My entry for the Beneath the Mistletoe contest. I hope you enjoy.
The bench came into view and I sat down heavily, my legs suddenly too tired to hold me up anymore. I looked around at the mostly deserted park, only a few people braving the cold to be outside on this sunny but frigid afternoon. I should be at work, but my supervisor had no trouble believing me when I told him I had a migraine. I knew I looked awful.
Memories flickered of last winter and being in this park. Sitting on this bench.
Laughing, walking hand in hand, planning our holiday. Sipping hot chocolate from the coffee shop, our cups filled with whipped cream and marshmallows, since she insisted it was the only way to drink it. Capturing her face in my hands and using my tongue to remove the bits of foam stuck to her sweet mouth.
Her warm eyes as they gazed at me.
My breath huffed out an icy cloud of white as I heaved a deep sigh.
Things were different this year.
She was gone.
My phone vibrated in my pocket and I dug it out, frowning at the unknown number. No doubt another solicitor.
There was silence on the end and I waited for the live person to kick in once they knew someone had answered. I always took such enjoyment in waiting so I could hang up on them. She used to laugh at me for doing that.
But there was no click. In fact there was nothing.
"Hello?" I repeated, pushing the receiver closer to my ear.
"As much as I want to support my provider, I don't like listening to blank air. Thanks for calling," I spat; my voice laced with sarcasm. But as I started to pull the phone away to hang up, I heard it.
The softest, smallest sound—like a whimper and a sob combined; filled with pain and drenched in sadness.
I knew that sound.
I pressed the phone back to my ear, my voice now thick.
"Bella? Baby—is that you?"
The caller disconnected.
I met her on a Tuesday. I was at the coffee shop and reached for my cup at the same time she did. Our fingers touched, and my life changed forever. Her nervous, dark eyes met mine and it was as if the world around me ceased to exist. Despite my usual shyness, I insisted she take the cup, grabbed the next one, then followed her to a table, standing beside it until she shyly asked me if I wanted to join her. She was uneasy—her gaze darting around, fingers playing with the paper napkin—and then I made her laugh. She relaxed as I offered her personal details and talked about my somewhat boring life. We spent hours talking—neither of us making it to where we were supposed to be. She missed classes and I called in sick to the office.
We left the coffee shop and wandered the park, admiring the leaves turning colors. I bought us sandwiches and we ate them, sitting on the ground, under a tree, as the leaves drifted past us. I insisted on laying my coat down so she had some protection against the cold earth, and she scooted to the edge, patting the space beside her, her eyes nervous once again. I took full advantage of the situation, leaning into her and wrapping my arm around her shoulder to make sure she was warm. It felt perfect when she snuggled into my side. It felt right.
I walked her home, thrilled when she asked me in to her little apartment. We talked about everything, shared more—all our interests, likes and dislikes— and learned about each other. Neither of us had family anymore. She had moved here to the "Windy City" recently to go to school and become a historical librarian, so she was still finding her way around the big city. I assured her our meeting was meant to be, since I had grown up in Chicago and could take her any place she wanted to see.
When it was time to leave, I hesitated at the door. Her dark eyes met mine, a warmth in them unlike anything I had ever seen.
"Can I kiss you, Bella?"
"Please, Edward. Yes."
Our lips met in a series of soft, light caresses, each one like a small burst of flames to my senses, the heat slowly building and burning brighter with each pass. Finally, I drew her to me, deepening the kiss, exploring her mouth and groaning at the sheer relief of feeling her in my arms. Her arms wrapped around my neck and pulled me close as she whimpered, returning my desire with a fiery passion of her own. Our mouths fused and broke apart, teeth nipped and tongues soothed, only to join back together, neither of us wanting to lose the connection.
When we eventually pulled apart, we both knew it.
This was the start of something special.
For a few months, my life was perfect.
And then in the blink of a moment—it changed.
I rushed to Jasper's place, letting myself in with the key I'd had for years. I burst through the door so fast, he looked startled. As usual he was surrounded by monitors and keyboards. He ran a security company from home and he was constantly working.
"Can you trace a cell call?"
"I can narrow down where it's coming from while you're on it," he replied, then frowned. "Why?"
"I think Bella just called me."
"She didn't say anything, but I heard a noise."
He took a sip from the huge mug he was holding. "A noise?"
"Bella made a noise when she was so upset she couldn't talk—I heard it and then the line went dead."
He shook his head. "Edward—cell phones make lots of strange noises."
"No. It was her."
