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Following Too Closely: Alternate Ending


I didn't like the way Carlisle was looking at me. Not one bit.

He didn't say a word as he gently probed my wrist and pressed his fingertips lightly against my forehead. I winced when he reached the spot where I'd deliberately banged my head against the steering wheel. I'd hurt myself more than I'd intended to, and even Carlisle's light touch was making the throbbing worse.

He had been silent ever since Edward had finished explaining the accident — leaving out our conversation and a few minor details concerning his reasons for following me, of course.

I sat very still while he checked my eyes and asked me a few questions about how I was feeling. Then I followed him, and Edward, down the hall into a small room I'd never seen before. It appeared that Carlisle had his own lab set up here at the house, and the room held several pieces of medical equipment, including an x-ray machine. When I asked what in the world he needed an x-ray machine for, Carlisle only smiled and said, "Research."

I'd been x-rayed before, of course, more times than I cared to think about. When you're as coordinated as I am, that comes with the territory. But there was something exciting about having it done in Edward's house, with someone I knew well doing the procedure. It was also nice not having to rush so the next patient could be seen, and watching Carlisle hang up the scans on the lighted board. Though I never considered x-rays to be something desirable, it was kind of neat knowing I could have more taken, and see the rest of my bones on display if I liked. I felt the same way when Renee brought home that button press when I was twelve, and suddenly I could design as many new buttons as I wanted. Or at least until we ran out of supplies.

But Carlisle had fallen silent again as he studied the pictures of my skull on the wall, and I began to get nervous. Carlisle wasn't usually chatty by any means, but this was too quiet, even for him. And while Edward was standing right next to my seat and rubbing my back, the gesture seemed perfunctory. He was eyeing his father just as nervously as I'd been doing. I wondered what Carlisle could be thinking.

After a few moments, Carlisle sighed. "There is no evidence of a skull fracture, nor does there appear to be any internal bleeding. I will give you a list of concussion symptoms, and Bella? I expect you to call me immediately if you experience anything on that list. Is that understood?" I nodded mutely. "And now I would appreciate if you would wait for Edward in his room," he continued. "You ought to lie down for a while, and I need to speak with my son."

I glanced over at Edward and saw that he was staring miserably at his feet. Whatever Carlisle was thinking right now was making Edward feel terrible, that much was obvious. Suddenly, I felt bad for my part in this. Sure, I was still angry at him for treating me like a dog that had misbehaved and run away from home, but that didn't mean I liked the idea of Carlisle being this disappointed in him. I knew Edward thought the world of his dad, and now he was in trouble because of me.

I wanted to say something in Edward's defense, but what was there to say? Carlisle, don't be mad at Edward; he was stalking me for a very good reason . . . and it was my fault there was an accident . . . While I wasn't nearly as close to Carlisle as the rest of them were, I wanted to be, and I had a lot of respect for him. His disapproval would really hurt.

"Bella." Carlisle's voice was firm. Reluctantly, with a last glance at Edward's unhappy face, I slid down off the contoured chair and did what Carlisle had asked, leaving the two men alone in the small laboratory.

It seemed like I waited in Edward's room for hours, but the clock on his stereo would have had me believe that it was only about twenty-five minutes. Yet if he had been in here with me, a CD playing in the background as he told me stories about his life before we'd met or read to me in that soothing voice of his, I probably wouldn't notice what time it was until he shut the book and said he'd better drive me home.

The sunlight was fading, and it made me feel sad that one of our rare sunny days had been wasted like this. Of course, I would have been at Angela's anyway, and at least this way I did get to see Edward, though the circumstances could have been better. But it still hurt to see the light dying, knowing it could be weeks before the sun really shone again. I was so absorbed in this melancholy that I jumped about a foot when the door opened and Edward came into the room.

His face looked very strange to me — kind of tight, as though he were carefully concealing his emotions. He actually looked like he might have been crying, although of course that was impossible. But minus the tears and the red around the eyes and nose, Edward's face reminded me very much of my own, all the countless times I'd cried for him over the long, dead winter.

