Esme

"I love you more."

I didn't answer. I hugged my knees tighter, eyes fixated on the doorknob, terrified that it might start to turn. The door was locked, of course. But locks can be broken. And it's worse if you tried to hide.

I was ashamed of myself for thinking like that, but I didn't have any control over it. I hated when Carlisle and I fought. I always got so frightened, and then resented that I had to feel that way. I was an adult. I shouldn't have to feel afraid of my own husband.

Carlisle hesitated a moment outside the bathroom door, but then I heard his footsteps retreating towards the hall. I hadn't been holding my breath, exactly, but when I'm upset I tend to take only the slightest breaths. Now that I was alone again, my chest started to heave as my lungs tried to take in too much air at once.

It had been a terrible morning. We'd known it might be tough because of the news we had for Bella—there was no way to know how she would handle hearing that her ex-boyfriend was dead. On the one hand, he'd beaten her so badly that she'd needed to be hospitalized and now walked with crutches. On the other hand, he was (I assumed) her first love. Being hurt by someone didn't completely erase the memories of better times. I certainly knew that. And I thought I'd been prepared. I thought I knew all the ways Bella could possibly react.

I'd been wrong. So had Carlisle. We'd had absolutely no idea what we were walking into. And I'd had no idea that something I'd said in a moment of frustration five days earlier was about to come back and bite me in the behind.

I honestly hadn't known the impact of what I'd said to Bella when I found the food hidden under her bed. I was angry and frustrated, and of course I knew I wasn't handling the situation well even as it was happening. But I really hadn't meant to call Bella a thief. Yes, telling someone they don't need to steal food is basically the same thing, but it hadn't felt like the same thing at all. I shouldn't have been so impatient with her, no matter what I actually said.

I'd messed up, and I'd known it. Under normal circumstances, I'd have apologized to Bella for losing my temper. One thing I'm not is one of those parents who thinks she doesn't have to admit her mistakes because she's the parent. But it was just past eight the next morning when Edward called to say they were en route to the hospital with Emmett. I had only just gotten up, and then things went all to hell for the next few days and completely pushed the incident from my mind. And I'd had no idea she felt so badly over it to begin with. I'm not stupid, but I just tend to assume that other people are less obsessive than I am and don't stew over things.

I was horrified when Bella recounted the incident for Carlisle—partly it was sadness that I'd caused her so much pain, and partly it was fear that Carlisle would be angry, especially since she told him her interpretation of the conversation instead of what I'd actually said. Maybe the two weren't so far apart, at that.

I know how sensitive Carlisle is about food, and why, and would never intentionally bring back his memories of being denied enough to eat. I wouldn't do that to any of my family. Not by design. But I'd done it by accident, and in hindsight it was really obvious that I could have handled the whole thing so much better.

I wanted to curl up in bed and try to think about everything. But I knew that wasn't going to be possible. I had three injured children downstairs who needed me to be a parent right now. I had to start on the soup I was planning to make for lunch. Emmett had had a dose of his pain meds at breakfast, but that was a few hours ago and he might need more. I'd wrapped Jasper's hand after he showered, but maybe he needed an ice pack. And Jasper needed to be prompted to do stuff like that. He would take it and use it if I handed it to him directly, but would never go and take one for himself.

And Bella? Well, she'd had some fruit while soaking in the Jacuzzi, and her injuries weren't recent enough that she usually needed medicine to manage the pain. But what was she doing right now? Was she still asleep, or had Carlisle woken her? He wasn't in favor of long naps because they could mess with our usual sleep schedule. I'd have to get her up if she wasn't already.

I also had to worry about dinner at some point, plus the extra task of making the oven-roasted herbed potato wedges I'd promised my husband, hoping he'd be placated by the gesture. Also, in case Carlisle was still cranky later, it would be best to have dinner ready right when he came in the door, which was usually a little past six.

I wished desperately for someone to talk to. Normally when I felt sad or scared, I had the comfort of knowing that Carlisle would be home later and I could talk to him before we went to sleep. My husband was an extraordinarily compassionate man, and he always knew how to make me feel safe and loved. He had the same gift with our children. But this time I couldn't talk with him because he was the problem.

I could say unequivocally that there was no one in the world as sweet and kind and wonderful as my husband. But even this sweet kind wonderful man terrified the life out of me sometimes.

