Ch. 23 is told in EPOV.

Special thanks to AngelGoddess1981 who serves as validation beta over on Twilighted :)

I know it's been awhile since I've updated this story on here - benefit of having the majority of the story written when first publishing means quick updating... these last couple of chapters will take a little longer ... but only 2 more to go!

Without further ado...I give you Chapter 23...

CHAPTER 23: Could I Have Been?


It was difficult to believe how much has changed in such little time.

Mere months. After existing for over a century, months weren't a part of a time line I was usually able to register. When decades started blending together, it was impossible to keep years distinguishable in my mind, let alone months. Months. That's all it took to change my life. That's all it took for her to change my life. Life. Was it odd I was even starting to call my existence that now?

If only. If only I could have met her as a human. How would that have changed our lives? Would we still feel as deeply connected as we do now? Would her voice, her smile, her smell – would I still find everything about her undeniably exhilarating? Would the very thought of her light a fire deep inside of me, in a part of myself I never knew existed? What about her? How would it change her? If I were human, would she change her mind and want to have my children? Could I have convinced her to have not one, but two, three, maybe even four little ones? If I were a mere human, would she have been as willing to let me take care of her when she needed help, or would she have pushed me away like those other boys in school? Would she still want to spend her life with me? Will she still want to spend her life with me in a few years? Will she ever want to marry me?

I smiled at how very human I was being right now. Lying in my bed, daydreaming of Bella and all the 'what if' possibilities that could never be, and maybe even some that shouldn't. And it wasn't lost on me that somewhere in my mind, I changed the tenses of my thoughts to the present and maybe even the possible future, despite how much I didn't want to let myself believe in even the faintest of possibilities of Bella wanting to marry me someday. It was the most excruciating kind of pain mixed with the most fulfilling and joyous happiness thinking about my life with Bella. I meant what I said to her a couple of months ago. I would do anything for her. I knew what I was saying when those words left my lips, and I knew as soon as I said them they would be the words that would haunt me the most.

I tried to push those thoughts out of my head. I wanted to hope that Bella would never ask me to change her, but I couldn't. A part of me – a part that was growing in size – had me thinking the most wretched, selfish thought I could muster. I wasn't sure when it happened, but I had to start acknowledging that there was a very significant part of me that was pleading with the gods of fate that Bella would someday ask me to do it. It was time I paid attention to that part of my subconscious so it could be dealt with. So I could prepare myself for how I would respond to Bella. How I had to respond to her.

I shot out of bed and started pacing the room. I needed a fresh perspective on my thoughts. As I started thinking about the conversation I really wanted to have, I realized there was only one person in the family to have it with.

"So what are we doing here?" Rosalie asked, as she looked out the car window.

"I wanted to get out of the house. Go somewhere quiet, where we can talk without any interference."

You mean without any Alice interference.

Rosalie's thoughts made me smile. She was more intuitive than I sometimes gave her credit for.

"So why here? Why the High School?" Rosalie asked out loud.

I wasn't actually sure. I went to her this morning and asked if she would mind talking to me about something...important. To my relief she agreed without asking questions, and when I started driving us away from the house, I didn't even realize where I was heading until we pulled into the school parking lot.

I know you want to talk to me about Bella. You came here because this is where it all started.

I smiled at her thoughts. Again, Rosalie was more perceptive than I gave her credit for. She was right, of course. This was where it all started. Where I met Bella. Where everything changed for me.

"So why me? Why wouldn't you want Alice's input? Or Jasper's for that matter? I would have expected you to go to Carlisle, Esme, even Emmett before coming to me."

Her voice wasn't accusatory. Rosalie seemed genuinely curious. She was right. I would normally have chosen anyone else in the family to talk out a problem of any kind. But this was different. This was something Rosalie had a unique perspective on.

"I needed it to be you. You have a very...unique way of seeing things, and I need that right now."

I blew out a breath I wasn't necessarily holding before slowly speaking the next words it killed me to vocalize.

"And I'm scared. For her. For me. I'm really scared."

