A&A Ch. 23 (P&P Ch. 36)

Beta'd by Michelle Renker Rhodes. Thx bb!

All characters belong to S. Meyer. Major plot line belongs to J. Austen.

When Edward handed Bella the letter currently in her hands, she had not known what to expect, and though she was pretty sure it wouldn't contain a repeat of his confession of love, she certainly hadn't expected anything remotely close to what she'd just read. If she'd been numb before, it was nothing compared to the torrent of emotions that now swept through her.

At first, she was resentfully indignant at his apparent belief that he could attempt to apologize for what he'd done, as if any explanation he could possibly give would be in any way acceptable! So when she began his explanation of all that had occurred at Netherfield, she was already in the mindset that whatever he could have to say would be insufficient.

She read so eagerly and quickly that it was hard to grasp everything he actually wrote. She dismissed his account of Alice seeming aloof when it came to Jasper as soon as she read it. And his account of his real objections to their relationship made her too angry to acknowledge whether what he was saying was true or not. There was no real apology in his letter - no regrets - which was just fine by her since it only confirmed her opinion of him - that he was arrogant and presumptuous.

But when she got to the subject of Mike, things were different. To this subject, she couldn't help but pay closer attention and to comprehend that if what Edward was saying was true, then it had to change every opinion, every high regard that she'd ever held Mike in. And yet at first, the story was so close to what Mike had told her himself. Her feelings went from wariness, to shock, to downright horror as she read. Knowing what it would mean, her first inclination was towards disbelief, and over and over she repeated, "It's not true, it can't be true!"

Her hands shook, and barely scanning the last couple of paragraphs, Bella threw the letter to the side and went to shower, to get ready for her classes, determined not to believe - not to give the letter a second thought.

But still clad in her towel, she ran straight back to the letter when she stepped out of the bathroom. Skipping the parts about Jasper and Alice for now and going directly to that of Mike, this time she forced herself to focus on every single word and put it all in proper context, in proper perspective.

Edward's account of how Mike's family was connected to his was exactly the story Mike had first told her - as was the love and kindness that Edward's father had shown Mike growing up. Everything matched – until she came to the will.

What Mike had said about Edward's total disregard of the will was etched clearly in her memory, and as Bella read, she knew that one or the other was telling a boldfaced lie. For a second, she let herself believe that the initial account she'd gotten had to be the real one. But as she read and reread Edward's version - stating that he'd followed his father's wishes and given Mike his inheritance, his generous and unassuming decision to further pay for Mike's education – she was forced to re-examine her thoughts.

She put down the letter and stood up, pacing her floor, going through every circumstance in her mind and trying with all her might to be impartial. But it was so difficult. It was one's word against the other. She picked up the letter and read it once again, realizing that every line, every statement, if true would do exactly what she'd believed impossible just a few minutes ago: prove Edward to be completely innocent in the entire scheme.

And then Edward never actually stated all of Mike's shortcomings, never tried to slander him the way the other had done. Bella stopped and thought.

She knew nothing about Mike. Apart from his beginnings at Pemberley Estates, she had no idea what he'd been doing with his life before appearing in Port Angeles. He'd never mentioned any of it, and truthfully, Bella had never thought of asking. He had a great personality, a great voice, a pretty face, and that had been enough for her to call him a nice, decent guy. She tried to remember if she'd ever seen him actually do any good, anything of service, but she couldn't. She closed her eyes and could clearly see him grinning, blue eyes laughing, but she couldn't actually recall anything truly good about him other than the fact that the entire neighborhood thought he was a great guy because he was social and outgoing.

She read again.

But it only got worse from there. Her hands trembled again when she reached the part related to Rosalie, and Edward's assurance that she could go ahead and ask Peter to corroborate the story. Her mind replayed her last meeting with Peter, and when she'd mentioned Rosalie, the protective and wary way he'd responded. For a split second, she actually considered going to him before he left his aunt's house. But no. The items in the letter were too personal, too touchy to treat so callously.

