Advice to Young Women, from Someone No Longer Young and for the Most Part Glad of It:

1. You are in possession of a physical power, and burden: the sexual appeal of youth. It doesn't matter what your features are, or whether you meet the criteria of conventional attractiveness or not. You are sexually attractive at an animalistic level right now, no matter how low your opinion of your own self, simply because of your youth. You will find this out as your youth disappears, and the way strangers interact with you changes, for no discernable reason at first. Your growing invisibility may be a welcome relief, or it may be a terrifying departure from what you have assumed as "normal" simply because it's the only thing you've ever known. Or it may be both, or perhaps a neutral trade-off for the privilege and good fortune of continuing to live and to serve and to love.

There's nothing in particular I think you should do with this knowledge, should it happen to be news to you, but I do hope that perhaps one or two of you might waste a little less of your limited time on earth worrying about whether you're attractive or not and just accept the temporary power of sexual appeal while it lasts; and that a few others of you might find it easier to gracefully relinquish that power when it starts to fade, having been consciously aware of it and therefore also able to consciously enjoy the benefits it accrues (like being waited on by some teenaged boys without resorting to much throat clearing to attract notice of your existence) instead of clueless the way I was.

And finally I hope that if you are terrified of men generally without having a clear understanding of why, that this might help you realize and celebrate the good sense you possess in protecting yourself from the animal interest of unsafe people, rather than being ashamed for being so shy. I don't mean that all men are unsafe, but it can be difficult, particularly as a young woman, to tell who is and who isn't to be trusted, as many of us have found out the hard way (the phrase "older and wiser" is not just a cliché).

2. Growing older can be a wonderful development… except for most of the physical aspects, and occasionally for the sobering realization that all your youth's worst fears usually don't come true because something even worse than you were capable of imagining comes along instead. (This is only made bearable by the fact that great joys you were incapable of imagining may come to you as well.)

You know that cheesy (glass houses, I know) song exhorting you to "live like you are dying"? Well, there's no "like" about it. You ARE dying, as am I, as is every human currently breathing, including the babies just born. Some of us will be faster about it than others, some of us will face greater physical limitations and deteriorations as we march (or dance, or scurry, or stagger) across the metaphorical stage, but all of our individual universes are bound for destruction, and there's no act of courage or technological marvel yet in existence that can change that fact.

BUT the good news is that, as our bodies decay to their unavoidable end, our minds and our souls, and the relationships and ideas and connections they make, grow bigger and stronger (excepting dementia as a counter-force on mental connections, and excepting bitterness as a counter-weight on the soul's expansion), and the increased empathy, clarity and understanding that it is possible with good fortune and effort to attain as a result of day-in, day-out experience on earth can more than make up for the losses in physical attractiveness, health and stamina.

It would be nice not to have to trade one for the other, and that's part of the reason why those Cullens are so dang attractive. But then we wouldn't be human anymore, and as Edward would be quick to point out, that would be a sad loss, and would change the beauty of our transient nature and that of the amazing gift we give when we work to make a better world despite the fact that we will inevitably be leaving it.

So, to age well, strive to ignore the youth-centric messages of modern culture. In particular, don't try to emulate youth, or spend all your money and energy on pretending to be something less than what you are. Also don't underestimate how difficult this will be, as everyone around you starts dying their hair and exercises with a fear-based frenzy that has less to do with being strong to enjoy life and to love others well and more to do with staving off the terror of dying, or of being alone.

As you age, you will hopefully find as I have that being alone is a much preferable state of affairs to being with people who do not love you with courage and vigor—although to tolerate aloneness, you might find that you need to love yourself with courage and vigor (which actually makes it easier to love others well too, believe it or not). Take as role models women who do this, and who visualize themselves as more than their bodies, who can see the trajectory of their life's work as reaching far beyond the limits of their own mortality, and their own ego. This sort of woman is not celebrated much in modern culture, but once you start looking, you'll find them everywhere, hidden in plain sight.

3. If you have even the slightest notion that you might want children some day, start planning for them now. I'm not talking about dating maneuvers for better gene pool selection here; I'm talking about not plowing on blindly through college and graduate or professional school, amassing an enormous debt load, getting underway in your career, and then realizing you really want a baby but don't have the time or family/community support to take good care of one.

