A/N: Hello, awesome readers! I'm sorry it's taken so long to continue this story. Thank you all for the patience, kind words, and PMs. Between busy life and some rude people, I lost my desire to write this for a long time, but the encouraging messages and my disgust for unfinished stories brought me back.

Love to my rockin' prereaders, Keye, Sandy, and Caz, for their feedback and friendship.

Thanks to SassySue for the beta job. Bow to her awesomeness—she makes my words readable.


Chapter 26

~Chance Discoveries~

Fate is nothing but the deeds committed in a prior state of existence.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Bella

I stare at Edward over his breakfast bar. Steam from the cup of black coffee sitting in front of me curls up my nose and blooms in my sinuses. I can't say I have a hangover, but my memory of last night is cloudy, and a dull throb pounds behind my eyes.

Edward busies himself making breakfast even though it's well past noon. A yellow dishtowel is draped over his left shoulder, and his muscles bunch beneath his snug, black T-shirt as he works the omelets and turns the bacon. Normally, he'd be naked from the waist up, wearing a pair of jeans or sleep pants, maybe even just boxers. I think he covered up for me.

We haven't spoken beyond my blubbering in bed last night. I think he's afraid I'll leave. I'm afraid of that, too.

After spending some time with Jason Albright last night—did I really call him J-bird?—and taking his little blue pill, I understand Edward a bit better. I understand how he behaved in a way that was unlike him because I certainly wasn't myself last night. That doesn't mean we can forget everything and move on. No matter how much I want that, want him, there's a reason he turned to alcohol and drugs that goes deeper than losing me in high school.

Wrapping my hands around the steaming cup, I lift it to my lips, reveling in the warmth radiating into my hands. The coffee is scalding hot, but I ignore the burn and take a few sips. I'm glad Edward is busy cooking with his back to me. I'm scared that we'll never work out, that I'll keep losing him over and over. I close my eyes and drink again.

"Earth to Bella . . ." Edward lays a gentle hand on my arm, looking down at me with concern. "Aren't you hungry?"

"Starved."

"Then why aren't you eating?"

I glance down and realize there's a plate of eggs and bacon at my elbow and wonder how long I've been lost in my thoughts. "Oh . . . sorry."

Edward leans against the counter with a plate in his hands and starts scooping eggs into his mouth. His lips fascinate me, especially when I'm trying to avoid looking him in the eye, but I manage to hold my fork without poking an eye out and start eating.

Edward breaks the silence rather abruptly. "I'm seeing a therapist. I mean, I'm going to. I made an appointment." When I simply stare at him with my mouth half-open, he puts his plate on the counter and runs a hand through his hair. "If I'm ever going to be good enough for you, I have to find out what caused this, me, to drink and take drugs. You left Mike when you realized he was wrong for you—I allowed Tanya to lead me down the road to substance abuse. What the fuck is wrong with me?" Edward slams his fist on the counter, causing his plate to clatter.

"Edward . . ." I shake my head, unsure what to say to that.

He turns his back on me again and plants his hands on the counter, head drooping. "I had everything growing up—parents who loved me and each other, a close-knit family. Am I broken? This shit just doesn't make sense, but, Bella . . . God, I have no right to ask this." He falters.

"Ask."

"I want you to come to the therapist with me. This concerns you as much as anyone. Our future might depend on this. I don't want secrets between us."

I lay my fork down. "Are you sure?"

Finally, Edward turns, pinning me with determined green eyes. "Absolutely sure. Will you do this for me?"

"Yes."

"Thank you." He blows out a breath.

Tears burn my eyes, and I look down at my hands, shaking my head. "Edward, I—I just . . ."

He covers my hands with his own. "It's all right. Whatever you think or feel is all right. I'm just grateful that you're here and willing to come to my appointment."

The tears won't stop, and Edward ends up pulling me over to the couch and cradling me in his arms. I feel scraped raw, dueling emotions fighting a war inside me. On the one hand, I want to shove him away and run, never looking back, but an ever-increasing part of me needs him in order to breathe.

~SN~

The next few days are full of classes and studying and avoiding my feelings. I've fallen behind on my coursework and have started to feel the crunch. Becca welcomed me home with a tearful hug, but we don't speak of the Jason Albright debacle. We sit on the floor in the living room, drink too much Mountain Dew, and study.

Edward texts me—a lot—but he doesn't push to see me in person or talk on the phone. We agreed to meet for the therapist appointment; that's all I'm willing to give him for now.

I knock back several gulps of Mountain Dew, then tilt my head back against the couch and rub my eyes. "Fuck."

Becca looks up, a pencil dangling from between her lips. "Hmm?"

"My eyes are blurry. Even the Dew can't keep me focused long enough to catch up."

"What are you having the most trouble with?"

"Psychology. The text is complicated and dry. I do great when Professor Sorenson lectures, but . . ." I shrug.

Becca smiles like a Cheshire. "I think I can help you out. I take Sorenson's class, too, and the text is yawn-worthy." She leans over and roots around in her messenger bag, pulling out a flash drive and holding it up. "Last week's lectures are on here. You have something to copy them to?"

"Shit, no." I hang my head. "Wait a minute! Yes, I do! That stupid thing may as well do something to help me." I rush into my room and dig around in the jacket I wore to The Quiet Man, coming up with the MP3 recorder Mike sent me.

Becca transfers the files for me, and I tuck it away for later, thankful I won't have to yawn my way through the textbook.

After another hour, Becca pushes her pile of books and papers aside and looks at me expectantly.

"What?"

"Have I waited an appropriate amount of time? 'Cause I'm about to implode."

I stare at her blankly. "Fill me in?"