Bella's mind now went back to that day in McDonald's – when Mike had first told her his sad story. It now hit her how inappropriate that conversation had really been. She'd barely known him! How could he tell such a story to someone he'd just recently met? And why had she believed it so easily? She recalled all the things he'd said and only now recognized how little his words matched his actions. He'd assured her that he wasn't scared of Edward; that if Edward didn't want to see him then he would have to be the one to leave the area, yet the night of the Netherfield party, it was Mike who didn't show up! It also struck her that while Edward and his friends had been at Netherfield, Mike had only told his sordid tale to her, yet as soon as Edward and company left, his tongue quickly poisoned the entire neighborhood against Edward – even though he'd once told Bella that his love for Edward Sr. could never allow him to discredit his son's reputation!

Everything appeared so different now.

Every good opinion Bella had ever had of Mike faded swiftly away, and Bella was left to recall all her mistakes. Jasper himself, when questioned about Edward, had assured Alice that his friend was completely without blame in the entire affair. She admitted to herself that as arrogant and conceited as Edward may have been throughout the entire time she'd known him, he had always stood by his principles, and she had never see him do or heard him say anything unjust, anything that he could not back up with facts. Among his own circle of friends, he was highly liked and respected. Even Mike had once admitted he'd been a good friend. What's more, she'd often heard him speak of his sister, Rosalie, with so much tenderness, which proved he could actually feel - he could love.

Alone in her small apartment, flashes of shame colored Bella's face, pooled into her legs and buckled them under her until she had to lower herself to the couch, nauseous and sick to her stomach. How could she have been so blind, so easily influenced, so hateful?

"I've been such an idiot," she choked shakily, "always believing myself such a great judge of character yet I've judged so poorly just because in the beginning of our relationship one was able to stroke my ego with pretty words while the other crushed it with his indifference! I let my pride get in the way of the truth. I listened to lies and half-truths while pushing away reason and common sense. Until this very moment, I've had no idea of the type of person I really am!"

Because if she'd been so wrong, if she'd believed a good, decent man to be cold and heartless while believing a cold, heartless monster to be decent, what did that say about her? If all it had taken was a bright, toothy smile and flirtatious looks to believe everything Mike said, she could have so easily found herself in poor Rosalie's predicament, except that with her lack of money and position in the world, Mike probably would've been even more monstrous with her - if possible.

Bella shuddered.

And then her thoughts went to Alice and Jasper.

At first, Edward's explanation of that issue had seemed completely lacking. She read it again, and with this second reading all her views were totally altered. How could she believe him truthful in one instance and not the other? He claimed he'd been completely unaware of Alice's true feelings towards Jasper, and Bella couldn't help but remember Leah's warning from a few months ago - when she'd told Bella that Alice acted too cool, too in control of her feelings – and Bella couldn't deny this to be true. At the time, she'd thought Alice's manner justified, but perhaps…if she'd been just a little more demonstrative of her true feelings…

Bella kept reading and came to the part of the letter where Edward mentioned her family's embarrassing behavior. Shame colored her face, but here neither could she deny his words to be true, and she recalled the specific instances at the Netherfield party that he'd mentioned and how she herself had felt that night that her family's antics couldn't have been more thoroughly disgraceful if they'd attempted it whole-heartedly. When he'd excluded Alice and herself from this picture, it was a soothing balm indeed, but not enough to quell the mortification that she'd endured because of the rest of her family. And the thought that these antics could've been partly to blame for Alice's current dejection, along with the notion that her mother and cousins' behavior would forever reflect badly on all of them – all of it, from beginning to end, was almost too much to bear.

In this tumultuous state, Bella went to her classes, barely hearing anything, not absorbing one lesson, her mind solely and only on the letter and all it had taught her of herself – and of Edward.

When she returned home that evening, tired and confused beyond function, she saw that she had a message on her machine, and absently pressing the replay button while she discarded her clothes, her heart dropped to her feet when she heard a man clearing his throat over the phone line.

"Hey, Bella, it's Peter. Edward and I are leaving Washington today, so I called to say good-bye, since I'll probably be off to the Middle East soon. So…if you want to talk…or say good-bye, call me or text me. Take care, and it was great to meet you."

Overwhelmed by the disappointment flooding her, Bella picked up her cell phone, her mind circling around a thousand and one questions she could possibly ask. In the end, all she managed were five words.

"Good-bye, Peter. Take care."

A/N: Thoughts?

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