The following week Edward and I committed to performing at the graduation ceremonies rather than the formal Spring concert for the band. According to Edward and Alice the family had plans the same day as the concert, but they should all be in town the day of graduation. For the sake of time, we were just going to do the Spring concerto. Spring for Spring. Alice thought it was cute, and I caught her eying me with a speculative gleam that made me nervous. I just knew she was envisioning some fashionista makeover that was likely to involve heels tall enough that they would ensure my death, or at least maiming. I hadn't even had a chance to get to know the littlest Cullen all that well, and I already knew her well enough to suspect that.
"Bella!" A familiar voice pulled me out of my musings. Turning about, I saw Mike Newton hurry to catch up with me, his round face bright with excitement. Or perhaps it was nervousness. It was hard to tell with Mike.
"Hey, Mike." He came to a stop next to me as I swapped out my books for the first half of the day for the ones for the rest of my classes. "What's up?"
He had his books in one arm and shoved his empty hand into the pocket of his jeans, clearly nervous. "Yeah, uh… I was wondering if you were doing anything tonight."
I just barely managed not to groan out loud. Mike was becoming more and more persistent in his attempts to get me to agree to a date. "Sorry, Mike, but I've already got plans."
His face fell, giving the impression of a kicked puppy. "What kind of plans?"
Crap. "Oh… well…" I was a lousy liar, but I had to think of something.
"Bella!" The perky, high-pitched, bell-like voice summoned the arrival of the petite and ever-energetic Alice Cullen. She seemed to appear at my side like magic, her smile disturbingly bright. Mike backed away a few steps, his eyes wary. "Mom's going to call Chief Swan and get the all clear from him. I'll ride home with you so you can pack and then we'll head over to my house." I was about to ask her what she was talking about when she gave a squeal that might summon every canine in the state and clapped her hands. "This is going to be so much fun! I haven't had a sleep over since we moved down here. It'll be such a nice change to have a girl around who isn't my sister."
It was official. I was in love with Alice Cullen. "That's great." If they ever made same-sex marriage legal, I would propose to her. Hope Jasper didn't mind. "Are you sure it's all right with your parents?"
She rolled her eyes. "Are you kidding? They might like you even more than they like us." She linked her arm around mine and led me away from Mike, chatting brightly about pedicures and slumber party games. Once we were out of earshot and gave a sigh of relieve and squeezed her arm tightly to my side.
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You are a saint, and an angel and your brother should really give you more respect."
She laughed. "To which one are you referring? They both qualify for that statement." Clearly she didn't consider Jasper to be a 'brother'.
"That was a stroke of genius, cooking up a sleep over."
"Yes, it was. And now I have a great excuse to have some company that won't be spending most of the night trying to pick a fight with me."
Wait… what? "Uhm… Alice… that was just to get Mike off my case… wasn't it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Bell-la, what if he checks up on our story? We'll have to carry through with it."
"But your mom isn't calling my dad."
"Actually, she is." Her pixie face broke into another bright grin. "I asked her this morning, planning to invite you over tonight anyway." She acted as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
"What if I'd said 'no'?"
She gave me another maddening grin. "You wouldn't have. I know these things."
Edward was more brooding than usual during Biology. I had half a mind to poke him with my pencil to see if I could make him madder. We had a lab to do, putting together a model of a DNA fragment. Any verbal responses he gave me were clipped and a bit terse, and he seemed to be making a concentrated effort not to touch me. I felt a queasy sensation in my gut as all the progress we had made over the past couple of months unraveled.
Gym wasn't as humiliating as usual. We did mainly floor exercises, such as sit-ups and pushups, so there were nowhere near as many chances for me to trip, fall or maim someone. I changed back into my jeans and sweater quickly and hurried out to the parking lot to find Alice waiting by my truck. Glancing over to the shiny Volvo I saw Edward glaring at his sister from across the parking lot. "Uhm… Alice… are you sure this is a good idea? Your brother seems to be a bit pissy today."
She waved off my concern. "Ignore him. He likes to take the whole concept of 'brooding artist' to heart. This is our time. Girl time." She climbed into the passenger side of the bench seat, looking classy and elegant and horribly out of place inside my rusty old beater of a truck. Still, she looked as though she lost none of her enthusiasm. She was practically vibrating on the seat. I hoped she didn't manage to shake the truck apart. I drove to Charlie's house and Alice was out of the truck before the engine managed to quiet down fully. She hurried to the front door and waited impatiently, bouncing on the balls of her feet. I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes as I walked up the steps and got the key down from the doorframe, unlocking the house and letting her inside.
