Greetings from Interlaken. I'm glad to have found an internet connection to upload the last chapter, and to end this story. Again, if the formatting is iffy, please overlook it- I simply have no time to pretty it up.
It's been an amazing experience. Thank you for reading this, and for allowing me to explore what kind of writer I am capable of being. It has been one of the most challenging things I've ever attempted, and I've learnt a lot.
Thanks of course go to bookbag. She's the other half of my entity. She's amazing.
Thank you to carrie3101, my number one fan, who has believed in me and encouraged me even though we have never met. What a gift.
Thank you to gutterfairy, who was guest beta on this chapter.
And special thanks to my boyfriend White Arrow, for his patience and support- with the end of this story, he gets me back, and he is very happy about that.
It is with joy in my heart and maybe a little tear that I give you the final chapter of The Blessing and the Curse, and write those two magical words at the very bottom of your screen.
Chapter Twenty One: The Inheritance
Bella stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom, ruefully studying her appearance. She wore the same black dress she'd borrowed from Esme's wardrobe to wear to the funeral that afternoon, but as the sun set down behind the hills, turning everything a thousand shades of white gold, she wished she had brought something different to wear. Her selection was painfully limited; her only other dress had been knotted and rumpled after her night with Edward. She had tried to untwist it but her hands had shaken too much and she'd given up.
If she wasn't feeling so exceptionally cowardly, she might have gone back upstairs to Esme's closet to borrow the green cocktail dress she'd passed over this morning. But she was daunted by the momentous feeling that fizzed in her blood, and she lingered in front of the mirror or by the window, hoping to settle herself.
She could feel Edward's presence in the house like a ghost. Every creak or closing door, she felt it was him. He was the light and shadows sliding over her floor, the beautiful monster under her bed that terrified and delighted her in turn.
The sound of a man's voice downstairs, perhaps greeting a guest, was unmistakably his, the cadence of his voice as familiar as the sound of her own heart.
She wasn't sure why this was so frightening, but she remembered how he had smiled at her as he'd braced himself over her, after they had made love, the glow of love in his eyes and the tiny frown that she had not recognized, and she thought that perhaps this feeling was excitement, the twin brother of terror.
Bella could see from her vantage point the steady procession of cars winding down the road towards them, the white dots of headlights necessary now that darkness was softly descending. They were parking in crooked rows along the edges of the drive. Women were wobbling in their kitten heels along the gravel, gathering in groups of twos and threes to exchange long hugs, rubbing each other's shoulders, pulling back and ducking to check each other's expression. They may have been dressed for it, but their slow steps and the way they held each other's arms could tell any onlooker that this was not a party. Bella felt tears prick in her own eyes as she watched one woman take out a mirror to try to repair her mascara.
The men strayed awkwardly behind as the women comforted each other. They looked like they were spending an afternoon at the racetrack, dressed in their light grey suits and carrying bouquets and bottles of wine. Bella leaned her cheekbone against the old wood window frame, letting her breath fog a little.
There were beautiful colours, feathers, silk. All had tissues and handkerchiefs in their pockets and handbags, but there was hardly any black, just colour.
Bella, meanwhile, looked like a black tulip; wilting, petals loosened. She plucked at the skirt ineffectually, wishing she looked more beautiful for when she sought out Edward, but remembering that she was somehow always beautiful to him.
She jumped when she heard the knock on her bedroom door.
"Come in," she called, her stomach trilling nervously. The door swung open, and she wasn't sure if it was relief or trepidation to see Rose. The one drop of bad blood between them made Bella turn to the dressing table to nervously straighten the bottles and to begin making ordered piles of hairpins and earrings.
She'd cried on Rose's shoulder in the car, but Bella could not quite forget the disdain in Rose's eyes the previous night.
"Rose, hi." Self consciously, she tugged at her skirt again, unsure of herself.
"Are you ok? Why are you hiding in here?" Rose asked after a moment. She was a solemn, blonde little Indian princess in the doorway, a garment bag folded over her arm.
She was wearing a beautiful turquoise shirt in the same fabric as an Indian sari, with one arm adorned with thin gold bangles. She wore navy pants and no shoes, and she shifted from foot to foot. She held small embroidered slippers in her hand.
"I'm fine now. I know you're angry with me," Bella blurted and sat on the end of the bed, but broke off as Rose waved her words away.
Rose sighed, hanging the garment bag on the wardrobe. "I'm not angry, hon. I promise."
She sat down beside Bella, her guttural groan echoed by the bed's squeak.
"Funeral was dreadful, wasn't it?" she said matter-of-factly, her dark blue eyes assessing Bella's face shrewdly.
Bella nodded. "I felt terrible that I wasn't upset during it," she confessed tentatively.
"I just couldn't feel any connection to Esme. I just felt numb."
Rose exhaled. "I know, me too." She leaned back on one elbow on the bed. "But we'll make up for it tonight. It's going to be one hell of a party judging from the amount of champagne on ice down in the cellar. They're all going to be legless. Emmett has made up spare rooms in case people need to stay overnight." She wrinkled her nose in amusement and tapped her foot idly. "Nothing like watching your husband make six beds. It's strangely erotic."
Bella snorted with laughter, some of the unease leaving her.
The smell of food and the distant hum of talking below made them both smile and as they turned to each other the tentative strands of friendship unfurled like spider's webs.
"I'm sorry you're disappointed with me," Bella said. "About how I've handled this whole situation with Edward."
Rose sighed, rubbing her face. "It's absolutely none of my business. I've been a nosy bitch."
