A/N: I'm not even going to attempt to apologize for posting this chapter so late. It did a number on me, and I had to step back from it a few times to get a clear head. Thank you for being so patient, though. Hopefully you'll feel as if it was worth the wait. And if you don't, that's OK. It's just over 8,400 words. :)

Thanks to Dinx for her encouragement and sharp eye. She really helped calm my nerves with this.

Special kudos to littlecat358 (author of the just-completed "Unplanned Perfection") and xNimC (author of "Royal Rebellions) for their advice.

Disclaimer: I don't own any characters you recognize. This story is rated M, and is not suitable for younger readers. Story contains some violence, character death, very foul language and may eventually contain sexual situations. Please do not read if any of these things offend you.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Bella sat in the living room at Alice's, a smile on her face as she watched and listened.

She was surrounded by most of the people who meant the world to her, and it filled her with something she had sorely missed the last two Christmases - peace.

Edward was standing across the room, chatting with Carlisle, who had surprised them by arriving just as they sat down to eat a lavish meal prepared by Esme and a beaming Rose. Once in awhile, Edward would glance Bella's way, and they would share a smile, and Bella's cheeks would warm. For as much as she had decided to open herself up to him, to the possibility of building a future together, he was still the first man she had felt a closeness to, and the newness of that feeling left her slightly reticent, like a teenager with her first crush.

Emmett and Jasper were playing baseball on the Wii, and Charlie was parked on his phone, talking a rookie cop through computer issues.

Rose took a seat next to Bella and nudged her. "What's up, kid?"

Bella smiled, leaning forward to set her coffee mug on the table. "Just thinking about some things," she replied coyly.

"Yeah? Wow, coulda fooled me. The Isabella Swan I know never thinks," Rose deadpanned. She nodded in the direction of Edward and Carlisle. "Bet I know what's on your mind. Same as what's on his. He has barely taken his eyes off you all damn day."

Bella ducked her head, laughing a little. "Rose..."

"Hey, I think it's sweet. You're good for each other."

Bella smiled as she looked down at her hands, folded in her lap. "I can't wait for him to move here," she confessed.

Rose lifted a brow. "I imagine it's not easy trying to establish a relationship when you can't see each other often."

"Yeah, there's that," Bella replied.

Rose smirked as she looked at her. "What else is there?" A pause. "Oh!"

Bella bit back a laugh, her face coloring fiercely.

Rose looked across the room at Edward, who was giving them a funny look, wondering what had caused Bella to blush as she was.

"Bellaaaa," Rose sang, dropping her voice.

"Stop it," Bella said, elbowing her. "It's not like … that."

"No? Because the look on your face pretty much gives it away. You're thinking about taking things to the next level."

Bella swallowed hard, risking a glance at Edward. His brows knit together in concern, and she smiled a little to put him at ease.

"Not … right away," she said softly. "It's too soon anyway, isn't it?"

Rose shrugged. "That's entirely a personal decision. Some people sleep together right away, and others wait until they get married. Edward would be okay with waiting until you're ready." She looked at her friend, nudging her again. "Are you ready?"

Bella folded her arms across her stomach. Am I? That was the question that had been rolling around in her mind for a couple of days. She certainly felt ready. It didn't help matters that every time she looked at him, or he was near, something deep down inside her jumped and made her momentarily lose all thought.

"Bella?" Rose whispered. "Hello? Anyone there?"

Bella sucked in her lips to hold in a giggle, and she simply nodded. Rose slapped Bella's knee, a grin on her face.

"Do you need, um, ya know, some advice? Or…" Rose asked seriously.

Bella shook her head. "No, I mean, it'll come to me, right?"

Rose's grin widened. "Yeah, kid. It'll definitely come to you."

Bella's face colored again, and Rose rolled her eyes. "Jesus Christ, it's going to take you all night just to let him take your shirt off."

"Hey," Bella said, pouting.

Rose shrugged, patted Bella's knee again, and stood. She looked down at her and winked. "You'll be fine. I promise."

Not a minute after Rose left Bella, Edward made his way over and sat down next to her. She automatically leaned against him, her head resting against his shoulder.

"What got you all worked up?" he asked, his voice low.

Bella's insides came to life and she smiled. "Nothing. Just … girl talk. You know."

"Hm, say no more." He pressed his lips against her head. "I know everyone said no gifts this year, but I have something for you."

This caused Bella to lift her head and look at him. "Edward, that's not fair."

He smirked. "Of course it is."

"It isn't. I didn't get you anything, and-"

Edward shushed her, quickly leaning forward and pressing his lips to hers. The kiss was brief, and chaste, given that the chief stood feet away, but it was enough for Bella to want more.

He got to his feet and held his hand out to her. Bella took it and let him lead her out of the room. He led her down the hall and into the guestroom he had been occupying. She did a quick survey of the tidy, modern room as he closed the door. When he turned back to face her, she looked at him curiously.

"You're wrong, you know," he said, stepping forward.

"About what?" she asked, nuzzling against his hand when he raised it to her cheek.

He peered at her intently, a smile playing on his lips. "You said you didn't get me anything. What you seem to forget is that you've given me everything. Maybe I haven't made myself clear enough."

Bella swallowed nervously. Jesus, she thought. If just being this close to him is turning me inside out, what will it be like when...

