All things Twilight belong to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended.
The street outside was quiet but I was listening closely to the sound of the distant nighttime traffic - trying to pick out the sound of a Volvo making its way home.
I glanced at my watch but I already knew - Bella had been gone for two hundred and forty eight minutes, just over four hours. And I'd been worried for five.
Abbey snuffled and made a soft whimper sound in her sleep as she lay curled up on my chest in the dark.
"Ssh, it's alright, she'll be home soon." I rubbed my hand over her back, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her little body as she breathed. "It won't be long now." Shouldn't be long now.
I knew the words were for my benefit, not Abbey's - she'd been asleep since Bella left, but a small cry in her sleep had taken me from my book and brought me to her room. She had settled again as soon as I stroked her cheek, but I picked her up anyway and brought her back to our bedroom to lie with me. I told myself it was just in case she became upset again.
But if I was honest with myself, and that happened more often now, Abbey's presence in my arms made me feel closer to Bella and eased my worry.
Bella was hunting alone for the first time.
This was a difficulty of us being in Chicago without family ... there was no-one else to stay with Abbey so any hunting would have to be done solo.
Bella had only hunted a few days earlier, the night before she made the journey here, but the Christmas concert was tomorrow and she'd be standing in a crowded plaza with thousands of humans. She probably didn't need to hunt again so soon, but she saw it as a precaution.
"Shouldn't be long now," I whispered again ... just in case Abbey was wondering.
Four hours wasn't really that long. She'd have to drive for at least an hour, possibly more, to find somewhere remote enough to hunt. Then she'd have to locate her prey. It would probably be deer, it usually took her about forty seconds to bring one down, roughly three minutes to drain it, depending on the size. So, allowing four minutes per deer, and she'd probably only want three or four of them, leaving maybe ten minutes between each one, then another hour or so back again.
"Shouldn't be long now."
It was ten minutes past two, she'd been gone two hundred and fifty minutes.
I knew I was being ridiculous. I knew nothing would happen to her. She was a powerful predator, no human or animal could harm her. Her heightened senses and reflexes meant car accidents were virtually impossible. And even if she did have an accident she couldn't be harmed. Unless the car burst into flames, and then .....
No, those scenarios were all Hollywood and spy novels. Bella was at risk of nothing.
But still ... I worried. She'd never hunted alone before.
If she came across a human ...
I shook my head, trying to lose that thought. It shouldn't pose a problem, she dealt with humans on an almost daily basis now.
But not when she was hunting.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. She was strong, and not just physically. If she picked up a human scent she'd stop herself like she had before. Like she had that first day.
Bella's progress in her new life had been remarkable, but not perfect. Initially, she needed to hunt every three to four days or she became edgy, erratic and irritable, but even then she was still had far more control than any newborn we'd ever seen. And gradually the time between hunts lengthened, the erratic behaviour began to fade away, and she'd been able to visit her father briefly on what would have been her birthday. He'd hugged her and told her he loved her and that it didn't matter how she was still in his life, just as long as she was. It was the most emotional speech I'd ever heard him make, but it only reflected the love that had always been in his thoughts.
Two hundred and fifty two minutes.
I wondered briefly if there were other vampires in the Chicago area and what would happen if Bella came across them. They'd no doubt be curious, wondering why she was hunting animals, but there would be no reason for them to be aggressive. Unless it was someone like James.
I groaned and rubbed my hand over my face. Bella still had much of her newborn strength, and she was fast, but no faster than the average vampire - she couldn't outrun me. What would she do if there was a situation? She'd have to fight and the thought released a rush of venom in my mouth and I swallowed hard as my instinct to protect was triggered.
I thought of calling her. My hand reached out to the bedside table but I stopped myself. If there was a problem Alice would see, I'd have heard something.
I was being ridiculous. It had only been two hundred and fifty five minutes.
I stroked Abbey's cheek. Her skin was just starting to lose some of its downy softness, becoming smoother, a little firmer, becoming more like her mother's ... like mine. But she didn't sparkle in the sun and for that I was grateful - we were hoping she'd have as normal a life as possible, given her heritage. Although it was hard for me to think about her growing up. We'd been finger painting earlier in the afternoon and there was still a tiny speck of blue on the knuckle of her finger. I licked my thumb and gently wiped it off, noticing that there was still some paint under my nails. I knew there was some in my hair, too.
I took a deep breath and checked the time. Again. I needed a distraction, something else to focus on, something happy. I rubbed Abbey's back gently as I whispered ...
"Shall I tell you about the night you were born?"
I talked about a picnic in the park, a chair that I blew up like a giant balloon, beautiful music, watching thunderstorms, rain pattering over glass, memories, excitement, happiness, cuddles, kisses, tiny fingers and toes. But while I told Abbey the glossy, abridged version, my mind relived every terrifying, magnificent moment.
The drive home from Port Angeles was quiet, calm, peaceful. Bella was almost asleep and I was completely content, thinking I'd carry her into bed, snuggle her under the covers and just spend the night curled around her, breathing her in, feeling our baby kick.
That was my plan ... until I smelt it.
Bella's blood mixed with something else, something I'd never smelt before. And then my whole world tipped on its axis as I realised.
My head snapped around to look at her and she was looking at me, confused, embarrassed.
Her waters had broken.
We were about to become parents and I bit back a bubble of laughter as I realised this was serious. A vision of Bella giving birth by the side of the road flashed through my mind. I tried to keep calm as I hit the accelerator.
We were home in minutes and I carried her upstairs and sat her in the middle of the bed. Suddenly, she seemed more fragile than ever before and for a moment I just stared at her, remembering everything that had brought us to that point. How I'd panicked when she told me she was pregnant, my body wracked with fear and guilt, and then the explosive joy of Alice's vision, the realization that it was true, and the incredible pride I felt.
Every day of the pregnancy ... every single day. Seeing her body grow and change in the most beautiful way possible. Feeling our baby move and kick beneath my hands as they rested on her glorious belly.
"Our baby's coming." I moved closer to her and held her face between my palms. She seemed steady and unruffled and I couldn't understand how ... unless she was a mess on the inside, too. Like me.
"Are you alright?" Please let her be alright.
"Nothing hurts. I don't feel any different. I ... I just think I'd like to get out of these clothes."
Idiot, Cullen! "Of course. I'm sorry. Here." I picked up one of the hospital gowns from the silver trolley that stood, waiting, in the corner of the room. "Is this okay?" It felt stiff and scratchy in my hands.
Bella nodded and I started to move towards her with the gown but she was starting to get off the bed.
"I might have a shower."
Oh. "Shall I help you?" Of course she wanted a shower first. I was going about this all wrong. I was pulling my hands through my hair and she looked at me, concerned.
"No. No, I'll be fine. Actually, maybe just a hand to get off the bed."
Once she was safely in the shower I closed the bathroom door and let my panic loose.
My phone was shaking in my hand as I called Carlisle. I knew I'd probably get his voicemail, I was expecting it, but I still swore when I heard the polite recorded message. While I waited for the beep I tried to gather my thoughts. I was pacing pulling my hand through my hair and my jaw was so tense that when I spoke it was almost through clenched teeth.
"Carlisle, it's Edward." I swallowed and tried to keep my voice steady. Bella's waters have started breaking and ... you're not here. I realise I know what to do, in theory, I mean, I know what to do I just ... I don't know what to do!" Any pretense at calm evaporated. "Please call me as soon as you get this, please? She's just in the early stages now, I don't know how long it's going to take, whether you'll make it back in time. But, even if you ... anything, anything will help. Instructions over the phone, anything at all. I ... I don't want ... this can't go wrong, I .... I ... please call me. Please."
I flipped the phone closed, staring at it in my hand while my other hand gripped the thin steel railing around the top of the silver trolley. I forced myself to breathe deeply, slowly. In, out. I had to be calm, they both needed me to be calm, Bella and the baby.
I had two medical degrees. I'd seen instructional films, I'd read textbooks, I'd seen childbirth in the thoughts of others.
But none of those involved my wife.
And none of those involved an embryonic membrane made of stone.
I pulled open the trolley's shallow drawer, shuddering slightly as I looked at the tool that was stored inside.
I had tried to tell Bella about it but she'd waved me away.
"I don't think I want to know, Edward," she'd said. "Just do what you have to. I trust Carlisle and I trust you."
She trusted me.
I started chewing on my lip, hoping desperately that her trust wasn't misplaced.
The tool was a circular saw, a much smaller verison of the kind workmen use to cut through stone or steel. But this one was custom-made, designed to cut into Bella.
The tiny, diamond tipped serrations made it the strongest, sharpest blade available and its cuts would be clean and smooth. I knew because I'd tried it out on myself to make sure. I'd had to use a fair amount of pressure, but the incision along my forearm had been clean, the edges neat, no tearing or gouging. I'd studied the cut carefully, then sealed it closed with venom, satisfied that the saw would do the job ... if it came to that.
I ran my finger along the blade. The other half human-half vampire baby we knew of had been born naturally and the chances were good that our baby would be born the same way. I told myself again that the saw was just in case, but even so ... I had thought that it would be Carlisle doing it, and the idea that it might be me made my body shiver and I closed the draw quickly.
I grabbed hold of the railing that ran around the top of the trolley and let my head drop forward as I took a few slow, deep breaths. It helped, I felt a little better, but I realised as I lifted my face that the rail had bent under my hand, the metal squashed flat and curved with dents that matched the shape of my fingers. I pulled my hand away, I hadn't thought I was holding on that tightly, and my eyes widened in horror. I was having difficulty monitoring my grip ... what was that going to mean for Bella and the baby?
At that point my other hand snapped the railing right off and I groaned as another shiver ran through me. Suddenly, impossibly, I felt cold.
I backed away from the trolley, like it was something dangerous. I grabbed my phone and tried Carlisle again without success.
I swore again.
I paced the room, swearing and cursing, until I stopped and forced myself to take some more deep breaths, force myself to calm down. Then I saw again the bent and broken railing on the trolley and I swore some more. And then, because I didn't know what else to do, I did something I hadn't done in more than ninety years - I knelt by the bed, put my head in my hands and prayed.
"Dear Lord, please ... ,"
Bella's heart rate spiked, she cried out and I catapulted myself over the bed and through the bathroom door.
She looked as panicked as I felt.
"Edward ...! ,"
I pulled open the shower door and stepped in with her, not caring that I was fully clothed. She was shivering despite the warm water, her heart was pounding and over the scent of her blood that pounded through her I could smell something else ... fear.
My own fear grew as I pulled her into me and turned off the water. All the time part of my brain was focused on the pressure of my arms around her body, on my hand on the taps. The last thing she needed was seeing me snap them off at the wall.
"What is it? Is it pain?" Was it happening now? NOW? I moved my hand over her belly and was surprised at how much harder it felt. She couldn't stop crying and I used both hands on her, desperately trying to feel something, to find the cause of her distress.
I found nothing.
"Bella ... ," Please, I don't know what to do. "Bella ... I, tell me ... ,"
"Edward, what if ... I'm in labour ... for five days? Until the ... sixteenth?"
What was she saying? The sixteenth? That was five days away, why would she ... oh, Alice's vision.
I smiled, somewhat relieved. It wasn't pain that made her call out, she wasn't hurting.
But she was scared, her apparent calm from earlier had disappeared and suddenly my own fear left me in the face of hers.
She needed me and she needed me to be calm.
"No. No, love. That won't happen."
"But ... Alice's vision."
I took a towel from the rack and wrapped her in it, rubbing it gently over her skin, trying not to drip on her.
"Alice's visions can change. That tumble you almost took in the park has obviously set things off early. You won't be in labour for five days, love." I held her close to me, her heart rate was starting to calm, but not as much as I would have liked. Her breathing was fast and hard with broken sobs.
"How ... do you ... know I ... won't?"
I bent down to look directly into her eyes.
"Because I won't allow it."
Her heart rate and breathing began to settle and her sobs faded.
"Come on, love." I lifted her, nuzzling my face into her hair and took her back to the bed, setting her against the pillows, I hoped, comfortably.
I moved the towel over her some more, drying the bits I'd missed and thought about the hospital gown. It seemed so clinical, so stiff, and I didn't want it rubbing against her skin. There were still a few of my old clothes in the cupboard. I wondered if she'd prefer my old t-shirt and when I offered it to her she smiled and I helped her with it before drying myself and pulling on some old sweat pants.
I shifted the bed so we could look out the window, watch the rain pelting down against the glass while the sky beyond darkened to black. I hoped it would have a calming effect.
I climbed on the bed with her and while I kept a silent record of the minutes between each grimace and wince, we talked about our first date, that first kiss, our early days together. I kept my hands on her belly, hoping for clues to the baby's position, clues to anything at all.
I told her about the blood in the fridge, about the syringe of venom, and she gave her consent for me to change her if I thought it was necessary. I hugged her, praying it wouldn't come to that, and realised suddenly that it was the second time that night I had asked for God's help.
She talked a little, her delicate fingers grasping mine. She looked into my eyes, and in the soft, brown depths of hers I saw the love she had for me, the trust and the incredible strength that made me believe that we could do this, that it would be alright.
And excitement started to build in me. An eagerness to meet our son or daughter, my eagerness to be a father.
Bella's pains began to worsen and she wanted the shower again. She declined help, so once she was safely in the bathroom I laid back on the bed and thought through the stages of labour and the process of delivering a baby. I tried not to concentrate on the fact that it was my baby.
Bella was in the first stage of labour, her contractions were irregular right now, though they were increasing in strength and frequency. I knew at some point I would need to examine her and I wondered how she would feel about that. I tried Carlisle again and left another message, this one calmer. So far her labour seemed to be progressing normally, but the sac was still an unknown.