Bella laughed. "Yes, you have. But that's why I love you."
Rose pinched her arm gently. "I'm sorry that I've been like this. Emmett and I talked, and I kinda see how hard the decision was to make." She jingled her bracelets idly. "Choosing between your heart, and your head…"
She trailed off, as the unmistakable footsteps of Edward passed by the door and continued to his bedroom. They heard his door close.
It was at least ten seconds until Bella let out her breath again, and Rose grinned at her, until she remembered what Edward had warned her, and the smile faded.
"Bella…Whatever you decide to do- be with Edward, go back to Michael, or choose neither of them- it's your decision. Don't think of what anyone else thinks. Even me." Rose's voice was a little stiff. She was embarrassed by her childishness, memories of Edward's pained expression and the tears streaking down Michael's cheeks making her wince inwardly.
But she could not hold back the words, as hard as she tried.
"But you've chosen Edward, right?"
Bella bit her lip, but the smile caught the edge of her mouth. She stood, and crossed to the mirror again, and studied herself as she replied.
"I overheard Edward and Michael talking about me, earlier, outside." She pressed her hand to her overheated temple.
"What did you hear?" Rose asked, her eyes glinting. Her mouth was tugging upwards at the corners, and the scent of gossip was making her salivate.
"I…" Bella paused, unsure of how much she could share. "I heard enough to realize how Michael feels about me. How both of them feel about me, actually."
"And?" Rose's toes were visibly curled.
"Michael doesn't believe in me."
She said the words simply, although they did hurt. "He doesn't think I can fulfill my potential. He was always embarrassed that I wasn't a lawyer or something. He thought my career was a joke." She took the lid off a perfume bottle. "Possibly he was right. I've been just… sleepwalking. Sitting in a court room; listening to evidence of violence, seeing the worst of humanity. I can't do it any more," she said again, more to herself. "And it was Edward who defended me, said I could do anything I chose to."
She looked at Rose in the reflection of the glass.
"I've been so terrified of having no choice. For the longest time, I didn't want to be in love with Edward. But I was so busy running away from him I didn't notice that I was being trapped by someone else; into a life I didn't want. I was just numb… I didn't notice what was happening, until it all felt too late."
Rose's foot tapped quicker in the air, and she put on her slippers to hide her agitation.
"I dreamt of Edward every night, and spent every waking hour erasing his existence." Bella turned to face Rose. "But I can't deny it any more. I'm in love with him."
Rose made an inhuman noise, and her slipper fell off. "And he's yours. He's so completely at your feet, it just makes me want to cry. You should see him down there, all dressed up like a grown up man, taking care of his daddy. Our Edward is growing up," she mused, suddenly taking on the air of a contemplative matriarch. "He's a little shit, but I think that boy is growing up."
Bella's nose wrinkled in amusement and sat next to Rose. "He's practically not a teenager any more. I can't believe he didn't bury Michael, especially after his outburst this morning. Michael said he couldn't give a fuck about Esme- he said it out of anger, but I would never be able to forgive him that. Even if he could forgive me for being unfaithful, I'd never forget he said that," she said, her voice laced with pain. Rose pushed her off the bed, not wanting her to lose her glow.
"Come on, you can get dressed while talking. People are arriving- the boys need us downstairs."
"I am dressed," Bella said, pulling out the edges of the skirt before dropping it unhappily. "I've got nothing to change into, unless I raid Esme's wardrobe again, which might be poor taste given the circumstances."
Rose hauled herself up moved to the wardrobe door and briskly unzipped the garment bag, unpinning the dry cleaning label.
"This would be much nicer," she commented as she pulled the dress out, pausing when she saw Bella's face. "What?"
Bella looked as if she had seen a ghost.
It was the red dress.
The beautiful dress she'd worn on the night she had run away, down a different path and into a blank life of ice and silence. The red was the colour that had saturated every dream of Edward. Each dream had veered abruptly into nightmare when she sensed she was waking up and losing him again.
She crossed to it, and Rose fell instinctively silent. Bella touched the old silk carefully, her fingers remembering the feel of the threads against her fingerprints. The air layered with déjà vu and memory and the unmistakable resounding sensation of fate. She gathered the skirt up to inspect one side where she knew she had fallen and torn it. It had been professionally repaired with tiny stitches, barely visible in the skirt's lush creases.
It was her own personal Cinderella dress. She wore it that night, eons ago, when she had made the decision to just accept fate and give in to her love. He had pushed her away, and ruined that night, but as she ran her fingertips over the tiny repair stitches she realised that it was an old damage. Long mended. Always there as a reminder, a caution, but it had not ruined it.
It glowed with old love.
"Was it Esme's?" Rose asked kindly. "It's gorgeous."
Bella began tearing off her black dress, too distracted to be self conscious in her underwear, not caring that her bedroom door was open.
"It was hers. And it was once mine, a long time ago. I wore this the night before I ran away," she said, sliding out of her mourning dress like she was in a trance.
She gathered herself, and cast Rose a look. "But Esme didn't do this. Edward did this." The absolute conviction in her voice made Rose smile.
Bella lifted her arms, and the old silk slid down the sides of her arms. It was hugging her like a glove, and in that moment she was transported back. She was young; she was in love, hopelessly in love. Rose zipped it up for her, and went to sort through Bella's shoes to see what would work best.
Bella smoothed down the sides and walked to study herself in the wardrobe mirror. It still fit perfectly. She noticed the faint pink heart on her shoulder, where Edward's mouth had marked her.
