He said he was going to surprise her for their 50th wedding anniversary.
She considered all the things he might do for her. Roses on her pillow, new jewelry on her vanity table, an impromptu trip to their island. But he took this surprise in an utterly different direction.
On the morning of their anniversary, he escorted her into their car and made her keep her eyes closed the entire time he drove. He must have driven through at least four states because it was the longest drive Esme ever had to sit through. Being blindfolded made it even harder to handle.
Still, it wasn't the first time her husband had tortured her for a good cause. Whatever Carlisle planned was always worth waiting for in the end.
"We're here," he said at last, a smile in his voice. He promptly reached over to cover her eyes with his hand.
"I won't look," Esme sighed, fidgeting in her seat as he brought the car around a bend and slowly pressed on the brake.
The instant the car was parked, she opened her door and swung her feet out. Gravel crunched beneath her shoes.
She gasped in confusion and took an exploratory breath of fresh springtime air. The scents around her were so familiar, but...they couldn't be.
The urge to open her eyes was nearly unbearable for Esme, but her husband slammed the car door shut and rushed up behind her to embrace her forehead with his hands.
"I told you I wouldn't look!" she shouted with laughter as Carlisle guided her clumsily across the gravel. "Don't you trust me?"
"No," he whispered, the smile still so strong in his voice. Her heart fluttered with excitement as he touched his lips to the back of her neck and nudged her forward.
"When can I see?" she whined like a little girl.
"In just a few minutes," he murmured cryptically. She began to doubt his sincerity when he rested his chin on her shoulder from behind and began to chew gently on her earlobe.
"Are you really going to show me this surprise, or are you just taking advantage of me because I can't see anything?" she demanded. A naughty chuckle slipped from his very busy lips, and she felt a shiver of delight race down the back of her neck.
"Don't be silly," he whispered, stroking her ear with his finger. "I wouldn't drive you all the way to Wisconsin for nothing, would I?"
Her breath caught in her throat at the obvious hint.
His hands parted slowly from her eyes, unveiling a vision of blinding brightness before her.
Fifty years had passed since she had stood on this property. Even with a perfect memory, there were so many details that her mind simply could not bring to life. The plush green meadows of grass that grew all around the house, the rusty mint steeples that decorated the solarium on the west wing, the mysterious dead rose color of the bricks, and the majestic number of chimneys that towered over all parts of the roof. There was nothing quite like seeing it all again, up close and solid, after such a long time.
And right now, as she stood, stunned, with her husband's hands on her shoulders, Esme still believed that Chartercrest Estate was the single most beautiful home they had ever owned. She had a feeling she would always think of it that way; after all, it was here where they had fallen in love.
Sprawling and intricate, the mansion had certainly not lost much of its romance over the years. In fact it did not look so different from the day she'd first seen it. Bright green tendrils of ivy clung to the dark brick and stone walls, dotted with unexpected blooms of white where wild flowers grew. Every iron railed balcony was crusted with rust that glistened like ruby powder in the sunlight. The roof shingles had been dulled and battered by years of beating sun and heavy rain, and the windows were covered in permanent shadows.
As aged as it was, this property still had an indescribably magical feel to it.
When Esme had lived in the house with Carlisle, she had devoted a good portion of her time to refurbishing it to make it look like new again. When she looked at the house now, she saw all of her hard work erased after fifty years of neglect. But it didn't upset her. The erosion of time was just a reminder of how long a life she'd already shared with her husband.
"Oh, Carlisle," she sighed as her gaze swept across the grand façade. "It's been so long."
"Only fifty years," he whispered, amused.
"But it's still so...beautiful."
He nodded and rested his chin on top of her head. "I doubt anyone else has lived in it since we left."
A little tingle of happiness shot through her heart at the idea that this house had never been occupied by another family since she and Carlisle had left. It truly belonged to them.
"I can't believe we're actually standing here again," she stated, still in shock. Even the ground beneath her feet felt familiar.
Carlisle let go of her and slipped his hand into his pocket. "I still have the key," he said with a humble but victorious smile. "Do you want to go inside?"
