As we entered the town limits, it occurred to me that there was one more thing I needed to confess to Carlisle. Before we reached the pharmacy, I spoke again.

"You should probably know," I began, hesitating for an instant, "that I wrote the prescription for myself."

He looked at me, his brow furrowing. "Why did you do that?"

"Henry and Chief Swan are acquaintances. Occasionally they sit together at the diner. I didn't want to risk Henry mentioning anything about Bella being ill and my coming in for her prescription."

"You didn't want Charlie to know that you were with Bella last weekend," he confirmed.

I nodded. "The last thing I want to do is cause more friction between her and her father."

He sighed. "I suppose that's understandable."

He continued driving past the pharmacy without stopping. I realized that he intended to go to the grocery store instead. He could pick up the bath solution without the possibility of raising questions in the pharmacist's mind.

I waited in the car while he walked briskly into the supermarket, his steps slowing as he moved through the aisles. He filled a hand basket with a number of items so that the bath solution would not be quite as obvious. He was using considerable caution, but I understood his rationale.

As Carlisle paid for his purchases, I listened to the cashier's thoughts. She was too distracted by his looks to notice what he was buying. She scanned the items and put them into a bag, stammering slightly as she gave him his total.

Carlisle was unfailingly polite, as always, when he paid and bid her good evening. When he returned to the car, I told him that the cashier hadn't paid any attention to the items in his basket.

"That's good," he replied.

"So I think we really can keep this between ourselves," I said with some relief.

"Actually," he corrected, "I believe I misspoke when I made that comment earlier."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm fairly certain that Esme heard my discussion with Bella, and I imagine she's figured out by now what happened." He gave me a knowing look. "I'm sure she'll have a few words to say to you."

I groaned internally. I deserved every reprimand she could muster, but I wasn't looking forward to sitting through that.


Esme was waiting for us when we walked through the door. She gave me a stern look then held out her hand.

"I'll get the bath ready for Bella," she said as Carlisle pulled the packet of oatmeal solution from the bag.

"Is she uncomfortable?" I asked.

"Physically, not too much," my mother replied rather tartly. "But she's feeling anxious about the rash."

"It will likely spread to her face," Carlisle informed her. "Perhaps you should let her know that, and tell her not to worry."

Esme frowned at this news but gave a nod of acknowledgement. While I already knew about this possibility, I still hated hearing the words.

"It's not serious," Carlisle reassured his wife. "But it would be a good idea if you took a bottle of water up to her. Have her drink some before her bath. Keeping well-hydrated will help to clean out her system. I'll come up to check on her in a little while, but if she has any questions or concerns prior to that, let me know."

"Of course," she responded, her tone gentler with him than with me. "Oh, and I think she should remain here tonight so that you're nearby, just in case."

Esme's protectiveness was admirable. Bella brought out her maternal instincts, even more so when injured or ill.

"I'll phone her father," Carlisle said.

Esme kissed his cheek then turned her sharp gaze upon me. "You and I are going to talk later."

"Yes, Mom," I replied obediently.

She hastened away. Carlisle pulled his phone from his pocket but paused before making the call.

"Charlie didn't know Bella was taking the medication, did he?" he asked.

"I don't think so. She kept the bottle in her room, in a drawer. And even if he saw it, my name was on it."

He sighed again. "This sort of deception doesn't sit well with me."

"I know."

It was true. He hated that the nature of our existence required constant ruses, but those requisite for him to pursue his profession were easier to stomach, since he knew his presence in hospitals benefited humanity. He bristled at more overt—and less necessary—lies.

Still, the one he was about to tell could not be avoided. As he selected Chief Swan's number, I murmured, "Sorry."

He arched an eyebrow at me. "Charlie," he said amiably as soon as Bella's father answered, "it's Carlisle."

Charlie's instincts had become fairly sharp when Bella was concerned. Immediately he asked if something was wrong was his daughter.

"Nothing serious," Carlisle replied calmly. "But she's developed a rash. Has she ever had contact dermatitis before?"

Charlie answered, "No, I don't think so. Allergies don't really run in our family. I've never had anything like that happen, and her mother didn't, either—at least not while she and I were together."

"Well, these things can happen fairly suddenly."

"Are you sure that's what it is?"

"She doesn't have any signs of illness, so I feel certain this is a reaction to something she came into contact with." He arched an eyebrow at me then continued. "I don't believe it's serious, but she's rather uncomfortable. Esme is preparing an oatmeal bath for her right now, and I think a long soak in that will be soothing."

"Okay," Charlie said.

"I really don't believe there's any cause to worry," Carlisle reiterated gently, "but I'd prefer to err on the side of caution. I'd like to check her throughout the night to be certain she's all right." He did not have to feign the regret in his tone as he added, "Stress can have a significant impact on the body's immune system… I'd like to do whatever I can to help."

