Note: This is the final chapter. Thank you so much for coming along on this adventure!
Alice and Esme met us at Sea-Tac, anxious to get the details of our trip. Their initial questions centered on my interactions with the rogue vampire. Esme and Alice were very distressed to hear about the incident, but I assured them that I hadn't been badly hurt. Then I made the mistake of saying that the scorpion sting had been worse. This elicited many concerned questions, so I steered the conversation toward Gaby. The happy ending to this part of our weekend story left everyone content.
My eyelids grew very heavy as we approached Forks. Darkness had fallen hours ago; it was quite late. I was dozing by the time we reached Charlie's house. Edward woke me, murmuring that he'd rather carry me in and let me sleep but was afraid of how Charlie would react to a replay of the conclusion of my last trip.
So I walked up to the door between Edward and Carlisle, Edward's hand in mine. Charlie hugged me quickly then drew back to study me with a frown.
"What happened, Bells?" he asked. "You're limping. Did you get hurt?"
I didn't know how much to reveal to my father. Carlisle has assured him that I'd be safe, yet I hadn't been. And Charlie was just beginning to forgive Edward; knowing I'd suffered injury while under his watch would be a huge set-back.
Luckily Carlisle jumped in, his voice smooth and calm. "I'm afraid we had some unanticipated excitement while we were at the orphanage. On Friday afternoon, there was an explosion at one of the nearby mines, and Edward and I went to provide whatever assistance we could. Bella was helping Caroline with the children, and a little one wandered outside. Bella saw where she was headed and dashed after her—"
"And I didn't stop to put my shoes on," I interjected, earning a quick grin of approval from Carlisle. "I bruised my feet a little."
"Yes," he confirmed, "the ground is rather rough and rocky there. Unfortunately, it's also a habitat for scorpions, and Bella realized that the child was going right toward an area where we'd seen several scorpions the previous day."
"Aw Bells," Charlie sighed, "was she okay? Did you get to her in time?"
I nodded, and Edward placed a supportive hand on my back, anticipating his father's next words.
"She did," Carlisle confirmed, "but just barely. She's absolutely fine now, Charlie, but Bella was stung by a scorpion."
My dad's eyes widened, his hands reaching out automatically to hover over me. "God, Bella, that's a painful sting. You sure you're all right?"
I nodded. "It was just a little worse than a bee sting."
Now Carlisle took my hand gently and lifted it. "All of the redness and swelling are gone," he said, showing Charlie the site. "The biggest danger with a scorpion sting is allergic reaction, but fortunately Bella didn't have any problems with that."
"That's a first," my father grunted.
Carlisle smiled thinly. "Perhaps luck was on her side this time. The sting occurred just before we returned from the mine. Anyway, I treated it and kept a very close eye on Bella. There are no lingering effects at this point. Her feet are going to be tender for a few more days, though, and she bruised her elbow, too."
"Stumbled when I got stung," I mumbled, glad for once that my clumsiness gave me a plausible explanation.
Charlie took a slow breath then exhaled. "Anything else I should know?" he asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.
"Just that your daughter was wonderful with the children," Carlisle replied. "Sister Caroline gave her a glowing report, and I'll do the same. I know that Bella is tired—we had a very long day of travel—but be sure she tells you about Gaby." Now his smile was genuine.
"Yeah, okay," Charlie said, then as an after-thought asked, "Were the miners okay? I heard something about that on the news but didn't really pay attention…"
Now it was my turn to get in a few compliments. "Carlisle saved the lives of several, and Edward helped, too. Only one man died, but if they hadn't been there, it would have been a lot more."
Charlie nodded, and I could see that he was impressed. "It's good that you could help out," he said.
Edward extended his hand. "Chief Swan," he said politely, "thank you for permitting Bella to accompany us. She really was amazing, and it was only because she was there that we were able to go and assist at the mine."
Charlie took his hand only a bit begrudgingly. "Yeah, that's good, I guess."
Carlisle shook my dad's hand, too, then gave me a hug before stepping outside. Edward kissed my cheek then disappeared into the darkness.
Charlie looped his arm through mine and led me to the sofa. "So," he said, "tell me all about it."
I sank down onto the worn, familiar cushions and began to speak.
Edward slipped through my window a few minutes after I got into bed. Immediately he stretched out beside me and wrapped me in his arms. I snuggled up against him, enjoying a few minutes of kisses.
"So, your dad isn't too upset," he reported. "He was really touched by Gaby's story."
I nodded. "He was. Tell Carlisle I said thanks for coming up with that explanation for my feet and the sting—although I'm not sure that Charlie really needed to know about the scorpion."
"He's your father, Bella. That was a fairly significant occurrence. And if you were stung again at some point, it's possible that it could trigger a reaction, so it's best for him to be aware of the initial sting."
