Dear Readers,

Hi! I'm procrastinating again, and simultaneously managing the most recent cycle of break-downs yours truly has experienced. Ah, life—when you're as emotionally volatile and vulnerable as I am (and maybe you are?) it's a never-ending cycle of crisis and catharsis, and after 39 years of living (the birthday was one of those crises), I say that's not a bad thing. At least it's not boring; at least it's not easy (yes, that's not a typo—think about it, would you really want an EASY life?); at least there's all this hopeful possibility wrapped up in it, not for any one specific happy ending, but for transcendence into a place that doesn't need the happy ending any more. That's where I'm headed, and if you're trying to get there too, this posting's for you.

You see, I was undone—UNDONE—by a story I read on here a couple days ago. It's called, "Daddy's Baby fights it" by rockersXdream, and it is the closest thing to ecstasy (drug insinuation intentional) that I have ever, ever read on here, or maybe anywhere else. Important caveat: it is unfinished! And Chapter 6 isn't really a chapter, but an explanation of why it is unfinished. Not to mention it is far more regressed (in a nurturing, emotionally-honest way) than anything I've had the metaphorical balls to post on here so far myself. So my hat's off to rockersXdream, with blessings on her new-mom self, and many many thanks.

However, the emotional effect was a little distressing, as I have been carefully cultivating a callus between me and my old idea of what I emotionally "need," which tends not to have anything in common with what life hands me. Familiar dilemma for you too? Then I offer you two things below. The first is the current iteration of my own best-practices summary for managing my hyper-emotional and –sensitive self in as loving and non-destructive (to others, to myself and to my spirit/soul) a way as possible. I've already re-written it but don't have time to edit the changes; if you want any updates, let me know. And please, if anything in it is helpful to you, take it and make it your own.

The second is an old story-start of mine that I re-wrote to manage the intense emotionality and NEEDINESS after coming down from rockersXdream's story. Of course, it's exactly the same as everything else I've written, so don't bother if you're looking for novelty…or for completion. (Although, I will say again, CR and Sharks will be completed if it kills me.)

I know there are some reviews I haven't read, and I am sorry for that. I wish I could explain why it is that I am such a coward when it comes to other people's reactions to me, even (or even especially) when that reaction is positive. I am a coward indeed, and perhaps you understand because you're afraid of people too—but it doesn't change the gratitude I also feel for the company of all of you, virtual as it is, as I've waded through the last painful nine months and anticipate more. You've been such generous and supportive witnesses to my little, often trivial, grief, and my admittedly-selfish complaints, and I am GRATEFUL. Please write me if I can do the same for you. (I am often terrible with responding to personal messages too, but I do write back eventually, after I work up the courage to read them. I promise.)

I'm heading out of town for a week or so now (lots of family stuff), but will try to update CR soon after my return. Until then, best wishes and loving thoughts to all of you. -liza

Oops! Almost forgot to send some grateful love Stephenie Meyer's way. What would we have done without her? (Besides the dishes, the laundry, the taxes...)

Liza's Guide to Enduring Emotional Suffering

Step 1. Eat chocolate.

Avoid tv and internet surfing (except for specific shows/sites that make you feel good, at least while you're watching or reading them—like Fanfiction, of course). Exercise in whatever modest ways you can manage. Above all, be gentle with yourself. Eliminate the word "should" from your assessment of your actions, past present and future. Try to extend that courtesy to the rest of the world too.

But aren't there things we should (or should not) do/have done? No. There are simply possible actions, with possible anticipated and unanticipated consequences, which we will eventually choose from in our actions, sometimes defying the best advice of our conscious thought. As for our past, there are things we have done, and things we wished we hadn't, but to imagine that we could have done anything other than what we did is to imagine that we have causal control over the universe. Despite what we would like to think, we are not omnipotent controllers of circumstance and influence, and to a large extent, not even of our own selves.

Read Albert Ellis's classic Guide to Rational Living for excellent help in understanding and eliminating the destructive idea of "should"—which is fantasy dressed up in linguistic manipulation. If you could do something desirable for yourself or others, would you not do it if you were not constrained by other, possibly unknown or unacknowledged, limitations? "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride"—and yet so many metaphorical beggars lament and berate themselves, or allow themselves to be berated by others, "I should have ridden a horse, then I wouldn't have sore feet."

Step 2. Lower all expectations.

Better yet, eliminate them entirely (or try to). Life is not what you thought it was. Despite your intellectual knowledge that life is not fair, you are now finding that fact out experientially (a new and more permanent way of knowing it) in a particularly painful specific context. Your sacred assumptions are being violated; the laws on which your life has been based B.S. (before suffering) are being called into question. That is why it hurts so much. (Despite what most MD's and advice columnists you consult will tell you, it's not because you are crazy. Any craziness you possess is just an added bonus to the pain of looking at life as it really is, and not as we so desperately wish it to be.)

Step 3. Acknowledge the suffering.

It will never relent until you welcome it in. As backwards as it may seem, embracing the knowledge of your pain is the surest way to, one day, being able to let it go. (This is not the same as wallowing or feeling sorry for yourself, shaming labels that have to do with our cultural fear of strong emotion that doesn't translate into fuel for the economic engine, and to the fear of those around us that witnessing our suffering will add intolerable burden to their own painful lives.)

It may seem terrifying to admit the amount of pain within, and there are for all of us real risks to emotional vulnerability that may require us to skate over it for a time, and to be wise about when we give in to the pain and when we pretend (knowing we're pretending, which is different from lying to ourselves about its existence) it isn't there. However you try to manage it, the most important thing to remember—and to repeat to yourself at every opportunity, until you really believe it—is: "Feeling pain is not a crisis." It hurts, but that is just a feeling. Feelings, even very strong ones, pass eventually, even if they come again. Tell yourself too: "I feel this way now, but I will not always. I will learn to regard my emotional state as more akin to my physical state. I may prefer being hot to cold, or cold to hot, but I know that neither sweating nor shivering is a crisis in itself, but just a message to myself to adjust my surroundings. So, hurting, no matter how badly I hurt in any one moment, is something I can learn from, and something to pay attention to, but not necessarily a crisis."