He derailed her train of thought when he pressed his lips to her forehead, then moved away. She felt the absence of his warmth immediately, and folded her arms, watching as he picked up a large and square wrapped gift.

"It's from all of us, actually," Edward said. "But Mom suggested you might feel more comfortable if I gave it to you, so..." He sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the spot next to him.

"It's really not much," he continued after she was seated. He held it out to her, and she looked at him before taking it into her lap.

As she tore into the paper, Edward wrung his hands together. He wasn't nervous about the gift. He knew Bella would love it. He was more nervous about the shift between them. He could feel something different, something new coming from Bella, and it was taking all of his strength not to get ahead of himself.

Bella gasped, holding the portrait in front of her. "Edward..." she whispered, tears springing to her eyes.

"Do you like it?" he asked, scanning the artwork as if he hadn't seen it dozens of times already.

"I love it," she said, turning to kiss his cheek. "I don't … where did …"

He chuckled. "Alice called your dad and asked him to send her a photo of you and your mom. She met this portrait artist, one of the most popular in the city, and he agreed to do it for her."

Bella stared at the eerie likeness of her mother, holding a baby Bella in her arms.

"I don't know what to say," she said softly. "Thank you seems really trivial."

He reached his index finger to her cheek, plucking a tear away. "I hope those are happy tears."

She nodded, laughing.

They sat there for several minutes before rejoining the family. Bella went to each person and thanked them before sitting down with Charlie to show him the finished product.

"That's really good," he commented, scanning the picture. "It looks just like her."

"I have the perfect place for it," Bella told him. "On the wall right above the TV."

He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Sounds good, kiddo."

Hours later, Charlie and Bella said goodbye to the Cullens and made the trek back to Bella's. Charlie would be flying out in the morning, and Edward was going to go with them to the airport so Bella wouldn't have to make the trip alone.

After helping her hang the portrait, Charlie retreated to bed, and Bella settled on the sofa, smiling wistfully as she studied the new addition to her apartment.

The next two days were a blur for Bella as she continued to show Edward around the city. He had no reason to rush back to Washington, but Bella would be returning to work, and he would be on his own.

They spent their days hitting the tourist hot spots, then lounged in Bella's living room watching movies and throwing popcorn at each other. And of course, their evenings always included a little making out, with Edward always being the one to pull away, much to Bella's chagrin.

When Bella went back to work, Edward would be at her door every morning at precisely seven a.m. They would stop in the little cafe at the corner, eat breakfast, and he would walk her to the office, giving her a kiss that hardly left her sated.

At noon, he would be sitting in the lobby waiting for her so that he could escort her to lunch.

And she would text him late in the afternoon, telling him what time she thought she might be wrapping up, and he would again be waiting for her.

"You know," Bella said on the fourth day. "I'm getting rather used to this. Having my own personal escort."

He grinned, holding her to his side as they walked toward her apartment building.

"It can't be fun for you, though," she commented. "All that running back and forth and-"

"I got a job," he said suddenly, cutting her off.

She froze mid-stride, her jaw slacking.

He stood in front of her, laying his hands on her shoulders. "Shocking, I know."

It was the first time Edward ever heard Bella squeal, but she did, and loud enough to catch the people buzzing by them in surprise. She hastily threw her arms around his neck, and he lifted her, burying his face in her hair.

"A job!" she said excitedly. "Oh my God, tell me everything."

"I actually got the call yesterday for an interview, but I couldn't tell anyone. I was afraid I'd jinx it. So, I went today, and he made me an offer before I walked out. I was nervous about telling him about my past, but he said it was nothing. My first big project is going to be working with the mayor's office to redesign a whole block of housing in Harlem."

Bella's smile couldn't be any wider, and she hugged him again, her heart swelling. "I'm so proud of you, Edward."

He closed his eyes, reveling in her warmth. "You can thank Jessica and her dad. If it weren't for them-"

"They just opened a door for you, Edward, that's all. You're the one who went through it."

He blinked, baffled. "Fuck, I think you've been hanging out with Rose too long."

Bella giggled, playfully punching his arm. "We should celebrate! Want to call them and see if they'd like to join us?"

As if he could resist her when she smiled at him the way she did. So, an hour later, they found themselves seated at a table at the Bryant Park Grill with Rose, Emmett, Alice and Jasper, and they toasted to their new beginnings.

"Let's go dancing!" Alice said as they left the restaurant. "Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, and then Rose and Em will be leaving, and-" Her smile turned into a pout. "I don't want you guys to go."

Everyone knows a pouting Alice usually gets her way, which is how the group found themselves in a crowded nightclub at midnight. None of the guys wanted to dance, intent to just watch their girls enjoy themselves. No amount of cajoling from Bella could get Edward on the dance floor, though he did have to admit the thought of grinding against her wasn't at all unappealing.

"Bella's drunk, I think," Rose said in Edward's ear at one point. "You should take her home."

Edward smirked, but obeyed, and despite Bella's slurred protests, he hauled her away.

"Edwarrrrd," she said, slapping at his arm. "I didn't get to say bye to them."

"You'll see them tomorrow before they leave," he reminded her. "Come on, babe. Work with me here." He had a tight grip on her waist, but she was giggling uncontrollably, which made it rather difficult to maneuver a busy city sidewalk.