"Exactly! When are you going to fill me in on what's happening? Jim told me part of it because he was there the other night, but what's up with you and Edward? I mean, lots of texts keep flying back and forth, but you haven't left our room."

"Well . . . I'm keeping an open mind. Edward scheduled an appointment to see a therapist, and he's asked me to go with him. Until then, he's giving me space."

Becca leans her head back on the armchair and brushes her hair back, eyeing me from beneath her hand. "Couples therapy?"

"Not exactly. He wants me there for moral support and to show he has no secrets from me."

"Are you going?"

I hesitate a moment, knowing I already committed to standing beside Edward as he goes through this—whatever this is. "Yeah. I have to see this through—even if we don't end up together."

Becca's eyes widen. "You don't think it'll work out?"

"I'm all in. I love Edward, but I don't know if I can be with him. Our past is so . . . heavy."

"I hear you." Becca pats my leg. "We're doing TV night."

"No."

"Yes. It'll be fun."

I shake my head. "Facing down Jordin and her following is not my idea of fun."

"Bella, she doesn't own the place! We have a right to have some fun." Becca's eyes flare with righteous indignation.

"Possession is nine tenths of the law. Jordin has fooled everyone else into believing she's the Queen of Delaney Hall." I blow some wayward strands of hair out of my eyes, reminding me I've been rocking the homeless look for too long. "Bec, I just don't have the energy to deal, okay? I'm gonna take a shower and catch up on some sleep, but you go ahead."

"Nah. It's not the same without you. I might head over to Jim's for a while."

Once we clean up the living room and Becca leaves, I take a long, hot shower. I attempt a clear mind, but images of Edward's bloodshot eyes keep intruding. So do the tears and the indecision.

I towel myself off then dry my hair, closing my eyes and allowing the whir of the dryer to lull me. I pull on my fuzziest sleep pants and a T-shirt and burrow under the covers.

On the nightstand, my phone chirps, and I snatch it up eagerly.

Tomorrow's the day. I'm nervous but glad you'll be w/me. ~E

I'm glad too. And nervous. ~B

Wish I could wrap myself around you and sleep. I miss sleep. ~E

I miss you. Let's see how tomorrow goes, okay? ~B

K. Miss you, beautiful. Sleep well. ~E

You too. ~B

I place the phone back on the nightstand, but it beeps again a minute or two later.

I love you. Please don't respond. I just needed to say it. ~E

I curl up on the bed with my cell cradled to my chest and allow the tears to fall freely. I love Edward with all my heart, but will it be enough?

Even though I eventually fall into a dreamless sleep, I move through the next day like a zombie. My professors eventually give up expecting semi-intelligent answers and ignore me. I sit alone under a tree at lunch and munch on an apple, biting well into the core before I realize it. I've been lucky enough to slog through the past few days without seeing Jordin and wonder how long my luck will hold. I'm sure Tanya won't be back to school for a while, and I'm relieved. She may have been brutally attacked, but I still have the urge to pummel her for that DVD—and I'm still convinced she set up her own attack.

When classes reach their end, my anxiety ratchets up at the thought of going to Edward's therapy appointment. He's picking me up at Delaney Hall at five, leaving me time to drop off my books and change my clothes but little else.

I pace the living room until I hear the familiar rumble of Edward's car pull up and then grab my purse. I'm relieved he parked on the side of Delaney Hall; I'd rather not do the walk of shame past all my dorm mates on the way out and risk running into Jordin. At the last second, I decide to toss in the MP3 player and a set of headphones. Edward invited me to come to the therapist, but I'm sure he'll want some privacy. God knows I need to listen to my psychology lectures if I don't want to fall further behind.

When I push open the door at the bottom of the stairs, Edward is leaning against the wall, waiting.

"Bella." Edward's voice is hoarse. He reaches a hand out to catch the edge of my sleeve between his fingers but remains in place. The gleam in his eyes communicates how hard it is not to crush me in his arms.

Steel-toed boots, dark-wash jeans, and a black leather jacket give off an edginess at odds with his freshly shaven face and dark-circled, bloodshot eyes. He looks like a ghost of himself, and I have the sudden urge to cry.

"Hey." I look away from the intensity burning in his eyes. He still has a hold of my sleeve as if he needs us to be connected somehow. My heart thumps behind my ribs, an aching reminder.

He tugs me toward him by my sleeve, stepping in close at the same time, giving me a scintillating whiff of leather, aftershave, and Edward. Fingertips tentatively skim my cheek, sending a tingle skating across my skin.

I rest my forehead against his sweater and immediately regret it. He's so warm and smells so much better up close—a living, breathing man with needs and regrets, not just the jerk that made mistakes and hurt me. "Edward . . ." My tone is beseeching, but I don't even know what I need. To push him away or pull him closer? Do I toss my hands in the air and forget Tanya Denali ever existed? But I can't do that. I shake my head slowly, my forehead rubbing against his warmth.

"I shouldn't have—I should give you your space." Edward lets go of my sleeve and moves to step away, but I grab his fingers in mine.

"Don't." I close my eyes and rest my cheek against his chest, my fingers sliding beneath his jacket alongside his waist. "Sorry if I'm sending mixed signals. It's not fair to you."

"Shh . . . it's okay." His arms come around me, and he slips his fingers into my hair, stroking lightly. "Bella, you have every right to be confused. I'm grateful you're speaking to me at all, that I can put my hands on you. God knows . . . I don't deserve you."

I tighten my arms around him and hold on. "Let's not do this anymore, okay? Nobody's perfect, and you're trying to figure things out." I lift my head and gaze into his eyes. "I'm not going anywhere. We're doing this—together. Now, where's this doctor's office?" I smile bravely and swipe away a few tears.