Of course, sometimes hurting is a crisis, when we hurt so badly that we seriously contemplate killing ourselves (or someone else—like when distraught parents kill their children). Please note the qualifier "seriously," as just having the thought of wanting to kill yourself is not necessarily a crisis either. You can observe thoughts about suicide the same way you observe thoughts about running screaming down the aisle during a quiet moment in a religious service—hopefully, you are blessed with enough inborn behavioral control mechanisms that thoughts do not automatically translate into immediate action. In other words, if thinking about killing yourself in general terms gives you some temporary feelings of peace and safety that help you endure the painful present, then allow yourself the peace and safety.

If you've moved into serious and reasoned plotting for a specific means of death, then we're reaching crisis stage. I respect the decision to end one's own life, because I believe it arrogant and cruel to ask any other human being to bear unbearable pain. However, I am firmly philosophically opposed to suicide as a (permanent) coping technique, and ask you to consider the following reason why: WE NEED YOU. I don't know you, or what you do in the world, but I can still make that statement with assurance, and mean it with all my heart.

You may feel worthless and hopeless and as if your life has no meaning or value, but that doesn't necessarily reflect the opinion of people around you. Humans tend to find change frightening, and the witnessing of others' death terrifying, so even if the role you serve is that of familiar background scenery, I can assure you that there are multiple other people who much prefer you alive to dead (even if they don't tell you this, or tell you the opposite).

That's the bare minimum. Moving on to the more likely scenario, which assumes you have meaningful roles in other people's lives (employee, employer, parent, child, sister, brother, friend, neighbor, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, customer/server, teacher/student, patient/caregiver, passenger/driver, etc. ,etc., etc.), there are people who rely on you. They may not tell you this, or even be aware of it themselves; but in this hard, hard world, every little bit of assistance we get from those around us is needed, and every little bit that you will no longer be around to provide WILL BE MISSED.

So why should you go on suffering to spare the insensitive souls around you from having to work harder in their own lives? No reason, except to love. If you can't get behind love as a reason for suffering, then I'm not sure I can offer any more advice than to avoid selling your future short—which is what you do when you kill yourself now on the faulty assumption that you will always feel as badly as you do right now. Almost certainly this is not true, but you give up the right to find that out for yourself. Of course, it is also likely true that you will feel pain like this again in the future, and that is why, when someone has hung on and hung on and finally just can't take it anymore, I am the last person to judge and the first to say, "God rest their weary, overburdened soul, and let no one judge their need not to suffer any more."

But—if you can begin to aspire to the advice credited to St. Francis of Assisi, and try to seek to love not to be loved, then there are infinite reasons for struggling through the suffering. And the beauty of this approach is that, because of all the ways it increases your ability to empathize with other souls in pain, your suffering becomes a benefit. Once you stabilize yourself, you can reach out to other people hurting like you were, and reassure them in ways that you never would have been able to do had you not walked the same painful path. Even now, while you're still in the midst of hurting, you'll find yourself recognizing the hurt in others, and if you can be brave enough to reach out to them, you'll find your own pain lightening as you try to lighten theirs.

Step 4. Coping with the pain.

Laugh at the pain. Laugh at yourself; laugh at your tragedies. Believe it or not, once you give up enough on the dream of the way you wanted your life to be, you'll find the less-than-desirable aspects of the way it is, and all the associated indignities, hysterically funny. At least some of the time.

Talk to your pain. Learn to understand it, why it's here, what its job is in your life. Ask it questions, get angry at it, feel empathy for it, feel empathy for yourself. Seek to understand the root fears and disappointments that lie underneath it—and when you think you understand, search again. And again. Read up on the process of grieving, and understand that grieving is not just about losing loved ones to death, but losing dreams, hopes and expectations for our own lives. It also is not a process we ever finish, but an integral part of the human journey through life. Learn to love your pain (but it's okay if you hate it right now).

Displace the pain; rearrange it. In your mind, move the pain from your heart to your elbow, your toes, your knees (only don't forget to breathe it out and release it later). Let the pain flow out of you into inanimate objects, the ground, the sky. If a tree seems willing to take some, let it share in your despair. Slam a heavy metal door down on the pain, and lock it so it has to stay behind the door until it's safe to let it out. Have a shark or tiger come and eat your pain. A former mentor of mine used to describe how she would imagine taking a feeling she wasn't able to handle at the moment and carefully putting it inside an antique hat box, tying the box up, and getting a stepstool to place it on the highest shelf in her most remote mental closet. I've yet to be emotionally controlled enough to manage the delicacy of her process, but you'll find the imagery that works for you.

Pretend you're in a different life story altogether. Just think this story out in your head, or write it down (and maybe call it "fanfiction"). Write down the magical solution you so desperately want for your life right now. If you're able, share it with others who might want the same thing. It's very healing to look at what you're missing so badly, to spell it out precisely, to outline it with care. That helps you grieve more fully and honestly, and when you grieve better, you recover better.

Pretend that someone loving is with you; someone safe, someone protective, someone omnipotent. Whether this means dredging up the memories of a real-life caregiver from your childhood, or imagining your vision of God or of romantic perfection, use your imagination to generate the feelings of loving-safety, and in time you'll actually feel the benefit. Talk out loud to this person, and imagine them talking back. Write to them, dream of them; imagine them laughing gently at your missteps and minor struggles, and gathering you into their arms in your pain. Think of it as your relationship with God if that makes it seem less desperate, silly or crazy, but don't deny yourself the potential relief of this out of the rationale that you shouldn't need such help. We all need the love of something or someone outside ourselves in the ways that can be felt by us in the moment; if we don't have that, then our only choices are to suffer the lack of it or try to provide such love for ourselves. Admire yourself for being strong and courageous enough to try, as much as you would (as I would) prefer that you not have to rely on yourself for the love you need.

