A/N: Thanks once again to my beta, Katmom, and my pre-readers, Jazz Girl and R.T. Thanks as well to everyone who reviewed and welcomed me back with the last chapter. I truly appreciate it and dedicate this chapter to you! As usual, all original creators retain ownership of all brands and characters, nothing is mine except the way the words are arranged on the page.
The door to my truck closed with a great, shuddering screech. It sort of bounced and failed to lock, making me groan and heave a frustrated breath as I pulled it back open, only to slam it shut again. It caught this time, thank God, but my bag slipped off my shoulder in the process, and I lost my balance trying to grab it before it landed in a puddle.
"Crap," I cried, only to gasp when a familiar pair of strong hands slid around my waist, steadying me.
Edward's low chuckle vibrated against my ear, and even though I was tired and annoyed, and wanted to scream a little from the day I'd had, I immediately relaxed into his embrace.
"Easy, love," he murmured.
My eyes fluttered closed and I took a deep breath. "Thanks."
"My pleasure," he replied, his chest pressing against my back. "Are you all right?"
"Not really," I admitted, too tired to keep pretending I was.
He wrapped his arms protectively around me. "What is it?"
"Nothing." I swallowed and tilted my head back, resting it against his shoulder as I leaned on him. "At least nothing you don't already know about."
"Tell me what to do," he said.
I sighed and turned in his embrace. Tucking my head beneath his chin, I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. I'd grown so used to him carrying me everywhere since Jessica's wedding, I didn't stop to think twice. "Take me inside, please."
He ran a hand up and down my back. "That bad, is it?"
I shrugged, then nodded. I refused to let myself cry about it, especially in front of Edward, but Embry's news had shaken me. And, the later it got in the day, the more times I had to run to the garage or call one of the techs in for this or that, the harder it got to ignore. Add to it my lack of sleep, and I was a mess.
Fortunately, my doting, gentle, loving vampire slid his arms behind my knees and around my shoulder without any further convincing. He took my keys from my hand and had me inside my apartment in no time at all. And despite it being hot and stuffy, when he sat us down at my second-hand kitchen table, I felt at ease for the first time since we'd parted ways this morning.
"Better?" he asked, rocking me gently.
I nodded and pressed my lips to his chin. "Yes."
"Would you like to talk about it?"
"Not really," I said. "I kinda just want to sulk for a few more minutes."
I didn't have to look at him to know he was smiling. "By all means, if it will make you feel better," he said, "sulk away."
My lips curved up, despite myself. "Sulking in progress."
"Take as long as you need," he said, his breath brushing my ear.
I shivered and tucked my head tighter to him to inhale his incredible scent. He continued rocking me, and we sat like that for several minutes. I was dangerously close to falling asleep in his arms when a clatter along with the sound of raised voices broke the relative silence.
I took a breath and opened my eyes, glancing briefly toward the noise outside my kitchen window. "Thank you," I said.
"Always a pleasure, Miss Swan."
I smiled, feeling my cheeks heat. "I missed you today. I just spent a week with you, and saw you this morning, but I missed you."
"And I you," he said, adjusting me in his arms and meeting my gaze.
I lifted my chin and he caught my lips, kissing me with achingly sweet, tender movements. My heart raced irrationally as memories of more heated kisses rushed forward. Edward's fingers slid over my back and hip, innocent in intent, but eager enough to remind how they'd felt against my bare skin. My stomach fluttered as visions of his skin, wet and blinding in the sun, floated behind my eyes. Had that really happened just a day ago?
My whole body heated as I relived the passionate minutes we'd spent in the pool yesterday. I'd had no idea I affected him that way. Even now, the mere thought of it gave me a thrill. My skin prickled with goose bumps and I flushed, hyperaware of the restrained tension behind his kisses. The careful way he held me. The parts of our bodies that did not touch.
Another loud crash and a shout outside made me jump as Edward's lips broke from mine. I blinked up to find him scowling over my shoulder.
"They've been at it since I arrived back," he said, his tone serious.
A door slammed, and another voice shouted a litany of curses that even my human ears could make out. Rolling my eyes, I slid my fingers through his hair. I was ninety-nine percent sure it was coming from the apartment next to mine.
"They do that sometimes. It's normally not this bad though."
His scowl deepened. "No, it's normally not this loud."
I frowned and looked at him, really looked. His brow was furrowed, and the corners of his mouth were ever so slightly tensed. I ran one hand over his shoulders, feeling muscles coiled in a way they hadn't been in days.
"You hear them a lot, don't you?" I asked, sudden understanding washing over me. "Even when they're not screaming at each other."
He met my gaze and shrugged, then nodded.
"How do you stand it?" I asked, growing horrified. The screamers next door weren't my only neighbors. And last night, with the windows open, I'd noticed how noisy the traffic was in the area. Even after midnight.
It was rush hour now, and although we hadn't bothered opening the windows again, I could make out the engine noise and sirens when I focused. My mouth dropped open and I stared at him, incredulous. He slid his thumb over my bottom lip and I knew he was going to say something to minimize it even before he spoke.
"I'm used to it. It's just going to take few days to get reacclimated."
"Why haven't you said anything before?" I asked.
He grinned, his lopsided grin, still staring at my lips. "It wasn't important."
