Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended.
I wondered, as I sat propped up in the back of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face, what people would make of my life story if I ever wrote it down.
Was it a romance?
A Gothic horror?
All three, perhaps?
No-one would believe it, I knew that much because I could barely believe it myself.
I shifted the sapphire round on my finger, my thumb nudging the stone gently back and forth. For a few moments, sitting under that tree, I'd been blissfully happy. All the fear and panic of the previous hour had been extinguished by three words. Eclipsed by one simple question.
Marry me, Bella?
Now, sirens blared. A paramedic was taking my pulse. And my mind jumped to the future.
What would we tell our children when they asked how Dad proposed?
I snorted a laugh, which made me cough, and then I started to cry. Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks, gathering in the bottom of the oxygen mask.
"You alright?" The paramedic, who I remembered now was called Sarah, fixed a well-practiced eye on me. "Any pain? Discomfort? Trouble breathing?"
I shook my head, wanting to say no, there was no pain, except there was.
"Edward..." I sniffed, the ache for him suddenly so strong I thought my heart would break.
Understanding flooded Sarah's features.
"They're taking good care of him in the other ambulance," she said and gave my hand a gentle squeeze. "And your friend is following on her motorbike."
Sarah nodded. "It's a nice bike."
"He proposed. Just now." I held up my hand, a small part of brain wondering why I was sharing this with a stranger, and in these circumstances. "I'm going to marry him. He chose the ring himself."
This wasn't like me at all, but I couldn't stop. Now that I was apart from Edward the panic and fear came knocking and it seemed I needed to talk about the good to dispel the bad. I needed to push away vampires and fires and oxygen masks, and I was doing it with talk of sapphires and diamonds and a future.
"Just now?" Sarah asked and I nodded.
"I think...it's been a long time coming though. We've known each other a while."
"So he popped the question after the fire?"
"When we were under the tree."
"Wow." She grinned. "That'll be one to tell the grandkids. But hey, congratulations. Gorgeous ring. Now we'd better get you fit for the wedding, so no more talking, yeah? Just focus on slow breaths, and walking down the aisle."
The ER was large and busy and my happy ever after fantasy gave way to bright lights and noise as I was wheeled through the ward. And as we moved, I scanned every bed, and every face, for Edward.
He wasn't here.
At least, not that I could see.
Some cubicles had their curtains drawn and I strained my ears, listening for his voice or mention of his name. I was focused so hard on finding him, that I barely noticed I'd been transferred into a bed and Sarah had done her handover and said goodbye.
There was a doctor at my side now. She listened to my chest. A nurse took my blood pressure and slipped a nasal canula into place instead of the oxygen mask. I was asked questions and I answered with one eye on a gap in the curtains that had been pulled round my bed, hoping I might catch sight of Edward.
"You seem in good shape, but your blood pressure's up a bit," the doctor said. "Understandable, though. Do you know what sort of fire it was Bella?"
"What caused the fire? Was it electrical? Chemical? Organic? We need to know what you might have inhaled."
Shit, what should I say?
"I...I don't know. Paint thinners, I think. Has Edward Masen come in? He was in the other ambulance."
"I don't know, sorry." The doctor shook her head, wrote on a chart at the foot of my bed, and then she was gone.
The nurse smiled as he handed me a green hospital gown.
"Hi, I'm Steve. Would you mind putting this on, Bella? Everything off except your undies, and I'll be back in a minute to hook you up to the heart monitor."
I nodded. "Okay, thanks. Wait! Do you know if Edward Masen has been admitted? We were in the same fire. He was in the other ambulance."
Steve shook his head.
"No, sorry. I'll see if I can find out for you. Are you cold?"
I realised then that I was shaking. A faint tremor of my body I hadn't even been aware of. But it had nothing to do with the temperature.
"I'll bring you a heated blanket," Steve said and he disappeared through the curtain.
I shrugged out of my clothes and into the gown, and climbed back into the bed.
A few minutes passed, and then a different nurse appeared.
"Hi, I'm Sharon. Steve's been called away to an emergency so I'll be looking after you."
She hooked me up to the monitor and I asked her the same question about Edward. And received the same reply.
"I don't know, sorry. I'll see what I can find out."
She walked away, leaving the curtain swinging behind her, and I waited.
Time ticked on. I strained my ears, listening to the busy, urgent, sounds of a city emergency ward.
An hour had passed and Sharon didn't return.
A hard knot of dread began forming in my stomach. Shivers vibrated across my skin.
What if Steve's emergency, was Edward?
I'd heard stories of people who'd seemed fine after an accident or injury and then collapsed suddenly a little later. Charlie had talked about them.
I thought of what Edward had told me about his heart. How after his change it hadn't started beating on its own. How it had been weak in those early days.
What if it still had a weakness? What if it couldn't handle the stress of the Volturi, the panic of the fire?
What if he'd been injured, or inhaled more smoke than we'd realised?
"Oh dear God, I can't lose him. I can't lose him now."
That simmering panic boiled over. I gasped a breath as tears filled my eyes and I could feel my chest constricting despite the oxygen that flowed into my lungs.
An alarm rang out in the near distance, shrill and loud, and suddenly people were running, shouting, calling for a "crash cart" at bed three.
What if it was him?
"Oh God, no...no!"
I lunged off the bed, nearly strangling myself on the oxygen tubing before I ripped it out and started frantically disconnecting myself from the monitor. My hands clawed at the plugs, tearing at them as I sobbed.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
I whirled around, and there was Edward, standing at the foot of the bed.
He was straight and tall, healthy, and glaring at me.
He was perfect.
I couldn't move. I wanted to wrap my arms around him. And kiss him. Curl up in his lap and be safe and small. But I was frozen to the spot, drinking him in, like he was a vision and if I moved he'd vanish.
He was at my side in two strides. He fitted the nasal canula carefully back into place, re-attached the single monitor plug I'd managed to remove, and lifted me back onto the bed.
There was a bandage on his left hand but it didn't seem to impair his actions.
He sat beside me, holding my shaking body tight against his, tucking my head beneath his chin. He wasn't in a hospital gown, I noticed vaguely, but in his office shirt and trousers.
He smelt of smoke.
"What's this all about, Bella?" His voice was a whisper; a gentle, comforting murmur that caressed and soothed my nerves. "Tell me."
