Chapter Notes:

*insert complaint, protest, or insult of choice here*

I know. I am so incredibly sorry to have let this break stretch out so long. Please understand that I never intended to keep everyone waiting like this – things just got so insane in my life and then my writing muse disappeared for months. But now she has been released from captivity, and I am determined to let Edward's voice be heard through this story.

I hope that this chapter begins to repair your faith in me. Enjoy.

At sunrise, a beam of golden light streaks across the floor beside the bed and I automatically tense, waiting to hear movement or a stirring of consciousness in the master bedroom. But after more than twenty minutes of low breathing and the dull hum of latent thoughts, it becomes clear that Bella's mother and stepfather are not early risers like Charlie, which gives me the opportunity to linger here until Bella wakes up on her own.

Unfamiliar yet pleasant birdsong begin to fill the quiet as the sun continues to rise. The streak of light on the floor grows and climbs the far wall, illuminating some of the keepsakes on the dresser, and in the distance I can hear the splash of the waves on the shore as the morning tide arrives.

Bella's pulse quickens around eight o'clock and I turn onto my side, wanting to see her chocolate brown eyes flicker open to greet the new day and light up with the realization that I stayed with her. I had moved her carefully to the middle of the bed about two hours ago, when her shivering had become too much for me to tolerate. She had refused rather obstinately to remove her hand from over my heart, however, and I had neither the will nor the desire to deny her so I remained perfectly still, the warmth from her palm radiating to fill my entire being.

Those fingers twitch against me as she blinks, squinting a second later at the bright sunlight coming from the window, and I smile as the look I adore crosses her features when she focuses on my face. "Good morning, love," I say in a soft, tender voice.

Bella smiles drowsily and her hand slides from my chest along the side of my neck to rest on my cheek. Then her gaze dips to my mouth, revealing her thoughts, and I, needing no further encouragement, pull her close.

So soft and sweet, her lips shape themselves around mine, the rapid thrum of her heart harmonizing with the sounds of our quick breathing. Of its own accord, my hand on Bella's waist glides to the small of her back, pressing her into my chest – and an unexpected burst of heat meets my palm, nearly overwhelming me.

Her thin tank top had ridden up during the night and now exposes a sliver of creamy skin that my entire hand is suddenly ravenous to explore. I force myself to keep that hand from moving, although Bella unwittingly attempts to spur me on as she lets out a small gasp, arching into the cool touch on her back.

While every nerve in my body screams in protest, I break off from her tempting kisses and struggle to tell her, "Bella…we have to stop. Your mother and Phil will be waking up soon."

It is a feeble excuse and we both know it, but she eventually leans back just enough to meet my eyes, her expression telling me that she is sorry, that she doesn't regret it, that she understands, and that she loves me.

"I need to get in the shower," she says after a moment, and rolls to the other side of the bed to stand. Collecting her bag of toiletries and a folded pile of clothes from her bag, she pauses at the door to the bathroom and then glances over at me with a raised eyebrow. "Should you go back this way to your room?"

Grinning, I remark, "I think it's safe to take a more traditional route," and nod towards the entryway to the hall. I rise and walk over to the partially closed door, continuing lightly, "Have your human moment, love. I'll get dressed and head downstairs to make some coffee." Caffeine seems to be a required element for most people in the morning, and Bella is no exception. Sometimes she would not say more than two words to me until after she'd had a few sips of the strong-smelling brew.

"Well, be careful. That coffeemaker is brand-new," she warns before the bathroom door clicks shut.

I roll my eyes, though she cannot see. Just because of one little incident with her father's machine does not mean I will destroy every coffeemaker I come in contact with. It was fortunate on that morning that Alice had seen what would happen and had already picked up a replacement from the store by the time Charlie came down to have breakfast.

Back in the guest room, I dress in a pair of khaki pants and the blue button-down that Bella likes and then tread soundlessly downstairs while the water from the shower interrupts the stillness inside the house.

The coffeemaker sitting on the counter in the kitchen is a similar model to Charlie's, so I confidently replace the filter, pour in the coffee mixture and water, and press the button to start the brewing process.

The heavy aroma soon saturates the air and I resist the urge to wrinkle my nose in disgust, shifting my attention instead to the hazardous rays of sunlight spilling into the house. I will have to avoid the living room in the morning, since the windows face east, but the evening may present a bigger problem as the kitchen is to the west and one wall is almost entirely made of glass. I make a mental note to check the weather forecast, hoping that it will call for an afternoon thunderstorm or two.

Freesia tickles my nose, borne on a cloud of warm, moist air, and Bella breezes into the kitchen. "Mmm, coffee." She inhales a deep breath, smiling, her skin flushed from the shower and damp strands of brown hair stick to the sides of her throat. When I manage to tear my eyes from her radiant features, I notice what she is wearing – and the vision jolts my whole body like lightning.

The rose-colored top bares Bella's arms to the curve of her shoulders, the rounded collar highlighting the delicate slope of her collarbones, and pale, shapely legs extend from modestly cut jean shorts to her feet, already fitted into her favorite worn pair of sneakers.

I have to consciously remind myself to breathe. Her skin looks so soft, like the finest silk, and there is so much of it… My hands tingle with the yearning to stroke the elegant lines of her arms, the swell of her calf, the fragile circle of her ankle and every newly discovered inch of flesh to see if the texture is different from one place to another.

A lovely tint of pink colors her cheeks when she takes in my expression, which I imagine is quite frenzied, and the blush slowly travels downward until it is hidden behind her shirt. She fidgets, whether from nerves or excitement, her dark eyes an endless ocean of undisclosed desires and questions, and then she pulls her bottom lip between her teeth.

My restraint effectively snaps.

In a single fluid motion too swift to follow, Bella is in my arms, her feet dangling above the tile floor, her surprised gasp swallowed by my feverish lips. Common sense shrieks in the back of my mind that she is too fragile to withstand this recklessness, but I realize with a fleeting burst of satisfaction that my embrace is almost instinctively gentle, as if the knowledge to handle Bella with the utmost care has been ingrained into every fiber of my being.

She melts into me as her surprise at my actions fades, her arms winding around my shoulders to lock themselves together at the nape of my neck. Supporting her insubstantial weight with one hand, I let the other skim across her shoulder all the way down to her wrist, back and forth, savoring the feel of her heated, unbelievably soft skin.

Her heart pounds out a hasty, disjointed tempo and she arcs away from my mouth, panting. I set her back on her feet, leaving a trail of feathery kisses along her jaw and throat. Then I pause to catch my own breath, leaning my forehead against hers, my insatiable hands still tracing the contours of her arms and shoulders. "Bella," I murmur after a moment, my voice rough with emotion, "I must admit that I would agree to staying indoors every day if you would dress like this all the time."

She lowers her eyes, reddening with embarrassment, but her tiny smile reveals that she enjoys having that affect on me.

Attracted like a moth to a flame, my fingertips brush over the rosy hue staining her cheek. "Beautiful," I whisper, too quietly for her to hear, but her pulse quickens in response to my touch. I can feel her warm breath on my lips as she begins to rise up on her tiptoes…

The floor above us creaks loudly. Bella jumps, her face draining of color and looking positively mortified, while a buzz of groggy, half-formed thoughts stirs in a far corner of my awareness. "Your mother just woke up," I inform her soothingly. "She smelled the coffee and will be down in a few minutes."

Bella smoothes her hair, looking flustered, and then pivots sideways towards the refrigerator. "I'd better get started on breakfast." She pulls open the door and bends to examine its contents, clucking her tongue before removing a carton of eggs, milk, and cheese.

"Omelets?" I guess with a lopsided smirk. She smiles and nods, setting a frying pan on the stove.

Needing no further instruction, I gather some tomatoes, a green pepper, mushrooms and onions from the fridge. After locating a cutting board and a knife, I chop the vegetables into small pieces, deliberately slowing to human pace when Renée appears at the bottom of the stairs.

"Morning, kids," she greets around a yawn. She enters the kitchen and loops around Bella to a cupboard on the left, selecting a mug from inside and setting it on the counter while she reaches for the now full coffeepot. "You know you don't have to cook for us, Bella," she remarks pointedly, watching the steaming brown liquid pour into the mug. I've missed this, she thinks at the same time.