I caught his wrist and waited until his eyes met mine. "Don't do that, okay? Don't minimize it. I can feel the difference in your shoulders alone. You're tense. Much tenser than you were at the beach."
"I'm fine. Besides, you won't be in this apartment much longer. Right?"
I nodded, blushing anew. "Yeah, but in the meantime, I don't want you making yourself miserable just to be around me."
"Isabella," he said, cupping my cheek. "Miserable is the last word I'd use to describe how I feel around you."
My breath hitched. It took me a moment to reply. "Still . . . you should have said something sooner."
"I promise you, it's a very small price to pay. I'm more than fine."
"Stubborn," I said, turning my face to kiss his palm. I covered his hand with mine and repeated the motion, looking up at him through my eyelashes.
He inhaled a sharp breath, and before I knew it, I was lost in his kisses all over again. His hands were a little less careful this time. His lips a little more insistent. It was too bad my stomach decided to choose that moment to remind me I was human, and all I'd eaten during the day was a bagel.
"Wait," Edward said, pulling away, his voice gruff. "Let me take you to dinner."
I tried to catch my breath as my brain worked overtime to interpret his words and respond. "Where?"
"How about Chez Cullen?" he said, still close enough for me to feel the words on my lips. "It'll kill two birds with one stone."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," he said, kissing my nose. "It's cooler and quieter there." My cheek. "You can stay over." The other cheek. "And I'll even let you drive the Volvo to work in the morning." His lips touched mine ever so briefly.
Oh, he knew just how to get his way, didn't he? I could barely think, but even my addled brain could see what a nice picture he painted.
My neighbors might seem silent to me at the moment, but he would hear them no matter what. My body was flushed with more than just desire and sweat was starting to gather on my brow. And I had little interest in cooking, especially with the lack of edible groceries in the refrigerator.
"Tempting," I said. Then thought of something else. "In fact, it's very tempting. I spoke to my landlord during my lunch break."
I nodded, biting my lip. "The AC units for this building have to be replaced. Some kind of power surge fried them, so they're getting quotes from different companies. It could be another week or two before they begin installing them."
He looked surprisingly pleased. "You'd be welcome to stay with my family as long as you like."
I shook my head, fighting off a smile. "I don't want them to have to deal with a delectable human in their midst too long. But maybe until Monday morning."
A siren wailed outside and my stomach growled again.
Edward chuckled. "Like I said, stay as long as you like."
I lifted my hand to his cheek and kissed him. "Thank you."
"Let's go get your things. Time to feed the human."
We went upstairs, where it was less stuffy but a good deal warmer despite the open windows. Edward opened the windows downstairs, letting the apartment air out while I took a human moment and changed out of my work clothes. It only took me a few minutes to freshen up and repack my suitcase, as I'd never unpacked it to begin with.
I simply pulled out my bridesmaid's dress and hung it in the closet, then grabbed a clean set of work clothes and slid those inside. I was contemplating the rest of my musty clothing and what would need washed when Edward returned.
"Alice said not to worry about the laundry. Just bring it with you."
"What?" I asked, spinning. "When did you talk to Alice?"
"Today. A few times actually. She's very excited you're coming over. I think she's missed you."
I smiled, laughing lightly. "So this dinner was a setup, huh?"
"Maybe, I hadn't thought of that. I just thought you might prefer a quiet evening in and early to bed."
I nodded. "Yes, that does sound good. It's been a long day."
"Can I help with anything?" he asked, and I noticed his eyes were on my legs.
I shook my head, running my fingers over the navy-blue sun dress I'd chosen. "No, but do I look acceptable?"
His gaze snapped to mine and he smirked. "You're exquisite."
My heart did a triple back flip, and my stomach joined in for a roundoff backhand spring.
"Thanks," I whispered as he took two slow steps and knelt in front of me
Oh, lord, I thought, watching him tie the laces on one of my white low-top Chucks. Maybe I shouldn't have encouraged him to look after all. I was at risk of melting into a puddle of goo. On the upside, at least his attention had pulled me out of my sour mood. I hadn't thought long on Embry's impending departure since he'd kissed me, and I didn't think of it again until we were well on our way to Cedar Falls.
"How was work, otherwise? Was your boss cross with you?" Edward asked once we'd left the city behind, his Volvo zipping east through the foothills.
"Oh," I said, surprised. "He was fine. He interrogated me a little about Embry, but it was pretty obvious I knew less than he did, so he let it go. He was just glad I wasn't flaking on him, too."
"Hmm. Is he still going to make you work Monday?"
"Well, yes," I said, a little amused. "I did miss the rest of this week. Besides . . . I think I'll want the excuse come Monday."
Edward glanced at me, concerned. "Why?"
"Jake and Quil are bringing Sam's truck up Sunday. They're packing Embry up and planning to leave Monday. I don't . . ." I sighed, heavily. "I don't want be around. I don't want to hurt Embry's feelings, but I'm not one for big scenes. And I really don't know if I want to see Jacob yet, either."
Edward took my hand and holding it over the shifter. "That's understandable."
"You're going to miss Embry."
I shrugged. "Of course. We've seen each other almost every day for the better part of two years. We're coworkers, but we've been friends longer. Since before I learned about the wolves, even."
"What will you miss?"