Wallow. Cry, cry, cry, cry. Scream at the universe. Write melodramatic poetry. Break something. Be careful though, because this technique can backfire. Make sure you enjoy the passion of the moment, in as masochistic a way as you are psychologically capable of, then move on to distraction and take your mind off your suffering again.

Distract your mind from your feelings: have busy hands and moving feet. Housework, cooking, baking, outside chores, menial office tasks, basic volunteer work serving other people. As much as it feels like you need to hide, hiding only leads to more suffering. Get out in the world every time you can force yourself out of your house, and do something useful. Or stay hidden in your house, but get out of bed. Keep your shoes on to help yourself stay out from under the covers (this tip comes via a good friend of mine who picked it up from the Fly Lady, and no, you won't be the first person to give up and climb in, shoes still on). The moment you realize you're descending to the place of desperate pain, run for the laundry room and start folding. Sometimes you'll still end up curled in the fetal position on the laundry room floor, but over time, and with lots (and lots, and lots) of practice, you'll find you're able to cut short a session of despair before it gets time to drag you down to the bottomless depths.

Distract your mind with thought as well as action. When you're driving your car or otherwise in a moment when you can't turn to action to escape the mental focus on your pain, look around you for objects to focus on and start talking to yourself about them. "Look at those trees. They have no leaves, and are growing very tall. That one is going to entwine with the power lines in a year or two. How interesting." Remember, you don't have to actually feel any interest whatsoever in what you're looking at; just notice. The effect of forcing your brain to focus on something—anything—other than the pain, even for just a moment, is to give you a brief reprieve from the intensity of suffering AND to start to put the brakes on the physiological generation of the emotion you're feeling. This is a beginner's entry into meditation, only not meditation as regularly-scheduled spiritual exercise but as needed-in-the-moment coping technique. Don't worry if you can't keep up the distraction for more than a moment or two at the beginning; just keep trying, and in time, you'll find yourself cognitively distracting yourself all the way out of an episode of suffering.

Sing, dance, paint, express both the truth of your pain and the hope for its ending, or its becoming something more, something beautiful (thank you, Matt Nathanson). I prefer singing hymns myself… they're repetitive and soothing music, familiar to me, that have words that represent my truth in the painful moment while also reminding me that I am not alone in the fact of my suffering, nor are you. Some of my favorites (check them out on YouTube) are "I Would Be True" (but I change "I would be pure, for there are those who care" to "I would be calm, though life seem so unfair"); "Be Thou My Vision" (but I change "Thou my true Father and I thy true son" to "Thou my Creator, more bright than the sun"), and "My Life Goes On In Endless Song" (I've yet to figure out a replacement for "When tyrants tremble thick with fear"; let me know if you've got one, or I'll just keep on simultaneously feeling bad for the tyrants and remembering that part of me is a tyrant too). If you're more of a listener, try Matt Nathanson's "All We Are." I have it on perpetual repeat on my computer.

You'll have your own favorites, but remember that there is an important difference between depressing or angry music that matches your mood and uplifting music that helps you rise above your mood. Once in a while it can be validating to listen to some heartbroken person sing about their outrage or incredulity at the maltreatment they've encountered (I've been known to listen to Faith Hill's "Cry" over and over for the sheer emotionality of it), but if you stay with that sort of blaming mentality too long you might miss the opportunity to transcend the pain, and transmute it into love. And then you're stuck always either being hurt or hurting someone else, except for the magical moments when all is well and there's no disappointment, struggle or misunderstanding—and exactly how long do those magical moments last?

Or go for something bubbly and cheerful in your music and movement, implementing Marsha Linehan's "Opposite Action" approach to emotion management in which you deal with a troublesome feeling by acting out its opposite until you're actually feeling the opposite itself. (This goes two directions, by the way, and is part of why gossip and negative complaining is so destructive—we literally become that which we talk about and focus on, both neurologically and spiritually speaking). Dr. Linehan's teaching of emotion regulation, with a goal of achieving "Wise Mind" as a transcendent synthesis of emotion and reason, is based in behavioral and brain science and is outlined in her Skills Training Manual for Borderline Personality Disorder. If you can forgive her for embracing a pathology-oriented viewpoint of emotional suffering, (and knowing she has recently come out as having been diagnosed with BPD herself in her early years might help you do that), you will find a lot of helpful ideas in her workbook- including no doubt the genesis for much of what I've written here, given that many years ago I slept with that workbook under my pillow. Thank you, Marsha.

In moments of acute emotional pain, it will probably be easier to listen to or observe light-hearted music or movement or artwork than to produce it oneself, although remember to consider the possibility that you might throw something at the source of cheerfulness and break your stereo, for example, if the upbeat music is too discordant with your pain. Similarly, it is not unwise to avoid your most aggressively cheerful and irritatingly resilient friend(s) when in the throes of suffering, lest you throttle them in a combination of outrage (that their life is seemingly so much better than yours) and jealousy (Why them and not me? Why me and not them? Why, why, WHY?). If you're feeling brave and ready to challenge the misery, some of my favorites in this category are Angelique Kidjo's "Battu" off of the Putumayo Kids African Playground album; Bert and Ernie's Greatest Hits (containing not just "Rubber Duckie" and "Dance Myself to Sleep," but also "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" and the classic alphabet songs for D, L and W—so la-la-la-la-lovely); and KT Tunstall's "Suddenly I See." Movie-wise there's "Singin' in the Rain" and "Harold and Maude" and, of course, "The Sound of Music," as well as any comedy that makes you laugh without being mean or debasing. And for an artistic argument for opposite action at the most extreme, try "Life is Beautiful" when you can handle it, knowing it is a cinematic summary of much of what I'm trying to say here and more, more than I can begin to understand, but not a light-hearted film given its climax occurs in a concentration camp.

Don't forget to open your eyes to the beauty of the natural world either. Make it a habit to look up at the sky and admire whatever it looks like, no matter how awful you feel. This exercise may seem hollow at first, but with practice, the upward flight of birds and the insouciant waving of leaves in the breeze can translate directly into the experience of joy within.