Carlisle didn't know that I was sometimes afraid of him. He'd probably be horrified if he knew. He'd never given me a specific reason to feel afraid. We had our arguments, but he never yelled or moved too close or did anything that a normal woman would find intimidating. Almost anyone might scoff at me for harboring this secret fear.

He might scoff. That was the worst part. This man was my life partner, and I should be able to share everything with him. You were supposed to be able to tell someone you loved that they'd hurt you or frightened you and have them feel genuinely sympathetic and want to avoid doing that again. But when had it ever been that way for me? When had anyone ever heard that they hurt me and not twisted the knife in further by denying it, or jeering at me, or pointing out all the reasons I'd deserved what I got?

I didn't think Carlisle was like that, not really. He wasn't perfect. But had he ever diminished me like that? I would think I'd remember. But then again, had I ever really taken the risk and told him I was hurt, or had I just let it go until our tempers cooled and things went back to normal by themselves?

I didn't know. I just didn't know, and I was tired of sitting locked in the bathroom like a cornered animal. Carlisle had to be long gone by now. I got to my feet with a sigh, wincing as my right ankle started to burn from being woken up, and hobbled over to unlock the door I'd used to shut out my husband.


All three of the kids were watching a movie in the living room. Emmett was lying awkwardly on his left side, since he couldn't sit comfortably on his injured leg. He took up one side of the U-shaped sectional sofa, and Bella and Jasper sat very close to each other in the center section. Jasper tended to drift apart from everyone else, except Alice, so that was a little jarring. It almost seemed like he was hovering protectively over Bella.

"Hey, sweeties," I said softly, standing behind the couch and stroking Jasper's mess of blond hair. "Emmett, hon, do you need another pill?"

"Yeah, I kinda do. The other one's wearing off," Emmett replied drowsily.

"Okay. How about you, baby?" I said, tilting Jasper's face back just a little. "Do you want a half dose until lunch?"

"I'm fine."

I shouldn't have asked. It would have been better just to hand him the pill when I brought Emmett's. He'd most likely take it if it was just given to him. Now I could either take Jasper's word that he was fine, or hand him the half pill anyway and basically tell him that I wasn't going to listen to him.

I brought Emmett a pill and a glass of juice and helped him prop himself up long enough to swallow it. "I'm going to start lunch, kids. Call me if you need to get up, Em." I gave him a stern look so he'd know I meant business. Emmett would insist on fumbling around by himself even if it meant ripping open his stitches, and I wasn't having any of that.

I started for the kitchen. Today was Jasper's day to be kitchen assistant, and he dutifully hopped up off the couch and followed me in. "No, you watch your movie, sweetie," I told him. "You can help later with dinner."

Jasper stood there awkwardly. "Um . . . no, it's okay, I could help. I don't care about the movie."

Poor thing. He always seemed to suspect that he was being set up. I turned and took his face in my hands. "It's just soup. Go enjoy the movie."

"But there's fr—" he started.

"Shush." I wanted him to enjoy his movie without having to hop up and chop fruit, but I also wanted to be by myself right now. I smiled at him so he wouldn't take the shush too seriously. "Go on. Have fun," I said, giving him a playful shove back towards the couch. Jasper smiled back at me and finally went back to join Bella and Emmett.

In the kitchen, I busied myself gathering celery, carrots, and onions and all my tools: cutting board, peeler, knife, waste bowl, onion chopper. The chopper needed a lot of force to close the lid and made an ungodly loud bang. I'd have to warn the kids first and have them pause the movie for a couple minutes.

Once I had my veggies all peeled and ready to chop, my mind started up again with its worrying chatter now that it wasn't busy telling me what I needed for my soup. It was my mother's chatter, actually, telling me what a terrible wife I was.

How many women do you know who get to sit home all day instead of working?

I find it hard to believe you because you've always been like this, Esme. Everything always had to be about you. Like when you broke your leg and cried because we left you alone at the hospital. You always thought you were being mistreated. Now you're complaining about Charles. You've always complained about the men who put a roof over your head and clothes on your back.

You want to go to college? I didn't go to college. Neither did your father. He worked hard all his life so I could have you girls. And you can bet I had dinner on the table every night when he walked in the door.

Ten years later, estranged from my parents and married to an amazing man, I was still afraid to test his temper further by making him wait for dinner after coming home.

