You've been waiting too long for this. I'm sorry about that. Hopefully, the length of the chapter will help make up for the delay. After all the action and drama, it seemed good to lighten things up a bit.
Many thanks to CindyWindy for turning into a great pre-reader and beta. She's just a wonderful person to know. I can't thank you enough, bebe! Any errors I introduced after she reviewed are purely my own.
As always, I own nothing. I'd like to thank SM for the inspiration. I'm going to miss these characters so much!
Here's a short recap because of the delay: Jasper, Alice, Rose and Emmett flew in a private plane to Hawaii to dispose of James. Edward surprised Bella with a trip to London, thinking that she might be able to see some familiar sights. They had difficult conversations around trust and forgiveness within their relationship.
I kept hold of Bella's hand. By the time we'd made it to the marina, it was the middle of the night. As usual in Brazil, the late hour didn't put a damper on the crowds. When I glanced back, she gave me a big smile. I should have known the crush wouldn't rattle her. On the other hand, a heartfelt emotional discussion would be a totally different story.
Our boat to Isle Esme was fueled and ready to go. I tipped the porter and the marina steward, eager to leave when something occurred to me.
"Bella. This is going to be a long ride with no places to stop. Did you need a … moment before we board?" I'd almost slipped and called it a human moment in front of the help. That was a problem. Being near her still threw off my normal defenses. I'd have to work on that.
"I'm fine," she said. "Let's get going."
Taking her at her word, I boarded our little transport, then helped her across. When all the moorings were clear, we were off.
The waves were a bit higher than normal, so I kept the speed down. The nearly full moon shined from a cloudless sky. All around us the sea gleamed black in the moonlight. Between the motor and the waves, it was too loud for Bella to hear me well, so after a few attempts, I gave up on talking. Bella relaxed into her seat, seeming to enjoy the waves. Within minutes she was asleep.
She started to stir as the sun was coming over the horizon.
"It's so peaceful." Every time she woke, her voice had a husky, sexy tone.
"It's one of the things we love about coming here. That and the ability to walk around in the sun without drawing attention."
She smiled and looked over at me. "I can't wait to see you sparkle."
"It's not really that interesting," I muttered, trying to play it down. I didn't like to emphasize the differences between us.
She must have understood that I didn't want to talk about it because she let it drop. We sat in silence for a few minutes, but she began to fidget. Bella smoothed her sleep-wrinkled clothes and finger combed her hair. When she started fiddling with the GPS, I knew something was wrong.
"This is one of those times when you need to tell me what you're thinking. Something's going on in there." I pointed in the general vicinity of her head and made a slow circling motion.
She waved my hand away like a pesky fly.
"I'm just a little nervous. The last time I saw your family, I was in a bad place."
"That doesn't matter. They love you. You know that."
"They don't know me well enough to love me. They love the idea that you've found someone."
I pondered that for a minute and decided it was probably true. "They watched me be the proverbial third wheel for a very long time. And to be perfectly honest, I was a total pain in the ass about it sometimes. Looking back, I wish I'd behaved differently."
"You can't do anything about the past. We both know that." Her words could have stung, but there was no venom in them. It was simply a statement of fact.
"You're right. We can't change it, but we can learn from it. And if we're lucky, we'll be able to enjoy today. Look," I said pointing. I'd spotted the island several minutes ago. I could see details now, so I figured we were close enough for her human eyes to see it.
She made a humming sound and shifted in her seat, leaning forward.
I started picking up on my family's thoughts long before we docked the boat. They had arrived several days ago, working to get the house in order for our arrival.
Everyone was lined up on the shore as I steered the boat to the dock. They looked a bit like the staff of an English manor house coming to greet the owner, which was pretty amusing when I thought about it. As we got close, Emmett reached out and pulled the boat so it nestled against the dock without slamming into the pylon or one of the jet skis. He tied it off and smiled at me. "We thought you'd be here sooner."
Reaching down for Bella, he gave her a sly grin. "Was Edward driving like a grandma again?"
"This was her first trip. I wasn't going to push it and make her uncomfortable." Besides, I still loved watching her sleep. I knew it was creepy, but I couldn't bring myself to care.
Emmett made a snorting sound as Bella took his hand. To my delight, she defended me.
"Actually, it was nice to get some sleep on the way. Otherwise I'd have been tired all day." She let him help her onto the dock. I followed quickly. Making sure I wouldn't hurt Bella, I bumped Emmett with my shoulder, sending him stumbling forward. By the time he regained his footing, I'd taken my place at her side. I let out a low, playful growl, making sure he knew where he stood, both literally and figuratively.
He laughed, taking his place beside Rose.
