The last thing I should have been doing right now was sweating. It was, what, thirty degrees out? I could barely feel my toes, but moving had never been exceedingly easy for me anyway. I simply wasn't built for it.
I hung my parka at the rack on the backdoor, switched on the stereo to play my most calming collection of music, and dumped my boots somewhere around the dining table on the way to my living chair. My soft, brand new living chair made with the best stuff on earth that'd been calling my name for three hours now. I fell into it with no grace at all whatsoever. In fact, my butt wasn't even in it - I faceplanted into it, ass in the air as I hugged the winged back and rubbed my cheek into the upholstery.
A tiny body sauntered by my legs, rubbing me, and I peeked past my arm to see my disapproving cat watch me with disapproving eyes...disapprovingly. We stared at each other. "Don't you have new things to sniff, kid? Get lost." I hissed to make my point and if cats could roll their eyes she would have.
I finally made it into the chair - correctly - after Cheesecake wandered off. I had missed her almost more than I missed my parents while I was away. When Lauren returned her to me, questions abreast, I broke down and cried right into her tiny shoulder, and she sat there and took it like a champ. She was a bit fatter than before I left, but she was impossible to deny when she wanted something. Lauren hadn't stood a chance in resisting her.
I shifted to get my phone from my backpocket and blinked at the screen. August 17, 2011. I sighed. A text message (or twelve) made the screen flash, and I scrolled through them all, skimming. Most of them were from Renee, one from Charlie, another from puppy dog Ben, asking about the move, if I was alright. The other four were from Alice, Esme, and Rosalie, and I thumbed out a response to those. I'd only seen them once since I got back, and it was a very bittersweet thing to see them all so happy and wrapped up in the men that saved them. I owed Carlisle, Emmett and Jasper a couple of beers for playing hero, and the price would have been much higher if they hadn't insisted that saving the girls was done more because they loved them than because I'd asked, but I was determined to show my gratitude.
My heart was infinitely lighter seeing them all, safe and in the flesh, and I occupied every ounce of their time while they made their last rounds in Forks. I was living with Charlie at the time having had the selling of my home be the first thing done. Alice and Rose - bless them - were saint enough to help me pack up and move out. Stepping in there, in that home that held new meaning than when I had left it, was painful to say the least. I saw things in every piece of furniture that he sat at, in every wall he leaned against. I even had to toss the bed because the memories were so sharp, so fresh. Charlie had cleaned up the mess and litter of glass that should have been all over the floors but there was barely a speck of dust to be found. The place was spotless.
Talking to them about...everything...was as bad as I thought it would be. Once Charlie had left the house and we occupied the living room there were tears poured all around. We were dehydrated after only half the tale. Being around Alice happened to be the worst of it all though, and that made me feel like shit. She hadn't chosen her genetics, but I saw things in her emerald flecked grey eyes that made my heart burst. Time and time again passed where I just couldn't look her in the eye but she never called me on it. The time did come where she got me alone and dropped her "I know everything" bomb on me, though. She looked so damned smug and pleased with herself after telling me that the smidge of awkward was cleared away at once and she was my sister again, and only his in the biological sense.
Time with Rose was the definition of home therapy. No one could kick my ass into shape like Rose could. I couldn't even find the energy to be depressed around her since she'd given me the distraction of working out. It wasn't something I partook of normally, but I picked up a habit after she forced me into a gym. I stopped going only very recently, and already I missed it.
Esme was icing on my recovery cake. Getting over and counting my losses was made so much easier because of her. She said that my energy spoke for itself, and it prompted her to tell me all the little details about her life with Edward Anthony Masen Senior. Oh, how I flinched hearing all of the similarities between her past life and mine, but, as I believe she'd planned all along, I was eventually desensitized. I even learned to smile where our anecdotes overlapped, especially in her descriptions of passionate love making and war-scaled arguments. I'm sure she knew what a big help she was. She only nodded with a smirk when I told her I quit.
I spent a week with them all before they returned to Canada to resume readjusting to their new lives, and they'd picked up all of the pieces I couldn't for me. My phone vibrated in my hand. I answered on the third buzz.
"Tell me your doing just fine in that big house all alone and that I don't need to fly down there."
"I'm doing just fine in this big house all alone and you don't need to fly down here."
"Oh, thank God. I was prepared to take the first flight out if necessary." "I'm good, Rose, really."
"Only if you're sure. How'd the move go? Any visitors yet?"
"No, and fine but rough. Who knew I had so much shit?"
"So much new and luxurious shit."
I tried to keep my pressing growl at bay. "Yeah, thanks for reminding me about that."
"Look around you, babe. Everything there is a reminder. I got nothin' to do with it."
"I still can hardly believe him, Rose, I swear," I fumed, scowling at the ceiling, very angry with my new favorite chair all of a sudden.
"Listen, Bells. I know you're trying to reassert your independence or whatever but he's trying to apologize this way...I think."
"Apology?" I was shouting. "If he wanted to apologize he could bring his Neanderthal ass here and do it in person! Until then, he can quit throwing his money at me like I'm some sick charity case in need."
"Ouch. What numbers are we at since the last time you checked?"
"Four-fifty two, and growing."
"Holy hell, that's thirty grand more than there was two weeks ago! And you bought a shit load of stuff between then and now!"
"I know! He was always like that, you know. Always gotta have the last word, no matter what." Asserting his dominance.
"Sounds to me like no matter how much you get rid of he's just going to keep adding and adding to your account."