"I...couldn't...find you." I whispered back, trying not to cry. "Then the alarm..." I looked up at him, so alive and beautiful. "I thought your heart might have...after your change, you told me..."
A fresh sob caught in my throat.
Edward took my hand and placed it over his chest, pressing it firmly against him so I could feel the steady thrum of life beneath my palm.
"My heart's fine," he said. "Strong and healthy. And all yours."
His lips caressed my forehead. His hand squeezed mine, holding it still against his chest. Then his fingers gradually slid lower, to my wrist, and I knew by his touch that he was checking my pulse.
I sniffed. "All good?"
"It's hard to tell," he smirked, before lifting my wrist to his lips. He placed a kiss there, where blue veins made a pattern beneath pale skin. "From the first day I met you, your pulse has always been a little faster than the average human's." He cocked his head, eyes sparkling with mischief. "I'm not sure if it's your natural state, or just the effect I have on you."
A smile escaped me, over-ruling the fear which was rapidly fading now. I even managed to give him a very theatrical eye-roll. He grinned and kissed my forehead again.
"Feeling better now?" he asked.
"Yes." I let go a heavy breath. "And now I know for certain that you're okay, Mr Arrogant. Why are you in normal clothes, anyway?"
He chuckled softly, and pulled me close again.
"I was in a gown, but I've signed myself out."
My eyes shot open. "You can't do that! You're not a doctor, what if there's something..."
He arched an eyebrow and I stopped.
"Oh. Yeah. I forgot." The two medical degrees.
"I checked my chart," he said. "They've treated my hand. All my vitals are good, they were just keeping me for the requisite four hours observation. One hour was all I really needed."
"Then I can go too."
"Not so fast," he said and eased himself off the bed to go look at my chart.
"Blood pressure's up a bit."
"Because I was worried about you. It's your fault."
He glanced up at the machine monitoring my heart rate and blood oxygen levels. "Everything else is good, though." He sighed and came to sit next to me again, pulling me into his arms once more as I shifted to make room.
He held my hand, touching my engagement ring with his thumb.
"It's been quite a day, hasn't it?"
"Yep." I sighed too. "Even for us, today was really something."
He chuckled, but the humour faded quickly.
"For one blinding instant," he murmured. "When I saw him with that gun pointed at you..." He shut his eyes and swallowed. "In that moment, I would have given up my humanity, my soul, if only so I could tear his head from his shoulders." A faint shudder ran through him and I held him tighter.
"It's okay," I said. "I'm here. We both are."
He nodded. "I know."
From outside our curtained world, came relieved voices and a shaky laugh.
"Sounds like the emergency's been resolved," Edward said. "The guy in bed three is breathing again."
"That's good news."
"Where were you? Why couldn't I see you?"
"The ward is a U shape," he said. "I was round the other side."
"Oh. Were you..."
"Frantic," he said, dropping his head back on his shoulders and giving a shallow laugh. "I was frantic about you. It was as if, once you were out of my sight..."
"I know. I know, me too."
"That's why I'm signed out and sitting here now. We're better together, you and me."
There was a moment of silence as I nestled against him and he pulled me impossibly closer. Then I asked what had made him come to me at the flat.
"Alice," he said. "She saw you."
In whispers he told me about the panicked phone call and his furious drive to Balmain. The heart monitor kicked up a notch.
"Oh my gosh, you could have crashed!"
He shook his head. "Wasn't an option," he said.
He stroked my arm, back and forth, until my heart rate returned to normal. And then I told him what had happened before he burst through the front door like a knight in shining armour. Or a dishevelled business suit.
It was probably a good thing Edward wasn't hooked up to a machine. As I told my story, the suddenly pounding vein in his temple would have set off alarms on its own.
"The turn of my head?" Edward's voice was all disbelief. "That was enough to clue him in?"
"That and your death glare."
Edward rubbed his good hand over the back of his neck.
"He'd been watching me," he muttered. "And I had no idea. And he was using you..." His jaw was hard, his eyes even harder, and I knew where his thoughts had gone. I reached up to touch his face, as the curtain was flung back suddenly.
"I hate waiting rooms," Alice declared. "No-one tells you anything." Her bright amber eyes swiftly looked us over. "But thank goodness, you're both fine. You are alright, aren't you, Bella?" A note of anxiety crept into her voice as she motioned towards my mask and the monitor. "That machine looks serious, but I have seen you look worse."
"Thanks for that, Alice."
She winced. "Sorry. I meant that you look well, considering everything that's happened. Which makes me ask...what did happen this afternoon?"
She sat on the foot of the bed, her face expectant, and it was so typical of her. Dear Alice, who sweeps in and takes over, if she's allowed.
I thought Edward might say no, it wasn't the time or place, but then she started wringing her hands, something I'd never seen her do before. Edward noticed too, it seemed, because he gave her hug and, in whispered tones, began to fill her in on the story.
Her eyes widened, her mouth formed a silent O, and I hadn't thought it possible for a vampire to turn pale.
"Oh my...Edward...it was you he wanted. Aro's known about you all along..."
The rest of her sentence was cut off when Sharon poked her head around the curtain.
"Hourly obs," she said, casting a quick uncertain glance at Alice. "And, um, there are some police here to talk to you, Bella. If you and the doctor both agree that you feel up to it."
She looked from me to Edward, who was moving off the bed. Then she glanced at the hospital band that was still on his wrist. Understanding crossed her features. "Edward Masen? I think they want to talk to you too."
"Police?" A sharp stab of panic shot through me.
"The fire," Edward said. "There'll need to be an investigation."
Oh, shit. Of course.
"It's fine," he said, squeezing my hand. "Normal procedure. It'll be fine."
I nodded, not feeling quite as sure as Edward sounded.
Sharon smiled. "Lets check you over first," she said, and came forward as Alice and Edward went to wait outside.
Of course my blood pressure was still up, and even higher now. But my oxygen levels were good and I hadn't coughed in a while.
"I'll just give doctor these details," Sharon said, writing on the chart. "And if she says it's okay I'll let the police know they can come in."
As she went out through the curtains, Edward and Alice came back in.
"What do we say to them?"
"Electrical fault!" Alice said. "Say the heater sparked and burst into flame."