Edward grabs my face and kisses me quick and hard. "God how I love you."

"I love you, too."

Edward looks down at me with wonder. "You're amazing." This time when he lowers his mouth to mine, his kiss is soft and probing, filled with so much emotion. We cling to one another for a long time, and I hope after his appointment tonight, the healing can begin.

Edward drives slowly, and we hold hands. I sneak glances his way every so often, and though there's still a great deal of tension tightening his jaw, he seems more relaxed.

We pull up in front of a brownstone on a side street downtown, and he rushes around to the passenger side to open my door. When I take his offered hand, I feel it shaking. We ascend the steps together and enter the foyer. There's a directory just inside, listing the offices in the building.

Edward runs a finger down the list. "Here we go." He leads me three offices down and opens the door. The waiting area is small but warm and inviting. New age instrumental music plays softly in the background. Before we have a chance to sit down, a door across the room opens, and a tall, willowy woman breezes through it.

"Welcome. You must be Edward and Bella. I'm Dahlia Pyke." She steps forward with her hand out, shaking first with Edward then with me. Dr. Pyke's brassy, shoulder-length hair swings as she turns and beckons us to follow. "Come on in. Get comfortable." Her gypsy-like, pale blue skirt swishes around her legs as she moves lithely through the door to her office and settles in a huge leather recliner. A yellow legal pad and glass of water rest on the table beside the puffy chair.

Edward leads me inside, and we settle on the leather couch across from Dr. Pyke. We sit with our legs touching, my hand still wrapped tightly in Edward's. My mouth is suddenly dry, my breathing shallow.

Dr. Pyke smiles knowingly. "Bella, there are bottles of water in the little fridge to your right."

Thankful, I grab a small bottle for each of us, using the opening of the cap and taking a drink as time to calm down. Edward's left hand fists on his thigh, his knuckles white.

"Edward, we spoke briefly over the phone, so I have an idea why the two of you are here. If you're agreeable, I'd like to speak to you alone first, and then—"

Shaking his head, Edward interrupts Dr. Pyke. "Absolutely not. Bella stays." He tightens his grip on my hand, and I don't mind the dull ache one bit.

Dr. Pyke tilts her head and smiles. "May I ask why you're so adamant about that point?"

"Secrets and misunderstandings are a huge part of what we're battling. I want Bella to realize how committed I am to her—to us—by providing full disclosure."

Tears spring to my eyes, and I lean my head against Edward's shoulder. "You don't have to do this, Edward. I know how committed you are."

Edward reaches over to caress my cheek. "Bella, it's okay. I want you here. There's nothing I can't say in front of you."

"If you're sure . . ." I'm uncertain and elated at once.

Dr. Pyke claps her hands together softly. "All right, then. Let's begin."

~SN~

Edward

My heart is full as I sit beside Bella on Dr. Pyke's couch. I don't deserve her kindness and loyalty—I know this—but I have it and intend to be sure she never again regrets placing her trust in me. I grip Bella's hand tightly, afraid if I let go I'll lose my nerve. I clear my throat and meet Dr. Pyke's calm blue eyes. "Where would you like to begin?"

She picks up the legal pad and slips a pen from the pocket of her blouse. "Wherever you're led to. Tell me the story of Edward. Then we can dig deeper."

I find myself beginning with high school and meeting Bella. The first time she came to Biology and her soft brown eyes met mine, she flushed a deep pink, bit into her lip, and caused an uncomfortable below-the-waist reaction in me that was difficult to get under control before the period ended. Through most of class, I clenched my fingers together and tried not to think about doing bad things with and to her.

I move on to how we danced around our attraction for months, and it was seeing her flirty and relaxed at Mike's party that finally gave me the courage to go for it. Back then, I never had to chase girls. They flocked to me, vying for my attention. Bella was different, and I think that's why it hurt so much when I put myself out there and then saw her sucking face with Newton right after.

It's difficult to go into the time after Bella, when I courted Tanya, asked her to marry me, and started down the steep slope of alcohol and little blue pills and rough sex.

A sense of pride and awe fills me when I describe how Bella realized Mike was wrong for her and broke things off with him before she knew about his deception, how she braved interrupting my wedding to Tanya even though she didn't know how it would play out. I place a kiss on Bella's temple and put my arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.

I cover events up to the present time, including Tanya's revealing DVD being delivered the same night as her assault, Bella's trip to The Quiet Man looking for evidence of Tanya's deception, and our newly affirmed commitment to get through all of this together.

I lift a hand in the air, palm up. "That's me in a nutshell, Doc." My mouth is dry after all that talking, so I lean forward to twist off the cap on the water bottle and drink it down in one long swallow.

Dr. Pyke smiles, her blue eyes twinkling. "You've given me an excellent overview of your relationship with Bella and your ex-fiancée, but we need to dig deeper."

"That's it. I started with the day I met Bella, what else is there?" I shrug my shoulders, suddenly uncomfortable.

Bella lays a hand on my leg, and I look into her eyes, finding acceptance and reassurance in their warm depths.

Dr. Pyke shifts in her chair, placing the legal pad—now covered with notations—on the table and sipping her water. "I'm going to assume you weren't born seventeen, so there's much more territory to cover."

"You mean my childhood? How is that relevant?" I feel and sound defensive.

Dr. Pyke raises a hand. "Why don't you tell me a bit about your family life?"

"Okay. I have wonderful parents, an older brother, and a younger sister. We're all really close. I grew up in Forks and didn't leave there until it was time for college."

"Are your parents together?"

"Yes."

"Any separations?"

"No, never."

"How about your siblings? Are they in healthy relationships?"

"My brother Emmett is happily married, and my sister Alice recently met someone special."

