Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight, no copyright infringement intended.

Thank you to Jen for the pre-read.

Chapter music:

OneRepublic – Let's Hurt Tonight

Ella Henderson – Yours

'You're on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go.'

~ Dr. Seuss, 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!'

Chapter Twenty-Five

His tailored black pants, expensive woolen overcoat and plaid cashmere scarf all gave way to the air of self-importance that sheathed him. Two months had done nothing but add to the arrogance that seemed to seep from the man.

"Dr. Cullen," I said quietly, the shock evident in my tone as my gaze finally fixed on to his razor sharp eyes. "I didn't realize you were here tonight."

"Just stopping by to show face. I was held up at work."

"Oh." I stared at him dumbly, not knowing what to do or say. I could have sworn Edward told me his parents wouldn't be here tonight. They had other plans. It was one of the main reasons he wanted to come – we wouldn't bump into them.

"You can pick that up." He indicated to the money lying in a heap on the floor. "I dealt with the tip."

"I-uh…" I frowned, bending carefully to scoop up the bills. "Thank you. Let my pay you back."

"No need. Where should I put these?" He held the ice bucket containing the bottle and glasses out toward me a little.

I reached out for it. "I can take them."

"You know," he said, pulling the bucket away, "I distinctly remember you giving my wife quite the ear lashing on manners back in December, Isabella. I'll ask again, shall I? Where would you like them?"

I swallowed sharply, feeling my jaw tense. Hesitantly, I turned my body sideways and backed up against the wall, tightening my grip on the door handle. "The coffee table. Thank you."

Dr. Cullen's steps were measured as he crossed over the threshold. The smell of fresh night air, cigar smoke and spicy cologne hit my nose as he breezed by me and set the items down. The clink of metal meeting glass seemed to scream in the silence of the room. I watched from my position at the door as he twirled the bottles neck around, facing the label his way.

"Vintage Bollinger," he murmured. "You've developed an expensive taste, Miss Swan." He turned to face me, slowly raising his hand and waving it toward the door. "You may close that."

"But Edward's downstairs."

"I'm aware."

"Well, don't you want to go and see him?"

"I think I'll wait for him here."

My grimace spread across my face like wildfire. This night was turning into a car crash. Kate, Rosalie – now him. I'd had enough eventful surprises this evening to tide me over until June. The man was an ass. I didn't want him here! Steeling myself, I squared my shoulders. "I think it'd be better if you waited downstairs."

He smirked, making a grand show of sitting himself down on the sofa. He crossed his leg over his knee and started drumming his fingers against the armrest. "I'll wait here."

My hold on the handle started to hurt. Arrogant slime!

"I'd like some champagne, if you're opening it."

I fired my hand against the back of the door, forcing it closed. "I'm not."

"Pity. It's a good year."

Where was Edward? He could come and deal with this. My god. The damn nerve of him! Talk about ending the night on a low! No wonder Rosalie had become such an obnoxious brat. His contemptuous superiority was absolutely mind-blowing.

"Curious thing, isn't it?" he drawled lazily as I started heading for the bedroom.

I couldn't smother the frosty bite in my tone as I asked, "What?"

"Your relationship with my son. You just sprung up out of nowhere."


"After he paid your school fees, of course," he added smoothly. "Very generous of him."

I froze as I hit the divide between the two rooms. How the hell did he know Edward paid my fees? That information was strictly confidential!

"Never could put it together," Dr. Cullen continued. "Edward being who he is and all. He's never been short on offers. Yet he chose you – a nobody from nowhere. Why is that?"

I turned around to face him slowly, feeling the hem of my dress brush against my bare feet. The muscles in my shoulders felt stressed and tight, and my back started to tingle. "Maybe you could ask him yourself. He'll be up any minute."

"Oh, I doubt that," he whispered, leveling me with his dark gaze. "He's busy discussing business. He'll be a while yet. Strong work ethic, my son. Would have made a phenomenal surgeon."

"He didn't want to be a surgeon."

His blue eyes flashed, turning from dark to dangerous. "Of course. I forgot. You know him better than anyone, don't you, Isabella?"

"Well enough," I ground out tersely.

"Well enough to what?" he pressed. He stood up and slowly edged his way around the low-lying table, coming toward me. There was something avaricious in the way he moved, sly and cat-like – almost predatory. "Have him screw you through college?"

And just like that, the alarm bells started to blare. The clarity that swept through me as the earsplitting warning continued to scream, deafening my senses beyond belief, might have been amusing…if it wasn't so emotively chilling. He wasn't here to see Edward at all. He was here to see me. To intimidate me. To scare me. Just another bully lying in wait for me to leave Edward's side so that he could snap his jaws and make his threats.

I started to back up gradually. I couldn't believe I was here again – alone, defenseless and being stalked like a piece of prey by someone much bigger and stronger. I couldn't go through that again. I couldn't stomach the thought of feeling that cold, creeping fear. I couldn't do it. I wouldn't!

"I don't know what you're talking ab-"

"Oh," he breathed out through a humorless, wicked chuckle. "I believe you do."

I angled my legs around the bed, feeling the comforter skim against my dress. My cell was charging on the nightstand nearest the window. All I had to do was get to it. He wasn't in my way. I could make it.

I kept my eyes fixed on him, watching him advance. "I want you to leave."

"What you want is of no consequence to me."

"It's of consequence to Edward. And I don't think he'd be too pleased to hear you didn't leave when asked!"