I could hear her in the shower. Her heart was pumping harder. It was a subtle thing at the moment, she probably didn't even notice yet, but it was pushing the blood around her body with more force. She was making soft humming sounds, not quite moaning, and my hands were clenching the coverlet every time I heard her. I knew she was becoming more uncomfortable, but so far the contractions didn't seem particularly painful. I wondered how much longer before she moved into the active stage, and whether Carlisle would arrive before she did so.
My question was answered just a moment later when her hums graduated to a deep groan.
I was off the bed and across the room in one leap, and just managed to stop myself bursting in on her. Another sudden, panicked appearance on my part wouldn't help her. It would be better if she thought I was calm.
"Calm, calm," I whispered to myself as I stood at the door.
"Bella, love? Can I come in?" My voice didn't sound quite calm enough. She was silent and my hand was turning the knob when she moaned a yes that clearly took a lot of effort.
Her hands were braced against the wall, her forehead resting on the tiles. Her beautiful body looked heavy, her belly tight. She was chewing on her lip and the contraction that rolled through her was strong enough that I could see the muscles tightening under her skin. I winced, nails digging into my palms.
"Just tell me what to do." I said softly.
She twisted her head slowly to look at me through half-closed eyes.
Before her heart could beat once more I'd pulled my clothes off and stepped under the water with her. She linked her arms around my neck and we began rocking as the water flowed over Bella's back. I hoped its warmth was bringing her some relief.
I rubbed her back, we moved onto our knees, she rested against my lap and chest. I didn't know what to do for her, the baby books and videos hadn't prepared me for the utter helplessness that I was feeling as each contraction came and lingered longer than the last. Her moans and groans became deeper, she started rubbing her hands over her belly ... and stopped.
"Edward!" The panic in her voice, her eyes, cut through me like knives. The fear I'd been keeping at bay surged back in full force and I slapped my palms against the taught skin, wondering what had happened to make her look and sound that way.
And what had happened made me grin.
Her belly felt soft, rubbery.
"It's dissolving," I said. "That's why you've been so hot, your body needed the temperature to dissolve the amniotic sac, that's how it works!" Relief beyond words flowed through me and I started laughing, hugging Bella to me.
"Then no chewing through my stomach, huh?" She gave a weak smile at her joke.
"No, no chewing." And no circular saw.
"And if I need a c-section, you can do one, right?"
"Er, yes. But hopefully that won't be necessary." I could feel now that the baby was in the right position for a normal delivery and I felt another wave of relief. I held Bella as she sagged against me, rubbing her back as another contraction took her. The amniotic sac left her body and then things really got serious.
She paced, back and forth, circling the bed, carving a path in the carpet as she tried to find relief. Her groans were becoming deeper, more guttural, she would lean on the bed or hold onto the trolley or a bedpost as she'd breathe through contractions, her knuckles turning white as she gripped whatever came to hand. Sometimes she'd chew her lip so hard I thought she'd chew right through it.
She didn't want me to touch her. She didn't want me near her and I thought I would go mad. I sat on the bed, completely overwhelmed now, torn and terrified, while Bella paced and prowled.
She was glorious, she was beautiful, she was ... beyond words.
But every grimace, every moan ripped at my heart and I hated myself for putting her in this situation, for doing this to her.
I tore at my hair, I chewed on my knuckles and almost bit through my fingers as I watched her. I promised myself I would never touch her again, I would never lay another finger on her. I should never have touched her in the first place.
But despite her obvious pain, there was an indescribable beauty in the way she moved, in the sounds she made, the breaths she took. The sight of her, moving, working to bring our child into the world, had me awestruck. That somehow I had been given the opportunity to experience this left me speechless. That she would go through this for me, for us, humbled me.
She wanted the bean bag, and I pulled it from the cupboard quickly, anxious to do something, anything, however small, to help. She leant into it and sighed and I hesitated before kneeling beside her and resting my hand on her lower back. I rubbed hesitantly, ready to pull away if she told me to.
"Is this okay?"
It was okay. I was doing something right.
So I kept rubbing. My hands wouldn't tire, I'd rub forever if it helped. I could feel her muscles moving and squeezing as she groaned. Her contractions were growing stronger and more frequent, she was well and truly in the active stage, and I needed to know how far she had progressed. Carlisle hadn't returned my call yet and I realised now I would definitely be delivering this baby without him.
At that thought I pulled in a breath, taking it down deep into my lungs, hoping it would quell the simmering fear that threatened to boil over again. It took a second breath before I trusted myself to speak.
"Bella, I should probably see how far you've progressed."
"I ... um, I need to examine you, love."
Her eyes were shut tight but she nodded. I moved her, as gently as I could, back onto the bed.
"Alright, I'm just going to see how far ... ,"
She let out a small sob and I withdrew my hand. Now I was adding to her pain.
"I'm so sorry."
"S'okay," she murmured. "So how far ... ?" Her words were cut off by a contraction that had her gasping for breath, her eyes wild with shock and pain. Her left hand clutched at the sheet, knuckles whitening around the fistful of fabric. Her right hand she flung towards me and I grabbed it and held on, letting her squeeze my fingers as hard as she could. I was worried she might actually hurt her hand but assumed that pain would be inconsequential compared to what else she was feeling.
"You're doing really well." I was so incredibly proud of her. "I don't think it'll be too much longer."
"How long has it been already?"
"Don't think about that right now, Bella, it's prob ... ,"
"How long!" She snapped, glaring at me with a death stare.
"Thank you. Can I go back to the bean bag now?"
I rested her back on the brown vinyl bag. She didn't want me touching her now, so I paced, unable to be still, but my eyes never left her.
Her pains grew stronger as the time between them grew shorter and she reached out to me again.
"Edward," she whimpered and I was beside her on my knees, stroking her hair, rubbing her back.
"I love you, Bella. I love you, you're doing so well. Remember your breathing, love, pant through the pain. I can't tell you how beautiful you are, Bella."
I started panting, meaning to encourage her, but stopped when I saw the look on her face. She spoke then through her teeth.
So I stopped talking, and just held her hand. It was all she'd let me do.
Her body was curled forward, pushing. I held her hand, she gritted her teeth. She swore, she told me she wished she'd never met me. I told her I was sorry. Her words, her grasp on my fingers, told me the pain she was in. I was about to apologise again but I couldn't speak because as I looked down my breath left my body ... our baby's head starting to appear.
I stood frozen, not quite able to take it in. This was our child, this was real, soon we would be a family. I was completely lost in the miracle that was unfolding in front of my eyes.
"Edward! You can't stare at me like that and not tell me what's happening!"
Bella's voice brought me back and I looked up at her.
"I can see ... ," I tried to answer her, but my voice cracked, eluding me. I swallowed and tried again. "The head is crowning." And I started smiling. "Our baby has hair."
For a moment Bella looked like she hadn't understood what I'd said.
She frowned at me. "What colour?"
It was hard to tell as I looked back at the little patch that was all I could see.
"I don't know ... dark."
And then another wave of pain hit Bella. I squeezed her hand before pulling mine away, it looked like I'd be needing both of them in a moment.
"Push, love. I don't think it'll be much longer now."
She pushed and I wondered where her tiny body found the energy or strength.
I knew she didn't want me to speak, I burned at the thought of the pain she was feeling, but my excitement was such that I couldn't keep quiet. The words spilled out.
"Love, you're doing so well, this is just incredible ... beautiful ... it's ... I wish you could see, Bella, it's ... I don't have words ... I, oh, oh ..."
I gasped as our baby's head emerged, settling into my waiting hands. My hands.
I was grinning, excitement and wonder burning through me as Bella flopped back on the pillows.
"Love, it's ... ," but my excitement stopped sharply at the sight of the pulsing, purple cord wound around the baby's neck.
Another contraction was coming, Bella began to bring her head forward again, preparing to push.
"STOP! Bella don't push, love. You have to stop pushing, the cord ... ," I didn't want to scare her, even though I wasn't sure how much she was listening.. "I need to move the cord, just pant for me, Bella. Pant for me, please."
She did as I asked and I held all emotion at bay as I assessed what I was seeing, reciting procedures in my head as I worked.
A cord wrapped around the neck was not uncommon. It could generally be slipped over the head easily, I just had to be careful. If it was wrapped too tightly I'd have to cut it now and then deliver the baby quickly.
I supported the baby's head in my left hand. With my right I very carefully eased two fingers between the cord and the neck. It wasn't too tight but I knew there was another contraction coming, Bella's body wanted to push and I couldn't let her.
"Keep panting, Bella, please don't push. Not yet." Please.
I willed my hands to be steady as I carefully lifted the cord over the baby's face, chanting gently, gently to myself as I moved it out of the way. Relief rolled through me and I thought for a moment my legs would give way.
"Um, you can push now, love." My voice sounded weak even to me.
"I don't think I can." Bella's eyes were closed, I knew how exhausted she was, but she was so close, it was almost over.
I was still cradling the baby's head, but I took one hand and reached out to grab Bella's. I linked my fingers with hers and realised I was holding my wife and child in my hands. Emotions, strong and fierce, threatened to overwhelm me, but I pushed them back. Not yet, I told myself, not yet.
"Just one more, love. I promise."
The most determined expression crossed her face and she bent herself forward as much as she could and I would never know how she found the strength.
I pulled my fingers back from Bella's and turned the baby slightly, easing it's shoulders through as it came from Bella and into my hands.
She was a girl.
We had a daughter.
I was a father.
But I still couldn't let myself think about it - there was still more to do before I gave free reign to my feelings.
I cleared her mouth. I cut her cord. I rubbed her chest to encourage her to breathe. Bella was asking me what was happening, did we have a boy or a girl, but I was waiting for the cry. I knew sometimes it could take a moment. I waited. And waited.
And then it came, that soft little cry and she began to jerk her arms and legs.
My hands shook as I held her to me and when I looked into her face I wasn't prepared for the crushing love that filled and flamed through me. It left me without words or thought ... there was only feeling, only love, fierce and pure, bewildering and overwhelming.
She was so tiny, so perfect. It was utterly beyond me to believe that I'd had a part in this.
I brought my lips to her forehead and kissed her.
My eyes found Bella's. She had tears, her face eager and expectant.
"Edward? What do we have?"
I opened my mouth to speak, I meant to tell her we had a girl, but instead I spoke what was in my heart.
"Oh, Bella ... she's beautiful."
And when I laid her in Bella's arms it was the sweetest moment of my life.
I looked at my watch again.
Two hundred and sixty two minutes.
Abbey yawned and stuck her thumb in her mouth and I chuckled softly, the vibration of my chest moving her slightly.
I decided it was time to return her to her crib so I eased carefully off the bed and carried her into her room, settling her in and tucking her blanket around her. I kissed her forehead, stroked her cheek and then returned to our bedroom where I lay on the bed to wait.
Two hundred and sixty eight minutes.
I reached for my phone again, holding it above me as I scrolled through the menu to number one in my address book. My thumb hovered over the call button.
She was alright, I didn't need to call. It would look like I was checking up on her, like I didn't think she could manage on her own. She was fine. There was nothing out there that could hurt her.
I set the phone back on the bedside table next to Mr Billington. I smiled and picked the bear up, tipping him over slightly. He growled, as usual, and I chuckled, answering him with a soft growl of my own. I tipped him again and then set him back on the bedside table beside Bella's rings.
She always took off her fancier rings before hunting, wearing only the plain flat wedding band that hadn't left her finger since the day I put it there. She was worried the diamond engagement ring would be damaged or lost in a hunt. It was the same with her eternity ring.
I smiled as I picked up the band of alternating diamonds and topaz, slipping it onto my little finger - it only went as far as my first knuckle.
Our first anniversary had been just weeks after her change. I'd decided some months earlier that I would give her an eternity ring for our anniversary. It was a traditional gift and held a lot of meaning for me. She'd told me once that her favourite gemstone was topaz, the colour of my eyes, so I'd spent several hours with a jeweller in Seattle, sorting through a collection of gems selecting the best quality, the right shade.
I'd been nervous before giving it to her, my fingers trembled as they closed around the velvet box in my pocket, so wary of her reaction, knowing only too well her reluctance to receive expensive presents. I'd reigned myself in with our first Christmas and her last birthday. We'd been returning from a run through the woods, she was preparing to jump over the stream that ran near the cottage, but I'd stopped her. I'd taken her hand in mine and she'd seemed puzzled as I took a deep, steady breath, slipping the ring from its box and bringing it out to slide onto her finger slowly.
"It's traditional," I'd said firmly, without ceremony, hoping it sounded like I would accept no argument. "Happy anniversary."
Our heads had been bent over her hand, both of us looking at the sparkling band of gems. Bella was very still and I'd slowly lifted my face to watch her. She'd stared at her finger while I'd chewed my way through my lip.
Then she had smiled. And her smile was every present I could ever want.
"Edward, it's so beautiful," she'd whispered, bringing her head up to look at me. "Like your eyes. Thank you." And she wrapped her arms around me while I stood, shocked, at her easy acceptance and obvious delight.
"Really? You're ... you're welcome."
I stared, smiling, at the ring now, before sliding it off my finger.
Two hundred and seventy one minutes.
I thought I'd try my book again. I'd left it on the kitchen counter so I got off the bed and headed downstairs. As I passed the living room I decided to start a fire in the fireplace - it would be inviting and cosy for Bella when she came home. And I had proper fire wood now.
I set out for the garden shed, this would keep me busy and Bella would probably be back by the time I finished.
But she wasn't.
Two hundred and seventy four minutes.