I ran my hands through my hair, trying to stay out of Rosalie's head as she formed her thoughts into words.

"You know, Edward, we aren't that much different, you and I. That's why you want my opinion. You and I are far more similar than either of us have ever been willing to admit."

Rosalie smiled at the memory as she thought back to our first meeting and her reaction to Carlisle's plan for us.

You were insufferable. I was devastated about my stolen life. Together, we would have made each other and everyone around us completely miserable.

Rosalie broke from her silence to put her voice to her next thoughts, "That's why I always saw you as a brother. You were a kindred spirit. An insufferable kindred spirit, but one nonetheless. When I met Emmett, I just knew he would be different. His bigger than life way of just being helped contradict my own feelings. He made me forget about everything I lost. He still makes me forget. It's impossible to not see this existence as one big adventure when you have Emmett in your life, and I needed someone like that. I needed someone that could bring me out of my misery and show me how to take the bad with the good. I'll always need him for that. I can't even imagine wanting to keep going in this world without him with me."

I knew what Rosalie meant. It was funny to think about her and Emmett, and even Alice and Jasper when you looked at them as individuals. They were so different from each other, yet their differences were what made them work so well together.

Rosalie's thoughts broke through my own...

Bella is that person for you. Without even realizing what she was doing, she helped pull you out of the dark hole you insisted on living in. She brings out the best in you.

I shook my head at Rosalie's thoughts and looked out the window to the school.

"And you do the same for her, Edward. I wouldn't think she could be good for you if I didn't think wholeheartedly that you could be as equally good for her."

Why was Rosalie talking like this? She was supposed to be my voice of reason.

"Rosalie, you hated the idea of me being with Bella. What happened to that? You know better than anyone what being with me actually means for her. I'm scared, Rosalie. I'm terrified she's going to want me to change her and I won't have the will to say no. And at the same time, I'm a mess just thinking of the chance she won't want me to change her. How is that even possible? How could I want to do that to her?"

"I did hate the idea. Of course I did. Here was a normal, healthy young girl that was going through so much in her life already. Had she never met us, had she never met you, she would have grown up, getting married, having children, grandchildren, and eventually dying of old age."

I choked on my own thoughts at Rosalie's words. She was right. I ruined Bella's chance for a normal life. How could I ever forgive myself for being so cruel? Wanting to get close to her for my own selfish reasons, not realizing what I was damaging in her own life?

"The problem with that Edward is that none of that may have happened. Bella has admitted she never really wanted children. Her Mom still would have had the accident, and Bella still would have come to Forks and still would have reacted the way she did. That all happened before you met her. She was miserable on her own, and she was comfortable with that misery. She was a loner at school and had no friends. Maybe she would have just moved through her existence instead of actually ever finding a way to really live her life. And who knows how long she would have done that for? Her Mom was taken away at such a young age, who's to say that couldn't have been Bella's fate as well? Not everyone lives a perfect life, Edward. No matter how much you and I seem to believe we would've lived one had we been given the chance. Bella made me realize that. That's what changed."

I was speechless. Was Rosalie right? Was I beating myself up for taking away a life Bella may never have had anyway? But isn't it wrong enough just knowing there was a chance?

"Edward, I can see the wheels turning. I may not be a mind reader, but I know why you asked me to come with you. You want to hate yourself for loving Bella, because that's who you are, and that's what you do. But you are constantly setting your relationship back every time you do this to yourself. I've watched you guys these past several months. You have to see how happy you make her, everyone can see it and feel it, even without Jasper's help."

Rosalie let out a sigh it sounded she had been holding for hours, "I, more than anyone else, never wanted to be the one to admit this, but she belongs with you. It pains me to say it, because I know what that means. I know what it means for her, even if she really doesn't. But I've given Bella the information she needs to think about what consequences a relationship with you will bring, and knowing it all, she still chose to be with you. Her accepting you, accepting all of us, it's her acceptance of what we are that makes her your perfect match. Don't you get it? That's why our relationships all work as well as they do. We've all found someone that compliments us in the most complete way. And that's why our family works so well together too. The seven of us, we just, work. And I've come to realize that Bella is the missing link for not just you, but for all of us."