"And I can't cancel it or reverse the funds because his name is jointed in the account." I sighed. "They think we're really married!" I twisted the symbol of my problems – the source of my issues, as I liked to call it from time to time – around and around my finger in earnest, as if the action could help me if I moved it a little faster. No matter how left my thoughts turned I couldn't seem to get the damned thing off.
"Well, I guess you can just continue with all that donating you're doing. But remember, save some of that for the future, Bells. Since you quit your job you need something to live off of for a while, and it'll be good for you in a few m-"
"Alright, Rose, I gotta go. The boxes aren't going to unpack themselves and I've had more than a long enough break."
"Wait! I was just gonna say you could use that for you and the b-"
"Love you, talk to you soon, bye." I ended the call with a tap and climbed out of my seat to head to the kitchen.
Leave it to Rose to have something like that on the brain. I thought about it, of course, much more than she gave me credit for, but the fact was I didn't have anything to worry about for a while, and when the time came to start worrying I would be more than prepared. Not like I had a choice.
I stilled in my tearing open of boxes and bit my lip. No, that wasn't right. Of course I had a choice, one that I'd already made with the utmost of confidence. To everyone else I seemed put off with what to do but that was the furthest from the truth. I wanted this. More than anything else in the world, anyone else, I wanted this. Hell, it was the main reason I chose to move away and start over. I knew what I was doing.
It took a couple of hours but I finally had the living room, bedrooms, and most of the kitchen put away and in working condition. Only the uppermost curve of the sun was left in view and tinged the sky yellow, orange, pink, blue, and purple. A girl could really appreciate a sunset here which gave my new home an added appeal, and that it was only a few miles or so off the coast wasn't too bad either. Sea salt clung to the air here. Leaving the stereo on to make working a little easier, I fumbled with the dishwasher for a few minutes after finishing up my supper of bread and yogurt, trying to match Faith Evan's passionate tones and failing miserably. Then I did a once-over of the house to be sure all the lights and electronics were on and working. I had nothing left in the moving truck outside, so I would simply return it tomorrow instead of breaking my neck for the rest of the night. The dishwasher remained uncooperative though, and growing frustrated by its lack of words to tell me what the hell was its problem I just washed my boxed dishes by hand and began putting them away. This was one of the instances where I hated not being a six foot bombshell who could reach tall crevices. The other shelves, the lower shelves, were packed, and the higher ones were all I had left to work with. I jumped to reach the space, then used the sink to lever myself higher, which didn't work at all. To my utter horror I watched as the ceramic dish fell from between my fingers, and I prepared for the sound of impact...
Which was why seeing a white hand shoot out from the corner of my eye to catch the plate made me pale beyond pigment. Without the slightest pump of my lungs or whistle of oxygen I trailed my gaze from the hand to the arm up, up, and all the way up, to see Edward glaring down at me with bottomless green eyes. My lungs wouldn't have worked even if I wanted them to.
"You live alone out here so I can see that things can be a bit more difficult for you," his honey voice said, as low and as impossibly deep as I remembered it. "But if you can't do something, stop being stubborn and find an alternative for once. Advice to live by, I think."
How is he...?
"Bella! Breathe for the love of God! You're blue!"
I inhaled sharply, stumbling back from the vigor of it, and braced my arms on the sink as I whirled around to face him. Oh, he was so beautiful. So devastatingly handsome and masculine it made my womanhood pulse for him. He seemed almost twice my size this close after so long without him hovering over me like he always did, and that telltale attraction between us was primal and magnetic and alive with reunion as we stared at each other. I was the first to speak, breathless as I was. I felt like a pile of mush and flesh.
"What are you doing here?"
"Just bringing my Neanderthal ass here to apologize for whatever it is I've done to upset you." He reached out to plait a curled strand of my hair behind my ear, and when his finger glanced my cheek I gasped through my teeth. "And to make sure you're secure up here."
"Secure?" "Security, love."
"As in my security system?"
"That was on, by the way. How the hell did you get in here?"
"That's exactly what I'm referring to. A child could have disabled it in seconds."
"No children that I know."
"But plenty that I do."
I took a deep breath and crossed my arms over my chest defensively, trying to make myself seem bigger though he dwarfed me. "What are you really doing here, Edward? One goodbye was painful enough. I'll hardly survive another."
He had the grace to flinch, but otherwise showed nothing. But his eyes... "I really am here to see how you were faring. I heard about the house, and then the move-"
"You heard about the move or you saw the bank statement and withdrawal amount?"
His expression was a challenge. "Both, actually."
"Don't worry; I'll put everything back where it belongs. I have every intention of replacing what was used, so no need to waste any more time wallowing here."
His eyes narrowed to dangerous slits and I could almost hear his jaw work against itself. "I don't want you to pay me back, Bella. That money is for you to use as you please. I don't care how you spend it and that's not why I'm here."
I snorted. "Well expect it back anyway. I'm no charity, Edward. I don't need funding. In fact, I'll pay you back with interest."
"Are you purposely goading me?"
"Are you purposely pissing me off?"
"If you learned to accept a gift..."
"And if you learned what exactly a gift is..."
"You quit your job."
"You're obviously going to need something to float you, Bella."
"Five hundred grand and counting is not 'floating', Edward! It's excess!"
"You're obviously putting it to good use so what's the problem?"
"I'm just trying to spend it all before it starts accumulating and there's no grey area of what's mine and what's yours! And while we're on this subject, how dare you?"
