A/N: It's the last real update, which means you need to brace yourself for an onslaught of thank-yous. Thank you to ravenlovestwilight and Raven's twimom for pre-reading first, and to JJ Twi1ight for beta'ing first. Thank you to grrlinterrupted, WolfGirlAtHeart, and BellaFlan for all the prereading and beta'ing they did after I implemented the changes - believe me, there was so much wrong.
Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed, rec'd, and blogged about this story, especially BellaFlan and the Perv Pack's Smut Shack ladies, who pimped me like it was their job on multiple occasions and in multiple locations. ;-) When I started writing MQSTB I was pretty sure I'd be lucky to have ten readers. I appreciate all of you soooo much for wildly exceeding my hopes on that score.
Thanks to Lykke Li, whose line "And for you I keep my legs apart/And forget about my tainted heart," from "Little Bit" inspired the original o/s and whose album Youth Nation underwrote the rest of the story.
Song for this chapter: "Cliff Diving" by +44.
Twilight and all its recognizable situations belong to Stephenie Meyer.
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"It's a beach wedding, Isabella, not a goddamn senior prom."
"I know that." I pushed Paul back a little so I had room to fuss with my hair. "I just have to look perfect, that's all." I twisted to look at myself in my bedroom mirror. "Does this dress make my boobs look smaller than they already are?"
Paul put his hands over my breasts and lowered his lips to my neck. "Nope," he said against my skin. "They look perfect. You're done."
I rolled my eyes and moved his hands away from the sky-blue bodice. He didn't let go entirely, just slid them down to my hips. "Come on, Paul, this is Amanda's big day. I don't want to be the one who screws up the wedding pictures for her—it's her only chance to get it right."
Paul met my gaze in the mirror and smirked. "That's what Jacob hopes, anyway. Things are always dicey without an imprint. Fifty percent divorce rate, and that's minimum."
I laughed because I knew he didn't mean it, turning away to pick up my sandals. "Yeah, right. Like any woman in her right mind would ever dump Jacob." He breathed out a laugh, and I grimaced. "I mean—you know what I—"
"Yeah." He sat down next to me on the bed. "I know. It's fine. You're never going to be able to strap those on. Let me do it." Obediently, I gave him the sandals. They were the kind that wrapped three times around the ankle and lower calf before they buckled, but at least they didn't have heels. Thank God Jacob's fiancée hadn't cared if I stood nearly half a foot below the next smallest person in the photos.
Paul's hands were nimble as ever, taking less than a minute to do what would have taken me ten. I stretched out my legs in his lap, inspecting the straps. "Thanks."
"So have you thought about it?" He looked at my straps, too, but I wasn't fooled. Every speck of his attention was directed my way.
I sighed and pulled my legs back, folding them under my chin and hugging them. "Yeah . . . I've thought about it. I still don't know, though." His eyebrows drew together over his nose as he stared at his knees. I said defensively, "You're the one who just quoted divorce statistics to me!"
"We don't have to worry about that," he reminded me. "And we're going to be graduating in just another nine months. After that, who knows where we'll be accepted for grad school? Wouldn't it be easier to go ahead and get married while we're still near all our friends and family? That way our friends from school will still be around too." He drummed his fist on the bed, but he wasn't angry, just thinking. Psychology majors were required to go to counseling at least once a week, which had helped on that front, and Paul had learned a little anger management since we were in high school on his own anyway. Plus I could always help through the imprint.
"Paul . . ." I inched closer, but I should have known better. As soon as I got within six inches of him I always wanted to be on him. Since sex wasn't an option ten minutes before we had to leave for First Beach, I settled for sitting on his lap, carefully tilting my head against his chest so I didn't mess up my hair. He held me to him. "It's just paper and metal. I love you, and I'll always be your Isabella. Why do we need to tell the government about it?"
"It's not just paper and metal," he disagreed, and now I could tell he was starting to get mad. "It's not just telling the government, either."
"Then what is it?" I leaned back a little to meet his gaze. "What is it to you?"
"It's . . ." He trailed off and shrugged, so I knew this was important to him. Whenever it was important, he had a hard time talking about it, counseling or not. After struggling with himself for a minute, he finally managed to say, "It's just a chance to do better, that's all. A chance to prove that just because our parents didn't do it right doesn't mean we can't."
