torment of observing her in New York and in Forks just days ago, the regret, the grief, the agony, that plagued me as she lived her life while I hid in the shadows. This would be different, of course, in that she had invited me to accompany her and would be retiring with me to a hotel room at the end of the day. But at the same time, I also felt as if I was giving her up, handing her over, if only for a short time, to the prying eyes and judging minds of others. Those people those strangers would command her attention, shake her hand, share her smile.

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Unsettled, I pulled on my pants and buttoned my shirt. I was fastening my cufflinks when she emerged from the bathroom wrapped only in a towel, her skin still glistening as she stood before me to straighten my tie. "God, you're sexy in a suit," she said with a smile and I couldn't help but return it. "I just need to throw on some clothes and dry my hair. "The car will be here soon." I nodded and grabbed her hands where they rested on my throat. "Thank you for inviting me," I said. "I love you." "I love you too. So much." Her words calmed me for several minutes. But despite Alice's reassurances when I'd spoken to her late last night and Bella's affectionate reminders, I was a wreck by the time the limousine pulled out of our driveway. The driver was an honorable man, but the easy banter he shared with Bella, and his unspoken thoughts about the chaos we would face today, left me shaken. After closing the privacy screen, Bella sipped on coffee and nibbled at a bagel, attempting to lighten the mood by sharing tales of mishaps from her time on tour. I smiled at the right times, nodded in the right places, but she saw through me. "You're nervous," she accused. "A bit," I shrugged, feigning nonchalance. When she'd asked me yesterday to accompany her, my ribcage swelled, my lips curved into a wide smile as I'd pulled her into my arms. It was pride, personified. It wasn't until much later, after our discussions of sea air and city lights, paparazzi and velvet ropes, that the trepidation began to set in. Though I'd promised not to hide my feelings from her, I also didn't want to worry her with my childish insecurities. Instead, I sat silent, rubbing at my face, my forearms, my chest, in an attempt to smother the flames of anxiety that burned unbidden beneath my skin. Discarding her breakfast, she shifted position in her seat as she turned to face me, trapping my hands in hers and lowering them to my lap. Her hair was pulled back in some sort of twist, soft misplaced wisps making the effect more sexy than sophisticated. Knowing I would soon be sharing this vision with countless others, I was torn by dueling desires to hide her away from the rest of the world or claim her as mine in front of them all. "Edward," she whispered, lightly licking the hollow behind my ear. "Let me help you relax." I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, throwing my head back to rest on the soft leather. She removed her hand from my kneecap and began to walk her fingers up my thigh. Her movements were slow, torturously so, and I shamelessly slumped down in the seat, eager for her to reach the place I was hard and aching. "Patience," she said huskily, her throaty laugh filling my ears. "It's not my strong suit," I warned, my voice tight. "Not anymore." "I know, but I want to distract you for as long as possible," she murmured, smirking. "It's three hours to Seattle." I groaned, instinctively bucking my hips, my entire body twitching at her statement and all that it implied. She then placed a soft kiss on my cheek before dropping to the floorboard. ~X~

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We had just stepped out of the car when a very tall, very muscular, bald man clad in a suit and wearing an earpiece began walking in our direction. "Abe!" Bella exclaimed, her face spreading into a wide smile as he threw his arms around her waist and lifted her off her feet. I flinched in response, my instinct to grab the man by the neck and twist my hand ninety degrees until I heard the crunch of vital bones. Instead, I gulped back a mouthtful of venom and smiled at him as he twirled her around once and set her to rights. "Abe, this is Edward," she said, casting her smile in my direction and making me forget all about Abe or anyone else in a fifty mile radius. I was vaguely aware that he was wondering about Thomas, but I was distracted by the knowledge that we were mere feet away from a hotel room with a king-sized bed. "He's head of the security detail." Her voice was teasing as if this idea was funny to her, but she smiled appreciatively at Abe. The man gave me a cheerful grin and held out his hand for me to shake. "Well, Bella can handle herself, but you should see some of these fans. They can get pretty intense." I gripped his palm until his thoughts registered a slight wince of pain, longing to inform Abe that I was all the security detail Bella required. After I'd been introduced to the security team, Bella's personal assistant, agent, editor and publicist, the group escorted us through the hotel lobby. It was, indisputably the most luxurious hotel in Seattle. The floor was marble and every other exposed surface was pure mahogony, granite or glass. I used to imagined what it would be like to introduce Bella to the small extravagances which my family's wealth afforded, but she was already accustomed to it all, walking confidently through a small vestibule leading to a private elevator bank which serviced only the private suites. I smiled inwardly as I realized that she was every bit as unimpressed by her surroundings as I would have expected. She dressed the part and looked completely at home, but inside I knew she was rolling her eyes. We were finally alone as we stepped off the elevator onto the landing which housed only a single door to the hotel's presidential suite. She looked slightly embarrassed as she fiddled with the door key. "I don't ask for this. They just do it," she said, shaking her head lightly. "Every day this thing just gets bigger. I can hide out in a town like Forks, but in larger cities, word gets out and people get curious." I nodded, smiling proudly at her as she pushed open the door and stepped, cringing, into the palatial space. The entry table was adorned with fresh white calla lillies in a sleek crystal vase. The foyer opened up into a spacious living room furnished with lambskin white leather settees and charcoal granite tables. The entire back wall was glass, overlooking the Seattle skyline. She didn't stop to admire the view but strode straight through the small office and into the master suite. She hadn't packed a bag, but the closet doors stood open and a small collection of designer outfits, still bearing tags, hung evenly spaced and perfectly pressed. A stack of five shoeboxes were set neatly beneath the hanging clothes. She appraised the selection and nodded once before turning to the dresser. She pulled open the middle drawer to find it stocked with a pair of jeans and a couple of threadbare T-shirts. "Thank God for Becky," she smiled, cocking an eyebrow at me. "Becky, Abe, Janine," I said. "I'm having trouble keeping track of them all," I teased. "It's taken me a while to get used to all the fuss. But I have to admit it makes life easier. Plus, I might not love walking in heels, but I do love the way they make my legs look."

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I groaned at her as she pulled the top from a shoe box and slid on a pair of precariously high silver heels that criss-crossed all over her feet and were open at the toe. She stood and walked toward the bathroom, tossing a coy look over her shoulder, her calf muscles screaming at me as she moved. Though she'd taken me in her mouth only thirty minutes ago, I was already desperate for her again. I had her in my arms and was redirecting us toward the bed before she reached the door. I stood between her legs as I laid her down, shoving her straight skirt up to her waist and tugging her panties to the side. Too impatient for her human hands, I freed myself from my suit pants and pushed inside her with a moan. I cradled her head in my hands, rocking into her with quick, shallow thrusts, committing to memory the shape of her parted lips and the pitch of her scream as she quickly came apart around me. My body shaking with my release, I grunted quietly into her neck. ~X~ I heard the thoughts of Bella's fans before I saw them, their excitement and impatience screeching so loud that I drew my knees to my chest and dropped my head. I knew from their chatter that the crowd was vast, yet I was nevertheless stunned when I opened my eyes and realized the sheer magnitude of people milling restlessly in front of the bookstore. "Oh my God," I blurted. There were thousands of them, decked out in Dusk apparel, clutching their books, screaming and jumping, even rapping on the tinted windows of the limousine as we rode past. My mind was flooded with their wants, their relentless desire to speak with her, take photos of her, touch her. Bella rubbed my back and nuzzled my ear. "Pretty wild, huh?" she murmured. "Wild doesn't begin to cover it," I said darkly, resting my hand on top of hers. "It's pandemonium." "You'll get used to it," she shrugged. "It's not always like this. Just at preplanned events. I do get to fly under the radar most of the time, although it is getting trickier." I didn't respond, because although I didn't want to be contrary, I also knew full well that I would never get used to this. When the car pulled up to the side entrance, a young woman opened Bella's door, grabbed her elbow, and ushered her hurriedly to the front of the store. I walked a few steps behind, admiring the view of Bella's hourglass shape in a straight skirt of shiny, navy silk and a crisp, fitted white shirt. As the noisy thoughts of the crowd grew louder, my stomach twisted, my limbs leaden, until the two women stopped at the display table and Bella smiled at me before motioning me closer. "Becky," she said, grabbing my hand. "This is Edward. He's with me." "Edward," Becky said brusquely, nodding once. "A pleasure." She wondered briefly at my identity, at Thomas's absence before mentally reminding herself that Bella's private life was none of her business. She pulled out a small electronic device and began to rattle off Bella's schedule for the day. "Okay, Bella, here we go. Book-signing from noon to two. Local media interviews from two-thirty to three. Venue change and coffee break. Casting read-throughs from three-thirty to six. Coffee break. Sunset dinner cruise with studio execs from seven to ten." "Perfect. Thanks, Becky. And my latte is . . .?" "It's coming. Sorry for the delay. Can we get you anything, Edward? Coffee? Water?" I cleared my throat. "No, no, I'm fine. But thank you."

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"Okay, then. You're welcome to browse or to have a seat over there," she instructed, pointing me toward a few armchairs grouped in the corner of the store. "Bella, the doors will open in five." Bella squeezed my hand and whispered, "Just hang tight, okay? It'll be over before you know it." I nodded and forced a smile before leaving her side to pace in front of the windows. Soon, one of her security guards opened the doors, lifted a bullhorn, and began to shout instructions to the waiting crowd. I looked on in horror as, all at once, the people poured inside, pushing, shoving, rushing to reach Bella's table. The strategically placed velvet ropes were no match for them, and I found myself surrounded by rabid fans, all of whom were standing on their tiptoes to get a better look. I clenched my teeth and darted my eyes around the store, desperate for an escape. Finding none, or at least not one that I could feasibly accomplish without drawing too much attention, I shoved my hands in my pockets and swallowed a bucket of venom. Thankfully, I was able to view Bella easily from my vantage point several inches above the teenage girls and young women that comprised the sea of bodies between us. I gazed at her and attempted to keep myself grounded, despite the mental blather that pelted me over and over again. God, we've been waiting forever. She better spend more than 5 seconds with us. She is, like, so pretty in person. Holy sex in a suit. That guy is gorgeous. It's not fair. Rich, famous, and hot? I bet she could get any guy she wanted. Wow, that copper-headed boy has a beautiful face. And a beautiful ass to go with it. I'm so glad I have a little sister. Gives me an excuse to scope out this hot-ass chick. Ohmigod, the guy next to me is so fine. He looks just like Luke! "Jesus Christ," I muttered, massaging my temples. I had expected that spending an afternoon with Bella's admirers would be challenging. But I could not have anticipated just how vexing it would be. Whether they were adoring, covetous, or downright lewd, the anxiety I experienced at hearing the fans' thoughts was magnified ten thousand fold by their physical proximity. I was beset on all sides by them, breath tickling my neck, arms brushing against mine, hearts thundering in my ears and pumping blood and adrenaline through their veins. Each time my eyes left Bella's form, I was nearly crippled with thirst, my throat burning and head spinning with the notion of how fucking easy it would be to give into my baser instincts. I needed some distance. "Excuse me," I muttered, elbowing my way through the crowd. I walked briskly through the store and out the side entrance, where I leaned my forehead against the brick wall and gulped lungfuls of fresh air. Within seconds, I felt better, more myself, until I realized that Bella was still inside, alone, unprotected. Fuck. Resigned, I re-entered the store, grabbed a random book from a table full of best-sellers, and retired to an armchair where I pretended to read. I had a nearly full view of the store and an unobstructed view of Bella, whom I brazenly stared at for hours, replaying images of her on her knees in the hired car, and underneath me on the hotel bed. I interrupted myself only to flash what I had learned from Bella were 'dazzling' smiles at any of her fans or business associates who glanced in my direction.

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Finally, she was finished. Waving off her entourage, she strolled straight to me, where she sat on the arm of my chair and scratched her nails back and forth across the nape of my neck. "You okay?" she asked. "Yes," I nodded. "Better now." "Good," she smiled. "Me too." We sat in silence for a moment, her fingers twisting through my hair. "Listen, Edward," she said softly. "The read-throughs are next. And it's just supposed to be the casting people and me, so . . ." "That's fine," I shrugged, forcing a smile. "I'll find something to keep me occupied." "Will you ride over with me?" her voice suddenly small, tentative. I smiled again, naturally this time. "Of course." ~X~ The female actors filed by, straight-backed and nervous, as the casting assistant escorted them into the room. The young women were attractive in their own right, I suppose, with their long brown hair and brown eyes, each attempting to dress the part of a teenage Bella. I laughed quietly to myself, knowing from their thoughts that their concert t-shirts were recently purchased online, that their jeans were distressed by the maker, not by years of wear. Studying their appearances and rifling through their minds as they passed, I dismissed each one as too plain, too plastic. Too eager, too ruthless. I reminded myself that these women were hand-picked, culled from a crop of thousands vying for the role of Claire. Nevertheless, the casting department was sorely mistaken if they thought that any of these women could hold a candle to Bella's beauty, her sweetness, her warmth. I reached in my pocket to retrieve the worn picture I kept there. Holding it delicately between my thumb and forefinger, I gazed upon Bella as a high-school girl, lovestruck and innocent, the way I'd always wished to remember her until I learned firsthand that her passion and allure had only increased with the passage of time. I realized with a giddy grin that my memories of her now spanned years instead of months, ranged from girl to woman, from biology lab to this morning's hotel suite. My smile dissipated, and I clenched my hands into tight fists as the male actors came into view. They were all hopeful, of course, that they would nail the audition, confident that a starring role in Dusk would represent the "big break" for which they'd all been working. But beneath that professional ambition ran an undercurrent of longing, a testosterone-fueled desire to meet Bella, to woo her, to fuck her. I glared at them as they passed, resisting the urge to make snide comments at the overabundance of hair gel, controlling my impulse to gut them all where they stood. When the last actor walked into the room, the casting assistant gave me a pointed look before shutting the door with an obnoxious click. I rolled my eyes at her and began to pace the hallway, pulling at my hair as I considered how to fill the next several hours without Bella. Taking advantage of the overcast sky, I trudged back to the hotel. When I arrived in her suite, I kicked off my shoes and loosened my tie, sinking headfirst on the bed to inhale her scent left on the sheets. I thought back over this morning, of the throngs of people, all wanting a piece of her. Her crazed fans, desperate for a smile, a touch, a mere glance in their direction. Her entourage, with the women in their stiletto heels, whisking her from place to place as Bella looked anxiously over her shoulder to catch my eye, and the men, patronizing her, flirting with her, pretending to protect her. All in the name of making her a bigger star.

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I didn't understand this life. Didn't ask for it. Hell, it was the very essence of what my kind has been conditioned to avoid. And even though I was unquestionably committed to living it with her for as long as she let me, I feared I was wholly unprepared to handle it. My sulking was interrupted by the buzz of my phone. "Carlisle," I acknowledged. "Son. Alice suggested I check in on you, see how you're handling the day in Seattle." I sensed the concern in his tone, and I could picture him sitting at his desk, brow furrowed, hands clasped together under his chin. "It's difficult," I admitted. "Extraordinarily so." "What's difficult about it? Talk to me." "There are just so many people," I sighed, my voice wavering. "God, Carlisle, I've never seen so many people. And they all want something from her. Attention, affection, money, fame. It's all-consuming, and frankly, it's . . . frightening." He chuckled softly before replying. "Edward, I can assure you that you have nothing, and no one, to fear." "You know what I mean," I responded quietly. "I worry about my ability to protect her when she's so exposed. I worry about my ability to stay inconspicuous in a sea of publicity about my ability to keep up with her and not hold her back. Christ, Carlisle. You should hear the thoughts . . . the envy it's blinding." "I understand your concerns, son, but they sound like growing pains to me. It's natural for you and Bella to have a period of adjustment as you rekindle your relationship. As far as her safety is concerned, I have no doubt that you could destroy anyone who wished her harm." He paused for a moment before adding, "Now whether you could be inconspicuous in doing so is a question better addressed at another time." "Of course," I murmured. Carlisle was right. I could flatten anyone, any number of people, really, who intended her harm. I'd done it many times before and wouldn't hesitate to do it again, even if it meant incurring the Volturi's wrath. "As for her celebrity," he continued, "you must remember that although you might not yet be acquainted with the commitments and obligations attendant to Bella's career, she is. She has welcomed you into her life, knowing the hurdles you two will face, because she is confident that your love for each other can overcome them. It's not going to be easy for you, I imagine. But you need to trust her, Edward." "You're right," I agreed. With each word exchanged, I felt the stress that inhabited my body and mind diminish. That's not to say that I was at ease with Bella's fame, or that I fully understood how I fit into this life she'd built for herself, but my fears were assuaged for the time being, my focus renewed. It didn't matter how difficult it would be for me to adjust to Bella's new life, because I knew it couldn't possibly compare to the agony of adjusting to a life without her. I smiled in spite of myself, buoyed as usual by the sense of peace that came from speaking with Carlisle. For all the desperate, selfish, vile acts I'd committed in my existence, Carlisle never lost faith. And now, though I'd pushed him and everyone I loved away for the past six years, he embraced me unconditionally yet again. I missed him.