While his single-word response was merely a gruff, "Yeah," I felt certain that Charlie understood the tacit admission. My father was apologizing for his part in our family's exodus from Bella's life.

"I'll call you first thing in the morning to let you know how she's doing," Carlisle finished. "Would you like me to have her call you when she's finished with her bath?"

"If she's not too tired. If she just wants to go to sleep, that's okay."

"I'll tell her you wished her good night."

"Yeah, okay. Thanks, Carlisle."

My father tucked his phone back inside his pocket. He was glad he had not needed to tell any blatant lies, and I realized he had phrased his words carefully so that nothing he said was entirely untruthful. He hadn't actually stated that Bella had contact dermatitis…

Carlisle sighed again. "I didn't enjoy that."

"I know," I acknowledged. "I appreciate your tact. I won't put you through anything like that again."

He gave a somber nod then turned to walk away.


I felt restless while I was away from Bella. She was just upstairs, but I knew I could not be with her while she was in the bath. When Carlisle had suggested a long soak, Esme had taken him seriously; I heard her enter the bathroom several times to add hot water and more oatmeal solution to the tub so that Bella would remain as comfortable as possible. It seemed that she was in the bath for a very long time.

Finally I heard Bella get out of the tub, her small feet padding softly over the tiled floor. A few minutes later she opened the bathroom door and stepped into the hallway. I listened as Esme joined her, walking down the hall, past my room.

"I've set out some silk pajamas for you in my room," Esme told her. "They should be light and soft against your skin."

"Thank you," Bella replied.

"And Carlisle called your father to ask if you could spend the night here," my mother continued.

"Oh—he didn't have to do that," Bella said, but I could hear a hint of relief in her tone.

"Nonsense. It was no trouble. Carlisle and I want to be nearby if you need anything."

Their steps slowed as they entered the bedroom. I heard some concern in Esme's thoughts. She felt the rash was worsening; it was definitely spreading over Bella's neck. She planned to summon Carlisle as soon as Bella was dressed. Esme waited outside while Bella put on the pajamas then returned to take her damp bathrobe. I heard Bella yawn quietly.

"Make yourself comfortable, honey," Esme said, gesturing toward bed. She had turned down the sheets and fluffed the pillows.

"Oh no, I can't take your room," Bella protested immediately.

"Yes you can," Esme replied tenderly. "You need a good night's sleep, and this is the most comfortable bed in the house. Besides, it's good to know that someone is actually going to use it for an entire night." I could hear the smile in her voice.

"Thank you," Bella murmured. I felt fairly certain that she was blushing.

I could discern the slight rustle of the sheets as she climbed into the bed. Through Esme's thoughts, I knew that she remained sitting up against the headboard, however, rather than settling down.

"Is there anything I can get you?" Esme asked.

"Is Edward still here?"

"He's downstairs." Esme waited a moment, seeing the expression on Bella's face, then said, "I'll send him up in a few minutes. I think Carlisle wants to see you, too."

Bella nodded her assent, and Esme summoned her husband. I knew she expected me to remain where I was until she could speak with me. I waited impatiently while Carlisle went upstairs, listening intently to his thoughts as he spent several long moments assessing Bella. The rash covered a little more of her neck now, but her face remained clear. He explained that she might wake to find that the rash had spread to her face, but that was to be expected and should not be a cause for concern.

She thanked him, and he lifted her chin, kissing her forehead as he wished her a good night. He encouraged her to call for him at any time if she needed anything.

Esme echoed his sentiments, pausing at the doorway to say, "Edward will be up shortly. Sleep well, honey."

My parents descended the stairs at a human pace. Carlisle gave me a nod of reassurance, understanding that I would remain worried about Bella until the rash disappeared. Esme stopped on one of the lower stairs, facing me at eye level.

"Bella will sleep better if you're with her," she said matter-of-factly. "But as soon as she's sleeping soundly I want to speak with you."

"Yes, ma'am," I replied.

She nodded, and I hurried past her, up the stairs. Bella smiled when I entered the room. I sat down beside her, wrapping her slender body in my arms.

"How are you feeling?" I asked softly.

"Okay. The rash really isn't bothering me—except for knowing it's there."

She had no idea that her words sent a pang of regret straight to my stone heart.

"I'm sorry, love," I said.

She lifted her hand to touch my cheek. "It's not your fault."

I tucked her head beneath my chin so that she would not see the culpability written so clearly across my face.


Bella fell asleep fairly quickly. I was stretched out beside her, her head pillowed on my chest. Could I ease my body away without waking her? It was definitely a concern… but I had promised Esme I would slip away once Bella was slumbering, and I knew I needed to face my mother eventually.