Another long sip happened as he stared at me. "She's been gone for almost six months—without a word. She didn't even say goodbye."
I swallowed the painful lump in my throat. "I know."
His voice softened. "I looked for her, Edward. I did everything I could to find her for you. It was as though she disappeared."
I nodded, unable to speak.
"And you think she's suddenly decided to reach out?"
I stepped forward, my hands held out beseechingly. "I know that sound, Jasper. It was her. I don't know where she's been or why she left, but it was her. She reached out. You have to help me."
"She hung up," he pointed out.
"Something scared her. She'll call back."
"You still love her—even after all this time?"
"More than anything."
He stared at me, searching my eyes, then nodded as if he'd made a decision. "Give me your phone."
I sat down and watched as his fingers flew over the keyboard and he plugged in my phone to one of his massive computers. I had no idea what the hieroglyphics were scrolling across his monitor, but it didn't matter. Jasper was the best computer whiz I knew—a hacker extraordinaire. The world was lucky he chose to use his talents for good, instead of evil. At least as far as I knew he did. I didn't ask too many questions.
He rummaged around in a drawer and dug out another cell phone, doing something to it as well.
Turning in his chair, he handed me both. "The number that called is encrypted."
"I can't do anything unless she calls back. I can backtrack the signal and find out where she is calling from. Next time she calls keep her on the line as long as possible." He pointed to the other cell phone. "Call me as soon as she does. I'll start working on this end. Keep her talking. Or at least…making noises." He paused and regarded me apprehensively. "If she calls back."
Fall melted into winter, the temperatures dropped, and snow covered the ground. Bella still loved to walk, and every day we could, we'd explore the city together. I rediscovered it through her wonder and joy of seeing Chicago for the first time. Bundled up against the cold, we'd walk and talk, her nestled into my side as we strolled. On Thanksgiving I introduced her to Jasper and Alice, my two closest friends. She was nervous meeting them, but soon the four of us were laughing and playing board games while the dinner cooked, filling my apartment with delicious smells for us to enjoy. I hadn't had such a good day for years.
When she told me Christmas had always been her favorite time of year, but since losing her parents she'd been alone, I was determined to make this one special.
She loved to make things with her hands, so I surprised her one night by showing up with all the things needed to make a Christmas wreath using a variety of bright-coloured Christmas balls the same as she'd seen on some show we'd watched on TV. We spent the evening gluing and arguing placement of the different balls, and when we were done, hung it over her little mantle. The wreath represented something special to both of us.
She cried when I added an ornament in the middle I had found. It was a beautiful pewter heart decorated with small red crystals, the middle inscribed: "Our first Christmas."
That night was the first time we made love. Joined with her in the most intimate of ways, I knew I'd found my home. We were meant for each other.
It was also the first time I heard her cry in her sleep. The first time she didn't tell me the truth, when she said it was a nightmare.
Friday after work, I went for another walk, following the same path Bella and I always took. I sat down on the bench we had shared many times, looking down at the steaming cup in my hand. It had been three days and my phone hadn't rung. Maybe Jasper was right. Cell phones did make strange noises—but I had just been so sure.
Maybe it was wistful thinking.
I wanted a Christmas miracle. I wanted to hear her voice—for her to tell me she needed me and please come to her. That the past months had been as painful for her as they had been for me, and she would explain everything to me if only I'd let her.
And I would.
Except I had to face the fact it probably wasn't going to happen. I needed to accept that and pick up the pieces of my life. To do more than breathe in and out because I had to. To stop remembering how perfect it had been between us, and to move on.
The air around my face was white with my deep exhales as I struggled to remain calm.
Slowly, I stood and walked to the garbage can, then I stared down at the cup of hot chocolate filled with whipped cream and marshmallows. Silently I disposed of it. I couldn't drink it anymore.
The walk home seemed to take forever. It felt as if I'd left a piece of my heart back in the park. I undressed and lay on my bed, trying not to remember all the times she had lain down beside me.
My phone vibrated on the bedside table, and I picked it up, my heart stuttering at the unknown number message. I dialed Jasper who answered on the first ring. "Now," I hissed and hung up, picking up my phone and managing to utter out a fairly calm "hello."
Silence greeted me. No clicks, no mechanical voice telling me about a cruise I had won.
It was her.
"I sat on our bench today," I told her quietly. "I sat there and thought of you—thought of us."
"I miss you so much, baby. I can't cope some days."
Breathing. I could hear soft breathing. Quiet, shuddering inhales of breath.
