Alice fluttered around each of the girls standing in the forest, fluffing our dresses and smoothing our hair as we prepared to step out from behind the trees.
"Bella, is your shield in place?" Her singsong voice was hushed, probably sounding like a light whistle to the human ears around us.
"Yes, Alice. I don't see why this is such a big deal, though. He's seen me in dresses before." I rolled my eyes at her as she passed by and took her place at the front of the line.
Alice had custom ordered each of our garments, her imagination and spending seeming to soar to new heights with each event she coordinated. I was dressed in a royal blue, form fitting dress that had long sleeves and a raised collar. I found it completely strange - but didn't argue when Alice insisted I wear the cutting-edge, fashionable gown. It also kept up appearances, being somewhat warm attire in cold, Washington weather.
"Ok girls, are you ready? It's almost time!" She was bouncing with excitement as she began to explain where we needed to go. "Ok, Claire. Quil is going to walk to that big leaf on the ground, see it? That's where you'll meet."
Claire waited for the music to start and took a step forward, disappearing from our view.
"Perfect! Ok, Lauren, wait for Collin, he's almost ready." Alice paused for a moment, and then instructed Lauren to follow Claire.
Rachel and Kim followed suit, bringing Angela to the front of the line. She turned to face me and Jessica, a wide smile formed across her face. We stood quietly, looking at each other as we took a moment to ourselves.
I thought back to our time together at Forks High, remembering the uneventful, ordinary lives we had all shared. None of us expected to fall into such a different world, but each of us met it in our own time, and on our own accord.
Jessica had transformed into a completely different person during the last year and a half she had spent with Jake. She was not only aware of the supernatural experiences we all had, but she was more caring and honest than I had ever seen her.
Angela, however, had not changed at all. She had always been the most loving, genuine person I had ever known. She took to the changes in her life graciously, embracing all of our differences after meeting and being imprinted on by Embry. She seemed more and more fulfilled each time I saw her, her friendship and loyalty growing into an amazing love that she was finally able to share with someone who loved her just as fully.
We were brought out of our quiet thoughts by Alice's tiny fingers snapping inches from our faces. "Focus!"
"See you guys in a minute!" Angela was beaming with excitement as she hugged Jessica one last time before stepping out to meet Embry.
I turned back to Jessica as I heard her take a nervous, ragged breath. "Jessica, you will do great. I promise!"
Emily - standing just to Jessica's right - nudged her shoulder lightly and backed away a few feet. "Go ahead."
Jessica's breath halted for a moment, regaining its unsteady rhythm as she turned to me. "Bella, I want to thank you. I haven't really done that yet, but I need you to know. I know I wasn't the easiest person to like before, but Jacob is my life now. I am a completely different person with him, and I like who I have become so much more than who I was before. He is my everything."
I remained silent as she tried to gather her thoughts, taking a deep breath before starting again. "I never knew what happened last year at your house, just that Leah had been lost. The other day, though, Emily finally told me the whole story. You saved his life, and I am so grateful. Thank you."
I felt my eyes burn with the dry tears that wanted to escape as I gave her one last hug. I turned to Alice, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping out into the damp air. I beamed my best smile at Seth as I watched him emerge from the adjacent row of trees, meeting me at the carefully placed leaf and taking my arm in his.
"Hi beautiful! You smell." We both giggled as we walked toward the beige satin walkway that led to the edge of the cliff.
We turned and smiled in unison as we passed Charlie and Sue, sitting together at the edge of the isle. They had become quite close over the past few months, and seemed happy in their time together. Charlie had been a friend to Sue after Harry had passed, and even more so with Leah.
Leah's burial was open to a very exclusive group - including the pack, the Elders, the Cullens, Billy, Sue and Charlie - being that she was still in wolf form when she died. Billy had spoken to Charlie, giving him sparse details and asking if he would attend for Sue's sake. That was the first time we had seen each other since I returned from my honeymoon, and he was surprisingly accepting...