Maybe I should have done it at human speed.
I pulled my hands through my hair and felt the stiffness of the paint that was still there. There was more at the back too and I made another decision - I'd go and have a shower, wash my hair, and if Bella still wasn't back by the time I got out I would call her. If she didn't answer ... I'd call Alice.
I felt a little happier. I had a plan.
In the bathroom I stripped off, and stepped under the stream of water. It only took seconds for me to wash away the paint and I was out again, wrapping a towel around my hips as I shook the water from my hair and headed back to the bedroom, and the phone.
I sat on the bed, ready to call her, but my body nearly melted into the mattress with relief when I heard the unmistakable purr of the Volvo ... and she was driving faster than I would have expected.
I hurried into the hall, grasped the bannister with one hand and vaulted myself over the railing onto the floor below, landing just as Bella came through the door.
"Bella," I pulled her to me, crushing her against my chest as her arms wound around me tight.
"Miss me?" she mumbled against my skin and I nodded, my chin moving over the top of her head.
"Yes." I squeezed her tighter. "I'm glad you're home." I felt like laughing now.
"I'm glad to be home, I missed you too," she said and pulled back so her eyes could travel over me. She leant in and kissed at some droplets of water that were scattered across my chest.
"What are you doing home alone dressed like this?" Her lips caressed my skin and I hissed at the feeling.
"Um, shower, washing paint out of my hair." I pulled my fingers through the strands, pushing it out of my eyes where it had fallen, wet and heavy.
"Mm," she hummed and she pulled back again and now I let my eyes wander over her.
"You're all in one piece?"
She smiled and nodded as she reached up to run her fingers over my chest slowly.
Tonight she looked wild, like she always did after a hunt. Cheeks almost flushed, shirt torn down one side, she was still having a struggle keeping the back legs still, but that just took time. I pulled her into my arms again, nuzzled my face into her hair and breathed deeply. She smelled of the hunt, earth and animal and my relief shifted now into something else, something raw and primal.
When we hunted together we would often make love in the woods afterwards. I wondered if she was feeling that way now. Suddenly I was hoping.
There was a spark of light in her garnet eyes and she ran her nose along my jaw, her hands still playing over my chest. My hands felt the swell of her bottom, squeezing slightly and she sighed, shivering a little as I bent my head and ran my teeth along her neck. I really should be asking about her first solo hunt, but the way she looked right now, her scent ....
"So, ... how was it?" I choked out, trying to focus, but she didn't answer. Instead, she moaned my name.
My neck arched back and I growled, gripping her tighter as she ran her fingernails through the hair below my belly button and then played over the edge of the towel. I pulled her into me, unashamedly letting her feel exactly how glad I was that she was home.
She gasped sofly and sighed. My head dropped forward again, resting against hers as I rubbed my hands over her back now.
My breath coming harsh and fast, now. "Yes?"
She gave a tug at my hip and the towel came undone, dropping into a puddle at my feet. Her fingers ran over the skin of my bare backside, coming around to the front to stroke me softly. I shuddered and groaned as she whispered in my ear.
"I need a shower, too." And she sank her teeth into my shoulder.
I snarled, my head falling back and my body igniting at the sensation of her teeth and hands on me. I wanted her. She wanted me. The bathroom was upstairs and I wondered if we'd make it that far.
I moved quickly then, bending to grab her around the legs and throwing her over my shoulder. I turned and took the stairs two at a time.
"Mm, Edward," she gave a soft giggle as she raked her nails down my back and I could hear the tease in her voice. "What are you going to do with me?"
I turned my head to her hip on my shoulder and ripped through the denim of her jeans with my teeth, exposing her skin.
"What am I going to do?"
I bit lightly and she gasped. When I answered the question it was with a growl, low and deep.
Our hair was still damp from the shower as we lay on the bed. Bella was curled into me. My body was curved around her, my arms encased her. Our legs were twined, her head was tucked under my chin. I didn't think it would be possible for us to be any closer. I was smiling, eyes closed, and I flexed my arms gently, giving her a squeeze, letting her know I was thinking of her. Her hands, resting between us, moved slightly and her fingertips stroked my chest, answering me, her head nuzzling deeper against me.
I uncurled one arm for a moment, reached to the bedside table and picked up her rings. I took her hand and she looked up at me, smiling, as I slipped them back on her finger, where they belonged. I kissed her hand, put it back against my chest and settled back against the pillows, hugging her to me again.
"You never finished telling me about your hunt," I whispered.
"Mm, because you distracted me," she said and managed to sound almost sleepy.
"I distracted you? I think it might have been the other way around, love."
She chuckled softly, her breath caressing my skin.
"It was okay, a bit lonely, though." I squeezed my arms around her again and bent my head to kiss the top of hers.
"Did you find deer?"
She nodded. "White Tails, but I had to drive out pretty far. If I'd been human I think I would have been lost."
"If you were human you wouldn't be out in the forest hunting animals in the dark."
Then she lifted her head, a frown creasing her features as she looked at me.
"They tasted different."
Ah, of course. I hadn't thought to explain that. It was mainly Black Tails that inhabited the woods around Forks.
"Each species has its own flavour, so the White Tails will taste a little different. And they'd be feeding off different vegetation here, and that can effect the flavour, too. Was it just a subtle difference?"
She nodded. "Just enough to notice."
"Did it taste alright?"
"Yeah, just different. Edward, have you ever tasted reindeer?"
Reindeer. Her question surprised me and I wasn't sure what she'd make of my answer, given the time of year.
She blinked, but didn't seem disturbed. "What was that like?"
My lips twisted as I considered. "It's just another subtle variation really. Why do you ask?"
She shrugged. "It's just ... as I drove out of the city, there was this really cute billboard advertising the Christmas concert in the plaza ... ,"
I nodded. "Go on."
"Well, there was Santa and some elves and a sleigh with the reindeer ... ,."
Understanding began to dawn.
"And you wondered what Rudolph would taste like?"
She gave an awkward laugh and grimaced. "Um, yeah. I just ... is that wrong? I was only curious, but I felt like I shouldn't be thinking that way, I mean, it was a Christmas billboard and there I am wondering about .... ,"she shrugged as she left her sentence unfinished.
I smiled at her and lifted my hand to push the hair back from her face as she stared up at me.
"No, it's not wrong. It was just the mind set you were in tonight, love. You knew you were going out to hunt, you knew it would probably be deer, so it was on your mind. That's all."
She nodded and smiled and I kissed the tip of her nose and pulled us back down onto the bed. "In a way it's actually a good thing," I said.
She cocked her head, watching me closely. "What do you mean?"
"You said there was a picture of Santa, elves and reindeer and you were wondering about the animals."
"Yeees?" she was waiting for more.
"Well, at least you weren't wondering what Santa would taste like." I winked and she gasped, pulling away suddenly, her face shocked.
She was quite sensitive about humans and blood lust, and she was still getting used to vampire humour and I wondered for a moment if I'd gone too far, too soon.
But I started to laugh as she pulled the pillow from under my head and swatted me with it. She was laughing, too so I kept talking.
"Can you imagine the horror? Sorry kids, no presents this year, my wife ate Santa."
"Edward!" she laughed again, but this time when she brought the pillow down over me it burst, sending feathers flying through the air, covering everything as Abbey stirred in the next room.
"Ssh," I put my finger to my lips as I tried to stay quiet, my shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. Bella hugged the remains of the pillow, her face buried in it trying to stifle her laughs, her eyes shining at me over the top.
We were completely still for a moment, staring at each other. Then Abbey quietened and I pulled Bella down to me.
"See, it's alright to laugh about it," I grinned, ruffling the feathers from her hair. "It's not just humans who enjoy jokes in bad taste, you know."
"What?" I asked.
"You said bad taste."
Her joke surprised me, and I snorted as well, and then we burst out laughing again, burying our faces in the remaining pillows, trying not to make too much noise. Finally, once the feathers had settled and our laughter quietened, I got around to asking her about her hunt.
"So how many White Tails did you have?"
"And you brought them down without too much trouble?"
"No trouble, I'm getting better at the whole holding-the-back-legs-still thing."
I nodded. The back legs were always the hardest part.
"How big were they? Were they males or females?"
"Oh, well, a couple were pretty big, adult males. There was a smaller one, a female and ... " Suddenly she sat up, smirking at me. "Edward, next time why don't I just take a movie camera and film the whole thing for you?"
I laughed. "I don't want there to be a next time," and I pulled her down to me again and she snuggled deeper into me.
"You were worried, weren't you?" She spoke into my chest and I hesitated, not wanting her to think I doubted her ability to fend for herself, because I didn't.
"No, not really."
She lifted her face, quirking an eyebrow and I rolled my eyes.
"Oh, alright ... yes," I whispered, unsure how she'd react. But she wasn't upset or indignant. She smiled and stroked her hand over my forehead and down my cheek.
"What were you worried about? I'm indestructible now, remember?"
I sighed and looked at the ceiling, chuckling to myself.
"What was I worried about? Um, random humans, rogue vampires, exploding cars."
She sat up and stared at me as if I'd said the strangest thing. "Explo .... ?" Then she shook her head as I shrugged a shoulder. "Oh, Edward."
She started laughing then and I was distracted by the fact that she was gloriously naked and draped in a sheet of ivory satin.
"What am I going to do with you?"
I shrugged again but reached out a hand and traced a single finger along her arm, from shoulder to wrist.
"I could make some suggestions." And I wriggled my eyebrows, Emmett-style and she laughed again.
"So what did you do tonight?" she asked, dropping back down beside me, propping herself up on one hand. I turned on my side to face her.
"I listened to some music, I read ... ,"
"I worried," I smiled again.
"And I told Abbey about the night she was born."
"Really? Why, was she restless?"
"Just a little. She resettled quickly."
She nodded. "And what did you tell her?"
"Just the highlights, really. And of course in my version I was very calm and didn't freak out at all."
Bella gave a snort as I stroked my fingers along her arm.
"She's changing every day," I said softly, almost to myself and I could feel my mood shifting slightly. Bella turned her head and kissed my fingers which had reached her shoulder, massaging there.
"I know, but that's good, Edward, that's what she's meant to do."
I sighed. "It is, yes."
Bella gave me a soft smile, her eyes were gentle. "I know we'd both like to keep our baby as long as possible, but ultimately it's what we want for her ... to grow up and have a normal life. Well, as normal as possible."
She kissed my forehead and I tipped my face up to catch her lips with mine.
"Do you think there are many others like her?" she asked as we pulled away and she gently nudged my nose with hers.
"It's hard to know, it's certainly possible. She's one of three human-vampires we know about, there's no reason there couldn't be more."
We knew that at least one of the others was living entirely, and successfully, in the human world, but even so, sometimes I wondered, and worried, what the future might hold for Abbey.
Bella could clearly see where my thoughts were going and reached up to stroke my cheek. My eyes moved to hers and my worries faded away.
"Just enjoy each day, Edward," Her smile warmed me as I smiled back, leaning over to kiss her.
I picked up the remote control from the bedside table and pointed it at the small sound system on the dresser.
"Music?" I asked and Bella nodded. I hit the button and a soft instrumental piece flowed around the room.
Bella chuckled. "The radio?"
"I like the radio sometimes, but we can put something else on if you'd prefer." I lifted the remote control but she stopped me.
"No, this is good. It's that station for old people's music, isn't it?"
She was trying to tease me but I rose above her comment.
"It's a classics station, yes. But don't forget, Bella, I am very old."
"You're seventeen," she mumbled against me and ran some kisses over my chest and yes, according to my body and its reactions I was, indeed, seventeen.
The she sat up, suddenly, her eyes bright.
"I really like this one," she said as the next song was announced. I smiled because it was one of my favourites, too and I wondered if it was for the same reason.
I got up from the bed and held out my hand to her.
"Dance with me?"
She smiled and moved off the bed, smoothly, gracefully, obviously pleased with herself that she didn't get caught in the sheets and stumble as she once might have. Her new grace was still a novelty for her.
She took my hand and I pulled her into me.
"I wish it had been like this at prom," she said wistfully and my eyes widened as I laughed.
"What, dancing naked with me?"
"No!" she laughed. "Dancing gracefully."
"You were beautiful at prom," I said and we began to move around the room. I kept my eyes on hers as I sang with the music.
"Unforgettable, that's what you are, Unforgettable, though near or far, Like a song of love that clings to me, How the thought of you does things to me, Never before has someone been more, Unforgettable in every way, And forevermore that's how you'll stay, That's why darling it's incredible, That someone so unforgettable, Thinks that I am unforgettable too."
The song finished and Bella's eyes were shining.
"That was beautiful, thank you," she whispered as I brought my lips down to hers. I kissed her softly, letting my lips linger over hers before I pulled back and tucked her under my chin, winding my arms around her.
"You don't usually like old people music," I said with a laugh and she just shrugged, seeming almost shy.
I lifted her into my arms and carried her back to the bed, laying her down softly before climbing on beside her. We faced each other on our sides and I rested my hand on her hip, drawing spirals over her skin. My other hand played over the crown of her head, my fingers weaving in and out of her hair. She ran her hands over my chest, then leaned in to kiss my shoulder gently, over the place where she'd bitten before.
"I wonder if we like that song for the same reason," I said softly, bringing her hand up to kiss.
Her voice was shy as she spoke.
"I know there are poems and sonnets that could describe how I feel about you, but for me ... that song says it all. The words are simple, but they really just ... say it." She shrugged and seemed almost apologetic. And a surge of feeling rushed through me as I realised it was the same reason.
"Me too," I said.