This is true even if you feel right now like all is dead around you! It takes effort and time and lots of practice, but eventually you can regain an appreciation of the beauty around you that is not predicated on your own happiness. Then, you'll know the richer joy of having earth's beauty ornament your humble, weary spirit as opposed to mistakenly believing oneself to be the most important beauty parading around on life's transient stage. And the more you love the world for what it is apart from you, the more of life's beauty you hold within—not because you own it, or it belongs to you, but because you belong to it, not as a star player, but as one humble little weed or wildflower waving in the field, subject to being crushed and plucked and eaten, or just to age and decay, but lovely in its own way while it lasts.

Keep perspective. This is only accomplished with time and the experience of having the unbearable pain lift, then descending into it again. I don't think I can convince you it won't last forever until you've experienced it ending, at least for some time, even for a moment. But once you begin to believe this, remind yourself that though it feels like everything, the pain is only part of your experience.

An even more challenging aspect of keeping perspective is to remember that, as much as you hurt, there are those that hurt more, and ways that you could hurt more too. This is the inverse of counting your blessings (see below), and it's useful in taking some of the dramatic edge off the experience of your pain. The pain is horrible and horrendous, but it's not unfathomable; it's not unheard of; it's not impossible. As much as you may wish it was.

No, there are probably people who have tolerated the same, or much, much worse, though you may not have some of the cognitive or relational or cultural or spiritual strengths that some of those others have had in order to endure. So, the trick is to take comfort in not being singled out for suffering without feeling guilty for not coping better. You're coping precisely as well as you are able to, as anyone would be able to in your shoes.

Which is another preventive benefit of keeping perspective: recognizing that all the if-then premises (if I do well at my career, then I'm a good person; if my children succeed, then I'm a good parent; if I am desired sexually, then I'm a worthwhile person; if I exercise enough, then I won't age; if I work hard enough and have the right attitude, then I'll be successful; etc., etc., etc.) we hold on to about what we "need" in order to survive as ourselves as we want ourselves to be are either patently false, or capable of being violated with impunity. Which means our idea of ourselves, our self-concepts, are not, cannot be sacred, inviolable things…and the more we try to keep our identities protected so, the more rigidly we box ourselves into emotional corners, the more violently we act out against others who threaten our self-perceptions, and the more vulnerable we are to the eventual collision and fall-out of who we want to imagine we are in the world we want to live in with who we actually turn out to be in the world we're forced to inhabit. Reality is a slippery, subjective, ever-changing thing, and keeping that perspective when evaluating yourself and those around you will lead to greater kindness and love from you for yourself, and from you for the world.

Change your perspective. Choose to identify with the larger life force of loving action and intent, and view the trials and tribulations of your own individual life as a trivial chapter in a much larger book you are a mere part of. For example, when I hear love songs on the radio now, I don't think about how they don't apply to "me"; I feel their truth on a larger level, and I channel the love they're describing in moments of real internal emotion triggered by the music. I believe I am able to do this because I have cultivated my spiritual imagination (also known as empathy), and because when love is real, it is inevitably something bigger than the two people sharing any specific instance or manifestation of it. Even if you have "the real thing" in the moment, and are lucky enough to get to see the reflection in some other person's eyes of your own beauty and goodness, you can still choose to see it as just one lovely part of a bigger, transcendent whole and to be grateful for what you get to contribute to the beautiful love that we are all a part of, and subsumed by, if we allow ourselves to be.

Sometimes cultivating uplifting emotion through loving action is not enough, and you need to battle the pain directly. One way to do this is to remind yourself of all that is good in your life; in other words, count your blessings. Do this even when you can't actually feel any of the goodness, and don't feel remotely blessed. Again, with time, you'll manage to feel both the pain and the goodness, and then, (with even more time and painful experience under your belt), you'll be able to use the goodness to beat back the pain.

Visualize God's/the universe's love as a sword if you want, and cut down the sense of your own loss…but make sure you're not self-destructively visualizing cutting yourself down instead of just the pain, bitterness and loss—unless it helps you to do so! I once had a very cathartic visualization in which my inner child went out to the garage and asphyxiated herself with the car running. Now mind you, no living organism actually died, but the part of me that felt so violated and abandoned it couldn't go on psychologically existing any longer had a fitting end, and the rest of me could grieve the loss of her. Does her ghost still haunt me? Yes, that was part of the deal before she—in my mind's eye—marched out to the garage. It is not crazy to get creative in managing your pain. Or if it is, may we all be crazy.

When feeling shame, focus instead on admiring the person/people you're comparing yourself to in deciding you're shameworthy. It makes whether or not you should feel ashamed a non-issue by taking the attention off of yourself. It is a huge relief. A related technique, when feeling overwhelmed by grief, is to focus on someone else's need. It doesn't require any comparisons about whether their life is better or worse than yours; all you need to do is identify some urgent need of some other person or group of people on the planet and then focus on it—on acknowledging it, and then on doing something about it. Voila, you're distracted from your own pain, and you're creating a loving cycle in which you will inevitably be raised up too.

Step 5: Serving and loving others.

Choose (over and over again) to have faith that there is a love bigger than all of us that will transcend our own lives so that whatever happens to us is so much less important than our loving service to the communal end. Yes, we still have our animal selves and the misery we feel to contend with, but when we can see a bigger picture, and see the choice we have (and we can always choose to love, even when no one else seems to see it or understand what we're doing) to join in this bigger, loving picture, then we can tolerate the destruction of our own goals and expectations with much greater equanimity than without that consolation.

You don't even have to be 100% certain in the existence of God for this to work, both as a means of enduring emotional suffering and as a moral compass. It is enough just to believe that loving action is better than inaction, which is better than destruction. Entropy is enough of a devil without Satan to require all of us to turn our hands and hearts to helping each other if the world is to go on, and especially if it is ever to be less violent, less hateful, less hard. Take all the pain you feel and transmute it into the desire and the will to try to protect others from knowing such pain, and remember all the others, now gone, who have done the same for you.

