Twilight is the property of Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement intended.

Many thanks to Sandyquill and Codifiedmadness for prereading this ridiculous fic.

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind whistled through the trees and icy rain spattered the windshield that Christmas eve. Lightning flickered, illuminating the winding road ahead of them, and thunder rolled ominously through the mountainous terrain. Bella hugged her cardigan closer over her shoulders.

"Okay, I think I'm warm enough now," she said, and reached for the thermostat on the dash. Edward reached at the same time, and their fingers brushed together. Bella gasped and withdrew her hand.

Edward slid her a dark look, his jade green eyes glittering beneath his lashes, and lowered the setting. Bella cleared her throat and shifted nervously in her seat.

The '49 Packard took the curves with a grace and power that belied its age. And the music that teased her ears, a chilling symphony, made her remember with startling clarity the evening three nights ago, when Edward had invited her to his apartment, and she had accepted.

His stubbled jaw was clenched, his teeth grinding slightly. She could see it flex in the shadowed interior of the car. Biting her lip and rubbing her knees together, Bella stared out at the windswept road.

"Tell me about your family," she said softly when she had quieted her pounding heart.

Edward's jaw relaxed the slightest bit. "We're going to my aunt and uncle's house," he replied, his dark, smooth voice sliding down her spine like molten chocolate. "They raised me after my parents died. My two cousins and their wives are joining us."

Bella nodded. He had told her as much when he invited her to join him for the holiday. "When did your parents die?" she asked timidly, hoping she wasn't opening old wounds.

"When I was fifteen. It was a car crash. My father's brother Carlisle brought me home with him, and the whole family welcomed me with open arms. They formally adopted me a year later."

He smiled softly, a nostalgic look in his eye. "My aunt Esme didn't hesitate. And my cousins, Emmett and Jasper, did everything they could to make me feel welcome." He shot a quick look at Bella. "Their…eccentricities might startle you a little, but I promise that they're good people."

"I'm sure they love you very much," Bella said, still nervous despite Edward's reassurance.

"As they will love you."

Bella shivered, the implication in Edward's words clear. His feelings for her had grown increasingly evident since the night she had stepped into a cab with him on a snowy street in November. The beautiful man in the seat next to her had been coughing and shaking, his eyes glassy, his forehead hot to the touch. She had thrown caution to the wind and exited the cab with him, helping him upstairs to his apartment and nursing him until his flu subsided two days later.

Before that night, Edward had been a passing acquaintance, a gorgeous man who traveled in roughly the same circles as she, a godlike creature who seemed completely out of her reach but whose warm smile and friendly words touched her heart nonetheless. After she had helped him through his nasty flu, his eyes had turned hot and his words passionate; he'd pursued her with a single-minded intent that left her weak whenever she looked into his eyes.

And now she was accompanying him to his family's home for Christmas, a scant two months later.

"Did you manage to find an ornament for the exchange?" he asked suddenly.

"Oh, yes," Bella assured him, thinking nervously of the little box in her overnight bag.

Edward had told her of this tradition a week before, when she had agreed to accompany him home for Christmas. "Every year, each member of the family gives one other person an ornament to hang on the tree," he said. "I would be honored if you would find an ornament to give to me on Christmas Eve, since I'm the only one that you know right now, and you'll receive one in return from someone in the family."

Bella had been utterly charmed by the tradition, and agreed to supply an ornament to give to him.

"What do your aunt and uncle do?" she asked.

"My uncle is a physician." Edward flicked the windshield wiper into a faster pace; the rain was coming hard now, obscuring the road. "My aunt Esme stays at home."

"And your cousins?"

"My cousins, or my brothers as I call them, are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Jasper is a concert pianist. Emmett is a professional athlete."

Bella searched her memory. "Anyone I would know?"

"You don't watch many sports on TV, do you?" He cast her an amused glance and rushed on. "Emmett's wife is Rosalie. She's a model."

Bella's eyes grew wide. "A model?"

"Yes. She and Emmett met when she was seventeen, and married four months later, the day after her eighteenth birthday." Edward winked at her, and she flushed.

"Oh." Bella spread her dress down over her knees. She already felt dowdy and plain in Edward's presence; spending Christmas with a real live model was downright daunting.

"Don't worry." He reached out and patted her thigh. "Rosalie is a very kind lady."

His touch was electric. Bella clasped her hands together tightly in her lap to prevent herself from reaching up to finger the end of the cotton scarf that was knotted around her throat.

"And Jasper's wife?"

Edward's grin grew. "Alice is…well, I think she refers to herself as a clairvoyant."


"Yes. She and Jasper met when he was at a dinner party and she was reading palms."

"And did she read his?"

"No." Edward laughed. "I'll let them tell that story, if they wish. She and I have become close friends, since they married in September."

"Still honeymooning, I suppose." Bella didn't know if she was looking forward to spending the evening with an amorous couple. She could barely contain her ardor for Edward when they were together in a crowded room full of rowdy students.

Edward rolled his eyes. "To say the least. But they're not the only ones. My family seems to delight in public displays of affection."

This time, Bella couldn't stop herself. Her fingers crept up to touch the edge of her scarf.

Edward made a low growling sound. She shot him a look, half panic and half lust, but his eyes were fixed on the road. She swallowed and clasped her hands together once more.

"How much further is it?" she asked nervously a few moments later.

"Not far. Just past this turn."

The Packard had climbed at least five hundred feet around the windy hills and cliffs. They slid around the switchback road. Bella had a hazy impression of some manmade structure just before a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning made her shriek and jump in her seat.

A gigantic Gothic mansion was thrown into sharp relief before her eyes.

Slowly, her retinas readjusted to the dim light. She could see a large covered entrance…glass greenhouse…lacy ironwork dancing across the roof…a tall tower with a bell-shaped turret. A red brick retaining wall rose before them, with a tunnel though which the road snaked before it swept out into a broad cobblestone driveway.

"Oh, my God…this is your house?" Bella squeaked.

Edward laughed. "Pretentious, isn't it?"

Pretentious didn't quite cover it. Intimidating, Creepy. Terrifying, even. It was a house that Mary Shelley would have visited and felt quite at home.

"Edward, I don't think I can do this."

The words were out before Bella could stop them. She pressed her lips together, fighting the urge to open the door and pitch herself out of the moving car.

"Why?" Edward was genuinely surprised. "Because the house is a bit much? Oh, Bella, I promise that my family will make you feel right at home."

"Your genius, accomplished, apparently loaded family will think I'm a complete nonentity, Edward!"

"Bella, darling." Edward rolled up to the front of the house and brought the car to a halt behind several other vehicles, then cut the engine and reached for her. "They will congratulate me for my luck in convincing such a beautiful, intelligent woman to spend Christmas with me. You have nothing to worry about."

Bella melted into Edward's embrace, feeling his warmth flowing into her. His long-fingered hands stroked her back and he kissed her hair gently.

"Promise you won't leave me alone," she whimpered.

"Of course. Not until you feel comfortable."

Bella sniffled and buried her nose in Edward's collar. He made the smallest of moans and dipped his lips to graze across her neck.

Bella's breath deserted her. She froze, feeling his mouth on her tender skin. Edward's hands tensed on her back, then all but shoved her away.

"Come on. It looks like we're the last to arrive."

