A/N: Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight. I do not.
Four Years Later…
Charlie leaned against the doorframe while I stood in front of my floor-length mirror giving myself a once over in my cap and gown.
"Jake's waiting downstairs," he said. "Sue and I are going to leave now so that we can get good seats."
I adjusted the cap on my head and met Charlie's eyes in the mirror. The emotion in them had me spinning. "What?" I asked.
Charlie just shook his head. "Your mom and I are just so proud of you, Bells. We couldn't be prouder."
And then my father crossed the room and gave me a huge hug. I hugged him back, smiling happily. Ever since my abduction by the Volturi, Charlie had become more affectionate. Maybe it was his marriage to Sue. Or maybe it was his acknowledgement that life is too short not to show the people you love how you feel when you have the chance. Whatever it was, it was a welcome change.
Charlie released me and chucked me gently under the chin before heading for the door. "We'll see you there, kiddo. I'll be the proud father with the air horn."
I checked myself one last time and headed down the stairs where Jacob greeted me with his heart-melting smile. I leapt into his arms and he kissed me eagerly. "You ready?" he asked.
"More than ready," I replied.
I was finally graduating from college. Jacob had graduated the year before. I couldn't have been prouder of him. He had worked his ass off both at his business degree and working full time at the body shop. Since I was a year behind him, he was determined to get his career in order by the time I graduated so that we could buy our own place.
I was graduating with a degree in English, focused on creative writing. I had been promoted to Senior Editor at the publishing house. I would continue to work there while I started writing my own book. Jacob joked that I should write a vampire/werewolf teen series since they were so popular right now. He argued that my first-hand experience would provide a whole new perspective on the genre. He said it as a joke, but I could see the dollar signs in his eyes and wasn't so sure.
On our way to the ceremony, Jacob held my hand in his and I thought about how much things had changed in four years. The biggest change being that the Cullens no longer lived in Forks.
Things were kind of chaotic in the vampire world after the fall of the Volturi. Different factions were fighting for control, wanting to hold power over the world's vampires. Carlisle and some of his allies decided that if they were going to affect positive change in the world, they would have to get their hands dirty. So, Carlisle left his practice and he and Esme moved to Europe to help form a Vampire Council.
The Volturi weren't the only vampires to drink from humans. In fact, the Cullens and their allies were the minority. But, vampires around the world had seen what had happened to the Volturi and they had been put on notice. Carlisle and his friends all survived on animal blood. They didn't infect or kill people. The other vampires might not like that idea, but knowing that there were wolf shape-shifters all around the world ready to destroy vampires who attacked humanity would have them falling in line or dying.
It was hard to see them go, but Carlisle and his family had stayed in Forks far longer than was wise. Because they were unchanging, they really couldn't stay more than a couple of years in any one place without raising suspicion. They had stayed longer in Forks because of me. It was time for them to move on. As much as I missed them, I knew that they were all working together for a purpose. They were going to make the world a better place.
Edward, Emmett and Jasper had spent most of their time hunting for Aro. After four years and several leads, they kept hitting dead ends. It was like he'd disappeared into the ether. Alice couldn't see him in any visions. They were starting to think that maybe he had actually died when Volterra burned. But Edward was relentless. He wouldn't stop until he killed Aro with his own bare hands. I couldn't blame him for his tenacity. I knew it my heart that Aro was still alive; out there somewhere. And that meant he was still a threat.
But I refused to allow that fact to rule my life. I had been through enough. I had survived everything that had been thrown my way. I wasn't going to let one vampire control me or my choices. I had family and friends to keep me safe. After my ordeal, I wasn't going to take another day for granted. And I wasn't the only one with that optimistic attitude.
Jack and Leah had eloped and moved to Colorado shortly after the battle in La Push. In the years that followed, Jack became a professor at a university in Denver. Leah had been a pre-school teacher up until about a year ago. That was when she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Brady. Leah was so grateful for the miracle that was her son, that she was enjoying being a stay-at-home mom.
The Pack family continued to grow. Sam and Emily had a two year old daughter named Mary who was pretty much the soul of the Pack. She had all those big, burly wolves wrapped around her chubby little finger. Her presence alone went a long way for healing all of our hearts after Brady's death.
Kim and Jared had gotten married. Paul and Rachel were married and expecting their first child in the fall. The older wolves were off starting their own families as the vampire threat steadily declined. Some of the older wolves decided to stop phasing altogether, Jacob included. He didn't step down from his role as Alpha. The Pack needed his leadership. He just took on more of a supervisory role. Embry, Quil, Collin and Seth would continue to phase for a few more years just so that the Rez would never be left unprotected. The Council approved of the decision because Jacob argued that the wolf was an ever-present aspect of their souls. Just because they stopped phasing on a regular basis didn't mean that they wouldn't be able to call the wolf to the fore in the event of an attack.