I turned to Rosalie and really looked at her. I always knew my sister was more insightful than she let on, having the privilege of hearing her thoughts uncensored, but I wasn't expecting this for our conversation. I wanted her to shake my senses back to how they were a year ago. I wanted her to tell me I was being a complete jackass for even thinking of taking Bella's life from her. I wanted her to tell me what a miserable piece of shit I was for even worming my way into Bella's life in the first place, and ultimately worming my way into her heart. But it was hard to feel disappointment as her voice broke the silence and continued to make devastating sense.

"It's funny, isn't it? How we've all managed to find someone that helps us get past our greatest obstacles? Jasper couldn't think positively about a future he wasn't even sure he'd have after all the battles and what happened with Maria. Until Alice literally danced into his life and showed him that not only did he have a future to look forward to without the fighting, but that she would be right there with him in it. And with Alice, having Jasper just believe in her and what she was offering him, allowed her to forget thinking about a past she couldn't remember, and allowed her to focus on the reality of her present and the possibilities of her future."

I decided to join in on Rosalie's train of thought. It was oddly comforting to think about our family and the way the dynamics between everyone just worked.

"And Carlisle and Esme. After living his life alone for so long, she was the companion he really needed," I offered.

Rosalie disagreed, "Sure, she helped him with that. But he already had you. I think it was more than that. I think it was more of what he did for her. Esme was willing to give up her life after losing a child. Carlisle not only was able to give her a motherly role with you immediately, but he eventually gave her two more with me and Emmett. And companionship is what Carlisle needed the most. He started giving himself what he needed with you, Esme, and eventually me and Emmett, but it's Esme that is the glue that holds the seven of us together. I'm not saying we don't love each other and wouldn't come back to each other often on our own, but..."

I cut Rosalie off, because I knew what she meant, "I know. It was like that for me too. I love everyone in our family, but when I'm gone, it's Esme that makes me want to come back, knowing my absence hurts her, even if just by her missing me. She's such a hard person to disappoint, and such an easy person to be around. It's hard to not want to come back to that."

Rosalie smiled and let out a light, "exactly" before continuing, "but that's what Esme does for Carlisle, I think. He may have been the one responsible for making us his companions, but she's the one who keeps us together. She needed the children he gave her, and he needed the companionship of a real family that she effectively maintains. They really do bring out the best in each other, don't they?"

I smiled and nodded at Rosalie's take on our pseudo-parents relationship.

Rosalie continued by bringing up the reason for our conversation, "Accepting what you are is your biggest struggle, Edward. I meant what I said earlier. She accepts you unconditionally. She knows everything about you, and she loves and accepts it all. Esme was right when she said you two would've eventually found each other, because you belong with each other. She's your missing puzzle piece. I know acceptance is hard for you, but you have to learn to at least accept that she's meant to be with you."

"What if I do accept that Rosalie? What if I let myself accept that she's meant to be with me, and what if once I've done that she realizes that it's not worth it? What if she realizes it's not worth her having to give up her life? That being with me will cost her too much? What do I do then?"

"Then you'll deal with it, and you'll let her go if that's what she wants because you love her enough to do what's best for her. And we'll all be here for you if that happens."

Without waiting for me to answer, she continued, "But that won't happen, Edward. She's going to choose to be with you. She knows what she's giving up, she knows what she's getting into, and it's not going to matter. She's still going to choose to be with you. And that's what you're really going to have to deal with."

Rosalie's voice was gentle and she looked at me sympathetically. She was right about us. We were much more similar than either of us admitted. And Rosalie, more than anyone else in the family, understood how my relationship with Bella could feel both triumphant and tragic, an exhausting paradox I was frankly quite tired of living.

I pressed my lips gently into the soft flesh of her cheek. Inhaling, I got lost in her scent. Strawberries, freesia, vanilla, and spearmint – the mingled aromas of her shampoo, toothpaste, and blood all rolled into one intoxicating combination.

