Well, it's taken me forever, but I've finally managed to finish the epilogue to Part II. To all of you reviewers, and people who favorited either me or this story, and put it on your alerts: YOU kept me going. Every single 'update, please!' reminded me that there were others out there who liked these characters and wanted to know what would happen next.
To mah UUers, you are the best. I love you.
This one is for my beta, AzureEyedI. Thanks for sticking through this with me, for encouraging me, for being constructive and hilarious and awesome. You ARE my sister. I flove you, babe.
EPILOGUE PART II
Six months later
The heat and light of downtown Los Angeles hit me full force as I exited the Bradbury Building onto West Third. I smiled to myself as I speed-dialed Alice and headed toward the Volvo, parked in a lot halfway up the block.
Alice picked up. "You did it." Her voice was matter-of-fact but excited.
My smile widened. "Yep. I was able to work out a discount on the lease and I also got a few leads on some prospects."
"Edward, that is so wonderful, I just can't even begin…" she trailed off, and in my mind I could see her, sitting at the dining room table in our little apartment, spiky hair askew, face in her hands. I expected to feel a wave of remorse over the struggles we'd faced over the past year, but within me was only calm and absolute confidence.
"I know, Alice. And the best part is, it's just the beginning. There is so much good coming our way, I can feel it."
As I hung up with Alice, I noticed Origami Bistro at the end of the block and decided to pick up sushi before driving home.
Over tuna roll, Unagi and various other morsels, Alice and I discussed the details of the move.
"Downtown L.A." she asked, more of a statement. "You're sure about this?" She Googled the building and frowned. "Doesn't really look like much."
I nodded. "No, it's definitely nondescript from the outside. But it's in a historical building with landmark appeal; movies have been filmed there, it's centrally located, and we were able to cut a deal on rent. Plenty of space, nice and light… and did I mention that you'll have a window office?"
Alice raised her brows at me, mouth full of avocado and crab, and swallowed with difficulty. "Not bad, Edward. Although you know I'll have to see it. Make certain I approve."
I grinned broadly at her. "Oh, I think you'll really enjoy it."
She narrowed her eyes at me but didn't ask about anything else, which was a good thing, seeing as how I've never been all that good at keeping secrets.
Two weeks later I was unpacking boxes and setting up shop in our new office on the fifth floor. The space was loft-like, with white walls and high ceilings and warm wood trim framing large windows. Our space had four window offices clustered at the corner of the building, divided off from the large reception and internal work areas by low walls. I sat on the floor of my office, moving files into my new cabinet, when Alice knocked on my door.
"Hey! Glad to see you're back. How was Vegas?"
She shrugged noncommittally. "Same as always. Ran a few shows, sold a few outfits, made a few bucks."
"Good for you." I was in danger of smiling wider than I needed to, and as I stood I looked back down at my task. "Do you remember which office is yours?" I asked, my face still averted.
"The next one down, right?"
I nodded, not looking at her for fear of what my look would give away. "I had them hang your prints. Come on, I'll show you."
I listened as she walked down the hall and entered the next office behind me. I heard the sharp intake of breath as she saw her workspace for the first time. She was speechless for a moment, and ran to sit on her couch, run her fingers along the edge of her desk, and sit behind it in her chair.
"You brought everything!" she squealed as she jumped and flitted toward me, grabbing me in an effusive hug.
I nodded and hugged her back. "I decided it was time to get all of your stuff out of storage," I said. I know how much you loved having your things about you."
I watched as her eyes drifted to the wall and widened. "My prints!" I laughed as she ran to the wall and ran her hands along the bottoms of the same artistic prints that had hung in her office up in New Journey.
I smiled ruefully. "I wasn't sure about putting them up in an office, since they are a bit risqué, but in the end I decided that it's your space, and you would like having them. And if we end up with a particularly conservative client, we can always meet with him in the boardroom."
She smiled, and the effect was that of a small child on Christmas.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you, I have another one to add. Otherwise the wall just looks wrong." I stepped out into the hallway. "Can you bring that package, please?" I asked.
The man standing in the doorway of the next office walked forward, a large framed picture in his hands. I removed the paper from the front of the print so that Alice could see it.
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
"It's an Amaryllis." I stated. "It's one of the first things I photographed after I moved here."