The biggest surprise was Quil. He had started dating. It came as a shock to all of us because of how devoted he was to Claire. But after Leah ran off with Jack, something in Quil changed. He told Jacob that he loved Claire. She made him happy, made him want to be a better person. But, she was just a child. And he saw her as a daughter or a kid sister. He couldn't imagine her getting older and feeling anything but brotherly love towards him and he couldn't see himself feeling anything else for her. He didn't want to waste sixteen years of his life waiting for her to grow up and see him differently. Brady's death taught us all to live our lives to the fullest. And as long as Claire was happy, Quil was going to put himself out there in the dating world.
I was living at home with Sue and Charlie. It enabled me to save nearly every dollar I made. Of course, there wasn't much room in our small house and Seth needed to be on the Rez for school and for patrolling duties. So, he lived at Sue's house on the Rez with Quil and Embry. Sue allowed them to live there rent-free as long as they maintained the property.
Sue and Charlie were already talking about their retirement. Once they retired, they were planning on selling both houses and building a new one directly on the beach. I had never seen my father happier.
Embry and Liz were going strong. They had been on and off for the past four years. Everyone loved Liz and knew that even with an imprint Embry could never do better than her. Hell, even Embry believed that. In fact, he'd changed a lot; grown more mature. Liz was the wild one in that relationship, and that was saying something. Whenever she got scared of commitment, she would break up with Embry only to get back together with him a couple of months later.
They were passionate in their loving and their fighting. And they both seemed to thrive on the drama. And now that Liz knew about the wolves, Jacob and I felt that it was only a matter of time before they settled down and got married. But, until they did, they served as an excellent source of entertainment.
Everyone was leading a different life. No one was unchanged. And yet they all came back to Forks to celebrate my day. It was overwhelming to feel so loved.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Jacob's voice brought me back to the here and now. He took his eyes off the road for a moment and flashed me his gorgeous grin. I couldn't help but smile in return. "I was just thinking of how everything has changed in the past four years," I said.
"Well, it's about to change a lot more."
"I don't see how graduating is going to change my life all that much."
"I guess we'll have to wait and see." His tone had me staring hard at him. I could tell he was excited about something and it wasn't just my commencement. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"You're up to something." I was sure of it. I just had no idea what "it" was. After all this time, I still wasn't all that big on surprises, though I had warmed up to them a bit. After all, my world was rocked when I first realized I was in love with my best friend. So yeah, some surprises were good.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied. I was about to argue when the car came to a stop. "We're here," he said. "You better get going, Bells. They're already lining up."
I got out of the car and just narrowly avoided a playful swat on the rear for my troubles. He was definitely up to something. "This isn't over, Jacob."
"See ya later, honey."
I shut the door and turned towards my classmates who were lining alphabetically.
"Bells!" Jacob hollered through the open window. "Don't trip!" And with that he sped off to find parking. "Jerk," I muttered under my breath. And then I shook my head unable to hide my smile.
The ceremony itself was pretty boring. We sat in the hot, blazing sun, listening to boring speeches. And then the interminable wait for the actual diploma began. The whole thing was kind of a blur. It wasn't until I held my diploma in my hands that I grasped what a huge accomplishment I had made. I had survived; both literally and figuratively.
Of course, the crowd was going wild and my fellow students were looking at me with growing curiosity. Jacob, Charlie and Billy were blowing obnoxious air horns while my mom, Phil and The Cullens screamed and cheered. The wolves whistled and hollered. Between them it looked like the entire Rez and the whole town of Forks had come out to support me. I blushed furiously as all eyes seemed to be on me. I mentally repeated Jacob's words. Don't trip. Don't trip. And I finally made my way safely off the stage.
Charlie insisted on having a huge party and I happily acquiesced seeing as how this was the first time in a long while that everyone I loved would be in town at the same time. The only one who was missing was Edward.
It was a great party. After a week of grueling finals it felt good to finally let loose and really enjoy myself.
I had a degree and a job. I had a plan for the future. Jacob and I were eager to embark on the next stage of our lives. Things were changing rapidly. Within a week of my graduation, Jacob's boss announced his retirement. He sold his entire client list to Jacob. We couldn't believe our luck. All those years of living with our parents and saving every cent were finally paying off.
Jacob and I were also more than ready to live together. Only now we weren't just looking for a place to live, but also a place where Jacob could set up shop. We'd been searching for weeks, but hadn't found anything we really liked.
I couldn't bear the thought of living at home anymore. Charlie and Sue were wonderful. I loved them. But I was more than ready to have my own home, where Jacob and I wouldn't have to be apart ever again. I was beginning to give up hope that we'd be able to find both a place to live and a site for Jacob's business. Jacob was desperate not to let me down.
He called me one day, nearly bursting at the seams with excitement. He said he found the perfect location for the shop. His excitement was contagious and I couldn't wait to check out the property myself.
Jacob picked me up at Charlie's house and I could tell something was up with him. He was smiling my favorite smile one minute and worrying his bottom lip with his teeth the next. But, when I asked him what was wrong, he deftly changed the subject.