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The line was silent for a moment before I spoke, somewhat tentatively. "Carlisle?" "Yes?" "Would it be possible for you to join us in Forks? It's not urgent, of course, but" "Yes," he interrupted me. "Yes, son. We've been packed for days. I'm so happy you asked." Relief I didn't know I'd been craving welled in my chest and up into my throat. "Thank you." "You're welcome. Have a nice night with Bella tonight, and we'll see you tomorrow." ~X~ As we rode the elevator to her suite after a formal, crowded dinner, all I could think about was getting my body inside of hers. I had spent all day watching her from a distance, observing her opening herself up to others. They all clamored for a slice of her attention and she'd obliged them gracefully. I myself had not been so graceful. "What are you thinking?" She stroked the topside of my hand as we crossed the threshold into the palatial suite. "You always ask me that, but you've been so quiet today." "I've been listening." "Oh really?" "Really." "And what have you been hearing?" Her mouth curved into a sexy smirk. "Every girl in that place today wanted to be you. Every guy just . . . wanted you." She flinched. "I'm sorry, Edward. I really hadn't thought about that aspect of this whole . . . thing." She gestured vaguely around us. "I'm still learning to handle it myself." "Your book, your Luke, your Claire..." I sighed, shaking my head. "They think they know us, Bella." She wrapped her hands around my neck, forcing me to meet her eyes. "They don't. Edward, they think they do, but they don't." "I know." I nodded. "I just it was harder than I thought." She nodded, her look appraising and sympathetic. "What can I do? Tell me what you need from me." "I I need to feel you." "Okay." She rubbed her palms down my arms and clasped my hands. "I'm here. I'm yours now. No one else's." I wrapped my arms around her, burying my face in her neck and sucking in a lungful of her burning scent. "I always knew you'd be spectacular. I feared I would hold you back."

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"It's not me." She stroked the back of my head soothingly. "It's us they love. They read our story and they want what we had." I pulled back and my eyes flashed to hers. "What we have," she corrected, grinning. I wanted to weep at her words. I was overcome with the strangest mixture of envy and pride that the outside world had been made privy to a sliver of our private connection. Bella couldn't appreciate the deep way in which our story had permeated the imaginations of those around us, but their vivid fantasies only served to underscore what a tragedy my leaving her had been. I resisted the urge to wallow in regret at my past folly. I had been given a second chance at us at life with meaning. I couldn't control the minds of others. But Bella's reality, her essence, her body, were, finally and again, mine. I walked us backward to the bed, sitting us on the edge of the mattress and swallowing once as I pinned her with my gaze and prepared to give voice to my needs. "Bella, I I need you in my mouth." Her eyes grew dark as a flush dotted her cheeks and crept across her chest. "Unzip me?" she asked quietly, leaning forward to provide better access. I lowered the zipper with a shaking hand, my mouth already parched with anticipation. I groaned at the sight of her in sinful black lingerie. She sank back on the bed, scooting toward the headboard. "No, Bella, not that way. I need... I want you above me." I wanted her thighs encasing my head, I wanted her scent engulfing me completely. I wanted her slight weight to rest on me as I sucked on her. Realization dawned and she nodded, understanding. She crawled on all fours across the mattress back to where I sat and peeled the jacket of my tux slowly off my shoulders. Loosening my tie, she bent to kiss my neck as she slid it off with a quick flip of her wrist. She made quick work of the buttons of my dress shirt as she sucked at my neck, rolling her tongue around my adam's apple and making my already aching cock jump with every pass. She rose to her knees and just stared at me, waiting. I stood up and tore off my pants as I took her in. She was the same girl I had made love to yesterday morning, clad in boxers and an old t-shirt. But here she was, in black lacy lingerie, her breasts swelling over the top of a bra that was designed to fail perfectly at containing them. She was flushed but not nervous, her eyes dark and wanting, her body confident and expecting. I lay down on the bed and took hold of her hip with one hand, tugging her panties down. She shimmied out of them and I caught her wrist before she could toss them aside. "I'm so hungry for you," I ground out between gritted teeth. I felt like a man dying of thirst and presented with a canteen of water. I was desperate to drink but fearful I would consume her too quickly, too roughly. "Let me start here." She released the garment into my hand, and I moaned as I felt that the panties were already wet. She looked like a goddess with her tousled hair spilling around her shoulder. As she reached behind her back to unclasp her bra, I brought the panties to my face and breathed in deep. The blinding euphoria was immediate. I swam in and out of conscious thought, my eyes clamped shut in acceptance of the high her scent invoked. I opened my eyes after seconds or minutes, I couldn't be sure. Her gaze was wide and her mouth was open, her chest heaving as she watched me dissolve in

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her scent. Meeting her eyes, I focused there and felt my vision coalesce and return to normal. My breathing normalized as I acclimated to the effects of her arousal. "Straddle my face," I whispered, leaning back and pulling at her thigh gently. She complied, moving into position so that she was kneeling, perched above me, her wet sex just inches from my mouth. "I'm yours, Edward." Her voice was tender as she looked down at me, her eyes conveying pure love laced with concern. I gripped her hips and pulled her lower, leaving a small space to avoid overhelming her too soon. I licked her in long slow strokes, each sweep of my tongue followed by a pause as I swallowed, composed myself and licked her again. Her eyes stayed locked on mine, keeping me grounded as I grew bolder, flattening my tongue against her and dragging it slowly across her folds. She groaned, throwing her head back briefly. She tipped her head forward again, eyes open as she breathed in and out in small, whispy moans. She began moving her hips slightly and I opened my mouth to her as she grew bolder, pressing herself into me. I locked my jaw and stroked her firmly with my tongue, careful to be gentle where she was most sensitive. She gasped and moaned and panted my name, her hands roaming over her own beautiful breasts as she continued holding my eyes. Finally, when she was writhing on top of me, I sucked her clit fervently between my lips. "Oh God!" she gasped as her leg muscles flexed around me. My own moan was muffled by her wet flesh covering my face. She braced her arms against the headboard as she rode out the final waves of her orgasm. Finally, she collapsed against me, sweaty and beautifully spent. I gently rolled us to our sides, her face buried in the crook of my neck. After a long period of quiet breathing and blissful silence, she stirrred. "You know," she whispered, lifting her head to smile mischieviously at me. "I know I'm not the only one those girls were thinking about." She dipped her head to tongue my ear. "Mmmmh?" I was too distracted by her tongue to understand her meaning. "I mean," she breathed. "You told me what they were thinking of me. I want to know what they were thinking when they saw you." "I don't pay any attention " "You heard them. Tell me." Her mouth was was doing wicked things to my ear and my neck. "They thought I looked like they imagined Luke." "Mmhmm...and what else?" Despite the apparent youth of the girls, their fantasies were shockingly graphic. I was used to it, having spent countless years as the object of lust to throngs of hormonal teenage girls, but these were more intense, more specific. It took them no effort to slot my image into the already-staged scene. Though I tried to avoid them, of course I had seen the images. At her insistence, I forced myeslf now to recall the most predominant. "They imagined me on top of them, my face in orgasm."

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"Mmmh," she exhaled, moving her mouth down my neck to my shoulder as her hand slid down my back to trace the muscles there. "What else?" I smelled her getting wetter as she prodded me. The thought of her being aroused by her jealousy made my already painfully stiff cock ache. "Bella, it's the same old " "Tell me," she insisted, biting my ear, hard. Growling, I grabbed her roughly by the waist and pushed her back into the bed. I buried my face between her breasts, sucking her nipples and grunting into her flesh. I reached between her legs as I propped myself up on one arm to look into her eyes. "They imagined my face between their legs, my tongue lapping at them like I just did to you." She moaned as I pushed my finger deep inside, her muscles responding to my touch and my words. "They imagined kneeling before me, sucking my cock, just like you did this morning in the car." Again she moaned, louder this time as she pushed her hips up to meet my hand. I smiled. "Why does this turn you on?" I asked, though I knew the answer. It was the same reason I grew hard hearing her break up with Thomas and listening to Jacob's thoughts of agonized defeat. "Because I'm the one you want." "Yes," I hissed. "You're all I've ever wanted." With that, she twisted her body, my fingers still inside her, and rose up on all fours. Wordlessly, she began subtly rocking herself forward and back, my fingers sliding in and out. "Like this," she said, turning her head to look back at me where I kneeled behind her. "I want you like this." Her beauty was ethereal, inhuman. The soft glow of the moonlight filtered through the glass walls and swept over the curve of her spine, casting erotic shadows on her skin. I groaned watching my own hand working inside of her, feeling her smooth, wet muscles from within. I had always imagined that this would seem the most impersonal of sexual positions. But in this moment where we had both admitted our insecurities our need to possess and be possessed in return I couldn't fathom anything more intimate. She arched her back, taunting, imploring. The look on her face was possessive and powerful while the position of her body was offering, vulnerable. I slipped my hand out of her wetness and wrapped it around my length, pumping my fist twice as I drank in the sight of her lithe form. I moved forward, using my knees to nudge her thighs apart as I guided myself into her. "Sweet Christ." Though her soft flesh was yielding, from this angle she was nearly painfully tight. When she had finally absorbed all of my length, I stilled, training my thoughts on the rushing of her blood in her veins. There was no doubt I would climax instantly if I gave into the urge to rear back and buck forward into her. I closed my eyes, caressing her smooth backside with my hands as I locked in on the throbbing of her pulse around my cock. "Are you okay?" she whispered, turning back to look at me. Her legs had begun to tremble and I realized then she was curbing her own urge to push back against me. "Oh God, yes. Bella, baby, you are so beautiful like this."

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Suddenly I needed to put my weight on her, feel her caged beneath my body. I bent over her, pressing my chest flush against her back and wrapping my arms around her waist. She groaned loudly at the increased contact and I responded with a thrust. She moaned again and I gritted my teeth, the side of my face pressed against her slick spine. "Faster, Edward," she panted. "More." I complied, thrusting forward into her firmly as my hands gripped and tugged at her breasts. Our bodies were touching everywhere, my thighs rubbing between her legs as I rocked into her in a steady but shallow rhythm. My eyes were closed and behind them there lingered a roomful of people the fans who claimed a piece of her, the men who ogled her, the girls who lusted after me. I imagined their faces as I bucked against her over and over. I saw their expressions dawn with shock, understanding and, finally, devastation. "Fuck, Bella," I rasped, my hips working against her ass, my arms threading beneath hers as my hands hooked around her shoulders. "You're mine." "Yes," she gasped, her body clamping as my balls tightened in anticipation of release. "Oh God, Edward." I lifted my chest from her back and rose up on my knees then, gripping her by the waist and watching her arch beneath me as she began to throb. She looked back at me as she came undone, her eyes pleading with me to come with her. "Oh Christ . . . Oh, Bella." I pumped three more times and then erupted inside her, the world around us, the noise and faces crumbling away as I leaned back over her, hugging her tightly to my chest and spilling deep inside her. ~X~ "This moment feels so perfect, I never want it to end," she spoke at last, her nude body draped all over me. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last hour, waking every few minutes to drag her foot up and down my shin as if to confirm I was still there before falling back into a gentle slumber. "It does. And me neither," I agreed, stroking her arm and feeling her fan into goosebumps at my touch. "Edward . . ." she spoke again after a long while. "Hmm?" "Do you feel old?" I furrowed my brow, caught off guard. "Of course I feel old. I am old." "What I mean is . . . there are humans alive now who were alive when you were born I mean, when you were born as a human." I nodded, still unsure where this was going. "Yes, I know, although I'm catching up." I smiled. "The oldest living human is 114. Why is this concerning you now, love?" "I just . . . how do you cope with forever? You've lived so long, but in many ways you haven't. You've got a lot of life left." She propped her arm on my chest, looking at me thoughtfully. I felt a pang of unease at her words. I knew what she meant forever was an incomprehensible concept even for me. My view of immortality had evolved over time, Bella the central catalyst of the

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metamorphoses. In my years before she'd entered my life, it was something merely to be endured. After I'd lost her, it was a hell to be suffered. And now, I saw that living forever with Bella at my side would render me the sort of happiness I couldn't earn in ten thousand lifetimes. But as she spoke, I sensed an undercurrent of fear beneath the innocuous surface of her words. She was contemplating the daunting prospect of this life, engaging in the type of rational deliberation I'd pleaded with her to consider years ago thinking of the practical implications that I, myself, had not been given the opportunity to appraise. It was a cruel irony. I had never been so certain that I wanted Bella immortal unbreakable and with me for eternity. No longer worried that making her mine forever would risk her perfect soul, I was desperate to bind her to me. My eyes wandered to her neck at random frequent intervals, fantasizing about biting her, sucking just a taste of that exquisite blood, and replacing her humanity with my strengh and durability. But she had grown up in my absence. Though I knew she had forgiven me, I had wounded her deeply and, like the crucifix that stained her flesh, I had left her scarred. "It's true. I am still relatively young. But Carlisle has been alive for centuries." Her eyes brightened and became glossy with emotion. "God, I hadn't realized how much I missed him until you said his name just now." "He misses you too." I smiled, stroking her smooth back, surprisingly grateful for the sudden change of subject. "You'll see him tomorrow. You'll see them all tomorrow." "Tomorrow?" "Is that okay?" "Yes, wow, it's more than okay... I'm just a little nervous. It's been so long." "For me too," I said, smiling at her softly. "But it's time."

Chapter 23 BPOV My fingers dug into the soft leather as Edward cornered the sharp turns of the 101. His jaw was clenched, his knuckles tight on the wheel, as the muscles in his thigh tensed and relaxed with every nudge of the brake. We'd left Seattle long before dawn, and now the horizon shone a bright pink as the landscape whizzed by in a blur of muted greens and browns. Although the publishing company had offered us a car and driver for the return trip to Forks, Edward had sheepishly admitted he'd be happier behind the wheel. I'd initially assumed he was growing weary of the extra company, and that he'd longed for the comfort a car ride with me alone would bring. True as I'm sure that was, I realized that even more so, Edward was anxious to reunite with his family. He'd awoken me this morning by whispering apologies in my ear, explaining that I could sleep in the car but that he'd like to get on the road. When I mumbled groggily in agreement, he rewarded me with a silent thank you, fondling my collarbone, my breastbone, my nipples, first with his cool fingers and then with the even colder key of a rented Z4. I was excited but nervous about seeing them all. I asked Edward to tell me what everyone had been doing since they left but it quickly became clear that he wasn't comfortable with my questions. Because he didn't know the answers.

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He responded as best he could. Alice and Jasper had been living in Vancouver; Esme and Carlisle had gone to Russia to visit friends and then settled in Alaska with Rose and Emmett. The whole family had been together only sporadically, when summoned by Alice. Then they'd all recently convened in Yellowknife Edward's most recent temporary residence after he'd heard the news about Dusk. When I asked him why Jasper and Alice had gone off on their own, he stiffened in his seat. "I don't know all the details. But I know he couldn't handle being around the family after we left . . . and after I . . . left." I squeezed his thigh. "You don't have to talk about that now" "No, no." He shook his head. "It's not that. I just wish I knew more. After we left I . . . I became quite different. I know that the family's mood took a toll on Jasper. Not to mention ..." Edward trailed off, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Not to mention what?" He sighed heavily, mumbling softly to himself. "So much . . ." "Not to mention what?" "Bella, there is nothing about those empty years that I want to relive. But similarly, there is nothing I will keep from you. I just don't want to overwhelm you right now. Or perhaps, I don't want to overwhelm myself." "I understand that. Rome wasn't built in a day. But, please, just finish that sentence." "The night after your birthday, Jasper and I got in a fight." "Okay . . . But obviously things are okay between you now." "Yes, the time we've spent together over the last several days has been fairly normal. Or at least as normal as it could be, considering our history." I raised an eyebrow at him, urging him to explain. He gave me a sidelong glance and then began swiftly unbuttoning his shirt. "Edward what" Before I could finish, he leaned forward slightly, letting his shirt fall to his shoulder blades. I gasped. "He bit you?" My hand reached out without my permission, my fingertip running lightly along the raised crescent scar on the top of his right shoulder. It was so faint I hadn't noticed it before now, but the slightly iridescent curve glinted slightly in the early morning light. He drew the shirt back up to cover his back. "He wasn't trying to hurt me. He was defending himself." "You bit him?" Edward nodded solemnly. "I lost it, Bella. I knew all along it wasn't his fault. But after that night, all I could see in my mind's eye were thoughts that ran through Jasper's head the split-second before he lunged at you. . . . Him . . . drinking from you." I stifled a gasp.