Bella shrugs. "I want to," is her simple answer. She tips the bowl of beaten eggs into the frying pan. The familiar hiss is my cue to bring over the vegetables, so I walk to the stove and add them to the mix.

Renée seems taken aback by my participation. She must really like him if she lets him help her cook. She is reluctant to use the other 'L' word in her thoughts, even though it was the first thing that came to mind as she observes our well-coordinated movements. "Do you cook, too, Edward?" she asks, curious.

"A little." I glance over at her while I wash off the cutting board and knife in the sink, smiling faintly. "But I prefer to assist." My eyes shift to Bella and she looks up, her gaze soft and warm and utterly captivating. Then her grip falters a bit on the frying pan and I react, streaking to her side in the blink of an eye and cover her hand with mine on the handle. Both she and Renée gasp, startled. "Careful, love," I breathe into her ear. After, I release her hand and back away a few steps, shrugging sheepishly. "I was afraid you might burn yourself. Or sacrifice the omelets to the kitchen floor." I add a low chuckle. It has the desired effect and both women laugh, as well.

I return to the sink and place the cutting board and knife on the drying rack while casting furtive glances in Bella's direction, ensuring that she will not try to injure herself again when my back is turned.

Yet for all of my covert behavior, bewildered blue eyes continue to track every movement, puzzled thoughts trickling into my skull like drops of water. He moved so fast – I didn't even see him until he was standing there. And he's so…protective of her. She recalls the panicked expression that was on my face a split second before I had reached Bella, something I thought had not been visible to anyone. Bella gets hurt all the time – he has to know that. Maybe that's why he seems so intense. Like he's ready to jump in front of a bullet for her or something. Renée hums thoughtfully under her breath and takes a sip of coffee.

Footsteps thunder down the stairs and Phil breezes into the kitchen, wearing a similar shorts-and-a-polo outfit like yesterday's, the same baseball cap on his head. "Smells great, Bella," he comments, filling up a tall insulated mug with coffee. "I'm going to have to eat and run, though. Practice starts at ten and we make the boys do laps if they're late."

"Here." Bella uses the spatula to sever the omelet in half and lobs it onto a plate, handing it to him.

He promptly shovels a forkful into his mouth. "Mmm…" He smiles as he chews, and gives her a thumbs-up. "It's awesome. Like always." He nods at me, muttering through mouthfuls of egg, "She's a keeper, Edward. You won't find a better cook." And she loves you. I can see that clear as day. Phil's grin is lighthearted, but his eyes are steady and serious, mirroring the gravity of his thoughts.

I meet his stare unflinchingly. "I know," I reply, to both of his observations.

A flicker of respect lightens his stance and his smile tilts to the side as he takes a swig of coffee. You've got guts, kid; I'll give you that. But you and I are going to have a talk.

Caught up in the brutal yet refreshing honesty of his mind, I almost nod in agreement, and stop myself at the last minute.

In record time, Phil finishes his omelet and sets the plate in the sink, grabbing his mug and car keys from the counter. "I'll be home for dinner." He kisses Bella on the cheek and then swoops down on Renée. "Have fun," he says. And with a slight nod in my direction, he then heads out the front door.

The other half of the omelet is passed to Renée, who also declares that it is delicious, and then Bella sets about making another for herself – and me, technically.

She looks on in sympathy as I struggle not to gag at the foul odor wafting from the plate she sets down on the table in front of me, and she also puts forth a valiant effort of distracting her mother so that I can hide portions of the quivering yellow mass in my napkin or flick it with my fork into the sink. But sadly, I have to swallow a few mouthfuls for the sake of appearances, and it settles uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach as Renée talks on and on about her plans for today.

"And I thought it might be fun to look at the surf shop a few blocks down. Don't you think it'd be fun to learn how to surf? Oh, and there's this fabulous little ice cream stand – Phil and I just found it a couple of weeks ago. They have the best Toffee Crunch you will ever taste. And then –"

"Mom," Bella calls, throwing me a worried look as I cringe, an arm curling around my abdomen. "Why don't we just go shopping? Then we can think about all the other stuff." She starts grabbing everyone's plates, bustling over to the sink.

"Oh! I almost forgot." I jump a little in surprise when Renée's hand pats mine, clenched into a fist on the tabletop. "You're welcome to come with us, Edward. I know shopping might not be your thing, but it beats sitting around here, and a little Vitamin D will do you some good." She points with her chin towards the brilliant sunlight illuminating the patio. He's so pale. Could he be anemic?

I would have laughed if I weren't so nauseous. Clearing my throat, I say in a resigned tone, "Thank you, Renée, but I actually have a term paper due on Monday that needs quite a bit of work. Besides, you and Bella should have this time together." I throw a quick look at her, smiling as much as I can in hopes of quelling the anxiety on her face.

Renée is genuinely disappointed by this news, frowning as she remarks, "That's not very much fun for you. Can't you play hooky for a couple of hours?"

"I wish I could." This is as much truth as I can offer in our conversation. I shrug helplessly.

"Well, if you're sure…"

Bella seizes the opportunity to give me a chance to escape, blurting out, "Edward, why don't you go get your laptop and set it up in the living room while Mom and I do the dishes?" Go, she mouths urgently.

I race upstairs to the bathroom, waiting until running water and the clatter of dishes echo from the kitchen to cover up the sounds of my retching. Once that unpleasantness is dealt with, I flush the toilet and then collect my laptop and a stack of books and papers from the guest room and come back downstairs.

I give Bella a grateful smile when her worried eyes seek me out from the kitchen, and she sighs in relief before returning to the dishes. Afterwards, I construct my stage – plugging the laptop into the nearest outlet and placing it on the coffee table, arranging papers and open books around me to look as though I am deep in research. The role of diligent student is one that I am skilled to play, and it takes a minimal amount of effort to appear absorbed in the task while Renée and Bella ready themselves to leave. Their voices fill the background as I type something scholarly on the keyboard.

"I can't believe you still have that ridiculous hat, Mom." Bella's voice is teasingly affectionate, and I suppress a smile. I know that she loves her mother's eccentric ways, despite how it affected her childhood.

What's wrong with my hat? "I love this hat," Renée declares. My gaze flicks upward just in time to see her adjust the brim of a straw cowboy hat that looks like it has seen better days. "It keeps the sun out of my eyes." Her keys jangle in her hand as she opens the front door. "Should we drive with the top down?" she says suddenly, excited by the prospect. "It's not too hot yet."

"It's hot enough," Bella answers, looking over her mother's shoulder at the sun-baked front lawn.

Visions of her perfect skin seared red by sunburn fill my mind's eye, and I caution aloud, "Make sure you wear sunscreen."

Renée blinks in astonishment at my no-nonsense tone while Bella rolls her eyes. "Yes, Dr. Cullen," she retorts, smiling slightly, and I grin back, understanding that she is touched by my concern for her well-being. She has always been the caretaker, and is still not used to being taken care of, which is something that I plan to do personally for the next several millennia.

Later, much later, I realize that was the first time I ever thought of Bella's immortality without experiencing a painful stab of remorse.

Feeling a bit awkward as she tries to wrap her mind around the fact that my relationship with her daughter is much deeper than she had assumed, Renée pastes on a wide smile and says to me in a cheerful tone, "Don't work too hard, Edward. You've still got some time tomorrow to finish that paper. Maybe you and Bella can take a walk on the beach later tonight," she suggests, either forgetting or ignoring Charlie's words about letting the two of us go out of the house unsupervised.

Actually, the idea of an evening stroll with Bella has a great deal of charm. "That sounds great." I gesture towards the laptop and remark wryly, "I suppose I'd better get back to it, then."

Renée gives me an understanding smile and pushes open the front door, a gust of heavy, sweltering air overtaking the mild temperature in the living room. "Whew!" she exclaims. "I think we'll skip the whole 'drive with the top down' idea today. Let me go crank up the AC and then we'll go." She bounces down the porch steps, and a handful of seconds later an engine revs in the driveway.

Beside the puddle of sunshine streaming in from the doorway, Bella chews on her lower lip as she stares at me in indecision, her brows knitted together above troubled brown eyes.

In the span of a single heartbeat, I am standing in front of her, cradling her precious face in my hands. "What's the matter?" I inquire softly.