My throat tightened when I remembered Carlisle's harsh words. Do you think you can make it that long without crippling anyone else's self-esteem? How could he have said that to me? He would never say something like that to the kids. He kept his temper perfectly around them, lest God forbid anyone's feelings were hurt. But my feelings didn't matter.

No, that wasn't fair. He cared for me very much. Sometimes Carlisle actually took my breath away with how wonderfully he treated me. I had never imagined before I met him that there could ever be such an amazing man. Or if one existed, he certainly wouldn't want me. But he did exist, and now he was mine.

Except that deep down, I was still afraid that someday he would figure out he'd made a mistake. And leave me.

He's supposed to be your equal. Marriage is a partnership.

What equal? He's a brilliant doctor. You decorate houses.

You have lots of talents. He knew what he was getting, and he says he loves you.

He wanted children. He thought you'd be the mother for them that he needed. Lots of women these days don't want kids. That's why he married you.

If he could do better, then who, exactly? No one could love him as much as you do.

He's not going to leave you over one little argument.

By this time my chest was heaving with sobs I was trying desperately not to let escape. I hoped the TV was loud enough so the kids wouldn't hear me. I felt like a covered pot ready to boil over any second. I let out a few soft wheezes and was just about ready to make a run for the downstairs bathroom so I could cry into a folded towel for a few moments when someone spoke up behind me.

"Ma'am?"

The knife slipped and I ended up with a very cockeyed slice of celery. I'd never even known Jasper was in the kitchen with me until he was practically at my elbow.

"What is it, sweetie?" I said, softly so my voice wouldn't tremble. I laid down the knife and wiped my hands on my dish towel. "And you know you can call me Esme."

I should have smiled a little, because I think he thought I was correcting him. Jasper had actually been looking at my face, for once, but now his gaze dropped. I was so sorry for him. I just couldn't do anything right anymore.

"Jasper," I said, reaching over and pulling him close, "I'm sorry. It doesn't matter; whatever you're comfortable with. What did you want to ask me?"

"If you're okay," he whispered without looking up.

I drew back a bit. I guess I hadn't been as quiet as I thought. Then again, Jasper was also the human barometer when it came to how people were feeling. "I . . . I'm a little upset," I admitted. "I guess we're all a little rattled from this morning."

Jasper looked dubious. I felt like he knew I wasn't being completely honest. Sometimes it was as though he could read my mind. He shifted from foot to foot. "Can I help with anything?" he asked.

"Well . . ." I hedged, unsure what I should do. Jasper wanted to help. I knew him well enough to know that he would feel rejected if I told him I was fine. Besides, I wasn't fine. I was distracted and unfocused. If I could only lie down for just a little while . . . "Well, honey, I think if I could just lie down for half an hour or so, I'd feel a lot better. Could you just keep an eye on Bella and Emmett for that long? Make sure they have something to drink, and call me if either of them needs anything more?"

Jasper was nodding before I was even finished, eager to please as always. I felt so guilty for asking him to take over. I was the parent here. It was my responsibility to take care of all the kids, including him. But . . . all I was asking him to do was sit with them, which he'd have done anyway, and make sure they had drinks. That wasn't so very bad, was it? I'd be a lot more use to everyone if I had a little rest. "Oh, Jasper, thank you. I'm so sorry to leave you, but I just can't think straight," I said apologetically. "I'll be down in a little while. But you call me if anyone needs something more than a drink or a piece of fruit, okay?"

Jasper said he would, but the problem with him was that he would never admit there was something he couldn't handle. I stared at him for a moment, feeling so bad for him again. Would Jasper ever really trust any of us? We'd never given him a reason not to, not that I knew of, yet he was still so wary all the time, afraid to ask for anything and trying so hard to take up as little space as possible. I knew what that felt like. I'd been invisible once. And if it weren't for Carlisle, I still would be.

If I existed at all.


Upstairs, I closed the blinds so that even the weak gray light from outside was shut out. I climbed into bed and set the little timer on my bedside table for thirty minutes. Finally I put on my sleep mask and wriggled around until the covers were tucked underneath both shoulders and I was swaddled comfortably.

I could smell him on our sheets—that clean, wonderful scent of his. It had always made me feel safe. But now it just made me so sad. What would I ever do without him? He was the light of my whole life.