Edward, the most unsentimental person she knew, who eschewed possessions, had kept this dress. He had it repaired, and it had hung in his closet like a flame. He had never forgotten her and never given up hope for a second chance. It hung in the dark, safe in this house just as she left it, damaged and tragic and desperately lovely, waiting for the day it would be worn again.
"Edward loves me," Bella breathed, touching her fingertips to the antique silver brushes on her dresser. She lifted her eyes to the reflection, meaning to look at Rose, but she could only look at her own face, the way her own eyes flashed, when she repeated, "Edward loves me. It's only ever been me."
Rose stood, and hugged her. Bella closed her eyes and breathed in the Chanel and shampoo. They stood together in the last slices of daylight, and Rose pressed a couple of kisses to Bella's hair as she released her.
"Esme would have been thrilled," Rose said, her eyes brimming with tears. "You were her daughter in so many ways, but she'd always known that you and Edward were perfect for each other. She always used to smile when she spoke of you two. 'He's never loved anyone but Bella', that's she used to say."
Bella took a readying breath. "I have to be prepared for the fact that he might pull away from me. We've got a lot of bad history. I've never told you what it was like growing up with him. Every time he got close enough for a kiss, he'd laugh and abandon me somewhere, or-"
Rose frowned. "You're never living NOW. You're in the past with Edward. You're trapped in the future you could have had with Michael. Just… live now."
She patted her pregnant stomach. "We live in each day we're given. What do you want now?"
"I want to be with him. Always."
"Then what are you doing up here?" Rose laughed. "Be brave. Your life with him won't be easy, I can guarantee you that. But it will be a life. You've woken up."
Bella wavered as she padded to the door. "He might run away from me. We're good at doing that to each other."
"You're both tired by now. Just walk." Rose's voice was full of the confident authority of someone who was in love with the right person. She felt languorous as she stretched her arms over her head, feeling like tonight the puzzle pieces were falling into place.
Edward's door opened abruptly at the end of the hall, and Bella turned as he passed her doorway.
"Edward," she said softly. When he saw her he blanched, before quickly recovering.
He was wearing his dark grey suit, but had shed his tie, and his face was devoid of expression as he took in her small feet, the beautiful line of her bare throat, her bare hands. He lingered on the pink mark he had left on her skin, and when he caught her eye for a fraction of a second, she thought he looked like he wanted to cry.
"You kept my dress," she breathed, her smile fading.
"I told you I had all sorts of things hidden in my closet," he managed, and turned away, pretending to check if he'd closed his door.
"Thank you," Bella said. "Come here."
She was not surprised when he backed slowly down the hallway, his eyes smouldering with something that scared her.
"Edward- wait," Bella said. "I need to talk to you."
"See you downstairs," he said, and disappeared.
"He's scared of what my decision is," Bella explained finally to Rose, who came to stand beside her in the doorway. "He doesn't know who I've chosen."
"You better go and tell him then," Rose said, giving her a push to propel her down the hallway. "Put him out of his misery. He's awful when he's unhappy."
Bella laughed as they paused at the top of the stairs. "I don't know what I'm doing." She dragged her fingers through her hair to tidy it.
Rose caught her hands. "You'll know what to do."
Walk, Bella repeated to herself as she made her way down the stairs, her feet still bare.
Walk to him. Walking away from him is not an option any more. She smiled to herself, the giddiness almost unbearable.
She stopped on the landing, surprised to see so many people in the house below.
There was still a sense of sadness in the air, but it was muted by the gorgeous old big band music that Esme loved. The huge vases of roses and trailing ivy evoked memories of that New Years Eve night so many years before, and the little candles lit her way as she slipped down the stairs and through the crowd of half-familiar faces.
Esme is here tonight, I can feel her, Bella realised as someone began laughing at the punchline of a joke. She smiled politely at Esme's friends and colleagues, and caught sight of the photographs propped on mantles and old chairs; people studying them like artworks.
One woman, dressed in olive, stood alone before the picture of Esme asleep on the patio, her fingers pressed to her lips, eyes starry with tears. Everyone was finding their own way to say goodbye to her tonight, and as the clock slipped forward a little, the flowers seemed to imbue the air, perfuming skin and hair.
Esme is here with me tonight, Bella thought, to make sure that I claim him.
She waved to Emmett, who was pouring champagne with his grave, steady competence. He caught her eye, and smiled and lifted a glass to toast her.
Thank God, he thought as he watched her duck through a doorway, clearly on a quest in bare feet.
She's chosen him.
She walked slowly, padding softly as though hunting prey, ducking under an elbow and stepping over the hems of trailing dresses. There was laughter here tonight, she realised, but a tear escaped as she searched for him in the kitchen, on the patio.
She trod carefully through this crush of people, feeling kind hands upon her elbow, words of condolence and the joy that everybody felt to have had Esme for as long as they did.
With every turn she took through the interconnected rooms, she felt he had just slipped away. "He was here a minute ago," advised one man, gesturing with his champagne glass. "He's just through there."
She saw Edward's shoulder, his profile as he disappeared through into the dining room. His beauty was enough to steal her breath, as always, but it was the strange vulnerability in the way that he rubbed the back of his neck that pierced her more. She wound onwards, through the house that held all of her memories, unknowing that he was slipping away from the petal of red that he had carried in the corner of his eye, the centre of his heart, for so long that he couldn't tell if he was in heaven or purgatory.
