Well, this is it – the last chapter. I hope you enjoy it, and please don't forget to leave a review when you're finished!
It took some convincing, but I finally got Esme and the others to go back to our house. I could hardly bear to separate them from Bella, but I didn't feel up to explaining what was going on to Charlie, when he came home.
"Are you going to stay?" Bella asked me, a faint glow touching her cheeks. I chucked her under the chin affectionately. "I have to run over to my house first, but after that, you just try and get rid of me."
"What are we going to tell Charlie?" was her next question.
"The truth – Esme hated L.A. and we're moving back here. Think the hospital will give me my job back?" I teased her.
She rolled her eyes. "The nurses will probably throw a welcome home party."
I narrowed my eyes. "And will my wife be invited?" I asked playfully.
It was good to hear her laugh. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed it until now.
/ / / / / /
Esme spent four hours on the phone with Edward. Then Alice got on the line, and I winced as she blistered his ear for nearly ten minutes straight. Edward got an earful from each and every member of the family before I finally wrestled the phone away from Emmett.
"Carlisle," he greeted me wearily. "I guess it's your turn, huh?"
"Don't worry, son, I think you've had enough."
A heavy sigh. "You know it was all for her good."
"That's the only reason I backed you up in the first place, Edward. The only reason we all consented to leave her. But the plan completely derailed."
"So I hear. Were they exaggerating, Carlisle?"
I wasn't sure exactly what they'd been telling him, but there was no way they could've exaggerated. Bella had been at rock bottom.
"No," I told him truthfully.
"You know, I thought I could do it. I really, really did. I thought I could stay away from her."
"You're not doing anyone any good," I finally said, opting to play straight with him. "The whole family's done nothing but fall apart without her."
"I'm coming home, Carlisle," he said, his voice infused with steel. "I'll be there as soon as I can get a flight."
The whole room exploded with happiness.
"Are we telling Bella?" Esme asked me, after I'd said goodbye and hung up.
"No," I decided. "We'll let him surprise her. I think she's had enough shock for today anyway. I need to get back to Charlie's house for tonight."
"Let me go," Esme requested. "I need some time with her."
Alice started to protest, but I held up a hand. "There will be time," I told her. "Esme, go ahead. She needs to know we're not all going to disappear again."
She kissed me, gently, before flying upstairs to get a few things.
This would work out all around – Esme would get some bonding time with Bella, and I would get to spend some quality time with a family I'd seen far too little of in the past weeks.
I kissed a bemused Charlie good night and left him to his football game. All but dancing up the stairs, I got a quick shower before flopping down on my bed to wait for Carlisle.
I heard Charlie turn off the TV and head to bed; half an hour later the house was silent and still.
A few moments later the soft tap I'd been waiting for reaching my ears. I unlocked the window and opened it, surprised to see Esme instead of Carlisle climb into my room.
"Hello, Bella," she greeted me as I closed the window. "I hope you don't mind. I thought you could use some girl time – with a little less exuberance than Alice had in mind."
After I recovered from my initial surprise, I was glad to see her. "Of course I don't mind, Esme."
She picked up my brush and ran it through my tangled hair, her touch so gentle I hardly felt the snarls unraveling. "I missed you, Bella."
Her tone was so soft, so full of remorse, that I felt tears spring to my eyes. "I missed you too, Esme." My voice cracked slightly, and I turned around and flung myself into her arms.
"I'm sorry," she said, her eyes shining with tears she could not cry. "We shouldn't have left you."
I swallowed the tears back with an effort – I'd cried too much over the last months. It was time to move on.
"You know, Charlie and Renee are good people, but they were never really my parents," I told her a little later, when we'd both gotten ourselves under control.
She didn't say anything, just let me say it in my own time. "With Renee, it was like I was the parent, most of the time. I mean, she's a great person, but she never grew up."
"I liked your mom, but I understand," Esme said softly.
"And Charlie. He tries. He really, really tries, but he doesn't have a clue. It's you guys who treat me like a daughter. You and Carlisle."
