AFTER THE DAWN

Sometimes I don't get myself—okay, there are way too many times I don't get myself. But this time I really don't get me. I've got absolutely everything I ever wanted. More than I ever wanted. So why do I feel like there's a big hole inside of me, like something is missing? It doesn't make any sense. No sense at all.

For most of the past year, all I wanted, almost all I could think about, was being with my beautiful Edward forever. The only way for that to come true was for Edward to make me the same as him, to make me a vampire. He tried really hard to keep that from happening. He told me he didn't love me. He disappeared for several agonizing months. He said he couldn't stand the thought of me losing my soul. I didn't care. I knew what I wanted. And even if the soul thing was true, so what? I didn't have any use for my soul anyhow. I sure don't have any use for it now, since I'm never going to die.

Finally, Edward gave in. He married me and made me a vampire. Everything I wanted—married to the most beautiful creature in the world. I love him more than anyone has ever loved another person. He says the same is true for him.

And then, amazingly, things got even better. I'd never dreamed of having a child with Edward—I didn't think it was possible. Then I got pregnant. It almost killed me, but now we have a beautiful daughter. Renesmee is amazing. Smart, loving and lovable. She's growing up way too fast, though.

In addition to Edward and Renesmee, I have a new second family that I also love dearly. Carlisle and Esme are like a mother and father to me. I love Alice more than I could love any sister. I've got Jasper and Emmett as brothers, and even Rosalie is warming up to me, after resenting me for the choice I was making—the choice she never had.

Things with Jacob are great, too. We're best friends who love each other, just the way it should be. Sure, he's imprinted on my daughter, and I'm going to have to wrap my head around that eventually as Renesmee continues her rapid aging. For now, though, everything is wonderful.

My mom is doing great and is happy, and even my dad finally has someone special in his life again.

Everything is so very perfect. So what the heck could be missing?

"What's wrong, Bella?"

I turn my head and look up into Edward's beautiful face. I never tire of looking at him. His pale skin is sleek and smooth, like the finest porcelain. His golden eyes are filled with love, but I can also see a touch of concern. I can't hide anything from him. He knows me too well.

We're snuggled side by side on the couch in the house his family built for us. Edward's arm is around my shoulders. Renesmee is on the floor, playing with some books. The perfect family scene.

"What do you mean, wrong?" I ask, trying hard to sound as if I have no idea what he's talking about.

Edward shakes his head and smiles that half smile I find so sexy. "Stop it, Bella. I can tell when something's bothering you. What is it?"

I sigh. He does know me too well.

"I don't know," I admit. "I have everything I could possibly want—and more."

Edward chuckles and pulls me tighter against his side. "Only you would find that a problem, Bella."

"I know, right?" I lift my hand and run my finger tenderly down his cheek. His skin no longer feels icy cold to me—our bodies are the same temperature now. "I really do have everything I want. But something inside me feels…I don't know how to describe it. Empty, maybe. Like something that was there is gone."

Edward's expression tightens. "Gone?" he asks. He almost has to choke out his next words. "Something like your soul?"

I pull back from him so I can look directly into his face. I hate the pain I see filling his beautiful eyes.

"No, not that. I swear, it's not that. No way."

The anguish in his eyes lifts just a bit. "Are you certain?"

I nod vigorously, emphasizing my answer. "Yes. Absolutely certain." I know I need to explain more fully, more clearly, to wipe away as much of his unnecessary guilt as I can.

"I don't know if I ever believed in any of that soul stuff," I continue. "But even if it's real, that doesn't mean I buy into the idea that vampires don't have souls. The Volturi may not have them, but your family all have as much soul as any humans I've ever known."

Finally, Edward's expression lightens. The half smile I love returns to his face.

"I'm not sure I buy into that," he says, "but I'm glad you do."

He leans forward and kisses me lightly on the lips. I sigh. I wonder if I'll ever get tired of the feel and taste of his lips. I doubt it.

Edward is trying not to show it, but I can tell this whole thing is still bothering him. I'm sorry I ever brought it up. Actually, though, I didn't bring it up. It was his damn perceptiveness that brought it up. I guess there are drawbacks to being soul mates, to being able to read each other so well.

I try to think of something to change the mood, to lighten it. "Play something for me," I say, nodding toward the piano. "I love it when you play for me."

