Disclaimer: Stephanie Meyer owns everything in the Twiverse.

A/N: I promised an update in two weeks about four weeks ago, and I'm sorry for the delay. RL got in the way, but this is the next-to-last chapter, and it had to be right.

I hope you think it is.


Just to recap:

"Leave?" Aro seemed confused. "Who said I was leaving?"

Our eyes darted back and forth, uncertain of how to politely encourage him to do just that.

"You said we were safe," Carlisle said.

"You are."

"Okay. Then…"

"Then why am I not leaving?" Aro clasped his hands behind his back. "A fair question."

I noticed Alice's eyes were no longer on her phone, and Jasper seemed poised to strike. "You said you were here about Charlie," I said to Aro.

"I am."

"But you just saw him and said he knows nothing."

"This is true."

I pinched the bridge of my nose, hoping not to pierce the skin. "Then what else is there? What further business could you have with my father?"

The room seemed to hold its breath as we awaited Aro's explanation. My mind raced with possibilities, none of which made any real sense, and as far as their expressions suggested, no one in the family seemed any more clued in than I was.

Aro chuckled to himself, as if preparing to speak. But instead of opening his mouth, he cocked his head to one side and glanced at us.

At Edward, to be exact.


Chapter 48: A Promise Kept

Bella's POV

I didn't know which was worse.

The cluelessness in Alice's eyes.

Or the calm curiosity with which Aro stared at my husband.

For his part, Edward hadn't reacted since Aro looked his way, and had he not shifted closer to me, I might have thought he was a statue.

"Edward?" Carlisle asked Aro. "What dealings could you have with him?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Aro smiled.

"Son." Esme's use of the term revealed her concern. "Do you know what this is about?"

Instead of answering, Edward looked down at me. His eyes were hooded and focused, their shameful sorrow causing my breath to catch. I forgot all about our audience as I took his hands. "What did you do?"

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I wanted to keep my promise."

"Edward." Carlisle's voice was firm. "What is the meaning of this?"

"Now, now," Aro interrupted. "No need for unease. Edward will clear this up momentarily."

I turned to Aro. "Is this about your collection?"

"Collection?" Aro repeated. "Of samurai swords?"

"Of vampires!" I whispered so Charlie wouldn't hear. "Everyone knows you covet the gifted ones. And if you came all the way here to offer my father's safety in exchange for adding to the guard, you can think again!"

Edward sighed. "Bella, don't."

"Is that what you've done?" I turned to him. "Did you promise yourself in Volterra to save Charlie?"

He shook his head. "I care about Charlie, but I would never consent to leave you for any reason."

"Then what is he talking about?" I scanned his eyes and found only regret. "What does he want and what does it have to do with you?"

"He doesn't want me. Or Alice for that matter."

"Is that what you think?" Aro scoffed. "That I wanted them but it slipped my mind when I had you cornered in Volterra? You must think me senile or sloppy, and I am insulted either way."

I didn't miss the remark about having us cornered, but Carlisle spoke before I could. "So you aren't interested in Edward and Alice?"

"Their gifts would prove undoubtedly useful. But I have others in my sights: a Brazilian brunette who can manipulate memories comes to mind. So no, I am not here for them."

Jasper's relief filled the room, quickly supplanted by apprehension. Aro had dismissed our best guess about his intentions, and now we were back in the dark.

"Edward?" Carlisle said after a moment. "Do you know what he means?"

He did not take his eyes from mine. "I do."

"Are you ready?" Aro asked.

"Yes. Just let me make the call."

"Wonderful!" Aro clapped his hands. "Why don't we take this tête-à-tête to that lovely span of woods across the street? I think some privacy is in order."

Edward's countenance grew increasingly grave, and no one moved.

"It's all right." Edward half-smiled at his father. "We'll be there shortly."

Carlisle nodded as Alice came to her feet scowling. Edward must have been blocking his thoughts again, something she hated more than one-size-fits-all clothing.

As the caravan followed Father Carlisle out of the room, Aro the only excited one in the group, Edward caressed my fingers with troubled touches. His eyes searched my soul, and though I showed him nothing but trust, he sighed nonetheless. "I'm sorry."

I cupped his cheek. "For what?"

He leaned into my touch, turning his face to kiss my palm. "I only wanted to keep my promise."

The words made no more sense the second time, but their sincerity touched my heart.

