This was written as a collaboration with my husband, Maximilianv. It won 1st place in the May to December Romance Contest. Due to the 15,000 word limit of the contest, cuts were necessary to enter it. This is an expanded version of the contest entry.

We dedicate this story to our daughters … our nymph-bound Persephone's Sasha and Bella, who will soon break through their own cocooned-embrace of childhood and emerge from the still waters of youth, into womanhood. In the context of this story, we all have dragonfly dreams that we wish were realized. Dear reader, we hope that yours come true.


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"Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."

The Song of Solomon, 4:16 (King James Bible)

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Something was very, very wrong.

Jasper Whitlock's nervousness and concern escalated when the unrelenting strand of disturbing emotions refused to be severed despite his best intentions to block them. His intensifying heartbeats reacted to the foreboding sensations his empathic gifts afforded him as a flood of overwhelming sadness assaulted his senses from the direction of the chapel doors, just off his view finder.

As the Director of Photography on the number one family-centric reality television show in the history of the network that employed him, he was used to moments of disorientation … yet this felt very different. Personal. Surrounded by a thousand prayerful attendees gathered for the wedding of Irina Swan, the third child of twenty-five children and the pride and joy of Charlie and Renee Swan, the feelings of sadness were completely out of place, discombobulating Jasper's concentration even more.

Unable to focus any longer, he waved his hand to garner the attention of his second in command, and stepped down from the camera riser so that he could relinquish his spot behind the lens. His intuition had never been so acutely aware of the corrugated, stifling emotions drifting around him. His empathy was usually his secret weapon while filming a show, enabling him to train the camera on the players most likely to exhibit memorable emotions or interactions for the TV audience – it was the curse of his talent that distressed him now, not the advantages he was accustomed to.

The staticky sound of his assistant came through his earpiece, "Boss, switch over to the alt channel. You won't believe this. Daddy Dearest is giving Isabella a serious tongue lashing."

The crew's opinion of Charlie and Renee Swan was a tenuous thing. They were obligated to film the family as impartially as possible, yet Isabella was the secret favorite of the bunch, the most genuine and relatable.

Jasper did as he was instructed as he opened up the side door to the chapel, hiding behind a bush near the exit. Off in the distance, Jasper could see Charlie Swan towering over his daughter with his face turned from view. Isabella was slouched in deference on the bench in a secluded area of a garden near the parking lot, her shoulders sloped, her head bobbing in silent whimpers, as the feed from the alternate channel streamed into his earpiece.

" … wondered what's happened to your self control. Your physical form is not in concordance with your spiritual one. Your sisters told me that at your monthly measurements, you were not proportionate, in accordance with what the Lord deems important. You've attended many of the Christian Charm classes with your sisters and you've been instructed on the importance of upholding your devotion to the Lord by being godly both in mind and body. You displease the Lord when you disobey my wishes for you to appear more attractive, especially with the world's attention on Irina's wedding."

Jasper could sense the shame from the young woman as she cried silently, afraid to anger her father further.

"Bloom where you are planted, Isabella. 'Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body,' Isabella. You've studied the holy book of Corinthians enough to remember that important testimony from the Bible, that this is an explicit desire of Christ, and yet you continue to fail to bloom where you've been planted, within the temple God has blessedly given you. You're failing to honor the stature of Christ with your disobedience!"

Jasper was familiar with the biblical passage Charlie was referring too. The theme of blooming where you were planted was a common one on the show. Charlie's voice rose with each syllable. Jasper was certain that he no longer needed a microphone to hear the screaming father clearly, despite the great distance.

"You mustn't allow your vanity to assert itself over God's will, Isabella. You were nearly one hundred and sixty pounds as of your last weigh in. Since you are unable to show the character qualities we wish to represent the Lord with, and exhibit to the viewers, you shouldn't be surprised when you're excluded from the sweet fellowship the rest of the family enjoys together, in celebration of your sister's marriage. The camera adds additional weight too and you know this, so seeing you cry now surprises me. You knew you couldn't be seen on camera. The fact that you're so upset about the repercussions further shows your purpose is faltering and you've lost touch with reality of what it means to be devoted to your father in flesh as well as to your father above!"

Isabella's voice cracked beneath the emotions flooding through her, "Papa, I never meant to disappoint you. I've always tried … "

"That's the problem, Isabella! There's a difference between trying and doing! Luckily for you, your prospects in life have risen. Pastor Berty has taken a keen interest in you. You remember Mrs. Berty, she was also prone to that rounded filthiness of extra flesh, so it's something that Pastor Berty is willing to overlook in your case too. I've agreed to your marriage. It will be announced on Monday's taping … "

Jasper felt faint from the despair flooding into the air around the young woman, who'd collapsed to her knees and was gripping her father's pant legs as if they would prevent her from drowning in her new reality. She wailed into his knees, "Please Papa, don't make me marry Mr. Berty! He's old enough to be my grandfather! Please … "

"SILENCE! Do not show disobedience through your willful arrogance to know better than I do, Isabella. You're twenty-one years old. This will probably be your only marriage prospect, and it's part of my job as your father to secure the best possibilities for you. If you can't pull yourself together enough to sit in the rear choir loft of the church, away from the rest of the congregation, wait here until you are summoned. Keep out of sight of any of the cameras. Stop acting like a sow and get off the ground. I'm done with your hysterics!"

Charlie pried his legs from her grasp and stormed back to the church. The ceremony was slated to begin within the hour, and with the reception to follow, Isabella felt relief that she'd have a few hours of solitude. It was a rarity with a family as large as hers. As she watched her angry father's determined stride through the front entrance of the church, she was struck by the fact that the squared archway resembled a guillotine, her subconscious realizing the threatening imagery of her happiness – her own will and choice of husband severed if she walked back into that church, too. The rejection of her participation roiled her gut to the point of extreme nausea. She fought to keep her breakfast within her stomach.

Isabella Swan knew that despite her father's ill opinion regarding her obedience, she was the most hard-working and respectful of all of her siblings. Her sisters were prone to pass off their more unappealing chores onto her when they wanted to avoid them, and her brothers would do the same things with their own duties, when they could do so without detection.

During the filming of family excursions, Isabella would always remain behind with the littlest or sick siblings, to make filming of the family more efficient. Fifty-eight loads of laundry a week. Waking up before dawn to begin breakfast. Minding after the little ones and helping home-school all of her siblings. Cleaning, arranging the color-coded jurisdiction charts, making sure the wardrobe was ironed and clothing mended when damaged. Shuttling sick children to the doctor when her parents were occupied with the book tours, interviews and the filming schedule … never once did Isabella complain. So to know that she'd disappointed her father this much gutted her, because she knew, in the deepest part of her, she'd always exhibited and maintained a godly servant's heart – a character that was obedient, thoughtful, selfless and kind.

She slowly lifted herself from the ground, her long cotton skirt protecting her modesty as she maneuvered awkwardly to stand. Swiping the grass from her skirt, she tried to digest her father's criticisms, the pressure of her hands pushing the fabric against her shapely legs. Despite being the curviest of the Swan children, she still considered herself to be pretty enough. She wore her long brown hair down, as did all of the women in her family. Her arms and chest were always covered, as were her legs to the ankle. She never flaunted her body, but she never felt embarrassed about her shape either, despite what the weight charts and charm school teachers preached as perfection – a standard where 1950s beauty ideals still reigned.

Isabella was too busy completing daily chores and devotionals to find herself obsessing about her weight and appearance. It was a fact that perplexed her most about her father's opinion – she was a daughter that was dedicated to her service to her parents and to Christ, her devotion keenly focused on her inner growth and beauty, not focused on the superficial, outer one. Yet here she stood, apart from the rest of her family, excluded from any participation in yet another happy event, about to be married to Pastor Berty, a sixty-nine year old widower and father with thirteen children of his own.

She wiped the last of her tears from her cheeks and approached the bench near the bunches of fragrant, lavender foliage that bordered the garden area, the once-peaceful refuge that just served witness to the ugly truth of her future. Just as she lowered her gaze to the tall purple stems next to the bench, a dragonfly zoomed by. It was soon joined by another, translucent wings shimmering in the warm August sunlight, their movements awe inspiring in their poetic dexterity as they painted the landscape with gossamer-frail brilliance of colorful maneuvers. Isabella sat transfixed as she watched them correct their path in the breeze, uncompromised by the change in direction despite their course being slightly altered by the wind. Fluid and free, their dance was of happiness – something she wanted but was terrified to have.

So engrossed in her new garden companions, she failed to hear the soft footsteps in the grass growing nearer. Jasper Whitlock's voice usually wore a southern-calm smoothness that was soothing to listen to. As he began to speak, she realized the biting resonance hovering on his consonants, setting her on edge.

