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Chapter 16 – Conundrum

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EPOV

I stumbled for what must have been the tenth time in an hour.

"Concentrate," Jasper demanded. He was rather fed up with me already.

I attempted to do as told, but to no avail as I landed promptly on my backside yet again. I grunted in frustration.

What was going on now? Did she need me? What had happened last night?

These thoughts and more plagued my mind as I struggled to attend my instruction. I tried to think of ways that I could have stayed with her for just a bit more time, but there was nothing that would not sound suspicious were I to alert someone. Sometimes it was rather difficult keeping our secret when I could be of no help. For example, the time where Bella had sprained her wrist while we were out playing one day; we were climbing trees near the grassy meadow and she slipped. It was easy to see she was in pain, and when I just mentioned going to her maid I was threatened with merciless anger if I told anyone—not that I could, since we both were not supposed to be doing such things as playing together. And I was sick with the idea that she was hurt.

Now it was much the same, yet stronger with the added ache I still felt without her presence. And I struggled to stay where I was.

Jasper let out a huff, indignant. "Well, my hopes had risen from your progress; you were actually doing well these last few days. What ails you?"

"It is nothing," and everything.

"Nothing appears to be a heavy burden, then."

Indeed.

"Well, get up and try it again. You need to learn, Edward, that protecting the Princess is more important than anything. Even your silly problems, whatever they may be. There should be no distractions that take away from her safety."

"I understand, sir." All too well. The concern for her safety was the problem that I struggled with now.

More hours passed and it was late morning before I was allowed a moment to rest properly. Then it was straight back to drills. I kept working with diligence, hoping and praying that Bella was all right.

Turns out that I did not have to wonder much longer.

As I continued to place my stance and balance, I looked up at the feeling of being watched, and saw the one person I had been thinking of all morning—before stumbling at my own surprise.

A small gasp left her lips before I rose up off the ground. Jasper, having now been alerted to her presence promptly strode to her standing place. I could feel a scowl coming on.

"Isabella! How delightful. What brings you to our part of the world?" He smiled, taking her hand as he bowed. She smiled, but it was affected, forced.

"Hello, Jasper. Sorry about the intrusion, but I was wondering if I might borrow your student for a moment? I need to speak with him." Her voice carried a strange lilt. Perhaps I was right to be worried after all.

"Of course. Is anything the matter?" He had noticed the difference, too—annoying me to no end for some reason.

"No, no. I—I just need to speak with him about a few appointments and such." I was already beside them at this point, keeping careful to hide the emotions that were brimming.

He looked between us for some reason then, and proceeded to speak as if I were not present. "If there's any conflict with the training schedule, then I would be happy to—"

"No, thank you very much. I wish to speak with Edward, if you do not mind. Alone."

"Of course. I will leave you two then." He turned to me. "Edward, please come find me when you are ready to begin again," and with that he strode away.

She looked at me then, taking my arm gingerly (she probably didn't want to explain the reason for dirt on her dress later), "Come on, let's find someplace with fewer ears."

We walked to the outskirts of the training field where there were scattered elms a good distance from the others on the field. I had to bite my tongue through the whole walk to keep from demanding that she tell me what had happened. Finally she had stopped near one of the trees, turning to look back at the field.

"I was thinking of attending the theatre soon. Possibly this Friday next."

Did she really only come here to speak of such things? I followed her gaze to see that Jasper was walking about, but often turning to look in our direction. Perhaps there was a reason she was speaking so formally. "Very well, Your Highness." A pause. "Are you feeling well?" I had to know.

Her eyes met mine, pursing her lips. "Quite well… at least physically." She paused before opening her mouth again and promptly shutting it once more. She pulled us behind one of the trees.

"Bella, our hiding here hardly looks proper."

"I need to show you something," she said, pulling off her left glove and revealing her thinly bandaged hand.

"Has it been troubling you again?"

"Look at it, please. I need to know that I've not gone mad."

"Mad?" I did as she asked, removing the bandage carefully to reveal her unmarred palm. I let out the breath I apparently was holding, looking back up to her. "It's healed?" My fingers grazed the skin; there was not even a scar.