"How dare I?"
"Yes! How dare you put your name on my account without my permission? A joint account is a consensual decision! Not one you make by yourself because you feel like it."
"You think I'm doing this simply because I feel like it?"
I would be lying if I said I didn't see it coming, if I said I wasn't rooting for it to happen sooner, but O sweet Gods of satisfaction and relief, feeling his lips attack mine after so long apart was like sparkling water to a parched throat. So soft and supple and sculpted, his mouth was made for me to worship, even under his rough and bruising kisses. I yielded immediately, sinking into him, feeling him, and when I finally reached out to touch him, hesitantly, I moaned as I pulled him to me and stroked his back from beneath his shirt as he licked and played with my lips, reacquainting himself with the taste and texture as I did the same of him. His hands drifted from their place around my ribs to follow the curve from my waist to my hips and around to fill his palms with my bottom, lifting and dragging my body into his so my every line met his. We were clutched to each other in the most delicious way, our legs weaved through one other's and hips connected while our kiss had never been anything more than chaste put passionate. When his tongue finally found its way to me to brush along the seam of my lips in askance I sighed as our breaths mingled, swooned as our tongues danced. It was a good thing he held me up or I would have fallen over. Sensing this, he begrudgingly pulled away, but only barely as he flowered kisses along my cheek and chin, refusing to leave my face.
"Edward," I called. He was driving me insane and back.
"Merde, I've missed this stubborn head and that smart mouth of yours, love. More than you could possibly fathom."
"I've missed you," I whispered.
He scooped me up so I sat on the sink and caught me in a tight embrace, holding me in that way that made that constant ache I'd had for three long months disappear. "I missed you too, sweetheart."
Show me, my subconscious begged, but I squashed the thought at once. A kiss was one thing, it was acceptable, but the second we indulged in anything more intimate between us, we'd be neglecting the issues that so clearly sat between us, paving over our problems with sex. Then there was where I stood emotionally rather than sexually. I obviously still wanted him but when there was no guarantee that he would stay I was only setting myself up to fall down again. We had to clear the air, first and foremost. If anything were to come after then so be it, but this conversation was a long time coming.
Reluctant as it gets, I unwound myself from him and gave him my most stern face. "Let's talk."
With him folded into the twin of my comfort chair I poured the wine he'd conspicuously left for on my counter into a glass, forlornly opting for juice for myself, and sat waiting as he stared at me, face in his hand, head tilted. I didn't even think to tell him to cut to the chase; I had missed his eyes on me, the warm and longing glances that made my skin flush with pleasure, but when his gaze focused on his mother's ring that sat dutifully on my hand I would swear I saw the crotch of his pants jump. I was staring right back, eating him up with his new-ish black leather jacket, silk shirt and Levi combo. Oh, could he wear a pair of Levi's. The longer we sat though, the smokier his gaze became, and if I waited too long and thought too much there wouldn't be any hope for words on either of our parts.
"It's been too long since I've seen you." He shocked me by speaking first. I gripped my glass a little tighter. "I really have missed you, ma belle."
I fixated on his thigh as I swallowed. I wasn't the one who left. "Where have you been?"
"Business as usual. You know how it is."
I did. "Anything specific?"
"Not particularly," he shrugged. "I want to know, Edward. What have you been doing for three months? That's a lot of time to have been doing nothing."
"I'm more interested in what you've been doing. You look...different. Better. Thin..." he gave me a pointed look, "but healthy enough."
I shook my head and set the glass down. Don't do that. Don't turn the attention away from yourself. "Why are you here, Edward?" I asked, and we both blinked at my bluntness. "Is there some agenda to fill by showing up here or did you just come to chat and catch up?"
He didn't answer.
"Because if that's the case then I'll walk you to the door now."
He just sat there, the corner of his mouth turned up slightly in a smile, and I swore his expression held some pride in it before he settled into the chair to get more comfortable, saying with his body that he wasn't going anywhere.
"No, love. There's no agenda in my being here right now. If I was being honest, I had no intention in ever seeing you again after France. I didn't mean to show up on your doorstep. I suppose I just...wandered here."
I ignored the weight in my chest and nodded. Finally, some answers. "What were you doing before you came here?"
A sigh. "Business, Bella."
I raised a brow.
"Listen, belle, I understand that you're curious but forgive me if I don't feel implied to answer your queries. Especially when the matters don't concern you."
"Okay," I said, and I stood and made a beeline for the door. I had it opened wide as I stood aside for him, and clarity didn't hit him for a long minute. Very slowly and deliberately, he eased out of the chair and stalked over to the foyer, one hand coming around my waist to pull me into him while the other closed the door again, and he rested his lips on my forehead. I stood stiff in his arms, not prepared to push him but certainly not going to respond to his affections.
"Is it strange that I'm incredibly hard for you right now?"
"You're right. I'll behave. Don't be upset with me. Come, I'll answer you now, honestly."
I wore my skepticism all the way back to my chair, and held on even still as he bumbled with where to start, what to say, and what to leave out.
I gave a short nod. "Why were you in Pakistan?"
"More of the same - business. Before you detract your claws, no, the nature of my business is something I have never shared with you and never will. I'll keep you as far away from corruption as I can get you."
"See, Edward, that's not your responsibility anymore, okay? You don't have that right to keep my from anything. I'm not a captive bound to you anymore. You're in MY chair, in MY house, in MY domain, with ME. As equals, or as nothing."
