A/N: First of all, if anyone's still around, thanks so much for your patience. I just wanted to take a few quick peeks to make sure things are back to normal in Forks.
"This is goodbye then," he murmured against my lips.
"I'm afraid so."
Still I couldn't find the strength to let him go, pushing in for one last intoxicating taste of Edward's mouth.
Drawing away too soon, he added, "Unless you want us to wait for you."
"Yes, Momma." Nessie, who'd been swaying patiently at my side, chimed in. "Daddy can teach you how to play piano too."
I laughed, bending to give her a hug. "It's going to take your father years to get over the frustration I've already caused him. Trying to turn me into a musician could be the last straw. Besides, I just have a few quick things to take care of, and I'll join you."
"Do pianos have straws?"
I kissed her puzzled frown. "Daddy will explain it to you, only . . . oh wait, someone's coming!"
I looked to Edward, my own heightened senses only telling me there was someone in the woods, not who that someone might be.
"Alice," he supplied effortlessly. "She can keep an eye on your mother while we're gone."
Nessie nodded her approval. "You'll have fun, Momma. Aunt Alice is a really good babysitter. She has soooo many ideas!"
"I've noticed that."
"What do you say we try to sneak past her?" Edward challenged, sweeping our little miracle up in his arms.
"Oooh, yes, Daddy!" her face glowed in anticipation of a new game. "Up in the treetops like birds or monkeys – please!"
And before I could kiss either one of them again they were gone. I shut the door and waited for my visitor to materialize, counting a few beats after her knock before swinging it open again.
"Hey, Alice. You're just in time to keep me company."
"Good. I was kind of hoping you'd be alone."
"Edward and Nessie are headed to your house for a piano lesson."
"Hmm," she said, following me to the comfy sofa that dominated our little parlor. "I thought I detected some covert maneuvers going on in the branches above me. It was all very stealthy – if you don't count the giggling."
I sat down, curling my legs under me, and Alice did the same. "Yeah, Edward's got to stop doing that."
She smiled at my little joke, but it faded quickly.
"I have something to show you. I'm not sure how you'll feel about it, so it's probably better to do it in private. If it bothers you, please just say so."
I threw her a curious glance, as she handed me a large leather-bound book.
"It's a photo album, right? You do realize I don't normally freak out over photographs. I mean, not unless I've been cursed or bewitched or . . . Frenchified – whatever you want to call it."
"I know. Just take a look."
I opened to the first page, and my breath came out in a soft "oh." I studied it for a long time before turning to the next picture and the next, every one more achingly beautiful than the last.
Portraits, mostly. Close-ups of Edward's face from different angles. Light and shadow loved him; he showed them both to their best advantage. There were ones of him with Nessie too, so tender they brought a lump to my throat.
Alice sat patiently while I went through every page, sometimes stopping to trace my fingers over the plastic-covered eight by tens. When I got to the end, I hesitated, awash in mixed emotions. "Alice, these are exquisite . . . beautiful and . . . and heartbreaking."
"I know," she said softly. "I thought you might like a record of those missing days, so you didn't lose that time with Edward completely, and believe me, I tried to catch him when he was fired up or playing with Nessie, but even in those moments, there's something deep in his eyes. It was the same with your photos."
"You remember, I was always taking pictures. I tried to get you when you were laughing at one of Emmett's lame jokes or lost in a book, but there's that same look in your eyes – haunted, empty – I don't know. I only know I never want to see it again – on either of you."
"You won't," I promised her. "So you made an album like this for Edward too?"
"Actually, I was delivering them one by one, trying to reassure him that you were at least fine physically and that we were keeping you close."
"You really are the best sister anyone could ever have," I said, knowing that the human me would have been fighting back grateful tears. "To both of us. And you are seriously good at this photography business. I mean, these are stunning."
"Well, I can't take all the credit." She gave me her elfin smile. "It's not my fault Edward hogged all the best DNA in the family. I have a bunch more of Nessie that I haven't put together yet. I thought I'd make you another album for your birthday."
"Have you looked at a calendar lately, Bella Cullen? While you were French fried – or whatever you called it – tempus was fugiting all over the place! Summer's almost half over, and there's so much to plan for – your wedding anniversary, Nessie's birthday, yours. We need to throw a party – formal, I think - to christen the conservatory when it's finished, and it's not too soon to start thinking about Christmas. Last year we were all so afraid we were doomed that we really didn't do it up right – and we should for Nessie's sake."
"Whoa, Alice, please slow down. In the first place, I see no earthly reason to acknowledge a birthday when I'm not getting any older. Nessie is, so yes of course, I want hers to be special. Our anniversary – that's strictly between Edward and me. I refuse to worry about Christmas when people still have flags out for the 4th of July, and who would come to the opening of a greenhouse?"
"Well," she said, addressing the last subject first, "there's us, and we could invite the pack – in human form, of course."
"Like that would make a lot of difference. Can't you just hear the smartass remarks about bringing more plants into the woods, and do you really see them standing around shirtless in their little cutoffs at this 'formal' affair? Good grief, we have a treaty to protect. Why don't you just poke them with sharp sticks and be done with it?"
I'd always counted a certain skill at party-pooping among my meager talents, but Alice has never met a wet blanket she couldn't shrug off.
"Just us then," she agreed with barely a dent in her enthusiasm. "We'll bring the piano in for the evening, and you can wear the gown we designed for you. Believe me, Edward won't know what hit him."
Now she'd found my weak spot.
A chance to dazzle Edward. It would be positively selfish to refuse, especially when just the other night, I'd turned to find him studying me through a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
A spontaneous "woot," due to the shock and to the fact that he'd remembered my little fantasy, was followed by an appreciative sigh.
"Seriously, these do something for you?"
"Definitely! I know it's crazy. I don't know why they do. You just look super sexy."
"If you like, I can add a couple of hearing aids, maybe some false teeth."
"I don't think that's the nature of the appeal," I'd assured him, laughing. "Maybe it's that they're a tease – another obstacle just begging to be ripped away, so I can get to you."
"Have I mentioned lately, my love, that you're slightly weird?" What should have been an insult registered as pure seduction, thanks to that tone of voice he uses to set my nerves humming.
"Hey, I'm not the one wearing lens-less glasses."