"No, more like it was never cut in the first place. Even the bruises on my arms are gone." She wrapped her fingers around my own. "What does it mean, Edward? I have tried to think of some reason for this, but cannot understand it."

"I do not know."

She moved toward me, but I had to hold her back.

"It would not be wise to get your dress dirty." She looked about to argue before I added the true reason, "Especially with Jasper watching us." And he most certainly was, I had no doubt. Hopefully, we were hidden enough.

Bella nodded, but with reluctance. She looked my person over and scrunched her nose it what seemed to be annoyance. She still hated having to be 'proper.'

"Are you always so filthy while here?"

"No. I… I could not concentrate while worrying about you. It was causing me to make mistakes, and well, it seems I am rather acquainted with dirt once again, not to mention Jasper was rather frustrated with me, but I could not stop wondering if you were all right, so…" She smiled at my ramblings, a faint blush upon her cheek. "What?"

"You were worried?" She stepped forward.

"Yes…" I stepped back.

"About me?" Another step forward.

"Of course." What was she getting at?

"Hmm. That is very… sweet."

"Sweet?" If anything it was foolish. I realized then that her hands were firmly holding to my shirt. How did she get so close? Our faces were only inches apart as she nodded to affirm my question.

And just like that she had dazzled me. Her smile, her blush, her eyes, her very being was my master. Her lips touched mine, only just, and there was nothing else. No rules, no troubles, nothing, except us. I knew there was a reason that I should pull away, but it evaded me as did all reason as she brushed her lips against mine again.

It was over though, as she stood back a short moment later, her face bright with happiness. I felt strange. Unsteady. Dizzy.

"Edward?"

"Hmm?"

"I said I must go. We have lingered too long."

"Uh, yes." I said, still attempting to clear away the fog. "Will you be all right?"

"I will, now that I have seen you."

I escorted her back to the front, where Mrs. Stanley was waiting and promptly sought out Jasper so I could get this day over with and return to Bella. He made no comment of her, nor the fact that I had improved in my focus during the remainder of the day.

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When I returned that night, I found Bella in her room reading from a book I had not seen before. The cover was black and the pages yellowed slightly from age.

"Bella?"

She flinched, not hearing my entrance. "Edward," she gasped, her hand going to her heart, "You scared me."

"Sorry. What are you reading?"

She bit her lip; her own personal indication for anxiety. I sat beside her near the hearth and flipped the cover over. Protection, Love, and Peace; Spells for the Beloved. "Bella, what is this?"

"I was just curious to see if there was anything about healing in it."

Suddenly, I was worried. She knew better than to meddle with something like this. "Bella, sorcery is dangerous. You know that. Where did you even find this?"

"I know. I am not completely brainless. I found it in the library in town a while ago. I just… wanted to make sure that Demetri had not done something to me, I guess."

"Demetri? What does he have to do with sorcery?"

Bella finally told me what happened before I had stopped Demetri that night. I was livid. Not only had he been foolish enough to attack the Princess, but he had somehow picked up the trade of his uncle, using some form of enchantment on her. Did he not understand the danger? After all, it was one of the causes of the Great Battles so long ago. People using any advantage to hurt others, thought they often only ruined themselves.

At least Demetri could not reach Bella now. But did that have anything to do with her hand? I was not so sure. And it made me wish for his death all the more. But I had come to realize then why he was protected—Marcus. The King could not punish him without doing some damage to his relationship with the Reverend. It all made sense now, though I still hated the politics of it.

I held Bella tightly that night, both of us uneasy with the thought of the unknown.

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Nearly three weeks had passed, and Bella was anxious to find out more information about her mysterious healing. Of course, that was not the only curiosity she held; several times over the last fortnight since she had brought up the subject, Bella had tried to talk me into finding out about my parents. She had begged and pleaded with me to at least think about it, but I refused. My memories were faded, broken, at best, and even then I could remember nothing of my family. Only being bitterly cold and alone…

I pushed all thoughts of it aside as I rode from the barracks back to the palace. It was barely midday, but Bella insisted that I should be relaxed for the party tonight that was a celebration of my heroism. So I now lie in my room, on the bed I have rarely slept in, attempting to rest and not think about anything in particular. Of course, my thoughts are immediately focused on Bella. She has no doubt already begun the process of dressing for tonight. I grimaced at the thought of spending several hours putting on clothes and rouge and having one's hair curled and prodded. She must be suffering.

