With utmost thanks to the lovely and talented ladylibre, who knows her stuff and helped me dismantle and rewrite this chapter when it came out all wrong the first time. She's brilliant beyond words!
I woke to my cell phone buzzing on the bed table. I groaned, not wanting to turn over to grab it; my body felt stiff and sore when I attempted the movement. Edward reached over me, scooped up the phone, and handed it to me.
I glanced at the number but didn't recognize it. "Hello?" I mumbled.
"Isabella, this is James. How are you doing?" It took me a moment to recognize the deep voice at this time of the morning and in my slightly drug-influenced state. "I'm doing okay," I answered, my voice bleary.
"Are you really okay? You don't sound like yourself. And your e-mail stated that you had been hospitalized and had some broken bones."
I sighed, touched by his concern, but goodness—this early? "I really don't want to get into it right now, James. Especially at…." I peered at my alarm clock, "…seven in the morning."
"I'm just worried about you, Isabella."
"Well, I'm fine, James. Really. But I'm going to have to postpone our meeting today. Perhaps I'll feel better tomorrow, and we can meet then."
After a short pause, James suggested, "Listen, why don't I stop by this afternoon after classes to visit you? And if you feel up to it, I can fill you in on the parameters of the project, and we can decide who will do what. But only if you feel well enough. What do you think?"
Ignoring Edward shaking his head at me, obviously wanting me to decline, I replied, "Okay. I might still be a little strung out on pain meds, but we can give it a try." As he already knew the address since he had attended the party, he said he'd be by around four. After a couple of "See you soon's," I ended the conversation.
I had forgotten about James being there at the party, actually. Maybe he could be a witness if I pressed charges against Mike….
Coming out of my thoughts, I noticed a rather annoyed Edward sitting beside me on the bed. "I don't think that having someone over today is a good idea," he stated, his voice firm.
I shrugged, glad that the movement that had been so painful yesterday produced only a twinge today. "I'm really much better today, Edward. I've agreed to stay home from classes even though doing so really worries me; I hate getting behind. At least with James coming over today, we can get started on the project. I think we have to submit it within six weeks, so we don't have much time to do all the research and write it up."
His demeanor softened…slightly. "Be that as it may, I still believe you're making a mistake, Isabella. You've been through a great deal over the past few days."
Before I could open my mouth to reply, Edward turned toward the door. "I think Emmett's coming," he said, moving across the room and taking his usual seat in the rocker before dematerializing.
Em came barreling in as usual, all fun and grins, and I couldn't help smiling at his exuberance…even at seven in the morning.
"How's my patient this morning?" he asked, the concern in his eyes belying his cheerful bedside manner.
"I'd feel better if I weren't missing classes," I sighed. "If Alice can get some of my assignments for the week, am I allowed to try to keep up with my classes here at home? And perhaps work on my project with James?" I tried (and failed) to smile beguilingly, causing Emmett to chuckle as I dramatically batted my eyelashes at him.
"Okay, okay, Ms. Responsibility. You may study as long as you don't get a headache—and be sure to take frequent breaks to rest your eyes. Plus, you could always invite your research dude over here."
I hoped that Em didn't hear the audible groan from the direction of the rocker at that suggestion as I grinned.
"Well, James just called and invited himself over this afternoon."
"Okay, then. See? You'll get plenty done. I want you to be resting enough, though." He dropped his usual mischievous grin. "I'm serious, Bella. Rest is key to getting back to normal."
Despite my annoyance at being told to rest (again!), I was touched by Emmett's concern. Having him around was like having an older brother—something I used to ask Santa for when I was little. "I know, Em. I will rest; I promise. Scout's honor and everything." I held up two fingers in what I thought was the Girl Scout hand signal.
But Em leaned forward and pushed up my ring finger to join my index and middle fingers. "Let's get it right there, Girl Scout," he chortled as I shot him an annoyed frown—which only made him laugh more. "I'll buy cookies from you anytime," he added, wiggling his eyebrows at me until I grinned.
"Only you could make selling Girl Scout cookies sound filthy, Em."
"You know it, girl. Okay, let's take a look at you." Emmett became serious again as he checked my head, my ribs, and my wrist, pronouncing my injuries to be much improved. "Do you want more of these babies?" he asked, waving the prescription bottle of powerful pain meds in front of me.