"I wish you didn't have to…hide out in here," she says, frustrated. Beneath the concern and hints of guilt in her expression, I glimpse the undercurrent of longing that had shown through so clearly last night.

My silent chest warms at her boundless compassion, and I bend down towards her upturned face to lightly kiss the tip of her nose. "I've told you before – it's a small price to pay. This time is for you, love," I remind her gently, "not me." If only my true motive for bringing her to Jacksonville was as pure and simple as that. I chase the dark thought away with an infinitesimal jerk of my head and grin crookedly at Bella, murmuring, "We'll go for our walk later tonight, after dinner, I promise."

She nods, and then lifts her chin in wordless invitation. I hold back an amused chuckle as I cover her mouth with mine. It is my intention for this to be a brief farewell, but Bella lets out the tiniest whimper as I start to pull back and her hands come up to grasp at my shirt, pleading for more.

Helpless against the power she wields over me, I submit to a barrage of devastatingly sweet kisses, hardly aware as one hand glides down from her cheek to cup the side of her neck and the other traces the fragile arc of her spine to once again claim the spot at the small of her back, nudging her body closer to mine.

"Bella…" I try to sound resolved as I mumble around her eager, burning-soft lips, but my tone is laced with needy desperation. I have to end this now or I will not let her out of my arms for the rest of the day. "Your mother is waiting for you," I manage to articulate when she gulps in a sharp breath of much-needed air, her heartbeat galloping wildly through the vein on her neck beneath my thumb.

She drops her head onto my chest, taking deep breaths to calm her racing pulse, and straightens after a moment, her eyes searching. I wish I knew what she is looking for; I will give her anything, she must know that. All she has to do is ask. Instead, she backs out of my embrace and reaches for the doorknob, glancing over a shoulder as she says, "Phil will probably beat us home." A faint smirk curves her mouth. "I think he likes you."

"Yes," I agree. "But the jury is still out as to whether I'm good enough for you."

An adorable blush lights up Bella's heart-shaped face and she groans, "I hope not. One overprotective father is more than I can handle right now." She opens the door and steps out, grimacing at the heat.

I watch her climb into the car through the filmy curtains on the living room window and continue to track the distinct colored vehicle until it vanishes around the corner, the familiar ache of her absence awakening inside my chest. "Be safe," I plead almost silently.

Left to my own devices, I abandon the fabricated term paper and wander throughout the house, cataloguing every detail. Framed pictures of Bella at various stages in her life, some of them duplicates of those at Charlie's, decorate the walls and tabletops, along with photos of Renée and Phil's wedding.

Eventually I find myself back in Bella's room, drawn to the unique assortment of objects on the dresser. I handle each one very carefully and speculate on its significance to her. It strikes me as odd that she would choose to keep a pair of ragged pink satin ballet slippers, as she has told me that she does not like to dance, but perhaps the childhood memory of twirling around in ribbons and tulle is an important one.

The box I stumble upon when I look under the bed is a treasure trove of mementos that keeps me occupied for several hours. Old school papers, journal entries, hand-drawn pictures and many other items fill the cardboard container to the brim, and I consume this invaluable discovery in avid fascination. Each object is literally soaked with Bella's floral scent – it swirls around me as I pour over the words scribbled by her innocent young hand, laughing at their endearing bluntness.

At the very bottom of the box is a tatty crochet blanket, its pastel threads unraveling from too many washes, and a tiny pink sleeper imprinted with the words It's a Girl! Forks Community Hospital, 1987. I set both in my lap reverently, smoothing a wrinkle in the blanket, and pause when I feel a hard lump folded inside.

Lifting the corner, my throat tightens, and I pick up the little circle of plastic with my fingertips. The typed words are faded from age and the ink is beginning to run, but I can still read what it says. Swan, Isabella Marie, DOB 9/13/87.

I do not know how long I sat there staring at the hospital bracelet, wondering how I had not felt something on that day – a jolt of foreknowledge or a pang of yearning – but at the time, my existence was an endless parade of monotony and I was numbed by the realization that I would always be alone, separated from the happiness that my family shared with their mates.

Then the whirr of tires rolling down the street and an off-key male voice singing along with AC/DC breaks into my reverie and I hurriedly replace everything back into the box, sliding it under the bed. I dash downstairs while Phil's dark SUV pulls into the driveway and sit down in front of the laptop and click open an old file. The words fill up the screen just as he enters the front door.

"Ah," he sighs in relief at the cooler temperature. "It's a scorcher out there." Removing his cap, he wipes the back of his hand on his brow. Patches of moisture darken his polo under his arms and his back, and streaks of brown dust cling to one whole side of his body. He notices my questioning look and crinkles his mouth into an expression that is part smile, part wince. "I was demonstrating a base slide to the team," he explains, brushing at his shorts with a hand. A small cloud of dust puffs into the air. "Don't tell Renée. She'll flip out."

I grin faintly. "My lips are sealed."

I do like him, Phil thinks, and starts for the kitchen to get something to drink. "She called to tell me you'd be here," he says loudly, rummaging around in the fridge. "Term paper, huh?" The cap twists off a bottle of beer with a light hiss and he takes a swig before asking, "How's it coming?"

Through his mind, I see myself shrug, my back to him on the sofa. "Pretty good, I guess." That seems like an appropriate high school senior response.

To my amazement, he tries to reassure me. "Don't stress about it. You're a smart kid." He snorts. "You got to be to keep up with Bella." Chuckling, he sets his beer on the countertop and then walks toward the stairs. "I'm going to get cleaned up," he comments idly, the chorus of "Thunderstruck" playing in his head, and the shower turns on a couple of minutes later.

When he returns, Phil grabs his drink and the television remote before collapsing onto the recliner in the opposite corner of the room, putting his feet up as soon as he is settled. "Do you mind?" he asks, waving the remote in the air. "Arizona's playing Los Angeles and they were behind by two runs while I was on my way home."

"Still a Diamondbacks fan?" I remark, grinning.

"'Til the end, baby." Phil smiles back and turns on the TV, flipping to the correct channel. He is more verbal than Charlie – shouting at the players, the coaches, the referees and even the announcers – so I decide to put away the props and shut down the laptop, arranging the books and papers into a neat stack on the coffee table.

When the Dodgers are up to bat, Phil lowers the volume and fixes me with a level stare. Though I know from his thoughts what is coming, I raise my eyebrows and pretend to shift nervously in my seat, but I do not look away from his serious gaze. His opinion of me jumps up another notch.

"You know, Edward," he starts, "Bella's a special girl, and I love her like she was my own. She's responsible, levelheaded, smart, caring…and stubborn." He says that last adjective with a fond smile and I nod emphatically, prompting a laugh from us both. But he sobers quickly, continuing, "She doesn't make friends easily, but she's devoted to the people she cares about. Sometimes more devoted than they might deserve." The implied meaning in his words is clear.

I flinch, and then lean forward, bracing my arms on my thighs, hands clasped together in front of me. "Mr. Dwyer –"

He holds up a hand, palm outward. I hold my tongue. Whatever he has to say, it is no less than what I deserve for wounding Bella so deeply. "When Charlie asked Renée to come to Forks, we knew it had to be pretty bad." Phil speaks in a low voice, his eyes faraway. "She called me, sobbing, and said that her baby was 'not the same girl anymore', that she was empty inside. She'd said that she tried to convince Bella to come live with us – get away from the memories and start fresh – but Bella started screaming and throwing things around, and then she cried. For hours, she cried." He shakes his head, frowning. "I can't even picture her like that. Renée wouldn't talk about it for two days; she just told me that she was afraid she was losing her baby." I'd never felt so helpless, he laments to himself, recalling how crushed his normally vivacious wife had been at the time.

With a mental shake, he erases the memory from his thoughts and returns his attention back to me. He looks all broken up, he thinks, taking in the devastation on my face. "I'm telling you this not to make you feel like crap," Phil says with bald frankness, "but because you should understand something about Bella." He leans forward in his seat as well, eyes blazing. "She loves you. I think you know that."

"I love her, too." The declaration leaves my mouth in a firm, uncompromising tone. "More than anything else in the world."

