Nothing had been the same since the night I left Carlisle in the gardens.
I did not realize until it was too late just how intensely I was connected to this man. He was a kind of nourishment I could not deny. If being near him was like being under a spell, being away from him was full torture withdrawal. Deep in the night I found myself fantasizing about his kisses, how each one had been more thrilling than the last. I remembered the way he spoke to me in the fragrant shadows of the gardens, how the pulse of his heart had awakened forbidden longings inside of me, and how hot his blue eyes burned.
All my life I had been able to draw a mask over my emotions, but since I met Carlisle, my feelings were all but impossible to hide. I was in constant danger while living under the same roof as the rest of the Volturi. These were some of the cleverest vampires on earth; I could only fool them for so long while my behavior was clearly out of sorts. I started to pick up on their signals, the little signs that they were beginning to notice my moodiness and restlessness. I lived in terror that one of them would suddenly corner me in the dank halls of the stone castle and accuse me of my obsession.
I had not spoken a word of it to anyone, yet I couldn't continue this way. I needed to tell someone. And there was only one person I could trust.
It took quite a bit of coaxing to get Sulpicia away from the castle. She hardly ever left her tower unless it was to feed. Through some manipulative wording and several loving threats, I convinced her to follow me across the countryside one night to a place where no other curious ears could hear us.
Before she could even ask me what all of this was about, I began the conversation in the bluntest way imaginable.
"I have a problem."
She smirked, unsurprised thus far. "Is his name Felix?"
"I'm not talking about Felix."
Then, I saw curiosity creep into her moonlit red eyes. "Go on." She leaned delicately against a leafless tree, her cloak brushing against the wheatgrass.
I took a deep breath and lowered my voice. "Before I say anything more, I want you to know that I was not planning to tell anyone what I'm about to tell you. But I must tell someone or I fear I will go mad. You are the only person I trust enough to tell."
With that, Sulpicia stood tall and came over to stand beside me. One of her slender arms emerged from her dark cloak, and she reached out to place a comforting hand on mine. "You can tell me anything, Esme. And if you wish it so, I will not speak a word of it to anyone." Her words were firm, and I believed them. "Now, what is troubling you?"
My throat instantly tightened, as if warning me not to say.
I looked at the ground. "You will think me most terrible for it."
She smiled wryly and squeezed my hand. "Should that be the case, I assure you that I shall still love you in spite of it."
"I..." I attempted once again to spill my secret, but again the words died in my mouth.
Sulpicia leaned forward, her eyes gleaming with inquisition. I never recalled being so nervous to share a secret before in my life. I briefly warred with myself whether to blurt it out or to reveal it slowly. My heart chose for me.
"I am in love..."
All at once there was a gratified glow to Sulpicia's face; a happiness that I knew would certainly be dashed when I said my next words.
"...with a human."
I watched with heavy hopes as my fear came true before my eyes.
"A human?" She repeated the word in a whisper of fright, laced with revulsion.
"Yes," I confirmed, my frustration mounting as I processed the look of concern in her eyes. "Yes! And God damn me to hell for it!" My shout echoed over the wheat field, making the grass tremble and the moon shrink. I nearly ripped through my dress in my anger.
Sulpicia leaned over my hunched and shaking body, smoothing my hair away from my face. "Esme, my darling, how can this be?"
"How? Oh, how does the moon hold itself above the earth?" I whimpered and fell to the ground, crushing the wheatgrass and sending up a flourish of sandy grain that sparkled in the moonlight. As I stared directly at that full moon, my eyes instead saw his exquisite face staring back at me, luminous with hope and passion. "How can I love this man? This man with flesh and blood and a beating heart?"
I was surprised to see the graceful and formal Sulpicia fall to her knees beside me in the grass. She grabbed my wrist in earnest and spoke urgently to me. "You're certain you are not mistaking your feelings of bloodlust for something more?"
"No, Lord, no!" I shook my head fiercely, getting my hair tangled in the grass. "I have known bloodlust all my life, yet I've never felt this before." I slammed both my hands into the center of my chest to emphasize the feeling as I struggled to describe it. "Something so strong and so unforgiving it feels as if my heart is being torn out of my chest every time I look at him!"