I shook my head. "How about something that doesn't put me in a coma?"
"Sure," he laughed. Getting up and disappearing down the hall, he returned a few moments later with a non-prescription strength alternative which should be effective at pain control but wouldn't knock me unconscious for the entire day, and I gladly accepted the Aleve from him.
At that moment, Alice came bouncing in with a tray of toast and fruit, plus a pot of tea, and I just about hugged her. I had awakened starving, so breakfast was a very welcome sight. After throwing open my curtains to reveal gray clouds and drizzle after yesterday's steady rain, Alice settled down beside me while I ate.
Satisfied with my appetite as I wolfed down my breakfast and after making sure that I had everyone's cell numbers before he left for classes, Em took off down the hall.
As soon as the door closed behind Em, Alice reached over and lightly slapped my good arm. "What are you thinking, Isabella Swan?"
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For inviting the slimebucket over this afternoon!"
Rolling my eyes, I complained, "I didn't—James invited himself over, actually." Then a thought occurred to me. "Wait…how did you—"
As Alice grinned meaningfully, I frowned, commenting, "Emmett is the worst gossip in this house. I'll bet he got the Aleve from you, right?"
She nodded, her smile widening. "Don't ever tell him a secret; he can't keep anything to himself." Then she turned toward the rocking chair. "Edward?"
"I'm here," he answered quietly, rematerializing at the end of my bed. Ignoring my annoyance at Alice's term for James, Edward turned to Alice and asked, "I take it that a 'slimebucket' is not a positive epithet?"
"Not in the least," she grimaced. "Edward, you'll keep an eye on James, won't you?" Of course she gave him the full benefit of her irresistible pout.
He seemed a little surprised, glancing from Alice's sickly-sweet smile to my frustrated expression. "Um, certainly," he replied, sounding anything but certain.
"In that case, I'd better leave right now with Jazz so that I won't be late for my classes. Have a wonderful day, you two," she trilled as she exited my room.
"Thanks for breakfast!" I called after her, smiling as her reply of, "No problem!" wafted back down the hallway.
"So," Edward said, taking Alice's spot on my bed and leaning forward earnestly. "Tell me about this James fellow."
I sighed, spooning some mixed berries topped with whipped cream into my mouth, followed by a sip of my special tea, explaining James' position as the teacher's assistant for my economics class and the project we were going to start working on. As I came to the end of my spiel, I glanced at Edward, noting his tense posture and heavy sigh.
After an awkward silence, he finally spoke up. "All right."
The difference between his words and his attitude confused me. "What do you mean, 'all right'?"
Edward pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and fingers as he sighed again. "I mean that I understand why you would want to get started on your project right away, and I'm sorry that I didn't accept your decision."
I grinned. "That sounded a lot like an apology, Mr. Masen."
He looked back at me seriously. "It was, actually. But if you need to hear the precise words, I will happily accommodate you."
"Please. Groveling tends to help, you know." My grin widened, and his eyes lit up, amused by my obvious enjoyment of his predicament.
Edward leaned even closer to me. "Groveling, Miss Swan?" he whispered, his green eyes magnetic with feeling. I swallowed, making an unattractive gulping noise, as he continued, his voice beautifully smooth. "I humbly apologize for misjudging the situation and for doubting your ability to care for yourself properly, Isabella. I sincerely beg for your forgiveness."
"Beg?" I breathed, my voice barely audible.
"'Sincerely beg,'" he corrected me softly.
"Wow." I blinked, mesmerized by his face so near mine, his eyes soft, a teasing smile easing his formerly taut features.
"Is that all you have to say, Miss Swan?"
Abruptly I capitulated, my voice breathy. "Apology accepted. You're forgiven." I continued to stare at the earnest expression shining in his deep green eyes, Edward grinning widely at me.
My brain (or what was left of it) was completely… confuzzled. Was "confuzzled" even a word? Well, it expressed exactly how I felt: confused and dazzled and something else that I couldn't quite put into words.
"Isabella?" he asked, moving aside my now empty breakfast tray, his expression concerned. "Are you all right?"
I guess my confuzzledness was stretching out long enough to worry him. Shaking my head slowly, I tried to reboot my brain. "Yeah…sure. I'm f-fine."