"Isabella, your father's mic was live. I … heard what just happened, what he … said."

Jasper was a lead crew member on the show since she was twelve, and from very early on in her interactions with his colleagues, he remained the only one who was able to calm her despite the demanding filming schedule her family maintained. When she was excluded from fun family outings to other places, Jasper was the one to offer her a kind, sympathetic smile, always trying to lighten her spirits with a quiet joke or kind glance. The network staff was never allowed to interact with the Swan females unless a male sibling was present, and yet because Isabella was often deliberately overlooked, she was able to grow closer to some of the staff. Jasper was the one person she trusted most.

Eyes filling with tears, her gaze never left the dancing dragonflies. Turning to face her kind friend felt too much like having to face the truth – that it was beyond her means to alter her own future. She was afraid of what might happen if she didn't uphold the ideals of her parent's expectations as a devoutly religious family, where everything was obeyed and televised, broadcast to the world. She could see that she had no choice, yet deep down, she desired one; to fly free like her winged companions now. Sensing her emotions as the creatures hovered nearby, Jasper spotted them too, and carefully weighed his words.

"Isabella, dragonflies are beautiful creatures, their life beginning submerged as nymphs beneath the protected refuge of a still pond, where the surface is rarely disturbed. They thrive in placid water. Some grow there over the span of years, until they're ready to draw their first breath, where they emerge from their watery womb and grow into these beautiful creatures you're looking at now. While they live such a short time in flight, they seem to seize their experiences in the most dazzling way, literally radiating the happy sunlight as they elegantly mingle with the sky and each other. They seem to make the most of the time they have before they die."

Isabella sensed a deeper meaning to her kind friend's narrative, yet her flailing emotions kept her from fleshing it out. Knowing she was sitting beside the one person she could trust, she no longer felt able to silence her panicked thoughts, freeing them into the air.

"I'm afraid, Mr. Whitlock. I … Mr. Berty is not … I don't want to … to … "

The Swan-imposed family habit of not showing any emotional or physical paternal or familial bonds was so ingrained in Jasper's head, he'd grown accustomed to displacing himself from their unnatural detachment to each other by not engaging any of them other than was strictly necessary. Yet he could sense Isabella's despondency in a tide so strong that he felt himself being dragged in emotional directions that he hadn't expected, nor wanted her to experience either. It was the first time he would touch her, and yet he felt he had to make some contact with her.

Offering her some semblance of comfort, he enveloped the hand on her lap with his own, and whispered, "You don't have to marry him, Isabella. You can chose to emerge from the waters of this life."

Confused eyes wild with unspoken questions bound his gaze as her weeping stalled. The pregnant silence between them compelled him to quantify what she considered to be an impossible claim, short-lived hope sprouting on the idea of freedom … On dragonfly dreams she'd never dared to have before.

"If you could change your life, would you, Isabella?"

Her emotional reactions already told him what her adamant nod was reaffirming, the long curls of her hair bouncing to keep up with unspoken wishes, luring the escalating beat of her heart. Her voice was small, yet sure. "I think I would do anything to not marry Pastor Berty, or to feel the way I do now."

Jasper's extraordinary gift allowed him to sense no hesitation from the young woman. Detecting only optimism, he decided in that moment that he would do all he could to help her become the young woman she wanted to be. Free.

He pulled his phone out when it vibrated in his pocket. The sides of his lips pushed into his cheeks - the dawn of a genuinely happy smile as the possibilities flooded his mind. Isabella's eyebrows nearly melded at the center of her forehead in confusion as she waited for him to continue.

"My wife Alice is a set designer by profession and came to help with the alter this morning when one of the florists backed out. I asked her to delay her return to Little Rock by a few minutes, while I came to see how you were. Are you willing to leave everything you've ever known, to trust my wife and I enough to help you escape this situation? You'd never be alone, or want for anything. Our extended family is very loving and would welcome you, protect you, and make sure you were always happy. Right now, Alice is parked in a white van on the other side of this lot, behind that small building over there."

Her eyes followed the direction he pointed in, the small blue structure clearly visible from their vantage point.

"I heard your father tell Issac, Isaiah and Issachar that Mr. Berty is to come tonight with the film crew to speak with you about the engagement. If you're … not ready for that conversation, or the implications of it, you could leave with Alice right now, hidden in the back of the van she's driving."

Hearing her brother's names upset her because she knew that they always sided with her father. None of them would speak in her defense, further illustrating why her faith was never placed in others before, only God. She knew that this would be the day that changed.

As Bella's eyes glanced over the parking lot, she didn't see one human being in sight. Their only witnesses were the many dragonflies streaming by in the wind above their heads, dipping to near the flowers or lifting into the wind's momentum as they pushed on to their next destination. Up, up, up and onward they moved, and in that moment, she knew that so would she.

Sensing the hopeful tenor of her emotions, Jasper continued speaking as her eyes once again trained on the beautiful blueish-green insects bouncing in the sky around them as she began scrutinizing the boundaries she believed existed before his unprecedented offer at a chance for a new life. Her deliberation resembled their winged-companions as thoughts moved in all directions, testing what it always knew, newly tasting the blooms of what could be. Stock-still and toying with the quietness of opportunity, she revealed, "I … don't have any money, only my drivers license."

Jasper nodded, responding, "You'll learn soon enough that money won't be an issue for you. You'll never want for anything. We may need to keep you out of sight for a bit, and possibly change your identity, but that won't be an issue. Alice will get you everything you need when you get to Los Angeles … "

The confounded look on Isabella's face paused his speech for a moment before she interrupted, "I've never left Arkansas. I've always wanted to see the ocean."

Her voice descended into a bare whisper, excitement overwhelming her senses as she considered her destination. Jasper's smile grew wider at her bewildered emotions, her own smile growing broader in response.

"You'll be pleasantly surprised when you get there. We have a blessed life. Our family has a large piece of land on the ocean, where we have privacy and peace, something I know you've never experienced before. I believe you'll be truly happy there, Isabella. I'm not saying you won't have challenges, but they will be nothing compared to what you'd have here, I think."

Isabella realized that during their conversation, she never relinquished his hand. Bringing her left hand to sandwich his in gratitude, she said, "Mr. Whitlock, I'll never know how to repay you for … "

He shook his head, bringing his free hand to her shoulder. "Your happiness will be payment enough. Alice and I had always wished for children of our own, and this … you'll be a happy addition to our family, I'm certain of it."

The sound of blaring music could be heard from the cracked windows in the church. Jasper stood, gently pulling his hand from her grasp as he continued, "It's probably as good a time as any to admit that a few of us at the network had a pool betting on which one of you kids would rebel and run away. I'm very glad to know that you are the one that is brave enough to do it. I think we'll all be, once the staff learns that you never went home. You'll be surprised how many of us have noticed how you've been … treated over the years. And I think many of us have wished to help you in some way. No one that heard your father's words in the feed will blame you, and I promise that none of us would betray your whereabouts from now on. If anything, you'll have a silent rooting section."

Isabella stood up and surprised Jasper with a hug – not a half-hearted side hug, a full frontal embrace filled with the gratitude she found impossible to express. She'd been groomed to fixate on the way her family was presented. She found a great deal of comfort hearing him relay this unexpected kind of support in a different light, facts born on the back of a personal decision to better her own circumstances and not based on what she felt had become the self-obsessed Swan money-making machine.

Jasper spoke quietly into the crown of her head, "Crouch down and walk between the isle of those cars along that bush-line. My wife is going to love you, and I know it will be mutual. Go on, and don't look back." No regrets, she added silently as she ran for the isle of cars that would obscure her from view.

Bloom where you are planted. She chuckled in defiance at the sound of her father's admonishments in her head, happy that she'd no longer be a slave to everyone's needs, to changing diapers, product placement, filming schedules, or a captive of a life without free choices. Breathless from her quick pace, her head spun with a surge of adrenaline.

She made it to the van in less than a minute and pulled open the back hatch, greeted by the blinding smile of a pretty brunette sitting in the drivers seat. Isabella didn't say a word, shy and unsure how to mitigate the flood of excitement about the decision she'd made – about how her life, in the span of seconds, began looking very different than had she chosen to re-enter the guillotine on her father's prompting.

She leaned against the side of the van as Alice opened all the windows and pulled onto the main road, a delightful breeze flooding the space around Isabella as she closed her eyes to rest her rushing mind. Soon, sleep overcame her anxiety.

The next time she opened her eyes, the back doors were being thrown open, and she was encompassed in the tightest, most comforting embrace she'd ever received. As soon as Alice released her, she handed Isabella a ball cap and a pair of sun glasses as the younger woman slowly stepped down and into what appeared to be a large airplane hanger. The noise of a small airplane flying overhead confirmed her suspicion, clearing the fog of sleep that lingered after her unexpected nap.