We drove for about fifteen minutes until we pulled up to a large industrial building near the Forks/La Push boundary. The interstate was close by so it was a prime location for a body shop, not to mention the close proximity to both the Rez and Forks.
It was a two-story, concrete building that looked more like one of those industrial lofts that are so popular in the larger cities. Jacob pulled me out of the car and began an excited tour of the premises. At first, I'd wondered where our realtor was, but then I got caught up in all the excitement and decided that it didn't matter.
The ground floor contained an office, waiting room and three garages that would work as service bays. Jacob was bright-eyed like a kid on Christmas morning. Before we were halfway through the tour, I knew this was the place for Jacob. I could see him getting his hands dirty here and loving every minute of it.
"There's more," he said eagerly. "Let me show you the upstairs."
Jacob took my hand and led me up the staircase at the side of the building. He squeezed my hand and I could swear he was shaking. He opened a large metal door that squeaked on its hinges, and led me inside.
The space was breathtaking, what with its smooth, clean concrete floors and eighteen-foot ceilings. Tall windows lined the far wall letting in the brilliant light from the setting sun. It was beautiful. But after my eyes had their fill, they were riveted to the center of the room.
There, in the middle of the room was a massive bed covered in plush velvets and silks. Surrounding the bed were hundreds of burning white candles of various sizes. Scattered around the bed were rose petals ranging the colors of the setting sun.
My heart skipped a beat and I gasped for breath.
"It's yours. If you want it," he said. And then he held out a set of keys.
I took the keys and looked at him. "What do you mean it's mine?"
"I saw this the other day. I know our priority was the shop, but when I saw this place, it just seemed perfect. I can have the shop downstairs and there's plenty of space up here for a few bedrooms. We can make it our own. I knew you would love it and the price was too good to be true." He glanced away nervously and added, "So I bought it."
"You…you bought it?" My eyes widened in shock. Normally, I would freak out that he made such a huge decision without consulting me first. But, as I looked around and saw the raw potential of the space, I realized he was right. He saw the same thing I did when I looked around. This was perfect. I could already see myself living here; making lunch on the weekends while Jacob took a break from work. I could see a space where I could write; where we could raise children.
I spun around taking it all in. "This is home?" I asked.
"If you want it to be."
"I very much would like it to be."
He swept me up in his arms and spun me around. I laughed as he showered my face and neck with kisses. We were home.
He set me down on my feet and backed away, moving towards the bed. I started to follow but then he got down on one knee and I froze.
Jacob's face turned serious and I could see that the nerves from earlier had returned. He fidgeted for a moment and pulled a small, delicate ring out of his pocket. My hands flew to my mouth as happy tears formed in my eyes.
He held the ring up with a child-like grin. "I know it's not much," he said. "But my dad gave it to my mom when they got married, and I thought you would like it."
I was stunned. I couldn't even speak. I didn't care what the ring looked like, but I loved that it held so much meaning for him. I started to cry, unable to hold the tears back any longer. Jacob was proposing to me. After everything we'd been through, the good and the bad, we were finally at the point where we were going to make an official, life-long commitment to each other. I'd never been happier.
"Bells," he began, "you are…"
"What?" He scrambled to his feet, panic in his eyes. "What's wrong?"
I looked up at his beautiful face and caressed his cheek. I smiled through my tears. "I don't need the words, Jake. I don't need to hear how you feel about me. I know everything you're about to say. You show me every single day. And it's exactly how I feel about you. I don't need the words."
He smiled that dazzling smile that always makes me catch my breath. We just stared at each other with stupid grins on our faces.
"Jake, don't you want to ask me a question?"
"Huh? Oh, right." We both laughed at how caught up in the moment we had been. He got back on his knee and said, "Bells, will you marry…"
I didn't even let him finish the sentence. I just threw myself into his arms and kissed him. "Yes!"
There wasn't much said after that. Somehow he slipped the ring on my finger. I didn't realize that until later. All I knew was the feel of his lips on mine and the wet silk of his tongue. Clothes were discarded and the next thing I knew, we were naked on top of the luxurious bed.
We made love for hours, until the light of the setting sun turned into the cool glow of the full moon. When our stomachs growled we took a break and Jacob revealed a picnic basket filled with champagne and meats, cheeses and fruit.
We drank and fed each other; both of us perfectly content.
"So, when do you want to get married, Bells?"
"Is now an option?"
He leaned in and kissed my bare shoulder before eying my naked chest. "I think clothing is usually recommended."
"I'd be perfectly happy marrying you on First Beach wearing only my dingy sweats," I said.
He raised his eyebrow. "Well, that's an idea. We could always have Quil get one of those internet licenses and have him marry us."
I nodded, pretending to seriously consider his idea. "Yeah, we could." We shared a look and started laughing.
"As much as I'm tempted by the idea of just eloping, I think I want the real deal, Jake. Nothing fancy, just the white dress and Charlie walking me down the aisle. You know, something simple."
Jacob nodded. "Yeah, with what everyone's been through, another happy occasion to celebrate will be welcomed."