"I don't know. A lot of little things. He was always the gentlest of the pack. He's the mediator." Edward hummed, nodding. "He makes me laugh. He eats my food. Well, all my leftovers anyway. Nothing ever went to waste with him around." I paused, thinking back over the years. "He was a good neighbor. He was always nice to my roommates. Helped us change the lightbulbs we couldn't reach and lent us a hand with the shoveling when the occasional snow storm hit.
"And, he's the only friend I've had here who I could be completely honest with. I may be his best friend next to Jake, but he was my best friend period. And now he's moving away, so . . . that's probably it for our friendship. He'll be in La Push, helping Jake run the pack. And I'll be here."
"With me," Edward added, but I couldn't read his tone.
I stroked my thumb over his. "Yes, with you."
He returned the gesture and briefly turned his head to meet my eyes. Even with his worried expression, his face was beautiful. Achingly so. I'd been in awe of him many times, especially in the past forty-eight hours, but seeing his concern for me over the loss of a friend, who was essentially his mortal enemy, was truly staggering. My heart swelled with love for him. Even as it ached for the end of an era.
"I'm not wrong thinking I won't see him anymore. Am I?" I asked.
He looked back to the road, still making small circles on my hand with his thumb. "Probably not. At least not more than on a rare occasion."
I grimaced. "Because of the treaty, right? And because . . . we'll eventually have to move away from here, too. Won't we?"
He lifted our hands and kissed my knuckles. "Yes. If we're going to share a life together, that is."
I wiggled my fingers free and placed my hand against his cheek. "That's the plan, isn't it?"
His eyes bored into mine. "It is. For as long as you'll have me."
"Well, then . . . you're pretty much stuck with me forever." I smiled a sad smile and slid my thumb along his jaw, silently pleading with him not to argue with me on this. At least not tonight.
He nodded once and turned again to the road. "I am selfish enough to concede that. For now."
My lips curved up, my smile brightening. Was this progress? "For now," I agreed.
He kissed my palm and recaptured my hand, moving it back to the shifter. "I heard what Embry said about the state of your humanity, by the way."
"Oh." My smile fell some. Maybe we hadn't made progress.
"It was out of line," he continued, "but I appreciated your indignance on my behalf." His eyes slid to mine, his gaze tender and meaningful.
I blushed even as my heart stuttered. "Well, I know quite well how you feel about the subject."
His expression deepened. "Thank you. That means more than you can possibly imagine."
I couldn't formulate a response. My eyes filled with tears, but they weren't the same angry and frustrated ones I'd been fighting off all day.
I was so in love with this man. I'd literally give him anything I could. My body, my soul, my eternity. But today, it seemed to be my patience and understanding he needed. So I gave it. I would take the for now and worry later about making it a forever.
Yes, I told myself, I wouldn't question his love for me anymore. Or his desire. I'd been made quite aware of how much Edward wanted me. Hell, even now, at this very serious moment, he looked like he wanted to kiss the hell out me. It was a heady feeling. He'd kept me wondering for so long—had left me doubting that he really wanted me the same way I wanted him—that I was still reeling from being shown.
If I was honest, I would love for him to show me over and over again. I cravedhis touch, coveted the feel of our bodies fitting together so perfectly. Now that I had been enlightened, I felt so much more aware of the desire that simmered beneath Edward's skin. It was like I could feel the barely restrained energy that pulsed between us in even the gentlest touch. It had the potential to be so much more. Explosive even, and I knew it was only his love for me that held him back, that forced him to protect me lest his happiness disappear.
It would take time to convince him he had the power, and my blessing, to ensure that never happened. He could make me like him and stop fearing my demise. I was a college graduate now. A real adult. I had nothing holding me to my life in Seattle, apart from my job. And one of the best things about my job was leaving. Moving away and starting his adult life.
I was concerned about the difference in my physical age and Edward's, but no one even looked twice at us at Jessica's wedding. Even Angela and Jessica, who'd met him before I had, hadn't seemed suspicious, so I figured I had at least a year or so before the situation became desperate. It was time enough, I hoped.
"I do love you so," I said, eyes still locked on Edward. "I want you always, but I want you happy."
His expression flickered from tender gratitude to worry, then back again. "I am happy. You make me the happiest man in the universe."
I blushed. "Same. Just, you know, the happiest girl."
He grinned. "I'm glad. I don't enjoy seeing you upset."
"It's hard to stay upset around you."
"Good," he said, and winked.
We drove a little longer, exiting the interstate and winding our way along smaller, mountain highways. Past popular outdoor spots, and through an abandoned mining town. It was a beautiful drive and I had a very good driver. He'd needed both hands to shift, so I'd taken to resting my hand on his leg as I gazed out the window.
"Can we delay your dinner another five minutes, or are you famished?" Edward asked as we approached the ridge I thought was home to the Cullens.
I glanced at him. "I could spare five minutes. Why?"
He pulled my hand from his knee. "I'd like a moment alone with you before we get to the house."
I frowned in confusion, until Edward turned onto a hidden drive and pulled the car to a smooth stop in front of an old, rusty gate marked with a NO TRESPASSING sign. He shifted the car into neutral and engaged the brake, then pressed my fingers to his lips before leaning across the center console.
My heart started racing and my breath grew faster as I put two and two together.
I moved to meet him as he dipped his head and pressed my hand to his chest. His lips brushed over mine with a gentleness that defied the urgent need I felt in his touch. His fingers slid up my arm and over my shoulder. He reached for my waist, pulling me closer. His lips were careful, and tender, but more insistent with each subsequent caress. My head spun, my mind reeling, as kissed me and kissed me and kissed me.