Edward rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"Why? It's a simple solution, and electrical fires happen every day. Especially if there's been recent construction work." She nodded enthusiastically. "It all fits."
"I said no. I'm not going to..."
"You don't have to worry," she went on, interrupting him, and her tone was just this side of patronising. "I'll take care of everything. Jasper and I can go over later tonight and set the scene. It'll be easy to stage."
"I know it'd be easy!" Edward snapped. "I could stage it myself, God knows I've had enough experience covering up worse than this, but I'm not putting the blame on the electricians who re-wired the place." His voice was firm, his expression decided; he was clearly not to be argued with. "It'd ruin their business, Alice."
She waved a dismissive hand. "They'd have insurance for that sort of thing."
"Not for their reputations, they wouldn't. Or their own peace of mind."
"Oh." Alice dropped her hand. She frowned. "I hadn't thought of that."
I hadn't thought of it either. But then, I hadn't even thought about the police wanting a statement. I did agree with Edward though - I didn't want innocent people taking the blame, either.
"What do we say, then?" I was watching him, hoping he had an answer. Alice was watching him too, her eyes curious.
He exhaled slowly. "I do have an idea." His eyes softened as he took my hand. "But I'm not sure how you'd feel about it, love. It could end up meaning we testify in court."
He lowered his face, and whispered in my ear.
A short while later, Constable Ben Davison was standing by my bed. A second officer was interviewing Edward somewhere else on the ward.
"Can you tell me what happened today, Bella." He smiled, notebook and pen at the ready, and I followed Edward's plan of telling the simple truth.
Well, mostly the truth.
I talked about meeting my friend, Marc Smith, at my newly renovated flat, and the gun that was pulled on me when I went to leave.
I watched closely for Officer Davison's reaction. There was none. They must have found the gun at the scene.
"What sort of gun?" he asked casually, anyway.
"Hand gun. A pistol."
He nodded and made notes in his pad. I took a deep slow breath and sat on my hands so they wouldn't shake.
I'd just put the first nail in Marc's coffin.
Australia's gun laws were strict, I knew that, but Edward knew more. There's no concealed carry and handguns are illegal so just being in possession of that pistol could land Marc a hefty prison sentence. It was why he'd suggested we go with a version of the truth.
"And this behaviour was unexpected?"
I heard a dark, brittle laugh and realised it had come from me.
"Yeah, you could say that. Completely unexpected. I never..." My breath caught as the fear visited me again. "I never saw it coming."
"Can you tell me what happened then?" The officer was watching me closely.
I took another breath, and talked about Marc's threat to shoot me if I tried to get away and his plan to take me with him when he left the country.
Nails number two and three. Deprivation of liberty, and attempted abduction.
"Did he say why he was doing this?"
Here came the mostly but not quite truthful part. Keep it simple, Edward had said.
"Nothing that made any sense." I cleared my throat. "He talked about taking me to Italy to meet friends of his. He said he'd met them last time he'd been there and was flying out later tonight. On a private plane. He said things..." I shook my head, feeling the heat of my lie colour my cheeks. "I didn't understand a lot of it. He was just...rambling. Nonsense. And then Edward arrived." I stopped and swallowed. "He went for Marc straight away. Punched him. The gun fell and I picked it up and...it went off. There was a tin of paint thinners on the floor, from the renovation. The bullet must have hit it."
I was twisting the bed sheets around my fingers as I spoke. Constable Davison noticed and I stopped immediately, wondering if he could also hear the hammering of my heart. Thankfully, he seemed to interpret my response exactly as Edward hoped he would.
He smiled gently.
"It's okay, Bella. You're safe now."
I nodded and he smiled again. Though it wasn't just the lying that was making me blush and fidget. It was reliving the afternoon's events. Remembering Marc's words, his actions. The memory of Aro and his evil and the almost paralysing fear I'd felt for Edward, his family, and me.
I began to shake.
"You okay? Can you continue? Should I get someone?"
"No, I'm alright." I nodded and inhaled deeply, feeling the sharpness of the oxygen flow into my lungs. "I'm good."
"Then, can you tell me what happened next?"
"There were just...just flames. Lots of flames and smoke, and the fire spread quickly. I couldn't see properly." I hugged myself as the ER disappeared and I was back in the flat. Things had seemed clear at the time, I thought I knew what I was seeing, but not now. Now it all seemed such a blur. "There were just so many of them. They were so close, and then..." I paused as I remembered a new detail, something small, but I wasn't quite sure if it was real or I was remembering wrong. "There were so many of them...and they all went up at once..."
"What do you mean? So many what?"
The officer's voice brought me back to now.
"What went up all at once?" His eyes narrowed as he watched me.
"The flames," I said quickly. "So many flames. They went up at once. So fast."
So fast I couldn't remember straight.
"I see." He made more notes and I kept talking, hoping to deflect from my near slip-up.
"Edward grabbed me and the next thing I knew we were outside, under a tree across the road and Marc had got away."
Had there been witnesses who saw him with Heidi? Or who'd maybe seen a troop of black-clad vampires arrive at my door?
But Constable Davison didn't mention witnesses. He simply nodded and thanked me for my time.
"I think I've got what I need for now," he said. "But you'll need to complete a formal statement in the next day or so. In the meantime we'll see if we can locate Mr Smith." He put the notepad away. "The fire was very contained. The early reports from the forensics team indicate a chemical explosion, which could explain the purple smoke and fits with what you've said."
"It was an intense heat, but little damage apart from the floor which burnt right through. There was a lot of ash."
He nodded. "And scorch marks to the walls and ceiling. But it didn't seem to travel to the other flats."
Relief flowed through me. Beryl would still have a home. And the Maloney's.
"That's good," I said. And then a sudden thought hit me just as the officer was about to leave. "He has my phone!"
He stopped. "Marc Smith has your phone?"
"He took it from me. So I couldn't call for help."
He began scribbling again in his notebook. "Was the phone turned on, do you know?"
"I...it was. But he turned it off. At least, I think he did."
Constable Davison frowned. "If it's off we can only trace it to the last location before it was powered down. But we can try and hope it's still on. What's the number?"
He wrote it down, wished me a speedy recovery and left. I was alone, wondering what was happening with Edward, when he appeared a moment later.
"All done?" he asked and I nodded.
"I kept it simple, told him what we'd agreed. What about you?"