I hadn't been able to focus when I wasn't by myself. Now I was too alone, and the silence was frightening to me when I was feeling so uncertain about everything. I doubted I'd be able to fall asleep, or at least not right away; it might be different if I had a couple of hours, but I had to get back and finish lunch soon. I felt so overwhelmed all of a sudden that I could have screamed, or smashed something. But I was afraid the kids would hear me, and the last thing I wanted was to scare them with a temper tantrum.

The clock said eleven. The soup took almost an hour to simmer, so at this point we wouldn't eat until one or later. That wasn't really unreasonable for lunchtime, but I still felt like I should just give up the idea of a nap and finish my soup. I was so drowsy and shaky, and the thought of getting up again made me want to cry. But if I didn't get to sleep, I'd have wasted all this time and been late with lunch for nothing. I slammed my fists against the mattress. There just wasn't enough time to get everything done. There never was.

Carlisle would be home around six. I felt sick. I wanted him to come home so that I could stop worrying, but at the same time, I dreaded how he might act when he came in the door. Would he greet me with kisses like usual, or be angry and cold?

My eyes filled with tears again. I was thirty-two years old, and I still watched the clock like a child, afraid of the moment when the man of the house came home. I wasn't his equal, and I never would be. Deep down, I was always fearful of making a mistake and being punished for it. And when Bella had hidden food, I think that subconsciously I'd been afraid that Carlisle would find out and think I hadn't been taking care of her. I'd automatically seen it as an attack on my nurturing skills, instead of a young girl's uncontrollable urge to hoard, and unleashed my pent-up fear on a helpless child.

I was a terrible mother.

I rolled over on my stomach and pressed my face into the sheets. I had thought I was taking such good care of Bella. Every morning, I helped her get set up for her shower, then blow-dried her pretty hair because I knew it strained her ribs if she had to lift her arms. I gave her her medicine right on schedule and fixed healthy snacks so she could put on some weight. And I'd thought that Bella was full and warm and happy. I just couldn't believe it when Alice told me there were containers of perishable food under her bed.

I wanted to be a good mother. I wanted our home to be a sanctuary where everyone felt safe and loved. But obviously I wasn't doing a very good job if any of my kids felt they had to hide food. Was I one of those parents that all the kids secretly hated and complained about amongst themselves? Did Carlisle regret rushing to start a family with me and wish he'd held out for someone as compassionate and loving as he was?

I could never be just like him. I was too damaged. As hard as I tried to be as good a person as my husband, it would always be, at best, a shoddy façade. I couldn't be good like him because I was too afraid of being hurt again. I did love our kids. But he had a special gift with them. He was just so full of love that everyone around him could feel it. He deserved someone better. Someone who didn't repay his sunshine with irrational fear and lose her patience with the children they were trying to help heal. He needed a partner, not another child to fix.

I couldn't even give him a child. At least, not one healthy enough to live more than a few days.

I was a failure on every level.


When I started to prepare dinner around four and Jasper once again appeared at my elbow, this time I gave him a job to do instead of sending him back to the living room. It was one of his chores today, after all, and I would be making food for eight instead of four. I knew Jasper would have trouble peeling the potatoes, though, so I had him mix up the glaze while I did the peeling and then gave the potatoes to him to slice into wedges. But before we started, I took the ginger lemonade I'd made out of the fridge and set a glass of it in front of him to sip while he was working. Jasper's face lit up when he saw it. It was his favorite treat.

I stood a little behind my boy and gave him a hug around the shoulders. "Thank you so much for making lunch, Jasper. I didn't expect that of you, but it just made my day." After my 'nap' that morning, which was really just fifteen minutes or so of tossing around restlessly and then a very brief doze, I'd come back down to the kitchen feeling tired and depressed. I opened the fridge, intending to pick up where I'd left off on lunch preparations.

But right there on the middle shelf was a huge bowl of freshly made fruit salad, complete with the starfruit I'd hidden at the back of the cheese drawer. I closed the door and looked over at the stove; on the back burner sat a simmering stockpot. Even though there wasn't a trace of any food left out, nor a single utensil on the counter or in the sink, I knew it was the vegetable soup I'd been working on before I went upstairs. In just over half an hour, while I'd been tossing in bed, Jasper had gone and made lunch, then cleaned up the whole kitchen. That dear, sweet boy.