"The better to see you with," he'd growled into the base of my throat. "By all means, rip away, but I'm warning you, there's one thing I'll never let go of," and with that, he had me on top of him, his hands moving down the length of my body, pressing it into his.
"Ever?" I whispered, and he'd answered my question as only Edward can.
I was melting again, just remembering, when I realized Alice was waiting for a response.
"Oh, the dress – yes, I would like to wear it for him. I just realized it's exactly the color he said he likes on me!"
"Well, duh!" she said succinctly.
"Right . . . sorry, I'm just now catching up. Have you heard any more about the competition?"
"Actually, yes. The results were announced yesterday." She shrugged. "We lost."
That was a new reaction. No matter how long the odds, I'd have expected more disappointment. I was pretty sure the "C" in Cullen stood for competitive.
"There must have been thousands of entries," I reminded her, "from a lot of talented people. You shouldn't feel bad about it."
"Well, I didn't mean 'lost' lost, Bella," she said, looking slightly offended. "We came in second, and first place would have been awkward – a full scholarship to the Fashion Institute in New York. Neither one of us would have been up for that."
She gave me her smuggest smile. "Second prize, on the other hand, was $15,000."
I burst out laughing. "You are too much. So what are you going to do with the money?"
"Funny you should ask. We discussed it last night, and I said I might use my share to add to my bead collection. Rose had some choice words about that. She thought since we won it for our design, we should spend it on designer clothes, which made a certain amount of sense."
"So that's what you're going to do – go on a shopping spree?"
"Not exactly. In the middle of this, Esme turns to Carlisle and says, 'Sweetheart, how much did you say the funding was cut for the neo-natal unit?' to which he casually replies, 'About $15,000'."
"Wow, smooth double-teaming by the parental figures. Did it work?"
"Like a charm. I didn't even have to think about it. As soon as they said it, I could see it clear as day – new state-of-the-art incubators being wheeled into the nursery, with pink and blue bows, which, of course, I put there myself. End of problem."
"Well, I have a problem with one of those events you mentioned," I said. "You've been at this vamp thing a lot longer than I have, and I'm not sure if it's a reckless idea or not."
"What's Edward think?"
"I haven't run it past him yet. He's going to want to say yes just to please me, but I don't even want to bring it up if you think it's irresponsible. Nessie's got the best role models in the world to teach her about being an immortal, but she's half human, too. She's going to be a child for such a short time, and there's something she'd enjoy so much, given her infatuation with all the characters and –"
"Bella, spit it out! The suspense is killing me."
I took a deep breath. "I want to take her to Disneyland for her birthday – just the three of us."
"Oh!" After her initial surprise, Alice looked thoughtful – or maybe she was seeing into the future.
"Is it too dangerous – mixing with so many humans?"
"Not necessarily. You're the newborn. Are you going to want to eat somebody?"
"No, of course I'm not. I was thinking more of the exposure – being in all those crowds. Would we stand out too much?"
"Well, I'd definitely grunge it up a bit, so your looks don't draw too much attention."
"I can do that. In fact, I can't believe you're finally recommending it."
She let that pass. "And it wouldn't be all that crowded, because you'd have to wait for a gloomy day anyway. Rain would be even better. The lines will be shorter. I say go for it."
"Really? Okay, I'll ask Edward about it tonight – unless you run into him and he picks it out of your head. Drat, I wanted to bring it up myself."
"Well, we might as well cut to the chase, Bella. Hold it just a minute or two."
This time she was clearly retreating into one of her peculiar trances. It didn't last long, and she was focused on me again, beaming.
"Edward's going to insist on thinking it over, but then he'll say 'yes,' and you're going down there the week of Nessie's birthday, and you'll all have a fantastic time! Oh, but Nessie's going to lose her Cinderella tiara on something called the Grizzly River Run, so you better buy a spare."
"Maybe you should add travel agent to your multi-tasking."
"So that just leaves your anniversary. Have you decided what you're getting for Edward?"
She looked so excited, leaning toward me, her face alight with anticipation, but I had to rein her in. "I'm sorry, Alice. I do have an idea, but it's a real long shot. I have no clue whether anything will come of it."
"Then tell me," she urged. "Maybe I can help."
"You can't, honestly. And it's important that Edward not get a whiff of what I'm up to, because it could be a complete disaster, and if it is, I don't want him ever to know."
"That's awfully mysterious. The first anniversary – it's paper, right?"
"Uh-huh. I Googled it."
"Well, how disastrous can a piece of paper be?"
"You'd be surprised. I'm not going to say anything else about it, and I'd thank you not to even think about what I've said when you're around him."
"If you insist." She hopped off the sofa. "I need to get back up to the house. Are you coming?"
"In a little while." I rose to give her a hug. "Thanks so much for the pictures. It's like getting some of that time apart back again."
As soon as she was gone, I dived for my laptop. I'd already checked my email twice today and – nothing. No luck this time either.
Be patient, I told myself. No response is better than an awful one.
I snapped it shut, wondering if it was time to think of a backup present.
As usual Charlie came out to meet us as soon as we pulled in the drive. At almost the same time, the neighbors' golden retriever Melvin made one of his frequent Houdini-like escapes from their backyard and barreled towards us, tongue lolling in happy anticipation of a reunion.
"Hey, Melvin, you better stay out of the street," I called, as I extricated Nessie from the back seat.
As usual, he ignored the advice. Thankfully Charlie's street didn't have much traffic. Besides we were good buds, and we hadn't seen each other for a long time.
My dad had just enveloped Nessie and me in a big hug, when Melvin, still about 20 feet away, came to an abrupt halt that even the Ferrari's carbon-ceramic brakes couldn't equal. His hackles rose. His usual smile morphed into a teeth-baring threat, and he growled.
"What's your problem, you goofy mutt?" Charlie chortled.
I knew what his problem was.
It was me. Animals have very acute instincts about their relative place on the food chain, and Melvin had just spotted a predator that could take him down before his teeth unclenched.
Oh, boy! What now?
"I bet it's that smell, Dad. It's pretty gross."
"Whatever's on your hands. What have you been doing?"
Poor Charlie lifted his fingers to his nose and sniffed. "It's hardly noticeable. The same old Hoppes #9 I always use on my guns."
"Well, apparently Melvin doesn't approve. Things smell a lot stronger to dogs."
"So what's your excuse?"
Excellent question. "I don't have a moustache to filter the odor. Let's just go inside."