"Well, that's pretty much true. I mean, there's hardly any way we could do worse," I said with a giggle.
"That's the fucking truth," he agreed.
"Well, I'll keep thinking about it." I leaned up to kiss his jaw. "If I agree, I don't want an engagement ring, so maybe we can look at wedding rings the next time we—" He twitched just a little bit. "Paul."
Paul looked away from me.
Narrowing my eyes, I stood. "Paul. You know how I feel about diamonds. Tell me you didn't underwrite some African warlord's insurgency. Tell me."
"You know I wouldn't do that!" he said, whipping his head around to glare at me. "For fuck's sake, Isabella."
I raised my hands in appeasement. "Okay, okay, sorry. But you did buy a ring, didn't you?" Reluctantly, he nodded. "Where did you find something that wouldn't fund that stuff? Secondhand? Not eBay or a pawn shop, for the love of God."
He rolled his eyes and said in exasperation, "Yeah. I bought an engagement ring from a fucking pawn shop because I wanted your mom to come down on me like a goddamn ton of bricks about karma or dharma or whatever the fuck. What the hell is your problem today?"
He was right; I was being a jerk. I bit my lip and fidgeted a little. "Weddings make me nervous," I said finally.
"Bullshit. You're nervous because it's Jacob's wedding." He leaned back on his elbows and surveyed me from head to toe with half a smile. "Wish it was you instead of Amanda?"
I laughed. "Yeah, right. No, I just hope . . . What if he imprints? It would break Amanda's heart and he would fight it, you know he would, tooth and nail, and that would be even worse, because then he'd hate himself, and it's all going to fall apart if that happens, and then—"
"Hey, buddy." Paul got up and pulled me into an embrace, rubbing my back. "Breathe, okay? None of that is going to happen. I don't think Jacob can imprint; he's the big dog, right? They can't be worried about only one person's happiness. They have to take care of the whole pack. Imprinting doesn't make sense for someone who's in his position."
I giggled, a little damply. "Yeah. Because it made so much sense for us." My arms went around him, heedless of the wrinkles I was putting into my sundress and his button-down shirt.
"I think it did."
The absolute certainty in his tone made me laugh again. "Well, it doesn't matter if it did, it's the only thing that would ever make sense to me now." After a second, I sighed. "Show me the ring. I know you have it."
Paul chuckled. "Yeah. Hold on a second." He let go of me and turned to rummage in his suitcase—I still couldn't believe that Charlie had actually let us share a bedroom this time. Diana was much more relaxed about the whole "Bella-and-Paul-live-together-in-sin-in-Seattle-so-no-point-making-them-sleep-separately-at-home" thing. Then again, having Paul for a son had probably forced her to either be laid back or lose her mind. (And really, I had no idea where Charlie got the nerve to talk when he was over at Sue's every other night.) After a second, he presented a black jewelry box. I flipped it open and gasped in spite of myself.
The ring itself was white gold, with a center prong set diamond that had diamonds at each of its four corners and six diamonds inset into the band. I tilted it back and forth, watching it gleam. "This is so gorgeous. How on earth did you find it?"
Paul smiled a little. "A lady on Mercer Island. Her husband died after they were married for thirty-five years, and she was about to move to a retirement community in Arizona. She said he'd rather she have fun than hang onto the rock he gave her back when they were teenagers."
"I'm guessing . . . It was a lot of fun?" I asked tentatively, trying not to be too pushy about it.
He laughed at me. "Quit worrying. You know if I couldn't afford it I wouldn't have bought it."
That was true. Paul was hyper-responsible with money. I watched the light shoot through the diamond's facets and split into rainbows. For a second, I was lost in recollection: a magical afternoon, a meadow, a forever-teenage boy—no. I glanced up guiltily, but Paul was watching the box.
"Do you want to try it on? It's the right size. See if you hate the way it feels."
He was trying so hard not to push me, but I could tell he was restraining himself from just shoving the damn thing on and dealing with my fury later. Slowly, I worked the ring loose from the box and slid it on.
We both stared at my hand.
"Feel like running for the hills yet?" I croaked after a moment.
"Nope. Even if I did, I'd always come back," he said, but his tone was so distant that I ripped my gaze away from the rock on my fourth finger. He was breathing hard, and his eyes were shining. "You?"