Even though it had been such a relief to come down and find that I wouldn't be late with lunch after all, it wasn't a huge surprise. Jasper really liked to help me in the kitchen. Way back when the twins first came to live with us, he'd basically just done the little chores I gave him—chopping vegetables, fetching things from the pantry, and so on—without talking much. But as time went on, he started to ask me questions, like how I knew how long to cook meat, what the point of sautéing was, why I used different types of measuring cups for liquids and solids. I was happy to share, but I wondered why he was so interested. Not too many teenage boys care about cooking.

I asked him why once, and the answer just about broke my heart. Jasper said that soon he'd be on his own and would have to be able to take care of himself and his sister, and no one else had ever bothered to tell him these things. Imagine a teenager who wanted to be told how to take care of a house, and plan balanced meals, because he saw his eighteenth birthday as the day he was cut loose without anyone to guide him.

That very night I'd spoken to Carlisle about discussing an eventual adoption with the twins. It was a little early, since they had only been there perhaps two months at the time and only after six could we start the process. But I couldn't stand the thought of either of them going one more day being afraid of losing their home.

I saw the tips of Jasper's ears turning pink at my praise, so I gave him one more quick squeeze and moved away. Jasper liked to be appreciated, but like most boys was embarrassed easily by narmy scenes.

Dinner tonight was easier than usual, since the menu was spaghetti (homemade, but frozen) and garlic bread. Since Jasper was handling the potatoes, I mixed up the garlic spread and sliced the loaf of Italian bread while the sauce slowly heated up. Edward was upstairs practicing piano, which could be heard faintly even down here. The girls and Emmett were in the living room doing homework. I had a CD of baroque music playing very softly while we cooked, low enough that we could talk if we wanted to and providing a nice buffer.

Since he'd been home for almost a week, there really wasn't much we could catch up on, but conversation with Jasper was never dull if you got him started on history. He sped through history books faster than some people go through novels, everything from ancient Egypt to modern-day Afghanistan. I'd never known anyone of any age who loved a subject more.

I had just dumped the noodles (rigatoni, which would be easier for Emmett to scoop up than regular spaghetti) into the colanders in the sink and was checking the sauce when I heard the basement door open.

"Daddy's home!" Alice shrieked, pelting for the basement stairs like a bat out of hell. Edward's playing cut off abruptly, and a moment later I heard his much quieter footsteps coming downstairs.

While Carlisle gave the kids their hugs, I stood there stirring my sauce and hoping, so hard, that he wouldn't still be angry. When I felt his arms encircling my waist I could have cried with relief, and I turned my head to the side to nuzzle his shoulder. He wasn't mad at me. Thank God. "Everything's ready when you are," I said, hoping my voice wasn't shaking. Carlisle squeezed me a little higher up, and I giggled.

"Let me change really quick and I'll be right down," he promised, snatching a potato wedge out of the serving dish on the counter as he left. He popped it in his mouth and pretended to swoon in the doorway. I laughed, ostensibly at his antics, but really it was built-up nerves. I was just so relieved that things weren't stiff between us.

I relaxed a little more during dinner as Alice and Edward filled everyone in on the latest school news. Alice told Emmett that his coach had stopped her in the hall and asked after him.

"I told him you died, and then he asked why I was back in school so soon and I said life goes on," Alice said matter-of-factly as she chewed on a crust of garlic bread.

"Alice, honestly. You're going to get in trouble someday," I chided her, even though Emmett was grinning.

Alice shrugged. "He looked like someone had died. I felt weird." That was Alice for you. She didn't do serious very well. "But he says he's sorry you won't get to play this year since it's your last year. He wants you to go talk to him when you get back."

Emmett had always liked and respected Coach Beck, and from what Carlisle had told me, Em was thinking seriously about a career in physical education because of this man. It was terrible that he'd lost his chance to play sports for the rest of his senior year. But thank goodness he'd been thinking about his future beyond professional sports.

I made a mental note to call Coach Beck tomorrow myself. Emmett wouldn't be back for a while yet, and I needed to find out what would happen going forward. The coach should know the next steps when it came to notifying WSU about Emmett's injuries. It would be better to know for sure rather than speculating.

Carlisle had also shared with me the conversation he'd had with Emmett in the hospital—his previously hidden jealousy of Edward, and his fear that we were only proud of his sports accomplishments because of their potential to pay his way through college. I was just horrified when I heard that. And in light of what happened with Bella, I wondered: was there a single one of my kids I hadn't let down lately?