"Time is it?" she asked, clumsily reaching for his wrist.

"Uh, almost two," he replied, grateful that they were close to her building.

"Are you drunk, Edward?" she asked, looking at him through heavy eyelids.

"No," he replied. "But you are, and you're going home to bed."

She snorted loudly, and he couldn't help but laugh. "Are you coming to bed with me?"

That went straight to his cock, and he groaned. "Jesus Christ, Bella. Don't say shit like that."

Bella pouted. "You don't wanna?"

"Believe me, I do. Badly." He led her around a corner and straight up the steps to her building. After punching in the code she'd given him days ago, they were inside, and Edward faced a challenge.

"Is there an elevator in this place?"

She shrugged and yawned at the same time. "Stairs..."

"Yes, I know there are stairs," he said, chuckling. "Four flights of them, and you're going to kill us both before we get to the top."

"I'll be good, promise," she said, slouching against him as her eyes drifted shut.

"I'll carry you," he finally said, sweeping her up into his arms. She snuggled against his chest, draping an arm loosely around his waist as he cradled her.

"Key's in pocket," she whispered sleepily. "You can keep it."

He smiled. "Is that right?"

"Mmhmm." She buried her face against him.

When he hit the fourth floor, he gently released her, and she leaned against the wall.

"Which pocket?" he asked, hesitant to just go digging.

"Um..." She shoved her hand in one pocket, then the other. "Oh."

Edward narrowed his eyes. "Oh?"

She giggled and turned around. "Here."

He glanced down at her denim-clad ass.

"Well?" She shimmied a little, and Edward groaned.

"You little flirt," he said, shaking his head. He sighed and reached his fingers into a pocket, gritting his teeth as he did so.

She's going to be the death of me, he thought, glad that his search produced the key on the first try.

"Do you always keep your key in your back pocket?" he asked, unlocking the door.

He received no reply as she made a beeline for the hallway.

Alarmed, Edward followed, expecting her to be headed for the toilet. Instead, he found her in the bedroom, where she had thrown herself into bed.

He sighed and went to her, maneuvering her around enough so that he could loosen the covers under her. "Bella, Bella, Bella." He pulled her shoes off, then went to the bathroom, where he dampened a washcloth. He returned to the bed, taking a seat on the edge next to her. As he gently rubbed away her makeup, her eyes opened slightly, and she smiled at him.

"Stay with me," she whispered, laying a hand on his as it caressed her cheek. "Please."

Her eyes fluttered closed again as he continued to wipe away the remnants of her day. When he was done with that, he went to the kitchen and filled up a glass with water, retrieved a bottle of Advil, and placed it on the nightstand beside the bed.

He hovered by her bedside, looking down at her.

"Edward," she said softly. "Come to bed."

He smiled a little and moved around to the other side. He pulled the covers back, sat, pulled his shoes off and lay down so that he was facing her.

She wasted no time in snuggling against him, and he held her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead.


Bella groaned softly, pressing her hand to her forehead. "Oh, god..." she mumbled.

The sunlight filtered through the curtain, hitting her square in the face.

An amused Edward chuckled beside her.

Bella's eyes flew open, and she looked at him. "You're here."

A smile played on his lips. "That I am."

She smiled a little and stared at his stubbled jaw. "You didn't leave."

"No," he answered, shaking his head. "I'm still here."

He cleared his throat and rolled onto his side. Bella inhaled sharply when he brushed against her as he reached his arm over her and toward the nightstand. He had stripped down to just his jeans during the night, and she found herself allowing her eyes to travel across his chest as he hovered above her.

"Water," he said, moving back and into a sitting position. "And Advil." He held them out and she took them gratefully.


He watched her for a moment, her hair mussed up, her eyes still sleepy. It was a sight he could get used to seeing every day. Maybe with less clothes between them...

She downed the entire glass of water and handed it back to him. He reached across her again, setting it on the nightstand.

"Are you hungry?" he asked after he was situated again. "I could fix something."

"You can't cook," Bella said, gently chiding him.

"I can do the basics, thank you," he answered in rebuttal.

She looked at the clock, noticing it was almost ten. "Why don't I just shower and get dressed, and we can go somewhere? We have to meet Rose and Em soon."

"That's fine," he said just as his cellphone rang.

"Do you need to, uh..." She motioned toward the bathroom, but he shook his head.

"I've been awake for a while," he told her, getting to his feet. When he picked up his ringing phone, Bella took the opportunity to make a beeline for the bathroom. She hoped she didn't look as bad as she felt.

Edward was thankful for the distraction of a phone call when he heard the shower come on. "Emmett," he said, juggling the phone as he pulled his t-shirt on.

"Well, well, well," Emmett said, causing Edward to roll his eyes. "We just got to Alice's, and guess who isn't here?"

"She isn't?" Edward said jokingly.

"Very funny, bro. Did you go easy on the girl? Two years is a long time to-"

"Emmett!" Edward said, glancing toward the bathroom. "Jesus Christ, shut up. Not that it's any of your business, but nothing happened. She was drunk, remember? I stayed, yes, but that's it."

Emmett chuckled. "I see. And where is she now?"

"She's in the shower," Edward said, his tone bordering on annoyed.