Alice attacked my closet with a vengeance. I couldn't help but feel a bit self-conscious because I just knew she was judging my wardrobe even if she wasn't saying anything openly derogatory about it. Everything she and her siblings wore on a day-to-day basis screamed 'designer'. Just the boots she was wearing probably cost more than half of my clothes combined. Still, she managed to settle on a few things and tuck them into a small duffle bag Charlie had in the hall closet, though how she knew it was there I couldn't fathom.
I glanced over at Esmerelda's case, considering whether or not I should take her. On one hand, Edward would be there and we could get some practice in. On the other hand, Alice had invited me over for some 'girl time', and it seemed a bit rude for me to carry my violin along when she wouldn't be participating. I stifled a sigh as I left the case sitting there by the wall and walked with Alice back to the truck.
Alice played navigator to help me get us to the Cullens' home. I swallowed as I turned off the engine and let my truck shake into silence. I had never felt so out of place as I did at that moment. I didn't even own nice enough clothes and shoes to set foot into that house. The pixie leapt from the cab of the truck and dashed to the door with my duffle in hand. I heard her call out for her mother as she opened the door. Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I followed her inside.
The inside of the house was just as lovely as the inside. Everything was done in white and pale creams, the starkest contrast of which was a dark piano situated in a place of honor off to the side. It was the kind of décor that I would usually ruin by tripping while carrying a plate of food or a glass of something. Surely Alice had heard the rumors of my clumsiness about school. Why would she risk her mother's beautiful home this way?
"Bella! I'm so glad Alice invited you for the evening." Esme Cullen came into the room, her smile bright and wide. I stammered out a 'thank you' even as she wrapped her arms about me and gave me a gentle hug. "I thought you might be hungry after school, so I made a pan of brownies. They're still warm, and there's milk in the fridge. Help yourself when you're ready." It wasn't until she released me and freed me from whatever sweet perfume she wore that I could detect the brownies. The warm, chocolate aroma made my mouth water.
"Thank you Mrs. Cu… I mean, Esme."
"Bell-la!" Alice came hurrying down the stairs with a large purple tote over one shoulder. "C'mon! I want to give you a pedicure. I've got the perfect shade of polish!"
I looked at the seemingly innocent purple tote. Like as not it was filled with small, silver instruments of feminine torture that Alice was just itching to use on me. "But… brownies…"
Alice rolled her eyes. "Just grab one and come into the living room. Esme won't care if you eat in there." Esme might… after I tripped and the brownie flipped off the plate to land on her white carpet. I was trying to figure out how to word my argument when I felt a plate and a glass being gently pushed into my hands. Esme had apparently anticipated Alice's desires and had gotten me a brownie and milk. Her hands gently ushered me towards the living room where Alice was already setting up on the floor before a massive, overstuffed, white sofa. She grinned at me and patted the cushions, indicating for me to sit down.
I sank into the sofa, carefully minding my snack and drink so as not to spill any as Alice attached my feet by pulling off my shoes and socks. "I should warn you, I'm not very good at this kind of thing. I probably won't make a pretty job of your toes when it's your turn."
"Oh, I don't need a pedicure. I just had one the other day. I just like making people pretty." She started working on my feet, her cold hands firm but gentle as she trimmed, filed and buffed to hear heart's content. "Usually I just have Rosalie or Esme to work with, but they get tired of me after a while."
"So you brought home a new victim?" Emmett's booming voice came in from behind us, making me jump a bit. "Hey there, Belly-Bells!" He ruffled my hair and stole a bite of my brownie. I thought I heard Alice make a disgusted noise from the floor.
"Emmett, that's gross! Bella doesn't want your germs!"
"I don't have anything contagious. I promise." He winked at me and leapt over the back of the sofa to land on the cushions next to me. The whole piece of furniture bounced from his sudden weight, making Alice squeal.
"Stop that! I don't want you jiggling her! You might make me mess up!"
"But I wanna play." He reached for a remote and turned on the massive TV hanging on the wall. I peered around and saw that by the end of the couch was a cleverly designed cabinet housing an Xbox, a PS3, a Game Cube and a Wii. Emmett was reaching for one of the Xbox controllers as Alice glared.
"You can sit on the floor to play."
"It's not as comfortable."
"I don't care! You dance around too much when you're playing. Get on the floor." Emmett made a face at her. I deep, amused chuckle preceded Jasper as he walked into the room.
"Jazz, tell your woman to stop bossing me around."
"I ain't getting in the middle of this one." Jasper's deep voice was tinged with mirth as he came further into the room and lowered himself down to sit next to Alice, putting her and me between him an Emmett as he reached out between us to accept a controller from his brother. "You should ask yourself if you're brave enough to risk ruining her job on Bella."
Emmett seemed to weigh this idea for a moment. "Are you going to do a design? I could totally do a design for her."
Alice arched a brow at her. "You are not going to paint flames on Bella's toes." I couldn't help myself. I snorted.