His face hardened and he scratched the back of his neck with his lips pursed. Then he cursed and fidgeted, unsure of how to deal with rebellious Bella. I straightened in my seat a bit.
"Trading, Bella," he sighed eventually.
"What kind of trading?"
His eyes snapped to mine. "You know what kind."
I shrugged. "Refresh my memory."
"Is there a purpose to this meaningless questioning?" he snapped. "Because I'm starting to think maybe I should have brought my lawyer with me."
"I just want to know what you were doing."
"Well why are you here?" I challenged. "Because I can only think of three reasons myself."
"Care to share?"
"One, you're here to sweep me off my feet again."
"Two, you're making sure I've kept my mouth shut about our past dealings."
He made a face. "Cold."
"Or three, you're here to kill me. Loose ends and all that."
The last was a shock to his system, and he watched me with startled eyes before they narrowed into slits and he pinned me to my seat. His voice was quiet. "You think I'm here to kill you?"
I shrugged. "I think you're here for one of the three reasons I gave you. Are you here to kill me?"
"No," he shook his head, and I shrugged again. "Do you think so low of me?"
"I don't think low of you at all; I'm just looking out for myself. I'm looking for early signs of if I should get my gun or not."
His mouth twitched despite himself. "You have a gun?"
"Had a strange desire to learn how to shoot when I got back; paid for lessons, bought a gun."
"I'm not here to kill you, Bella. And I'd like to see you shoot."
"That can be arranged if need be."
He looked like he wanted to laugh but contained himself. My ego thanked him.
He sobered quickly. "Can I ask you something?"
"Depends," I said cautiously. "What?"
"Do you believe I have ill intentions of being here, belle? Tell me. If I'm making you uncomfortable in any way I'll leave you alone, I swear it. I don't want you to feel unsafe in your own home."
I thought about that for a moment and downed the rest of the contents in my cup, organizing my thoughts.
"No..." I said slowly. "I don't think you have ill intentions. But I can't figure out why you would come back after you'd ridden yourself of a burden, which is why I came up with those three reasons. And, truthfully, I'm uneasy about all three items on my list and am trying to figure out where your head's at, where I should draw the line and protect myself."
"You're uneasy about me sweeping you off of your feet?"
My barrier chipped at the edges at the faint note of pain in his expression. "No. Well, yes...no. Kinda."
His smile looked almost sad and I floundered. "I...um, by 'yes' I-I mean I don't know if I can ever be brought back into what we went through in Europe, Edward. That's your life, you know? I'm not cut out for such a high risk game, as we both know. I barely survived it my first go around. You know I lo—"
I cut off sharply, my mouth snapping closed audibly and I scowled at the ground. I almost said it. I almost said it. His intense gaze seemed to intensify at my unfinished statement, and he leaned forward slightly in his seat, inched closer. "I know what, belle?" he asked softly, and I shuddered. "What do I know?"
I shook my head frantically. "In any case, I won't be a part of that world anymore, Edward. And if that means that I can't be a part of your world as a result then so be it."
"And if I told you that that world no longer exists for me? What then?" I really wished he would stop looking at me like that. My thoughts were scattered as it was.
"Then... Then... Wait. What do you mean it no longer exists? What are you talking about?"
His mouth curved a little. "I mean I gave up on the trade business, is what I mean."
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why?"
"What do you mean why?"
"I mean why did you give up on your trade business, is what I mean."
"Did I need a reason?"
"Well you had a reason for taking part of it in the first place, didn't you?"
"Yes, and since that reason is taken care of, I quit."
I sniffed. "Whoo! Get a whiff of all that vague up in here! I might have to open a window."
He was trying very hard not to laugh but failing. His smile was infectious and lightened the mood in the slightest but most welcoming way.
"You're nosier than you used to be."
"No, I was nosy then, too. I just refrained from questioning you in fear of being threatened with my life."
"A valid point. Aro's dead."
My mouth flopped open. Then closed. And opened again. Closed once more. I was giving him my best impression of a land born fish and he was enjoying it immensely. He waited patiently as I restrung myself together.
"Dead?" I squeaked. I cleared my throat. "How'd he die? What happened?"
"I killed him?"
"Would you have preferred him alive?"
"No, no," I amended quickly, pulling a leg under me and holding my chin in my hand. "That's...good news. Does that make me a bad person for saying so?"
"Not at all. Especially since he was making every effort to take your life in his final days."
"And you're the reason he didn't get to?" I asked quietly. "You knew and stopped him?"
"Ah, Bella, baby, I can't take you looking at me like that and be expected to stay in my seat. I can't say I only did it for you, sweetheart. I had personal reasons."
That didn't make me any less grateful. In my recuperation I never let my mind wander to Italy, not once, because the only thing to come out of the thought was Aro and his brothers' reactions to me, to my sudden departure, to my defiance to lay down and bend to them. Aro was a sad, bitter human being who liked to make anyone the least bit deserving suffer, and if he ever got his hands on me again then that would be the end of it. He had powerful, powerful connections, seemingly an entire world at his whim to command, and if he wanted me back, wanted to make me pay for spitting in the face of his "hospitality" then there was nothing I could do about it. No therapist could change that, no amount of reluctant police involvement could prevent it, and the shortage of overbearing six foot tall cave dwellers wasn't much help either. Hope was a very bleak thing in such a situation, so I simply cut my mind from it entirely, didn't let it affect me.