"Ah." He thinned his lips. "Except I don't particularly care whether my son is pleased or not, Miss Swan. Edward's galling ability to churn out new and exciting ways to disappointment me somewhat prevent me from caring much at all."

"And yet here you are…not caring much at all."

"Intrepid little witch, aren't you?" He leered at me, taking another menacing step forward. "You bounce between skittishly mute and having zero filter between your brain and your mouth at all. Edward's influence, I'll bet. He's always had an infuriating knack for not knowing when to keep his trap shut."

My shoulders skimmed the wall. I started edging my way along, feeling my fingers itch to get hold of my cell – my safety line. A sideways glance toward the nightstand to check the distance I had left to go was all it took. Dr. Cullen moved with the speed of a cheetah on the hunt. His hand slammed against the plasterboard right next to my head, blocking my path. He was so close I could feel his chest rub against mine as I inhaled.

"Tell me…" He ran the back of his free hand deftly down my cheek. My stomach rolled at the contact, forcing a dry gag up my throat. "What was the agreement? An Ivy League education in exchange for what's between your legs? Does he tell you he loves you at night while he crawls between them, gradually fucking away your debt?"

I wouldn't scream. I wouldn't. I refused to give him the satisfaction!

"You get the hell away from me!" I hissed.

He inhaled slowly, like he was breathing me in. "Is it easier to stomach being a little whore when he treats you like a princess? I wonder," his voice dropped low as he exhaled against me, his face inching closer, "is the magic between those thighs so very good that he actually believes he cares for you, Isabella?"

I cringed openly, turning my head to the side. My jaw trembled violently as I sucked in a desperate, ragged lungful of air. But it tasted like him. All around me was the smell and feel and sight of him. It disgusted me – repulsed me in a way I'd never known.

"I can see the appeal. Truly, I can. Looking the way you do tonight, I might have even considered your services myself. You're trash and I wouldn't lower myself, of course, but there is definitely something about you. So innocent…so damaged. Does Edward even know what he's let himself in for with you?"

The sting was building in the back of my eyes. So powerful. So horribly, horribly strong. I blinked frantically up at the ceiling, trying to drown that sting away. Maybe if I blinked hard enough, it would all drown – wash away like a mudslide that had met with a freak downpour.

"Your reaction to me back in December was ever so telling," he continued. "The way you shrunk away from me, like the thought of being touched caused you real physical discomfort." His fingers skimmed my jawbone. He made an appreciative noise when a small, pained cry escaped me.

"I managed to do a little digging after that. Your old social work reports made for some very interesting reading. Haphephobia…intriguing fear. Rare, too. Rose went through a spate as an infant – developed quite early on, just like you. In her case if was offset by abuse prior to her adoption, but there was no mention of that in your files. So what happened? Could mommy and daddy just not learn to love their doe eyed daughter?"

"Fuck you!" I managed to choke out, turning a watery eyed glare on him.

"Fuck me?" he echoed. "Have I been too subtle, Isabella? Fucking me is exactly how you've ended up here. And it's going to stop." His hand reached into the inside breast pocket of his overcoat, pulling a folded piece of cream card from it. "I never approved of Edward's chosen path. You know that. But I can certainly appreciate his ability."

My stomach fell away from me as he opened it up, holding it a few inches away from my face. It had seen better days, but I'd know it anywhere. Even creased and tatty and covered in speckles of blood, I would know it.

Isabella's Cathedral.

The sob was out of my mouth before I could stop it. My legs buckled, the shock and the fright and the memory of its loss too much for my weight to bear. Not even the excruciating burn of Dr. Cullen's hands catching my arms and yanking me back up like a ragdoll could break through it. I felt like I was suffocating. I could ignore the way his fingernails dug into my skin. I could suffer the way his face pressed against the side of mine. But that awful, burdensome comprehension…that crushed me entirely.

He was the wrong shape, the wrong size – wrong smell. He hadn't been the one in my room back in January. I was certain of that. But the attacker had taken my print. That print was now in Edward's father's hand. Another sob escaped me.

"I want you gone. Do you hear me?" he whispered harshly into my ear. "You will pack your things, and you will leave before you do my family's reputation any more harm. You forget whatever ridiculous fantasy my stupid son has fed you, and you get out of this city. I want your association with the Cullen name scrubbed. You were never here. You do not know Edward. You crawl back to that sewer you came from, and you stay there."

I gasped desperately, feeling like I couldn't scramble enough air down into my lungs to keep going. My chest just burst. Not because the idea of leaving New York and Columbia and heading back to Forks was so totally repellent to me, but because the thought of not being here with Edward…was. I couldn't leave him, I suddenly realized. I couldn't. I didn't want to. He was Edward, my architect extraordinaire. He made me happy. He was safety and warmth and…and…

And he loved me.

I gasped again as something unknown and fluttery overcame me. A feeling. A trickle. A dawning. An understanding. Nobody had ever loved me. Nobody had ever wanted me. And that was okay before. I lacked the emotional depth to really understand it – to care about it. How could I possibly miss it or want it or accept it when I'd never had it to begin with. Love had always been that mythical pot of gold at the rainbows end. I could see the rainbow just fine, but the gold proved evasive. People talked about finding it, but their talk didn't make it any more real to me.