"All good," he said, coming close and stroking his hand through my hair.
"They know it was a chemical explosion."
"I know." He sighed and tucked me close.
"And Marc has my phone. I told the officer and they'll try to trace it."
Edward's eyes widened a little.
"Well, let's hope he has it turned on," he said, then frowned. "If things go to plan, Marc will be on the country's most wanted list by morning. If he goes overseas, Interpol will be alerted." He frowned. "He deserves so much worse that prison, but it's all I can manage right now."
All he could manage right now?
I wanted to ask what he meant, if there was more to his plan, but decided against it. I was also curious about what I thought I might have seen when the fire broke out, but
I was probably reading too much into it and if I wasn't, I didn't want to know at the moment.
"Where's Alice?" I asked.
"Gone to meet the others. The hospital smell was getting to her." He gave me a significant look. "And the plane arrives in half an hour, anyway."
"We didn't get to tell her the rest of what happened."
"I did. While your obs were being done."
"Oh." I frowned as my mind changed directions completely. "She's gone to collect them on your motorbike? How will that work?"
Edward chuckled softly.
"Alice and Jasper will probably ride back to my place together. Carlisle and Esme will hire a car."
"Oh." Of course. I shook my head and then yawned hugely. "I think my brain's slowing down for the night."
Edward smiled and kissed me sweetly, his lips pressing softly against mine.
"You need sleep," he whispered.
"Can we go home for that?"
"Soon," he said. "Lets get that blood pressure back to normal first."
"Then stop kissing me, Edward. Until after my next lot of obs, anyway."
"We're almost there," Edward whispered.
I lifted my head from where I nestled against his chest and opened my eyes. We were just turning into Edward's street and I blinked, wondering how we'd got here so quickly. I must have fallen asleep as soon as we got in the taxi.
"What time is it?"
"Almost eleven." Edward kissed the top of my head. His arm was wrapped round my shoulder, his bandaged hand holding me close. His other hand held his phone, its soft glow illuminating his face as his thumb scrolled over the screen.
"Airport manifesto." He glanced at the taxi driver who was singing along softly with the radio, and lowered his voice. "They must have gone straight for the airfield because their plane left for Italy on schedule. There were three passengers."
My eyes widened and I sat up straighter.
"Does it say who?"
Edward nodded and dropped his voice further. "Marco Marretti, Heidi Volturi, and Marc Smith."
Marc had got away and I wasn't sure how to feel.
"Will they catch him?" I asked. "In Italy?"
I couldn't see Edward's eyes properly in the dark, but there was an edge to his voice.
"According to the manifesto, they didn't fly to Italy."
"Oh. Then where?"
That threw me.
"We should tell the police, shouldn't we?"
Edward shook his head. "They'd want to know how we know. And that would complicate things for us." He slipped his phone away. "We'll have to let it go. For now."
"For now? What does that mean?"
Edward shrugged. "I don't know yet," he said.
He sighed rubbed his bandaged hand over the back of his neck. The driver was peering out the window, searching for the house number. Edward leant forward slightly.
"Just a little further up on the left," he said and the driver waved a hand in acknowledgement.
"Why do you think they went to Alaska?" I whispered as he sat back again.
"I'd say they're running scared and anxious to stay far away from Volterra."
"Is there still a danger there?"
He shook his head. "No." The taxi slowed to a gentle stop. "I'll explain later," he murmured.
The sight of Edward's beach house, so cosy looking with the porch light shining and the windows showing the lamp light inside, made me want to cry. There'd been a time earlier today, just a few hours ago, when I thought I'd never see it again.
His bike was parked out the front, behind a black mini van with hire car plates.
"A mini van?"
"Big family," Edward smiled.
Then, as he paid the driver, the front door opened and the Cullens came running down the path. Edward sighed, but his voice held a smile.
"Are you ready for this?" he asked as we slid across the seat and got out.
Esme was the first to reach us, but only just, and in the emotional kerbside reunion that followed we were engulfed in a huddle of rib-crushing vampire hugs, joy, and relief.
"Oh, thank God! Thank God you're alright!"
"Bella, we are so grateful...and Edward..."
"What did the doctors say? Should you have stayed overnight?"
"Your car's been towed, I think."
"Alice said it was a bullet and paint thinners, is that true?"
"Edward! Your hand!"
"So the Volturi's really gone?"
"You should have let us pick you up from the hospital."
"Why don't we go inside and talk." Carlisle's calm voice cut through the chaos and suddenly Esme was all business.
"Yes, of course," she said, releasing us from a double hug but keeping hold of Edward's hand. "Come in, come in. You must both be exhausted. And hungry. I've made pasta, just with one of the jars of sauce in the pantry, but still, it's warm and it's filling." She laughed then, a light tinkling sound. "Listen to me, playing hostess in your own home. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," Edward said.
"Rose and Emmett have already booked their flights home," Alice was bright and bubbly as she pushed open the front door. "They fly out in a few hours."
"Tonight? So late?"
" Hawaii time," Jasper explained.
"Oh." I shook my head. "Of course. I think my brain's a bit fried right now."
"It's about four o'clock yesterday morning over there," he went on. "Their flight's at seven."
That made more sense.
"They sure move fast."
"They're anxious to be home," Carlisle said. "And to be with everyone."
His eyes were bright and I realised then that this would be the first time the whole Cullen clan, or coven, had been together in five years. Possibly longer.
We moved into the living room and it was really like coming home, in a way I'd never felt before. Anywhere.
It was full of family and soft lights and laughter, and there was the delicious smell of bolognese cooking on the stove.
"Is it too late to eat?" Esme suddenly looked concerned. "It's almost midnight, that's probably too late for dinner."
"It's never too late for dinner," Edward said, pulling her in for another hug and kissing her forehead. "Thank you."
She sighed and shook her head as Edward gathered me back into his arms again.
"If anything had happened to you. Either of you..." She shuddered. "I don't know what I would have done. They're really gone, aren't they? The Volturi?"
"They're gone." Edward ran through a list of names, starting with Aro, finishing with someone called Felix. Carlisle nodded as each name was recited. "All incinerated, except for Heidi," Edward said. "She's flown to Alaska with Marc and the human accomplice."
"And those remaining in Volterra are minor players," Carlisle said thoughtfully.