"You know your mother was very sensitive to smells when she was expecting you. Is there something you're not telling me, Bells?"
Heaps, I thought, wondering how to make this stop.
"Now, doggie, you're being very silly," Nessie said in the voice she used to discipline her dolls. She started toward the bristling retriever.
"Stop, honey! Remember what I told you about approaching strange animals."
"It's okay, Momma. He's just scared, but he wants to be friends."
Indeed, Melvin had dropped the Cujo act. His menacing crouch turned into a play bow. His tail started wagging. When Nessie stopped within a few feet of him, he approached and happily sniffed her outstretched fingers. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Guess I better go wash my hands again," Charlie said, frowning.
"I'll stay out here and keep an eye on the situation."
As soon as he was inside, I waved Nessie over to me. Melvin did not accompany her. "Remember what we talked about on the way over?"
"I know, Momma. No going fast. No jumping high. No–"
"Good. I was just checking."
She returned to her new playmate who immediately requested a belly-rub. Did she smell more human than vampire? Or was her scent as unique as she was? Maybe animals didn't merely tolerate her; maybe she had a special gift for communicating with them too.
In any case, when Charlie set down beside me on the porch steps, Nessie was talking quietly and with great animation to Melvin, who stared at her, rapt as a child at story time.
"See, that's why you shouldn't stay away so long. She's talking a blue streak. Last time I saw her, it was just a few words here and there."
"Yeah, kids change pretty quickly all right."
"So, did you and Edward have a good time on your trip? Where'd you go anyway?"
"Oh, you know, different places." That wasn't even a lie. Edward went to New York. I went to Crazytown.
Charlie gave me a knowing look. "I bet you just don't want to admit it, because you were always so down on all that marriage hoopla, but my money's on Niagara Falls."
I laughed. "What makes you say that?"
"Edward. He really is some kind of throwback where tradition is concerned. That fancy ceremony sure wasn't your idea."
"No, but it was the most perfect wedding ever," I agreed. "I kept telling you he was old-fashioned, Dad. You refused to listen."
"Maybe because you kept getting hurt or vanishing. That stuff never happened till he came along."
"Not much of anything ever happened till he came along, and it was more my fault than his. Teenagers are tough to raise, haven't you heard?"
"Yeah, well I grew up watching Leave it to Beaver. They made it look like a piece of cake. Except when that Eddie Haskell guy showed up. Remember him? Smooth talking, polite – and the guy behind all the trouble." He nodded sagely. "I should have realized when you said his name was Edward . . . "
"Not funny, Charlie."
He grinned at my withering look. "Just teasing you, Bells. You look great. You're obviously happy. What more could a father hope for?"
"Maybe a better smelling gun-cleaner. Looks like Melvin's got a new pal."
He and Nessie were now lying on their stomachs in the grass eye-to-eye, noses almost touching.
"Well, if you two ever stop running around, you ought to think about getting my granddaughter a dog of her own."
"You know, Dad," I said, pleased not to have lie again, "you'd be surprised how often that subject comes up."
"I'm telling you, Mr. Cullen, you're gonna need a forklift to get this sucker up there. Why don't you let me and the boys take care of it while we're here? The company's still liable for any damage until it's put in place. After that, you're on your own."
"We'll worry about that later," I said, flipping the tarp back into place. "Thank you for your help."
The men moved off toward their truck, still throwing dubious glances at the humped shape crouching by the driveway. No sooner had they gone, than Emmett appeared beside me.
"This is new. Have the Martians landed or what?"
"No, it's Esme's fountain. Think we can get it up to the greenhouse? It's solid marble."
He gave it a brief glance. "How many men took it off the truck?"
Emmett snorted. "Hell, I bet I can do it myself. Come on, how much is it worth to you?"
"I'm not betting, because I don't want to win. Esme will be unhappy if anything happens to it."
"All right, you can help me, little bro." He grinned. "Why didn't they just put it in there in the first place?"
"Minimizing exposure," I reminded him.
Strangers seldom came to the house. Most of the elements needed for the new "conservatory," as Rosalie called it, were prefab. We'd done the work ourselves. Superior strength and speed go a long way toward making up for a lack of training.
"You want to get it inside now – in case it starts raining?"
"It's a fountain, Emmett. It will be fine."
"Okay, then. I'm going into town for some more sealant. You need anything?"
"Thank you, no, but you might check with Esme first. Tell her I inspected it, and it's in perfect condition." I handed him the paperwork and set off around the house.
Rain seemed amazingly unlikely. Sun glinted from the beveled edges of the new glass, soaring a full three stories in Esme's latest creation. Another week or two and we'd have our tropical haven in place.
The feeling that had accompanied me lately – the one that was so difficult to name – wavered at the edges, as I recalled Bella's face when she asked the question. She tried so hard to keep her tone casual, but I could see it – that slight touch of anxiety deep in her eyes.
"How come Esme's building something so elaborate when we won't be staying here that much longer?"
I answered her with the truth. "We have the resources to create what we want for however long we may have to enjoy it."
What I didn't add, was that I'd be lobbying behind the scenes to prolong our stay to the very last possible minute. She was so happy here.
We all were.
Oh, we could leave and hope to return on some distant day to our little cottage. I would make sure Jenks tied it up legally, tighter than an historical monument, but someday when we came back, Charlie wouldn't be here.
She knew it. She'd made the decision to deal with it, but she hadn't felt it.
I would do anything to spare her that moment when she did – throw the entire Cullen fortune at the problem (my part and everybody else's), kill a few people, anything. But the fact was, there wasn't a damned thing I could do to prevent it.
I'd wandered halfway down the back meadow, until I found the ideal spot. The view on this rare day with its blue and white patchwork sky was the kind that sent poets rhapsodizing, but more importantly, I could just catch the musical sound of their voices – my wife and daughter – as they hunted butterflies in a field far across the river. I sat down and stretched out my legs, leaning on my elbows, searching for that elusive feeling again.
Bella was adamant that the past shouldn't be allowed to disturb the perfection of our here and now. I had no idea how she got so smart, but I suspected she wouldn't approve of my letting future heartache spoil it either.
I took a slow, deep breath filled with the scent of nature, of life pulsing around me, and let go of my morbid thoughts.
Happiness. I knew what that was now. It was Bella. Every time I saw her or heard her voice, it swept through me, growing stronger and more entrenched with every minute that we spent together, and lingering with an almost human warmth when we were apart.