"Put these on before the staff arrives. You look a lot like a colleague that often travels with me when I visit Jasper, so I doubt anyone will have a second thought about who you are anyway. You ready for the adventure of a lifetime, Bella?"

It was the first time anyone had ever called her that. As foreign as it sounded, she liked how it made her feel. Nodding silently, Alice smiled and grabbed her hand, pulling her up the steps to the fancy looking plane with such exuberance that she could barely keep up. "Who's plane is this, Mrs. Whitlock?"

Alice's eyes widened at the formality before remembering the sheltered young woman's background, and the fact that she'd probably been accustomed to addressing all adults in that manner, her Southern charm shining through. The formality made Alice feel much older than her thirty-eight years, yet she wanted her young guest to remain comfortable, so she decided any requests to go by her first name should wait, instead responding, "It's ours! Jasper makes the trip back and forth so often, we thought it was a great investment. Come on!"

Within moments, both women were seated in luxurious, butter-soft leather seats. As Alice reached over to help the young woman with her seat belt, she said, "Jasper said you've never flown before. This is going to be so much fun!"

"Mrs. Whitlock, I … I don't know how these trips work, but I'm afraid I'm putting Mr. Whitlock's job in jeopardy if I'm seen with you. You've both already done so much for me. This seems like a tiny airport, but what about where we're going? Isn't anyone going to ask who … "

" … Bella, don't worry about a thing. We know people. That's all I'm gonna say. And I might as well tell you now, Jasper gave his notice last week. He's leaving the network so that he can work on a movie with my father, who's also in the business. So you see, no worries on either count, OK?"

As the crew boarded and the plane taxied out of the hanger to line itself with the runway, Bella began to quiver with anxiety, not knowing what to expect as the engines revved loudly. Alice grasped her hand in comfort as adrenaline surged through the young woman. The plane lifted into the air, along with her dragonfly dreams – coursing skyward into the surge of hope that now warmed Bella as she chased her own sunlight, with the help of those she sensed genuinely wanted her to succeed.

Bella found it impossible to feel nervous around Alice, her excitement so contagious that it overwhelmed any hesitations hovering in Bella's subconscious as, step by tenacious step, she moved away from her past, into her future. Every second, those steps broadened in scope – tuning into mile by mile, the ground far beneath them unveiling its mysterious beauty as they sped westward, a cloudless sky flaunting the world below. Greens turned darker and browner as mountain peaks rose in the distance, the first time Bella had seen landscapes so grand in magnitude. Hues began reddening as the earth's surface grew more sparse.

When the pilot announced that they were approaching the Grand Canyon, Bella looked down, only to find the scene below her breath-taking. The fissures in the canyon reminded her of feathers resting on the backs of angels, striations of color broadening in luminous beauty as their wings spread wide. Like her, they also seemed to be taking flight.

It was only when Bella felt something wet hit her wrist, did she realize that she'd been crying.

Alice nodded silently in tearful amazement, squeezing the young woman's hand in wordless admiration at the world visible far below. "One day, we'll go there, Bella. It's even more beautiful from below. Jasper and I have had fertility issues for years now, so it will be nice to have someone to share our excursions with." Bella smiled in response, happy at the idea that she would finally see the world in a way she'd never imagined, alongside people she sensed would be more of a family than she ever had before. Thoughts like these accompanied her as they made their way west, making Bella feel happy that she finally seemed to have people in her corner that she could truly rely on.

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Alice's proclamation of ease at their destination was true, and without a single stressful moment or delay, made their way towards Malibu in Alice's bright blue convertible as the sun slowly lowered in the late afternoon sky. Bella had never seen houses so grand, buildings so tall, or roadways so crowded – the changes made her feel alive, teeming with the knowledge that she was a safe distance away from Arkansas and the potential wrath of her father.

Her breath hitched when Alice turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway, unable to tear her gaze away from the vast blue expanse before her.

"It's beautiful, isn't it? Wait until you see your new home."

Home. The thought made the young woman smile. She'd always felt like she lived in a large house filled with noise and stifling expectations, but never a home. She wondered if she would sense a difference, when they arrived.

Bella nodded silently in response as she turned her head to observe the grand homes they flew past. Alice turned up a small road that led them higher, up a sloping hill, a large red gate opening as they approached it. A small, lush-lined drive led to a clearing filled with what appeared to be fruit trees, with three oceanfront homes spread apart, yet the large property was enclosed in a very tall white cement wall, creating an unexpected sense of privacy.

"Is this a resort?" The question made Alice smile, excited to tell Bella the truth.

Pointing to the Modern, white two story home to their left, Alice replied, "That's my twin brother's house. His name is Edward, and you'll meet him in two weeks, when he returns from Paris. That … " She pointed to the large yellow Mediterranean Villa to the right, " … is my parent's home. Their names are Esme and Carlisle. They're in France for my brother's art show. They were the ones that bought all of this land back in the early 70's, so it's because of them that we have this little slice of paradise all to ourselves. This middle home is us. I hope you'll be very happy here, Bella. I'll show you around."

Bella followed Alice towards the pale green two story home decorated by some of the most intricate lattice-work she'd ever seen. Besides earning the profits from their celebrity, the Swan's made a small fortune in real estate, so Bella was well aware of the architectural styles and touches that made the look of homes unique. The three homes on this property were extraordinary, but didn't even match the view that greeted her as Alice opened the front door. The entire estate sat on a bluff with unobstructed views of the ocean, with a lawn leading to the stairs that Bella guessed was the beach below.

"Your room is this way."

She followed Alice up the curved stairway and through the door on the left, leading her into a pale blue room with lush white accents. The pillow filled bed looked like a cloud floating in a perfect sky, the windows in the room overlooking the ocean.

"Is … is this a dream?" Bella's breathless inquiry was barely audible to her smiling host, and yet Alice understood the awe in the young woman's tone, sharing her sentiment. "I often have to pinch myself, to remind myself that this is real. And now it's also yours, sweet Bella. Why not rest for a bit? You've had quite a day, and it might feel good to close your eyes for a bit. I'll go find you something to get comfy in, and then order us some piz … "

Suddenly, Bella snapped out of her haze, her voice escalating in excitement as she interrupted, "Oh Mrs. Whitlock, how careless of me, I should've offered to make us dinner, it's the least I can do after everything you've … "

Alice grabbed her arms gently to calm the young woman. "Bella, when was the last time someone brought you a meal?"

The young woman's pause in response told Alice what she already knew. "I've watched the show ever since Jasper came on board. I know you were the only one in that house that got up before dawn to get an early start on your chores, that you prepared four dozen eggs every morning for breakfast, that you slaved over some disgusting sounding tatter-tot meal to please many of those ungrateful brats, that you prepared enough food every day to feed a small army, and made enough pickles every week that would choke the Jolly Green Giant! So, as far as I'm concerned, you are not allowed to cook for a very long time! As a matter of fact, you are not even allowed near the kitchen unless you are grabbing a snack or something to drink for the next month. Got it?!"

Alice was surprised when Bella grabbed her and pulled her into a hug, the tears of the young woman seeping into the fabric of her shirt. Alice held Bella as she wept from exhaustion and relief that someone seemed to understand her plight. When Bella's sob-wracked breathing subsided, Alice pulled away enough to make eye contact with the exhausted looking young woman.

"Are you OK with sausage and peppers on your pizza? My stomach is trying to eat itself." Bella shook her head and whispered, "I … I don't know. I've never … "

Alice's eyebrows flew into her forehead in shock, screaming, "Oh hellllll noooo! You've never had pizza before?!"

Bella smiled at Alice's reaction, realizing, in her limited life experiences, just how much her sheltered existence might appear to others. While she was never allowed to watch TV, she saw what happened behind the scenes, and how the staff reacted when they got good footage from a shoot. The camera men seemed to spend extra time filming moments where the family tried new things, as if it was a novelty that needed to be documented. The corners of Bella lips sank as the memories returned, the recollections like swallowing broken glass.

"I was left out of those excursions because my parents were embarrassed about my weight, and I was never allowed to go out to eat with the family because they were concerned about the family image of wholesomeness and godliness. I usually sat with an empty plate at all of the meals at home, too."

Red-faced and fuming, Alice looked like she was about to explode in rage. "I hate that they deliberately excluded you and made you feel less than worthy to be a member of that family! Tonight is Pizza. Tomorrow, Chinese food. Tuesday, Thai to share with my parents when they get home. It's their favorite place. Jasper returns Wednesday, and we're going to order some Mexican because it's his favorite and he can't get a good quality Mex place in Arkansas. No offense meant. And don't even get me started on all of the cool places we're going to go around here, once we sort out your identity and let any new developments cool down. The places I'm going to take you in Paris, in Vienna, in Krakow, in St. Petersburg … You, my dear, will have tasted the world, had it all first hand, and when we're done, you can look at those creeps and … and … ugh, I want to kick Charlie Swan in his hair-spray helmet head!"