Bella struggled through a crowd of elderly great aunts and uncles, smiling as they greeted her like family. She spoke with them for a few minutes, trying to mask her impatience to reach him. She was released after several powdery kisses, and turned to backtrack, unaware that she was raising a hand as if to catch him by the sleeve of his jacket.
A gust of cold air told her that the front door was closing, and she turned and began to run, chasing him instinctively, skidding to a stop when she realised it wasn't Edward leaving, but her father arriving.
Charlie looked like a hedge that that been trimmed too many times. He had a kind of unreal, strained quality, like there was not a leaf, or hair, out of place.
He's looking so old, Bella realised with a start. So much older than the last time she saw him, last year. Maybe it was the year before, she thought guiltily.
He was dressed in black, and looked completely out of place. He clearly didn't get that memo, she thought sadly. He was always doing what was technically correct, but missing out on the bigger picture.
"Bella," Charlie said stiffly, as though calling her by her name was unbearable intimacy, even for his own progeny.
She hated herself for it, but she felt herself deflate, the strange playful joy of hunting Edward draining away. Her tears, and her smile, dried on her cheeks.
"Hi Dad," she said. "How are you?" She stepped out of the way as Rose passed with a platter of smoked salmon canapés. Rose nodded politely to Charlie but was clearly a little foggy on who he was.
"I'm fine. I'm… sorry for Esme passing," Charlie replied, his deep voice sombre. "Is the family holding up alright?"
"We're fine," she said, holding out her hand for his coat. "Coping, anyway. Carlisle is hanging in there."
She hung his coat under the stairs, choosing to ignore his pointed look at her bare feet.
Bella wondered if this evening brought back painful memories of Renee's death. Maybe there was a trace of pity in her eye, and he seemed to read her thought.
"Your mother's wake was nothing like this," he commented, as though relieved to have said the words. He gestured to the elegant cocktail wear and gingerly took a canapé from Rose as she made another circuit, her eyes ever bright with curiosity.
"It's perfect," Bella said, aware of the note of defensiveness in her voice.
She took in the crowd with satisfaction, in truth half expecting Esme to pop around the corner at any moment, being slowly chased by Carlisle, giggling from having her sides tickled. "It's just what she wanted."
The conversation had strayed too close to emotion.
"How is work?" he asked quickly, the failsafe question that fathers the world over asked their daughters.
"It's awful, I'm going to quit," Bella replied absently as she watched Edward appear in another doorway.
His elbow was snagged by one of the elderly great aunts, and he bent down to speak with her and made her laugh, raising a fluttery hand to her throat.
Charming women even if they were in their eighties, Bella thought, the love unravelling inside her.
Charlie said nothing as he watched Bella smile at Edward, and turned to study the photograph closest to them, propped up on the third stair from the bottom. It was of Esme and Carlisle, their faces radiant with love as they pressed their cheeks together. Each was in fancy dress; Esme was a cowgirl, Carlisle unconvincing in a droopy Batman suit.
"And how is Michael?" Charlie asked, trying to draw Bella's attention back from staring at Edward, who had began laughing at someone's joke. He lifted his camera, which had been dangling from his wrist, and took some frames of family members, Carlisle on one side of the group.
"Dad, we broke up. The engagement is off." Bella watched his mouth flatten with disapproval, marvelling at how it barely affected her. She'd thought it would have been terrifying, facing his disapproval, but as she glanced back to Carlisle who was lovingly straightening Edward's collar, she knew she would recover from whatever her father told her.
Charlie began to speak, but reconsidered. He looked at Edward across the room, who was rearranging seats to face the fireplace, presumably for the older guests who were shuffling gingerly towards him, clutching champagne glasses.
"It's Edward, isn't it," Charlie stated flatly, the name spoken like one might mention a pesticide, or a disease.
"Yes Dad. It's Edward." She didn't feel the smile spread across her face.
Charlie paused for a long moment, assessing whether perhaps she was drunk.
Edward straightened from setting out the chairs and turned his face to Bella again, a movement as automatic as breathing for him. He'd been deliberately trying not to, but he couldn't help it.
Bella caught his eye and raised one hand, and he knocked over a chair awkwardly and turned to speak to Emmett.
Bella braced for his lecture, but all Charlie said was, "Just be aware that you'll get hurt. When it ends, and it will end, you'll wish you'd stayed with a safe bet like Michael."
Bella looked at Charlie carefully, really looked at him for the first time in years, and realised that he was afraid for her. Afraid that she would be heartbroken, and alone, like him. He of all people knew how hard it was to live without love.
She knew that she was more scared of ending up like him, from taking no risks with her heart again.
She nodded, and surprised him by taking his hand, squeezing it. "I probably will, Dad. But I'm okay with that."
They regarded each other for a long moment.
Possibly, his feelings of parental responsibility had withered and died. More likely, he was desperately lonely, and he hadn't used his heart in a long time.
He nodded, and said softly, "you're braver than most. I wish you luck."
She looked at his hand, and surprised them both when she said, "I might come and visit you some time soon, if that would be alright."
He said nothing, but she understood it was because he couldn't.
"You let me know," she said, releasing his hand.
When Carlisle approached them they were both grateful, and she escaped to the dining room, not seeing her father's façade slip just a little as he and Carlisle shook hands at the foot of the stairs, each man understanding the other perfectly. Nothing was as beautiful as loving someone until they died, and nothing as painful. They didn't even speak, and Carlisle was called away to join Edward, but in that moment Carlisle felt as if he had received the kind of condolence that he'd really needed.