"I know it's you, Bella. Talk to me."
Jasper's phone binged softly with a text.
Keep her talking.
"Are you safe, baby? Are you okay?"
"You took our wreath. You left me behind, but you took our wreath. Do you have it up where you are? Are you thinking about me because of the holidays? I think about you every day. I miss you every day."
"We made love for the first time that night. It was perfect—you were perfect. And I told you I would love you forever." I drew in a deep breath. "I meant it. I still love you, Bella. No matter what."
This time I heard it. That pain-filled whimper she would make in her sleep. The one only I could calm. The one she refused to tell me about.
"Talk to me, baby. Tell me where you are and I'll come get you. We'll figure this out." I waited, hoping she would speak, but when she didn't, I continued.
"I need you. I'll always need you."
The line went dead.
We grew closer; became almost inseparable. I loved everything about Bella and could no longer imagine my life without her. She became the center of my world.
There was a small part of her she kept hidden, though. Something in her past that made her cry out at night and cling to me. A painful memory she still couldn't—or wouldn't—share. I gave her the space I felt she needed, hoping one day she would tell me. I should have pushed harder.
Christmas was perfect. It was only her and I, since Jasper and Alice were at her parents' in Florida. We spent it at my place. She insisted on bringing the wreath over and we hung our ornament on the tree I had dragged home one afternoon to make her smile. I loved her smile.
We bought silly gifts, nestling them under the tree, and she surprised me with a stocking full of candy, socks, and games. She giggled in delight at the fuzzy socks for her cold feet and the spa day I arranged for her. I opened various parcels containing videos and books, clothes and an amazing collage she had put together of all our explorations. Ticket stubs, passes, tokens and even a couple pressed flowers I had bought from street vendors were among the large collection.
"Our memories," she explained with a shy smile.
"Our start," I replied happily. Cupping her face in my hands, I gazed into her eyes. "That's what this is. We have our whole lives ahead of us." I tightened my hands. "I love you, Bella."
Her eyes widened, glistening with unshed tears. "I love you, Edward."
"That's a good thing." I smiled and slipped her main gift into her hand. She gasped as she looked down at the thick band with the small heart set in tiny diamonds. Inside the band, the words "My Heart is Yours" were engraved. Her gaze flew to mine. "My promise to you," I whispered, touching the ring.
"Will you wear it, Bella? Will you wear my ring?"
I slipped it on her right hand, kissing her fingers. "I'll put one on your left hand one day, Bella. I promise you."
Tears filled her eyes and she only nodded.
I gathered her into my arms. "Merry Christmas, baby."
Jasper showed up an hour later, his face sad. "Sorry."
My shoulders sagged. "You couldn't trace it?"
Jasper's voice was confused. "Edward, this is weird. Her cell pinged off so many places I didn't get it. It's as if…"
"As if what?"
"As if she's in hiding and isn't supposed to be found."
"I don't understand."
He blew out a big breath. "You told me once you thought there was something she wasn't telling you. Something from her past she kept hidden."
"Edward, I did some digging. Bella Dwyer didn't exist until last year."
"Her existence is made up. Forged."
"How do you know?"
He laughed. "I recognize things like that—how it's implanted to look real. It's what I do."
"What the fuck does it mean?"
"You really want to know?"
"I think… I think she's someone in protective custody."
I gaped at him. "Like witness protection?"
He nodded. "It makes sense. The fake background, the strange behavior you told me about, her avoidance in discussing her past—even her sudden disappearance." He tilted his head, regarding me. "I think something happened and she was moved for her own safety."
"Why wouldn't she tell me?"
"Either she couldn't or she wasn't able to. If something happened, people are taken away immediately. Chances are it's not the first time it's happened. She may not have been given a choice."
"Why did she call?"
He smiled at me, shaking his head. "Because she loves you, Edward. She needs you."
I waited in hell for two days. Work was busy with the holiday season approaching. Everywhere there were lights and decorations; laughter and music; people gathering—the sidewalks and restaurants busy as they celebrated. I kept a silent vigil by my phone, ignoring the passing world.
Jasper's words played in my head over and again. I thought about his theory. About the days leading up to Bella disappearing. One memory stuck in particular—a spring night that changed my life again—and not in a good way.
She was curled against me, her soft skin damp from the bath. Running my hand up and down her back, I nuzzled her fragrant hair. She had seemed upset all evening, unnaturally quiet, and finally I had drawn a warm bath, settling her between my legs and holding her to my chest.
"Move in with me," I whispered in her ear.