As I pulled up to our house I began to feel overwhelmed with the reality I was about to face. I had just seen Charlie at Leah's burial, but he was standing with Billy and Sue, and we didn't get a chance to talk. I wasn't sure if he knew what was about to happen, but I was desperately afraid of his reaction.
I walked in and took my place on the couch, Edward and Alice surrounding me. The rest of our family had already arrived, so we were just waiting for Charlie and Jake.
I turned toward Edward, my voice shaking with uncertainty as I spoke. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"It's going to be fine, I promise. He was apprehensive about your appearance today, and knows something has changed, but he was not upset."
"But what if he doesn't understand?" My voice cracked with the nerves that threatened to overtake me.
Alice spoke next, her voice calm and confident. "Bella, this is the right thing to do. We know Charlie is going to find out, and I promise he is Ok when he does. I have seen what it does to him if you decide not to include him in this, and that is not an option, do you understand?"
I sighed in resignation and excused myself to put in a fresh pair of brown contacts before they arrived.
I returned just in time to hear the car pulling off the highway and onto the dirt path. My former human habits took over as I chewed on my lip, nervously awaiting their arrival.
An impossibly long minute later, I heard the door open, and saw Charlie walk into the room.
" Thank you for coming."
Charlie nodded toward Carlisle, quickly scanning the room until he met my eyes.
We stared silently for a few moments, the air becoming more tense with every passing second. Jake had entered behind him, nodding and taking a place on the adjacent couch. Charlie followed and leaned against the couch nervously, looking as though he was preparing to run for the door if necessary.
Edward let out a surprised laugh, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Everyone's eyes snapped to him, surprised at his odd outburst of emotion and waiting for an explanation.
"Jake, I see that you have fully introduced Charlie to your world." Jake gave Edward a proud grin.
"Yep, he sure did. He, uh, what's it called? Phased?" Charlie glanced at Jacob and shrugged his shoulders, obviously trying to be nonchalant about the discovery. "Now would any of you like to explain why my daughter looks like, well, one of you?" Charlie crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes, slowly meeting each of ours as he looked around the room. I was so proud of him in that moment - he was facing a room full of people he knew were different, yet he still had no fear.
"Glad to!" Emmett jumped to his feet and began walking toward the door. "Follow me!"
"NO!" Everyone but Charlie shouted the word in unison.
"Awww man, Jake gets to show him and I don't? Stupid dogs get to have all the fun." Emmett continued grumbling unintelligible rants as he returned to his position next to Rosalie. I looked back to Charlie, meeting his wide eyes as he fought to keep his cool.
"Ok, dad." Not wanting to overwhelm him, I decided to let him take the lead. "What do you want to know?"
"Why do you look so different? Did you get some type of Cullen makeover or something?" He smirked, seeming almost hopeful that the answer would be that simple.
I laughed a little, admiring the irony of his words. "I guess you could say that." I glanced toward Alice, who seemed delighted with the idea of a Cullen makeover. Oh boy.
Charlie sighed, clearly unsatisfied with my answer. "Why is your voice different? And your hair, it's bigger. And the way you walk, it looks like you're... gliding." He closed his eyes for a moment - obviously conflicted about what to say - before finishing his thought. "Look, I know Jake is different. A wolf. And that is okay. I know you are all different too, I just don't know why yet. I'll deal with it in my own time, I just need to know that you are okay."
"Dad, I promise you, I am more than okay. I don't want you to be worried about me or my life with the Cullens. You know they are amazing people, and they have made me a part of their family. That is all that matters right now." I watched him tentatively as I continued. "I understand that this might be a bit overwhelming, and if you need me to stay away for awhile, I'll understand."
He jumped in, barely letting me get the words out before contradicting them. "NO! No, Bella, I don't need you to go away. Sure, this is going to be different, but I can do different. As long as you're happy, I'm happy." He smiled – which for Charlie was like giving me an Emmett-sized hug. I smiled back, thrilled that my father was still a part of my world – a chance that most vampires never receive.
