Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight, no copyright infringement intended.

Thank you to Pixiekat7 for the beta and to Jen for the pre-read.


"Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace."

~ Eugene O'Neill

Chapter Twenty

We like to believe that in life, fairytales can come true.

As children, we absorb all the stories and perfect Disney endings we're fed with the kind of naive innocence that never leads us to really question any of it. The world is colorful and bright; full of sunshiny mornings and leaping Bambies. It's a world where a frog can turn into a prince, where good can always triumph evil, and where, dare I say it, love blossoms.

As teenagers, we're so focused on finding ourselves and struggling through the sometimes crazy hormones and time to grow up pressures that we often find ourselves clinging onto those morsels of childhood beliefs. In this world, despite the pressures, there is still that lingering innocence, that tight grip that clutches onto idealism while battling reality. Yes, as teenagers, we're kind of dragged to the plate of truth while still wanting to play pretend.

As adults, we've grown to know that we should now know better. We also know however, that the pretend part? Well, it's just far, far prettier.

Growing up, I never really had any of those perceptions of the world, not after I broke my arm and realized Neverland was merely a figment of someone's imagination, built out of words and printed on the pages of a book. I was a logical child who enjoyed the occasional escape of a fantasy, but always knew it was just that – a fantasy. I was never a dreamer. I had aspirations, sure, but I became aware of the world and its nature when I was really very young. And because of that, playing pretend just seemed vastly illogical to me.

But as I sat on my bed now, twisting my toes through the soft, thick weave of my bedroom carpet, trying to soothe myself through the simple action, I realized the true merits of playing pretend, of taking off in your mind and changing your own story for a little while. It would feel terribly freeing I imagined, to leave burdens and ugliness behind and merely replace it all with beautiful colors and happiness.

Yes, I thought, as I began thinking back on my day. That must be nice.

~*AMtDR*~

I woke with a lazy smile.

Saturday. It was very early, but it was Saturday nonetheless.

No school, no work, no subway up to Columbia and definitely no rushing about. Absolute bliss. I was smothered in sheets with zero commitments for the day, while the busy city outside bustled around, laboring and loud in its wake. I felt oh-so smug.

December's arrival had brought with it a bitter cold snap that had swept across the city like a blanket of fake welcome. While on the inside the pretty frost dusting everything within sight looked picturesque, out there, the cold bit deep down to your bones, infecting body and blood with a wintry embrace of teeth chattering shivers. But I didn't have to worry about the cold right now. Nope. I was nice and snug.

I stretched out idly, enjoying the tight pull in my muscles, and slowly moved my head around to find a very naked Edward next to me, slumbering away. We did this now, the naked thing. And it was, well, it was alright. It wasn't scary or something to fear, it was simply him and simply me – a simple thing. I had to smile looking at him. With an arm thrown above his head, the other resting across his bare stomach and a slight frown creasing his forehead, he looked perfect for the part in a dramatic play, the kind where the character was all, "Dost thou not know how I suffer so?"

I wondered what was causing the frown.

Sitting up, I rubbed at my eyes and located Edward's discarded shirt lying crumpled in a heap. I got up quietly, moved toward it, and slipped it easily over my head. The fabric felt cool against my just-out-of-bed warmth, but I shook off my shivers and went to use the bathroom. When I came back through, Edward had begun to stir, his beautiful body shifting as though on autopilot toward my side of the bed, reaching out, whether for the warm spot or for me, I didn't know.

I got my answer as his hand shifted up and then down against the sheet once, and then again, as if searching for the body that wasn't there. His head lifted slightly off his pillow next, peering down, his hand stilling over the spot where I guessed my stomach would usually be. It was sort of endearing, watching his early morning fuzz and confusion. I didn't really get to see him like this a whole lot, he was usually always awake before me.

I stayed quiet as he sat up suddenly, batting at his eyes and shaking his head free of sleep. "Bella?" His voice was rough and gravelly, kind of pathetically sweet as it croaked out my name once more.

"Morning, Sleeping Beauty."