After dinner Carlisle proposed a family game of Monopoly, and Jasper helped Alice clean up the kitchen so we could get to the game faster. Then he and Rose stayed in the kitchen getting everyone drinks while Carlisle helped Emmett get settled on the couch.

"How the heck am I supposed to play?" he grumbled as he tried to find a comfortable position on his side. "I can't see the board. I can't even reach it on this side, much less the far side."

"I'll move your piece and tell you what you land on. You just lie there and give orders," Alice chirped. Alice loved being in charge, and the only thing that would have made her happier was to actually decide Emmett's moves for him.

"Because you're my sister, I'm not even going to respond to that."

"I should hope not, sister or otherwise," Carlisle replied, sitting down next to Bella. He didn't appreciate that kind of humor from our boys, though he usually didn't say anything if they teased each other. He never tolerated it when it was directed towards the girls, though.

Bella always looked a little lost when we had family time after dinner, sitting awkwardly and taking her cues from everyone else. So when first Alice and then Edward dug their tokens out from the box, she reached in and took out the first one her hand touched.

"Wait, Bella, the thimble is Mom's," Edward told her. "Because she sews all the time. We all have our special tokens. The only one left is the iron, but you can trade with me if you don't like it." I was very surprised to hear him say that. Edward had had almost the first pick six years ago, and his token was the Scottie dog. He loved that little Scottie. But now he was offering it up to Bella like it meant nothing.

"No, the iron is fine. I'm sorry," Bella said, quickly putting the thimble back. "I didn't know everyone had one."

Carlisle came to her rescue. "Almost everyone. That iron's been waiting a long time for someone to claim it," he said.

While Alice doled out starter money and Jasper and Rose came back in with the tray of drinks, Carlisle lowered his voice and added teasingly, "A lot of games are for up to eight players, so you've made us a complete set. If any more kids show up we'll have to start using chess pieces. You came in just under the wire."

Bella pressed her hands to her mouth and giggled, and any little bit of tension there might have been about the thimble was gone just like that. But that was Carlisle for you, that charisma of his. Who else could get six teenagers to participate in a family game night? He was the one who held us together, no doubt about it.


Bedtime came and Carlisle and I began making our rounds, each visiting different rooms at once so all the kids got to talk to both of us for a few minutes. I had caught Alice after dinner and asked her if she could arrange to be out of the room when I first came in. Easygoing as always, Alice didn't disappoint me, and Bella was alone when I went into the girls' room a few minutes before ten.

Bella sat propped up against her pillows with a book in her hands. She looked up expectantly when I came in the room, but then her face fell when she saw who it was. I tried not to feel hurt. I knew she wanted Carlisle.

"Hey, sweetie," I said softly, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Bella stared down at the book clenched in her hands and said nothing.

I popped open the top of the plastic box I'd brought with me turned it so Bella could see inside. "I put this together for you so you can keep it under your bed," I said. Stirring the contents a little with my hand, I continued, "There're bags of granola and dried fruit, and some yogurt-covered peanuts. They don't need to be refrigerated. Now if you get hungry in the night you won't have to go downstairs. You just keep refilling it anytime it gets low."

Bella looked at the food but still didn't say anything. I sighed.

"Bella, I know I hurt you very badly, and I'm sorry for that. I felt like I must not be taking good care of my kids if any of you felt you had to hoard food. It wasn't right for me to lash out at you. I hope you can forgive me, honey." Hoping she wouldn't yank it away, I reached out to stroke her arm. "I hope we can start over, because I love having you here with us. Everyone loves having you here."

Bella's brow furrowed as she thought for a while. But she didn't pull her arm away. "Not everyone likes it that I'm here," she finally muttered.

Rosalie. I should have known. I'd had a feeling Rose might be jealous when we brought Bella to live here. Even though we had begun the adoption process and assured the twins that they'd be adopted even if we had to wait until they turned eighteen to avoid a legal battle with their biological mother, Rose still believed we were looking for any excuse to kick her and Jasper to the curb. I wasn't very surprised that she'd been hostile toward Bella.