"There are more?" A sudden wave of fear ran through me.
"No-one of consequence," Edward said quickly. "Just Guard members who make up the Volturi muscle. They have no gifts, they just follow orders and without anyone to follow..." He shrugged. "They're no threat," Carlisle finished. "But Alaska, Edward? That's interesting."
"It is," Edward said. "But I think I'm starting to understand. Heidi was terrified of Aro, I could sense it from her and when she grabbed hold of me her hands were shaking. She knew she probably wouldn't be making it back to Volterra, and if she did it wouldn't be for long. Aro wasn't going to forget that she'd let Marion go."
"So they've gone somewhere else, far away," Esme said.
Edward nodded. "There seemed to be some connection between her and Marc. I'd say they've gone off together. As for Marco Marretti..." He shrugged. "He's a human who knows his place. He won't be looking for trouble."
"But there are still loose ends to tie up," Carlisle said.
"There are," Edward said.
"But not tonight." Carlisle smiled. "Tonight is for celebration. And thanks." He inclined his head towards me. "The danger has passed and right now you both need time to recover and rest. Doctor's orders."
"Your hand though, Edward..." Esme frowned.
"Superficial," his said. "I'll swap this bandage for a smaller dressing tomorrow. Nothing to worry about."
"Did they prescribe an antibiotic cream?" Carlisle asked.
"It's in my pocket."
"Minimal. We were able to get out pretty quickly before we breathed too much in."
The realisation that I'd probably inhaled microscopic Aro particles was not a happy one. Suddenly I wanted to blow my nose.
A medical conversation started up between Edward and Carlisle – going over our treatment in hospital, lung capacities, oxygen administration, hours of close observation and monitoring...
We were still standing, all of us in a rough circle round the coffee table, listening to the doctors talking, but then Esme's eyes fell to my left hand as it rested against Edward's chest.
She blinked twice, then bit her bottom lip.
"That's a beautiful ring, Bella."
"Oh...um..." I flexed my fingers as I smiled and a blush heated my cheeks.
Carlisle stopped talking. Edward took my hand in his, his thumb gently nudging the sapphire. When he spoke, I could hear the smile, and pride, in his voice.
"And it means exactly what you think it does."
Esme gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. Carlisle grinned and Alice giggled, bouncing on her toes.
"I didn't tell," she exclaimed proudly. "I didn't say a word!"
"Tell what?" Clearly puzzled, Jasper looked from his wife to Edward, then at my hand. "Oh? OH! Really?"
Edward laughed. "Yeah, really. Bella's agreed to take me on. We're getting married."
Jasper slapped his brother on the back. "Well, wow! Congratulations!"
And then we were in the vampire huddle once more.
"When did this happen?"
"I'm so, so, happy for you both!"
"Don't ask him how he proposed, you'll be horrified."
"Have you set a date?"
"Where will the wedding be?"
It would have been easy to feel overwhelmed, and there was a time, long ago, when that's how I would have felt. The attention, the questions, it would have had me blushing and stammering and wanting to run away. But not now.
Now I welcomed the joy and the love. Especially after today's events, and the crippling fear of almost losing everything. This, here, was family. This was life. And I laughed along, letting myself get caught up in their excitement while I was wrapped in my own.
"We don't have a date yet," Edward said. "Or a venue."
"But you will soon, right?" Alice fixed her gaze on us. "There's a beautiful guest house on the shores of Puget Sound that would be perfect. I could email them..."
"Slow down, Alice. Give us time." Edward ruffled her hair. She looked about to protest, but at his affectionate gesture, her face softened. And she gave a sheepish giggle.
"Sorry," she said. "I got carried away. I'll back off but if there's anything I can do to help..."
"We'll let you know."
"Do your parents know, Bella?" Esme's smile couldn't be any wider.
"Er, no. Not yet." They didn't even know Edward was back in my life, I realised. "I'll call them tomorrow." That was going to be an interesting conversation.
"It's been quite a day," Carlisle said, beaming at us. "The lowest of lows and the highest of highs."
There was a murmur of agreement and then a yawn escaped me.
"You need dinner and bed," Esme said and I nodded my agreement.
"I'll get bowls and forks," Alice said and hurried to the kitchen.
"Do you want me to grab you a beer, Edward?" Jasper motioned at the refrigerator.
"Maybe a whisky, thanks." Edward nodded towards the wall unit where a collection of spirits and appropriate glasses occupied the middle shelf.
Jasper grabbed a bottle of Glenfiddich. "Two fingers?"
"Make it three, tonight."
"Bella?" Jasper's face was expectant. "Can I get you something?"
It was strange to see him like this, offering drinks, practically playing host.
"Thanks, but not right now. I think I might have a shower. I smell of smoke and hospitals."
I wrinkled my nose before kissing Edward's cheek. "I need my comfy sweat pants and your Snoopy t-shirt."
He chuckled softly as I backed out of his embrace.
"Go and get comfortable," Esme said, coming forward and wrapping me in another hug. "Thank you," she whispered in my ear. "Thank you for everything."
She pulled back, smiling, and patted me on the arm. "Now go," she said. "Dinner will be ready when you are."
Behind her, Edward was watching us, his eyes warm. He winked at me. I smiled back. Then I made my way up the hall.
The babble of happy voices faded away as I shut the bedroom door and leant against it.
It had been a long, long, day. A long week, really.
There was still so much to process, and I had so many questions and thoughts.
The moonlight shone softly onto the bed, making silvery patterns on the puffy quilt. Was it only this morning that I'd laid there, looking out the window?
It looked so soft and warm and inviting, and I was so tired.
I decided to lay down, just for a minute...
It was sunny when I opened my eyes again. Edward was lying beside me, awake, propped up on one elbow, smiling.
"Back with us?" he asked.
My body felt heavy and I stretched. "It's morning. I slept through the night?" Except it didn't look like morning light. And somehow I'd changed into the Snoopy t-shirt.
"Um..." I sat up, rubbing my eyes. My stomach rumbled and I was instantly aware of a very pressing need for the bathroom. "Give me a sec."
When I walked back into the bedroom a moment later, Edward was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, his hair tumbling over his forehead, smiling that brilliant crooked smile. I felt a vague sense of disorientation. Like I was somehow out of place, or time.