I waggled my fingers experimentally. "I don't know. It doesn't make me want to run . . . But I still don't see the point." I gave him a sly smile. "I can tell you do, though. Don't lie. This means more to you than just a chance to fix what went wrong with our parents. This is about me being your Isabella, isn't it?"
His expression changed, turned sheepish. "If it is I'm not gonna admit it. You've taken too many Gender Relations courses to let me get away with that shit."
I laughed and pulled his mouth down to mine, shivering a little with the shock that always hit me when we touched. "Mmm," I hummed against his lips after a moment. "As long as I get to call you my Paul, I think it's only fair for me to be your Isabella. Ownership can be a two-way street."
Paul was going to answer, but his eyes went past me to the clock on the desk. "Shit. It's almost noon. You're going to be late for the pictures if we don't leave now. Go ahead and take it off. We can talk about it later."
Obediently, I tugged the ring off and put it back in the box. "Did you get Jacob's rings?"
"Right here." He waved another box at me before putting it in his pants pocket.
When we pulled up at First Beach, Jacob and Amanda were just getting out of her Maxima. Her parents pulled up right after them.
"There's my best woman!" Jake yelled, running to sweep me up in a crushing hug.
"Jake!" I scolded, smacking his arms. "You're going to mess me up before pictures! Amanda's going to kill you."
He ignored my strictures and swung me around before carefully setting me back down on the ground. "She knows I have to blow off steam somehow, Bells. I'm so damn excited I couldn't sleep last night. Where're the rings?"
"Paul's got them." I held out my hand behind me, knowing that Paul would have the box already out of his pocket. Sure enough, I instantly closed my fingers over its soft corners. "We've done our part. Now all I need to do is make sure you don't pass out." I tilted my head back, peering at the mostly clear skies. "I can't believe you picked the one Saturday this August that wasn't pouring buckets."
"It's fate," he informed me loftily.
"It's pure luck," Amanda laughed, coming up behind him and putting one hand on his elbow. "Kind of like you getting to marry me, so I guess that's appropriate."
"Hey, you've got a pretty good deal," Jake told her, pretending to scowl.
"I didn't say I'm not lucky too," she soothed, kissing his arm. Turning to me, she smiled. "Bella, you look so beautiful."
"You look amazing," I said honestly. The ivory satin of her gown shimmered against the brown of her skin, making her look like she was glowing. It left her arms bare and clung to her jealousy-inducing figure, descending to flutter around her ankles, where she wore the same sandals she'd chosen for me—in a slightly bigger size. Jacob's wife-to-be stood five inches taller than me. "You're a Makah goddess. Seriously."
"Yeah she is," Jacob agreed, pulling her into a sideways hug. "Hey, here's the photographer. And there's Sue, Charlie and Billy. About time."
"Thank God Sue didn't spend the night at Charlie's place again," I whispered, smiling and waving as the three got out of Sue's car.
"I thought I was going to have to rip off my ears," Paul muttered, not bothering to smile. Jacob and Amanda snorted.
The ceremony went off without a hitch, except when it was time for the vow recital. Amanda and Jacob had written their own, and memorized them in spite of the warnings to the contrary from Billy, who had gotten his minister's credentials online so he could officiate. Amanda went first, and recited her vows as smoothly as if she were a trained actress, beginning, "Jacob, destiny brought us together, but it is my choice today to spend forever with you," and talking for five minutes straight without one stutter.
Jake, on the other hand, had completely lost it the second he saw her walking down the aisle between the folding chairs, and kept on saying, "You're so beautiful," to her, gazing into her black eyes and clutching her hands while she tried not to laugh. At last, choking on giggles, I pulled the emergency copy of his vows from my bra and shoved it into his hand. After that, it was all smooth sailing.
Amanda had arranged for a wooden dancing floor to be set up on the beach for the reception, so there was dancing—no drinking, though, since her family were teetotalers. I made the required toast with sparkling cider. That was fine with me. I had a hard enough time staying upright even stone cold sober. Charlie and Billy had brought their own supplies, like a couple of Prohibition-era scofflaws, in flasks they kept guiltily pulling out of their pockets.