As we got closer, I noticed something that was obvious once the family was standing together. Emmett, Rose, Alice and Jasper were all wearing Hawaiian shirts with leis around their neck.
I knew the minute Bella realized it because her step faltered. Giving her time to recover her footing, I walked us slowly toward Carlisle.
"Welcome, Bella. We're so happy you could join us." His words were gentle. He was eager to bridge the difficult ground between them.
"Thank you. Edward told me you own the whole island? Is that right?"
I watched her eyes roam from the dock, toward the sleek, modern beach house, and up the heavily forested hillside.
"Technically, the island and everything on it belongs to Esme. It was a gift."
Bella swiveled to look at me out of the corner of her eye. This time I knew exactly what she was thinking.
"I promise not to give you large gifts without discussing it with you first." I used my finger to make a cross over my chest.
Her suspicions were not satisfied. "Define 'large,' please."
I made an exaggerated frown and tilted my head from side to side. "How about … pieces of real estate, or anything with that approximate value." Even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew she wasn't pleased.
"Uh-uh. Too vague. We're going to need better ground rules. You'd probably buy a thousand paintings to give me a museum, or a million books to give me a library. You'd be sneaky with loopholes."
I made sure my eyes went wide, shaking my head, trying to look innocent.
Esme watched our banter with barely restrained joy. "Gift giving is one of the things you'll need to get used to, I'm afraid." She tried to sound very put-upon. "There isn't a rhyme or reason. One anniversary it will be a necklace and the next it will be an island."
"That's going to take some getting used to."
"Well, now's a good time to start, I suppose. We wanted to celebrate your arrival, so we have a few things for you. I hope you don't mind."
Esme had barely finished speaking when Rose stepped forward. She handed Bella an old-fashioned brass key on a wide purple ribbon. We never locked anything on Isle Esme, so the key was symbolic. "There's a small boat house on the west side of the island. You and Edward can stay there while you're here." She looked at me and thought, She must know that we can hear everything going on in the house. This might keep things from getting awkward.
I nodded. Bella and I had discussed vampire hearing and what that meant for our living arrangements. She had been surprisingly understanding. I'd had to remind myself that she'd lived in a time when privacy had been a luxury most people couldn't afford. A farm family living in a one room cottage meant the youngsters learned the facts of life early—whether they liked it or not.
Bella took the key with a rueful smile, but her heart sped up just a bit. It wasn't embarrassment, so it must have been excitement. That pleased me more than I could say.
Alice stepped forward next. Without permission, she took Bella's hand, the one that now held the key. There was a soft snapping sound as something closed on her wrist. I looked down to see a bracelet, similar to the cuff I wore. The leather was thinner, obviously made for a female wrist. At the center was a smaller version of the Cullen crest.
"To welcome you into the family. I hope you like it." The speech was uncharacteristically short for Alice. It was rare to see her unsure of herself, but her lack of visions around Bella still disconcerted her. Alice looked up at me for reassurance, and it broke my heart a little.
"It's perfect. Thank you." Bella said, looking stunned.
The band wasn't frilly or delicate, just like the woman who wore it. I agreed; it was perfect, and I said so, making Alice beam. Stepping behind Bella, I held my arm up next to hers and we compared. Each cuff was unique, but there was enough similarity so anyone would know they were part of a matched set. I couldn't have picked anything better myself.
With that excellent response, Alice seemed to rebound. She made a happy chirping sound while she watched us.
Jasper let us gush for a moment, taking in the positive emotions. He didn't try to block them, letting the happiness and excitement roll over him like sunshine after a long winter. As much as I cursed my talent, these were the moments I saw it for the gift it was.
He cleared his throat, pulling the attention to himself. "Bella, I'd like to present my gift to you." He held up the lei. It was obviously newly made from flowers they'd found on the island. Any lei they'd received on Hawaii would have rotted long ago. The flowers weren't the gift, though. It was what they represented. Jasper was letting Bella know they'd taken care of James as promised. He held up the flowered necklace and draped it over her head.
She had to clear her throat before speaking. "Thank you. I never wanted you to have to clean up my mess."
"It was my pleasure," he told her, and I knew it was the truth. "We can talk about it whenever you're ready. That could be today, tomorrow or never."
"I'll probably want the details, but not just yet."
"That's fair. You just let me know, sweetheart."
Emmett made a huffing sound. "Okay. That's enough of the emo stuff. You guys just got here. Esme wants to make Bella breakfast. This is our first opportunity to actually use the food we have delivered from the mainland, instead of pitching it."
"That's really nice, but she doesn't need to. I'm pretty self-sufficient," Bella protested.
"Tell us something we don't know," Emmett said, working his way close enough to nudge her with his elbow. He looked up and studied the sky where the sun was just coming over the horizon. As usual the sunrise was full of bright colors, and I was happy to share this with Bella.