Bella fell back on her bed as she began laughing hysterically at the fact that Alice said all of that without drawing breath, remembering the amount of hairspray her father went through every month. The image of the pixie-sized Alice doing a number on her father was comical to the extreme, and yet witnessing her new friend's voracity made her believe that Alice Whitlock would be Charlie Swan's worst nightmare. It was a thought that made Bella feel protected and relieved.

As Bella closed her eyes, she heard Alice open her window and then leave the room, the soft click of the door closing behind her. Her thoughts drifted to wondering what her family's reaction must've been when they realized that she wasn't anywhere to be found. As Bella imagined Pastor Berty storming out of the front door, her father apologizing behind him, another thought struck her … she no longer felt trapped, the anxiety in her chest that resided there for years no longer detectable. The only thing she heard now was the soothing sound of the waves beneath her window as she drifted into dream's receding tide.

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The following days proved to Bella that she'd been lucky enough to be reborn into heaven. It took a couple days to adjust to not having chores, and another few days to feel comfortable enough to use the first names of her new family, but ease came with familiarity, and happiness arose with each new day.

Mornings were spent sipping warm cups of coffee with Alice and delighting in fresh oranges picked from one the trees in the front yard. Afternoons were spent walking along the beach, collecting shells. Evenings were usually for lounging on the back lawn, sketching the images that captured her attention along the way.

In Arkansas, she was only allowed to draw religious imagery for birthday party signs and her parent's anniversary, and even then her artistic expressions were limited to the small hours before dawn, when she had a blissful few moments to herself. Now, she was free to draw what she pleased, and discovered that she excelled at capturing the flowers and fauna of her beautiful surroundings. The sea often served as a backdrop of the fragrant lavender bunches found throughout the property. They were among her favorites to draw and sit beside.

Bella also made another wonderful discovery – what it felt like to have a loving mother and father to dote on her. When Esme and Carlisle returned, she felt an instant paternal connection with them, sensing in them what had always felt missing with the family she'd grown up with … where the little ones were constantly fighting for attention and the older ones secretly seeking it too. It was no wonder, given a family that size, that she never felt an emotional connection with either parent. Spread too thin, with priorities shifting more to family publicity and profiting from their growing celebrity, Bella felt less hurt and frustration over the way she'd been treated over the years, and more grateful that she'd escaped in the first place.

She realized as she spent more time with the Cullen's and the Whitlock's, that she felt that she was not just a footnote to the story unfolding around her, but a character at the beginning of her story arc of life. She'd become the nymph finally rising to the surface of her new-found happiness, embracing it with a fervor that she welcomed and relished in while she luxuriated in the cocooning warmth of her new home.

She also found a kindred spirit in Esme, who resembled her own body type, and yet didn't hide behind yards of clothing or judge her for her measurements – it was the measure of Bella's character and mind that Esme encouraged focus on. The mother of two embraced her own beautiful curves, and her husband seemed to enjoy them too. Bella had never seen the way a man look at a woman the way Carlisle adoringly appreciated his wife. It was a fact that made Bella less self-conscious around everyone, especially since Alice had gone shopping for some clothes that were more form fitting, yet still modest – by beachy west-coast standards, anyway.

In their little enclave on the ocean, Bella began feeling comfortable in her own skin. Unconditionally accepted by others, the trajectory of her orbit synchronized with happiness and contentment.

And then one fateful morning, a week after her escape from Arkansas and Pastor Berty's clutches, Bella was faced with a new, unexpected turn in events – love at first sight, and with a man unlike any she'd ever known.

.


.

Bella didn't want to ask anyone for anything, as her new family had given her so much already. New clothes, meals, a comfortable bed to sleep in, a new life, acceptance … asking for more drawing supplies seemed superfluous, something her ingrained teachings would constitute as an extravagance that would tax family resources and showed a vanity in her own abilities. That was always something frowned upon by her parents and by God, as her childhood lessons proved. Knowing that the Whitlock's must have colored pencils somewhere, she dug through the desk in the study, finding a ream of computer paper and some old lipstick tubes that would suffice for blending the colors of the petals she hoped to sketch.

Snaking her fingers in to reach further back into the drawer, she felt a hard-covered book and pulled it out, gasping at the devastatingly suave man on the cover. Her eyes lingered on his handsome face for a few moments before taking in the rest of the picture, waves of breath increasing as provocative feelings rose to the surface of her coltish mind.

Even though she'd seen many men and women in next to nothing, frolicking on the beach beneath her new paradise, she'd never seen the bare chest of man like this before. Standing shirtless in front of a black background, his nipples appeared to have metal objects in them, and they were made even more visible by the intricate style of tattoos covering his chest, arms and neck. Her hungry gaze moved higher to the firm set of his plump lips, and came to rest on the side-tilted hat on what looked like a thick head of brown hair.

Unaccustomed to the feelings surging through her or her body's reaction to the image, she placed the book onto the desk and sat down, turning on the light on the desktop to look at the cover more closely, before opening the cover to view the title page.

Deuce – A Study in the Duality of Desires

She tuned the page, looking for clues to who the man on the cover was, intensely curious for more. The next page was a clip from Playgirl Magazine. Not recognizing the name of that publication, she read on:

"In Edward Cullen's world of creativity, his art often reflects the gift of delivering a woman her every pleasure and happiness, and demonstrates the overwhelming desire of a man to please her. A current fan favorite from his most recent collection features the nearly nude portrayal of the artist wearing nothing but a tilted military cap as prop on his head, holding a briefcase to hide the part of him many of his fans wish to see most. Believe us, ladies, Playgirl tried to get THAT shot. Yet his popular picture appeals to the fetish-curious as well as feeds into the popular opinion that a uniform makes a man more sexually appealing; even if it's just a single article of clothing. The fact that it's off center begs even more questions about what he's been doing to make it sit askew on his head. There's an underlining duality to the unspoken as much as the literal interpretation presented to the audience.

Edward Cullen is artistically inspired by portraying images of men that don't often realize their duality enough to embrace their own sensual submission to a woman who might want it. His candid photographs and compositions show that one can be the epitome of a strong, manly man, imposing stature at over six feet tall, successful artist and entrepreneur, covered in tattoos and incredibly intimidating in anyone's book – and yet he can also have a sensitivity that reveals that he's quite comfortable and even willing to defer to a woman's opinions, to make her his focus. Those facts alone showcase his strengths, how self-assured he is in his own capabilities and beliefs, and in the bend of his own sensuality.

That connection between the balance of his own duality is why Edward Cullen's latest art instillation at the Museum of Modern Art is titled Deuce. He's unafraid to appear vulnerable and even more willing to surrender the truth of his own desires to be led by a lover. What better way to exhibit his beliefs than to choose the concept to represent him and his artistic endeavors in the world? Covered in Mandala inspired tattoos, the story of his life's spiritual and physical journey and quest for balance is actualized on flesh, another example of his fearless pursuit of beautiful art from the perspective of revelations within, as well as outward, for the world to see. Men and women will find his collection to be captivating and well as titillating. We highly recommend this compelling exhibition. Deuce is currently on exhibit at the MoMA in New York City through July, 2011."

Bella quickly flipped through the remainder of the pages, all images of men and women in various obscure situations, and abstract art containing color contrasts that blended fluidly on the canvas.

Edward Cullen, in her opinion, was a truly talented artist, but as she reflected on the article's review, she grew more confused than ever. She turned back to the third page and re-read it four more times, knowing she didn't have the life experiences to relate to what was on the page, yet wanting desperately to understand. Curled over the open book on the desk in frustration, with her head cradled in her hands – that was how Alice discovered Bella when she walked into the study in search for her young friend.

"Oh boy, that's some interesting reading this early in the morning, kiddo. I was wondering where that went to. Jasper made it for my brother as a memento of his last collection, but it looks like you found the extra copy. You OK? You look … you can ask me anything, you know that? I'm not shy and have no filter. I'm all ears."

Bella glanced at Alice as she closed the book and looked down at the cover one last time, before opening the drawer and laying the book inside. The sound of the desk door closing filled the silent room until the sound of footsteps were decipherable in the hallway. Seconds later, Esme and Carlisle. came into the room.

"You ladies want to join us on the beach for a picnic on the … Bella, you look upset. What's going on honey?"

"Bella found the book Jasper made as a gift for Edward from his MoMA exhibition. Page three. You get the drift, Ma."