Esme's smile and hug bathed me in warmth. I shoved all thoughts of Jacob's broken heart to the edge of mind, and concentrated on being loved.
/ / / / / /
"Is there any special reason behind this visit?" I asked suspiciously, as Emmett towed me out to his big monster Jeep and strapped me in, as if he were afraid I might escape.
"Don't you want to come and visit?" he asked innocently – too innocently. A mischievous Emmett I could handle. When he started acting angelic, that was when you had to watch him.
"Of course I do," I said. "You're just acting…weird."
"I am not."
"Okay," I said, resigning myself to whatever they had planned for me. Alice had dressed me in designer jeans and a turquoise blouse with silver trim. She'd tried to talk me into a silky, dark blue top, but I told her I didn't wear blue anymore. Edward's favorite color was more than I could handle.
She hadn't argued, though I could tell she wanted to, and went with her second choice.
And then, promptly at five, Emmett came to pick me up. Ten minutes after Charlie left to watch the Super Bowl with Billy Black.
It didn't take us long to pull up to the house. Emmett escorted me to the door, where Esme and Alice were waiting. Jasper hovered in the hallway, offering me a guarded smile. He still blamed himself for the party incident. I would have to straighten that out, later.
"Bella, you look beautiful," Esme said, ushering me inside. "I think Carlisle wants to show you something in the family room. Why don't you go see? The rest of us will be there in a minute – we have something to do first."
I was still suspicious, but I nodded and walked to the family room. I had been afraid the house would send me into another episode, but it was the same again – it was warm and filled with life, with Esme's touch turning it from a cold shell to a home again. If I were careful, I could walk through it without being constantly reminded of him. Every new memory I made here would help me heal.
I pushed open the door to the family room, looking for Carlisle. When I didn't see him right away, I shut the door and moved towards the other end of the room. "Carlisle? Esme said you want to show me – "
The person I'd assumed was Carlisle moved into the circle of light, arms at his sides, his face guarded but hopeful.
"Edward," I gasped, backing up a step. He didn't move, his gaze watchful and waiting.
"How did you – I mean why are you…" I couldn't string a coherent sentence together. My heart was pounding as I blinked and looked again, to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.
My memory hadn't done him justice.
"I'm here to stay, Bella, if you want me." His voice was controlled, but I knew him well enough to recognize the underlying tone. Was that…pleading? No. He didn't love me. He didn't even like me.
"I know what I said in the woods," he went on, reading my thoughts in my face. "I know, Bella, and I know it must have hurt you terribly. But I lied."
"You…lied?" I said in disbelief. Was this a joke? A cruel, thoughtless joke?
"I did it to protect you," he said, his hands coming up automatically, extending towards me with palms up. "I never wanted this life for you, Bella. It was the only thing I could do. I was so surprised when you believed me so quickly," he murmured. "I thought it would take hours of convincing before I ever planted the least seed of doubt."
"It makes no sense for you to love me," I said, proud of myself for having such a steady voice. "It never did, Edward."
"No!" he burst out. "I'm the one who doesn't deserve you. A monster loving an angel – that's what I was. What I am."
He had lied.
Edward loved me.
He'd come back.
I launched myself into his arms.
"It's a good thing you're bulletproof, you know," I told him later. We were in the family room, all of us, and I was seated on Edward's lap. I would never let him out my sight again.
"Why's that?" he asked in a teasing tone. "Are you planning to shoot me?"
"No, silly," I told him. "But Charlie might."
"We'll handle Charlie," Edward said. "I won't ever let you go again."
The rest of my family filed out quietly, to give us some privacy, so I twined my arms around his neck.
"You know, Bella, I spent all that time in South America, trying to forget you. I thought I could run far enough to get away from your memory."
He rested his forehead against mine. "Did it work?" I whispered.
"No," he said emphatically. "There is no place that far, Bella. There is no spot in this world I could go to get away from you. You've got me now for the long haul, Miss Swan," he teased lightly, rubbing my nose with his.
Suddenly, happily-ever-after didn't seem so unattainable, after all.