Except Edward had made it real. With every look and touch and word, a few gold coins appeared, dazzling me. I was hesitant to touch them, to pick them up and stash them away, but being wary of their appearance didn't mean I wanted to give them back! It was my gold. It belonged to me. I finally had a little hoard of my own now. I couldn't go back to just staring at the rainbow, not when the best shade of yellow was sitting at the bottom of it!

How could I ever give that up? I didn't want to. Not now. Not for him. Not for anyone. Why should I!?

It was Rosalie all over again – just another tormenter trying to mow me down and make me feel small and powerless. But I did have power. He could only be a bully if I agreed to be his victim. What else could he possibly do to me that I hadn't already suffered through and survived? I'd aced the damn classes on pulling through as an infant! People had taken things from me my whole goddamn life. They had robbed me, abandoned me and left me alone and destitute in more ways than one. But Edward had never done any of that. He never would. In Edward I finally had someone who thought about me, who put me first and cared. Really cared. I mattered to him and he mattered to me. I wasn't about to surrender any of those freedoms because some nasty, scheming pirate told me to! There was nothing he could pull out of his pocket full of tricks that would hurt me any more than he already had. You couldn't force a person at rock bottom any further down and you could only flog a horse dead. I didn't need to be afraid of him!

For the first time in my life, I started to get angry. The intensity of it gnawed at my guts like a swift moving necrosis on the prowl, hungry to consume. I'd had enough. I had absolutely had enough! How fucking dare he! I wasn't trash. I wasn't a nobody! Not to Edward. Not to Emmett. Not to James or Vicky or any of my college friends. Who was he to put me down, to tell me I wasn't good enough? Why did I keep letting these toxic people shove me around? I wasn't made of glass – they couldn't break me! So why? Why did I keep allowing them to infect me with their spite? It had to stop!

I raised my head, emboldened by my newfound rage. I grabbed onto it like a life vest, allowing it to drag me from the looming darkness and propel me all the way to the surface. The glare I fired at him was withering. "No."

"Excuse me?"

"I. Said. No." I spat, enunciating every letter. I wrenched my arms free, feeling his embedded nails tear my skin from the force.

"You're in no position to tell me no, girl."

"My name isn't girl!"

"I don't care what your name is. You will go-"

"I won't!"

Dr. Cullen inhaled sharply, his eyes furious. "Insolent little bitch…"

"And you're a psychotic little narcissist. I can see where Rosalie gets it! Now get away from me!"

"So help me god, Isabella, I will-"

"You'll what?" I snapped furiously. "Intimidate me. Hurt me. Tell me I'm a whore. Tell the world I'm a whore. Go ahead!" I shoved my hands into his chest, forcing him back a step. Oh, I was livid! "But I'm not going anywhere. I'm not giving him up! Is that too subtle for you?"

"Do you realize who I am?" he seethed, his spittle hitting my face. "Do you have any idea what I can do to you?"

"Do you have any idea how much I don't care?" I reeled, my voice rising as I swiped at my face. "You're no worse than the last lot of noxious waste I left behind. You don't scare me! Make your threats. Do what you want. I'm still not leaving him!"

A sudden movement caught the corner of eye, making my head swivel toward the bedroom door as my chest heaved, my hands shook and the adrenalin kicked at my heart. Dr. Cullen followed suit, a solo domino knocked back by curiosity. I didn't know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or cower away in the corner at the sight we both met, just a few feet away.

Edward stood statuesque at the threshold, his stance tall and strong with his hands folded away in his pants pockets. Emmett's beastly size towered behind him – nostrils flaring, bulging arms folded across his chest, facial expression screaming: start fucking running.

Oh god!

How much had they heard?

Dr. Cullen turned his head back to me, a very clear warning dominating his hardened stare. "Good evening, Edward. Emmett."

Edward stepped through the doorway, the epitome of composure. His movements were slow and measured; calm, collected…and yet, the air in the room chilled exponentially with every advancing stride that he took. Emmett stayed close to his heels, a grim-faced brute at his back. The silence that followed them in was so profound, the squeak of Emmett's dress shoes – rarely worn and still like new – thundered against my ears, making me wince.

"Good evening," Edward replied evenly. His stare was trained on me, and that stare was telling. Edward wasn't calm at all. What I saw in those jade pools made me step back – step away. Quickly. "Lennox said he saw you at the elevator. Misses nothing, that man."

"I was just on my way down to find you," Dr. Cullen lied smoothly, like the last few minutes hadn't even happened.

"I suppose I've just saved you a trip then, haven't I?"

Emmett broke away from Edward's heels as the gap between father and son narrowed in the small room. He planted one huge foot onto the bed, sprung himself up and cleared the width of it in a single step. He landed heavily behind my frozen form and wrapped his immense upper half around my shoulders, his arms closing around me protectively. I sucked a pained breath through my teeth as his chest grazed the back of my arms though. I adjusted around him, peering down at my left limb only to find several red welts scored into my skin – a gift from the good doctor.

Emmett gently raised my arm up to inspect it. "You fucker," he bit, his tone glacial.

My eyes flew to Edward, whose gaze was also locked on my arm. He inhaled deeply, removed one of his hands from his pocket and ran it across his jaw.

Oh, that wasn't right.

Something was wrong. I mean, it was all wrong, but Edward…that didn't look like Edward. Not at all. He had the look of a man who suffered from a split personality. His face was mid character change, poised at a slanting angle. His features were tensely shifting, his jowls working overtime to try and suppress whatever was building deep within him. He closed his eyes. He took another deep breath.