After telling Charlie we would return in a few hours after some errands—and noting his relief at being alone for a while—I came downstairs to find Edward slipping his phone back in his pocket. As he'd waited until I left the room to make the call, I didn't ask who it was.

I would find out soon enough.

Entering the forest a half-block below Charlie's house, Edward dropped to one knee as soon as we were hidden from view. "They're a half-mile in already. We'll have to run."

I climbed onto his back, locking my limbs around his neck and waist. He leaned back against me, and I brought my lips to his ear. "Whatever you've done, we'll be fine."

"I know," he said, confusing me further. I kissed the spot beneath his lobe not knowing what to say and closed my eyes as he took off.

In seconds we came to a stop. I slid down his back, touching the ground with a muted thud. I opened my eyes to find us in an unfamiliar part of the forest. Stubborn patches of grass fought their way through the dark winter soil while fallen branches and leaves crisscrossed the ground in erratic patterns.

Our family gathered near the center of the space with Aro on its fringes staring at the trees as though foreign objects. Carlisle and Esme's eyes were tight with worry as they watched their oldest son, and Alice fumed with frustration at Edward's secrecy. Jasper did his best to maintain some order, but his brow was furrowed with concern for his wife.

"Is the weather always this damp?" Aro asked no one in particular.

"Yes," Carlisle replied. "But a small price to pay for more than 300 sunless days per year."

"Hmm. Where will you go next?"

"We have yet to discuss it," Carlisle said. "Any suggestions?"

"London or the Irish Isles. Isabella will need time to adjust to her new life, but some proximity to humans might simplify the process, emotionally speaking."

As if he cared about my future.

"You mistake me, Mrs. Masen." I forgot my face was an open book. "Your success as an immortal means everything to me. A human choosing this life without coercion is noteworthy. But to do so for love, it is more than a notion."

I returned his stare, once again at a loss for words.

"And ensuring a smooth transition makes sense from a tactical standpoint. You will be a newborn, and we are never more volatile than at that critical time."

"Isabella will be well cared for," Carlisle said.

"We guarantee it," Esme added.

"I have no doubt, but my eyes shall remain open just the same. You understand." He turned to Edward. "How much longer?"

"They just entered my telepathic range. A few more moments."

"This is exhilarating!" Aro cried. "Pity you all are in the dark. The surprise is too delicious to spoil, but I dare say our lives are about to change forever."

His solemn words belied his glee, and I focused on regulating my breathing. Edward wrapped his arm around me, his cool hand slipping into the waist of my jeans to stroke the hip where I'd made my promise. "I did this for you."

"Did what?"

Before he could reply, Alice turned to the left, her sharp cry piercing the air. "Oh my god!"

Five of us followed Alice's lead, Edward looking instead at his feet. The four vampires gasped, speaking at once.

"What in the name of…" Carlisle said.

"Is that…" Esme said.

"How did they…" Jasper wondered.

"It worked!" Aro cried.

My stupid human eyes couldn't see anything yet, and I turned to my husband in a huff. "What are they looking at?"

He tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. "My promise to you."

"What promise?"

"To keep Charlie in your life."

"How?"

He placed his hands on my arms and turned me around. "See for yourself."

"What could you have done to…" The words died on my tongue as I saw what everyone else was looking at.

On the narrow path between the trees, Rosalie headed toward us with Emmett beside her.

At least, I thought it was Rosalie and Emmett.

I'd never seen Rosalie like this. Well-worn blue overalls stained with brown liquid were a shocking change from the designer tights. A plaid flannel shirt and construction boots completed her worker-woman look. Her honey-blonde locks were in a low ponytail, yet even without makeup, she was stunning.

Emmett, however, was another matter.

His casual attire was the same as usual, but his thick dark hair was streaked with varying shades of gray. The effect would have been startling against his marble skin, but that too was different.

Different being an understatement.

His smooth face was etched with fine lines in the forehead, near the eyes, and around the mouth. The skin on his nose and cheeks was sagged and worn, as if he'd aged overnight. Even his ears seemed older.

I had somehow slipped from Edward's grasp as they approached, growing equal parts fascinated and frightened as they came into clearer view. But when Emmett reached for me, the wrinkles on the back of his hand made me take a giant step backwards.

"Oh my god!" I fisted my hands in my pockets, afraid to let him touch me. "Emmett, what happened to you?"