I supposed I'd had flashes of it in the past – mere moments, gone before they could be appreciated, but this other sensation was more foreign still. I decided it must be what people call "peace of mind."
For a hundred years, I'd lived on the edge, fighting not to slip back into darkness, so certain I had no place in the light. That constant tension was easing now. The energy could better be reserved for protecting my wife and daughter.
I could sit here appreciating the way the clouds were rimmed with gold. Behind them rays shot silver into the mist still caught in the trees. In the underbrush, small woodland creatures darted, sometimes visible but never, never daring to come close to me.
Then, like a dark cloud in my peripheral vision, a figure was heading my way, sashaying actually, while trying to keep her ridiculous high-heeled sandals from sinking into the soil.
Too bad she couldn't just stay planted there like a croquet wicket.
"Well," she said as she drew closer, "if it isn't Mr. 'Oops, I Thought You Were Dead!' Mind if I sit down?"
"It's a free lawn," I said, drawing my legs up, possibly to make myself a smaller target. "'Miss I Was Born to be Worshipped'."
"You got that memo, did you?" she said archly. "I'd never have guessed."
"Every religion has its detractors, Rosalie. Don't let it bother you."
"Oh, I don't." She swished one hand through the soft grass.
It had been my grass a few minutes ago, and I liked it that way. Irritated, I wondered which of my sins had brought on this visitation, but I wasn't about to ask.
"I know what worries you most," she said, "and I've decided you don't need to."
I gave her my blandest look. So help me, if she said my hair, those stilettos were landing in the river, ideally with her still in them.
"But after everything that's happened these last weeks, I'm convinced. Nothing will ever be able to keep you and Bella apart. It can't. You love her too much to let that happen, and I thought I should confess that I actually like that about you."
"You found something to like about me?" I wasn't being facetious. The idea was frankly shocking.
"Well, it took several decades. Give me a few more and I might be able to eke out another one."
"You told me I was an idiot for falling in love with Bella." In fact, that was one of the milder terms she had used back in our junior year of high school.
"You were an idiot. We all could have been exposed. Then you bring the wrath of the nomads down on our heads. One of us could easily have gotten destroyed during that mess. Not to mention stirring up the werewolves and the Volturi. Oh, yeah, Edward, it was a really smart move."
"What, you like me for my idiocy? Do I entertain you that much?"
"You entertain me a lot," she admitted. "Sometimes it's like pulling teeth to goad people in this family into an argument, but you, you're always ready for a fight."
"I think you have me mixed up with Emmett. "
"Different kind of fight," she said dismissively. "Different weapons."
"So you actually like two things about me," I pointed out. "My short temper and the fact that I love Bella. Wait, that second one still makes no sense if you thought it was such a disastrous idea."
Rosalie kicked off her shoes and leaned back, wiggling her lacquered toes in the grass. "It started to make more sense when I realized she was an idiot, too, letting you drag her through all that, always coming back for more. Clearly, you were made for each other."
"I'm losing the part where there's something you like about me."
Yes, quite a bit, but if she thought I was going to rise to her pot-calling-the-kettle-black bait, she was in for a disappointment. However, she went on without waiting for a rejoinder.
"What I really hated was the way she was so willing to throw away her human life, as if it was nothing, as if it was something I wouldn't have given anything to have. I couldn't imagine anyone more opposite from me."
"Tell me there's a point in this story where you change your mind." I expected her to snap back at me, but it didn't happen.
Beside me, she nodded slowly. "It was when she fought so hard to keep the baby, even though none of us had any idea what it actually was. She was so determined, regardless of what it did to her. She defied everyone, including you to see it through. And I thought, that's what I would have done, given the opportunity. She was exactly like me."
"And being exactly like you is the criterion for acceptance, is that it?" I didn't try to keep the acid out of my tone. If we were being honest here, then it was time I said a few things I'd been biting back.
"Don't pretend it was Bella you cared about all that time. You were fixated on the baby, not Bella's survival. In fact, if she had died, you had visions of keeping the baby for yourself. Please don't forget that I can read minds, even ones I'd prefer to ignore."
"Hell, Edward, you were certifiable," she shot back with a touch of her usual vitriol. "You were so not capable of thinking of anything but Bella. I doubt very much that you were rummaging through our minds as usual."
"I knew enough," I said quietly, lowering my head to my knees. The pain of that time, now so far away, still echoed in my gut when I was forced back there.
For a couple of minutes she said nothing, and I began to hope she'd left, though her scent hadn't faded.
"You're right, of course," she said finally. "I did feel that way. You couldn't think of anything but Bella. Well, I couldn't think of anything but that baby. It was like suddenly I was going to be paid back for all the things I'd missed. Whether Bella lived or died, I was going to bond with this new life, and it would fill the emptiness I still felt inside."
She paused, looking at me, but I didn't raise my head. "I suppose I was certifiable, too, in a way. But then Nessie was born and you saved Bella, and suddenly our family was bigger and stronger and there was so much love. That's when I began to appreciate how right you were to love Bella and to stick with her no matter what. She's a tough little cookie."
I lifted my head. "As always, your approval means everything to me."
It was the kind of sarcastic answer I usually gave her, but I followed it up in a less acerbic tone. "And thank you, by the way, for the dollhouse. You've seen how much Nessie loves it."
"How did you figure out it was me?"
"Actually, Bella did."
"Not much gets past her, does it?" Rosalie actually smiled. "It seemed like the simplest way. I didn't do it for the thanks, and while we're on that subject, I found the music . . . Rose's Song."She concentrated on unearthing a little stone with one perfectly manicured finger. "It upset me."
Of course it did. "I was afraid it might," I said.
"People used to tell me how beautifully I played all the time. So what happens? I end up in a family that hardly notices, because the Boy Wonder can play anything he hears better than the pianist he heard it from, and when he gets bored with that, he composes his own. Can you see why I might be a little jealous?"
"I don't do it to offend you, Rose. It's just a weird quirk I was born with. We all have them. Did you ever stop and think I might be envious of your long, blond hair?"
She grinned at me sardonically. "God, you are such a bull-shitter."
"I could switch to the banjo or maybe the accordion if it would make you feel better."
The pebble she'd been holding whizzed through the air, bounced off my temple and landed in the grass.
