The growing tension between us felt like a tangible object, graspable if it were only within reach. If it had been, I would have grabbed it and throttled it.
I almost stopped as we ran for the meadow, to offer calm reassurances so that Bella's anxiety might be alleviated, but I was too eager to arrive. Eager for her to remember our pleasant day spent reading and exploring with gentle, modest touches. I was hoping the memory would soothe her, that she would then realize I had always been gentle with her. Unless she expressed an interest otherwise, the likelihood of which I seriously doubted, I always would be.
Her interests seemed to be in harmony with my own, if our interactions thus far were any indication. Having a feisty personality did not consequentially denote violent desires with intimacy, as Emmett had implied when taunting me. Yes, she was strong willed and tenacious, but she was also shy and sensitive. And a romantic.
She would want to be cherished. She would want to be loved and claimed tenderly, not destructively.
Rosalie's graphic account of her and Emmett's actions while claiming each other was further proof of this. Or, more accurately, the proof was in how Bella had reacted to me since overhearing those graphic details – the way she had stiffened in my arms, the fear and confusion that had been in her eyes, the way she now held my hand too tightly, nervously, as we neared the meadow…
On some level, whether she was aware of it or not, she was afraid. Of course she would deny that, as stubborn as she was, but I knew it to be true.
After we leapt over the brook, I slowed us to a stroll, watching her only as we passed the tree line and entered the clearing. The sunrise was just starting to break through the darkness, illuminating the morning frost that clung to the grass and flowers.
A little smile formed, for just a moment, before it twisted into a worried scowl.
"Bella…" I brought her hand, still clasped in mine, to my lips and brushed a gentle kiss against her knuckles. "This will be a better conversation than what you're expecting."
"I'm not sure what to expect."
That wasn't entirely true, nor was it entirely a lie, because her expectations were based on misinformation. Probably, she was expecting me to confirm what she thought she already knew. That vampires mate violently, always.
Leading her, I found the exact spot we had enjoyed during our previous visit and encouraged her to sit with me, facing me, both of us cross-legged. When she looked away as we settled in, I touched her chin, urging her eyes to meet with mine.
Remaining silent for a moment, I considered how best to start. I wanted to ease her into the topic, but the line between that and avoidance of it was narrow and difficult to pinpoint. Opting for a moderately direct approach, I finally decided on, "I know you overheard Rosalie speaking with Alice."
I had not meant that as a reprimand, but she seemed to take it as such.
"I wasn't trying to!" she announced defensively. "It's just that… I can hear everything!"
Our kind's heightened sense of hearing was still unnatural to her. She seemed upset by it, frustrated that she had not been able to prevent herself from eavesdropping on what she probably assumed was a private conversation.
"You have done nothing wrong, Bella," I assured her. "They meant for you to hear them."
Her brow furrowed. "Why?" She was calmer now. Confused.
"They were attempting to be helpful. They knew I was struggling with how to broach the subject, so they took it upon themselves to be of assistance. Unfortunately, in doing so, they created misconceptions."
"So Rosalie… lied?" She asked this hesitantly, her expression showing guilt with the accusation.
"No, she didn't lie. But Rosalie's story is just that. Her story."
I could see a flicker of realization in her eyes. Even if not fully, she was beginning to understand.
"So there's more than one way to…?"
"The biting?" She began wringing her hands again, as she tended to do whenever she was anxious. I placed mine over hers, so that the physical contact might soothe her.
"That remains the same, but it is not necessary, nor is it common, to take out half the forest when claiming one's mate."
"Why? Why biting?"
The idea of biting, or being bit, was clearly unsettling to her, yet it also intrigued her. Human nature versus vampire nature, contradicting. The former was warning her to fear it, while the latter was pulling her to do it.
"While some traits and principles do linger, our baser instincts, now, are more animalistic than when we were human. We bite to claim, to mark as ours, so that others will know, and to remind ourselves to whom we belong."
"Like a commitment ritual."