That beautiful night ended up being the calm before the storm. It was followed by two months of chaos. Jacob and I had a wedding to plan, a business to get up and running and an industrial space to turn into a home. We were burning the candle at both ends. Of course, the cavalry gladly came to our rescue and their help went a long way in saving our sanity.
Jacob enlisted the Pack to help him with the body shop. With their aid, Jacob would be able to open business in just another week's time.
But that also left the matter of our apartment. It was a raw, empty space. We had no walls, plumbing or electrical to speak of. But we weren't alone with that task either. Once word reached the Cullens of our engagement, they flew into town to help with the preparations. The guys helped Jacob put up walls, plumbing and ductwork. They also helped him install a state-of-the-art kitchen.
That left Esme, Rosalie and Alice to help with the wedding planning. And once my mom got in on the planning from Florida, they were a veritable army and a force to be reckoned with.
From experience, I knew it was important to pull the reins on Alice before she could run away with things. If it were up to her, Jacob and I would have a wedding that would rival that of the Royals. But I wanted something small in Charlie's backyard. And I wanted it soon. Alice tried to be cute and push bigger and better ideas. But I nipped that in the bud right away. I knew she meant well, that she had always meant well. But I wasn't a teenager anymore. I was a grown woman and I wasn't going to be coerced or manipulated into doing something I didn't want to do. I refused to budge. And for the first time in…well ever, Alice actually backed down.
It was an overwhelming process, with entirely too many details for one person to handle. But, once Alice and I were on the same page about what I wanted, the planning went relatively smoothly. I was grateful for having so many people who loved and cared for us that they were willing to go the extra mile for our happiness.
The invitations had been sent and I'd heard back from everyone. Everyone but Edward.
I hadn't actually seen Edward in over a year. We hadn't spoken on the phone in months. When the Cullens came back to Forks to help out with the wedding, Edward stayed behind in Europe. When I'd asked about him, I was told that he was pursuing a lead on Aro and didn't want to lose it
I had left a message on his voicemail about my engagement. He texted me back saying, "Congratulations." But that was the last I'd heard from him.
So between the house, the shop, the wedding and worrying about Edward, I was kind of a mess. We had accomplished a lot in two months. But there was still a lot more to be done if Jacob and I were going to walk down the aisle in just four short weeks.
I was exhausted. All the planning and working had nearly drained me of my energy. And yet, it seemed to bring out the best in Jacob. The shop was finally open and he was working twelve to fourteen hour shifts. After work, he'd come upstairs, eat dinner with me and then proceed to make love to me the rest of the night. Any free time he had was spent working on projects around the house. He made me tired just looking at him. Everything he did, he did with a huge smile on his face. His happiness would've been contagious too if I hadn't been so tired and irritable all the time. I guess so many life changes happening at once can be a bit overwhelming.
Little did I know there would be more change on the horizon.
Two Weeks Later…
"Bells, honey wake up."
I groaned and rolled over, pulling the blankets over my head. It was Saturday, exactly two weeks before the wedding.
"Go away," I moaned. "You promised me I could sleep in."
Jacob laughed and tugged the blanket out of my grasp. "I did let you sleep in. It's eleven o'clock."
I rolled over again, trying to burrow deeper into the covers.
"Come on," he pleaded. "You said you wanted to paint the living room today."
"That doesn't sound like me at all," I mumbled, squeezing my eyes shut against the sunlight peaking in through the curtains.
"Really? Because I remember telling you on Thursday that I was going to start painting and you said, 'Oh Jake, can't it wait until Saturday? I want to paint with you. I want to look at this room every day and know that we did it together.'" He mimicked me with a falsetto voice which normally would've made me laugh. I was too tired and cranky to find any humor in it that morning.
I tossed my pillow at him and he quickly dodged it laughing. "You've gotten rather feisty in the past few weeks, woman. You've never been this grumpy in the morning before."
I cracked my eyes open slightly to adjust to the harsh light. "Yeah, well you've never been this annoying before."
"Oh please, of course I have."
He pulled the sheet and blanket all the way off the bed and tossed them on the floor. I'd have to get up to retrieve the covers or get dressed. Neither option sounded very appealing.
"I've got breakfast waiting for you," he said, then walked out of the room with a smug smile on his face. Suddenly I was wide awake and ravenous.
I took one look at myself in the mirror and cringed. I looked exhausted. Hell, I felt exhausted, which was weird considering I remembered falling asleep on the couch around eight o'clock the night before. I had over twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep, and yet it still wasn't enough. Maybe I was coming down with the flu, I thought.
I made my way to the kitchen where Jacob had set a plate full of piping hot scrambled eggs, some bacon and toast. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to eat. The eggs looked delicious, but one bite of them made my stomach turn. The coffee tasted bitter in my mouth. I reached for the toast instead and it proved to be the safer bet.
Jacob frowned. "What's wrong with the food?"