He stopped in front of the sofa and gave me a tired smile. "Come on downstairs. I'd better drive you home." My heart started to pound at his tone, and the way his eyes flickered past me as he stood there and waited for me to get up. "Um, well . . . can't I stay here?" I hedged. I didn't really want to go home to an empty house, and his attitude was scaring me. He was acting very distant, just like he had before they left Forks.

Left me.

Edward shook his head. "Carlisle says you need to rest. I'll stay with you, and I'll need to wake you up a couple times tonight. Unless, of course, you'd like to tell Charlie about the accident so he can watch you."

I definitely didn't want that, but even though he said he'd be with me, I was still a little wary of Edward's attitude. He still wouldn't look at me, and he was shifting his weight a lot, something he never normally did. But I obediently heaved myself off the sofa and followed Edward downstairs. He didn't say a word the whole time. The silence was making me so nervous that by the time he opened the passenger door and helped me into the cab of the truck, the hand I gave him was slick with sweat and my breath was coming only as short, shallow gasps for air.

If Edward noticed, he didn't say anything, which only made me feel worse. If he didn't notice, I had to wonder why. What had happened in Carlisle's lab? Had they been talking about me? Had Carlisle told Edward he shouldn't see me anymore because of Jacob? Or had he done exactly what I wanted — given him a stern lecture for harassing me — and now Edward was angry with me for getting him in trouble?

Edward slammed my door and within seconds was on the other side of the truck, easing himself into the driver's seat. That's when I knew something wasn't right; Edward let out a sharp hiss as he slid into place. Was he hissing at me? That had to be it — what else could have set him off?

Unless . . .

All this time, not a word had he spoken to me. Apparently, he was planning to ignore me for the rest of the day, and I was almost resentful enough not to care. When he tried put the key in the ignition, though, I knew I couldn't last through another one of his sulks, so I reached out and caught his arm. "Edward, what happened?" I demanded.

He paused, glancing over in my general direction but not quite meeting my eyes. "What do you mean? Carlisle and I had a talk, that's all."

I shook my head too hard, wanting to clear it of the disturbing suspicion I'd just had, but that was a bad move — now I felt dizzy and needed to brace my hands against the upholstery. I hoped Edward wouldn't notice; he was worried enough already. I was supposed to tell Carlisle if I felt sick, but right now that was the last thing on my mind.

He was watching my face intently, but apparently his mind was on other matters. "What are you thinking?" he asked me warily. "Just now, I mean. You look . . . strange."

I gave a short, humorless laugh. "You don't even want to know," I said, cringing inside at the thought of actually saying that out loud.

His brow furrowed. "I do, though."

I shook my head. "It's stupid. Forget about it." There was a long silence. I waited for him to start up the truck and drive me home, but he only continued to stare at me as I, in turn, stared down at my hands clenched in my lap.

"My father spanked me, Bella," Edward said abruptly. My head snapped up, and I turned to face him fully, shocked at the revelation . . . even though that was exactly what I had been thinking.

"He . . . spanked you?" I said, not sure I'd heard right. Edward nodded, staring straight ahead over the steering wheel. A muscle clenched in his jaw. "Um . . ." I wasn't sure what to say, exactly. I mean, really, what was there to say? "Aren't you . . . a bit old for that?" I asked tentatively.

Edward snorted, a mirthless smile twisting his features. "Tell that to my dad," he said bitterly. He shifted in his seat, gritting his teeth as he did. I winced in sympathy. "We've all been spanked at one time or another . . . at least, all of us except for Alice," he amended.

"I just can't believe it," I marveled. "He seems so nice."

"He is nice," Edward retorted. "He's the nicest, kindest man you'll ever meet. This doesn't change that. I don't like it, but . . . he's my father. And I messed up. He only did it because he loves me."

I didn't answer, just unbuckled my seatbelt and started to push open the creaky passenger door. "Wait, Bella — where are you going?" Edward asked, sounding exasperated as he reached out to touch my arm.

"I'm going to talk to your dad," I said, sliding out of the cab and onto the driveway. When I turned to slam the door shut, Edward had already come around to my side of the car and was standing in my way.

"Whatever for?"