His head swiveled to face me and he was all blinking eyed dopey. "What are you doing over there?"

"Hunting geese."

"Hmm?"

I took pity on him, smiled and shook my head. "You want some coffee? I'm making."

"C'mere."

I padded my way over to him and reached for his outstretched hands, only to have my whole body tugged downward. I adjusted, wiggling around some to straddle his hips more comfortably. His fingers went straight for the buttons on the front of his shirt. The shirt I was wearing.

"Much as I like seeing you in this..."

He didn't finish that sentence. Instead, he twisted the last button through the eyelet and slipped the whole thing slowly off my shoulders. Palms slid up my back, pressing me into him, before fingers wound into my hair. His kiss was long and deep, with slipping, teasing tongues and heavy, desperate breaths being taken through noses. He rolled us over, his form coming to loom over me as his hips nudged at mine to part, which they did, because if the past week had taught me anything, it was that my body was all about rolling out the welcome mat for his.

With one of his hands coasting down my side, smoothing over my butt cheek and then travelling further to squeeze my thigh, I thought, Yeah, Saturdays are definitely the best.

"I'll go for the coffee," he whispered in my ear. "Then we're staying here for the rest of the morning."

"I just asked if you wanted any."

"I'd kill for some, so I should probably start moving."

"Edward, stay in bed. I can go."

He smirked down at my body. "You'll get cold going anywhere like this."

I rolled my eyes. "I can put your shirt back o-"

He pulled away from me, found his shirt at the end of the bed and threw it an impressive distance across the room.

"Edward!" I managed around a giggle.

He grinned, looking young and boyish and utterly proud of himself.

Men were kind of stupid.

"I don't mind doing one coffee run."

"I mind."

"I'll rephrase then. I'm capable of doing one coffee run."

"So am I."

"You're insufferable."

"And you're very naked. And in my bed. So I'll go get the coffee."

"You always get the coffee," I protested. "You should let me bring it to you for once."

He smiled, bending down to plant his lips against mine. "Won't be long."

I watched as he dragged himself out of bed gracefully and walked over to his closet in nothing but his skin. He looked edible, he really did. There was nothing about him that didn't scream man. He was hardly bodybuilder size, but he was thick and muscled and powerful nonetheless, perfectly perfect in shape and build. I still hadn't found a flaw.

After pulling on some low hung sleep pants, Edward left the room with a wink, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Thanksgiving had been... jeez, it had been amazing. For the first time in my life, I felt like I'd spent the holiday with family. Real family, not Angela's because I had no plans and nowhere else to go. It had been like something straight off a Hallmark card with everyone helping to cook and lots of smiles and laughter around the dinner table. James and Vicky seemed to have put their marriage issues aside for the day, getting caught up in the festivities. Emmett and Edward had fought over who got the last slice of pie. And as for me, I'd sat back and just enjoyed it all.

That night, after everyone had left, I gave Edward something I'd been working on, something to say thank you - a huge picture frame filled with lots of individual photographs from our Montauk trip. I'd tried to make the focus about him, about his love for the place and for sailing, so there were lots of beautiful landscapes and natural images of him doing his floaty-boaty thing as the wind rushed through his hair. I'd added the odd couple of pictures of us, but I didn't want him to look at the frame and think, 'That was the escape trip I took Bella on because of all the drama.' Instead, I just wanted him to look at it and remember that he'd been there that weekend, doing what he loved best, and he'd been happy. I'd left the largest center slot free, thinking it would be nice for him to add one of his own pictures, to frame one of his happy memories from the trip. I'd been somewhat stunned the following day having returned home from some Black Friday shopping with Vicky, to find that he'd hung the frame directly above his bed. I was even more stunned to see that it was my face smiling back at me front and center.

I'd frowned and said, "That slot was meant for you."

"It is for me, Bella."

"No, I mean I wanted you to put in your favorite photo, a sentimental one or a good memory, something you loved about the trip." Y'know, like a pretty sunset or his boat all shiny and gleaming against the crystal water. Not me in a two-piece lying next to the shore, smiling really hard back at Edward and pretending to act like I wasn't getting sand up my crack. The sensation had certainly been... different.