Him telling me this was the greatest release of anxiety I'd ever felt, after being free of James and Jacob obviously. I desperately wanted to feel Edward's reassuring strength around me now, the need rushing down my spine and causing me to just barely shiver. He noticed of course, he always noticed. I was feeling again, feeling the things I'd had locked up for three months without a backward glance as I moved on with my life. They banged at their confinements with brutal force, the echoes creating a matching tattoo on my heart. He would say it wasn't for me, and I wouldn't be so vain as to hope that his actions were, but he was always downplaying what he did for me. He thought the word "save" meant a debt was owed, and he didn't want me to think I owed him anything; it was evident in his reaction to me wanting to return his money. He simply didn't see it as I did.
His voice jolted me back to my cluttered living room full of boxes, the sultry music of Peggy Lee, and the curious male across from me.
"You're safe, baby," he said softly, as if the words weren't meant for me. "Nobody can hurt you now."
Nobody but you.
Anger stole me suddenly, and the unending urge to appease the sting in the back of my eyes would not abate. This wasn't good. I was losing myself again, to him. It was all white, puffy clouds and long, translucent rainbows until he walked out that door and I was left with the image of his back again. Letting him go the first time wasn't so bad. I'd believed that our separation would put an end to the sick infatuation I felt for the man, that the overwhelming amount of emotion I felt for him would cease to exist when he wasn't the only person I could trust that surrounded me, and, for a while, that had felt true.
But it wasn't.
I still felt for him what I did a lifetime ago. I still wanted him as I did before. I craved his infuriating and intelligent mind, his wonderful and sinful body, and his wounded but prideful soul called to me. I handled our first departure just fine.
A second time though... I could make no guarantees about a second time. Because now there was even deeper connection between the two of us. One that I had wrapped around my head firmly but couldn't get my heart to understand until he showed up. My fingers flew to my chest to calm my rapid heartbeat, then to my abdomen in pure instinct. I would not pressure him into a decision. I wouldn't be able to stand it if he saw being with me as an obligation over anything else. But this had to end right now. We either broke this off cleanly or...or...
"Why did you come here, Edward?" Blunt, straight to the point. Yes. "To tell me about Aro? To give me more money? What?"
My change in demeanor must have thrown him because other than his eyes widening he didn't react, but then his eyes threw sharp, poison tipped daggers at me. "This isn't about the money or Aro. And you will not pay me back, Bella. That money doesn't mean anything to me, I won't say that again."
"But what do I mean to you?"
He balked, and if it was even possible I would swear that he blushed as he rubbed his neck and stared past me to the setting sun outside. Oh. Oh my. I wanted to grab him by the ears and study the coral stained skin like it was the cure to every disease known to man. He would hate to hear me call him cute or adorable but jeez. I dug my fingers into the fabric of my clothes to maintain the steel that was dissipating faster than it should have been. I wanted him even more than I did fifteen seconds ago. Fucking fantastic.
His mouth parted as he struggled to say something, then closed as he furrowed his brow heavily. You're killing me here. "I..." he started, licked his lips, then his eyes shifted to mine, lingered for a moment, and bounced back to the window while he palmed away at his neck as if rubbing it would bring him the answers he looked for. "Fuuuuuck," he cursed under his breath, avoiding my gaze at all costs now. I wasn't hurt or even upset while he struggled with himself. I was actually rather amused, going as far as biting my lips together to hide my smile. The pink in his cheeks fascinated me as it darkened and darkened. It was hard, so very hard, to be formal when the dreaded "L" word was bursting in my chest, filling me up to full and wriggling about under my tongue. I groaned to myself, a quiet noise that was drowned out by the ever blessed stereo in the foyer, and for once I actually thought he didn't notice.
Finally, minutes later, he sighed and let his eyes drift shut, eyebrows knit together as he sat tensely. I didn't push or offer anything. He had to muddle through this on his own, ball in his court.
"Baby," he breathed, and there was a subtle amount of pain behind the word that had my mirth evaporate instantly. I tensed too. When he opened his eyes the sadness I saw before was there and I didn't know what to make of it. I looked away. "Please look at me?" he asked. "Please?"
I did, and traitorous, unwelcome tears rolled over my cheeks and hit the back of my fingers. He was up in an instant, striding to me with purpose and getting down on one knee as he pulled my face into his hands to brush his lips over the tracks of tears, across my lips, over my forehead. It was all so heartbreakingly tender. It made my head hurt, my chest ache. "Don't cry, belle. I never want to see you cry again. I'm sorry."
I gasped brokenly, and a sob ripped through me as he pulled me closer, crushed me into him. I hooked my arms around him and clung to his broad shoulders, breathed him in and kissed his collar. Why was I in so much pain? I both wanted to hold onto him forever and never see him again. So conflicted. So conflicted.
I didn't help my confusion as I blindly sought his lips, kissing him at first softly, begging him, then harshly, possibly bruising us both as I claimed him, swallowing his moan as he did mine. I bit, licked, and sucked him until I was pulling on his clothes, wondering why he even bothers with being clothed around me. I wanted him more than I wanted air in my lungs. I wanted his powerful frame beneath me as I branded him with my body. I wanted him to be mine.
More sobbing, more tears, I mumbled unintelligibly between my kisses, telling him everything and nothing and whatever was in between those. He only nodded and kissed me back, shushing and caressing me at all the right times, in all the right places, gentle as could be.
"I'm sorry, belle," he whispered, when I calmed slightly. "I'm so very sorry."
I nodded slowly, hiccoughed, and said, "I know. I forgive you."