"That's not why I was upset when I found the music. It upset me because it was such a . . . a decent thing to do, and I couldn't even acknowledge it. You weren't there, because Bella and her lunatic behavior were keeping you away from your own home and family. For a minute, all my old resentment towards her flared up again. I think I said something bitchy."
"That must have come as a shock."
"Under the circumstances, it probably did. She really didn't deserve it."
"Bella's had to withstand a lot of things she didn't deserve. She's good at it." And since we were being honest, I added, "The title was actually her idea."
I half expected her to bristle and turn snarky again, but she smiled. "As I said, she doesn't miss a trick. I knew you weren't thinking of me when you wrote it – not enough dissonance, but anyway – thank you. I haven't tried to play it yet."
"Why not? You can do it."
"It's a little complicated. I'm going to have to fumble around for a while before I get it right, and in case you haven't noticed, I don't much care for looking like a fool in front of other people."
"There's nothing foolish about practicing something until you're good at it. Do you suppose my immense talent for bullshitting came without effort?"
And suddenly I found myself telling her about the conversation I'd had with Vera on that long ago night in New York, my excuses for refusing her girls' sexual favors. All of it – embarrassing as it was.
She didn't pretend not to thoroughly enjoy the story. "Omigod, Edward – a medical condition? Religious vows? I can just see you trying to keep your cool and failing."
"Utterly," I admitted.
"And the irony," she said, still grinning, "is that you turned out to be telling the truth."
She was right. At the time, saving myself for marriage had seemed like the most far-fetched excuse of them all. Marriage wasn't a remote possibility, even in the context of forever. No one suspected I was lying, except me of course, and I was dead wrong.
"Thank God for that," I muttered.
"God, huh?" Rosalie said, her smile fading. "Does this mean you've decided you have a soul after all?"
"The jury's still out. Where do you stand on the subject, Rose? Do you think you still have one?"
She stood, picking up her shoes, and looked down at me with an expression I'd never seen her wear before. "I don't know. I think the real question is, did I ever have one?"
I opened my mouth to say something, what I'm not sure. Such a rare glimpse behind her arrogant facade deserved a response.
I'd have to think about it. I was still too stunned that she'd opened up at all to analyze what she'd told me or what she needed to hear from the rest of us. Somewhere in there, she'd actually said something positive.
That was a first, but it paled in comparison to the realization that in over 70 years, this was the longest conversation I'd ever had with my sister.
Nessie had gone to sleep. Edward was lying with his head in my lap studying the soil requirements of exotic plants, and I was studying Edward.
All was right with the world, till somebody knocked on the cottage door.
"No!" I protested, almost involuntarily. "Who comes visiting this late?"
Edward smiled up at me. "It's eight o'clock. Not an unreasonable hour even for people who sleep at night."
"But I like it being just us. If we don't answer, maybe they'll go away."
"Won't work," he said, nipping me playfully on the jaw as he rose for a split-second trip to the door. "This particular visitor might huff and puff and blow our house down."
Sure enough. There stood Jake. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed.
"Sorry, guys. I was halfway back to La Push when I discovered I still had this in my pocket. I was carrying it for Ness. Didn't want her to wake up and miss it. "
I made it to the doorway in time to have my hand out as soon as he wrestled it from his pocket – a scrap of purple cloth wrapped loosely around a flat rectangle.
"It's one of those dollhouse surprises," he said. "Funny thing is she found it way out by Moriarty Road. All the rest have been right around your place."
"Thank you, Jacob," Edward said. "We'll put it where it will be the first thing she sees when she wakes up."
"Did you want to come in, Jake?"
"Nah, I got stuff to do."
I tried not to look relieved. "Like what?"
He grinned. "It's a tossup between studying calculus and howling at the moon. Right now, the moon's winning."
"Bad choice," I called, as he tossed back a "have a goodnight, you two" and sprinted off through the forest.
"I can't believe he's taking advanced courses – in the summer."
"He's worried about keeping up with our daughter." Edward closed the door, and we returned to our cozy nest on the couch.
"He's plenty smart," I said. "All he needed was a little motivation." I pulled aside the purple wrapping in my hand to reveal a miniature landscape painting, complete with gold-colored frame. "Oh, this is darling! Just the right size for the dollhouse."
Edward took it from me, and I went on. "She could hang it over the mantle in the living room or maybe in the dining room. I can't believe how sophisticated her doll furniture is. All mine was basic plastic stuff. Of course, I didn't have a Victorian mansion either. Mine was more Barbie trailer park." I glanced at Edward who had a peculiar look on his face. "What?"
"Did you look at this picture, Bella?"
I thought I had. It was a typical landscape, wasn't it? Lovely scenery, someplace quaint. I took a closer look, and unease crept through me. "Is that . . . Volterra?"
Of course. I'd seen it with my own eyes as Alice blazed a hectic path through the Italian countryside, although it hadn't really registered in my panicky condition. "That's a little creepy, unless someone meant it as a joke."
"Cullens generally have a better sense of humor," Edward said grimly.
"Well, there's Emmett. Maybe it's meant to be ironic."
"Emmett and irony? I don't think so."
I thought a minute, and someone better left forgotten slithered into my imagination. "Wait, is it a real painting? Could Rupert French have done it, while he was hanging around Forks?"
For the first time, Edward's expression lightened, and he pulled me close. "No. I don't want you to be afraid. French didn't even know about Nessie, much less the dollhouse gifts, and it's not a real painting. I'd guess it was cut from a travel brochure."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "But that leaves the other usual suspects. Is there some way Felix or Dimitri could have done it while they were here? They're big on handing out dire warnings."
"They are, but this is far too subtle for them, and they weren't here long enough to know about the doll furniture. " He began kissing my furrowed brow. "You're always telling me not to over-think things, and that's what we're doing. We don't know that it's a warning. I will find out who did it and why, so stop worrying – right now."
I did, at least for that night. If Edward could package his distraction abilities, and sell them on the open market, we'd all be rich. But we are rich, and that may be a good thing because I prefer to be the only object of the patented Edward Cullen method.
I couldn't help returning to the question the next day. None of our answers really fit, which didn't mean there was necessarily some sinister motive behind the picture, but I'd thought we were done with having to unravel mysteries for a while.
I knew Edward must have been questioning the family throughout the morning, as they prepared the new conservatory for planting, but he hadn't said anything.