I skimmed my lips lightly over her ear as I whispered, "You look beautiful."

Bella was wearing a turquoise cap-sleeve button up shirt with black shorts, and she really did look beautiful. But then, I thought she looked beautiful all the time, no matter what she was wearing. I'll admit I'm biased, but that doesn't take away from her beauty.

It had been precisely twenty-nine hours and thirteen minutes since we were last together, and I couldn't wait to spend the evening with her on our date. After taking Bella out to breakfast yesterday, I left her to have time alone to spend with her Dad while I went out hunting with my family. It had been a long time since we all went out hunting together, and I knew Charlie was looking forward to his first day off in awhile to spend with Bella. It had literally been the first day in five weeks that we didn't spend together.

Tonight I was taking Bella to dinner and a movie. All summer I had been taking advantage of not having school nights to court her in a manner I felt consistent with how I would have dated in the early 1900's. Of course, the movie and dinner date was a substantially evolved version of the kind of dating I would have done when I was human, but I couldn't very well ask Charlie or Angela to chaperone my time with Bella in the twenty first century. And as old-fashioned as I often feel, I'll be the first to admit I've enjoyed watching society become more progressive. As much as I enjoy taking Bella on hikes to our meadow and walks along the beach, I know I would enjoy them just a little less if we always had an audience during them.

Bella was being a good sport and didn't seem to mind my desire to spoil her. But I had noticed on more than one occasion that she would opt for a less expensive option when given the choice. When I asked her if there were any activities she'd like to do, she usually offered going to the beach for walks, taking a drive through the mountains, or another equally cost-free activity. At first I thought her simple and quaint date choices were a way to humor my nostalgic side, but then I noticed other things. She seemed equally conscious of her meal choices, but I honestly couldn't be sure if it was because she was wary of me spending so much money on her or if she really just did prefer the cheapest item on the menu.

Now that I had taken her to another restaurant in Port Angeles, I was hoping there was nothing to my theory about Bella's timidity toward my money. Anxious to hear what she was about to order, I watched as she took her time looking over the menu. Bella's distraction provided the perfect opportunity for me to study her expressions as she looked over her many choices. Her brows furrowed in the most adorable way as she scanned the descriptions. It was times like these when I sometimes wished I could choose certain moments to hear the thoughts floating around in her pretty little head. I absentmindedly swallowed as I watched her pull her bottom lip between her teeth in what I knew to be a contemplative look. I was about to tell her to order anything she was hungry for like I had done almost every other night we'd gone out to a restaurant when she closed her menu signaling she had made up her mind.

The waiter noticed the action at that same moment and walked over to our table to take our order.

"I'd just like a bowl of the Chicken Gumbo, please?" Bella asked the waiter as she looked up at him and smiled.

How the young man could not be knocked off his feet by that smile, I'll never understand. Miraculously enough, he was able to look away from Bella and ask me what I'd like to order.

"Crawfish etouffee. And an order of your andouille sausage red beans and rice."

Bella gave the waiter a chance to leave before rolling her eyes at my order.

"Edward, I can't possibly eat all of that for lunch tomorrow, and how do you even know I'll like any of it? What exactly is ay-too-fay, anyway?"

I tried to not laugh, but she just made it so hard. Her face had contorted into the cutest pout and her nose was scrunched up in a way that told me she already was going to be wary of tasting what I ordered for her.

"Bella, we made this agreement at the beginning of the summer – I'm living vicariously through you. A different restaurant each time we go out to eat, and I'll order something off the menu you would never order so you can try it the next day for lunch, and tell me how it tastes. Etouffee is a Louisiana favorite, and I think you'll love it. But, I recommend reheating it tomorrow in a skillet instead of using that microwave so it retains some of its consistency."

My comments only brought on another eye roll from Bella, although this one was accompanied by a melodic laugh instead of an exasperated sigh.

"Edward, you say that every time we go out for dinner. What could you possibly have against nuking food? Have you ever even used a microwave?"