Dr. Cullen cleared his throat. "Well, like I said…" He started to turn around to face his son. "I was on my way down-"

The move was like a flash of lightening streaking through an angry, black sky. It was so sudden and quick, I wondered if I had seen it at all. Edward's hand shot from his jaw straight toward his father, grabbed him by the back of the neck, and smashed his face straight into the wall. The crunch of bones not just breaking, but shattering completely upon impact, was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

My mouth fell open as I watched Dr. Cullen's nose…explode. Not like the aftermath of an unfortunate accident involving a doorframe or somebody's fist. It was no mere crush injury. His nose caved in completely. Disappeared. Disintegrated. Decimated.

Holy shit. It was gone.

The shock of the violence left the man not screaming from the pain as I would've expected, but gasping – dragging harsh breaths in like the victim of a drowning.

Edward's face was hauntingly still as he stepped flush against his father, but his eyes, my god his eyes. They were murderous. "I'm going to say this once, and once only," he cooed, his voice quiet and scarily soft. "If you ever come near her again – if you ever touch her or look at her or breathe the same air as her, I won't stop at breaking your nose. I won't stop at all. The doctors will do what they can, but you will spend the rest of your life looking like a Halloween mask."

Edward moved his hand from the back of Carlisle's neck to the back of his head. He added some pressure to his hold, mashing Dr. Cullen's face flatter against the wall, forcing an agonized cry out of him. "And if you ever threaten her again, I will move past your face and down to your hands. Your precious, world-renowned, million dollar hands. I will mangle those hands to such an extent, you won't be able to wipe your own ass, let alone perform surgery. You will stay away from her, Carlisle. Do I make myself clear?"

Dr. Cullen made several gurgle-like noises, the kind that suggested he may have swallowed his own tongue. Edward seemed to take that as confirmation. He released his grip and stepped back. I watched, horrified, as Dr. Cullen fell to his knees, dragging his bloodied face down the wall as he went. I blinked at the stark red streak he'd painted against the light grey paint.

My fingers reached for Emmett's arms, desperately needing something to grip hold of.

"I got you, Bells," he reassured, the words barely audible.

Such a strange and curious thing, to see a bully on their knees. I wouldn't have wished that kind of suffering on anybody, not even him after everything he'd said and done. But it was a very real car crash moment. It was sickening to observe, but too enrapturing to ignore. Not five minutes ago he had been on his feet, dominating and aggressive – someone to fear. And now he was just flesh and bone, a pool of blood and pain slumped over on the floor. Weak. Vulnerable. Nothing.

Edward pulled at his jacket sleeves, adjusting them back into position. He was about to step further away when Dr. Cullen's hand jerked, dropping my print. The movement caught Edward's eye. I didn't know whether to keep my mouth shut or shout out for him to leave it alone. If he didn't know about it, if he hadn't heard that part of Dr. Cullen's spiel…oh god. He bent down to pick it up, turning it over.

I had my answer straight away. It was subtle, but it was there. The angry, claw like twitch in his hands told me he'd just realized how much monster lurked within the man at his feet.

"I might have known," Edward said quietly, the barest hint of suppressed rage tainting his words. "The stench of your disapproval's all over this." He ran the pads of his fingers against the blood splatters on the print. My blood spatters. He held the card down and flapped it in front of his father's crushed face. "Wilk?"

Dr. Cullen's head wobbled as he looked up, his eyes twitching tellingly before they rolled into the back of his head. He looked terrible. His naturally pale features had flushed clean any remaining pigment, turning him a ghostly shade of white. It was a sickly contrast against the bright red oozing from what used to be his nose. I didn't know how any surgeon would even begin fixing such a mess.

"I see. So where's the connection?" Edward pressed. "How do you know him?"

"Y-y-you bro-oke m-my-" Dr. Cullen spluttered.

"Your nose? Yes. Keep up. How do you know Wilk?"

Carlisle didn't respond. Not with words. The room simply filled with the moans and groans and strangled breaths of a man who was in an excruciating amount of pain. It didn't make for easy listening, yet Edward appeared unmoved, his face an impassively cold mask. His fingers drummed against the card as he stared down at his father with zero emotion. Time ticked by uncomfortably as the two of them stared at each other, saying nothing. Something told me a silent battle of wits was taking place between the pair of them though, one that I couldn't possibly hope to understand.

Several minutes had flown by when Edward's fingers stopped beating against the card very suddenly. "Oh, you're a sly son-of-a-bitch, aren't you?" he murmured. "Boston Medical."

Dr. Cullen's jaw tensed. Visibly.

Emmett shifted behind me, hugging me a little tighter. "What's Boston Medical?"

"It's a hospital. CA were exploring designs for a possible extension when I fired Wilk. All very hush hush at the time. Nobody was supposed to know about it."

I frowned. How was that relevant to anything?

"Except you found out, correct?" Edward directed at Dr. Cullen. "Some senior board buddy of yours got a bit too chatty at one of your insipid save the world conventions no doubt, letting slip that BM were looking to expand and that they'd approached me to draw up some initial ideas."

"And this was an issue because…" Emmett trailed off, clearly as confused as I was.

"Because with the amount of rumored money Boston were throwing at the project, it had the potential to topple several specialty leaderboards."

"Edward, I'm a fucking mechanic, bro. I don't speak architect or doctor."