Bella loved the fact that Alice was so open with her parents. She admired the fact that she was able to share anything with them, and they never seemed to judge in the way she'd grown accustomed to in her previous life.

"It's … just not something I understand, I guess, and my ignorance confuses and disappoints me."

Carlisle replied, "Bella, you just tasted pizza for the first time last week. Baby steps. But I do think that you understand far more than you think you do. Consider what you know of your own father, as an example. I won't insult your intelligence by sugar coating it. He had a double standard when it came to your siblings, and showed preferential treatment to the males in your family."

Bella responded, "Yes, there's a double standard. I had to deal with the preferential treatment every waking moment of my life. The girls would be slaving in the house while the boys went outside to shoot at things and play in the trees."

Carlisle nodded, continuing, "And now you know, first hand, how liberating it is to be free of those constraints for the first time in your life."

Realization sparked on her face before responding, "Yes, but every man I knew treated women as second class citizens, where submission to fathers, husbands and God were expected. In that order, when it came to my father, at least. Pray. Serve. Obey. Breed. Compliance. I … I … are there men that really defer to women the way that … " She was blushing, unable to complete her query as she tried to gather her thoughts, searching to find the strength enough to mould doubt around her previous beliefs.

Jasper unexpectedly walked around the corner, casting a stone at the silence settled in the room. "Bella, you and I have a first hand knowledge of what you've been subjected to. As a man, it's always offended me the way that your father lords over everyone. As a husband, it displeases me how he expects your mother to submit to his wisdom in pretty much every situation they face. He treats your mother as if she's incapable of making up her own mind. I can promise you this … most men, if they have any decency at all, will be interested in what his wife wants, in what his wife believes, in what his wife needs, and he's willing to do a great deal to make her happy. It's a mutual respect, and isn't just the one-way street you grew up watching from your own parents. Real men can also be sensitive, so just remember that if you ever start dating."

Bella smiled, grateful that she was surrounded by such accepting people, saying, "Thank you all for tolerating my confusion long enough to help me understand this in a new way. I've never seen a more loving family, and I'm honored that you've allowed me to stay with you."

Esme stood first and walked to the side of the desk, embracing Bella in a hug. "We're happy you came to us too, sweetie. Now lets lighten up this heavy and have that picnic."

Minutes later, they were comfortably stretched out on blankets on the beach. They feasted on ham sandwiches and sunlight as the warm sea air relaxed them. They lounged and laughed as Bella listened quietly to the family banter, until movement caught her attention off shore. A tall surfer was caressing the marrowy waves with his board as he glided over the surface towards the shore they were seated on. As he grew closer, his tattoos and blinding white smile came into view. Alice and Esme jumped up from the blanket to charge the wrack line, their arms spread wide as they both tackled the man at once, holding onto his waist as they squealed in delight.

Bella soaked in their initial interactions, noticing the way the Cullen's and Whitlock's encouraged showing love. She was never allowed to hug her siblings, especially the males, and she never felt close to anyone in her family because of it. Her family relationships had always been about compliance, never about inspiring love. Watching the reunion before her illuminated the difference.

Jasper sensed a thick string of emotions woven with anxiety and attraction in the air, and he turned to glance at Bella as she rushed to cover her bare calves with a blanket. He'd been so proud of her progress over the last week as she opened up to him and to Carlisle, something he knew would be difficult given her sheltered upbringing around men. When new cameramen came onto the set, it would often take months before the girls in the family would relax. He understood why she'd panic on reflex, but also hoped that she would warm up to Edward as she had the rest of the family.

Jasper and Carlisle stood when the group approached, both shaking Edward's hand after throwing the surf board on the sand. Jasper was the first to speak. "You're back early! Edward, this is Bella." All eyes directed to the young woman who sat on the blanket, looking pale and extremely nervous. Edward bent at his waist and extended his hand to greet her, his abs flexing tightly as Bella's heart-rate sped faster. "Hello, Bella. It's nice to meet you."

Unused to bodily contact with anyone new, especially men, her hand stalled in the air before realizing that her hesitation might seem rude. She placed her hand in his, immediately feeling the softness of his skin, the charge of attraction effusing into her as her cheeks blushed in uncharacteristic intensity. She nodded shyly, pulled her hand away and looked down, unable to face the confusing reactions and feelings she was having with Edward so near. Her reaction after looking at his picture paled in comparison to having him so up close, his hands and gaze touching her in ways that made her tremble.

Startled by her reaction to the handsome newcomer, she kicked the blanket off of her feet and stood, excusing herself due to feeling tired. She ran up the stairs and into the house before any of them could try to convince her to stay. Had she looked back, she would've realized that Edward was staring at her retreating form, as perplexed as she was. He also felt the surprising charge of energy as he touched her skin, an instant attraction he hadn't ever experienced in his thirty-eight years.

A knowing look passed over Jasper's face as he smiled at his bewildered family, his silent jubilance intimating that new love was soaring in the sea air, a magical attraction so thick they could almost taste it.

.


.

The next morning, Edward stood in his kitchen drinking his coffee when he noticed her walking into the front yard. Barefoot, golden brown hair hanging down to her waist, her sweat pants and loose T-shirt showing curves in all the places he loved them on a woman … she was reaching above her head to pick oranges from the tree near his front door, placing them carefully in the basket she cradled in her left arm. Bella Swan was as beautiful in person as she was on TV – even more so now that she wore a smile on her face, happy with her growing bounty.

It was as if she was blossoming in her secluded cocoon of exile, a fact that exhibited her true character strengths.

As an artist, he'd often been creatively fueled by his curiosity about how humans perceived their place in the world, continuously drawn to the pop-culture references found in the main stream as a source of influence. When his brother-in-law got the job working on the Swan's TV show, he began watching with a morbid curiosity. Religious fundamentalism, no matter the theology, made him uncomfortable. Yet watching the family on TV had many entertaining moments, overshadowing the often disturbing chauvinism and heavy-handedness of the males on the show.

While years of episodes passed, Edward found his attention drawn to the one daughter that was rarely featured on the program, making her appearances more memorable, especially as Bella matured. Beneath her dated, tent-like modest-wear, he could tell that she was a beautiful woman who maintained an inner fire that her other siblings didn't seem to possess.

Edward was surprised when Alice called to tell him about their new guest. It was one of the reasons why he decided to leave Paris early, his curiosity piqued. Touching her hand for the first time and seeing her in the flesh did things to him that he didn't expect, no matter how much he believed himself prepared. Watching her walk into the Whitlock's home after their first meeting, it was her outer form he'd become focused on. Just as he imagined, her lush curves reflected his favorite female aesthetic, and now it was as if his gaze was snared by her whenever she made an appearance in his line of sight, his attraction always fixed on Bella.

Smiling at the muse-thoughts of curves and vivacity of strength flooding his mind, Edward felt compelled to do something he hadn't been inspired to in months. He ran upstairs to his studio, picked up his brush and began to paint.

.


.

As the days passed, Bella fell into a comfortable pattern of studying and drawing. Worried she'd be recognized by any passer-by's, the family decided that she remain hidden on the estate while determining what her father might do, or what the next course of action would be. To fill her time, she enjoyed reading the variety of books in the Whitlock's library, but soon realized the educational neglect of being home-schooled by parents who relied solely on the conservative religious guidance of the Quiverfull-influenced curriculum. Bella realized she knew very little about world history and that her science and math knowledge was that of children half her twenty-one years, so her new family began buying her textbooks of all kinds. Bella's new goal was that she would be able to attend college courses in the future, allowing her to get her feet wet in the sea of knowledge spanning out before her thirsty mind.

Edward, realizing their shared passion for drawing, bought her sketch pads, an easel, and a myriad of pencils, paints and water-colors, and would often come to where she sat on the lawn, to appreciate her growing portfolio or advise her on technique – yet a cautious breadth between them continued as days turned to weeks.

Sometimes they would talk about her feelings regarding the family she left behind, or her relief that she no longer felt like slave-labor, having to cook and care for so many, without anyone concerned about her own needs or dreams. Sensitive topics occasionally arose in conversation, like his desire to have a child in the future, and her own desires to have a very small family, too … a child or two she could shower with the love she never felt in her previous life. Other times, she would summon the courage to ask him about his interests, trying to learn more about his life up until she met him, secretly hoping to discover anything about his romantic past. He admitted to many painful memories of betrayal and infidelity from the women he had relationships with, causing him to mistrust and pull away from the dating scene. It was why he was still single.

On occasion, he'd bring his sketch book and charcoal pencils to sit beside her as they drew, the sound of the waves and gulls cawing above in harmony with the sounds of their pencils caressing the ecru fibers of the paper. Idiosyncratic, artistic expressions smoothed over their invisible, tenuous silence as his fingertips would brush hers when they shared supplies, shoulders and outer thighs occasionally touching as they adjusted their positions.