Grabbing onto him, I encircled his wrists and rose up on my hip, getting one leg beneath me to reach him better. My mouth parted as his breath washed over me and he moaned. Then his tongue swept out so quick, it was gone before I'd realized what happened. Instinctively, I pulled his bottom lip gently between mine, repaying him in kind. A growl rumbled in his throat, low and soft, and making me think my heart would explode.
Breaking away, he tilted his head back, his chest heaving even though I was the one who needed air. He traced his thumb over the pulse in my neck with one hand while the other hand slid lower, until his palm was pressed against my racing heart. When he finally lowered his gaze, his eyes were dark with desire and love. I stroked the skin behind his ears and at the nape of his neck, soothing him, I hoped.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm all right. I just needed to get that out of my system. Before we had an audience."
"Don't apologize," I said, blushing. "That was amazing."
His grin turned sheepish, but he was pleased. He hesitated a moment, then took my hands in his and played with my fingers a moment. "Your hand was driving me crazy."
"Very much so." And there was something roguish in that admission. "May I ask a favor, please?"
"Sure," I said, breathless. "Anything."
He stared deep into my eyes. "Try to keep from encouraging me tonight. Your touch is very distracting, and . . ." He paused, looking confused and frustrated. "Well, would you understand what I mean if I say I'm only human? I have limits."
"Oh," I said, blushing hotter as things inside me turned to jelly. "I think so, yes."
"I want to kiss you like that for hours," he continued, touching my bottom lip with his thumb. "But my mother is making you dinner, and Alice wants to hear all about Jessica's wedding. And Emmett is probably going to make inappropriate jokes about our week alone together, although not in front of you if he knows what's good for him, and Jasper can feel everything we feel. So, I thought . . . I should remind you. And ask for your assistance?"
It was the most words I thought I'd ever heard him string together at once. And the most human he'd ever sounded. It was adorable, and very hot. Though I supposed I shouldn't tell him that bit.
"I take it I need to keep my hand off your leg."
I bit my lip. "All right. I can be good. If you'll be good, too."
That sheepish expression of his made a reappearance, along with his crooked smile. "I am trying. I promise you, I have no desire to embarrass you."
"You won't. Although these might." I raised my hands and covered my cheeks. "Who needs Jasper?"
He smiled again, chuckling as he moved my hands aside, kissing each flaming, red cheek in turn. "I love these. And I love you."
My heart swelled anew, and I had to look away. I knew if I met his gaze or moved even an inch, I'd attack him.
"I'm hungry now," I said softly. And it wasn't a lie, although I could have been perfectly content consuming his kisses for the next few hours instead of food.
"Very well," he said and I glanced up at him to catch him running his fingers through his hair. I lifted a hand to mine and turned front to fix it.
We grinned at each other and giggled the rest of the ride there.
The Cullens were very happy to see us. As predicted, there was much teasing, and no one really needed Jasper to know how I was feeling. Or Edward, for that matter. He was glowing and quite unwilling to leave my side for even a moment, at least until he took off chasing after Emmett.
Esme yelled at them not to break anything and then led me to the kitchen, where she admitted to needing a bit of help to finish my meal.
"It says to do the salt and pepper 'to taste', but I have no idea how they taste to you."
I laughed and told her that's often an issue for me, too. "It basically just means, start small and add more as you like. And thank you for doing all this. It smells amazing."
"Edward said you would like it," Esme said, beaming.
Alice hopped up on the counter next to the stove and handed me the pepper grinder when I'd finished with the salt. "I told you, too," she said teasingly.
I grinned at both of them. "Thank you both. I feel a little silly being the only one who needs to eat, but I really appreciate it. It was a crazy day, and I didn't have time to go shopping."
"Well, this was our pleasure."
We talked then, while I finished seasoning the pan-seared pork chops and roasted fennel and cherry tomatoes. I told them about Jessica's wedding and reception, minimizing Edward's nick-of-time arrival and my subsequent accident, of course.
"Well," Alice asked while I checked the roast garlic potatoes Esme had put in the oven before I arrived. "Have you gotten the link for the wedding photos yet? I want to see you guys all dressed up!"
"I have. It's in my email if you want to check my phone. In—"
"In your purse! Thank you," she said, and was gone.
I laughed as Esme shook her head, leaning against the counter where Alice had been sitting. "You're a good friend for her."
"Alice is great," I answered.
"Yes, I am," she called, returning with my phone. "And I love you, too."
A surprised laugh escaped me as I turned to find her winking at me as she slid into the seat next to Carlisle at the breakfast bar. She pulled a sleek laptop in front of her, opening it and waving me over.
"Will you unlock it for me, please?" she asked, indicating the phone.
"Zero-nine-one-three," I said instead. She beamed at me.
"Is this ready to come off now?" Esme asked, pointing to the skillet on the stove and clearly trying to distract me from Alice's fervor.
"Yeah, you can take it off the heat."
She nodded and reached for the pan without a mitt or towel. I almost stopped her then remembered. Vampire.
"So you had fun in Virginia? And Jessica got off on her honeymoon without any issue?" she asked.
"We did, and she did, as well. They got back yesterday. She sent a few pictures of them snorkeling and swimming with dolphins."