"She's not drunk now, is she?"

"Emmett, seriously? Show some respect, would you?"

"I'm just yankin' your chain, Edward, calm down. Fuck, you do need to get laid. Let go of some of that pent-up aggression."

"I'm hanging up," Edward said, pulling the phone away from his ear. He heard Emmett shouting, but clicked the phone shut anyway.

He sat down on the bed and pulled on his shoes, looking over his shoulder toward the bathroom. He groaned, thinking of Bella standing beneath the water, her naked body glistening with that flowery soap she always smelled of. He would never dream of taking advantage of her in any situation. The ball was totally in her court, so to speak. But he'd be lying if he said that making love to her never crossed his mind, because it did. A lot. And he had never made love before. At least, he wasn't in love with any of the girls he'd been with.

As he made his way to the kitchen, Bella was still standing beneath the spray of water, her eyes squeezed shut. Waking to find him still in her bed had surprised her. She found that she rather liked seeing him first thing in the morning, and she smiled as she remembered him holding her when she finally fell asleep. He was patient and sweet with her, and she giggled despite the headache when she remembered him digging into her back pocket for the key.

Which she told him to keep.

She gasped. "Shit," she mumbled. Would he take it the wrong way? She hoped not. She wasn't exactly asking him to move in. She just thought... well, she wasn't sure what she thought, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe he'd forgotten and would give the key back to her. She didn't think she wanted him to.

When she finally got out of the shower, she brushed her hair out, half-dried it, and dabbed on some makeup before pulling on her robe. As she padded down the hall, she heard the TV on and smiled when she heard Edward laugh.

Yes, I could get used to this...

Five minutes later, she emerged wearing a pair of denim leggings, a vintage Beatles t-shirt and Uggs. Edward did a double-take, a grin spreading across his face. Her and her vintage shirts...

"What?" Bella asked, glancing to her feet and back at him.

"You're beautiful," he said, standing. "That's all."

She blushed. "Thank you."

He flipped the TV off. "Ready?"

She nodded, and as always, let him help her with her coat. When they stepped into the hallway, Bella went to lock the door, but Edward beat her to it with his key. She watched as he tucked it into an inside jacket pocket, the smile widening on her face.

After a quick breakfast at their usual diner, they met up with Emmett and Rose, both of whom couldn't resist teasing looks and snickers.

"So, are you guys going to the Times Square thing tonight?" Emmett asked as they waited for a taxi.

"Um, I don't know," Edward asked, looking at Bella. "Are we?"

"Do you want to?"

"Not really?" he answered questioningly.

"Me either," she said, relieved. "Way too many people."

"What are you going to do?" Rose asked, winking at Emmett as she asked.

"I think we should stay in," Bella answered, deciding to play along.

Edward looked at her in surprise. "Really?"

"Sure. We can watch movies or something."

"Something," Emmett mumbled, nudging Rose.

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Edward said, glaring at them. "Knock it off."

Bella laughed, burying her face against Edward's shoulder. He squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back.

After seeing Emmett and Rose off, Edward and Bella spent the day touring the Bryant Park area, looking into various apartment possibilities for Edward. Late that evening, they found themselves back in Bella's apartment, arms loaded with groceries. They worked easily together as they put the groceries away, and Bella even let Edward help her prepare the eggplant parmigiana they had for dinner.

"There are some vacancies in this building," Bella suggested, reaching for a bottle of wine. "You know, if you want."

He glanced at her from his spot at the sink, where he was finishing up their dishes. "Are you sure?"

She nodded. "There are some signs downstairs by the mailboxes-"

"No, that's not what I meant," he said, chuckling. "I meant, are you sure that you'd be okay with me living here? In the same building, I mean."

Her hand froze on the cap of the wine bottle.

He dried his hands, turning to face her. "I'd be okay with it, if you are."

She looked over her shoulder, then back at the bottle. "Yeah, it'd be nice."

"Okay," he said with some finality. "I'll look into it. Anyway, it'll still be a couple of weeks. I have to tie up loose ends in the Port, and then I have the matter of driving across the country."

She laughed a little, handing him a glass before pouring some wine into it. "You're really going to do that? Do you realize how much it's going to cost to park your Jeep here?"

He shrugged. "I'm aware of that, yes. But it doesn't matter. I'd like to have it here so that we can take weekend trips, and renting a car every time we want to leave-" He stopped talking when he noticed that she was staring at him, mouth agape. "What's wrong?"

"Weekend trips," she said dubiously. "You want to travel? With me?"

He sighed, shaking his head. "What am I going to do with you?" He placed his glass on the counter and closed the distance between them, taking her in his arms. "Of course I want to travel with you. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather be with to explore new places. A year ago, I never thought I'd get to see anything beyond those prison walls. And now, not only am I going to be living in New York City, but I can drive anywhere I want. I'm thinking Cape Cod, the Adirondacks, maybe a trip up north to the see the leaves in the fall."

Bella's eyes burned with tears as she looked up at him, and he laughed a little. "Bella, you cry entirely too much."

"I can't help it," she said, laughter in her voice. "I just..." She set her glass down and draped her arms around his neck.

"What?" he asked, brushing his thumb across her cheek. "You can tell me. Whatever it is, you can say it."

She worried her bottom lip, then blew out a puff of air. "I've never felt like this before."