He'd given me a really odd look, muttered something that sounded an awful lot like, "I did", and asked what I wanted to do for dinner.

The week after Thanksgiving had been quiet. I went to school, I worked in the library, I invented some new lies to cover for my working in the library. I had a mid-week night out with my college friends, Jacob and I actually left campus together once and went to the movies, oh, and having waited until Edward got back from his trip to tell him that I'd aced all of my midterms, we celebrated in style. We watched old movies in bed with champagne and chocolate cake.

There were crumbs everywhere.

We rolled around in them and didn't care.

Edward was back in the room with steaming mugs of goodness before I knew it, and I reached for mine the way a toddler would reach for candy, all flexing fists and gimme-gimme-gimme.

Edward held the mug up in the air, just out of reach. "Something you'd like, Miss Swan?"

I glared, more serious than playful. Morning coffee was important, so much so that I'd probably sacrifice cute, fluffy bunnies for mine.

Hey, we all had our quirks.

There was also the added matter of me becoming utterly spoiled with morning coffee wakeups these past few months, courtesy of the architect.

Hey, he made the monster, he had to deal.

"You're messing with the wrong caffeine addict, Cullen."

There was definite mischief in those green eyes as he teased, "Come and get it."

"I'm not opposed to tickling you to the point of first degree burns. You know that, right?"

He didn't budge, although his eyebrows quirked, possibly in challenge.

Oh buddy, challenge accepted.

I slipped to the edge of the bed, placing my feet lightly on the floor, either side of his. His tall form towered above me, the waistband of his sleep pants directly in line with my eye level. I was facing off with the terrorist. Literally.

How apt.

I smirked up at him, already feeling victorious.

"Edward, you know that spot right around..." I used my pointer finger to jab at the exact area of his inner thigh, "here? The one that makes yo-"

My coffee cup appeared right in front of me. "You don't fight fair."

I took it and offered him a mwah-ha-ha-ha riddled, "Cheers!"

He looked put out. Poor thing.

My coffee was delicious.

(-)

"Bella?"

"Yeah?"

"Where are you?"

"Closet!"

I couldn't find one of my black Ugg boots. This was the problem with having an obscenely large closet that seemed to fill all by itself. You could find nothing.

I had on my black leggings, my new overlarge red sweater that hung off my shoulder, now I needed my other crapping boot. Damn Victoria for trying to make me coordinated when it came to stupid stuff like colors and what went with what and shoes that actually matched. So time consuming!

Edward's head appeared around the door. "You lose your boot again?"

I huffed out an exasperated, "No!"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did your boot, the one that hates you, run away again?"

I huffed out an exasperated, "Yes!"

"You want some help?"

I huffed out an exasperated, "Please!"

Edward found it within, oh, three seconds, which made me want to kiss him and beat him with it simultaneously.

The boot went on. Outfit complete. Maybe I'd just live in it for the rest of the week, you know, save on time.

"So," I brightened instantly, "where to?"

"Lunch?"

"God yes, I'm starving!"

(-)

How "lunch" turned into a swiftly scoffed pizza followed by ice-skating in Central Park, I will probably never know.

I was marginally less horrible at it than I'd originally thought I would be. Okay, that's not true. I sucked, but I was trying. And it was fun. A lot of fun.

We were both red cheeked and nothing but giggles as we made another appalling lap around the rink, stumbling with one foot going faster than the other, pretty much constantly. Edward was equally as bad as I was and truthfully, it was endearing to finally find a fault.

"Right, left foot first," he tried to direct.

"Wait! What do you mean? Left or right first?"

"No, Bella," he laughed. "I meant, right – left foot first."

"Right and then left?"

His chuckles deepened.

"What?" I exclaimed, my indignant tone becoming completely overshadowed by my laughter. "Why are you laughing? What's so funny?"

"My God, whose idea was this?"

"Yours!"

Edward's shoulders started moving in sync with his chortles. "Jesus. Your GPA's never dropped below a 4.0 and I build skyscrapers. How is it we're so bad at this?"