"Any other significant relations you haven't mentioned? Did you ever spend time away from your family when you were young?"

"No."

Dr. Pyke looks thoughtful, her brow wrinkling the slightest bit. "I see. All right, we're about out of time for this session. Edward, I'd like a moment alone with you, if Bella doesn't mind."

We look to Bella, who shakes her head and stands. "No problem at all. It was nice to meet you, Dr. Pyke."

Dr. Pyke rises and shakes Bella's hand, then leads her back to the waiting area. "I'm sure we'll be speaking again." Dr. Pyke closes the door gently and takes a seat behind the large mahogany desk on the other side of her office. "Why don't you have a seat over here?"

I join her, sitting in one of a pair of leather chairs facing her desk.

She temples her fingers and stares down at the desk blotter for a few moments before raising her head. "Edward, your abuse of drugs and alcohol, coupled with the way you rushed into a serious relationship with Tanya, is an indication of deeper issues. In order to help you, I need complete honesty. Now that we're alone, maybe you can speak more freely?"

I stare back at her open-mouthed. "Really, Dr. Pyke, I wasn't just paying you lip service about being completely honest with Bella. There's nothing else to tell."

She stares hard at me for a while, and I force myself not to look away. Finally, she nods her head. "All right. Okay. Well, there are certain . . . symptoms, if you will, produced by childhood traumas. You are exhibiting some of them."

"Explain that to me, please."

"In your case, being so willing to believe that Bella, a shy girl you flirted with for months, would abandon you so callously. By your own admission, you never gave her a chance to explain herself."

I shrug. "Okay, so I was a stupid teenager with hurt male pride."

"I might concede on that point." Dr. Pyke nods. "Then you took up with Tanya, a girl you had no previous interest in, and became serious so quickly that the two of you took off for Dartmouth later that year and moved into an apartment together rather than utilizing the dorms."

"Once I got to know Tanya . . . we hit it off. I did love her."

"You stated earlier you were never head-over-heels in love with Tanya. You also mentioned agonizing over the decision to propose to her."

"We were still in college," I point out, beginning to feel annoyed.

"Exactly. Why not wait until the two of you finished your degrees and established careers?"

Anger flares inside me, my muscles going rigid with tension. I look back at Dr. Pyke and wonder what her game is, but she's sitting calmly behind her desk with her hands folded, watching me carefully. There's no challenge in her stare. I fight to remind myself she's not the enemy. "I—" My shoulders sag, my gaze dropping to the plush burgundy pile. "Part of me was afraid to wait." My voice is hushed, the embarrassment evident.

"What did you fear would happen if you waited?"

"I don't know. Maybe I thought Tanya would get tired of waiting for me to ask." I shake my head. "No, that's not it. The ring . . . I could breathe once it was on her finger. It was as if it bound us together in a deeper way, and I didn't worry so much." I keep staring down, the carpet fibers blurring as my eyes lose focus.

"Worry so much about what?" she asks, so low it's almost a whisper.

"Being left behind. Abandoned." The words slip out, but now that they've been said, I realize they're true.

"I want you to think back to your childhood. Did you ever feel left behind or abandoned, especially by a mother figure?"

I don't hesitate. "No, I had an idyllic childhood and a wonderful, nurturing mother." I can't stop the smile that breaks out on my face when I think of my mom.

Dr. Pyke nods, a slightly puzzled, thoughtful expression on her face. "Edward, I'd like you to give this more thought before our next session. I believe something from your childhood has contributed to the patterns of behavior you're exhibiting. Usually it's easier to pinpoint, but it's there somewhere."

I nod, rising from my chair and shaking her hand. "Thank you." I glance at my watch and realize nearly two hours have gone by. "And thanks for the extra-long session. I hope I didn't encroach on another appointment."

"Not at all. I always try to leave extra time for new patients—just because initial meetings tend to be more intense, and I do hate to usher someone out in the middle of a revelation." Dr. Pyke joins me in front of her desk and walks me to the door. "It was great to meet you. I look forward to our next session."

I feel like an ass doing this, but that doesn't stop me. "So . . . you think I can be fixed? Bella and I have a chance?"

Dr. Pyke looks up at me with a mischievous glint in her eyes. "The issues can be addressed and corrected . . . as long as you put the work in. Bella is a lovely girl with a solid head on her shoulders and obviously devoted to you. Let's see what happens."

When I return to the waiting room, Bella is curled in a chair by the window with earbuds in. I take the opportunity to observe her for a moment, grateful once again that she hasn't given up on me. Her chestnut hair is mussed and slightly frizzy from the wind. She gnaws on her bottom lip, brows drawn together in concentration, and her alabaster skin is paler than normal. The recent lack of sleep shows, but she's never looked more beautiful to me. Just before I reach her, she looks over at me as if sensing my presence.

Bella's eyes light up. "Hey!" She presses a button on her MP3 player and tugs on the wires, pulling the earbuds out. "How'd it go?"

"Good. Let's talk on the way." I place a hand on her elbow and guide us out of Dr. Pyke's office.

Bella stumbles on the way down the hall, and I catch her in my arms. We end up facing one another, chest to chest. Bella draws in a breath and looks up at me with wide eyes. "Edward, what's wrong? You're practically racing to get out of here. I thought . . ."

I watch her berry-stained lips move, but the words no longer register. At some point, I give in to need and press my lips to hers. Bella's mouth is warm and inviting. She grabs onto my jacket, pulling me closer. I slip the fingers of one hand up her back and tangle them in the hair at the nape of her neck, pressing her against the wall and kissing her hungrily. I grasp the back of Bella's thigh, encouraging her to wrap her leg around mine. I let go of her hair to skim my hand along her neck, snagging the hoodie and baring her shoulder. I want her right here in this hallway where anyone might come upon us.