Edward seems as anxious to change the subject as I am, because he flashes over to the piano with vampire speed. He begins to play one of the hauntingly beautiful classical pieces that are his favorite, but then abruptly changes his mind, launching instead into a bouncy, joyful tune I can picture being played in some old-fashioned piano bar where the patrons gather round the pianist and sing.

The gaiety of the music attracts Renesmee's attention. She leaves her books scattered on the floor and takes a seat next to her father. As Edward's fingers continue to dance across the ivory, Renesmee jumps in on the higher keys, skillfully adding even more frivolity to the music. Renesmee never practices, but she has inherited her dad's musical talent and her playing is spot on. I'm mildly jealous, since my musical talent is about on par with my volleyball talent—meaning next to nil.

I move over and stand behind the two great loves in my life, placing a hand on the back of each of their necks while my body bounces to the joyful beat. It doesn't get any better than this.

We're over at the beautiful Cullen house now, visiting the family. They always enjoy seeing Edward and me, of course, but the real star of any visit is Renesmee. Carlisle and Esme never dreamed they could ever have a granddaughter, nor did Edward's siblings ever think they would have a niece. Renesmee's rapid aging makes every moment they spend with her especially precious, since she will not be a child much longer. They will love her as a young adult, of course, but there is something extra special about a child. Vampires are used to counting time in decades and centuries, not days and weeks, so these fleeting moments with her are treasured almost beyond belief. All of which make the any of the Cullens eager babysitters, whenever Edward and I want some alone time. Since I'm still experiencing the amped up amorous appetites of a newborn vampire, alone time is sorely needed. And believe me, Edward and I make the most of it!

We haven't come in search of babysitting today, though. It's just a simple visit, although I have to admit I have an ulterior motive in mind. I'm still troubled by that "something is missing" feeling, and I need to talk to someone about it—someone other than Edward, who gets wracked with guilt whenever he thinks about the subject.

Alice is my first choice, but getting her alone to talk to is not as easy as it might sound, not with how acute vampire hearing is and Edward's ability to hear everyone's thoughts but mine. Thank goodness for that, at least. It's bad enough he can read my face and body language—I don't need him listening to my thoughts, too. Not where this is concerned, anyhow.

I walk casually over to Alice, who is standing arm in arm with Jasper, watching Carlisle and Esme playing with Renesmee. They're building a giant house in the middle of the living room floor with an set of building blocks. Edward is playing the piano-beautifully, as always.

"Hey, Alice," I say. "Hi, Jasper."

Alice's elfin face lights up into a happy smile. "Hi, Bella."

Jasper smiles and nods to me.

"I was wondering if, uh, maybe you'd go shopping with me," I ask Alice.

Her eyes immediately narrow, boring into me suspiciously. Alice loves to shop, but she knows I hate it.

"Sure," she says. She pulls her arm from Jasper's and grabs my wrist. "Let's go outside and talk about it."

She pulls me along behind her. Jasper raises his eyebrows slightly, but remains silent. The whole family is good at keeping secrets.

Outside, winter has not yet relinquished its grip on northwest Washington. The pine trees are powdered with clumps of clean white snow, and several inches of the stuff coats the ground. I imagine it's quite cold out, but since I no longer feel the cold, I can't be sure.

Alice leads me to the edge of the trees, almost one hundred feet from the house, before stopping.

"Wrap me in your shield," she says softly.

"Huh," I say, looking at her dumbly.

"Your shield, Bella. Wrap it around me."

Concentrating hard, I use my newfound ability to extend my psychic shield and envelop Alice in its protection. I have no idea where my ability to block the special powers of other vampires comes from, but it's come in handy more than once. I finally learned to extend my shield's protection to others just in time to help thwart the Volturi.

"It's done," I tell Alice. "You're safely inside."

She nods. "Good. It's hard enough burying my thoughts to keep Edward from reading them when I'm not talking. It's impossible when I am." She fixes her golden eyes on mine. "Now, tell me what's going on, Bella. I know you too well to believe you have any interest in going shopping."

I smile sheepishly. "I didn't think the shopping thing would fool you. But I wanted to get you alone. I need to talk to you about something." I hesitate. Now that we're here and Alice is ready to listen, I'm not quite sure how to proceed. Even thinking about what's bothering me makes me feel foolish. Talking about it is going to make it even worse.

"Let me start by assuring you I'm happier with your brother than even I imagined," I say.