He wiggled his graying eyebrows. "That's Old Man McCarty to you, young lady."

I folded my arms across my chest. "Could you be serious for once?"

"I am serious." He was almost offended. "I look like an old man! My Rosie did good, didn't she?"

"She most certainly did," Aro sighed in awe. "Come closer, my boy. We have not been introduced, but I am most delighted to meet you."

"Go," Edward muttered. "We need to talk to Bella."

"'Kay." Emmett bounded toward Aro as the rest of the family crowded them.

"Edward." I stole another glance at Emmett, the sight of his skin making mine crawl. "What is going on? Is he dying?"

Rosalie snorted. "You think I'd be this calm if my man was dying?"

"No, but…" I heard Esme's startled squeak as she laid her hand against Emmett's rumpled cheek. "None of this makes any sense."

Rosalie looked at Edward. "Would you like to do the honors?"

He shook his head, still staring at me. "I trust you."

"Okay, then." Rosalie clasped her hands together. "Monday night, after you feel asleep, Edward texted me and asked me to meet him in the woods."

"Monday night?"

"New Years?" Rosalie half-smiled. "When you and your groom overloaded Jasper with all your newlywed feelings."

I ignored the heat in my cheeks and Aro's short laugh. "Right."

"Anyway, he hadn't told me why he wanted to see me, but I assumed it was about your tattoo."

Everyone but Alice stared at me, and I remembered they hadn't known about that. Aro was the only one ogling Emmett now, but I had a feeling my aging brother wouldn't forget to ask me about it later.

"He was scared," Rosalie continued, "afraid losing your father would scar you for eternity. And he asked for my help."

"I barely had to ask." Edward glanced at Rosalie. "She was already concerned about you."

I looked at her, and she rolled her eyes. "I just didn't want you moping for the next five hundred years."

I smiled, glad we were back to normal. "So what happened?"

"That's when he asked about your tattoo. He was impressed by its odorless, undetectable ink and wondered if I could take it a step further."

"Meaning?"

"He asked me to create something to make us look older."

"You…" I looked between Edward and Rosalie, over to Emmett, and back to Rosalie. "You created a chemical that ages vampire skin?"

"It's more like a well-controlled burn, but yes," Rosalie's eyes lighted on Edward. "We did."

"Remarkable!" Aro cooed. "I've never seen anything so splendid in all my days." He extended a hand to Rosalie. "How ever did you do it?"

Rosalie joined her husband where he stood with Aro and raised her hand for Aro's invasion. As their palms touched, Emmett's hand came to rest against her lower back. His crinkled skin caught my attention again, and as I stared at it, I heard Edward's voice on New Year's Eve as we announced my plans to change this summer:

"You won't lose Charlie… I promise to find a way to keep him in your life."

And again during breakfast the morning after our showdown about Victoria's death:

"I just hate the idea of leaving Charlie behind, and I'm hoping to somehow find a way around it."

"We will," Edward promised. "I can't say how, but I know that we will."

I thought he couldn't say because he didn't know.

And yet again, on the flight home from Volterra yesterday:

"I know what my father said," he whispered. "But I promised you that Charlie would stay in your life, and I will never break a promise to you again."

I squeezed his fingers, touched by his stubbornness. "I love you for wanting to keep your word with me, but he's right. If I try to keep Charlie in my life beyond my change, he could die."

"Living without your father while he's alive would kill you, Bella," Edward gently insisted. "Please do not pretend otherwise for my sake."

I clamped my mouth shut, biting down on my bottom lip. "I made promises to you, too, Edward. And I will not go back on them, not even for my dad."

Edward turned me in his arms until our faces were a sweet breath apart. He lifted my chin, forcing me to look into his eyes. His golden gaze was somehow tender and ferocious, and I was powerless to look away. "You will not lose Charlie," he said. "You have my word."

I saw the certainty in Edward's eyes, heard it in his voice. He seemed determined to do the impossible—defy Volturi law and two millennia of secrecy without getting us all killed—all for the sake of my eternal happiness.

And I'd wanted to believe him in spite of the odds, felt I could do at least that much.

Little had I known, he didn't need me to believe. He didn't need my faith because he had a plan.

A plan that worked.

"You knew."

"What?"

I blinked away tears. "When you said I wouldn't lose Charlie, you knew about this."