Well, at least Bella was talking to me. "I'm sorry if anyone's been cold to you, hon," I said. "Sometimes people get jealous when they feel vulnerable. But Carlisle and I are thrilled to have you, and I know Alice and Edward, at least, have really bonded with you."

Bella flinched when I said that, and I wondered why. Alice had been all about Bella ever since she came—really, before she'd even arrived—and Edward surprised me with how much he'd taken to her. Not that Edward was the jealous type, or cold, but he tended to be moody and was very selfish about his free time and his music. Yet he'd been giving Bella lessons, of all things, and on his mother's piano, not the plain upright we kept in the living room for the whole family. From almost her very first day here. Even Carlisle had scratched his head over it. And then he'd offered her his Scottie token earlier. For keeps, not just for tonight. I wondered if there might be a little crush going on there.

"If someone's been making you feel unwelcome, you can tell me. I really wish you would, because then I can talk to them and find out why they feel threatened."

Bella shrugged impatiently, closing her book and dropping it on her nightstand. "It's nothing. It doesn't matter."

I decided not to press the issue, since it obviously made her uncomfortable. So I just smiled at Bella and stroked her arm again. On her nightstand, next to the book she'd just placed there, I noticed something shiny glinting through the clear sides of her Brita pitcher. Carlisle kept that there for her so she could have a drink without having to crutch all the way downstairs or swallow weird-tasting bathroom water. I moved the pitcher aside, and there was the little iron token from the Monopoly set.

"What's this about?" I said with a little laugh, picking it up. Bella blushed and looked away from me at the wall. I had a sudden flash of understanding. "It's because of what Carlisle said about the set, isn't it?" I said knowingly. My heart ached, thinking how desperate Bella must be for a family if even that chance remark meant so much to her. I placed the little iron back on the night table. "Well, you keep that here, then. It's yours. No one else is going to use it."

Bella stared at the tiny token, and I saw the ghost of a smile on her face. This was just the kind of moment I was thinking of when I said Carlisle had a gift. Other adults didn't understand how much an inconsequential thing like this meant to a child who had nothing else to hold on to. He did. He just knew, on some level, exactly what they were going through, and what little things he could do to bring them one step closer to feeling safe.

My husband was only human and could lose his temper once in a while like anyone else, but never because one of our kids had a relapse or was 'taking too long' to get past some emotional roadblock. One of the reasons foster parents, particularly novice ones, often 'dumped' kids after a short period of time was because they didn't have the empathy or the patience to wait out the years-long healing process. Carlisle and I had had to stop going to the parents' support group meetings so often because of how upset he'd get with the others.

"What the fuck did they think they'd be doing, going to the goddamn Cabbage Patch and picking the prettiest kid to take home?" he'd fumed one night on the drive home. Since Carlisle hardly ever swore aside from the mild ones like hell or damn, it was obvious he was really pissed off. He'd gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were white. "They thought they'd play Santa to some poor kid like one of Dickens's orphans and never hear a word of complaint or actually have to actually be a parent?"

It had been a particularly bad evening, with Carlisle just about coming to blows with a fat, placid older man who'd whined (literally, he'd sounded like a toddler asking why) because his foster son had 'repaid them for their kindness' by getting arrested for shoplifting. Carlisle had scared me that night, partly because I have trouble seeing anyone angry and not being afraid they'd turn it on me any second, but also because I wondered if he thought of me that way sometimes. It hadn't been my plan to be a foster parent, and in fact it took him a long while to get me to agree to do it. I'd still been grieving for our baby son and feeling like a failure because I hadn't been able to give him a child. I wanted to mourn for a while, then hopefully try one more time to get pregnant.

But Carlisle had worked on me a little bit at a time, and finally I'd let go of my resistance. I agreed with him that it was better for us to share our lives with kids who'd been left alone through no fault of their own. And once I'd taken that step, he didn't have much to do to convince me that we could do the most good with older kids, kids who got passed over because other parents wanted babies or very young children. I think I actually fell in love with my husband all over again when he'd shared that dream with me, feeling (as I often did) that I didn't deserve such an incredible man.

Now my fear was that Carlisle saw all my mistakes, remembered that I'd been reluctant to consider fostering years ago, and concluded that he had pushed me into something I wasn't prepared for. I really wasn't prepared on some levels, and I had my own demons which Carlisle constantly helped me to struggle against. He was the glue that held this family together. I wasn't his partner. I was just an extra hundred and twenty pounds for him to carry as he balanced the world on his shoulders.