When Bella stepped into the main dining room, she saw Carlisle join Edward in front of the fireplace. She became aware that people were beginning to gather, and Rose and Emmett were passing out more champagne glasses. Bella belatedly picked up a bottle of champagne from the table and began to top up glasses.
Carlisle put on his reading glasses, and looked down at the little sheet of paper in his hand.
"Can I have your attention please," he called, and the crush became more intense as more people filed in from the hallways, craning their necks and placing their hands on each other's shoulders.
Rose snagged Bella's wrist and towed her out to stand at the side of the fireplace, in the crowd. The warmth of the fire radiated through Bella as Edward caught her eye. His eyes were the dark, desperate eyes of an addict, she could not deny it, and it made her toes curl on the carpet. He looked at her like she were something he desperately wanted but could not afford, and she could not bear it. She realised how much she preferred the way he usually looked at her, like a man surveying a particular treasure.
It's alright, she mouthed at him, and he closed his eyes momentarily, the dark line of his brows and the wild twists of his hair gilded by firelight. When he opened his eyes again, he was looking away, at the ground, his tiny frown making her want to smile.
"Thank you all for coming to say goodbye to Esme," Carlisle began, his voice quiet but ringing out easily, for everyone was silent. "It's been a difficult last year, but she bore it with such grace, and she went as gently and happily as she did everything."
Looking around at the assembled crowd, Bella saw people's eyes starting to shine with tears, and her own throat thickened.
"There's no doubt at all, as I look around at all of her family and friends, she is here with us tonight."
They all hugged themselves and held their glasses, thinking to themselves, I hope so.
"You all know what sort of person she was, so we won't stand on ceremony tonight. I'm grateful that you have all made it here tonight, some of you travelling long distances, to farewell a remarkable person, someone I'm proud to say was my wife."
Carlisle's voice was clear and strong, and his smile was genuine as he added,
"She had a large hand in tonight's planning, so please think of her as your honorary hostess tonight. But I must thank my sons Emmett and Edward, and my daughters Rose and Bella. They've worked very hard to pull this all together."
Bella's heart jolted in pleasure at the ease in which Carlisle referred to her as family, and she glanced at Rose, who did not seem to notice anything amiss. Edward was impassive as he stood beside his father.
Bella slid a glance sideways, but Charlie's blank expression did not reveal what he thought of Carlisle's slip.
"You all know that I loved her more than anything, but she was a stubborn little thing, hence our private funeral earlier this afternoon. She didn't want a fuss. We talked a lot about this night, during her last months. It gave her such pleasure to know that we would all be gathered together, helping each other through this time, and she loved nothing more than dictating the little details of tonight. For instance, the roses in the foyer are the Bourbon roses that have grown in these gardens for a hundred and twenty years. She was very insistent on those," he added, to the gentle chuckles of the audience. They all knew how determined she was.
Carlisle tipped his glasses onto the end of his nose and held his notes at arm's length.
"According to Esme, you read this," he said as aside to Edward, making everyone laugh. It was just like Esme had got her little bossy influence here tonight.
Edward took the sheet of paper from his father.
"I'm reading a poem by George Bernard Shaw," he said. Bella had not heard his voice in hours, and she felt Rose wrap her arm around her waist.
"I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality." He paused, before continuing,
"I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea." His beautiful voice grew rough, and he took a deep breath, before finishing,
"My palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day's wage, my night's dream, my darling and my star."
He reflexively looked to Bella when he finished. There were tears in her eyes, just like that night so many years ago, when she'd last worn that dress.
Belatedly, he realised he had been silent a little too long, but nobody had noticed. They were all lost in their own private moment; perhaps each thinking about the things that they wanted, or had, or had lost.
Finally, it was Emmett who stepped forward, broke the silence. "I think what my mother meant by leaving us with this poem was to remind us that whilst she was taken too soon, and she had so many things she had wanted to be here for…" here, he gestured fondly to Rose, "she lived with no regrets. She lived the life she wanted, and that's the best you can hope to say when you leave this world. Please raise your glasses, and toast Esme. May we all live our best life."
"To our best life," they all echoed, raising their glasses. Silence fell as everyone drank deeply. The taste of the champagne was like ambrosia, it fizzed in the blood, and every glass was empty when Carlisle said,
"Please, continue to enjoy yourselves. The family is just going to take a moment, but we will rejoin you shortly."
The Cullens all moved into Carlisle's study.
It wasn't until Bella was settling into one of the chairs opposite his desk that she realised she had not hesitated.
Emmett closed the door quietly behind Bella and moved to pull out a chair for Rose.
Edward stood by the fireplace, toeing the ashes that were building up at the edges. The low flames were little more than orange feathers in the crumbling logs. He laid a new log on top of the pile, the shadows harsh on his face, and straightened with an inward sigh. He turned, his gaze as always alighting on Bella, before looking to Carlisle.
"Are you okay, Dad?" he asked, his customary frown touching his brow.
Bella felt like she finally understood that expression now.
"I'm fine," Carlisle reassured them all, sliding down into his upholstered chair behind the desk. "It's going well tonight." He slid his champagne glass around on the blotter.
"It's just how she wanted it." He looked up at them all, his smile so genuinely happy that they all smiled back at him without thinking.
As if on cue, they could hear one of their guests laughing outside. It was an infectiously ridiculous braying laugh, and it was Rose who began giggling first, unable to resist the urge. Soon they were all laughing, unable to stop. Every time Bella thought she could stop, she would catch Rose's eye, or see the way that Carlisle had to wipe his eyes, and she would begin again.