Edward sucked a breath in through his teeth. "You're in the same room as the man who heads up this country's leading neurology practice. It's big, it's full of hotshots and the coffers are overflowing. A lot of very wealthy people donate to it, based on the fact it's the best. Their research funding is highly reliant on it remaining the best. Their budgets for training, running trials and taking on high profile pro bono cases, the ones that often see them entered into the archival hall of fame, are all also highly reliant on it remaining the best. They have a hell of a lot to lose to the competition, old or new."

I felt dizzy.

"Wilk was fired for stealing plans," I whispered, just as the pieces all began falling into place. It was one thing to see Dr. Cullen with my cathedral print, but to know there really was a genuine link between him and Wilk? That made it all so horribly, inescapably real.

Edward exhaled abruptly. "All I had to do was mention a problematic intern to Esme over lunch, and she relayed the information to you over dinner thinking nothing of it, does that sound about right? You approached Wilk for confirmation CA had the contract, wanting to know if Boston were chasing a neuro specialty. And I never would have connected it, because those plans weren't among the ones he took. He wasn't able to get to them. Christ. Even if he had, I still wouldn't have made the connection. I'd refused to take that project on if it involved a neuro expansion. It would have been a conflict of interests. I wouldn't have done that to you."

I closed my eyes, feeling my heart constrict.

Ever the loyal son.

"Just how fucked is this family!?" Emmett exploded behind me, his own loyalty to Edward making his temper spike. "How could you go behind his back like that? He's your fucking son!"

Despite his current predicament, Dr. Cullen sneered up at Emmett, the disgust and disapproval in his eyes shouting louder than words ever could.

"But not the right son," Edward said softly. "Certainly not an obedient son. Not the son he wanted." He crouched down in front of Dr. Cullen, spreading his knees wide before placing his elbows on them. "Years of trying to mold a real Cullen man wasted. Years of disrespect, impudence and humiliations instead of eternal gratitude for the new life given. And Bella's appearance was just one shame too many.

"Now if Wilk made it through James' systems at CA… Oh, I hate to think what you were able to get your hands on. Her school file, all the problems she had with certain professors, the three classes she barely scraped by in despite all her hard work last term…all you. You thought if you could just unsettle her enough at college she'd pack up and leave. Bribe the right people and squash her dream, and she'd soon go away when things didn't work out, right?"

Edward paused, toying with the print in his hand. "Except Bella's academic tenacity isn't something you can target. Columbia's her playground. Education is the one place she will always thrive, no matter what. All you did was make her more determined. She dug in her heels. She didn't go anywhere. So you burrowed a little deeper, yes? You're an intelligent man. It wouldn't have taken you long to piece together exactly what she left behind in Washington. It wasn't her school life you had to disrupt at all. It was her home life – the first bit of security she'd ever had. You just had to rattle her enough to scare her away. Such a simple plan, and Wilk helped you every step of the way."

My head swam from it all. It was too much. Much too much. It was soap opera worthy. I didn't want to acknowledge it as truth. I wanted to close my eyes and make it all just vanish. I couldn't comprehend the idea of unmasking a person who had plotted and schemed like a ghoulish bad guy from an episode of Scooby Doo. It just didn't seem real. I'd grown up around a lot of dysfunction, but this was something else entirely. This was a whole new level of depravity. The decay I'd known my whole life didn't hide. It didn't pretend to be anything other than the festering sore that it was. It was loud and honest and in your face. It didn't wear a mask. It didn't slip in and out like a vaporless carbon monoxide leak, slowly and silently chipping away at your life, breath by breath.

"But you fucked up. You sent that scumbag into my house," Edward said harshly, gripping hold of Dr. Cullen's jaw with such force, the man started to writhe about in agony. "Have you ever heard the sound of a petrified woman screaming for help? Because I have. I spent twenty minutes not knowing if she was alive or dead until your son-in-law reached her. How was Bella when you got to her, Emmett?"

"Not. Fucking. Good." Emmett growled.

"The damage, the losses – I can deal with all of that. It's just stuff. It's all replaceable. Christ, burn the damn house down for all I care. I'll build another. But Bella's not replaceable, and he hurt her." Edward pulled at his father's jaw, dragging him closer until the two men were barely an inch apart. "I don't care if things went wrong. I don't care if Wilk strayed away from whatever plan the two of you had agreed. I don't care if you never intended for any physical harm to come to her. It did. Because of you, everything leading up to this moment happened."

Edward released his face, shoving him back. "And the worst part is, I'm going to have to let you walk away. It's all circumstantial. You're too smart. You'd run rings around anyone who tried to connect you to any of it. You'll have covered every slimy, slug-like track. Dr. Carlisle Cullen, the sociopath of Sutton Place."

"Not so smart if he came here tonight," Emmett said gruffly. "We get Wilk, we get him."

"Perhaps." Edward slapped the print against Carlisle's forehead and stood up. "You and I are through. I am not your son. You are not my father. There will be no more favors."

Dr. Cullen made a derisive, snort-like sound. "You always were a fool."

"I'm a fool with means," Edward said threateningly. "You keep this up and one by one, I will offer my services to your competitors, free of charge. I'm a very wealthy man, and I know better than anyone how to bury you. If I can't put you behind any existing bars right now, I'll bide my time building you some new ones. And so help me god, if you ever harm her again, you won't be facing bars. You'll be facing a morgue. You think long and hard about that while the hospital fixes your face."

"Selfish boy. After everything we've given you…so little respect for your family." Carlisle's words were severely lisped, heaved out with tremendous effort as he tried to sit himself up straight. "She's trash, Edward. No good. Not for you. She doesn't belong here."