She stiffened in my arms. "I don't know if you really want that."
I chuckled against her skin, nipping her neck. "Of course I do. I want you with me always."
"Edward—" she started, but paused.
"What?" I kissed her shoulder.
"What if I did something you were angry about and you didn't want me around anymore?"
"I can't imagine you doing anything that would make me angry enough to not want you, Bella."
"You don't know everything about me."
"I know everything I need to know. You're sweet, loving, honest and kind. We want the same things from life. I love you and you're mine. The rest is just history." I held her tighter. "You don't know every story from my past either. We have the rest of our lives to share them all. Create new ones."
Suddenly she was weeping. "I want that," she sobbed. "I want the rest of my life with you."
Frightened at the desperate tone and the deep sobs ripping from her chest, I turned her, holding her against me, dropping small kisses all over her face. Cupping her wet cheeks, I forced her to look at me, the sadness in her expression breaking my heart. "Hey," I soothed. "We have that. You have me, Bella. Nothing—and I mean nothing—can take me away from you." I kissed the end of her upturned nose. "I've been yours since the day you tried to steal my coffee," I teased, wanting her to smile again.
Her lips quirked a little. "You tried to take mine."
I shook my head. "In such denial."
"I love you," she said fiercely.
"I love you too," I responded, then covered her mouth with mine and proceeded to show her how much. Soon the entire room echoed with the cries of our passion, water splashing over the edge of tub as she rode me, gripping the edge of the tub, our gazes locked in a heated stare.
After, I wrapped her in a fluffy towel, carried her to my bed and climbed in beside her. We had been quiet until now. "Tell me, "I begged. "Tell me why you're so upset and let me fix it."
She shook her head, the tears beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes again.
"Nothing you say will change how I feel."
"You can't promise me that."
"I can. I am. Nothing, Bella."
"I get worried sometimes this is too good to be true. I…I was alone and unhappy for so long, and then you came into my life. If I had to give you up…" her voice trailed off.
"It won't happen. Ever."
Her voice became a whisper. "Would you give up your life for me, Edward?"
She said nothing else, instead burying herself closer, her tears now muted. The same tiny sounds she made in her sleep were all that escaped her sweet mouth. The almost silent grief frightened me more than her loud cries from earlier. I held her until she cried herself to sleep, vowing to make her talk it all out with me on the weekend. We had no plans, and I needed to understand where this sudden worry was coming from, or why she would ask me a question like that.
But when I arrived to pick her up a couple days later, her apartment was empty. All that was left was the furniture. Her clothes and the few personal items she had were gone. On the mantle was the Christmas ornament with a folded piece of paper.
I'm sorry. I love you. Always.
She was gone—leaving me with a broken heart and a world that no longer made sense.
It was four in the morning when my phone chimed again. I hit up Jasper and answered the call, without even saying hello.
"It's dark here, Bella. You always hated the dark. You liked it when I held you and you slept better. Are you sleeping at all without me?"
Of course she didn't answer.
"I don't sleep well. I need you beside me. I want your skin touching mine. I want to feel you wrapped around my body." I dropped my voice. "I want to make you mine again. I want to feel you come around me. Nothing else on earth feels like that, baby. Warm, wet, God, I love how that felt."
I heard the sudden inhale of air.
"You remember that, baby? How it felt when I was buried inside you? How it felt as I made you come and pant my name? I want that…with you—always and only with you."
Her whimper was so quiet; I would have missed it if I hadn't been listening so close for it.
"You asked me once if I would give up my life for you, Bella. I thought you meant would I die for you— which I would, but now I know you were asking if I'd give up the life I had here if I had to, in order to be with you, weren't you?"
I waited but there was no response.
"I would, baby. My world is empty without you. Everyone around me just carries on with their life, but I'm stuck in limbo because you're not here. I kept telling myself I'd move past you, but I can't. I can't live like this—I don't want to.
"If you can't come to me, let me come to you. I know something is holding you back. Give me a clue and I'll find you. I'll figure it out. We can be together."
The tears I'd been holding back made my voice thick. "Please, baby."
The silence was deafening.
When she hung up, I didn't even bother trying to call Jasper. I already knew the answer—once more we had failed.
Three days later Jasper called me at work. "You need to come over—now."
I put on a stunning performance of sudden onset flu, gagging so loudly in the washroom, my boss insisted I leave. I was at Jasper's in twenty minutes.
He handed me an envelope, after telling me I looked like shit. It had a label on it with his name and address and nothing else. The postmark was from Seattle. "Look inside," he instructed.