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"The actual fight lasted less than a minute. But I said some very ugly things things I didn't mean." I nodded. "I'm sure he understood." Edward nodded. "He did. But it had an effect. One thing I've learned, Bella, being forgiven doesn't erase the past. I'm sure you understand that better than anyone," he sighed, shaking his head. I looked down then, fiddling with the strap of my purse. "If I had been capable of nobility, I would have played the good son, the good brother. Spared my family their suffering at my own expense. But the prospect of an eternity alone . . . without you . . . it was too much to bear. And I chose instead to escape." A now-familiar chill shot up my spine. I shut my eyes as his words echoed in my head: an eternity alone without you... I saw an image of Edward alone in the woods, his stationary body the axis as the circle of trees around him grew wider and wider... "Bella, are you okay?" "Yeah, babe. I'm fine. Just tired." My voice sounded strange, hollow. I opened my eyes again and forced a smile. I knew Edward was feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement about seeing his family, but my line of questioning had led us both into uneasy territory. I wanted to take us back to the lighthearted anticipation of minutes ago. "So... I'm curious..." I drew out the words on purpose. "About what?" "Are you going to fuck me with your family in the house?" He jerked his head in my direction, startled, before breaking into a wicked smile and shaking his head and laughing. "I'm still getting used to that." "To what?" "Just you. Grown up. Saying 'fuck'." I giggled and he reached over to tuck my hair behind my ear with his right hand. "I'm glad I amuse you but I wasn't kidding," I said, quirking an eyebrow at him. "Are you?" "Of course I am. What kind of a question is that?" I shrugged, smiling. "I just thought it might be weird for you. I mean, won't they be able to . . . you know . . . hear us?" "Yes." He nodded. "And?" I laughed again, squeezing his forearm before folding in on myself and resting my head on his shoulder. "Okay with me if it's okay with you."

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He wrapped his arm around me and I turned the satellite radio to a classical station I knew he'd like before closing my eyes. I slept for most of the remaining journey, my eyes fluttering open only when he stroked my thigh or rested his hand on my knee. Hours later we were approaching town, I watched the speedometer creep toward the red zone, captivated by the hum of the engine, his deft maneuvering, and the delicious scent of him that filled the car. I leaned over and nuzzled his neck, inhaling deeply before palming him through his pants. "I speak Car and Driver now," I breathed in his ear. "Oh?" he asked, his voice tight as I registered a slight reduction in our speed. "Mmm-hmmm. The car's hot," I murmured. "The old Bella was content to drive 20 under the speed limit in a three-ton Chevy." "Yeah, well, I still love the truck." I saw him smile out of the corner of my eye. "And I'm keeping it. Forever. So don't get any ideas." "I love you." His smile saturated his voice, and every part of my body. "Would you love me more if I told you I drove a McLaren?" His mouth dropped open as he snapped his head in my direction. "You don't." I smiled devilishly. "I do. SLR." "Jesus, Bella," he growled. "How did you do they even" "My publisher. And no, they don't make them anymore." I ran my hand teasingly over his crotch and felt him straining against the fly of his jeans. He groaned, no doubt realizing we were too close to his house to finish what I was starting. "Fuck." "Sometimes it's nice to know that beneath all that superhuman exterior you're still just a guy," I giggled. He moved my hand. "We're nearly there. Could you please say something to distract me from the image of you behind the wheel of that car?" "Well, the wheel is nice... but the hood is also pretty spectacular." He groaned again. "If you don't stop talking right now, I'm going to have to settle for seeing you laid out on the hood of a rented Z4." I laughed, throwing my head back and wiping at my eyes with the backs of my hands. "Edward?" "Yes, Love?" "I'm really happy." ~X~

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Carlisle and Esme's united stance was discernible from the foot of the drive. They stood on the porch, Carlisle's arm locked securely around her slender waist. Edward squeezed my hand, and I shot him a grateful look. He kept his gaze trained on the porch, and I felt my own pulse slow as his lips curved upward into a slight smile. At our approach, Esme moved forward slightly and then retreated as Carlisle held her firmly in place. Edward was at my door before I'd registered the car fully stopping. He helped me out, and we turned to face them together. I looked at Carlisle first. As his warm eyes settled on my own, my chest suddenly felt too small for my lungs. His unlined face was exceptionally handsome as it glinted slightly in the hint of sunlight streaming through the sparse clouds. But his eyes looked older than I'd remembered, reflecting every day he'd endured since leaving Forks. A flurry of memories clouded up my head as I stared him his welcoming smile the first night Edward had brought me to this home, sharing a laugh with Charlie at the father-daughter banquet junior year, his skilled hands stitching me up in his office. Before I realized what I was doing I was running, bounding up the wooden steps two at a time as his furrowed brow relaxed. His face opened into a wide smile as I launched myself at him, crying like a baby into the collar of his shirt as my throat opened up in gasping sobs. He held me tight, clutching at the fabric of my sweater as if he were resisting the temptation to squeeze me too tight. Out of the corner of my eye, I discerned that something of an opposite reunion was occurring behind me. Unrestrained by Carlisle, Esme had flown down the steps to Edward and her mothering coos mingled with Edward's shy laughter. "Bella, dear," Carlisle's voice seemed to calm every nervous thread in my body, relaxing me instantly. "We have missed you." He set me to rights, and I gracelessly wiped at my eyes with the sleeve of my sweater. "I'm sorry, Carlisle," I sputtered. "I don't know what came over me." He gripped my elbows as he examined my face with a concerned gaze before shaking his head lightly and looking me meaningfully in the eyes. "No, Bella. I'm sorry. This was long overdue." I swallowed back a fresh tide of emotion and nodded vigorously in agreement. "He's my son, Bella," he whispered, his gaze dropping to his hands where they held me before returning to my own. "But it's no excuse. You deserved better from us from me." "I understand why you did what you did." He nodded appreciatively. "That's more than I deserve, Bella. Thank you." "Thank you," I whispered, "for taking care of him." "There is much to say." I smiled at him, squeezing his hand. "There is time. Go to him." He gave me a grateful smile, returning the squeeze of my hand with his own and then turning toward the steps. Edward and Esme broke apart as Carlisle walked me back down to the yard. The two men regarded each other for a moment, Edward raking one hand through his hair.

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"Son." The simple word seemed to unlock the men from where they stood momentarily frozen in place. Their embrace was fierce a father reclaiming a prodigal. The display was so intimate, so powerful, that I felt intrusive witnessing it. I turned to Esme. Her placid eyes found mine and she brought a hand to cup my face. "Bella, how can we ever repay you?" I hugged her hard and inhaled the scent of lilac and honey that was her very essence. "You already have," I said. "You're here." She pulled back and put her hands on my shoulders. "I am so sorry about your father, Bella. I wish there was something we could have done." "Thank you," I choked. "He would be happy you're here. I can't explain how I know, but I do." She smiled, and her whole face lit up. If Edward and Carlisle had been talking, I didn't hear them. Moments later Edward's arm slid around my waist and suddenly we stood mirroring Esme and Carlisle. Carlisle gestured toward the house. "They're waiting." Edward stood there for a moment, his free hand tugging at the nape of his neck. "Is she is Rose going to make this difficult?" "No," Carlisle responded, not missing a beat. "She's missed you, Edward. More than you realize." Edward gave a slight shake of his head. "I wasn't concerned about myself." "Rose will be fine," Esme insisted. She brushed the hair off Edward's forehead and stroked his cheek. Grabbing both our hands, she smiled as she began pulling us toward the house. "Now let's go inside so I can see my family together again where they belong." But before we could make it inside, Emmett bounded out of the house, chucking Edward playfully on the arm before scooping me off my feet and throwing me over his shoulder. I shrieked and clung tightly to his shirt, both our bodies shaking with laughter as he ran circles around the yard. He finally relented when I complained of dizziness, setting me on my feet several yards away from where the others were still standing. Eyes shining, he studied me for a moment before tapping my nose with his index finger. "Good to have you back, babe," he grinned. "Definitely." I beamed. "We missed you," he said softly then, his eyes as serious as I'd ever seen them. "And I'm sorry my brother was such an asshole." I shrugged and felt my eyes sting as I was once again reminded of all the time we'd lost. "I'm sorry about that, too," I sighed. "Look at it this way," he said. "You've had six years to get all rich and famous. And hot," he added, waggling his eyebrows. "Ha ha." I smiled, rolling my eyes.

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"Alright Emmett, you've ogled my girlfriend enough. You can bring her back now," Edward called across the yard, his attempt to seem irritated betrayed by his carefree posture and the smile in his voice. Emmett scoffed. "I thought your days of brooding were over, bro," he shot back. When we finally made it into the house, Alice was nearly bouncing out of her skin "Oh my gosh, you two, I just knew it! I mean, I didn't know it obviously, like, I couldn't see it God Bella, you've been putting me through hell by the way but I just knew you were meant to be and you are!" I laughed as she tackled Edward swiftly before turning to me and locking me in a slightly gentler but no less energetic hug. Although I'd seen Alice just days before, I'd left on uncertain terms, not knowing when or whether I'd see her or her brother again. Now that I was part of the family again, our reunion was infused with joy, with exhilaration, and with downright silliness. We embraced for several minutes as we both giggled and I cried happy tears, before finally collapsing in a tangle of arms and legs in the living room floor. Edward looked on, nearly doubled over with laughter as I lay there wheezing and clutching my side, and I exploded into another fit of giggles when Alice yanked on his pant leg and he fell to the floor with us in an uncharacteristically goofy display. "See, Edward?" she joked, poking him in the side. "I told you to get over it and ask her out again. I'm always right." "Indeed." He grinned. I was still shaking with laughter when my eyes found the two still forms in the room. Though the rest of the family was chattering and laughing around me, Rosalie and Jasper stood serenely, silhouetted against the far glass wall. Rosalie's gaze was focused on the floor, her flawless features hidden from my view. Jasper's eyes were trained on me, appraising. I straightened my shirt and untucked my hair from my collar as Edward pulled me to my feet and then protectively against his side. "Bella." Jasper said my name as a greeting and a question. "Jasper," I returned, unsure if his tone was seeking reassurance or a sign that I understood his need to keep a distance. He waited a moment as my breathing regulated. Edward tugged me closer to his side, kissing my temple. Jasper's face broke into a small smile. "You're not afraid." I cocked my head to one side. "Should I be?" I released Edward's hand from my waist, giving him a reassuring squeeze. As I walked toward Jasper, the rest of the family, with the exception of Rosalie, politely moved into the kitchen, giving us at least the appearance of privacy. He shook his head as I approached, speaking in a serious tone. "Alice worked with me every day ... I haven't had any relapses since ... " "Shhh, Jasper," I said to stop him. "It won't ever happen again," he said solemnly.

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"I know." He looked at me, his eyes questioning but hopeful. "You do?" I nodded. "Yeah." He exhaled and his whole body seemed to relax. "Bella, I've been waiting six years to see Alice's face light up that way again." He gestured toward the kitchen with his eyes. "For Edward to forgive himself . . . For you to forgive me." I pulled him into a tight hug. "There is nothing to forgive, Jasper." Alice bounded over then, pulling Jasper to her as I released him. "I've been waiting for this, too," she whispered, her voice rasping as her eyes clamped shut. I smiled as I watched him spin her slowly around. Allowing them their moment, I turned toward the kitchen to find Edward but my eyes landed first on Rosalie where she stood alone, several feet away in the corner. My memory had failed to hold onto the utter flawlessness of her beauty. But though she was as lovely as ever, something about her didn't feel the same. She stood with her eyes downcast, one arm hesitantly clutching her opposite shoulder as the other hung loose at her side. I smiled at her as her eyes lifted to mine. It took effort not to gasp at the difference. Her eyes, though warm in color, had always felt icy cold. But as I looked into them now, I was not met with the confident glare of a woman but the timid gaze of a teenage girl. She regarded me hesitantly, and I was struck by a sudden and unexpected urge to ease her discomfort. "Rosalie, it's good to see you," I said, my smile genuine, my words sincere. I wasn't prepared for what happened next. I couldn't recall ever seeing Rosalie display affection for anyone other than Emmett but her hug was fierce. I stumbled backward, the wind forced out of my chest as she clung to me. After a moment, she loosened her grip but held on to me as if she were afraid I would disappear. I patted her lightly on the back, unsure what else to do. After several minutes she gasped into my shoulder, "Thank you." ~X~ We all settled into the spacious living room. Edward rested casually in the corner of one sofa, one arm stretched around my shoulders as I leaned against him. Carlisle, Esme and Emmett sat on the sofa opposite us, Rose on the armrest. Jasper sat on the hearth, Alice settled on the floor between his legs. We could have been any family. It was all so casual, I almost forgot what had happened the last time we were all together in this room. "So, Bella," Emmett chimed in. "'As tall as a grizzly bear and equally uncomplicated?' Really?" "Oh god," I gasped, clamping a hand over my eyes before peeking out between my fingers. "I didn't mean that you-" "You don't think I have depth?" he accused, but his eyes sparkled with amusement. "We can't all be as deep and moody as Captain Emo over there. Someone has to balance the vibes." He pressed a hand to his chest. "I'm only thinking of Jasper." "Very funny," Edward chuckled as Emmett and Jasper shared a knowing look.

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"I think my favorite part was when Celia rips Jason's head off," Alice chimed in. Jasper ruffled her hair, "I agree, sugar. That part was pretty badass." "Well my favorite part was their first date at the Italian restaurant," Esme said, smiling at us and stroking Carlisle's hand. "So romantic." "I don't know..." Edward pulled my hair away from my neck and murmured into my ear. "I think I'm partial to their second date at that restaurant." I coughed loudly and my eyes flew wide, but if his family heard him, they politely displayed no reaction. I shifted against him, feeling the hard shape of him against my lower back and was instantly torn between wanting to continue reconnecting with the family and getting him alone upstairs. Rosalie was noticeably quiet as the family prattled on about the book and my portrayal of their characters. I felt slightly uncomfortable in her presence, realizing she would know I had described her in the book exactly as she had always appeared to me - beautiful, untouchable, and stone-cold. But her face was not cold now as she listened to her brothers joking and Esme lamely chastising. I didn't notice when Rosalie left the room but before I even registered my own growling stomach, she slid a perfectly-toasted grilled cheese in front of me and set a glass of ice water on the coffee table. "Thank you," I said and she nodded curtly before resuming her post on the back of the couch behind Emmett. After I finished eating, Carlisle stood in front of the room but addressed only me. "Bella, it would be a futile exercise to attempt to give voice to the gratitude we are all feeling for what you have done for all of us." I felt my face heat up, certain my cheeks were a deep crimson, but I didn't care. "I know I speak for all of us when I say that we consider you as much a part of this family as anyone in this room." I cleared my throat, "Thank you. I missed you all. So much." My voice cracked, and Edward squeezed my knee. "Bella, with your permission, I'd like a few minutes with Edward." "Of course," I said. Edward raised a questioning eyebrow at me and I nodded, smiling. As Carlisle and Edward headed off in the direction of Carlisle's office, Alice settled in beside me, resting her head on my shoulder and sighing as I wrapped my arms around her. ~X~ We sat in the living room for over an hour, talking and laughing over the creative license I'd taken. Carlisle and Edward still had not returned. Pleading fatigue, I excused myself to Edward's room. The day had been wrought with emotion. My eyes were raw from tears I'd shed, happy and sad alike. I braced my hands on the counter in his bathroom and took in my reflection. I was still there - the same Bella they'd known. My face was thinner, prettier, though there were signs of weariness that hadn't existed years ago. I swept my fingertips along my high cheekbones, more prominent now that my baby fat had disappeared. It struck me then that I was physically older than Carlisle. The thought made me uneasy. I splashed cool water on my face and was toweling off when a tentative knock rapped twice on the door to Edward's room.

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Rosalie was hesitant as I opened the door. "May I come in?" she asked. "Of course, yes." I pulled the door open wider and she stepped inside, seeming uncertain about where to settle herself. I sat down on the comforter and patted the space next to me. I was in uncharted territory with Rosalie but I could tell she was equally uncomfortable reaching out in a personal manner. I didn't know what she had come in here to say, but I was happy she had come at all. "He always was a neat freak," she said, gesturing at the meticulously ordered stacks of CDs and books as she settled onto the bed. She sat straight-backed with her manicured hands pressed into her lap, nervously tugging at her fingers. "Um, yes." I chuckled, pointing to the dressing table where three quarters were stacked neatly next to a small stack of nickles and a perfectly pressed billfold of hundreds. "Did you ever try messing around with the order?" She pointed to the neat cache of LPs stored in a low shelf. "Oh God, yes!" I laughed. "Well, not purposely, but I used to like looking at the covers. I remember a couple of times I put a few back in the wrong place." "Ah, you didn't know the system." She made airquotes as she said the last word. "'Chronological by date the genre originated ..." "...and then alphabetical by artist." We said the last words in unison, both of us laughing and rolling our eyes. "He explained it to me," I said, smiling. "After it happened several times." Rosalie stood and went over to kneel in front of the neat row of albums, carefully selecting Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" and reinserting somewhere in the Baroque period. She turned and made a self-satisfied hand-washing gesture, grinning devilishly. I nodded vigorously in approval. "I'll let you know how long it takes him to notice." "If it's more than five minutes, I'll be sorely disappointed," she quipped. "Somehow I doubt he's changed that much." Her smile faded slightly but she nodded, seeming to consider my words. "It's true," she agreed. "Once you enter this life, change does not come easily." She was still smiling, but the lightness was gone from her tone. She sat back down on the bed, tucking one leg beneath her. "But when it does, it is profound." I nodded. "I know. In some ways, he is very different." She nodded in return, looking down at her interlaced fingers before lifting her head to speak. "He isn't the only one." I tilted my head, silently asking her to go on. She took a deep breath, clearly readying herself to address the reason for her visit.