Seth's movements snapped me into focus as he released my arm, turning and walking to his spot - marked by another leaf - to the right of Embry. I turned and took my place next to Angela, squeezing her hand gently as I approached. She beamed a smile at me and we turned to watch Sam and Emily make their way up the isle. I met Edward's eyes for a moment, and could feel the love emanating from them. I let out a silent huff of air as I reached my shield out to wrap around his body, pulling us into the bubble that had become our favorite place of solace.
You look incredible in that suit. And the tie matches my dress. Alice?
He nodded, confirming my suspicions.
She did great. I love you.
He mouthed the words back to me, winking as I pulled my shield back and refocused on the procession.
Jake was the next to emerge from the forest wearing the impressive tuxedo he had to have custom made by Alice. He smiled as he met my gaze, coming to give me a kiss on the cheek before taking his place in front of Old Quil Aetara, the officiate for the ceremony. I smiled and winked at him before turning toward the now rapid heartbeat I knew to be Jessica's.
She inhaled, holding her breath as she stepped out from behind the tree. I could hear Jake's heart falter as he watched her approach, her ivory gown swaying in the cool breeze of the afternoon.
They seemed to only have eyes for each other as she made her way toward him, her father holding her arm tightly. I heard a light sniffle and turned to see Angela's eyes red with tears. She shrugged and smiled apologetically as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
"Who gives this woman to this man?"
"Her mother and I do." Jessica's father smiled, kissing her cheek before releasing her to an awaiting Jake. I looked toward her mother, who was smiling excitedly from the front row. I thought back to my own mother, seeing her joyful face the day of my wedding. I wished so much that I would be able to see her face again, but knew it would be impossible. A father was more than I had expected to bring with me after my change – a mother too was beyond the scope of reason in this situation.
Old Quil's deep, meaningful voice filled the air as he began the ceremony. He spoke of Quileute traditions and family bonds, his hardened smile softening with each word. Just before he began the traditional exchanging of the rings, he spoke a phrase that was eerily reminiscent.
"An alliance of such stamina, and filled with so much love, will surely last beyond this lifetime."
I met Edward's eyes, cringing as we both remembered the similar words we had heard not long before...
As we made our way past Gianna I inhaled, the scent of artificial vanilla and spices burning my nose. I hadn't felt nearly as desperate for human blood as everyone had insisted I would – in this case I felt almost repulsed by it.
I had only been drawn to a human's blood the first few times I encountered the scent, but was surrounded by my family each time. After much discussion and a few experiments we learned that my shield – although usually only effective on mental incapacities – seemed to dull the scent of a human's blood tremendously. A few members of the family – namely Jasper – appreciated this discovery nearly as much as I did.
Gianna stood and politely greeted us, waving us through the doors and into the room where the guard awaited. We entered to see Aro, Marcus and Caius on their thrones, Jane, Alec, Demetri, Felix and a few nondescript vampires in cloaks standing precariously throughout the room. Aro waved them out as he walked toward us, his silent bodyguards following close behind.
"Well, well, well! It's nice to see you all again. Carlisle, it has been too long!" Aro seemed genuinely excited as he walked to Carlisle, his hand outstretched. Carlisle reached his own hand out, placing it gently on Aro's as he smiled politely. "It's nice to see you as well, Aro."
Aro's face seemed to distort, his eyebrows coming together at the center in confusion before his face lit up with delight. "Amazing!" He turned to me, his arms outstretched as if to embrace me. "A shield! And with incredible control so early, imagine what can become of this gift." He glanced toward Edward as he spoke, frustration clear on Edward's face as Aro's eyes filled with mischief. "Can you hear me, Edward?"
Aro's hands came together under his chin. "Interesting." He glanced around the room as though he were contemplating something before quickly snapping out of his thoughts and back to the situation at hand.
"Although I would love to experiment more with your gift, I do believe we have some business to attend to." He took a step sideways, stopping in front of Edward as he raised an eyebrow, his paper-thin powdery skin creasing along his forehead. "Bella?"
I winced internally as I flexed my shield, reigning it in slightly to expose Edward to Aro's ability. Edward let out a low, warning growl as he reached his hand out toward Aro.