"Do I hear a 'but' coming?" Alice asks, smiling slightly.

"Yeah. Even worse, it's going to be a very confused 'but.'"

Alice rests her hand lightly on my forearm. "Go ahead. You know I love you and I'm here for you, no matter what."

I suck in a deep breath and plunge on. "It's really hard to describe, but despite how happy I am, I feel like something inside me is missing." I stop and shake my head. "No, that's wrong. More like something is gone. Not anything that I miss, really, but some kind of emptiness nonetheless. Does that make any sense?"

Alice's smile widens. "Honestly? No, not really."

I sigh. "I didn't think so. But I don't know who else to talk to. You know me better than anyone except Edward, and I can't talk to him about it. It hurts him too much. I tell him it's not anything he's done or isn't doing, but I can tell he doesn't really believe me."

"Edward has always been pretty sensitive," Alice says. "It's one of the things I love him for."

"Do you think what I'm feeling could have anything to do with me still being a newborn?" I ask. "Especially since things got so interrupted right after I changed—first by Renesmee and then by the Volturi?"

Alice tilts her head in thought. "Maybe," she says after a moment. "You should talk to Carlisle. He knows more about that stuff than anyone."

Alice is right, I know. I do need to talk to Carlisle. But how can I do it without raising Edward's suspicions?

"Do you think you could get Carlisle to come out here—without Edward noticing?"

Alice smiles. "Yeah, I think so. I'll get Jasper to distract Edward. Wait here. It shouldn't take long." Alice pivots and heads back toward the house.

While I wait, I mentally rehearse what I'm going to say to Carlisle.

I don't have long to wait. Carlisle is striding toward me, a warm smile on his pale face. All the Cullens are pale, but Carlisle is the palest of the lot. I think it's because he's been drinking animal blood for so much longer than any of the others.

"I was wondering if you would get around to talking to me about whatever's bothering you," he says.

"Has it been that obvious?" I ask.

"It has to me. And I'm sure Edward has noticed as well."

I nod. "Yeah, he has. We talked about it a little, but it upsets him too much. I tried to reassure him, insisting it's nothing he's done, but he thinks otherwise."

"That's the way Edward is…the way he's always been." His expression softens, becoming even more inviting than usual. "So, what's on your mind?"

I tell Carlisle everything I just told Alice.

"Is that all?" he asks when I'm finished.

I stare at him, surprised by the way he seems to have minimized my tale of woe.

"All?" I ask, bewildered. "Edward thinks I'm missing my soul. It's driving him crazy. I know it's not that, though. I thought maybe it had something to do with being a newborn."

Carlisle smiles. "I don't think so. And I don't believe it has anything to do with your soul, either."

"Then what?" I ask anxiously.

He places his hand gently upon my shoulder.

"Until recently, what has been the one overriding thing on your mind for most of the past year?"

That's an easy one. "Edward," I reply.

"Yes, Edward. And what about Edward?"

I think for a moment. "Loving him. Wanting him to love me. Wanting him to make me a vampire."

"Exactly. And would you say those thoughts rose to the level of an obsession?"

I grin. That was a no brainer - of course they did. It was almost all I could think about some days. "Yeah, I would."

"And what about now?"

"Now?" I ask, puzzled. "That's all behind me now. I have everything I wanted. More even, because of Renesmee. No more obsessing needed."

And suddenly, there it was, like the breaking dawn, clear as can be. I know what I have lost, the companion that had been with me almost every day and now is gone. For so long I had been obsessed with being with Edward forever, with him making me a vampire so that we could truly be together. He had fought against the idea so hard that sometimes it seemed like it would never happen. But now it has. My obsession is gone, and good riddance to it. For a while, I had been too consumed by other things—by Renesmee's birth and rapid aging and by the threat of the Volturi—to notice the absence of my ever present companion. It had been a dark companion for sure, one that had driven me to the deepest depths of despair several times, but it had been a companion nonetheless.

I smile. Now that I finally know what is missing, I can say goodbye to it and let it go. In my heart of hearts, I had known my life with Edward was perfect, that everything was exactly as I had dreamed it would be. "Bella being Bella," my dad probably would have described my recent behavior. And maybe he was right—for Bella Swan. But I'm Bella Cullen now, and I couldn't be happier. Forever is going to be just barely long enough.

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