Emmett and I moved as one the second we noticed Edward's shoulders tense. Before he could take a step forward, Emmett raced around him toward Dr. Cullen just as I reached for his hand, tugging him back.

"If I were you," Emmett spat, wrenching Dr. Cullen up by the scruff of his neck, "I'd keep my mouth shut. 'Cause he's of a mind to skin you alive right now, and I'm of a mind to let him."

"Over a worthless little slut," Dr. Cullen muttered. "Pathetic!"

Edward's body was ready to launch. I could feel it in the air. His fury cut through it like a knife, emanating from him like a tangible element.

Oh, I didn't like it. I wasn't used to him this way.

I quickly pressed myself up against his back, laying my head flat between his shoulder blades. "Don't," I whispered. I coiled my arms around his middle, locking my wrists together. "Not worth it, Edward. Just let it go. Enough for tonight. Please."

But Dr. Cullen wouldn't stop. His mouth just kept moving. Insult after insult. And it scared me. Not because his words meant anything to me, but because I wasn't sure I could keep Edward back. The fear of it seeped into my marrow. Two long strides. That's all it would take for Edward to reach him – to get his hands on him. And I wasn't confident Edward would peel his hands away in time to see Carlisle live in anything but memory. The strain I could feel in his stomach, the shaking in his arms, the slight push against my hands as he fought to keep himself rooted to the spot – it was all a magnitude of barely curbed restraint. If I let him go, if he took those steps, he would end up the one in trouble with the police.

I felt my body lift with the power of his next inhale – a huge lungful of air taken to calm himself, to hold himself steady…to keep him with me. "Emmett, get him out of my sight and get yourself home."

Oh, thank god.

Carlisle cried out, shouting his indigence at being manhandled by Emmett as he was dragged from the room. I didn't watch. I kept my face buried in Edward's back. It was the only way I felt I could keep breathing.

"Stupid ape. Get your hands off me!" Carlisle ranted nasally. It almost sounded funny. Almost.

"You know, for someone who doesn't have a nose right now, you're a slow fucking learner!" Emmett roared, wrenching the suite door open. "Nineteen floors up and you wanna keep running that mouth. Way not smart! Unless you want me to break your fucking-"

The walls around us shook from the force of the door being slammed shut behind them. Emmett's booming rant was lost to the hallway and suddenly, it was quiet. Deathly quiet.

I squeezed my eyes shut, adjusting and turning my face so that my forehead was pressed right against Edward's spine. My legs felt like jelly. I was spent – wrung out and ready to collapse. I relaxed my grip from around his middle, feeling my arms ache in response. I flattened my palms against his stomach.

Just breathe.

He was so still. Unnervingly so. I don't know how long we stayed like that. Seconds, minutes, hours. I replayed it all in my mind, trying to figure out how we ever ended up here. Hurt after hurt and loss after loss. Where did it end? So many fractures and breaks, so much torment and anguish. People injured, lives thrown into chaos, relationships ruined. All because of one man – one monster. All over one girl – one nobody. And all because that nobody was somebody to that monster's son.

What a nightmarish mess.

Edward had just lost his father over all of this, I suddenly realized. The relationship had been strained for so long, but regardless of everything, that was the man who had plucked him from a lonely, parentless state once upon a time. He had given him a home, given him security and opportunities. If it weren't for the monster…oh…I wouldn't have the son.

It was that single thought that made me crack. "I'm so sor-"

"Don't you dare," he warned, stopping me short. "You finish that sentence and I'll end up in a cell, Bella."


My arms tightened around him again automatically. My breath caught. My eyes stung.

"I don't want you in a cell," I whispered desolately.

"No apologies then. None of this is not your fault, do you hear me?"

"Yes." I swallowed thickly. My fingers toyed with his shirt buttons, undoing a couple. I wiggled my hand through the gap and spread it out against him. I needed his warmth, his touch – that part of him that kept me steady and grounded. I needed him.

"I'm proud of you."

"For what?"

"For standing up to him. Very few people do. That took a lot of courage."

"He told me I had to leave."

"I heard."

"I don't want to leave."

"I heard that, too."

My jaw trembled, ached – hurt. I could feel the wetness forming in both corners of my eyes. "I don't want to leave you," I whispered hoarsely, hiccupping on the swell of emotion that choked its way up my throat.

I glanced up at him as he shifted his face to the side, searching for me. "I don't want that either."

I tried to smile, but I couldn't quite manage it. Single tears finally slid from both of my eyes, an expressive well that simply couldn't be plugged in time. "Still want to keep me?"

Oh, and there it was. The look. The gold to be found in his eyes. A few more coins to add to my treasure trove. Love. Pure, unrestrained, unquestionable love.

I shook myself free of his shirt as he turned to face me. His stare bore deep as his hands cupped my face. His thumbs swiped at my cheeks, brushing away the wetness. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to let you go, Bella," he admitted honestly.

From lion to mouse. Just like that. Such obvious vulnerability in the wake of such raw strength. With a flick of a switch, he was whatever I needed him to be. I had no doubt in my mind that this man, this kind, caring, gentle man, would disembowel Carlisle Cullen with his bare hands should the need ever arise. I didn't want that. I would never want that. But to wield that kind of power over somebody's heart, to experience what it felt like to know that they cared that much, to finally understand that there were no lengths I could ask of him that would ever be too long, was no small thing. It was weighted and scary and hard to comprehend, but it was precious. So indelibly precious.