I bent to kiss her. Her lips were soft and sweet beneath mine as I trailed my fingers over her breasts, her belly, her thighs. Her hands were in my hair, caressing the back of my neck, my chest. She sighed and murmured a soft laugh.
"Mm, what are you thinking?" I asked, my mouth moving over her shoulder.
"I was thinking ... this would have been nice at prom, too."
We moved carefully through the crowd. My gloved hand held Bella's firmly as I cut a path through the human throng. Abbey was in her baby carrier on my back. I didn't like the barrier of leather between my skin and Bella's, but part of our lives was dressing appropriately for the weather when we were in public. Bella was still getting used to that. I'd had to remind her to grab her scarf and beanie as we left the house.
"How are you doing?" I asked her over my shoulder.
"Okay. Good, really. The night air helps, it seems to dilute the scents."
I nodded, giving her hand a squeeze. "What do you think? Is here alright?" I'd stopped at a place towards the back of the plaza, near the side, where the crowd was a little thinner. Our vampire vision meant we could see the stage as clearly as if we'd been up close, and we knew Abbey's vision was almost as sharp - she wouldn't miss out, although I wondered if she'd find the performances as exciting as she seemed to find my hair, which she kept tugging while giggling and saying Dad.
"Here's good," Bella nodded. "Not quite so many people."
I looked down as she snuggled into my side and I wound my arm around her. She was smiling brilliantly and I wondered what she was thinking. She sensed my question before I asked it because she raised her eyes to mine, the smile still on her lips.
"I was just thinking how beautiful it all is. The lights and everything."
I smiled back and then looked around us. It was beautiful. I hadn't been to anything like this since I'd been changed and though I wasn't usually fond of crowds I was enjoying the spectacle and the atmosphere.
A huge Christmas tree stood to the side of the stage at the front of the plaza, its branches a blaze of Christmas lights. Overhead rows of fairy lights crisscrossed the open space and over the fronts of surrounding buildings.
"Is this what you mean about Paris, and the lights?" Bella asked suddenly. "I don't mean does it look like this, I mean ... you know, the feel of it, how pretty it is?"
Her question threw me a little, but it pleased me very much.
"I suppose it's a similar idea, but imagine the effect, the feel of it, as you say,on a much, much larger scale."
Bella nodded. "We'll go one day." She was grinning up at me, and I squeezed her closer.
"We will. I promise."
I'd told her a bit about my time in Paris, and climbing the Eiffel Tower. It was the day I told her about all the souvenirs in my room, and I'd been excited, thrilled, that she'd wanted to know more about me, especially in light of the hurt I'd so recently put her through. And as I'd spoken about Paris I'd decided I wanted to take her there, share the city and its lights with her. "I'll take you there one day, if you like," I said, hesitantly, not sure of her reaction. I'd half expected her to say no, refuse that offer as she did most others, but she didn't, and that had surprised me. She had smiled, the most beautiful smile, and at her quiet acceptance I'd made a silent promise to her right then, that it was something we would share. That promise had never left my mind, I'd thought of it often, wondered and planned, but there had always been something more pressing happening in our lives. But not any more. We could do it now.
"Dad!" Abbey pulled my hair and I reached up to gently loosen her tiny fingers. She hadn't hurt me, in truth it felt like little more than the breeze ruffling my hair, but we didn't want her to think it was alright to do. If she did the same thing to a human it would hurt.
"Do you want your juice?" I asked, turning my head as far as I could to see her. Distraction was usually the key.
Bella rummaged in the bag and handed her the sippy cup. She began to suck greedily, just as the music started and Santa took the stage. I heard a tiny gasp and the sippy cup dropped, Bella snaring it swiftly in mid fall. Suddenly the baby carrier didn't seem like such a good idea - I couldn't see Abbey's face. My hands went to the buckle at my waist and Bella steadied the carrier as I unfastened it. She pulled Abbey out and we rested the carrier on the ground at our feet.
"You're taller, she'll have a better view with you," I took her from Bella and held her with one arm while I pulled Bella to me with the other - and then I just let myself absorb the moment.
Abbey was transfixed, her eyes huge, staring at the stage where Santa and a group of elves danced around a giant sleigh and sang Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Bella's lips were moving in time with the song, her eyes smiling as she would look from Abbey to the stage and back again.
Santa and his crew performed a couple more Christmas songs before they left the stage and then members of Ballet Chicago began to perform a piece from The Nutcracker. I realised after a moment that Bella was staring towards the side of the plaza with a huge grin on her face. I followed the direction of her gaze but couldn't see anything of importance. There were people, of course, a stall selling felt reindeer antlers and santa hats, and a line of portable toilets.
"What are you smiling at?" I asked, turning back to her but she just nodded towards the stall and the toilets. I shook my head. "I don't get it."
She shifted her eyes to me, then.
"I was just thinking, I won't have to queue for the porta-potty." She was speaking softly, only I could hear her, but I still didn't understand what she meant. My lips curved into a smile as my forehead creased in a frown.
She laughed. "Porta-potties. They're awful. First you have to queue for ages and then when you finally get inside ... ugh," she shuddered. "You've never used one, you have no idea."
"I've not used them, but the smell tells me enough."
She nodded vehemently. "Anyway, I'll never have to do it again!" She laughed again.
I stared at her, grinning.
"So, of all the things you could like best about your new lifestyle, it's not the speed, or the strength, or the heightened senses, or even spending forever with me, it's the fact that you don't need to use portable public toilets anymore?"
She cocked her head to the side, her brown hair spilling over her shoulders, and pretended to consider. "Mm, yes, I think so."
We were both laughing now and I squeezed my arm tighter around her.
"I think your change has rendered you insane," I said, brushing my lips over her temple. "But I love you anyway."
The Nutcracker finished and the Chicago South Side Music School was announced.
Bella clutched my hand tightly, looking up at me grinning as the fifty three students took the stage. Tonight they would been playing while a soloist sang.
"That's Keisha at the piano," I said to Bella and she nodded.
They were all clearly excited, and nervous. I listened carefully as they played Silent Night. I could pick out each individual instrument. The overall effect was excellent though there was a wide range of abilities and skills. But it didn't matter that some were better than others, because their joy at playing, at giving something to an audience and getting something back, was so obvious in their faces. And again I felt that same vicarious pride that I had the night I'd seen The Unsound play at the nightclub.
They followed Silent Night with White Christmas and finished with Joy to the World and the crowd applauded loudly when they took their bow.
Bella looked up at me as we clapped. Her face was stretched into a grin. She didn't say a word, she didn't need to. I grinned back.
"I know," I said. "I know."
She hugged me hard, just as Abbey decided she wanted to get back in the baby carrier. Once she was all strapped in I pulled Bella in front of me, her back snug against my chest and I wrapped my arms around her, swaying, singing along softly with the choir that now held the stage She hummed happily, rubbing her hands over mine while Abbey tugged on my hair.
A few more performances came and went and Abbey was starting to yawn.
"I think it might be time," Bella said. "Are you ready to go?"
I nodded and I took Bella's hand as we started to move through the crowd as a children's theatre group began acting out Twas the Night Before Christmas on stage. I was oblivious to the thoughts around me, they were just a background hum, until I heard my name.
Where are you, Edward? He said towards the back ... if I don't find him in a minute I'll give up and send him an email instead.
I stiffened immediately and Bella did too, not understanding but picking up on my tension.
"Rebecca," I whispered and her eyes widened in panic. There were too many people around for us to get away as quickly as we could, so Bella dropped my hand and moved a few steps forward into the crowd just as Rebecca saw me.
"Edward! I can't believe I actually found you amongst all this!" she laughed.
I smiled. "I'm surprised you found me, too."
"Did you see them? Weren't they fantastic?" Her face was lit with excitement and pride and I answered her sincerely.
"Yes, they were, they were fantastic," I grinned. "You should feel very proud of them." I knew I did.
"I am, very proud. Oh! Is this Abbey?" She looked past me into the carrier. "Hello, sweetheart, are you having fun? Oh, Edward, she's gorgeous!" Rebecca reached out and gently touched Abbey's hand. Through her thoughts I could see Abbey's curious expression behind me. "But she's obviously wondering who this strange lady is," Rebecca laughed, patting Abbey's hand again and turning back to me.
"Where's Bella?" she asked looking around.
"She's queuing for the rest room," I said quickly.
From the periphery of my vision I could see Bella, just a little way in front, her shoulders shaking with laughs.
"Oh, she could be ages, I hope I don't miss out on saying hello." Rebecca sounded disappointed and glanced in the direction of the porta-potties. Then her thoughts shifted from her delight at actually finding me and meeting Abbey, to something new, something I couldn't get a hold on. Suddenly she seemed nervous, and that made me nervous. I swallowed and shoved my hands deep in my pockets, trying to sift through her thoughts for a clue.
"I'm so glad I've found you, Edward. I, well, there's something I wanted to speak to you about, and I wanted to do it face to face, not over email."
I nodded, no more the wiser, her thoughts were still scattered. When they cleared a second later, as a look of resolve crossed her face, I could hear that she wondered what my reaction to her question would be, but she wasn't thinking about the actual question itself. I was still completely in the dark as she took a deep breath and I bunched my hands into fists in my pockets.
"Do you remember we talked about some of the kids wanting to go for scholarships, and all the problems associated with that?"
She nodded. "Well, I've been trying to sort out a separate stream, like we discussed, but it's turning out to be a lot more involved than I thought, because if I adjust things for those students, then I have to re-adjust things for everyone else, so it all fits in."
She paused and studied me for a moment, gauging my reaction so far, though really there was nothing to react to, yet. I kept my expression neutral, still wondering where this was going. In front of us the crowd had shifted a little and now all I could see of Bella was the top of her beanie. Her head was turned towards us slightly - I knew she would be hearing every word.
Rebecca outlined the difficulties she was experiencing in sorting out a scholarship stream. The restrictions of limited time and resources, her mind was jumping from one problem to the next as she spoke.
I listened and nodded, still wondering where she was going.
"So I started thinking maybe I should find a Curriculum Co-ordinator. Someone I could hire to set up the scholarship program and re-organise the rest of the students and the teachers so everything fits into the limited time we have each week. But it would have to be someone who has the right musical background and skills and the time to devote to it. What do you think?"
It all fell into place, then. Though her thoughts still weren't clear, I could see now it was my opinion she wanted. My fists relaxed in my pockets and I smiled, pleased that she valued my opinion enough to ask, though surprised at how nervous she was to ask for it.
"I think it sounds like a great idea, Rebecca. It would definitely be the solution. Is money going to be an issue, though?" When we got back to the house I'd transfer a lump sum to the school as an anonymous donation.
"I've worked it out and we can do it, as long as we're careful. We might have to forgo the santa hats next year," she laughed.
"So will you advertise for the position?"
"I thought of that, but then I had another, better idea. Well, at least, I hope it's a better idea."
Her mind was blank now. She was focused on me entirely and I shifted where I stood, adjusting my weight from one leg to the other to make me look more human, and to cover my nervousness. My eyes flickered to the beanie that was still turned slightly in our direction.
"I thought ... of you."
My eyes snapped back to Rebecca and it took a second for her words to register, then I realised I wasn't looking ... I was staring at her.
She nodded and started speaking quickly.
"I know you're going back to Washington after Christmas, and that's okay, you wouldn't have to stay in Chicago. It's something you could do remotely. But it would have to involve a couple of visits to the school first, before you leave, to listen to the students and meet with the teachers. And you'd need to look into the various colleges and institutions and see what they require, but that could be done over the internet and the phone."
My eyes flickered quickly back Bella, who had turned her head now, standing on her toes and chancing a glance at me ... and she was beaming. I wouldn't have to ask her what she thought of the idea. I quirked just the corner of my mouth up into a smile, acknowledging her. I thought I'd been subtle but Rebecca noticed my shift in attention and turned to see what I was looking at. Bella turned around quickly and I coughed loudly, bringing Rebecca's attention back to me. She continued talking while my mind raced with the logistics of her offer, weighing up any risks of suspicion or exposure.
"It wouldn't be a long term thing, I know you have college to consider, but you said you didn't have any immediate plans, and I thought, if you could just help me set it up, get it in place and working, then I could probably take it from there. And I'd pay you, of course."
Payment? No, if I did this it would be gratis. I opened my mouth to say so, trying to get my words out before she spoke again.
"Rebecca, I couldn't accept ... ,"
She waved a dismissive hand. "Don't tell me that, because if you do then I'll withdraw my offer and find someone else."
Her thoughts were determined - she would find someone else and pay them. Payment was not negotiable. I supposed I could just funnel the money back into the school ... if I accepted. And I'd make sure the anonymous donation was enough to cover the cost, anyway.
"I understand, Edward, if you want some time to think about it, but do you think it's something you might be interested in doing?"
In front the beanie was nodding vehemently.
"I, yes I do, but ... can I let you know?"
"Yes, of course," she smiled but her thoughts registered her disappointment. A little way in front of me Bella's slumped shoulders indicated hers.
I didn't want to disappoint anyone, but I felt so unsure at that moment, because for me this was much more than helping Rebecca and the school.
I'd acknowledged what I'd done in the past, I'd accepted it, Bella had forgiven me and I'd forgiven myself, eventually, but was I ready to be reminded of it on a regular basis? Because that's what this would mean.
Those dark memories effected me less and less nowadays, their pull on me was weak now but would that change if I agreed to this?
I swallowed and raked my hand through my hair as Rebecca bundled her jacket closer around herself. I could see Bella's face in profile, her eyebrow raised in question. She wanted me to do it, I knew. And I realised, if I was honest with myself, that I wanted me to do it, too, but ...