God bless you, and your suffering.

Much love,

liza

p.s. I'm not sure if Stephenie Meyer would approve of this iteration of her precious characters, but I am confident in her graciousness and wisdom in letting it ride. Thank you, SM, for serving the greater good through both your writing, and your gloriously generous entrusting of your characters to the world.

XXXXXX

Bella's stuck in the horribly loud and scary lobby of the fancy Vegas hotel where she's staying with her family on the occasion of her father's re-marriage to Sue, waiting for the girls to get back from their spa treatment or the guys to get back from their trip down the strip, hitting the casinos—and the all-you-can-eat buffets. She actually liked the all-you-can-eat buffets herself, loving the idea of unlimited dessert and Coke, not that she could ever eat enough of it to warrant her entry price. Emmett (her big brother) had complained about this fact on more than one occasion, as a matter of fact. "You're a total waste of buffet, Bella-B. We should leave you at home and just shake the crumbs off our shirts when we get back—it'd be the same experience for you. Hell, you'd probably prefer it—not having to leave the room, and all!"

Rosalie always defended her, even though Bella would have preferred she didn't. "Shut up, Emmett—she just makes up for you eating twice as much as anyone should." Everyone would laugh, including Bella herself, but she would blush and feel uncomfortable and embarrassed too, and worst of all, ashamed, and try to avoid looking at anyone for a while after that.

Once, when Jasper had been sitting next to her when it happened, he had leaned down and said, so gently she thought she'd melt into tears, "It's okay, Bella. It's not your fault." Her eyes had watered a little bit, as she had looked up at him quickly and smiled her thanks for his understanding, and his kindness, and the whole meal had flown by in a blur, more happiness than she is used to feeling filling her stomach and preventing her from eating a thing more.

Jasper had a way of doing that; catching her off-guard with kind words or a reassuring smile. If only he wasn't dating Maria, who was as aggressive as Rosalie and a whole lot meaner. Maria was the reason Bella avoided doing anything with the "girls"; for some reason neither one of them understood, Maria hated Isabella Swan. And though Bella didn't hate her in return, she was terrified of her, and avoided her like a scared rabbit—which of course, only made Maria hate her more. Especially when Jasper criticized Maria for her behavior towards his best friend's little sister, and used it as one of his reasons not to be intimate for a while. A "cooling off" period he had called it, but Maria knew: he was getting ready to leave her. Well, not if she had anything to say about it.

So this is the situation in which Bella found herself curling up in a round booth in the farthest corner of the hotel lounge area during the daytime hours, trying to pretend she didn't exist and to lose herself in the alternate universe of one of her favorite books. Unfortunately, she didn't feel free to advertise what this book was, so she had another book around the book she was reading, covering it like a history textbook shielding a comic book in some 50's sitcom. And it was this decoy outside book, paired with the girl's lonely location and lack of visible companions, that had caught the eye of wary hotel security staff as they scanned the feeds from the many security cameras across the hotel.

As a security staff member called his supervisor over for a second opinion before summoning a guard to interview the girl, it so happened that Edward Masen was finishing his daily tour of the behind-the-scenes operations of one of his many investments. It was the one that he liked the least, though also found it impossible to part with: his father's luxury hotel. It was named after his father, whose ego had been as big as his physical stature, which was towering. "The Masen MegaLuxe," it had always sounded ridiculous to Edward's cultured ears; but his father's business acumen paired with his mother's unfailing good taste had turned it into the place to stay in Vegas for the ultra-rich, and those aspiring to that status; not to mention the everyday sort who liked to pretend they were people of importance, at least for a day or two, and were willing to part with obscene amounts of money in order to do so.

After his parents' untimely death in an airplane crash (one of his father's favorite hobbies had been flying), Edward had found it impossible to sell the property, as much as he had looked forward to doing so when he had expected to inherit it in the normal turn of events.

And so here he was, overseeing its functions the way he managed all of his lucrative business empire, with a careful attention to detail and a combination of hiring good people and not being unwilling to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them, letting them know he would be watching even when they couldn't tell he was there—always.

In this case, the shoulder-to-shoulder became literal as he leaned in on the other side of the security guard who had flagged the shift supervisor over for input, and saw the lonely little girl that had caught the eye of his staff. Edward was absolutely vigilant about heading off any human trafficking under his roof, and he had his staff trained accordingly, so his first attention was to complimenting the concerned staff member for paying attention to unchaperoned underage girls—as well as to overly-chaperoned girls, as the man rewound the tape from that camera and they all got an eyeful of the behemoth who had left her there some time before.

There was no audio feed on this camera, so it was impossible to tell what instructions he had given her, but it was clear he had told her something, and something that had made the girl—who looked no older than 15—blush and fidgit. As he watched the small female's cheeks flood with red on the replayed tape, his own cheeks warmed, and his heart beat a little faster. He barely recognized the reaction himself, and was a little surprised to find himself cutting off the supervisor from summoning security staff to interview the girl by saying, "No need, James; I'll go check it out myself. Monitor from here to send someone if I need back-up."

EPOV

Even the suggestion of back-up would have been laughable, given the discrepancy in age, size and power between me and the little girl I was heading out to check on, if it weren't for the evil reality of the sex traffickers that operate far more frequently and openly than most Americans would like to believe.

In this instance, I half-expected the behemoth that had dropped her off to be lingering nearby, waiting to pounce and demand money from me in return for whatever arrangements I might make with this girl. Or even more likely, arrangements I make with him, concerning this girl. Fuck-and no, my word choice is in no way humorous; there is simply no other word strong enough for the depravity of the situation and the people that perpetuate it-the sex trade makes me sick.

So I was feeling bitter and confrontational, bracing for a fight, when I approached the table I had seen on screen just a few minutes before.

The girl was so engrossed in her reading she didn't notice my approach until I was standing next to the table, directly opposite from her, and even then it took her a few moments, which gave me the time to observe something off about the book she was reading. I had recognized the title and cover, had read it once myself a long time ago, but now I could clearly see that the book that had caused a stir in the security bunker was not the book she was reading—some other book, a green paperback cover just sticking up from the pages in front and behind it, was her focus right now.