He and Nessie were deep in conversation out in our little garden, giving me the chance to check my email again, giving me the golden opportunity to have my hopes dashed one more time.
When the two of them came in, it was only long enough for Edward to kiss us both goodbye. "Jasper and Emmett and I are off to Port Angeles. We'll be back at the house in a few hours. I'll be home for Nessie's bedtime. Don't plan anything for tonight." He threw in a wink for emphasis.
"That's too bad, I already had something planned for tonight." I hoped my smile was seductive enough to get my point across and subtle enough not to scar my child for life.
"Our daughter has something she'd like to tell you," he added with an expression I didn't quite understand.
"So what's up, sweetie?" I asked when the door had shut behind him.
For the first time I noticed she seemed uncomfortable. Her usual open, cheerful features were clouded by some other emotion I wasn't used to seeing there. Still, she snuggled up beside me, warm and sweet-smelling.
"How can you tell good lies from bad lies, Momma?"
Uh-oh, what have you left me with here, Edward?
This had all the hallmarks of a really important parent-child conversation, made all the more problematic by our peculiar circumstances in the world.
"We should always try hard not to tell them," I began. "Sometimes, because of who we are and the way people don't always understand, we have to avoid the truth, but it's important to remember that when we do that, we aren't hurting anyone else and it helps protect our family."
"What about joke lies?"
"Joke lies? Like what?"
Her answer didn't make things one bit clearer. "Do you know Jacob doesn't believe in fairies?"
"Did he tell you that?"
It was hard to imagine Jake raining on any parade that Nessie chose to march in, but if he had, I was going to have a word with him. Next he might be telling her there was no Santa Claus! I'd pretended to believe in Santa, long after I'd realized the truth – because it was more fun that way. I wanted Nessie to have those same options.
"No, but I can tell. One day, I was searching out in the forest, and he said, I shouldn't bother because the surprises were always, always close to home."
Okay. I cut him a little slack in my mind. He hadn't wanted her to be disappointed.
"I said there were probably lots more presents out in the woods because no one could see the fairies there and try to catch them. He said he didn't think so, and I said 'you think they're people presents, don't you', and he said if they were, I should be happy someone bought them for me, and I should thank them."
"Well, different people believe different things," I offered. "That doesn't mean they're lying."
"Oh, I lied for real, Momma. I wanted Jacob to think I was right and he was wrong."
"You mean, you wanted to convince him that fairies hid the presents?"
"Well, it might have been brownies," she conceded, "or even elves. I just wanted Jacob to watch me find one way, way out in the woods."
"I see. So what did you do?"
"I found the little picture under a bush – right outside, and when Jacob came to play I hid it in my jacket. Then when we got far, far away, at a place that he says only he knows about, I pretended I found it there! I said, 'ha-ha – fairies!' and he looked sooooo surprised. It was funny, Momma. Was that a bad lie? It didn't hurt anyone. I'd never hurt Jacob. He's my best friend!"
Poor Jake. "I know, but there are different kinds of hurt. Do you know I used to be really clumsy? I was always dropping things or falling down."
"Did you get hurt?" Immediately, her sweet face was full of sympathy.
"Not usually, but the thing was I guess I looked pretty funny when I fell down, and some people would laugh. That hurt my feelings, so you need to be sure your jokes don't make people feel bad."
She was thoughtful for a moment. "I don't think Jacob feels bad. He laughs a lot, but I'll tell him I'm sorry anyway – just in case."
"That would probably be a good idea."
None of this solved the mystery of who would have given her that picture.
"Can we hang it up in my dollhouse now?"
"Sure. I think we have some sticky stuff in the desk." I rose and went to look for it. "Have you decided where you want it to go?"
"On top of the fireplace where everybody can see."
"You must really like it."
"I do. It looks like the pictures in my fairy tale book, only it's a really truly place."
I rummaged through the drawer, finding what I wanted and looked back at her. "What makes you say that?"
"Because it's where Aro lives. He showed me when all the vampires came to have a big fight, but then they didn't."
"Because of you," I said, returning to sit beside her, smoothing her curls with an anxious touch. I had so hoped she wouldn't realize the significance of that scene. If it was meant as a warning, she shouldn't have to worry about it.
"It's way prettier than the first one," she added, examining the little can of putty in my hand. "That looks like Playdough."
"The first what, sweetie?"
"There was a different picture in the frame. I didn't like that one, so I got the old magazines Aunt Alice gave me and looked for a better one. There was a really cute one of kittens, Momma, but when I cut it out, it was too big. Then I found this little tiny magazine, only two pages long, with a pretty mountain and Aro's house on top."
A travel brochure. Just what Edward had said. Alice had probably snagged it out of the borrowed Porsche. I felt almost giddy with relief. "You put that photo in there yourself?"
"Was that okay?"
"Well . . . yes, of course. It's your picture. What was wrong with the first one?"
"I'll show you." At a very inhuman speed, she was off to her bedroom and back again. "See, you just put it in here."
She showed me how the cardboard slid off the back. Out fluttered Volterra and a heavier piece of cardstock with another well-known scene.
I burst out laughing.
"It's like a cartoon, Momma. It doesn't go in my pretty room."
"I have to agree with you. I think it was meant to be a joke." And I was pretty sure who the joker was. Hadn't Alice and I discussed this very masterpiece only weeks ago?
"It is pretty funny," Nessie admitted, "and it didn't hurt my feelings. I bet fairies could teach dogs how to play cards if they wanted to."
"I'm sure they could," I said, giving her a squeeze. "Have I told you yet today how much I love you?"
She giggled. "You and daddy are funny. That's the very same thing he said when I told him about the pictures."
"I'll just bet he did. Now, let's go do some interior decorating."
He swept me from the water, droplets spangling the air like jewels, and held me up against the full white disc of the moon, his hands nearly encircling my waist.
"Quicksilver," he murmured, gazing up at me, as I pledged to keep the expression on his face locked in my heart forever.
A sigh followed my descent as I slid slowly down his wet body to rest my head against his chest.
"Sometimes I could swear my heart is still beating – like crazy," I confided. "I know it isn't possible."
I thought about that for a minute. Here, safe in his arms, with moonlight slipping across the water of our little pond, it was easy to let my imagination soar. "But the things that poets say are locked in our hearts – love and joy and passion– it's like they've broken free to touch everything around us."