I never did understand the reason women went about making themselves up in such a fashion. Though, I suppose there are those who were not graced with natural beauty, as Bella was. In that case, it would make sense if the girl wanted to attract a husband. But, would it not be better to have someone attracted to your true face? For there was no doubt that though Bella's beauty was enhanced with makeup, there was nothing more radiant than to see her when we used to run through the nearby woods; her eyes shining with happiness as she laughed, with her hair billowing in the wind about her face like a dark halo. That was her true form, wild and free, and if it were up for debate, I would never see her any other way.

I dressed in the suit that someone—possibly Laurent—had laid out for me; black, formal, with a white shirt and green brocade vest that matched Bella's dress perfectly. I was just placing my coat on when Laurent knocked on my door. He appeared to be pleased with his work as he appraised my appearance, but insisted that I allow him to do something with my hair. Twenty minutes later and he had somewhat tamed my tumultuous locks with a bit of hair wax.

It was nearly seven when I had made my way to the main foyer, but Bella was nowhere in sight. I turned around towards the stairs and stopped at the sight coming toward me.

Bella was wearing the green dress I had seen her choose before hand, with her hair in flowing ringlets down her back, and she was striking. I would have to reform my prior thoughts a bit it seemed. Perhaps it was all right to be made up every once in a while.

I bowed, taking her hand. "Your Highness. You look stunning."

"Thank you, Edward," she smiled. "You look quite handsome, also."

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The party was much the same as any other I had seen in my time at the palace, except that I was no longer serving drinks or food. And Bella was…happy. More than I had ever seen her at a party. I had always known that she wished for me to be by her side, as often enough she hated feeling so vulnerable at these sort of things, but I had not seen that smile slip once.

Though it was nothing compared to the smile she wore while we danced. Holding her in my arms like that, even my dreams were no comparison to being with her that way, together, in front of all the stuffy people who thought themselves a rival for my Bella's affections. It was true that others had danced with her this night, but it was a great comfort to see that she never did react to them the way she had with me. She always sought me out when she could, but we did part at times, as I reluctantly could not stay beside her through the whole of the evening. I met several of Bella's acquaintances and was well received for someone without 'proper breeding,' whatever that meant. The Queen also boasted of my valor to her guests, seemingly proud that her servants—myself included—were so loyal to their monarchs. Though it was a kind gesture, I was beginning to loathe the praise, for each time I was presented, they would toast to my good nature and I felt quite a bit foggy after seven or eight glasses of champagne. It was a good thing I had already eaten.

There was still one person, though, that Bella wanted me to officially meet, who had yet to arrive: Princess Rosalie. The night was still early though, and they did travel quite a distance so it was not unusual when they did arrive nearly two hours or so late.

"She's here! Oh, wait until you meet her Edward! Wait right here for us, won't you?"

I smiled. She was too adorable. "As you wish, Your Highness."

She flitted off to greet Rosalie and I watched as she hugged her most amiably. There was a gentleman with her that I had never seen before, very tall and of a broad frame, and a kind face, from what I could tell at this distance. This must be the suitor Bella had told me about, Emmett, for he was dressed in a red vest that undoubtedly matched the color of Rosalie's long, ruby red gown. He took Bella's hand and greeted her.

"Holding up all right, boy?" A voice came from behind me.

"Oh, yes, thank you, Sir Thomas."

He chuckled softly. "Good to hear, good to hear." It sounded as though he had been privileged to a few more toasts than I. "Well, someone has got to keep that girl accounted for. She was practically a wallflower the time before this."

I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

"That I am. Oh, looks like she's headed your way. Keep both eyes open, now."

"Um, yes. Of course, Sir." And with that, he sauntered off. I never did understand his bazaar comments about Bella. Oh well.

"There you are!" Bella's voice came from behind me. I turned to find her still-smiling face. "Edward, I would like to introduce you to Her Highness, Princess Rosalie Lillian Cullen." I smiled, offering my hand just at the moment I took in her face. She looked… frightened. "Rosalie, this is… Rose?"