He is silent for a moment, his mind strangely hushed, and then he replies, "I believe you. So you know, then, that she's in it for the long haul. Whatever you two have is the most important thing in her life right now, and you're damn lucky she took you back." Jabbing his index finger at me, he utters point-blank, "Don't screw it up." They won't find your body if you break her heart again. His ruthless candor reminds me of Emmett, who made a similar threat just a couple of days after we moved back to Forks.

The quiet hum of the Beetle grows louder in the driveway, and the trunk pops open just as the engine shuts off. I use this moment to tell Phil the single-most vital purpose of my entire existence, vowing, "I won't fail her again."

Disconcerted by the almost feral light in my eyes, his innate sense of self-preservation causes him to retreat further back into his chair, although he passes off the feeling as being caught off-guard. Renée said he was intense. And I think I believe him. His head tips a little to the side, measuring me with his eyes. "All right," he answers simply. Then he turns up the sound on the television and gets back to his baseball game.

"We're back," Renée announces in a singsong voice as the front door swings open. Half a dozen shopping bags are tethered to her arms, which she dumps on the empty chair near the entrance, grinning.

I move to the door and hold it open while Bella lugs in four more bags, including a large one that smells of teriyaki sauce and steamed rice. "Have fun?" I murmur, removing the other three bags from her hands.

She gives me a withering glare, but there is a glimmer of humor in her chocolate eyes.

"We were starving, so we decided to get takeout." Renée takes the container from Bella and walks into the kitchen, where she begins to lay out the white and red boxes on the table along with four sets of chopsticks. She seems intent on learning how to use the archaic utensils, and is convinced that we should all try it out.

Needless to say, dinner becomes a hilarious affair. Phil slops a gravy-covered hunk of pepper steak on his shirt, and Renée has a dollop of bright orange sweet and sour sauce on her chin.

I manage to save Bella from the humiliation of wearing her chow mein by scooting her chair away from the table with my foot in the nick of time. Afterward, I gently take her hand and adjust her grip on the chopsticks, instructing her in a low voice while her mother and stepfather are laughing at each other's antics. And because of their distraction, I thankfully am able to dispose of my portion in the trash without having to subject myself again to the torture of eating food.

Once everything is cleaned up, I turn to Bella and ask loudly enough for everyone to hear, "Would you like to go for a walk down to the beach?"

She lights up, but then glances anxiously out the patio door at the sky, which has begun to darken with heavy clouds. "I think we'll miss the rain if we leave now," I assure her. I am desperate to get out of this house, and even more so for her company. Sifting through that box of memories in her room had transformed the ache in my chest to a gnawing hunger that refuses to be satisfied by these polite exchanges in the presence of Phil and Renée. I need to spend some time with Bella. Alone.

"Go on, sweetie," Renée encourages with a smile. "You should be used to the rain, living in Forks. Just come back if it's start thundering – the storms around here can get really nasty." I can't remember what the forecast on the radio said. I think it might blow over.

Without hesitation, I tell her, "I'll keep her safe."

I know you will. The thought comes immediately as she gives a slight nod and is filled with conviction. I feel as though an immense weight has been rolled from my shoulders. If Renée can entrust me with her daughter's welfare, perhaps she will consent to give me her hand, as well. I wish that Charlie and Bella herself would be as amenable.

Aloud, Renée sends us off with, "Have fun. Don't be home too late."

Uncommonly eager, I swallow back my excitement and gallantly offer Bella my arm. Her smile and stuttering heartbeat is reward enough for the sacrifices I have made today. She loops her arm through the crook of my elbow, and together we stroll out the front door, our postures making it all too easy to envision what it would have been like for me to court Bella when I was still human.

Although there are a great many benefits to having met her in the twenty-first century. The lack of a chaperone, for example.

As soon as we are out of sight from the house, I whirl Bella into my arms and pull her close, burying my face in the crook of her neck. She laughs breathlessly while my senses are assaulted by the fiery aroma of her scent, the warmth of her skin beckoning to me. I give in to the temptation and press my lips to the side of her throat.

She shivers and moves deeper into my embrace, her soft, hot breath caressing the top of my head. "Long day?" she whispers with a hint of humor.

I hum in agreement, following the line of her jaw with slow, barely there kisses. "Excruciating," I reply against the curve of her cheek. Her arms link together on top of my shoulders as she arches into me, her heartbeat tripping over itself in wild abandon. Then I sigh and pull back a little, grinning sheepishly at Bella's fluttering eyelids and red-stained face. "But I did say that I'd take you for a walk on the beach."

"I'm good here," she insists, tightening her hold around me.

Though it is far more difficult than I would ever admit, I gently remove myself from her light-as-air grasp and reach for her hand, twining our fingers together. "Come on," I encourage her with a smile, "I haven't been to a Florida beach in a couple of decades. And…" Sniffing the air, I can taste the waning ionization on the light breeze. "I think the rain will hold off indefinitely. We should be able to see the stars soon." I squeeze Bella's hand, raising my eyebrows in undisguised enthusiasm. Last summer, the two of us had spent every clear night outside, marveling at the millions of diamond-like flecks scattered across the velvet black sky. And judging from the tiny smile on Bella's face, I would guess that she is remembering, as well.

Ever trusting, she stays by my side as we follow the sidewalk to where it ends. A wide expanse of pale sand stretches out before us, until it is swallowed by the blue-gray waves lapping at the shore. Weathered, sun-bleached rocks form break walls on either side of the beach, and further along the coastline, the flash of a lighthouse interrupts the growing twilight.

The stormy-looking clouds that had worried Renée are hovering above the water, conveniently blocking the rays of the setting sun as they continue to move out to sea, but the threat of bad weather seems to have been enough for local residents to stay indoors, which affords Bella and I a much-needed dose of privacy.

She tugs on my hand and I follow her to a rather lopsided palm tree, watching in utter bafflement as she slips out of her shoes and socks. "What are you doing?"

"Edward," she says, setting her footwear near the base of the trunk, "you can't walk on a beach with your shoes on. It just isn't done." Her tone is matter-of-fact, as though I should know the proper decorum for taking a stroll on the beach.

I stare with concern at her toes, wriggling in the fine-grain sand. "What if you step on something and injure yourself?"

"You have two medical degrees, Edward," she answers, rolling her eyes. "I'm not worried." She shrugs, the salty ocean breeze tangling her dark hair around her shoulders, her eyes sparkling. "You'll take care of me."

Her profound faith in my ability to keep her safe is as beautiful as it is undeserved. But I will not take such a gift for granted ever again. I step forward, lifting my hands to her delicate face, and press my forehead against hers. "Yes," I whisper, silently thanking God or fate or whatever power that brought this incredible, loving woman into my empty existence. "Always."

We stand there for a moment, savoring each other's closeness, and then I lean back slightly, inquiring, "Am I to assume that the 'no shoes on the beach' rule applies to me, as well?" I grin at her emphatic nod and quickly uncover my feet. The sand feels no different than when I was wearing my shoes, but there is something oddly freeing about the soft pliancy of our steps as we walk towards the shoreline, where the sand darkens from washed out cream to rich caramel, dotted with tiny seashells.

Foamy surf rolls across our bare feet and steadily erases our footprints while we amble down the beach hand-in-hand, talking about everything and nothing. Bella regales me with a summary of her shopping trip, confessing that after numerous excursions with Alice, she was more prepared to deal with pushy salespeople and an even pushier Renée. Her mother had insisted on purchasing at least two outfits and Bella had eventually surrendered. To my surprise, she mentions a red blouse that she had chosen, and adds that she might decide to wear it to school next week.

A particularly large wave then crashes onto the shore and Bella yelps, jumping into me as salt water splashes onto her calves and knees. I chuckle at her antics. "We're walking alongside the ocean, Bella. Did you think you wouldn't get a little wet?"

She makes a face and glares in my direction, strands of dark hair lashing against her cheeks. "Wet feet are fine, but I wasn't planning on going swimming." Her lips purse into that adorable pout as she looks down at herself, and I am suddenly struck with wicked inspiration.

Concealing my glee, I offer, "Why don't you switch with me?" She nods, and I smoothly slip around her. We move forward a few steps before the next wave arrives, and as the warm water rises almost to my ankles, I angle one foot sideways and kick a torrent of droplets at Bella.

She gasps and freezes in place, her mouth hanging open in shock. Then she turns to me, chocolate eyes alight with the feisty spirit that I love bringing out of her, though the consequences are usually less than favorable for me.