I kissed him on the cheek and said, "It was great. I guess I'm just not as hungry as I thought. You eat it." He didn't need to be told twice. He tucked in and made short work of my breakfast. I opened the fridge to grab my customary morning drink of orange juice. It just wasn't a day without orange juice. I reached for the carton, but my eyes fixated on Jacob's gallon of milk. I hated milk, unless of course I was eating cereal. It's just not something I like to drink. But, for some reason, I grabbed the jug, unscrewed the lid and started chugging right from the bottle.
It was the most delicious nectar. I couldn't get enough. Finally, when I needed to come up for air, I lowered the bottle and brushed my hand over my mouth. I replaced the lid and put the milk back in the fridge. When I turned around, Jacob was staring at me; mouth gaping open in shock.
"What?" I asked, defensively.
"That was weird."
Other than that, he didn't comment, which was fine with me. I thought it was weird too, but I was cranky and tired, and therefore, in no mood to admit that I agreed with him.
We headed out into the living room where Jacob had set up all the paint supplies. He had covered and taped everything and even primed the walls. I felt horrible for being so short with him. While I had been sleeping the morning away, he had already put in half a day's worth of work.
I hugged him fiercely. "I'm sorry for being such a jerk. I don't know what's wrong with me."
He hugged me back and kissed the top of my head. "It's okay, Bells. Just another side of you to love."
I punched him gently on the arm then stood up on my toes to give him a quick kiss. He smiled, turned me around and smacked me on the butt. "Now, let's get to work, woman!"
We painted for about an hour, or at least Jacob painted. I sort of supervised with a brush in hand. Around noon, Jacob stopped what he was doing and stared off into the distance. I was about to ask him what was wrong when he said, "Edward's here."
After a year of absence, and hardly no communication at all, Edward was in Forks; right outside the door to be exact. If he was here, it must be for a reason. Maybe he had some news about Aro.
Jacob and I shared a look. He shook his head and smiled resignedly. "Go," he encouraged. I didn't need to be told twice. I wasn't sure if I was more excited to see Edward or to get out of all that manual labor. I dropped my brush and rushed to the kitchen to wash my hands.
As I walked back towards him I said, "I'm sorry, Jake."
"No, you're not," he laughed. "You're a lousy painter, honey. I'll call the guys and have them help."
That erased some of the guilt I felt about not contributing. But, he was right. I was a terrible painter. Jacob could paint circles around me. I was only slowing him down. I kissed him and murmured, "I owe you one."
He grabbed me by the waist, spun me around and kissed me hard and thoroughly, leaving me breathless. "Yeah, you do," he said. "And I intend to collect."
Thanks to Jacob, I needed a moment to collect myself before meeting Edward outside. My heart was racing from Jacob's kiss and I still felt breathless. I glanced at him and he blew me a kiss.
When I was ready, I made my way downstairs. Edward was standing by his car waiting for me. He gave me his crooked smile and I hugged him fiercely. After a few moments, I felt his arms wrap around me. He sighed, his chin resting against my shoulder.
"It's been so long, Edward. I've missed you." I realized as I said it just how true those words were. Over the past four years I had gotten used to Edward's absence. At one time, he had been my end-game; the center of my universe. So much had changed since then. My world had shifted on its axis. Nothing was as I thought it would be. And yet, I had never been happier. But, that didn't mean I didn't miss the closeness Edward and I had once shared.
We had gravitated to each other back then because of a deep sense of loneliness. We found solace and family with one another. And though we had both moved on, I sensed that Edward was still very lonely.
Edward broke the contact and took a step back. He looked over my shoulder towards our home. "Your place looks…nice," he said.
I bit back a grin. The Cullens were used to luxury and the large concrete building I called home didn't exactly fit the bill in his eyes. The ground floor was devoted to Jacob's body shop, and since it was a Sunday, it was locked down tight. The second floor, our home, didn't look like much from the outside.
"Don't look down your nose at it, Edward. It's not much on the outside, but it really looks great inside. I could show you around if you want."
He smiled. "No, that's okay." Then he fidgeted a bit. "I actually wanted to know if you would like to go on a walk with me. I'd like to…talk."
"That sounds great. Let's go."
We drove for a few miles until Edward pulled up alongside the highway. I recognized the spot immediately. Edward's idea of a walk was hiking through the forest to the meadow; our meadow.
He turned the key in the ignition, shutting off the engine. "I know it's a bit of a hike, but I can lead us there on a more straightforward path. It won't take as long as it did that first time." He reached into the back and retrieved a picnic basket. "I brought food and water in case you get hungry."
Edward was nervous. I could tell he wanted to talk to me about something, but he was afraid I'd balk at the stroll down memory lane. And then something he'd said registered. "Wait a minute," I said. "What do you mean you know a shorter way to the meadow? It took us hours the first time."
Edward shrugged and as realization dawned on me, he gave me a sheepish smile.
"You…you little liar!"
He laughed. It was genuine and beautiful to hear. "I wanted to spend more time with you," he added. "Even though I knew I shouldn't."