The Princess gaped at me with such an expression you would think I had tortured her. Wide, blue eyes bore into my own as Bella and the gentleman with them attempted to recall her attention. She blinked a second later, shaking her head slightly before turning to Bella, "I am sorry, what was that?"

"Are you all right?"

Her face turned pink as she shifted her eyes from Bella to me once again. "Yes," she said in an unsteady, before offering her hand to me, "Forgive my rudeness. It is a pleasure to meet you… Edward, was it?"

I bowed, placing a kiss upon her hand. My voice was also unsteady as I was not sure what I had done to elicit such a response. "The pleasure is mine, Your Highness." Rosalie was attempting to regain her wits, and I was completely confused as to what just transpired. I turned to the man beside her.

He also stared at me questioningly before shaking it off with a large smile. "Hello, Edward. The name's Emmett McCarthy, Duke of Anthro. Do not trouble yourself over the title, though. Plain Emmett is quite all right with me, much to the utter horror of my mother."

"Yes, of course." I answered. It was clear that Emmett was attempting to lighten the mood, but to no avail as Rosalie was still staring at me strangely. Bella glanced between the two of us, her good mood diminished.

I tried to think of something to lighten the mood, but Rosalie was anxious to go it seemed, as she promptly spoke up. "I am sorry, it is rather warm. I must get some air. Please, excuse me."

Bella was quick to join her, "Of course, let's take a stroll to the balcony."

Emmett and I watched as the two walked away before turning to each other. "Forgive me, but have I done something—?"

"No, do not trouble yourself." He said, patting me on the back as if we were more than mere acquaintances. "Rose is…well, strange at times. You know how women are." He chuckled before continuing, "I… Sorry, this may seem an odd question, but, I must ask: do I know you in some way?"

"Me? No, I have never been to Londra. My home has been here for the past eight years."

"Hmm, I see. Sorry to be nosy, but you look strangely familiar somehow…" He shrugged, leaving it at that. We fell into a surprisingly easy conversation then. Emmett was quite the traveler apparently, and was an avid sports participant, though it seemed that he enjoyed the spirit of competition more so than the actual games. Baseball seemed to be the current trend, though I had never even seen a game, let alone played. "Never…you…what? How can you have never played? It's practically a right of passage."

I was not sure if he knew anything of my background, but decided that it was best not to privy such information anyway. "I did not have many traditions to adhere to, I suppose."

"Well, it's settled then. We shall have to invite you to play. Rosalie rather enjoys spectating, and I am sure we can talk Isabella into joining her."

The whole idea was preposterous, but he seemed too eager for me to point it out, so I merely agreed with vague intentions. As if that would ever happen.

We parted ways then, as Queen Renée found the last few people that were not aware of my presence by this time, while he went in search of the ladies.

I found Bella shortly after I was released from the nobles, and was glad to see that her happy disposition had returned. "Is she all right, then?"

"Yes, I suppose. She said that you reminded her of another person in her acquaintance, and that it was just a shock to see someone so similar." Her tone implied her thoughts on the matter.

"But…?"

She sighed. "I do not know. She did not seem surprised. It was more… alarm."

"I thought the same thing. Emmett did ask if there was a possibility that I knew him somehow." It was so strange…

"Well, whatever the reason, she would not tell me, so I can only wait and guess in the meantime." She seemed so troubled all of a sudden over something so inconsequential.

"Well, do not give up then if your feathers are so ruffled," I teased. "Invite her to tea tomorrow and draw it out."

"No, I cannot, I…" She paused, looking away.

"You, what?"

"I have to catch up on my studies or Mother will pester me all day long."

Hmm.

"Besides, I thought we could all dine together tomorrow. Rosalie does feel awful for how she treated you."

"She need not feel so terribly. I was not insulted, or any of the sort."

"I tried to tell her so, but she did not listen."

"Perhaps I should be off to bed then, as I feel quite drowsy after the Queen's many toasts."

A small smile graced her lips. "Oh no! She didn't?" Bella's eyes filled with sympathy, though I do not remember her ever mentioning this sort of thing happening to her. "All right then, just make sure to tell Jasper you are expected at seven."

"Very well, Princess."