"We're not that bad."

Edward gave me a look.

"Okay, alright," I held up my hands, lost my balance and started tap-dancing against the ice. I grabbed a hold of Edward's arm to steady myself, thus making him lose his balance as well. We landed in a heap. A very, very sore heap. "I admit it, we're terrible."

"Absolutely atrocious." He kissed my nose before detangling his limbs from mine and helping me up.

We both agreed to give up for a few minutes and take a breather, you know, give the bruises time to turn black before we gave it another shot. We made our way over to the side like a pair of newborn deer, arms and legs stretched out wide while we both hollered, "No, don't hold on to me!"

Edward slammed into the side first. I slammed into him. There were umphs all around.

"I think I'm scared to go back out," Edward admitted, somewhat seriously, as he wrapped me in his arms.

"You can stand at the top of a building site spanning over one thousand feet. I'm pretty sure you aren't scared of anything."

His arms tightened around me. "I'm scared of a great many things, Miss Swan."

The way he said that made me frown, like there was some deep meaning behind those words that I'd missed entirely. But I didn't get the chance to question them, not when his Blackberry started a shrilling tantrum that refused to be ignored.

So as Edward fumbled around in his coat pocket for the intruder, I figured I'd give him some space to take the call. I'd try the skating thing solo and hopefully not die.

As I heard the ringing cut off and Edward's pleasant greeting, I noticed how beautiful the park was in winter. There was a definite Christmas-is-coming glow around the place that lit you up inside with a childlike anticipation. The trees were all bare but here on the rink it felt very cozy, what with the large buildings in the distance boxing everything in like a pair of warm arms shielding you from the worst of a storm. People of all ages on the ice positively shined with happiness, whether it was the shy kind coming from the couples who seemed to be on their first date, or the proud kind coming from the parents who watched as their little ones managed to get three paces ahead on their own, right before butt planting it to the ground. Large groups of friends laughed and cheered on as some the boys tried to pull off Axel jumps and failed miserably, and Grandparents barked out orders to older siblings to help the younger ones from the sidelines. Every now and then, someone with real skating ability would whizz on by, so elegant and graceful in the way they moved and floated through the air. Everyone seemed in good spirits, out to brace the cold weather with chunky winter coats and fluffy earmuffs to protect them.

I found myself becoming a little melancholy as I looked all around me at the different faces, from young to old. These people, they were living lives I never had – would never have. My background wasn't shrouded in loving memories of weekend daytrips with my parents, I couldn't reminisce about a large friendship group and all the silly crap we used to pull back in high school, and even looking at the families kind of stung, because I doubted that would ever be me. I hadn't done things the normal way, and even though I knew to my very core that the usual way genuinely wasn't for me, something pulled in my chest and told me I'd lost something on a far greater level, something I would never find. Because I hadn't had the chance to do the normal, run-of-the-mill stuff in my past, and my current future outlook didn't include any of the regular stuff either. And it's not that that really bothered me as such, it was more like realizing for the first time just how vastly different my path in life was to everybody else's. There was nothing wrong with my path, but looking at theirs made a tiny voice inside me ask, "Oh, but what about the what ifs?"

What if I'd had the kind of father that picked me up after school and took me with him on his fishing trips?

What if my mother had been warm and kind and loving?

What if I'd been popular at school, just one of the in girls who got invited to the parties and sleepovers?

What if everything had been different and I'd gone to college as just another ordinary student getting into lots and lots of debt?

What if I'd met a guy at school my own age that brought me ice-skating on our very first date?

Strange. Standing here, I knew I wouldn't change anything. But still, the what ifs were there, would probably always be there. I guess that was just human nature though, wasn't it? We were all the sad little paupers looking in at the Bakers window, thinking of how different things would be if we had what we didn't.

I think the truly comical thing about it all was how when I looked back at Edward, I saw just how many people looked at him a beat too long, how many people stared at him and seemed to question their own what ifs. And who knew, maybe there was a person on the rink today watching him and I laughing and smiling at one another while thinking: They look happy. I wonder what it's like to be them.