I shook my head at how he had duped me so thoroughly. I smiled. "Fair enough. Let's get going."
For the next half hour, Edward led us on an easy path through the forest. That first time I remembered stumbling over twigs and brush. But this time, it was like Edward had singlehandedly cleared the forest of debris because he led me along a wide, clear path that made for leisurely walking.
Despite our casual pace, the fatigue I had felt earlier in the morning decided to rear its ugly head. I had to stop a few times while Edward looked on in concern. He gave me a bottle of water; which I gladly accepted. I had to reassure him that I was fine; that I was just tired and it was an unusually warm day.
When we got to the meadow, Edward quickly set down the picnic basket and laid out a blanket and some sandwiches and fruit for me. We sat down and I eyed the food like a starving inmate. I was suddenly ravenous, which wasn't surprising considering I had only eaten toast for breakfast.
I tore into my sandwich then a huge container of fruit. I finished it off with a couple of cookies and washed it all down with another bottle of water. When I was done, I took a moment to catch my breath. I had practically inhaled the food. Edward looked on, bemused.
He chuckled. "Nothing, it's just…I've never seen you eat like that."
I frowned feeling suddenly self-conscious.
"No, I didn't mean that in a negative way," he added quickly. "I just mean that you look great. You look….incredible in fact. It's almost like you're glowing."
I was speechless and Edward turned away, looking off into the forest as though embarrassed for saying too much. After a few more quiet moments, he said, "I have a gift for you."
Edward and I had a notoriously rocky history with gift giving. It stemmed from the fact that he was over generous and I was unused to expensive, luxurious things.
As though reading my mind, Edward quickly added, "It's not so much the gift as the meaning behind it that I know you'll like. In fact, I have a feeling you'll probably give it back."
That intrigued me. "Okay, what is it?"
He reached into his pocket and tossed something at me. Metal glinted in the sunlight and I yelped in surprise as I caught it. When I saw what I held in my hand I was confused. It was a beautiful ring; a giant ruby in an ornate, solid gold setting. It looked old, like something the Pope would wear.
"It's beautiful, but uh, I don't really think it's my style." I didn't get it. What could he possibly be thinking by offering this ring to me? And what was the meaning behind it?
"It's not what you think," he chuckled.
"I should hope not," I laughed. "It's not even my size."
When Edward grew serious, I realized that the ring was no laughing matter. "Bella, that's Aro's ring."
I turned it in my hand and an image of Aro in Volterra came to mind. I specifically remembered seeing him wear the ring in question. It had been a symbol of his power.
"I still don't understand," I said.
"Aro's dead, Bella. I tore this ring from his cold, dead finger and then I burned him to ashes."
I dropped the ring, not wanting to have anything to do with it. The tone in Edward's voice had me reeling. He sounded like he thoroughly enjoyed disposing of Aro. Not that I could blame him. After everything Aro had done to me, but more for what he had done to others, he had deserved to die. I certainly wasn't going to cry over it. But, I was in a state of shock.
For years, I feared retaliation from Aro. He had been removed from power and physically crippled. But that hadn't rendered him harmless. Only now that the threat had been completely removed from this world could I admit how heavily the fear weighed on me.
"He's really dead?" I still couldn't believe it.
Edward nodded solemnly. "It's over, Bella. He'll never hurt you again."
I was overcome by emotion. I started crying and didn't think I'd ever stop. I had been afraid for so long. I was unused to feeling such relief. I felt Edward's arms around me and I cried even more, grateful for the comfort he offered.
Over the next few minutes, Edward gave a detailed account of his search for Aro, which intensified over the last year. He had been elusive to Alice's visions, so Edward had to rely solely on his tracking skills. Aro had led him on a wild goose chase all over the world which ended in a fiery showdown in Istanbul. He skipped over the more gruesome details, but the ending was the same. Aro was dead and I would never have to worry about him again.
"Thank you, Edward," I said after I composed myself. "It's the best gift I could ever ask for."
"Consider it an early wedding present," he said.
"Oh," I jabbed him playfully on the arm. "You're actually acknowledging the fact that I'm getting married, huh. I thought you'd forgotten all about it, considering I never got a response to the invitation."
All playfulness went out the window when I saw Edward flinch like I had slapped him across the face. "It's not something I can actually forget," he muttered.
"Yeah, about that…"
Edward's complete shift in demeanor unnerved me. "What's going on?" I asked.
"I'm not coming to the wedding," he said.
Edward was my friend. Though we weren't together, I still loved him. He was an important person in my life. I couldn't bear the thought of not sharing the happiest day of my life with all my family and friends. It hurt to think that he could consider something else more important than being there for a friend.
He didn't look at me when he rattled off a long list of excuses. When he realized I wasn't buying any of it, he said he had an assignment from the Vampire Council that needed his full attention.
"I don't understand. What do you have to do? And do they need you that whole weekend? I mean the wedding's just a few hours on a Saturday. Maybe you could…"
"Oh my God, Bella! The world doesn't always revolve around you. I have things to do that day. I can't be there, all right?"