"I just don't think carefully crafted dietary sustenance should be nuked, as you call it. And of course not, microwaves belong in a space station, not a kitchen."

I tried to keep my face in check and not crack a smile, but I couldn't help it once Bella let loose a few bubbly giggles at my choice of words.

"Carefully crafted dietary sustenance? Really? Couldn't just say food, could you?"

I loved speaking to Bella in a way that made her smile and laugh. It was almost as rewarding as the reactions I received from singing to her. But then again, I loved doing anything that coaxed those types of reactions from Bella. Wanting to feel a reaction of my own, I reached across the table to brush my thumb against her cheek. Every single time I touched Bella's skin I felt my own skin come alive with electricity at the contact. It wasn't possible, I knew, but I couldn't help feel like touching Bella was a conduit to life for me. She leaned her face into my palm and let her eyes drift close as a relaxed smile played on her lips.

The tilt of her head caused strands of hair to fall to her face. With my free hand I reached up and gently tucked them back behind her ear, and immediately relished the rising heat I felt radiating from her cheek. Her beautiful blush was another one of my favorite responses to illicit from her. In these moments it was so incredibly easy for me to get distracted from any thoughts I had prior to touching her.

The waiter bringing out our food snapped me back to the present. I let my hand linger on her cheek, not wanting to break contact yet, but the waiter's interruption reminded me of my thoughts from earlier. She had picked another low cost item off the menu and I just had to know if it was an issue we needed to work out or not.

"Bella? Why did you order the chicken gumbo?"

Bella placed her hand over mine, keeping it firmly in place against her cheek. She took a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes, meeting mine hesitantly.

"I know why you're asking. Don't be upset. I know you can afford it, it's just, I feel bad about you spending so much money on me. At least, until I can spend some money on you too. It's just, we have a whole year before we go to college, and aside from a little I held out, I put all of the money from, um, Mom into a savings account specifically for use during college. I just, I don't want you to keep spending money on me until I can reciprocate. And, I don't need expensive things, Edward. Spending time with you is rich enough."

Bella knew the exact words that would illicit smiles out of me too. How could I not smile at that? She was such a beautiful person, both inside and out, and if I had a real breath to take away, I would probably need an oxygen tank to be with her. That was the kind of thing that was too cheesy to say out loud, and probably too cheesy to even think, but it felt true. She just took my breath away that much. It was in these moments that I had to remember we were in public. I desperately wanted to pick her up, spin her around and plant kisses all over her face and neck. Wait, did she tell me not to be upset?

"Bella, I could never be upset with you. Ever. I don't ever want you to feel hesitant about opening up to me or telling me how you feel. If anything, I don't want you to feel I'm buying your affections or make you feel uncomfortable in any way. I just genuinely don't even think about the money. It's just that I want to do everything and anything with you. I want to share life's experiences with you, and most of those experiences come with a cost. A cost completely inconsequential to me. Trust me, nothing we've done this summer has even skimmed the surface..."

Bella quirked her eyebrow at me, stopping me mid-sentence. Wait, did she think I was bragging? I quickly changed the direction of my words.

"Um, what I mean is that I'm in no danger of putting myself in a financial bind by spoiling you. But I understand completely if you'd prefer us continuing to do activities that are relatively inexpensive. But Bella, I hope you know that I consider what's mine to be yours. I've shared my heart with you and what you believe to be my soul. Everything I have, everything I am, is yours."

Bella just held my hands and smiled at me. It was a sight I could never get tired of.

"Of course I don't think you're buying my affections, Edward. I love you sweetheart, and I know you love me. You have my heart and soul too. I realize money is just something you've grown accustomed to not even paying attention to, but I'm just not wired that way. At least, not yet. Maybe after a century of living with a bottomless disposable income, I'll change my views on the matter."

My breath caught in my throat at her words. She was smiling so warmly at me and didn't even seem to notice the effect her words were having on me.

"A century, huh?"

I smirked at her teasingly, wondering if her comment was to be taken as a playful mocking of me and not meant to be taken as a serious indication of her intentions.

"Okay, you got me. It may take a century and a half," she quipped.