Abbey yawned and leant forward, resting her head against my neck. Her heart beat and breathing told me she was about to fall asleep. I reached behind me and stroked her head gently as she yawned again ... and I knew then, at that moment as I felt my daughter nestled against me, that I was stronger than the memories. If I gave in to them I would be denying how far I'd come.
I'd said once that George's life was to be celebrated. I'd wished I could do more for the school than throw money at them ... and here was an opportunity to do that. And the risks to my family weren't really any greater than anything else we ventured into.
I would never be proud of my actions that night in 1918, but I was proud of George. And I was proud of Rebecca, and their lives, and what they'd achieved and that was the focus here. Not me.
"Big picture, Cullen," I murmured to myself. "It's not always about you, you know."
My voice was too low for Rebecca to hear, but not Bella. Her soft laugh warmed me.
"Well, I'd better get going." Rebecca smiled again as she started to move away. "Just let me know, Edward. I wasn't planning on advertising for the position until after New Year, so if you can get back to me by then ...."
"Wait!" I put my hand on her arm and she stopped. "Actually, I don't need time ... ." My eyes slid quickly to Bella, her face turned slightly, listening closely. "I'd be happy to accept your offer, Rebecca. Thank you."
Once I'd said it I felt different, more sure of myself. I realised I was smiling and my shoulders had relaxed.
Rebecca eyes brightened and she grinned at me. "And you'll let me pay you?"
"I'll insist on it."
We laughed and Bella took the chance to turn around and flash me another beaming smile.
"Oh, Edward thank you so much!" Rebecca was hugging herself as she smiled.
"Well, thank you for thinking of me,"
She shook her head. "You were the obvious choice, once I thought about it. You know, I think this will work out really well, you and I are on the same wavelength, I feel, Edward."
She stuck out her hand then and I shook it. "Would you like to come in tomorrow and we can start talking?"
The people in front had moved slightly so once again I could only see the beanie. It was nodding.
"Or maybe you should check with Bella first, in case you're busy." The beanie was shaking from side to side.
"Er, no, I don't think we're busy. Tomorrow should be fine."
The beanie was nodding again.
"Excellent! I'm so excited." She was, but she started rubbing her hands over her arms, trying to keep warm. Her thoughts were mainly focussed on the school and me, she couldn't wait to get started on things, but images of a fireplace and a tartan blanket were starting to creep in. She looked towards the porta-potty queue.
"Do you think Bella will be back soon?"
"It's hard to tell," I said. "You know what those queues are like."
I heard Bella snort as Rebecca rolled her eyes. "Only too well," she said. I could see in her thoughts that her distaste equalled Bella's. "Well, I should be going. So I'll see you tomorrow? Is eleven o'clock alright?"
"Eleven is good."
"Wonderful. Oh, will you please tell Bella I said hello?"
"I will. She'll be sorry she missed you."
"Maybe she can come with you tomorrow?"
I smiled but didn't say anything.
"Well, I'll see you in the morning." She gave a parting nod and pushed her way through the crowd. As soon as she'd disappeared I took a step forward and reached out my hand, grabbing Bella and pulling her to me, wrapping my arms around her. I needed to feel her close to me.
"Wow," she said, throwing her arms around me as best she could, considering I had a baby carrier on my back. "Edward, that's fantastic! How do you feel?"
How did I feel?
"Um, a little stunned, actually. I really didn't see that coming. But I'm also ... happy."
She laughed. "I'm so glad you said yes. I thought you mightn't." She reached up and touched my cheek and I brought my own hand up to hold it there.
"Bella ... ," I said as a realisation hit me suddenly and I laughed. "I've never had a job before."
Empty ornament boxes were littered over the living room floor and Abbey was happily pulling them apart.
"Now we won't have anything to pack the decorations in when the tree comes down," Bella was looking at our daughter's grin, and the destruction of paper and cardboard that surrounded her.
I chuckled and picked Abbey up. "I think of all life's problems, that's probably one of the better ones to have, love."
"Very true," she laughed. "Are we ready for Abbey's star now?"
We stepped back and surveyed the tree. Delicate baubles of spun glass from Italy adorned the top half of the tree, out of reach of little fingers. Plastic snowmen and Santas filled the bottom branches, just waiting to be pulled off and mauled. A fine trail of tinsel, silver and gold, wound its way between the decorations. It was an impressive tree.
It had been a busy couple of days. I'd spent time at the music school with Rebecca, the teachers and students. I'd called Carlisle to let him know about my involvement and he'd agreed it didn't pose a risk to the family and was proud and excited for me. He would tell Esme, but not the others, he said. He thought I should be the one to share my news, though we agreed that Alice probably knew already.
We'd also been Christmas shopping and showed Abbey all the window displays in the stores. She'd stared at Santas on street corners and bounced in her pram to the Christmas music that was everywhere we went.
Now, the shopping was done, our family was still a day away, and I was ready to revel in the peace and happiness of dressing the tree with Bella and Abbey for Abbey's first Christmas.
I reached into my pocket. "Before we put the star on ... ," I left my sentence unfinished and handed Bella the black velvet bag with Crystallier printed on it in silver.
"Oh," she looked at it in surprise and I wondered, a little sadly, if perhaps this memory hadn't made the change with her. I reached over and touched my fingers to hers as they stroked the velvet.
"Do you remember last Christmas? When I bought Abbey's star, we said we'd buy a new crystal every year?"
She looked up at me and smiled. She remembered. "And I said we'd need a big tree if it was going to hold more than a thousand of them."
"And I said we'd just get two trees," I grinned.
"Yes." She was smiling, catching just the corner of her bottom lip with her teeth. It always stirred a reaction in me, had done since the first time I'd ever seen her do it, in the car park at Forks High. I took a quick breath and nodded to the bag in her hand as I pulled my fingers away.
"Well, this is number two."
She tipped the bag up into her hand then and gasped as the crystal swan slid into her palm.
"Oh ... oh." She touched the tip of his golden beak gently, chewing her lip harder now, and looked underneath where Bella 2007 was engraved.
"Edward ... ,." she whispered and looked up at me. "Thank you."
Then she stepped forward and looped the gold thread over a branch towards the top of the tree. The light bounced off the crystal facets and sent little patterns of colour everywhere, like a rainbow had shattered and showered its pieces all over our living room.
"Ah!" Abbey gasped and reached out towards the little patterns of light as they danced on the walls, ceiling and furniture. I lifted her up into my arms.
"Wait, there's more," I said and pulled her star out of my other pocket. I held it up so she could see and she touched it, feeling its smooth surface. "Shall we put it on the tree?" She watched closely as I reached up and hung it on the topmost branch of the tree.
The light hit it, too, and the number of rainbows doubled.
"Look at her little face," Bella said softly.
Abbey's eyes were wide, trying to look everywhere at once, her head twisting and turning to see them all.
"Lets touch the pretty lights," I said and kissed her cheek as we walked slowly around the room while Bella watched us, smiling.
I took her to the wall so she could touch, and her little fingers curled as she tried to grasp hold of the dancing lights. After several tries she realised it wasn't going to happen and she was content to just look and touch, watching the colours move over her fingers as she patted the rainbows.
We spent some time like that, just standing, while she watched the rainbows dance on the wall and over her fingers. Once she lifted my hand and moved it to the wall, wanting to see if I had better luck. I curled my fingers as she had, but she pouted when I showed her my empty palm. I pouted too and she started to giggle. I kissed the top of her head softly.
Shortly after she started wriggling, wanting to be let down. It seemed she'd had enough of intangibles because as soon as her feet touched the floor she made straight for the tree where she pulled roughly on the first ornament she could reach. Frosty the Snowman snapped off his string and Abbey shoved him straight in her mouth. She chewed for a moment then discarded him in favour of a plastic reindeer who suffered the same slobbery fate.
"Should we stop her?" Bella asked. "The bottom branches will be bare soon if she keeps this up."
"Well, they're all child-safe, and we kind of expected this." I took Bella's hand and led her over to the sofa. "Although, maybe we should have just given them to her without hanging them on the tree first."
Bella laughed and tucked her feet underneath her, resting her head on my shoulder.
"Mm, no, I think pulling them off is the fun part by the looks of it," she said.
Abbey worked systematically and thoroughly, pulling off all the ornaments within her reach, chewing on some, playing with others while we sat on the sofa and watched. It didn't take long and the bottom branches were almost bare, as Bella predicted. So, we'd be having a half dressed tree for Christmas.
"I guess she'll have to stop now, everything else is out of reach."
Bella's hand squeezed mine and I turned to kiss her. Just as my eyes closed and our lips touched I heard Abbey change position and caught a flash of her thoughts. She had her sights set on something new now. I opened my eyes and saw her stretching up as she pulled on a branch, trying to grab at a glass bauble way out of her reach . And suddenly the branch was bending and Abbey was falling and I was across the room, scooping her into one arm as I grabbed the tree and held it steady.
"Abbey!" Bella was beside me, lifting a very startled Abbey out of my arms.
"She's alright. Probably more frightened than anything," I realised my voice wasn't completely steady as Abbey buried herself against Bella and started to cry.
A stab of fear had gone through me when I'd realised what was happening, but I took a breath now, determined not to overreact. Abbey wasn't hurt, children did these things, it was part of having kids, we'd learn from it.
Abbey's cries quietened and she lifted her head from Bella's shoulder. She sniffed and looked at me and I held out my arms.
"It's alright, little one, you're okay," I murmured as I took her from Bella. She sniffed some more and I patted her back. After a moment I put my fingers on her tummy and tickled gently. She giggled and grabbed at my hand.
"She's fine," I said, starting to relax again now.
"She is," I could hear the relief in Bella's voice. I think we'd all had a fright. "Well, she probably won't try that again, anyway. This will have frightened her off."
I began to nod my agreement, but another look at Abbey's thoughts changed my mind. She was thinking about the other baubles on the tree, her mind clearly focussed on the orb of red glass with gold snowflakes engraved on it - the one that was near the top of the tree. She leaned out of my arms and reached towards it. I gently held her hands in one of mine and backed away.
"Actually, love, I don't think it has frightened her off at all."
Half an hour later Abbey was asleep in bed and the Christmas tree was just a single branch in a pot in the corner, with a cardboard star at the top and a token piece of tinsel. I hauled the rest of the tree outside into the yard, just as it began to snow.
The moonlight was casting silver light, catching the flakes as they floated through the air, making them sparkle and look like diamonds.
I heard Bella moving through the house, coming to find me. I turned and watched her as she moved through the doorway into the yard, her bare feet gliding over the ground as she came towards me.
"I'm sorry it didn't turn out quite like we planned." She wrapped her arms around me from behind and rested her cheek against my back. "I guess family life isn't always perfect."
"Mine is," I smiled and turned so I could kiss her. "And as long as Abbey's safe I don't care if the Christmas tree is a stick in a bucket."
Bella snorted. "It practically is, Edward."
"You're right," I laughed. "So is this one of those embarrassing growing up stories that parents tell for years and years?"
"Yep. And in poor Abbey's case it'll get told for a loooong time."
We looked at the tree lying across the ground, gradually being dusted with snow.
"So, what do we do with this, now?" I was thinking out loud but it was clear Bella had an idea when her hands tightened around me.
"Tell me?" I smiled down at her, brushing some hair back from her face.
"Well, it's just a thought, and the neighbours might think we're crazy, but why don't we have a Christmas tree outside? We can redecorate it and it'll be out of temptations way for Abbey. What do you think?"
I considered for a moment. Abbey couldn't open doors, she couldn't get outside without one of us with her. Our family would be arriving tomorrow and she'd be completely distracted anyway.
"I like it," I said smiling.
So I secured the tree in the ground. Bella brought out the decorations again, and we dressed the tree in the moonlight while the snow continued to fall softly.
"It's like a Christmas card. Or a holiday TV special," I grinned when we were finished. The ornaments sparkled in the moonlight, the snow was settling softly over the branches.
"I think we should do this every year," Bella whispered as she snuggled against me. "Have an indoor and an outdoor tree." She paused a moment. "Although the indoor tree might still have to be a stick in a bucket next Christmas, too."
"It might," I laughed. "But Abbey will grow out of it. She won't bite the ornaments off the tree forever."
And really, that was the beautiful thing ... Abbey would grow and change and reach adulthood and have a life ... and Christmas trees. I lowered my face to Bella's and kissed her.
We stayed outside for a little while that night.
My family had arrived.
They'd come crashing through the door with hugs for Bella and I just as Abbey was finishing her breakfast. Emmett scooped her out of her highchair, still with the porridge stuck to her face and fingers, and she was passed around for hugs and kisses, everyone needing their Abbey fix. I doubted Bella or I would hold our daughter again before bedtime.
I stood with Bella and watched as Abbey giggled and stuck her gooey hands all over her family. No-one seemed to mind, even Rosalie.
"Can we see the rest of the house?" Esme asked once the initial excitement had calmed down and I'd been surprised at the surge of feeling I'd experienced as I took them on a tour, showing them to their rooms, playing host. They were enthusiastic and curious and I laughed as their questions poured forth, some spoken, others thought.
"Which was your room, Edward?"
Who used the rooms on the top floor?
"Is that stained glass panel original?"
So you and Bella in your parents old room, huh? Is that, you know, weird?
"Er, Abbey has my old room. The stained glass is original, yes. The house was designed with staff in mind, so the two bedrooms on the top floor would have been their quarters. And no, Emmett, it isn't weird. At least, it wasn't until you said it like that."
Once the tour was completed and questions answered we moved back into the living room and everyone took seats, watching Abbey as she removed and replaced the tinsel from the branch over and over again.
"So did you have servants?" Jasper asked and I shook my head.