"It's almost time for my gift," Emmett said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a pair of black sunglasses with frames that reminded me of sixties movie sexpots. Just as the sun peeked over the horizon, he slipped them on Bella's face. "Keep these handy. I think you're going to need them for a while."
I heard her gasp as the first full rays of sunshine hit my face. This early, the glitter effect would be muted, but it would be obvious. Lifting a soft hand, she caressed my cheek. Through Emmett's eyes, I could see myself holding very still and Bella's wide-eyed wonder. "It's beautiful," she said.
He snorted. "Glad you think so. You're going to need those sunglasses because we spend a lot of time in the sun while we're here. Rosy has this bikini—" he broke off with a lascivious grin, waggling his eyebrows.
"Never mind him. If Emmett had his way, we'd all be running around naked," I said, but I was thinking about the bikini we'd found for Bella. I'd enjoyed shopping with her as much as I'd anticipated. The shopping in London would have been good, but by the time we'd talked through our issues, we both felt a bit raw. We'd agreed to move our faux honeymoon closer to home. New York was more than happy to roll out the red carpet for us. Many shops had large private dressing rooms, and, for a generous gratuity, the shop girls would leave us in peace. I'd done my civic duty last month, helping several hard-working New Yorkers pay their rent.
"You wear whatever makes you comfortable," Esme said. It had taken time for her modesty to ease. She'd only begun wearing modern swim suits in the last thirty years or so.
"I'd planned to dress for comfort, but Edward added an extra suitcase. I'm not sure what's in there."
"I just wanted to make sure we covered every eventuality. You never know what you might need."
"It's an island with a beach and not a whole lot else. I have swimsuits. What more could I need?"
"I can think of a few things," I said, letting my voice go rough and taking her hand. Hopefully, I didn't sound too cheesy.
It must have been worse than I thought because Emmet said, "Boy, we have got to work on your delivery. It's terrible." He grabbed one of the suitcases, making a show of balancing it in his palm for several seconds. "If you can't be smooth, maybe you can show off." Tilting his arm back, the suitcase went flying, rotating end-over-end in an arc. It cleared the top of the house by a dozen feet or more. Unable to resist the bait, I took off, running up the beach, vaulting up the deck, and onto the roof. Grabbing the suitcase mid-air, I rotated so I landed on my back, skidding across the vegetation in the far side of the house. The impact dented the hard-sided case, but it stayed locked. That was a win. The last time Emmett and I played suitcase football, I ended up with my underwear spread all over the roof.
Scrambling, I grabbed my prize and ran to the side of the house. Peaking around the corner, I saw Emmett. He was far enough from Bella that I wouldn't hit her. I grabbed the end of the case, holding it against my palm. Drawing back, I launched it at him like a missile.
He jumped, snatching it out of the air. With a tremendous cry, he lifted the case high. "Emmett, no," I yelled just as he spiked it down into the sand. The outer shell shattered, and bits of blue plastic and clothes rained down across the beach.
Rose reached out and picked up a tiny red camisole. "Good call, Edward. I'd have figured you'd go for puritan white cotton. This is pretty hot."
Bella looked from Rose to me and back. Rolling her eyes, she sauntered over and pulled the silk from Rose's hand. "He didn't pick it. I did. And if you think this is hot, you should see the matching panties." Even watching her talking about underwear was making me hard. I wondered how long I had to wait before I could sneak her away.
Looking at the clothes-strewn beach, Esme turned to Emmett, and said, "You're going to clean this all up, aren't you? You're going to make sure Bella gets all her belongings back."
"Trust my baby to find a thong," Rose said.
Esme opened and closed her mouth quickly, deciding to be polite around her guest. "Just make sure it's done by tonight. Come inside, Bella, you must be starved." Esme shooed her through the large sliding glass door. Carlisle, Alice, and Rose followed.
I stayed outside to help with the cleanup. I certainly didn't want Emmett pawing Bella's underwear.
He began grabbing pieces of fabric and tossing them into a pile on the deck. "She's a keeper, man. You hang on to any woman who buys that kind of underwear."
Later, the smell of artificial coconut drew me toward the main house. We'd never had sunscreen on the island before, and I was thrilled that we needed it. Bella was stretched out on a padded lounger, looking out over the water. When she set the bottle on the side table, I knew I was too late to help with the application. I'd have to be quicker next time.
"This place looks like an advertisement in a travel magazine," she said, shading her eyes with her hand to watch a pair of sooty terns circle overhead.
She was right, I thought, looking at the cloudless sky and the waves with perfect whitecaps. Over the years, I'd started taking the beauty for granted.