He wouldn't look at me. "Not at first."

"But after that, you knew." He said nothing, and I took a step closer. "You knew because you did this."

"I hoped. And Rosalie did this."

"Stop being modest." I cupped his cheeks, ignoring the moisture on my own. "You did this for me."

He smiled for the first time since Aro's arrival. "I would do anything for you, Bella."

"Ah, the glory of young love!" Aro sighed as he approached. "Amazing how the universe can condense into the look in another's eyes. Enjoy it while it lasts."

I left Edward's gaze long enough to glare at Aro, earning myself a hearty chuckle. "Isabella, you look as if you think you could take me! Perhaps after your change, we shall have a bit of sport to settle the question. What do you say to a joust?"

I turned to Emmett who stood beside his bride. "So this makeup…"

"I call it 'Rosalline,'" Emmett chuckled. "You know, like Maybelline?"

"… does it hurt?"

"It burns like hell." His smile warmed my heart. "But it's worth it."

"How long does it last?" Carlisle asked.

"The longest he's worn it is six hours," Rosalie said. "But the skin takes just as long to heal, so this is only the third time we've tried it."

"Mrs. McCarty, I tip my proverbial hat to you." Aro said and did. "This is a triumph of the first order. You have earned favor, and that not lightly."

Rosalie cocked an eyebrow. "Did you say 'earned favor' or 'earned a favor'?"

"Audacious in all things." Aro took his time smiling. "And I shall play along—the choice is yours, dolcezza."

Emmett frowned at the pet name, and Rosalie patted his arm to keep him quiet. "I'll take the latter."

"Name it." Aro's eyes narrowed. "Bearing in mind I cannot break the law."

Rosalie looked at our family, saving me for last. "Might I use it later? You never know when such a thing might come in handy."

I knew Aro didn't approve, though his face betrayed nothing. "As you wish. But you have only a decade to decide."

Rosalie bowed her thanks and stroked Emmett's hand where it rested against her hip. As I watched Aro watching him, his focus unnerved me. "Why do you care?"

"Pardon me?" Aro asked.

"Why do you care about what Rosalie did? Heidi does your fishing"—I couldn't believe I'd mentioned it so casually—"so you never have to leave the castle. Why would you need aging makeup?"

"Oh, Isabella." Aro tsked his disappointment. "You are so young, so disturbingly young. It's no wonder you have no sense of perspective."

"Perspective?"

"Yes, of course. When you have survived this long, the world can become a bit stale, like blood allowed to cool in the veins. And that is no way for a civilized person to live."

I suppressed a snort at his word choice.

"Those who thrive in this life do so by keeping things fresh, stirring the pot so to speak. No, I never have to leave the castle, but in truth, I never have to do anything! I have plenty at my beck and call to do my biding without question. But where's the fun in that?"

His laughter startled us all, and I took a moment to recover. "So this is about fun?"

Aro pursed his lips. "Am I not allowed to have fun? Is that privilege reserved for the young and ridiculous?"

"I didn't mean…"

"Fret not thyself, Isabella," Aro said. "As I said upon arrival, I mean you all no harm."

"You also said you came only to see Charlie," Carlisle said.

"Well, that was misleading," Aro said, "but kindly meant. After reading young Edward's mind in Volterra, I realized only Mrs. McCarty knew of his plans regarding Isabella and her father. I did not want to spoil the surprise without first knowing if it were ready."

"That's another thing," Rosalie said. "How did you know we were ready?"

"I can't go revealing all my secrets, now can I?" Aro smirked.

"Do you have any more secrets?"

"We all have secrets, Father Carlisle." I detested his use of my endearment but remained quiet. "It's part of what makes us human. Or something close to it." He laughed again, glancing at the sky. "Now I really must get back to Volterra. An empty throne is but a chair, you know."

"So that's it?" I asked. "You saw Charlie, you got your formula, and now you're leaving?"

Aro grinned. "Are you inviting me to stay for lunch?"

"She's asking," Edward said, "if you are satisfied the makeup will prevent Charlie from discovering our secret if Bella continues to see him after her change?"

"Oh, that. " Aro waved his hand as if at a nuisance. "If you need an official declaration, then, yes. Your invention satisfies the law of secrecy. Therefore, provided she is properly covered in Rosalline—though the name needs work—Isabella is allowed to visit her human father without fear of penalty or retribution."