Resisting the urge to jump with excitement, Esme nodded eagerly and followed her husband up the creaky porch steps to the front door. The key still fit inside the lock perfectly after so many years. Carlisle effortlessly pushed the door open and nudged his wife to enter first.
The smell of must and age was so strong that Esme almost missed the familiar twinge of something she remembered from long ago. When it came to recollections, images were indeed powerful, but nothing was more emotionally wrenching to her memories than her sense of smell.
Every breath she took was filled with an aromatic array of nostalgic scents. Old wood, pine, soot and smoke, and that vague, unidentifiable incense smell she remembered being most prominent in Carlisle's study.
The first thing Esme noticed when she stepped into the foyer was the closet where they used to keep their coats. The old wooden door whined in protest when she pried it open to see the empty space inside.
"Every morning before I left for the hospital you hurried to this closet to hold my coat out for me," Carlisle recalled with fondness.
Esme grinned at the memory, looking up to meet his hazy reflection in the dusty old mirror that hung beside the closet. "I remember."
His chest met with her back as he moved in behind her. "And every time you did it, I always hoped that our hands would somehow touch." Her heart fluttered when she felt his palm press gently against hers.
"If I recall correctly they did," she reminded him with a smirk, "on more than one occasion."
He nodded, his eyes sparkling. "I made sure of it."
She didn't resist him when he turned her slowly around and bent down to kiss her. In his kiss she could feel a quiet flame; that wonderful, reticent warmth Carlisle hid from everyone but her. As his lips gently opened and closed around hers, she was comforted by the mutual relief that they had each other forever. They no longer needed to exchange coats at the closet as an excuse to touch the other's hand.
At long last, his lips parted lazily from hers, but his fingers stayed firmly around her wrist.
"Aren't you going to take me on a tour?" she asked him flirtatiously, gesturing with her head toward the hall behind them.
"That was the plan." He gave her hand a loving tug and began to lead her deeper into the house.
"Be careful of the loose floorboards," he warned, earning a careless chuckle in response. She pretended to trip just to tease him.
He half smiled, his dark golden eyes filled with a certain private joy as he glanced back at her. Esme felt the need to hold her breath, to keep the sweet, fleeting moment intact.
It was amazing, she thought, how connected she felt to this house. Each room told a different story, and as they walked slowly through the halls, it was as if they had never left. They relived their bittersweet history as they explored every room, reminding each other of the special moments they had shared in each.
Decorating their first Christmas tree together in the parlor. Their first moonlit walk through the solarium. The night they spent baking pastries in the kitchen. The tension-filled, whispery evenings they shared in Carlisle's study, reading books by the light of a roaring fire. Every memory left a permanent warm spot in her heart, a unique puzzle piece of their blossoming love over time.
They stopped in the ballroom to admire the peeling paint on the wall panels. Esme remembered when she had worked for months to finish repainting every panel herself. The old Renaissance frescos of coy, dancing women had been carefully covered by intricate leaves of green. Now Esme saw that her layer of paint was fading away, leaving the dancing girls to peek out at her from behind the jungle leaves.
They walked the perimeter of the ballroom side by side, reminiscing about the times they had avoided dancing together. Then they strolled through the dining room, which they'd never used (except for making paper flowers), and into the solarium which was covered from floor to ceiling in overgrowth and wild foliage.
As they walked from room to room, Carlisle held out one of his hands to feel the walls, the doors, the wooden railings. His fingers moved slowly, almost sensually over each piece of the house, elaborating his memories with a keen sense of touch. He was like a child exploring the world for the first time.
Esme walked blindly beside him, her attention so focused on the movements of his fingers that she failed to see where he had led her. She found herself again at the foot of the massive staircase in the front hall, and Carlisle was taking the first step.
He looked over his shoulder, staring down at her with an almost mischievous look in his eyes. Dust sparkled in the air behind him, drawing an aura of ethereal beauty around his face. "Let's go upstairs."