This was not posed like a question, nor was it a statement of fact. It was as if she was voicing aloud, to herself, a silent guess she had made previously.
I confirmed it, though it didn't seem that she was requesting or expecting me to. "Yes. It seals the bond."
The word was not unfamiliar to her, only the specifics were unknown. I knew that Rosalie had mentioned it when spewing her unsolicited story, but she had done so briefly, and in a vague manner.
That my sister had devalued the emotional aspects of mating did not surprise me, since she valued the physical aspects more. It was, however, one of the many reasons why I was upset with her.
Bella didn't know what it meant to bond to another. All she knew was that Rosalie and Emmett had waited a grand total of forty-two seconds, after he had finally bonded to her, before heading into the forest, naked and wreaking destruction.
But I wanted her to know. I wanted her to understand the importance of what was happening, to her and to us. That there was a reason and a name for all that she was experiencing.
"The electricity, the fierce protectiveness, the unrest when not together, only truly feeling complete when in the other's presence, the pull, like gravity has shifted – these are all part of the bond that forms between mates. The act of claiming seals the bond, creating a sense of balance."
She tensed, and her eyes widened. "The electricity thing goes away?"
Was she worried that it would?
"No." I took her hands in both of mine, to reassure her with touch as well as words. "Mostly, claiming one's mate settles the unrest, and stabilizes the shift in gravity."
Her tension eased marginally, but a heavy sigh and pensive silence followed. Something was still troubling her.
"Bella?" I needed her to talk to me. I wanted to address and correct every lingering misconception, now, before they could cause any further damage. "Please?"
She glanced up at me in acknowledgement before returning her focus to our hands. "Does it… hurt?"
"No," I answered immediately. I didn't want her to worry about that for even a moment. I would never, could never, hurt her. "The description that tends to be the most common is that it tingles. Pleasantly, according to some."
I saw the relief in her eyes when she finally looked into mine, and there was a twitch of her lips, like she wanted to smile but was forcing herself not to.
"Rosalie sure made it sound great, but, the rest of her story…" She scowled, dropping her gaze once again. "It seems like they like pain."
It would seem like that, since she was still adjusting to what she was now. "The threshold of that is different for our kind. Like when you mutilated your arm to watch it heal, for example."
"But that didn't hurt," she insisted. "It just felt weird."
"Exactly. Rosalie and Emmett are not fond of pain. Their fondness is for destruction."
This time when her lips twitched, a faint smile slowly began to appear. "So it's not just Emmett plus boredom that equals destruction."
I grinned, elated that she could find humor in what had been frightening to her before. "He's like a rambunctious child who has happened upon the keys to a bulldozer."
She grinned back at me, amused by my joke. "Rosalie sure seems to like that about him."
My smile faded and, in response, hers did as well. "Rosalie's mentality is a little more complicated. She has a lot of deep-seated anger, because of the manner in which her human life was ended. Idle destruction gives her an outlet for that anger."
Her expression changed, guilt and sadness interweaving into remorse.
Of course Bella didn't know the specifics of Rosalie's unwanted immortality, the brutal way in which her mortal life had been stolen from her. My sister was averse to sharing that about herself, it being of an extreme personal nature. She had no choice in my knowing her story, but it took years for her to share it with everyone else in our family, besides Carlisle and Emmett; our father because he was the one who had changed her, and therefore already knew, her mate because he had asked, and she would deny him nothing.
It would be a while before she would willingly share that with Bella, and it wasn't my story to tell. Rosalie and I might have clashing personalities, but beneath all of the antagonism, I loved and respected her, and I knew she did me as well. I would never betray her like that.
I knew Bella would value such loyalty, but it seemed as if she wasn't interested in continuing that subject, anyway. Her scowl had returned, her remorseful demeanor shifting back to trepidatious.
I needed to help her through this, to keep her talking so that knowledge would breed understanding. Only then would she be comfortable with the idea of mating.