I cleared my throat. Panicked eyes immediately shot up and met mine, for a fleeting instant—her eyes. Lightning shot down my spine as I read her mind and sensed her soul. I smiled, slow. Reached out, put my hand on the chair in front of me. Said ever so slowly, confidently, "Mind if I sit here, sweetheart?"

My rational mind started screaming at me, "She's underage!", and I pulled back a little, the smile fading as I realized how true that likely was. Up close, the girl looked even younger as she shyly shook her head back and forth in answer to my question, evading my gaze and blushing furiously but not speaking a word.

I raised the two-way radio I carried whenever I was on site, and paged the security officer on call. "Bring me a wristband, please."

The Masen Luxe [I'd eliminated the "Mega" after taking over; it was the most visible concession to my own tastes in the whole operation] tried to discourage patrons from bringing underage children with them; unlike other hotels on the strip which had attempted to cover the sin and moral decay of their main money-making enterprises with a veneer of family friendliness, we made no pretense: Las Vegas was about adult fun, for adults, and children were not catered to in my establishment. We did, however, for those foolish enough to ignore our advice and bring vulnerable underage family members along, have a strict policy of requiring that matching wristbands with electronic coding be worn by juveniles and their designated guardians when on the hotel premises.

We'd suffered some disparaging comparisons to Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors for this step when it was first instituted under my watch, but I couldn't care less, and other organizations had commended us for the action. I didn't care about that either, although I did attend the Las Vegas Law Enforcement luncheon and accept the award they bestowed on the hotel for its proactive approach to preventing crimes against children. Both my mother and my aunt had cultivated in me reflexive graciousness—which didn't hurt my business skills either. If opponents tended to underestimate me due to my polite, old-world manners, well, so much the worse for them.

As I waited for the delivery of the red wristband that I would be requiring this girl to wear on Masen premises, for as long as she and her parents stayed on Masen premises (which would likely not be long as leaving a minor child unattended was an ejectable offense), I took a deep breath and reminded myself of the need to comfort the child in question, who appeared to be ready to cry. I wasn't even sure why she would be so upset, and I realized too that though she wasn't actually reading the BDSM novel she had seemed to be, we still had no evidence that she was not a pawn in a prostitution ring.

So I smiled again, a little less genuinely this time but with much more pure intentions, and asked her, "Are your parents around, sweetheart?"

She looked up at me once more, startled. Then confusion spread across her features.

Finally, in a soft, shy voice totally befitting her overall air of frightened rabbit crossed with earth-bound angel, the girl hesitantly answered, "Um, no, they're out."

I smiled my approval of her answering, but not of her answer. Someone would be held accountable for this situation. Soon.

Meanwhile, I needed to figure out what to do with the girl now staring at me expectantly, waiting for my next question or instruction. Already I knew I could make her do what I wished; those of us with a clear-headed view of human nature and not wishing to unduly exploit it are continually confronted with the willful ignorance of much of the rest of humanity, always annoying but sometimes, when a vulnerable person is left the worse for said ignorance as seemed to be glaringly the case now, absolutely infuriating. Whomever left this naïve, trusting creature alone in Vegas unchaperoned should, in my humble opinion, be shot.

My wordless smiling went on a little too long as I dealt with my feelings of anger and aggression towards the unknown villains in this situation, and the girl dipped her head, lowering her eyes and biting her lip in anxiety.

I lowered my own head in response, catching her eyes again, and gently asked, "Out where, honey?"

She sat a little straighter again, still looking confused but apparently distracted from other upsetting feelings by answering my question. "Well, I mean, my dad is out, on the Strip?, you know, to other, um, casinos, and my, well, she's not my step-mom yet, you know, well, she's at the spa." She explained this all matter-of-factly enough, if with painful shyness, not seeming to question at all my right to ask her for such information.

But when it was all out, and I thought perhaps she realized the significance of what she had said as it pertained to her own situation and her safety, she started to look worried.

I, on the other hand, was relieved to finally see what I took as some age-appropriate caution in her interaction with me. This relief evaporated as she asked, "Why? Are they in trouble?"

I bit back the sarcastic reply which would have been, "No, but you are if you have no more sense than to tell a perfect stranger twice your size that your guardians are off site while you are sitting protectionless in the dark corner of a Vegas lounge," and instead said more non-committally, "Not trouble, really, but I'll want to speak with them when they get back in."

"Oh," the girl said, half-confused and half-relieved. "Okay."

Felix, the enormous security guard usually watching over the casino floor staff, approached me then and said, "Here you go, boss. James said you wanted this," and handed a red bracelet over.

"Thank you, Felix. Tell James to enter me as the responsible party for the time being. And have him flag her parents for an interview when they return on-site."

"Will do. Do you have their name?"

I turned to the girl, watching us with more confusion and staring at the bracelet with a perplexed look. "Sweetheart?" I asked, watching her eyes fly up from the bracelet to me. "What's your name, honey?"

"Oh! Um, I'm, I mean, my name is, um, Bella?"

I couldn't help it. I smiled and shook my head at the sweetness of her discomfiture. Whatever age she really was physically, she was clearly much younger inside.

I felt a surge of protective affection towards this mysterious little person, and at the same time caught sight of a fabric bag to her side. A purse. Such a grown-up accessory, but it was pretty and colorful and gave away the little-girl spirit of the young woman feeling required to carry it, when it seemed pretty clear she'd be happier holding just her book, and my hand—

I cut myself off mentally as I had that errant thought, disgusted with my own libido at failing to remember this was a juvenile in front of me. It made me sound angry when I said "Your purse, please, Bella," and the poor little girl jumped at the tone, then started to cry.