Edward opened his black umbrella and rushed around to open her door, then tucked her beneath his arm and hurried her to the covered entrance of the monstrosity of a house. He directed her to wait with a gentle kiss to her lips as he hurried back out into the rain to retrieve their baggage from the trunk. She looked around nervously, noting the faded greenery in the gardens running along the front of the house, the Tiffany stained glass windows in fantastical jewel colors, and the warm light that glowed through them.

Edward returned with her, his shoulders and hands filled with bags of gifts. "Oh, let me take some of those," she said, reaching for one of the larger parcels.

"It's fine," he said with a laugh. "But could you pull the bell? They don't seem to have heard us arrive."

She looked around and saw a real bellpull next to the door. She grasped it and yanked, imagining she heard the clanging of a large brass bell inside.

"Is there any more in the car?" she asked, still itching to relieve him of part of his burden.

"Just a few things that Santa doesn't want you to see before the morning," he said with a wicked grin, kissing her swiftly. She was standing up on her tiptoes, searching for his lips to prolong their kiss, when the door swung open slowly.

A huge, bulky shape stood in the doorway, backlit by the large chandelier behind him. "Welcome," it said in sonorous tones, opening its arms wide.

Bella froze, her eyes round, as she took in the Hulklike figure before them. She eased away from Edward.

Then both the giant in the doorway and Edward began laughing, and her boyfriend stepped forward and accepted a bear hug from arms that seemed thick as railroad ties and just as strong.

"Let me take some of those." The huge person divested Edward of some of his parcels. "This must be the beautiful Bella. Enchanté, ma petite," he said.

As she stepped timidly across the threshold, the amorphous shape solidified into a figure of a tall, broad man with a wide grin and twinkling blue eyes. He was extremely well built, and she knew that this must be Edward's cousin-slash-brother Emmett Cullen, the athlete.

"Hello," she said bashfully. "I'm so happy to meet you."

"Likewise. I'm Emmett, Edward's big brother. We're ecstatic that you've come to join us this Christmas. Edward, she looks simply delicious. Like chocolate and cream."

His words were so warm, and his gaze as well, that Bella paused, startled. She looked him up and down. He was dressed in an exquisitely cut tuxedo that fit him like sin. She slid an uncertain glance at Edward, who didn't seem to find anything strange at all about Emmett's words.

"The ladies are in the kitchen. Let me take your things upstairs, and you can show your beautiful new friend off to them." Emmett deftly gathered up the rest of Edward's burdens and headed up the magnificent sweeping staircase.

"He seems…very friendly," Bella said awkwardly as Edward took her hand.

He laughed. "Yes, very. Emmett has a way with the ladies. If he weren't married, I would hesitate to introduce you." He gave her that melting wink again.

Bella secretly wondered whether a little thing like a wedding band would stop someone like Emmett, but she kept her thoughts to herself.

Edward led her through the marble-floored entryway to a door at the right, from which rich smells of turkey and gravy seemed to be wafting. Merry Christmas music drifted into the hallway.


As they stepped into the kitchen, Edward was immediately accosted by a curvy little figure in purple. Bella blinked. The woman was clearly his Aunt Esme. She was an older but still handsome woman with artfully sculpted caramel colored curls, and she wore a magnificent dress in a vintage cut. The full, crinolined skirt and cinched waist evoked images of Donna Reed or Lucille Ball, except that the dress was made of sparkling silk and what seemed to be several pounds of diamonds and amethysts glittered around her wrists and throat and at her ears. There was not a trace of splattered grease or spilled gravy anywhere on her.

"Mother," Edward said, hugging her tight and twirling her around. She laughed gracefully and landed back on her toes without a stumble when he released her. "This is my girlfriend Bella Swan. Bella, this is my mother Esme."

"It's a pleasure –" Bella's polite greeting was abruptly cut off when Mrs. Cullen swooped in and hugged her with great exuberance.

"Bella! It's so marvelous to have you!" Bella caught a whiff of what seemed to be Chanel Number Five and cranberry as she was enveloped in Esme's arms.

"Thank you, Mrs. Cullen, for –"

"Oh, you must call me Esme, you simply must. Rose, Alice, come meet Bella!"

From around a corner came two goddesses, fallen from heaven to shame the mere mortals.

One was tall, almost as tall as Edward. Bella blinked, because for a moment she was certain that Marilyn Monroe was standing in front of her. Her long, golden blonde hair was arranged in a stylish twist next to her right ear, and perfect ringlets trailed over her shoulder in a glorious riot. She was wearing a strapless pink dress of shimmering satin with a gigantic bow in the back.

The other was petite in the extreme, but just as stunning. Her black velvet dress rode low on her shoulders and brushed the tops of her thighs, its long sleeves hugging her arms to the wrists. At least a dozen ropes of pearls circled her throat. Gray eyes framed by sinfully thick lashes and lined dramatically in black gazed up at her.

"Bella," Edward said, "Meet my sisters-in-law."

The girls, different as they were, sank into identical low curtseys.

Bella blinked at them, astounded. She had never seen anyone curtsey in real life, and wondered how they managed to dip so low without their knees giving out.

"We're so sorry we didn't hear the bell." The tall girl spoke in a throaty, sensual voice.

"We're fine, Rose," Edward said, coming forward and kissing her formally on the cheek. She tilted her chin to accept his homage, and Bella felt a sudden rush of jealous despair at the sight of them together. The two most beautiful people she'd ever seen, exchanging fond greetings…it was a wonder he'd ever noticed her at all, with Rosalie Cullen running around loose.

Then again…she would scarcely have to worry about inappropriate advances from Emmett, wed to such a creature as this.

"Bella, these are my sisters, Rosalie and Alice. Ladies, this is Bella Swan."

"Bella we would be honored if you would choose the wine you would like for dinner." Alice took Bella's hand and led her forward to a selection of bottles sitting on the butcher block.

"Oh, um…" Bella glanced at the bottles blankly. She knew nothing about wine. She shot a glance at Edward, who was chatting with Esme. "I'm not really a wine person…"

"Any of them will go beautifully with the meal," Rosalie assured her.

Bella bit her lip and picked up one of the bottles at random. It was a cabernet sauvignon with a picture of a big walled city on the label. "How about this one?"

"Beautiful!" Alice took the bottle from her, beaming. "The Volterra is one of Jasper's favorites."

"Dinner will be ready soon," Esme trilled, stirring the gravy. "You'll just have time to wash up and go meet Father and Jasper."

"Can I help?" Bella asked.

"No, no," Alice laughed. "You're our guest. Go, take off your coats, get settled, and we'll call you in."

Edward collected her hand and led her from the room. She trailed behind, uncertain and timid, fingering the folds of her blue gingham cotton dress. She hadn't realized that she ought to have gone for satin or silk and the British Crown Jewels. Edward was dressed in a soft grey shirt and slacks and seemed to blend into their bizarrely opulent surroundings with ease.

"See? Nothing to worry about," Edward murmured, squeezing her hand. "They love you."

Bella bit her lip and said nothing.

"Here, let me take your sweater, and then we'll go hunt up the others," Edward said. He turned her around. His hands eased over her shoulders, bringing her warm knit cardigan down to her elbows and off.

She shivered, the touch of his skin making her body cry out in longing. He seemed to sense her reaction. He stepped forward to drape her sweater over a hook on the wall, along with various other coats and scarves. The move brought his chest flush with her back.

She could smell him, all warm woodsmoke and spices. His hands came back to touch her elbows, to trail up her arms and cup her shoulders.

He made a sound of hunger before he leaned down and brushed his lips over her ear. Bella's eyes closed and she swayed. Her hands came up and touched the backs of his where they kneaded her shoulders gently.