"We had a cook for a while and she lived upstairs. There was a maid but she didn't live here. I think she came every morning and left after lunch."
Esme was standing by the fireplace, examining the woodwork and the marble, the tiny mosaic tiles that made up the hearth.
"It's a beautiful home, Edward. And you and Bella have renovated it perfectly. I love the colours and the mix of modern and antique."
"It was Edward who did it." Bella was in my lap as we sat together in one of the leather chairs.
"We chose the colours and the furniture together," I corrected, smiling and nuzzling her hair with my nose.
I turned in response to my name in Carlisle's thoughts. He stood across the room, beside Esme at the fireplace. He was smiling and the pride in his eyes was clear.
"You've made a beautiful home for your family, son."
His words carried more meaning than the others would realise and they effected me deeply.
It was Carlisle's arrival I had anticipated most, because he would remember this house, and me, from that other time in 1921 and he alone would appreciate the journey I'd travelled. I wanted to respond and let him know just how much his words meant, but as sometimes happens with me, I found I had no words. Instead I closed my eyes and nodded in acknowledgement and his thoughts told me he understood.
Bella understood, too. Her small hand squeezed mine and she placed a soft kiss against my temple.
"Shall we put our presents under the tree?" Alice asked, clapping her hands and casting a bewildered glance at the branch in the pot.
There was a general murmur of agreement until Bella and I shook our heads.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Bella said. "Abbey would just rip the paper off and pull them apart."
Our daughter looked up and grinned at the sound of her name.
"That's why the tree is what it is." I added, more eloquent now.
"She did that?" Emmett pointed at our token foliage.
"Not exactly," The story of the Christmas tree debacle had its first retelling and the house echoed with laughter.
"I just thought you were being minimalist," Alice grinned. "But I like the idea of the outdoor tree."
"It's very beautiful at night," Bella said softly. I rubbed my thumb over her wrist and felt the soft shiver roll through her as we both remembered what happened under the Christmas tree the night before.
"When will Charlie and Sue arrive?" Carlisle asked Bella.
"Christmas Eve. I'm getting food in and I'm planning to cook Christmas dinner for them, and Abbey, on Christmas day. I hope no-one will mind." She looked at everyone and began biting her lip, knowing first hand now, how the smell of human food can be so unappealing. And cooking a roast with vegetables and gravy was a lot different to the simple dishes we prepared for Abbey.
"Of course we don't mind," Esme sounded surprised. "I thought we'd all sit at the table."
Carlisle looked from Bella to me, smiling. "It's about being together. We don't eat, but lively conversation has never been a problem for this family."
Bella's face softened and she smiled - this was something that had been concerning her. "Thank you everyone."
"Have you finished your Christmas shopping?" Esme asked. "Because we could babysit Abbey if that would make things easier for you."
"We're all done," Bella smiled at me.
"Oh, so what have you got Abbey for Christmas?" Alice was all eagerness and leant closer.
"Don't you know?" Bella asked, surprised.
"No, I don't see everything, you know that. So, what did you get her?"
"Well, I might let Edward tell you that," she answered, rolling her eyes.
"You make it sound like a big deal, Bella." I felt just a little indignant at her response.
"Well, you seemed to think it was at the time. You were very excited in the toy shop."
I shrugged. "I was just pleased to find something so suitable, that's all."
"So, tell us!" Alice pesterd. "Ooh, no, don't worry, I can see it now." And then she started laughing.
"We're not all mind readers or fortune tellers," Rosalie snapped at me and I chuckled.
"Sorry, Rose." And though I knew Abbey wouldn't understand, I lowered my voice anyway.
"We bought her some Duplo."
I was met with six blank faces.
"What's that?" Jasper asked.
"It's Lego for toddlers. The blocks are much bigger." I used my fingers to give an estimate of size.
"Cool!" Emmett grinned. "She'll have fun with that, and we'll have fun helping her have fun."
I nodded. We would. "There a huge range of sets available ... a zoo, a farm, the circus train is great, there's a castle and a transport set with cars and buses and trucks."
"Which one did you get her, Edward?" Esme asked and I knew my face was sheepish as I answered.
There was laughter and then everyone's attention was suddenly drawn to Emmett, who had stood up and was fidgetting like a human with a secret they were busting to tell.
"Um, actually, we have news," he announced, grinning. "And stay out of my head, Edward. Let me surprise you for once!" Immediately his mind focused on the last time we'd played paint ball, just outside Seattle. "It's bad enough Alice probably knows already."
She gave a sheepish smile. "Just a general idea, no details," she said.
The fact that he had news didn't surprise me. He'd been excited and edgy since he'd arrived and his thoughts, usually completely open and unguarded, had been just a little careful. Rosalie was rolling her eyes. Smooth, Emmett, real subtle way to introduce the subject.
"Are you getting married again?" Jasper drawled.
"No." Rosalie answered. "Although, we haven't done that in a while," she looked at Emmett as visions of designer bridal gowns danced in her head.
"Ooh, Abbey could be a flower girl!" Alice's thoughts filtered through and I spoke up quickly.
"Come on, Emmett, are you going to tell us or make us wait?" Quick, before Abbey is dressed up like a doll and scattering flower petals and releasing doves.
Emmett was perched on the arm of the sofa and smiled down at Rosalie as he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He lifted his eyes and looked around at all of us.
"I've bought a business. I'm not going back to highschool."
There was silence and I knew my surprise was clear on my face. Bella's mouth was open, staring.
"Wow," Jasper's eyes were round, while Alice wore a quiet smirk.
"What sort of business?" I asked, his mind was still focused on the paint ball game, giving me no clues at all. Emmett looked at me and grinned.
"Skirmish World, just outside Seattle."
Skirmish World? He'd bought a paint ball business! He'd been blocking me with thoughts of the thing he was hiding. I started laughing as Jasper hissed, "Yes!"
"Gotcha, Edward! You should have seen your face."
"You did get me. But, Skirmish World? That's fantastic!" And Bella was laughing at the excitement she could hear in my voice.
Carlisle was chuckling to himself and Esme was smiling - it was clear from their thoughts that Emmett had already told them.
"So, family play for free, right?" Jasper asked.
"No way! I'm running a business here!" Emmett laughed and looked back at Rosalie. She gave him a quick smile, her expression fairly neutral, but her pride in him was clear in her thoughts.
"So, paint ball, skirmish, that's where you run around with guns loaded with paint trying to mark each other, right?" Bella asked and Rosalie was nodding.
"That's about it," she said.
"No, no, it's more than that," I said, thinking of the possibilities, excited at the thought of playing again.
"Much more, " Jasper added. "It's about strategy, planning ... ,"
"Speed and stealth," I added.
"Cunning," Jasper whispered, staring at Bella, nodding slowly.
And with an almost simultaneous eye roll, Rosalie, Alice and Bella started to laugh.
"Well, congratulations, Emmett," Bella went to hug him. "That's great news. How did it happen?"
Emmett shrugged and then nodded towards Abbey, who had wrapped the tinsel around herself now and was slowly pulling it apart. She was littered with little pieces of gold and silver foil. She was her own Christmas tree.
"I've just been thinking since Abbey came along ... I'm her uncle, you know, I didn't want to be going to school with her somewhere along the line." He shrugged again. "I just thought it was time to grow up."
"And I agreed," Rosalie added, reaching for Emmett's hand and squeezing.
Bella nodded. "I can understand that," she said softly as she came back to sit with me. She nestled into me, resting her head on my shoulder. I bent my head, wanting to see her eyes and she pushed the hair out of mine as she smiled. I knew Emmett's news would help reinforce the decisions she'd already made about college and working and I was excited for her, for all of us. I kissed her quickly as Emmett continued.
"But the decision really came when we were driving into Seattle about a week ago. We went past Skirmish World and it had a big For Sale sign out the front ... I like paintball, so I bought it."
For Emmett it was that simple, but that's the way life usually was for him. He didn't complicate things for himself.
My eyes flickered to Alice and she smiled. Change is coming, but it's good.
"This is going to be great," Jasper was grinning and I could see him forming various strategies in his mind.
"Yeah, well it won't be all fun and games," Emmett was trying to be serious, but his grin kept slipping through and giving him away. "There's real work to do, but you can help if you like. I could put you on the payroll, you can refill the guns with paint."
"Yeah, I'll think about it. But will it just be you working there? Maybe I could be assistant manager, and Edward could refill the guns."
I chuckled as Emmett explained.
"There's already a full-time manager and two game supervisors, and they'll keep their jobs because they deal mostly with the customers. I'll have some human contact, obviously, but I'll be managing the business side of things, I probably won't even be there every day, a lot of it could be done remotely with a computer and the phone. But I have plans ... right now they don't do night games and I think that would be a good idea, night skirmish with lasers ... laser tag!"
"Lasers!" Jasper and I said it simultaneously and then burst out laughing. Bella rolled her eyes.
"You sound like a couple of teenagers," she said.
"Er, seventeen, love, remember?" I pointed at myself.
"And I'm only just twenty." A corner of Jasper's mouth curved into a satisfied smile.
"Mm, well it shows," Bella muttered, but she was smiling, too.
"I want to hear more," Jasper leaned forward then, elbows on knees, all ears. "You mentioned lasers." Beside him Alice giggled.
"Yeah, lasers. And we could target ourselves towards corporate groups, team building, all that sort of thing. At the moment they just handle kids parties and guys wanting some fun on the weekend, but I think I can grow it into something much more. I'm thinking we could do packages for a whole weekend, putting two teams against each other, designing whole military-style campaigns. That's the way the whole industry's going."
For all his laid-back attitude, Emmett had a sharp brain and it was clear he'd thought all this through.
Jasper was nodding, his mind racing with ideas.
"And there are vacant acres around the place. I'm thinking about looking into purchasing that, expanding the playing field and building some shacks with rooms in them so people can hide ... it'll increase the tension of the game, not knowing if someone's inside, hiding around the next corner. You know, don't go down the basement," he said in a spooky voice. "That sort of thing."
"Except they won't have basements," Rosalie drawled and Emmett rolled his eyes.
"You know what I mean. Don't go in that room ... is that better?"
"What about you, Rosalie? Are you going to be involved?" At Bella's question Rosalie turned to her husband and smiled a soft, genuine smile. "He's happy, and if he wants me to help out I will," she said. "The business comes with a couple of all-terrain vehicles for driving around the property and Emmett's thinking about buying some more if he expands, so I'll look after those." Then her expression hardened. "But if I get paint in my hair just once ... ,"
I chuckled as Emmett leant over and kissed her. "I'll help you wash it out, Rosie."
Then I focused my attention back on Abbey and her tinsel as Emmett's mind became a no-go zone.
"Did anyone question how young you looked?" Bella was curious. "I mean, you've signed contracts and things haven't you?"
"He wore his good suit," Rosalie said. "He always looks older in his good suit." And sexier, she added mentally and I snorted, trying to disguise it as a cough. She glared at me.
"Vampire's don't cough, Edward. Keep out of my head."
"Er, sorry," I mumbled. "So Carlisle, will you play sometime?" I was keen to change the subject.
"I'm thinking I will," he said with a grin. "I've had to strategise at many points in my life, I don't think it would be too hard to out-play all of you."
There was laughter and Jasper's eyes were bright and his mind was a tumult of plans.
"I'd be interested to see how that plays out," he said.
"Is it all finalised yet?" I asked.
"Yep, it's all mine. Oh, and I've bought it in my human name, McCarty, so it won't be linked back to the family. So, yeah ... that's our news."
There were more congratulations and then there was silence as everyone let the news sink in.
"Edward has some news, too," Alice said suddenly, there'd been no warning in her thoughts and everyone looked at me.
"Thanks for that, Alice. I'm assuming we're talking about the same news?"
She showed me a vision of Rebecca and I at the music school.
"So?" Rosalie was growing impatient, her nails were tapping on the leather of the arm rest.
I took a quick breath as Bella kissed my cheek.
"I, er, have a job."
There was more silence while everyone's thoughts took on different scenarios from concert pianist to doctor to ... librarian?
I looked at Emmett, surprised and he shrugged. "You like books and being quiet," he said simply.
So I told them all about Rebecca's offer and what I was doing with the school.
"Curriculum Co-ordinator? Sounds impressive," Jasper smiled.
"Will it turn into something long term?" Rosalie asked.
I squeezed Bella's hand as I answered.
"I suppose it could. The scholarship situation would change from year to year, depending on how many wanted it, what instruments they're playing. There's scope to take it further, to set programs for the whole school, not just the scholarship students. I've outlined some rough plans to Rebecca and she's interested and I'll talk to the University and the Conservatorium about their pre-requisites after the holidays "
"So will you stay with it after you've set it all up?"
"I don't know yet. It could be me or Rebecca could hire someone else to do it. I'll think about it when the time comes. There are other things I'm interested in pursuing, too."
"You do know you can do other things and still work for the music school, right?" Emmett grinned at me. "I mean, you do know you're capable." It was true. I could still co-ordinate the programs for the school while I worked on other projects. It was definitely something to consider.
"And Bella's planning on going to college," I said proudly, looking at her as she ducked her head. Her blush wasn't there, but it almost could have been as she shyly outlined her ideas for college and work.
Alice clapped her hands. "I saw that coming, I just couldn't see when. Will you try for next year?" she asked.
"Maybe, or the year after. There are still some things to sort out first, but soon, I think."
"I guess that just leaves us, now." Jasper smiled into Alice's eyes and she smiled back. "What do you want to be when you grow up, Alice?" he asked. She laughed lightly.
"Lots of different things," she said.
