Thank you so much to those who have left a review. I sincerely appreciate every one of them! Here is the final chapter.
When Carlisle finally spoke, his voice was firm. "Bella, I want you to listen to me." The easy warmth, so much a part of him, was entirely absent from his tone.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I didn't know. I wouldn't have let him—"
"Bella?" he entreated. "Please, listen."
I forced myself to focus on his beautiful amber eyes, where I saw the depth of his compassion. I gave him a nod, and he continued.
"You do not have any venom in your system. You are not changing. Do you understand?"
It was impossible to doubt the utter sincerity in his eyes. I didn't fully understand, but I believed him.
"Are… are you sure?" I questioned.
He nodded. "Yes. There is absolutely no scent of venom in your body. Nor are there any other indicators that you have been affected. Granted, your heart rate is quite high at the moment, but your coronary function is still regular and unimpaired, which would not be the case if you had any venom in your system."
"Even if it were slow-acting?"
His expression shifted, his features relaxing as a light chuckle escaped him. "There is no such thing as slow-acting venom," he said, obviously amused by the notion. "Even a small amount would cause significant physiological affects within a very short time. And I've never heard of a vampire introducing venom into a human through touch alone. Our skin isn't venomous, Bella."
The relief that washed over me was intense. I felt as though I'd just run a marathon. My body sank down into the cushions, my limbs limp and weak. "Thank God," I murmured, closing my eyes.
When I opened them again, Carlisle was sitting on the coffee table before me, a glass of water in his hand.
"Drink a little of this," he encouraged, helping me to lift my head.
I took a few swallows then thanked him. My head was still spinning, both in relief and in confusion. I'd been so certain about the effects of Aro's cold, rough touch, yet now, as I considered the issue cogently, I realized how irrational I'd been.
"I guess I was pretty silly to think that," I admitted, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks.
"Not at all," Carlisle replied graciously. "But let's see if we can figure out what's really going on."
He took my hand again and turned it so that he could see my wrist. He examined the reddened flesh with cool, gentle fingers. His demeanor was calm as he pulled a penlight from his pocket and used it to look into my eyes. He asked me to open my mouth so that he could look down my throat, too.
Then he touched my wrist very lightly again. "Is this the only area that's irritated?"
"I don't see any other signs of allergic reaction, so I think this is something akin to contact dermatitis."
Something akin to… I wasn't sure what he meant by that. "You mean it's a rash caused by something I touched?"
"In a manner of speaking," he replied. "Let me get you something to ease the discomfort, then I'll explain. All right?"
I couldn't say no to that. Despite his surprisingly positive diagnosis, my wrist continued to sting and itch rather fiercely. He shot out of the room, returning moments later with supplies. He cleaned the irritation with a soothing solution then smoothed some sort of cream over it. It felt better almost immediately.
"So?" I asked as he covered the area in clean gauze, taping it lightly. "What do you think caused the rash?"
"It isn't technically a rash," he replied, a sympathetic smile flashing across his face.
"I don't understand…"
"Sweetheart, the irritation was caused by scratching. I imagine at first you were just rubbing it, but as it became more irritated and felt itchier, you began to scratch."
"I didn't realize—" I began. "I mean, I could feel it, where he touched me. It was rough and it stung. But I didn't realize I was doing that…"
"Of course you didn't." Now his tone was gentle, infused with sympathy. "I believe this was a subconscious response to the trauma you experienced in Volterra."
My cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "Oh."
Carlisle rested his hand over mine. "Bella, what you saw there, the things you were exposed to … It was unconscionable. It was too much for your mind to process all at once. And I am so sorry you were involved in that."
"So scratching myself raw was my mind's way of dealing with it?"
"Yes. It's not an uncommon reaction, really. Physical manifestations of stress or trauma can take many forms. This is actually a rather minor one."
"I feel ridiculous," I confessed, blushing anew.
"You shouldn't. I just wish you'd mentioned this to me or to Edward sooner. You could have avoided a great deal of discomfort."
"I didn't want Edward to know," I admitted.
Carlisle's raised eyebrow showed his surprise. He waited, however, for me to explain.
"I was afraid of what he'd think, of what he'd do, if he knew I was changing, and that Aro was responsible."
Carlisle nodded. "I see. I suppose that is a legitimate concern, given Edward's feelings on the subject. But you still could have come to me." He sounded slightly hurt.
"I know, and I should have, but I…"
"What, Bella? Tell me," he prompted gently.
"I guess I was scared you'd hate that it was Aro who'd done it."
"I'm not sure I understand."
"He's not a vegetarian," I explained. "You didn't want to stay with the Volturi because of their lifestyle…"
"So you thought I wouldn't accept you if you'd been changed by someone outside our family?"
He smiled thinly. "Well, that explains quite a bit."
Now I was the one who felt confused. "What do you mean?"
"You were so upset at the thought that you'd been infected, that you were changing. I didn't really understand why, since you're quite determined that you want to be changed, and the sooner the better."
"But not like that!" I interjected. "I want it to be Edward, or Alice, or you. That's important to me. I want it to be family."
Now his smile was softer, more affectionate. "And I can't tell you how much that sentiment means to me."
He drew me in for another hug, this one full of understanding, relief, and acceptance. I felt completely safe and absolutely comfortable in his arms. It was a very good feeling.
A buzzing against my leg caused me to pull back. I realized that Carlisle's phone was vibrating. He pulled it from his pocket and glanced at it.
"Edward," he said succinctly.
"He's worried about me," I replied unnecessarily.
"Shall I have him come here, or do you want to go to him?"
"I'd better go home. Charlie will be back from work by 8:00 ."
Carlisle nodded and answered the phone. Edward was surprised to hear that I was at his house, but both his father and I assured him that everything was fine. I promised to explain completely as soon as I saw him.
Carlisle escorted me to the door. "Are you going to tell Edward the full truth?" he asked.
"I guess so," I replied. However, I was a little worried about a point Carlisle had raised. If Edward knew how frightened I'd been at the thought of changing, he might question my commitment to the prospect.
"I'll leave the specifics to you," he said with a gentle smile. "Should Edward ask—"
"And he will," I rejoined with a wry grin.
Carlisle chuckled. "Yes. Well, when he asks about your visit, I will simply tell him that you had a rash on your arm that concerned you, and assure him that it's nothing to worry about and should heal without difficulty now that we're treating it." He handed me the tube of cream he'd used. "You'll need to reapply this in about four hours. I imagine Edward would be glad to help you."
I nodded. "I'm sorry to have imposed," I began.
"Imposed?" For a moment he appeared genuinely confused. "Oh Bella, it's never an imposition. I'm always glad to see you, whatever the circumstance."
"But I feel like every time I'm here I'm asking for your professional services." My cheeks felt hot once again.
"Well, not every time…I believe once you came just for dinner." He flashed a grin at me. "But really, Bella, you know it brings me great pleasure to be able to help you. It's rare that I can provide such assistance to the other members of my family, and, while I suppose it's rather selfish of me, using my skills to make those I care about feel better is one of the greatest satisfactions in my life."
I hugged him again. "Thank you, Carlisle."
The words were simple, but I had no doubt that he understood the depth of my meaning.
"Any time, Bella."
The dark skies and chilly drizzle did little to diminish my good mood as I drove home, eager to see Edward and offer him my human warmth for just a bit longer.