"That makes two of us," he replied, smiling.

Her eyes darted to his from the spot on his shirt she'd been staring at. "You haven't either?"

He shook his head. "Nope."


"Bella, I mean it. At the risk of sounding like a complete asshole, the girls I was with before meant nothing to me. I mean, yeah, I liked them, but ... that's all. You mean more to me than anyone ever has."

"Well, that's good," she said, a glint in her eye. "I don't have to figure this out on my own then."

He smiled, and she pushed herself onto her tiptoes to kiss him. He cradled her face in his hands gently, kissing her sweetly. He moaned into her mouth when he felt her tongue seek his. He might have been surprised by the initiation on her part if he wasn't too busy being turned on. She ran her hands up his back, pressing him further into her until he was forced to back her against the counter.

"Edward," she murmured as he moved his lips along her jaw and to her neck. She shuddered, whimpering when his lips found a rather sensitive spot. His tongue flicked against her skin, and she nearly buckled from the pleasure that coursed through her.

"Edward," she whispered, dropping her hands to his hips. She pushed gently, and he lifted his head, a concerned look on his face.

"What is it?" he asked, his words laced with worry.

"You have to ... you have to show me," she said, holding his gaze. "I ... I'm not ..."

He wasn't sure where she was going with this conversation, but he hoped like hell it meant what he thought. "Tell me," he urged her.

Her cheeks colored, and he realized that she was asking of him what he'd suspected, but he wanted her to say it, to confirm so he didn't have to take a chance at misreading her.

Her mouth opened, then closed, and finally opened again. "I don't know what I'm doing."

He ran his fingers through her hair before letting his hand come to rest on her shoulder. "You're doing a fine fucking job," he said, smirking.

She laughed at his pun, then shook her head. "I'm scared, Edward."

"Hey," he whispered, taking her chin in his hand and lifting her head. "I know. It's okay. I'm not exactly fearless myself here."

"You're afraid? Of what?"

He sighed before reaching behind her and picking up his wine. He downed what was left in one tilt, then set the glass down again.

"I've never been with, uh, anyone who ... you know, hasn't done it before," he said nervously.

"A virgin," Bella replied, her voice unwavering.

"Yeah, a virgin," he said smoothly, which belied the hurricane inside him. "It's been awhile for me. Since before I went to prison, and I want this to be special. I needit to be, for you, and for us. I don't want you to do anything you're not ready for, Bella. I mean it."

She knew what she wanted, and she wanted him. There was no use in denying it, and she didn't want to put it off any longer. She felt it in her very soul.

"I trust you," she said softly, entwining her fingers with his. She looked him in the eye before leading him out of the kitchen and toward the bedroom.

Oh, fuck! Edward did a mental evaluation of his wallet's contents. He had placed two condoms inside not long ago, just in case he ever got lucky enough to have Bella give him the green light.

Bella's heart was hammering in her chest - or was it her stomach? Either way, she was so sick with anticipation that she wasn't sure she'd be able to think straight.

When they stepped into the bedroom, she dropped his hand and turned to look at him. He quickly glanced at the bed, then at her. He saw nothing but affection in her eyes, and the spark he'd gotten used to seeing. She took a few slow steps backward until her legs hit the bed, and then she sat down.

He licked his lips at the sight of her, so sweet and shy. He felt like he was a teenager again. He suddenly wished he could go back to his first time, and that it was Bella he had lost his virginity to and not that Irina girl he met at one of Eric's parties.

He walked to her slowly and stopped inches in front of her. "Are you sure?" he asked, brushing a stray strand of hair off her face.

She bit her lip, then nodded as she looked up at him in anticipation.

He lowered his lips to hers and kissed her softly, sending quivers throughout her body. His slow, drugging kisses were unrelenting even as he began to push her back onto the bed. It was the first time since that night on First Beach that she had felt a man's weight on top of her, and this time it felt right.

Edward lifted his mouth from hers and gazed into her eyes. "Isabella, you're the most beautiful woman I've ever known," he said, tracing a finger down her jaw.

She caught his hand and held it, allowing herself to look deep into eyes. It was obvious - the love and deep affection he held for her.

"Show me," she whispered, her warm breath caressing his skin.

His mouth captured hers once more, and she drank it in, letting him lead her. His fingers found their way to the hem of her shirt, and he lifted it, letting his fingers wander underneath and onto her stomach. She inhaled sharply, the sensation welcome.

"Lift up for me," he murmured, and once she did, he peeled her shirt off, leaving her heaving chest exposed to him. He took in the sight of her flushed skin, finally letting his eyes settle on the lacy blue bra. And then his eyes zeroed in on the tattoo.

"What the fuck is that?" he asked, gently crawling over her. He traced a finger along the artwork.

"Um, it's a tattoo," she answered.

"I see that. What is it?"

"The Chinese symbol for faith. I got it in the Port the day after Thanksgiving, when I saw you with Tanya."

His eyes snapped to hers.

"It sums up a lot in my life," she said nonchalantly. "Faith has gotten me through everything."

He frowned as he looked at the scar next to it. "I am so fucking sorry for this," he whispered, pressing his lips to it.

"Not your fault," she replied, laying a hand on his shoulder. "And if it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be here, together."