He had never been more beautiful to me.

I slipped my hands up his chest, wrapping them around his neck. I popped myself up onto my tiptoes, skimming my mouth against his for the briefest of touches. "Make it better," I said shakily, remembering his words to me at the hospital back in January.

His eyes flickered knowingly. "Always."

His kiss sealed his promise. Always. It was slow and steady, chilling me in the best way, flushing my skin from hot to cold. I let myself go. I gave myself up. I poured myself into him. Maybe I would never feel truly good enough. Maybe my emaciated heart would always struggle with his words and maybe my mouth would always hold back the emotion that was so tragically alien to me. Maybe I would walk through life deaf, dumb and blind, saying and doing all of the wrong things while bearing the brunt of a poisonous upbringing that had left me scarred, scared and wanting to pull away. Maybe I would never quite grasp why the hell this man would ever, ever want me. But if he was willing to look past all of that, then maybe, just maybe, I could stop being so afraid. Because none of it would really matter. If he could love me despite my defects, then maybe there was hope for me after all. And if I could learn to accept his love, then maybe there was hope for him too.

As our tongues became tangled in a slow, sensuous samba of slick moves and sweeping rhythms, Edward shook off his dinner jacket. I helped with his shirt buttons as he dealt with his bowtie and cufflinks. They thudded noiselessly against the carpet as he discarded them. His shirt followed soon after. While his naked torso pressed flat against me, I unfastened his belt buckle, pulling it loose. I'd barely finished undoing the button and zip at his fly before snaking my hands around his sides and slotting them down flat beneath his boxers. I felt his backside flex against my hold and pulled him in further to me. My tongue slowed against his, a sensory tease of languid slips and slides as I dug my nails into his flesh. We were both breathless by the time he detached himself, placing his body directly behind mine.

"I swear, I will take the sight of you dancing in this dress to my grave, Bella." His lips closed around the juncture between my throat and shoulder as his fingers skimmed down my arms like a whisper – a barely there, ticklish touch that made my heartrate quicken. "You brought that whole room to a standstill tonight. I've never seen so many people struck dumb before." He kissed me again, allowing his mouth to linger against my skin. "You were absolutely hypnotizing."

I gasped as his teeth grazed my flesh, pulling at it lightly. "Is your plan to talk me out of this dress by being overly liberal with the truth?"

"No." He ran his hand up my back. His fingers caught hold of the hidden zip and pulled, easing it down at a torturously slow pace. "I'm going to take you out of this dress while telling you the truth."

"Are you playing word games with an English student and hoping to win?"

"I've already won," he said meaningfully, ghosting his fingers up my naked spine. He unclasped my bra, pulling at the strap and allowing the delicate lace to skim against my breasts. He threaded it out from around my front and side until I was free of it, and tossed it onto the bed.

I angled my neck to the side as his mouth caressed my throat. The sharp tug of my muscles stretching contrasted against the wonderfully faint feel of his lips climbing higher up my throat. He peeled away my dress as though he were savoring every single second, letting go only when he had to. It pooled like a red puddle at my feet.

"I love how healthy you are now." His fingers slid to my ribs, skating an intricate pattern of circles against them. "Do you remember the way these used to stick out?" He stroked down my stomach. "How far this used to dip in?" He brushed over my hipbones. "How sharp these were when you first arrived in New York?"

"Are you calling me fat, Cullen?" I quipped, the playful humor evident in my throaty tone.

"I'm calling you perfect."

"I'm not perfect."

His right hand slipped between my silk panties. "You are to me." I gasped audibly as he slithered expertly between my folds. "You always have been." He toyed with my arousal, sliding my wetness up and down – a slow, building teaser of promised things to come. "You always will be."

I closed my eyes and let my head fall back against his shoulder, absorbing every sensation. The sound of his velvety words drifting to my ears, the heat of his breath fogging against my skin, the exquisite stretch below as he guided two fingers inside of me. The combined potency of it all was enough to invite insanity itself. I arched against him, lifting my arms backward to clasp behind his neck, pulling my body taught. The constraint of my underwear restricted his movements, keeping him a little bit closer, a little bit tighter. Oh, it felt so good.

Edward turned his face toward my ear just as his free hand seized my breast. I pushed it further into his hold, crying out as his thumbs swept in time against my clitoris and nipple. "I wish you could see what I see. Just once. Just for a minute."

He drove me slowly, torturously so. It was both heaven and hell. Not enough and too much. A cadence so controlling sweet I wasn't sure I had the strength to survive it. I wanted more. I wanted less. I just wanted. He filled me. He dominated me. Not just my body, but my mind, my senses and my emotions, too. I was overwrought. Consumed. Desperate. I ground myself against his hand while tugging my fingers through his hair. I never wanted it to stop. It was like the purest form of crack blasting into my bloodstream, making an addict of me forevermore. The self-help books could suck it. I didn't want saved. I didn't want to recover. I didn't want to let go of my dependence, not if it felt like this.

His fingers coiled up, adding pressure to that hidden spot inside of me. The moan I released was low, guttural. He did it again. And again. Oh. I clamped myself around him tightly. The flint was beginning to spark deep down in my belly, flickering like a flame that was desperate to catch – to burn. Oh god. The strain in my body exhausted me, thrilled me. The tingling's and fluttering's licked at every muscle, hammered against every bone and ignited every cell. The rallying cry of pleasure screamed, charging toward the brutal climb of victory. I shifted, pulling harder against him as layer upon layer of madness built into the most glorious upsurge.