I squeezed Bella's hand once more and let go. "I'll just slide this under the bed for you, baby, so you can reach it easily," I said, leaning down to lift the dust ruffle and placing the container of food just beyond it. I stood up and gave her a smile. "Carlisle should be in any minute. 'Night, Bella."

"'Night." She even looked at me when she said it, which I thought was a good sign. Bella might just forgive me if I made sure to be extra patient around her for a while. I wasn't going to mess up with her again.

I finished making my rounds of all the kids' bedrooms, chasing Alice out of the boys' room where she'd set up camp on Emmett's bed, and was sitting at my vanity table brushing my hair when Carlisle came in. He smiled at me in the mirror and took the brush out of my hand, taking over the brushing in slow, firm strokes. I loved having my hair tugged and played with. It was one of the most relaxing feelings in the world.

"Will Emmett go back to school on Monday?" I asked drowsily, stifling a yawn. The day had caught up to me and was digging its claws in with a vengeance. "I told Bella and Jasper definitely, but I didn't know what to say to Em."

"It's possible. Jasper could have been back by now if he didn't already have so much trouble concentrating, and Bella's only still home because it's a new school for her and it's been chaos around here. Em would need a wheelchair, and he's still in a lot of pain even with medication. I'll have to see how he looks in a few days." Carlisle put the brush down and gave my hair a playful tug. "Come on to bed."

"I still have to set Bella up with a therapist," I said, feeling that familiar sense of being overwhelmed with all the things I had to get done. "I don't know what to do, Carlisle. The only one close to here who's taking new patients is a man, and I don't know how Bella's going to feel about that."

"Did you ask her?"

"I didn't have a chance," I reminded him. "This morning I mentioned it while I was explaining that phone call, remember? But at that point it wasn't a question. I'll ask tomorrow. But I'm afraid now that she knows how difficult it's been to find one the state approves of, she'll say yes just so she won't be a burden. I don't know. I guess I'll start calling ones who aren't on the list. Thank God we don't have to take what the state gives us just because it's free."

"You might be surprised," Carlisle said. "Bella might actually prefer a man, depending. She's told me things . . . it's hard to explain. It's just a feeling I get. Maybe it's because her mother left and she spent all that time with just her dad, but I think Bella feels better with men. If they're kind, of course," he added. "She doesn't seem to think any of her foster mothers liked her or really wanted her for more than her check. But she doesn't have as much to say about the fathers."

I felt sad. Was I another one of those mothers Bella didn't trust? Even before I'd screwed up last weekend, had she felt like I was just interested in her for the extra money? That reminded me that Carlisle was the one Bella had overheard complaining about how long her check was taking. Well, indirectly. He'd really just been comparing Douches' slow-as-molasses system to the ridiculous please-return-this-by-six-days-ago timelines they sometimes gave us. But Bella had assumed it was all about her. Yet I'd hurt her much more directly, and in the end, she resented me and not Carlisle.

"I'll talk to her tomorrow," I said wearily, kicking off the soft leather mules I wore around the house and tossing my cardigan on the chaise. "We'll see how it works out." The whole day and all its emotions had left me exhausted, and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and let my mind finally shut off. Thank goodness Carlisle wasn't being cold with me, even if I still felt a little bit stiff around him, afraid to say the wrong thing and yet not wanting to have to tiptoe around my own husband, the way I'd always had to with first my father and then Charles. But I would be glad for Carlisle's presence next to me while I drifted off to sleep. At least he never played sick mind games like refusing to talk or leaving me alone in bed to show his displeasure.

But no sooner had I snapped off my bedside light than my husband was pulling me backwards toward him and slipping a hand playfully between my thighs. Most nights I would be thrilled that he had the energy for lovemaking despite our hectic schedules. But tonight? I seriously could have slapped him. Was he really ready to make love after the day we'd had? Didn't he understand that I was too vulnerable right now?

If I told him no, he'd stop. But what would he be thinking? That I was being petty because of our argument this morning? That the least I could do after staying home all day while he worked at an emotionally draining job was give him a little relief? I didn't want to be that person.

So I gritted my teeth and let Carlisle take what he needed, even though I was fighting back tears the whole time and wishing I could go just go three days at a stretch without feeling like a miserable waste of space.