There was no bandage on Edward's hand, I noticed.
The house was silent, absent of vampire voices.
My ring finger was bare.
"What's wrong?" Edward was immediately on alert, his smile shifting quickly to concern. "What?"
"This is where I realise it was all a dream, isn't it? The Volturi are still in charge, you're still in danger of exposure one day, and we aren't engaged."
"Bella..." Edward smirked a little as he climbed off the bed.
"I should have realised when Alice backed off about the wedding." I snorted a laugh. "Like that would ever happen."
"It wasn't a dream, Bella."
He came to me, taking my hands in his, and now I saw there was a simpler, flatter dressing where the bandage had been.
"It's all real. The Volturi are gone, thanks to you. And we are most definitely engaged." He winked. "You'll have to come up with something better than it was all a dream to get out of marrying me."
He reached past me to a small velvet box on the dresser and flipped the lid, revealing the sapphire inside.
He smiled as he slid it back on my finger.
"As for Alice..." He paused, his brow furrowing slightly. "The past twenty four hours have changed her, even if she doesn't fully realise it yet." He shrugged. "But she will," he said.
I wriggled my finger, letting the ring settle back into place.
"How long was I out?"
"You've been asleep for fourteen hours," he said, nudging my nose with his. "It's two o'clock Friday afternoon."
"Oh...but..Snoopy?" I looked down at my shirt.
"Well, you weren't completely asleep the whole time," Edward said. "You went for a shower and never came back. I found you curled up on the bed and when I took your shoes off you mumbled something about wanting a shower, so I undressed you and carried you in."
"We showered together?"
"We did. That's when I took your ring off. I didn't want it sliding off with the soap suds and going down the drain."
He lowered his head, grazing his lips over my throat.
"How do I not remember?"
"You were very sleepy." He stopped grazing and looked up at me through his lashes. "And I was a perfect gentleman, in case you're wondering."
I snorted and he laughed.
"Of course you were. I'd expect nothing else." I wrapped my arms around his neck. "I don't even remember hitting the pillow. I just thought I'd lay down for a minute and then...well, it's now."
I yawned and rubbed at my face. "I can't believe I slept so long. I hope your family doesn't think I'm rude."
"Not at all. You needed the sleep."
"How long were you out?"
"About six hours."
"Really?" For 'Mr-Sleeps-Like-The-Dead' that was like a quick afternoon nap.
He shrugged. "Too much going on in my head," he said. "I'll probably crash tonight."
He pulled me back to the bed so we flopped onto the quilt and it billowed up around us.
"Tell me what happened while I was sleeping?"
"Not a lot," he began slow-walking his fingers across my stomach, nudging Snoopy away so he could touch my bare skin. "Alice took Jasper down to the national park last night to hunt for a few hours. They came back just before dawn and now they've gone with Carlisle and Esme in the mini van to pick up the McCarty's at the airport."
"Emmett and Rose are here already?" That was a total head spin.
"It's only a nine hour flight."
"Yeah, I know, but I've missed some time, remember? To me it feels like last night was ten minutes ago."
He chuckled and kissed my nose.
"What about the sun?" I asked. "How can the others..."
"Tinted windows," Edward said. "And VIP underground parking."
His lips twitched. "It's amazing what a vampire voice and a platinum credit card can accomplish."
Of course. I should have realised.
"We should have gone to get them," I said. "Saved your family the trouble."
"You were fast asleep Bella."
"But you weren't."
"I wasn't going to leave you." His eyes softened as he ran his fingers along my cheekbone. "I knew you'd be safe if I did, it's not that I was worried." He shrugged shyly. "I'm just not ready to be apart from you. Not yet."
My heart melted a little and I touched his cheek.
His intense green eyes held mine. "Getting Alice's call, driving to get to you, those twenty minutes in your flat..." He closed his eyes, his face contorted in a grimace, and I felt a subtle shudder run through him. But his gaze was calm when he opened them again.
"I'm just not ready to be apart from you," he whispered.
He nestled into the crook of my neck and I let my fingers play in his hair.
"A mini van, huh?"
"A big change from the Mercedes."
Edward chuckled softly.
"It is," he said, placing a barely-there kiss on my collarbone. I sighed.
"It's nice like this," I said. "Just lying here together. In the quiet. No dramas."
"There'll be drama when Max and Hannah fight over the bean bags."
He grinned as he traced slow circles round my belly button.
"I have bean bags for for when they come and stay. Something to sit on while they watch TV. They always fight over the blue one because it has..." He stopped and the frown was back. "Actually, I still don't know what it is. I thought it was a dinosaur when I bought it. But Hannah insists it's a dragon, which it might be. I can't tell now. It could be either."
I thought I could see where this was going.
"But because Hannah thinks it's a dragon, she wants it."
"Yes. And Max thinks, like I originally did, that it's a dinosaur and belongs to him.
"What's on the other bean bag? The one they don't want?"
A giggle burst from my lips.
"Sorry," I mumbled. "I'm just imagining you buying a bean bag with cupcakes on it."
"I thought it was cute." He was trying to look offended, but there was a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth.
"Does it have a pink background?"
"Purple. But some of the cupcakes have pink icing."
I was giggling again and Edward was grinning down at me.
"So what happens? Do they take turns?"
"Eventually, yeah." He rolled onto his back, arms behind his head, smiling at the ceiling. "After the yelling and screaming. Max will have it for one tv show or movie, and then Hannah has it for the next one. We work out a roster and put it on the fridge."
"Really? An actual roster?"
"You have to be organised about these things Bella, or chaos ensues."
Of course, that had me laughing again.
It felt so good, having normal conversations. Talking about normal things. A normal life. There were still things to deal with from yesterday, but right now all I wanted was...normal.
"We should plan a vacation," I said. "To Greece. We'll visit the ruins."
Edward rolled onto his side, his eyes glittering with excitement.
"And hire a yacht. Sail round the islands."
"Can you sail a yacht?"
"Of course I can." He rolled his eyes and I ruffled his hair.
"But there's still stuff to sort through first, isn't there?"
"Unfortunately," he said. "And soon we'll have a houseful. But before my family descends..."
His hand found its way back to my belly. More slow circles, each sweeping slightly lower than the last, making me shiver in delight. And anticipation.
"Before we have to think about anything or anyone else, right now..." His vivid eyes held mine.