With each interaction, their seventeen year age difference seemed less of a factor as their attractions bloomed. Beyond Edward's extreme gravitation to her shapely beauty, he'd been ensnared by her lush innocence and her hunger to experience life. She'd become enthralled by his cultured brilliance and the way he treated her naivety with gentleness and reverence. Bella sensed he'd had many lovers and was drawn to the sensuality that seeped from his inked skin, exciting her in ways that she didn't understand. His exotic allure definitely made her weak in the knees.

Balancing their direction and initiating a dance on the winds of change, their shared vulnerability and sensitivity to each other magnified with every opportunity at taking flight. There was an unspoken longing in the shy distance they'd begun keeping from each other, orbits cycling infinitesimally closer over the course of weeks – their motion bearing encounters of those deepening conversations, lingering glances, and demure, innocent touches whispering yearnings for more.

.


.

Cagey after three rare November days of rain-showers, Bella sighed in happiness as she picked a spot on the grass, a secluded area near Esme's kitchen window at the far side of the garden, to break from her studies and sketch something new.

It was also a safe hiding place because Bella knew that Edward was expecting a group of friends to visit that day.

Company rarely ascended the steps from the beach into the safe-haven she now called home, and yet Bella knew that today would be an exception. The family openly spoke about every conceivable way to shelter Bella from exposure, especially when Edward received a call from his best friend Emmett the night before, confirming that he and a group of friends planned on coming for a visit due to the sunny weather returning.

Certain it was best to continuously wear her hat and remain out of sight to maintain her anonymity, and still uncomfortable about the idea of mingling with strangers, Bella declined Edward's suggestion that she join them too. After his invitation, her shyness overtook her. She fled up the stairs before learning about who they were or how they knew Edward. Touched by her demureness, he smiled at her retreating form as she took the stairs two at a time, her blush-tinged cheeks revealing her pleasure in his invitation despite her lack of readiness to accept it. He hoped one day that she would.

While she was growing comfortable in her own skin and doubted anyone might recognize her, Bella struggled with the idea of being social with others because she found the idea of forming new friendships daunting. Cocooned within the security of her new family, she didn't feel prepared to face that challenge yet, and they accepted that boundary without a second thought. With her hesitations in mind, Edward promised to keep his friends to his pool area, away from where Bella might enjoy her sunny day after being house-bound due to the rainy weather.

Yet no amount of preparation could alter the reality of what was about to happen to her heart.

The sun streaming in through the trees on the property cast a perfect light to practice her shadowing technique, and she became so engrossed in her task that it took her many moments to notice the loud female giggling coming from the far end of the yard, near the stairs leading to the beach. That is when she realized that Edward's friends had arrived.

Carefully leaning forward to peek around the bush obscuring her from the outside world, Bella took in the scene unfolding on the other side of the property. There were four beautiful women lounging along Edward's pool. The women stood from their chairs and jumped into the water, pairing up and climbing onto the backs of the four men, beginning what looked like a bizarre game of the women pushing the others off of shoulders as they splashed each other and screamed.

She noticed Edward right away. The tallest of the men, his laughter was vivacious and his wide, white smile was blinding from across the large yard. Bella was mesmerized by his body, the way that his arms and upper back corded with powerful tension as he balanced the striking red-head on his shoulders. She appeared tall and thin, with disproportionately large breasts that were showcased by the small bikini that barely covered her tanned skin. Yet it was the tattoos on her back and arms drawing Bella's attention most.

Unable to tear her eyes from the laughing couple, jealousy surged through her for the first time in her life, causing tears to form in her eyes. As Bella watched them shriek and frolic in the water, she realized that the woman on his shoulders was the kind of woman a man like Edward would be interested in. Memories of her father's admonishments filled her mind.

… fail to bloom where you've been planted … lost touch with reality … rounded filthiness of extra flesh …

Crying for the first time in weeks, and suddenly exhausted from trying to be stronger than she felt, she abandoned her supplies where she sat and ran into the middle house through a side door so that Edward would not see her hearty embrace of her insecurities on her tear-stained flight.

Only he had, as did Esme, who'd been washing dishes in her sink when she witnessed Bella's demeanor change.

Hours later, it was the first meal that Bella didn't join them. The following morning, Bella didn't great the sunrise with her basket of sweet bounty, and she'd yet to retrieve her art supplies from the back yard. Concerned and hoping to lure her downstairs, Alice and Esme approached her bedroom door, disturbed by the smothered sniffles sneaking out the crack beneath the separation between her and them.

By mid-afternoon, Jasper managed to lure her to the living room with some news from Arkansas. Her eyes were puffy from crying and black-ringed from lack of sleep. With the entire family gathered around her, she listened as he explained her father's initial decision, something Jasper had been sheltering her from as she adjusted to her new life … and the phone call he'd just received from a trusted source regarding the final act of Charlie Swan's deceptions.

A few weeks prior, the Swan family patriarch lied to the producers to explain away Bella's disappearance by telling them that his daughter had been so inspired by the moving fellowship shared at Irina's wedding ceremony, that she'd decided to go on a missionary trip to Africa to promote God's ministry further.

After weeks of waiting to make his final decision, her father had announced to the network about Bella's sudden death in a tragic falling accident in a remote part of the African wilderness, while treating sick children – and that she'd received a fitting Christian burial there.

Five pairs of eyes trained on the young woman as she sat motionless on the couch. Her chin was aimed skyward and her head leaning on the back of the sofa as she stared blankly at the ceiling. "My father killed me off!" Her disbelieving voice slid into laughter, escalating into hysterics as Jasper rounded the corner of the sofa to get nearer to her, sensing that she wasn't as distraught as he imagined she might become. The rest of the family trusted Jasper's intuition and was comforted by the smile growing on his face.

Bella no longer cared enough about her parent's opinion to be bothered by the fact that they decided to stage her death rather than instigate any kind of reunion or return. That was never an option in her mind, now that she'd tasted happiness – and neither was being upset, now that the silver-lining was evident.

When her chin lowered to her chest, Bella looked Jasper right in the eye, "Charlie just gave me the biggest gift." Turning to look at Alice, she laughed, "I can't believe it, he just gave me my freedom." Turning to look at Esme, Carlisle and Edward, who stood together near the window, she continued, "No more hiding away. No one will think it's me, just someone who resembles me, because I'm dead. Now I can just be … Bella."

Turning her head to look at Jasper once again, she whispered, "I'm finally free, Jasper. Free."

Bella's exuberance about her new freedom fueled the reactions of the entire family as they hugged and laughed along with her in celebration, grateful and relieved that she was happy about the end result.

For the sake of her happiness and freedom, so were they.

.


.

Everyone decided to go out to celebrate, excited about the first time Bella would leave the Malibu estate since her arrival months before. In preparation, Esme came to her room to lend her a blue sun dress, and as the older women assisted the younger woman in getting ready, Esme revealed that she saw the moment that upset Bella the previous day. Armed with the personal knowledge of her own body image issues, and aware of what Jasper's account was on the day that Bella fled Arkansas, Esme carefully addressed Bella's feelings and concerns.

"I know what jealousy feels like, Bella. I used to be so jealous of all of the beautiful, famous actresses in Carlisle's films. But over time, he proved, time and again, that he deserved my trust in him. That's something that's hard to come by in Hollywood. I accepted how much he loved me, and worshiped my body with his, so it was something that I got over."

Bella's widened eyes caused Esme to chuckle.

"Don't look so scandalized, my dear. You'll learn that people worship in many ways. Passion is just another form."

Esme looked thoughtful for a while, admiring Bella in the mirror. "Have you never noticed the way that my son looks at you?" Bella's eyebrows arched into her forehead as she shook her head. Esme's voice assumed a dreamlike quality when she softly spoke, "Your rounded thighs are like jewels … "

The look on Bella's face reflected the fact that she didn't know what Esme was referring to, so the older woman continued, "You were probably never allowed to read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. Jasper mentioned that your family used an abridged version of the Bible, focusing mostly on the New Testament. I'll lend you my copy later, so you'll get the full meaning of that quote. You've seen the book containing Edward's collection, the one with him on the cover. Do you remember anything significant, a pattern you might've recognized?" As Bella considered Esme's query, she nodded her head and answered, "I did notice that the figures of all of the women in his artwork were fuller, more Rubenesque like … us."

Bella had been an admirer of Rubens work since first seeing an art book about his famous portraits in the Whitlock's study. Esme leaned in conspiratorially, whispering, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, my sweet one. Edward has always dated women with some meat on their bones."

Bella's confusion was evident as her voice rose, "But the red-head in the pool … "

" … is a lesbian, Bella. Her girlfriend was the brunette."