I was watching them and laughing with Emily when my phone buzzed in my clutch. Pulling it out, I saw Alice's number and winced. With all the wedding excitement, I'd forgotten today was our monthly Saturday phone call date. Pressing the green button, I told her, "Hang on just a second," as I headed for the car so she could actually hear me.
Once inside, I settled back. "How are you, Alice?"
"Fine. Denali's not exactly a happening metropolis but we try to keep ourselves occupied," she said airily. "Are you back home this weekend? The gaps in my visions got more irregular on Thursday."
"Yeah, today's Jacob's wedding day and I'm his best 'man,' so . . ."
"That's right. You never told me the date! Did it give you any ideas? What colors have you decided on? Would you like me to email you some patterns for custom dresses?"
I laughed; I could practically hear her bouncing. "Alice! No! Why on earth would you care about my hypothetical wedding?"
She sighed sentimentally. "Jasper and I have gotten married over a dozen times, Bella, but the first one was the most special. I wish everyone could be as happy as I was that day, let alone you."
"Why was it special?" I asked, hearing the faint note of desperation in my voice but unable to banish it. "I mean, you knew you two would be together forever anyway, so why was getting married so damn important?"
Alice stayed silent for a moment, then said, "It wasn't getting married that was important. It was saying to Jasper, 'I choose you, and I'm proud of my choice.' He had such a checkered past, and sometimes he didn't feel worthy of me. Marriage was just the biggest, most obvious way to say I would always choose him."
Her words settled into my heart, bringing with them the perspective I needed.
She added, "Besides, you know I can't resist planning a party."
That made me laugh. We talked for a little while longer, but she told me she didn't want to keep me from the reception and hung up more quickly than usual.
I sat for a minute, watching Paul dance with Rachel Black in the light from the setting sun and thinking about choices. He didn't talk about it much, but I knew it still hurt him to know I would never have looked twice at him if it weren't for the imprinting. I'd tried so many times to explain that I didn't mind, but somehow it always came out sounding like I was resigned to my fate, and then he got even more hurt, which usually meant we were repairing holes in our apartment walls the next day. I'd gotten really good at applying drywall mud.
Okay. So. I had to consider this whole marriage thing logically, not with the panic a lifetime of lectures from my flighty mother had inculcated into my soul. Maybe it was a redundant, outdated remnant of the patriarchy, a legal contract symbolizing an exchange of goods, wherein the main "goods" consisted of the bride who was "given away" by her father, originally with a bunch of money as thanks for getting her off his hands. Maybe it was a sacrament from a religion that exerted no hold upon me. Maybe it was a promise too easily broken, leaving shattered relationships in its wake. Those were all valid points as far as I was concerned.
Then again, maybe it was a way to say, "I know we didn't choose to be together, but I can choose this, with you, and I do." Maybe it was a way to tell him that even though I might have been too clueless to get to know him without some supernatural help, I couldn't imagine a happy life without him now. (More importantly, I didn't even want to try.) Maybe it was the thing I could do to let Paul see that I knew him, now, and I loved everything I knew, the good and the bad.
Maybe it was my chance to commit for all the right reasons. The human reasons.
I got out of the car and walked back to the reception, shivering a little as the evening wind brushed over me. Paul saw immediately and said something to Rachel, and then walked over to me to put his arms around me to ward me from the chill. I hugged him back and smiled up at him. "So. I've been thinking."
"Yeah? What about?" he asked, smiling back at me. He smiled a lot more easily than he had when we first met. That was something I'd done for him.
"This whole wedding thing. It seems like it's pretty fun. I think we should have one of our own. Maybe in ten months or so?"
For a minute, he went immobile, dark eyes searching my face in the fading sunlight. Whatever he saw must have reassured him, because he lifted me off my feet and crushed his mouth to mine, kissing me so hard that I was dizzy from lack of oxygen in a matter of seconds. I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave as good as I got until the (were)wolf-whistles grew too loud to ignore.
"Take it off!" Quil shouted, at the same time Embry yelled, "Get a room, perverts!" I pulled away to glare at them.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
Paul nodded, lowered me back to the ground, and grabbed my hand. On our way, I blew a kiss to Jacob and Amanda, and patted Charlie on the shoulder. "Dad, Paul asked me to marry him and I said yes. See you at home."
He tilted his flask straight up and drained what was left before I lost sight of him.