Shaking myself out of my musings, I made my way back over to Edward, who ended his call and slipped his phone back into his pocket.

The smile he gave me was tight.

"Everything alright?"

"My mother."

Oh.

What I wanted to ask was, "Has Rosalie escaped again? Is she at the top of the Empire State Building eating planes and terrorizing the world?"

Instead I asked, "She okay?"

"Uh," he rubbed the back of his neck. "She's invited us to dinner. Tonight."

I slipped and fell flat on my ass.

I claimed loss of balance again.

Not shock.

Or fear.

(-)

As I glanced up at the enormous five storey Sutton Place townhouse, I found myself gulping rapidly. I saw nothing but dollar signs flashing in front of my eyes. They may as well have been incorporated into the masonry work, for the place just screamed money-money-money. Edward's house wasn't like this. Edward had a home. This didn't look like a home. It looked a little like a shrine to all things that could be bought with a black American Express card.

It intimidated the crap out of me.

The monstrosity glaring down at me was located on the east side corner of Sutton Place, right in-between 57th and 58th Street. It was very much Sutton Place proper, spanning only two blocks in length with a zip code price range of millions to millions.

The buildings on either side of the street were a collective mix of single red and brown bricked town homes and much larger co-op apartment structures, but they all had one thing in common. They all catered to the very wealthy. There were trees lining the spotless pavements, trees I imagined would look wonderfully cheerful in the spring but now looked spooky and twisted, less a friendly welcome and more a careful warning. Where street parking was allowed, town cars and limousines waited on standby for the Saturday evening pick-ups and drops offs to sophisticated events where I had no doubt the Dom Perignon would flow freely. There were doormen standing at the entrances of every luxury apartment complex, doing their gentlemanly thing for the people who exited without manners or a kind word, seeing right through the poor guy who'd raced ahead to open the door for them.

Frankly, it was a different world, and I knew I was probably being unfair in my judgment of it. But I couldn't help that. With everything I'd heard about Edward's family, my defensive hackles seemed to be rising instinctively and all on their own.

I'd gotten out of Edward's Mercedes so that he could carefully maneuver himself into a tight parking spot and once again, I picked at the imaginary lint that wasn't on my coat. I couldn't seem to stop doing it. I'd put on a plain but pretty cream dress that had a pleated skirt, black tights and my new black suede knee-high boots. I didn't know why it was important, but I wanted to sit through this dinner knowing the clothes on my back were bought with my money, not Edward's. I sensed they'd already know that I didn't come from some well-to-do elitist family, so I'd reasoned that I would much rather sit through this dinner as the pauper in her own clothes than the pauper dressed up as a rich girl.

"Bella, you're fidgeting again."

I blinked at the sound of his voice behind me, though I couldn't pull my eyes away from his family's imposing house. Wringing my fingers together, I whispered, "Sorry."

"Bella?" Edward came to stand in front of me and carefully prized my hands apart, squeezing them gently in his own. "If you want to go home, we'll go home. I told you already, we don't have to be here. Believe me, I can think of at least ninety other things I'd rather be doing right now instead, some of them quite painful."

My pathetic laugh sounded more like a whimper. "I'm nervous."

"I know."

"I'm really, really nervous."

"I know." Edward cupped my face in his hands, his thumbs smoothing over my cheeks. "But please try not to be, I'm right here with you. Just say the word and I'll take you home, okay?"

"Okay."

We'd been over this more times than I could count, with Edward drilling the same words into my head over and over again. He hadn't wanted to come; it was me who'd suggested we probably should. 'Cause you know, I'm just a frickin' genius.

We made our way up the steps hand in hand and Edward rang the bell. In no time at all, a tall, balding older man in a pressed tailored suit was opening the door, smiling warmly at Edward and offering his hand, which Edward shook with friendly familiarity.

"Mr. Cullen."

"Arthur, good to see you."

We stepped over the threshold and the door was closed quietly behind us.

"And this must be the lovely Miss Swan?"