"Beautiful…delicious girl," he breathed, and his lips parted against her skin. She felt the brief touch of his tongue to her earlobe before the graze of his teeth and his slow, gentle bite on the shell of her ear.

Gravity hit her with a vicious blow, and she thought she would have fallen if he wasn't holding on to her shoulders. Her knees trembled, and she remembered with singular clarity the night that she had come into his home and into his bed.

She was no longer in the entryway of his parents' home. She was beneath him, her knees and elbows braced on the sheets as he took her for what seemed like the dozenth time. His mouth open against her back, breathing hard on her damp skin, then trailing up to the nape of her neck and teasing the tiny strands of hair there before –

"There you are!" Emmett Cullen's jovial voice ripped her from her reverie. "Come on, Edward, Jasper and Father are dying to meet your belle Bella."

With a reluctant sigh, Edward stepped back. Mortified, Bella turned and eyed Emmett with pink cheeks. He didn't seem to notice her discomfiture, though; with a wide smile, he clapped Edward on the shoulder and swept his arm wide, inviting them to precede them though the house.

"Where are they?" Edward asked, touching her hand lightly and linking her small finger with his.

"Where else? The music room."

Bella heard the sound of the piano playing, of all things, Chopin's Sonata Number 17, before they entered the room. Entranced, she listened to the moody piece.

The rain pounded in a frantic counterpoint to the Funeral March, and lightning flashed against the windows as they entered the room. She was momentarily dazzled, the dim light no match for the storm outside, before her eyes gradually took in the hunched form at the keys.

He tossed his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes as he pounded the instrument. His tuxedo, while clearly of good quality, seemed to fit him ill, hanging awkwardly off of his bony shoulders. Bella watched with wide eyes while Jasper Cullen brought the music to a crescendo, then a conclusion with a magnificent flourish.

"Bravo!" The three other men in the room clapped appreciatively, and Bella joined in. Breathing hard, Jasper rose from the bench and faced her. His blue eyes gazed at her with an empty sort of soulfulness, as if he wasn't quite sure who he was or what he was doing there.

"Bella, please let me introduce Jasper, my younger brother."

"Enchanted, Bella," Jasper said with a hoarse croak.

He held out his hand, and Bella took it with mild trepidation. His fingers seemed unnaturally long, his palms disproportionately wide.

"And Carlisle, my father."

There was a crash of thunder, and the final Cullen stepped out of the shadows.

He was dressed in black, from head to toe. Instead of the usual white tuxedo shirt and cummerbund, he wore a waistcoat of darkest brocade. Bella felt he jaw drop open as she took in his inhumanly beautiful face. Even more handsome than Edward, but in a different way. Cooler, less sultry…like a Renaissance angel, brought to life in glorious but untouchable perfection.

"My dear Bella." Carlisle stepped forward and took her hand, then shocked her by bending to press his lips to her knuckles. They were very cool. "We're so glad you could join us."

"Thank you for allowing me to come, Dr. Cullen," Bella barely spoke above a whisper, she was so intimidated by his classical beauty.

"Please, call me Carlisle, or Father, as everyone does." His blue eyes, the same color as Emmett's and Jasper's, seemed the warmest thing about him.

"Boys, Bella," Esme's voice trilled from somewhere nearby. "Dinner is nearly ready. Do go wash and meet us in the dining room."

As they filed out of the music room, Carlisle smiled down at Bella. "Your scarf is quite lovely," he said, a little smile playing across his lips.

"Oh, thank you," Bella stuttered, fingering the blue cotton nervously. "It was a Christmas gift from my mother, actually."

"Edward tells me that you two met your mother and stepfather for brunch this morning."

"Yes." Bella cleared her throat. "We left as soon as we were finished eating. I'm so sorry we arrived so late."

"Not at all, not at all. We're just glad that you came."

The Cullen ladies were just lighting the last of the candles that lit the formal dining room as Bella and the men arrived. Bella felt more gauche than ever, surrounded by their elegant finery.

A little card lay on each plate, and Bella saw that she was seated between Edward and Alice. Edward escorted her to stand behind her chair as the others surrounded the table. Carlisle stood at the head and Esme at the foot; Jasper, Emmett and Rosalie faced her on the other side.

Everyone in the family joined hands. Edward gently took her left, and Alice grasped her right with a reassuring squeeze.

"We give thanks for this meal and for this family," Esme said musically. "We are grateful to you, Lord, that you have blessed us each this year, and blessed us all by filling our last empty chair. As we have been blessed, may we bless each other. Amen."

Bella's cheeks flamed. She squeezed Alice's and Edward's hands as they squeezed hers, then glanced up at Edward shyly. She mulled over Esme's deeply intriguing prayer, with its abundance of blessings, as she took in Edward's bashful gaze. As Edward seated her in the strangely symbolic chair, she felt the family's satisfied gazes glance over her before they joined her.

"So, Bella, tell us how you met Edward," Alice said as she served her cornbread stuffing. Muted conversations paused, and the rest of the Cullens looked at her expectantly.

Haltingly, Bella described how she and Edward had met more than a year before, she as a Masters student and he as a Doctorate candidate in the Social Sciences department at their university. The family all murmured appreciatively as she told them of the several events at which she and Edward had run into each other.

"But you began seeing each other only recently," Carlisle said in a leading tone.

"Yes." Bella cleared her throat, preparing to begin the story of Edward's illness, when she glanced randomly at Rosalie and Emmett across the table.

Rosalie was feeding Emmett a sliver of turkey off her fork. Blinking, Bella watched as he took it between his teeth and gazed deeply into his wife's eyes as he stroked her chin with his thumb. Rosalie purred deep in her throat before lifting her wineglass and taking a sip.

As Emmett slowly lowered his hand from Rosalie's jaw, the sleeve of his jacket brushed against the glorious mass of curls that tumbled over her bare shoulder. Before she straightened them with an elegantly manicured hand, however, Bella caught a glimpse of a round little wound high on Rosalie's throat. A circle of angry scabs, surrounded by a purple bruise.

"I was sick with the flu," Edward supplied, and Bella was jerked back to the present moment.

"We were sharing a cab home after a lecture, and I realized how sick he was," Bella said, flushing. "I couldn't just leave him and go home, so I persuaded him to let me take care of him."

"She didn't realize that it would be two days before I could get out of bed," Edward said ruefully.

"How utterly romantic," Alice said in a breathy voice. She swirled her red wine thoughtfully in her glass.

Bella smiled. It had hardly been romantic, helping Edward through his nausea, sniffly nose and constant cough, but she chose to leave Alice to her illusions. She was about to go on and tell them how he had showed up with roses a few days later, a thank-you for helping him, when she felt something brush across her lap.

"Bella very graciously allowed me to take her to dinner to say thanks," Edward murmured, and she realized that his hand was curving warmly around her knee, squeezing gently. She swallowed a bit of potato a bit too quickly and coughed.

"Did you dry the roses?" Alice asked her.

Bella cleared her throat, eyeing Alice incredulously. She hadn't yet mentioned the roses. "Yes," she said slowly. "They're in my bedroom now."

As Edward's fingers ghosted across her knee, she cleared her throat and said abruptly, "So, Dr. Cullen, Edward said you were a physician."

Carlisle smiled at her over his wineglass. "Yes, I am."

"What is your specialty?"

