I swear that is the longest vacation I will ever take from this fic. First, my other life got too intimately acquainted with me, and then I was suffering from that terrible affliction known as writer's block. But I'm back now! Thanks to my beta, sisipepperell. And to cullenite21: you wanted some Esme!

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the authors. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

The Artist's Model

AU All Human. Edward Masen is a painter in Paris known for his sensual nude portraits when he stumbles across Bella Swan.

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Chapter 25: Design

"Incroyable," she muttered, leaving my Volvo door wide open. As I passed by, I nudged it shut, planting myself beside Esme.

Her hand was up, shielding her face from the sunlight that had managed to stream through the canopy of trees. She squinted at the thick forest in the exact opposite direction of the house.

"Incroyable," she repeated again. "How did you manage to find such a spectacular lot? And so conveniently located, too."

I smiled wryly. "I happened across it one day when I was lost. The lot was for sale. So I had the house built for my parents. It was to be a surprise for them. They'd always wanted a summer cottage on the outskirts of Paris."

Esme dropped the topic, perhaps sensing my reluctance to indulge any further. "But your hard work will not be wasted," she said chirpily in her bizarrely accented English. It was one of Esme's many quirks—she insisted on speaking English with me as practice, despite her vocabulary being greater than mine. All that remained to betray her French roots was the slight inflection she spoke with. "Let us see this house."

I led her up the whitewashed steps, remembering fondly my mother's ridiculous romantic notions of big blue shutters and picket fences. I had a feeling something of that classic style would appeal to Bella.

The door creaked open. I made a mental note to oil it later. Esme bravely stepped in first, frowning unconsciously at the thick layer of dust blanketing the floor. I ran my hand through my hair nervously. Perhaps I should've cleaned up a little, or at least dusted.

Esme wandered through the generous foyer, pausing occasionally to touch a wary finger to a panel of wood. Where she touched, the wood that showed through was darker, freed from the coating of dust. I saw the approval in her eyes as she took in the Brazilian cherrywood floor, darkened by daily sunshine. However, the expression in her eyes changed as she took in the wall that was shabbily slathered in primer—home décor never interested me. I had planned for my mother to decorate her own home.

A massive chandelier hanging above the winding staircase greeted us with a muted gleam of dripping crystals.

I followed Esme as she prowled, always a step behind. Ever so often she would mutter something under her breath while casting me a dark glance, but mostly she was silent. The subdued light of the hallway eventually gave in to streaming light from the kitchen.

A slight nudge of the double panelled French doors and the kitchen was exposed. Strange how cold and detached a room could be when it was only occupied by silver appliances. Esme immediately began prodding things, opening and closing the solid oak cupboards.

"Granite?"

"Yes," I responded arrogantly. "No need to check the appliances. They were all top of the line a few years ago, but are still perfectly usable. They're energy efficient, anyways."

Her lips twisted, no doubt suppressing a smile. Esme knew me well enough to not take offence when I felt snappish. "However, I think even you will admit the light is a tad outdated." I followed her finger with my eyes to the bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. The dust was so thick, the lightbulb appeared to be covered in fur.

I smiled in acquiescence. "A bit more than a tad outdated, I think."

After taking a few notes on a notepad she had magically procured, seemingly out of thin air (though I noticed later that her dress had its practicalities—large pockets were sewn in, but disguised. Clever), we continued down the hallway.

Her next words were spoken softly as if she was hesitant to disturb the cobwebs that clung fiercely to the stones of the ancient fireplace. "Did you have any specific plans for this room concerning furniture or layout?"

The room, thick with dust and trapped sunlight, clogged my throat. I was lost for words as I pictured the room to my mother's taste. Full of squat armchairs and intricate tables adorned by tall lamps that cast long shadows of yellow light. No doubt she would be curled around a book, a crystal filled halfway with dark wine elegantly grasped in her right hand. And my father would be slouching on an armchair, the latest newspaper obscuring him from view. I pushed the thought aside. This was Bella's house now.

"I was thinking of having a piano in here." My voice was gritty. I coughed quietly in my throat in an attempt to clear the gunk.

"The one you have hidden in your studio?" I appreciated the casualness Esme tried to inject in her voice despite it being very obvious that she disapproved. I sympathized with her horror, however. It would be odd to have my decrepit piano in its 119th year occupying this room that was clearly meant to be elegant. Then again, the piano did hint at old splendour with its ivory keys, grooved from use, and delicate construction. But it would need a lot of work on it to restore it to its full grandeur. Was it worth the splurge?

I shook my head, bringing myself back to Esme's question. "No. I've been waiting for an opportunity to buy a Steinway concert grand, and now I finally have space enough for it. Or do I?"

Esme eyed the room, speculating. "No, but it will limit our options as to where to put it. I'm assuming you'll want it in natural light?"