"I think that's pretty unlikely," I retorted mildly. "There aren't any scorpions here, and I'm not planning on going to Phoenix again."
"Still, it was better to be as honest with him as possible."
I understood. "You're probably right."
The subject of honesty brought up a few additional issues in my mind. I was nestled comfortably and contentedly against Edward's chest, and his hand was running lightly through my hair. I think he was trying to soothe me into sleep. But there was question I needed to ask.
"Edward," I began.
His fingers did not stop, but I felt a little sigh escape him. He'd heard something in my tone… "Yes?" he responded.
"I know you wanted me to meet Caroline and the children—and I'm so glad I did. But was there any other reason you decided to take me to the orphanage with you?" I pushed up onto my uninjured elbow so that I could see his gorgeous face.
He pursed his lips very slightly. "Are you referring to Alice's comment about your presence making us seem more human?"
"No. I already knew that, and it's okay. Like I said the day we left, if that were the only reason for me to accompany you and Carlisle, that would be fine. But I feel like maybe there was something more."
"Isn't it enough to know that you helped to reunite Gaby and her father, and that you kept all of the children safe?"
"But those were unintended benefits, and I'm really glad that I could help… That's not what I'm talking about, though."
His hand left my hair to move to the bridge of his nose. His other hand, however, remained at my waist. "Then what are you asking, Bella?"
"I want to know if you hoped spending time with the children would convince me to stay human longer."
His graceful fingers stroked down my cheek. "Perhaps, in the back of my mind, the idea occurred to me."
"So this really wasn't about Caroline or the children—" I began, irritation creeping into my voice.
Edward's thumb brushed over my lips. "It was all about Caroline and the children. I really did want you to meet them, to spend time with them, and to experience the joy of helping them. My motives were entirely sincere in that regard."
"But if the experience happened to spur something… some sort of maternal instincts or something… that would be an extra benefit, right?"
"I just wanted you to have the experience, to see what it's like. Is that so wrong?"
His expression was entirely earnest; I saw no pretense in his golden eyes, only deep affection.
I gave a small shake of my head. "I don't appreciate ulterior motives. But I guess I can forgive them this one time, because without them I wouldn't have gotten to meet Caroline and the children."
A lop-sided grin was twitching at his mouth. "You were wonderful with the little ones, you know."
I shrugged. "They were sweet and engaging. Who wouldn't love being with them?"
But my words didn't reflect the depth of my emotions. The warmth and deep satisfaction I had felt as I read to Susana, held and played with Gaby, and helped Elisa with her math were something I had never experienced before.
"How did you feel with them?" he pressed gently.
"Good. It was nice to help them. But Edward, it doesn't mean I want children of my own." I knew my words were true. While my time at the orphanage might have ignited a spark of interest in a career involving children, that was all it had elicited.
"Are you certain? You looked so content with Gaby in your arms."
I shifted slightly, and he automatically moved to hold me more securely. I smiled at him.
"I am most content in your arms, Edward, and I always will be."
He really couldn't argue with that.
Monday morning brought a return to school. Everyone was chattering about their vocational experiences. I hadn't found the time to complete the required follow-up essay, but Carlisle had phoned Mr. Klein before school to explain that our plane had been delayed and we had returned quite late. He'd arranged an extension for me, for which I was grateful.
Still, I could not avoid the oral presentations that took up the economics class period. Each student had to stand at the front of the room and give a five-minute summary of his or her work experience.
Edward's turn came before mine. He rose gracefully and began speaking, explaining a bit about the orphanage and the work Caroline did. He said that he assisted his father in the clinic, providing a few details of the tasks for which he'd been responsible. Of course these were only the tip of the iceberg. He'd done a great deal more than record the children's heights and weights and test their vision. I found myself smiling as I recalled the vast skill he'd shown in helping both the children and me.
Mr. Klein appeared impressed with Edward's presentation. My boyfriend certainly had a way with words. He was articulate and precise, and his mellifluous voice captivated everyone.
I, on the other hand, was not a fan of public speaking, and I grew nervous as my turn approached. However, Edward's smile of encouragement helped me to feel slightly calmer, and when I finally got up and walked to the front of the room, I kept my eyes on him.
I took a breath then began. "I went to an orphanage in Mexico, and it was truly one of the best experiences of my life…"
From his seat, Edward was grinning. We both knew I was telling the absolute truth.
Once again I'd like to thank all those who took the time to leave reviews. Your responses never fail to delight and warm me.
I have one more story lurking in my files. It's the very first "Twilight" tale I wrote. It's also posted elsewhere, but if you would be interested in reading it here, please let me know. I'd be glad to post it if people want to read it. It's primarily a fluffy piece, with lots of Bella and the Cullens, as well as some Bella and Edward moments.