"That's fun. Where are they settling down?"
"They're staying in Norfolk for now," I said as the timer for the potatoes went off. "Her husband has a house on base."
I took the potatoes out of the oven while Esme turned everything off and plated the pork chops. Carlisle, who'd been sitting quietly at the breakfast bar watching us, stood.
"What can we get you to drink, Bella?"
"We have wine, tea, lemonade, and Coke, it would seem," he said upon opening the refrigerator.
Just then Edward reappeared, hair wild and windblown and eyes bright. "Try the wine, love. It's the one you liked in Virginia."
Caught by surprise, I stared at him and waited for my brain to process. He winked and I shook my head.
"Um, I'll have a glass of water, please. And wine, I guess," I said, turning back to Carlisle briefly. Then to my magnanimous vampire boyfriend, I added, "Trying to get me drunk again?"
Laughter boomed from somewhere outside and Edward had the good sense to appear chagrined as Esme gave him a look only a mother could.
"You did not!" she cried.
Alice giggled as I stifled a laugh. "He did."
"Twice," Alice added.
Edward groaned and took my plate and silverware from the counter even as Esme bopped him on the shoulder. "Shame on you."
I laughed. "In his defense, the first time was my fault. Entirely. The second time, well . . . let's just say it's been a long time since I've had more than a glass. And he's right, I did like it."
Esme tried not to look amused as she gestured for me to follow her son through the open doors to the back deck. Carlisle was having some kind of silent conversation with Edward when I got to the table. I glanced between them as I sat next to Edward.
"Care to share with the class, you two?" Esme asked noticing for herself.
Edward coughed and shook his head. "No. No. And no, thank you. I'm sorry for being rude."
The first two No's, I thought, were said to Carlisle. The third was addressed to his mother. Alice chuckled as she sat at the end of the table with her laptop. Behind her, Jasper joined us, waving at me as he sat on the deck railing behind her. Still keeping his distance, I noted.
Carlisle placed my drinks in front of me, saying nothing, but smiling kindly. I smiled back and took a sip of my wine, waiting for Edward to look at me. When he did, I raised an eyebrow in question. He shook his head as he slung an arm across the back of my chair. I guessed he would explain later.
"So, tell us all about the rest of your trip. You said you looked at several houses before deciding where to stay?"
I recognized Esme's diversion for what it was and was grateful it seemed targeted at Edward. He talked while I ate, ravenous now that food was in front of me.
It was a very good meal, both the food and the company. Carlisle and Esme asked polite questions about the things we'd seen in Virginia. Then Edward asked about some of the projects they had going on at the house here, including something about his room. Alice jumped in, speaking in riddles and half sentences, as did he.
"I'll show you when you're done," he said, brushing his fingers over my shoulder when they'd paused from their discussion of the mystery project.
"Okay," I said.
Emmett and Rosalie appeared from the doors to the kitchen soon after, of course when my mouth was full. I barely had time to swallow and say hello before they made their excuses and bid me a good night, stating they had plans to go out. Rosalie was ambivalently polite as always, but Emmett gave me a bright smile as they took their leave.
I worried it was just an excuse, but Edward seemed nonplussed, shrugging when I caught his eye, an easy smile on his beautiful face.
"Would you like another?" Carlisle asked cautiously when I got down to my last sip of wine.
I set my glass down, blushing as I shook my head. "No, thank you. I learned my limit."
Everyone had a laugh at that, especially Jasper. "Oh, I don't know . . ." he drawled. "I may have to ask you to indulge again sometime. I'm curious now."
He winked, and whether it was directed at me or Edward, I couldn't say.
Eventually though, the long day caught up with me. Stomach full, and muscles loose from wine, I covered a yawn for the third time. Edward slid his arm over my back and insisted we say goodnight.
I wanted to help clear the table, but as always, was hushed by, not one, but four bossy vampires who insisted I get some sleep instead. So, after hugs from Esme and Alice, and a wave from Jasper and Carlisle, Edward led me upstairs.
The following morning, I woke before my alarm, trying to remember why I'd objected to coming here after our flight the other night. I recalled just wanting to go home and sleep in my own bed, but Edward's bed was more comfortable than mine. And bigger. And in my well-rested state, I realized that this room had become one of my favorite places in the world during recent weeks.
Smiling widely and breathless from my good morning kiss, I turned on my side to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows, my back to Edward's chest. He wrapped his arm around my waist and nuzzled my hair and neck while I took in the fading darkness, watching the line of the mountains appear in the pre-dawn sky.
"Are you going to go back to sleep?" he asked.
"No, I'm not tired."
"You slept very well."
I rubbed his arm and pulled his hand up to my chest, tangling our fingers together. "I can tell. Did I talk much?"
"Only a little. Nothing too amusing."
I giggled, cheeks only a little warm. "Good. So nothing we have to explain to your parents, then?"
He groaned and pressed himself tighter to my back for a moment. "Not until you said that, no."
I laughed, blushing full-on as he rolled me over and quieted me with his lips against mine. It couldn't have been very effective with the way it made my heart pound and my breath catch, but he just kept shushing and kissing me. When dawn finally broke, and I had no choice but to get up and get ready, he finally let me go.