It had to have been at least an hour to pass as we held onto one another in silence, no words, just reverent touches and loving strokes. He was on both knees eventually, his head in my lap as he hugged me around the waist, and my hands buried in his unruly hair, nails grazing his scalp the way I knew he liked. The strands were much longer than they used to be, some of it falling into his eyes so he had to push it back every so often. Still soft though. I loved the texture of his hair, envied it even. After a while I suspected that he'd fallen asleep, so I didn't expect his quiet voice when he spoke to my belly. He spoke slowly and sweetly, his words making the tears well up again. I sighed remembering the first time he said them to me, purred as he repeated them now exactly as he had before:
"Your innocence reels in the animal in me. Your honesty counters every lie I've ever told. You're so strong you make me look bad in comparison. My world is brighter with you around me. Every time you speak you spark something dead within me. I die whenever I see you in pain. I could murder without end in sight when you doubt yourself. You-"
"Stop," I whispered, and I held my palm fast over his mouth with a small smile before he could say anymore. "Just stop."
When I was sure he wouldn't continue I released him, then lifted his head until we were somewhat eye level, tucking an errant lock of dirty bronze behind his ear as he stared and I stared right back.
"I love you," I finally told him, and I felt raw and revived as I said it. The words were clean and crisp and untainted. There were no knives or guns at my back and no threats looming on the horizon. I told him honestly, surely, because I meant it, and Stockholm Syndrome had nothing to do with it. I wasn't a captive; I was Isabella Swan - my own woman. Although our history was far from ideal, far from romantic, I somehow managed to fall in love with him. I could never forget the man who'd taken me away from what I knew to show me the dark side of the world. Such ugly truths, such ugly people, could never be forgotten. But I could forgive the man who spent day and night trying to protect me from those evil forces, could forgive the man that gave up whatever life he'd lived before to keep me safe. I knew it would have been easier for him to just shoot me and be done with it, but he hadn't.
What had he said in Jessica's apartment in Marais? Ah, yes: "I tend to finish what I've started." He made it seem cold and impersonal but his tone didn't match his actions, his expressions, his kisses and embraces and the way he made love to me or held me afterward. No. It didn't fit how right it felt when our skin touched or how his eyes shone when he told me I was beautiful. Not in the mischievous upturn of his sensual mouth during our banters or the fearsome scowls he gave when we argued. There was nothing impersonal about these things. Everything, even nothing, felt like something with this man. Even now, as he traced the bones of my cheeks with his thumbs and massaged the line of my jaw, I saw nothing impersonal in the way he looked at me. In fact, it looked like...
"I love you too."
Ah, God. My chest was so tight. My heart was racing too fast. Ahh...too good. It felt too good.
"Say it again," I whispered, letting the tears fall freely onto his fingers, letting him stroke my mouth with his. Yes, I wanted to taste his words as he spoke them, to know their taste, texture and smell. I would connect the words to as many of my senses as possible so I could never forget them, those measly, beautiful four words. "I love you too, my Bella," he murmured, and I sighed. I was floating. "The word doesn't seem adequate enough to correctly describe how I feel about you but it will have to do. You asked me how I ended up here earlier. I told you I wandered, which is the truth, and decided to see how you were doing, what you'd been up to.
"I really am the epitome of stupidity sweetheart," he said breezily, and I snorted in response, my smile slow and blissful. "I should have known the very second I saw you again would be my undoing, because it was. I had managed to extricate any and all thoughts of you for the longest time. I continued the life I lived pre-Bella, and the only time I had to face you was in my dreams, when I was distracted or tired or sleeping I thought of you. I both loathed and looked forward to those times.
"My beautiful, stubborn girl - you just refuse to stay out of my mind, no matter how much distance I put between us or where I go or what I do. I wanted you back in my life no matter the cost, and I almost gave into my idiocy and came for you. But I had to cut my ties to anything that would endanger you first. I owed you that. So it started with James and Jacob in Marseille, then Aro in his own bedroom, followed by Caius who was like the devil at Aro's back. Marcus lives as he means you no harm, and I have his word that he wants nothing of you. "For a while Volterra fell wholly on my shoulders. It was mine but, of course, I didn't want it. I only wanted you. So I divvied up every fucking penny in the place and gave it all to everyone who ever worked for the Volturi. For some the money was payment, for others it was a vow of silence. Everyone in that building easily walked out of there over a million dollars richer. Even the maids." He gave me a pointed look. "I knew you wouldn't like me just dropping that kind of money on you, and I knew your government would have a field day with the sudden income, so I deposited it in your account in increments."
"But I don't want the mon-"
He placed his thumb over my mouth and shook his head sternly. "Everyone who worked there got their pay, Bella. Everyone. Even your friends have a tidy amount sitting in their hands now. You work; you get paid. That's usually how it goes, is it not?"
He waited until I gave a short, grudging nod to move his hand. "And the money is clean, I swear. I swept it all at the casino."
"Laundered it, you mean?" I said with an eye roll.
He shrugged. "When it's clean, it's clean. Back to the point though," he skimmed the tip of his nose across my cheek, "I took Volterra apart piece by piece until there was nothing left. It's amazing how quickly such a thing can be done when one is determined enough. You're safe now, and anyone who ever knew about you or your dealings with the mess I made has been taken care of. Legally and of their own free will, of course."
I shook my head and pulled away to look into his eyes. "I'm not worried about myself, Edward. I'll be fine. But you... You're likely to have pissed off more than a few people in your lifetime. What about you?"