Neither of us moved for a minute, looking at the black and white print of a beautiful flower. "I thought you might want a reminder of where you came from," I said softly. She turned to meet my eyes and nodded. "It's beautiful" she said again.
I smiled and turned to the man. "Would you mind giving me a hand hanging this up?"
The man smiled back, but he wasn't watching me. He lowered the picture and watched Alice's eyes intently as they tracked the movement of the large flower.
Finally her eyes raised to meet his, to acknowledge his presence, and for a moment I thought she would have a heart attack. She swayed on her feet and only just grabbed on to the back of one of the chairs. "I'll be damned" she whispered.
Jasper's grin widened as he met her eyes, and Alice rushed toward him, a pint-sized running back high on crack, laughing and crying as she kissed him and hugged him over the large framed photo. I gently slid the frame out from between them and leaned it against the wall in what I hoped would be a spot safe from Alice's fulsome outpouring of emotion.
"I can't believe it's really you!" I heard her muffled sigh as she buried her face in his neck. "I've missed you so much, Jasper."
Jasper bent his face to her hair and held her close as he whispered, "I've missed you, too, Darlin'."He smiled and turned toward me, and I saw the tears shining in his eyes. "Thank you, Edward."
I nodded at him, not trusting my voice, and found my way back to my office.
After snogging in Alice's office for a good half an hour, Alice and Jasper appeared in my doorway and suggested going to lunch. I called Bella to tell her that there would be four of us for lunch, and she was happy to hear that Jasper had made it home safely. I texted Emmett to let him know that the Eagle had landed, and read his profanity-laden reply aloud to Jasper's great enjoyment. Alice was miffed that everyone else seemed to have known about Jasper's return, but her pout lasted for all of ten seconds.
Tricaso's was a small Italian restaurant fifteen minutes' drive from the new office. We met Emmett at the door and had just been seated when Bella walked in. I waved her over and pulled out her seat as she apologized for being a few minutes late. After ordering, we got down to telling Alice how we'd managed to keep Jasper's return a secret.
"When we were reviewing the lease agreement, I proposed to the owner that we upgrade all of the wiring for the cost of materials, and we'd foot the installation bill. He was all for it, and so I called Jasper to get a quote on what he'd do the job for. When he gave me his price, I asked him if he'd consider coming home to do it if I doubled his fee."
Jasper laughed, and it was good to see a smile on his usually subdued face. "How could I argue with that offer?"
Alice reached her arm around his elbow and twined her fingers with his. "I just can't believe that you didn't tell me."
Jasper shrugged, and I watched with interest as his cheeks colored slightly. "Well, Alice, we've been Skyping for a while now, and you never asked me about whether or not I wanted to come back to LA, so I didn't really know if you wanted me to. I figured it was best not to ask."
Alice was wide-eyed with surprise. "I never asked you because I didn't want to pressure you! I figured you'd come back if you wanted to!"
Jasper smiled a small smile and planted a kiss on her forehead. "I guess maybe we should have talked about that, huh?"
Emmett made a gagging sound and Alice threw her napkin at him. He dodged and she called him a few choice names before the waiter came back with the bottle of Champagne I had ordered.
"So what do you two think you're going to do this weekend?" Bella asked as the waiter poured our flutes.
Emmett snorted and I raised an eyebrow at her, watching as she blushed. "Well, you know… Have you two had time to make any plans?"
I laughed. "I think Alice and Jasper need a bit of time alone to catch up. And since I need to make my final meeting with my parole officer, I was thinking about taking off early on today and driving up to Oregon for the weekend. Checking out some property. I thought you might want to come with me."
Bella chewed on a breadstick and nodded. "I don't have anything going on until Monday afternoon, so that would work. Sounds like fun!"
We raised our glasses and I looked around me at the faces of these people I had known and loved for years, who were my family and my closest friends, who had gone into hell with me and trusted me to bring them through safely. There weren't enough words to express how I felt about them. I swallowed and cleared my throat; best to keep things simple.
"To family, friends and the future."
Alice and Jasper took off after lunch, so Bella dropped me off at my apartment before running home to pack. I dug my weekend bag out of the back of my closet, considering; other than one short weekend trip to Napa Valley, we hadn't been anywhere alone together since we'd returned from Mexico.