He shook his head slightly, unable to grasp how she could always see the bright side of things.

She looked up at him expectantly as he moved to trace a finger along the edge of her bra. He lowered his mouth, his lips leaving a trail behind his finger.

"You're so beautiful, Bella. So strong," he whispered in between kisses. And then, he gently raised her again, this time to remove the bra.

Bella lifted a hand and ran it through his hair as he brought his mouth to her nipple, sucking it in between his lips. She hummed in pleasure and closed her eyes.

"Does that feel good?" he asked, smiling before he moved his mouth to the other.

"Yes," she replied, nodding quickly. This is how it should be...

He pressed his tongue flat against her bud. "Fuck," he muttered. "So sweet."

He kissed his way around her collarbone, dipping his tongue into the soft little hollow at her neck before bringing his mouth back to hers. She kissed him eagerly, nipping at his lip. He let out a low growl and ground his hips into her, letting her know how she was affecting him, and she felt it, right down to her very core. It drove her forward, wanting to let him know that she wanted this, and wanted it more than anything.

It gave her the courage she needed to make a move, and within seconds, his shirt was in her hands and being lifted over his head. She tossed it aside, and he grinned as he brought his chest flush with hers.

"Almost there," he told her teasingly, dropping a kiss onto her jaw.

Her warm hands seared a path down his back, coming to rest at the top of his jeans. She ran her fingers beneath them, learning his body at a slow pace. There was a dreamy intimacy to their kiss now, and they were hopelessly lost in each other.

Leaving her mouth burning with fire, Edward began kissing his way south, placing reverent kisses at different spots on her chest. He playfully licked at each nipple, continuing down her stomach.

"So soft." His tongue ran along the top of her jeans, and he brought his fingers to the button, flicking it open. He looked at her, giving her a chance to stop what he was about to do.

She brought her hands to his, and he let her help him unzip. He stood long enough to pull them down, and Bella watched as he ran a hand up her leg, his eyes drinking her in. He paused when his fingers reached the top of her thigh. A lazy smile spread across his face, and Bella blushed.

"So fucking adorable," he mumbled, lowering his head. He pressed his lips just above her panties before moving lower.

Bella was fascinated by his movements, how he reveled in every inch of her, and when his lips pressed against the thin fabric of her panties, right at the site of her aching clit, she cried out, and he felt a surge of satisfaction.

"Take them off," she demanded. "Now. Please."

"As you wish," he replied, gripping the pretty material and pulling it down her legs.

He returned his mouth to her quickly, spreading her legs to allow access. He pulled a leg up and over his shoulder, and she stilled, waiting for his next move.

"Ready?" he asked, his voice husky.

She nodded, chewing on her lip.

She wasn't sure what to expect, but it hadn't been this. He placed a tender kiss on her inner thigh and then moved his lips to her folds. She squirmed, throwing her head back when he ran his nose and tongue slowly upward, inhaling her heady scent. When he hit her clit again, she wanted to cry, the intensity too much.

"Oh god," she murmured, over and over. He continued assaulting her clit with his tongue, feeling her fall apart because of him. As he roused her passion, his only grew stronger. He loved that she seemed to be losing the shyness she had exhibited before. He only wanted more as he continued to taste her, to feel her lose herself against his lips.

He removed his mouth from her only briefly to wet his fingers. Slowly, gently, he pushed one inside of her, pausing for her reaction.

"Edward, please," she whispered. "More."

She had surrendered to his masterful seduction, and he was pleased that she was aware of what she wanted.

He removed his finger, then pushed two inside her. As he slowly began to slide them in and out of her, he returned his lips to her clit. He needed her to be good and wet for him, for the real thing. The last thing he wanted to do was cause her pain, but he knew it was inevitable. All he could do was try to lessen it.

"Edward," she moaned, her fingers clutching the pillows.

He felt her walls clenching, and he realized that she knew what she was doing, even if she'd never had a man there. The thought of her pleasuring herself nearly did him in, and he quickly pulled away from her, unable to wait any longer. He wanted to be inside her now.

She was breathless, panting, waiting for him to finish, but when he removed himself from her, she lifted her head. He had quickly rid himself of his jeans and boxers, and her eyes widened slightly at the sight of his hard cock. I did that to him... The thought filled her with a new wave of desire.

Her eyes lifted to his, and he smiled down at her before he joined her in bed.

He traced a finger along her arm and took her hand in his. "Do you want to touch me?" he asked.

She nodded, and let him guide her hand to his dick. She gasped slightly, and he thrust forward once, a groan escaping his lips. When her fingers closed around him and began to move, he shook his head, and despite his want for her to continue, how amazing it felt having her small hand wrapped around him, he knew he should wait. A handjob from his beautiful girl was the last thing he needed at the moment. This was about something else. Something deeper.

"Not now," he whispered, covering her body with his. "We've got plenty of time for that."

She lifted her head and kissed him with a savage intensity that sent his world tumbling. Neither of them would ever forget this moment, the night they gave their souls to each other.

His hands explored the soft lines of her waist now as he moved between her thighs. She urged him forward, but he stilled, shaking his head. "In a moment," he whispered, lightly touching her face with his fingers. "I just want to savor you, like this. You look so beautiful, Bella. You're glowing."

"Because of you," she replied.