Good question. I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to say to Carlisle. I just knew that I couldn't leave things as they were. Everything had gone just as I'd intended in that brief moment coming back from La Push . . . yet in its own way, everything had gone wrong, too. "I just — I didn't know he was going to . . ." I stammered. "I – I'd better talk to him. He shouldn't blame you for everything."

Edward gave me a patient smile. "Who else is he going to blame, Bella?" he asked. "I was following too closely and couldn't make the car stop in time. You could have been seriously hurt, and all because I was . . . jealous." His hand came up to touch the slight bump on my forehead. I held my breath, hoping it wouldn't hurt like it had when Carlisle had touched it, but Edward only ghosted his fingers over the swollen spot before dropping his hand to caress my cheek. "He said some things . . . and we're going to talk more later." Edward grimaced. "I think I'm in for quite a lecture."

Seeing that Edward wasn't going to let me pass, I turned on my heel and stomped around the truck the long way. But Edward was faster, of course. He didn't try to stand in my way or anything, but he kept pace with me as I headed back into the house. "Bella, please just let me drive you home," he pleaded with me. "Just forget about it." But I wouldn't listen to him. If he had tried to physically restrain me, I would probably have screamed for Carlisle, but it never came to that. Edward gave up after a moment and fell reluctantly into step behind me as I marched upstairs.

Carlisle had heard me coming; he stepped out of the study even before I reached the top of the stairs, concern etched onto his kind face. "Are you feeling sick, Bella?" he asked.

"Uh, no," I said, pausing on the top step, my hand gripping the banister. "Um . . . could I talk to you? Alone?"

Carlisle didn't look very surprised at my request. His eyes flickered past me to Edward, who was standing on the step below me. "Edward? Will you give us some privacy, please?" he said quietly.

I couldn't see Edward's face, but I could sense his reluctance to leave by the way he lingered behind me still. Carlisle beckoned for me to come the rest of the way up the stairs, giving Edward a pointed look. "Son, please?"

I heard the faint rustling of Edward's clothes as he went back down the stairs, and I certainly heard him slam the back door; I'm surprised it didn't come right off its hinges. Carlisle didn't look pleased at the sound, but he asked me, nicely enough, if I'd like to join him in his study, and went ahead to hold the door for me when I said that would be fine.

Once there, I stood awkwardly in the center of the room as Carlisle closed the door and walked over to his desk. He turned and leaned back against the edge, resting his weight there as he crossed his arms and nodded at me. "Is something troubling you, Bella?"

I don't know what I'd been planning on saying as I'd been on my way upstairs, but now that I was actually here in his study, my mind was conveniently blank in any case. I'd always been somewhat in awe of Carlisle; he was so dignified and beautiful that I never knew how I should act around him. So there was an awkward silence for a long moment, until I just blurted out, "Edward told me you spanked him." I could actually feel my face turning bright red after that. I couldn't believe I'd come right out and said it. And Carlisle's reaction didn't help; he merely raised his eyebrows and nodded, but without saying a word.

"Well, um . . . if Edward got s – got, um, spanked" — I couldn't believe I was actually going to say this — "then I deserve to be, too." This time, the eyebrows shot up even further, but Carlisle still said nothing. "I'm just as responsible for the accident," I finished.

"Was it an accident, Bella?" he asked, low.

For a split second, I considered lying, but one look at Carlisle's face told me that would be the wrong move. "He was so mean," I whispered instead. "He was following me like I was a dog that ran away. Like I wasn't a person to him anymore." I stared down at my sneakers, crossing my arms tight against my chest as though to protect myself. "I got so angry."

"So angry that you knowingly wrecked Edward's car to repay him?" Carlisle's voice was stony. I nodded mutely, cringing at his tone. Now I knew how Edward must have felt. Carlisle's displeasure was like a knife twisting deeper and deeper into my stomach with each word.

I was still staring at my feet, but I could hear Edward's father moving towards me. After a few seconds, his shoes came into my line of sight as he stepped up in front of me. My insides quaked as I wondered what he was going to do. I saw his hand in front of my face and instinctively jerked my head back, but he only gently nudged my chin upward so I was looking him square in the eyes, those beautiful golden eyes that were less angry than sad, and still held such compassion that it made my heart ache.