"She's written letters for each of us" Carlisle eventually said, as they all wiped the tears from their faces. His breath caught in his throat a little as he handed them each an envelope, a small parcel.
Their laughter had melted, and they all studied their gifts reverently, almost unable to bear opening them.
Bella gently cradled the tiny square box. A ring box, she realised, and her stomach flipped.
She opened the envelope as carefully as she could, and unfolded the letter inside. She was saddened by how Esme's normally looped, neat script was made spiky, presumably from pain.
My darling Bella,
I've been privileged to watch you grow up into the lovely woman you are today. You have always been a part of this family, please never doubt it. You are loved by all of us, but you are loved the most by my precious son. I know that the bond has often been too hard to bear. Sometimes I wonder if I'm to blame. Before you both were born, Renee and I used to wish aloud… we'd wish that our babies would always love each other. I'm afraid I may have wished too hard? But whether or not it has been a blessing or a curse depends on how you look at it. I'm gifting you a little something to wear on your wedding day… I'm leaving you my dark jewel, darling. Please treasure it, hold it safe, and recognize it for what it is. It was always destined to belong to you.
Bella's cheeks burned as she turned the little box from side to side, her heart in her throat, knowing what she would find inside. Esme's engagement ring. It must be. It had to be.
The old dark sapphire, handed down through generations of Cullens. It had been hidden once; buried in a flowerpot during a war. When it was unearthed, the sapphire had been turned almost completely black. But when held up, its depths still danced and sparkled the deepest blue. Bella had loved it as a child; she and Esme would lie in bed on rainy Sunday afternoons and make up stories about it. "It belonged to a mermaid…. It was Marie Antoinette's… It was tied to a pigeon's leg…" All of Esme's nonsense stories had charmed Bella then, and made her nostalgic and oddly frightened as she pondered this incredible honour.
Bella slowly raised the lid, and was startled when pearls uncoiled smoothly out of the box and into the floor. She picked up the strand of huge, buttery pearls, puzzled. She loved these pearls, absolutely. They had been Esme's twenty-first birthday gift, and she had worn them again at her wedding. But she could not deny she was disappointed, although she reprimanded herself for it.
She looked over at Edward, backlit by the glowing lamp on the desk behind him as he read his letter.
He opened his large, square box, and blinked at the contents. He reread the note and laughed, almost bitterly, snapping the box shut again. He leaned back and rubbed his face, stretching wearily.
She could hardly bear to look at him. The ache was like a violin string, a trembling shivering in her chest. She loved him so dearly, and as she watched the sweep of his eyelashes on his cheek, she nearly laughed out loud when she realised that what Esme had really bequeathed her was Edward. A human heirloom. Esme knew that he would need Bella during this period of grieving, and every day after it.
Rose was crying over the collection of art deco hatpins that Esme had left her. Emmett was putting on the silver cufflinks that had been in the Masen family for five generations. Carlisle had an odd little parcel, but he had not opened it.
Bella fastened the pearls around her throat and for a breathless, terrifying moment she caught Edward's eye. His eyes dropped to her throat, and then to her hands.
"Thank you for my dress," she said to him quietly, and he turned away abruptly. Emmett and Rose looked on with interest.
"I've got to-," he broke off. He paused, and gazed at Bella, his eyes yearning. He abruptly left.
She let him go, knowing he needed a moment to let his emotion dissipate.
Emmett and Rose saw that Carlisle had yet to read his note, and they all stood and slipped out carefully.
Carlisle was puzzling over this present, not noticing them leave. He wondered when Esme had the strength to organize a surprise for him.
True, this envelope seemed older than the rest. He carefully slid his finger and opened the envelope, and read the single line with a swelling feeling inside; helpless love, and a tiny easing of the grief.
And for you, my Carlisle, I leave you my heart. It only blooms for you.
He studied the teardrop shaped lump. It looked like…. A giant hershey's kiss, wrapped in foil. It was remarkably heavy in his palm.
Realisation dawned as he peeled back the layers, and in his hands lay a huge tulip bulb, like nothing he'd ever seen before.
He smiled, and as he drank the last of his champagne in a toast to her and their life. As he turned in his chair to the window, to watch the way the branches of the nearby oak tree moved against the moon, for the first time he looked forward to Spring as he idly began to plan where he would plant it.
Meanwhile, the gathering of mourners were indeed fulfilling Rose's prediction. Champagne was being drunk like it was water, and a small cheer was heard when Emmett changed the record, turned the music up a little.
Rose caught Bella's sleeve. "He's gone down to the cellar. Go down and talk to him. I'll make sure you're not interrupted."
Bella slipped away, and made her way to the little door under the landing, which was slightly ajar. She descended down the steep steps, feeling the air grow colder as she descended into the earth.
She ran the pearl necklace through her fingertips again and again, loving the way the pearls had heated to her skin.
"Edward?" she said.
He jolted as though she had electrocuted him, and nearly dropped the bottles he was holding.
"You can't run away from me now," she said softly, teasingly.
As if on cue, the door upstairs clicked shut.
"How much do you want to bet she's just locked us in?" Edward commented dryly.
The sound of Rose's laugh was distinct amongst the creaking of the floorboards and the muffled talking and music overhead.
"Come here," Bella said. "Talk to me. Why have you been avoiding me?"
His green eyes were fevered in this half-light as he looked at her with narrowed eyes, as though he were suffering physical pain. He'd shed his jacket, and had rolled up his sleeves.