I half-expected Paul to either drive me straight back home or back me up against the nearest tree and take me there, but he kept towing me through the woods until I was completely disoriented and giggling madly. "Where the hell are we going?" I asked finally.
He didn't answer, just paused long enough to scoop me up in his arms and start running—something he rarely did, since he knew I preferred to get to places at my own speed. I didn't want to quibble the point tonight, though, so I just wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed whatever I could reach.
Finally, he slowed, then stopped. I looked around, peering through the gathering gloom, until at last I realized—"This is the cliff!"
"Yeah," he said, holding me more tightly. "I figured—since this is where it all began—it'd be a good place for the next step to begin too."
I reached up to run my fingers through his hair, and then stroke the hard-edged features that could still be so tender when they looked at me. "Let me have the ring?"
He set me down carefully, and pulled the ring box from his pocket.
"I'll put it on," I said firmly, taking it from him and opening it. "Because this isn't about you talking me into anything. I want to marry you." I slid the ring on and splayed my fingers wide, holding it up and catching some of the last remaining rays from the sun, now below the horizon. I gave Paul a glance over my shoulder, already knowing what I would see because I could feel it pouring through our bond like a tsunami. There it was: barely suppressed excitement, painful in its intensity, at seeing his ring on my finger. So funny. Well, he couldn't help being half animal, even if he hadn't phased in four months. "What do you think?" I asked coyly, raising one eyebrow.
He swallowed, hard. "I probably shouldn't think that's so fucking hot, should I?"
I pretended to think it over. "Well, probably not." I reached behind me to the low zipper on my sundress and slowly drew it down. "You should think this is fucking hot, though. In fact," I slid the shoulder straps off and stepped back out of the dress, leaving it in a puddle on the ground, "I'll be pretty disappointed if you don't."
He'd seen it all before, of course, on a near-daily basis (he'd pretty much meant it literally when he promised to fuck me every day for forever), including the shell-pink lingerie when I got dressed for the occasion, but familiarity didn't wipe the reverent look off his face. "Goddamn, Isabella." His hands were already on the buttons of his shirt; he shrugged out of it, kicked off his shoes, and unbuttoned his pants at werewolf speed. I grinned at him as he got closer. Instead of picking me up, the way I half-expected, he went down on his knees in front of me, on the dress, which put my breasts on his eye level. His fingers moved under the edges of my bra, lifting the satin without removing it, which was just mean. Everywhere he touched he made my skin catch fire. I reached back to unhook it myself, but he stopped my hands with his own as he licked around the material. I gasped at the wet brush of heat and grabbed his shoulders. "Should we do a dramatic re-enactment of our first time? It'd probably be a lot more fun for you now than it was then." He fastened his teeth on my nipple through the fabric and sucked gently, sending a charge shooting through me that threatened to make my knees buckle.
With an effort, I managed to say, "I seem to remember having a pretty decent experience," and slid both hands to his head.
Paul snorted. "I think we can do a little better this time." He stood and kissed me, nibbling on my lips until I opened them. Our tongues brushed together and I clutched at him again. Paul chuckled against my mouth, clamping one arm around my back and one under my ass and lifting me. I entwined my legs around his waist. Carefully, he pushed my back against a tree—oh, so it would be the tree after all—keeping his hand between my skin and the tree bark while he nipped at my chin and jaw. "Jesus, Isabella. You're so fucking beautiful." He kept on biting, just hard enough to sting but not to mark, all the way down my neck. When he spoke again, the words came out rough, as if they'd fought to leave his throat. "I love you."
He hardly ever told me that. For the first year or so we'd been together, the words had frightened me. And after that, I didn't need to hear it to confirm his commitment to me. This time, though, it seemed he needed to say it.
He, on the other hand, needed to hear it a lot, so I said it as often as possible. "I love you too," I answered, raking my nails across his shoulders. "My Paul." He shivered—about time, he was way too in control for my tastes—shoved my underwear aside, and slid two fingers inside me all at once. "Oh, oh, oh . . . "
"So fucking hot, Isabella, so sweet," he murmured. His eyes were half-closed, watching his hand as his fingers plunged in and out of me. I loved putting that look on his face, loved being the one who could turn him rapt with longing. He pulled out, and replaced his fingers with his cock before I had a chance to complain, filling me all the way up with one not-particularly-gentle push. Oh yes.