That single word brought back terrible memories of death and bloodshed and fear. None of us ever discussed it, since talking about it made the horror and the danger real. We came away from Mexico physically unscathed, but we all carried the knowledge that a young man had died at our hands, and regardless of how necessary it was to our survival, it was a consequence we all were forced to live with. I struggled to keep them at bay, but sometimes the memories would surface in my dreams. A doorway between two hotel rooms stretched endlessly, Bella on the other side, screaming my name, and me unable to find her in the blackness. Blood streaming down the walls with Mexican music television playing in the background. The sound of gunshots, the sizzle of pain as the bullets embedded themselves in my arms.
Bella developed a moderate case of merinthophobia. I had encouraged her to seek therapy for her fear of being tied up, and she had thus far refused; she was concerned that she might need to divulge the reasons for her fear to a therapist, and was afraid of what the repercussions might be. I tried to tell her that it doesn't matter, that she needs to deal with the issues, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us, just so that she can overcome her problems. She insists that she's fine.
Her nightmares told me otherwise; she still wakes up screaming with her hands and feet held rigidly behind her. Her phobia preys upon her, exacerbating her feelings of weakness, and she has trouble in situations where she isn't in control. I have to say I understand where she's coming from; we've both been working on that aspect of our personalities.
I thought about everything we'd been through over the past two years; Bella running from an abusive boyfriend, taking a job she didn't want, dealing with me and my overbearing ways, deciding what to do when she found out about my extortion plots, coming to LA and striking out on her own, dealing with Billy and Jacob Black, Mexico, struggling to face her fears and build a business on her own merit.
I smiled as I opened my dresser drawer, searching for something else I needed to pack, and my fingers touched the cobalt blue socks Bella had knitted for me so long ago. As I fingered them, I thought of how far she had progressed since then; these were the first pair of socks she'd ever knitted. The last time I had shown them to her, she pointed out the numerous flaws. Although I failed to see them, she was quick to judge her work. It was an interesting reminder, comparing this first pair of socks with the intricately patterned socks she churned out nowadays. I wondered if she would ever be able to step back and appreciate how beautiful her work was, instead of fixating on the errors she'd made.
Business-wise, Bella's errors were few and far between. Thanks to Billy Black's upholding his end of the bargain, within a few weeks of our return from Mexico we had received the paperwork from the attorney confirming Bella's new ownership of Core Fitness. Bella had immediately started making changes, expanding the Strippercise program, even recruiting a guy from Pole Divas in Australia to teach a men's Strippercise class.
She'd made some staffing changes as well. Instead of firing the clueless girls Jacob Black had hired as Pilates instructors, she moved them behind the front desk and hired licensed instructors and several personal trainers. When we discussed the reason for her changes, she explained that the girls were obviously attractive, and that they would help draw male clientele. She also dropped membership fees, offered a greater discount on classes for members, and added more classes to the a la carte list. Bella was of the opinion that allowing clients to come in for one class, instead of requiring them to pay a full membership for access to the facilities, would give them the opportunity to check the club out and see if they were comfortable. People think they're getting a better deal when they don't pay for things they don't use; why should the Strippercise class students pay extra for the weights and cardio equipment? She wanted the club to be client-centered.
The changes were working; she'd been featured in two recent articles; the Entrepreneur Spotlight feature in the LA Times and a full-length piece in Fitness Today. In addition to drumming up clients, the articles had caught the attention of investors. Bella was drawing up plans for expansion to a second location, and Emmett was doing the majority of the design work.
Emmett had been accepted into USC's School of Architecture and was working between seventy and eighty hours a week between the company and school. He'd been living in an apartment that was three blocks away from where Alice and I were living, and he'd had more than enough work to keep him busy. In fact, there were times that I actively wished that he'd never gone back to school, since it seemed that his time there detracted from his ability to work for me, but I understood; he needed this for himself, and to prove to others just what he was capable of.
Jasper was the biggest surprise of all; I'd talked to him a few times after our Mexican excursion, and he had been more interested in coming back to the states than I had realized. I was still taken aback by the idea that he hadn't even discussed the possibility with Alice. Jasper was a very quiet person, but always so intuitive, able to read the emotions of those around him. Perhaps the physical distance between them had affected his ability to see what it was that Alice truly wanted. And Alice, in her typical boisterous way, had quite possibly run roughshod over him. Where Alice was bold and tell-it-like-it-is, Jasper is nuanced and deals in gradations.