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"Bella, from the day Carlisle changed me, I have focused only on what this life cost me. It's not surprising really. I was self-absorbed as a human and those character traits become crystallized when you go through the change." I gave her a pointed look. "I think you're being a little unfair to yourself." I wasn't sure I meant this but it felt like the right thing to say. "No, it's true. When my brother fell in love with you, I was angry at first because I felt he was jeopardizing our family. But then you fell in love right back. Even knowing what we are!" She threw her hands up as if the thought still astounded her. "I was so jealous of you I couldn't see straight." "You were jealous of me?" Edward had told me that Rosalie was vain, but she certainly had had no cause to envy me. I couldn't imagine any woman - vampire or human - could possibly pose a threat to her. "Of course I envied you," she said this as if it were supremely obvious, standing up and pacing. "Before Edward met you, I never gave much more than passing consideration to the humans in our day-to-day lives. I didn't want to have anything to do with them. Why would I want to be constantly reminded of everything I was forced to give up?" Her tone was earnest but not unkind "But then you came along and began interacting with my family - you begged Edward to change you begged him to take away your humanity- your ability to have a child, to grow old with someone. You begged him to let you throw away all the things I coveted." She reclaimed her seat next to me on the bed and looked at me softly. I had never considered she could appear so vulnerable. "I can admit now I hated you for that." Her words now coupled with my memory of her demeanor years ago suddenly clicked in place like tumblers of a lock. I could see myself now as she must have seen me then - starry-eyed and in-love, enamored with their beauty, their strength, and the allure of cheating death. It wasn't wholly accurate. But it wasn't altogether wrong. Edward had not mentioned that Rosalie had desperately wanted children and while it wasn't something I longed for in life, I could see how my flippant attitude at seventeen could have cut her deeply. "I'm sorry," I said, meaning it. "I was young and naive. I can see how that would have felt to you." She shook her head. "No, Bella. That's not what I'm trying to say. I was wrong. You weren't naive. I was." "What?" She threaded her fingers through her long hair, shaking it out lightly. "I'm not very good at this." She sighed. "I know this isn't making much sense. But what I'm trying to say, perhaps unartfully is that I hated you because I envied you. And when Edward left - when we all left - I hated you less but envied you more." "I don't think I understand." "I hated you less because you could no longer throw your life away. Envied you more because you would get to experience all the things I thought I wanted." I lifted my chin and opened my mouth as I began, finally, to grasp what she was getting at.

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"She wasn't supposed to, but Alice kept tabs on you during the first several months after we left. She was so distraught at times after seeing you, Bella." Rosalie shook her head and I returned my eyes to the pillow. "I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that neither one of you would move on. It seemed too obvious to me that it was the natural way of things." She shook her head and I just stared at her curiously. She had truly believed this. After a long moment she spoke again. "I know it might not seem that way, but I have always loved Edward. Very much." "I know, Rosalie." "And I don't know if I could ever fully explain what it felt like to have to force my own brother to feed . . . but, Bella, I wouldn't wish it on anyone." At this I felt tears spring to my eyes. On impulse I rested my hand on hers, clasping it gently as she gave me a grateful smile. "Edward is your soul mate." I swallowed, glancing at the throw pillow in my hands and playing with the corded edge. "I know." "Emmett is mine." I looked up at her and found her smiling. She looked warm. Happy. "You're lucky," I said, returning her smile. "Yes, I know." She nodded. "But I haven't always understood that." "That he was your soul mate?" "No," she laughed softly, "I've always known that. But I took it for granted. I haven't always understood how lucky I was to have found him - how truly rare that is. I don't have the type of family I fantasized about as a young girl, Bella, but what I do have is better than anything I knew to hope for." "I'm so glad you've found your peace with that." "I have been angry for a long time because my humanity was taken from me," she said, her eyes far away and reflective. "But seeing my brother..." she trailed off, lost in a memory that she would no doubt rather forget. "I realized then that what had been taken from you - from both of you - was far, far worse. After that I . . I didn't envy you anymore." "I see." "Bella, Alice told me that you haven't decided about this life." "Ah," I stared straight ahead at the original Moran oil painting hanging on the wall. I wasn't expecting the conversation to take this turn. It felt off to be discussing something so intimate with Rosalie something I hadn't even had a chance to fully process on my own. Something I hadn't even yet talked about with Edward. If Rosalie noticed my discomfort, it did not faze her. "I am so grateful to you for bringing Edward back to us," she said. "And I know it is unfair of me to say this after all that I've done. But if you decide to stay human, Bella. . . you are a fool."

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My head snapped back in her direction but before I could form a response Rosalie patted my hand sweetly, stood, and strode smoothly out of the room. Chapter 24 EPOV Of course I knew what Carlisle had wanted to discuss before the door to his office was closed. The two themes were practically illuminated by neon signs in his mind: The Volturi. The human. Carlisle settled into the leather wing-backed chair and I assumed my usual seat opposite his desk. His study looked the same as it had the day we'd left, and sitting there across from him, it felt like we were slipping comfortably back into the easy familiarity of roles that had since suffered strain. We've been waiting for this day a long time. "I know." I glanced down at the desk, following the marbling of the antique woodgrain with my eyes. "I'm so sorry for all I've put the family through." No apologies, son. We all had our part to play in this. I am just glad to have you back. To have Bella back. I nodded. "I know. Me too. I've missed my family." "I hated to pull you away, son, but you know why I wanted to talk alone." "Yes." "I felt it best to get this over with." "I understand," I said. "It's for the best." I met his eyes, and he looked relaxed but expectant. He was waiting for me to begin the conversation. "They don't know about us?" I asked for verbal confirmation of what his mind already revealed. "About you and Bella, you mean?" "Yes." "No, Edward. The Volturi don't know about your relationship. They know of Bella, of course. They track these things. But vampire fiction isn't something they care about particularly. As far as the Volturi is concerned, relegating vampirism to the world of the fantastic is actually one of the favors humans do for our kind." "It explains Caius' library." I smirked, recalling the one and only time I'd been in the vampire's personal quarters. The walls were lined with vampire fiction including Goethe, Stoker, even Anne Rice. "The concern, though, is that Bella's book hits closer to reality than the others." Carlisle shrugged. "I suppose. But all vampire legends stem from real human experiences, stories passed around, legends retold." "They must have recognized the descriptions of our coven."

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"It's been years since our family was known to comprise a cohesive coven." I shifted uncomfortably, knowing that was my doing. "And our most recent stint in Forks was so attenuated I doubt it even registered on the Volturi's radar unlike the more lengthy stay that inspired the treaty with the Quileutes." "Ah," I said, nodding. "Consider how Jacob told Bella what we are both in life and in her book. Even in her story it was not us who divulged the secret." "You think they believe she learned of the legend of our coven from the Quileutes." Carlisle nodded. "Remember that even Jacob a direct descendant of the original tribe members who shifted didn't believe the history until he lived it. Humans are hard-wired to resist belief in our kind. Their instinct to relegate the lore surrounding us to 'fiction' is something that has been happening for centuries. No doubt the Volturi believe just as she wrote that she learned of the legend from the Quileutes and so wove a tale that bears a striking resemblance to our family." "But doesn't that endanger our secret? Won't they still consider our family or Bella herself responsible for breaking the law?" "Think of the fans you saw clutching their copies of Dusk in Seattle. You doubtless rifled through their minds." "Of course." "Did a single one of them harbor any belief that Bella's book was based on real life events? That it was, in fact, nonfiction?" I shook my head, understanding his point. "No. The story was firmly embedded in their consciousness as 'fantasy'." "Exactly. You see why the Volturi tolerate vampire fiction. It is impossible to sustain an existence over centuries without some level of detection by humanity. The more we are entrenched in the human consciousness as mythological creatures, the safer the secret of our existence becomes." "Are you saying there's no concern?" "No," Carlisle said, folding his hands. "I'm saying there's no immediate danger. But now that you two are together, the Volturi will soon discover that Bella is not an oblivious human unwittingly hitting close to reality. It won't be long before they put two and two together." "They'll consider her a threat." "I cannot pretend to predict with any certainty the Volturi's opinion on the matter. Nonetheless, I suspect that they will feel threatened only so long as Bella is human. Her love for you, for this family, and any promises by her to keep our secret will not likely be sufficient, because the Volturi, as a rule, consider human relationships to be fleeting, human feelings to be fickle." He was right. Until I met Bella, I'd shared those same prejudices. "If she changes, will that placate them?" "Edward. I know Aro well. He fancies himself a 'collector' of talents. I daresay he would consider it something of a novelty to have Bella among our ranks."

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"So he would allow it." "I cannot guarantee anything, of course. But yes, I believe so. He might even encourage her to continue writing, barring any future media appearances. " I smiled, as the thought of Bella, unbreakable and immortal, typing away on her Macbook was a tempting fantasy. "But this isn't really the issue is it?" I said. "She's got so much more to lose now, Carlisle. A career, friends, fame..." I shook my head. "We've only barely broached the subject, but I can tell she's frightened by the idea of forever." He leaned back in his chair. "Of course she is, son. I suspect that the idea is not merely frightening, but probably incomprehensible. You must remember that none of us were given the choice, Edward. And I don't think any of us with the exception of Alice would have purposefully entered into this life given the opportunity for a normal, happy human existence." I nodded. "I wanted to fight in the war I wanted to die with honor if it came to that." "Can't you see the similarities? When you were seventeen, you thought going to war and dying a hero was a glamorous idea. But you were a teenager, driven by impulse and lacking the judgment that comes with experience." "That's true, I suppose. But what do you mean by similarities?" "Six years ago, Bella begged for this existence begged you to change her. She clung to the romantic idea of life as an immortal, and in all honesty, probably did not have the capacity to appreciate the consequences. She's grown up now. Had to face the tough realization that love isn't always easy. It doesn't always mean never having to say goodbye." I swallowed hard, thinking of the day I left. Thinking of Charlie. "You think she's afraid I'll leave again." Carlisle shrugged equivocally. "That's something you'd have to ask Bella. I think she trusts you. I know she loves you. But she has a sense of self-preservation she hadn't developed as a teenager. Choosing immortality as a blood-drinking inhuman creature is not a rational choice for any human. You've been gone six years and back barely a week. Let her come to her own decision naturally." "And you think she'll choose to change." The sentiment was unnecessary as his mind displayed an image that made me ache with want: Bella, her human peach, pink and brown coloring transformed into tantalizing white, red and gold. "I do. But Edward, what I think is pretty irrelevant here." "I know." I sighed. "We need to be ready for them. If she doesn't choose to change, we'll deal with the Volturi then. How long before they piece this together?" "Maybe a few months. Maybe a year." "We can evade them. With Alice's help." He nodded. "But it will be the end of any public career for Bella. Once the Volturi learn who she is and who she is to you any publicity linking the two of you will put their secret, not to mention your location, at risk."

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"So there is no way for her to have it all. She has to give up part of who she is to be with me." I rubbed at my face, frustrated. "I don't think those are the same question. You are right, if by 'all' you mean continuing to operate in the public eye, but she is not giving up who she is by being with you, Edward." "I hate that. I hate asking her to do that." "I know you do, but you're worth the sacrifice. There is no other way." I inhaled, pinching the bridge of my nose. It didn't make these choices any more palatable. "But son, you know that it is not just the Volturi who will take issue with your being in the public eye after a while. Ten years from now your age difference will be apparent. You are looking at a quiet, private life together in either case." I'd considered a life with Bella as she lived out her human days on many occasions when we'd been together six years ago. I didn't mention to Carlisle that those imagined futures always ended with me gruesomely biting Bella's wasted neck minutes before she died of old age, unable to restrain myself. Could I let her die? Could I trust myself to abide by her wishes if that's what she wanted? Yes. I would. I would have to. "Edward. You must know that I have my own selfish motives for wanting Bella to change." Even if his mind hadn't been an open book, I would have known. "You fear I will end my life in time with hers." Carlisle nodded once. "I hope you have come to learn that your life has intrinsic value on its own. I hope you would at least consider living on for her." My body felt like it was burning to ash at the mere mention of living a day longer than Bella. But the weight of what her staying human could mean for us was starting to settle around me. "It would kill her if she knew I planned to end my life when she died. She'd choose to change just to prevent it." Carlisle smiled sadly. "I couldn't lie to her, couldn't keep it from her." I balled my fist, angry at the universe for making the change to immortality a one-way street. I would eagerly give up forever to wither and die in her arms. But that was not a choice I was offered. "Then I trust that you would choose to continue your existence, for Bella's sake as well as mine," he said softly. "I promise I will consider alternatives." "Thank you, son." I suddenly felt the need to emphasize the caveat. "I said consider." I felt trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. How could I live without Bella? And yet, how could I tell her I would not? I rested my elbows on my knees and dropped my head into my hands. "Oh God, Carlisle. I need her. I don't know how to be without her again."

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He walked to where I sat, resting a hand on my shoulder. "I know, Edward. But you need to give her time to sort through this on her own. And you need to be honest with her about everything." I swallowed thickly, knowing what he meant. I saw in his mind the same vision I saw in Alice's memory the day I'd learned of Bella's book: me, my eyes glittering a sinister ruby red. "The human." "Yes. We're here for you now. And for her if she needs us. It's time to tell her." I sighed. "I know." "Edward. I know you fear the unknown. But love holds no power without choice. You need to tell her and leave the decision in her hands." "I know," I said again. "Tell me. What are you afraid of?" Carlisle took the chair next to me. "She will see the monster. Until now it's been abstract, something deep in my past before I knew her. She'll see what I'm capable of." I looked down at my fingers, knotted together between my knees. Then I looked back at Carlisle. "I'm afraid of seeing the same expression on her face that I saw on yours." "You know I have moved past it, Edward." "I know. But you were devastated." "Only because I know that's not you. Only because I knew you were acting against your true nature." I raised an eyebrow. "Was I? Wasn't I acting perfectly in accord with my nature? Carlisle, I'm afraid she'll be horrified. Of what I've done. Of what I want her to become." "Are you afraid she will leave?" I shook my head. "No. It's just for all my attempts to make her realize what a monster I felt I was years ago, she never believed it. She always trusted me believed we were different. That I was different." "And now?" "Now she will have no illusions about what we are." Carlisle raised his eyebrows. "And, Edward, she shouldn't. This life is not without sacrifice. Siring a newborn vampire while denying them the one thing their body craves . . . it is not an easy thing for anyone." I nodded, recalling my own first days, and those of my family I'd witnessed. The thrashing, the outright terror at being told what you needed was forbidden you. And, then, if thirst prevailed over self-control, the eventual agony and shame of failure. But Carlisle was right. It was time to tell her everything. "Soon," I said, standing. "I will tell her soon." ~X~

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When I finally made my way upstairs to my bedroom, my chest was tight. As I reached for the doorknob, my hands stretched and relaxed of their own accord in their desperate need to touch her. I needed to reassure myself that the decisions that lay ahead would affect us, but would not break us. Forever or for a season, Bella was here with me now. The sliver of light that sliced into the darkness traveled over her body, curled up with one arm outstretched. I sat down next to her, brushing a hair from her face, not trying consciously to wake her but selfishly pleased when she stirred. "What time is it?" She whispered in a husky voice. "Late." She blinked her eyes a few times and scooted up on her elbows. "What were you and Carlisle talking about for so long?" "Nothing that can't wait until the morning." "But I'm awake now," she said, sliding her arms around my neck and pressing her cheek to mine. The feel of her hot breath skating across my skin shot straight to my groin, and I shamelessly slid my lips down to meet hers. I felt a pang of guilt as I slid my tongue past her lips, knowing full well what I was doing postponing this conversation. She sighed into my mouth, pulling me down on to her and then sliding her hands to the hem of my shirt, pulling it over my head. "Mmmmh," she hummed, sliding her tongue across my lips as she fingered my ribs. "God, you're so beautiful." I sucked on her neck, reaching my hand to her underwear and sliding my hand beneath the fabric, curling my fingers inside. I would never tire of this feeling the first feel of her wet flesh on my skin. She whimpered and lifted her hips slightly as I undressed her and then continued to stroke her. She reached for the button of my jeans, and I gently brushed her hand away, wrapping my fingers around hers and guiding them to her left breast. Her eyes widened in surprise and then narrowed in anticipation as she spread her legs wider for me and began to roll her nipple between her thumb and forefinger. "I want to watch you come." I punctuated my meaning by sliding another finger inside her. I kissed her lips, her neck, I flicked my tongue over her fingers, sucked at her nipples. But mostly, I watched. I watched my hand moving in and out. I watched my soaked fingers circle her lips, her clitoris; I watched them slip inside her again. And I watched her face, the way her warm brown eyes reflected each different sensation with a subtle dilation of her pupils, a fluttering of her lids. I watched her hands knead her breasts, followed the faint pink lines that appeared as she glided her nails over her skin. I watched the way her torso would twist with different pulses and strokes. The jerk she gave when I made a slight twist of my wrist. I could hear the rush of blood speed up as I gently coaxed her body with my hands. There was something so intimate about her allowing me to do this to study her, to watch my fingers slide in and out of her, to test her tolerance of each new movement. When she was curved in a convex arch, her thighs shaking, her breath held, and her eyes clamped as she fought to catch the wave, I twisted my wrist for her again and she relaxed into a grateful groan.