I felt instantly guilty, and after handing the purse held up to me with trembling hands off to Felix, with cursory instructions to "Take this to James and tell him to check for i.d., then compare it to hotel records," I slid onto the curved banquette seat the girl was trembling on and moved around until I was next to her, carefully not touching.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, I didn't mean to scare you," I said quietly, smiling down at the trembling brown head, her face hidden from me. "I'm just a little irritated with your parents for leaving you here alone, and that came out in my voice just now. It's nothing you did, honey."

Slowly, her head raised, her tear-streaked cheeks within kissing distance from my hungry lips. Maybe this was a bad idea. I should have sent her back with Felix to wait for her parents in the—

"Why?" she asked, so confused she didn't seem to be at all worried about my proximity to her.

"Why what?" I returned, not managing anything more eloquent with the mental energy I was expending, preventing my hand from going up to stroke the wet tendrils off her cheek and behind her ear.

Her head sunk a little again, her eyes now studying the table top instead of my face. "Um, why would you be…irritated, with my Dad?"

I noticed how she left off the future step-mom, and made mental note of it. Meanwhile, I responded carefully, trying to keep any trace of censure towards her out of my words and tone. "Well, here at the Masen Luxe we have rules about parents keeping their minor children under their immediate supervision at all times," I said, as kindly as possible.

"Oh!" I heard a moment later, as her head shot back up and narrowly missed hitting my chin. Guess I'd been moving closer. There was a smile on her face for the first time, and it was beautiful.

"That's okay then, because I'm not a minor! I'm nineteen!" she added, proudly, almost victoriously.

I watched as the relief and lightness on her face shaded to the red of embarrassment, and her shoulders caved in shame. "Oh, you thought, you thought, you thought I was too young to be here."

I had gone rigid at her proclamation of her age, the relief and ecstasy coursing through my own body unexpected in its strength and immediacy. Carefully, I let out a breath, still not letting myself touch her, not letting my body or my expression give me away. Not yet. I didn't have her yet.

Instead, I dazzled her with one of my eye-crinkling smiles, and admitted, "Well, you did have us fooled then, sweet Bella. My staff and I pegged you for fifteen, I'm afraid."

She cringed, then said under her breath "Emmett will laugh so hard at this."

I was tempted to ask who the asshole Emmett was who could possibly laugh at her discomfort, let alone her vulnerability, but instead chose to pretend I hadn't heard her. Instead I said, "I'd still like to put this on you, sweetheart. May I?" and even though I asked, I was reaching for her wrist because I wasn't really asking.

She didn't fight me, and let my fingers curl around her tiny wrist and bring it towards me with nothing more than surprise and confusion on her features, and a tiny little, "But…" on her lips, saying nothing more while I carefully fastened the bracelet around her that would make it impossible for her to leave the premises without my knowledge and consent, and which could only be removed with something like scissors or shears—no ripping attempts by upset young females would do it.

"There," I said, with great satisfaction after it was fastened, but did not release her wrist. Instead, I closed my hand around it again and looked at her, asking, "Would you like to see my office, perhaps have a behind-the-scenes tour?"

She looked back at me, hopelessly lost. I realized my misstep, and felt grateful she had only grown more confused and not yet afraid. Awash in my own excitement at finding this sweet, beautiful innocent was actually of age, I had failed to offer her any reason to understand why I would want to show her my office. I nearly snorted at my underfed libido that was behind the dubious invitation, and that clearly wanted to show this woman-child a lot more than my desk…although showing her on the desk might not be a bad idea, someday.

Cutting those thoughts short, I returned to reflecting that there was nothing in my suggestion that would make sense to the little girl she was inside, and a lot that might rightfully alarm her. So I smiled indulgently down at her, trying to chain up my least-virtuous impulses, at least for the time being, and backpedaled furiously. "I have a better idea. Why don't I order us something to drink while we wait for your family to return. A ginger ale, maybe?"

I didn't wait for her response before I turned to the serving person at the fringes who had been waiting there since Felix had departed, just biding her time until I indicated I needed something. "A ginger ale, please, Heidi," I said after a quick consultation of the waitress's id tag, then added with a smile, "And the usual for me."

I had already turned back towards the girl—towards Bella—as I had finished giving the order, so I didn't miss the surprised look, or the luscious blush, that both descended immediately after Heidi said, "Certainly, Mr. Masen." Apparently, sweet Bella had put together my name and the name of the hotel, and drawn the correct conclusion. Smart girl.

And now, scared girl too. Which I knew because the little wrist I was still holding, resting on the seat between us, had begun trembling, in concert with her whole body.

"Shhhhh," I said quietly as I started removing my suitjacket, reaching over with my other hand to clasp her arm as I released her wrist so as to finish removing the coat.

She looked up at me, startled again, at the noise, and so I got to witness the start of her tears flowing, though they picked up speed and became sobs as I let go of her entirely for a moment in order to wrap the jacket around her and gather her in my arms. Quickly, I picked her up and pulled her onto my lap, careful to keep her body facing in towards the safety of the leather seat upholstery and away from any curious eyes.

As soon as I had set her down on top of me, the sobs became wracking and her body caved into mine, her head turning into my chest as if on instinct. I held her tightly against me as she rode out the sudden storm, and as it peaked I helped her slow her breathing down by exaggerating my own deep inhales, her whole torso moving up and down in time to my inhalations and exhalations.

"Shhhhh, it's okay, Bella," I said again as her crying slowed to little, noisy sobs interrupting sniffles and deep breaths as she tried to calm herself.

She replied quickly back, fear and embarrassment in her voice, with "I'm so sorry!" and then tried to wriggle off me.

I tightened my arms, and started stroking down her head and back as I responded, "Don't be, little one."

She had no response to this; just a loud inhale and then a return to tiny tremors. At first she tried to keep her body rigidly apart from mine, but as I continued petting her gently but insistently, and said, "You're a good girl, Bella; I can tell," she melted back into me in defeat.

I grinned as I felt her body re-form itself to mine, and knew the victory of acquisition. No matter what her mind would try to tell her now, her body had already given in to me. And with such a little-girl mind, it wouldn't be long before that would be mine too.