"Why not? It'll make her go faster. Everyone knows things go faster if you paint flames on them."
Jasper chuckled as he selected his character for whatever shoot-em-up game they were going to play. "I'm surprised you haven't painted some on your ass. Maybe then you could outrun Edward for a change." The idea made Alice break out into a peal of giggles. Even Emmett laughed at that one. Still, Emmett did move down to the floor as he and Jasper started to play. Alice bent herself to the task of pretty-ing my toes.
After she was done, I had to sit still so the enamel could dry. I wasn't even allowed to run my plate and glass to the kitchen. Alice did it for me, coming back with a fresh glass of milk for me to drink as she moved on to playing with my hair. I even tried my hand and playing the game with Emmett, only to have my guy die spectacularly five times before giving up and letting Jasper take back over. I drank my milk as I watched them. Emmett charged into everything head-on, but Jasper relied more on tactics and stealth. They were pretty evenly matched.
Once my toes were dry, Esme came through to let us know that dinner was ready. Apparently the Cullens rarely did a formal, sit-down meal. We were supposed to just wander into the kitchen and graze at our leisure. Alice urged me to do so while she went up to change the sheets on her bed, stating she had forgotten to do it earlier. Waiting on a warming tray on the counter was the most delicious looking lasagna I had ever seen. The tomato sauce and cheese were still bubbling and the aroma curled around me. I took one of the plates stacked up to the side and cut myself a piece that was perhaps bigger than I needed before setting myself at a small bar off the back of the island. No way was I taking anything based in tomatoes out into the living room. I had been lucky with the brownie, but white attracted tomato sauce like a magnet.
I heard the front door open and close, followed a bit later by what appeared to be an angel come down from on high. The forkful of lasagna paused halfway to my mouth as a blonde-haired Adonis entered the kitchen, setting a dark bag on the counter.
"You must be Bella. Esme mentioned you were going to be sleeping over. I'm Carlisle." He extended hand in my direction. I dropped the fork and shook it. Ice cold, like the rest of his family's. Ice cold and pale as alabaster. Maybe the Alaskan cold seeped in to your bones, making you into snow people.
"Pleasure to meet you." About that time Esme came gliding into the kitchen, looking beautiful and perfect and like the previously unknown missing piece of Dr. Carlisle Cullen. Their faces seemed to light up the second they looked at one another. It was almost too wonderful to look at without going mad from envy. I had long since gotten used to the idea of being from a 'broken home', but seeing the Cullens together made me suddenly long for what Alice, Edward and the others had.
"Long day at the hospital?"
"Rather quiet, actually." Carlisle rubbed Esme's forearm where it rested in the crook of his own. "Not much happens in Forks."
Esme placed a kiss against his cheek. "I see you've met Bella." She smiled in my direction. "Is dinner all right?"
I realized my mouth was gaping and I shut it with a click. "It's… wonderful. Best lasagna ever. I've never been able to get mine to turn out just right." I looked down at my plate and lifted one of the noodles with my fork. "What kind of sausage did you use? Maybe that's where I've been messing up."
She gave me a pleased smile. "I'd be more than happy to share the recipe with you. And if there's anything left you should take it home to your father."
"She should. I'm fairly certain Chief Swan's diet has improved greatly since Bella came home. I was just waiting for him to have a cholesterol induced heart attack before."
I rolled my eyes. "I keep trying to convince him that man cannot live by fried fish and take-out pizza alone, but he's proving rather stubborn." They laughed, the same tinkling, musical laugh as their children. Weird.
"Bella, I thought perhaps you and Edward might play for us. Carlisle didn't get to join us at the party, so he missed out."
Oh. I blinked. "Uhm… I didn't bring my violin." Her face fell. "It's just… Alice invited me and I thought it would be rude if I came here and spent all my time practicing."
She recovered. "Of course. I hadn't thought of that." She still looked somewhat disappointed, but Carlisle smiled and squeezed her hand.
"You can play mine."
I blinked again. "You play?"
"I dabbled when I was younger, but it was never my passion. I still have my violin, though." Esme's face brightened. "It's in my study. I'll go and get it for you." He gave his wife another kiss and walked out. Esme's good cheer had returned full-force as she waited for me to finish my lasagna. I made quick work of it, chasing it down with a bottle of coke from the fridge before setting my dishes in the sink and joining her out in the main part of the house. Edward was already there, going over pieces of sheet music. A music stand had appeared out of nowhere to stand near the piano and Alice was directing Jasper as he set up chairs in 'just the right arrangement'. Apparently she was not the least bit upset to be sharing me. And where had Edward been hiding all this time?