I smiled, because frankly, what the hell else could I do, and was grateful when the man seemed to sense my hesitancy to touch him and merely smiled back at me. Edward helped me out of my coat and handed it to the guy, who then led us deeper into the house.

"Dr. Cullen is on a conference call right now, but shouldn't be much longer," Arthur spoke politely as he guided us, sure and confident in the steps he'd no doubt walked a million times over. "And Mrs. Cullen rang to apologize, she's been held up at a charity event but said to assure you she was doing her best to hurry home."

The heels of my boots clicked and clacked against a solid marble floor as we walked into a large foyer, one that was decked out in various shades of creams and blacks and metallic's. The accents were gilded and the furniture was all spindly French chic. There were expensive portraits hanging on the walls, a beautiful crystal chandelier dangling from the high ceiling and the most elaborate gold and black railings running up either side of a polished granite staircase. The more I saw, the more I felt like as ink smudge smeared across the glossy pages of some luxury home and lifestyles magazine. It was truly beautiful in its magnificence, but it wasn't Edward's house. There was no warmth, no life here. Everything felt cold and very still, frozen in place.

The decor continued in much the same fashion as we were taken into a sitting room, the only differences being the heavy drapes that were hung over the floor to ceiling windows and the roaring fireplace at the room's heart, the flames of which offered up the first real slice of heat in this picture perfect house.

Arthur's arm extended out in the direction of a very fancy silk covered chaise lounge. "Can I offer some refreshments while you are waiting?"

My eyes zoned in on a portrait hanging between two windows, a portrait that immediately had my attention and made me forget about my nerves. Slowly, I untangled my hand from Edward's grasp and allowed my feet to carry me toward it.

"Bella sweetheart, would you like some wine?"

I wasn't really listening. My eyes were totally transfixed.

"Bella?"

My feet stopped. My eyes squinted. A smirk began tugging at my lips.

Ha!

I turned back toward Edward, feeling the corners of my eyes crease the bigger my grin became.

"My my, Cullen," I shook my head for effect. "What a mighty fine geek you made."

Arthur's professional edge slipped momentarily as he snorted and said, "Oh, I like her."

Edward rolled his eyes. "Wine?"

"Please."

"Two glasses, Arty, though make mine a small one, I'm driving. And for the record, you're supposed to be on my side, Judas."

Arthur schooled his expression, though his eyes were definitely twinkling with amusement. "Right away, Sir."

Edward waited for the man to leave the room before quickly and playfully defending, "I was not a geek!"

"Oh-oh you so were!"

"I was not!"

"Look at this!" My pointer finger jabbed at the airspace behind me. "Suspenders. And braces." My eyes narrowed teasingly. "I knew those pearly whites were too good to be true!"

"I'll have you know the fifth grade girls loved those suspenders."

"I'm sure the fifth grade boys did, too. Extra wedgie pulling power."

"You're mean, Miss Swan!"

I just couldn't help laughing. "I'm sorry, it's just... look at you! You're all flawless and pretty and it's unnerving. It's nice to know you weren't always so perfect."

Which was a serious freakin' understatement, let me assure you. The architect, circa 1981, was a total bully magnet.

Poor Edward.

He came over to me, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. "I'm not perfect."

I gave him a look.

"I can prove it."

"You have more scary pictures?"

"Lots more," he wagged his eyebrows. "Care to take a look?"

"Silly question."

"Promise not to leave me?"

I buried my head into his chest, my shoulders jerking from the force of my sniggers.

"Your wine, Mr. Cullen."

We both glanced up at Arthur, whose old, wrinkled eyes were still shining with an understated sort of delight. We took our glasses with thanks and Edward led me from the room into another across the foyer, flicking on the lights as we entered. I guessed it to be a music room of sorts, what with the great grand piano sitting proudly in one corner, and a striking antique harp in another. It wasn't the instruments Edward was interested in showing me, however, as he guided me toward a long cherry oak sideboard crammed front to back with old and new photo frames.