But I didn't believe that holding on to her would be easy. The acquiring of a little girl in a grown-up body; now, that's the easy part, once you're lucky enough to find one, and once you know what to offer her in return for her trust and affection. But holding on to them; keeping their affections secure and their trust—their overwhelming, perhaps unwarranted yet complete trust in you to do no wrong and keep them safe, always—inviolate…now that's the hard part.

I knew this because I'd had a grown-up little girl already. Well, more of a grown-up preteen, really, and therein lay the problem in our relationship. I couldn't handle well her stabs at independence; her disrespect; her age-appropriate cheek.

So eventually I had found somebody else who could, and had turned her over with both regret and relief to this other man's superior care. I still checked in on Tanya, from time to time, and would for the rest of our lives; but she wasn't mine now, she was his, and far happier than she'd ever been with me.

I was happy for her too, and relieved not to have an obligation I found onerous to bear any longer. Perhaps that is why I had waited so long to acquire another charge; or maybe it was because, living where I live and doing what I do with whom I do it, it was so hard and recently feeling impossible to find someone small, and innocent, and sweet enough to be the grown-up little girl I wanted.

My sister Alice had teased me about needing to look in an Iowa farm town for my girl, and I admit to having cruised some Iowan on-line profiles to see if she was right. Of course, I hadn't found the one, because my girl wouldn't be on-line in BDSM dating sites; wouldn't know what that even was, or if she did, wouldn't understand how it could possibly apply to her. Which made it seem impossible that I would ever find her, without fate throwing her in my path.

And at that thought I grinned, looking back down into my arms at the catch I'd just made, totally by instinct. Fate can be a gracious beauty, when she isn't busy being a vicious bitch. "Thank you," I whispered aloud.

Of course, the sensitive creature huddled against my chest startled at the small sound, and she tried to sit up, her eyes wide in fear again, her lips stuttering another expression of apology. "I'm so, I'm so, I'm so sorry!" she got out before I shushed her and said, "That's enough from you, young lady. No more apologies. Do you understand?"

Her eyes went wide with fear, but I could tell it was a new kind of fear, the fear that something good will end as opposed to the fear that something bad is happening. Someday, with great effort and patience on my part, and an enormous amount of skill, I knew she would have no fear at all; but as that time was a long way off, I was gratified in the moment to see how quickly she had swapped the one fear for the other. For someone as old as she was, it was amazing how undefended she was against her true nature—perhaps because she was unaware of it? I asked myself. If so, I was growing more curious by the moment how she had managed this feat.

Meanwhile, I leaned in and kissed sweet Bella on the forehead, knowing it would cause her to settle for the moment and would buy me time to figure out my next move while she hid again from my attention.

Sure enough, I had no sooner moved away from pressing a tender kiss just above her very-surprised eyes than she squeaked like a mouse caught in a trap and flung her upper body back into mine, one arm curving up around her head in a futile attempt to protect herself from further invasion and the other arm curling up between my chest and hers, her hand grabbing hold of my shirt. I bit back a chuckle at the contrast between her infant neediness and her feeble but heart-felt efforts to ward me off, and settled back into the booth's seatback a little more to try and make her more comfortable, pulling my suitjacket tightly around her and over her head to cut off any visual or auditory input that wasn't me.

As I sat back after adjusting the jacket and the little girl under it to my liking, I saw the waitress returning with the drinks. This reminder of the outside world clarified my next move.

"Change in plans," I said to the woman, as her hand was reaching around a glass to set it down on the table. I started to slide to the end of the bench seat, my hands holding tight to the girl-my girl, an insistent voice said inside me—as I added, "We're heading back to my office; please follow us there."

The waitress quickly complied, stepping back to give me room to stand up and adjust my sweet burden into a carrying-cradle hold, still pressing her tightly against my chest. My girl was buried deep in denial for the time being, and gave no indication of noticing the change in my body's position, or in her situation more generally, as I strode off towards the staff exit from the lounge area.

Two steps away, I suddenly remembered her books, both of them still sitting on the table where she'd set them, one still tucked inside the other. Pausing and turning my head slightly back over my shoulder, I addressed the waitress with instructions to "Grab those books please, and bring them with."

I heard my orders carried out as I moved quickly again towards the privacy I needed to cement my newfound girl's conscious trust in me before her family returned and interrupted us. I had the upper hand here, and I had no intention of squandering it…as her neglectful family would soon have occasion to find out.

The smile on my face as the heavy door swung shut behind me, cutting off the little one in my arms from anyone who would lay claim to her but me, certainly reflected my happy anticipation of telling her inadequate protectors just what I thought of them. But more than that, it represented my joy to be taking my first steps into a future I had begun to fear would never be mine.

Looking down at the angel in my arms, I saw her cheek lift, and heard a soft sigh, and felt a tiny nuzzle of a trusting head resting over my heart, and I knew—beyond all doubt—she felt it too.

XxXxXx

Author's End Note: Edward is not the only one horrified by the existence of human trafficking and sexual slavery/forced prostitution. For more information on this important human rights issue, please visit human-trafficking/overview or .com . To report a suspected incident of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733). According to the NHTRC, their "Hotline Call Specialists are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to take reports from anywhere in the country related to potential trafficking victims, suspicious behaviors, and/or locations where trafficking is suspected to occur. All reports are confidential. Interpreters are available."

And if YOU are being exploited for your labor or your body, please call. There are people who want to help, and there are laws in place (and more being added to the books) to protect you if you have been trafficked across national boundaries illegally or forced into illegal activity. EXPLOITATION INCLUDES PROVIDING YOU WITH DRUGS IN ORDER TO KEEP YOU COMPLIANT! If someone is pushing you into prostitution, taking the money you make, and then giving you drugs to keep you addicted and at their mercy, THAT IS SEX TRAFFICKING, AND IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!

As a person vulnerable to interpersonal exploitation myself, I understand how easy it would be to do something you believe to be wrong in order to please someone you care about or keep them from being angry with you. This doesn't make you bad, it makes you human, and beautiful, but very much in need of help. Please call if you are being hurt this way. Much love, liza