His eyes were dark against his shimmering skin as the early morning sunlight hit it. His hair was thoroughly mussed, as was mine, and his clothes in disarray. I bit my lip, laughing again as I disappeared inside the bathroom to take my shower.
So much for not encouraging him.
He was gone when I emerged a half hour later, and Alice was waiting to help me with my hair. I hadn't been planning on doing anything grand with it, but she was convinced she could save me some time drying, so I reluctantly let her have her way.
And, of course, because the Cullens didn't know how not to be overwhelming, a breakfast large enough to feed four people was waiting for me when we made our way downstairs fifteen minutes later.
"Get used to it," Alice said, not unkindly, and squeezed my shoulders gently.
I wanted to protest, but after spending half the day yesterday mourning the impending departure of my last real friend in Seattle, I just couldn't. I was overcome with gratitude instead.
This was the counterpoint to what I'd been struggling to accept yesterday. That Embry's departure only solidified the end of something big. That I was going to have to face the fact that everyone important to me in the past four years had moved on or moved away. Angela, Jessica and Caroline, and Seth, too. Even my mother and father were firmly entrenched in new lives and relationships that had little to do with me. Now Embry would be going forward, too.
Were it not for Edward, and his sometimes overzealous family, I would be entirely alone now. And it was all I could do not to throw my arms around each of them in turn.
"Did you arrange all that?" I asked him later.
He'd led me outside to his Volvo and handed me the keys. "Arrange what?" he asked.
I shook my head and gestured toward the house. "All of it. Them. Breakfast. Dinner last night. The wine. Alice."
His brow furrowed. "What about Alice?"
I looked at him, at his befuddled expression. "Nevermind."
He took me gently by the shoulders. "No, what is it?"
"Nothing. It's just . . ." I looked down and took a deep breath. "If you were trying to make a point, it wasn't missed. And I appreciate it. Very much."
He lifted my chin. "What point would that be?"
I sighed. "That I won't be alone. Just because . . ." I shrugged.
Understanding washed over him. "I see."
"No," he said, pulling me close. "It's not, and while I wish I'd thought of it, it might mean more to you to know that I didn't have to arrange anything. I wanted to comfort you, of course, because I knew Embry's news had upset you. And I admit to wanting to get you out of your apartment because I thought you'd sleep better here. But the rest of it is just because we love you, Bella. It's not a point to be made. It just is."
I didn't want to cry again, but he was making it damn hard. He leaned to the side, smirking, and pulled open the driver's side door.
"Alice is right, you should get used to it."
I pressed my lips together and nodded, running the keys in my hand between my thumb and fingers. I wasn't sure I agreed with that, but I didn't want to seem ungrateful. Especially where anyone else could overhear and misunderstand.
"Are you sure you don't mind me taking your car?"
His smirk softened. "Not at all. Do you remember the way back to the interstate?"
I took a breath. "I think so. I have the GPS though, right?"
"Why don't I ride with you as far as Cedar Falls Road? You can let me out just before it skirts the lake and I'll run back."
"Won't there be a lot of people there? It's Saturday."
He winked. "I know a spot. Let me worry about the rest."
I looked at the white puffy clouds and the large patches of blue sky above us dubiously. "All right."
He laughed as he blurred to the passenger's side of the car.
It was odd driving with him watching. I felt like I was in driver's ed. Adjusting the seat, the mirrors, the steering wheel.
"You're a giant," I said, as I checked my mirrors a second time before turning the car on.
His chuckle was low and distracting. I blushed and took a steadying breath, nervous even though I'd driven his car before.
"Ready yet, slow poke?"
I raised an eyebrow and put the car in gear. It was a million times smoother than my truck, and more powerful. I may have kicked up some gravel when I pulled out.
After his initial shout of alarm, he didn't tease me again. He did, however, micromanage my driving once we'd made it down the driveway and hit the open road.
"Watch your speed."
"Pardon me?" I asked, amused as I didn't think he'd taken his eyes off my face the entire time.
"You're going a little fast."
I double checked the speedometer and scoffed. "I'm going half as fast as you go on this road."
He placed his hand gently over mine on the stick shift. "Please. Be careful."
I downshifted, slowing down anyway because we were approaching a curve, then pulled my hand out and placed it on the wheel. "Better?"
"Yes, thank you."
He was silent again, so I asked him if he minded turning some music on.
"What would you like?" he asked.
"Anything. Surprise me."
"Am I bothering you?" he asked, and there was definite amusement in his tone.
"A little. You're watching me," I said.
"I like watching you. You're a good driver when you're not driving a death trap or kicking up gravel."
"Ha ha," I said as the speakers kicked to life with one of Edward's indie bands. I couldn't remember their name, but he was right when he'd initially played them for me—they were very good.
I reached the intersection of Cedar Falls Road and rolled to a stop at the stop sign. Several large trucks passed before it was safe to turn, but I was soon accelerating once again, feeling the satisfying push as the turbocharger kicked in between second and third gears.
"Easy. Those trucks aren't going very fast."
"Thanks, I'm aware. I've eased off already," I said, and I had. I continued backing off the accelerator, grateful he wouldn't be side-seat driving the whole way to work. I was actually quite excited to have a forty-minute ride ahead of me, but only if I could play a little.
I followed behind the trucks for another three miles, Edward watching me the entire time, occasionally humming along with the radio. At one point, I smiled at him and he, of course, pointed back to the road.