With a suppressed sigh, I gradually pulled away, sliding a pillow beneath Bella's head. I waited until I was certain she would not stir, then I stood and walked silently to the door. I spared one lingering glance back, then I stepped out into the hallway.

Esme was in the kitchen, reading through some recipes on her laptop. When I entered the room, she looked up at me then gestured for me to sit across from her. I complied without complaint, waiting as she set aside the computer. Then she looked directly at me, her gaze sharp. Her thoughts revealed that she knew exactly what I had done. She had figured it out from the conversation Bella and Carlisle had in my room, and she had confirmed it with her husband as soon as I joined Bella for the night.

"I shouldn't have done it," I began.

"No," she agreed firmly, "you shouldn't have. It was disrespectful to Carlisle, and it was dangerous for Bella."

I nearly flinched at her tone. It was rare to hear such a steely edge in her voice, and that alone felt like a harsh chastisement. I nodded contritely. "I know. It was wrong on many levels. I won't do anything like that again."

She gave a single nod of acknowledgment. She had expected that I would offer some sort of justification for my behavior, that I would attempt to argue her point to some degree. My response surprised her; she could see the deep compunction I felt.

Her expression remained austere, however, as she continued, "I agree with Carlisle that most of the consequences we could impose on you would only create more distress for Bella. The poor girl has suffered quite enough." Now a flicker of guilt skittered through her thoughts, and her features softened slightly. "However, I want you to think carefully about what you did. You and I will discuss your reflections in a few days, and I expect you to have found some new knowledge about yourself that you will share with me."

She knew that articulating my feelings—let alone discussing them—was an uncomfortable prospect for me. Thus, this was probably the most apt punishment she could conceive. It took me a moment to reply, "Yes, Esme."

She gave me a nod. "All right. Now get back to Bella."

I stood, but as I turned to go, she stopped me. "One more thing, Edward," she said crisply.

I looked back at her with mild dread. "Yes?"

She lifted her hand then gracefully swept it toward the laptop. "Do you think Bella would prefer French toast or an omelet for breakfast tomorrow?"

I couldn't help but offer her a crooked smile. "I'm sure she'll love whatever you prepare. Thank you, Esme."

A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she replied, "You're welcome, Edward."

I was dismissed, and with some relief I hurried back upstairs to my Bella.


When Bella woke in the morning, she required a few moments to recall where she was, and why. Tentatively she touched her cheek with a fingertip.

"How bad is it?" she asked.

I kissed her forehead. "It hasn't spread to your face."

"Really?"

I nodded. "Your neck looks about the same—no worse, though." I brushed my finger over the upper edge of the rash, just below her jawline.

She peeked down the front of the pajama top. "It's the same here, too."

"It may remain like that for another day or two."

She sighed. "At least tomorrow's Saturday, so I'll only have to deal with everyone's stares at school for one day."

I shook my head. "You don't have to go to school today. Charlie agreed to call you in sick."

"Really? Even after those unexcused absences two weeks ago?"

I nodded. "Carlisle convinced him that you should remain here, just as a precaution."

Bella smiled sleepily, her eyes moving to the bedside clock. It was almost 7:30. "Mmm, would it be okay if I stayed in bed for a little while longer?"

Esme stepped through the door, a mug of hot cocoa in her hand. "You can stay in bed all day long if you want, sweetie." She set the mug on the bedside table then turned her gaze to me. "You, on the other hand, need to get going."

"Going?" I repeated.

"Yes, Edward," she replied. "You have less thirty minutes to get to school, and the last thing you need is for Chief Swan to give you a speeding ticket."

"But I was planning to stay home with Bella," I said.

Esme shook her head. "You need to go to school to get all of Bella's assignments and fill her in on whatever she'll miss."

I was about to offer a protest, but the look in my mother's eyes stopped me. This was one punishment she could dole out without upsetting Bella. She knew how much I loathed sitting through a day of high school without Bella by my side.

Esme sat down next to Bella and wrapped an arm around her shoulder affectionately. "I'll be here all day, and Carlisle has a late shift, so he'll be home until 2:00. We'll take good care of her."

"Even so—" I began.

"It's all right, Edward," Bella said. "I won't worry about my work as much if I know you'll bring everything back for me."

Esme smiled knowingly at me. "See, it's for the best."

I sighed, knowing I had to follow through with Esme's edict. I kissed Bella good-bye then gathered my things. I would endure the interminable school day without her. And each moment that she was not at my side would serve to remind me that my actions were to blame.

As I got into the car, my spirits felt heavier but my mind somehow lighter. I suspected that Esme and I would have much to discuss when we sat down for our talk in a few days, and, while I did not particularly look forward to it, I knew that I would come away a better person. Bella deserved nothing less.


Fin