He pressed his forehead against hers, his eyes closed. She caressed the length of his back, instinctively arching her body toward him.

He picked up a lock of her hair, splayed beneath them on the pillow, and caressed it gently. "I've been waiting for this forever," he said hoarsely. "For this feeling. For you."

Bella nodded in understanding. He kissed her gently once more, then started to move away. "Condom," he mumbled.

"I'm on the pill," she said. He looked at her in disbelief.

"You are?"

She nodded. "Um, since before I went to college. It was my mom's idea. I just decided to stay on..." Her words trailed off. "But if you feel more comfortable-"

"No," he said quickly, shaking his head as he returned to her. "I'm clean, so there's nothing to worry about." He silently rejoiced at the thought of being inside of her, flesh against flesh. He'd never had that experience before, and was glad that he would at least have that first with her.

He smiled, and she smiled back before their mouths collided again in a frenzy. His fingers found their way down to her pussy, and he rubbed her clit again. She moaned against his mouth, and he finally decided it was time. He lifted his head, locking his eyes with hers.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "It'll hurt a little."

She nodded. "It's okay. I trust you."

Their eyes stayed locked as he slowly slid his tip inside her. She gasped, trembling, and he nuzzled her cheek with his before kissing her softly. She moved beneath him, urging him to go forward, and he did, finally filling her completely.

"Are you okay?" he asked, concerned when she squeezed her eyes shut.

She took a deep breath, finally meeting his gaze, and nodded. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, but it was Edward, and she was filled with him, so the pinching she felt was worth it.

He lowered his mouth to hers, beginning to pull out of her slowly. He caught her hands and entwined their fingers together at each side of her head. He loved the feel of her surrounding him. She was so tight, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she'd adjust to him, and her pain would turn to pleasure.

He took it slowly, dropping sweet kisses on her face and her neck, and she was breathing into him. She began to grow more comfortable feeling him move inside her. It felt natural. He was being so gentle with her, and her heart was expanding as they moved together, contentment and peace flowing between them.

"Bella," he whispered, kissing the spot below her ear. His pace had quickened ever so slightly, and she rocked her thighs to meet his thrusts.

"It's okay," she replied softly, removing a hand from his. She trailed it up his back and into his hair, giving it a soft tug. She was urging him on, knowing it was likely he'd come without her, and she was okay with that. Just being with him this way, feeling his body atop her, joining hers, was enough at the moment.

He buried his face in the contour of her neck. She lifted her hips against him, and he groaned, burying himself deep inside her. Her walls were pulsating around him, and he wanted her to come, but he wasn't going to last much longer.

"Just let go," she told him, placing a kiss at his temple. "Edward..."

He began moving faster, and ran a hand down her body, squeezing her hip as he wrapped her leg over him. She clung to him, and their lips met again feverishly. He moaned into her mouth as he spilled into her, hoping he didn't hurt her as the dormant animal came to life.

He stilled inside her, and she kissed him sweetly, brushing hair off his damp forehead. She cradled his head against her chest, a smile on her lips.

"I'm sorry," he said sheepishly, lifting his head.

"For what?" she asked.

"You … uh … that was a little one-sided."

She let out a laugh, and his brow furrowed. "I don't think it's funny."

She ran her fingers through his hair, and he slipped out of her, causing her to wince.

"Shit," he mumbled. "Fuck. I'm sorry. Are you okay?" He half-covered her with his body, and she nodded.

"Edward, I've never been better. I mean it."

"But you didn't-"

She slapped a hand over his mouth. "For fuck's sake, Edward. I'll fucking come next time!"

His eyebrows shot up at her profane statement.

"I was warned it might happen, so I didn't expect it," she finally said, smiling up at him.

"What the fuck ever," he muttered.

She snuggled against him, and he looked at the clock. "It's almost midnight."

She smiled against his skin.

"Did you know that they say the person you spend New Year's Eve with is the person you'll spend the year with?" he asked, holding her against him.

"I might've heard that once or twice," she replied.

He gave her another kiss before rising. She gingerly made her way to the bathroom, and while she was in there, Edward changed the sheets on the bed. He grimaced at the small spot of blood, but his heart swelled when he realized she had trusted him that much. Enough to give herself to him.

When time on the old year ran out, the new year found Edward and Bella standing beneath a warm spray in the shower. He was kissing her tenderly, and she let him carry her back to bed, where atop fresh sheets, they fell asleep, the promise of something profound and unyielding blossoming between them.

Bella was awake before Edward that morning, and she couldn't help but lay there and stare at him. She was still a little sore, but it wasn't aggravating her. What was aggravating her, however, was that she desperately wanted to wake him up and do it again, but she feared that might be asking her body for too much.

She thought it was cute, how he was so worried that she didn't come, but she wasn't worried at all. She and Jessica had talked about it one night long ago over wine and ice cream, when Jessica was telling Bella about her first time. Jessica said she didn't come until the third time, and Bella hoped that was just a fluke.

She lifted her hand and lightly touched Edward's forehead, then his nose, and finally his lips. They curved upward, and she grinned.

"You," he mumbled sleepily.

Her body trembled with laughter as his eyes opened and he suddenly moved atop her again, pinning her to the bed. Her laughter died into a pout as she looked up at him, and he crushed his lips to hers.