His lips nudged against my ear, delicately closing around my lobe. "I thank my lucky stars for finding you, Bella Swan."

"Oh!" I soared from the earth, the sequence between takeoff and landing falling into place like perfectly aligned Tetris blocks. It was exquisite. His name squeezed its way through my gritted teeth and my legs shook and bowed beneath me. But he caught me. His hand left my panties and captured my stomach, keeping me anchored to him. Always. I could feel the slick trail his wet fingers had left against my skin as my muscles constricted against his palm.

When I finally hit solid ground I spun in his arms, molding my mouth against his. I raked my fingers from his throat to his shoulders, all the way down, stripping him from the rest of his clothes. It would never be enough. There was no getting enough. Not of him. Not of his body. He was so incredibly beautiful to look at, so solid and soft to touch and so goddamn addictive to feel pushed up against me as he began walking me backward. I hit the wall just as my fingers closed around him, finding him hard, thick and long. I moved along him the way he liked best, making sure my grip was firm but not tight.

He tore his mouth away from mine, sounding winded. His hands flew to the wall, landing on either side of my head. He breathed out raggedly, his lips forming a perfect O. His muscles strained, making his chest ripple in the most delicious way. So defenseless against my touch. Oh, Edward. I stroked up the inside of his shaft, running my thumb over his straining head. I massaged the wetness that had gathered there around and around, grazing my teeth against my lip as I watched and relished his reactions. His fingernails clawed at the wall. His forehead knocked against mine. His breathing sped and slowed and sped again. So handsome. So expressive. So affected.

It eventually became too much. He reached for my arms and trapped them against the plaster high above my head, holding them tightly in place with one hand. He ravaged my mouth – a three minute marathon of intensity that built and built. His free hand swept south, ridding me of my panties before lifting my backside. My feet left the ground as his body crushed against mine, pinning me, spreading me like a butterfly being splayed open for display. I wrapped my legs around him, locking my feet together. With a guiding hand on my hip and a flex of his pelvis, he slipped into me slowly, my arousal helping to swallow him inch by glorious inch.

I kissed every slice of him that I could. With my hands trapped above me I couldn't touch him – couldn't feel him. It drove me insane. All I could do was move with him as his hips began to pump. He set an intoxicatingly measured rhythm, every thrust smearing me up the wall a little more, like butter on warm toast. The room was quiet save for our raspy breaths and the slippery, erotic sound of him easing in and out of me. God, I loved that sound. He was magnificent in his strong, bare form, writhing against me. He consumed me. He filled me. He…loved me.

I pulled my face back, meeting his hooded gaze, wondering if I could possibly push myself any further tonight. Could I take it? Would my heart bear it, to hear those words again? I didn't know. But I'd been strong tonight. I'd pulled through. Maybe there was a little strength left in the reserve tank, a little I could use to chase away a bit more of the darkness – to rid myself of a few more shadows. Maybe. And if not, I had a strong pair of arms around me. He was here. He would catch me. Always.

I cried out as he flexed upward, hitting the magic within me. I pressed my forehead against his, feeling the light sheen of sweat on my skin mix with his. Be brave, Bella. I stared straight into his lovely greens and kissed him softly, leaving my lips to linger against his as I whispered, "I want to hear it, Edward."

His hips stilled almost immediately.

He blinked, causing the haze of pleasure and arousal to flee from his eyes. His hand tightened around both of mine, clasping them, clutching at them almost desperately. I watched his Adams apple bob. I met his uncertain stare boldly, though I didn't dare breathe.

I waited.

Neither of us moved.

And then his hand gripped mine a little tighter. "I love you."

I closed my eyes, swallowing the sharp, anxious lump that had formed in my throat. I let those words wash over me, fill me, run through me. I love you. Yes. Oh. Yes, that was all right. I was…lord…I was all right! I nodded slightly. I finally breathed. "Okay."

His hand fell away from mine, sweeping down to cup my face. His thumb stroked my cheek, my lips, my jaw. He inhaled so violently it sounded as though he hadn't tasted air in years. "Christ, Bella. I love you so much it fucking hurts."

I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him in closer. My nodding became frantic. "Okay-okay-okay," I said in a quiet rush, hearing my voice break.

I kissed him intensely, running my fingers through his hair. He melted into me to such an extent I couldn't tell where I ended and he began. It was impassioned and overwhelming and I just didn't want to let go. His hips began to move again as our hands and mouths ran away from us – needing to touch and taste every morsel we possibly could.

We didn't stop until the sun broke. The wall, the bed, the furniture, the shower – no surface was spared. The bedsheets were lost to the floor, as was a lamp and every complimentary item in the bathroom. I simply let him love me. Over and over and over again.

And it was okay.

. . . . .

When I woke he was gone, off to chase another day at the office. The only reminder of his presence was the distinctive box lying in the head shaped dip of his pillow. While most Valentine's Day gestures adorned flowers or chocolates or teddy bears with the phrase be mine, Edward's intricate blue and silver globe charm was subtly, yet poignantly different.

It said be my world.

Profile for Facebook and AMtDR group links. Thanks a million for the reviews, recs and PM's – loving every single one!

See you at 26 in a week or two! Probably more two. I've got bloodshot eyes and caffeine shakes. Should probably sleep. I look like a proper junky.

4th out! x