Unless you are someone who would naturally prefer a stranger rather than yourself look after your child for the majority of their waking hours, (and yes, there are loving and lovable women and men who fit this category but I'm guessing not the majority of those who might be reading this), I want you to know how HARD it is to find a way to stay home with a baby yourself or to find someone else to care well for him or her. And though driving cars continually on the verge of (and sometimes past that) of breaking down and only wearing hand-me-downs or Goodwill bargains (we're talking the half-price colored tags or better, the clearance rack) posed an initial challenge to my resourcefulness and self-esteem, the harder battles I've witnessed have been those of my friends who have felt trapped by their careers—the combination of education debts plus the inability to easily re-enter the workforce after leaving it, not to mention personal and family expectations and cultural pressure for wealth accumulation—into turning their loved ones over to childcare arrangements that felt to them like so much less than the loving, nurturing upbringing they wanted for their children.

This is not to say there aren't wonderful childcare providers out there loving and nurturing children, (of course there are, probably including some of you), not to mention innovative and satisfying work and family arrangements that give both children and caregivers the best of multiple worlds, like grandparents willing to be caregivers; choosing careers amenable to flexible scheduling or working from home; and choosing partners willing to be stay-at-home parents, or willing to make the financial sacrifices necessary for you to be. My point is that all of these happier possibilities take either a great deal of luck or a whole lot of planning, money, sacrifice, compromise and work, or all of the above…so do yourself a favor, and think now about the babies you may want later, and how the choices you make today will influence their tomorrows. They'll thank you for it, and so will exhausted, overwhelmed, terrified, ecstatic new-mom you.

That's all I've got, and that's plenty. I should add to be suspect of all advice because you know yourself best, and other people (including me) can't know all the constraints of identity, wiring and experience that you have to deal with…so take what fits and leave what doesn't, and know that no matter what, I wish you well. xoxo liza

p.s. Thank you, SM—you wrote a book about eternal youth, but you couldn't have done it without leaving your own youth behind and feeling the loss of it, and therefore the need to grieve, and then to celebrate. Edward's a metaphor, but Bella is real-and a worthy role model in her courageous love. May we all be brave as Bella, which means we'll turn out even braver since we'll do it without Edward or the Cullens or superpower shields. Go us!

XxXxXx

There was a panicked, but also kind of happy, tingling that shot across my entire body when…when that man…when Mr. Masen…when he kissed me—I accidentally squeak when I remember that unbelievable moment, and I burrow further into him and pull my arm tighter down around my head to try and escape both the ecstatic embarrassment of what he has done and the total humiliation at my reaction to it.

I can feel and hear a rumble in his chest that must be laughter. I know I'm being ridiculous, and this confirms it.

But somehow I don't feel ashamed the way I usually do when Emmett and his friends laugh at me, or when Rosalie sighs and says, "Bel-la!" in exasperation, or especially when Maria and Leah roll their eyes at each other about me. They act like I don't notice, but I do. It makes me so mad I want to yell, "I'm not trying to be this way on purpose! Just show me how to do it right, and I will!"

But of course I pretend instead not to notice them the same way they pretend I don't notice them, and I swallow down the rage and frustration along with the shame, and promise myself that sometime, somehow, I'll figure out how to be normal.

I'm not being normal at all right now though, and I know it—but I also know that, for once, it's not just me who's off. This man, this Mr. Masen who came out to talk with me, so kindly, he isn't treating me normally at all. And I've never, ever been happier. I've never even dreamed of something that felt as good as this, wrapped up tightly in his strong arms, covered by his jacket that smells so soothingly, so incredibly, of him, and being carried…

I tense a little as I realize for the first time that I have no idea where Mr. Masen is taking me. Am I in trouble? Is he taking me to the police?

I'm quickly reviewing everything I've done or said to see if there was anything unintentionally criminal about it when I feel him stop. He says something to someone, and I tense up some more as I wonder whether he's talking to a police officer—maybe he thinks I'm crazy, and I need to be evaluated. Maybe they're going to take me to a psych ward! Maybe—

"Isabella?" His rich, warm voice speaking just above my head takes me by surprise and makes me start, then sends shudders through my body. I don't know what to say, and I'm so afraid he's leaving me now, I just push my face harder against him, hating myself for being such a coward but not being able to help it.

There's another half-rumble from his chest, then a sudden movement as he lifts me up so that my head tucks under his chin at the same time that he pulls the jacket down, removing it from around my head and shoulders. I flinch at the sudden exposure, but am instantly comforted by the large hand that descends against my hair, pushing me back down into him as he starts speaking in my ear.

"Shhhhhh, Isabella sweetheart, I've got you. Please don't be afraid, honey; it hurts my heart."

This makes me open my eyes, and try to look up at him. His face is so close now it's hard to focus on him, but he seems to understand what I am trying to do and pulls up and back a bit, while also tugging my body a little down. I'm so confused by all that is happening that I don't panic but instead stare up at him, and into his eyes.