Bella moans softly, her fingers digging into my hair. When I start tugging at her jeans, she freezes, turning her face. I nudge the tip of my nose along the side of her neck, just the way she likes it.

"Mm-mm . . . Edward, what are you doing to me?"

"Isn't it obvious?" I chuckle against her skin and start working at her jeans again.

Bella goes rigid and insinuates her palms between us, pressing against my chest. "No, really. What are you doing?" She doesn't look pleased.

I allow her leg to drop back down but keep her sandwiched between me and the wall. "Trying to canoodle my girlfriend?"

Bella looks up at me with a wrinkled brow. It's the same expression she has when her homework doesn't make sense. She places both palms on my cheeks, bringing our faces closer together. "This isn't you, Edward."

"Who is it, then?" I joke, but the accompanying smile sticks to my face, feeling unnatural. An uncomfortable feeling starts twisting inside me, a dark snake of unfamiliarity.

"That's a good question."

I place my hands on Bella's hips and rest my forehead against hers with a sigh. "You're right. I'm sorry, Bella. I don't know—the session with Dr. Pyke . . . it brought up . . ." I flounder.

"Unpleasant feelings?"

"Yeah. Stuff. Stuff that I need to start working on."

"I'm here for you." Bella goes up on tiptoe and kisses me softly. "Let's get out of here."

We hold hands on the way to my car, and I try to convince myself the deviant urges that just struck me only have to do with being attracted to my girl.

Once we're in the car and on the way to pick up dinner, the insinuations Dr. Pyke made keep nagging at me, and I have an uncontrollable urge to call my mom. Bella encourages me, so I do.

"Hey, Mom."

"Edward, hi! I'm so glad to hear from you. You don't usually call during the week—is everything okay?" My mom's sweet voice chases away the darkness, and I can breathe again. Does this sound like a neglectful parent? Dr. Pyke must be way off base.

"Everything's fine, Mom! I just left Dr. Pyke's office. She's the psychologist I told you about."

"How did it go?"

"Good. Bella came with me. She's right here—"

"Oh! I'm so glad to hear that. Hello, Bella!"

Bella smiles. "Hey, Esme! How are you and Carlisle doing?"

"Things are wonderful here." Mom is silent for a moment. "Thank you for not giving up on my son."

My face heats. "Mom!"

Bella smacks my arm. "Edward, stop!" she stage-whispers then raises her voice again for my mom. "I love him very much, Esme. We're doing this thing together, working through it."

"Good. Edward, make sure you treasure her!"

I sneak a glance at Bella's blushing face as I guide the Audi into the parking lot of Tony's Pizza and snag a parking spot. "Oh, I do. Believe me." Putting the car in park, I slide my hand up Bella's shoulder and caress the back of her neck.

"I'm really glad to hear from you, but you still haven't told me why you're calling."

"Can't a guy just call to say hello?"

"Of course! But there's more to this—a mother knows these things."

I rest my head against the back of the seat and grip the steering wheel with both hands. For some reason, I can't touch Bella while I say this. "Mom, Dr. Pyke is convinced some of my issues stem from childhood."

"What issues?" She sounds dubious.

"I don't want to go into detail, but the short of it is . . . she feels I believed too easily that Bella ditched me and that I was too hasty getting involved with Tanya."

My mother huffs loudly. "Well, it's easy to make snap judgments over things that happened years ago. What does she really know about your life after one session?"

"Mom, I think she's right. Like I said, there are things I'd rather not get into."

"You're not keeping things from Bella, are you?"

"No." I release the steering wheel with my right hand and reach out to twine my fingers in Bella's. "Ma, I need to ask you something." My forehead scrunches, and I tense up.

"Sure, sweetie."

"Dr. Pyke asked about my childhood, and I told her what wonderful parents you and Dad were. She seems to think there's a darkness in my past that left some kind of hole, something that makes me fear being left alone and abandoned. She said it's often caused by a neglectful mother figure, which I know isn't the case. I can't think of anything that fits but figured I'd ask you."

"Maybe this Dr. Pyke is a quack!" Mom's tone is pure acid. I can count on one hand how many times I've heard her sound this way.

"I don't think she is. What she said feels right."

"You think I neglected you?" There's a quiver to her voice, and I think she might start crying.

"No! Mom, no." I bang a fist on the steering wheel. "Maybe something happened when I was little to make me feel insecure at a subconscious level. Did you and Dad ever go on vacation and leave us with someone?"

"We always took you kids with us. You hardly ever had a babysitter, and it was always Mr. Young's daughter, Beth."

My mom sounds defensive, and I feel like dirt. "Maybe there's some other explanation, something from school or—I don't know. If you think of anything, let me know."

"Of course, darling. My cell is ringing—I have to go. Love you!" She disconnects without waiting for me to answer.

I slam my fist on the steering wheel again. "Fuck! Now I insulted my mom!"

Bella lays a hand on my leg. "Esme understands. You had to ask."

"I guess. God, why is all this so hard?"

"Let's get takeout and bring it home."

Those words capture my attention. "Home?"

"Yeah. Mind if I spend the night?"

"Mind? Bella, I'd love that. Hell, I need that." I picture Bella wrapped in my arms all night. I might spend hours just watching her sleep, but it would be worth the bloodshot eyes this time.

"I do have to catch up on my Psychology class." Bella holds up the MP3 player. "After that, I'm all yours."

"I have some work to do, too. We can lounge in bed after pizza—or with pizza."