I have less than a second to prepare before Bella twists out of my grasp and leaps into the surf behind me, unleashing a deluge of splashes. I immediately return the favor, laughing at her shrieks and giggles while our clothes become drenched. She scrunches her eyes shut and lifts her hands in a futile attempt to block another sizable spray, and then unexpectedly takes off, racing away from the water.

Grinning, I let out a playful growl and spring, catching her easily. She squeals, her heart flying as we sail through the air, and I adjust our positions so that I hit the ground first. A cloud of sand billows upward from the impact, the shape of my body imprinted perfectly into the beach, but Bella is barely jostled.

Once she catches her breath, she lifts her head from my chest and smiles down at me. There is such joy and carefree delight in her expression that I feel as though I am trying to stare at the sun, captivated by its beauty even as its radiance sears my eyes.

I brush some glittering drops of water from her flushed cheek with my fingertips. "You seem different here," I murmur softly, tucking her hair behind an ear. "More relaxed. It's quite distracting," I admit, giving her a crooked smile, and the rosy hue of her skin darkens another shade.

"It could have something to do with all this sunshine," she replies, lowering her eyes to watch her fingers play with the collar of my shirt. "But I think it's because I get to spend this time with you." She says this in a quiet voice just above a whisper and then bites her bottom lip, her gaze flicking up to meet mine.

My arms tighten around her gently. The wordless gesture of affection seems to uncork something within her, and she begins to speak with a passion that I have only seen glimpses of in the past. "I like having you here, visiting my mom and Phil. I like that you can stay in the house with us and not get the evil eye." Hers narrow dangerously, and I would guess that she is recalling all those times when Charlie displayed his loathing of my presence in his house with hard, condemning glares. "And…" She pauses, a shy grin tugging at her mouth. "I've always wanted to take a walk on the beach with you. It's a silly romantic cliché, I know," she says, rolling her eyes, "but I'm glad we did."

"So am I." Leaning forward, I give her a quick kiss.

When I lay back against the sand, Bella props herself up on an elbow atop my chest and asks, "Did you and Phil have some male bonding time before Mom and I got home?"

For a fraction of a second, I debate internally about how much I should reveal of our discussion, but then decide to just let the words flow naturally. "Yes, we did," I answer, and begin twirling a strand of her hair around my index finger. "Watched a little bit of baseball…and had a very enlightening man-to-man chat." I raise an eyebrow to add a bit of levity to my response, but Bella blinks, taken aback.

"Enlightening, how?" Her voice is thick with apprehension.

I stroke her arms soothingly and murmur, "Let's just say that he and I have come to an understanding." A low chuckle rumbles in the back of my throat as she drops her head onto my shoulder with a groan. "He wanted to make sure that my intentions are honorable," I tell her quietly, my grin fading as I go on, "that you won't get hurt again. I can hardly fault him for that." I smooth the obscuring curtain of mahogany hair away from her face to see her expression. Her gaze is fixed upon her fingers while they fiddle absently with the top button of my shirt, sliding it in and out of its hole, and spots of pink appear on the apples of her cheeks.

After a moment of unbearable silence, she mumbles in a timid voice, "And…he's okay with…us?"

Cupping her chin in my palm, I gently lift her head, waiting until her eyes meet mine to reply, "As well as can be expected, given that he loves you like his own." My thumb traces the curve of her lower lip and I smile when she lets out a shaky breath. "But yes, he seems to approve of our relationship."

Bella returns my grin, relieved, and then curls into me, nuzzling her cheek against the base of my throat. I hold her close, glancing up at the smoky lavender sky. The first star winks a brilliant white through the wispy clouds right above us. An old nursery rhyme surfaces in my head: Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…

"You know what I like most about being here?" she says suddenly, her voice soft.

My lips brush against the crown of her head as I reply, "What?"

"How uncomplicated everything is." She shifts a little against me, and the warmth of her skin, covered by the thin fabric of her shirt and shorts, causes my nerve endings to tingle and the seventeen-year old part of my brain to chase after numerous illicit fantasies. I push them aside before my body can react and heave a mental sigh. My very existence complicates her life, but she will never see it that way, and I am far too selfish to try and convince her otherwise.

Oblivious to my inner conflict, Bella goes on, "Here, with my mom and Phil, it's okay that we're together. There's no treaty between mythical creatures to worry about, no Italian vampire royalty telling us what to do…" Her shoulders rise and fall in a deep sigh that seems remarkably contented. "We're just two people who love each other and want to be together. Forever."

"Forever," I repeat in the barest whisper, surprised at the inkling of pleasure coating the word. Though consigning herself to an eternal struggle with bloodlust just to be with me has been Bella's intent almost from the beginning of our relationship, I have always shoved aside my own selfish desires on the subject by telling myself that she does not deserve a soulless, unchanging existence. Yet she remains steadfast in her wish, and I find myself dwelling less on the negative repercussions of her choice and more on the endless possibilities of seeing her as an equal, rather than my fragile little human.

The vision that has haunted me since last January flits through my mind: Alice and Bella, arm in arm, their skin identical in its marble-like coolness, and Bella looks up with a faint smile, her eyes the vivid, telling scarlet of a newborn vampire.

It is nearly impossible to label the emotions that such a sight causes within me. In truth, part of me does not want to acknowledge them all, because it would mean that I am not entirely committed to discovering some way to circumvent this particular future.

But that is also a lie. I am not committed to avoiding what my sister calls inevitable. I want it – and her – more than I have ever wanted anything.

Selfish! Unworthy! My conscience shouts the terms like obscenities, ringing inside my skull. Yet the longing is undeniable. To have my Bella at my side forever…the very notion fills me with indescribable joy.

And she wants it, too, or at least she thinks she does. Any other teenage girl might change her mind a dozen times over about everything, but Bella is so far removed from her peers that none of them could ever hope to compare with her. She is constant. She does not waver in her decisions.

However, she is also young. She has not experienced life and the world to its fullest. What if she regrets her choice after it is too late to go back? Would she blame me for killing her humanity?

A memory surfaces, unbidden. Hate-filled crimson eyes blaze out from a beautiful pale face twisted by rage and framed by a tangled mass of gold hair matted with blood. "You did this to me!" the newly awakened Rosalie shrieks in my head. "Why didn't you just let me die? I wanted to die! I don't want to be…this! I'm a monster! I HATE YOU!"

My body quakes at the thought of Bella screaming those three words at me, and I instinctively seek comfort in her unique scent, pushing my nose into her hair and inhaling deeply, the flavor burning my throat.

"Edward?" She must have felt me shudder, for she leans up on an elbow to see my face, her brown eyes questioning. Then she frowns, her free hand moving towards my forehead to trace the crease between my eyebrows with her fingers. "Are you okay?" Her caress follows the line of my brow to my temple, and she brushes the curl of my ear as she combs through my hair, calming my fears.

I nod once while silently marveling at the way her skin glows silver-white in the starlight with just the barest hint of pink, revealing her humanity. "I love you," I tell her softly, worlds of implication buried within those three small words.

In response she smiles, both knowing and pleased, and cups the back of my head in her hand, guiding my face towards hers. Our kisses skirt the edges of propriety in such a setting as a public beach, but I cast aside the long-ingrained habits of my upbringing for a few blissful moments, soaking up the warmth of Bella's lips and the sweetness of her breath.

When she pulls away for air, I reluctantly begin to sit up, saying, "We should head back to the house."

She sighs and nods, and I allow her to slip from my embrace so that I can stand in a swift, fluid motion. Then I offer her my hand, bringing her to her feet. She staggers a little on the uneven ground, and then brushes sand from her clothes. I try not to stare as she cleans off the back of her shorts.

Phil and Renée are curled up together on the sofa watching television, and both of them look up as we slip inside. "Look what's on, honey," Renée says, beaming, and gestures at the screen.

Bella focuses on the images for a half-second and then remarks with a faint smile, "I remember this one. You had a crush on the girl's best friend."

While Renée protests, she heads over to the loveseat and folds her legs beneath her as she sits, leaving more than enough space for me. But despite that, I can feel Phil's eyes tracking my every move while I settle onto the seat beside Bella and slowly drape an arm across the back of the loveseat.