I am lost the moment his eyes find mine; instantly transported somewhere I've never been before, and want never to come back from. There is this blissful sense that I'm not in my own body anymore, not even in my own mind. There's no fear, no shame, no worry about what I've done wrong this time and how I'm going to fix it. There's just his gaze, his sight, his view—of me.

I don't understand at all what he's seeing; none of it makes any sense. But I do understand the feelings in his eyes, and they pull me in like a warm, inviting ocean current that cannot be resisted, even if I had found the strength to try. I have dreamed for as long as I can remember of being held; being loved; being safe; but never before this moment have I known, have I even begun to imagine, what that would look like.

Now I do. It looks like an unfamiliar yet comfortingly powerful man, this Mr. Masen, holding me in a dark, quiet hallway in some unknown part of his hotel, staring down at me with reassurance, and with promise.

It is so welcome, so blissful, this look of his and all it contains, that I do the only thing I can in the moment. I close my eyes, tuck my head back down under his chin and tightly against his chest, and pretend to go to sleep, holding his shirt tightly and praying-whatever this strange situation means-that it lasts; just a little longer.

XXX

I am momentarily speechless, standing in the hallway before my office door, having sorted through a couple of business matters before my planned retreat with the angel in my arms. I have found out her full name, and been reassured as to the documentation of her adult age, and I have updated my security staff as to what I wish to be done when her family members return on-site.

The only thing left for the moment is her, and it is precisely her—the unexpectedness, and extremity, of her being in this place—that has me standing, mute, motionless, able only to stare at the beauty of her brunette head tucked tightly against me, her hand fisted so tightly in my shirt her knuckles are white, her face feigning sleep but given away in its deceit by the biting of her bottom lip and the rapidity of her breathing.

"Shall I open the door for you, Mr. Masen?"

I am startled back to the needs of the present moment by this polite question from my security detail, and I cover as best I can with a quick and matter-of-fact reply, "Of course, Eric."

Walking in to my low-lit office suite, I turn and thank him at the door, leaving him with instructions to admit no one without paging me and obtaining my approval first.

As the door closes behind me, locking automatically as it is designed to do, I survey the room for a fitting place to nestle with my girl. A grin forms at that possessive thought, and I start to feel a foreign warmth creeping through my bones, a stirring of old ashes of flame and feeling and a kindling of something else entirely new, something so promising, and so intoxicating, I feel myself start to tremble.

Breathing deeply, I calm my outer appearance and my shaking limbs, and return my focus to her. Looking around, I see no spot where she will likely feel safe, my office being designed to inculcate awe and no small amount of fear in those with whom I do business.

So I move on through the door to my left, entering first my lounge and dressing room, and finally, my private study, which had been my mother's sitting room when she and my father were in residence here. Though it was ostensibly hers, and it was her tastes and preferences that determined the floor plan and décor, it had been a refuge for my father as well; the place that he slipped off to as often as he could in between dealing with the necessities of business.

Of course, where my mother went so did I during my happy youth, so the small wooden chair next to my mother's armchair is mine, and sits there still, waiting for some other lucky child to find his place there with his mother nearby.

After my parents' death, I had left my family's shared retreat unchanged, other than moving my own journals into my father's roll-top desk. I didn't remove many of his belongings in order to make room for my own, but instead consolidated and combined, preferring mine to be mixed in with his as a way of feeling not quite so alone.

Unchanged also was my mother's superb sound system, which she had refused to update to cassette or even CD, but which she used to listen to the extensive collection of albums she had stored in built-in drawers under the windows of the outside wall. While reading one of the many books which filled the bookcases ringing the rest of the room, she and I spent many contented days listening to music, or sometimes playing it ourselves on the grand piano gracing the alcove on the far side of the room, and watching the change of seasons—to the extent Vegas's seasons can be said to change—and the passing of the hours playing out in the private garden accessible only from this room, and from our family quarters across the way.

The fall of water in the garden's fountains and cascading over rock, the movement of the colorful birds contained by the hotel walls built around us, the bloom of the flowers carefully tended by a select staff of groundskeepers culled from the hotel's staff for their imagination, and attention to detail; it all formed a miniature paradise that almost made up for the cloyingly decadent excess of the outside world, a necessary refuge of true beauty amidst all the jaded imitators and pretenders to that quality surrounding us.

I walked without hesitation to the French doors leading to this garden, intuitively knowing I had finally found the Eve to my Adam, and joyously confident that no serpent would ever be allowed within these walls. Pausing to close the door behind me, I strode to the gazebo sheltered behind the small waterfall, and settled on the cushion of the oversized wicker swing, setting it in motion as I sat us down.