Two hours later, Bella and I are lounging on my bed. Some of her things are still in my apartment, and after we ate, she changed into a pair of black yoga pants and a white tank top. I donned a pair of sleep pants and a T-shirt. The covers ended up shoved in a huge lump to the bottom of the bed, and the almost empty pizza box is on the floor to one side. Bella ate two slices, and I snarfed down four without a second thought. Having Bella here is good for my appetite and my heart.

I shift against the headboard and wiggle my legs, adjusting the laptop spread across my thighs. This is the first time I've been able to get any quality work done since things went wrong.

Bella lies on her stomach, facing away from me, and uses the lumpy covers as a makeshift pillow while she catches up on her Psychology lectures. Her feet swing to and fro with hypnotic slowness. My gaze slides along the back of her thighs to the delectable curve of her ass and higher, to the strip of creamy skin showing between the band of her pants and the edge of the tank. She may as well be naked for all the dirty thoughts flooding my mind. I reach a hand out and caress her delicate ankle, slipping my fingers under her pant leg to caress her calf.

Bella freezes, turning her head to look back at me with a half-smile. "What are you doing?"

"Touching you." Closing the laptop, I lay it on the nightstand and lean over, pressing my lips to the bony part of her ankle. Then I lick a circle around it and give myself a mental high-five when Bella hisses and squirms.

Bella presses her face into the blankets with her arms up over her head and partially hanging off the end of the bed. I take that as surrender and start kissing and licking my way up her leg. When I get to the tender little hollow behind her knee, she giggles uncontrollably. I can't stop myself from grabbing her legs and flipping her over.

I've missed hearing Bella's happy sounds, so I straddle her and start tickling her. She thrashes beneath me, screaming and laughing until she loses her breath. I stop torturing her and gaze at her flushed face and bright eyes.

The mood in the air shifts to one of quiet awareness. We gaze into each other's eyes, and my heart starts beating faster when Bella reaches up and trails her fingers over my chest. A rush of desire flares inside me. I stretch my body over hers, resting on my elbows and framing her face between my palms.

"Bella, I miss you."

"Me, too." She rubs her hands along my arms. "We're going to be okay."

"Are we?"

Bella bites her lip and nods. "I wasn't sure before we saw Dr. Pyke, but I am now."

I ghost the tip of my nose alongside her neck, reveling in her sudden indrawn breath, and whisper against her skin, "What changed?"

She shivers beneath me and digs her fingers into my forearms. "I—I'm not sure. Maybe it was listening to you pour your heart out today—or the talk you had with Esme. I just know I'm not giving up on us."

I swipe a thumb over Bella's cheek, whisking a stray tear away, and bring my lips down softly on hers. I kiss her slowly, reverently. This time it isn't about something dark and needy. This time I know she's mine. Bella's not leaving me. She wants to support me, be there for me.

With a soft sigh, Bella's fingers release my arms and rake down my sides, gripping the cotton of my T-shirt tightly. Her hips rise, brushing against mine.

I quickly roll us until she's on top, wanting the moves to be hers. "I'm yours, Bella. In my heart, I've always belonged to you." I gaze up at her, open and vulnerable, willing her to see the truth in my eyes.

Bella grabs my face and places adoring kisses over my forehead, eyelids, cheeks, and chin. Her plump lips draw fire up the side of my neck and across my jaw until they meet mine. She opens to me, our tongues tangling languidly.

It's enough just to kiss and touch, getting reacquainted and strengthening our bond. I'm not ready to make love to her; there's a darkness inside me that needs to be addressed first. Bella doesn't push beyond making out as if she too senses the need to wait. After putting the bed back together, we fall asleep wrapped in each other's arms, chest to chest, our legs entwined.

Sometime during the night, I sit straight up in the dark with my heart slamming. I can't remember any dreams, but fear floods my veins and steals my breath. I reach for Bella and find empty space. The sheets on her side are cold. Did I dream her?

"Bella?"

I stagger out of the bedroom and find Bella slumped over the breakfast bar with her earbuds in and a half empty glass of milk beside her. I turn off the MP3 player and gently tug the headphones from her ears. Bella barely stirs as I scoop her into my arms and carry her back to bed. Once she's snuggled against me again, I fall into a deep sleep.

In the morning, I slip out of bed quietly. Bella mumbles and flops onto her stomach with her face mashed into the pillow. I head to the kitchen to make some chocolate-chip pancakes, an old favorite from when I was a kid.

The smell of pancake batter and melted chocolate rouses Bella from her slumber. She rubs her eyes as she stumbles to the breakfast bar. "Need coffee. Please."

I pour a steaming mug from the coffee pot and place it in front of her. "You didn't sleep well. Is something wrong?"

Bella grips the mug with both hands and breathes deeply. "Thank you." She takes a few sips and yawns. "Everything's fine. I'm just worried about catching up on my lectures. I'm really behind."

I plate up the pancakes and make a whipped cream smiley face on top before placing them in front of her and grabbing my own dish. We sit in companionable silence, eating pancakes and drinking our coffee. I can't help but reach for the can of whipped cream and squirt some on Bella's nose.

She giggles and wipes it off with her index finger then smears it over my lips. "Whipped cream can be a lot of fun. Have to keep that in mind . . ."

It feels so good and natural to be with Bella like this. Tanya was always so rigid and formal; there were few spontaneous moments of laughter and fun. She actually chastised me a few times for acting silly.

I lick the sweetness from my lips. "What are your plans today?"

"I have two late morning classes. After that, I'm planning to do more studying. You?"

"One late morning and one early afternoon." I start clearing the breakfast dishes. "You want to crash here later? You can study, and then I'll take you to dinner."

"Sounds great."

I breeze through both classes, feeling lighter than I have in a long time. As I walk across the quad, enjoying the cool spring air, I reflect on my life and how close I came to losing Bella. A goofy grin spreads across my face when I think about going home to her. Maybe I can convince her to spend the weekend at my place.