Strange. From what I'd heard about them, Dr. and Mrs. Cullen hadn't struck me as an overly sentimental pair. I'd been prepared for the odd doom and gloom family painting, but not a family history that went from very old black and white to recent digital color. Yet it was all here, even a professional photograph of Emmett and Rosalie on their wedding day. I picked the frame up, noticing how Emmett looked as if someone had just handed him the moon. And Rosalie, oh, she looked happy, too. What had happened to that, I had to wonder.

I replaced the frame, my eyes instantly finding baby Edward by those lovely jade pools I now knew so well, despite the crappy quality of the older picture. He was a cute baby – a ridiculously cute baby.

A car alarm blaring into the night suddenly snapped me out of my thoughts and Edward's irritated groan was deep and filled with a whole lot of oh-for-God-sake.

Kissing the top of my head, he muttered, "And that's why the Jag stayed at home. I'll be back."

Nodding, I mumbled an "Okay" before becoming distracted by the photographs once more.

There were so many. Admittedly, the majority weren't very natural images, but posed for professional ones. I was bewildered to see graduation pictures for both of Edward's degrees amongst the collection and it wasn't until I started looking much closer that I finally started to see a pattern.

Every person in every picture was neat as a pin.

Every person in every picture was either beautiful or accomplished or successful.

There was Edward playing the piano, Edward playing that harp, Edward at school award evenings accepting prizes, Edward as Valedictorian, Edward showing off his degrees, Edward standing outside his company's building on what appeared to be the grand opening day, Edward and... Kate – the glowing , happy, prefect couple.

Huh.

I got the distinct sense this was much less a proud familial shrine and more a subtle we-only-produce-the-best showcase. And I couldn't put my finger on why I thought that, I mean, most parents would lovingly want to show off their children's achievements, right? But it was all a bit false, not quite believably complete. Where was Edward out riding his bike or playing ball with his friends? Where were the photos from birthdays and vacations and Easter egg hunts, the cheesy Christmas holiday cards that got sent out every year? Weren't they just as important, just as sentimental as the piano recitals and the graduation ceremonies?

Perhaps not. What did I really know about it anyway, my parents weren't exactly Kodak friendly people. My father mounted stuffed fish on his walls and my mother was more a fan of personal decoration.

I heard Edward's footsteps slowly approaching as I picked up the photograph of his first graduation. God, he was only a couple of years older than me in the picture. "I see you grew out of the suspenders."

I sensed the presence behind me and turned, more than ready to roll my eyes at everything else he'd unfairly grown out of, when I noticed the eyes staring alarmingly close down at me weren't Edward's kind green, but a stranger's frosty blues.

Startled, I felt the pricey, solid silver frame slip through my fingertips. In a swift, smooth move, the man's hand shot down and saved it from what would have been a very loud, very shattered end.

"I can't imagine my wife would be happy to lose this one."

Dr. Cullen.

His proximity felt like a nightmare come true. The nearness, his nearness, was far too close to be considered acceptable in my books. Edward stood this close when he wanted to kiss me. The intimate lack of space or distance this stranger was forcing on me set my teeth straight on edge.

"I-I'm sorry. I thought you were..."

He raised his eyebrows. "Yes?"

I cleared my throat, glanced toward the door, glanced back, and tried not to cringe.

His platinum blonde hair was lightly streaked with grey and his facial features were sharp, almost unnervingly hawk-like. The striking pigment of his crystal blue eyes shone bright with a shrewd kind of intelligence, one that made me feel like a dribbling toddler stacking alphabet blocks in the wrong order. He wasn't an obviously handsome man, not in the way Edward was. Instead, there was a subtle beauty to his looks, one that was no doubt enhanced by his apparent intellect. He wasn't as tall as his adopted son and his frame was certainly thinner too, yet there was a silent, almost dangerous strength that radiated off him in waves. He was a dominant figure with a quick, sly edge.

He was an imposing man to have to look up at, the propinquity of his looming form not helping matters any. My crazy switch felt like it was getting ready to flicker on, gearing up for the returned curtain call of She's Gonna Blow.

Oh, I wished he'd move back a little.