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"Mmmmh," she murmured. She tugged my belt loop and I settled between her legs. Her hand cupped the hard bulge in my jeans. "Always so hard for me," she smiled. "I like that." "God, Bella," I said, my voice strained. "I just I need you." She nodded, her eyebrows scrunching together in concern. "Are you sure everything is okay?" "It will be," I said. "I know it will. "Okay." She undid my belt as I straddled her thighs, kneeling over her. She pushed my jeans and boxers just down my hips, then sat up and bent to suck me into her mouth. "Fuck, Bella." I threaded my hands in her hair. Her mouth was like fire, the heat on the razor's edge of ecstasy and agony. I focused on the searing heat, the reminder of her warm humanity. It grounded me, keeping me from thrusting too hard. And it made me ache with a insatiable want. She was ephemeral, breakable, mortal, and I felt desperate to soak her in. She slid her tongue deliberately along the underside of my length, looking up at me softly. I could sense the concern in her eyes. She released me from her mouth and stood off the bed. She held her hand out and led me to the sliding glass doors of my bedroom. "Bella, what are you?" "Come outside with me." She slid the door open and walked onto the terrace, hopping up onto the stone railing. My hands were on her hips, bracing her not for sex, but to prevent her from falling backwards and breaking her neck. "Jesus Christ, Bella," I cried. "Be careful. You can't just do that." "I'm not afraid. Let go, Edward." "You're out of your mind. I'm not letting go of you up here." "No, I mean, you're wound so tight tonight. Let it go." She slid her arms around my neck, pulling my mouth to hers. I steadied a hand on her back, holding her securely on the ledge, my mind split between the sweet taste of her tongue and the fragility of her spine. I was no longer afraid that I would hurt her, but the prospect of Bella plummeting to her death rattled my insides. But I was also desperate for her. She uncrossed her legs and hooked a leg around my waist. The scent of her bare sex hit me in a heady rush. I found myself bending to kiss and suck at the crease where her thigh met her hip. Her smell was potent there and I dropped to my knees, my hands still anchoring her in place as I lapped greedily at her wet flesh. She rested her heels on my shoulders and arched her back, her hands gripping the ledge. I felt myself start to lose my bearings, floating up into the delirium of her taste. I fought against it, forcing myself to focus on the feel of her flesh in my hands, the knowledge that she was safe as long as I held her to my mouth. "God, Ed you your tongue. . ." she babbled, and I smiled into her flesh at the sound. I wanted to slip a finger into her, to coax her to climax inside and out. But I was unwilling to loosen my hold on her hips. So I sucked a little harder, alternating between flat tongue strokes and hungrily swallowing her lust. Her hands were wild, grabbing fistfuls of my hair, twisting them tightly in her fingers as she firmly pressed me exactly where I wanted to be.

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"Oh, please, Edward," she begged. "Let me come." I groaned into her flesh, complying with her need. Her thighs closed tight around my face as she lurched and gasped her release. When she'd finished writhing around me, I licked slowly, softly around her lips, massaging her hips as I pulled the last traces of her taste into my mouth. She was sweaty and loose-limbed as I stood between her legs and kissed her deeply. "Make love to me," she murmured. "Not here," I protested, shaking my head. "I need to feel you," she insisted. "You need it, too." She scooted forward and grabbed my cock, rubbing herself against me. "Not here," I repeated, hoisting her legs around me and lifting her from the balcony. I walked us back inside and laid her on the bed. "Playing it safe?" she quipped, her mouth twisted in a taunting smile. "Tonight I just need you here," I said. She nodded, her smile changing a little. I turned her on her side and spooned her, kissing up the back of her neck as I reached a hand between her legs. "How did I ever resist you?" I breathed into her ear. She tilted her neck back so our cheeks were pressed together and reached her hand back to slide through my hair. "I'm so addicted to you," I said, hooking my hand beneath her knee and pulling her bent leg back over my hip. I pushed into her, and she sighed. "I'll never stop wanting you. I'll never stop." My words were whispers buried into her hair. "Never." ~X~ I was adding blueberries to the Bisquick batter when she walked into the the kitchen wearing one of my dress shirts. God, she was beautiful. "Hi," she said, draping her arms around me as she peeked over my shoulder. "Bisquick?" I shrugged. "I'm working on admitting my weaknesses." She giggled and kissed the back of my neck as I ladled a spoonful of batter onto the griddle. "If you keep that up, you're going to make me ruin pancakes-for-dummies." I smiled. "Okay, I'll sit at the counter. Is there coffee?" I gestured toward the chrome machine with my spatula. "It's one thing I do know how to make." "Oh really?" she quipped. "You don't get through a surgical internship without learning how to make coffee." "Mmmm," she hummed as she tipped the cup. "It's a little strong. So, it's perfect."

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"I'm sorry I was talking to Carlisle for so long. I hope you didn't feel abandoned." I turned so that I was half-facing her and half-facing the daunting dollops of batter. "You more than made up for it last night." She smiled. "Plus, I didn't feel abandoned. Rosalie paid me a visit." "Rose?" I quirked an eyebrow at her. Bella nodded as I plated four, non-burned blueberry pancakes and slid them on the counter in front of Bella. "How did that go?" "It was . . . interesting." She thought for a moment as she chewed. "She has changed." "She has," I agreed. "But you've changed even more, I think. Your perspective - and your relative position - is very different now." She chewed as she considered this. "I guess that's true. I kept wondering if she'd always looked so . . . young." I chuckled. "Pretty sure she looks the same as always." "Huh," she said. "Weird." "Whereas you, on the other hand, have only gotten more edible with age." I bent to kiss her neck, sucking and licking at her skin until she laughingly pushed me away. "I'm also officially too old for a hickey." I smiled. "So when you first saw me last week did you find yourself wondering if I had always looked so young?" She tipped her head in thought. "No. You just look like . . . you. I don't know how to explain it." "Try, please. I'm curious." "I suppose it's your expression - the way you take in a room. The way your eyebrows are always a little furrowed. How even when you're happy you look a little sad. . . . like you've seen too much." Her words reminded me of the conversation I needed to somehow find a way to begin. I swallowed, looking away. "These pancakes are delicious," Bella gushed, taking a long sip of coffee. I turned and raised an eyebrow at her. "God, you're a terrible liar." She laughed, and I wanted nothing more in that moment than to lift her onto the counter top and make love to her in the kitchen. "Well, they're not terrible." She forked another bite-full of pancake and I crossed my arms, smiling a little I watched her eat. She told me about her conversation with Rose. I was dismayed at my sister's never-failing utter lack of tact but also touched by the sentiments she'd shared with Bella. I attempted to remain impassive as I listened, but it was clear I could put this off no longer.

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"Bella." "Hmm?" She turned to me, eyes smiling as she chewed her last bite of pancakes. As much as I hated to tear her out of this moment, I also knew there would never be a time I wanted to have this conversation. Now I at least had the courage, if not the desire. "Take a walk with me?" Her eyes grew wide and her smile disappeared. It took me a moment to realize she was recalling the last time I'd asked her to take a walk. I smiled at her in an attempt to soften the effect of my words, but it didn't feel terribly convincing. She swallowed and nodded, her response barely above a whisper. "Sure." We walked along the river's edge, my thumb rubbing her wrist reassuringly. She was quiet, but I could sense her apprehension. I wished I could guarantee her that everything was okay, that nothing I was about to say was going to change anything between us. But the truth was, I was desperate for her to reassure me. We walked a short distance from the house to a low outcropping of rocks when she suddenly dropped my hand and sat down. She listened attentively when I reminded her about the Volturi. She recalled their existence but was unfamiliar with the particulars. "So my book . . . it breaks their law?" she asked. "Well, that depends. The law requires us to keep our existence a secret from humans. Carlisle believes that as long as your book is clearly understood as fiction . . . there is no concern." "Well, that's a relief." "It is. For now." "What do you mean?" "Bella, the Volturi have no reason to suspect that your book is based on anything other than a legend you heard, and presumably don't really believe. But the Volturi are relatively hands-off until or unless they see their existence threatened. For now, they have not intervened because they are not concerned about that." "But..." she prompted, sensing the catch was coming. "But eventually they will put it together. They know of our coven they will come to know we inspired the legend that led you to write your book. If they find out about you and me . . ." "They will consider the law broken." I nodded. "So what will they do? What do we do?" "We don't know yet. We're not aware of a precedent for anything like this, or what the consequences would be. But Bella, you must understand that Carlisle who spent a fair amount of time in Volterra believes it a distinct possibility that the continued existence of a human who knows the secrets of our kind poses a threat that the Volturi will be unwilling to endure."

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"Oh," she said, fidgeting with her ear. "So they'll want me to be changed." "It's what Carlisle conjectures. Believe me, Bella, the last thing I want to do is pressure you into making a decision. But you deserve to know what we're up against, and the reality is we need to have a plan in place if and when the Volturi approach us." "Oh," she said again. "Is there a danger that they would just . . . kill me? To punish you for sharing your secret?" "We would never let that happen, Bella. In any event, Carlisle believes it's extremely unlikely they would be so inclined. The Volturi are true 'practicing' vampires. They have no respect for human life itself, but they have an incongruous appreciation for the arts and literature. Aro is a 'collector' of sorts. Having a writer of your caliber among the ranks of our kind would most certainly be irresistible to him." "And what if I . . . don't change?" She stared at her hands as she fingered the hem of her shirt. "Look at me, Bella." She met my eyes. "Whatever you decide, we will be just fine. With my family's combined gifts, we can evade them until they lose interest in this. Aro is an old friend of Carlisle's, and he assures me that Aro will see reason." "And my career . . . " I sighed, frustrated that I couldn't offer her a better answer. "Certain aspects of your career will have to change, Bella. The publicity it's simply not possible for me to be a public presence along with you." "I don't care about the publicity, Edward. I care about writing." I nodded, smiling in relief. "It should be possible for you to continue to write. Although . . ." "What?" "You will need to choose new subject matter." Bella laughed. "Okay, I think I can handle that. I'm kind of sick of vampires anyway." I chuckled, pulling her close and kissing her. "I have to say, I'm a little relieved," she said after we pulled apart. "Oh?" "You were so serious last night. I knew something was bothering you. But you're telling me we can handle this. Together we can get through this." "Yes," I said. "I will make certain of that, Bella." But I didn't meet her eyes. "There's more, isn't there?" "Yes." "Out with it." She crossed her arms and looked not at me but at the rushing water behind me. "Just say it. I can't stand this." I cleared my throat. "There's something else you need to know. About my time away."

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"Okay . . ." Her eyes met mine then. They were confused, bordering on hurt though I'd hardly even begun. "Bella, do you remember a fellow student at UCLA named Glenn Robins?" Her mouth fell open. "How did who told you about him?" "You remember him, then." Her chest was heaving. Her pupils dilated briefly the way they do when afraid before her breathing quickly regulated and she regained her composure. "Yes. I remember him." She looked up at the treetops for a moment before meeting my eyes. "I was a T.A. for his Freshman Sociology class. He . . . he was creepy. I mean, he used to watch me in class." She shook her head as she conjured the memory. "No, it was more than that. He would wait for me outside of class . . . . He'd always make a comment about my hair, my clothes. He asked me out a few more than a few times, and I always brushed him off, told him I wouldn't date one of my students." She ran her fingers through her hair, worrying her lip with her teeth. For a moment she looked seventeen again. "I thought he was harmless at first, but after the semester was over, he began asking me out again. Following me around, showing up at my dorm. I mentioned it to Charlie once, and of course, he went overboard ran a background check on him that came up clean, threatened to move down there, refreshed my mace supply." She gave me a wry smile. "But then one day the guy just disappeared. I assumed he transferred to another school or dropped out. Looking back, I think he was probably just lonely. I felt a little guilty for assuming the worst." She looked at me then and tilted her head. "Why do you know his name? Why are you asking me about this? I haven't thought about him since" She stopped short as if a thought just occurred to her. "What is it?" "I hadn't thought of him in over a year until the other day . . . I was at Charlie's gravesite. And something triggered the memory . . ." "Bella." It was time to spit it out. "I killed him. I killed Glenn Robins." Chapter 25 "Bella. I killed him. I killed Glenn Robins." BPOV I stared at his mouth. He'd said the words but they didn't make sense. For a moment I wondered if he was speaking English. Glenn Robins? The geeky, slightly creepy guy from UCLA? I hadn't thought of him for years until just days ago, when I'd knelt at Charlie's grave, remembering how my dad had always needed to protect me even a thousand miles away. I'd mentioned Glenn to him once in passing and of course he'd overreacted, running a criminal background check that came up clean. I was pretty sure the rape whistle and self-defense videos he'd sent were still stashed in my L.A. apartment somewhere. My mind was flipping through images of Glenn, of Edward, of Glenn and Edward.

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I shook my head. These two worlds did not exist together. The world where the Edward of my past lived in a hazy blue memory as opposed to the sharp, brightly colored recollections of my recent college days. That name did not belong on his lips. He didn't know about that name. That world. My world after him. "You what?" He didn't say anything. Just stared at me, his eyes pained. I swallowed hard and brought my hands to my temples. My mind and heart were racing, and I counted to ten, and then to twenty, as I struggled fruitlessly to formulate a coherent sentence. "Edward," I finally rasped. "I just I can't No." He reached for me and hesitated, choosing instead to run his hand through his hair. "But you don't know about that," I insisted. "You couldn't have known about that." He kept staring. And then it hit me. "Alice." He gave a slight nod, swallowing, his hands now pressed together between his knees. I stood and walked a few paces away, steadying myself on the trunk of a tall pine. "It was about two years ago." Edward's voice was calm, his demeanor almost eerily patient. "I ordered Alice not to look for you after we left Forks, but I'm sure you know by now, she was unable to abide by that request." I nodded, feeling my arms cross involuntarily across my chest. "I know." "She saw him, Bella. She saw him attack you." His fists curled at his sides, and he bared his teeth on the word "attack". I felt myself grow dizzy and Edward's hands were soon bracing me, settling me onto a large tree stump. "Bella, I " "Tell me what happened," I blurted. "I need to know." Edward settled on a felled tree several feet away, stretching his long legs in front of him, bracing his hands on either side of him on the rotting wood. "It was after the worst of my bouts of starvation, after I'd promised Esme I would hunt on my own. I kept my word, but barely. I still only hunted enough to stave off the hallucinations." He was looking down at his lap, his expression unreadable. "I wasn't good company for anyone; I still moved around but I kept in touch with my family. Alice and Jasper visited me one weekend every month, always on a schedule. Then one day, she showed up unannounced. She was nervous."

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I winced. Alice was normally the very essence of confidence. I had only seen her nervous once before when we were running from James. "I knew there was something wrong. That she had come to tell me of one of her visions but that she was also intentionally blocking me from seeing it. After the way I'd lost control when I learned of Victoria, she knew the risk. I was unpredictable." I thought back to the morning he'd told me about his time away. To his repeated mantra over the past few days that there was "much to say". I thought back to Alice's words that first night when I'd tricked Ryan into dropping me off at the Cullen's: He's not a killer, Bella, but when it comes to you . . . It was all starting to fall into place. "She eventually cracked. The vision was obviously too much for her to bear alone." "What did you see?" I asked, though I wasn't sure I wanted to know. His eyes blinked up at me, horrified, before glazing over, locked in horror, as if replaying a terrible scene behind the lenses. "Enough," he said, his voice flat. I nodded, my stomach rolling. I supposed I didn't need to know if Edward had seen me being raped, beaten, killed. I knew enough now to understand his reaction to any of the above would have been beyond the reach of reason. "Alice pleaded with me not to go, begged me to wait for my brothers, for Carlisle. But in the end, she knew I couldn't be stopped. I was at the airport in a matter of minutes. Booked on a flight to L.A. I found his apartment and followed his scent to the campus library. He was surfing the internet, looking at vile, sadistic images. His mind was obsessed with you." Edward gave me a pointed look. "His body too." "Jesus," I whispered. "I didn't realize." "The fantasies alone nearly caused me to end his life right there. In public." I scooted over on the tree stump and patted the space beside me. "Finish the story." He sat down and I leaned into him slightly as he continued. "I followed him to a small convenience store in Santa Monica. I cornered him in a dark alley behind the store. I held him against the wall. Asked him if he planned to hurt you." "What did he say?" Edward laughed darkly. "He said 'no', of course. But that's not why I asked the question. Even as he denied it, his mind replayed the very same image I'd seen from Alice. I knew his plans were solid. I knew he'd do it." "So you . . . did it then?" "I pinned him against the wall by the neck." Edward's voice maintained its steady calm as he began to explain the killing the way Charlie would explain how to cast a reel. "I grabbed his arm with my free hand and bit his wrist."