"Slow down and make a right up here, just after that sign."
I almost made a smart remark, but then realized he was giving directions. I supposed that was allowed, so I slowed without comment.
"Straight about fifty yards more," he said once we'd turned. "Then there's a dirt lot to the left, where you can turn around. I'll hop out there."
I nodded, following his prompts until we had pulled into a primitive parking area in front of an old trail head. The trail was blocked off by orange construction netting, with a small blue sign that read CLOSED: ACCESS TRAIL AT RATTLESNAKE LAKE PARK.
From the deep potholes in the lot and the overgrowth of plant life through the fence surrounding it, it looked like it had been abandoned for some time.
"Perfect," he said as I navigated around the worst of the potholes and pointed the car back toward the road. Then he turned toward me. "You'll be all right the rest of the way?"
"Yes." I gave him a smile and put the car in neutral, setting the brake. "Will you be okay getting home?"
He rolled his eyes. "Of course."
I smirked. "I don't know, it looks partly sunny out there to me."
"I should be wounded you doubt me. Especially after Jessica's wedding."
"This from the man telling me to slow down one minute and complementing my driving the next."
He captured my hand. "Touché."
"I have to go," I said, wondering if it would always be like this when we parted ways.
"I know. Let me know when you arrive, all right?"
"I will. Worry wart."
His hand covered my cheek. "Indeed. But I won't apologize for it, Isabella."
Breathless. He made me breathless even when he was bossy. "Fine. Now, kiss me. I have to go work."
So he did. And, with a smile that made me turn to goo all over again, he slipped out of the car. "Be safe. Call me."
I nodded and watched him disappear into the woods. I was sure he was still watching me, but I took a moment to gather my head together and ran my hands over the steering wheel.
Taking a deep breath, I released the brake and fought back a smile.
"Alone again, at long last," I whispered to his car. Then I giggled and put her into gear.
The looks I got when I arrived to work in Edward's S60r, were priceless. With just two minutes to spare, I parked in the row typically reserved for the sales team's personal cars and headed inside. I ignored the sales manager, who had arrived moments before and regarded me with cool surprise. If he was confused or unhappy, he could deal with it. I wasn't parking her in the back lot where I normally parked my truck.
Fortunately, it was Saturday and the sales and service teams would both be too busy to bother with something so trivial. So I texted Edward that I'd arrived in one piece and got to work.
Before I knew it, the morning rush had passed and our midday service advisor arrived, allowing me to take my break. After assuring myself Edward's car had not been touched, I slipped into the breakroom and pulled out the lunch I'd thrown together with all the food Esme and Edward had set out for breakfast this morning.
It occurred to me then that I hadn't seen Embry all morning. I knew he was here. I'd checked in several of his appointments and heard Jerry talking to him while I'd been stuck on the phone with a client, but he hadn't popped by my desk to say hello.
Sighing, I wondered when he was slated for break today and decided to at least check before I ate. I also called Edward on my way, and ensured him I was fine, the car was fine, and I'd meet him at the bottom of the Cullens' driveway after work, and after I passed by my apartment to get my mail.
"I gotta run," I said when I spotted Embry in bay three. He was working on a scheduled maintenance, it looked like.
"Please message me when you leave."
"Okay, I'll talk to you then."
"I love you, Bella."
I smiled. "You, too. Talk later."
I slipped the phone in my back pocket and made my way to the lift Embry was standing under. He had his head craned back and was hard at work.
Music played loudly from somewhere nearby and he bobbed along with it until he saw me. He stopped and looked at me evenly a moment before returning to his work.
"Hey," I said, noting that he looked dog tired. No pun intended. "Are you taking lunch today?"
He stopped working, but kept his eyes on his socket wrench. "Not 'til later. I was the 8:30 tech today."
I nodded, knowing that meant he'd get his break at one. I was supposed to be back on the floor by then.
"All right. Well, will I see you before you before you leave?" I asked.
He looked up then and smiled, tapping the wrench against his palm. "Of course."
"Good. That's good." I hesitated, biting my lip and feeling oddly timid.
"You'll see me tomorrow, too," he continued. "And the guys."
I sighed. "Actually, Em, I don't think I'll be around much tomorrow. I have some things to take care of, shopping and laundry and stuff, so I might bring some sandwiches by or something. But that's it. I won't be staying. And well . . . I work on Monday, so unless you're going to be up before seven to say goodbye . . ."
"Did you change your days off?" he asked.
"No, I'm covering an extra day for Jerry since he had to work for me while I was out."
"Oh." And I could hear the realization in his tone.
This was it.
"Look," I said, trying not to make a big deal. "I better let you finish. You don't want to get behind. Just find me before you leave today, okay?"
I looked up at him to find him nodding, his lips pressed tight together. "Okay," he said. "You won't be home later?"
"Not tonight. AC's out in my building. I'm staying with Edward."
His lips pinched together again, but he sighed. "I understand. I'll come find you."
I'd thanked him and smiled for him, then headed back to the breakroom to hide until my lunch was over. I barely ate though, and the rest of my shift was spent in a state of hypersensitivity to Embry's presence. I noticed every time he came in to pick up or drop off keys, and the few times he had reason to speak to me I knew exactly what he was working on before he needed to tell me.