A thought struck me. Emmett and Jasper had always gotten along well, and with Emmett's hectic schedule between work and school, he was hardly ever at home. I wondered, if Jasper was planning on hanging around for a while, perhaps it might be a good idea for him to talk to Emmett about moving in. I shrugged; maybe I'd mention it to Emmett when we got back on Monday.
A knock at the door pulled me from my reverie. Bella, on her phone, walked in and dropped her overnight bag in the living room. "I think we're scheduled for Tuesday morning. One of my associates is well-versed in the field, so why don't I give him a call and see if he can meet with us to discuss some of the investment angles?" Bella's eyes found mine and she winked.
She finished her call and dropped onto the couch next to me. "That was Erin Weider."
She stopped, and I guessed that I was supposed to know who this person was. I frowned.
"Erin Weider? Granddaughter of Joe Weider? The father of modern bodybuilding? She's the Vice President of North American Operations for Weider Global Nutrition."
I nodded. She blew out an exasperated breath and continued.
"She's based in LA, and she saw the piece in Fitness Today. They have expressed an interest in coming on board as investors. For the past few years they've concentrated on nutritional supplements as opposed to magazines and workout gear, but the market is changing and they sense it. They want to meet Tuesday morning to discuss our options."
Bella beamed, and I smiled in return. "It's good that you're moving so quickly on this. The fitness field changes so rapidly, it's imperative to strike while the iron is hot; capitalize on the popularity."
She nodded thoughtfully. "That's why I was hoping that you could meet with us. If anyone is capable of moving this along, it's you."
I grinned. "I'll see what I can do."
Half an hour later, we were heading north, away from the bustle of Los Angeles toward the relative quiet of northern California. I checked my email and made several business calls while Bella drove, insisting on taking her new Mercedes E550. I smiled a little when I thought of how much she had fought me on buying a new vehicle when her old '53 Chevy finally died.
"Remember, we're switching off at the Willows rest stop," I said, and she nodded.
"Just find some decent music to listen to while we drive."
I scanned the satellite radio until I found something that we could both agree on, and we chatted off and on about business, Alice and Jasper, Emmett and the girl he had been seeing from his Building Structures and Seismic Design class. Occasionally she would sing along to the radio, and I laughed at her, belting out Florence and the Machine completely off-key. There were long stretches of companionable silence, and I thought of how nice it was to just be together.
At Willows, Bella grudgingly switched off and I drove the rest of the way to New Journey. I'd decided on a small hotel just outside of town, not wanting to cause a stir with anyone who might recognize my name. We drove to New Journey Fiber Arts, and Bella took great joy in surprising Madelyn. After chatting for a while, asking how Alice was doing, and buying up just about every bit of Koigu she carried, we went to dinner at the Valley Country Club. Some of the stares were less than friendly, but I've always prided myself on my ability to disregard unimportant opinions. Several members came over to say hello, ask if I was back in the area, and see how business was going. I smiled and said that I was currently based in LA, doing quite a bit of consulting work for a health club guru. I smiled as Bella blushed, but I could tell she was pleased.
After dinner we drove down through the park, the setting sun cast its golden light along the river. I parked in a small gravel lot and turned to Bella.
"Feel like walking?"
She shrugged. "Sure. As long as it's not a hike. Not in these shoes." She showed me her heeled sandals.
I got out and moved to open her door, helping her out onto the gravel. Bella looked around, and after several minutes she spoke. "I remember this place! Isn't this where you took me for that little picnic?"
I smiled. "So, you do remember." I took her arm and brought her around to the trunk of the car. I popped the lid and reached in to grab a small picnic basket and blanket. She grinned at me and I grinned back as we stepped carefully onto the path, walking west toward the setting sun.
We turned a bend, and there was the spot we had picnicked so long ago. "I remember I was trying so hard to impress you, to make you think that I knew what I was doing, to seem so cool and aloof. And the whole time I felt like a sweaty-palmed teenager without a clue." I laughed as I set the basket down and unfolded the blanket, and Bella's eyes widened.
"Seriously? The great Edward Cullen, master of all things, was afraid of little old me?" She shook her head. "You always seemed like you knew exactly what to do. That's one of the things that attracted me to you. It made it hard for me when I wanted to do things my way, but I realize now that you only did what you did out of love, and because you didn't want me to be hurt."
I looked at her in surprise. "Really? You understand that now?"