"Anger is how it starts, Bella," he said, his voice tight. "One person gets angry and lashes out, the other lashes back, and suddenly the relationship is damaged beyond repair. Do you realize that Edward could have died?"

My heart skipped a beat, then began pounding away like a jackhammer. "What do you mean?" I asked nervously. "Vampires can't — " My eyes widened in horror as understanding dawned. "My God," I whispered, my hands flying up to press against my forehead as Carlisle dropped his own hand from my chin. "Oh, no . . . oh, God, no . . ."

"Yes." Just one word. But such finality in it. Like the bells in the Palazzo dei Priori, implacably tolling the hour as I raced across the square, my hope of being in time to save Edward diminishing with each loud echo of my shoes against the uneven stones.

"I didn't think of that," I whimpered piteously. "I swear."

"I do not doubt that. Yet you would have had plenty of time to think about it afterward, yes?" Each of Carlisle's words felt like blows; I felt as though each one had struck my heart hard enough to leave a bruise, if such a thing were possible.

"I just didn't know what to do," I said, my voice cracking. "He wouldn't listen to me. He never listens. Not when it matters."

"You could have come to me," Carlisle said. "You could have asked me for help. Avoiding the problem meant holding your anger and resentment inside to fester. Did you think it would be that easy to run away from your feelings?"

I shook my head mutely, although I had, really. I assumed that that was what relationships were about: hiding my anger and petty yearnings so I could give myself completely to Edward. I had him; didn't he deserve me, all of me, in return?

"Edward told me that he came very close to breaking the treaty today. He had no way of knowing what was happening inside the boundary and was frantic. Do you know what that would mean?"

"A fight," I whispered, horrified. "They'd use any excuse for a fight. Someone could be hurt."

"Someone would be hurt, Bella. Probably killed. And all so you could visit Jacob."

"But he's my friend!" I cried. "He was my friend the whole time you were gone. I had no one but Jake that whole time! Now I'm supposed to throw him away like a used Kleenex because you so generously came back?"

Carlisle flinched at my words, and I felt a horrible satisfaction in the fact that I'd been able to pierce his armor, if only slightly. But when he spoke, it was clear he wasn't going to back down. "I regret, now, the actions I allowed us to take at the time. We were only acting to protect you, Bella, and I cannot begin to express how sorry I am at what you obviously went through as a result." My nose started to burn, and I knew I would be crying soon if he didn't finish. "However," he continued, "at no time has Edward indicated to me that you discussed this with him prior to this afternoon. And if you feel that causing a car accident and then blurting out everything you have been holding in is the same as 'discussing,' then yes, you are just as guilty as he is."

Now I understood Edward's expression from before. If Carlisle could say these things out loud, to me, what must he have been thinking before when he was checking me for injuries? I had a lot of respect for Carlisle, too, but Edward? He just about worshiped this man. His dead heart had to be breaking right now. "Then I should be punished the same way," I whispered. "Right?"

Carlisle seemed surprised that I wasn't going to argue any further, but he nodded. "I think that would be the fair solution, Bella. You will be living with us very soon, after all, and this is how you would be punished in the future. I appreciate your sense of justice." He gave a tired-sounding sigh, running one hand through his honey-blond hair, and stood up, tapping his other hand against the smooth top of the desk. "Bend across the desk, then, if you will. Best to have this resolved right now."

I did as he asked, cringing at how cold the wood felt through my thin t-shirt, suddenly terrified but unable to think how I might get out of this mess. When I had gotten out of the truck and began stalking towards the house, I had every intention of asking Carlisle to punish me the way he had punished Edward. But I had felt strong then, and maybe a little proud of myself for what I was about to do. For once, I was the one standing up for Edward, not the other way around.

But I hadn't counted on the lecture. Somehow, I guess I thought Carlisle would assume I was asking to be spanked just to be fair, and not actually press the issue. Maybe he would even feel a certain admiration for how I was so ready to ally myself with his son. It hadn't worked out that way at all. Now, being punished had become an immediate threat rather than an abstract, future concept, and I wanted to stand back up and run from the room, away from Edward's father who was about a foot taller than me and infinitely stronger. He could seriously hurt me. Not on purpose, of course. But —

"Bella." I jumped as I felt Carlisle's hand come to rest on my lower back. I knew he could feel me trembling. "Bella, I would never harm you. This will be unpleasant, but it will be over soon. And then we begin anew." He patted my back gently. "Understood?"