I pulled out a pair of plastic forks and held them up. "I don't get it. Are you ordering cheap cutlery online now?"
He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "No return address, priority mail and it was sent three days ago."
I was too drained to figure this out. "And?"
"It's from Bella."
I sat down, my legs starting to shake. "How?"
"I had better luck last time, and I know the signal is coming from the Northwest."
"You didn't say anything."
"I didn't want to get your hopes up," he admitted. "I did some checking—there's a small town there, Edward. It's called Forks. She can't tell you where she is, so she's showing you."
My heart started to beat rapidly. "Why would she send them to you and not me?"
"To protect herself…and you."
I looked down at the pieces of plastic.
"I need to book a flight."
"Already did. Your flu is gonna last for a few days—long enough to last over the holidays, anyway."
I looked at him with raised eyebrows. "If what you've told me is true, it may be fatal."
He clapped his hand on my shoulder. "I'll miss my friend."
His eyes were full of empathy. "I would do the same for Alice." Then he paused. "I may decide to take a trip in the fall next year though. You never know who you're going to run into on vacation."
"As long as it's safe for her."
He nodded. "You have to come back and close your life here though, Edward. Tell people you're moving and let time do the rest. That would be the least suspicious. The safest thing for both of you."
He was right. I glanced down at the plastic cutlery in my hand, my fingers skimming the handles, knowing if Jasper was right, Bella had touched the same handles.
"One step at a time," I murmured, slipping the forks into my pocket.
He leaned back. "Go find your girl, Edward. Live your life and be happy." He grinned, trying to lighten the mood. "Name your first born after me."
I stood up and pulled him into a hug. "Merry Christmas, Jasper."
His arms tightened for a brief moment.
"Merry Christmas, Edward."
I landed in Seattle and picked up a rental car, driving straight to Forks. I had no plan other than getting there as fast as possible. I arrived mid-morning and drove through the small town. I would knock on every door until I found her if that was what needed to happen. I pulled into the local diner and went inside, sitting down at the counter. A smiling waitress came over and filled my coffee mug, and I ordered a cheeseburger. I glanced around, knowing I wouldn't find her, but hoping regardless. The mug in my hand froze part way to my lips as my eyes landed on a small photo tacked to the wall beside the shelves of glasses along with some other staff photos. It was her—my Bella. She was standing with the waitress serving me, both of them smiling at the camera. Bella's hair was shorter, the color different, her expression more serious than her counterpart. She was tinier than I remembered; her frame almost skeletal.
She was beautiful.
"Bella," I breathed.
My waitress looked up and then at the picture. "You know Annabella?"
Jasper's theory was beginning to seem more correct every moment.
My heart began beating rapidly. "Yes. We're, ah, old friends. We went to school together"—I paused and took a chance she used the same information she had told me—"in Phoenix."
Her face brightened. "Well. Isn't that lovely."
"Is she working?"
"You missed her by about twenty minutes."
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. "How friendly were you?"
I decided to go for broke. This woman might get me to Bella today. Now. I leaned forward, lowering my voice to speak confidentially. "We've been in touch recently via the internet. We've gotten pretty close, but we had a fight. I flew here to try and make it up to her."
Her hands clapped together so loudly I jumped. "I knew it! That girl's been moping around here for a few weeks, looking so sad and lost! I knew it was because of a man, no matter how much she denied it."
I nodded, trying to look sheepish and remain patient with this woman. All I wanted to do was lean across the counter, grab her shoulder and shake her until she told me where Bella was right now.
"Are you going to her house? To surprise her?"
"Yes. I thought I'd grab something to eat first, you know, settle my nerves. I, um, I didn't realize there was only one diner in town."
She snorted. "This ain't the big city, you know. She would have been plenty surprised to see you walk in."
"I suppose so." I drained my mug and stood up. "Is her place far from here?"
"Nothing is far from here, young man."
"Do I go left or right? Do you know?" I asked, hoping to narrow down my search. I highly doubted she'd give me Bella's address, especially given the fact I probably should know it.
She laughed. "I would think so since she's my neighbor. It's left. But what about your cheeseburger?"
I didn't want to eat anymore. I just wanted to go. "Can you make it to go?"
"Sure, ah, what did you say your name was?"
"Edward. Edward Cullen. Pleased to meet you, Mrs. …?"
"Cope. Shelly Cope."
Five minutes later, thanks to the internet, I had Shelly Cope's address.