"What about her mother?" Esme asked.

"And her friends?" Alice added.

Aro huffed. "Does she need every human in the continental United States?"

"Just my mother and stepfather Phil." I was touched by their concern but didn't want to press my luck. "And anyone Charlie might find… someday."

Aro stared at me, his eyes unreadable. "You learned of our secret through outside means yet protected it with your life," he said after a long moment. "That warrants some leniency, so you may decide for yourself who you must see. But if anyone ever learns the truth as a result…"

"I know, I know. You'll turn me into a pile of ash."

Aro started at my reply. "Eternity with you should prove most interesting."

Emmett clapped me on the shoulder. "You can say that again!"

"If there is nothing else," Aro said, "I would like to return home."

Carlisle stepped forward to shake his hand. "Thank you for coming, Aro."

"Think no more on it." Aro looked at the seven of us. "You have done well for yourself, Carlito. My heart is glad to see it."

Carlisle bowed over their clasped hands. "Take care, old friend."

Aro followed suit. "Until we meet again."

Glancing at Edward and me once more, Aro sprinted out of sight. The speed of his exit stirred up some fallen leaves, and I hid my face in Edward's shoulder as they swirled around me.

"Is he really gone?" I mumbled after the dust settled.

"Santiago just pulled off," Edward said. "He's gone."

"Thank God." I sagged against his chest as relief rushed through me. Edward's hands slid up my back to hold me close, and I appreciated my family's silence as we had our moment.

"So this was the source of his euphoria when we left Volterra," Jasper said as Edward turned me to face the family. "What he hid from you and Alice."

"Without question." Edward's voice was mirthless. "This is the happiest he's been since finding Jane and Alec."

"I still don't understand why he cares." I stroked Edward's palm with my thumb. "I'm not buying this 'vamps just wanna have fun' business. He wants my gift for something else."

"Your gift?" Jasper asked.

"My gift from Edward and Rosalie." Rosalie poorly hid her pride, but Edward was silent. "Did you see Aro's plans?"

Alice looked at the ground. "I didn't have to."

My heart skipped a beat. "He's going to do something horrible, isn't he?"

"No worse than usual."

"Alice, please tell me."

But she looked above me, her golden eyes piercing. "Stop blaming yourself."

I felt Edward jerk behind me. "Just tell her what I've done."

"What you've done?" I faced him again. "Whatever his plans, Edward, they are not your fault."

"You might not believe that when you hear them," he muttered.

I stroked his cheek. "Alice?"

She took a deep breath, and I heard the crunch of leaves as she stepped closer. "You saw Aro pass for human today, and Charlie was none the wiser."

"Sorry to interrupt," I said. "But how did he shake Charlie's hand without tipping him off? Aro's skin creeps me out, but Charlie didn't even flinch."

Emmett removed his hand from his pocket and extended it to me. "Ma'am?"

I braced myself for icy wrinkled weirdness and was pleasantly surprised. "You're warm."

Rosalie fished a black stone-like object from Emmett's jacket. "Hand warmers. God bless modern technology."

I turned to Carlisle. "I bet you have a case of these in your office."

"And two in each lab coat pocket," he smiled. "The effects are short-lived, given our arctic core temperature, but enough to diffuse immediate human fears."

I thought about the first time Edward touched me. "You didn't have those in biology."

"Didn't need them," Edward said. "I didn't want human contact then."

"But you never got them afterwards."

His knuckles slid down my cheek, making me blush. "I had my reasons."

I lifted Edward's hand from my face and entwined our fingers as I faced our family again. "I still can't believe that was enough to fool Charlie."

"The best ally in our deception is that humans seldom believe the truth, even when it's right in front of them." Carlisle winked at me. "Present company excluded, of course."

"What do you mean?"

"We're pale and cold and unnaturally attractive." Carlisle added that last one with an eye roll. "Our mannerisms are outdated as are our speech and habits. Humans should be instantly suspicious."

"But they aren't," Rosalie said. "Not because the truth is so well concealed, but because humans are naïve. No offense."

"It's easier to believe whatever makes you comfortable." Esme said. "All thinking creatures have that in common. Look at the wolves."

"The wolves?" I asked.