That beautiful blush crept back into her cheeks and down her neck, a clear indicator in how her words should be interpreted. She was being playful, yes, but she was also being genuine. It was an odd feeling to be affected by such a silly statement, but if I had functioning tear ducts, I knew I would be shedding a significant amount of tears right now.

As I contemplated my inactive tear ducts, I came to a greater realization. The urge to cry at Bella's statement was out of sheer love and joy. I felt happy, and I felt so utterly elated that I couldn't even begin to ponder the consequences. In this moment, there just didn't seem to be any consequences of Bella's statement.

Bella finished up her gumbo while I had been lost in thought. Bringing my focus back to the present, Bella wrapped my hand between hers as she delicately changed the subject.

"So, since you brought up spending, I thought it would be a good time to mention that I need you to promise me to take it easy for my birthday, and I'm hoping you'll help me convince everyone else, especially Alice, to keep it low-key as well?"

Uh oh. I already had something planned for Bella, and there was no way she would consider it low key.

"Um, would it make you feel better if I told you that your birthday gift has already been taken care of?"

Bella's eyes grew wide and she let out a soft whine that still sounded musical coming from her.

"Edward! You guys don't celebrate birthdays! It's not fair for you guys to get me anything, and my birthday isn't for another month! I thought for sure if I talked about it now I was doing it plenty of time in advance..."

Her voice trailed off as I leaned in and pressed my lips into hers, letting my tongue take a quick taste of her bottom lip she loved pouting so adorably.

I glanced at my watch and had to suppress a smile. Bella and I had developed a lovely habit this summer of talking so much during dinner that we stayed longer so she could finish eating, causing us to miss several of our movies. And we had done it again.

After I settled the bill with the waiter and grabbed our doggy bags, I took Bella's hand and led her out to my car.

"Edward, please promise me you'll talk to your family for me? Especially Alice. Please, I don't want my birthday to be a big deal. Promise me that your family will keep it light?"

My girl was turning eighteen. If she thought for one second that I was going to take that milestone lightly, she didn't know me at all. And if she thought anything I said or did could deter my sister from celebrating anything properly, she didn't know Alice at all. As I started the car I stole a glance at Bella and chuckled. Judging by the size of her eyes, I was guessing she knew it was a lost cause. I wanted to ease her worries, but the truth was that Alice was the least of her problems. I had been planning Bella's birthday for months.

Knowing it wouldn't be a lie, I said in all sincerity, "Bella, I promise my family will go easy on you for your birthday. Does that make you feel better?"

She breathed a little more steady, but gave an uncertain nod before her eyes grew even wider.

"Edward, promise me that you'll go easy too. I'm serious. I just want to keep it simple this year. You said you already had my gift taken care of. Please, tell me it isn't anything over the top?"

She was so darn cute when she reacted like this. Her birthday had taken a lot of careful planning. I had to consult with Alice regularly to make sure the weekend would go off without a hitch. I had to get Charlie in on the planning since I needed his permission for essentially kidnapping Bella. Emmett and Jasper helped scope out the surrounding area for potential problems during the weekend. And Carlisle was working on one of his connections to help me with the surprise part of Bella's gift. It was all coming together perfectly, and even though Bella was freaking out a little about it now, I was hoping with a fair amount of confidence that this birthday would be one of Bella's most memorable. But she wanted me to tell her something to make her feel better, and I didn't know what I could say that would calm her.

"Bella, what if I just promise that we are doing something for your birthday that you'll love and enjoy?"

She shook her head, but her lips curved up in a tell-tale smile.

"Okay, so my gift is an activity, and not a thing, so that's something. Will you give me a hint and tell me what we're doing?"

Her sweet smile didn't fool me, but I decided to humor her. Wanting to disarm her little and help persuade her to go easy on me, I decided to sing some hints. Thinking of some random lyrics from several different songs pieced together, I just started singing as I drove us back to Forks.

"Give me love, big as a mountain
Oh oh oh, yea
I ring the bell til someone listens
Melt your words right to my skin
And your smile, my flesh and bones
From the mountains I will sing to you
Through your veins my river flows.