A flash of heat filled Esme's cheeks at her husband's esoteric whisper.
She eyed the stairs warily, questioning their soundness after fifty years of neglect. They looked sturdy enough, but would they hold?
Seeing the worry in her face, Carlisle laughed gently and took tight hold of her elbow, helping her onto the first step with him. The stairs creaked and groaned beneath their weight, but they took their time in spite of the old house's protests, wanting to savor the journey as if they were a human couple.
Esme peered over the edge of the banister as she climbed the steps higher with Carlisle's arm around her waist. She watched the checkerboard tiles get smaller and smaller with each step upward, scaling a steep jungle of broken floorboards and cobweb canopies.
When they finally reached the top, she sighed in relief and brushed the dust from her dress. Carlisle didn't care to brush the dust off his clothes. Instead he continued to walk around with those pesky spots of gray on his shirt. It reminded Esme of the way he let himself become covered in sawdust whenever he worked on his wood-carvings. She grinned to herself, wondering if he even noticed.
She was about to reach out and brush some of the dust off of him, but he moved before she could touch him. He opened the nearest door at the end of the upper level hall and peeked inside with awestruck eyes. "Look, Esme... Your library."
Esme followed quickly to look inside as well. The shelves had all been stripped of their books many years ago. Esme had taken many of them with her when they moved, but the ones she had left behind were all still in small piles on the floor. She bent over to pick one up and read the title. Bavarian Fairy Tales.
She brushed her fingers across the dark green book cover, leaving dark tracks behind where the dust was cleared. Finding all the books she had left behind was like discovering memories she had somehow forgotten. She couldn't bear the thought of leaving them here now that she had found them again.
"I want to take the rest of these books with us when we leave," she said in a hushed voice to her husband, who was busy thumbing through some of the books in another dusty pile.
He looked up at her and nodded, his eyes warm.
Not caring if she got dust on her now, Esme knelt on the ground and began to dig through the pile, sweeping dust everywhere and squinting to read the familiar titles. "I don't know why I left so many behind," she mused.
"They weren't as important to you back then," Carlisle said softly, rising to stand close beside her while she excitedly sorted through all of her old books.
She could feel his eyes on her, his everlasting patience hovering like a comforting beam of sunlight over her back. When she finally looked up at him, she found him smiling down at her, deeply amused.
She hugged a small stack of books against her breast and looked at him defiantly. "And what are you smirking at?"
"Nothing," he said nonchalantly, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I'm just admiring the spectacle you've made of yourself."
"I'm not a spectacle," she protested lamely. Though covered from knees to feet in dust bunnies with at least twenty spineless books stacked on her lap, she imagined she was exactly that.
Her heart fluttered at the frustratingly affectionate rumble of Carlisle's laughter. "My dear, you're rummaging around on the floor like an enthused archaeologist at an excavation site."
As a gentleman should, he proffered his hand to her, wiggling his fingers in invitation.
Esme bit down to keep from smiling as she begrudgingly accepted his hand. With her other arm she managed to balance half of the books she was carrying. "I can take them home with me, can't I?"
Carlisle shook his head, grinning in that broad, jocular way so there were beautiful smile lines carved into his cheeks. "Of course you can, sweetheart," he murmured in a voice so loving she felt a blushing heat creep around her neck. He cupped her face in his large hands and pressed a pleasant kiss to her forehead.
Feeling complacent, Esme let Carlisle pry the stack of books from her arms. He placed them down on the table by the window and took her hand, guiding her back towards the door. "We'll gather them all on our way out," he promised, tugging her back into the hall.
She wondered why he was so eager to leave the library until he had pushed her along to the next door. He paused before opening it, holding his breath.
Because the sun shined on the opposite side of the house during late afternoon, the room was filled with dark, warm shadows. Everything was blue - the carpets, the walls, the lampshades, the bed sheets, the curtains. That remarkable blue had lasted all these years - even time could never wash it away. Just outside the windows, a generous view of the gardens and backyard lake stretched out in panoramic splendor. As the clouds raced across the sky, temperamental spring sunlight flickered over the walls and floors, enhancing the illusion of being underwater.