A fringed silk throw was conveniently placed over the swing's arm; I recognized Alice's artful touch and was, for once, grateful for it, rather than merely amused, or, on occasion (as when she had transferred my high-end Scotch collection into a series of 1920's era cut-crystal decanters, which I suppose indeed looked beautiful but more to the point leaked, especially when pouring), mildly annoyed. I was hard on my younger cousin, who was more like a little sister to me, but I loved her well too, and gave her free reign with stylistic aspects of the hotel's operation that she enjoyed far more than I could comprehend.

Alice. I winced a little at the thought, imagining the enthusiasm with which she would receive the girl in my arms, and the effort I would have to put forth to keep the girl—Isabella—for myself at times. No matter. It would have to be done, and if Alice, and Esme, took to the girl the way I expected them to, it would be well worth the extra maneuvering and negotiations required with them to have such happiness as I was feeling right now spread through my family as well.

My family had been patient, and kind, with Tanya, but none of my closest kin had really understood her, or my interest in her. Tanya's difficult aspects seemed to come out more in interaction with my cousin-sister, and even with my aunt, something I had difficulty understanding myself given Alice's genuine, if exuberant, affection and Esme's warm and loving nature. Finally I had realized that the emerging-woman in Tanya would always be in conflict with the other important women in my life, and part of my final decision to relinquish her to another man's care had been my unwillingness to accept that situation permanently. I felt certain I had picked more wisely this time, although I had laughably little data to support that belief.

No matter. I had her, and for this moment, rocking gently in the sweetly-scented desert-oasis air of my Eden, that was all that I cared about, and all that I needed.

XxXxXx

I startled awake when I heard a voice speaking over an intercom nearby. At first I was totally disoriented, with no idea where I was, or how I had gotten there.

Then, as I listened to the low voice rumble under me, and I felt the gentle swaying of the swing under me, and smelled the nearness of… that man, that…Mr. Masen…well, I caught my breath as recent events rushed past me in memory, and I realized where I was right now.

Swinging, in his arms. In some kind of…paradise?

I can smell blooming flowers, hear running water and bird song, feel silky softness draped across my arms and cheek; and I know if I open my eyes, I will see the man whose arms are around me. I am in heaven, whether it's for real or just pretend. I hope it lasts, but even if it doesn't, I'll never forget how warm and safe I feel right now; how right.

XxXxXx

Alice comes out to the garden to find Edward, not realizing he's with someone, and certainly not realizing that someone is the girl she's been waiting for, for both Edward's sake and her own. "There you are, Edward, Esme wants to know—"

She stops short when she catches sight of Bella, freezes, then stares speechlessly. Finally, she breathes out, quietly, and says with reverence, "Oh Edward, she's beautiful!"

Edward smiles. "I know. She really is, isn't she?"

"Is she—is she like Tanya?"

"Not nearly so grown up as Tanya, I think."

Alice squeals delightedly. "Oh goody! A baby!"

Edward laughs. "I'm glad you approve, Allie Cat."

"Can I hold her? Please? Pretty please?" Alice has run up to them and is now standing over them on the swing. "She'll like me; I can feel it."

"You know, Alice, I can feel it too," Edward responds, totally serious, and a little surprised.

Back to his normal authoritative persona, he says, "Sit down next to us, and at least try to be calm, and I'll see if I can introduce you."

To Bella, he leans down and says, his voice soft, and yet like mountains crashing, in her ear, "Isabella, sweetheart, will you open your eyes for me, pretty girl?"

Bella keeps them closed and turns her head into him instead, covering her head a little more with her arm.

Alice claps with giddy excitement, while Edward laughs at Bella's retreat, then lifts his eyes to give Alice a quelling stare before turning back to address Bella once more, a little more command in his tone though with as much warmth as before. "I know you're shy, little one, and I like you that way. But I want you to look at me anyway."

In response, Bella covers her head even further with her arm, and Edward smiles, but moves to counter her, one hand going up to tug her arm down while keeping her safely in his embrace and the other finding her chin, grabbing gentle hold, and forcing it upwards to angle her face towards his. Looking down at her, Edward sees her eyes still stubbornly closed, now clenched so tightly shut there are wrinkles all around them. Grinning, he leans down and rubs his nose up and down alongside hers, then presses his lips in a soft kiss against her mouth.