"Still haven't discovered a sense of humor I see," Aro quipped as he took Edward's hand. He concentrated intensely for a moment before releasing it, crossing his own hands over his chest.
"Well, that is truly disappointing. Gabriele showed so much promise." Marcus and Caius rose from their seats as Aro turned toward them, the three conjoining in the middle of the room. They began to speak, their voices hushed and hurried so we weren't able to hear the words.
I looked toward Edward, his face focused as he listened to their interactions. After a few moments he relaxed noticeably, the rest of us following suit.
Aro turned to face us as he spoke. "We are quite unpleased with the outcome of Gabriele's trip, but understand that her destruction was not caused by any member of your coven." Caius snorted at this remark, turning his head away from us as Aro continued. "However, we were not aware that you were in association with shapeshifters."
Edward began to growl again, the sound now filling the room. Each of the bodyguards turned toward him, crouching into a defensive stance and awaiting Aro's signal.
"I do not understand your aggression Edward, I do not intend to harm your loved ones. I only plan to place blame on those responsible for Gabriele's death."
"Gabriele is responsible for her own death." Edward was seething, his words sounding like a hiss as he spoke. "She attacked without cause. Her death was completely justified."
Aro's expression did not alter as he listened to Edward's explanation. Caius, however, seemed to have a strong reaction to the argument. "Justified? You are running with werewolves, and you don't think that will affect your fate in any way? Your expectations are sadly misguided, boy."
Carlisle took a step forward as he addressed the three. "The Quileutes were no threat to us, nor were they a threat to Gabriele. I am sorry for your loss, but I believe she acted out of arrogance and under incorrect assumptions. The pack reacted as any creature would be expected to, destroying those who destroyed their own. As you can see from our history with their tribe, they have not done this in the past – in fact, they were extremely helpful in eradicating the newborn infestation we experienced last winter. We have no reason to believe they will do this again in the future if they remain unprovoked."
Aro walked a slow circle around the room, his eyes unfocused as he contemplated all of the information he had been given. I clenched my jaw as he passed Edward, struggling to keep him out of my shield.
He finally made a full circle, coming to stand a few feet in front of us as he began his assessment.
"I do agree with you Carlisle. Gabriele acted impulsively, and should have consulted with me first. I can see that you have maintained a strong relationship with these wolves even through this situation, and I can appreciate an alliance of such stamina.
"I am not convinced that there will not be a threat in the future, but I don't think further action is necessary at this time." Caius growled loudly as Aro continued, ignoring the sound coming from behind him. "I will keep a close eye on this situation. Please do not test my patience in this matter, as I will have none in the future. I in no way condone the interaction with these creatures, but I do respect your family, Carlisle, and I know you choose your associations wisely. Please do not make me regret this decision."
"Thank you, Aro. We appreciate your consideration in this matter." Carlisle nodded toward Marcus and Caius as he took a step toward the door. "It was nice to see you all. I hope our next visit is under more pleasant circumstances."
My thoughts were disrupted by Angela's arm nudging my side. "Bella, it's your turn."
I looked to see that Seth was waiting for me, Emily and Sam already making their way back down the isle.
We all converged at the end, giving the couple our best congratulations as they disappeared into the forest, heading toward our house for the reception.
I turned to see the chairs being cleared as people made their way back toward their cars. My eyes searched the crowd until I found Edward, now standing at the edge of the cliff and looking toward the water.
"There you are." He pulled me close as I approached him from behind, snaking my arms around his waist and resting my chin on his shoulder. "What are you thinking about?"
He turned in my arms to face me, cupping my face with his hands and kissing me gently on the mouth.
"I was thinking that I am the luckiest man... well, in existence." I giggled and raised an eyebrow, urging him to continue. "The majority of the thoughts here today, excluding Jacob's, were about you. You are exquisite, Bella – perfect in every possible way. Your beauty, power and control astonish me each and every moment." He leaned down, kissing me more urgently than before, his kisses interspersed with whispered words against my lips.
"I am quite literally dazzled by you, my love. My Bella. My wife."