I didn't think I could speak without betraying my fear, so I nodded as best I could with my head in its sideways position. Carlisle didn't press for an answer.

The first time he smacked me, I didn't feel anything right away. All I heard was the sharp report as his hand struck my khakis, and I winced at the noise. Carlisle immediately laid down a second and paused, and that's when I started to feel the pain. It wasn't terrible, just a very uncomfortable soreness in the places where he'd struck that I instinctively wanted to reach back and rub at. But I didn't. I just gritted my teeth and tried not to squirm.

But I soon found that to be a losing battle as Carlisle resumed, his hand coming down again and again against the seat of my pants. The individual smacks weren't intolerable, not by themselves, but they just kept coming. And the effect was cumulative. Although painful, I didn't think it was anything I couldn't stand . . . but now I was wincing each time he struck me, and before much longer the tears were prickling my eyes again and I was starting to sniffle. He'd probably given me three dozen or better by now, with no indication that he'd be stopping anytime soon.

It was an awkward, humiliating situation, and my pride smarted just as keenly as my behind as Carlisle continued with my punishment. How could he hurt me like this? He was just like Edward, laying his anger and frustration on me without caring how it made me feel inside. He just kept hitting me, and while the throbbing and burning in my backside were very real sensations, the worst of the pain was inside, where the bruises Edward and Carlisle would never leave on my skin were all on my heart, where no one could ever see what they'd done to me.

Finally, after a full dozen sharp smacks had landed right at the tops of my thighs, I couldn't take it anymore. I broke down. "Carl — " My voice cracked on the first syllable, and his name turned into a wail of anguish that I couldn't stop from escaping, and once it did, it was as though a dam had burst. I gave up struggling to keep calm and instead cried brokenly into my folded arms. I just couldn't stop, and no longer cared who could hear or how pathetic I sounded.

Then his hands were on my shoulders, lifting me up from his desk, and his arms were around me, holding me safe against him. I buried my face against his chest, my body limp and trembling with exhaustion. Carlisle's hand was already gently rubbing against my back, and he shushed me softly when my sobs spiked in volume; the throbbing in my bottom was actually worse now that he had stopped spanking me, because now I had nothing else to focus my mind on. The heat was the worst part, as though I had been burned and then had the burns covered with cloth that would keep them from ever being soothed.

Then Carlisle was leading me around his desk, and walking made the soreness even worse. I knew now why Edward had walked so stiffly, and why he'd hissed like that when he tried to sit. When Carlisle started to pull away from me I panicked, desperately clinging to his shirt as though he were my lifejacket. But he was only seating himself in his leather chair, and as soon as he had, he picked me up as though I weighed no more than a sack of feathers and lifted me onto his lap. The chair creaked as he reclined it backwards, and then he was gently pulling me down to lay against his chest. I sank into his arms and closed my eyes, so grateful to have him supporting me that I was almost weak with the relief of it. I didn't want to ever get up again.

I had never been this close to Carlisle before. He smelled so nice — like vanilla and woodsmoke. Charlie usually smelled like Old Spice, but then again, I couldn't remember ever being held by my father. Maybe when I was really little; I don't know. He'd never been particularly affectionate, and I chalked it up to how little we saw of each other, even now.

But Carlisle was holding me close, like I was a little girl who'd had a nightmare. I wondered if he ever held any of his other 'kids' like this. I could hardly imagine proud, haughty Rosalie curling up in his lap like I was. Alice, maybe . . . but even that stretched the imagination. Then, of course, I wondered how many of them had been spanked by Carlisle. Edward said it had happened to everyone except Alice. So Rosalie had been spanked at some point. And Emmett.

And Edward.

"You won't tell anyone, will you?" I whispered into his collar. I had originally planned to tell Edward, or in any case he would undoubtedly pick it up from Carlisle's thoughts, but now I was scared the whole household would know. It didn't matter that they apparently got spanked on occasion, as well — I couldn't stand it if Emmett or Jasper or Rosalie knew. Even Alice or Esme knowing would make me very uncomfortable.