"I am an endocrinologist. I study hormones and their effects on our bodies." Carlisle shifted his gaze from Bella to Esme. His eyes seemed to glow; Bella had the impression that if they weren't separated by the expanse of the table he could have burned his wife's clothes to ashes with his stare.

"Father is being modest," Esme said, seemingly unaffected by her husband's bedroom eyes. "He's very well respected for his work in studying how our glands affect human behavior. He travels all over the world for his research."

"Oh, I see." Bella fumbled. She really didn't know what to say to this; she had expected Edward's father would be a pediatrician or a surgeon at the most, not an exotic specialist. "What, um, are you working on a particular project right now?"

The table quieted. The Cullens looked to the head of the table with expressions that ranged from anxious to impassive to amused.

Carlisle, however, simply smiled. "Indeed. I've been studying a particular hormonal process for a number of years now. It's a puzzling little –"

"Father, I'm sure Bella doesn't wish to hear about all those atoms and microbes and things," Jasper spoke up suddenly. It was the first thing he had said since his introduction to Bella in the music room.

Carlisle bowed his head in acquiescence. "Of course. My apologies, Bella."

"Not at all –" she began, but was interrupted by Alice.

"There's a bit of a disagreement amongst the family regarding Father's research," she trilled as she cut her turkey. "Some of us are rather of the opinion that human behavior is influenced more by the heavens than by genetics."

Bella blinked. She looked around the table and saw that Carlisle and Emmett were exchanging a look of amused exasperation at Alice's extraordinary pronouncement. Rosalie and Edward were determinedly eating their food and Esme and Jasper looked smug.

"I understand that you are interested in the paranormal, Alice," Bella said in a desperate pitch to steer the conversation out of dangerous waters.

Alice giggled. "Not exactly the way I would put it, but yes, I suppose that's close enough."

"Alice is a gifted seer," Jasper said.

Emmett coughed on his stuffing. "Oh, don't start that again, you two."

"Never you mind, Emmett," Alice said with an indulgent smile. "I won't bore you with any more details about your star chart tonight."

"Edward mentioned something about the time that you met Jasper," Bella tried again. "I would love to hear the story."

"Oh, yes, tell it," Esme said. "It's quite romantic."

Alice didn't need much encouragement. "Well, it was a cocktail party, you know, and Jasper was playing the piano for the guests. I was just fascinated by his hands. They're so large and gifted…in so many things."

Edward's ankle was intertwined with Bella's, and she was struggling to keep her breathing steady. She looked to Jasper, desperate to distract herself, but instead she found herself quite arrested by the look in his eyes. He gazed at his wife soulfully, as if thinking about the ways he could use the aforementioned hands on her little body.

"Anyway, some friends asked me to read their palms, and Jasper finished his song and joined us. He asked me for a reading, but I just couldn't, don't you know, I was so taken with him, and it's never good to know too much about your soul mate, I mean, what if he was destined to die the next day?" She was waving her hands maniacally, and Bella shrank back to avoid being stabbed with her fork. "So to this day, I have never glanced at his lines. One must seize the day, seize the day! And if Jasper and I knew that we had fifty years together or one month, it would just –"

"Alice," Esme said, laughing. "Take a breath before you pass out."

"But if you don't want to know about your future, why did you get into reading palms?" Bella inquired.

Alice arched her brow and gave her a quick wink. "It's not all palm reading and crystal balls, Bella."

"Alice thinks she has magic powers," Emmett mocked. "She's always casting spells and waving her little wand –"

"Don't exaggerate, Emmett," Rosalie admonished him. "She doesn't have a magic wand and you know it."

"What sorts of things…do you do?" Bella asked, fascinated.

Alice smiled and slid a forkful of cranberry past her lips. "This and that," she said when she had swallowed.

When the last bite of pie was gone, and the candles were burned down low, Esme stood. "Father, why don't you and the boys take Bella on a tour of the house, and we'll clean up."

"Oh, please let me help," Bella began, but everyone shushed her.

"Nonsense, my dear," Carlisle said. "You're our guest. Thank you, Esme, girls, for a lovely meal."

Duly dismissed, the family rose from the table and Bella and the men separated from Esme, Rose and Alice.

Bella was suitably awed by the Cullen home. It was as impressive on the inside as on the outside. She wandered, open-mouthed, through the opulent rooms, listening as Carlisle pointed out various features. Nonetheless, her favorite room by far was the gorgeous conservatory, which she had glimpsed from the outside. Rain pounded on the glass walls and roof, and lightning flickered overhead, but the massive Christmas tree erected in the center of the room glittered with tiny golden lights, garlands, and countless crystalline ornaments, making her think that she was on the stage of the Nutcracker ballet.

Esme and Rosalie brought out eggnog and Irish coffee for everyone as the family gathered around the tree for the traditional ornament exchange. Each member of the family held a small wrapped gift in their hands.

An expectant hush fell over the gathering. Carlisle cleared his throat, and all eyes turned to him.

"This year I give this gift to Alice, my newest daughter," he said quietly. "May it be the first of very many."

A small red-wrapped box was passed from his hands to Alice's. Bella watched with interest as Alice, her eyes sparkling with happy tears, accepted the gift and unwrapped it.

Inside was little crystal ball with a brass base, a small version of one that might be found in a fortune-teller's shack. Sniffling, Alice took the ball and attached it to a low branch.

"This year, I give my gift to Emmett, my eldest son," Esme said after a moment. "The best and biggest gift that my husband ever gave to me."

They laughed as Esme's gift was passed to Emmett, who unwrapped it to find a little crystal-studded football. It glittered weirdly in the light. Bella suddenly realized that the large ring on his middle finger was a genuine Superbowl ring.

"Emmett plays for the New York Giants," Edward explained to Bella. "He was named MVP of this year's championship game."

When Emmett had hung his ornament on a branch as high as he could reach, he went back to his seat to retrieve his own sloppily-wrapped gift. "This year, I give my gift to my brother Jasper," he said.

Jasper's ornament was a tiny grand piano, with twelve little keys that chimed sweetly when struck. He composed a quick jingle for them, to general laughter, before passing it around and hanging it on the tree.

"This year I give my gift to Father," Rose said, producing her gift and passing it to Carlisle.

Carlisle's ornament was an oblong crystal prism that reflected the lights of the tree and cast little rainbows about the room. After hanging his gift, Carlisle crossed the circle to Rosalie and kissed her gently on the forehead.

"This year I give my gift to my mother," Jasper said. Esme's ornament was an elegant iron cross.

"This year I give my gift to Rosalie," Alice said, a hint of mischief in her voice. Rosalie's ornament was a stunning miniature pair of shoes, so lifelike and intricate that Bella thought that a little angel could wear them with comfort.

"Rosalie loves shoes," Edward whispered to her as Rosalie hung her gift. "She has hundreds of them."

Bella nodded. She was terribly anxious. She hadn't known who would be giving her a gift, and now that the field had been narrowed to Edward, she was afraid and desperate to know what he had gotten her, and if hers would be good enough to please him. She waited nervously, rotating the box she held in her hands, wondering if she should speak or if he was supposed to go first.

Edward cleared his throat.

All eyes turned to him. Bella felt her cheeks flush red, and looked down at the floor, too shy to meet his gaze.

"This year, I give my gift to Bella," he said hoarsely. "Who surely already knows that it belongs to her."

With trembling fingers, Bella unwrapped the small parcel.

Inside was a little heart made of blown glass, hanging from a delicate gold chain. She held it in her hands, incredulous, fingering the smooth surface.