She opened her mouth to speak, but fell silent again as he moved towards her. Anyone else would have read his quivering, dark energy as anger, but she knew it was desperation and fear that made him walk towards her with heavy, deliberate steps, like a vampire in an old movie towards a transfixed woman who should have known to at least try to run.
He lifted one hand, as if to stroke the silk that wrapped her skin, but he dropped his hand and put it in his pocket with some effort instead.
"How is it possible that you look younger now, than you did back then?" he said quietly, giving in to himself a little and pressing a kiss on her cheekbone, before backing away again. He pushed away bottles and leaned on the bench.
"At least allow me this; if I make a fool of myself now, just let it stay here in this room, under the ground," he muttered roughly, scowling at the sleeve of his jacket. "I suppose you heard me and Michael arguing."
"I heard," she said.
"How much?" he returned, raising his eyes to hers.
"I think I caught the main gist of it," she said, but again he interrupted her.
"Well, it's nothing you haven't known all along."
She thought back to all the times that Michael had glossed over her occupation when introducing her to people at parties. "I suppose it's always been obvious."
Edward laughed. "There's not a single person who's ever met me that hasn't known what you mean to me."
"I've been thinking about it… I've been in love with you since the day I was born. Every memory I have, it involves the way I love you." He dragged his gaze quickly over her stark brown eyes, and dropped them quickly away to the rows of bottles cellared behind her, the corks forming a grid that framed her perfectly. Would make a good photograph, he thought abstractly.
"Everything you heard me say to Michael is what I should have told you, years ago. But how could you not have known? Everything that I am, and all that I will ever be, is yours. Maybe my analogy of wanting to eat you alive was too violent."
"I-" She put her hand to her throat, felt the glowing pearls almost quivering under her palm with the force of her heart.
"I'm in love with you. I love you." He leveled his eyes on her, and he gestured at her elegantly as he struggled to find the right phrase. "Look at you, standing there in red. You're like my heart, in human form. You're the good I could be. I squandered and misused our connection, and now I'm willing to pay for that."
He slumped a little, as though only the force of his love had kept him upright, and the shadows seemed to give him a moment of privacy as he turned his face into them.
"I've been trying to give you some space tonight. It's your decision, and if you do love him, I'll live with it. I'll stay here with dad and then when I can't bear being on the same continent, and when he's alright, I'll go back overseas. I'll get stronger, and I'll come back."
"No, don't," she said.
"Well, unless you don't want me to go. I'll get a place in Portland. I could try to just be your friend. I'll really, really try." He was getting all mixed up, offering her everything, cutting up sections of his heart and soul so haphazardly, handing them to her like slices of cake. It was the second time today that a man had offered to sacrifice his pride for her, and knowing how much it was costing Edward made the first tear slip like a ribbon down her cheek, and he smiled, his first genuine smile.
"We will always be best friends." He sighed. "If you decide your place isn't with me, I can still be your friend. I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to be the kind of friend you need me to be."
She wondered at the depth of his heart, whether he truly believed what he was offering. Did he really think he could stand by and watch her be with another man?
But as she looked at his profile as he turned away from her to study the window that filtered moonlight through the green, she realised he meant to try. And he would always try.
As if he knew her thoughts, he snorted.
"Even though you'll always know your best friend wants to nibble away at your edges."
She wiped away the tear. "I never heard you saying all that to Michael. I only heard him gloating about getting my virginity. I heard his tone when he said I wasn't a journalist, and how you defended me. You said I could live any life I wanted to."
Edward's throat had gotten tight, and he said nothing.
"I will never love anyone else," he finally said, his voice rough. "I want you to take all the time you need, think things through."
"I don't need to," Bella said. "You're right. I can live any life I want to, and I choose you."
Her words seemed to register with his body, because he stood up straighter and leaned towards her, but his eyes were still narrowed on the row of wine near the ceiling. So old, that wine, waiting for years until it was ready.
"I choose a life with you," she said again, softer this time, and took his hands. She linked her fingers in with his, squeezed lightly as he turned his eyes to hers sharply.
She stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his, but he was still and unresponsive.
"I'm going back to Portland. I have to. If I wait, it'll make it harder. But I gave my ring back to Michael outside the church, and I'll be going home to pack."
She felt sick at the memory of the pain in Michael's eyes, but of one thing she was certain: Michael would get over her, but Edward never would.
She sank her fingers into the hair at his nape, and the first hummings of belief began to warm Edward's skin, and he laughed incredulously.
"Why would you choose me? I'm a homeless nobody. I've got nothing, really. I'm probably broke."
She pressed a kiss to his cheekbone, like he had done to her. His skin was her favourite scent.
"I'd rather be homeless with you. I've learnt the hard way how hard living without you is."
The house groaned a little, and settled in its foundations, and she smiled against his closed eyelid. "And this house is the only home I've ever known."
He slid away and looked down at her for a long time. He paced away, and she leant against the bench where he had, and watched him.
Watching Edward process good news was always fascinating. First, he frowned at it. Then he took this news, and examined it, looking for cracks. Then he wondered why he would deserve anything good.
He relied completely on his senses, rather than abstract information to make something real for him, so when he abruptly pressed her back against the bench, one arm snaking up her back and into her hair, she was already laughing, the exhilaration of anticipation making her dizzy as she watched him finally realise what she had been saying to him in this moment, her entire life.
"I love you," she whispered against his mouth, and she felt him shake.