Shocked, Bella's eyes fly open, and she is immediately trapped in Edward's gaze. Holding her there, careful not to blink or glance any minute amount away from his direct stare into her open eyes, and her open soul, Edward says, so quietly, like he's coaxing an injured wild animal out of its hiding place, just a murmur with meaning, "Good girl, Isabella. Such a good girl; you're such a good girl."

The second repetition brings forth a sob from the girl in question, and she tries to lean forward out of his gaze. Edward allows this movement but then catches her head with one of his large hands, cupping the side of it, pulling her sideways into him for a rocking hug, saying again, "You're such a good girl, Isabella. I'm so proud of you."

A couple loud sobs come from a confused and overwhelmed Bella, which Edward pretends to ignore, saying next with great matter-of-factness, "Isabella, I would like to introduce to you my cousin Alice."

Then, catching Isabella once more around the side of the head and pulling her gently away from his chest and towards Alice, he continues, "Alice, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to Miss Isabella Swan."

The combination of her forced exposure to the person seated next to her and hearing her formal full name check Bella's sobs, and she sits up a little straighter in Edward's lap and raises one hand to wipe at her eyes and cheeks as she says, in a strangled little voice, "It's very nice to meet you, Alice." As she says the stranger's name, Bella finds herself unthinkingly raising her gaze towards the stranger, and is so surprised at the beaming, beautiful face staring back at her she simply stares herself.

Alice is, by now, bouncing with excitement again, but she has managed—through enormous and unprecedented control—not to utter a sound, up until this point when she bursts out with, "Oh, Isabella, I am so glad to meet you!" And to both Bella's and Edward's surprise, and Edward's concern, Alice launches forward into a giant hug encircling both of them.

There's a transitional moment when Bella freezes and Edward is frozen in reaction to her, but it is resolved quickly as Bella responds to Alice's easy affection in a shy but affirming response, tentatively reaching her arm up to press gently against Alice's back, Edward's own arms gratefully encircling both of them and pressing a bit harder.

They hold like this for a few moments, until Edward says, "Deep breath." Modeling for the sake of both the young women in his embrace, Edward takes a deep inhalation himself before releasing his arms slowly, cuing Alice to move back as well and leaving a calmer Bella still seated on his lap.

There's another quiet moment as Edward strokes down Bella's back several times, still gently rocking the swing, and Alice covers her mouth with both hands, needing to physically contain the excited questions and commentary that want to come spilling out of her.

Edward catches Alice's attention and smiles, gratitude for her effort at self-restraint and for her warm reception of the young woman in his arms both evident in his eyes. Alice smiles back, then drops her hands, and, watching Edward carefully for his permission, reaches one hand tentatively out towards Bella and says, "Isabella, would you like to see the fountain my uncle built for me?"

Alice is very proud of this creation that Edward's father had commissioned many years ago to indulge her childhood fantasy of a "sparkly" fountain made of colored glass, rather than plain old stone, and indeed it was a work of art—if also the bane of the garden staffs' collective existence. Still, on an afternoon such as this one when the desert sun filtering down through the high towers all around shone so gorgeously on the many-colored tiers and basins, lighting up both the glass surfaces and the water itself with reflected rainbows and color-infused light…well, even the dour old gentleman charged with the particular and highly-involved daily cleaning of this fountain had to admit it was not just sparkly, but breathtakingly beautiful.

Bella looks up at the friendly voice, not understanding the young woman's interest in her but warming and turning towards Alice the way any bloom does to a ray of sunshine, and nods shyly in response.

"Wait-Alice," Edward intones, and before Alice can give voice to the protests obviously forming on her lips, he finishes, "I have to go back in to my office for a bit. Do you think I could leave Isabella here, with you?"

Alice gives a restrained squeal of glee, clapping her hands a few times more, then nods and says, "Yes, Edward, I will take excellent care of her I promise."

Edward nods his head solemnly in return, and says, "Very well then, and I appreciate it, Allie, but make sure you don't leave the garden. No matter what else you decide you want to show her."

Alice nods her head hurriedly in agreement; "All right, all right, Edward; we'll stay here."

Edward isn't done. Staring hard at Alice, his flat hand still in motion, up and down Isabella's back, the intimacy increasing with the pressure being applied and the growing slowness of the motion, he says firmly, "I mean it, Alice. Absolutely do not leave the garden. If I have to come hunt you down in the hotel art museum or that labyrinth of a closet of yours, there will be consequences such as you have not experienced before. I'm talking cancelling-next-month's-fashion-shows and voiding-the-Chanel-store-lease consequences. Do you hear me?"