The next time Sulpicia spoke, she sounded even more breathless and worried. "Have you spoken to him, Esme?"
I let out a hysterical, high-pitched laugh. "Spoken to him! Touched him! Kissed him!" As I shouted my final transgression into the night, I clearly heard Sulpicia's gasp of horror.
"And yet I still want him in every way imaginable!" I barreled on, overcome by my own personal madness. "I want to own him, to drink his blood...to make love to him!" I felt the grass rustle like hot tinder beneath my back as I voiced my deepest desires.
"This is dangerous." Sulpicia's voice was no longer panicked and rushed, but hard and grave.
I scoffed at her understatement. "This is suicide!"
She bit her lip, looking more concerned than I'd ever seen her before. "It is true our kind would not look softly on you for it. My own mate would consider it an abomination."
The fact that she did not hesitate before saying this made me even more nervous. I gulped just thinking of what Aro would do to me if he found out.
"I will not say anything to him," Sulpicia promised hastily before I could ask. "And I would never encourage anyone else to pursue such a love. But for you, Esme..."
I bolted upright at her wispy words. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, if you believe in your own heart, you will fight to make this man yours."
I shook my head twice, unconvinced that I had just heard these words coming from Sulpicia's lips. Had the wife of the Volturi master really just given me permission to love and pursue a human man?
For the sake of argument, I had to deny her. "But I would be defying everything your people have taught me!"
She shook her head at me. "Esme, not one of us has ever said that love between a vampire and a human is impossible. We all know that it exists. We all acknowledge that it is a very real danger. That is precisely why there is such fear surrounding it."
"Yet you are telling me to pursue it?"
"You are different from the rest of us, Esme. You always have been. I want you to embrace your wild heart. If this young man has such power over you, then you must claim him as your own no matter what it takes!"
True terror seized me as her words sunk in. "We both know that we cannot keep this a secret forever," I said gravely.
"That is true," Sulpicia agreed, her eagerness mellowed by the onset of reality. "My Aro will be furious with you when he finds out."
"Can we make him understand?" I asked desperately.
"Only time will tell, my dear." She smoothed my hair with a patient smile and kissed my temple. "For now, follow your heart. Love knows no boundaries!"
Her encouraging exclamation only weakened my resolve. "But I have already made a terrible mistake," I admitted dismally.
"What do you mean?"
"I abandoned him - without so much as an explanation. I was afraid of what I might do to him if I stayed with him any longer." My head fell into my hands. "Sulpicia, I put him in danger every time I stand beside him!"
"Esme, your sanity is in danger the longer you stay away from him. Take my word for it. You must go back to him."
"But how? How can I earn his forgiveness?"
"Perhaps a gift of some kind?" she supplied helpfully. "What does he like?"
I paused to think, only to be overcome with sadness that I didn't know the answer to her question. I knew that he liked the sea, and medicine, and helping others. But I couldn't very well buy him a ship, and anything to do with medicine surely wouldn't make a romantic gift.
"I don't know," I sighed in resignation.
"Then you'll just have to start with something every human man likes," she said with a mischievous smile. "Food."
How Sulpicia knew so well the greatest weakness of human men, I'd never guess. But I took her advice to heart and made my first trip to Pisa the very next morning. There I bartered and bantered with the best Italian chefs. My nose was tickled by the strange scents of oregano, dill, basil, and tomato. I was an utter stranger to such ingredients, but I was eager to learn how to use them if it meant creating something that could win Carlisle back.
Finding young chefs to help me in my noble mission was no difficult chore. These men of the kitchen were more than happy to teach a curious and beautiful woman how to bake a loaf of bread, no matter how long it took.
Needless to say, even without a language barrier, I was lost when it came to the art of baking. I spent hours in several different kitchens, surrounded by laughing Italians, with whom I flirted shamelessly when necessary. I worked hard to learn the chemistry of yeast and flour and water. It was a process that seemed to come so naturally to these dark haired young men and women, but to me, it was and always had been foreign. I didn't care how much I humiliated myself or how many men I had to charm to steal ingredients from. I was determined to learn how to bake.