"Please, Bella, tell me what you're thinking."
Her gaze still averted, her hands twitched in mine, trying to wring them but unable to do so due to my holding them. I gave them a little squeeze, hoping to encourage her.
"In the bedroom, you— you almost…"
There was no need for her to finish her sentence. I knew what she was referring to. "Yes," I admitted, "and while out in the forest, after the altercation with the wolves."
Would she be upset with me for nearly taking such liberties? Without declaring my feelings for her first, I had almost claimed her, twice, even though she lacked or had only ambiguous knowledge.
She had every right to be upset, disgusted by my behavior; I would not begrudge her that.
Expecting to be reprimanded, I braced myself, but the scorn never came.
"Why did you… stop? Did you… change your mind?"
I have often felt as if I was losing my mind, but I could never change my mind. Not about this. Not even for all of the riches available on this planet. "No. I have never been more certain of anything in my entire existence."
"So then you've… bonded… to me."
She sounded so unsure. Had I not made that clear? It seemed so very obvious to me, like my every word and action had been steeped in substantiation.
"Yes. It started while you were still changing."
Suddenly, she smiled widely, and then she threw herself into my lap, into my arms. "I thought I was crazy! I mean, we barely know each other. How can it be so strong so fast?"
I breathed in deeply, relieved and intoxicated by her scent. I knew she had bonded, but to finally have her admit it, to have her understand it and be accepting of it…
"For our kind, once we find our mate, the bond is usually instantaneous."
I left unsaid that this was not typically true of newborns. She was already feeling self-conscious, even guilty, that she was the only exception to my and Jasper's gifts. She would not want another reason given, proving how she was exceptional.
She pulled back a little and her eyes met mine, full of wonder. "Okay, so, first you feel the bond, and that signifies that you found your mate, and then you claim to seal that bond."
I grinned. She wasn't afraid anymore. "Yes."
"And you've thought about this? How you would…?"
"Yes, so many times." I raked her hair off her shoulder, revealing her neck to me. "I know the very spot." I spoke in a whisper, nuzzling that very spot. "I imagined I would bring you here to the meadow. I imagined tender touches and kisses."
Her breathing turned shaky, but I knew it wasn't from fear this time. Her scent was heavy around us, exciting me beyond any intensity I had ever felt.
She was ready.
But was she?
She made this little sound – a soft moan – and craned her neck, offering herself to me.
She was ready.
But no. Wait. I needed to think, if only I were able to.
We needed to wait.
Gentle, lingering kisses, needing to be right there, where I would mark her as mine forever.
But there was a reason why. I was sure of it. I just needed to think.
And then my tenuous grip on sanity slipped, just enough that I was able to remember… that she couldn't.
I began shaking as I fought against the avalanche of instinctual need. "Bella…"
She stiffened a little, nervously. "What's wrong?"
Her voice was so small. She was fearing rejection again. I hated that I was the cause of her fears.
I shifted so that I could see her eyes, wanting to reassure her with mine. "No, Bella, just… your amnesia."
"What about it?" she asked, confused, now, rather than anxious.
"I think… I think we should wait, until you regain your memories." It was almost excruciating, forcing myself to say that. Right and wrong were at war inside my head, neither of them winning nor losing. Equally matched, both sides were just inflicting pain.
"You should know who you are before making a commitment such as this."
"Before, after… I don't see why it matters. Remembering won't change anything. It won't change us."
She sounded so certain, just like everyone else. Was it me who had been wrong this whole time? Would her regained memories actually change anything? Was it just another excuse to deny my happiness, as Carlisle had mentioned in reproach?
I wanted to be happy – I wanted happily ever after, even if I didn't strictly deserve it – but I wanted those things for Bella more than I wanted them for myself.
"I just want you to be sure. I don't want you to have regrets, later, wondering if you should have waited to make such an important decision."
"That would never happen, Edward. I know what I want, and that won't change, ever."
Still so certain, and her expression was the epitome of determined. Suddenly, it felt like I was the student under her tutelage.