"I sense them all the time," Edward whispered into my hair.
"This is so perfect," I said, setting out to kiss every single droplet of water from his delicious chest.
"Slightly shallower than the Atlantic."
"It's better, because it's all ours," I insisted. "But we will go back to Isle Esme, won't we?"
"Do you actually want to?" He relaxed against the pool's edge, turning me in his arms to rest against him.
"Why would you even ask that? Of course, I do!"
"Why would I ask? Bella, are you sure you're memory's fully recovered? You spent most of our time there bruised, deathly sick and terrified. That's hardly what most people want from a tropical vacation."
"I'm not most people," I reminded him. "Besides, the best moments of my entire human life happened there, too. Of course, I want to go back, but I guess we'll have to wait till Nessie's grown."
"Not necessarily. Carlisle still feels we should all go to South America as soon as possible to learn what we can about others like her. A stop in Rio – you and I slip off for a day or two on the island – perfectly doable."
I shivered with delight at the prospect. "I would love that! We could celebrate our anniversary there. You know, I used to think eternity was a long time, but my calendar is filling up pretty fast. A trip to South America. That's pretty epic."
"Speaking of South America," Edward said, squeezing me tighter. "A good portion of the Amazonian jungle is still waiting to be planted. I need to get up to the house."
"Now? It's the middle of the night!"
"And your point would be?" He pressed one of those prom-type kisses into my neck, effectively short-circuiting my ability to protest, and before I regained it, we were back in the house getting dressed, and he was gone.
I checked on Nessie who, as usual at this hour, was deep in sleep. I kissed her forehead, tucked the covers around her and went in search of my laptop. It was right where I'd left it on the little writing desk in our parlor.
Thank goodness, Edward wasn't the kind of husband to snoop through his wife's email. He just wouldn't do it, so at least I didn't have to worry about him coming on some horrible response that would make things worse rather than better.
I'd about given up on getting any response at all, but I'd put a lot of time into this project, joining websites, sending out inquiries. I took the computer to the sofa, giving it my best intimidating glare as I did so in hopes it might make a difference.
Two emails in my inbox. The first one from Renee. I skimmed it just enough to see that she and Phil were fine and that some TV guru had convinced her we should immediately eliminate something called gluten from Nessie's diet. I'd deal with that later.
The second was from a name I didn't recognize. It could be the kind of message I'd been hoping for, or it could be a ferocious virus about to eat everything on my hard drive. I took a deep breath and clicked.
My first, lightning-fast vampish impression was that it was long for an email; surely a virus didn't need that many words to launch an attack. And bad news could be told in one short sentence.
With cautious optimism, I began to read, forcing myself to go slowly.
Dear Mrs. Cullen,
Your message was relayed to me, and I was instantly intrigued. The discovery that a stranger, thousands of miles away, might have grown up on the same family stories as I did has got to be the upside of this too-much-information age.
I should start by introducing myself. My name is Richard W. Canning II. I'm a professor of music at the University of Boston, and Evelyn Weiss was my paternal grandmother.
As you've probably guessed, she is no longer with us, but you might be surprised by the number of people who feel her loss. Gram touched a lot of lives in a very positive way, and I'm confident in saying that she enjoyed a full, happy life before passing away quietly in 1998, just months after my grandfather's death.
I sat back for a moment, closing my eyes. Thank, God! So much for my irrational fears that Evelyn might have been killed in a tragic road accident before she ever got out of New York or that the murder of her father had turned her into a bitter recluse.
I started reading again more quickly. Back in Danbury, she'd given piano lessons and eventually contacted a prominent school for the blind to offer her help. A member of their board, a Dr. Richard Canning, had answered that letter and two years later they were married. They had three children, a daughter Elise, and two sons, Charles and . . . Edward.
At that point, I had to stop for a moment, overcome with emotion. It could very well be a coincidence. I seemed to recall Edward saying that Evelyn's father was called Charles, so the boys could have been named after their grandfathers.
I resumed reading. There were now seven grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren, several very much into music, but I skimmed the details for now, searching for the link that had made all this possible. My new email friend had left the best for last.
The simple facts in your inquiry – her name, New York City in 1931, a blind girl who played the piano – would have been sufficient to establish a connection between our families, but you see, Gram often mentioned your husband's grandfather to her own children and to theirs when we were growing up.
When any of us felt discouraged, she was the one we went to. She'd talk about her own low point, when her father was dying and she felt very much alone. Music had always been her comfort, but she'd lost touch even with that, and then one night, a stranger came out of the rain. He took an interest, encouraged her. She said it made all the difference.
That was the moral of her story – that we should never give up, because any minute fate might deliver just what we needed to find our footing again. It generally worked for me. Even if that fateful person or thing went unnoticed, simply watching for it kept me from feeling sorry for myself long enough to get my act together.
Her corollary to that advice was the reminder that we might be that catalyst for someone else, even someone who was in our lives for only a brief time. It stuck with me – that idea that you might affect other people in some lasting way – constructive or destructive – and never even be aware of it. It's a good point for a teacher to keep in mind. Gram certainly believed it. She named her second son after a man she knew for only a few short months.
I don't mean to make it sound like she was one of those pontificating old people, who bore you with the good old days. She was actually light-hearted and always enthusiastic about helping other people, especially the blind. I could scan you some clippings about the civic awards she collected, if you're interested, though her favorite prize was one she and my grandfather got for dancing.
He apparently knew how to "cut a rug", Richard Canning the first. When he started courting Gram, he wasted no time in teaching her every crazy dance they did back then, and she took to it with a passion. They were quite the party animals in their youth.
It wasn't till we were much older, although still young and ghoulish enough to appreciate the drama of it, that she told us her father had been murdered, and that once again her "knight-in-shining-armor" had appeared at the precise moment she needed him most.
The other peculiar thing I remember about that story is that Gram was under the impression this mysterious friend – this Edward – was deformed in some way or maybe just very homely. I don't know where she got that notion, but Great-Aunt Fiona, who'd actually seen him a couple of times, insisted he was one of the handsomest men she'd ever laid eyes on. Figure that one out.
Oh, and one other bit of trivia - when your email was making the rounds of our family, my cousin Eric pointed out that he has Gram's old Victrola, the one your husband's grandfather gave to her. She loved that thing. It sat on display in her living room right next to the CD player long after it ceased to function.