He didn't look terribly convinced. "Why don't you rest for a short while? It's going to be difficult to see me soon, anyway."
I felt my heart drop into my stomach. "What do you mean?"
Edward waved toward my window. "The sky is clearing up. I'm barely visible in the sunshine."
I frowned, worried. "You can't be in the sun?"
"It's far easier to appear in the darkness—it takes far less energy to do so. If the day is gray and cloudy, I can manage, but only for quick spurts, like yesterday."
"But I saw you all day yesterday," I objected.
He laughed. "No, my dear Isabella, you slept all day, and I managed to make myself visible for very short increments whenever you woke, but we did the vast majority of our talking after dark."
"That's true," I conceded. "So I won't see you much today?" Even I could hear the sadness in my voice.
"No, but I'll be around from time to time—and definitely when your teaching assistant comes to visit. You just won't see me."
An idea occurred to me at that point, and I tried to think of a logical explanation.
"You look like you are giving yourself another headache," Edward commented, smoothing a strand of hair back from my face. I shivered at his touch, not from the cold but from the tenderness and intimacy of the gesture which caused me to blush; I could definitely feel my cheeks warming under his gaze.
"I was wondering something…." I began.
"Yes?" He picked up my hand, kissing the back gently, his gaze on my face. Dang it—he was making me all confuzzled again.
Taking a deep breath, I forced my brain to focus on the subject at hand. "When I first came here, I used to get so tired every time you were near me. But now your presence doesn't seem to affect me the same way."
For a long moment, he looked thoughtful, averting his eyes from me and staring at the lightening windows. "I don't know. Perhaps as you spent more time around me, the effect was less. Or…."
"I think that the change in our energies came after I touched you. I don't know why touching each other would make a difference, but something definitely has altered since then."
"More research to do?" I teased.
He smiled with me, but as the room lightened from the clearing skies outside, I noticed that Edward was indeed becoming more translucent than he had been even a few moments ago.
"Is it harder for you to remain visible now?" I worried, unhappy to see him seem so…otherworldly.
"Yes." His voice was slightly strained—as if he were making an effort. "I definitely feel the difference. I need to go."
"Does closing the curtains and darkening the room make any difference?"
"A little, but not much. I need to go, but I will be around. Plus you need your rest, Isabella." His tone was light, but the effort of speaking was obvious in his voice.
"Okay," I whispered as he faded away.
I curled on my side, thinking about how odd, yet how comfortable, my friendship—or whatever "this" was with Edward—had become. In only a handful of days I had gone from freaked out by the mysterious figure lurking in the attic to joking with—and yes, almost kissing—the ghost of a young man who had died nearly a century ago in my very own room.
But somehow that thought did not scare me in the least. It wasn't his presence that produced anxious thoughts and even fear.
It was his absence.
Despite my concerns, I soon dozed off, getting the rest that my medical students—yes, all three of them—had prescribed for me today.
Okay, I admit it. I needed the rest. Badly. Even without the sleep-inducing pain meds, I woke just long enough for Rose to come home for lunch, feed me a tuna sandwich, and help me use the bathroom before I had fallen back asleep, dead to the world again.
I woke to Alice gently nudging my shoulder. "Hey, Bella. Do you want to get up and dressed before James arrives? I can call him to cancel for you, you know." She was definitely encouraging the latter idea of cancelling my meeting.
I groaned at the mere thought of waking up fully. And getting up and dressed. Ugh. But I really needed to meet with him about this project.
It took Alice a few more nudges and a couple of mild threats before I finally stirred and allowed her to help me out of bed. While she waited outside in case I fell or something, I used the bathroom on my own (yay!). By the time I made my wobbly way back to my bed, Alice had laid out a fresh t-shirt and some black yoga pants. With her assistance, I got dressed, pulling on some fuzzy socks and a warm hoodie to ward off the cold of the afternoon despite the intermittent sunshine. And Alice brushed my hair out for me—which was quite a mess after being styled for Halloween and then staying in bed for two days—pulling it into a simple ponytail.
But as we finished getting me ready, I frowned.
"What's wrong, Bella? Did I hurt you somehow?"
"No, I'm fine," I assured her with a weak smile—which wasn't overly-reassuring to my anxious housemate. "I'm just not sure if I want to tackle the stairs quite yet." I bit my lip, dreading the effort involved in getting myself downstairs.