"You," I began in a shaky voice, "must be Dr. Cullen?"

His eyes seemed to flash and I found myself taking in a deep breath. The sharp, mixing scents of cigar smoke and extra strong mints instantly assaulted my nose and travelled down the back of my throat.

"What an astute observation," he responded dryly, leaning further into me as he set the frame back down onto the sideboard. I moved with him, literally jamming myself against the piece of fine furniture at my back, the wood cutting painfully into the base of my spine.

Please don't touch me. Please don't touch me. Please don't touch me.

He took a small step back, like, infinitesimally small.

"And you must be Miss Swan." It wasn't a question, but a statement.

"Um, yes," I whispered as I attempted to straighten. What was the correct protocol here? I wasn't exactly up to date on meet the parent's etiquette. All I could manage in the end was a quiet, "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Is it." Again, there was no hint of a question mark tacked on to the end of his words.

I heard the front door open and close, shortly followed by voices and that tale tell click-clacking of heels on marble.

"... it's only a car, Edward. Really."

"A car with a rather large dent in it, Mother."

"Well call that mechanic then."

"It looks like I'll have to. And saying his name out loud won't make you break out in hives."

"We'll agree to disagree. Now, where is this girl I've heard so much about but seen nothing of? One would think you were trying to keep her from me."

"One would probably be correct, so behave. And like Emmett, Bella has a name. Please use it."

"Bella?"

"Isabella."

The woman, Mrs. Cullen, made a noise, which if I were to judge, meant my name was somehow wrong. "Marginally better."

"For the love of God," Edward sighed, clearly frustrated. "I will happily take Bella home, Esme. Cut the crap."

"Language!" She was quick to admonish. "Now where is she? And don't think for a minute I haven't noticed that tan, Edward. Honestly, did you douse yourself in cooking oil before leaving the hotel room each morning?"

"Australia in the summertime generally means exposure to the sun."

"Are you being smart with me?"

"One of us should probably attempt to be. You play house to nothing but silly."

I didn't quite know what to make of the back and forth exchange. It was all a bit bizarre. Edward always described his mother as a, what was it? A snobbish old bat? And I could understand why, having heard all of that. Yet there was a suggested affection in her tone when she spoke to him, like this bickering was just their norm. And perhaps it was.

What came striding into the room was everything and nothing I had expected. She was dainty, almost frail looking. But with her caramel colored hair pinned tightly up in a bun and a pair of hazel eyes you just knew missed nothing, she was silently fierce, a sleeping dragon. It seemed like the wind could knock her over in those monstrous high heels. Her mint green Chanel suit was perfectly straight, not a crease in sight, and the string of elegant pearls at her neck didn't seem to move at all, perhaps for fear of reprimand. There was a distinct air of importance in the way she moved, but there was grace and poise there too. She was a lady second and a perceptive player of the highest order first. She was sort of frightening to be honest, at total odds with her petite frame.

"Carlisle, don't crowd the girl!"

Again with the girl. That would surely get annoying real quick.

Edward clapped eyes on me immediately, his gaze narrowing and slipping toward his father as he noticed the lack of space between us.

"You're looking especially terrifying this evening, my dear," the doctor drawled to his wife as he finally stepped away from me. "Edward."

Edward didn't return the greeting; he did however continue to level the man with a stare that if turned on me, would make me feel all of an inch tall. There was nothing but barely contained animosity in those green eyes.

"Miss Swan," Esme Cullen stepped into her husband's previous space and offered me her hand, "I've heard nothing but tales of you. Welcome to our home."

Smile – say something nice!

"Oh, thank you. It's... lovely to meet you."

Dr. Cullen snorted derisively.

Maybe that was wrong thing to say.

I lightly placed my hand in hers and bit down on my lip to stop from screaming at the contact. She just about crushed my bones.

There was nothing frail about Mrs. Cullen, apparently.

"Well, I believe dinner is ready and I must say, I'm quite looking forward to picking your brains, Isabella."

My smile felt like more of a cringe.

I wanted to go home.


To be continued...