Bella opened her mouth to correct me, but closed it just as quickly. We were still in the ballroom, and she could not take the chance that someone would overhear her amendment. She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. I smiled. "Goodnight, Edward."

"Pleasant dreams, Your Highness."

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I stumbled my way up the grand staircase and into my bedchamber, fully feeling the effects of the alcohol in my body now that I was alone and less guarded. I lay down on my bed after managing to remove my coat and proceeded in waiting for the dizziness to stop…

Suddenly there was a hand pressed to my cheek and I opened my eyes to see an angel, illuminated by a single candle. "How did you get up here so quickly?" I think I asked.

The angel giggled. "Oh Edward, I sent you up here two hours ago. Tsk, tsk, tsk. You are completely smashed." She laughed quietly, coaxing me into sitting up as she stood between my feet. "If Laurent even thinks that you slept in this suit, you would be murdered. Where are your pajamas?" I felt her remove the cravat from around my neck before unbuttoning my vest and shirt.

Having little care on the matter, I wrapped my arms around her, resting my forehead against her abdomen. She was so warm, and soft. "Then keep your big mouth shut and he'll never know." I grinned up at her seeing the laughter she was attempting to contain.

"You know I will not, especially since I must remind you not to call me princess, so get up and change this instant."

"Ugh. Fine." Bella climbed into my bed, turning to face the wall. I changed as quickly as I could into my pajama bottoms and climbed back into bed.

Turning to face me, Bella frowned. "Where is your shirt?"

"Too warm," I murmured, pulling her to me and breathing in the sweet perfume at her throat as my hand combed through her dark-chocolate locks. The other swept across the curve of her shoulder, down her back and up again to repeat the cycle.

"Mmm. Did you enjoy the party?"

"I enjoyed being with you. Could've passed on all the spirits, though. And watching you dance with the others." My mood was suddenly sour at the thought.

She chuckled. "I have to agree. Though, it was wonderful knowing I could always come back to you."

"They are all fools."

"Oh? Why is that?"

I stopped my ministrations, lifting my head so we were face to face. "They want you. All of them were thinking it, but they do not realize that they cannot have you. You're mine." I moved my face back to her throat, gliding my nose and lips along the length of skin. She smelled so good, like strawberries. My hands wrapped around her body so I could have her closer. "They want your smiles and attention, your kisses and touches." I kissed her just beneath the ear, feeling her breath hitch. "But they are all mine." I continued kissing along the length of her jaw to her chin before moving back. She shuddered. "Are you cold?"

"N-No." Her breaths were shallow.

"Okay." I tasted her skin. It was like fresh cream, "…so good."

It was quiet for a few minutes as I continued to kiss and touch her, my lips impatiently moving against hers. I moved back to her throat and then Bella spoke up again, "Edward… Why do you want me?"

I looked into her eyes, puzzled. "Do you realize how beautiful you are? Kind and intelligent and sweet and perfect. They cannot see it, though. None of them will ever know you as I do. Never need you the way I do."

"You need me?"

She had no idea. How is it possible? "You are everything to me. Everything. Do you not see it? Feel it?" I put her hand to my heart, counting down our last moments together with the clock. "There is so little time left. And when you leave me behind, I shall die from it."

"Edward—"

"It is true. I tried to… I forced myself away from you, but the pain was so unbearable…" I did not want to remember, but the memories came as I held her impossibly closer. "I am sorry. Bella, I never meant to hurt you so. I thought you would forget me. Hoped for it, because I saw it every time I looked at you, the pain and misery that reflected my own. I did not think you could care for me as I did you. And now I've wasted so much time. The hourglass is running out and I have to cherish each and every minute before you marry one of them. Then there will be nothing left of us."

"No, Edward, you must not think that. I told you, I am yours."

"Yes, I must, because you will not see it. When you marry, you will not be mine any longer. Your smiles and affections and kisses… all of them will be his. You will dance and laugh and bear his children… And I will envy him while you warm his bed and not mine."

"Please, Edward, do not say such things." Silent tears had begun to run down her cheeks.

"Why?" She did not answer. "Tell me."

"I do not wish to be with anyone other than you."