Everyone was in their rooms, settling in when Carlisle approached Bella and me in the kitchen. Abbey was having a snack and Carlisle rubbed his hand over her hair as he took a thick envelope from his pocket.
"This arrived just before we left," he said. The postmark said Italy and my already cold body became ice.
He handed Bella the envelope.
"So this is the thank you note, I guess." She took it hesitantly, her fingers were shaking, and I put my hand over hers.
"I'm assuming everything is alright," Carlisle said and he rested his hand on my shoulder, realising how tense I'd become. "Alice hasn't seen anything."
"This hasn't been in your thoughts, or Alice's," I said, my eyes on Bella's fingers as she slid them under the flap.
"I asked Alice not to think about it. I was keeping it for the right time, when we were alone. I thought Bella might not want an audience."
I nodded my thanks at his consideration.
On the stool next to me Bella was taking her time opening the envelope and I had to stop myself from taking it from her so she didn't have to deal with it.
We'd never been sure whether the Volturi would respond to the photos we'd sent them. It was possible this was just an acknowledgement and their interest in Bella would be satisfied.
Or it could be a summons. They might want to see her, find out if her immunity to vampire gifts had transferred into her new life. I began formulating plans in case that was what they wanted. We wouldn't go. We'd take Abbey and go into hiding until she was able to live independently. It would put an end to our plans for work and college for the moment, but we could ... .
"Oh." Bella said suddenly, and then she began to read aloud.
"'Dearest Bella, we are indebted for the photos you sent to us. You truly do make an exquisite vampire and we wonder if you are just as intriguing as you were a human. We are delighted you have at last joined us, some of us wondered if it would ever happen. Please know you always have our affection and we hope that you will favour us with a visit some day.' And then it's just signed Aro, Marcus and Caius."
She looked at Carlisle and me. "That's not bad, is it? It doesn't sound bad."
I sighed and held onto her. "They want to see you. They want to know if their powers still effect you. We wonder if you're still as intriguing ... We hope you will favour us with a visit some day ... it's their way of saying your presence is required. "
She frowned and looked back at the paper. "It doesn't say that specifically. But if that is what it means, you said yourself time means something very different to the Volturi, so if we visited them in a hundred years, that would be okay, wouldn't it? Abbey would be grown up and they wouldn't have to know about her."
I shook my head and reached over to clutch her tightly to me. My eyes travelled to Abbey. Carlisle had taken her from the high chair and was holding her. She was pulling on his nose and he was laughing with her but his concerned thoughts were focussed on us.
"Remember Aro's gift, love? He'd want to touch my hand, he'd see everything, he'd see Abbey. Everything that I knew about her, he would know. She'd have to go into hiding, and not tell us where. We'd have to separate ourselves from her to keep her safe. Or at least, I'd have to separate myself from you both." It would kill me, but I'd do it.
Bella sucked in a sharp breath.
"But Alice couldn't see anything bad." Her voice sounded so small, so timid.
"That's because the Volturi don't know about Abbey. They're just expecting that you'll get this letter, know they want to see you and you'll go to them. And you're right about the time thing, they don't have a specific when in mind, so they're probably not even thinking about you right now. But you are expected. If it's too long they might get suspicious."
"And until they see me, this will be hanging over us. They could get serious at any time, is that right?"
I nodded and anger started to surge through me. I let Bella go and pushed back the stool, dragging my hands through my hair as I stood up. I gripped the marble counter top and tried to breathe evenly. I wondered if I should ask Carlisle to take Abbey out of the room so she didn't see me like this. But then having her here gave me a semblance of calm and control.
"Would they come looking for us?" Bella's voice was barely a whisper now.
Venom flooded my mouth and I struggled to keep my voice steady as I stared at the toast crumbs and the small, teddy bear spoon on the counter. I touched the spoon with the tip of my finger and my heart felt like it would break.
From the corner of my eye I saw her nodding.
"Would Alice see them, though?"
"Most likely, and that would give us a head start to find somewhere to hide."
We'd come so far, we'd reached a place I'd never thought possible, and now it was all in doubt. This would be following us, tainting every decision we made. I wanted to smash something. My fingers were leaving grooves in the marble of the bench top.
My family had slowly filtered back into the room, obviously having heard the discussion.
"Then I'll see Aro alone." Bella's voice was still quiet but strong now and without reading my mind she seemed to know my thoughts exactly. "And don't tell me you can't let me do that, Edward. This is our daughter, and we do whatever we have to to keep her safe, right? I'm strong too, now, remember? We can both protect Abbey, and we can protect each other."
"Bella, I ... ,"
"I remember what they did to you in Volterra, Edward." Her voice cracked as she spoke. "And that will never happen again, I promise you." She swallowed hard and I could see her own anger was growing now, replacing her earlier anxiety. "We'll make sure they'll never know about Abbey. And even if they do find out, no-one will touch a hair on her head. No-one, ever. We'll both see to that."
And suddenly, for just a fleeting second, her love was so fierce is was like a tangible thing. I could almost feel it, protecting, shielding me. The power of it staggered me, and left me in no doubt of her strength or her resolve.
I sighed and nodded as Bella walked to Carlisle and took Abbey from him. She came back to me and put her free arm around me as I hugged her.
"You've saved me so many times, Edward," she whispered and I understood.
"We won't live our lives like we've done something wrong," I said. "I think we need to meet this head on." I turned to my sister.
"Alice, I've made a decision." The room was silent, everyone focussed on my next words. "Bella and I will write to Aro, thank him for his message, tell him we have plans to travel and Bella will visit them somewhere in the next thirty years."
We were agreeing to Aro's request. To them our suggested time frame would seem like mere weeks. It would keep them off our backs and we could wait until Abbey was grown up, living her own life. We'd do this on our terms.
Alice's eyes were shut tight as she concentrated. A smile spread over her face and then over mine as the vision came through.
"Yes, that works," she said. "Aro is satisfied with that. He won't give Bella a second thought now until the day she arrives." And my head dropped onto Bella's shoulder in relief.
"What do you see, Alice?" Jasper asked.
"Bella's shaking hands with Aro, he's stroking her hand, touching her cheek." Then she frowned. "They want to know why she's alone."
I nodded and looked at Bella, keepiing my eyes on her as I spoke. "She'll tell Aro that I have a tendency to be overbearing, over protective. She likes to show me she can take care of herself, that she can operate without me."
Bella smiled, squeezing my hand and then lifting it to her lips. She mouthed I love you before she kissed.
"That's good." Alice nodded, eyes still closed. "Now she's walking out of the Volterra city gates, all in one piece, smiling."
And then Alice burst out laughing and I began to chuckle.
"What?" Emmett was grinning back and forth between us. "What else do you see?"
"It's Edward. He's waiting for her in a very fast car with the engine running."
Christmas morning was obviously going to be a riot. Bella and I were in our room, and it was a little before six a.m. when Alice tapped on the door for the fourth time and asked if we could wake Abbey up now.
"No," Bella hissed. "Let her sleep. If we wake her she'll be all cranky and won't enjoy it."
I could practically hear Alice sulking as she headed back up to her room. "And don't wake Charlie!" Bella added.
We were all together, now. Charlie and Sue had arrived the evening before. They'd had an early Christmas with Seth and Leah and now they were here I was happy to see how comfortably they'd settled into staying in a house full of vampires. Charlie had hugged his daughter, shaken my hand, and then made straight for Abbey. Sue fell into easy conversation with Bella and Esme and brought Christmas messages and news from La Push.
Jacob had had two more dates with his new girlfriend, Christine, and it was the talk of the reservation.
"Is he going to tell her he's a wolf?" Jasper asked.
"He can't," Sue frowned. "It's going to be tricky for him, but I think he'll just have to take it one day at a time. Right now he's just very happy."
Bella smiled warmly, and I was glad for her and for Jacob.
"Will we meet her at the wedding?" Bella asked. Sue smiled and touched the sapphire and silver ring on her finger that meant she and Charlie would make it official in the Spring.
"I think he'd like to. Could be a bit overwhelming for her though."
"What, being surrounded by werewolves and vampires? No!" Emmett laughed and Sue joined in.
And now everyone was eager for Abbey's first Christmas. I was listening closely to the beat of her heart now, her breathing, waiting for the subtle changes that meant she was starting to wake.
Finally, at six fifteen, her heart rate picked up and I grinned at Bella.
"She's awake," Bella grinned back and we almost got stuck in the doorway as we both rushed to get her up.
She yawned, blinking her eyes, as we crept into her room. We looked over the side of her crib and she stared at us for a moment, then her chubby cheeks stretched into a smile and she let out a giggle.
"Merry Christmas, Abbey," I lifted her out of the crib and cuddled her against me, kissing her forehead.
"Merry Christmas," Bella took her from me and I put my arms around them both.
"I used to jump out of bed on Christmas mornings and run to that window and look out to see if there were reindeer tracks in the snow."
Bella smiled and cupped her hand to my cheek. "That's a nice memory."
"Except that the reindeers fly, so the tracks would have been on the roof."
"I knew that, but I checked anyway."
Her thumb stroked over my cheek and I leant into her touch, enjoying my part now in this new memory with my wife and daughter.
"Aw, come on!" Emmett called out. "Bring Abbey downstairs. Didn't anyone teach you two to share?"
Abbey's eyes were huge and almost spinning as she tried to take in everything at once. The presents surrounded the Christmas branch, almost obscuring it from view, different sizes and shapes of bright colours, tied with shiny ribbons and bows. And there were six vampires lined up grinning at her, and two humans who had smiles just as wide. She seemed almost hesitant at first as she sat on Bella's lap and began opening her first gift, her hesitance fading as she discovered the joy of pulling ribbons and ripping paper.
It seemed the Duplo was popular, but more as large, rectangular rattles than building blocks. Abbey would happily shake the boxes, laughing at the sound of the pieces clinking inside, but seemed bemused when the box was opened and the blocks brought out.
"Merry Christmas, sweetheart." Charlie lifted his granddaughter up for a hug and laughed as she pulled on his hair.
"Pa!" she grinned and his thoughts showed a memory of another Christmas morning, nineteen years earlier, when a tiny Bella had laughed in his arms and tugged his hair.
"This is to go with your Junior Fisherman set," he watched as she tore through the paper. It was a fancy bucket and spade set, with shovels, rakes, scoops and moulds for sculpting sand.
"You can use the bucket to hold all the fish we catch," he said , laughing as she tried to drag the rake over his head like a comb. Then Charlie looked up at Bella and me. "I also thought, Bella used to have a lot of fun at the beach when she was little and I know you probably won't be able to do that so much with Abbey, not on sunny days ... ," he paused and looked at me. Crap, am I offending anyone? he asked in his thoughts.
I smiled and shook my head slightly. He gave me a quick nod and continued, switching his gaze back to Bella.
"I thought maybe Sue and I could take her to the beach sometimes, if you're okay with that."
"That's a lovely idea, Charlie," Esme spoke up and Charlie turned to her, visibly relaxing.
"It is a lovely idea, Dad. That would be great, thanks. You too, Sue, thank you."
Sue smiled and Charlie gave another brisk nod, ruffled Abbey's hair and then moved back to his seat.
"Ours next!" Alice danced across the room with a parcel of red and green.
A moment later she and Jasper were laughing as Abbey pulled the B-Tech Baby Laptop out of the wrapping, dumped it on the floor and stuck her head inside the box.
"I think we should have just bought her some empty boxes, Alice."
"We'll remember for next year," Alice nodded. "She likes boxes."
The floor was a sea of discarded wrapping paper, ribbons and cardboard, the living room was loud with laughter and conversation and people exchanging gifts. In the middle of it sat Abbey. She was studying her Duplo pieces carefully, frowning as she rubbed her fingers over the nubs that connected one piece to another. I lay on my stomach beside her, propped up on my elbows, showing her how they fit together. I could tell once she made the connection in her mind. She grinned and looked at me.
She wanted me to build more.
So I did. It only took a moment and the farm was assembled and Abbey clapped her hands and began moving the cow in and out of the stable. Then she switched to the tractor.
"Vroom, vroom," I said as she moved it back and forth. She laughed and copied me.
I clip-clopped the horse towards the stable and moved him in with the cow.
"No!" Abbey said and pulled him out again.
She shook her head and her eyebrows came together in a determined look that was so like Bella I had to bite my lip to stop laughing. Neither of them would have been impressed with me about that.
"Okay, cow in the stable, horse in the pasture."
She smiled as I put the horse back where he'd been, next to the sheep with the happy grin.
She turned back to the tractor and became engrossed in making oom oom noises so I kissed her cheek and went back to sit beside Bella on the sofa. She was talking to Sue and I slouched down beside her, resting my head on her shoulder and taking her hand into my lap.
I smiled as I heard Sue's thoughts - two years ago she would never have thought all this was possible. I looked up and met her eyes and she seemed a little embarrassed then as she realised I'd heard her.
I gave her a grin. "I wouldn't have believed it either," I said and she smiled back.
She stood and headed over to Charlie, who was demonstrating to Emmett the electronic fish finder we'd given him for Christmas. It seemed there were no fish in our living room, however.
"Here, I have something for you." Bella slipped an envelope from the pocket of her jeans and handed it to me. "Merry Christmas, Edward." She kissed my cheek shyly and then started chewing her lip. "I hope you like it."
I loved anything Bella gave me.
"Thank you, love." I kissed her back and then ripped the end off the envelope.
A narrow cardboard folder fell into my lap and I read the words on its front twice, to be sure.
"Bella, this is ... going to be so much fun, thank you, love!" I threw my arms around her and she laughed.
"What is it" Jasper looked over, his reindeer antlers were slipping and pushed them back in place.