After a few minutes, the women seem absorbed with the story line of the film – some romantic comedy that I vaguely recall having seen before, or perhaps the plot is similar – and Phil's mind has begun to wander, reminiscing over the game he'd watched earlier, his gaze fixed blankly on the television.

In my peripheral vision, I catch a glimpse of the clock mounted on the far wall, and its ticking suddenly fills my ears, each second counting down to the moment when Alice's vision becomes reality. Even now, my family will be preparing to deal with this threat to our most vulnerable member, and I wonder not for the first time if I should have stayed behind to help.

Yet the mere thought of leaving Bella fills me with such dread that I can scarcely concentrate. The need to be near her superseded the desire to aid my family – and the thirst for vengeance – which is why I am sitting in Renée's living room at this precise moment.

Surely it was the right choice to accompany Bella rather than send her off to Florida alone just for the sake of my selfish longing for revenge against the redheaded demon that dares to threaten my mate…

I cut off that thought as a growl struggles to make it past my clenched teeth. I cannot dwell on such things or I will go mad. Angling my head ever so slightly, I take a deep, slow breath of cool air suffused with Bella's scent. The sweet tickle of freesia releases the tension in my muscles as the burn in my throat spreads to warm my entire body. And I remind myself that Alice would call if anything had changed. I have to rely on her vision and trust that my family can handle the situation.

"You are right where you should be," my sister's words echo in my head, "which is with Bella. She needs you more than we do."

A soft nudge against my thigh pulls me completely out of my brooding. Bella has inched closer to me as the minutes passed, and the top of her knee presses into the side of my leg. At first she seems unaware of the contact, but soon a telltale flush of color blooms in her cheeks and her eyes dart once in my direction. Then she self-consciously flips her hair over a shoulder and the warm, silky strands glide across the back of my hand, tempting me to wind them around my fingers. In response, my grip on the loveseat tightens, but thankfully not enough to damage the frame.

They seem so comfortable together, Renée's now familiar mental voice whispers into my mind. A flicker of puzzlement follows her next thought: How can he be so still for such a long time? Like a statue…

In my conflicted reverie, I had forgotten to maintain the charade, and of course Bella's observant mother had noticed my slip-up. With exaggerated slowness, I shift my posture and slouch back against the cushion, leaning a bit to the far side, away from Bella.

Almost instantly, she moves as well, without taking her attention from the movie, and the small space I had created between us is now nonexistent.

All of this is noted by Renée, who marvels as her blue eyes continue to study us, It's like she can feel when he's further away from her. The image of a pair of magnets racing towards one another appears in her mind – an analogy that is strangely accurate. Whether halfway around the world or across the room, we always seem to find each other with nearly instinctual ease. I had once attributed it to the enhanced senses I possess as a vampire, but now I realize that the connection goes much deeper than any physical sense if Bella can feel it, too. Perhaps even soul deep.

I push that notion aside, dismissing it as impossible…but still…

Let it go, Edward.

It is close to midnight when the movie ends, and I can tell that the day's activities have taken their toll on everyone. Phil flicks off the TV and rises to his feet with a stretch, yawning. He and Renée bid us goodnight and head upstairs, their footfalls heavy and slow, and from the lethargy of both their minds I know that it will not be long before they are asleep.

As soon as all is quiet above us, Bella surprises me by crushing herself into my side, her head tucked in its usual place beneath my chin. "Bella, what…?" I start to say, bewildered.

She hushes me and mumbles into the collar of my shirt, "I'm absorbing the moment."

Before I can ask what that means, she clarifies by adding softly, "Since you won't be able to sneak into my room until later and I might not be awake then." A yawn stretches out the last part of her explanation.

Chuckling under my breath, I wrap my arms around her and reply, "I don't think you'll have to worry about that tonight, love." My lips brush against her ear as I whisper conspiratorially, "They're already asleep."

Her pulse stutters, and then beats in double-time while she slowly straightens to look at me with a faint, hopeful smile and dark eyes that are, God help me, smoldering in invitation.

She leans forward for a kiss, but I place one finger over her lips, halting her. "Get ready for bed first." Her expression wrinkles into an adorable pout, and I have to work hard to disguise the humor in my voice. "I'll be waiting for you in your room," I promise, reluctantly removing my finger from her mouth when she nods in agreement.

With a sigh, Bella gets up and heads for the stairs, muttering a parting shot. "You'd better be."

I listen to the familiar sounds of her readying for bed until my attention is drawn to the cell phone in my pocket. Though my rational side demands that I ignore the impulse, my hand slips around the tiny device and I tug it out. Then I stare at the silver rectangle sitting idly in my palm for a number of minutes.

Maybe I could just call once, just to see if everything is all right, if anything has changed. It would only take a few seconds…

I jump as the phone vibrates in my hand. Flipping it open, I see that there is a text message from Alice. It is simply two words: Stop worrying.

A small snort escapes me. As if such a thing were possible. Especially when Bella is involved.

Upstairs, the sound of running water is cut off, and I realize that I have a promise to keep. I fly up the steps to the guest bedroom and change into my 'sleepwear' before settling on the edge of Bella's bed just as the bathroom door swings open.

She studies me for a moment, lips pursed ever so slightly, and I fight off the unusual desire to fidget beneath her scrutiny. Instead I fold back the covers and pat the mattress gently, murmuring, "Come lay down, Bella. I know you're tired."

"You get in first." Her tone broaches no refusal.

While I cannot deny that the notion of lying beside her without layers of blankets between our bodies is extremely appealing, her comfort must come first. "Bella," I begin in a low voice, trying to express my regret with each word. "I don't think that would be –"

"Edward," she says my name like a slap, hard and quick. "We are in Florida. It's hot here, and I'm hot, I'm tired, and I want to fall asleep next to my supernaturally cold-skinned boyfriend." She stumbles a bit over the term boyfriend, and I would ask her why, if not for the fierce gleam in her eyes warning me to hold my tongue.

Obediently, I climb underneath the linen sheet and prop myself up on an elbow as Bella slides in, sighing quietly at the coolness of the sheet on her skin.

With an eagerness I will never understand, she curls into my chest, and I wrap one arm around her waist while slipping the other hand through her hair to cradle the nape of her neck. I have noticed that she likes to put a cool cloth there when she's overheated, so perhaps the touch of my chilled skin will be an adequate substitute.

"Mm," she breathes in relief. "That's nice." And she is soon fast asleep.

I monitor her body temperature carefully for the next two hours to make certain that she is simply reacting to the humidity and is not developing a low-grade fever.

Once I am satisfied that her health is not at risk, I find momentary solace in the rhythm of her heart as a new strain of melody dances around in my head. It is a perfect complement to the lullaby I had composed: light, peaceful, and full of comfort. Whereas the first piece is a melancholy reflection of a time when I believed our love could never survive.

For a few blissful hours, I almost make myself forget about what is going to happen somewhere in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.

Then in the darkness just before dawn, my phone buzzes on the nightstand.

I silence it quickly so the noise does not disturb Bella, and with apprehension coursing through me, I read the message glowing on the screen. Go down to the beach and wait for my call. A.

Slithering out of her limp embrace, I spare a brief moment to tuck the sheet around Bella and then creep outside through her window, my phone clutched tightly in my fist. The crash of the waves echoes dimly in my ears as the sand gives way under my bare feet, and a low rumble of thunder across the water heralds an approaching storm.

My patience nonexistent, I stride up and down the beach, the wind mussing my hair even more so than my fingers as they constantly rake through it in agitation. I complete the circuit five times before the phone vibrates once again. It is pressed to my ear in less than a microsecond.

"We lost her."

The words ignite like wildfire through the synapses in my brain, and the edges of my vision turn red as pressure builds in my chest, rage burning within my stone shell like a lit fuse on a powder keg. I hear a low sound, like a deep-pitched growl, and my immobile body quivers in tandem.

The one small piece of sanity left in my instinct-driven mind is able to register Alice's weary sigh. "Just get it out of your system," she says. "I can wait. But don't break the phone." Then she disconnects.

Heavy drops of rain begin to spatter the beach as the phone slips from my grasp, the roaring in my head drowning out the boom of thunder, and soon the world is a blur of muted color as my legs carry me towards the break wall.

