My favorite place in the cabin is the porch swing. I teased Bella when she asked for one, saying it was a terrible cliché and that she'd never use it. She stamped her foot just once and said if I wouldn't build it for her, she would do it herself.
Now, six months on, I'm big enough to admit she was right.
Kate came by this afternoon bearing mail, air-freighted copies of some newspapers and the New Yorker, and I haven't moved from the swing since. Autumn is settling in around us and the trees are black and skeletal in the long red shadows of twilight.
I hear her before I see her, moving swiftly down over the ridge line and bursting through the trees. Her eyes are a dark ruby, even when she's fed. It won't be long now before they change for good. Her face is flushed from the blood moving through her system, hair escaping from the tie that keeps it back. She looks wild, ecstatic. Absolutely breathtaking.
She springs up the steps in an urgent blur, pressing a gentle kiss to my forehead.
"Hey, old man," she teases. "Enjoying your swing?"
I snake an arm around her waist and drag her down into my embrace, nipping lightly at her neck. She giggles, snuggling into my arms and kicking off her boots so that she can tuck her sock-clad feet up beside her.
"Have fun?" I ask, drinking in the scent of her, letting it curl around and settle over me. Every inhalation is a homecoming.
She nods, leafing through the pile of mail and skimming a postcard from Jacob. "A couple of black bears," she murmurs, distracted. "Did you read this?"
I shake my head resting my chin on her shoulder to study Jake's loopy script.
"Are you okay?"
She turns her head to look up at me, and I'm relieved to see that she's smiling. "Sue Clearwater! That's a good sign, Edward. It means Alice was right!"
Her enthusiasm is contagious. I pull my arms tightly around her, shifting her body to lie against mine.
"We've had an invitation." I tug the thick cream envelope out from behind the cushion. She takes it from me curiously, extracting the hand-engraved card within.
A frown mars her flawless features as she reads Caius' words. "How do you feel about this?" she asks.
I try to pull my scattered thoughts together. Her beauty and the feel of her beside me is endlessly distracting. "It will be another few months before you can travel. We don't have to decide right now. "
She nudges me in the ribs as she chides me."That's not what I asked you."
I've spent the last hour trying to work out what to tell her. It's been hard to speak with Bella about my time in Volterra. To describe the fear; the crushing sense of powerlessness. The death and destruction that I witnessed. The daily struggle to hold onto the faintest memories of her in the face of Chelsea's influence. It seems a universe away from the rich saturation of having her here and safe and alive in my arms.
"I don't ever really want to set foot in Volterra again," I manage, finally. "But I think maybe we should make a courtesy call, while we're there."
I lean in to capture her mouth, kissing her deeply. After a beat she pulls back, her long lashes blinking in confusion. "Wait...what do you mean 'while we're there'?"
I give her the folder I've had tucked away for a couple of weeks now. She turns the glossy pages eagerly, her mouth forming a perfect O in surprise.
"It's called Castello di Velona," I explain. "It was a 12th century watchtower in Montalcino."
"Edward, it's a castle!"
I chuckle. "It's a medieval fortress. And now it's a luxury hotel. But when we're there we'll be the only occupants."
She pores over the pictures of the stunningly restored building on an exposed hill overlooking the Val d'Orcia. Even from the photos, you can tell the views will be stunning. "Edward," she breathes. "It looks incredible. You want to go on vacation to Italy?"
Her eyes are bright with excitement. She has never looked more beautiful.
"Not a vacation, exactly," I smile, taking a deep breath. "Bella, I've lived over a century on this earth, but I've only truly been alive these last months with you. You're the inner reaches and the outer edges of my existence. It's only with you at my side that eternity has come to have any meaning."
She tugs at her lip; a gesture that is a last remnant of her lost humanity, one that reminds me of the fragile teenage girl with the pale heart-shaped face who so thoroughly captured my soul.
"Bella, I expect to ask you this question many, many times in the years to come. I hope the answer will always be the same. Will you marry me?"
The smile that dawns over her face is brighter than any sun.
"Edward, I will marry you in a medieval castle," she whispers, her voice full of delight. "I will marry you on a beach. I will marry you right here on the porch of the cabin that you built me." She covers my face in tiny kisses; my stone heart is fit to burst. This amazing woman, who taught me that love is more than laying your life down for someone; it is living your life with that person. This woman, who faced down fear, and loss and heartbreak, and who did it all to stand by my side.
I kiss her back, as the sinking sun touches its last rays across her, transcendent. And with all my heart, I silently thank Carlisle's mysterious God that a creature like me can ever have been so fortunate.
This story owes everything to littlesecret and emmajanepringle who put up with me on gchat, and to katinki01, MissRebecca, xtothey, bookjunkie1975, DarkBlueBella, musicdaydreams and emavalexis, who all recced and pimped it like mad.
I am so grateful to a very loyal bunch of readers, who have stuck with me through every delay and every cliffhanger, and sent the most encouraging reviews. I hope that in the end it was what you'd hoped for.