"Must be nice," a caustic voice calls out from behind me.

I turn and come face to face with Jordin. She stands with her arms crossed, a bitchy look on her face.

"Jordin." With a curt nod, I start walking away and hope she doesn't follow.

No such luck. Dragon red talons dig into my arm. "Not so fast, Cullen."

I brush her hand off and sneer at her. "Watch the leather."

Jordin glares up at me, her pretty face cast in hard lines. Even in stilettos, she's a full head shorter than me, but that doesn't diminish her fire. "Explain to me how you could abandon your fiancée after she's been beaten and almost raped. You cut off all contact and chase after that floozy? I heard how you made an ass of yourself at Delaney Hall, begging that twit to take you back. Can't believe I missed out on that."

I glare up at the sky and huff. "Jordin, this is none of your business."

"T's my bestie, so I'm making it my business. You have no idea of her mental state right now. She's devastated!"

"Are you aware of what your bestie is capable of? Do you have any clue what she's done to me? To Bella?"

Jordin throws her head back and laughs. "Bella crashed the wedding, and you left Tanya at the altar with her ass flapping in the breeze. The way I see it, any digs she got in are well deserved." She steps in closer and pokes a finger into my chest, her eyes radiating anger. "She should have ripped your balls off and rammed 'em down your disloyal throat!"

I seethe, wondering just how far Jordin would go for Tanya. I grab her by the arms and give her a good shake. "Was it you? Did you help her do it?"

"Help who do what?" Jordin kicks me in the shin with the pointy toe of her shoe, and I let go of her reflexively.

"Ow!" Pain burns and throbs up my leg. "Pay someone off to beat Tanya up!"

"What? Are you delusional, Edward?" Jordin seems genuinely shocked. "Is that what you're trying to do—blame Tanya for getting beat up when you weren't there to protect her?"

"It's not my job to protect her anymore! I moved out of my apartment because Tanya wouldn't leave me the fuck alone!"

"Do you really believe she would willingly go through the nightmare of being attacked just to get at you?"

"Yes—no. I think she paid someone to attack her, and he took it too far." I shake my head and stare at the ground. "Even Tanya wouldn't put herself through that on purpose."

"How generous of you." Jordin snorts and tosses her long, raven hair over one shoulder. "Edward, she needs you." Her tone is softer now, pleading.

"She manipulates."

"Tanya is devastated and depressed. Please. Have a heart. Just go see her, talk to her."

I clench my jaw and close my eyes. Bella would never forgive me. I shake my head. "I can't."

"Pussy whipped much?" Jordin shoots back.

"Screw you, Jordin! After the night I spent at the hospital, I told Kate that I'm done with Tanya and all her bullshit, and I meant it. She's out of my life. I'm done."

Jordin places a hand on my arm, and looks up at me with a vulnerable expression. It's the softest look I've ever seen on her, and I realize for the first time how beautiful she could be. "Edward, all things aside—she really needs you. I've never seen T like this. I'm . . . scared."

I avoid Jordin's eyes, gazing down at her crimson tipped fingers resting on my arm instead. A sense of dread unfurls inside me. It isn't like Jordin to show a softer side, and I'm afraid if I ask why she's so frightened for Tanya that I won't be able to live with the answer. "Don't do this, okay? Tanya has a supportive family—and she has you. It's ridiculous to believe there's anything one person can do above all the others."

"Really? Even when it's the love of your life?"

If Jordin's words were delivered harshly, it would be so easy to blow her off. This bitchy harridan is begging me when she'd much rather rip my balls off and stuff them in my mouth, and I know it costs her. I grab her wrist and remove her hand from my arm. "I hear you, Jordin, but I'm not the love of Tanya's life. I'm collateral damage. Maybe she never leveled with you about everything that's happened, and I'm not about to go into it with you either." I take a step back and shake my head. "Leave Bella and me alone. It's nice that you defend your friends—maybe you should make sure they deserve it first."

I leave Jordin standing there with her mouth open. She doesn't yell or come after me, and when I reach my car and look back, she's still standing in the same spot.

I rev the Audi's engine and peel out of the parking lot. My insides feel as if someone plunged a hand inside me and twisted. If Jordin is this concerned about Tanya, it must be serious. That pains me, but as I told Kate and Jordin, Tanya's no longer my responsibility. Whatever she suffers now, she brought on herself. Part of me wants to try to help her, but I already know how that would turn out. I refuse to destroy my life again because of her.

My cell vibrates in my pocket. When I catch a red light, I pull it out and page through my texts. Apparently, I missed a few when I was occupied with Jordin.

At your place studying. Can't wait 2CU ~B

You are not going to believe this shit! ~B

EDWARD! Where the hell are you? Call me ~B

My heart speeds, all sorts of nefarious scenarios going through my mind—not the least of which is Bella being accosted by Tanya and Co. Now I wonder if it was Jordin's plan to delay me all along. My foot punches the accelerator as soon as the light turns green. I'm only a few blocks away from the apartment, so I don't bother calling Bella back.

When I open the door, I don't know what I'm doing to find.

Bella paces the living room floor with her earbuds in, spewing curses. She strings her words together so creatively that for a moment I stand there gaping. Then I remember her progressively frantic texts and wave a hand to get her attention. "Bella! What's going on?"

She startles, feet tangling as she abruptly turns my way and sits down hard on the floor. I rush over to offer a hand, but she looks up at me with mischief glinting in her eyes and pulls me down next to her.