"Bella's bought me a season ticket to Wrigley Field!"
"The Chicago Cubs? Excellent!" Jasper smiled.
I opened the folder and read further. It wasn't just the season ticket.
"Oh!" I said, looking at her. "Really?"
"Has she rented you a box for the season, too?" Emmett came across now and looked over my shoulder. Bella was shifting with embarrassment beside me and I gripped her hand tightly.
"Not just a box, Emmett. She's rented me a suite." I was laughing now.
Emmett whistled. "A viewing suite at Wrigley Field, that's a cool present, Bells! Real cool. Hey, we can all come, right?"
"We'll see Emmett." I took my hand from Bella's and moved my arm around her shoulder, pulling her into me. I knew she wasn't really a fan of baseball, but I hoped she might come with me sometimes. And if we had a private suite ...
"I'm glad you like it," she said. "I know we won't be here all the time, but the way you drive you could almost come for every game, anyway." She was rolling her eyes and I laughed and kissed the top of her head. "And I know how you love baseball, but you haven't had much time for it since you met me and I just thought ... we could go to some games."
"You'd come with me?" This was getting better.
She nodded and I held her tighter. "It was the Cubs you followed when you were human, wasn't it?"
"It was. And this is wonderful, Bella. Thank you."
I kissed her again and began working up the courage to give her my gift. I opened my mouth to speak, just as Sue asked Bella to explain the oven to her. My chance was gone for the moment and I spent the next little while talking with my family and comparing my new laser tag combat rifle with Jasper's sniper rifle. Emmett wanted us to have our own personal equipment.
"But you still don't get a discount to play," he'd said.
The fire was slowly fading, the room would begin to grow cold soon, so I went outside for more firewood. When I came back in Bella was still in the kitchen, laughing with Sue about an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.
I re-stacked the fire and then stood watching Abbey and Alice while they played a game on the baby laptop.
From the corner of my eye I saw Bella come back into the room and sit on the sofa with Esme.
Good luck, Edward.
Alice's thought filtered through and I smiled at her. She winked and gave me a nod. It was time.
I moved across the room and gently touched my fingers to Bella's cheek. She looked up, smiling. I smiled back and cocked an eyebrow, nodding my head slightly towards the window, indicating the garden. She looked a little puzzled, but stood up to join me. I held her hand, linking my fingers with hers and squeezing gently as I led her through the forest of discarded wrapping paper, past Emmett in his Santa hat, into the kitchen and out into the back yard. At the bench seat we stopped, I dusted off the snow and we sat. And suddenly, I was nervous. So very nervous. My gift was extravagent, though not as much as it could have been. Her gift to me had meaning and thought, mine just seemed outrageous and expensive now, and I hoped desperately she would see what was behind it. I swallowed hard and pulled the envelope from my pocket. "I wanted to give this to you in private," I said as I placed it in her hands. "Merry Christmas, Bella."
Her eyes narrowed slightly as her fingers ran over the thick, cream paper of the envelope.
"What is it?"
"Open it and see."
I rubbed my hand over my chin as she slid an elegant finger beneath the flap. My heart felt like it should be pounding and I swallowed hard as she reached into the envelope and pulled out the folded pieces of paper, the photographs and the tickets. There was silence and I held my breath as she studied them, then her eyes widened as understanding took hold.
"Edward! You ... you, what have you done?" Her eyes came up to mine, utter disbelief written all over her face. "Is this what it looks like?"
I nodded and realised I was chewing on my lip as I sank to my knees in front of her.
"Bella, I'm giving you the lights of Paris for Christmas."
She stared at me, then back at the papers in her lap - the three, first-class airline tickets, the Deeds, the map and the photos.
She was dumbfounded, her expression still bewildered. "I ... I don't ... Edward?" She looked up at me, frowning slightly as I touched the airline tickets.
"These are open ended. We can use them anytime in the next year, so we can go whenever you like, stay as long as you like ... this time. Of course, I'm hoping you'll want to go many more times. If you want." I was keeping my eyes on her. She was shaking her head slowly, still trying to take it in, I guessed. I was still feeling nervous as I moved onto the lengthy legal document. "These papers say that apartment seven, 11 rue de Monttessuy in Paris belongs to Isabella Marie Cullen ... it's yours." I said the last words firmly, she nodded just slightly and that pleased me. I relaxed a little and continued. I was over the hump now, I thought. "This map is to show you where it is." I pointed to the network of red, green and yellow lines, criss-crossing each other. "It's right here. It's a quiet street and the apartment is on the top floor. It has views over the city, the Eiffel Tower. You can even see a bit of the River Seine." I smiled and she smiled back. It was a bit shaky, but it was a smile. "And these," I traced my fingers over the two photographs. "These show you the view from the property by day and by night."
I pulled my hands back and rested them in my lap as I sat on my heels and watched her. She studied each photo carefully. Her continued silence was making me nervous again, so I kept talking.
"It's not a big apartment, it's just a basic studio really ... one main room with a kitchen across the end and a small bathroom set off at the other end. There were much bigger, fancier places to choose from, but this has by far the best view over the city, as you can probably guess from that."
I pointed at the nighttime photo. The studio was almost entirely glass along one side, letting in all the spectacle that Paris and its lights have to offer.
"I know I could have just bought the airline tickets and booked a hotel and we could have wandered around the city and enjoyed the lights that way too, but I wanted more than that for you. I wanted to give you a part of it, Bella.."
She was nodding, still staring at the picture, but she wasn't speaking. I swallowed hard and decided against saying anything more. Perhaps I'd said too much. Maybe the whole gift was too much. I'd gone too far, I knew she didn't like extravagance, what had I been thinking. I sighed and pulled my hands through my hair and looked at the moisture from the snow creeping slowly up the denim of my jeans. The studio was in a prime part of Paris, I'd have no trouble selling it. I'd contact the lawyers after ...
I lifted my eyes slowly and Bella was smiling at me. No, not smiling, she was beaming.
"You ... you like it then?"
She didn't answer. She threw herself off the bench into my arms and we fell backwards into the snow as the photos, map, tickets and deeds scattered around us. Bella's lips moved over mine and I felt safe in the assumption that, yes, she did like it.
"I love it," she whispered as she pulled away. "Edward, it's ... so thoughtful. It's so ... you!"
I felt my eyes widen when she said that.
I was lying in the snow, with Bella sitting on top of me now, grinning as she held my hands tightly. "You are kind and generous and thoughtful and loving and you always have been and this gift is huge, but so is your heart, Edward."
She leant down and kissed me again, softer this time. "I get it. This gift is who you are. And I can't wait to see the lights." Her lips grazed over mine and I brought my hands up to twist and wind in her hair, holding her to me.
I couldn't believe how happy I was at that moment.
We lay in the snow, kissing, laughing, until we realised just how wet we were getting. I took Bella's hand and pulled us to our feet and we headed back to the house. Through the window I could see our families, laughing, talking, enjoying Christmas morning. Our daughter playing on the floor, laughing as Carlisle and Esme performed for her with the puppet theatre that was their gift.
Bella was tucked in tight to my side, her arms around me, the damp papers and photos clutched in her hand. As we stood and watched for a moment I realised that for so long my life had been as though I was on the outside looking in ... watching others experience love, companionship. I grinned and kissed the top of Bella's head. Because of her I wasn't on the outside anymore.
"Come on, love, let's go in."
A little later we'd changed into dry clothes and had joined everyone back in the living room. Bella's gift received plenty of attention and Emmett had already made a list of tentative dates for he and Rosalie to stay in the apartment.
"You and Bella won't be there all the time," he'd reasoned.
Abbey was sitting on my lap. My palm was open to her and she was playing with my wedding ring, turning it around my finger, moving it back and forth. Every now and then I'd snap my hand closed and she'd giggle and try to prise my fingers open again. I'd relax my fist, one finger at a time, and when my hand was open she'd clap and start playing with the ring again.
"Will you go to Paris soon?" Esme asked.
I looked at Bella and she grinned. "I think we'll wait until after the wedding," she smiled at Charlie and Sue. I squeezed her hand, stroking my thumb over her rings.
"Paris is beautiful in Spring," I said, bringing her fingers up to kiss.
"How did you find this place, Edward?" Charlie asked as he looked at the photos.
I hesitated for a moment and decided on the truth. In the scheme of things, this odd little piece of information would pale against everything he'd already learned.
"I actually knew it already. One evening in 1963 I climbed the building and spent several hours sitting on its roof, just watching the lights. I'd been on a lot of rooftops, but that one offered the best view of the city, I thought."
Charlie's heart rate increased just slightly. 1963. I wasn't born yet.
"You'd ... you'd been on a lot of rooftops, you say?" I bet he didn't use a ladder to get up there, either.
I nodded, effectively answering both his queries.
"It's a good way to see a place," Jasper spoke up. "You get a real feel for a city from the roof tops."
"Yeah, of course," Charlie muttered. "Do you still do that now?" Still some stuff I have to get used to, I guess.
"Not for a long time, no." I said. He nodded and Carlisle distracted him with a question about fishing.
Bella tugged on my sleeve and I turned to her. There was a spark of something in her eyes and she raised an eyebrow just slightly. I spoke quietly, in a vampire whisper. "Except for that night on the roof of George's nursing home, right?"
She nodded, smiling.
"Do you want me to tell your father you were part of a break and enter?" I winked at her.
Her eyes shot open a little and she shook her head just slightly. I chuckled and hugged her to me.
Sue had a question for me and I turned to her. She smiled. "I was just thinking ... that was amazing timing then, that it was selling when you were looking for a place."
"Er, it wasn't for sale. I knew what I wanted, I just made an offer, the owners accepted."
"Oh, well that's ... good." She smiled again and then started chuckling. Must have been some offer.
It had been. But it was worth every euro.
I snapped my hand closed again and Abbey giggled. She started pulling on my fingers, making small sounds of satisfaction as each one uncurled.
"So if we go to Paris, we can also use the apartment as a base and see other places too, right?" Bella smiled up at me.
"Yes, we can." Her obvious delight, the way she was making plans for us, the way she got it, filled me up with emotions I couldn't describe.
"Are we likely to find other vampires?"
"It's possible." I thought for a moment. "It's even possible, if we made the right enquiries through the right people, that we might find other children like Abbey." I was sure there had to be more and it would be nice if she could meet others like her, closer to her age maybe, a friend she didn't have to hide secrets from. I wasn't sure what Abbey's future would hold for her, we'd send her to school, she could go to college, I hoped she'd have a career, I wondered if she would marry, find the happiness I'd found with Bella. I didn't know, except for one thing ... she would be loved for all of her very long life.
"Ha!" she'd opened all my fingers and found my wedding ring again, but now she was bored with that game and she wriggled onto the floor and flopped down amongst the paper. She picked up the customised talking teddy bear that Rosalie and Emmet had given her and squeezed him, laughing as he recited 'Twas the night before Christmas, in Emmett and Rosalie's voices. Emmett had made his especially growly and bear-like.
Charlie, Sue and Esme were sitting in the chairs around the fireplace, the others were sitting on the floor, and it was just Bella and me on the sofa, so I laid down, stretched out and put my head in her lap. My legs stuck over the end and I wiggled my bare feet at Abbey and her bear.
Bella's fingers were stroking gently over my skin, leaving a trail of warmth wherever she touched. I looked up and she was smiling down at me, pushing the hair back from my forehead. I took her free hand and rested it on my chest, holding it there.
Suddenly, Alice gasped, her eyes unfocused, staring into the distance and I could see fuzzy flickers in her mind. Then she began to grin and looked at me. My mouth fell open in surprise.
"It's fuzzy, like it always is with her, but I'm seeing right, aren't I?" she grinned.
It was another Christmas, a future Christmas. We were in this house, our family was together with a much older Charlie, a grey haired Sue, but the Christmas tree was another branch in a bucket. And there was ...
I sucked in a breath and sat up.
"What is it?" Bella was tugging my arm. Everyone was looking at me.
I am right, aren't I?
Alice asked again in her thoughts.
"I think so." I wasn't sure how I found the power of speech, but I did.
"What's going on?" Charlie asked, confused.
"Alice and Edward are talking to each other in their heads," Emmett explained. "It's annoying isn't it?"
Bella tugged on my arm again. "Edward? Edward, tell me!"
I stared at Abbey sucking on the pom pom of a discarded Santa hat now.
"Edward, what did you see? Alice?"
I started to laugh and pulled Bella into a hug as my joy spilled over. Joy at what this meant, joy at what we had created, what we'd started together.
"I love you," I said, then I put my hands on Bella's cheeks and kissed her. When I stopped I pulled back to look into her eyes. Hers were searching mine and I couldn't stop myself - I knew she wanted answers but I kissed her instead. I sighed as I pulled away, she was desperate now to know and so was the rest of the room. I took a breath, my shoulders squared and my chest swelled as I looked into her eyes and told her ...
Author Note: This story started on Twilighted in February and I can't believe it's finished. I feel kind of sad, but glad that it's reached its conclusion - I hope you liked the ending, if you have a sec, I'd love to hear what you think :)
And I'd like to say Thank You to everyone who has been along for the Blood Lines ride.
THANK YOU to all the people who have recommended this story, I appreciate that more than I can say.
THANK YOU to everyone who has nominated/voted for this story in the Moonlight and Bellie awards - that just blew me away.
THANK YOU to everyone who has reviewed and left me PM's - I appreciate them all, they make me laugh and smile and always make my day. I reply to as many as I can, if I've missed yours, I'm sorry, but please know that I read them all.
Finally, I'd like to wish you all a very Happy Holiday Season and a Great New Year!