"I want to be in the sun."
Grinning, he piggy-backed me out of the bedroom and grabbed a couple of beach towels that seemed to permanently hang from the railing of the deck. He draped them round his neck and then took the stairs, two at a time, down onto the beach below.
For someone who'd been in hospital the day before, he was doing alright, jogging easily and swiftly along the wet sand towards the headland while I clung tight to him, laughing.
The afternoon sun beat down, hot and strong, warming our skin. The water sparkled, it's vivid blue shimmering beneath a bright sky. My hair blew around my face.
"Where are we going?" I cried over the sound of wind and ocean.
"I want to show you something!"
He kept jogging, all the way up the beach, until we reached the rock platform at the foot of the cliff. The waves were rolling in, crashing against the stone plateau as Edward eased me down from his back, chest heaving, and took my hand.
"Come on," he said, smiling as he caught his breath.
He led me carefully amongst the rock pools as we made our way around the face of the cliff.
"Hold tight," Edward called and gripped my hand harder as a large wave came crashing closer. The water didn't reach us though, barely lapping our feet, but we waited, giving it time to retreat before we continued across the platform.
We clambered over and around some rocks, to the front of the cliff face, and then I saw it.
The rock wall curved inwards, creating a small, secluded beach tucked away between giant boulders that sat like sentinels at the foot of the cliff.
"What do you think?" he asked, pulling me close, smiling down at me.
"It's like a private little lagoon. And the water's so calm."
"There's a rock platform further out," he said pointing a little way into the distance where water crashed and foamed, seemingly over nothing. "The waves break out there so what we get here is gentler.
"A gentle ebb and flow," I murmured. "It's beautiful. Do you come here much?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes. It shows the sea from a different perspective, I think. It's a great place for photos, and it's private. Not many people make the effort to come round here."
He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.
"Can you smell it?" He smiled. "The sea and the sun?"
His eyes opened. "You can't smell it?"
"The sea, sure, but the sun...I don't know..."
I sniffed enthusiastically and Edward laughed.
"What does the sun smell like? Give me a clue."
"A clue...I don't know if I can..."
He took my hand and led me onto the small sweep of sand. He spread the towels and we laid down, side by side, hands clasped. Edward draped his other arm over his eyes as he smiled up at the sky. The water lapped gently at our feet.
"It smells warm," he said. "And real. And new." He peeked out from under his arm. "I'm not making sense, am I?"
I wrinkled my nose. "No, I think I get it. I'm thinking...the smell of linen sheets, freshly washed and then dried in the sun?"
He smiled. "That's pretty close."
"And you can smell that on its own? Without the sheets?"
I rolled onto my side, propped myself up on an elbow, and drew a slow circle over his chest. The fabric of his t-shirt puckered up under my finger, making the motion less than smooth. In an easy move Edward reached down, grabbed the hem, and tugged it neatly over his head, leaving him bare-chested.
"Don't stop," he murmured, closing his eyes.
So I didn't.
I traced around his navel, and then spiralled upwards, over the hard planes of his chest. At his heart I stopped, and rested my palm over the steady thrum beneath.
This felt so easy. So relaxed. Just being together with no drama hovering in the background.
Edward covered his hand with mine.
"I think it's starting to sink in." He blinked up at me.
"That I'm not a danger to you." A shy smile curved his lips. "It's always been there, the fear. At the back of my mind, or sometimes front and centre. From that first moment you sat next to me in biology. But now..." He sighed, and smiled, and squinted up at the sun. Then he smiled. "Come swimming with me?"
"Now? We don't have swim suits with us."
He sat up as my mouth popped open.
"It's secluded here." He ran a slow finger along the bare skin of my arm, leaving a trail of heat and goosebumps behind. "If we don't go out too far no-one will even see us."
My first instinct was to say no, but the look in Edward's eyes quickly changed my mind.
"Yes," I whispered.
I peeled out of my clothes as Edward kicked off his shorts. Then he took my hand and together we ran, naked, into the water.
I'd seen Edward naked many times, but here, like this in the ocean, was something really special.
The word magnificent flitted through my mind as his body surged through the water, towing us out until we were waist deep.
The water splashed up around us and Edward laughed as I squealed.
I giggled. "No. Not cold at all really. Just...different."
Then he slowly took me in his arms.
"This feels amazing," I murmured as he brushed his lips along the edge of my jaw. My head was tilted back, my body bare to the sun as Edward's mouth explored, teasing across my throat and down to my shoulder. He bent his body over mine and I clutched his broad back, pulling him impossibly closer.
And then he was kissing me, and it felt new. A subtle surrender and freedom that hadn't been there before. Like he could truly love me without fear.
Our bodies, slick and wet, moved together. A gentle press and sway in time with our lips as the water embraced us.
Edward's hands slid down to my backside, cupping me, pulling me hard against him. He lifted me like I weighed nothing and I locked my legs tight around his hips. His desire was obvious as he walked us into deeper water.
In a swift move, he was inside me, making me gasp and a strangled moan escaped him as he dropped his head onto my shoulder. With an arm behind my back and the other beneath my thighs, he began a slow rhythm, thrusting gently, back and forth, in time with the ebb of the ocean.
The muscles of his arms and back flexed and strained beneath my hands. The sensation of sun and sea and Edward, was almost too much. I felt my heart might explode, and tears burned at the back of my eyes.
Edward lifted his head, his heavy-lidded gaze holding mine as he kept up that exquisite cadence. His body had the power of the ocean and the warmth of the sun and I was lost in him. Lost in those sea-green eyes and the feel of him, around me and within me. Lost in the deep, flickering burn inside that licked and teased and promised.
"So beautiful," he murmured, kissing me, his lips and tongue matching the movement of his hips.
And I felt beautiful.
When his lips moved to my throat, I tossed my head back, arching, letting the sun caress my breasts as I rocked myself against him.
He groaned again, a primal growl from deep inside him. Our pace changed, becoming faster, somehow deeper, and then I was touching the sun, shattering and burning while Edward shuddered and shook, his love pulsing through me while he cried my name against my shoulder.
We came back to earth, floating together in the sun.
Fingers linked, we made languid easy movements through the water, enjoying the sea's caress, smiling secret smiles at each other.
"Wow," I whispered.