I rest on my knees and cup Bella's cheek, gazing into her eyes, and attempt to discern how upset she is and how bad it is. Finding her here alone fills me with relief, but my heart still races from the flood of adrenaline. "Want to tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Bella presses her lips to mine then scoots back against the couch and pats the floor next to her. "I'd rather you experience my discovery firsthand."

I plop down beside her, our legs touching, and let out a short laugh. "If your language when I came in is any indication, I'm not going to like this discovery of yours."

Bella tilts her head and chews her bottom lip. "Well . . . I'm not sure what to think about this. It's not good news exactly, but I think it might help us. I think."

"Spill it already!"

"Oh, and why are you so late? I was dying here!"

"Jordin cornered me on my way home." I grimace.

Bella's face twists with revulsion. "What did she want? Nothing good, I'm sure."

"Does it really matter? She spewed a bunch of accusations, told me how terrible I was being, and begged me to see Tanya. I shut her down and gave her a few things to mull over."

"Edward—"

I raise a hand to stop her. "Don't worry. I told Jordin that I'm done with Tanya—and I am."

Bella smiles strangely. "You might sort of change your mind about that."

"Not a chance."

"Promise me something?"

"Anything."

Bella's nervous fingers play with the wires of her headphones. "Don't do anything rash. I almost did, but we need to be smart about this."

I grab Bella's hands and still them before tipping her face up to mine and kissing her. "Bella? If you don't tell me what the hell you're talking about right now . . . I promise to do something rash."

"Okay, okay!" Bella unplugs the headphones from the MP3 player and fumbles with the buttons, paging through files. "Here it is. I almost missed it—probably would have if Bec hadn't given me these lectures to listen to."

"Your big discovery is on your MP3 player?" I ask with a measure of skepticism.

"Not just any player—the one I took with me to The Quiet Man that night!"

"But I thought Albright stripped it off you before you went into his office."

"He did. Edward, would you just shut up?" Bella presses a hand over my mouth and punches the play button.

The recording starts with fumbling sounds and muffled voices conferring some distance away. The drone of the bar is off in the background. The scuffle of footsteps comes closer, and then a conversation begins.

Skip, my man. You have any idea what the fair Bella is here about?

Nope, but she's ballsy.

True that. She thinks the Denali bitch paid me off to get herself beat up.

Why would Tanya pay you to mess up her fine ass? Hey, didn't she get really fucked up recently?

Sure did. Supposedly an ingenious plan gone wrong. I admit Tanya did sniff around here, but I cut her off before she could outline her plan. I don't get involved in that kinda shit.

So you think she found someone to do it?

Yep. Someone that took shit too far. Who do you know that would get involved with such a twisted scheme and manage to get that into it?

I dunno.

Think about it. Who's the most depraved asshole you know?

Phil Grayson.

That's exactly who I was thinking of. Go take a look out front and make sure everything's running smoothly. I'm going to finish up my biz in the office.

Okay.

One set of footsteps fade before Albright's voice comes through the recorder loud and clear: Don't say I never gave you anything.

Bella watches me carefully.

It takes me a few moments to digest the conversation. I don't know why, but Albright decided to throw Bella a bone. The shock is closely followed by burning anger. "Son of a bitch! You were right! I can't believe she's that demented . . ." I shake my head, confounded. "I can't believe I ever loved her."

Bella places a gentle hand on my arm. "You loved who you thought she was."

I laugh bitterly and shake my head. "You're far too kind, Bella."

"No, I'm not! You heard me when you got home. I've just had more time toacclimate to Tanya's latest betrayal." Bella's face puckers, her brown eyes filling with fire. "Poor Tanya, laying in the hospital all busted up, almost raped by the dirtbag she hired to make the attack look authentic. Too bad for her this Grayson guy apparently has a taste for it."

I shake my head. "Yeah, it's real hard to muster up a drop of sympathy for her now. Bitch."

"I hate to say this . . . but she brought it all on herself. Nobody deserves to be raped, but I'm kind of glad that he busted a few of her ribs." Bella slaps a hand over her mouth, looking horrified. "I'm sorry. That was wrong."

I grab her hand and pull it away from her face. "No, it was honest. I feel the same way. It all has to stop somewhere."

"How about in an orange prison jumpsuit? I think we have her now."

I look back at Bella for a moment, considering her words. It seems this might be the opportunity we've been waiting for—if we can prove she paid off this Grayson guy.

A knock interrupts my thoughts. "What now?" I mutter. "Are you expecting anyone?"

"No."

"Stay here." Steeling myself, I stalk over to the door and wrench it open.

My mother stands in the hall, nervously wringing her hands. A brown duffel bag rests on the floor beside her. The sudden opening of the door seems to startle her, and when she looks up at me, I'm shocked by the deep, brownish-purple circles beneath her eyes.

"Mom? What's wrong?" I stick my head out and glance up and down the hall. "Where's Dad?"

"I—I came alone."

Dread coils tight in my abdomen. "Is everyone all right? Is it Dad?"

Mom brushes her uncharacteristically mussed hair out of her eyes with a shaking hand. "Everyone's fine. I just couldn't stop thinking . . . after our conversation yesterday. I had no idea this would happen." Tears shine in her familiar green eyes. "Edward, there are some things you need to know."

~SN~


A/N: I'd love to know your thoughts—as long as you either fawn all over me (kidding) or have something constructive to say. Flamers (especially anon ones) will be hosed down unmercifully. There are a few chaps left on this one.

I have a dystopian fanfic that is a companion to an original story I write and post on an original fiction blog. It's being converted to an Edward/Bella pairing, and the first chapter will post shortly. If you like the whole "virus sweeps the earth, leaving few survivors" type of story, you'll probably enjoy it. AH with typical chapters of 1-3K. *Guaranteed to post bi-weekly due to my commitment to produce OF content for the blog.

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