"May I see it?" Alice asked gently after a few moments. Bella looked up at her, blinking back tears. Alice smiled at her knowingly as she took the ornament from her hands, handling it with extreme care.

As the glass heart was passed around, Bella screwed up her courage to look at Edward. He was gazing at her somberly, his eyes hot. Bella's hands twisted together in her lap, her thoughts on the little package she had set at her feet when Edward's extraordinary gift had been passed to her.

Everyone watched in silence as Bella accepted her ornament from Edward's fingers again and went to hang it on the tree. She stared at it for a moment, watching the lights reflect off its surface, before taking a deep breath and turning to return to her seat.

"This year," she said, her voice breaking, "I give my gift to Edward. I-in hopes that he finds it an even exchange."

His forehead wrinkled slightly at her odd words, but he accepted her present and unwrapped it slowly.

Inside was a glass heart. Not quite the same as his to her; more delicate, with a slight rainbow sheen to the glass.

He inhaled sharply, lifting it by its short golden chain and inspecting it closely, as if unbelieving.

Bella swallowed nervously, her eyes flickering to the rest of the family. They all gazed at Edward and the ornament, wide-eyed…with the exception of Carlisle, who watched Bella, his expression blank.

Slowly, Edward rose. He moved to the tree and hung it very near to Bella's, so near that they touched when the branch he had selected swayed slightly under its weight.

"We don't get to see?" Emmett asked playfully.

"It's too precious to risk," Edward said softly.

"Well!" Alice said brightly in the heavy silence. "It's late, and it's been a long day. I say it's time for bed."

There were murmurs of agreement around the circle. They finished up their drinks quickly, and Esme gathered the empty cups to take back to the kitchen.

"Let Alice and I show you your room, Bella," Rosalie said throatily. "It's my favorite guest room."

"Oh," Bella said, blinking at her. She had assumed that she would be sharing with Edward, in his old bedroom. "Of course."

Edward followed after her as Alice and Rosalie flanked her up the stairs. His eyes were intense and longing. Bella stumbled slightly on the runner, unable to concentrate on where she was going.

He stayed close as the girls escorted her to her room, true to his promise not to leave her alone. He hovered in the doorway when she was led into the frilliest, lushest, pinkest bedroom she'd ever seen.

"Silk sheets," Rose said, her eyes wicked. "Esme always brings out the best at Christmas." She turned down Bella's heavy down comforter of Barbie-doll pink, exposing the creamy expanse beneath.

"Here's the bathroom," Alice sang, turning on the light in the room's private lavatory. "You should find everything you need in here."

"By the way," the small, elegant woman whispered as Bella came close to peer into the bathroom, "Rose and I are getting up at one o'clock to put cookies and milk out for Santa. Do join us, won't you?"

Bella smothered a giggle. "Sure."

"I'll clue Edward in, so as to clear your schedule." Alice gave her a wink and wandered away, leaving Bella to blush fiercely.

"Will you be all right here?" Edward asked her in a husky voice when Alice and Rose had disappeared down the hallway.

"Of course," Bella said awkwardly, embarrassed and aroused by the fierce light in his green eyes. "Thank you, Edward. It's been a lovely Christmas Eve."

"My sincerest pleasure," he rumbled, brushing a tense kiss across her lips. He closed his eyes briefly and stepped away. "I, ah…I'm going to go chat with Father for a while. I'll come check on you later, all right?"

Bella nodded, swallowing the lump in her throat.

And then she was alone, the door to the Pepto-Bismol hued bedroom closed swiftly behind him. She sat down on the canopied bed, her heart and her body aching.

Edward found Carlisle in his study. He knocked brusquely on the open door to announce his presence.

"Ah, Edward. Come on in." Carlisle closed his journal and set it aside. "A lovely evening."

"Yes," Edward said tersely, closing the door behind him. Carlisle eyed it with interest, leaning back in his chair. "I hoped I might ask you something."

"Of course." Carlisle's eyes were bright and excited, the way he was when he got an idea about his research.

"First of all, I wanted to thank you for welcoming Bella so warmly," Edward began, settling nervously into one of the chairs across from his adoptive father. "She's quite shy, as I'm sure you saw, and was terribly nervous about coming tonight."

"Of course," Carlisle repeated. "I could do no less for such a sweet girl."

"Yes. Well." Edward cleared his throat. "As I'm sure you observed tonight, I feel…very strongly for her."

Carlisle simply nodded, interlacing his fingers across his chest.

"In light of your knowledge into human behavior, I wanted to ask you about something that happened between Bella and me a few days ago," Edward said in a rush.

"Does this have anything to do with that lovely scarf that Bella's wearing?"

Edward blinked at his father, dumbfounded.

"How did you know?"

Carlisle smiled.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. "Come in," Carlisle called, and Esme poked her head in.

"I'm off to bed, Father," she said. "Will you be up soon?"

"Yes, love." Carlisle held out his hand to his wife, and Esme glided in. Edward smiled absently at his parents as Esme leaned down to kiss her husband tenderly…and then his attention was caught by something. Carlisle slipped his hand around Esme's neck and under her collar, caressing her skin, and as she pulled away, his fingers slid down her throat to expose a strange mark that had been concealed beneath her dress.

A warm red bruise, just at the juncture of her neck and shoulder.

After she pulled away from her husband's amorous embrace, Esme smiled at them both as she exited the room. Edward stared blankly at Carlisle.

"It's healing," Carlisle said comfortably, lacing his hands behind his head. "I bit her about a week ago, and the scabs are already gone. She heals so quickly."

Edward couldn't speak.

"Why don't you tell me what happened?" Carlisle prompted.

Edward couldn't tell his father the specifics of the incident, but he replayed it in his head, his body reacting instantly to the heady memory.

Bella had allowed him to take her home, her shy smile and flickering eyes telling him what he had suspected before dinner began: that she wanted him, wanted him to touch her and fulfill the promises his kisses had been making since their first date.

They'd barely sipped their wine before he was undressing her, watching the light of the fire flicker across her skin, kissing every inch of her that he could reach, desperate for her. Hoping that she felt the same, and elated by her timid caresses and shuddering sighs.

They had made love through the night, pausing briefly to sleep, but always reaching for each other before they could do more than doze. Again and again he'd needed to feel her against him, and from there to kiss her soft lips, and then to part her legs and touch that piece of her that cried out for him most insistently.

And then, that strangest moment…he had covered her, placing her on her elbows and knees beneath him, and sliding home with such desperation that he'd known without a doubt that he was in love with her. That she was his, from her feet to her head, her skin to her bones, and he had to taste her.

She had been panting, her muscles clenching around him, bowing her head so that her hair fell in a glorious fall on the sheets. Her slender throat had called to him; he bent down to kiss her lovely spine, working his way up to taste the sweat at the back of her neck.

His lips had parted wide, and before he'd realized what he was doing, his teeth were sinking into her precious, delicate flesh, just beneath her ear, and her blood was on his tongue, and it was the sweetest thing he'd ever tasted in his life.

She'd cried out beneath him, her voice throaty and shocked, and then she'd come with a desperate spasm and collapsed, her arms giving out. He'd pounded into her, his tongue rolling over the bite again and again, soothing her even as he collected her sweet blood in his mouth. And when he came inside her, the satisfaction was so deep, the satiation so complete, that he'd fallen into a profound sleep and not awakened until late in the morning, wrapped around her, memories of his strange craving for her blood like a distant dream.