"Damnit," she mumbled when his lips moved to her neck.

"What?" he asked, rubbing himself against her.

"You don't play fair," she said, moaning. "I'm still sore."

His face fell, and he stopped moving. "I'm sorry."

She let him hold her instead, and they spent the next half hour kissing and cuddling.

"You've ruined me," he said when she pushed him away so she could get up. "I don't know if I can function properly now, wanting you so badly."

She arched a brow as she smirked and reached for his t-shirt. "Can I?" She held it up, seeking his permission to wear it.

"Fuck yes," he breathed. "Wear it all damn day if you want. Just it, though." He winked at her, and she grinned as she pulled it on, turning to look down at him. He let his eyes roam her body. Seeing her wearing his shirt was satisfying, almost as if she were wearing him. He folded his arms behind his head. "Are you coming back?"

"Hm, maybe. I'm kind of hungry. Breakfast?" She inhaled the scent of him wafting up from the shirt she wore. It roused something deep down in her belly, and she decided that maybe staying in bed with him wasn't a bad idea after all.

"I'm hungry, but I'd rather nibble on you."

She placed her hands on the bed, leaning over him, her long hair cascading over his face. "Stop teasing," she whispered, giving him a kiss before leaving the room. She was going to hurry, no doubt about that.

He lay there, unable to take the grin off his face. When she returned ten minutes later with a tray of food, he sat up and leaned back against the headboard. She sat down next to him, and he picked up a piece of cantaloupe.

"What shall we do today?" she asked, tearing into a bagel.

"I vote for staying in," he replied, wiggling his brows. He was trying to get a rise out of her, but she rolled her eyes.

"We could go to the Central Park Zoo," she offered.

He shrugged. "I don't care what we do as long as I'm with you."

She grinned, holding out a slice of strawberry. He leaned forward and took it with his mouth, sucking her fingers between his lips.

She felt a familiar stir and cleared her throat. "We'll just play it by ear."

They did end up staying in, and Bella wore Edward's shirt – and nothing else, just as he requested. They snuggled on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, and Bella was tempted to give into his teasing touches, but never did. He couldn't get enough of her, and she was more than willing to let him explore.

"Can I ask you something?" she asked, her eyes on the portrait hanging above the TV.

"Anything," he replied.

She turned her head slightly so she could look him in the eye. "It's about the trial."

He looked down at her, then back at the TV. "Go on."

"The day I was on the stand, and Jason was grilling me about you. You jumped to my defense. Why did you do that?"

She felt Edward tense behind her, and she pulled away so that she could get a better look at him. "Do you remember it?" she asked.

"Yeah, I do," he responded, shaking his head. "Why'd I do it? Because, Bella. You didn't deserve that bullshit. He was … he was saying things that were just wrong. You'd been through so much. I hated to hear you say the things you did, but it was all true. I scared you, and you had good reason to feel that way. For him to get up there in front of everyone and try to make you into a bad person made me sick."

"But you thought I was a bad person. Didn't you?"

He shook his head. "No. God no." He reached a hand to her cheek. "I thought you were fucking brave, and it took a lot of guts to get up there and replay everything that happened."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, taking his hand and holding it tightly.

"Bella, we've burned this bridge already. Remember? No looking back?"

She leaned against him, closing her eyes. "No looking back."

He kissed the top of her head.



"We've really wasted a lot of time, haven't we?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if … what if we'd discovered this when we were younger? I mean, in high school? Do you think we'd still be together?"

"Absolutely," he said, not missing a beat. "And don't think I haven't lamented that fact a million times."

"But we're together now, and that's all that matters. Right?" she asked, tracing a heart in his palm.

He smiled when he finally realized what she was doing. He felt it, too, even if he didn't have the nerve to say it just yet. "Right."

She fell silent again, then "Edward?"

He chuckled. "Yes, Bella."

"Will you give me a key to your apartment?"

"I'll give you anything, Bella," he answered. You already have my heart.

Chapter End Notes: We're reaching the end of this journey. I'm planning on the next installment being the last - an epilogue. Unless these guys go nuts and decide they need more time before I cut them loose. I don't have a date in mind for posting, but it will likely be within the next two weeks.

Check out the Avant Garde awards. Last year, this little story won Best Must Read. This year? It's nominated for the Hall of Fame! I'm thrilled to be on the list with some big-time stories. That means a lot. First-round voting commences May 22. The link will be on my profile. Please be sure to vote for all of your favorites. These authors deserve every bit of recognition they get for their blood, sweat and tears. These awards (save for the Hall of Fame) are for under-the-radar fics, and there are some real gems among them.

This week's rec (aside from the two mentioned in the A/N, which are definite must-reads): "Bad Blood," a complete, 18-chapter work of beauty by LadyExcalibur2010. The story centers around Edward, who has a secret he wishes to keep buried. Because of that, he must have control in every single aspect of his life. But then Bella shows up, and well...

Thanks again for your patience, and for reading and reviewing. I appreciate it very much. :)

P.S. There's still time to donate to the Fandom 4 Tsunami cause and receive the compilation, which includes an ATL outtake centered on Carlisle and Esme. There's also time left to donate to Fandom 4 Sexual Assault Awareness and receive "Renee's Story" in that compilation. The links are on my profile.