"Of course not, Bella," he reassured me. His calm, soothing voice alone was enough to make me relax, even excepting the words themselves. "This is between us. No one ever has to know." And then for a long time, neither of us said anything at all. My thoughts were so jumbled that I couldn't have ordered them enough to speak in any case, and Carlisle, sensing how conflicted I was, only held me tight and continued to rub the tension out of my back. His movements had such a gentle rhythm to them that I grew drowsy, my thoughts slowing like a carousel winding down, allowing me to pick out the individual horses that previously had been little more than a blur.

It was some time, though not long enough, later when Carlisle shifted his weight and murmured into my ear, "Is it all right if Edward comes in?" I panicked when I thought of Carlisle exposing me like that when he'd said this would be between us. But . . . it had been so long. Edward had to be frantic by now, having been away for long enough to miss our conversation and only coming back to silence. Or had he seen what happened already from Carlisle's thoughts? In either case, of course he'd be worried. And how could I keep this a secret from him, anyway? What would even be the point?

I sniffled and nodded reluctantly, my head gently bumping against Carlisle's chin. Seconds later, I heard the door open and close again as Edward entered the room. He moved so silently that I couldn't hear the footsteps, but I could sense him behind me, and I felt his hand brush hesitantly against my shoulder. I couldn't face him, though. Not yet. I buried my face deeper into Carlisle's neck and clung to him even more tightly. His arms around me never loosened, nor did he stop the gentle rocking of his chair.

We three stayed that way for a long while: Carlisle holding me, Edward gently stroking my shoulders, and me snuffling into Carlisle's shirt. I didn't know how much time had passed; I didn't have a clock to check like I had in Edward's bedroom, and I didn't want to move from Carlisle's arms, anyhow. Was this what Edward had been doing while I was up in his room? Had Carlisle held him like he was holding me? And had they cut it short because Edward knew I was waiting?

I choked back another sob that rose in my throat. I'd been furious with Edward, and wished he would get into trouble. But he had, and then he hadn't gotten the comfort he needed because of me. It was amazing how I'd managed to turn this day around and become the one doing the hurting instead of the one being hurt.

Had Carlisle been human, I probably would have eventually fallen asleep in his arms. The stress of the day was starting to hit me all at once, and I was so comfortable against him that I was starting to feel a little drowsy. Only the coldness that seeped through our clothing kept me awake, and before too long I was actually shivering. It was then that Carlisle spoke. "You two have some talking to do," he said, loosening his arms around me and shifting in his seat. I knew he wanted me to get up, and I was very reluctant to do that. My stomach clenched at the thought of being alone with Edward, now that he undoubtedly knew the truth about the 'accident.'

I slid off Carlisle's lap and let him stand, but I caught his arm and stared pleadingly into his eyes before he could walk towards the door. Carlisle smiled at me and patted the hand that clung to his shirt fabric. "It will be all right, Bella," he said, looking straight into my eyes. "Edward would never hurt you."

I cringed inside as I heard the low rumble from Edward's throat. Was he growling at me, or at his father? I couldn't tell. But surely Carlisle wouldn't leave me alone if he thought Edward would hurt me, right? And he'd be right in the house with us. Wouldn't he?

I kept my eyes trained on the ground as Carlisle left the study, shutting the door firmly behind him. There was a long silence, during which all I could hear was the faint pounding of my own heartbeat echoing in my ears. Edward didn't move, and he didn't say anything.

I got so nervous that I started twisting my hands together, a soothing, repetitive habit I'd picked up during those months when he'd been gone. I had forced myself to stop doing it in public, but sometimes when I was agitated and no one was watching, I fell back into the rhythmic movements that were as soothing as being rocked, or watching the clouds move across the sky.

Finally, I had to say something. We couldn't just stand there like statues indefinitely. "I, um — " I had to clear my throat and try again. "I shouldn't have gotten us into an accident, Edward," I said. "But . . ." I took a deep breath and forced out the words. "But you shouldn't have been following me home. You had . . . I'm not your dog that ran away. And I was scared to tell you that, so I lashed out instead." Even though it made me sick to do it, I looked up, straight into Edward's face. But instead of anger, I found he was watching me with a very strange expression on his face. It almost looked like grudging admiration.