He stayed perfectly still for a second, while we both panted for breath, and then he drew back out, almost all the way, in slow motion. I whimpered, moving my hips, trying to get him to go faster, harder, but he just slid up again inch by inch. "Not so fast," he said, and did it again, and again, until I lost count, still at that excruciatingly deliberate pace. I could hardly breathe.
"I'm gonna die, swear to God, you're killing me," I whispered to him, barely able to keep my own eyes open. "This is so good."
Paul was shaking from head to toe, pressing his arm against the tree behind me and resting his forehead on it. He let his eyelids drift closed all the way as he slowly, slowly moved inside me. "Isabella," he moaned, and the helpless sound thrilled me because Paul almost never let himself get that vulnerable, even with me, the person he trusted above all others. "Mine, mine, mine."
I smiled at that and brushed the backs of the fingers of my left hand against his face. He groaned at my touch, or maybe it was the feel of the engagement ring against his skin. The sound pushed me just enough so that I fell to pieces around him, crying out and writhing while his arms drew even tighter around me and he finally moved faster.
When I could speak again, I leaned forward, still trembling a little, to lick his ear, and then whisper, "I love you. I'm yours, Paul. All yours."
Almost as if he'd been waiting for the words, he plunged into me as far as he could go on "yours" and stayed there, growling out my name while he throbbed inside me.
After a moment, I tried to let go and slide down, but he wouldn't let me. His hands clung to me and he buried his face in my hair. Every once in a while he did this after we made love, and I'd come to understand he was struggling for control, afraid to show me his face until he was sure his expression didn't give too much away. Silly boy, as if I didn't know everything already. I stroked his hair and kissed his cheek, waiting but not the least bit impatient.
At last, he let out a shaky sigh and reluctantly allowed me to put my feet on the ground again. I took one unsteady step, then another, and made a face. "Ew. I don't remember it being so messy last time we did it here." My panties were a lost cause. I went ahead and tugged them off.
"I'm pretty sure we were both in shock back then," he said with a grin. "You weren't in any shape to notice—Whoa. I got dirt all over this dress. Sorry, babe." He shook it out, but the marks where his knees had rested were probably going to stay permanently embedded in the blue.
I took it from him and put it on anyway. "Think we can sneak back to the truck without anyone seeing us?"
"Not a chance in hell," he answered, shrugging into his shirt. He didn't bother buttoning it before pulling his underwear and pants back on.
Wadding up my underwear in my hand, I wandered to the edge of the cliff and looked down. It was too dark to really see anything of the water except its motion against the rocks.
"Goddamn it, Isabella, move the fuck back. That's too close." Paul's hand fastened around my upper arm and yanked me back. His heart beat so hard I could feel it against my head.
I turned to hug him and rub his back. "It's okay. It's okay. Don't be scared."
After a second, his grip loosened. "Sorry. I just—I just got you to agree to marry me, and—"
"And now it seems like something bad has to happen to balance it out?" I snuggled into him.
He laughed and hugged me. "Yeah. Kind of."
"I think sometimes things start going right and then they just keep on getting better for a while. I mean, my life's gotten better and better since the day you imprinted."
He was silent for a long moment. Finally he said hoarsely, "Yeah. Mine too."
"So come on." I grabbed his hand, tugging him back to the edge with me. "I don't want to walk all the way back through the woods. Let's jump. Dramatic re-enactment, right? Can't forget the end. Well, except for the vampire in the water. We can leave that part out."
Paul's eyes widened, and then he grinned. "You want to?"
Raising his fingers to my mouth, I kissed them. "Yeah. You can see in the dark; it's not like it's any more of a challenge to keep me safe now than it would be during the day, right?"
"Even if it was, I'd still do it." He tilted our hands, looking at the engagement ring. "Make sure you put your fingers in a fist. You don't want that thing coming off in the water."
Obediently, I turned the diamond inward to my palm and clenched my fingers closed. "I'll keep it safe. I promise."
He asked, still gazing at the ring, "You sure about this?"
I looked up at him with a smile and replied, "I'm sure about you." I put my right hand in his. "Let's go."
Together, we launched ourselves off the cliff edge and into freefall.