I was minutes from Bella.
I was going to go and find her—and I was never letting her go.
The car slowed to a stop and I climbed out, looking at Bella's tiny, yellow house. My breath caught as I gazed at the front door.
Our wreath hung from a thick red ribbon, the bright Christmas balls catching the sunlight, twinkling in the shimmering rays.
That wreath represented so much to me—to us. She hung it where it could be seen, and I wondered if it was there for me to find—so I'd know exactly where she was. I trudged up the stairs, making a mental note of the creak. I would have to fix that for her. I hesitated, then knocked, my heart thumping so loud in my chest I was sure it would beat right through my skin. I waited for the door to open, for Bella to appear in front of me, but nothing happened. I knocked again, listening closely. I heard no sounds, no footsteps approaching. She wasn't there. My head fell forward, hitting the door. I would have to be patient a little longer. I would wait in the car until she came home. I would wait for however long it took.
A noise behind me caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise and a shudder ran down my spine. Slowly, I turned, and for the first time in months my gaze met Bella's. She was standing on the sidewalk, her eyes wide open in shock, tears running down her face. The bags she was holding fell from her hands, a myriad of emotions playing across her face. We stared for what seemed like an eternity.
"Edward," she mouthed, taking a small step forward, lifting her shaking hand. The sun glinted off the ring she wore on her left hand now. My ring. She'd marked herself as taken with the ring I gave her.
I was off the steps and had her in my arms in seconds. Her small form wrapped around me, her shoulders shaking, sobs racking her body. She was trying to talk, the words incoherent, her tears were so thick. I was shaking with emotion, almost overwhelmed by the feelings coursing through me. Burying my face in her hair I breathed in her scent, her closeness calming me. I lifted her, carrying her up the stairs, holding her tight. "Keys, baby. Tell me where they are."
I managed to figure out the word purse and I glanced behind me to the items on the sidewalk. I set her on her feet, stepping back. She gasped, panicked, and her fists grabbed my coat. "No!"
I cupped her face. "Sweetheart, listen to me. I am not going anywhere. I'm getting your keys and bags and we're going inside together. Together. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she stuttered, her hands still gripping me.
"Ten seconds, baby. I'll be back in ten seconds."
Her fingers let go and I hurried over, grabbing her things, and was back beside her in less time than it took to draw in the oxygen my lungs needed. Her keys were clipped to the strap and I opened the door, drawing her inside, dropping the bags and bringing her to me again. The pain—the constant ache that had resided in my chest—began to loosen and finally, I could take in a breath without feeling as though I was going to explode. I buried my face into her hair, inhaling her scent. She gripped me hard, her entire body shaking. "Bella…" I breathed her name. "Baby, I missed you so much."
Another shudder ran through her and I stepped back. "We need to talk."
She nodded, another wave of tears spilling down her face. I couldn't wait another minute. Capturing her face in my hands, I brushed my lips over hers. Her hands came up, wrapping around my wrists as she leaned into my caress. I pressed harder and then like a wild brush fire, we exploded. I yanked her to me, tilting her head and kissing her with everything I had. My mouth possessed her, all the emotion of the past months breaking through. I couldn't get enough of her taste, feel enough of her touching me. I needed all of her. Always.
"Mine," I gasped, kissing her once more. "No more running. You can't leave me again. I won't survive it." I gripped her tighter, burying my face into her neck. "Promise me, Bella. Promise me, now."
"I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm so sorry!"
It was all I needed.
We sat curled beside each other on the sofa. Our coats were discarded, hot mugs of tea in our hands. Our knees were pushed close and our free hands clasped together. I couldn't get near enough.
I studied her carefully, not liking what I saw. She was pale and wan looking with dark circles under her eyes. She'd lost too much weight. I would have to make sure she took better care of herself now.
"You're too thin, baby," I murmured.
"You look tired," she retorted.
"I've been getting prank phone calls at all hours," I teased her gently.
Her lips trembled and lifting her hand, I kissed the knuckles.
"Why are you in hiding?"
She didn't deny it or try and pretend she didn't know what I was talking about. The time for pretending was over.
She shuddered, a long tremor snaking through her frame. Her eyes were haunted as they looked at me. "I witnessed a murder."
I shifted closer. "When? Where?"
"Two years ago—not long after my parents died in the car accident. I was in a hurry, and cut through a back alley." She closed her eyes and a tremor went through her. "It was a drug deal gone bad and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
I squeezed her hand, realizing how alone she must have been and how much she had been dealing with.