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"You bit him?" I said, flashing my eyes to his. At some point during this exchange, I had made the assumption that Edward had snapped Glenn's neck or disposed of him in some equally humane neverknew-what-hit-him kind of way. I tried to imagine Edward biting a human and the pain, the horror, that Glenn would have experienced in his last breaths. The thoughts made my gut wrench. "Why his wrist?" I asked, rubbing my own scar. "Because I wanted to watch his face." A cold jolt shot through me and I rose to my feet. I turned toward him, carefully studying his face as I asked the next question. "So you . . . drank?" Edward could have killed Glenn Robins in a hundred different ways. I remembered the night in Port Angeles how he'd vowed he wouldn't have taken any part of the men who'd cornered me into his own body. "Yes." His eyes were flat on mine. A vision of Edward's face filled the space behind my eyes. But his smile was not the gentle smirk he wore now. It was sinister, with sharp teeth gleaming between parted lips. His eyes were not the shiny caramel of every day but a glittering, bloody red. And then, for just a flicker of a moment, the bloody eyes I imagined belonged not to him but to me. "Did you . . . enjoy it?" He held my gaze, as if questioning for a moment whether I really wanted to know the answer. Then he nodded once. "I did." I shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond. "Bella, I told you in my letter that I was done hiding what I am. I meant it." "I know. I'm glad you told me. I'm glad you trust me to handle this." "As much as I wish it were true, despite eighty years of deprivation, my body still thirsts for human blood. It always will." I nodded. "Okay." "But even so, you should know that taking that vile creature's blood into my body is the only aspect of his death I regret. If I had been properly feeding, I would have been able to resist to think clearly enough to kill him another way. But my thirst . . . . my rage . . ." He shook his head. "The combination was just too much." He looked out toward the river, his body relaxing into a resigned slouch. Shaken as I was, his pain drew me like a magnet. I didn't know what to make of this information. I just needed to touch him. I went over to him, sharing the log and lacing my fingers in his. "That must have been awful for you."

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He turned to face me, his face spreading into a grateful half-smile. He nodded. "Emmett and Jasper took care of the aftermath. I left immediately." "So you didn't . . . I mean . . ." I looked down at our joined hands, rubbing the back of his hand with my thumb and taking a deep breath. "You didn't see me." He shook his head. "No. Alice helped make sure I wouldn't cross your path." I flinched. "I know what you must be thinking, but, Bella, I know my sister's mind. Trust me when I tell you she was distraught by my condition. My reaction to her vision had been beyond her control. She was terrified of what would happen if you had encountered me in that state." I nodded, squeezing his hand reassuringly and wiping at my eye with the back of my free hand. "I know. It makes sense." "Still, while I don't regret ending that putrid life, I do regret the way I did it. I regret failing at the one commitment I had managed to keep for nearly ninety years." "Carlisle was upset." I gave him a sad smile, knowing letting Carlisle down would have been the worst part of it for Edward. "He was disappointed in me. He felt I had the inner strength to spare the life to let the justice system handle him." Edward shrugged. "As you know, Carlisle and I don't always see eye-to-eye." I squeezed his hand. "It was soon after that he pleaded with me to do some "soul-searching", if you'll excuse the phrase." He smirked. "I see." "As I told you, that was a failed exercise. But Carlisle never gave up on me. Though I knew I'd disappointed him, his support never wavered. But I could read his mind, and though he never said it aloud, I knew he thought he'd failed me. That was the hardest to bear." "What happened after you left?" "I became more and more isolated. I took up a permanent residence in Yellowknife, but I didn't see Alice again until the day I learned of your book." "The day Jasper and Emmett took you hunting." "Right. Our family friends were in the area and found out where I was staying. I hadn't seen them in years and they were not prepared to handle the sight of me in my altered state. Irina contacted Emmett and . . . well, you know the rest." I nodded and ran my palm up his arm to the collar of his shirt. I pulled him forward so that my forehead rested on his. I closed my eyes and just breathed in his essence. I wanted to tell him everything was okay. I wanted to reassure him that this was no big deal. But inside my blood was cold in my veins. I loved this man, body and soul. I had begged him for honesty and he had given it to me. Now it was up to me. Was the truth something I could handle? Was he right to protect me from his nature all those years ago? I was suddenly unsure of the answer.

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I wasn't angry. If Charlie had known what Edward knew, he would have sanction it or hell, even carried it out himself. No, my inner turmoil wasn't about Edward; it was about me. "Edward." "Bella." "I love you." "I love you, too." "But I just . . . need some time." He smiled at me and squeezed my hand. "Carlisle said you might." I nodded, giving him a weak smile. "I won't be far," he said. "I know." I stood and he stood with me. His hands were at my hips. His lips were on my mouth. His fingers were in my hair. And then he was gone. As soon as I was alone, my composure dissolved. I fell to my knees, images assaulted my mind in a rapid-fire slideshow. Glenn Robins' weak smile. Edward sucking at his wrist. My own eyes red with the human blood newborn vampires were born to crave. The nausea that I'd tamped down for the last several minutes washed over me again, and I began to retch. ~X~ I spent the next hour staring at the river, my eyes glazing over as I grappled with the weight of all the information Edward had relayed to me this morning. The Volturi. The choice that needed to be made. What that choice might turn me into. I knew Edward was in pain, but as much as I longed to be with him, I knew the best thing I could do for both of us right now was to think things through without the distraction of his presence. As I sat on the cold, hard ground, I came to the realization that I wasn't very good at thinking things through. I never had been, not on my own anyway. No, for the last several years, any time I was in crisis, or needed advice, I turned to Jake. He was always the only person I could ever be truly honest with. The only one who knew just how broken I was and seemed to understand how to put the pieces back together. And he was the only person in my life who knew the truth about Edward. I wondered what he was doing right now, and whether he'd let me lean on him again or would slam the door in my face. Probably the latter, I guessed. The last time I'd seen him he'd made his feelings about my being with Edward much less the possibility of me becoming a vampire perfectly clear. A fresh crop of tears spilled down my cheeks as I remembered how we'd left things how furious he was. As much as I wanted to confide in someone, I wasn't sure if I could handle another shouting match with my oldest friend in my current state. Maybe I was on my own this time.

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With a shaky breath, I rose to my feet and walked toward the house. I didn't yet have a destination, but I knew I wanted to go for a drive, to breathe in the familiar scent of worn vinyl and to feel the comforting rumble of the old engine in my belly. I climbed inside the cab and found the keys in the ignition. A small piece of paper lay on the dashboard. I lifted it and unfolded the single crease. Alice told me where you're heading, though she cannot see past your arrival. It is taking every ounce of restraint I possess not to try and stop you, but I trust you. Please be safe, Bella. Call when you're ready for me again. Whatever you decide, you know I will love you for the rest of my life. And yours. Edward. I chuckled as I turned the key, feeling calmer already. I guess I'd made my mind up after all. ~X~ Billy opened the door before I had a chance to knock. I tried to smile a greeting, but I felt my chest tighten and tears spring to my eyes as I looked him over, my mind battered with memories of all of us together Charlie, Billy, Jake, and me. He gave me a sad smile and reached for my hand, rubbing his calloused thumb over my knuckles. He was quiet for a long moment before he sighed, "I don't suppose I have to tell you that I don't approve of what you're doing with the Cullen kid." I shook my head. "No. You don't." "Ok," he nodded. "Then I'll just tell you I hope you're thinking what your father would have wanted for you." "I am, Billy. I don't expect you to understand, but please respect my choice." Billy gave me an appraising look before nodding slowly. "We love you, Bella, and whether or not my son will admit it, that's not gonna change regardless of who you spend your time with. But we sure do wish you'd change your mind." "I know." I sighed. "And thank you." He squeezed my hand in response and tilted his head toward the garage. "He's in there. Still mad as hell, I reckon. But it's worth a shot." He shrugged. "Ok," I whispered. I walked toward the garage and lingered in the doorway, watching him perched at the work bench, his back turned to me as he fiddled with an engine. "Hey," I said, rapping lightly on the door jamb. Startled, he spun around on his stool. He looked surprised, maybe relieved, even, before his eyes flattened and his expression became unreadable. "Hey." I stared at him, unsure of what to say, afraid of giving him the wrong impression of why I was here but at the same time wanting more than anything to make things right between us again. I fumbled with the zipper pull on my jacket and gnawed at my lip, finally about to launch into an explanation of my visit when he spoke up instead. "You look like hell."

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I scoffed and rolled my eyes. "Yeah, well, so do you." It was true. His eyes were bloodshot, the circles underneath them a bluish grey. His hair stood on end as if he'd been tugging at it for days, and his tshirt was on inside out. He shrugged. "Been a rough few days." "Yeah. For me too," I agreed. "This sucks, huh? You and me . . . being like this." "It definitely does," he said. "It's good to see you," I offered, "even if, you know, things are weird. I wish they weren't." He raised his eyebrows but remained silent. "Did you mean it?" I asked, my voice cracking. "You know, about the ultimatum." He eyed me for an uncomfortable moment before his eyes softened. "I meant it at the time." "And now?" "I'm here, aren't I?" "What does that mean?" "It means I'm here. I'm listening. Beyond that . . . I don't know, Bells." I nodded. "Okay. Thanks for trying, Jake." "You're welcome." I walked over to where he sat and leaned back against the workbench. "So . . . what are you working on?" He turned halfway around on his stool and leaned out of the way. His movement revealed a familiar old motorcycle with a tattered purple peace sign sticker on the fender. "I didn't even know you still had this!" I laughed. "Last time we tried to take them out, we couldn't even get it to start." "I remember," he said, snorting. "I had to ride around with you on my bike. You totally cramped my style." I laughed again, remembering that day well. I'd insisted we ride anyway, which meant sharing Jake's equally rickety motorcycle and slowing our maximum speed to a pathetic crawl. "Hey, it wasn't so bad. We got up to, what, thirty miles an hour?" Jake smirked. "Maybe on a downhill." I shook my head in disbelief. "Are you fixing it?" He shrugged. "I didn't really plan on it. It's really not worth the money or energy to fix. I just . . . I dunno . . . I came in here to think and ended up working on it." "Maybe we can take them out again sometime."

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"Maybe." He let the word hang and the comfortable banter was soon replaced again by an awkward stiffness. "So, what are you doing here? I would've expected you and your bloodsucker to be in the honeymoon period still. Hearts and flowers and all that stuff." "It's not that," I explained, shaking my head. "And you should know upfront that I'm not here because I've changed my mind about him or " He cut me off. "I didn't figure," he said quietly. "Just cut to the chase. Why are you here?" I felt my eyes well with tears, and I tilted my head back to stare at the mismatched ceiling tiles. "Something happened," I said, surprised at how tiny my voice sounded. Anticipating his next question, I dropped my head so I could look him in the eye. "I'm ok. Not hurt," I clarified, as the tears began to streak down my face. He was silent, his arms folded tightly across his chest as he bobbed his knee impatiently and waited for me to continue. "I just need someone to talk to. And well . . . God, Jake, you're my person. You've always been that person." "What about Edward? I guess he's not technically a person, but can't you talk to him?" I ignored his dig. "I love Edward, Jake. And I love his family. But right now I need my best friend. Right now I need you." He looked away for a moment. When he met my eyes again, his gaze had softened. "Okay. Go ahead." I took a deep breath. "Edward killed someone. A human." Jake jumped to his feet and stormed to the far side of the garage. He planted his palms on the wall, his forehead on the door jamb, and took deep, labored breaths as his chest and shoulders heaved with the effort to remain composed. I shuffled a few steps backward until I bumped into his bike with a soft thud, and then I simply watched him, waiting to gauge his reaction once his human nature overcame his primal instinct. Finally, he straightened and turned to face me. "Where?" he hissed. I quirked an eyebrow at him, not understanding at first why he zeroed in on the location, of all things. Then I remembered the treaty the consequences that Jake must have been considering, the mayhem that would certainly ensue if Edward's lapse had occurred in Forks. "Not here," I emphasized. Jake exhaled hard and clasped his hands over his forehead. "Alright, well where, then?" he sighed. "And who?" "LA," I replied. "A guy named Glenn Robins. He was a student at UCLA." "Did you know him?" he asked sharply. "Yes, he " "That sonofabitch," he muttered. "He couldn't even let you lead your life, always had to fucking inter " "Jake," I protested. "It wasn't like that. We weren't friends. It wasn't a jealousy thing on Edward's part."

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"Jesus, Bella," he muttered as he rested his head in his hands. "You're killing me here. Just get to the point already so I can figure out if I need to kick his bloodsucking ass." I rolled my eyes. "I'll get to the point a lot faster if you'd stop interrupting me." "Sure, sure," he said, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture before folding his arms squarely across his chest. "Anyway," I started again. "We weren't friends. I was his T.A. when he was a freshman. He was a weird kid. Creepy. He asked me out a few times, but I blew him off, for obvious reasons." I paused a moment before adding under my breath, "Thank God." "What happened, Bella?" Jake asked softly. He was staring at me intently, but the cold, hard expression that had first inhabited his face was now replaced by one of genuine concern. I swallowed hard and squeezed my eyes shut, bringing my fingers up to knead away the pain that hammered in my temples. When I spoke again, my voice was detached, monotone. "He became obsessed with me, I guess. Wanted to hurt me. Worse." "Fuck," he whispered. "How do you how did Edward know?" "Alice had a vision. So Edward tracked the guy down near campus and read his mind." "Fuck," Jake repeated, shaking his head as he began to pace around the room. "You had no idea?" he asked. "I thought he was a strange guy, but not that . . ." I let the thought hang in the air unfinished, unwilling to vocalize what I'd so narrowly avoided. "And you didn't know that Edward had been there? That he killed the guy?" "Hah," I scoffed. "I certainly didn't know that Edward had been anywhere near me. Seriously, Jake, you would have heard about it by now if I had. And as for the guy, I knew that he'd disappeared. But I had no reason to put two and two together." "Oh," he said. "Look, Bella, I get that you're upset. Your face is all splotchy and you look like you could crumble at any second, not to mention the fact that you're here in the first place. But I don't really get why." "Seriously?" "Seriously," he said. "Edward's killed humans before. Lots of them. I know it's been awhile, but he's a vampire, for God's sake. What the hell do you expect?" "You're not bothered by this?" I asked, incredulous. He raised his hands in the air and began to gesture wildly as he paced around the room. "Of course I'm bothered," he cried. "You have a vampire for a boyfriend. That's totally fucked! But Jesus Christ, Bella " He stopped and shoved his hands in his pockets, shaking his head slightly as he looked at the floor. His eyes were pained when they finally met mine again. "Bella, he saved your life. And if I'd had those crazy powers seeing the future and mind-reading and all that shit I'd have done the same thing." "Yeah," I agreed lamely.

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"You're still upset," he accused. "But why? You didn't care when we when he killed Victoria." "I know," I admitted. "But that was different. She was one of their kind," I reasoned. "Glenn was human. Completely defenseless. And Edward killed him. Drank from him, like a like a . . ." "Like a vampire," Jake finished. I felt my shoulders slump as I nodded my agreement. "Look, Bells, I don't get a kick out of defending Edward, but for once, I think he did the right thing." "You're right," I said, my voice cracking. "It's just a lot to process, you know? It's, like, I think about how I would feel if Charlie had gunned the guy down, or if you and the pack had attacked him. And I can't put my finger on it, but this is . . . more somehow." "Because he enjoyed it," Jake said matter-of-factly. I stared at him slackjawed, stunned that he'd been able to so clearly articulate the realization that had been evading me all afternoon. "That's the only difference," he continued. I nodded vigorously and blinked away the tears that had sprung to my eyes. "I just can't get the image out of my head . . . Edward pinning the guy against a brick wall, snapping his bones, draining the blood out of him." "It's grisly," Jake agreed. I closed my eyes and began to breathe in and out, trying to center myself but instead only provoking the troubling images to flicker faster through my mind. The horrified expression on Glenn's face before he resigned himself to death. The blood dripping down Edward's chin, colored the same crimson that shone in his eyes. Mercifully, Jake brought me back to the present. "What I don't get is that you said when you came in that you and Edward were fine. That you hadn't changed your mind about being with him." "That's right." "So you're shaken up now about him being a vampire, but not upset enough to break things off with him?" "I guess so?" "But you knew this was a risk. He's a predator, Bella. He doesn't think like a human, and as refined as he claims to be, there's no way to completely bottle up the bloodsucker in him." "I know." "And he's killed people before. Plenty of people, am I right?" "Yeah," I admitted. He held out his hands, palms up, and looked at me expectantly. I returned the gesture, and he sighed. "Look. I'm not trying to be a dick. But I'm assuming you came here because you wanted my help, or my advice . . . or something." I took a deep breath and twisted my hair around my fingers, piling it on top of my head before letting it fall to my shoulders again. "I'm freaking out," I said softly. He started to interject, and I gave a slight shake of my head. "I always knew he was different," I continued. "Even before I really knew what he was. I was in awe of him, desperately needing to know his secret and hopelessly intrigued

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when I finally learned it. He divulged it all the mind-reading, the bloodlust, the way he stalked his prey and I never once was bothered. But now . . . " I trailed off and bowed my head, swallowing around the lump in my throat. "It means more. It's more . . . personal." "Why?" Jake prodded. "Wasn't the guy he killed some psycho? Were you really that distraught to find out he bit it? No pun intended. Why did you take it so personally?" "Because it was someone I know. Because it was just a couple of years ago. Because it's more real. Because it means that I-" I sighed, trailing off and giving him a pointed look. Understanding settled into his features. "Oh. Right. You saw what you're going to be capable of if you . . . " He waved his hand. "You know." "I'm scared." "Well, you should be." "Thanks a lot, Jake." He shrugged. "What do you want me to tell you? I've had to come to terms with being a fairytale monster through no choice of my own. You want me to tell you I think you're rational to run headlong into it?" "I don't want you to tell me that. I just . . . " I sighed. "Edward is my soulmate, Jacob. I can only be his." Jake tipped his head, eyeing me appraisingly before smiling sadly. "I know." "You know?" He nodded. "Yeah, Bella. I know you better than you know yourself. I guess I didn't want to admit it to myself. I only got to know you after he'd left." Jake's face took on a wistful look. "You were so fragile, so broken. Like a little bird." Jake sighed, propping his elbows on his knees, knotting his fingers together as he spoke. "If I'm honest, I knew the day you came to the Hangout it was all over." He looked at the floor before lifting his head and giving me a thoughtful look. "In all the time I've known you, I had never seen you so . . . alive." I was shocked speechless by this admission from Jake. "You saw that? But you were so angry you said " "I know what I said. And I'm not sorry I said it. If I had any say in this, you sure as shit wouldn't be soulmates with a fucking vampire." "That, I've gathered." "I was so used to seeing myself as your protector, Bella. Even when it was clear you didn't have feelings for me, it's like I couldn't let go of that need to keep you safe. But I guess what I'm saying is that I realized that, by standing in your way, I wasn't helping you heal; I was making sure you didn't." "Wow, Jake," I whispered. "I don't know what to say." "You don't have to say anything. I'm not saying I like this, because I don't. But there's nothing I can do here. I won't stand in your way anymore."