Alice and Rose were seated on either side of Bella and soft samba music played on the house speakers. Esme had a thing about playing native music. It didn't matter what the locals were listening to, if we were in Brazil, we'd be listening to samba.
When I got to the porch, I nudged Alice's recliner with my leg.
Nope, I'm not moving, she thought. You snooze, you lose. You had her all to yourself for the last month. If you wanted to sit next to her, you should have gotten here sooner.
I huffed and sat on the other side, dropping into the chair a bit too hard.
"Don't pout. It makes you look like a child," Rose thought as she shifted in her seat. Vampires have the capacity for utter stillness, but we understand that it makes humans nervous. Both Rose and Alice worked to appear more human by moving periodically.
I ignored her jibe, knowing any response would only prove her point.
Bella managed to relax for about two songs before sitting up again. She leaned forward, looking from the house to the beach.
"Everything okay?" Alice asked.
"It's fine. Great, actually. I just don't … sit very well."
"What she means is, she can't sit still." It was something I'd noticed over the last few weeks. Now that Bella was feeling better, she needed to be moving, doing things.
She shifted again into a cross-legged position as though she couldn't get comfortable. "I've never had long chunks of time to do nothing. I don't really know what to do with myself."
"That makes sense," Jasper said, coming out of the house, followed by Esme, Carlisle and Emmett.
Bella nodded. If she was surprised that everyone was keeping up with the conversation, it didn't show.
Esme and Carlisle settled on loungers, but Jasper leaned on the deck rail. "Your entire life has been about running and staying protected. You've never had this luxury. It only makes sense that you'd need time to adjust."
"I feel like a kid who got their heart's desire and doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't make sense."
Carlisle couldn't wait to chime in. "You're emotions are working to keep up with what your brain already knows. You should give yourself more time. None of this is a race."
Pushing himself off the railing, Jasper walked over to stand near her lounger. "Miss, may I escort you for a stroll along the beach? Now that these ladies are settled in, they won't be moving any time soon."
Like the gentleman he was, he waited, offering her his arm. She took it the air of someone familiar with old-fashioned manners. With her hand on his arm, he led her down the stairs and onto the beach. I wanted to follow, but even with the waves rolling in, I'd still be able to hear their conversation. It was probably an invasion of privacy, but I decided not to feel guilty about it.
"How are you finding the island?" he asked, his other hand clasped behind his back as they walked. The stance reminded me of military rest, and I was surprised by the study in contrasts. In spite of his formal speech and posture, Jasper was dressed like a surfer dude.
"It's beautiful. I'm not sure what I expected, but this isn't it."
"This is an important place. We don't have to worry about what people see when they look at us, or how we should behave. We can relax and be ourselves."
"If I hadn't already figured that out, the suitcase bit yesterday would have tipped me off."
"Letting off steam is a little bit different here. Don't worry, though. Esme usually puts a stop to any horseplay that gets too destructive."
Esme pointed a finger between Emmett and me. "You're on notice. I'm not letting you do any real damage this trip. It took two construction crews to fix what happened last time."
"Understood." I muttered, agreeing quickly so I could keep eavesdropping.
"Party pooper," Emmett protested, "and how come you're not pointing at Jasper? He's the one who dared me."
Without looking away from Bella, Jasper's fist uncurled. He raised that middle finger high behind his back, making sure it was easy for Emmett to see.
"Relaxation doesn't seem to be my thing," Bella said, and I could hear the irritation in her voice.
"Carlisle's right. You need to give it some time. You've had many changes in the last eighteen months. That's going to throw anyone for a loop."
Bella fell silent, and Jasper walked alongside. I wanted him to keep talking, keep asking her questions. These were new topics for Bella and me. We'd already been over every inch of this conversation, but I kept hoping that I'd learn something knew about her. Maybe she'd let some clue slip that would help me understand her better.
Jasper could feel my anxiety, and he could guess the reason. Wait, Edward. This is like hunting. Let the prey come to you.
They continued walking. The fingers of Bella's free hand twitched, and she would occasionally bite her lip they way she did when she was thinking. Finally, she stopped and turned. Looking out over the ocean, she said, "It doesn't feel real. That it's finally over. I don't know how to make it sink in."
"Bella, all we have are words. You've heard them before, but I'll say them again. You're safe. James won't be bothering you—or anyone else—again. Barring an earthquake, he's not getting out. Even if he could get free, and he was undamaged enough to function, you have family to protect you now."
"Thank you. Maybe if I hear it enough, it'll sink in," she whispered. "Part of me wanted to be there with you. I told myself I was staying home because I was still too weak. But now, I don't think that's the truth. You'd have waited for me to heal if I asked. I could have gone along to Hawaii."
"I know Edward. If you'd asked, he'd have kept James a prisoner for a hundred years." It was true.