"No need to concern yourself with that either. No one wants to mess with a dead man."
I blanched. "What?" "I'm dead," he said, as if the answer was so plainly simple.
I stared at him.
He sighed. "Merde, Bella, I was only teasing you. I meant that I faked my death while I was in Pakistan. Big, fiery explosion in the middle of nowhere. Made sure no one would find the site for a few days to give me time to really disappear for a while. So, according to the FIA of Pakistan, you are technically speaking to a dead man."
I scratched my elbow, unsure of how to feel about that.
"Basically, sweetheart," he lowered my head to briefly meet his lips, "I've started all over. Edward Anthony no longer exists in this world. But Edward Masen is alive and well... and very much in love with a Miss. Isabella Swan."
My heart lurched, lungs expanded on an inhale, and I smiled shyly. I cleared my throat to whisper, "And Miss. Isabella Swan loves you, too. Speaking on her behalf, she would also like to know if..." I paused to seize my lower lip, steeling myself. "If this means what she thinks this means...?"
He smirked. "And what would that be?"
"If...we can finally be, you know... together?" I was more than likely giving my best impression of a tomato. He was more than a little amused.
"Well that depends."
I scowled. "On?"
"Well, I feel I might need your friends' stamps of approval on this one so..." He sprung to his feet and was somehow holding my phone in his hand as he scrolled through it. I was too stunned to say anything, let alone steal it back from him. He touched the screen. He put it on speaker. It rung.
And rung. And rung.
And then someone answered.
"Hello?" Alice's voice. Alice's voice...
"Hello again, little sister." LITTLE SISTER...!
"Oh, hi, Edward! Wait. This is Bella's number. Does this mean...? Rose! Get over here! It's Edward! On Bella's phone! Move your ass, woman! So you told her, then!?"
He chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yes, I told her."
"Well, what did she say?" Rose's voice said.
"She said it back."
"And then!?" Alice was screeching.
"I told her I needed your approval on if we can be together or not. I'm not sure what would happen to me if I didn't tell the three of you."
"You needn't even have to ask, dear," Esme said sweetly. The tears were just falling and falling now. "Treat her as if she was the most precious thing on this earth, or you'll have me to deal with, do you understand, Mr. Masen?"
He gave a sheepish smile and color danced over his face. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good. Have fun, you two."
Al protested shrilly in the background. The line died. I stood on shaky feet, approached him, stared up in awe. "How long?" I whispered.
"A few months now," he answered, gauging me, walking on egg shells.
"Alice and Esme...?"
He nodded. "I know about them, yes."
"For a few months now?"
"For a few months now."
"How do you feel?" I asked, my emotions running rampant and wild inside.
His face softened as he took my wrist and drew me closer, stroked my fingers. "Good. I feel pretty good. I'm still adjusting but being around those two feels..."
"Natural?" I supplied.
"Yes, natural. Even with Rosalie."
I nodded. It felt like that for me too. It was why I loved them so dearly. "So what now?"
"So now," he drew me into him, walked us backward so my ass bumped into the edge of the desk, leaned over to capture my mouth with gentle pulls, "I'm going to ask you to let me back into your life, Miss Swan. I miss you, I'm hopelessly in love with you, and I want to protect you for as long as you'll have me. Accept me, baby. Let me take care of you."
I shuddered in his arms, wiped my tears into my wrists. "I can take care of myself perfectly fine," I challenged shakily, "thank you very much."
He chuckled. "I know you can, baby. Let me help though. You're going to exhaust yourself with all that pride."
I rolled my eyes. "Look who's talking."
"Mm. That would be me. I have enough ego for the both of us. You can tuck yours away for now."
"But do you have enough ego for three?"
His brows knotted, and it was now or never. If he took what I had to say in stride then I would take him without question, and if he didn't...well then, it was amazing while it lasted. Here we go...
"I'm pregnant," I murmured to his chest, eyes attached to his collar, to the light smattering of hair that peeked from the cut of his shirt.
"Come again?" He was just as quiet, and many times more still, rigid even. I closed my eyes. Stay strong, girl, stay strong. If it wasn't meant to be then it wasn't to be. If it came down to my unborn child and the man I loved then I refused to choose between the two. My palm curved around the slight bump of my abdomen, drawing strength from the protrusion.
"I'm pregnant," I repeated, meeting his dark gaze now. I couldn't make heads or tails of his expression.
"For how long?"
"A little over three months." The words bounced around the walls, echoed in the room, pricked at my skin. The time length barely registered on his face, made no change in him. What are you thinking? I've never wanted to know more than at this moment.
"Three?" I nodded surely. "We never used protection, Edward. Not once." "Yes, I know."
"Are you angry?"
That seemed to get his attention. He looked at me quizzically. "No."
"No. Why would I be?"
"Well...because I'm pregnant."
He raised an eyebrow and mirth curved his mouth. "So I'm supposed to be angry that your body works properly?"
"Don't make jokes about this, Edward. This is serious."
"Yes, it is, I apologize. No, I'm not angry. If anything I'm..." He started staring off again, but he was watching me while he did it which made me fidgety.
"Hello? Earth to Edward? Anyone up there?" I rapped his temple a few times, and on the third knock he caught my fingers, blinked back to awareness, then kissed my fingertips. "Forgive me."