Esme's acceptance of the lifestyles of others with such ease made Bella's jaw drape. In her previous life, these topics would never be discussed without warnings, judgments and a great deal of reading scripture to counteract the evils of the world, to save the souls destined for hell. She wasn't used to having this kind of loving acceptance in her life, and felt grateful for the motherly-bond she felt with Esme. Realizing her reaction to what she'd witnessed in the pool had been out of proportion to what the truth was, Bella felt even more grateful for the graciousness of the woman advising and comforting her now.

As Bella looked at her image in the mirror, she noticed how beautiful she and Esme were, and how much better she felt about herself after realizing that her curves didn't have to be a curse after all. Daring to embrace her new freedom with a little more skin showing than normal, she decided against covering her arms or the daring neckline of her borrowed dress with a wrap or sweater.

Compared to the previous evening, she felt emotionally buoyant and ready to step into her future with a new attitude and an open mind. Her altered feelings were accompanied by refining distinctions that challenged boundaries with delicate, stringy pulls of longing too subtle for her to detect in the tide of her life, yet pulling her closer to the man she couldn't remove her eyes from as he stared slack-jawed when she entered the foyer accompanied by his mother.

When Bella came into view, Edward focused on her with a blatant admiration as she tried to banish the nervous butterflies that had taken flight in her belly, escalating heartbeats cage-swelling against her breastbone as she realized that Esme was correct … her son did look at her that way.

Bella turned to smile at him, her chest swelling in cadence with quickening breaths, the adrenaline surging, the high of her taking the lead over Edward's rapt attention and response to her appearance flooding her system. As the rest of the family gathered in the living room to wait for the limousine to come collect them, gazes held over the space between them, and his lips silently formed three words that he deliberately exaggerated so that his meaning was clear.

"You are beautiful."

Beneath the comforting blanket of his sweeping gaze, she basked in the intoxicating haze of her thrill at being noticed by the one man she wanted to see her. Coming to stand next to him, she smiled and whispered, "You are, too."

He surprised her by taking her hand, leading her out the front door to the waiting black limo as the rest of the family followed, silently smiling behind them. When Edward spread his palm against the small of her back as he allowed her in front of him to climb into the long car first, she sighed at the sensation of his warmth seeping through the back of her dress. She was unused to the intimacy, no matter how innocent. That pattern of lingering touches and unwavering stares lasted through dinner as the group sat at a secluded table overlooking the sunset.

For the first time in her life, Bella rejected the deep-seated habit prompting her to feel self-conscious, instead laughing boisterously and relishing in the truth of not being hidden or shamed by those around her.

She allowed herself to accept their love, and felt it blooming within her in return.

.


.

Edward moved cautiously as the days passed, wooing her in careful ways that didn't make Bella uncomfortable or press her to alter the new journey she'd begun. As she spread her wings and took flight, he and his family were ecstatic to witness how she easily passed the boundaries others had previously erected for her, surpassing the expectations she once even held for herself.

She'd confided in him about how difficult it had been to spend her previous existence obeying parents who she wanted nothing more than to love her. Bella told him of Pastor Berty and her thoughts during her rebellion against the imposition of her father's heavy-handedness, excited about the control she felt she now had over her future.

Little did she know of the control she'd also gained over Edward, as well.

He'd been hesitant about the differences of their ages and life experiences at first, and she'd been equally nervous about the same things, cautiously keeping him at arms length. Yet his consistent patience with her as her wings spread farther to survey the air around her quelled her concerns and allowed him to come to terms with the perfect certainty that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.

Edward had been afraid of holding her back or influencing the direction she wanted to fly by compromising her uninhibited prospects. But one fact struck him as incredibly promising – she always found a reason to brush his arm, claim a spot next to him or to hold his hand. She'd become a woman starving for his contact. His presence. Given her past, filled with impersonal interactions with her parents and the unrelenting demands of her siblings, he understood her need for signs of caring and compassion … but as they grew closer by the passing day, there was a look in her gaze that held a burgeoning sensuality, as if she were silently pleading for him to initiate what came next.

Their smoke had been slowly rising from the horizon for months, and Edward was certain that the flames would soon follow behind, the intensity of their connection burning through the hesitations and years between them. While never spoken, Bella knew that things were irrevocably altering between them, too.

She was eager, yet shy, so she waited.

He wouldn't much longer.

.


.

The sound of a soft knock followed by her bedroom door opening caused Bella to look up from the Bible Esme had given her. Her cheeks were rosy with the blush born from reading the Song of Solomon, as Esme suggested she should. When Alice's black-spiked head poked into the room, Bella tried to hide the book under her legs, yet Alice's knowing smirk revealed she already knew what the young woman's assignment was.

"Mom finally gave it to you to read, huh? 'My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.' Or 'your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all the choicest fruits.' And my personal favorite, 'In his shade I took great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.' Talk about erotic euphemisms for moments shared between lovers. With all of the repression of feelings and stringent rules about expressing any outward affection in your family, it's no wonder your father never let you read it."

Bella's blush grew hearing Alice reiterate the passages that struck her as extremely sensual, despite her limited knowledge of what the passages referred too first-hand. A few weeks prior, while doing research for a Biology lesson she'd begun on human reproduction, she'd stumbled upon something on-line referring to oral sex as an option to prevent pregnancy. Her head spun at the time, never realizing that so many pleasures were possible with the human body. Reading the biblical passages Alice recited by memory, Bella was also reminded of pleasures between lovers … something she'd been thinking a lot more lately, now that Edward was so attentive to her. It was something she was certain he'd be great at.

the gift of delivering a woman her every pleasure and happiness, and the overwhelming desire of a man to please her … sensual submission … to make her his focus …

Bella remembered the sentiments from his interview in the book well, often thinking about them.

Alice's voice pulled her from her racy thoughts. "Mr. Jenks just called to ask what you'd like your last name to be. He's working on your passport and other documentation now. Jasper agrees that because of his past involvement with the show, it's probably not a good idea to use our last name or my maiden name, just as a caution. Have you decided what you'd like to be called?"

Nodding, Bella replied, "I was studying the woman's suffrage movement this morning, and think that, given the suppressed atmosphere of my past, and the freedom I've found, I'd take the last name of Jane Addams. It's pretty common, and would have a deeper meaning to me, so … Bella Addams." Alice's beaming smile lit up the space around them, her eyes glassy with tears of pride. "I think that's a wonderful idea! I'll call Jenks to tell him now!"

The sound of Alice's emphatic foot-falls as she danced down the stairs left no doubt about her excitement regarding her choice of name, and Bella beamed from within, proud of her choice too.

Standing up to stretch, she noticed movement from Edward's second floor window, and realized that he was standing in it, trying to get her attention, beckoning her to come over with the wave of his large hand. Holding a single finger in the air to let him know she'd just be a moment, she grabbed a pair of flip-flips before doing her own excited dance down the stairs.

Her pink sundress flowed in the gentle breeze as she left the back door, walking over to Edward's pool area, his sliding doors opened to the afternoon air. Despite visiting his home alone many times, she still got butterflies in her stomach at the thought of being alone with him. In the past, they always sat and talked in his living room, or shared conversation while cooking a meal – chaste moments hued with a faint longing.

It surprised her as Edward greeted her in the doorway, grabbing her hand and leading her up the stairs, into a part of the house she'd never been before.

Edward decided to no longer be governed by circumstances of the hesitant lover, choosing instead to seize the direction of his own resolve to show Bella how much she'd inspired him. A few more steps took them into a large, open space effused with light. A series of canvases were propped up on easels, where his truth was laid bare.

Shocked into silence about what she was looking at, Bella didn't make a move to release Edward's hand. Instead, she squeezed it tighter and stepped nearer to him, attempting to remain standing as the flood of emotions swept over her. Her heartbeats escalated with the fact of what was before her, something that she'd never expect.

Through her life, she'd grown accustomed to managing in shadows, rarely to be seen and never to be heard. Yet the canvases before her showed a proud woman exhibiting strength, her resolve to chase happiness given a deafening voice.

The eyes he captured on the first canvas didn't belong to a twenty-one year old woman. Instead, they looked like they belonged to an ageless soul who'd experienced many lifetimes of dreams withheld from her grasp, something she related to in a way that made gooseflesh rise on her arms. The other canvases were filled with more abstract interpretations of moments they'd shared over the months, many of them also featuring her favorite flower in some way.

"Lavender," she whispered, her tenor gossamer-hued with her dragonfly dreams. It was on that pivotal day in August, as she watched her winged companions dance over the lavender, that ultimately delivered her to this place, standing before the man she'd fallen in love with. The magical synchronicity of the themes carrying over throughout her journey weren't lost on her, and it made her grip his hand even tighter.