Alice gives a little gasp at Edward's threats; she knows they're not idle, as he is well known for saying exactly what he means. Still, the adrenaline at what is at stake only makes the prize more sweet, and she is happy to be saying, with only slightly-affected assurance, "Of course, Edward, that's hardly necessary. I said we'd stay here, and we will!" And, reluctantly putting away for another afternoon her fantasy of dressing up the girl before her and confiding her dearest design dreams to this clearly-willing listener, along with the requisite trips to both her private suite and the hotel's lavish galleries, Alice feigns indignation and nods her head once more most vehemently.

Edward smiles indulgently, having a good idea of all that has just transpired in his rather-transparent cousin's mind, and nods himself, sealing the deal. "Good. Thank you, Alice; there's no one I would trust more than you to take good care of her while I am gone."

Then, turning to Isabella, who appears to be concentrating quite hard on the royal blue color of the seat cushion, Edward instructs her, "Isabella, I want you to listen to Alice until I return. She's in charge; do you understand me?"

A quiet few nods assure Edward that the girl—his girl—is listening, and the lack of any protest or questioning of his right to make this assignment, and enforce it if need be, is further evidence in support of his already certain assessment of Bella's little-girl nature. So he smiles at this, and pulls her back in to his chest with a hand gently round her neck for one last hug, leaning down to kiss her hair and whisper, "You're such a good girl, Isabella. You're my good girl, honey, and I'm coming back for you soon," before kissing her again on the shell of her ear, and the side of her face.

Bella can't help the whimper that escapes her at those words of promise, and Edward's hungry lips, and Edward laughs lightly again, squeezing her tightly before standing up and lifting her off of him, setting her back down on the seat cushion next to Alice. Then, taking one of Bella's hands in his, he offers it to Alice, who reaches out eagerly with both her hands to claim it.

Disentangling his hand from theirs, Edward steps back and looks down at them with happiness and affection, giving one last command before he returns inside, alone, for as short a time as he can manage. "Don't leave the garden, and if you need me, just say so."

Alice looks up and nods impatiently at him, then lifts one hand to make a shooing motion. Edward laughs, and turns around, jauntily walking down the stairs and back around the garden path to the door leading back to his office.

He pauses there, no longer able to see the swing where he presumes his girl is still seated with Alice, but able to hear the soft trill of Alice's happy voice over the birdsong, and to feel the aura of hopeful contentment which seems to be engulfing the entire garden, for once Edward Masen included.

XxXxXx

I swung back into my office suite meaning business, intent on getting back to Isabella as quickly as possible. James, my security manager, wisely met me as I entered from the garden.

He had paged me a few minutes prior, as I had been peacefully swinging with Isabella in my arms, and I had swallowed back my automatic and quite primal rage at the interruption to hear the news that Isabella's male family members had returned, and were looking for her. I took no small amount of predatory pleasure in their reported discomfiture at her absence, and was looking forward to reviewing the security tapes at my leisure later.

Meanwhile, I ordered the view from the garden's security cameras which best captured Alice and Isabella—my Isabella, that primal part of me asserted—in conversation on the swing to be brought up on the video display behind my desk chair. The image appeared as I entered the office proper, taking up the entire wall that normally gave me a one-way view of the expansive casino floor.

I smiled to see the innocent beauty of my recent acquisition on such effective display, still safely and completely under my control. Having brought up the audio feed as well, I listened for a few moments to verify that things were progressing smoothly between my two favorite (one old, one new) young women. I found them in happy conversation more easy and already-affectionate than I had dared to hope, and felt even more confident and assured of the rightness of my position as I proceeded to instruct my staff to escort in the Swans.

I had muted the security feed before their entrance into my office, but the visual impact of seeing the life-size image of Isabella in unknown surroundings being projected on the giant screen behind my desk silenced her relatives as they entered, just as I had planned. It gave me several moments to assess them as they stared, open-mouthed, at the screen.

There were five of them, ranging in age and size from a gangly teenager, looking terribly ill at ease and shifting his inconsequential weight back and forth on his feet, to the behemoth I had already observed on videotape, who was starting to look angry. Front and center was the oldest of the bunch, a medium-height, wiry man; I guessed him to be in his mid- to late-40's. He carried himself with an air of quiet authority, and was the first to break his gaze from the on-screen view of Isabella and Alice and search the room, looking for me.

When he found me, standing quietly just inside the door from my private rooms, he nodded, his face impassive.

I returned the gesture, then stepped forward, my hand extending towards him, careful not to break his gaze the same way I had been careful not to break Isabella's, but for the opposite reason. Or rather, for the same reason: the maintenance of my authority and standing, but in reaction to opposite natures. Whereas Isabella was a human power vacuum, an aggression black hole of submissiveness, this man was wired to command; to lead. Like me.