She hadn't spoken of it, and neither had he, but she'd covered the angry mark with a scarf and gazed at him with heated, bewildered eyes every time she ran her fingers over her neck.

He vacillated between shame and lust every time he thought of it. They had made love several times in the days since, and each time his craving to taste her blood had grown. He had resisted, unsure and rabidly curious as to why he felt this alien longing, which he'd never had before with any lover.

The need had reached its peak again on the drive to his family's home. Every time she touched her scarf, her eyes had slid to his, sparkling with confused desire, practically asking him to bite her again. And he knew that he would, sooner or later.

"Well, as you've deduced," Edward said awkwardly, brought back to the present, "I…well, I lost control one night, and I…I bit her, Carlisle."

"I'm curious if you have ever noticed your mother's love for high collars," Carlisle said, dark amusement in his voice. "Or Rosalie's preference for wearing her hair down. And Alice's extensive collection of chokers that cover her neck."

Edward shrugged. In all honesty, he had never noticed any of these things. They just…were.

"I wasn't sure if the gene had passed on to you," Carlisle continued. "My brother and I were similar in many things, but you have always been…different, Edward."

Edward knew this. His family's penchant for wearing formal gowns and tuxedoes was something he'd been accustomed to for all his life, but he'd never felt the need to dress to the nines for dinner every night like they had. Jeans and tee shirts suited him just fine for everyday wear, and slacks and dress shirts, like he wore now, for dressier occasions. Their differences in fashion sense had spread out to other aspects of their life as well.

"But when you called to tell us that you were bringing your Bella home for Christmas, I of course wondered what it meant. How does she taste, Edward? She looks…quite succulent."

Edward flushed a little, but tried to answer his uncle as noncommittally as possible. "She's a wonderful girl. I care for her very deeply."

"Ah, Edward." Carlisle laughed richly. "You are clearly in love with her. Do you not know it?"

Edward looked down at his hands.

"The Cullen men have a rare biological deviation from the standard," his uncle said. "I haven't encountered it in any other population that I've studied. Simply put, we have a specific hormonal condition that activates when we meet a certain lady.

"I have taken samples of blood from you, Emmett and Jasper over the course of your lives. In both Emmett and Jasper, a previously unknown hormone appeared in their chemistry shortly after they met their respective spouses. The same hormone that I have discovered in my own blood. And, I'm sure it will now be present if I take a sample from you."

"And this…hormone…isn't in any of my previous samples?"

"No, none of them. From the age of fifteen, when you came to live with us, until just last Easter when you came to visit. I have no samples from my own blood from before I met your mother, because I didn't begin to study the phenomenon until after I began biting her."

"So you're saying that something in our blood makes us bite women."

"Not just any women," Carlisle chuckled. "Only a certain woman. When you dated Jessica Stanley, the hormone didn't appear, or any of your other girlfriends. And only when my sons met Alice and Rosalie, and in your case Bella, did they come to me with the question you have raised tonight."

"So…what does this mean?" Edward's thoughts were spinning.

"It means that when Cullen men fall in love, they crave the blood of their partner. And they must have it." Carlisle reached across his desk and touched Edward's hand in empathy. "I'm afraid that if you ever go without biting Bella for more than ten or twelve days, from this day forward, you will begin to go into withdrawal. Of course I haven't observed the phenomenon, but my research has led me to believe that the condition is fatal. You will die without her."

A crash of thunder echoed outside the window, and Edward stared at his adoptive father, stunned.

Bella was halfway asleep when Edward stepped into her room.

The girls had given her the Pink Room, as he had expected. He looked at her, tucked under the salmon silk coverlet, her hair spread out on the matching silken pillowcase like a black flag. The mark he had given her showed plainly on her white skin.

Her lashes lifted slowly as he was unbuttoning his shirt and drawing it from his shoulders. He saw the flare in her gorgeous brown eyes, the longing that he had looked for and had been so ecstatic to find lurking there for the previous magical two months.

She watched him silently as he stripped, her gaze growing ever more heated until he slid beneath the blankets to spoon up behind her. She wore her favorite blue nightgown; he caressed the soft fabric over her thighs before slowly working it up and over her hips to fall around her waist.

"Edward," she said throatily, but he hushed her with a finger across her dewy lips. If she spoke, he thought he'd die.

She was wet for him, moisture coating her thighs where his body made contact with hers. Breathing hard, willing himself to go slow, he gently passed his fingers over her breasts. She moaned quietly, her head falling back against his shoulder. It was as if she was begging him to sink his teeth into her sweet neck, the way she was baring herself for him.

When he could stand it no longer, he reached down to lift one knee slightly, and with a slow push, he was seated inside her hot depths like he was born to be there.

She shivered and bit her lower lip so hard that he watched, fascinated, wondering if she would draw blood. And when she came to pieces around him, he was helpless to do anything besides lower his lips to her perfect throat and dig in deep.

Warm nectar flowed into his mouth, the taste so perfect and compelling that he spent himself almost instantly. With an animalistic grunt, he pounded into her, drawing out his orgasm, sucking her life's blood from her veins as if his life depended on it.

As his father had warned him that indeed it did.

He left her an hour later with profound regret. He knew that the girls intended to include her in their plans to leave milk and cookies for Santa, as he and his brothers had done since before his parents had died. He slipped away from her with apologetic kisses, soothing her new wound with his lips before rising and slipping into his slacks before stealing down the hall.

He went out to the car, ducking through the still-driving rain to retrieve the last of the packages from the trunk before heading to his old room to get ready for bed. As he changed into his pajamas and brushed his teeth, he mulled over what Carlisle had told him.

"Your brothers have found that their wives find deep pleasure in the act, as does your mother," he had said. "I'm confident that Bella will be the same."

"Well, she, ah, didn't seem to mind," Edward fumbled.

"Indeed. I saw her touch her neck more than once tonight, when you weren't looking." Carlisle's amusement was scarcely concealed. "I predict that before the night is through, she will be sporting another Cullen love bite on that sweet-looking throat of hers."

Edward knew better than to be jealous of his uncle, whose passion for Esme was well known, but he tilted his head in curiosity. "Do you ever feel the urge to…bite…anyone else?"

Carlisle shook his head. "Never. The compulsion is for one woman alone."

"And have you any ideas about how to cure it?"

Carlisle sighed. "Unfortunately not. I would of course love for Esme to be able to wear strapless dresses in public, and she has indicated a similar frustration. Sadly, my favorite site to mark her makes this impossible. But my research has yielded scant results. I have high hopes that someday…" he shrugged. "Time will tell."

"It must be a great inconvenience to Rosalie." Edward thought of Rose's most recent job, a photo shoot for Gucci for their summer beach collection.

"Indeed. However, the miracle of modern technology makes airbrushing a simple thing. She finds that most of her photographers are used to dealing with such problems."

Edward chuckled.

"Alice typically glories in showing off her bites, but out of respect for you she has agreed to conceal them during family events. We did not wish to…concern you, if you failed to exhibit the gene."

Edward considered. He probably would have been disturbed to see his delicate new sister-in-law constantly marked by bruises to her neck, and demanded that Jasper explain himself. Before tonight, that is.

Eventually, Carlisle sighed and stood up from his desk. "It's late, Edward, and you children are always up so early on Christmas morning. I have a mind to feast on your mother's flesh before getting to sleep tonight."

Edward chuckled weakly. He imagined he would feel the same before he reached Bella's bedroom.