"Just a sec," Alice called over her shoulder as she whisked out of my room and down the hall, returning a few moments later with a satisfied grin.
"What is it?" I asked, curious.
"So would you like me to carry you downstairs, Princess?" Emmett lumbered to my doorway, grinning at me. As I turned to Alice, she winked at me; I rolled my eyes with pretend annoyance, but my smile of relief gave me away.
As I lifted my arms and wrapped them around Emmett's neck, he scooped me up effortlessly. Alice grabbed pillows from my bed, shouldered my school bag containing my laptop, and followed Emmett downstairs as he carried me, bridal-style—or, in this case, princess-style.
As Emmett reached the bottom of the stairs, the doorbell rang. Putting down my things on the coffee table, Alice scooted around us to open the door and admit James, escorting him politely to one of the chairs in front of the fireplace where a cozy blaze was attempting to dispel the chill from the room. Alice carefully arranged my pillows before Em situated me gently on the sofa in a half-sitting, half-reclining position. As he straightened, Alice tucked a thick afghan around me.
"Let us know if you need anything, Bella; I'll be in the kitchen," Alice stated firmly, sending James a warning look as she placed my bag on the floor beside me. "Here's your laptop and school stuff."
"And I'm just upstairs, Bells, so just holler if you need anything, okay?" Em added.
"Okay, okay. Thanks—I'll be fine," I assured them as they scattered to their promised locations, Em throwing me an exaggeratedly-sexy wink before he climbed the stairs.
As they left the two of us alone in the living room, an awkward silence fell, and I floundered a bit, having no idea how to break the proverbial ice.
Finally James spoke up, his voice low and intense. "So I've been very worried, Isabella. What happened to you?"
I sighed, mentally preparing myself to retell the story. "How late did you stay at the Halloween party?"
James actually blushed. "Uh, not very late at all. I—"
"Didn't you leave with the redhead dressed like Mae West?" I interrupted.
He frowned. "Mae West?"
"Never mind. Guess you're not a fan of classic western films."
"Guess I'm not." He smiled. "And you are?"
"Yeah. My dad and I used to watch John Wayne and Gary Cooper movies on rainy afternoons when I was a kid." I smiled softly at the memory.
"So who's this 'Mae West' I was allegedly hanging out with at your party?"
"I meant the girl dressed like an Old West saloon girl."
Averting his gaze, he rubbed his jaw, his smile gone. "You mean Victoria?" He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"I don't know her name, but yes, it sounds like her." Trying to repress my amusement, I kept my voice as even as possible while enjoying his embarrassment a little bit too much. "So you left the party early with her?"
"Yes, I guess so." He ran his hand through his hair, still refusing to look directly at me.
Feeling grateful that I had distracted James from pursuing what had happened to me at the party, I brought up the project, and we began to discuss the particulars. He explained the project in much more detail while I awkwardly took notes on my laptop. We decided that I would write the questions, then e-mail them to him to review and add further queries. Meanwhile, James would contact the professors in his department to gain permission to distribute the surveys in all general education-level economics classes by next week.
After deciding on a workable deadline for the return of all surveys, we would compile the data and start writing our findings.
The meeting was quite productive, and although I felt myself tiring quickly, I was satisfied with the hour's work we had accomplished. James took my ideas seriously, adding his own without being nearly as condescending as I had expected. He valued my input, yet he wasn't afraid to explain why and how some of my ideas weren't feasible. I appreciated his treating me as if I were one of his graduate school colleagues rather than a lowly undergrad.
Almost against my will, I was actually enjoying my time with James. I appreciated his quick mind and democratic ideals, and his slightly warped sense of humor gelled well with mine as we traded occasional barbs.
"Okay, I think that's everything," James smiled at me, obviously pleased. "You know what to work on for the next week, right?"
"Yep, I got it."
"Great." He paused, then spoke softly. "You look exhausted."
"Yeah, I'm a little tired. But we got a ton accomplished, so I'm fine. Really. I'll go back to bed and rest as soon as we're done."
"Is that a hint for me to leave?" he teased.
"Take it as you will," I joked in return.
But James' expression became serious. "Isabella, are you going to tell me what really happened to you?"