All of the furniture was gone, except for the bed, which was too large to move out of the room. It was either leave the bed here, or move it out in pieces. On the day they'd left this house, they'd made a joint decision to leave the bed in the room where it belonged.
Out of all the rooms in this house, the master bedroom seemed to have changed the least. Esme supposed it was because the one key piece of furniture remained.
And it didn't look any different than the last time she'd seen it. The velvet blue canopy had protected any dust from collecting on the bed covers, so the silk still looked smooth and clean, and the pillows were still as fat and full as she remembered.
As they looked silently around the room, Carlisle's finger began to trace slow, sensual little circles against the inside of her wrist.
The longer he went without speaking, the more erotic she perceived his silence to be. She longed to know what he was thinking, though she was certain she knew the exact nature of his thoughts. The way his fingers were moving across her skin told her everything.
She opened her mouth to speak, but her intended words turned into an empty breath. Carlisle straightened up behind her, taking the burden upon himself to speak first in the wake of his wife's speechless silence.
"I remember every night we spent in this room," he murmured, his voice low and soft as he continued massaging the inside of her wrist with his masculine fingers. "It feels like we never left."
Humming her agreement, Esme turned to embrace him. "It really does."
To humans, age was such a fragile thing. Ten years made a decade, and ten decades made a lifetime. It was a frightening thing to think about, but she sometimes wondered what would happen to Carlisle if he were human. If they had met somewhere in the strains of time, some crossing point where he was only several years older than her rather than several centuries. Sometimes she imagined the ways his face and his body and his voice would have changed over the years of their very long marriage.
Other women probably dreamed the opposite, fantasizing instead about what their husbands would look like if they never aged at all. But that dream was Esme's reality. Carlisle's body was eternally twenty-three years ripe, his face free of lines, his hair forever as golden as the sun. The only visible sign of age she saw in him was the sage glimmer in his eyes when he told stories of his past. But she also heard it in his voice - in the quiet, tender inflections of his poetic remarks about everyday nothings.
As she looked up and stared into the eyes of the man who loved her more than life itself, Esme realized she would not have traded any of it to be human again.
They made the most of what they had, and they appreciated every instant they shared together. They took what they could from this experience, both proverbially and physically.
All of the little trinkets and treasures that they had left behind from their last move were packed away into the car before they left the grounds. They each carried four armfuls of books down the stairs, and stuffed them into the already dusty back seat.
On their last trip down the staircase Carlisle turned to Esme, his face caught in a ray of sunlight by the window. He raised one arm to shield his eyes so he could see her more clearly, and the back of his hand glowed like soft white fire when the sun touched it. In the shadow cast by his arm, he smiled knowingly at her.
'Can you believe we've come this far together?' his eyes seemed to say.
And she thought he was the most beautiful thing ever created.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she reached up to lovingly brush the dust from his shoulders. She giggled softly as she patted him down, wondering how on earth he'd managed to get dust in his hair. "You're going gray," she joked as she tossed his blond locks about with her fingers.
He smirked appreciatively. "Have you forgotten? I am an antique, you know."
Esme laughed heartily. "Hm, yes. You're centuries old and covered in dust. You certainly belong here." Her hands swiped the dust from his chest roughly, but the kiss she placed on his chin was more than gentle.
Carlisle closed his eyes with a smile. "We both belong here."
"Our memories remain here," she reasoned as she gazed around the nostalgic interior of the house, "but we must move on."
He stared at her for a long moment, then finally whispered, "Thank you for coming here with me."
"No, thank you for bringing me here with you."
"We'll come back again someday?" he asked hopefully.
"I hope so," she sighed.
Esme took her husband's hand and ventured out the front door, and back up the cobblestone walkway. When she reached the road at the top of the hill, she turned around for one last look at the house that had defined her destiny.
Although all the windows on the façade had lost their luminosity over the years, one tiny stained glass window above the front door still shimmered brightly in the sun.