So, around the time he picked up his last ticket, I told the other advisors I would need a fifteen-minute break when he finished. I was dreading it, but at the same time, I was grateful we'd have a limited amount of time and that we'd have to be careful about what we said.
The alternative would be messy, long, and something I didn't want to define the last day we spent together—even if it was just work.
"So . . . I guess you wanted to say goodbye now?" Embry asked when we'd slipped behind the garage to a quiet, covered area where the techs often took their breaks. It was empty this late in the afternoon.
I sighed and looked up at my friend. "I just prefer not to have to do this in front of anyone else."
He nodded. "Okay, I get that. Are you sure I can't get you to come by tomorrow, though? For old time's sake?"
"No," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "It's not going to be the same as watching old movies and fighting over the last piece of pizza. You're leaving. And I'm not sure I'm ready to say goodbye, so if I can't be a supportive friend, I'll just stay away."
He let out a long breath. "Well, that sucks, but thanks. I think."
I smiled and he laughed his sometimes squeaky, dorky laugh.
"I'm going to miss you. Don't ever question that," I said.
"I'll miss you, too. And I'll worry. Every day. And night. Especially at night," he said, and his eyes clouded with an ominous expression I didn't like.
I stepped forward and took one of his hands in mine. "I'll be fine. More than fine. I'm safe and well cared for. And loved."
"Yeah, that's what worries me." He tangled our fingers together. "Just promise me you won't do anything stupid. Promise you won't let him . . . turn you. Please?"
Shit. I frowned, looking around the lot even as I squeezed his fingers tighter. "I promise I won't do anything stupid. I can't promise you the rest. I'm sorry."
His gaze grew hard, he was about to throw my hand aside, I could tell. I covered our clasped hands and pulled them to my chest stepping forward.
"I will promise you, Embry Call, that I will always be me. And I will always love you and be your friend. And . . . even though it pains me to admit this, I promise you that Edward doesn't want that life for me any more than you do. Just . . . remember that. And remember that things happen sometimes. Things that we can't control."
"Bella, no. Don't." And he was starting to get angry, but his eyes were shining and red.
"Listen to me," I said, fighting back my own anger and tears. "If shit happens, whether it's a year from now, or ten years, just know it was with my blessing. Because otherwise I am going to die someday, and he's going to be alone. Like . . . if-Emily-died-and-left-Sam-alone kind of alone. Do you understand?"
He was shaking his head, but his lips were pressed tight in that way they were whenever he was going to do what I asked him to, even if he didn't like it.
"Please, Embry. Just be happy for me. And I'll be happy for you."
He took two deep breaths and two more. Then his arms came around me and he crushed me to his chest. "Shit. I don't want this."
I wrapped my arms around his back and clasped them tight, holding him just as hard. "Me, either."
"I wasn't supposed to get this attached to you," he whispered.
"Oh, bullshit," I said. "You're the only one who ever had the right."
He laughed bitterly, and pushed me away, a disgusted expression on his face. "Why did you have to fall in love with a goddamn vampire? Of all the options you had?"
I laughed, wiping at the single tear falling down my cheek. "What options? If I missed someone amazing along the way, do tell. Because if I was meant for one of you, someone would have imprinted on me, and you know it."
"Doesn't mean one of us couldn't have loved you. Or that we didn't."
I sighed, this was the messy, long goodbye I hadn't wanted. Dammit.
"Listen," I said, closing my eyes. "Don't get stuck in the same trap Jacob did, okay? You're better than this. You're amazing. And . . . your story is still being written. Someone is out there for you." I opened my eyes, nodding. "And now that you guys aren't under constant threat of attack, you're can be free to find them. Or if not, you're free to find whatever it is that makes your life worth living."
He chuckled and looked away, making a face. "And what? You're free to have a vampire make your life worth living?"
I hushed him, but smiled. "As a matter of fact, yes."
"But he isn't even alive."
I narrowed my eyes. "Semantics."
He sighed and tugged on my ponytail. "He better take good care of you. Or, I swear, I will find him and tear him into tiny little shreds. He won't have any teeth left to turn you with, you got it?"
I figured that was a close to a blessing as I was ever going to get. "Same, for whoever you end up with."
He snorted. "Oh, yeah. Cause there's such a huge dating pool in La Push."
"I hear the girls in Forks are pretty cute, too, you know?"
He shook his head. "Nah. All the girls my age are fleeing small-town life for the big city. I guess I figured if it was going to happen, these last two years was my chance."
I hit his stomach playfully. "Stop it. You're not even twenty years old yet."
He grinned, his charming grin, and grabbed my hand. "Sure, sure. Maybe you're right."
"Of course, I'm right. Just give it time. And . . . promise me you'll call me when it happens. Promise we'll stay friends."
"Yeah, I promise," he said.
I nodded and smiled at him. He sighed and smiled back.
Patting his cheek, I bit my lip to avoid saying anything else and drawing this out, then turned to go. I made it about five feet before he caught up to me and bumped my shoulder with his.
"Hey. Don't forget those sandwiches tomorrow, yeah?"
I stopped mid step and gaped at him only for him to laugh and run off.
"See you soon, Bells!"
So . . . that was how it was going to be?
Well, all things considered, I thought with a smile, I could live with that. Now, to tell Edward I promised to make sandwiches for a bunch of werewolves.
I could only hoped he wasn't planning anything over the top for tomorrow.
More soon! Thanks for reading!