"Oh, but you will. He will woo you with words and gifts and make you fall in love with him. You won't have to hide and sneak around anymore, and everyone will see you together. I will be no more than a distant memory." It was a fact, all of it, and I did not understand what upset her so. My eyes felt heavy.

She buried her face in the crook of my neck, shaking her head as her hands clutched my shoulders. "Then take me away; let's leave. Run away. Just the two of us."

I chuckled, pulling her back to wipe away the tears. "Hmm. I think that I rather like that idea." My mind was beginning to lose consciousness as I held her closer again. "Where would we go?"

"Anywhere. As long as we're together, it does not matter."

"Mmm. Then you could be mine still." I smiled…I think. "Perhaps I will steal you for my own. We can have all of those adventures that we imagined. I would marry you this very hour and we would ride away into the night, never think of this place or anyone else ever again…" I yawned, feeling her long fingernails glide along my shoulders. Yes. I would take her. How could I not, when she wished to go? I would want to get away from here, too, were I in her position. So it was settled then: Bella would be mine, forever. "Come away, love," I whispered, "Come away and marry me.

"Marry me, Bella."

"Okay." I could hear the smile in her voice as I drifted to sleep.

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I woke up with a start, and a fervent wish to lose consciousness again as my brain pounded beneath my skull. I turned, quite leisurely, to see that it was barely dawn outside the window and abruptly noticed that we had slept in my room. Odd. And…where was my shirt?

Ever so slowly and silently I set about getting dressed, attempting to remember everything that had happened last night. There was the boring people and the horrible, unending toasts and dancing with my Bella, oh and the strange behavior of Princess Rosalie. I thought that I remembered coming up the stairs, but the memory is so blurred… Oh well. It was a good thing that my body had woken me up at least, since I noticed there was no alarm set.

I sat in the corner chair, watching Bella as I put my shoes on, and noticed the small smile upon her lips as she dreamed. I found myself also smiling at the sight. At least she had a good time. Finished with dressing, I bent down a kissed her forehead before departing, making sure to lock the door behind me.

My head was still pounding as I made my way to the kitchen and found some coffee. There was no one else in sight, and I wondered idly how long the King and Queen would stay in bed, for if my headache was any indication, theirs would be twice as worse.

I retrieved Masen and we set out to the barracks. Jasper seemed surprised to see me at first, smirking. "You look well."

I gave him a look. Thanks.

"Well, if you feel anything like my father surely does, then I suppose we should take it easy today. Come on."

.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.~.

After a few hours I noticed that my mind was clearing and my exercises were really not all that bad despite Jasper supposedly being less demanding.

I actually felt …lighter, somehow. As if there was a weight that had lifted from my shoulders, though I did not know it was there. I was not sure why I felt that way, but it must have been the freedom I had experienced in having Bella beside me last night.

We continued through the drills until well past noon, and it was nearly sunset when I noticed one of Bella's maids running toward us from the other side of the field, frantic.

"Forgive me, Sirs, but I have an urgent message from the Queen. She cannot find the Princess Isabella, and she fears that she might have ventured out alone as early as late morning. No one seems to know where she's gone, and the Queen requests that you set out to find her this very moment, Mr. Edward."

I was already on my way.

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A/N: *Ducks out of the way of angry readers* Don't be mad at me for Edward. Please? Bella's a smart girl, so don't worry too much! And next chapter it's the moment we've waited for… She's going to find out about Edward! (Well, sort of.)

On another note: over 100 Reviews and over 1,000 visitors in the past month?! Holy Crow! YAY! Thank you, thank you so much to those of you who are always reviewing! And of course a big thanks to all of you who put this story in your alerts/favorites/C2s. Knowing that you're reading and enjoying this story definitely gives me a warm fuzzy feeling and makes me write all the more, so thanks! :D And because I feel so thankful, I've decided that every review for this chapter will receive a teaser of chapter 17! So please review, and if you review anonymously, and want a teaser, just make sure to give me an email address with your review. :)

Also, for those of you who don't know, CG now has a banner that I made, so check it out and let me know what you think. Edward's suit, Rosalie and Bella's dresses can also be found on my LJ as well as a picture of the training field (though it's not that great, just FYI. lol)

andrewsamy .livejournal. com (just remove the spaces)

Thanks again!