"He was some sort of mobster. I testified at his trial. The plan was he would go to jail and they would move me somewhere safe and I would start fresh."
"You were okay with that?"
"I didn't have much choice and with my parents gone, there wasn't a lot holding me in Ohio."
"He went to jail and I disappeared. But I had to be moved twice. Somehow, I would be found. It was such a nightmare—I never thought it would end." She drew in a deep breath. "Then he died in prison and things settled down. I was in Chicago and I met you. For the first time in so long I wasn't alone and I was happy. I felt safe with you. I thought that part of my past was behind me."
"Were you ever going to tell me?"
"Yes. I wanted to. They advise against it. You're supposed to keep it to yourself and live the life they gave you. Stick to the facts. But I wanted you to know…I wanted to tell you. Then…" Her voice trailed off and tears welled in her eyes.
Suddenly, sitting beside her wasn't enough—I had to feel her. I set down both our mugs and pulled her onto my lap, enveloping her in the safety of my arms. I tilted her head up, meeting her weary gaze. "Tell me, baby."
"I got a call, telling me there was a potential situation. That I should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. I was so upset, and I didn't know what to do."
"Why didn't you tell me? Didn't you trust me enough?"
"Of course I did! But I kept quiet to protect you—how could I ask you to give up your life and come with me when I was in danger, Edward? Which meant you were in danger? Live your life looking over your shoulder because of me? I couldn't live with myself if you were hurt because of this mess. It felt like an impossible situation—no matter what I did there was pain involved! I couldn't risk you being hurt…I just couldn't!"
"I'd rather be dead than be without you, Bella."
"So would I," she whispered.
"How were you found? I thought these situations were carefully controlled?"
"They found out my handler, James, was on Aro's payroll. It turned out Aro had taken a contract out on me and the orders were it was to happen no matter what. So even with him dead I was still in danger. They discovered through another operation that James had leaked my latest whereabouts and once they confirmed it, they showed up and took me. I didn't have time to do anything but take the few things I could grab." She buried her face in my neck, her voice muffled. "It killed me to leave you."
I held her tight for a few moments.
"What made you call me?"
"I was drowning. Every day it was harder to keep going. All I could think about was you. I worried about you. I longed for you—to hear your voice. The first day I called you I figured you'd be at work and it would go to voicemail. I just wanted to hear your voice, to know you were still out there. But you answered, and somehow you knew it was me. I was so scared, I hung up."
"But you called back."
"You're like a drug to me, Edward. Once I heard your voice I had to hear it again. I swore I would only call one more time and then I would let you go. But you said all those things…you said you missed me and still loved me."
"I did. I do."
She nestled into my chest, her head fitting perfectly under my chin the way it always did. "I have a new handler—her name is Esme. She's been very kind to me—caring. I met with her and she knew something was going on. She saw how depressed I was and I told her what I did and how much I missed you."
"Were you in a lot of trouble?"
"She lectured me about safety, and told me what I was doing could get me thrown out of the program and the rules were in place for a reason. Then she became quiet for a while as if she was making a decision. She pointed out the leak was contained and the hitman, who was hired to kill me, was in jail. She told me I was probably as safe as I was going to get, and they were sure I wouldn't have to be relocated. She encouraged me to make a life for myself. Figure out my future and start living again." Bella shifted in my arms and looked at me. "I told her the only future I wanted was with you and what you had said on the phone earlier."
"What did she say?"
"She said I shouldn't contact you anymore and she got quiet. Then she told me about her husband and how much she loved him. She described him as her soulmate and said if he was taken from her, she couldn't survive. She got up and left the table and when she came back she slid a pair of plastic forks toward me. When I asked her what they were for, she simply smiled and said you sounded like a very smart man, and that sometimes all we need is a push in the right direction. Then she changed the subject."
"And you sent me the forks."
"Technically I didn't break any of the rules. Esme never actually told me what to do either."
"Why did you send them to Jasper?"
"I knew you'd confide in him—I was just being cautious. Esme is always at me about being cautious."
"I want to meet her."
"I want to know what to do, what to watch out for—how to protect you. I need to know."
"I wish you didn't have to."
I held her tighter. "So do I. I hate knowing you could be in any sort of danger. Ever. But meeting with Esme will give me more information and make it easier for me to cope with it."
Bella's voice trembled. "Will it? Are you…staying?"
"I'm never leaving you again, Bella. I would rather hide with you the rest of my life than to be without you for one more day." I cupped her face tenderly, wiping away her tears. "No more running. You have to promise me. We're in this together."