Bella dreamed restlessly of angel-faced demons with pointed teeth and magical hands. It seemed like just a moment from the time that she felt Edward slip from her bed that Rosalie was gently shaking her shoulder.

"Wake up, Bella," Alice whispered. "It's time."

Bella roused herself, then remembered with a jolt the agonizing pleasure of Edward's teeth on her throat and tried frantically to arrange her hair to hide the bite.

"Too late, Bella," Esme said with a laugh. "Your gown is covered in blood. Here, take this."

Her boyfriend's mother was also in the room. Bella blushed deeply, trying to figure out how to disguise the signs that her son and his teeth had been in the bed with her a few hours before. But Esme was holding out a snow white nightgown with an expectant look.

Wide awake now, Bella looked at each of them and saw with bemusement that they were all dressed in similar, old-fashioned lawn gowns with high lace collars. Her cheeks flaming, Bella accepted the offered nightgown and clutched it to her chest.

"No time to waste," Alice whispered. "Quick, change clothes, and we'll get started."

Trying to show as little skin as possible, Bella shucked off her blue gown and pulled the fresh one on. She saw as she arranged it around her that her favorite nightgown was stained red.

"Hurry, Bella," Rosalie said with a laugh, and pulled her out of bed.

The four women giggled like girls as they went downstairs, looking like Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth in their long, full sleeved, high necked gowns. Bella expected to be led to the kitchen to get the milk and cookies, but instead she was pulled towards the conservatory.

The room was deliciously warm despite the rain that continued to pour, and Bella found that she wasn't cold at all despite being in her nightie with no socks on.

"What are we doing?" she asked, bewildered.

"Calling on Santa to take care of our little predicament," Alice whispered.

"What predicament?"

Arranged on the floor next to the tree, where they had been gathered to exchange mementos a few hours before, was a collection of four tall white candles. And in the center of it all was a fine china plate of chocolate chip cookies and a little glass of milk.

"Our collective fashion limitation," Rosalie said. "Which has become quite a problem for all of us. Just follow along, Bella, and we'll do the rest."

Bella watched as the Cullen women went to the tree and each removed one ornament. "Here," Esme said, delicately untangling the blown-glass heart that Edward had given her that evening and passing it to Bella. She took it gingerly, protecting the fragile bauble in her hands.

"All right, ladies, let's sit down around the circle," Alice intoned in a low voice. Bella copied the others in settling down on the floor around the collection of items set before the massive tree.

"Place your ornament before you, with the point of the heart facing inward to the center," Alice instructed them. Bella saw that each of the ladies' ornaments was a heart of some kind. Alice's was a faceted Austrian crystal, large for its kind but the smallest of them all. Rose's was made of plush purple velvet, like a little pillow, and embroidered with gold. Esme's was the oddest of them all – it was an anatomical heart, with veins and arteries sticking out of it, made of some kind of ceramic.

There was a moment of silence. Then Alice took a deep breath and began to speak. Her voice had the tone of an oft-rehearsed speech or sermon. "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way," she began grandly.

"Santa, hear our plea," the other three women chanted.

"We beseech you, in this, the first hour of Christmas day, to hear our prayer."

"Santa, hear our plea," they said again.

"As I went down on my beloved beneath the moonlight on the Winter Solstice, I was granted the knowledge to free our Cullen men from their terrible curse. Now I beg you to accept the offering of these four poor, imperfect women, who love so deeply but are weary of being used as pincushions by our lovers."

"Santa, hear our plea." This time, Bella caught on quickly enough to mouth the words with them. She sat with unbelieving eyes as Esme produced a book of matches and handed it to Alice.

Alice tore out a match and struck it. It flared to life, and as she lit the white candle that stood nearest to her in the circle, she spoke again.

"In the spirit of the Wise Men, who offered their unworthy gifts to our savior as he lay wrapped in swaddling clothes, we beg you to look kindly upon us." She picked up her candle, as did Rosalie next to her, and they touched the wicks together. As the flame leapt from Alice's candle to Rose's, Alice went on.

"I, a poor woman who hates that bitch Jane Anderson and will never cease to see red when she rubs her cheap ass against my husband, ask you to hear us."

Rosalie moved her candle carefully across to Esme, who lifted her own and lit the tip.

"Rosalie, who still can't stand to massage her lover's sweaty, fungused feet, asks you to hear us."

Esme moved her candle towards Bella. Catching on, Bella lifted hers to ignite the tip.

"Esme, who has been married for thirty years and still can't swallow without gagging, asks you to hear us. And Bella, who is terrified to introduce her beloved to her father, asks you to hear us."

Bella jumped. She hadn't confessed to anyone, let alone Alice Cullen, how frightened she was of presenting Edward to Charlie.

The others ignored her discomfiture, and Alice went on. "Please have mercy on us, Dear Saint Nick, whose robe is as red as the blood that so often stains the teeth of our honeys."

"Santa, hear our plea," they chanted.

"As I deep-throated my husband on the longest night of the year, I prayed to be granted the knowledge to free him from his curse. And behold, I had a vision that on this Christmas night, we three Cullen women would be joined by a fourth, and our eight-seat dinner table would be full at last. And like the four Sundays of Advent that come before Christmas, we would have the power to undo this fearful enchantment.

"By four signs we four are marked, the foxy ladies who make this circle complete. First, we have each come into this home bearing the mark of her lover's sharp teeth, and each be forced to be creative in her wardrobe choices to hide her wound.

"Second, we have each been presented with a choice of dinner wine, and chose the cabernet sauvignon vintage of 1951, the year that Great-Grandpa Cullen first applied his teeth to his sweetie's peerless throat, red as the blood that stained her best satin blouse.

"Third, we have each laid down to sleep in the Pink Room and been visited there by her lover, and in that bed that was Granny Elizabeth's Christmas present the year that she was sweet sixteen, he would once again mar her tender skin and lick her blood.

"And fourth, on our first Christmas eve in this home,our beloved has presented each of us with a symbol of his love, these hearts that we hold so closely to our own and hang on the bastard twelve-foot Christmas tree that is such a pain to erect every year."

The Cullen ladies each lifted their heart ornaments, and Bella copied them quickly. They held them up before their breasts in cupped hands.

"Oh Father Christmas, we know that we have been Naughty, that our names are inscribed on your list to receive a lump of coal this holiest of days.

"I confess that I dream of riding my husband reverse-cowgirl as he plays the grand piano on the concert stage of Carnegie Hall.

"Rosalie, who has fantasies of being slammed against the wall in the locker room of MetLife Stadium and being screwed breathless during the halftime show.

"Esme, upon whose breasts her husband has applied nipple clamps and made her wear them during the hospital finance committee meetings, and sent her dirty texts the whole time.

"And Bella, who secretly wishes that her lover would take her across his knee and spank her like a bad girl in the office of her thesis advisor." Her cheeks flaming wildly, Bella clutched her ornament like it was a talisman against this insanity.

"We poor sinners beg your mercy, Santa Claus, that you would fill our stockings with goodies this year. And so we offer you this simple gift, of homemade chocolate chip cookies and two percent milk, chock full of calcium for strong bones."

"Santa, hear our plea."

Slowly, they all placed their ornaments on the ground once more. And then Alice reached into the center and lifted the little plate of cookies and the glass of milk.

She held them before her, her eyes closed, and continued. "By these gifts we seek your favor, and as we have taken the sacrament of bread and wine during Communion, we partake of these precious elements."