"And what is it that you want?" I asked, nervous like a timid schoolboy.
"You. Forever. Officially."
I had not planned for this. I had only wanted privacy with her, to correct the incorrect assumptions left in the wake of my sisters' unhelpfulness. I had hoped to ease her anxieties about mating, so that when the time came, she wouldn't be afraid of me or the act itself.
When the time came. Eventually.
But eventually was no longer some unknown moment in the future, and wrong was winning the war against right inside my head.
"And you're ready right now, while only knowing your name and a few random details of your life before?"
"I might not ever remember more than a few random details. You don't."
She was ready. Right now. There was no mistaking the certainty in her voice. Her absolute conviction weakened the last thread of my resolve. When it finally snapped, less than a second later, I pulled her firmly to me and pressed my lips to hers.
Nothing would stop us this time. The world would have to end in a fiery explosion to even have the hope of doing so.
Once I had tasted her properly, indulgently, I allowed a little space between us, only so that I could cherish her. I cupped her cheek, conveying with my eyes what my following words – mere consonants and vowels – could never fully express.
"Bella, I love you."
Her warm smile and adoring gaze were more brilliant than a million sunrises; purer than the first snowflakes to ever grace the sky. I was in awe of it, as if I were an honored witness to the planet being created anew.
"I love you, too," she whispered.
One week. Seven days since first catching her scent…
Time passes differently for our kind. To humans, seven days might not seem like very much time, but to a vampire – a creature who never sleeps, who is hyperaware of every facet of every second – a week can feel like years.
It felt like I had been waiting for far too long, for her to say those words to me. I often feared she never would. But now that I had heard them…
Overwhelmed, I touched my lips to hers, reverently, wanting to express the strength, the depth, of my love for her.
The world outside our own ceased to exist. There was just Bella, with me, in our meadow. Always ours, forever in our memories, no matter where we traveled in this country or in others.
And the memory would be more perfect than I could have ever possibly imagined.
She tensed initially, startling when my teeth first sank into her flesh, but then she relaxed against me, a soft, contented growl rumbling deep inside her. Cradling her, I let her weight depend on me, supporting her so that she could focus solely on feeling.
This was a monumental occasion, and I wanted her to enjoy every moment of it.
Carefully, I clamped down harder, my venom flowing into the wound, to seal our bond and mark her as mine, permanently, for all of eternity.
Eternity… That wasn't nearly enough time. No measure of time with her would ever be enough.
But we would start with forever. I would spend all of that forever and beyond, proving my love for her, thanking her for loving me. Learning, sharing, enjoying, consummating…
Never had I felt so at peace, and yet so alive. Complementing. Contradicting. All consuming.
Only our kind could experience emotions this strong; no mortal being could survive the intensity.
This was why my happily mated family members were not miserable. This was why Rosalie had stopped lamenting the loss of her humanity in every moment of every day. This was our kind's reparation for having to suffer through an unending immortality, forever bloodthirsty, always more monster than man.
But in that moment, the monster was nowhere to be found, and I was more a man than I had ever been.
I needed her. I needed to be with her, to lay with her and become one with her. With the way she was moving against me, subtly, I was certain she felt that same need.
Or perhaps she was unaware of her actions. Perhaps they were instinctual, rather than deliberate. Whichever, I was powerless to resist.
I would not force her, but I would take and reciprocate all that she gave me, until she came to her senses or the world exploded.
Or I did, either one.
Removing my teeth from her flesh, I salved and then kissed the wound, paying reverence to the honor she had bestowed upon me.
She chose me. It was my mark that she now wore. She was mine, forever.
"Yes, my love?"
"Do I get to claim you now?"
I gripped her tighter, my fingertips pressing firmly into her back, and offered myself to her. "Yes. Bella. Please."
She emulated me exactly, nuzzling and kissing, her focus in one location more so than anywhere else. Excited, eager to be hers, I pushed my hand into her hair, cradling her head in encouragement.