"Was empty before you and a black hole when you were gone. You brought me to life, baby. You did that. I can be an accountant anywhere. But I can only be Edward with you."
"You'd do that—give up everything?"
Give up everything.
I thought of my life and what I would "give up." I worked a lot. I had the occasional beer with the guys at work. Maybe a football or hockey game on the weekend. I saw Jasper and Alice when their busy schedules permitted, but always feeling like the extra man out, no matter how they tried to include me. I spent the majority of my time alone. Until she entered my life I hadn't realized how lonely I really was.
I would give up nothing and I would have her.
"I have it all planned. I'm going to go back to Chicago, quit my job and move here—I've been unhappy lately and a small town sounds good. I'm going to meet this sexy little waitress and fall in love and we're going to build a life together. No one will know any different." I tightened my grip on her face. "I'm not giving anything up, Bella. I'm gaining everything with you."
I shook my head. "If something happens, we go together. Esme seems to feel the danger has passed. We'll take it one step at a time. Together. With Esme watching and me beside you; you're safe. I'll protect you."
"I can't believe this is real."
"It is. You're not alone anymore, Bella. Neither of us are."
Tears poured down her face, and my own cheeks were damp.
"I love you, Edward."
"I love you."
My mouth covered hers in the sweetest of kisses. One of welcome, of promises for the future.
The next day, I walked her to the restaurant, planning on leaving her there and going to do some errands. She still loved to walk, and today my step was much lighter with her tucked into my side.
We had talked more, cried more and finally exhausted, collapsed together in bed, holding each other all night, both of us feeling content when we woke up wrapped together tight. It was exactly how I wanted to wake up the rest of my life.
Once at the door, I leaned down and kissed her tenderly. "I'll be back to pick you up at eight. Right?"
She nodded; her eyes anxious and her teeth buried in her bottom lip.
"I'll be here."
She disappeared through the door and I turned to leave, but I only made it a few steps before the tugging in my chest got too much. I felt the fluttering of panic simply at the thought of walking away from her, even though I knew I'd see her in a few hours. I hesitated and then gave in and turned around.
With a heavy sigh, I pushed open the door and found her right inside. One look at her face and I knew she was feeling the same panic as me. I pulled her into my arms and nuzzled her hair. "I think I need coffee and to sit here for a while."
"Yeah," she breathed. "Maybe some pie?"
"Okay," she smiled.
I winked at her, feeling better. "Okay, Annabella."
After a little while, I was able to leave her. I stayed busy, finding my way around the small town and gathering everything I needed. When I arrived to pick her up, she was by the window, watching for me. I smiled in understanding. It would be a long time before we were comfortable being apart from one another.
We walked home in the dark, looking around at the Christmas lights. She gasped softly when her little house came into view. I had added some lights around the door, and some evergreens underneath the windows, making it look festive. Inside, she exclaimed in delight at the little spruce tree I'd bought, and we decorated it together. She cried again when I handed her the ornament I remembered to bring with me and together we hung it on the tree.
She smiled and laughed over the big sprigs of mistletoe I had hung in all the doorways. I used every excuse I could think of to catch her under them all night and kiss her. I never wanted to stop kissing her.
We brought the Christmas ball wreath inside and hung it over the mantle again. Bella admitted she hung it on the door after sending me the forks, hoping I would come to town and look for her. She knew I would know that wreath anywhere, and if I made it to town, I would hunt for her and know I'd found her when I saw our wreath.
But now it was inside, a memory of our first Christmas. The start of our life together.
I sat on the sofa, my arm around her, staring at the little tree we decorated, the lights glinting off our beautiful wreath, reflecting on how different I felt compared to a week ago.
I had been dreading this holiday season, the memories of the happy one shared with her last year too fresh. I was unhappy, empty, and alone.
Now I was reunited with her. No longer alone or empty. The love I had for her—that we had for each other—filled up all the emptiness and circled around us like a living, breathing thing.
With her I was home.
I nuzzled her hair and breathed her in. "I only have tomorrow to do my shopping, Bella. What do you want for Christmas?"
She looked up, a contented smile on her face. "I already got the best gift. I got you."
"We got each other."
"Then there isn't anything more I need."
I captured her lips with mine, kissing her deeply.
She was right.
It was the best gift of them all.
"Merry Christmas, baby."
She snuggled closer. "Merry Christmas, Edward."
Thanks for reading - either here or on the contest. Merry Christmas to you all.