Slowly, she replaced the plate in the center of the circle and selected one cookie. "As I long to sunbathe topless in the French Riviera with my mother and sisters without them freaking out, I long for my Jasper's addiction to my life's blood be absolved."

"Santa, hear our plea."

Alice took the cookie and dunked it ceremoniously into the milk. She lifted the dripping confection to her lips and ate it slowly. Then she handed the glass of milk to Rosalie.

As Rose selected a cookie from the plate, Alice went on. "As Rosalie wishes she could accept the invitation to walk the runway at next years' Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, she wishes that Emmett could go ten days without licking her blood and not die."

"Santa, hear our plea." Rosalie dipped her cookie and ate it slowly, then passed the glass to her mother-in-law.

"As Esme is weary of dresses with mandarin collars and wants, just once, to wear spaghetti straps to a hospital fundraising gala, she wants for her Carlisle's lifelong quest for a cure to his affliction be realized."

"Santa, hear our plea."

"And as Bella dreams of wearing her hair up for her June wedding to our littlest brother Edward, she prays that she would not be subjected to our curse."

"Santa, hear our plea."

Her hands shaking, Bella selected a cookie and dipped it into the glass that Esme had passed her. She took a bite and sighed; it was homemade and delicious.

One cookie remained on the plate. As she munched on her treat, Bella looked at it thoughtfully. When she finished, Alice continued.

"We offer you this fresh-baked gift, oh Santy Claus, and pray that as the Grinch was moved by Little Cindy Lou Who, you would be moved to help us and our iron-deficient lovers break free of this spell, placed on us by the vengeful Aro Volturi five centuries ago, who envied Carlisle's ancestor for his mad skills with the ladies and coveted his chosen wife and true love. As the ancient Cullen bride lusted after her husband and no other, we will remain true to our thirsty studs until we die of staph infections from our ever-bleeding necks."

"Santa, hear our plea."

Bella held her breath. The other ladies didn't move, simply sat gazing at the remaining cookie. And then, so slowly that Bella scarcely noticed, the pattering rain that fell on the glass greenhouse roof slowed to a drizzle, and finally stopped.

"It's a sign," Rosalie sighed. "That motherfucking rain stopping is a sign that Santa has granted our request."

"Shhh," Alice said. "Let us return to our long winter's naps. Our men will rise early this Christmas morning, and we need our beauty sleep."

Each Cullen woman leaned forward and blew out her candle. Hastily, Bella copied them, then rose awkwardly to her feet and followed as they padded soundlessly through the cavernous house, up the stairs to her nauseatingly pink bedroom.

Bella woke the next morning to the delicious feeling of Edward's lips on her cheek.

"Merry Christmas, sweetheart," he murmured. Humming with pleasure, Bella snuggled down into her blankets and yawned.

"There's coffee downstairs, and Esme is making pancakes," Edward whispered, kissing her eyelids.

Bella sighed and opened her eyes. Edward was sprawled on his stomach next to her, gazing down at her.

"Hi," she whispered, searching his face, the events of the previous night crowding into her brain.

"This is…cute," he said, fingering the white cotton of her gown. "Did I ruin the other one?"

Bella sat up a little, touching the lace collar of the voluminous nightgown. "I'm not sure," she mumbled, looking around for her blue nightie. As she glanced towards the window, she was surprised to see that the world outside was blanketed in white snow.

"The rain turned to snow sometime in the night," Edward told her, noting her wide eyes. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

"Beautiful," she echoed, recalling Rosalie's words about the rain from the night before.

She let Edward put her slippers on her feet, then, giggling, followed him out of the room and towards the kitchen. Sounds and smells of laughter and feasting drifted out into the hallway. Blushing, Bella ran her hands over the gown, wondering if the other ladies had changed.

"Bella! Edward!" Esme came swooping towards them. "Merry Christmas! Isn't it a glorious day?"

Edward laughed and hugged his mother. "Merry Chrismas, Mom."

Bella gazed at Esme, her eyes wide.

Esme's hair was gathered into a high ponytail, and she was wearing a set of satin pajamas whose lacy spaghetti straps did nothing to conceal her perfect, flawless neck.

"Bella! Bella, look!" Rosalie and Alice tumbled towards her like puppies. Rosalie was wearing a flannel Henley, and Alice an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt. They were giggling madly and touching their unmarked throats with delight.

"But I saw…" Bella gazed at Rosalie's neck. The wound that she had seen the night before at dinner was gone.

"It's a miracle!" Alice bubbled. "Here, let's see yours."

Bella spluttered and tried to keep Alice's fingers away from her neckline, but the tiny woman managed to unfasten the top three buttons and yank her high collar away from her throat.

"It's gone!" Esme trilled. "Look, your neck, Bella!"

In amazement, Bella turned towards the mirror that hung on the wall beside her and inspected her neck. There was no trace of the bite mark from four nights ago, nor the one from just a few hours before.

Astonished, Bella turned towards Edward. He was gazing at her throat with shock. He reached out a trembling hand and smoothed one finger over the perfect, unblemished skin of her throat that had been raw and bleeding only hours before.

"I don't understand it," Carlisle exclaimed. "What happened?"

"It's a sign," Rosalie announced triumphantly. "We broke the curse!"

"Oh, come on, Rose," Emmett moaned, rolling his eyes. "You know Alice just made up that curse business –"

"How do you explain it, then?" Jasper mumbled. He was peppering Alice's throat with kisses while she giggled and shrieked in his arms.

"I have to see something," Esme said suddenly. She wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and rushed off towards the conservatory, with the rest of the family trailing behind.

Bella and Edward were the last to arrive. They joined the group gathered around the foot of the tree. There, a lone cookie sat on a china plate, with a single large bite taken out. The glass of milk that had been half-empty when the girls went up to bed the night before was empty.

Bella stared at the cookie, then up at the other girls. They were all ooohing and giggling with joy. Rosalie was hugging Emmett madly.

"What are you all staring at?" Emmett asked in bemusement.

"Emmett, how would you feel about me accepting that invitation to New York for the Victoria's Secret show next year?"

Emmett frowned down at her. "But I'll be in Tampa, baby. You know I can't be away from you that long."

"I think you'll find that you can, Emmett," Jasper said in his soulful croak. "Our curse has been lifted."

Bella turned to Edward. "Alice did it," she told him, staring up into his bewildered eyes. "But we helped."

"It was Bella who made it possible," Alice declared.

"I need to get everyone's blood. Let me go get my bag…" Carlisle was saying.

"We all did it," Esme said with finality, herding her husband out of the conservatory. "Now, I suggest that we go have breakfast. We're going to need our strength to go shopping tomorrow, girls. I, for one, plan on buying that strapless gown I saw at…"

"I was under the impression that you didn't mind so much," Edward murmured to Bella, who was tucked against his side.

"Oh, I don't," she replied, smiling up at him. "Feel free to give me all the love bites you want. It's just nice to know that I can continue to buy camisoles and cut my hair if I really wanted to. And that you won't die if we're apart for more than two weeks."

"I, personally, don't care much for that idea," Edward said, frowning. Being apart from Bella for more than an hour seemed intolerable at this point.

Bella giggled again and took his hand, lacing her fingers with his.

Edward mentally shrugged his shoulders, his confusion warring with his relief that his mysterious curse had been miraculously lifted. He figured that he would get the whole story about what had happened the night before in due time. Maybe after they opened presents, and Bella opened the special gift that he felt weighing down his pocket. He had a feeling that she wouldn't mind being marked by the sparkling diamond ring he carried nearly so much.