There was only a moment's hesitation, and then I felt her teeth pierce my flesh.
Euphoria. That was the only word that even came close to describing it, and yet it was wholly inadequate. I was flying, floating, high as if on some unique form of narcotic.
I didn't fight the drug's effects; I surrendered, knowing I was safe in Bella's arms, and let time lose all meaning.
She released slowly, soothing and kissing my wound as I had hers, bringing me back into lucidness. Our bond was sealed. I was a mated vampire, bonded to the most amazing creature to ever exist on earth.
My hand still in her hair, I gripped and pulled, gently, and crashed my lips to hers.
Our bodies moved in ways that sought the most pleasure, both of us fully aware of doing so, the motions no longer subtle. My hand slid up the back of her shirt, needing to touch more of her.
Without breaking our now frenzied kiss, she created a small amount of space between us and brought her hands up, working the buttons open on her blouse.
I should have anticipated this. I knew to expect it. From what I have read in the minds of others… my own instincts had been screaming it at me…
Of course she would want to seal every aspect of our bond. It was only natural.
But not like this. Not out of wedlock.
"Bella, wait. Stop trying to take your clothes off."
She growled a little before reaching for the buttons on my shirt instead.
"Bella…" I took both of her hands in mine, stopping her. "Marry me," I blurted.
Stunned, it took several seconds for her to finally find her voice. "Huh?"
I should not have asked her so crudely, but it had already been said, and I wasn't about to take it back. "Marry me," I repeated, this time with an appropriate level of regard.
She stared, only stared, unblinking, not breathing, for the longest stretch of silence ever in recorded history. "Like, in a white dress, in a church…?"
I swallowed the lump of nerves and forced the answer from my constricted throat. "The attire and location are negotiable. Just marry me."
As her confusion climbed, so did my anxiety. This was not how I had imagined this moment. I would have brought her back to the meadow, yes, but I would have had a ring, and I would have got down on one knee like a proper gentleman…
"Vampires get married?" she asked, unwittingly interrupting my self-reproof.
"Not very many…"
I only knew of four couples who had bothered with the formality, and three of them lived in the same house as me. It wasn't typical for vampires to wed, our instincts being closer to those of the animal kingdom, but the value of marriage had been ingrained in me long before I became immortal. It was one of the few principles that had lingered after the change, an old-fashioned, obsolete notion that held timeless importance to me.
And then with my father's views and beliefs…
"Do you believe in God?"
She scowled, concentrating. "I don't know. I don't remember. Why?"
Of course she didn't remember. I berated myself for a moment before answering her. "Carlisle does."
"I'm… undecided. But what if there is a God? What if we do have souls, and our actions determine where we go when we reach the end of our existence? I want to be with you, in every conceivable way, I just want to be married to you first. I don't want to be the reason why you lose favor with God. Your soul is too steep a price for a moment of pleasure."
She eyed me, considering. Calculating. "I don't think it works like that. It's not about some piece of paper and a fancy party, it's about the commitment. And didn't we just make that?"
"Yes, Bella, but—"
"Did you know that three out of four marriages end in divorce?" she asked abruptly.
I fought a grin, finding her attempt to debate humorous. "I think you will find that the vampire divorce rate is a little lower."
"Or maybe it's higher. Do you personally know all the vampires? Has anyone ever done a statistical study?"
My grin exploded, unable to hold it unseen any longer. She was so stubborn. And feisty. She huffed at my show of amusement.
"I'm just saying," she muttered, annoyed, "I think it's the commitment that matters most."
To soothe her irritation with me, I kissed her lips softly but quickly, several times, until I could feel her slight smile grow beneath my own.
"And while I agree with you," I said between kisses, "I would very much like to declare that commitment in front of God and witnesses, friends and family."
"God is everywhere. He already knows. And everyone else is going to know once they see the marks we just left on each other. Wasn't that the whole point of that? So that others would see it and know?"