"I'd rather not," I smiled, but I knew that it looked forced.
"Please?" he asked, frowning as he leaned toward me, all humor gone.
I slumped back into my pillows, covering my face with both hands to avoid seeing his disarming earnestness. "You're not going to let this go, are you?"
James' brow creased with concern. "No, I'm not. I need to know, Isabella. And I'm not leaving until I feel you have answered my questions."
"Fine," I sighed. "Did you see Mike Newton arrive?"
He sat up straight in his chair, frowning as he finally met my gaze. "You mean the guy who has been trash-talking about you all over campus for the past few weeks?"
"Most likely. Along with his girlfriend—my former roommate." I rubbed my aching temples with the tips of my fingers. "It hasn't been a pleasant few weeks dealing with them since the party where we had our first run-in."
"I heard about that."
"Yeah, who hasn't? They're the reason I moved here—which has really been a blessing in disguise. I love my new roommates; we had an immediate rapport."
But James wasn't falling for my attempt to change the subject. "Wait a minute," he said slowly, his tone shifting to barely-restrained anger as understanding dawned on him. "You mean that Newton came here?" He was on his feet now. "To the party?" His face was positively livid. "And he did all this to you?" he asked, raising his voice as he gestured toward my injuries.
James' reaction surprised me; I had expected a reaction of some sort from him, but not one this angry.
"I'm still deciding whether to press charges," I offered in an attempt to calm him.
It didn't work.
"You had damn well better press charges against that bastard!" He spun to face away from me so that I couldn't see his expression—which I hoped wasn't as murderous as he sounded. "Don't you realize how serious this is, Isabella?"
"I-I would rather not talk about it. Or think about it," I whispered. I just—couldn't. I knew I was being an ostrich, burying my head in the sand, but James' heated reaction unsettled me. In a deliberately brisk, cheerful voice that sounded flat even to my own ears, I suggested, "James, let's just move on with the research project. Do you have any ideas about further questions we could—"
"Dammit! No! Hang the project! We need to talk about this, and you have to press charges against that—." He paused, and when he continued, his voice was low and menacing. "Isabella, I swear that I'm going to have some words with that spoiled frat boy tomorrow and—"
I struggled to a more upright position, gasping in pain as my ribs objected. "James! You will not say anything—or do anything—to Mike Newton!" I insisted, taking quick, shallow breaths that made the room spin around me as I tried suck in enough air. I gripped the arm of the sofa with one hand to steady myself as the other hand flew to the now throbbing pain in my side…despite which I tried to speak with all of the authority I could muster. "I refuse—to be responsible—for the poss—ible repercussions that—"
Before I could finish my breathless warning, the large antique mirror hanging over the piano crashed spectacularly onto the top of the piano, knocking off several large candles and other decorative objects before smashing to wood floor, mirrored fragments exploding and scattering everywhere. The noise was so tremendous and shocking that I covered my ears in a delayed reaction; my eyes must have been huge with fear as I watched the reflective shards skittering across the floor.
Alice came running from the kitchen and Emmett thundered down the stairs, both exclaiming over the shattered mirror. Emmett seemed flabbergasted as he first stared at place on the wall where the mirror, nearly as wide as the piano itself, had been hanging, then at the mirror fragments sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine. Then I saw Alice's shocked expression change to anger; I was sure that she had put two and two together as I watched her lips press into a fine line.
"What the hell?" James exclaimed, obviously shocked out of his anger. "What was that?" His mouth was agape, staring at the shards of mirror and the twisted remains of the gilt frame.
Glaring at the piano as if the instigator of the broken mirror was standing near the piano bench (as I was fairly certain he was), I managed to answer coolly despite my anger at a certain someone's apparent temper tantrum. "I have no idea. Perhaps the mirror wasn't hung back up properly after the party. You know how weak those old hooks and such can get over time, especially for antiques…."
Automatically I started to rise from the sofa to help Alice and Emmett clean up the mess, but an invisible force pushed me back into my pillows, preventing me from getting up to help.
"Rest!" commanded a faint whisper into my ear.
"Isabella—no! Don't get up!" James exclaimed, unwittingly agreeing with the unseen presence forcing me back onto the sofa.