The music gene skipped over Eric entirely, but he's a damned fine electrician – hence the heirloom. He's got it working like new, and for some reason all the kids think it's incredibly cool.
At any rate, I'd be happy to answer any questions you or your husband might have, and if you ever get back east, we'd love to offer our hospitality. We could bring out the old photo albums, so you could see what Gram looked like back in the day.
And, of course, we'd like to hear more about the mysterious Edward. I don't recall Gram ever mentioning what he did for a living or even his surname.
I look forward to hearing from you again.
That last part would be tricky. It was only fair to elaborate on our end of the story when they'd been kind enough to tell us their part. I wondered if I would be any better at lying on paper than I was in person. Better to leave it for Edward to decide what to say.
The thought of being less than honest with these nice people brought a twinge of guilt, but it was short-lived. As I'd told Nessie, sometimes lies were necessary because of who we were, and I needed to get used to that too.
For now, I wrote a response saying how much I appreciated his willingness to share the family's history and how I planned to surprise my husband with the missing pieces of a story that had fascinated three generations. Would it be possible to email a picture or two of Evelyn – maybe on her wedding day or with her own little Edward?
When I'd sent it off, I breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished. I'd print out the best parts – maybe on some really nice paper – and tie it with a velvet ribbon, like Rose's Song. That would be my anniversary present for Edward.
Nothing fancy. Nothing expensive. Just a little bit of proof that even in those dark times that haunted him, he'd touched someone with his humanity and that simple gesture had rippled outward, making the world brighter.
Suddenly, I really wanted him back here – just to hold and caress and whisper in his ear all the ways I adored him, but he might not be home for hours.
I looked in on Nessie again. She appeared to be in the exact same position she was in the last time I checked, so I puttered around her room, straightening things just so, half hoping she'd wake up and keep me company. Of course, she didn't.
Nothing else in the cottage seemed to require my attention, if you didn't count the deplorable condition of our bed, and I didn't. Who really needed a complete headboard anyway?
Finally, I gave up and pulled out my cell phone. Edward answered on the first ring.
"Is something wrong?"
"No," I said, "I just wanted to hear your voice. How's everything going?"
"I miss you too. Everything's going smoothly."
"Don't listen to him, Bella!" Alice yelled in the background. "It's a jungle in here!"
"And they sent us a faulty rubber tree," another voice boomed close to the phone. "I've checked it from top to bottom and there isn't a single –"
There was an "oomph" sound and then farther away a squishy sort of thud.
"Score, Edward!" That was Jasper. "One point for the smack down. One for awesome accuracy on the landing."
"Emmett, for heaven's sake, get out of there," I could hear Esme scolding. "We need every bit of that fertilizer."
I grinned into my phone. "Sounds like a model of efficiency."
"Pretty much. All I have to do is persuade a few epiphytes to wrap themselves around a Brugmansia or two, and I'll be done here."
"Are you sure that's not illegal in Washington state?"
"Doesn't matter. They need each other, and remind me to speak to you about this disturbing trend of hearing double entendres in everything I say."
"You're the one saying them – talking dirty in front of your whole family."
"Bella, you don't know from dirty. Now, Emmett, he's absolutely filthy. Be glad you don't have to smell him."
There was some more commotion in the background, punctuated by raucous laughter and a squeal or two. Esme must have given up trying to bring order to this work crew.
"Now, the sooner I finish here, the sooner I'll be home."
"I've heard that one before. Okay, I'll let you get back to work, but only if you promise to play brugamania and epithingies – or whatever they were – with me when you get back here."
"Be careful what you wish for," he whispered in a tone so ridiculously seductive, I involuntarily scrunched into a ball on the sofa. "You have no idea what those two do to each other. Try to imagine." And he hung up.
Arghh! I was half tempted to retrieve my laptop and look them up, if I could figure out the spelling, but I doubted that whatever they did was anywhere near as exciting as Edward made it sound.
Besides, I'd be better off avoiding those kinds of thoughts until he got here. A book, that's what I needed. I hadn't actually picked one up since my emotions – and subsequently my life – had fallen back into place.
My favorites were all back in the little bookcase. I ought to branch out a little more, especially now that I didn't need those old friends to rescue me from my terrifying solitude.
Edward's books were mostly non-fiction, not that he didn't appreciate literature. I suspected he had every novel worth reading over the last century tucked away somewhere in his unique mind.
Some of the titles were intriguing but they lacked that quality I had most searched for in a book over the last few years – a hero I could envision as Edward. It wasn't always easy.
For Heathcliff, I had to picture Edward at his most angry and sarcastic. Rochester was a particular challenge because he was supposed to be ugly, so I just blocked that part out. Darcy, on the other hand, was a piece of cake.
Nothing really hit my fancy. Then I remembered the book Renee had sent me for Christmas. Our taste in literature didn't often coincide, but I felt a little bad about not at least giving it a try.
There it was at the end of a shelf, pristine and lonely. I picked it up and leafed through the first few pages. Well, how bad could a novel be, when it had been on the New York Times Bestseller list for such a long time?
Returning to the sofa, I curled up and began to read. Even if the story didn't capture my interest, I'd be able to quote some part of it to Renee, so she didn't feel her gift was unappreciated, and before long, my own hero would walk through that door.
At first, I didn't think I'd be able to play my usual game of envisioning Edward in the lead, the only way I could really get invested in the love story.
This novel started out in an old folks' home, for crying out loud. One thing Edward would never be was old. But the writing was good, so I kept at it, and soon the plot flashed back several decades.
After that, I had no trouble picturing the protagonist as my personal ideal. I was deeply involved in the story – that is, until a small, unidentifiable sound in the forest told me the real thing was on his way.
I flew to the door, and he caught me up in his arms. Either Emmett had gotten his revenge or Edward had dispensed with his usual fastidiousness in order to get back to me as quickly as possible. He was covered with what I sincerely hoped was mostly potting soil, and now so was I.
"I don't know what you've been doing while I was gone," he teased with that semi-smile that made everything around us disappear, "but you're in serious need of a shower, Bella."
I beamed at him, wordlessly. As usual, he was absolutely right.
A/N: Oops! I didn't notice till I was at work, and unable to do anything about it, that the dividers I used between the four vignettes above didn't "take." Sorry for the confusion. I just put in the very elegant line that this site provides instead. (The original was much cuter.) Hope it helps.