"Deep down, I think I would have been going with you for the wrong reason. I've done so many things I'm not proud of. I didn't want to add one more. Does that make sense? I wouldn't have just wanted to be safe, I'd have wanted him to suffer and then to suffer some more. What if the need to make him pay overshadowed everything?"
"Bella, there's a difference between justice and vengeance. I've dealt with both, and I understand the difference. Eventually, vengeance eats away at your soul. Please understand, that I—" he broke off and corrected himself, "we were happy to help you. We've all lived long lives, and many of our stories are not happy ones. Maybe we wanted to help with your happy ending."
Rose gave a little sniff. She wasn't ready to share her history with Bella. Maybe someday, but it was too soon.
Emmett leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I'm so proud of you, everything you've gone through and how much you've grown." He didn't care that we could all hear. I admired that about Emmett. His affection was free and open for all to see.
Bella looked at Jasper intently. "I just keep wanting to ask why? Why would you do that for someone you barely know? Someone you just met."
"You, more than anyone, should know that time doesn't matter. Edward picked you, and you picked him in return. That makes you family. I would move the world for my mate. And she knows it."
"Love you too, baby," Alice said.
Jasper gave her a little finger wave, but it wasn't the same finger he'd used with Emmett.
That was it. I wanted to be with her for the rest of this discussion. I vaulted over the edge of the deck and took off across the sand. I slowed as I got close, making sure it didn't look like I'd materialized in front of her. I stopped next to her, trying to keep the goofy grin off my face.
"You were listening," she accused, looking back toward the house.
"Guilty as charged. You knew before we got here that there would be no privacy. Besides, I didn't want to be left out. It sounded like a good discussion." I didn't press. Maybe Jasper was right. She'd only open up when I didn't chase too hard.
"It's just going to take a while to get used to being part of a family again." Giving a wry smile, she wrapped her arms around my waist.
Jasper dropped back a few feet, letting us walk together.
"Felix was the boogieman who chased me for far too long. I need to wrap my brain round the fact that it's over. "
"Well, let's talk it through and see if we can make it stick. Felix is dead. James is in a makeshift jail that will exist for his lifespan. Jane wants you gone. She's doing her best to make sure Aro and the rest of the Volturi never think about you again. And we know what a persuasive terror she can be."
"It almost makes me choke to say it, but I'm kind of grateful to her. She's utterly insane, but that's working to our advantage."
Carlisle met us halfway back to the house. "It's true that the Volturi have long memories. However, they've also accumulated multiple enemies. If things go well, we'll be able to stay under their radar for many years to come. Alice continues to watch them. As long as Bella isn't involved, she can see what's going on. It's a little like a reverse alarm. When she can't read them anymore, then Bella will probably be involved in some way. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, the Romanians are trying to amass allies for a coup. They'll likely be fighting that for a couple of decades."
Bella gave a sly smile. "Hopefully, after the Romanians, there will be lots of other emergencies that require their attention."
"I have a feeling Jane will make sure of it," I said. "Okay, if sunbathing it out, how about we go for a swim? I know just the place. We can hike up the mountain away from prying eyes and ears. There's a secluded pool that's perfect for swimming."
"I doubt there's any place we could go on this island that would be truly private. Don't forget. I know all about vampire senses."
"It didn't seem to bother you last night." I said. A few short weeks ago, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to make a risqué comment. It was good progress, I thought.
"A girl has to take the good with the bad, you know. You do have lots of other charms," she said. "Lead me to this swimming hole. I'd love to see it." She stepped back and held out her hand, and I knew she thought I'd lead her up the trail.
"I can do better than that." Bending a bit, I scooped her up. I ignored the taunts of my family and Bella's laughter as I charged up the path. We were gone a good long time.
Sunshine radiated down through the surface of the water. Bella was bobbing next to the boat, her tiny bikini leaving little to the imagination. When Alice and Jasper had suggested snorkeling, I'd walked out from shore, and I was happy I had. This was a great view. Hopefully, it would take a while to adjust Bella's dive mask.
I stood back from our small reef, not wanting to get too close. I didn't want to scare away the fish she'd come to see.
"Here I come. I hope you're ready," she said before putting the snorkel in her mouth. She inhaled deeply and jackknifed under the surface. Bella was able to hold her breath longer than I'd anticipated, but the repeated trips to the surface would have irritated me. It was just another one of the benefits of not having to breathe. She kept a good distance from the reef, not wanting to disturb the ecosystem, but she would occasionally turn to me and point something out. I loved that she wanted to share the experience with me.
When she circled to the other side of the reef, I followed, not letting her out of my sight. Sharks weren't my concern, but it was common to see barracuda near the island. The idea of one of those sharp-toothed devils taking a bite out of my girl made me growl.