"Despite evidence to the contrary, the Quileutes believe we want to harm you," Jasper finished her thought. "They do so because it supports their core belief in our inherent evil. Without it, they would have to revisit their entire philosophy and way of life."

"Likewise," Carlisle said. "Charlie believed he was safe with Aro and that you are safe with us because the alternative would be unacceptable."

"And because the second one is true." I smiled at my golden-eyed in-laws. "I've escaped Aro's clutches twice in two days because of you."

"No," Edward said. "You escaped Aro's clutches because of you."

"Does your bias know no bounds?"

"He's right for once," Rosalie said. "Aro said it himself: you have protected our secret with your life. The Volturi had to spare you out of sheer respect." She stepped forward and kissed my cheek. "I'm glad Edward didn't let us kill you."

It was the boldest declaration she could have made, and my eyes watered again.

"Alice," Edward said, "tell her about Aro."

"Right. So while he can already pass for human, your gift would give him unprecedented access to their world. He could come and go as he pleased, spending extended time away from Volterra if he chose, with little more than a guard or two within earshot."

The sinking feeling in my belly would not go away. "And that means…"

"Yes," she nodded sadly. "It means people will die."

I felt sick. "I don't want that."

"None of us do." Rosalie said. "But that's…"

"… the price you'll have to pay to keep Charlie in your life." Edward removed his arms from my waist and turned away. "I'm sorry, love. I should have seen this coming."

"You couldn't have." I laid a hand on his shoulder. "No one could have predicted the chain of events that sent us to Volterra, and without them, Aro might not have discovered my gift."

"Then I shouldn't have blocked my plans from Alice," he insisted. "Then she could have warned me of what Aro would do."

"Would that have stopped you?" Rosalie stood in front of her brother, tilting up his chin. "Would that information have canceled your plans to keep Charlie in Bella's life?"

Edward didn't answer, but Rosalie's question hit me square in the heart. "I shouldn't have insisted on keeping Charlie in my life. Had I accepted his loss as part of the price of immortality, you wouldn't have felt pressured to do something about it."

He turned to me then. "There was no pressure. I wanted to do it."

"I know you did, and I'm so grateful you and Rosalie love me enough to concoct such a brilliant solution. But my refusal to leave Charlie behind will result in the loss of human life, and I need to remember that and never forget it."

"We all need to remember that, Bella," Carlisle said kindly. "We must remember the power of choice every time we feed. It is easy to vilify Aro for his diet because we live another way. But I have never known him to kill humans for sport nor do I think this invention will result in such baseness. Your gift will result in human death, but no more than would occur without it."

Rosalie stepped aside, and Carlisle placed his hands on our shoulders. "Vampires exist, therefore humans die. It is a little-known law of nature impossible to condone, but one we must accept."

"And that is why we live as we do." Esme came to his side. "Every life we don't take, each one Carlisle saves with his work restores balance to the world. We cannot change Aro's choices, so we do our best with the ones we face—acting with courage, proceeding with caution, and trusting God with the rest. And I believe that's enough."

Our parents wrapped their arms around us, and we embraced them in return, holding tightly to Esme's words. As they replayed in my head, I thought of something my Nana Botham used to say. Something about accepting the things she couldn't change.

"The Serenity Prayer," Edward said as they released us. "I'm thinking of it too."

I gaped at him. "Did you just…"

"Read your mind?" he smiled. "No, love. But Esme's words reminded me of it as well."

"Well, I can read Charlie's mind," Alice said with sudden cheer. "And I think you should return to the house."

"Right, his lunch." I checked my watch. "Well, late breakfast."

"Esme and I will take care of that. Rose and Emmett need to clean up, and Eleazar wants to see Carlisle and Jasper. You two go check on your dad."

Alice was too excited to be thinking about soup. "What are you up to, Mrs. Whitlock?"

"Not a thing, Mrs. Masen. Just making sure Chief Swan gets everything he needs."

We stared at each other—cheeky gold on suspicious brown—but her energy wore me down. "Fine. We'll go back to the house."

Edward prepared to put me on his back, but I stopped him. "Not yet. We have a stop to make."

He took my hand without question, and I was grateful for his patience as I navigated. For a moment, I thought I'd gotten lost, but as the foliage began to look more familiar, I quickened my pace. Once my destination was in sight, I relaxed.

But from the sound of his sigh, Edward did not.

"What are we doing here?"