His angry words cut me like a knife. I felt like an ass. I got up, wanting and needing to get out of there quickly only to realize that I was at least a half hour away from the car and another twenty minutes away from home. I was stuck. I sat back down with a huff.
Edward pinched the bridge of his nose in annoyance. "Look, I didn't mean to yell like that. I have a lot of responsibilities now and even if I wanted to go, I couldn't." He seemed to realize his mistake the moment the words left his mouth.
"Even if you wanted to?"
"I didn't mean…"
"No, I think that's exactly what you meant. Why wouldn't you want to come?"
"Because I'm still in love with you," he yelled.
The meadow was silent. I couldn't even hear a bird chirping. I was floored by Edward's confession. But then, if I was being honest with myself, I guess I had known all along. In many ways, that was one of the reasons I allowed Edward to keep his distance. It was too hard seeing him knowing I was breaking his heart every time.
"Edward, it's been five years…"
"It could be a thousand years and I would still love you."
His head hung low and his shoulders slumped. I edged towards him and took his hand in mine. He flinched slightly, but allowed the contact.
"Maybe if you spent time with other women…"
"I've tried, Bella."
I squeezed his hand. "But, have you really? Tried, I mean. There are thousands of women, vampires out there who you could meet. Maybe…"
"You don't understand," he said. "I've been with…women. But, they're just not you."
"What do you mean you've been with…oh." I felt like such an idiot. He had been sleeping around. And God, he was comparing the women to me.
"How many?" I just blurted it out, curiosity getting the better of me. "Oh God," I backpedaled. "Don't answer that. It's none of my business."
"Several," he replied anyway. He wasn't bragging, but stating a fact. He looked away, his face filled with shame.
I patted his hand gently. "Hey, no one's judging you here."
"Bella, when I found out that you and Jake had been…well, I was horrible to you."
"You were hurt. I wasn't exactly being sensitive to your feelings at the time. But, we're not talking about me. We're talking about you. You're over a hundred years old. You were with consenting adults. There's no judgment."
He brought my hand to his lips and gently kissed it. I could tell my acceptance meant a lot to him.
"Can I just say something?" I asked.
"You have every right to…experiment with women. But, I think you're craving a deeper, emotional connection. And you're not going to find that in sex."
"I'm not going to find it because I'm in love with you."
I shook my head. "Did you ever think you might be holding on to your love for me because I'm unavailable?"
He started to protest but I held my hand up. "No, let me finish. I think it's easier for you to love me, knowing nothing can come of it, than it is for you to put your heart out there and risk it getting broken all over again. I think you're afraid. Loving someone is scary. But, if you don't open yourself up to the possibilities, it's never going to happen for you."
Edward was deep in thought. We sat in silence for a while. "Maybe you're right," he said, finally. "But, I'm sorry. I just can't watch you walk down the aisle, not when I still wish it was with me."
"I guess we're at an impasse," I said, remembering the words he said to me at prom all those years ago.
He chuckled. "I guess we are."
"Well, I can only hope that you change your mind." I looked around. It was getting late and I knew nothing I said was going to penetrate Edward's thick skull. "I better get back," I said.
We cleaned up our picnic. I sighed heavily because I was dreading the walk back to the car. I felt exhausted all over again. Edward must have noticed because he asked, "Want a lift?"
He seemed better, light hearted almost. And I was too tired to argue.
"All right, for old time's sake."
"For old time's sake," he agreed. He held the picnic basket in one hand and knelt down so I could climb onto his back. I had barely wrapped my arms around his neck when he took off running.
We flew through the forest. My eyes couldn't process how quickly we were going. I'd forgotten how fast Edward was. Our thirty minute walk was reduced to less than a two minute run. The next thing I knew, we were back at the car. He set me down gently. When I stumbled, he grabbed my shoulders to steady me.
I closed my eyes trying to push back the overwhelming sense of dizziness that hit me. And then, within seconds, I was hit by a wave of nausea. I tried to force it down, but it was beyond my control. I collapsed onto my hands and knees retching violently into the brush as I lost my lunch.
Edward knelt by my side, holding my hair back until I was done. He then helped me up and eased me back so that I was leaning against his car. He brushed the sweaty hair away from my face and offered me bottled water. I rinsed my mouth out until the taste of bile was completely gone. I searched my pockets in the hopes that I'd find some gum and couldn't believe my luck when I found a piece. I popped it in my mouth and started chewing.
"I'm sorry, Bella. I forgot how running that fast affected you."
I shook my head. "No, it's not your fault. I've been feeling kind of crappy lately. I shouldn't have agreed to it."
It was quiet as I sat there, slowing getting my breathing under control. Now that there was nothing in my stomach, I felt a lot better. I leaned my head back and enjoyed the feel of the sun on my face. When I opened my eyes, Edward was leaning towards me, his head close to my stomach with an intense look on his face.
"What are you doing?"
He was quiet for a moment longer, listening intently. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
"Tell you what?"