She nodded. "For a long time I just thought you were an overbearing jackass. But I came to see that your heart was always in the right place. That's enough for me now."
I smiled and helped her down onto the blanket next to the riverbank. We sat together, quiet, listening to the sound of the river as it moved, watching as the ripples changed and moved and rolled along until they converged together and passed out of sight.
Bella leaned against me, and I kissed her head. "Cold?" I asked.
She nodded, and I slipped my jacket around her shoulders, holding it so that she could put her arms into the sleeves. She murmured thanks as I reached for the basket.
I withdrew two glasses and handed them to Bella, then set about opening a bottle of white wine.
"Tomorrow I'll be released from my parole, and I'll be free to buy property out of state. Business is going really well, thanks to you and your business acumen. Emmett and Alice and Jasper seem like they're finally in good places in their lives. And, perhaps most importantly, I feel like I've changed so much as a man over the past year."
I poured our wine, wishing I had slices of pear to add to her glass. I handed Bella her goblet, stood and walked toward the water, gazing at the trees that clung to the edge of the riverbank. The current washes the soil away, yet the roots hold them fast.
I turned and faced her, watched her eyes as she scanned the quiet vista before her.
"Throughout everything I have faced in the past few years, you, Bella, have kept me grounded. When I could have been washed away a thousand times over, you stood by me, held me fast." I felt the small lump rise in my throat, and I swallowed. "Thank you," I whispered.
She nodded with a small smile and took a drink from her glass. I watched as she fisted her right hand into the jacket pocket for warmth. Her smile changed, and her brow knit in mild confusion. My heart started to race, and I again felt like a clueless teenager. I watched as she withdrew a small blue box wrapped in white ribbon. Her eyes grew large and her lips parted in surprise as I dropped to one knee before her and took the box gently from her hands.
I set down my glass on the ground beside me, pulled carefully on the bow and lifted the light blue lid embossed with the words TIFFANY & CO. Inside sat a small white box, and with shaking hands I opened the hinged lid.
Nestled against the creamy white satin was a two-carat cushion cut diamond, surrounded by tiny bead-set diamonds. Bella gasped and her eyes widened even more.
I thought again of the independent woman who sat before me; a woman who wanted to survive on her own, who started out by running away from her life but decided to make her own way in the world without assistance from anyone. I thought of how she'd fell into my life, how she'd changed the way I look at life and love and success and failure. I thought of how she made me want to be a better man.
"Isabella Marie Swan," I whispered. "Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
She sat, frozen for a moment, staring at the ring. She looked up, and the last waning shafts of sunlight reflected the tears in her eyes. I waited, and the few seconds that ticked by was interminable.
She cleared her throat and met my eyes. "If you had asked me this question even six months ago, I would have said no. When I found out about the blackmail, I was so angry with you for doing something so heinous, and then pushing me away so that I would be the one forced to break things off. But you've truly, honestly changed, Edward. Sometimes I look at you and I expect one thing to come out of your mouth, and you completely surprise me by letting others make decisions, call their own shots. Yet you still are there, pulling for their success, doing whatever you can in the background. You've never, not once, tried to tell me what to do with this business, or with Jacob, or with my life in general. Yet you are there to help, there with advice, or a shoulder for me to cry on. You've really become my partner in more ways than just business."
I absorbed everything she said, waiting on tenterhooks for her to get to the point.
She smiled at me, pulled me close and kissed me.
"I love you, Edward Anthony Cullen. I have loved you since the first day I met you, when I was barely able to tell you my name, and embarrassed to say that I was reduced to exotic dancing for a living. I hated you for taking over my life when Mike came back, but I loved you for wanting to do it. I was so scared when… Jacob…" she faltered, and I reached out to steady her so she could continue. She took a deep breath and kept on. "When Jacob took me, the entire time I knew, just knew, that you would save me. No matter what, you would find a way to me. And you did.
"And I will love you forever."
And there it was. Simple, and beautiful, if a little confusing.
She deepened the kiss, her lips pressed gently against mine, her tongue probing, her moan a caressing breeze. I reached a hand into her hair, winding the silken locks around my fingers, drawing her closer as the heat blossomed between us, enveloping us both.
She put her head back and sighed, and I let my lips trace down her jaw. "So, does this mean you accept?" I asked, as I nipped her earlobe.
She shivered. As she whispered 'yes' softly against my lips, the sun sank below the horizon and evening gave forth to night.