"I'll steal away everything you need, until you hate me," he tossed out, one last chance for her to escape him. "There's nothing I won't know, as soon as I touch you. Privacy. Stability. I'm jealous and an irritable prick."
She smoothed her hand down his neck. "I know. Kiss me anyway."
He pressed his mouth to hers and relished her taste. She tasted like the peach of the champagne; like home, like a juicy sweet antidote to the poison of loneliness. As he lifted her slowly, until she was seated on the bench, he unraveled in her hands.
"I will do whatever it takes-" he said gently against her throat, before tilting her backwards to kiss her heart through the red silk, loving her shiver.
"I will change," he whispered, threading his fingers through her hair.
"Don't," she said.
He was cradling her face, his tongue tasting the sweetness of her mouth, and his joy vibrated under her palms as she slid her hands up his warm arms.
"But…." He pushed aside the nearby bottles of merlot.
She paused on his shirt button and scowled at him.
"But your job." He slid the zip of her dress down a little, so that more of her skin spilled free. Just so he could kiss it. "I don't want to make you quit."
"I hate my job," she said firmly. "I'll get a new one."
"I hate mine too," he confessed against her cleavage. "All that war, it's nearly killed me, in more ways than one. But I deserved that awful job…"
"We'll get new ones." He paused, considering, even as his hand stroked up the outside of her thigh, hitching her skirt.
"But your work is important." She put her hand on his to halt its progression. "I don't want to take that away from you. What you do is documenting history, and giving people a voice." She swallowed against the spike of panic, but she said it anyway. "You should keep doing it. I'll always be waiting for you to come back."
"My agent said once that people usually burn out on the kind of jobs I've been doing, and that I could consider the humanitarian field." He looked down at her face, caught the spark of interest in her eye. "It's still painful, but there's at least the chance of doing some good, advocating for people who need a voice."
He breathed out against her shoulder. "You'd be good at that, Bella. We'd be good at that."
She tugged his hair affectionately, loving the light in his eye, the way the corner of his mouth curled into the lopsided smile she loved best.
"We'll work it out. I might need to spend some time alone," she warned him. "When I need some time in my own head."
He trailed his fingers over her skin.
As long as you always come back to me.
It felt like the house was trembling. Upstairs, Carlisle and Emmett helped their guests pull chairs back to the wall, and as Carlisle flipped through Esme's record collection, a few people began to dance.
Back in Portland, Michael, filled with complimentary airline alcohol and self pity, threw open the door to Bella's study, her sanctuary, and slammed on the light switch. He prowled, looking for clues that could have helped him head off this disaster. He paused in front of the doll house, her prized possession, which he had admired a few times early in their relationship, always with a kind of indulgent bemusement. Now he breathed out an expletive as he realised that the rooms were familiar; it was a replica of the Cullen house.
The key that locked the little house shut was lying on the floor of the gold room.
With a cry of pain, Michael pulled the exquisite little mansion to the floor, hearing the splintering wood and tiny shattering panes with sickness in his heart.
Upstairs, the crowd thirsted. The champagne bottles were picked up, levels examined, and every single precious drop was tipped onto tongues that craved the mysterious peachy nectar. Rose headed off Emmett and Carlisle if they attempted to go down to the cellar. In desperation, the guests filled their champagne glasses from the faucet in the kitchen, the water delicious, sweeter than sugar. The mood had tilted a little; people were laughing a little, and as they raised their faces in turn to the ceiling, each felt privately that Esme was here. She was here, amongst them, walking through the crowd, touching each on the arm.
The beautiful, horrible sound of a champagne glass smashing made everyone freeze, their smiles fading.
Then realization rippled out into the concerned faces, and they all began to laugh again, it was Carlisle who said what they had all been thinking.
"It seems Esme is still with us after all. She surely has a hand in this. Ladies and gentleman, please stay as long as you wish, but please excuse us- we need to take Rose to the hospital."
Bella wondered at the round of laughter and applause upstairs, but it felt natural and right as Edward's mouth pressed words of love onto her skin, down her neck, across her shoulders, words of forever, words of the past.
She closed her eyes and knew that her first thoughts when returning had been right.
The greatest gift in life was choice. This time, she had finally enough courage to choose the more difficult path; the blindingly green terrain rocky and difficult, a far cry from the sunlit wheaten pastures she had wandered blindly for so long. But as his fingers linked through hers and squeezed, and he pondered her thoughts, he silently told her that whilst it would be difficult, every day of their lives, as long as they held each other, they would not fall.
One day, the perfect photograph of Edward and Bella, the proof of his love, would hang above the bed in the gold room at the end of the hall. He hadn't been able to bear to let others see something so private; and instead, he and Bella would sleep underneath the best photograph of his life. The irony that he hadn't even taken it would never fail to make him smile.
Esme's final note that had accompanied the tiny, delicate treasure she'd bequeathed him would stay pressed in the pages of Wuthering Heights.
Look after this for a while. It's not yours to keep, but you know that.
Those things would all come to pass, along with thousands of nights, endless orbits of the sun, and every shadow that fell across Bella's face. But now, down in the cellar of an old house, they leaned against each other, the relief of surrender more potent than a lifetime of unrequited love, lust, longing.
And Rose, who was alternating between giggling and shrieking, felt something digging into her palm during one particularly vicious contraction. She looked down at her palm and realised what she held.
"Oh dear," she said to Emmett, giggling through the thrilling pain, waggling the old fashioned key. "I seem to have locked Bella and Edward in the basement."
As Emmett howled with laughter, Carlisle smiled. "I doubt they'll even notice."