After my brief introduction, "I'm Edward Masen," he responded in kind, saying merely, "Charles Swan," but adding his role in Isabella's life before me, "Bella's father." So he was part of the reason she had survived with her innate, vulnerable innocence intact and unspoiled. A man this assured, this dominating in his presence could definitely keep wolves at bay for his little girl.

The protectiveness towards Isabella I was attributing to her father would also explain Isabella's obviously-uncertain feelings regarding her future step-mother. It would take a special woman indeed not to see Isabella as a threat to her influence over her husband, and to the importance of her own position in his life.

Almost as if he read my mind, Charles Swan nodded at the screen and raised his eyebrows, the rest of his sentence unspoken but clear: "What do you think you're doing with my daughter?"

I answered without hesitation, out loud for the benefit of the hangers-on around us-and for the sake of specificity. Isabella's father and I, however, kept up a separate, nonverbal dialogue the whole time, our gazes fixed on each other, each of us letting the other know we had no intention of backing down.

"My security staff found your daughter, alone and vulnerable, and I decided she was too precious to be left in that situation. Knowing she is of legal age, and that she likes her new surroundings and the people in them," I paused here and looked up at the screen behind us, where Isabella was laughing at some pleasing thing Alice was saying to her, "I am planning on keeping her."

I let that sink in amongst the five strangers around me, while I took a moment to grab up the remote from my desk and turn the camera feed off, returning my office wall to its usual view of the casino below.

Turning back to Isabella's father, I saw him turning red with rage. He appeared to be beyond words for the moment, but several of the others were not. One of the younger ones, not the scrawny boy but perhaps the next man up in age, a wet-behind-the-ears look still lingering in his open countenance despite the obvious power of his musculature, burst out with "You can't do that!"

The behemoth made more sense, since indeed I had and would be doing that, as was obvious, and cut to the chase by calling me a long string of curse words, the likes of which I hadn't heard before or since given the musicality and sheer variety of the slanderous terms he employed. I decided I might learn to like this man, or at least enjoy being around him, if I ever got over my anger at the dangerous situation in which he had left Isabella.

On the other hand, since that imprudent decision was precisely what had made her mine, I realized I might very quickly be able to forgive him his role in the whole affair—perhaps even thank him for it.

But I certainly would not be returning Isabella to his care, and I made this perfectly clear. "Your colorful opinions of my character notwithstanding," I began dryly to the large and angry figure, "the fact remains she is an adult, and willingly in my possession…" I turned slightly to address the group as a whole as I finished, "so I believe you all are at the disadvantage here, and I encourage you to think twice before you threaten me in regards to her." Well, perhaps it wasn't crystal clear, the threat being oblique enough to pass for politeness in a confrontational situation such as the one I was enjoying most greatly in that moment.

The hippie-looking college-student type, the one with longish dirty-blonde hair and impossibly blue eyes and a softness about him that wasn't offensive or annoying only because it was paired with an honest face and a sober expression, that one was the first to really get it.

"How can you possibly know so quickly that you want her like this?"

I nodded my appreciation to him for his cogent, highly-relevant question. Addressing myself to him as if we were alone in the room, I offered up some private information. "I have experience with other girls, somewhat similar to Isabella. What's more, I've cared, quite successfully, for some of them; one of them I took care of, with much happiness for both of us, for a very long time."

"What happened to these other girls?" he asked, still on target.

I inclined my head once more, deeply, acknowledging this was the heart of the matter. Not that there was anything they could do about it, no matter how I responded. "Most belonged to friends or acquaintances, and I've just stepped in for a few days or weeks here and there to cover emergencies of one sort or another. But one was my girl for years, until I found someone who could take care of her better than I could. I still see her, from time to time, and will always be available to her in the event that something happens to the man who loves and cares for her now. She was lovely, but she wasn't quite like Isabella; she wasn't quite the right fit. I expect Isabella will be."

"Because?"

"Because I know it in my gut, and my gut's never wrong. And because she knows it, or she wouldn't be so contented to have me steal her away from you."

"Bella would go with you even if you were Genghis Khan; the girl doesn't know how to say 'No.'"

"No, she doesn't," I smiled, agreeing easily with him and choosing not to rub in again exactly how irresponsible it had been for this group to ever leave her alone and unprotected in a public place, let alone a Vegas casino. The fact that the whole situation was their own fault was clearly not lost on Charles Swan, because he had turned his gaze from me to the behemoth—given certain resemblances, I was guessing also his son—and was now staring with such ferocity he looked to be trying to spontaneously combust the younger man.