Salty spray hits my face while I watch my hands yank a weathered rock from the pile, and a snarl rips itself from my throat as I hurl the boulder out to sea. The storm-tossed ocean devours its splash greedily as though taunting me of the futility of my actions. I grab another rock and throw it, then another, and another. And all the while, the same image plays over and over in my mind's eye: Victoria lurking outside Charlie's house, poised to strike at the reason for my existence, to snuff out Bella's life in revenge for her lost mate.

At every turn, something or someone conspires to take her away from me.

Flinging back my head, I glare up at the lightning-slashed sky and scream until there is no air left in my lungs. The cry is both a challenge and an admission of defeat. No matter how hard I try, or how I may struggle to overturn fate, the only way to keep Bella truly safe is to make her immortal. I cannot lose her again…even at the cost of her soul.

But as God is my witness, I will end this threat against her life with my own hands. Victoria will burn before the summer.

A mile down the shoreline, the abandoned cell phone starts vibrating. I pull in a deep breath and let it out through my teeth. Regardless of how I feel, I must not lay blame on my family. I am sure they all did everything they could. I repeat that mantra mentally as I jog back, damp strands of hair lashing against my forehead, and I snatch the phone up from the sand.

"I won't bother asking if you're all right," Alice remarks wryly. "I'm surprised you stopped demolishing the break wall." She pauses for half a second while I slam my fist into the trunk of the nearest palm tree, which shudders in protest, and then orders, "Leave the trees alone, Edward. Someone will notice two or three uprooted palms floating out to sea."

Inhaling a gust of rain-scented air, I squeeze my eyes closed and strive for calm. After a minute or so of tense silence, through which Alice remains tolerantly quiet, I manage to bite out, "What. Happened?"

She recites blandly, her wind chime voice leached of emotion, "All of us were tracking Victoria through the forest. We nearly had her – until she veered off towards the Quileute boundary line. Two wolves were out on patrol when they caught her scent and ours and followed along their side of the line." Her tone hardens, betraying her anger as she continues. "It was like Victoria knew exactly where the boundary was, like she was reading it off of a map. But then Emmett saw a chance to grab her and jumped – right into the path of a big gray wolf."

"Paul," I mutter to myself. Through stray thoughts and Bella's narration of her time with them, I have been able to identify by name some of the pack while they are in their wolf forms.

"Neither of them breached the line," Alice goes on, "but Paul seemed to think so and went on the offensive, snarling and snapping like a starved mongrel. He knocked Emmett aside and into a nearby tree, and of course Rosalie didn't like that. She was ready to pounce – but by then the rest of us had looped back around and Jazz calmed things down so Carlisle could explain that the treaty hadn't been violated." She sighs, long and regretful. "Once it was all straightened out, Victoria was long gone." A little growl slips out before she admits, "I couldn't see where she went afterwards because of the damn mutts. I'm sorry, Edward," she adds sadly.

"No, Alice," I reply at once, pinching the bridge of my nose in frustration. "It's not your fault." If anything, those accursed dogs are responsible for her escape. Yet another affront they have laid upon my family out of sheer immature stupidity. "And tell Emmett to not beat himself up over it, either. I know how much he cares for Bella." My words sound hollow even to my own ears.

Alice murmurs gently, "The same goes for you, too, mister. Even if you'd been here, it wouldn't have made any difference."

"Oh, so you're omniscient now?"

"Nope, just naturally brilliant," she quips in her usual chipper manner, wringing a tiny smile out of me. She becomes serious then, saying, "I'll keep an eye out for Victoria – see if she makes an appearance in my visions again."

"She will sooner or later," I answer darkly. My rage has cooled somewhat, and is now tempered with a steely resolve. "She has nothing else to live for except her vengeance. Something that she will never attain." Bella must be protected at all times, and between the seven of us, I know we can keep her and Charlie safe.

Thoughts churn within my head as I start making plans for what needs to be accomplished when we return to Forks, and suddenly Alice heaves a long-suffering sigh. "I see we're going to have another family discussion when you get back. I'll let the others know." Then she lets out a soft gasp; something has taken her by surprise. My hand tightens convulsively around the phone. "Bella is getting very restless. You need to be there when she wakes up," Alice informs me with grim certainty.

"How much time?" I start towards the pavement skirting the far edges of the beach.

"Minutes. Maybe less."

I break into a run, calling out above the whistle of the wind, "Thank you, Alice. For everything."

Her bright smile colors her voice as she chirps, "See you in sixteen hours."

Pocketing the phone, I dash across the front yard of the Dwyer house and then scale up to Bella's bedroom window, slipping inside while my eyes find her sprawled on the bed, the sheet tangled around her legs. She flips over a second later, mumbling incoherently, and I have just enough space to lay down behind her, spooning her fragile body with my own.

I feel the warmth radiating from her skin like the glow of a fire, and I pull in a deep breath, the aching thirst an inconsequential matter as I bury my face in her sleep-tousled hair.

A lump swells in my throat while I consider the danger she will be in yet again because of me and, moved by desperate need and fear of losing the one thing that has made this endless existence worth living, I wrap my arms around her as tightly as I dare.

Bella hums in response, and turns her head to the side to peer at me sleepily over her shoulder. "Hey," she murmurs, her voice husky.

"Hey." My fingertips brush twisted strands of dark hair from her cheek before I bend down to kiss the flushed skin. "Go back to sleep, love," I encourage her in a whisper. "There's still some time left before you need to get up."

"'Kay," she yawns, snuggling into my embrace. "Love you." And she nods off peacefully, her small arms resting over mine on her waist, her heartbeat once again singing in my ears.

Morning arrives with the golden Florida sun struggling to pierce the cloud cover left behind after the early thunderstorm. Like yesterday, Bella is the first to awake, and she greets me with a warm smile and deliciously tempting kisses would have lasted for hours had I not prompted her to have a 'human moment'.

While she is in the shower, I steal down the hallway to the guest room and dress quickly, then glance over our airline tickets. Noting the departure time, I flip open the laptop sitting on the unused bed and check today's weather forecast. Storms are predicted to move in and out of the area, which is all well and good, but the sporadic protection offered by the shifting clouds could prove troublesome. I will have to mark the sun's position at all times in order to stay out of its revealing light.

I head downstairs to the kitchen and switch on the coffeemaker, and Bella joins me a few minutes later, looking as enticing as ever in shorts and a purple tank top. She blushes at my raised eyebrow but shrugs as she remarks, attempting to be casual, "I miss being able to wear shorts all the time. I figured I might as well enjoy it while it lasts."

"Indeed." I tear my eyes from the smooth, creamy lines of her legs and give her a crooked grin.

The pink in her cheeks darkens but she sweeps past me without comment, although her steps falter when I brush my knuckles along the curve of her bare shoulder.

She removes an orange from the bowl of fruit on the table and starts to peel off its bumpy skin while I pour her some coffee.

Renée then appears in the doorway, bleary-eyed but dressed for the day, and I offer her a steaming mug, as well. She settles in the chair across from her daughter and munches on a granola bar, and waits until Bella has eaten her last orange wedge before declaring, "Let's go for a quick walk down to the beach, honey. I want to show you my favorite spot." Her wide smile does little to disguise the unusually sober tone of her thoughts. Need to talk to her about this boy… are more serious than I'd thought… so intense…

"Sure," Bella agrees. Then she glances at me, her expression questioning. I smile back softly, confident that she will deflect her mother's concerns, and watch them exit through the front door, linking arms as they stroll towards the shoreline.

In the meantime, while Phil snores in the background, I gather up our belongings and pack the bags for the trip home. The quilt from Renée is placed carefully on top of Bella's clothes, but I leave her bag open in case she decides to bring anything else back to Forks.

A high-pitched trill erupts from the other room, startling Phil from his sleep, and he grapples along the nightstand for his cell phone. "Hello?" he mumbles, then clears his throat. "Hello."

"It's me," Renée answers cheerfully. "Are you awake?"

"Yeah, babe, I'm awake." He collapses onto the pillows, rolling his eyes at the ceiling.

"Bella and I are on our way back to the house," she tells him, "then she and Edward need to get to the airport, so make yourself decent, okay?" She says goodbye after this announcement and hangs up.

While he grumbles and pushes himself out of bed, I race soundlessly downstairs and flip on the television, pretending to channel-surf.