"Wow," Edward whispered back. "I love you, you know."
"I know." I squeezed his hand. "I love you too."
I wound my arms around his neck and he grinned, pulling me close, his hands resting on my hips.
I kissed the tiny salt-and-pepper freckles that dusted his shoulders.
He took my hand from around his neck, touching the sapphire he'd placed on my finger.
"Will you do me the honour of marrying me?"
For a second I was confused, but when I saw his eyes I thought I understood.
He didn't want his proposal associated with the Volturi.
"Yes," I smiled. "I'll marry you."
The joy in his eyes was as bright as if he was hearing it for the first time.
"I'll make you happy," he said, kissing my hand. "I promise. Every day."
"You already do."
Then I kissed him and he wrapped his arms around me like he'd never let go.
The wind came up. A soft breeze that brushed over my skin and gave me goosebumps.
"Time to go in," Edward immediately said, and towed me to the shore.
We dried and dressed, playfully flicking each other with our towels. Then I climbed on Edward's back and we made our way back across the rock platform and onto the main beach.
"Who's that?" I asked as we neared the house. "There's someone on your deck. Is it..."
"Emmett," Edward said.
And then there was a cheer of young voices and two tiny figures came bounding down the steps onto the sand.
I laughed and clambered off Edward's back.
"Go," I said.
He kissed me quickly, then ran to them, dropping to his knees and opening his arms. He swept them up, hugging them close as Emmett watched from the deck. I lifted my hand in a wave and he waved back, and I could see the big goofy grin lighting up his face even from a distance.
Edward stood, a child hanging off each arm and looked over his shoulder at me, grinning.
"Look who I found, Bella."
"Max and Hannah! Where did you come from?" I feigned surprise and the children laughed.
"Come on," Edward said to me. "Lets race them back to the house."
The children squealed and took off, giggling in delight as Edward and I did a slow jog behind them.
Max and Hannah won, of course.
We came up the stairs, making a show of puffing and panting. Emmett was waiting for us and he swept me into an enormous bear hug as soon as I set foot on the deck.
"Thank you," he whispered, his voice cracking with emotion. "I get to keep my family because of you. My kids grow up, because of you."
I felt wetness against my cheek and realised they were tears. My heart clenched, I didn't know what to say.
He pulled back quickly, blinking and wiping roughly at his eyes.
"Edward," he said, pulling his brother into a hard embrace. "No words, my brother. I have no words." Then he let Edward go.
"So," he said, all hearty again and punching me gently on the arm. "What about you? A single bullet? I'm gonna call you One-Shot-Swan from now on."
"Oh, um..." I didn't know how I felt about that but I didn't get a chance to think because Emmett had taken me by the hand.
"Come on," he said. "Rose wants to say thank you, too."
The living room was full of Cullens and McCarty's, all talking and laughing.
"We let ourselves back in," Carlisle said. "We didn't think you'd mind."
"Of course not," Edward said. "We just thought we'd have a quick swim."
Rosalie looked tired, the dark circles and hollows beneath her eyes a testament to the worry and sleepless nights of the past week. She was sitting in the comfy chair and I waved away her attempts to get up. Instead, I leant down and she embraced me with heavy arms.
"Thank you," she said. "For everything."
I didn't know what to say. My pleasure, didn't seem right. You're welcome didn't fit either. So I just smiled.
"You're looking good," I said.
"I look awful. Two international flights in a week will take it out of you. But I'm almost at the point where I can't fly anymore..." She patted her belly. "If I didn't come home now, I'd have to wait until after the birth."
She shifted and adjusted the small cushion behind her, smiling as she watched her children clambering all over Edward and taking shy looks at Alice and Jasper.
"You have eyes like Aunty Esme," Hannah said to Alice.
"Yes," Alice replied. "I do."
It occurred to me then that, while Max and Hannah skyped with Carlisle and Esme regularly, it mustn't be the same with Alice and Jasper.
"Can we watch television!" Max was jumping up and down.
"I get the dragon bag!" Hannah chimed in.
"Hey," Edward called a halt to the argument that was blossoming. "How about you watch TV in my room?"
This was obviously the preferred option because they took off, running up the hallway and everyone laughed.
Rosalie smiled at him, and her eyes filled.
"Thanks," she whispered and he patted her shoulder as he walked past her to follow the kids up the hall.
The conversation turned to dinner plans and it was decided to order pizza, just for the ease of it. There was laughter from up the hall, and then a few minutes later, Edward returned.
"All settled?" Esme asked.
"Yep," he said. "They're watching the Kids Network. We should be good for an hour."
"Good," Rosalie said and adjusted her position once more. "That gives us time to talk. Now, Carlisle and Alice filled us in on the way here about what happened in Bella's flat, but can someone please tell us about this Marion person?"
She looked around the room at us all.
"Actually, I'd like to know too," I said. We'd been so caught up with the Volturi and the fire and hospitals, we hadn't really got to the bottom of the mysterious curator.
Edward glanced at Jasper.
"It's quite a story," he said. "You want to tell them, Jasper?
A/N: We're very close to the end. A few loose ends to tie up, some explanations to come, but we're nearly there : )
Thank you for all the wonderful reviews for the last chapter, I appreciate them all so much : )
I know this chapter was an extra-long time coming. There's been a lot going on at my end and sometimes real life has to take priority, so I appreciate your patience.
There were a few questions in reviews for the last chapter, and most of them will be answered in the next chapter : )
One Guest review asked a question about Edward's soul. Because I can't reply to Guest reviews, I'll answer here...
The question was related to Bella fearing for Edward's loss of his precious soul if Aro changed him back to a vampire.
Yes, Bella does believe vampires have souls. She believes Edward had a soul when he was a vampire. But it doesn't matter what she thinks if Edward doesn't believe he has a soul. In "New Moon", Carlisle touches on that in the scene at the disastrous birthday party. I don't have the book in front of me now, but he basically says to Bella that he agrees with her, he hopes and believes there is more for his son, but that if Edward doesn't believe he has a soul, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. So that's one reason why Bella feared for Edward becoming a vampire again, because she knew he'd spend eternity believing he was soulless (even if she believed differently).
The next chapter won't take so long : ) It's already half written!
This chapter was is un-beta'd so, you know, if you find anything I've missed, please let me know : )