I nodded. "Preferably, although I am not adverse to the idea of playing in the dark."

She smiled kindly at me, but did not comment. "And did you want any specific theme in this room or did you want it to match the plans for the kitchen?"

"I'd prefer if the entire house had a similar design scheme."

"Of course," Esme sighed. "Unity, but with variety."

I smirked. Esme would know every artist's mantra.

--

It became harder to deflect Bella's suspicion as the days dragged by. My excuses for leaving became flimsier and flimsier, and her lips had pursed in disbelief on more than one account. Becoming desperate, I phoned Emmett, asking about wedding details. When he launched into a rant about needing time alone to spend with his sculptures, I casually suggested that Alice and Bella help Rosalie out in her wedding planning. I knew Alice would be delighted to be dragged into wedding Hell, but I had a feeling Bella would be more reluctant to step into the flames. But the next weekend, both Alice and Rosalie showed up on the doorstep, prepared to tow the protesting Bella away. I waved guiltily as they shoved her none-too-gently into the backseat, knowing that she did not suspect me of being the traitor.

That freed up my weekends to go shopping with Esme for furniture and paint. After contacting Steinway and inquiring about the price of their pianos, I decided even my bank account couldn't survive a hit like that. And so Esme and I frequently spent the evenings together, painting. Well, I painted while Esme poured over different catalogues and made phone calls to specialty furniture shops, pausing occasionally to let me know I missed a spot.

On one particular day, we purchased a sofa and coffee table for the den, having found something appropriate in a mere three hours. We both dug for our credit cards when the cashier rang for the total.

Esme shot me a glare while simultaneously smiling. She covered my hand with what would appear to outsiders as a maternal pat, but I knew better. "Edward, think of it as a gift."

I protested, "But you're already volunteering your time without pay—"

"Nonsense." Her casual words were belied by her fierce struggle to stick my credit card back into my pocket. She was surprisingly strong, but it was not a struggle for me to resist. "Bella's almost family." I wasn't sure if I appreciated the sly look she shot me.

"You can pay for everything in the master bedroom," I promised Esme, hoping that a compromise might placate her.

I took advantage of her momentary distraction and slipped the cashier a different credit card. She, who had been watching our exchange with interest, quickly finished the exchange, apparently cowed by Esme's murderous expression.

I pretended I didn't notice it.

After, Esme was a nightmare. She insisted on buying us a ridiculously overpriced king-sized mattress and furniture only made from some sort of exotic wood from Africa for the master bedroom. I managed to talk her out of painting the room with a paint containing flakes of real gold, slating the poor ventilation in the room would ensure that the stench of metallic chemical waste remained for at least a week, and I planned on moving in before that. Instead, Esme purchased several tubs ridiculously overpriced Martha Stewart paint. Over $100 a gallon; really, Martha?

The total purchases for one room near doubled the amount I'd paid so far for all the other rooms combined, excepting the Steinway of course. I retaliated by purchasing a state-of-the-art sound system for the cinema room we planned for the basement. And to even the count, I also bought a projector and Blu-Ray player. Esme scowled fiercely when she saw the receipt.

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At half past one, a truck came by to drop off what appeared to be the entire Keukenhof garden. I grimaced when the driver asked me to sign a slip of paper confirming that I'd gotten the order, all the while assuring me that everything had already been paid for. When he drove away, the tires kicking up dirt and dust, I rounded towards the house.

"Esme," I called, my voice dangerously quiet.

She strolled into the foyer, humming cheerfully with a duster in her hand. One look at my reddening face and she was backing away, making the connection between my anger and the hydrangeas and whatnot polluting the air.

"Did you pay someone to drop off these?" I gestured wildly at the monstrosity behind me.

Esme checked her watch, the embodiment of unconcerned surprise. "Already? They weren't due until two." Catching my eye, she huffed and replied, "They are to brighten up the house, alright? I thought you said Bella liked freesia."

"I don't see any freesia," I responded flatly.

"They're behind the pink tea roses," Esme responded cheerfully. "Give me a hand, will you? I was under the impression you wanted to bring Bella here by five for supper."

Grudgingly, I helped Esme distribute the flowers among the three stories of the house. Separated, their population was no longer daunting. And even I had to admit they brightened up each room considerably.

By four o'clock, the foyer was siphoned of any remaining dirt, and Esme was preparing to leave. I allowed myself a moment of weakness and hugged her awkwardly, a full two inches of space between us. Esme, though surprised, reacted warmly enough, patting me gently on the shoulder.

"Bella will adore the house," she told me confidently.

I was counting on it.

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Incroyable = incredible. That pretty much sums up my French vocabulary. Next update could be up as early as later today, but definitely by tomorrow! I figure you guys deserve that much. As usual, leave me your thoughts...