His brows furrowed and he sounded angry when he said, "Come on, Bella. You don't have to hide it anymore. I know."
I took another sip of water and brushed a hand over my forehead. "What are you talking about?"
He rolled his eyes. "I'm talking about the fact that you're pregnant. You didn't need to hide it. I can handle…"
I didn't hear the rest. Pregnant? With everything going on, the idea that I could be pregnant had never occurred to me.
"Oh my god. You didn't know," Edward breathed.
I wrapped my hands around my belly. "How…how do you know?"
He shrugged. "I can hear the heartbeat."
Heartbeat? I was pregnant?
"It's faint," he continued. "I don't think Jacob would've been able to hear it. Vampire hearing is a little more acute. But even still, I had to concentrate really hard before I heard it."
Everything was changing. We had a new home. Jacob had a new career and we were getting married in just two weeks. And on top of all that, we were having a baby? I was scared and elated; anxious and eager. Having children was always in the plans. Jacob and I talked about it all the time. I just never imagined it would happen so soon. We were having a baby?I needed to get home. I wanted to share this news with Jacob as soon as possible. All nausea and weakness fled my body. I was filled with joy.
"Let's get you home," Edward said.
The drive home was a blur. Edward pulled up to our place and said, "Congratulations, Bella. I really am happy for you."
I kissed him on the cheek. "I hope you change your mind about the wedding," and then I got out, closing the car door behind me.
I ran up the stairs and walked into our apartment. Jacob was standing in the middle of the living room with a self-satisfied look on his face. I saw nothing but his smile and ran straight for him, throwing myself into his open arms. I kissed him like he was providing the very air I breathed.
I broke the kiss and was pleased to see Jacob's stunned face. He licked his lips and groaned, "Wow. I knew you owed me, but that was…aw hell, let's do that again."
He pulled me close and I happily kissed him again while his warm hands wandered freely over my body. I felt him leading me to our bedroom and I dug my feet in. I patted him on the chest and said, "Wait."
He nuzzled my neck playfully and replied, "I don't want to wait. I want you now." His hands moved to the backs of my thighs. If I didn't say something now, I'd be in his arms, my legs wrapped firmly around his waist and my brain emptied of all thoughts. But this couldn't wait.
I squirmed away from his eager grasp which only excited him more. My wolf did like the chase. I held my finger up. "No," I said. I felt like I was scolding a naughty child and laughed at the mental picture. Jacob pouted and I laughed harder.
"Jake, we need to add another bedroom."
He scratched his head completely stumped by my abrupt change of topic. "Okay, that's not what I thought you would say. Why do we need another room? We've got our bedroom and your office. We're set."
"Honey, in about seven or eight months, we're going to need the extra space. Trust me."
"What's happening in seven or eight months?" he asked. He looked so confused. It was adorable. My heart expanded. God, I loved this man. I took his hands and placed them on my still flat belly. I bit my lip, waiting for the realization to hit him.
He frowned. "Are you feeling okay? Do you have an upset stomach or something? I can run out and pick something up at the pharmacy."
I laughed. "I'm fine, Jacob. I'm better than fine. I'm the happiest I've ever been in my entire life."
Jacob flashed me his radiant smile. "I am too, Bells." He pulled me close and whispered into my ear, "In two weeks I get to finally call you my wife. Nothing could make me happier than that."
I sank into his warm embrace, loving the strength and protection he offered. He was going to be a wonderful father.
"Jake, I know something that'll make you even happier."
"Oh yeah," his hands roamed my hips provocatively. He nuzzled my neck. "What's that?"
"Well, I know how much you love to paint. And this involves adding another bedroom and painting it either blue or pink."
He chuckled and held me close. "Those are odd paint colors, Bells."
I had to hold back my laughter. "Are they?"
He held me at arm's length, a look of confusion in his eyes. I could see the wheels turning in his mind and I knew the moment the truth dawned on him because he stumbled a bit and I grabbed him to steady him.
"Wait, are you…"
His eyes lit up and his smile nearly blinded me. "Bells, are you pregnant?"
The tears were already falling. I nodded and found myself in Jacob's arms as he spun me around, hooting and hollering. He kissed me, and it was a kiss filled with all his love and longing. This wasn't the same seventeen year old Jacob who freaked after my pregnancy scare. This was the Jacob who was going to marry me and who would care for me and our child for the rest of our lives.
He set me down and I could see the tears in his eyes. He got down on his knees in front of me. His hands went to my hips and he pulled me close. He kissed my belly then placed his ear against my stomach. He held me close and I cradled his head in my arms.
Jacob had always been my sun. In time, he became my home. And now we were going to be a family.
A/N: This is it. We only have an epilogue left. I just want to thank EVERYONE for reading and reviewing and sticking with me throughout this long story. I wish I could've written it faster for you. I just want to let you know that I appreciate every kind word you've left for me. It really means a lot. Especial thanks goes to Neha for all your help as beta. I would not have been able to finish this without you. Enjoy and let me know what you think.