My attempt to get up—which was worsened by Edward holding me down—robbed me of what little strength I had left. My limbs felt unaccountably weak while I felt my face paling, perspiration dampening my forehead and cheeks.
Alice, noting my physical distress, ordered Emmett to see to me while she quickly fetched the broom and dustpan from the closet. While Emmett started to double-check my bandages to make sure I hadn't significantly reinjured myself, Alice swept up the glass, depositing the shards in the nearest receptacle.
Meanwhile, James, his arms folded as he hovered worriedly, stood behind the sofa, watching Em's every move as he evaluated me. When I became annoyed and tried to resist Emmett's ministrations, James pleaded, "Stay still, Isabella. Don't move—you're going to hurt yourself more than you already have. Let him take a look at you. Please."
"Okay, okay," I managed to gasp through the pain. "But go sit down, James. Please?"
Obviously frustrated, James muttered something under his breath before reseating himself. For a long moment he buried his face in his hands, taking deep breaths while Emmett finished his examination.
"No more stress for you today, Princess. I'm going to have to redress that head wound, so I'm taking you back to bed right now." He wiggled his eyebrows at me, making his care of me sound incredibly dirty.
"But what would Rose say?" I croaked, trying to make Emmett laugh…which he did. "Okay, we can go upstairs," I agreed weakly, "but I need a minute to say goodbye to James."
Directing a concerned look to me, Em followed Alice into the kitchen as she returned the broom and dustpan to the closet, both of them seeming reluctant to leave me with James in my current condition.
When we were alone—or as alone as Edward would allow us to be—I tried to catch James' gaze by clearing my throat. When he wouldn't look up, I softly called his name.
Slowly James sat up, almost as if he had been the injured one rather than me. When he finally met my gaze again, I was surprised by the almost tender expression in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Isabella. I shouldn't have gone all 'cave man' on you. I'm sorry that I upset you and caused you more pain."
"Not your fault. Really. I'm okay. Promise."
"You aren't terribly convincing, Isabella."
"No surprise there," I muttered.
James glanced toward the kitchen where Emmett and Alice were making no secret that they were waiting for him to leave. "Listen, Isabella, don't worry about the project. I'll get started on the questionnaire this week. If you feel up to it—and only if you feel up to it—you may e-mail me a rough draft of your questions by the end of the week. Then we can finalize it over the weekend and start giving it to students next Monday as planned. But don't work on it unless you feel well enough; I can do the work this week on my own if necessary. Okay?"
"I'm sure I'll be fine later this week, James. But thanks."
Slowly he stood up, paused for a moment, and walked over to me, squatting down beside me so that he was at my eye level. "Take care of yourself, Isabella. Get better. And please call or e-mail me if you'd like some company."
"I have the most wonderful roommates ever; I'm lucky to have med students right down the hall to take care of me. But thanks for your offer, James."
Bending over me, he pushed aside my bangs and planted a chaste kiss above my eyebrows. After that, he leaned his forehead against mine, placing his hand along the curve of my cheekbone for a long moment. "You are so pale. I am sorry if I made you worse or caused you additional pain, Isabella," he whispered. "That is the last thing I would want to do. Ever."
As he straightened and stepped back from the sofa, I felt my face warming with a deep blush. Embarrassed by James' contrite words and the intimacy of his kiss, I was touched by his obvious concern and sincerity.
"Thanks, James," I repeated, adding a weak smile just as Emmett and Alice bustled back to the living room, their perfect timing revealing that they had been unashamedly listening to our conversation. As Alice showed James out, he worriedly glanced over his shoulder as Emmett lifted me off the sofa, noting my involuntary wince of pain as I was moved.
"Rest well, Isabella," he said in a soft yet authoritative voice, and I nodded in agreement. Alice closed the door behind James and then followed Emmett upstairs, my school bag slung over her slender shoulder as she carried my pillows.
I apologize for the nearly two months between chapters. My teaching schedule has been extremely intense, plus my rheumatoid arthritis flares up in the heat. I have part of the next chapter written, so I hope to post fairly soon.
Thank you for all of your lovely reviews and comments; I enjoyed all of them (and I think I responded to them all this time, too!).
As a special apology for such a long interval between chapters, I have just written a new one-shot which I shall post as soon as I make a cover for it; I hope you'll like it!
With much love to you all,