"You actually asked Carlisle to spank you?" Edward asked. He sounded as though he expected me to deny it. "I mean, you just marched in here and asked that?"

"I . . . well, basically," I stammered. "I, uh . . . I came in and explained what really happened, and he kind of . . . well, he didn't yell, but it sure made me feel bad."

Edward's mouth quirked up at the corners. Not exactly his familiar smile, but close. "He has a knack for that," he agreed. "Sometimes I wish he would yell. Then I could get angry back. But what do you do with a man that just stands there and won't even raise his voice?"

I gave him a small smile in return. "Not much," I said. "I didn't know what to say half the time. And I don't know if he even expected an answer. But . . . but then he was telling me that I should have a talk with you, and that's when I said that if you got spanked, I should be, too."

"Hmph. Jasper wouldn't believe a word of it if I told him." My eyes widened in horror at the idea of Jasper hearing about this. "Oh, I won't," Edward assured me hastily. "I mean, if you come to live with us permanently, you will inevitably be in this situation again, and then it'll be no secret. But I won't tell him." I let out a huge breath I'd been holding ever since he started on his explanation. It made my heart pound to think of anyone knowing Carlisle had spanked me. I wasn't sure how I felt about Edward knowing, and he was my boyfriend, after all. My boyfriend who'd been given the exact same punishment not half an hour earlier, at that.

"I guess he knows better than we do," I said tentatively. "He's been around so long, and he keeps his temper so well. And he and your mom are so close. Do they ever even argue?"

Edward cocked his head. "You know, I can't even tell you," he said slowly. "I can't remember the last time, anyway. They disagree sometimes, but never to the point where they get mad or anything."

"I hope we can be like that," I said.

He gave me a smile — not his usual sardonic one, but the old, sweet smile I remembered from when we were first together, before James and the ballet studio and my eighteenth birthday party when everything fell apart. "Then you'll marry me?" he asked, sounding so hopeful that it seemed horribly cruel of me to say anything but yes.

"I said I would think about it," I reminded him. "I'm sure one day I'll want to, Edward. I'm just asking you not to rush me."

He looked disappointed, but gave me the sweet smile again. "I can wait, I suppose," he said. "Like you said, we do have all eternity." Then he was wrapping me gently in his arms, just like Carlisle had not so long ago. "Love, can you ever forgive me for making you feel cornered like that? Like you were trapped with no way out?" His voice sounded like it might be on the very edge of breaking. "That wasn't how I meant for it to be. I only wanted to protect you, but I was so jealous . . . until you said those things to me in the car, and until my dad said . . . what he did about it, I just didn't see. I'm so sorry."

I melted against him, ready to start crying all over again at the sheer raw emotion he was displaying. As far as I knew, he'd never laid himself open like this. Not to me. For once, he wasn't justifying or telling me that what he did was for my own good. He was asking, maybe even begging, for my forgiveness. "Of course I can," I said automatically, burying my face into his neck. "I know you love me. And now I know I can get you spanked when you get mean." And as Edward's deep, throaty laughter suddenly rang out through the room, I knew we were all right again.

Yes, he had hurt me deeply, treating me like a possession that he had every right to control at all times. And yes, he might very well slip back into his controlling ways again someday. I'd have to be very careful to spot when that was happening so he didn't take advantage of me. But I knew now that even if I found myself in a place where I became afraid of Edward, or felt I couldn't stop him, I could bring that to Carlisle and know that he would help me make things right.

Carlisle had always been kind to me, as close as any father, and asking nothing in return except that I let him be my father, and treat me like what I was, and would probably be for many, many years: a very young adult. One that was going to need to be set straight on occasion, just as her brothers and sisters and chosen mate did at times. He was the kindest, gentlest man I had ever met, with the strongest sense of fairness and more compassion than I could even begin to fathom. If anyone had the right to punish me when I messed up, it would be Carlisle, and I knew I would never be treated unfairly, or better or worse than the rest of his 'children.'

I could . . . exist . . . with that.

The End