Any doubts Bella had regarding Edward's view of her were allayed by the images he so meticulously created. The admiration and desire that crossed his face as he watched her take in his latest collection violently vibrated the air between them with wordless declarations and desires.

His voice grew smokey with unimaginable promises as he replied, "It's your favorite, and it reminds me of you. It's been said that it holds a magical, sensual quality, and that when worn, desires are … heightened. According to ancient legends, it's also been said that Cleopatra wore lavender oils to seduce her lovers. Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony never stood a chance. And … "

Edward raised her hand within his, whispering, " … did you know that your own scent smells of it? It intoxicates me, whenever I'm near you. It makes me wonder if you taste as delectably as … "

Opening up her palm to kiss the tender flesh, his tongue feathered her lifeline, before admitting, " … you do." Training his mouth to her quivering wrist, he opened his mouth on her pulse point, a rough rasp escaping her throat as she swayed where she stood. Her gaze never wavered from his as she silently begged for him to lead her headlong into the delicious realm of sin – to continue to praise her flesh with erotic pleasure … to enter her garden, and taste all the fruit he wished.

The sensation of Edward's arm pulling her into his chest drove any apprehension from her mind, and she reached up to envelop his neck with her forearms, bringing her lips to his. Soft, yielding and sweet, their tongues and breaths rose within the waves of energy and desire rolling over them as he spun her around and guided her backwards into the next room, the backs of her knees buckling against the softness of his bed. She fell back and whispered, "I … I want to feel, to … understand." Bella's gaze caged his as she voiced her truth.

"You will, Bella." His look held a shy hesitation, a tenderness and respect for the slow pace she'd grown accustomed to. Realizing his vulnerability in this moment of reckoning, she realized that he needed her explicit permission to feel safe, to proceed.

"You. I want all of you, Edward."

Pinned against the admission by merely the weight of her gaze, Edward smiled and replied, "Will you you marry me, Bella? Because I want all of you, too, and I doubt even a lifetime will be long enough. Spend your life, your days, your nights here, with me."

Blissfully sighing into her "Yessss," she felt relief surge through her at his proposal, as if he knew that's what she needed to feel as if she wasn't completely compromising that part of her still attached to the stifling ideals of her past. She knew his promised intent was being made before her and God. It was enough to relax her spine into the bed and welcome what was to come.

" … I haven't been able to stop thinking about what you'll taste like, Bella. I wonder how warm your skin will feel against mine, or if you'll you'll burn me when I get you to places you've never been. What will you do when I push into the rise and fall, as you and I give for the first time, or the thousandth … "

A surge of adrenaline was evident in his lust-laced whisper as she moved back on the bed to make room for him, his voice lowering even further. " … I wonder where you'll enjoy me being most. I look forward to making you burn for me."

His sweet assertiveness caressed the truth surrounding his sudden transparency – he was leading in his own gentle way … in a way that she realized opened up doors to her own awakening. Feeling his quiver-led breaths against her neck, she knew she was on the edge of something she didn't understand, yet wanted to.

Oh, how she wanted.

Pulling at the strap of her dress, he said, "This needs to come off, love. I want to see and feel all of you." Surging with a fearlessness fed by the adoring look in his eyes as he hovered over her, she scooted the dress up her legs, sitting up suddenly to pull the sundress over her head. In nothing but a pink bra and blue panties, she slid her hands to the hem of his T-shirt, swiftly lifting it over his head. In nothing but red board shorts, she blushed at her inexperience, not knowing what to do next.

"What's making you blush, love?" His inquiry into her neck was soon joined by his lips as she leaned back, embarrassed to answer, "I … I don't know what … to … do." She could feel his smile against her collar bone as his tongue traced the swell of her breast, his right hand sliding between her back and the mattress, unlatching her bra in one deft motion. "Just feel how much I love you and want you."

Loudly gasping at the sensation of her bra being pulled away as his warm mouth encircled her left nipple, she luxuriated in the attention of his tongue as his right hand traced her ribs downward, his fingertips pushing beneath the elastic of her waistband. Fishtailing against the wet-hottest part of her, she began rolling her hips against the motion of his fingers.

The sensation of his attentions was unlike anything she'd ever experienced, and the swell of pleasure began to escalate when she felt her panties being dragged down her legs. His lips tempted gooseflesh as his mouth descended lower, his tongue and lips parting the thin patch of hair that already glistened with her excitement, passion billowing on their staggered breaths as he began beckoning her secrets and tasting her fruit.

Strokes of intent formed with every push of his tongue as he devoured her slowly at first, his pace increasing when a finger re-joined his tongue in the dance against the neediest part of her, spread wide and shuddering as she screamed into the air, her back arching off of the bed. She came in waves that threatened to drown her in the most delicious depths, star-white light pushing out her vision as she began spinning in euphoria.

After many moments of silent, boneless-floating bliss, she felt the sensation of Edward's warm lips encircling one nipple while his fingers gently pinched the other. Her legs spread wider to allow him to fit between them, that part of him resting right where she suddenly needed him to be.

She gathered her wits enough to tug at Edward's shorts, shouting, "Off, please!" He chuckled against her sensitive skin as he leaned back on his knees, his inked torso towering over her as he brought the waistband over his hips, pulling them under his knees and throwing the shorts into a heap onto the floor.

Bella could not get enough of the naked man before her. She sat up to slowly trace the metal studs through his nipples and inked patterns on his chest, an exploration in silence as tension swirled around them. In a move that impressed even her, she took her hand and pushed against his shoulder as she spun along with his movement downward, chest to chest, throwing him off kilter; his back landed on the bed after her surprising show of strength, her legs straddling his waist, a self-satisfied smirk pushing into her right cheek.

"Since the moment I saw your picture, I've wanted you, without understanding what wanting was. And now I know exactly what I want, but I don't know how, so you'll have to … help me with this … "

Edward smiled in pride, welcoming her assertiveness. Despite her inexperience, she was still willing to take the lead – to be the fearless women who seized her own destiny at every chance.

Spread wide and resolute, she angled her hips to allow the wettest part of her to lick at the tip of his rock-hard length, sinking slowly onto it as she swayed minutely above him - the press growing deeper as she stretched to the fill, pushed to the nudge, driving down deep until she was sitting on his hips. She stilled and waited for the burn to subside.

He sat up and captured her mouth in a searing kiss, before moaning, "Take me, Bella, everything I have to give." He jostled his hips a little and she realized her own need to move against the friction building within her, caged and straining to escape. Moving his hands to palm her nipples, he squeezed them as they chased the delicious build, their momentum culling the star-shine together as they both came undone, their moans of completion joining their frenzied release as the most beautiful peace settled around them. They knew, in that perfect moment, that their intense connection was only just beginning.

And what a beginning it was.

Hours later, they lay sated beneath his sheets, the sunlight lingering with dusk as the cooler sea air carried with it blooming promises, caressing the bliss-laden lovers in Edward's bed.

Wings outstretched like never before, Bella felt strong and satisfied in the life she'd begun making for herself. Accompanied by the man who loved her and was holding her now, she relished in the knowledge that so many of her dreams had already come true, her secret longings fed and reciprocated through a sacrament of shared body, respect and of love.

She knew that in the years to come, they would face new challenges. Marriage. Altering ambitions. A growing family. Yet Bella also felt certain of the happiest future, of a life spent in Edward's arms and surrounded by a wonderful family who valued and loved her – reflecting how she'd also grown to love herself.

With that certainty came a joy-bristling reality, a lesson of empowerment seeded in the soil of deepest truth:

The secret to happiness would never be to bloom where she was planted. Fearless and embracing the unequivocal potential of her inner strength, she would, instead, always embrace the most powerful choice of all … She would continue to lean into opportunity and seek out the warm sunlight – to plant herself where she bloomed.

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Author's Notes:

This story was written after our daughters asked us to watch a re-run of Jill Duggar's wedding special with them. There is a story behind this story, and we have some strong opinions about it all. If you're interested in reading about how this one shot came to be, an explanation can be found at Gothictemptress dot com or through the link on my profile page.

Many thanks to our dear friend, Mione21, for being our Beta, and to Shawna, for sharing her own bible camp experiences from a more fundamentalist standpoint.

A special thanks to Nicffwhisperer and CarrieZM for creating and organizing the May to December Romance Contest. You both gave me a way to recapture and channel my creativity once again, and an opportunity for Max and I to collaborate on a story with themes that we both believe in. What a fun journey it's been!

To all of the readers who voted for us, favorited and reviewed our anonymous entry in the contest ... you've overwhelmed us with your generosity and support. We thank you! We hope that after reading this one shot, you feel empowered - we also hope that you, the reader, find the strength within yourself to decide to plant yourself where you'll bloom.

All our gratitude and well wishes,

Becca and Max