I went drifting through the market in search of the right ingredients, offering poorly written lists to the vendors in the street who could help me find them. There were no wood fire ovens anywhere to be found in Volterra, so I had to do some trespassing to gain access to one. Working with fire frightened me, but I found the danger thrilling. Nothing was going to stop me from baking a perfect loaf of bread on my own.
As I'd expected, my first three attempts were unsuccessful. Unable to judge the taste for myself, I had various townspeople tell me what they thought of my crusty concoctions. Too salty, too burnt, too bitter. It seemed I couldn't offer a slice of my homemade bread to any human without her face scrunching up in disgust, or her tongue sputtering in revulsion. But with every failure I learned something new.
I worked hastily, but carefully, to make Carlisle's gift. I swiped ingredients from unlocked bakeries and searched high and low for unoccupied kitchens. Twenty-four times I attempted to recreate the magic I'd seen in Pisa, but it wasn't until the twenty-fifth time that I pulled something remotely magical from the fire.
It was gleaming and golden brown, and it had not a speck of black carbon to spoil it. It was the perfection I had pined for - in appearance at least. I only needed someone to test its taste.
This time, the town folk were eager to try what I offered. Once one person's eyes lit up at their first bite, the others gathered around, their hands reaching for a piece. Children licked their fingers and begged for more. Seasoned old women who had spent years in their kitchens hounded me for the recipe. And the men. The men were swooning.
Ecstatic with my success, I rushed back to the kitchen to recreate my miracle bread. Thanks to my perfect memory, I was able to conjure it out of the fire one more time. Remembering how Carlisle had devoured the sweet bread on First Night, I decided to do something special. On a whim, I glazed the loaf of bread with honey and let it sit on a hot plate before wrapping it up and hiding it inside a covered basket.
Now for the real test.
Evening had fallen by the time I reached that quaint little side of the city where Carlisle took up residence with the apothecary. It seemed so long ago that I walked this street by his side, but every night I secretly walked here in my fantasies. Even the shadows seemed pretty. Everything looked pretty when I was close to Carlisle.
I felt my heart sink a little when I thought back to our last encounter. Indeed, the Gardens of Lucullus had looked breathtaking before I met him there. But with Carlisle's brilliant presence to brighten them, those gardens could have been a sublevel of heaven. I was foolish for abandoning him. But I was also foolish for becoming involved with him in the first place. I had no right to intervene in the life of such an innocent man. I brought danger with me everywhere I went. Yet he saw me with pure and worshipful eyes. He thought I was his saving grace. And by God, I adored being someone's saving grace for a change. Even if it was just an illusion.
When the familiar facade of the apothecary's home came into sight, I stopped on the street corner, suddenly nervous and scared to speak to him again. As the one who had driven him away, it hurt my pride deeply to be seeking his forgiveness. But as much as it hurt, I knew it had to be done.
I took a deep breath, welcoming the tempting perfume of his blood - unmistakable in the cool evening air. My chest tightened and my legs carried me forward. I clutched my basket of bread tighter, as if it could protect me. When I reached the door, I stood for a moment in silence, listening for voices inside. I heard none.
I wanted so terribly to just leave the basket on his doorstep and run back to Volterra, but the waves of his intoxicating scent enticed me to knock on the door.
There was no answer at first. Not even a stirring to be heard deep inside the house. Perhaps he was asleep. I felt a pang of guilt that I might have been interrupting his rest.
I winced, closed my eyes, and knocked again. I don't know why I did it. I wasn't planning on waiting for an answer this time, so I turned around, ready to dart away into the dark street, when a faint gleam of shielded light spilled onto the ground from behind me.
I whipped around at the sound of the door creaking open. And there he stood, tall and weary, clutching a candle in his right hand, his long white sleep shirt barely hanging onto him - a rugged, exhausted beauty.