After a brief pause in which I let the situation speak for itself, I continued, "But she wouldn't curl in to Genghis and hide in his chest, then fall peacefully asleep in his lap fifteen minutes after meeting him-or maybe she would have. Genghis and I probably have some… similarities in personality that she might have found comforting in him as well, should he have taken a liking to her the same way I did. But you don't need to worry about that now; I don't share." And I grinned at the man, letting him see both the animal desire I felt for maybe his cousin, or perhaps his friend, and my complete lack of guilt and shame over acting on it.

I heard a throat clearing in the direction of Charles Swan, and turned back to address the angry father, deciding a strong offense was my best strategy. "I've claimed your daughter for my own. I understand if that's upsetting to you, and am open to facilitating and maintaining contact between yourself and her, now and in the future. Her continued residence with me at this time, however, is non-negotiable."

There was a general outcry from the younger men surrounding him, flanking Isabella's father like an unkempt army with no dress code and little discipline. I noted my own security staff, three already in the room and three more entering quietly from the main hallway door, came up around me, keeping a respectful distance but letting their superior numbers be shown as our little heart-to-heart appeared to be careening towards an all-out brawl.

I won't deny that I had enjoyed the exchange so far, greatly, but I didn't really want to end by harming or arresting the nearest relatives of the girl I already loved. If that seems incredible to you, the speed with which I could develop such an attachment, know that it is one of the quirks that make Masens who they are in this world. My father had fallen in love with my mother in much the same way, though across a crowded dance floor, and my grandfather before him had caught the eye of a store clerk with a beautiful smile as he passed the store's front windows one day.

We Masens are stoic, sure and un-changing—until a pivotal moment occurs, and we incorporate the new perspective at once. Then we move forward once more with the same certainty as before, but with ourselves forever altered, no going back.

So I was more motivated than most may have been to make peace with the angry and ashamed—for if one thing had been proven quite beyond a doubt that afternoon, it was the inadequacy of their caring for Isabella—men around me. Stepping forward, my hands carefully held out in a non-threatening appeal, I said to Charles Swan, who looked as if he would either have to violently attack someone or positively explode, "I expect there will be more to discuss."

He managed a curt nod.

I continued, placatingly, able to be soothing and gracious now that I had shown so clearly that I would not be parted from Isabella and they were powerless to change this fact. "Why don't we meet again tonight, over dinner. I'm sure you'll have questions for me, and I for you. Would 8 o'clock suit you, and your family?" and I tipped my head to indicate the others circled around him, most of whom were now looking both angry and a little scared by the superior force arrayed behind me.

The exception was the long-haired hippie, who still had his searching eyes on me, sizing me up, and so far seeming not to be either surprised or unduly distressed by what he found. I do not think it is too far off the mark to say, he looked a little relieved. I found myself liking him more.

My evaluating eyes landed back on Isabella's father, and for the first time, I saw signs of defeat. He was still glaring my direction, but his shoulders were slightly more rounded than before, his height not quite at its maximum display. There was also a slight tremor now evident in his left hand that hadn't been there prior, and I guessed that he was feeling close to an emotional loss of control that would make it very difficult to help him save face, leaving our relationship more impaired than necessary if I didn't end the confrontation soon.

So I moved quickly. Glancing at my watch, I said, "There's another meeting I have to attend to, gentlemen, so I'm sorry I won't be able to see you all out." Looking back up at Charles Swan, I cut off the rumblings from the behemoth and continued, "I'm sure you will all want to discuss things among yourselves, and I hope you will use freely any amenities here at Masen Luxe that you desire; I place my staff and services at your command. Meanwhile, I will keep Isabella safe, and see you all at 8:00 in the private dining room; my staff will give you directions and escort you there tonight."

Then, as my analytical mind ran through possible pitfalls and contingencies, I thought to add as I moved towards the door, "Please be sure to give the ladies of your party my best regards, and tell them I look forward to meeting them at dinner. My aunt and uncle will also be in attendance, so we may all get to know each other on more…" I paused a bit here, searching for the right word to convey both the olive branch I was offering and the certain promise that I would not be relinquishing Isabella under any circumstances, coming up with, "comfortable terms."

Half-smiling, I bowed slightly towards Charles Swan before turning and walking out the door leading to my inner sanctuary, closing it tightly behind me with a satisfying "click." I didn't wait to listen to more of the outraged roar from the behemoth that issued forth from behind the heavy oak panels, instead whistling cheerfully to myself as I buoyantly re-traced my steps to the garden paradise where my future was awaiting me in all her glorious innocence and beauty.