Her logic made sense. Wrong was battling right again, and winning by a spectacular landslide.
"I was of the impression that most women like weddings," I argued weakly.
"I think we've already pretty much established that I'm not like most women."
She was an enigma, personifying extraordinary, and she was mine. Ceremony or not, she would always be mine.
But I couldn't get the image out of my mind, of her walking down an aisle bordered in wildflowers and roses, the train of her white dress flowing behind her, all but a few tendrils of hair that framed her face swept up…
"I want to take vows with you, Bella."
Her hand cupped my cheek and I leaned into it, increasing the feel of her comforting touch. "I'm not opposed to that, Edward. I just don't think we need to have some unnecessary party in order to do that."
"What are you suggesting?" I asked, prepared to cave. Of course I would cave. I would give her anything she desired, a fact I had known long before she ever opened her eyes into this existence.
Her thumb brushed across my lips, delicately like the very first time she had done so. "Something a little less… complicated. Less of a spectacle."
She stood abruptly, moving a few feet away before turning toward me. A little grin showed itself, and then she lifted her face skyward. "Hey, God, it's me, Bella. I just wanted to make it official that… I love Edward Cullen. And I promise to honor him and cherish him, in sickness and in health – well, I guess that one doesn't really work – in good times and in bad – that one definitely works – for always and forever until the end of time. I do, amen, and all that."
When she lowered her head, her eyes locking with mine, a satisfied smirk stretched her lips. "There. Done."
I smiled and flashed to join her, pulling her into my arms, spinning with her and delighting in her squeals of laughter. The gesture was grand yet simple, serious yet playful… It was perfect.
I wanted to take vows with her. It didn't matter where, in what attire, or with whom in attendance.
Taking her hands in mine, my eyes only on hers, I prepared the most meaningful words I would ever say in my entire existence; my solemn oath to be a faithful and dedicated mate.
"Bella Swan, I promise to love you every moment of forever. I promise to honor and cherish you, in good times and in bad, always and completely, until the end of time."
She might have been opposed to an actual ceremony, but the sentiment clearly meant something to her. She almost seemed dazed again, pleasantly; her eyes shone with appreciation while her smile, with lips slightly parted, expressed her awe.
Thrilled to have incited such a reaction, I smirked proudly, and then because she had said it first, I added lightheartedly, "I do, amen, and all that."
Always unpredictable, her reaction was unexpected. Before I had a chance to object, not that I would have done so, she dragged us both to the ground and pounced on me.
To be continued
Yeah. That just happened. (grin)
Still scared shitless. So, um, if it sucks, be gentle, 'kay?
I want to thank everyone for the wonderful words of encouragement. This chapter was a real challenge for me, and remembering all your kind words helped to keep me motivated.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love writing their love story, but Edward's POV is a tricky 'voice' to write in. Add to that a romantic/intimate scene… I just wanted to do the chapter justice, and he can be a bit difficult to write at times.
'Fulsome acknowledgement' goes to my friend, Exintaris, for beta-ing this chapter, but I also want to thank my regular beta, Kristy (Kristylized), for taking a look at the chapter when it was in rough draft and giving me her thoughts.
Sweetpea123: Thank you so much! I really appreciate that.
Vivx-chan: Sorry the beginning confused you. It was just a fancy, Edward-like way to set up that he was going nuts after asking Bella to read his journals.
Kristin04: Nope, but soon. (smile)
Books101: Thank you, your words helped a lot.
Wooleywews: LOL, your pep talk really made me smile! Thanks!
Kycee: Thank you so much! LOL, Teachward and Newbornella!
Jaspersgirl21: LOL, thanks, biggest fan! (wink)
T Seymore: And now you're mentioned again! (smile) And thanks!
Dazzled eyes22: Thank you so much for all of your wonderful reviews! I really enjoyed them!
To all I didn't mention specifically: Thanks again for all the pep talks and encouragement. I hope this chapter didn't disappoint!