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I blinked a few times, completely caught off guard. "Really?" I asked. "Because it didn't seem like you'd ever " "Don't push your luck, Bella," he interrupted, waving his hand. I nodded, swallowing hard. "Ok," I whispered. "Thank you." The words were so flat, so inadequate to convey the relief I felt at his understanding, his acceptance, his forgiveness whatever it was that he was giving me. "Don't expect me to be friends with him. Because I won't. Ever. And I still think you're making a huge mistake. But in the end, you're stubborn as hell and never would've listened to me no matter what I had to say." I nodded. "I am so grateful, Jake, really." I hugged him hard and he smiled at me. I realized then how much older he suddenly looked. Wiser, somehow. "But I just have to ask why the sudden change of heart? I know we haven't talked in a few days, but this seems a pretty radical shift." He reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "It's, ah . . . it's been an interesting couple of days." "What's going on Jake? What do you mean?" He laced his fingers behind his head and blew out a breath, plopping down on his stool. Then he looked me dead in the eyes. "I told Corrie." "Oh," I said, taking a seat on an old milk crate a few feet away from him. It took me a moment to even place the name of Jake's girlfriend. That realization made me ashamed of myself. "About the wolf thing?" He nodded. "How did she ah... take it?" "She took it well. Too well." "What does that mean?" He shook his head. "I guess I didn't realize I'd been holding her at arm's length until that night at the bar. Then, after I saw you with him . . . after our fight that morning . . ." He shook his head. "I can't explain it. I was so angry. But I also felt sort of . . . free. That sounds crazy doesn't it?" I smiled. "Not at all." "Sam had given me permission to tell her weeks ago, but it wasn't until that day that I realized I wanted to tell her. I wanted to let her in. Wanted her to know me that way." I reached for his hand. "And she was okay?" "Yeah, she was. I mean, the crazy thing was, Bells, she didn't even seem surprised." I thought back to the night Edward had confessed what he was. How I'd already known. How, even before Jake told me about the "Cold Ones", I had had a feeling. How I'd been willing to look past all of it. "I think that's incredible. I'm happy for you, Jake. Really happy." "Yeah?"

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"Yeah." I nodded, squeezing his hand. "Do you think she's . . . you know, the one?" Jake smiled and his eyes crinkled the way I loved. "You know, I do." "That's wonderful." His smile faded a bit. "I was honest with her about everything, Bella. She knows about imprinting. She knows I haven't." "Oh." "She knows what happened with Leah and Sam. I told her it all. I told her it could happen to me, without my control. I also told her it may never happen for me." The weight of Jake's dilemma settled around us. I thought about Leah how Sam had been powerless to abandon the pull of the supernatural bond, leaving her a broken casualty. "Oh, Jake." "Yeah." "And she was willing to accept that?" "Yeah. She said loving someone meant taking risks that you could lose it all. That it meant committing to moving ahead through life together, even if you were afraid of what it could cost." My throat closed as Jake finished his thought, his voice faltering somewhat. I shut my eyes tight, sucking in a stilted breath. "Bella?" Jake's voice seemed a million miles away as Corrie's words echoed in my inner ear. "Bella, are you okay?" I sank to my knees, buried my head in my hands, and cried.

Chapter 26 EPOV "Fuck," I muttered under my breath. I knew Alice heard me but I didn't care. Bella's absence was maddening. She'd been gone just over three hours, and in that time, my composure had nearly unraveled. The second hand on my wristwatch, normally a calming metronome, thundered in my ears. My brothers and Rosalie had left the house to hunt shortly after Bella departed for the reservation. It was for the best. Jasper had internalized my worry, his body surging with an anxious energy that could only be tamed by a fresh kill. Emmett was, well . . . Emmett. It was Rosalie whose thoughts troubled me the most, and whose departure for which I was most grateful. Despite her recent change of heart where Bella was concerned, Rosalie remained the member of my family who was most bothered by the brutal nature of our existence. Reliving her reaction to my lapse with the human was not helping my state of mind. Carlisle and Esme had left me to stew, and Alice was next to me now, her head on my shoulder as we sat silently together on the front steps. She couldn't see anything, of course, what with Bella being on

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the reservation. Alice stayed with me, I suppose, to keep me company. I admit her presence was mostly comforting, although slightly annoying, as she attempted to lighten the mood by reciting in her head a seemingly endless litany of off-color jokes. The current one was a long one . . . something about a father and son eating breakfast together. And then, the son says to his dad "Why's she taking so long?" I blurted. "I know it hasn't been that long, but God, Alice. What is she . . ." I let the thought fall flat, unfinished, because there was no easy way to finish it. She loves you. "I know," I sighed. "You did the right thing by telling her, you know," she said out loud. "And I realize that you're probably beating yourself up right now about the human, but what's done is done. You can't change it. You can only hope to learn from your past, to make peace with it." "Yeah, I know." "Bella's always known who you are. The things you've done. What you're what we're capable of." "You didn't see her face," I said softly. "You didn't see the revulsion she attempted to mask when I confessed that I drank from him." True. But even I was shocked at that. Alice was right. In all my worry, I'd ignored Bella's strength, her unabashed acceptance of all my faults. As I again replayed our conversation from hours earlier, I focused this time on her warmth, on the casual touches and gestures that continued unabated after my confession and signaled what I already knew. She loved me. She would forgive me. But this wasn't about me. I tried to put myself in Bella's shoes to understand what must have been going through her mind when I'd laid all of this on her. Last night Rosalie had confronted her about becoming like us. This morning I'd told her about the Volturi and the need to make a decision about changing. And then I'd confessed to killing to drinking a human. Of course it stood to reason she was thinking less about what I'd done and more about what it meant for her. For all the compassion Bella bestowed on others, she was commensurately hard on herself. The traits that she would overlook in me the predatory nature, the inhumanity, the thirst were the same ones she would wage an internal war against once she was changed. Of course she would forgive me. The question was really whether she would be able to live with herself. "She's afraid of becoming like me," I said to Alice. "Of doing to someone else someone innocent what I did to that vile human." "Oh, Edward," Alice sighed, shaking her head. "That was a one-time lapse in judgment. Bella knows that."

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"She does," I agreed. "But I know the change has been weighing heavily on her mind. She's struggling with the decision. And learning about my savage killing has no doubt reminded her that eternal life is more than just a romantic concept. There are repercussions. Significant ones." Alice knelt in front of me, placing her hands on my knees. "Look, Edward. None of us have any idea what Bella is thinking. To be honest, if she is thinking about the negative repercussions, that's not altogether a bad thing." I sighed, scrubbing at my face in frustration. "Seriously," she insisted. "The decision is literally a matter of life and death for her, and if you love her, you should want her to consider all the angles before making it. Plus, when she does decide to change, which she probably will," she said pointedly, "you can move forward without any secondguessing." "Ok," I nodded, feeling more at ease. "I think you're right. It's not that I don't want her to think about those things. It's just . . . ." "It makes you nervous." "Yeah." Alice rose to her feet and messed with my hair. Stand up, brother. Let's hug it out. I smiled and squeezed her tight. "Thank you. For everything." No problem. I know you want to be alone now. I'll let you know when I can see her again. "Thank you," I repeated. I started to walk away from the house, into the woods, when she stopped me. "Hey Edward," she called. "Just remember that you'll have her, one way or the other. Whether for a lifetime or for an eternity, Bella will always love you." BPOV "Be careful, Bells," Jake said the phrase a third time since I'd climbed in the cab of my truck. We'd spent the past thirty minutes huddled together on the floor of his garage. He didn't ask a lot of questions, but seemed to understand my need to just let the tears fall. Now my eyes were red but dry as I weakly offered to return the handkerchief he'd given me. "Keep it, please." He laughed softly, holding his hands up. "You sure you're okay?" "I'm fine, Jake. Really." "Yeah, uh-huh." He gave me a knowing smirk. "Call me soon, ok?" I nodded vigorously. "Jake?" "Yeah?" "Thanks again. For everything. I know how " "Bella " "Let me finish, Jake," I insisted. "This is important." He raised his eyes expectantly and motioned for me to continue.

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"Anyway, I just wanted to say that I'm really glad I came out here today. You're my best friend, and I don't know what I would do without you. I mean that." He looked down for a moment before returning my gaze. "Yeah, well, as hard as it is for me to admit it, turns out that feeling is mutual. So I guess we're stuck with each other for the time being," he shrugged. "And Jake?" "Hmm?" "Promise me we'll take the bikes out again soon?" He smiled, the bright toothy grin I hadn't seen in weeks. "You're on." I slammed the heavy metal door and pulled off the Black's property, my tires crunching noisily on the gravel. I drove for several minutes, lost in thoughts that wouldn't solidify. Jake's recounting of Corrie's words had burned me like the vilest accusation: Loving someone meant taking risks that you could lose it all. That it meant committing to moving ahead through life together, even if you were afraid of what it could cost. Loving Edward was never in question. Even in the darkest of days, months, years after his absence, I knew in the depths of my heart that I could only ever truly love Edward. I knew it when Jake had kissed me the night of graduation. I knew it when Matt Brody had taken my virginity unceremoniously in his dorm room. I knew it the first night Thomas had asked me out. And I knew it on our third date when we'd made love in his bed. I had known it all those years, but had become so practiced at denying the truth. It had become second-nature a necessity of survival. Was some part of me still afraid? Still scared of what admitting to myself, what truly loving Edward could mean and what it could cost? My mind flashed for the briefest of moments to a vision I'd had the morning after Edward and I had left Seattle to see his family: A figure alone in the woods, surrounded by an ever-expanding ring of trees. Alone. For eternity. Then, the figure had been Edward the image conjured in response to his expressed fears of living out his remaining days without me by his side. But the figure in my mind's eye now was not Edward. It was me. I pulled the truck over near a stand of trees, my chest heaving as I struggled to catch my breath. It was suddenly very clear. I knew in my head that he loved me. I knew now that he had left me years ago only for my own protection. But I had built up years of defenses that were not so easily overcome. I was afraid. Afraid of immortality. Afraid of transforming into a predator capable of drinking human blood of killing brutally the way Edward had killed Glenn Robins. But most of all, I was afraid that I would change, and he would leave. I would be alone. Inhuman. Forever.

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No. Edward wouldn't leave me again. He couldn't. He loved me. In my heart, I knew it was true. Yet I also knew that somewhere deep inside, there was a seed that had been planted six long years ago. Doubt. I slunk in my seat behind the wheel of the old truck, defeated by the revelation and scared of what it meant. When he'd left me, I'd felt broken beyond repair, convinced that I'd never be truly whole so long as he was gone. Now that he was back, a part of me worried whether the damage could ever be undone, or whether I was doomed to a lifetime, if not an eternity, of insecurity and doubt. If what Corrie said was true, shouldn't my love for Edward triumph over any fears I had about him changing me? I looked out towards the dense woods, scanning the columns of trees as if expecting them to come to life to explain the complexities of this decision to me. My eye caught on something white, and I stopped to focus my vision. It was a ribbon, tied around a tree about 10 yards from the roadside up ahead. I wrenched open the door of the truck and walked toward the tree, my heart speeding and pounding heavy in my ears as I drew closer. There wasn't just one ribbon, but many: white, yellow, blue, and there was a white wooden cross staked in the soggy earth, surrounded by cellophane-wrapped flowers which had long since whithered and died. I didn't need to read the lettering stenciled on the white balsa wood to know what name I would find: 'Chief Charles "Charlie" Swan'. I ran my finger along the damp wood, my throat closing around my voice even as I tried to read his name aloud. I knelt on the ground, taking in the scene. It was beautiful and utterly serene. It was almost impossible to believe this beautiful pine could have caused such destruction. I smiled, seeing a laminated photo of my dad standing in front of Ms. Gosowski's fourth grade class. Below the photo was written in careful script, "We'll miss you, Chief." I picked up the photo, running my finger along the glossy front, before placing it atop the haphazard pile of photos and notecards that surrounded the little cross. My eye caught on a spot of red peeking from underneath the pile. I moved the layers of paper away to reveal the letter that had caught my eye. I gasped. It was brown and crinkled from being repeatedly soaked and dried in the elements, but the red wax seal was unmistakable, imprinted with the Cullen crest. I lifted the linen envelope from the pile and flipped it over. It was slightly faded, but the name "Charlie" was discernable in Edward's perfect hand. I slid a finger beneath the seam and unfolded the creamy paper. Dear Charlie, This apology, especially as belated as it comes, is sure to be inadequate. I know you never forgave me in life for what I did six years ago. I also know that you may be the only person capable of fully understanding why I did it. You know better than anyone the consuming need to keep Bella safe. You understand how that need, and your love for her, can overwhelm reason. Though I do not deserve her forgiveness, she has given it. And even though I know it is too late, I cannot help but beg for yours.

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She lies sleeping beside me as I write. I would give anything to be able to wake her, to tell her your death was all a bad dream to reverse the path of yet another round of her tears. While I am powerless to change what has passed, it is not too late to give Bella the future she deserves. It has taken me a long time to realize that I didn't have to leave her to keep her safe, Charlie. I can keep her from sickness, from death. I hope to God she chooses to let me for yet another lesson I've learned the hard way is that the choice must be hers. I confess to this blank page that considering the alternative incites in me an agony that seems to burn me from the inside out. Enduring life beyond Bella is an unfathomable prospect but if I must, I will endure it, embrace it even, in honor of her. So while it is too late for apologies, I can leave you with a solemn promise. If Bella chooses to live out her life as a human, I will give her a happy life with a family that adores her. I will love her with all of my heart, my soul. I will keep her safe in every way that I can, within the bounds of her choice. And I promise, too, that when the time comes to let her go, I will abide by her wishes. I will take every ounce of strength I possess. It will contradict every instinct of my being. Indeed, it will be the hardest thing I ever have to do, but I will hold her hand as she slips from my world into yours. Edward My hand trembled and tears streamed hot down my cheeks as I read and reread Edward's words to my father. In the wake of my own conflicting emotions, the uncertainty, the anxiety I'd been feeling over the last several days, I had hardly stopped to consider what Edward was thinking. He, like me, was scared of losing it all. But unlike me, he was powerless to make the decision that would keep us together forever. I stared at the pages and then lifted my eyes to the whitewashed wooden cross marking the place where my father's human life had ended. I remembered again the pain of burying him and felt a small surge of relief at the knowledge that I would never in life know the pain of losing Edward. In that moment, I felt the clouds of six long years disperse and lift from my mind. No, I would never have to fear Edward's death. But nor would I have to fear losing him in life. For a lifetime or for eternity, he was mine. ~X~ EPOV Alice alerted me the moment Bella had crossed out of Quileute territory. As we'd agreed, she left me alone to receive Bella and whatever news she had to share without her involvement. I stood in the middle of the road, fists at my sides, prepared to take the impact of whatever lay ahead. A moment later, her truck was rumbling toward me, then pulling off to the side of the road. I flung the passenger door open. She was red-eyed and clutching some sort of crumpled paper in the hand that gripped the wheel. "Bella." Whatever had happened, my relief at seeing her overwhelmed my trepidation. She didn't speak, just looked at me with wild, inquisitive eyes. She looked as if she were really seeing me for the first time. I moved to the driver's side as she unbuckled herself with a shaky hand. She still clutched the paper. I lifted her and she grabbed at me with her fingers, refusing to let me set her on the ground. "Take me there," she whispered.