Carlisle came down with his violin, sans case. It looked old. Very old. As in made Esmerlda look fresh-off-the-work-table old. I also noted that it didn't have any fine tuners in the tailpiece. I accepted it gingerly from him, smiling my thanks before inspecting the bow. He had tightened it for me, and the slight white sheen of fresh rosin could be detected. Placing the instrument beneath my chin I pulled the bow across the strings experimentally and found that he had tuned her as well. Whether or not it was his 'passion', Dr. Cullen took great care of his instrument.
The family claimed their seats, with the exception of Rosalie. None of the others seemed to be bothered by her absence as they settled in, and I was somehow not bothered to be giving an impromptu recital in my bare feet with my freshly painted toes sinking into Esme's lovely carpet. Edward and I leaned against his piano for a time, debating quietly over the selection and I noticed that several of the pieces were still crisp and without smudges or yellowing, indicating that they were recently purchased. The arrangements were for both violin and piano. Something about summoned a fluttering sensation in my belly and I could feel my cheeks pinken for no apparent reason. We decided on four selections that were beautiful but not overly complex, wanting to play it safe since there had been no time to practice.
I let Edward count us off. The sound made by the strings inside the piano and on the violin translated to music, swirling out from and around us and filling up the room like something organic and growing. Carlisle's violin was magical; it's down rich and seductive and unlike anything I had played before. It almost felt like I was being unfaithful to Esmerelda, but I could not bring myself to feel too terribly guilty as we continued to play.
Three of the four pieces were light and playful, and play we did. The melodies were familiar from recordings, though I hadn't ever played two of them. I took the liberty of tinkering with the notes here and there, and Edward did the same, giving the arrangements our own special touch. The last song was slow and beautiful, reminiscent of young love and romance. I lost myself in it, letting my memories, my knowledge of how violin strings sounded and where the different notes were located and an indulgent fantasy of a certain pianist holding my hand on a moonlit stroll to take me through it. I hadn't noticed that I had lost myself so completely until we finished and I could feel a single tear threatening to escape down my cheek as the last note echoed and faded in the room.
Our small audience got up onto their feet with applause. Emmett added a shrill whistle, which threatened to rupture eardrums, and called for an encore. We didn't give in. We were too busy laughing at his antics. Carlisle was smiling at us as he hugged his wife into his side with one arm. "Esme wasn't exaggerating; the pair of you are wonderful together. Edward, you'll need to bring Bella over more often for practice. There's no need for you to restrict yourself to when the music room can be open."
I didn't comment, not wanting to add any pressure on what was already a touchy subject with Edward, and I was surprised when he verbally agreed with his father. Huh. Either he was finally recovering from whatever had crawled up his backside or he was just an amazingly dutiful son who would ignore his own discomforts for the sake of his parents. Most teenagers would through a fit, but the Cullens apparently had done a magnificent job instilling better manners into their brood.
"Thank you for letting me borrow your violin, Mr. Cullen. She's a beautiful instrument."
Carlisle looked pleased at the compliment. "Thank you for playing her, Bella. I suppose it's a shame for a Stradivarius to go untouched for so long, but as I said, music wasn't my passion."
The world stopped turning. Surely I misheard him. "You mean… a model Stradivarius… right?"
He shook his head. "No, it's a genuine Stradivarius. I received her as a gift a long time ago."
"A… gift?" Someone gave him a violin worth anywhere from one to three million dollars as a gift?
My hands started to shake. Fearful that I might drop the precious instrument I gripped her with both hands and held her out towards Carlisle. "Take her, please."
Carlisle's brow creased with worry. I thought I heard Edward chuckling behind me, but I couldn't be certain with the blood now pounding against my ears. "Is something wrong, Bella?"
"I'm fairly certain she's afraid she'll break it, Dad." Yeah, Edward was laughing.
"Please?" My hands were really shaking now. "I'm the clumsiest person on the face of the earth. If anyone can trip and break it, I would." I concentrated on not dropping the violin until Carlisle removed it from my hands. I could tell from the way the corners of his mouth were twitching that he was trying not to laugh. He seriously underestimated my ability to damage things. Oh, crap! Could the moisture from my breath ruin the varnish or something? Just be certain I quickly covered my mouth and nose with my hand and backed up. Edward lost it, giving way to a booming laugh that would have made me weak in the knees were I not instantly furious with him. I whipped around to glare at the beautiful boy sitting at the piano, my hands balling up onto my hips. "I'm so glad I amuse you, Mr. Cullen."
His shoulders were still shaking. "I'm glad you're so amusing, Miss Swan."
"Edward!" Esme's clear admonishment only made him laugh harder.
"I am seriously considering hitting you right now." The words came out as a growl. For some reason this seemed to crack up the object of my ire any more.
"I would sincerely discourage that. You would only end up hurting yourself."
The sad thing was, he was probably right. Unable to think of a come back, I huffed and stamped my foot. It looked like it was going to be a long sleepover.