Sing and dance
I'll play for you tonight
The thrill of it all
Dark clouds may hang on me sometimes
But I'll work it out
And then I
Look up at the sky
My mouth is open wide and lick and taste
What's the use in worrying, what's the use in hurrying?
Turn turn we almost become dizzy.

Celebrate we will
Because life is short but sweet for certain."

As I pulled into Bella's driveway, I sang the last verse that I knew would make her smile and what I thought would be the final clue she needed.

"It's a nickel or a dime for what I've done
the truth is that I don't really care
For such a lovely crime I'll do the time
You better lock me up I'll do it again
I did it...
Do you think I've gone too far?

I did it...
Guilty as charged
I did it...
It was me right or wrong."

Leaning in toward Bella, I whispered the last line slowly and seductively in her ear.

"I did it."

I felt her shiver and smiled. I pulled my face back enough to be able to look in her eyes. She was smiling until she started putting the pieces together.

"Edward? Are you taking me on a plane or a helicopter ride? Please tell me you aren't taking me sky diving or something equally crazy?"

Bella's worried look had me laughing out loud, despite my best efforts to restrain myself. I wasn't sure how she came to that conclusion, but she was far off from what we were going to do.

"Bella, do I seem like the kind of person that would have his very fragile human girlfriend jump out of a plane or anything equally dangerous?"

Another smile teased her lips as she let out a sigh.

"No, and knowing you, you've already cleared whatever you have planned with Charlie, and he's not the kind of Dad that would let me do any of that stuff either."

Before I could agree with her assessment of her Dad, she continued in almost a whisper, "I guess I'll have to wait until I'm a little less fragile before having those kind of experiences."

I forced my face to not show a reaction. I was determined to not let Bella know what her saying things like that did to me. I didn't want to influence her in anyway, but it was becoming difficult to hide my feelings. Now that I had finally acknowledged what I hoped Bella would choose, I was determined to not give her any indication of how I felt one way or the other. It had to be something she wanted independently from how I felt. I wouldn't let her choose this for me, it had to be something she decided she wanted for herself.

As usual, I wasn't ready to say goodnight to Bella so I walked her to her door before heading up to her room through the window. I knew it was wrong of me to deliberately deceive Charlie after he had been so supportive and open with me, but I was confident he wouldn't understand my need to just be with her every night. And I hoped that in some round-about way, the fact that I was abstaining from physical intimacy with Bella while she was under Charlie's care would alleviate some of my guilt where he was concerned. The truth was that I genuinely respected Charlie, and I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the respect I knew he had for me. He loved Bella and was a wonderful father to her. And as much as I loved Bella and wanted to share every experience with her that two people in love are meant to share, just being able to hold her every night was enough for me.

My thoughts were silenced as Bella walked into her bedroom after getting changed in the bathroom. She had a lavender and blue flannel pajamas set on, her beautiful chocolate colored hair brushed out and falling loosely over her shoulders. I pulled the comforter and sheets back on her bed and climbed in, opening the side up so she could climb in under the covers next to me. While Bella snuggled up against my chest and drifted off to sleep, I pulled her body in tightly against mine.

As Bella fell into a deep sleep, my thoughts pounded through my head like a freight train. But only one particular thought ran through my mind on a tortuous loop: I was never going to be ready to let Bella go. Rosalie was wrong. If Bella decided not to choose this life with me, yes, I loved her enough to respect her decision, but I would never be able to deal with it. If Bella made the decision to grow old and live out her human life, I would love her from a distance and allow her to do that. I would want her to be happy and wouldn't interfere. But when the time came for Bella to leave this world, I knew I would have no choice but to leave it with her.

End Notes:

The songs Edward stole lyrics from to sing to Bella were all from the Dave Matthews Band and were (in order):

1. Beach Ball
2. Dancing Nancies
3. Two Step
4. I Did It.

Can you guess what Edward has planned for Bella's birthday? One more chappie to go, then the Epilogue!