His eyes squeezed shut, then widened in bright blue bewilderment as he brought the candle up to cast more light on his face. His expression of disbelief was not surprising to me - in fact, I was sure he must have thought he was dreaming. But I knew how I was going to convince him that I was real.
Without a thought, I smiled my signature smile, knowing the sight of my face would be ever more striking under the ethereal light of his candle. The only disadvantage was that I could not so easily read his expression now that the candle was flickering between us. Was he shocked to see me, or was he offended that I had enough gall to come back? Or was it a bit of both?
"You're here?" he whispered, his voice feathered by recent slumber.
I nodded and grinned at him hopefully, almost able to feel the weight of sympathy in my own eyes.
He looked me up and down, his lips still open in astonishment. "Why...? Why are you here?"
"I've come to apologize." It took a lot for me to say the words, even with Carlisle looking as vulnerable and lovely as he did in his bed clothes and his bare feet.
He shook his head and leaned slightly closer to me. My throat flamed at the screaming scent of his blood. I hadn't been this near to him in such a long time. I needed to readjust. I held my breath before continuing, "It's been nearly three weeks since the night we met in the gardens, and all I have done since then is regret having left you behind."
He frowned at the memory of that night I so cruelly ran away from him. We'd made a promise to each other, and he'd kept true to it. He'd stripped himself bare and shared with me his innermost passions and feelings. And I had trampled them all.
"I know that I hurt you, Carlisle. I don't expect you to ever fully trust me again. Maybe I don't even deserve that," I murmured. "But I do hope that you will accept my apology and that I will have your forgiveness."
"You come to me at this ungodly hour to ask my forgiveness?" Before I could defend myself against his question, his fingers had somehow found their way to my cheek. He stroked my skin delicately and sighed. "Dear Lord, I must wake from this dream."
I smiled sadly to myself, at once realizing how much I'd missed him. His touch, his scent, the sorts of things he said...
"You are not dreaming, Carlisle," I whispered to him. "I am really here." I laced our fingers together, hoping to confirm my realness.
To my dismay, he simply stared back at me, unfazed and unconvinced. So I kissed him.
My body was not ready for the seizing sensation of his lips against mine. I hadn't anticipated the overbearing rush of violent pleasure that shot through me from our contact. I found it astonishing how pure and deep and gripping our connection was. How could I have forgotten this? My heart sighed as I slipped my fingers into his long blond hair and pressed myself against him.
He reeled into my kiss like a fish into a gilded net. I was in control, but he was more than complacent. This close, I could feel the fatigue in his body, contrasted by the renewed fire of longing in his stomach. He was still torn between the demands of his heart and his mind.
A soft moan escaped his throat just before I pulled away, my hands pressed firmly to his chest. The beat of his heart was explosive, and his face was rosier than a Parisian flower garden.
"Now will you please let me come inside?" I begged, barely hiding my desperation.
He all but dragged me into the cramp entryway, pushing the door shut behind us. A spark of curiosity lit his eyes, even in the shadow. "I don't understand, Esme. You were so insistent that I never see you again. What made you change your mind?"
My mouth opened to reply, but I stopped myself, painfully reminded of the fact that he still did not know my secret. He stared back at me in the dark room, looking more vulnerable than I'd ever seen him. His eyes were tired yet honest, twinkling above soft violet circles that had formed after several sleepless nights. I did not know how I could continue to stare into this man's eyes and manage to hide the true nature of my existence from him. Just meeting his gaze put me in danger of spilling everything. I wanted to tell him my secret, so badly, in a way I'd never wanted to tell anyone before...
I decided the least I could do was share a bit of the truth with him. He deserved that, I thought. He at least deserved to know the reason why I'd come back to him.
"I spoke about our encounter with a friend," I explained, wringing my hands nervously as I clutched my basket of bread. "She made me realize that I had found something special when I met you. And I was a fool to throw it all away." My voice fell quiet on the last part; it still hurt my pride to admit it. But it was a good kind of pain. A very good kind.
I saw tendrils of relief in Carlisle's eyes, but confusion etched into his brow. "You were frightened of me," he said, stunning me with such a forward statement. "I could see that you were. But it made no sense to me. Had I done something to drive you away?"