As I walked along the ocean floor, a jet ski motor started, the sound dull as it came through the water. Emmett had decided he wanted to play. Revving the engine, he made a wide circle above the reef, making short jumps in the low waves. The fish scattered at the noise. Bella kicked to the surface, spiting out her snorkel and pulling off her mask.
"Hey! We're swimming here. Go be an ass somewhere else," she yelled.
"Aww, come on, Bella. Hanging out underwater is boring. Come do something fun."
"I was doing something fun, until you scared everything away." She started swimming toward the boat, and this time I got an even better view. Man, I loved that bikini.
Emmett had known exactly what he was doing when he came out. I decided it was time to take him down a couple pegs. I squatted low, waiting for him to circle close enough. As soon as Bella was out of the water and Emmett pulled close, I shot upward. Exploding out of the water, I flew over the roaring jet ski, grabbing him by the shoulders and letting my momentum pull us into the water. The kill switch worked as intended, and the drone from the machine sputtered to a stop. I could see it floating above us. We knew from experience that the waves would eventually take it to shore. Emmett and I had a lot of experience with jet ski tag.
Grappling, I did my best to get his hands pinned behind his back as we dropped like rocks. A huge plume of sand came up as we hit the ocean floor. We wrestled and rolled, grappling for dominance.
"How long will they stay down there?" Bella asked Alice. Through Alice's eyes, I watched her wrap herself in a towel.
"The record is an hour. That was a bad one. They stirred up so much sand, we couldn't see the fish for a full day."
"You might as well take me in. It looks like snorkeling is over."
"Yes, but that's the great thing about this place. The reef will still be there tomorrow, and we have it all to ourselves. What else would you like to do today?" Alice saw herself as a tour guide of sorts.
Emmett landed a right cross in my stomach, and air rushed out of me, bubbling to the surface.
"The jet ski looked interesting. I've never ridden on one."
"I think you'll like it. Since Edward's busy, one of us can show you."
Like hell. If anyone was going to get to sit that close to Bella and show her something new, it was me. I stepped it up a bit and gave Emmett a roundhouse punch to the jaw. As he staggered back, I kicked to the surface, and started swimming. My arms and legs churned through the water, sending me skimming along the surface. I skidded on shore, digging a deep groove in the sand. On the other side of the beach, Jasper tied the boat to the dock. I started to walk toward Bella when Emmett tackled me from the side. We rolled, crushing a sun lounger. I was so busy trying to wallop Emmett, that I didn't notice Rose stalk up to us. She stopped a few feet away, arms crossed over her chest.
"All right, that's enough. Seriously, the two of you are like children."
We both stilled, and Emmett backed away a few feet.
"Sorry, babe," he muttered.
"You guys need to figure out a better way to entertain yourselves. Come on, Bella. I'll show you how to run the jet ski." She waved her hand at the crushed wood littering the beach. "And clean that up before Esme sees it."
Emmett watched Rose walk away while I started gathering the remains of the chair. When he made no move to help, I grabbed a jagged piece and threw it at him like a spear. It splintered against his chest, crumbling on impact.
"Fine. I'll help," he muttered, tearing his eyes off Rose's ass.
I worked on autopilot, mentally watching Rose teach Bella how to use the jet ski. We had the beach clean and the broken wood hidden before Bella had even finished her first solo run. Alice and Jasper stood on the porch, watching her turn slow circles. Once she seemed to have it down, Bella looked up at me and winked. Turning the throttle, she leaned low and took off across the water.
Jasper shook his head. "Now that she's got a taste of speed, you might have a hard time keeping her down."
Alice spun on her heel, her mouth making a perfect little o. She shot into the house, and I heard her rummaging in the attic. A few seconds later she returned, carrying the tattered Cupid I'd described to Bella so long ago. The shabby stuffed doll had been passed around for years as the prize to our matchmaking game. The family member who could get the most couples together won. I wasn't proud of some of the manipulation I'd used to win that doll over the years.
"I've got an idea," she said in a sing-song voice, cuddling Cupid close and running down to Rose.
"Dude, nothing good is going to come from that," Emmett said as he watched Alice whisper in Rose's ear. I knew exactly what she had in mind, but I wasn't going to give away her secret.
Bella returned, and the three of them conspired with lots of smiles and nods. They pointedly ignored the three of us until Alice walked back up to the house. Climbing to the top step, she turned regally. I could easily imagine her addressing her minions.
"Today's entertainment will consist of a race. Girls against boys. Rose and Bella will represent the girls, Edward and Emmett will ride for the boys. Cupid goes to the winner. She held up the small stuffed god, wiggling him so the browning wings flapped awkwardly. From this angle, I could see the tiny seam she'd used to repair his rear.