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She didn't need to explain further. Without a word, I slung her around to my back and began to run. ~X~ When we neared the meadow, I slowed my pace gradually until we were walking slowly, ceremoniously, into the open grassy space surrounded by a ring of trees. It was nearly sunset now, and the late day sun streamed through the burgundy-gold maple leaves to the blanket of pine needles at our feet. I had last been to the meadow with Bella in the lush green of late summer, but I had never seen it look more beautiful. I moved to set her down on her feet but momentarily thought better of it. I knew this place no longer held the bright and happy memories that had once been exclusively ours. This was where Laurent had tried to take her life. Where she'd nearly died trying to simply feel my presence. "Is this okay?" I asked gently. "Do you want to stay?" I felt her nod behind me, her grip loosening. "Yes." She slipped from my back and immediately grabbed my hand. Together we began to walk to the middle of the sunlit ring. She sat, pulling me down in the grass beside her. I resisted the urge to ask her about everything that had happened in the hours since she'd left my side. We sat in silence, only our knees touching as Bella twirled a pine needle between her thumb and forefinger. Several minutes later she spoke. "I visited Jake," she said, stating what we both already knew. "And?" "And I think he's going to be okay." "That's good," I said, though her words left me wondering with what exactly Jake was going to be okay. "Mmmmm," she hummed. She pulled my arm into her lap, rolling my shirt sleeve up and twisting my arm. My skin glittered warmly in the late afternoon sunlight. "Edward?" "Yes?" "I don't care about Glenn Robins. I don't care what you did." I looked down at my hand where it lay in her palm. "Thank you," I said softly. "I'm sorry I reacted the way I did. It really wasn't about you. Or him. She looked at me and our eyes met. "It was about me." I gave her hand a gentle squeeze, letting her know I understood. We sat silent for a moment, my body tensed to stone as I tried to mask my impatience at having to wait for her thoughts. "Do you remember the first time we came here?" Her voice was wistful. "Of course," I said, though I suspected her question was rhetorical. "I worried that you may never want to visit this place again," I admitted. "I would have understood."

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She was quiet for several long moments. "Until today, I worried that too." "Something changed today." She smiled up at me. "Yeah. Today I realized I need to let go of the past. Your leaving, and Laurent finding me here . . . I'm finally letting it all go. " I smiled thoughtfully as she spoke, happy she was finding her way forward. She continued. "I knew I had forgiven you. That I never stopped loving you. But I didn't even realize I wasn't trusting you." Her words landed in the pit of my stomach. I had anticipated earning Bella's trust would be a process not something resolved overnight, but it was hard to hear her say it out loud. "I realized I wanted forever with you," she continued. "But, Edward, I spent a lot of years learning how to simply survive without you. And even though I forgave you, deep down I was scared that being changed and spending forever with you wouldn't be the same thing." "Bella, love," I said, confused. "Being changed is forever. You know that." "Yes, Edward, I know that." She smiled. "What I meant was that I couldn't stand the thought of living forever . . . without you." Her voice grew soft when she added, "if you decided to leave me again." God. I was so blind. Of course. "Oh, Bella," I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose. "I should have known " "Shhhh." She pressed a finger to my lips. "How could you know what I didn't even know myself? It wasn't until today that I really put the pieces together." "I'm not sure I understand." She sighed and began to twist a lock of her hair around her fingers. "It's hard to explain, really. When I think about what you did in L.A., or try to imagine you with red eyes, it's almost impossible. Because you're not a killer. That's not who you are." "No," I said slowly, not sure where she was going with this. "But you were lonely. Desperate. Not thinking straight. Basically you were all the things that I was after you left, only I didn't have to constantly fight the instinct to kill humans and drink their blood. And the situation with Glenn " She winced as if remembering. "I can't imagine what I would want to do to anyone who even thought about hurting you. What I'm trying to say, Edward, is that the thought of spending an eternity without you, having to control all those urges, is scary. It's a hell of a lot scarier than spending a human lifetime alone." "Ah." Of course she was scared. She was afraid of being all alone, without me to ground her, to keep her safe, and loved. "Before you left, do you remember when we were discussing Romeo & Juliet?" I smiled a little, remembering those last sweet days before Bella's birthday. I remembered, too, the worn copy of the play I'd found in her bedroom mere days ago Bella's handwritten margin notes abruptly stopping in precisely the scene we'd been studying when I disappeared. "I remember."

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"You remember you said you envied Romeo the ease of suicide." I swallowed. Indeed, this was a memory I had revisited many times. The envy had persisted and only grown stronger in my years away. "I do." "Then you understand. I don't have a death wish Edward. Even when Laurent found me here, I knew I didn't want to die. I tried the best I could to make a life for myself after you left. But eternity . . ." She shook her head. "Without you, it sounds less like heaven and more like hell." "I'm so sorry." I blew out a low breath. Of course I understood this better than anyone. I just couldn't believe I hadn't anticipated her fear. "Bella, my life before you was meaningless and aimless, but it was bearable. After I left, each day was hell. Knowing I stood to face forever missing the only thing that had ever mattered to me . . ." I shook my head, unable to complete the thought. She squeezed my hand. "I didn't even know it, Edward, but I was afraid of facing the same thing." "I'm grateful that talking to Jake helped you sort through this," I said, meaning it. "I'm just sorry I didn't see it myself." She nodded. "Jake was wonderful. But in the end it wasn't really Jake who helped the most." "Oh?" "It was you." She reached into her front pocket and pulled out the paper she'd been clutching in her truck. As she smoothed it on her thigh, I recognized the envelope I'd left for Chief Swan. "Well, you and Charlie." "How did you " "I found it on my way back from Jake's." She shook her head, her eyes lifting to the sky. "I don't believe in coincidences, Edward. I don't know where my father is, but I believe he had a hand in it." "Bella, I " "I'm done with questions. Done with doubt." She smiled a little. I took her face in my hands, searching her eyes for understanding as I spoke. "I will never leave you as long as you live." "I know," she said. And I could tell that she did. "It's ok, Edward. I'm ok now." I wanted to hug her tight and tell her for the umpteenth time how selfless, how strong she was. How perfect. In the end, I said all I could manage and all that really mattered. "I love you." "Edward." "Hmm?" "I want you to change me." Her words washed over me as I sat there, stunned. I wasn't expecting this. Not yet. Maybe, I realized, not ever. I didn't know all that had happened in the hours since she had left, but I knew that it had been exactly what she needed. For that, I was grateful to Jake. To Charlie. And to whatever power had seen the wisdom in allowing Bella to come to this decision on her own.

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"You're sure?" I whispered, my voice a wisp. I had to ask for confirmation but I was utterly terrified that this might not be real. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life. I want you forever, and I trust you not to leave. I know that you'll take care of me, help me through it all," she said. I wanted to cry with relief. I wished it were possible. Instead, I took her hands and pressed them to my cheeks, burying my face against her palms. "Thank you," I murmured, my lips brushing her soft skin. "Thank you, thank you." I repeated the phrase over and over until Bella lifted my face to her own. She placed a soft kiss on my mouth. "I don't know when," she said gently. "There are some things I want to do first." "Okay," I said, nodding. "That's okay. We can wait as long as you want." "But I know where." She gave me a knowing look as she laid back on the blanket of pine needles, pulling me down over her. My still heart sang in my chest as I kissed her slow and deep, knowing what she was saying. Knowing she was telling me that she wanted me to change her here, in our meadow. I kissed my way across her cheek, nibbling lightly at her jaw and down the delicate skin of her throat. I lingered there, sucking, smelling the sweet essence of her blood humming beneath her skin. "Oh God," I whispered against her neck, imagining the taking. She shivered beneath me, pulling me closer. "This place is ours," she murmured, and I sat up to look at her. She sat up too, letting me watch as she unbuttoned her blouse, slding it off. Giving me a wink, she reached behind her and unclasped her bra. I slipped it from her shoulders, taking in her perfect shape and, yet, imagining how she would be different once I had turned her. She reached to unbutton my jeans and then looked up at me while I shoved them down off of my hips. "Edward," she whispered. "Remind me of what this place means." My eyes shamelessly raked over her body. I had never been so hungry for her. "I will." I made quick work of her jeans and our shoes, laying her back on the soft ground. I spread her legs, pressing my palms against her inner thighs as I licked the length of her sex slowly over and over. I hummed against her flesh, enjoying the delicate warmth and yet anticipating the day when I could truly taste her with abandon. When I could let myself go wild against her wetness, sucking and pulling while she thrashed and moaned against me. But for now, I savored the sweet fragility I knew would one day be only a memory. She arched beneath me, moving in time with my tongue strokes. I teased her, slowing my pace as I recognized the telltale signs of her approaching climax. I pushed two fingers inside her and rested my cheek on her thigh, breathing hard and fast against her skin. I curled my fingers and she tightened beautifully around me, moaning my name. "I love watching you," I whispered when she'd calmed. "Hmm?" She moaned the question. I removed my fingers from her and kissed her hip, crawling up her body. "I said," I kissed her ear, my tongue curving along the shell. "I love watching you." "Yeah?"

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"Yeah." I skimmed my nose down her cheek, along her jaw. "I love watching you squirm. I love the way you blush when I talk to you like this." She propped herself up on her elbows. "Edward?" "Yes?" She sat up, wrapping her arms around her, and I realized then that she must be cold. I picked my shirt from the ground and wrapped it around her shoulders. "Will you miss this?" "What do you mean? You're not planning on depriving me of this anytime soon are you?" I smiled, casting her a quizzical look. "No, I just mean . . . I won't feel the same. Look the same. Smell the same. Are you worried you will miss the way I am now?" "No." I didn't hesitate. "But aren't you worried I won't feel like . . . like me?" "No." I took her hand in mine. "You will feel different, yes, but you will still be you. And you will still feel like you." I squeezed her hand gently. "Do you know how long it took me to be able to do this?" "What?" I gestured toward our joined hands. "This." "Hold my hand? I guess I never thought about it." "Even after I became fairly certain I would not kill you, I agonized over learning to touch you. I was constantly worried I would squeeze you too hard, crush your hand or a rib. And though making love to you is, by far, the greatest sensation I have known in my entire existence, it still takes every ounce of concentration and restraint I possess." She hummed in response as if considering this. "Bella, you know I cherish your humanity. You know I will not take it from you lightly." "I know." "And I don't mean to trivialize what you feel for me now, physically, but " "Wow," she interrupted, laughing. "What a way to begin a sentence." "I just mean that your body will change in ways other than the obvious. You will become more attuned to everything around you. Your senses will be capable of hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling sensations you don't even register now. Things you don't even know exist. You'll be my equal, physically. We'll be matched in every way." Her eyes widened. "Every way." I nodded. "I'll be able to do things for you with you that I've only been able to fantasize about." She cocked her head. "Oh really?"

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"Really." "Like what?" I leaned into her, pressing my mouth to her ear. "Like feeling you grip every inch of me while you ride me as hard as you can, like fucking you against a tree until it cracks in half and falls." Bella whimpered, her eyes shut tight. "Like spanking that beautiful ass. Hard." "Edward." "Hmm?" "I want you to fuck me against a tree." "What?" "Here. Now. I know it won't be the same. I know it won't fall over." She smiled and I brushed her hair from her face. "But I want to be wild with you here. I want a new memory to eclipse everything else in this place. I want to come here and think only of your body inside mine. Nothing else." Standing, I pulled her to her feet. I glanced around the meadow until my eyes landed on the perfect sturdy hemlock. "That one," I nodded toward the tree. I walked her backward until she bumped up against it. She began to slip the shirt from her shoulders. "No, leave it," I said, stopping her. "For your back." She stopped and nodded. "Grab that branch," I instructed, lifting her arms to clutch a limb several feet above her head. "Just hold on." I hoisted her up, holding her thighs as I stood between them, taking a moment to simply appreciate the sight of her, wild and willing. "I can't believe you're mine," I murmured. "Forever," she said, tightening her legs around my waist and locking her ankles together. The word caused my cock to twitch against her backside. She smirked and I knew she had felt it. I moved one hand to gather her hair and move it around to fall over her opposite shoulder. Her arms were still above her head, and though I was supporting all of her weight, the position gave me unfettered access to her breasts, her mouth, her neck. As I lifted her slightly and then pushed into her, I focused on the delicate skin there the jugular vein which pulsed visibly in her aroused state. I knew just where I would do it had mapped it out years ago. I pinned my eyes on the spot the small dip where her neck met shoulder, a finger's width to the left of my favorite freckle. I ran my tongue along the skin there, back and forth in the path of the crescent shaped scar which would one day mark her. I started slow, circling my hips gently as she grew accustomed to the feeling. It always took just a minute. Then the tension drained from her, her legs slackened just a bit and I knew she could handle more. I began to thrust, bracing one hand against the tree to absorb the impact. She gripped the branch tightly, using the leverage to lift herself slightly up and down in time with my thrusts. "Fuck, Bella, that is so fucking sexy." She gave me a naughty smile. "Do you like the way I look like this?" 254 "God, yes. Yes." She was flushed, her breasts bouncing beautifully as her arms flexed. Her body was more womanly than it had been years ago stronger and indisputably sexier. I wondered how much more of a force she would be in her new skin, unbreakable, powerful. My cock grew harder inside her.

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I felt my release building as I watched her writhing, my mind flickering between mortal and immortal visions. "Oh, God, Edward." She was loud and uninhibited in this open space. I looked forward to the day when I would finally be free to truly let go in return. I kept a steady hand on her hip as I continued my pulsing rhythm. "Fuck," I breathed into her neck. "You feel so good, baby. So good." She dropped her hands from the branch, clutching my hair and clawing at my scalp. Her eyes were closed, her skin wet with sweat as she continued moving, bracing her forearms on my shoulders as she fought to keep the rhythm precise. I felt her orgasm grip and release me as she screamed my name into the approaching night. I let go then, crushing the wood to a pulp in my fist as I came inside her, our voices mingling in shouts and gasps as we each reveled in the pleasure and feeling in this place. Our place.

Chapter 27 BPOV "I'm home," I called, chuckling, as I slammed the door to my truck. The announcement of my arrival had become a running joke in the last few months. Alice could always see me coming, and, consequently, no one but Edward was ever at the Cullen house or within earshot when I got there. Making love with Edward the moment I returned almost made the time apart from him worth it. Almost. I'd been spending my days at Charlie's in relative solitude in an effort to complete the sequel to Dusk. Though I initially chose the location simply to avoid distraction, I quickly realized what an inspired choice it was. Camped out in my old room, hunched over my old desk, I was able to recount with perfect clarity the bliss of spending nights in Edward's arms and the agony of sleepless nights that followed his departure. I'd worried at first that I wouldn't be able to end the story, to cross the bridge into actual fiction without exposing myself as an ordinary writer who just so happened to have an extraordinary life. In the end, I followed the advice that Thomas gave the first day of creative writing class: "Write what you know." As I approached the final chapters, I wrote later and later into the evening. I knew that he missed me more than he let on, and I could always count on him meeting me at the Cullens' front door to whisk me to his bed, or to peel my clothes off and carry me to the piano, the couch, the kitchen counter. Today, though, the entryway was empty, and the house was quiet as I kicked off my shoes, dropped my laptop bag, and made my way up the stairs. "Hello?" I called again. "Edward? Alice? Is anybody home?" There was no answer. When I reached the doorway to the living room, I stopped suddenly, my eyes widening in surprise as I clapped my hand over my mouth. "Oh my god," I breathed. Bouquets of red roses, peppered with holly and lush evergreen, filled the room. Streamers of ivory silk hung loosely from the chandelier, pine cones dotted the tables, and silver candlesticks stood tall on the lid of Edward's piano. The mantle, draped in garland and twinkling lights, held eight identical stockings, and in the far corner was an enormous Christmas tree, undecorated except for the rich blue velvet tree skirt embroidered with the Cullen crest.

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It was breathtaking. I closed my eyes for a beat and saw myself with Edward's family, talking and laughing as we tore open our packages and carelessly discarded the wrapping paper and bows throughout the room. I thought of sipping hot apple cider as I snuggled up to Edward on the couch, and of falling asleep on his shoulder, and of making love to him after he carried me to his room. I imagined this Christmas, and the next one, and my heart swelled when I realized that there would be countless Christmases, countless holidays and traditions to share. "I think she likes it," Rose quipped, jolting me to attention. When I looked in her direction, I noticed that the entire family was waiting expectantly in the kitchen doorway. "I love it!" I exclaimed. "When did you guys do this? And where did you get all this?" "Today, while you were working," Alice explained, grinning. "Esme had all the stuff here. She's the mastermind." "Esme, it's amazing," I gushed. "I had no idea you were so talented." "Psshh." Esme waved her hand dismissively. "Bella, it's the least I could do. You've given me a reason to get these decorations out of storage! Our family will be together for the holidays again, and trust me when I say it's been way too long since that's happened." "Yes, it has," Edward agreed as he walked toward me and reached for my hand. He pulled me close, cradling my face and brushing his lips against mine. "Hi," he murmured between kisses. "I missed you today." "Mmmm, me too." Edward leaned down to me, his lips traveling lightly over my eyelids, my cheeks, my jaw. "Okay, you two, get a room,"