I released his hand and continued a few more steps. "I thought it would be appropriate."

"Bella." His voice was ragged. "This is where…"

"… you tried to leave me." I turned to face him, my heart breaking at the pain in his eyes. "The place where we almost died."

With no other prompt, memories flooded my mind:

"We are leaving and we will not come back."

"It is not safe for you in my world, Bella, nor can I comfortably exist in yours."

"How you could leave me here without Alice, Esme, even that cranky Rosalie? But most of all, how could you even think of leaving me?"

"Edward, I love you and want to be with you forever. But I won't do that if you insist on trying to run my life."

"Goodbye, Edward… Good luck."

Tears slid down my cheeks as our words echoed within me, and Edward was in my face at once. "Bella, why?" He gripped my hands with an almost painful intensity. "Why would you come here and force us to remember the worst day of our lives?"

"To show you something."

He looked around, and his darkening eyes were wild when they found me again. "Show me what?"

"Edward, you brought me here less than four months ago. Four months. Do you remember how high and thick the walls between us seemed that day?"

Edward closed his eyes, his perfect recall making him shudder. "I cannot forget."

"Neither can I." I brought our entwined hands to my face. "You said you couldn't promise to respect my choices enough to…"

"Bella, please." Edward's knees seemed to buckle as he pressed closer. "Please don't make me relive it."

"But I want you to. I need you to remember because unless you remember that day, you won't understand today."

His eyes opened. "Today?"

"Today when you gifted me with a relationship with Charlie after my change. You showed me how much our love means to you and proved beyond all doubt we've conquered everything that stood in our way."

Edward pulled his top lip into his mouth. "Did you have any doubts?"

"Not a one." I coaxed his lip free, cradling his chin. "But that doesn't make your gift any less special. Because I know how far we've come in four months, how much you've grown and I've changed. I know our love should have been impossible, but you made it possible again."

"Bella, I…"

"You came back after I said goodbye. You let me run away when I needed more time."

He furrowed his brow, not speaking at first. "You forgave me for not trusting you," he whispered at length, "for being afraid and disrespectful."

"You faced your fears and let yourself love me."

"You threw me a wedding."

"You gave me a honeymoon."

He touched my hip. "You gave me forever."

"And you gave me my human family with our forever, something no vampire has ever obtained." I clasped my hands behind his neck. "You gave me everything I could possibly want, Edward, and I brought you here to this seminal spot to thank you properly."

I stood on tiptoe, watching his eyes drop to my mouth. "Thank you, Edward, for giving me the life of my dreams."

As he whispered my name, I brought my lips to his, gently at first. I could sense his hesitation, the guilt he couldn't shake even after all we'd shared, and I wanted it gone once and for all.

"It's over now, Edward." I brushed my lips along his jawline to his ear. "Let it go."

My hands slid into his hair, and as I kissed him again. His lips parted, and a delicious explosion of ice and sugar invaded my mouth. I deepened our kiss, my tongue soft and seeking as it lapped against his. There was no wind, no sun, no earth beneath my feet. There was only this moment and the two of us tucked safely inside it.

As our lips and tongues entwined, his anxiety melted into acceptance and sped quickly on to passion. With a low moan, he lifted me from the ground and pressed me against a nearby tree. I wrapped my legs around his waist on instinct, and he leaned in with his hips, his sweet breath coming in heavy gusts.

"You are my life," he growled. "Mine forever."

The heat in his words sent a shiver down my spine. "As you are mine, for always."

I didn't know how long he held me against that tree—though the red mark on my neck suggested it was long enough. But when our lips came to a reluctant stop, I felt the final remnants of that dreadful September day drift away, taking our worries about the future with it. And as Edward's smiling eyes mellowed to amber, I knew he felt it too.

As we crossed the street to return to the house, I noticed an unfamiliar gray hatchback behind my truck in the driveway, a lavender border framing its vanity plate. "B-K-R-L-D-Y? Whose car is that?"

When Edward didn't answer, I looked up to see him smiling. "What?" I asked.

"You'll find out soon enough."

"Edward, I've had all the surprises I can handle for one lifetime."

"You'll like this one. In fact, I think you'll love it."

With a glee and smugness worthy of Alice, Edward pulled me up the front steps and into the house without a sound. Putting a finger to his lips, he nodded toward the stairs.