"The race starts here and ends at the cove on the far side of the island. Esme and Carlisle will be audience. I'll be announcer, and Jasper will be judge. Play fair, or else," she said, pointing between Emmett and me. I did my best to look innocent.
"Any questions?" Alice looked at each of us with her chin tilted up. I knew that expression. She may be asking, but she didn't actually want any questions. I asked anyway.
"When do we start? And Bella has to wear a life jacket. She's the only one of us who needs to breathe."
Bella gave a little huff, but she didn't fight me. I was surprised.
The next few minutes passed in a blur. We got three more machines out, making sure they were full of fuel and in tip-top shape.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" I asked. "You just learned to ride."
Rose gave me her best sneering glare. "Don't you try to psych her out. She had a good teacher and she catches on quickly. This won't even be a contest."
While we waited for Alice to count it down, we tried to get in a line. The waves moved everyone around, and before I knew it, I bumped into Bella's machine. She swore softly and grabbed her ankle. It was obvious that I'd hurt her, but I wasn't sure how. At worst, I'd only hit her bumper. I pulled the kill switch key from the ignition and swung my leg over so I could face her.
As I leaned over to check Bella's ankle, I heard Alice yell, "Three, two, one—go! Now, Bella. Now!" She said everything so fast that all the words slurred together.
The three other machines roared to life. Water shot back, drenching me from head to toe.
That's the oldest trick in the book. You ought to be ashamed, Jasper thought. He was right. There was almost no chance of my catching up after such a poor start. Sitting up straight, I jabbed the key in and turned the throttle to high. When I looked up, the three of them were reaching the first turn. I may be bringing up the rear, but at least I'd have a good view of the race.
It was neck-and-neck for several minutes. Rose took the lead like a pro, bending low over the handlebars. Her hair whipped in the wind like a flag. Emmett tried to overtake a few times, but she would swerve, forcing him to back off. No matter how hard he tried, she kept him a few lengths behind her. Normally, he'd be showboating, kicking up waves and doing tricks, but the longer he stayed in second place the more serious he became.
His frustration got even worse when Bella started gaining ground. In spite of starting out slow, she weighed less, and it was a definite advantage. Soon, they were even.
As they rounded the peninsula, I heard Alice call out that they'd reached the halfway point. She, Esme, Carlisle, and Jasper were running along the beach, easily keeping up with us. I'd have had a better chance in a foot race.
As soon as Bella crossed in front of Emmett, he started thinking about nudging her a bit. He didn't want to hurt her, but a little intimidation might work. She was a new rider, after all. He wanted to worry her enough so that she made a mistake. I growled low in my chest, pushing the throttle full out. He wasn't getting near her.
I didn't really have to worry, though. Rose had a plan of her own. Glancing back at Emmett, she blew him a kiss, making sure he was watching. With an exaggerated motion, she let go of one handle bar. Reaching back, she tugged her bikini up into her butt crack. Rose gave one exposed cheek a firm smack, making my stomach turn. As the supple flesh rebounded, Emmett's brain fuzzed out, going places I certainly didn't want to follow. His jet ski drifted off course, following his distracted mind. It's a good thing the boy wasn't a spy. We'd have lost every war.
By the time he shook off some really filthy mental images, it was too late. He'd veered off course.
The girls exchanged evil grins, and Rose slowed just enough so they reached the finish line at almost the same time. Alice whooped in solidarity.
"You're both an embarrassment," Jasper said.
I couldn't blame him. He was right. I pulled my machine onto shore just as Bella unzipped her life jacket. It was hard, but I managed to keep my own brain from shorting out at the sight. She took Cupid from Alice and walked him over to me.
"I don't think Rose is interested in Cupid. Would you want to keep him? You mentioned him before."
I pondered that for a minute before taking the little stuffed god from her hand and passing him along to Esme. "Tell you what. I'll take him when I actually earn him. How about another race? This time I won't fall for the hurt ankle. You don't fight fair, my dear."
"All's fair in love and jet ski races."
"What's the matter, missy? Is faking the only way you can win?" I put the key in and backed my machine into the water.
"Big talk for a guy who came in last." She zipped her lifejacket up and walked toward the water.
I looked over at Emmett, but he was leading Rose into the underbrush. We wouldn't see them for hours.
"Anyone else?" I asked looking around at the spectators.
No one was really interested in joining us. Esme, in particular, wanted to give us more time alone. "Maybe later. You two go ahead," she said.
"Thank you," I whispered to her before turning back to Bella.
"Are you ready, cheater girl?"
Instead of answering, she took off through the water, laughing as the machine shot forward. As I watched her, I realized that Emmett was right. We'd created a monster.