"Are you okay?" I asked quietly. Minutes passed in silence. I got no answer. He didn't seem distant, which was a good sign, but he didn't look very excited either. I didn't know where this was going but I wanted the upper hand when it happened. I twisted out of his arms and pushed him away a bit, giving myself some space. He didn't seem to like that very much.
"I don't want to turn out like my father did, Bella," he finally said, and I wanted to hold him again almost immediately. "What he did to my mother and I..." he shook his head. "I don't want—"
"Do you plan on leaving me for someone else?" I snapped, and his eyes widened, first in shock, then in rage.
"Of course not. What do you take me for?"
"Then stop doubting yourself. You are not your father, Edward. You may have similarities but you are not him. Not to say that he was a bad man but what he did to you and your mother was wrong. No one deserved to be abandoned like that, especially not under the circumstances. I don't know the details, I don't want to know them, but I'm going to let you know now - if you have even the slightest doubt that you can't handle this with me then you should leave. I won't have seeds of uncertainty planted in the home where I plan to raise my..." I swallowed, "our child."
Now there were too many emotions scrolling across his face. I couldn't pinpoint just one. I couldn't know what he was thinking.
"I will not hold it against you if you don't think you can handle this, okay?" I said more quietly, subdued. I was preparing for a goodbye, if I was being completely honest. It hurt less, for some reason, now that we had all of our feelings out and in the open. If he left, at least I will have known that my love wasn't one-sided, that I wasn't just a naive girl in over her head with a Superman complex. "Who said I can't handle this?" He bristled visibly.
"Well, I wasn't implying that you couldn't handle it, just that I would understand if you didn't want to."
"Well sorry to disappoint you but it's going to take more than a child to pry me away, sweetheart. Come here, let me see you."
I stepped forward, leaning back slightly to give him a better view, and very slowly he sank to his knees as he lifted my shirt to bunch below my breasts, eyes riveted to my belly as he stroked a finger over the slightly rounded top of it, down the side. I wasn't showing much, and you would hardly know I was pregnant unless you were up close or you touched my stomach. It was pretty hard. I stood fixated on the expression of Edward's face though. He looked to be in wonder. I wanted to cry again.
"How long exactly, sweetheart?"
"I still can't believe it."
"Believe what?" I sniffled behind my hand.
He shook his head. "That there's a child inside of you. And that that child happens to be mine. It's...unbelievable."
I smiled. I smiled so hard it made my face hurt. "You're going to be a father, Edward. Congrats."
He looked up then, and I saw something I'd only ever seen from him once before: wet lashes. He...
Ohh, I can't take it.
Without another word I pulled Edward to his feet and crushed my mouth to his, throwing my arms around his neck and coaxing him out of his stillness. It took a moment but he responded, moving slowly and unsurely, but his lips made to accommodate mine, taking over in a gentle seduction that made my toes curl as he stroked my bare sides and back with his hands, my lower and upper lip with his tongue.
"You can be better than he was," I told him breathlessly, only barely pulling away. "You will be better than he was. I'll help you; you know I will. We've got this, Edward. It's an ace in the hole if I ever saw one."
His answering smile was more than enough to make me believe my own words. "Thank you, sweetheart," his chest rumbled. He kissed my forehead and pulled me close as he stared out the window. We stood there for a while, and I noticed after some time that we were rocking back and forth. Eventually Edward even had the humor to spin me around, slow and in time to the sultry music that flowed over us. I hadn't felt such peace in such a long, long time.
"I noticed before that you were quite the dancer," I said offhandedly. He pulled me closer, kissed my head.
"Years of practice. I noticed before that you prefer to just shuffle awkwardly from side to side." He smirked.
"Years of practice." I gave him my most salacious grin and he laughed.
"I love you," he said, lulling me into the forever of his molten green gaze.
"And I love you," I returned. "Now, show me how much upstairs. Naked. I'll get the snacks."
"We'll be at this for a while then, won't we?"
"Damn right we will."
"I'm a fan of pretzels."
"You'll settle for trail mix."
"Only if I can eat them off of you."
"I'd be insulted if you didn't."
"I love you."
"Love you, too...but I can't bring the snacks if you don't let go of me."
He growled. "Fuck the snacks. I'll do enough eating for the both of us. Three months is too long of celibacy." With that, he tossed me over his shoulder and gave my ass a firm slap, sprinting for the staircase.
"God, you are such a -"
"Caveman. You are a great, big caveman."
"As long as I'm your caveman, baby, that's all that matters."
He made love to me slowly, tenderly, beyond primal, and his soul was mine to abide openly and limitlessly and five months later I had a better command of who he was then I did of myself, and in the greeting of baby Edward Anthony the Third there were even more facets for me to unearth, to savor and fall in love with. And I did.
Author's Note: Goodness, here come the tears. See that "Complete" at the top of the page? Ugh, it's killin' me. Oh well, at least we got a Happily Ever After, right crowd!?
I have to thank each and every reader who happened upon my little tale of fuckery and I hope you've enjoyed it. There've been some laughs, some tears, some objects of varying fragility have been broken, and we've swooned when we least expected it. I've met some absolutely incredible people along the way, and although there were many a chapter of Stockholm Syndrome that made me want to comatose I wouldn't take anything back or change a thing. The many, many beautiful words of encouragement I've received along the way will likely stick with me forever as well, so kisses to those faithful PM'ers and reviewers!
If by some absolute miracle you took a fancy to the writing, stick around! It'll be a while but I have a reel of stories I want to share that will be posted eventually :)
Thank you all so very much for joining me on this ride! Until next time, y'all!