I frowned, uncertain of what we were doing and why. When another moment passed and nothing happened, I was about to call out for my dad.

Then I heard a sound I'd never heard in this house before.

Female laughter.

Coming from upstairs.

Edward covered my gaping mouth, his smiling eyes warning me to stay quiet.

As the bedroom door was shut, Charlie's next words were lost to me. But his visitor laughed once more, the light, cheerful sound touching an unused portion of my heart.

"Who is that?" I whispered as we tiptoed into the living room.

"Shall I tell you?" Edward tapped a finger against his chin. "Or should I make you wait to see for yourself?"

"I wish I could slap you without breaking my hand."

"No need for violence, I'll tell you." He glanced from side-to-side as if ensuring we were alone. "It's The Muffin Woman."

"The who?"

"The Muffin Woman."

I blinked in confusion, then the license plate came back to mind. "Baker Lady! Madeleine?"

"Yes."

"Madeleine who cupcaked our wedding is in Charlie's bedroom?"

He grinned, and I came to my feet. "You mean my pigheaded father called her for batch of muffins after Carlisle and I specifically told him he shouldn't eat real food yet?"

"Uh, yes and no." Edward sat me on his lap. "Charlie definitely called Madeleine, love. But I don't think he had food on his mind."

More giggling from upstairs underscored the mirth in Edward's eyes, and I gasped. "Are you saying… my father and Madeleine are…" I shook my head. "When? How? What?"

As Edward's story began at our wedding, images from the reception came back to mind:

Charlie sitting with Madeleine when he couldn't dance with me.

Charlie dancing with Madeleine after I came back from consoling Renee.

"Last Friday, while we were honeymooning," Edward was saying, "Madeleine decided to check on Charlie, knowing he'd miss having you at home. They spent the evening together before…"

"They spent the night together?"

"The evening, Bella. They had dinner here after work."

"Oh."

Edward smiled at my sheepishness. "He headed to La Push for the weekend but came back early Monday morning and spent his day off doing some New Year's redecorating."

I looked at the mantle. "The bamboo. And the stuff in the kitchen." I thought back to our visit on Tuesday. "You said Alice did it."

"I said it reeked of Alice."

"Because you smelled her."

He chuckled. "Nope. I was using the idiom to mean it seemed like something Alice would do. This is why I don't use contemporary speech."

"So they're dating?"

"It's only been a few days, based on his captivity. But from the tenor of their thoughts"—more laughter from upstairs—"I guess you could say that."

As I stood gaping at the ceiling, I remembered the unknown number on Charlie's phone before our trip to Italy and the new water pitcher he mentioned this morning.

And his earlier smile when I told him we had to leave for a few hours.

"That little sneak!" I turned to Edward. "He told us to take our time running our errands so he could see her behind our backs."

Charlie's door creaked open, and his teasing tone brought me up short. "Is he flirting with her?"

Madeleine's giggle answered me. "And very well, I might add," Edward muttered.

"I'll call you after we close today," Madeleine said.

"Could you come by instead?" Charlie's voice was rough but sweet. "As much as I like your voice, I like it better when I can see your face."

"You just want some muffins."

Charlie's voice dropped. "You could say that."

I clamped a hand over my mouth to hold in my surprise. No, he didn't!

"Come on." Edward brought us to our feet. "We don't want her to see us."

Just when I thought life couldn't get any better, Charlie finds himself a ladyfriend. I looked toward the ceiling, my mind focused higher. Thank you, God, for answering my prayers.

I chuckled as we started to quit the room. "What?" he asked.

"Charlie treated you like a pariah for so long, and now he's sneaking his girlfriend in the house while I'm away? It would serve him right if he got caught."

Edward paused at the threshold of the room and looked at Charlie's armchair. A frown creased his forehead as he stared, but before I could ask why, he flew out of the room and slammed the front door.

"Hey, Chief!" he called out. "We're back!"


Guess Edward didn't forget that "Request denied" thing, huh? LOL

What did we think of Edward's gift to Bella? And did you see that coming with Charlie and Madeleine? Squee! I'm so happy for them!

One more chapter left, friends, and then Serenity's Prayer will come to an end. Man… I don't even know how to feel about that, so I won't start gushing. But I will say if you like this story, make sure you put me on your Author Alerts if you haven't already, hehehehe.

See you again soon… for the last time.

ladylibre xoxo