"Esme, that was the best meal yet. Thank you," Bella said, even though she knew everyone else was on the other side of the island.
"I told you she'd like it." In my mind's eye, I watched Esme nudge Carlisle's shoulder to emphasize the point. "Edward, you tell her that she's very welcome." There was no way Bella could have heard, and I didn't really want to relay the message. I was trying to set a romantic mood, after all. In the end, my good manners won out, and I gave Bella the response.
Our month on the island had flown by. Everyone at the main house was packing to leave tomorrow. Part of me wished they'd already left, but it was important to time the trip just right or they'd reach the mainland too close to dawn. I'd enjoyed our time with the family but was eager to have Bella all to myself. Even when we'd been in New York, there had been people all around. We were close to being truly alone, and I wanted tonight to be perfect. Soft music played over the stereo and a few well-placed tiki torches lit the beach.
I took Bella's hand and led her onto the sand. Pulling her close, I swayed softy to the music. This wasn't the time for any of the fancy dance moves I'd learned over the years. I wasn't trying to impress anyone. Holding her was my only goal.
Although the night had grown cool, I was warm where she pressed against me. The moon shined down on the water, with the reflection giving her face a soft glow. It had taken days for her to finally settle and relax, longer still to give over and let us pamper her a bit. Bella's hair and skin looked healthy again. I could easily imagine her as an island goddess in that floral print dress. I shifted, trying to bring her even closer, but she gazed at me with an amused expression. I don't like that look. "What are you thinking?" I was slightly afraid of the answer.
"I know you think you only sparkle in the sunshine, but I can see it in the moonlight, too. Just a little bit." She ran fingers down the side of my face, cupping my cheek.
The family had tested this over the years, and I knew it wasn't true. Sunlight was the only thing we had to avoid. She hadn't moved her hand, so maybe this was just a ploy to touch me. I liked that idea.
"Does the sparkling bother you? I don't mean tonight, but normally, when we have to be so careful around other people."
"No. I've done my share of hiding, so I understand. Besides, it's kind of like you having to hide a superpower. My very own Clark Kent."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Sweetheart, you're no Lois Lane. You're more like Black Widow." I pretended to grunt as she jabbed me in the stomach. "You have to admit, you're beautiful and deadly."
"Oh, well. I suppose that's a compliment I can accept." Winding her arms around my neck, Bella pressed against me. Inhaling deeply, I pulled her scent into my lungs, imprinting it in my memory. I must have been quiet too long, because she tilted her head back and looked at me.
"This time I'll ask. What are you thinking?"
"That this was worth waiting for. That every lonely year was worth it because I ended up here with you. That I'm the most fortunate unworthy soul on earth."
On the other side of the island, everyone stopped moving. They were eavesdropping unashamedly.
"Nope," she said with a slight tremble in her voice. "You have it backward. I went from a lonely life of fighting and running, to being loved. Even after all that time, I wasn't ready, and you scared me. God, I fought it—fought you."
"I just couldn't stay away. I'd read enough minds to believe I understood the mate attachment, but that was like saying I understood making love before I experienced it. There is no comparison."
"Mate," she pronounced the word carefully, as though she'd never heard it before. "It's going to take a while to get used to it. Most women are just happy to find a boyfriend. No, I end up with a vampire who mates for life."
"We don't do things halfway, especially when our mates are involved." I made sure to use the word that was giving her so much trouble. She needed to get used to the idea. Maybe it would be easier for her if I could give her another title as well.
Even as I thought it, I reached into my pocket, running my fingers over the small black velvet box hidden there. Was this the right time? I'd been carrying it around for the last two weeks.
"Awww," Esme said, "listen to them. They're so cute."
"I know, right," Emmett answered.
Alice shushed them. "Shh. When you talk, it's harder to listen."
With a sigh, I pulled my hand out of my pocket. I didn't want an audience for something this monumental. I supposed it would have been fair to let them hear. After all, I'd be bringing Bella into the family, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. This was too private, too personal. I would wait. The right time would present itself soon.
If Jasper could feel my anxiety, he kept silent, and I was grateful. When I was truly ready, I'd be even more nervous. Knowing I wouldn't have an audience calmed my fears a bit. Not that I thought Bella would refuse. I was finally confident in our relationship. My mate had picked me, and I had picked her. No matter what problems we may face in the future, we would face them together.
Holding her close, all those future challenges felt very far away. I didn't want to dwell on the past or worry about the future. I wanted to dance under the stars, hold my mate close, and think about how lucky I was.
That's where I always imagined it ending. The two of them happily in love with a world of options open to them.
I truly appreciate everyone who stuck with the story. Your comments and encouragement meant so much to me.