My acute hearing picks up her heartbeat while she and Renée are still half a block from the house, and I attempt to scan her mother's mind for any hints of what they had talked about regarding our relationship. But Renée's childlike thoughts seem pleasantly excited as she speaks to Bella about a science fiction novel of all things that she has begun reading.

Through the older woman's oblivious gaze, Bella looks distracted, her brown eyes faraway and lost in some unknown place while Renée chatters on and on. But that distant look vanishes from her expression when she and her mother enter the house to find me lazing on the couch watching TV while Phil clomps down the steps, tugging a shirt over his head. "I'm decent," he announces, skidding to a stop. "Are we ready to get rolling?"

Bella's lips twitch at his mussed hair, although she replies nonchalantly, "Just need to get my bag."

I volunteer to help and trail after her, but she stops me just outside her room. "Give me a minute, okay?" she asks softly.

"Of course." Puzzled, I back away and then walk down the hall to collect my bag, counting the seconds in my head to give Bella some time to herself.

When two minutes have passed, I peer cautiously around the corner – and blink in surprise. Bella is standing in the middle of the room hugging a ratty-looking stuffed bear as her head moves slowly from side to side, like she is taking survey of all the memories contained here.

After a moment, she holds the bear out in front of her, smiling wistfully, and places it on the bed before slinging the strap of her bag over a shoulder. Turning on heel, she sees me waiting in the hallway and her face lights up, the pensive shadow gone from her eyes. "Let's go home," she says, and I move aside so that she can precede me down the stairs, wondering all the while if what had just happened was a symbol of Bella laying to rest this part of her life.

I watch her in silence during the drive to the airport, lost in the ambiguity of emotions stirring within me. While I know that every man or woman on the cusp of adulthood must put away the trappings of a child and enter the world without illusions, I cannot help but realize that Bella is not only surrendering ties to her youth but also to everything she has ever known, including her mother.

And all for me.

Though she swears being with me forever is worth the sacrifice, my self-loathing will not allow me to be at peace with her decision. Eternity is a long time to live with regrets, and I do not want Bella to suffer that way because I was not totally honest about what she will be giving up by becoming a vampire.

As if she can sense my distress, Bella reaches for my hand across the seat and threads her fingers through mine. I cling tightly to her offered lifeline until it is time to enter the airport terminal.

Outside the security station, Bella turns to Renée, whose blue eyes glisten with tears, and the two embrace. "Thank you so much for coming, baby," Renée murmurs, stroking her daughter's hair. "Promise me that you'll visit again before heading off to college."

The guilty flash in Bella's expression fades as her mother pulls back, and she smiles a little in an effort to mask the lie. "I promise." Her brow suddenly crinkles with worry. "But you're coming to my graduation, right?" she says, anxious.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world!" Renée exclaims, and folds her into another hug.

After releasing Bella, she turns to me, smiling with genuine warmth even though her instincts continue to warn her away. "It was nice to see you again, Edward," she tells me. Then she catches us all of us by surprise as she gives me a brief yet heartfelt hug. You take care of my little girl, she thinks with maternal ferocity, and I am immediately reminded of Esme.

Meanwhile, Phil wraps Bella in a strong-armed squeeze, and once Renée and I part, he offers me his hand. Now that we understand one another, kid, you aren't half bad. "Good to meet you, Edward," he says as a farewell. His gaze shifts from me to Bella, and he speculates to himself, They make a nice couple…but I sure wouldn't want to be in Charlie's shoes when he asks her to marry him, 'cause I would bet money that she'll say yes. He shakes his head, imagining the kind of reception such an announcement would receive.

Part of me wants to tell him that Bella already refused once, but I doubt that particular bit of information would sit well with anyone present.

Renée and Phil wave at us one last time as we get in line for check-in and then depart, and in less than two hours we find ourselves settling into another pair of first-class seats.

When the stewardess asks if we would like anything, Bella orders a Coke, to which I respond with a stern frown. "Bella, you should try to rest during the flight," I protest once the stewardess leaves.

She stubbornly shakes her head as she rummages around in her carry-on. "That will only make it harder to adjust to the time difference. I need to stay awake." Setting her copy of Wuthering Heights in her lap, she looks up at my disapproving face and touches my cheek with her fingertips. "I'll be fine, Edward."

After take-off, Bella reads to herself for an hour or so, and I fall into one of my favorite pastimes: watching her ever-changing expressions while twirling a lock of her mahogany hair around my finger.

"Thank you," she says unexpectedly.

I pause from smoothing her thick tresses away from the curve of her neck and reply, "For what?"

She shifts in her seat to face me, brown eyes clear and deep. "For coming with me to see my mom."

Helpless to resist the urge, I lean in to press my lips to her forehead. "You're welcome," I breathe on her skin. Then I straighten, grinning mischievously. "Does that mean you've forgiven me for telling Charlie about the airline vouchers and – what did you say? – 'throwing you to the sharks'?" I tug playfully on the strands of hair still looped around my index finger.

The grimace on her face does not hold for long, and she admits in reluctance, "Yes. But I still wish you'd talked to me about it first before dumping it on Charlie like that." A pointed glare in my direction puts emphasis on her words.

"I did talk to you about it," I answer, a little defensively. "Remember? We were in your room, and I asked you if –"

"No," Bella interrupts, "you only mentioned the idea of going to Florida this weekend without discussing all the details. If you'd said something then about me talking in my sleep about Renée…" she trails off with a shrug. "I probably would have agreed to go."

Dumbfounded, I can only stare at her, and she smiles fondly. "Don't you know what they say about making assumptions?" she teases. Then she sobers, keeping me locked within her earnest gaze as she goes on. "You know me better than anyone, Edward, but you can't always assume that you know how I'm going to react to things. We need to make decisions together. That's how relationships work." Her eyes flick upward, and her smile widens as she reaches out to push the hair from my brow.

It's how a marriage works, too, a tiny voice whispers in the back of my head, and I slump at bit with the realization that I acted like a complete cad. "You're right," I confess in a mumble. "I should have talked to you about it first. Forgive me." I bow my head, ashamed of my behavior, and of what I am still hiding from her – the true reason behind our visit with Renée.

Ever gracious, Bella pushes up the armrest between our seats and scoots closer, winding her arms around my neck. "I already did," she whispers, her breath warming my lips, and I ignore the sharp twinge of conscience as she covers my mouth with hers. I will tell her about Victoria later, when the time is right.

The plane touches down at Sea-Tac right after 5:00PM local time, though we have been in the air for over six hours, and the exhaustion is starting to take its toll on Bella. She is clumsier than usual; I stop her from tumbling down the ramp as we exit the plane, and glare furiously at a hasty businessman who shoves his way past her at baggage claim. He retreats with wide, frightened eyes while I pull Bella into my side, gently massaging her arm with my free hand.

On the shuttle ride to collect the Volvo from the parking garage, Bella calls Charlie to let him know that we are on the way. The gruffness in his voice is obviously feigned – a clear sign that he missed her very much this weekend.

And soon, we are speeding northwest along the interstate. Bella is strangely quiet, peering out of the passenger window at the thick layers of clouds, and my conscience pricks me yet again to tell her what had happened while we were gone.

But I cannot bear to see the dark stain of terror in her eyes, so I maintain the silence while inwardly renewing my vow to protect her at all costs. No matter the sacrifice or how some of my family may complain, or how any obnoxious dogs interfere, she will be kept safe. By any means necessary.

Author's Notes:

I owe so much thanks to those of you who kept niggling my conscience and inbox about updates. But I especially want to thank fgeragosian for your enthusiasm and votes of confidence, and icrodriguez for being my cheerleader, research consultant, and dear friend.

For the readers interested in the timeline of Edward and Bella's flight back to Washington, here are the logistics: If a nonstop plane lands in Seattle at 5:00pm PST, it would need to leave Florida around 1:15pm EST (6 hour, 45 minute flight, usually). If it leaves at 1:15pm EST, add 6 hours, 45 minutes, it would land at 8:00pm EST, 5:00pm PST. (Thank you again, icrodriguez!)

And I would be so honored if you'd take a moment to tell me how you liked the chapter, or even if you just want to tell me off about the long wait. I value and appreciate your opinion.