"No," I half-lied. "No, Carlisle. You've done nothing wrong." I paused for a moment and stared deeply into his innocent, inquisitive face. A strange longing filled my heart. "It was...your passion. I suppose it was your passion that had frightened me."
Though the light of the candle could be deceiving, I swore I could see a flash of fleeting pleasure in his eyes as I revealed this.
"Then I think it fair to tell you that my passion has not waned." His honest and gentle warning made my entire body flush. "Have your feelings truly changed?" he asked warily.
I nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I believe they have."
He hesitantly moistened his lips, and I suddenly remembered the bread I'd brought for him.
"Will you allow me to prove my sincerity?" I teased, holding up the basket. His eyes turned curious as he noticed it for the first time.
He extended his hand slowly toward it, fingers stirring the air to indicate his interest. "What's inside this basket?"
"A gift," I said cryptically.
Without using any words, his eyes asked perfectly and coherently, "For me?"
I nodded encouragingly and guided him to sit down at the small table by the window. Standing by his chair, I tipped open the top of the wicker basket for him to look inside. He blinked without a visible reaction, and I quickly remembered that his eyes were not as keen as mine to see so clearly in the dark. So I reached inside and pulled out the glistening mound of honey bread.
"I made it for you."
His already compassionate expression softened even further, making him look almost sleepy with appreciation. But when he looked at the bread, his blue eyes sparkled in a way that reminded me of lust.
Slowly, I broke a soft piece of the bread off with my fingers and held it out for him to take. When he did not reach for it, I forced it gently into his hand and then raised his hand up to his mouth, like a mother teaching her child how to eat.
He hesitated at first, but when our eyes met and he saw the loving threat in my gaze, he opened his mouth and let the bread touch his lips. His eyes closed as he savored his first taste, but they fluttered open a moment later, pleasantly surprised by the sweetness of the honey I'd added.
I watched intently as he chewed and swallowed the small piece I'd offered him. When he was finished, he stared longingly at the rest of the loaf in my hand.
"How does it taste?" I asked him with a knowing smile.
"Divine," he whispered back.
I resisted the urge to gloat about my recently discovered baking talent and instead offered him another piece.
Watching his enjoyment made me long to feel the sensation of hunger again, and it fascinated me that he could find such satisfaction from such a little piece of bread. I was captivated by the way his lips moved so sensually, and the way his throat rippled when he swallowed.
I fetched him a goblet of water before settling down at the table next to him.
"Can I assume this means that you accept my apology?"
He nodded, smiling at me while he finished licking the sweet residue off his fingers.
"I've yet to hear you say the words," I hinted quietly. His attention was all mine, but I was distracted by the honey still glistening on his lips as he spoke.
"I forgive you, Esme."
Relief poured into me like sunlight into a dark forest. Just those four words had made me whole again. I wanted to climb onto the roof with him right now and sing my joy into the night. I smiled at the thought, realizing I would risk waking all of Rome to do so.
"No," he shook his head slowly, leaning closer to me, his blue eyes crystal clear by the light of the blinking candle. "Thank you for coming back..."
I sat back in my chair, completely defenseless as he bent closer and closer to me, his gaze very obviously pursuing my lips. He had me trapped.
I closed my eyes and felt a wave of tension enter my body as his irresistible scent overpowered me. My breath caught when his lips touched mine with a hungry yet gentle strength.
The honey that lingered on his lips was sticky and sweet in a way that almost reminded me of blood, only the taste was much less pleasant. It was not at all appealing for a vampire, yet I couldn't help but enjoy the sensation of the way our lips clung and slipped against each other. His hand reached out to wrap around the back of my neck, drawing me closer and making me warmer. I leaned further into him, relishing the intensity of his breath and his heartbeat, and loving the rough caress of golden stubble that was beginning to grow along his jaw.
"So you've decided to let yourself be seduced by destiny?" he asked in his husky voice, sliding his fingers reverently across my lips.
I huddled against his warm neck and hid my smile as I nodded. Secretly I knew that destiny was not the only thing that was seducing me now.